Reaching at last the level of the veranda, he turned to the view. The distant wooded shore of Contra Costa, the tossing white-caps and dancing sails of the bay between, and the foreground at his feet of wharves and piers, with their reed-like jungles of masts and cordage, made up a bright, if somewhat material, picture. To his right rose the crest of the hill, historic and memorable as the site of the old semaphoric telegraph, the tossing of whose gaunt arms formerly thrilled the citizens with tidings from the sea. Turning to the house, he recognized the prevailing style of light cottage architecture, although incongruously confined to narrow building plots and the civic regularity of a precise street frontage. Thus a dozen other villas, formerly scattered over the slope, had been laboriously displaced and moved to the rigorous parade line drawn by the street surveyor, no matter how irregular and independent their design and structure. Happily, the few scrub-oaks and low bushes which formed the scant vegetation of this vast sand dune offered no obstacle and suggested no incongruity. Beside the house before which Mr. Bly now stood, a prolific Madeira vine, quickened by the six months’ sunshine, had alone survived the displacement of its foundations, and in its untrimmed luxuriance half hid the upper veranda from his view.
Still glowing with his exertion, the young man rang the bell and was admitted into a fair-sized drawing-room, whose tasteful and well-arranged furniture at once prepossessed him. An open piano, a sheet of music carelessly left on the stool, a novel lying face downwards on the table beside a skein of silk, and the distant rustle of a vanished skirt through an inner door, gave a suggestion of refined domesticity to the room that touched the fancy of the homeless and nomadic Bly. He was still enjoying, in half embarrassment, that vague and indescribable atmosphere of a refined woman’s habitual presence, when the door opened and the mistress of the house formally presented herself.
She was a faded but still handsome woman. Yet she wore that peculiar long, limp, formless house-shawl which in certain phases of Anglo-Saxon spinster and widowhood assumes the functions of the recluse’s veil and announces the renunciation of worldly vanities and a resigned indifference to external feminine contour. The most audacious masculine arm would shrink from clasping that shapeless void in which the flatness of asceticism or the heavings of passion might alike lie buried. She had also in some mysterious way imported into the fresh and pleasant room a certain bombaziny shadow of the past, and a suggestion of that appalling reminiscence known as “better days.” Though why it should be always represented by ashen memories, or why better days in the past should be supposed to fix their fitting symbol in depression in the present, Mr. Bly was too young and too preoccupied at the moment to determine. He only knew that he was a little frightened of her, and fixed his gaze with a hopeless fascination on a letter which she somewhat portentously carried under the shawl, and which seemed already to have yellowed in its arctic shade.
“Mr. Carstone has written to me that you would call,” said Mrs. Brooks with languid formality. “Mr. Carstone was a valued friend of my late husband, and I suppose has told you the circumstances—the only circumstances—which admit of my entertaining his proposition of taking anybody, even temporarily, under my roof. The absence of my dear son for six months at Portland, Oregon, enables me to place his room at the disposal of Mr. Carstone’s young protege, who, Mr. Carstone tells me, and I have every reason to believe, is, if perhaps not so seriously inclined nor yet a church communicant, still of a character and reputation not unworthy to follow my dear Tappington in our little family circle as he has at his desk in the bank.”
The sensitive Bly, struggling painfully out of an abstraction as to how he was ever to offer the weekly rent of his lodgings to such a remote and respectable person, and also somewhat embarrassed at being appealed to in the third person, here started and bowed.
“The name of Bly is not unfamiliar to me,” continued Mrs. Brooks, pointing to a chair and sinking resignedly into another, where her baleful shawl at once assumed the appearance of a dust-cover; “some of my dearest friends were intimate with the Blys of Philadelphia. They were a branch of the Maryland Blys of the eastern shore, of whom my Uncle James married. Perhaps you are distantly related?”
Mrs. Brooks was perfectly aware that her visitor was of unknown Western origin, and a poor but clever protege of the rich banker; but she was one of a certain class of American women who, in the midst of a fierce democracy, are more or less cat-like conservators of family pride and lineage, and more or less felinely inconsistent and treacherous to republican principles. Bly, who had just settled in his mind to send her the rent anonymously—as a weekly valentine—recovered himself and his spirits in his usual boyish fashion.
“I am afraid, Mrs. Brooks,” he said gayly, “I cannot lay claim to any distinguished relationship, even to that ‘Nelly Bly’ who, you remember, ‘winked her eye when she went to sleep.’” He stopped in consternation. The terrible conviction flashed upon him that this quotation from a popular negro-minstrel song could not possibly be remembered by a lady as refined as his hostess, or even known to her superior son. The conviction was intensified by Mrs. Brooks rising with a smileless face, slightly shedding the possible vulgarity with a shake of her shawl, and remarking that she would show him her son’s room, led the way upstairs to the apartment recently vacated by the perfect Tappington.
Preceded by the same distant flutter of unseen skirts in the passage which he had first noticed on entering the drawing-room, and which evidently did not proceed from his companion, whose self-composed cerements would have repressed any such indecorous agitation, Mr. Bly stepped timidly into the room. It was a very pretty apartment, suggesting the same touches of tasteful refinement in its furniture and appointments, and withal so feminine in its neatness and regularity, that, conscious of his frontier habits and experience, he felt at once repulsively incongruous. “I cannot expect, Mr. Bly,” said Mrs. Brooks resignedly, “that you can share my son’s extreme sensitiveness to disorder and irregularity; but I must beg you to avoid as much as possible disturbing the arrangement of the book-shelves, which, you observe, comprise his books of serious reference, the Biblical commentaries, and the sermons which were his habitual study. I must beg you to exercise the same care in reference to the valuable offerings from his Sabbath-school scholars which are upon the mantel. The embroidered book-marker, the gift of the young ladies of his Bible-class in Dr. Stout’s church, is also, you perceive, kept for ornament and affectionate remembrance. The harmonium—even if you are not yourself given to sacred song—I trust you will not find in your way, nor object to my daughter continuing her practice during your daily absence. Thank you. The door you are looking at leads by a flight of steps to the side street.”
“A very convenient arrangement,” said Bly hopefully, who saw a chance for an occasional unostentatious escape from a too protracted contemplation of Tappington’s perfections. “I mean,” he added hurriedly, “to avoid disturbing you at night.”
“I believe my son had neither the necessity nor desire to use it for that purpose,” returned Mrs. Brooks severely; “although he found it sometimes a convenient short cut to church on Sabbath when he was late.”
Bly, who in his boyish sensitiveness to external impressions had by this time concluded that a life divided between the past perfections of Tappington and the present renunciations of Mrs. Brooks would be intolerable, and was again abstractedly inventing some delicate excuse for withdrawing without committing himself further, was here suddenly attracted by a repetition of the rustling of the unseen skirt. This time it was nearer, and this time it seemed to strike even Mrs. Brooks’s remote preoccupation. “My daughter, who is deeply devoted to her brother,” she said, slightly raising her voice, “will take upon herself the care of looking after Tappington’s precious mementoes, and spare you the trouble. Cherry, dear! this way. This is the young gentleman spoken of by Mr. Carstone, your papa’s friend. My daughter Cherubina, Mr. Bly.”
The fair owner of the rustling skirt, which turned out to be a pretty French print, had appeared at the doorway. She was a tall, slim blonde, with a shy, startled manner, as of a penitent nun who was suffering for some conventual transgression—a resemblance that was heightened by her short-cut hair, that might have been cropped as if for punishment. A certain likeness to her mother suggested that she was qualifying for that saint’s ascetic shawl—subject, however, to rebellious intervals, indicated in the occasional sidelong fires of her gray eyes. Yet the vague impression that she knew more of the world than her mother, and that she did not look at all as if her name was Cherubina, struck Bly in the same momentary glance.
