The Silent Partners
Late one evening toward the end of the week a somewhat battered camping party, laden with plump, fluffy bunches of quail, and plumper strings of duck, wind-scorched, sun-burnt, brier-torn and trail-worn, re-entered the patio
of the Cardross villa, and made straight for shower-bath, witch-hazel, fresh pyjamas, and bed.
In vain Jessie Carrick, Cecile, and their mother camped around Shiela's bed after the tray was removed, and Shiela's flushed face, innocent as usual of sunburn, lay among the pillows, framed by the brown-gold lustre of her hair.
"We had such
a good time, mother; Mr. Hamil shot a turkey," she said sleepily. "Mr. Hamil--Mr. H-a-m-i-l"--A series of little pink yawns, a smile, a faint sigh terminated consciousness as she relaxed into slumber as placid as her first cradle sleep. So motionless she lay, bare arms wound around the pillow, that they could scarcely detect her breathing save when the bow of pale-blue ribbon stirred on her bosom.
"The darling!" whispered Mrs. Carrick; "look at that brier mark across her wrist!--our poor little worn-out colleen!"
"She was not too far gone to mention Garret Hamil," observed Cecile.
Mrs. Cardross looked silently at Cecile, then at the girl on the bed who had called her mother. After a moment she bent with difficulty and kissed the brier-torn wrist, wondering perhaps whether by chance a deeper wound lay hidden beneath the lace-veiled, childish breast.
"Little daughter--little daughter!" she murmured close to the small unheeding ear. Cecile waited, a smile half tender, half amused curving her parted lips; then she glanced curiously at Mrs. Carrick. But that young matron, ignoring the enfant terrible, calmly tucked her arm under her mother's; Cecile, immersed in speculative thought, followed them from the room; a maid extinguished the lights.
In an hour the Villa Cardross was silent and dark, save that, in the moonlight which struck through the panes of Malcourt's room, an unquiet shadow moved from window to window, looking out into the mystery of night.
The late morning sun flung a golden net across Malcourt's bed; he lay asleep, dark hair in handsome disorder, dark eyes sealed--too young to wear that bruised, loose mask so soon with the swollen shadows under lid and lip. Yet, in his unconscious features there was now a certain simplicity almost engaging, which awake, he seemed to lack; as though latent somewhere within him were qualities which chance might germinate into nobler growth. But chance, alone, is a poor gardener.
Hamil passing the corridor as the valet, carrying a tray, opened Malcourt's door, glanced in at him; and Malcourt awoke at the same moment, and sat bolt upright.
"Hello, Hamil!" he nodded sleepily, "come in, old fellow!" And, to the valet: "No breakfast for me, thank you--except grape-fruit!--unless you've brought me a cuckootail? Yes? No? Stung! Never mind; just hand me a cigarette and take away the tray. It's a case of being a very naughty boy, Hamil. How are you anyway, and what did you shoot?"
Hamil greeted him briefly, but did not seem inclined to enter or converse.
Malcourt yawned, glanced at the grape-fruit, then affably at Hamil.
"I say," he began, "hope you'll overlook my rotten behaviour last time we met. I'd been dining at random, and I'm usually a brute when I do that."
"Oh, it's all right," said Hamil, looking at the row of tiny Chinese idols on the mantel.
"No. Only--why do you do it, Malcourt?"
"Why do I do which? The wheel or the lady?"
"Oh, the whole bally business? It isn't as if you were lonely and put to it. There are plenty of attractive girls about, and anybody will take you on at Bridge. Of course it's none of my affair--but we came unpleasantly close to a quarrel--which is my only excuse."
Malcourt looked at him thoughtfully. "Hamil, do you know, I've always liked you a damn sight better than you've liked me."
Hamil said, laughing outright: "I never saw very much of you to like or dislike."
Malcourt smiled, stretched his limbs lazily, and lighted a cigarette.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "you think I'm worse than I am, but I know
you are worse than you think, because I couldn't even secretly feel friendly toward a prig. You've had a less battered career than I; you are, in consequence, less selfish, less ruthless, less cynical concerning traditions and illusions. You've something left to stick to; I haven't. You are a little less intelligent than I, and therefore possess more natural courage and credulity. Outside of these things we are more or less alike, Hamil. Hope you don't mind my essay on man."