“Mr. Bly is naturally pleased with what he has seen of our dear Tappington’s appointments; and as I gather from Mr. Carstone’s letter that he is anxious to enter at once and make the most of the dear boy’s absence, you will see, my dear Cherry, that Ellen has everything ready for him?”
Before the unfortunate Bly could explain or protest, the young girl lifted her gray eyes to his. Whether she had perceived and understood his perplexity he could not tell; but the swift shy glance was at once appealing, assuring, and intelligent. She was certainly unlike her mother and brother. Acting with his usual impulsiveness, he forgot his previous resolution, and before he left had engaged to begin his occupation of the room on the following day.
The next afternoon found him installed. Yet, after he had unpacked his modest possessions and put them away, after he had placed his few books on the shelves, where they looked glaringly trivial and frivolous beside the late tenant’s severe studies; after he had set out his scanty treasures in the way of photographs and some curious mementoes of his wandering life, and then quickly put them back again with a sudden angry pride at exposing them to the unsympathetic incongruity of the other ornaments, he, nevertheless, felt ill at ease. He glanced in vain around the pretty room. It was not the delicately flowered wall-paper; it was not the white and blue muslin window-curtains gracefully tied up with blue and white ribbons; it was not the spotless bed, with its blue and white festooned mosquito-net and flounced valances, and its medallion portrait of an unknown bishop at the back; it was not the few tastefully framed engravings of certain cardinal virtues, “The Rock of Ages,” and “The Guardian Angel”; it was not the casts in relief of “Night” and “Morning”; it was certainly not the cosy dimity-covered arm-chairs and sofa, nor yet the clean-swept polished grate with its cheerful fire sparkling against the chill afternoon sea-fogs without; neither was it the mere feminine suggestion, for that touched a sympathetic chord in his impulsive nature; nor the religious and ascetic influence, for he had occupied a monastic cell in a school of the padres at an old mission, and slept profoundly;—it was none of those, and yet a part of all. Most habitations retain a cast or shell of their previous tenant that, fitting tightly or loosely, is still able to adjust itself to the newcomer; in most occupied apartments there is still a shadowy suggestion of the owner’s individuality; there was nothing here that fitted Bly—nor was there either, strange to say, any evidence of the past proprietor in this inhospitality of sensation. It did not strike him at the time that it was this very lack of individuality which made it weird and unreal, that it was strange only because it was artificial, and that a real Tappington had never inhabited it.
He walked to the window—that never-failing resource of the unquiet mind—and looked out. He was a little surprised to find, that, owing to the grading of the house, the scrub-oaks and bushes of the hill were nearly on the level of his window, as also was the adjoining side street on which his second door actually gave. Opening this, the sudden invasion of the sea-fog and the figure of a pedestrian casually passing along the disused and abandoned pavement not a dozen feet from where he had been comfortably seated, presented such a striking contrast to the studious quiet and cosiness of his secluded apartment that he hurriedly closed the door again with a sense of indiscreet exposure. Returning to the window, he glanced to the left, and found that he was overlooked by the side veranda of another villa in the rear, evidently on its way to take position on the line of the street. Although in actual and deliberate transit on rollers across the backyard and still occulting a part of the view, it remained, after the reckless fashion of the period, inhabited. Certainly, with a door fronting a thoroughfare, and a neighbor gradually approaching him, he would not feel lonely or lack excitement.
He drew his arm-chair to the fire and tried to realize the all-pervading yet evasive Tappington. There was no portrait of him in the house, and although Mrs. Brooks had said that he “favored” his sister, Bly had, without knowing why, instinctively resented it. He had even timidly asked his employer, and had received the vague reply that he was “good-looking enough,” and the practical but discomposing retort, “What do you want to know for?” As he really did not know why, the inquiry had dropped. He stared at the monumental crystal ink-stand half full of ink, yet spotless and free from stains, that stood on the table, and tried to picture Tappington daintily dipping into it to thank the fair donors—“daughters of Rebecca.” Who were they? and what sort of man would they naturally feel grateful to?
What was that?
He turned to the window, which had just resounded to a slight tap or blow, as if something soft had struck it. With an instinctive suspicion of the propinquity of the adjoining street he rose, but a single glance from the window satisfied him that no missile would have reached it from thence. He scanned the low bushes on the level before him; certainly no one could be hiding there. He lifted his eyes toward the house on the left; the curtains of the nearest window appeared to be drawn suddenly at the same moment. Could it have come from there? Looking down upon the window-ledge, there lay the mysterious missile—a little misshapen ball. He opened the window and took it up. It was a small handkerchief tied into a soft knot, and dampened with water to give it the necessary weight as a projectile.
Was it apparently the trick of a mischievous child? or—
But here a faint knock on the door leading into the hall checked his inquiry. He opened it sharply in his excitement, and was embarrassed to find the daughter of his hostess standing there, shy, startled, and evidently equally embarrassed by his abrupt response.
“Mother only wanted me to ask you if Ellen had put everything to rights,” she said, making a step backwards.
“Oh, thank you. Perfectly,” said Herbert with effusion. “Nothing could be better done. In fact”—
“You’re quite sure she hasn’t forgotten anything? or that there isn’t anything you would like changed?” she continued, with her eyes leveled on the floor.
“Nothing, I assure you,” he said, looking at her downcast lashes. As she still remained motionless, he continued cheerfully, “Would you—would you—care to look round and see?”
“No; I thank you.”
There was an awkward pause. He still continued to hold the door open. Suddenly she moved forward with a school-girl stride, entered the room, and going to the harmonium, sat down upon the music-stool beside it, slightly bending forward, with one long, slim, white hand on top of the other, resting over her crossed knees.
Herbert was a little puzzled. It was the awkward and brusque act of a very young person, and yet nothing now could be more gentle and self-composed than her figure and attitude.
“Yes,” he continued, smilingly; “I am only afraid that I may not be able to live quite up to the neatness and regularity of the example I find here everywhere. You know I am dreadfully careless and not at all orderly. I shudder to think what may happen; but you and your mother, Miss Brooks, I trust, will make up your minds to overlook and forgive a good deal. I shall do my best to be worthy of Mr. Tap—of my predecessor—but even then I am afraid you’ll find me a great bother.”
She raised her shy eyelids. The faintest ghost of a long-buried dimple came into her pale cheek as she said softly, to his utter consternation:
Had she uttered an oath he could not have been more startled than he was by this choice gem of Western saloon-slang from the pure lips of this Evangeline-like figure before him. He sat gazing at her with a wild hysteric desire to laugh. She lifted her eyes again, swept him with a slightly terrified glance, and said:
“Tap says you all say that when any one makes-believe politeness to you.”
“Oh, your brother says that, does he?” said Herbert, laughing.
“Yes, and sometimes ‘Old rats.’ But,” she continued hurriedly, “He doesn’t say it; he says you all do. My brother is very particular, and very good. Doctor Stout loves him. He is thought very much of in all Christian circles. That book-mark was given to him by one of his classes.”
Every trace of her dimples had vanished. She looked so sweetly grave, and withal so maidenly, sitting there slightly smoothing the lengths of her pink fingers, that Herbert was somewhat embarrassed.
“But I assure you, Miss Brooks, I was not making-believe. I am really very careless, and everything is so proper—I mean so neat and pretty—here, that I”—he stopped, and, observing the same backward wandering of her eye as of a filly about to shy, quickly changed the subject. “You have, or are about to have, neighbors?” he said, glancing towards the windows as he recalled the incident of a moment before.
“Yes; and they’re not at all nice people. They are from Pike County, and very queer. They came across the plains in ’50. They say ‘Stranger’; the men are vulgar, and the girls very forward. Tap forbids my ever going to the window and looking at them. They’re quite what you would call ‘off color.’”
Herbert, who did not dare to say that he never would have dreamed of using such an expression in any young girl’s presence, was plunged in silent consternation.
“Then your brother doesn’t approve of them?” he said, at last, awkwardly.
“Oh, not at all. He even talked of having ground-glass put in all these windows, only it would make the light bad.”
Herbert felt very embarrassed. If the mysterious missile came from these objectionable young persons, it was evidently because they thought they had detected a more accessible and sympathizing individual in the stranger who now occupied the room. He concluded he had better not say anything about it.
Miss Brooks’s golden eyelashes were bent towards the floor. “Do you play sacred music, Mr. Bly?” she said, without raising them.
“I am afraid not.”
“Perhaps you know only negro-minstrel songs?”
“I am afraid—yes.”
“I know one.” The dimples faintly came back again. “It’s called ‘The Ham-fat Man.’ Some day when mother isn’t in I’ll play it for you.”
Then the dimples fled again, and she immediately looked so distressed that Herbert came to her assistance.
“I suppose your brother taught you that too?”
“Oh dear, no!” she returned, with her frightened glance; “I only heard him say some people preferred that kind of thing to sacred music, and one day I saw a copy of it in a music-store window in Clay Street, and bought it. Oh no! Tappington didn’t teach it to me.”
In the pleasant discovery that she was at times independent of her brother’s perfections, Herbert smiled, and sympathetically drew a step nearer to her. She rose at once, somewhat primly holding back the sides of her skirt, school-girl fashion, with thumb and finger, and her eyes cast down.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Bly.”
“Must you go? Good afternoon.”
She walked directly to the open door, looking very tall and stately as she did so, but without turning towards him. When she reached it she lifted her eyes; there was the slightest suggestion of a return of her dimples in the relaxation of her grave little mouth. Then she said, “good-bye, Mr. Bly,” and departed.
The skirt of her dress rustled for an instant in the passage. Herbert looked after her. “I wonder if she skipped then—she looks like a girl that might skip at such a time,” he said to himself. “How very odd she is—and how simple! But I must pull her up in that slang when I know her better. Fancy her brother telling her that! What a pair they must be!” Nevertheless, when he turned back into the room again he forbore going to the window to indulge further curiosity in regard to his wicked neighbors. A certain new feeling of respect to his late companion—and possibly to himself—held him in check. Much as he resented Tappington’s perfections, he resented quite as warmly the presumption that he was not quite as perfect, which was implied in that mysterious overture. He glanced at the stool on which she had been sitting with a half-brotherly smile, and put it reverently on one side with a very vivid recollection of her shy maidenly figure. In some mysterious way too the room seemed to have lost its formal strangeness; perhaps it was the touch of individuality—hers—that had been wanting? He began thoughtfully to dress himself for his regular dinner at the Poodle Dog Restaurant, and when he left the room he turned back to look once more at the stool where she had sat. Even on his way to that fast and famous cafe of the period he felt, for the first time in his thoughtless but lonely life, the gentle security of the home he had left behind him.
It was three or four days before he became firmly adjusted to his new quarters. During this time he had met Cherry casually on the staircase, in going or coming, and received her shy greetings; but she had not repeated her visit, nor again alluded to it. He had spent part of a formal evening in the parlor in company with a calling deacon, who, unappalled by the Indian shawl for which the widow had exchanged her household cerements on such occasions, appeared to Herbert to have remote matrimonial designs, as far at least as a sympathetic deprecation of the vanities of the present, an echoing of her sighs like a modest encore, a preternatural gentility of manner, a vague allusion to the necessity of bearing “one another’s burdens,” and an everlasting promise in store, would seem to imply. To Herbert’s vivid imagination, a discussion on the doctrinal points of last Sabbath’s sermon was fraught with delicate suggestion and an acceptance by the widow of an appointment to attend the Wednesday evening “Lectures” had all the shy reluctant yielding of a granted rendezvous. Oddly enough, the more formal attitude seemed to be reserved for the young people, who, in the suggestive atmosphere of this spiritual flirtation, alone appeared to preserve the proprieties and, to some extent, decorously chaperon their elders. Herbert gravely turned the leaves of Cherry’s music while she played and sang one or two discreet but depressing songs expressive of her unalterable but proper devotion to her mother’s clock, her father’s arm-chair, and her aunt’s Bible; and Herbert joined somewhat boyishly in the soul-subduing refrain. Only once he ventured to suggest in a whisper that he would like to add her music-stool to the adorable inventory; but he was met by such a disturbed and terrified look that he desisted. “Another night of this wild and reckless dissipation will finish me,” he said lugubriously to himself when he reached the solitude of his room. “I wonder how many times a week I’d have to help the girl play the spiritual gooseberry downstairs before we could have any fun ourselves?”
Here the sound of distant laughter, interspersed with vivacious feminine shrieks, came through the open window. He glanced between the curtains. His neighbor’s house was brilliantly lit, and the shadows of a few romping figures were chasing each other across the muslin shades of the windows. The objectionable young women were evidently enjoying themselves. In some conditions of the mind there is a certain exasperation in the spectacle of unmeaning enjoyment, and he shut the window sharply. At the same moment some one knocked at his door.
It was Miss Brooks, who had just come upstairs.
“Will you please let me have my music-stool?”
He stared at her a moment in surprise, then recovering himself, said, “Yes, certainly,” and brought the stool. For an instant he was tempted to ask why she wanted it, but his pride forbade him.
“Thank you. Good-night.”
“I hope it wasn’t in your way?”
“Not at all.”
She vanished. Herbert was perplexed. Between young ladies whose naive exuberance impelled them to throw handkerchiefs at his window and young ladies whose equally naive modesty demanded the withdrawal from his bedroom of a chair on which they had once sat, his lot seemed to have fallen in a troubled locality. Yet a day or two later he heard Cherry practising on the harmonium as he was ascending the stairs on his return from business; she had departed before he entered the room, but had left the music-stool behind her. It was not again removed.
One Sunday, the second or third of his tenancy, when Cherry and her mother were at church, and he had finished some work that he had brought from the bank, his former restlessness and sense of strangeness returned. The regular afternoon fog had thickened early, and, driving him back from a cheerless, chilly ramble on the hill, had left him still more depressed and solitary. In sheer desperation he moved some of the furniture, and changed the disposition of several smaller ornaments. Growing bolder, he even attacked the sacred shelf devoted to Tappington’s serious literature and moral studies. At first glance the book of sermons looked suspiciously fresh and new for a volume of habitual reference, but its leaves were carefully cut, and contained one or two book-marks. It was only another evidence of that perfect youth’s care and neatness. As he was replacing it he noticed a small object folded in white paper at the back of the shelf. To put the book back into its former position it was necessary to take this out. He did so, but its contents slid from his fingers and the paper to the floor. To his utter consternation, looking down he saw a pack of playing-cards strewn at his feet!
He hurriedly picked them up. They were worn and slippery from use, and exhaled a faint odor of tobacco. Had they been left there by some temporary visitor unknown to Tappington and his family, or had they been hastily hidden by a servant? Yet they were of a make and texture superior to those that a servant would possess; looking at them carefully, he recognized them to be of a quality used by the better-class gamblers. Restoring them carefully to their former position, he was tempted to take out the other volumes, and was rewarded with the further discovery of a small box of ivory counters, known as “poker-chips.” It was really very extraordinary! It was quite the cache of some habitual gambler. Herbert smiled grimly at the irreverent incongruity of the hiding-place selected by its unknown and mysterious owner, and amused himself by fancying the horror of his sainted predecessor had he made the discovery. He determined to replace them, and to put some mark upon the volumes before them in order to detect any future disturbance of them in his absence.
Ought he not to take Miss Brooks in his confidence? Or should he say nothing about it at present, and trust to chance to discover the sacrilegious hider? Could it possibly be Cherry herself, guilty of the same innocent curiosity that had impelled her to buy the “Ham-fat Man”? Preposterous! Besides, the cards had been used, and she could not play poker alone!