"No," said Hamil, vastly amused.
"The trouble with me," continued Malcourt, "is that I possess a streak of scientific curiosity that you lack; which is my eternal undoing and keeps me poor and ignobly busy. I ought to have leisure; the world should see to it that I have sufficient leisure and means to pursue my studies in the interest of social economy. Take one of my favourite experiments, for example. I see a little ball rattling around in a wheel. Where will that ball stop? You, being less intellectual than I, don't care where it stops. I
do. Instantly my scientific curiosity is aroused; I reason logically; I evolve an opinion; I back that opinion; and I remain busy and poor. I see a pretty woman. Is she responsive or unresponsive to intelligently expressed sentiment? I don't know. You
don't care. I
do. My curiosity is piqued. She becomes to me an abstract question which scientific experiment alone can elucidate--"
Hamil, leaning on the footboard of the bed, laughed and straightened up.
"All right, Malcourt, if you think it worth while--"
"What pursuit, if you please, is worthier than logical and scientific investigations?"
"Make a lot of honest money and marry some nice girl and have horses and dogs and a bully home and kids. Look here, as Wayward says, you're not the devilish sort you pretend to be. You're too young for one thing. I never knew you to do a deliberately ungenerous act--"
"Like most rascals I'm liable to sentimental generosity in streaks? Thanks. But, somehow, I'm so damned intelligent that I can never give myself any credit for relapsing into traditional virtues. Impulse is often my executive officer; and if I were only stupid I'd take great comfort out of it."
Hamil walked toward the door, stopping on the threshold to say: "Well, I'll tell you one thing, Malcourt; I've often disliked you at times; but I don't now. And I don't exactly know why."
"Oh, because you've forgiven me. Also--you think I've a better side."
"My son," said Malcourt, "if somebody'll prove it to me I might sleep better. Just at present I'm ready for anything truly criminal. There was a killing at the Club all right. I assumed the rôle of the defunct. Now I haven't any money; I've overdrawn my balance and my salary; Portlaw is bilious, peevish, unapproachable. If I asked you for a loan I'd only fall a victim again to my insatiable scientific curiosity. So I'll just lie here and browse on cigarettes and grape-fruit until something happens--"
"If you need any money--"
"I told you that we are more or less alike," nodded Malcourt. "Your offer is partly traditional, partly impulsive, altogether ill-considered, and does your intelligence no credit!"
"All the same it's an offer," he said, "and it stands. I'm glad I know you better, Malcourt. I'll be sorry instead of complacently disgusted if you never pan out; but I'll bet you do, some time."
Malcourt looked up.
"I'm ass enough to be much obliged," he said. "And now, before you go, what the devil did you shoot in the woods?"
"Miss Cardross got a gobbler--about the biggest bird I ever saw. Eudo Stent skinned it and Mr. Cardross is going to have it set up in New York. It's a wonderful--"
"Oh, I assassinated a few harmless birds," said Hamil absently; and walked out into the corridor. "I've got to go over a lot of accumulated letters and things," he called back. "See you later, Malcourt."
There was a mass of mail, bills, plans, and office reports for him lying on the hall table. He gathered these up and hastened down the stairway.
On the terrace below he found Mrs. Cardross, and stopped to tell her what a splendid trip they had, and how beautifully Shiela had shot.
"You did rather well yourself," drawled Mrs. Cardross, with a bland smile. "Shiela says so."
"Oh, yes, but my shooting doesn't compare with Shiela's. I never knew such a girl; I never believed they existed--"
"They are rare," nodded the matron. "I am glad everybody finds my little daughter so admirable in the field."
"Beyond comparison in the field and everywhere," said Hamil, with a cordiality so laboriously frank that Mrs. Cardross raised her eyes--an instant only--then continued sorting the skeins of silk in her voluminous lap.