He watched the rolling fog extinguish the line of Russian Hill, the last bit of far perspective from his window. He glanced at his neighbor’s veranda, already dripping with moisture; the windows were blank; he remembered to have heard the girls giggling in passing down the side street on their way to church, and had noticed from behind his own curtains that one was rather pretty. This led him to think of Cherry again, and to recall the quaint yet melancholy grace of her figure as she sat on the stool opposite. Why had she withdrawn it so abruptly; did she consider his jesting allusion to it indecorous and presuming? Had he really meant it seriously; and was he beginning to think too much about her? Would she ever come again? How nice it would be if she returned from church alone early, and they could have a comfortable chat together here! Would she sing the “Ham-fat Man” for him? Would the dimples come back if she did? Should he ever know more of this quaint repressed side of her nature? After all, what a dear, graceful, tantalizing, lovable creature she was! Ought he not at all hazards try to know her better? Might it not be here that he would find a perfect realization of his boyish dreams, and in her all that—what nonsense he was thinking!
Suddenly Herbert was startled by the sound of a light but hurried foot upon the wooden outer step of his second door, and the quick but ineffective turning of the door-handle. He started to his feet, his mind still filled with a vision of Cherry. Then he as suddenly remembered that he had locked the door on going out, putting the key in his overcoat pocket. He had returned by the front door, and his overcoat was now hanging in the lower hall.
The door again rattled impetuously. Then it was supplemented by a female voice in a hurried whisper: “Open quick, can’t you? do hurry!”
He was confounded. The voice was authoritative, not unmusical; but it was not Cherry’s. Nevertheless he called out quickly, “One moment, please, and I’ll get the key!” dashed downstairs and up again, breathlessly unlocked the door and threw it open.
Nobody was there!
He ran out into the street. On one side it terminated abruptly on the cliff on which his dwelling was perched; on the other, it descended more gradually into the next thoroughfare; but up and down the street, on either hand, no one was to be seen. A slightly superstitious feeling for an instant crept over him. Then he reflected that the mysterious visitor could in the interval of his getting the key have easily slipped down the steps of the cliff or entered the shrubbery of one of the adjacent houses. But why had she not waited? And what did she want? As he reentered his door he mechanically raised his eyes to the windows of his neighbor’s. This time he certainly was not mistaken. The two amused, mischievous faces that suddenly disappeared behind the curtain as he looked up showed that the incident had not been unwitnessed. Yet it was impossible that it could have been either of them. Their house was only accessible by a long detour. It might have been the trick of a confederate; but the tone of half familiarity and half entreaty in the unseen visitor’s voice dispelled the idea of any collusion. He entered the room and closed the door angrily. A grim smile stole over his face as he glanced around at the dainty saint-like appointments of the absent Tappington, and thought what that irreproachable young man would have said to the indecorous intrusion, even though it had been a mistake. Would those shameless Pike County girls have dared to laugh at him?
But he was again puzzled to know why he himself should have been selected for this singular experience. Why was he considered fair game for these girls? And, for the matter of that, now that he reflected upon it, why had even this gentle, refined, and melancholy Cherry thought it necessary to talk slang to him on their first acquaintance, and offer to sing him the “Ham-fat Man”? It was true he had been a little gay, but never dissipated. Of course he was not a saint, like Tappington—oh, that was it! He believed he understood it now. He was suffering from that extravagant conception of what worldliness consists of, so common to very good people with no knowledge of the world. Compared to Tappington he was in their eyes, of course, a rake and a roue. The explanation pleased him. He would not keep it to himself. He would gain Cherry’s confidence and enlist her sympathies. Her gentle nature would revolt at this injustice to their lonely lodger. She would see that there were degrees of goodness besides her brother’s. She would perhaps sit on that stool again and not sing the “Ham-fat Man.”
A day or two afterwards the opportunity seemed offered to him. As he was coming home and ascending the long hilly street, his eye was taken by a tall graceful figure just preceding him. It was she. He had never before seen her in the street, and was now struck with her ladylike bearing and the grave superiority of her perfectly simple attire. In a thoroughfare haunted by handsome women and striking toilettes, the refined grace of her mourning costume, and a certain stateliness that gave her the look of a young widow, was a contrast that evidently attracted others than himself. It was with an odd mingling of pride and jealousy that he watched the admiring yet respectful glances of the passers-by, some of whom turned to look again, and one or two to retrace their steps and follow her at a decorous distance. This caused him to quicken his own pace, with a new anxiety and a remorseful sense of wasted opportunity. What a booby he had been, not to have made more of his contiguity to this charming girl—to have been frightened at the naive decorum of her maidenly instincts! He reached her side, and raised his hat with a trepidation at her new-found graces—with a boldness that was defiant of her other admirers. She blushed slightly.
“I thought you’d overtake me before,” she said naively. “I saw you ever so long ago.”
He stammered, with an equal simplicity, that he had not dared to.
She looked a little frightened again, and then said hurriedly: “I only thought that I would meet you on Montgomery Street, and we would walk home together. I don’t like to go out alone, and mother cannot always go with me. Tappington never cared to take me out—I don’t know why. I think he didn’t like the people staring and stopping us. But they stare more—don’t you think?—when one is alone. So I thought if you were coming straight home we might come together—unless you have something else to do?”
Herbert impulsively reiterated his joy at meeting her, and averred that no other engagement, either of business or pleasure, could or would stand in his way. Looking up, however, it was with some consternation that he saw they were already within a block of the house.
“Suppose we take a turn around the hill and come back by the old street down the steps?” he suggested earnestly.
The next moment he regretted it. The frightened look returned to her eyes; her face became melancholy and formal again.
“No!” she said quickly. “That would be taking a walk with you like these young girls and their young men on Saturdays. That’s what Ellen does with the butcher’s boy on Sundays. Tappington often used to meet them. Doing the ‘Come, Philanders,’ as he says you call it.”
It struck Herbert that the didactic Tappington’s method of inculcating a horror of slang in his sister’s breast was open to some objection; but they were already on the steps of their house, and he was too much mortified at the reception of his last unhappy suggestion to make the confidential disclosure he had intended, even if there had still been time.
“There’s mother waiting for me,” she said, after an awkward pause, pointing to the figure of Mrs. Brooks dimly outlined on the veranda. “I suppose she was beginning to be worried about my being out alone. She’ll be so glad I met you.” It didn’t appear to Herbert, however, that Mrs. Brooks exhibited any extravagant joy over the occurrence, and she almost instantly retired with her daughter into the sitting-room, linking her arm in Cherry’s, and, as it were, empanoplying her with her own invulnerable shawl. Herbert went to his room more dissatisfied with himself than ever.
Two or three days elapsed without his seeing Cherry; even the well-known rustle of her skirt in the passage was missing. On the third evening he resolved to bear the formal terrors of the drawing-room again, and stumbled upon a decorous party consisting of Mrs. Brooks, the deacon, and the pastor’s wife—but not Cherry. It struck him on entering that the momentary awkwardness of the company and the formal beginning of a new topic indicated that he had been the subject of their previous conversation. In this idea he continued, through that vague spirit of opposition which attacks impulsive people in such circumstances, to generally disagree with them on all subjects, and to exaggerate what he chose to believe they thought objectionable in him. He did not remain long; but learned in that brief interval that Cherry had gone to visit a friend in Contra Costa, and would be absent a fortnight; and he was conscious that the information was conveyed to him with a peculiar significance.
The result of which was only to intensify his interest in the absent Cherry, and for a week to plunge him in a sea of conflicting doubts and resolutions. At one time he thought seriously of demanding an explanation from Mrs. Brooks, and of confiding to her—as he had intended to do to Cherry—his fears that his character had been misinterpreted, and his reasons for believing so. But here he was met by the difficulty of formulating what he wished to have explained, and some doubts as to whether his confidences were prudent. At another time he contemplated a serious imitation of Tappington’s perfections, a renunciation of the world, and an entire change in his habits. He would go regularly to church—her church, and take up Tappington’s desolate Bible-class. But here the torturing doubt arose whether a young lady who betrayed a certain secular curiosity, and who had evidently depended upon her brother for a knowledge of the world, would entirely like it. At times he thought of giving up the room and abandoning for ever this doubly dangerous proximity; but here again he was deterred by the difficulty of giving a satisfactory reason to his employer, who had procured it as a favor. His passion—for such he began to fear it to be—led him once to the extravagance of asking a day’s holiday from the bank, which he vaguely spent in the streets of Oakland in the hope of accidentally meeting the exiled Cherry.
The fortnight slowly passed. She returned, but he did not see her. She was always out or engaged in her room with some female friend when Herbert was at home. This was singular, as she had never appeared to him as a young girl who was fond of visiting or had ever affected female friendships. In fact, there was little doubt now that, wittingly or unwittingly, she was avoiding him.
He was moodily sitting by the fire one evening, having returned early from dinner. In reply to his habitual but affectedly careless inquiry, Ellen had told him that Mrs. Brooks was confined to her room by a slight headache, and that Miss Brooks was out. He was trying to read, and listening to the wind that occasionally rattled the casement and caused the solitary gas-lamp that was visible in the side street to flicker and leap wildly. Suddenly he heard the same footfall upon his outer step and a light tap at the door. Determined this time to solve the mystery, he sprang to his feet and ran to the door; but to his anger and astonishment it was locked and the key was gone. Yet he was positive that he had not taken it out.
The tap was timidly repeated. In desperation he called out, “Please don’t go away yet. The key is gone; but I’ll find it in a moment.” Nevertheless he was at his wits’ end.
There was a hesitating pause and then the sound of a key cautiously thrust into the lock. It turned; the door opened, and a tall figure, whose face and form were completely hidden in a veil and long gray shawl, quickly glided into the room and closed the door behind it. Then it suddenly raised its arms, the shawl was parted, the veil fell aside, and Cherry stood before him!
Her face was quite pale. Her eyes, usually downcast, frightened, or coldly clear, were bright and beautiful with excitement. The dimples were faintly there, although the smile was sad and half hysterical. She remained standing, erect and tall, her arms dropped at her side, holding the veil and shawl that still depended from her shoulders.
“So—I’ve caught you!” she said, with a strange little laugh. “Oh yes. ‘Please don’t go away yet. I’ll get the key in a moment,’” she continued, mimicking his recent utterance.
He could only stammer, “Miss Brooks—then it was you?”
“Yes; and you thought it was she, didn’t you? Well, and you’re caught! I didn’t believe it; I wouldn’t believe it when they said it. I determined to find it out myself. And I have; and it’s true.”
Unable to determine whether she was serious or jesting, and conscious only of his delight at seeing her again, he advanced impulsively. But her expression instantly changed: she became at once stiff and school-girlishly formal, and stepped back towards the door.
“Don’t come near me, or I’ll go,” she said quickly, with her hand upon the lock.
“But not before you tell me what you mean,” he said half laughingly half earnestly. “Who is she? and what wouldn’t you have believed? For upon my honor, Miss Brooks, I don’t know what you are talking about.”
His evident frankness and truthful manner appeared to puzzle her. “You mean to say you were expecting no one?” she said sharply.
“I assure you I was not.”
“And—and no woman was ever here—at that door?”
He hesitated. “Not to-night—not for a long time; not since you returned from Oakland.”
“Then there was one?”
“I believe so.”
“You believe—you don’t know?”
“I believed it was a woman from her voice; for the door was locked, and the key was downstairs. When I fetched it and opened the door, she—or whoever it was—was gone.”
“And that’s why you said so imploringly, just now, ‘Please don’t go away yet’? You see I’ve caught you. Ah! I don’t wonder you blush!”
If he had, his cheeks had caught fire from her brilliant eyes and the extravagantly affected sternness—as of a school-girl monitor—in her animated face. Certainly he had never seen such a transformation.
“Yes; but, you see, I wanted to know who the intruder was,” he said, smiling at his own embarrassment.
“You did—well, perhaps that will tell you? It was found under your door before I went away.” She suddenly produced from her pocket a folded paper and handed it to him. It was a misspelt scrawl, and ran as follows:—
“Why are you so cruel? Why do you keep me dansing on the stepps before them gurls at the windows? Was it that stuckup Saint, Miss Brooks, that you were afraid of, my deer? Oh, you faithless trater! Wait till I ketch you! I’ll tear your eyes out and hern!”
It did not require great penetration for Herbert to be instantly convinced that the writer of this vulgar epistle and the owner of the unknown voice were two very different individuals. The note was evidently a trick. A suspicion of its perpetrators flashed upon him.
“Whoever the woman was, it was not she who wrote the note,” he said positively. “Somebody must have seen her at the door. I remember now that those girls—your neighbors—were watching me from their window when I came out. Depend upon it, that letter comes from them.”
Cherry’s eyes opened widely with a sudden childlike perception, and then shyly dropped. “Yes,” she said slowly; “they did watch you. They know it, for it was they who made it the talk of the neighborhood, and that’s how it came to mother’s ears.” She stopped, and, with a frightened look, stepped back towards the door again.
“Then that was why your mother”—
“Oh yes,” interrupted Cherry quickly. “That was why I went over to Oakland, and why mother forbade my walking with you again, and why she had a talk with friends about your conduct, and why she came near telling Mr. Carstone all about it until I stopped her.” She checked herself—he could hardly believe his eyes—the pale, nun-like girl was absolutely blushing.
“I thank you, Miss Brooks,” he said gravely, “for your thoughtfulness, although I hope I could have still proven my innocence to Mr. Carstone, even if some unknown woman tried my door by mistake, and was seen doing it. But I am pained to think that you could have believed me capable of so wanton and absurd an impropriety—and such a gross disrespect to your mother’s house.”
“But,” said Cherry with childlike naivete, “you know you don’t think anything of such things, and that’s what I told mother.”
“You told your mother that?”
“Oh yes—I told her Tappington says it’s quite common with young men. Please don’t laugh—for it’s very dreadful. Tappington didn’t laugh when he told it to me as a warning. He was shocked.”
“But, my dear Miss Brooks”—
“There—now you’re angry—and that’s as bad. Are you sure you didn’t know that woman?”
“Yet you seemed very anxious just now that she should wait till you opened the door.”
“That was perfectly natural.”
“I don’t think it was natural at all.”
“But—according to Tappington”—
“Because my brother is very good you need not make fun of him.”
“I assure you I have no such intention. But what more can I say? I give you my word that I don’t know who that unlucky woman was. No doubt she may have been some nearsighted neighbor who had mistaken the house, and I dare say was as thoroughly astonished at my voice as I was at hers. Can I say more? Is it necessary for me to swear that since I have been here no woman has ever entered that door—but”—
“I know what you mean,” she said hurriedly, with her old frightened look, gliding to the outer door. “It’s shameful what I’ve done. But I only did it because—because I had faith in you, and didn’t believe what they said was true.” She had already turned the lock. There were tears in her pretty eyes.
“Stop,” said Herbert gently. He walked slowly towards her, and within reach of her frightened figure stopped with the timid respect of a mature and genuine passion. “You must not be seen going out of that door,” he said gravely. “You must let me go first, and, when I am gone, lock the door again and go through the hall to your own room. No one must know that I was in the house when you came in at that door. Good-night.”
Without offering his hand he lifted his eyes to her face. The dimples were all there—and something else. He bowed and passed out.
Ten minutes later he ostentatiously returned to the house by the front door, and proceeded up the stairs to his own room. As he cast a glance around he saw that the music-stool had been moved before the fire, evidently with the view of attracting his attention. Lying upon it, carefully folded, was the veil that she had worn. There could be no doubt that it was left there purposely. With a smile at this strange girl’s last characteristic act of timid but compromising recklessness, after all his precautions, he raised it tenderly to his lips, and then hastened to hide it from the reach of vulgar eyes. But had Cherry known that its temporary resting-place that night was under his pillow she might have doubted his superior caution.