Shiela appeared in sight among the roses across the lawn; and, as Mr. Cardross came out on the terrace to light his after-breakfast cigar, Hamil disappeared in the direction of the garden where Shiela now stood under the bougainvillia, leisurely biting into a sapodilla.
Mrs. Cardross nodded to her white-linen-clad husband, who looked very handsome with the silvered hair at his temples accentuating the clear, deep tan of his face.
"You are burnt, Neville. Did you and the children have a good time?"
"A good time! Well, just about the best in my life--except when I'm with you. Too bad you couldn't have been there. Shiela shoots like a demon. You ought to have seen her among the quail, and later, in the saw-grass, pulling down mallard and duskies from the sky-high overhead range! I tell you, Amy, she's the cleverest, sweetest, cleanest sportsman I ever saw afield. Gray, of course, stopped his birds very well. He has a lot of butterflies to show you, and--'longicorns,' I believe he calls those beetles with enormous feelers. Little Tiger is a treasure; Eudo and the others did well--"
"And Mr. Hamil?" drawled his wife.
him. It's a verdict, dear. You were quite right; he is
a nice boy--rather a lovable boy. I've discovered no cloven hoof about him. He doesn't shoot particularly well, but his field manners are faultless."
His wife, always elaborately upholstered, sat in her wide reclining chair, plump, jewelled fingers busy with a silk necktie for Hamil, her pretty blue eyes raised at intervals to scan her husband's animated features.
"Does Gray like him as much as ever, Neville?"
"O Lord, Gray adores him, and I like him, and you knit neckties for him, and Jessie doses him, and Cecile quotes him--"
"Oh, Shiela seems to like him," said Cardross genially. His wife raised her eyes, then calmly scrutinized her knitting.
"And Mr. Hamil?"
"What about him, dear?"
"Does he seem to like Shiela?"
Her husband glanced musingly out over the lawn where, in their white flannels, Shiela and Hamil were now seated together under a brilliant Japanese lawn umbrella, examining the pile of plans, reports and blue-prints which had accumulated in Hamil's office since his absence.
"He--seems to like her," nodded Cardross, "I'm sure he does. Why not?"
"They were together a good deal, you said last night."
"Yes; but either Gray or I or one of the guides--"
"Of course. Then you don't think--"
Cardross waited and finally looked up. "What, dear?"
"That there is anything more than a sensible friendship--"
"Between Shiela and Garret Hamil?"
"Yes; we were not discussing the Emperor of China."
Cardross laughed and glanced sideways at the lawn umbrella.
His wife raised her brows but not her head.
"Your apparent doubt as to the significance of their friendship."
"Dear--I don't know much about those things."
His wife waited.
"Hamil is so nice to everybody; and I've not noticed how he is with other young girls," continued her husband restlessly. "He does seem to tag after Shiela.... Once or twice I thought--or it seemed to me--or rather--"
His wife waited.
"Well, he seemed rather impressed by her field qualities," concluded Cardross weakly.
His wife waited.
Her husband lit a cigar very carefully: "That's all I noticed, dear."
Mrs. Cardross laid the narrow bit of woven blue silk on her knee and smoothed it reflectively.
"I wonder whether Mr. Hamil has heard."
Her husband did not misunderstand. "I think it likely. That old harridan--"
"Well, then, Mrs. Van Dieman has talked ever since you and Shiela sat on the aspirations of her impossible son."
"You think Mr. Hamil knows?"
"Why not? Everybody does, thanks to that venomous old lady and her limit of an offspring."
"And in spite of that you think Mr. Hamil might be seriously impressed?"
"Why not?" repeated Cardross. "She's the sweetest, cleanest-cut sportsman--"
"Examining the pile of plans, reports, and blue-prints."
"Dear, a field-trial is not what we are discussing."
"No, of course. But those things count with a man. And besides, admitting that the story is all over Palm Beach and New York by this time, is there a more popular girl here than our little Shiela? Look at the men--troops of 'em! Alex Anan knew when he tried his luck. You had to tell Mr. Cuyp, but Shiela was obliged to turn him down after all. It certainly has not intimidated anybody. Do you remember two years ago how persistent Louis Malcourt was until you squelched him?"
"Yes; but he didn't know the truth then. He acts sometimes as though he knew it now. I don't think he would ask Shiela again. And, Neville, if Mr. Hamil does not know, and if you think there is the slightest chance of Shiela becoming interested in him, he ought to be told--indirectly. Unhappiness for both might lie in his ignorance." "Shiela would tell him before he--"
"Of course. But--it might then be too late for her--if he prove less of a man than we think him! He comes from a family whose connections have always thought a great deal of themselves--in the narrower sense; a family not immune from prejudice. His aunt, Miss Palliser, is very amiable; but, dear, we must not make the mistake that she could consider Shiela good enough for her nephew. One need not be a snob to hesitate under the pitiful circumstances."
"If I know Hamil, he'll ask little advice from his relatives--"
"But he will receive plenty, Neville."
Cardross shrugged. "Then it's up to him, Amy."
"Exactly. But do you wish to have our little Shiela in a position where her declared lover hesitates? And so I say, Neville, that it is better for her that Mr. Hamil should know the truth in ample time to reconsider any sentiment before he utters it. It is only fair to him and to Shiela. That is all."
"Why do you say all this now, dearest? Have you thought--"
"Yes, a little. The child is fond of him. I did think she once cared for Louis--as a young girl cares for a boy. But we couldn't permit her to take any chances, poor fellow!--his family record is sadly against him. No; we did right, Neville. And now, at the first sign, we must do right again between Shiela and this very lovable boy who is making your park for you."
"Of course," said Cardross absently, "but the man who hesitates because of what he learns about Shiela isn't worth enlightening." He looked out across the lawn. "I hope it happens," he said. "And, by the way, dear, I've got to go to town."
"Don't worry; I'm not going to contract pneumonia--"
"When are you going?"
"To-morrow, I think."
"Is it anything that bothers you?"
"No, nothing in particular. I have a letter from Acton. There seems to be some uncertainty developing in one or two business quarters. I thought I'd see for myself."
"Are you worrying?"
"About the Shoshone Securities Company?"
"Not exactly worrying."
She shook her head, but said nothing more.
During February the work on the Cardross estate developed sufficiently to become intensely interesting to the family. A vast circular sunken garden, bewitchingly formal, and flanked by a beautiful terrace and balus trade of coquina, was approaching completion between the house and an arm of the lagoon. The stone bridge over the water remained unfinished, but already, across it, miles of the wide forest avenue stretched straight away, set at intervals by carrefours centred with fountain basins from which already tall sparkling columns of water tumbled up into the sunshine.
But still the steam jets puffed up above the green tree-tops; and the sickening whine of the saw-mill, and the rumble of traction engines over rough new roads of shell, and the far racket of chisel and hammer on wood and stone continued from daylight till dark.
Every day brought to Hamil new questions, new delays, vexations of lighting, problems of piping and drainage. Contractors and sub-contractors beset him; draughtsmen fairly buried him under tons of drawings and blue-prints. All of which was as nothing compared to the labour squabbles and endless petty entanglements which arose from personal jealousy or political vindictiveness, peppered with dark hints of peonage, threats, demands, and whispers of graft.
The leasing of convict labour for the more distant road work also worried him, but the sheriffs of Dade and Volusia were pillars of strength and comfort to him in perplexity--lean, soft-spoken, hawk-faced gentlemen, gentle and incorruptible, who settled scuffles with a glance, and local riots with a deadly drawl of warning which carried conviction like a bullet to the "bad" nigger of the blue-gum variety, as well as to the brutish white autocrat of the turpentine camps.
That the work progressed so swiftly was wonderful, even with the unlimited means of Neville Cardross to back his demands for haste. And it might have been impossible to produce any such results in so short a period had there not been contractors in the vicinity who were accustomed to handle vast enterprises on short notice. Some of these men, fortunately for Hamil, had been temporarily released from sections of the great Key West Line construction; and these contractors with their men and materials were immediately available for the labour in hand.