When he returned from the bank the next afternoon, Cherry rapped ostentatiously at his door. “Mother wishes me to ask you,” she began with a certain prim formality, which nevertheless did not preclude dimples, “if you would give us the pleasure of your company at our Church Festival to-night? There will be a concert and a collation. You could accompany us there if you cared. Our friends and Tappington’s would be so glad to see you, and Dr. Stout would be delighted to make your acquaintance.”
“Certainly!” said Herbert, delighted and yet astounded. “Then,” he added in a lower voice, “your mother no longer believes me so dreadfully culpable?”
“Oh no,” said Cherry in a hurried whisper, glancing up and down the passage; “I’ve been talking to her about it, and she is satisfied that it is all a jealous trick and slander of these neighbors. Why, I told her that they had even said that I was that mysterious woman; that I came that way to you because she had forbidden my seeing you openly.”
“What! You dared say that?”
“Yes don’t you see? Suppose they said they had seen me coming in last night—that answers it,” she said triumphantly.
“Oh, it does?” he said vacantly.
“Perfectly. So you see she’s convinced that she ought to put you on the same footing as Tappington, before everybody; and then there won’t be any trouble. You’ll come, won’t you? It won’t be so very good. And then, I’ve told mother that as there have been so many street-fights, and so much talk about the Vigilance Committee lately, I ought to have somebody for an escort when I am coming home. And if you’re known, you see, as one of us, there’ll be no harm in your meeting me.”
“Thank you,” he said, extending his hand gratefully.
Her fingers rested a moment in his. “Where did you put it?” she said demurely.
“It? Oh! It’s all safe,” he said quickly, but somewhat vaguely.
“But I don’t call the upper drawer of your bureau safe,” she returned poutingly, “where everybody can go. So you’ll find it now inside the harmonium, on the keyboard.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“It’s quite natural to have left it there accidentally—isn’t it?” she said imploringly, assisted by all her dimples. Alas! she had forgotten that he was still holding her hand. Consequently, she had not time to snatch it away and vanish, with a stifled little cry, before it had been pressed two or three times to his lips. A little ashamed of his own boldness, Herbert remained for a few moments in the doorway listening, and looking uneasily down the dark passage. Presently a slight sound came over the fanlight of Cherry’s room. Could he believe his ears? The saint-like Cherry—no doubt tutored, for example’s sake, by the perfect Tappington—was softly whistling.
In this simple fashion the first pages of this little idyl were quietly turned. The book might have been closed or laid aside even then. But it so chanced that Cherry was an unconscious prophet; and presently it actually became a prudential necessity for her to have a masculine escort when she walked out. For a growing state of lawlessness and crime culminated one day the deep tocsin of the Vigilance Committee, and at its stroke fifty thousand peaceful men, reverting to the first principles of social safety, sprang to arms, assembled at their quarters, or patrolled the streets. In another hour the city of San Francisco was in the hands of a mob—the most peaceful, orderly, well organized, and temperate the world had ever known, and yet in conception as lawless, autocratic, and imperious as the conditions it opposed.
Herbert, enrolled in the same section with his employer and one or two fellow-clerks, had participated in the meetings of the committee with the light-heartedness and irresponsibility of youth, regretting only the loss of his usual walk with Cherry and the hours that kept him from her house. He was returning from a protracted meeting one night, when the number of arrests and searching for proscribed and suspected characters had been so large as to induce fears of organized resistance and rescue, and on reaching the foot of the hill found it already so late, that to avoid disturbing the family he resolved to enter his room directly by the door in the side street. On inserting his key in the lock it met with some resisting obstacle, which, however, yielded and apparently dropped on the mat inside. Opening the door and stepping into the perfectly dark apartment, he trod upon this object, which proved to be another key. The family must have procured it for their convenience during his absence, and after locking the door had carelessly left it in the lock. It was lucky that it had yielded so readily.
The fire had gone out. He closed the door and lit the gas, and after taking off his overcoat moved to the door leading into the passage to listen if anybody was still stirring. To his utter astonishment he found it locked. What was more remarkable—the key was also inside! An inexplicable feeling took possession of him. He glanced suddenly around the room, and then his eye fell upon the bed. Lying there, stretched at full length, was the recumbent figure of a man.
He was apparently in the profound sleep of utter exhaustion. The attitude of his limbs and the order of his dress—of which only his collar and cravat had been loosened—showed that sleep must have overtaken him almost instantly. In fact, the bed was scarcely disturbed beyond the actual impress of his figure. He seemed to be a handsome, matured man of about forty; his dark straight hair was a little thinned over the temples, although his long heavy moustache was still youthful and virgin. His clothes, which were elegantly cut and of finer material than that in ordinary use, the delicacy and neatness of his linen, the whiteness of his hands, and, more particularly, a certain dissipated pallor of complexion and lines of recklessness on the brow and cheek, indicated to Herbert that the man before him was one of that desperate and suspected class—some of whose proscribed members he had been hunting—the professional gambler!
Possibly the magnetism of Herbert’s intent and astonished gaze affected him. He moved slightly, half opened his eyes, said “Halloo, Tap,” rubbed them again, wholly opened them, fixed them with a lazy stare on Herbert, and said:
“Now, who the devil are you?”
“I think I have the right to ask that question, considering that this is my room,” said Herbert sharply.
The stranger half raised himself on his elbow, glanced round the room, settled himself slowly back on the pillows, with his hands clasped lightly behind his head, dropped his eyelids, smiled, and said:
“What?” demanded Herbert, with a resentful sense of sacrilege to Cherry’s virgin slang.
“Well, old rats then! D’ye think I don’t know this shebang? Look here, Johnny, what are you putting on all this side for, eh? What’s your little game? Where’s Tappington?”
“If you mean Mr. Brooks, the son of this house, who formerly lived in this room,” replied Herbert, with a formal precision intended to show a doubt of the stranger’s knowledge of Tappington, “you ought to know that he has left town.”
“Left town!” echoed the stranger, raising himself again. “Oh, I see! getting rather too warm for him here? Humph! I ought to have thought of that. Well, you know, he did take mighty big risks, anyway!” He was silent a moment, with his brows knit and a rather dangerous expression in his handsome face. “So some d—d hound gave him away—eh?”
“I hadn’t the pleasure of knowing Mr. Brooks except by reputation, as the respected son of the lady upon whose house you have just intruded,” said Herbert frigidly, yet with a creeping consciousness of some unpleasant revelation.
The stranger stared at him for a moment, again looked carefully round the room, and then suddenly dropped his head back on the pillow, and with his white hands over his eyes and mouth tried to restrain a spasm of silent laughter. After an effort he succeeded, wiped his moist eyes, and sat up.
“So you didn’t know Tappington, eh?” he said, lazily buttoning his collar.
“No more do I.”
He retied his cravat, yawned, rose, shook himself perfectly neat again, and going to Herbert’s dressing-table quietly took up a brush and began to lightly brush himself, occasionally turning to the window to glance out. Presently he turned to Herbert and said:
“Well, Johnny, what’s your name?”
“I am Herbert Bly, of Carstone’s Bank.”
“So, and a member of this same Vigilance Committee, I reckon,” he continued.
“Well, Mr. Bly, I owe you an apology for coming here, and some thanks for the only sleep I’ve had in forty-eight hours. I struck this old shebang at about ten o’clock, and it’s now two, so I reckon I’ve put in about four hours’ square sleep. Now, look here.” He beckoned Herbert towards the window. “Do you see those three men standing under that gaslight? Well, they’re part of a gang of Vigilantes who’ve hunted me to the hill, and are waiting to see me come out of the bushes, where they reckon I’m hiding. Go to them and say that I’m here! Tell them you’ve got Gentleman George—George Dornton, the man they’ve been hunting for a week—in this room. I promise you I won’t stir, nor kick up a row, when they’ve come. Do it, and Carstone, if he’s a square man, will raise your salary for it, and promote you.” He yawned slightly, and then slowly looking around him, drew the easy-chair towards him and dropped comfortably in it, gazing at the astounded and motionless Herbert with a lazy smile.