So all though February work was rushed forward; and March found the sunken garden in bloom, stone-edged pools full of lotus and lilies, orange trees blossoming in a magnificent sweep around the balustrade of the terrace, and, beyond, the graceful stone bridge, passable but not quite completed. Neither were the great systems of pools, fountains, tanks, and lakes completed by any means, but here and there foaming jets trembled and glittered in the sunlight, and here and there placid reaches, crystal clear, reflected the blue above.
As for Palm Beach, visitors and natives had watched with liveliest interest the development of the great Cardross park. In the height of the season visits to the scene of operations were made functions; tourists and residents gathered in swarms and took tea and luncheon under the magnificent live-oaks of the hammock.
Mrs. Cardross herself gave a number of lawn fêtes with the kindly intention of doing practical good to Hamil, the success of whose profession was so vitally dependent upon the approval and personal interest of wealth and fashion and idleness.
Shiela constantly tormented him about these functions for his benefit, suggesting that he attire himself in a sloppy velvet jacket and let his hair grow and his necktie flow. She pretended to prepare placards advertising Hamil's popular parks for poor people at cut rates, including wooden horses and a barrel-organ.
"An idea of mine," she suggested, glancing up from the writing-pad on her knees, "is to trim a dozen alligators with electric lights and turn them loose in our lake. There's current enough in the canal to keep the lights going, isn't there, Mr. Hamil? Incandescent alligators would make Luna Park look like a bog full of fireflies--"
"O Shiela, let him alone," protested Mrs. Carrick. "For all you know Mr. Hamil may be dreadfully sensitive."
"I'll let him alone if he'll let his beard grow horrid and silky and permit us to address him as Cher maître--"
"I won't insist on that if you'll call me by my first name," said Hamil mischievously.
"I never will," returned the girl. Always when he suggested it, the faint pink of annoyed embarrassment tinted Shiela's cheeks. And now everybody in the family rallied her on the subject, for they all had come to call him Garry by this time.
"Don't I always say 'Shiela' to you?" he insisted.
"Yes, you do and nobody was consulted. I informed my mother, but she doesn't seem to resent it. So I am obliged to. Besides I don't like your first name."
Mrs. Cardross laughed gently over her embroidery; Malcourt, who was reading the stock column in the News
, turned and looked curiously at Hamil, then at Shiela. Then catching Mrs. Carrick's eye:
"Portlaw is rather worried over the market," he said. "I think he's going North in a day or two."
"Why, Louis!" exclaimed Mrs. Cardross; "then you will be going, too, I suppose."
"His ways are my ways," nodded Malcourt. "I've been here too long anyway," he added in a lower voice, folding the paper absently across his knees. He glanced once more at Shiela, but she had returned to her letter writing.
Everybody spoke of his going in tones of civil regret--everybody except Shiela, who had not even looked at him. Cecile's observations were plainly perfunctory, but she made them nevertheless, for she had begun to take the same feminine interest in Malcourt that everybody was now taking in view of his very pronounced attentions to Virginia Suydam.
All the world may not love a lover, but all the world watches him. And a great many pairs of bright eyes and many more pairs of faded ones were curiously following the manoeuvres of Louis Malcourt and Virginia Suydam.
Very little of what these two people did escaped the social Argus at Palm Beach--their promenades on the verandas of the two great hotels, their appearance on the links and tennis-courts together, their daily encounter at the bathing-hour, their inevitable meeting and pairing on lawn, in ballroom, afloat, ashore, wherever young people gathered under the whip of light social obligations or in pursuit of pleasure.
And they were discussed. She being older than he, and very wealthy, the veranda discussions were not always amiable; but nobody said anything very bitter because Virginia was in a position to be socially respected and the majority of people rather liked Malcourt. Besides there was just enough whispering concerning his performances at the Club and the company he kept there to pique the friendly curiosity of a number of fashionable young matrons who are always prepossessed in favour of a man at whom convention might possibly one day glance askance.
So everybody at Palm Beach was at least aware of the affair. Hamil had heard of it from his pretty aunt, and had been thoroughly questioned. It was very evident that Miss Palliser viewed the proceedings with dismay for she also consulted Wayward, and finally, during the confidential retiring-hour, chose the right moment to extract something definite from Virginia.