“You’re wondering what my little game is, Johnny, ain’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. What with being hunted from pillar to post, putting my old pards to no end of trouble, and then slipping up on it whenever I think I’ve got a sure thing like this,”—he cast an almost affectionate glance at the bed,—“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s played out, and I might as well hand in my checks. It’s only a question of my being run out of ’Frisco, or hiding until I can slip out myself; and I’ve reckoned I might as well give them the trouble and expense of transportation. And if I can put a good thing in your way in doing it—why, it will sort of make things square with you for the fuss I’ve given you.”
Even in the stupefaction and helplessness of knowing that the man before him was the notorious duellist and gambler George Dornton, one of the first marked for deportation by the Vigilance Committee, Herbert recognized all he had heard of his invincible coolness, courage, and almost philosophic fatalism. For an instant his youthful imagination checked even his indignation. When he recovered himself, he said, with rising color and boyish vehemence:
“Whoever you may be, I am neither a police officer nor a spy. You have no right to insult me by supposing that I would profit by the mistake that made you my guest, or that I would refuse you the sanctuary of the roof that covers your insult as well as your blunder.”
The stranger gazed at him with an amused expression, and then rose and stretched out his hand.
“Shake, Mr. Bly! You’re the only man that ever kicked George Dornton when he deserved it. Good-night!” He took his hat and walked to the door.
“Stop!” said Herbert impulsively; “the night is already far gone; go back and finish your sleep.”
“You mean it?”
The stranger turned, walked back to the bed, unfastening his coat and collar as he did so, and laid himself down in the attitude of a moment before.
“I will call you in the morning,” continued Herbert. “By that time,”—he hesitated,—“by that time your pursuers may have given up their search. One word more. You will be frank with me?”
“Tappington and you are—friends?”
“His mother and sister know nothing of this?”
“I reckon he didn’t boast of it. I didn’t. Is that all?” sleepily.
“Don’t you worry about him. Good-night.”
But even at that moment George Dornton had dropped off in a quiet, peaceful sleep.
Bly turned down the light, and, drawing his easy-chair to the window, dropped into it in bewildering reflection. This then was the secret—unknown to mother and daughter—unsuspected by all! This was the double life of Tappington, half revealed in his flirtation with the neighbors, in the hidden cards behind the books, in the mysterious visitor—still unaccounted for—and now wholly exploded by this sleeping confederate, for whom, somehow, Herbert felt the greatest sympathy! What was to be done? What should he say to Cherry—to her mother—to Mr. Carstone? Yet he had felt he had done right. From time to time he turned to the motionless recumbent shadow on the bed and listened to its slow and peaceful respiration. Apart from that undefinable attraction which all original natures have for each other, the thrice-blessed mystery of protection of the helpless, for the first time in his life, seemed to dawn upon him through that night.
Nevertheless, the actual dawn came slowly. Twice he nodded and awoke quickly with a start. The third time it was day. The street-lamps were extinguished, and with them the moving, restless watchers seemed also to have vanished. Suddenly a formal deliberate rapping at the door leading to the hall startled him to his feet.
It must be Ellen. So much the better; he could quickly get rid of her. He glanced at the bed; Dornton slept on undisturbed. He unlocked the door cautiously, and instinctively fell back before the erect, shawled, and decorous figure of Mrs. Brooks. But an utterly new resolution and excitement had supplanted the habitual resignation of her handsome features, and given them an angry sparkle of expression.
Recollecting himself, he instantly stepped forward into the passage, drawing to the door behind him, as she, with equal celerity, opposed it with her hand.
“Mr. Bly,” she said deliberately, “Ellen has just told me that your voice has been heard in conversation with some one in this room late last night. Up to this moment I have foolishly allowed my daughter to persuade me that certain infamous scandals regarding your conduct here were false. I must ask you as a gentleman to let me pass now and satisfy myself.”
“But, my dear madam, one moment. Let me first explain—I beg”—stammered Herbert with a half-hysterical laugh. “I assure you a gentleman friend”—
But she had pushed him aside and entered precipitately. With a quick feminine glance round the room she turned to the bed, and then halted in overwhelming confusion.
“It’s a friend,” said Herbert in a hasty whisper. “A friend of mine who returned with me late, and whom, on account of the disturbed state of the streets, I induced to stay here all night. He was so tired that I have not had the heart to disturb him yet.”
“Oh, pray don’t!—I beg”—said Mrs. Brooks with a certain youthful vivacity, but still gazing at the stranger’s handsome features as she slowly retreated. “Not for worlds!”
Herbert was relieved; she was actually blushing.
“You see, it was quite unpremeditated, I assure you. We came in together,” whispered Herbert, leading her to the door, “and I”—
“Don’t believe a word of it, madam,” said a lazy voice from the bed, as the stranger leisurely raised himself upright, putting the last finishing touch to his cravat as he shook himself neat again. “I’m an utter stranger to him, and he knows it. He found me here, hiding from the Vigilantes, who were chasing me on the hill. I got in at that door, which happened to be unlocked. He let me stay because he was a gentleman—and—I wasn’t. I beg your pardon, madam, for having interrupted him before you; but it was a little rough to have him lie on my account when he wasn’t the kind of man to lie on his own. You’ll forgive him—won’t you, please?—and, as I’m taking myself off now, perhaps you’ll overlook my intrusion too.”
It was impossible to convey the lazy frankness of this speech, the charming smile with which it was accompanied, or the easy yet deferential manner with which, taking up his hat, he bowed to Mrs. Brooks as he advanced toward the door.
“But,” said Mrs. Brooks, hurriedly glancing from Herbert to the stranger, “it must be the Vigilantes who are now hanging about the street. Ellen saw them from her window, and thought they were your friends, Mr. Bly. This gentleman—your friend”—she had become a little confused in her novel excitement—“really ought not to go out now. It would be madness.”
“If you wouldn’t mind his remaining a little longer, it certainly would be safer,” said Herbert, with wondering gratitude.
“I certainly shouldn’t consent to his leaving my house now,” said Mrs. Brooks with dignity; “and if you wouldn’t mind calling Cherry here, Mr. Bly—she’s in the dining-room—and then showing yourself for a moment in the street and finding out what they wanted, it would be the best thing to do.”
Herbert flew downstairs; in a few hurried words he gave the same explanation to the astounded Cherry that he had given to her mother, with the mischievous addition that Mrs. Brooks’s unjust suspicions had precipitated her into becoming an amicable accomplice, and then ran out into the street. Here he ascertained from one of the Vigilantes, whom he knew, that they were really seeking Dornton; but that, concluding that the fugitive had already escaped to the wharves, they expected to withdraw their surveillance at noon. Somewhat relieved, he hastened back, to find the stranger calmly seated on the sofa in the parlor with the same air of frank indifference, lazily relating the incidents of his flight to the two women, who were listening with every expression of sympathy and interest. “Poor fellow!” said Cherry, taking the astonished Bly aside into the hall, “I don’t believe he’s half as bad as they said he is—or as even he makes himself out to be. But did you notice mother?”
Herbert, a little dazed, and, it must be confessed, a trifle uneasy at this ready acceptance of the stranger, abstractedly said he had not.
“Why, it’s the most ridiculous thing. She’s actually going round without her shawl, and doesn’t seem to know it.”