But that pale and pretty spinster was too fluently responsive, admitting that perhaps she had been seeing a little too much of Malcourt, protesting it to be accidental, agreeing with Constance Palliser that more discretion should be exercised, and promising it with a short, flushed laugh.
And the next morning she rode to the Inlet with Malcourt, swam with him to the raft, and danced with him until dawn at "The Breakers."
Mrs. Cardross and Jessie Carrick bent over their embroidery; Shiela continued her letter writing with Gray's stylographic pen; Hamil, booted and spurred, both pockets stuffed with plans, paced the terrace waiting for his horse to be brought around; Malcourt had carried himself and his newspaper to the farther end of the terrace, and now stood leaning over the balustrade, an unlighted cigarette between his lips.
"I suppose you'll go to Luckless Lake," observed Hamil, pausing beside Malcourt in his walk.
"Yes. There's plenty to do. We stripped ten thousand trout in October, and we're putting in German boar this spring."
"I should think your occupation would be fascinating."
"Yes? It's lonely, too, until Portlaw's camp parties begin. I get an overdose of nature at times. There's nobody of my own ilk there except our Yale and Cornell foresters. In winter it's deadly, Hamil, deadly! I don't shoot, you know; it's deathly enough as it is."
"I don't believe I'd find it so."
"You think not, but you would. That white solitude may be good medicine for some, but it makes me furious after a while, and I often wish that the woods and the deer and the fish and I myself and the whole devilish outfit were under the North Pole and frozen solid! But I can't afford to pick and choose. If I looked about for something else to do I don't believe anybody would want me. Portlaw pays me more than I'm worth as a Harvard post-graduate. And if that is an asset it's my only one."
Hamil, surprised at his bitterness, looked at him with troubled eyes. Then his eyes wandered to Shiela, who had now taken up her embroidery.
"I can't help it," said Malcourt impatiently; "I like cities and people. I always liked people. I never had enough of people. I never had any society as a boy; and, Hamil, you can't imagine how I longed for it. It would have been well for me to have had it. There was never any in my own home; there was never anything in my home life but painful memories of domestic trouble and financial stress. I was for a while asked to the homes of schoolmates, but could offer no hospitality in return. Sensitiveness and humiliation have strained the better qualities out of me. I've been bruised dry."
He leaned on his elbows, hands clasped, looking out into the sunlight where myriads of brilliant butterflies were fluttering over the carpet of white phlox.
"Hamil," he said, "whatever is harsh, aggressive, cynical, mean, sneering, selfish in me has been externally acquired. You scrape even a spineless mollusc too long with a pin, and the irritation produces a defensive crust. I began boy-like by being so damned credulous and impulsive and affectionate and tender-hearted that even my kid sister laughed at me; and she was only three years older than I. Then followed that period of social loneliness, the longing for the companionship of boys and girls--girls particularly, in spite of agonies of shyness and the awakening terrors of shame when the domestic troubles ended in an earthquake which gave me to my father and Helen to my mother, and a scandal to the newspapers.... O hell! I'm talking like an autobiography! Don't go, if you can stand it for a moment longer; I'm never likely to do it again."
Hamil, silent and uncomfortable, stood stiffly upright, gloved hands resting on the balustrade behind him. Malcourt continued to stare at the orange-and-yellow butterflies dancing over the snowy beds of blossoms.
"In college it was the same," he said. "I had few friends--and no home to return to after--my father-died." He hesitated as though listening. Whenever he spoke of his father, which was seldom, he seemed to assume that curious listening attitude; as though the man, dead by his own hand, could hear him....
"Wayward saw me through. I've paid him back what he spent on me. You know his story; everybody does. I like him and sponge on him. We irritate each other; I'm a beast to resent his sharpness. But he's not right when he says I never had any illusions.... I had--and have.... I do beastly things, too.... Some men will do anything to crush out the last quiver of pride in them.... And the worst is that, mangled, torn, mine still palpitates--like one of your wretched, bloody quail gaping on its back! By God! At least, I couldn't do that
for pleasure!--as better men than I do. And better women, too!... What am I talking about? I've done worse than that on impulse--meaning well, like other fools."
Malcourt's face had become drawn, sallow, almost sneering; but in the slow gaze he turned on Hamil was that blank hopelessness which no man can encounter and remember unmoved.
"Malcourt," he said, "you're morbid. Men like you; women like you--So do I--now--"
"It's too late. I needed that sort of thing when I was younger. Kindness arouses my suspicion now. Toleration is what it really is. I have no money, no social position here--or abroad; only a thoroughly discredited name in two hemispheres. It took several generations for the Malcourts to go to the devil; but I fancy we'll all arrive on time. What a reunion! I hate the idea of family parties, even in hell."
He straightened up gracefully and lighted his cigarette; then the easy smile twitched his dry lips again and he nodded mockingly at Hamil:
"Count on my friendship, Hamil; it's so valuable. It has already quite ruined one person's life, and will no doubt damage others before I flicker out."
"What do you mean, Malcourt?"
"What I say, old fellow. With the best intentions toward self-sacrifice I usually do irreparable damage to the objects of my regard. Beware my friendship, Hamil. There's no luck in it or me.... But I do like you."
He laughed and sauntered off into the house as Hamil's horse was brought around; and Hamil, traversing the terrace, mounted under a running fire of badinage from Shiela and Cecile who had just come from the tennis-courts to attempt some hated embroidery for the charity fair then impending.
So he rode away to his duties in the forest, leaving a placid sewing-circle on the terrace. From which circle, presently, Shiela silently detached herself, arms encumbered with her writing materials and silks. Strolling aimlessly along the balustrade for a while, watching the bees scrambling in the scarlet trumpet-flowers, she wandered into the house and through to the cool patio.
For some days, now, after Hamil's daily departure, it had happened that an almost unendurable restlessness akin to suspense took possession of her; a distaste and impatience of people and their voices, and the routine of the commonplace.
To occupy herself in idleness was an effort; she had no desire to. She had recently acquired the hammock habit, lying for hours in the coolness of the patio, making no effort to think, listening to the splash of the fountain, her book or magazine open across her breast. When people came she picked up the book and scanned its pages; sometimes she made pretence of sleeping.
But that morning, Malcourt, errant, found her reading in her hammock. Expecting him to pass his way as usual, she nodded with civil indifference, and continued her reading.
"I want to ask you something," he said, "if I may interrupt you."
"What is it, Louis?"
"May I draw up a chair?"
"Why--if you wish. Is there anything I can do for you? "--closing her book.
"Is there anything I can do for you
A tinge of colour came into her cheeks.
"Thank you," she said in curt negation.
"Are you quite sure?"
"Quite. What do you mean?"
"There is one thing I might do for your sake," he smiled--"blow my bally brains out."
She said in a low contemptuous voice: "Better resort to that for your own sake than do what you are doing to Miss Suydam."
"What am I doing to Miss Suydam?"
"Making love to her."
He sat, eyes idly following the slight swaying motion of her hammock, the smile still edging his lips.
"Don't worry about Miss Suydam," he said; "she can take care of herself. What I want to say is this: Once out of mistaken motives--which nobody, including yourself, would ever credit--I gave you all I had to give--my name.... It's not much of a name; but I thought you could use it. I was even fool enough to think--other things. And as usual I succeeded in injuring where I meant only kindness. Can you believe that?"
"I--think you meant it kindly," she said under her breath. "It was my fault, Louis. I do not blame you, if you really cared for me. I've told you so before."
"Yes, but I was ass enough to think you
cared for me
She lay in her hammock, looking at him across the crimson-fringed border.
"There are two ways out of it," he said; "one is divorce. Have you changed your mind?"
"What is the other?" she asked coldly.
"That--if you could ever learn to care for me--we might try--" He stopped short.
For two years he had not ventured such a thing to her. The quick, bright anger warned him from her eyes. But she said quietly: "You know that is utterly impossible."
"Is it impossible. Shiela?"