When Herbert finally reached the bank that morning he was still in a state of doubt and perplexity. He had parted with his grateful visitor, whose safety in a few hours seemed assured, but without the least further revelation or actual allusion to anything antecedent to his selecting Tappington’s room as refuge. More than that, Herbert was convinced from his manner that he had no intention of making a confidant of Mrs. Brooks, and this convinced him that Dornton’s previous relations with Tappington were not only utterly inconsistent with that young man’s decorous reputation, but were unsuspected by the family. The stranger’s familiar knowledge of the room, his mysterious allusions to the “risks” Tappington had taken, and his sudden silence on the discovery of Bly’s ignorance of the whole affair all pointed to some secret that, innocent or not, was more or less perilous, not only to the son but to the mother and sister. Of the latter’s ignorance he had no doubt—but had he any right to enlighten them? Admitting that Tappington had deceived them with the others, would they thank him for opening their eyes to it? If they had already a suspicion, would they care to know that it was shared by him? Halting between his frankness and his delicacy, the final thought that in his budding relations with the daughter it might seem a cruel bid for her confidence, or a revenge for their distrust of him, inclined him to silence. But an unforeseen occurrence took the matter from his hands. At noon he was told that Mr. Carstone wished to see him in his private room!
Satisfied that his complicity with Dornton’s escape was discovered, the unfortunate Herbert presented himself, pale but self-possessed, before his employer. That brief man of business bade him be seated, and standing himself before the fireplace, looked down curiously, but not unkindly, upon his employee.
“Mr. Bly, the bank does not usually interfere with the private affairs of its employees, but for certain reasons which I prefer to explain to you later, I must ask you to give me a straightforward answer to one or two questions. I may say that they have nothing to do with your relations to the bank, which are to us perfectly satisfactory.”
More than ever convinced that Mr. Carstone was about to speak of his visitor, Herbert signified his willingness to reply.
“You have been seen a great deal with Miss Brooks lately—on the street and elsewhere—acting as her escort, and evidently on terms of intimacy. To do you both justice, neither of you seemed to have made it a secret or avoided observation; but I must ask you directly if it is with her mother’s permission?”
Considerably relieved, but wondering what was coming, Herbert answered, with boyish frankness, that it was.
“Are you—engaged to the young lady?”
“Are you—well, Mr. Bly—briefly, are you what is called ‘in love’ with her?” asked the banker, with a certain brusque hurrying over of a sentiment evidently incompatible with their present business surroundings.
Herbert blushed. It was the first time he had heard the question voiced, even by himself.
“I am,” he said resolutely.
“And you wish to marry her?”
“If I dared ask her to accept a young man with no position as yet,” stammered Herbert.
“People don’t usually consider a young man in Carstone’s Bank of no position,” said the banker dryly; “and I wish for your sake that were the only impediment. For I am compelled to reveal to you a secret.” He paused, and folding his arms, looked fixedly down upon his clerk. “Mr. Bly, Tappington Brooks, the brother of your sweetheart, was a defaulter and embezzler from this bank!”
Herbert sat dumfounded and motionless.
“Understand two things,” continued Mr. Carstone quickly. “First, that no purer or better women exist than Miss Brooks and her mother. Secondly, that they know nothing of this, and that only myself and one other man are in possession of the secret.”
He slightly changed his position, and went on more deliberately. “Six weeks ago Tappington sat in that chair where you are sitting now, a convicted hypocrite and thief. Luckily for him, although his guilt was plain, and the whole secret of his double life revealed to me, a sum of money advanced in pity by one of his gambling confederates had made his accounts good and saved him from suspicion in the eyes of his fellow-clerks and my partners. At first he tried to fight me on that point; then he blustered and said his mother could have refunded the money; and asked me what was a paltry five thousand dollars! I told him, Mr. Bly, that it might be five years of his youth in state prison; that it might be five years of sorrow and shame for his mother and sister; that it might be an everlasting stain on the name of his dead father—my friend. He talked of killing himself: I told him he was a cowardly fool. He asked me to give him up to the authorities: I told him I intended to take the law in my own hands and give him another chance; and then he broke down. I transferred him that very day, without giving him time to communicate with anybody, to our branch office at Portland, with a letter explaining his position to our agent, and the injunction that for six months he should be under strict surveillance. I myself undertook to explain his sudden departure to Mrs. Brooks, and obliged him to write to her from time to time.” He paused, and then continued: “So far I believe my plan has been successful: the secret has been kept; he has broken with the evil associates that ruined him here—to the best of my knowledge he has had no communication with them since; even a certain woman here who shared his vicious hidden life has abandoned him.”
“Are you sure?” asked Herbert involuntarily, as he recalled his mysterious visitor.
“I believe the Vigilance Committee has considered it a public duty to deport her and her confederates beyond the State,” returned Carstone dryly.
Another idea flashed upon Herbert. “And the gambler who advanced the money to save Tappington?” he said breathlessly.
“Wasn’t such a hound as the rest of his kind, if report says true,” answered Carstone. “He was well known here as George Dornton—Gentleman George—a man capable of better things. But he was before your time, Mr. Bly—you don’t know him.”
Herbert didn’t deem it a felicitous moment to correct his employer, and Mr. Carstone continued: “I have now told you what I thought it was my duty to tell you. I must leave you to judge how far it affects your relations with Miss Brooks.”
Herbert did not hesitate. “I should be very sorry, sir, to seem to undervalue your consideration or disregard your warning; but I am afraid that even if you had been less merciful to Tappington, and he were now a convicted felon, I should change neither my feelings nor my intentions to his sister.”
“And you would still marry her?” said Carstone sternly; “You, an employee of the bank, would set the example of allying yourself with one who had robbed it?”
“I—am afraid I would, sir,” said Herbert slowly.
“Even if it were a question of your remaining here?” said Carstone grimly.
Poor Herbert already saw himself dismissed and again taking up his weary quest for employment; but, nevertheless, he answered stoutly:
“And nothing will prevent you marrying Miss Brooks?”
“Nothing—save my inability to support her.”
“Then,” said Mr. Carstone, with a peculiar light in his eyes, “it only remains for the bank to mark its opinion of your conduct by increasing your salary to enable you to do so! Shake hands, Mr. Bly,” he said, laughing. “I think you’ll do to tie to—and I believe the young lady will be of the same opinion. But not a word to either her or her mother in regard to what you have heard. And now I may tell you something more. I am not without hope of Tappington’s future, nor—d—n it!—without some excuse for his fault, sir. He was artificially brought up. When my old friend died, Mrs. Brooks, still a handsome woman, like all her sex wouldn’t rest until she had another devotion, and wrapped herself and her children up in the Church. Theology may be all right for grown people, but it’s apt to make children artificial; and Tappington was pious before he was fairly good. He drew on a religious credit before he had a moral capital behind it. He was brought up with no knowledge of the world, and when he went into it—it captured him. I don’t say there are not saints born into the world occasionally; but for every one you’ll find a lot of promiscuous human nature. My old friend Josh Brooks had a heap of it, and it wouldn’t be strange if some was left in his children, and burst through their straight-lacing in a queer way. That’s all! Good-morning, Mr. Bly. Forget what I’ve told you for six months, and then I shouldn’t wonder if Tappington was on hand to give his sister away.
Whether the secret of Tappington’s double life was ever revealed to the two women is not known to the chronicler. Mrs. Bly is reported to have said that the climate of Oregon was more suited to her brother’s delicate constitution than the damp fogs of San Francisco, and that his tastes were always opposed to the mere frivolity of metropolitan society. The only possible reason for supposing that the mother may have become cognizant of her son’s youthful errors was in the occasional visits to the house of the handsome George Dornton, who, in the social revolution that followed the brief reign of the Vigilance Committee, characteristically returned as a dashing stockbroker, and the fact that Mrs. Brooks seemed to have discarded her ascetic shawl forever. But as all this was contemporaneous with the absurd rumor, that owing to the loneliness induced by the marriage of her daughter she contemplated a similar change in her own condition, it is deemed unworthy the serious consideration of this veracious chronicle.