"Absolutely. And a trifle offensive."
He said pleasantly: "I was afraid so, but I wanted to be sure. I did not mean to offend you. People change and mature in two years.... I suppose you are as angrily impatient of sentiment in a man as you were then."
"I cannot endure it--"
Her voice died out and she blushed furiously as the memory of Hamil flashed in her mind.
"Shiela," he said quietly, "now and then there's a streak of misguided decency in me. It cropped out that winter day when I did what I did. And I suppose it's cropping up now when I ask you, for your own sake, to get rid of me and give yourself a chance."
"I cannot, and you know it."
"You are wrong. Do you think for one moment that your father and mother would accept the wretched sacrifice you are making of your life if they knew--"
"The old arguments again," she said impatiently.
"There is a new
argument," said Malcourt, staring at her.
"What new argument?"
Then the vivid colour surged anew from neck to hair, and she rose in the hammock, bewildered, burning, incensed.
"If it were true," she stammered, leaning on one arm, "do you think me capable of disgracing my own people?"
"The disgrace will be mine and yours. Is not Hamil worth it?"
"No man is worth any wrong I do to my own family!"
"You are wronging more people than your own, Shiela--"
"It is not true!" she said breathlessly. "There is a nobler happiness than one secured at the expense of selfishness and ingratitude. I tell you, as long as I live, I will not have them know or suffer because of my disgraceful escapade with you! You probably meant well; I must have been crazy, I think. But we've got to endure the consequences. If there's unhappiness and pain to be borne, we've got to bear it--we alone--"
"And Hamil. All three of us."
She looked at him desperately; read in his cool gaze that she could not deceive him, and remained silent.
"What about Hamil's unhappiness?" repeated Malcourt slowly.
"If--if he has any, he requires no instruction how to bear it."
Malcourt nodded, then, with a weary smile: "I do not plead with you for my own chance of happiness. Yet, you owe me something, Shiela."
"The right to face the world under true colours. You owe me that."
She whitened to the lips. "I know it."
"Suppose I ask for that right?"
"I have always told you that, if you demanded it, I would take your name openly."
"Yes; but now you admit that you love Hamil."
"Love! Love!" she repeated, exasperated. "What has that got to do with it? I know what the law of obligation is. You meant to be generous to me and you ruined your own life. If your future career requires me to publicly assume your name and a place in your household, I've told you that I'll pay that debt."
"Very well. When will you pay it?"
She blanched pitifully.
"When you insist, Louis."
"Do you mean you would go out there to the terrace, now
;--and tell your mother what you've done?"
"Yes, if I must," she answered faintly.
"In other words, because you think you're in my debt, you stand ready to acknowledge, on demand, what I gave you--my name?"
Her lips moved in affirmation, but deep in her sickened eyes he saw terror unspeakable.
"Well," he said, looking away from her, "don't worry, Shiela. I'm not asking that of you; in fact I don't want it. That's not very complimentary, but it ought to relieve you.... I'm horribly sorry about Hamil; I like him; I'd like to do something for him. But if I attempted anything it would turn out all wrong.... As for you--well, you are plucky. Poor little girl! I wish I could help you out--short of a journey to eternity. And perhaps I'll take that before very long," he added gaily; "I smoke too many cigarettes. Cheer up, Shiela, and send me a few thousand for Easter."
He rose, gracefully as always, picked up the book from where it lay tumbled in the netting of the hammock, glanced casually through a page or two.
Still scanning the print, he said:
"I wanted to give you a chance; I'm going North in a day or two. It isn't likely we'll meet again very soon.... So I thought I'd speak.... And, if at any time you change your ideas--I won't oppose it."
"Thank you, Louis."
He was running over the pages rapidly now, the same unchanging smile edging his lips.
"The unexpected sometimes happens, Shiela--particularly when it's expected. There are ways and ways--particularly when one is tired--too tired to lie awake and listen any longer, or resist.... My father used to say that anybody who could use an anæsthetic was the equal of any graduate physician--"
"Louis! What do you mean?"
But his head was bent again in that curious attitude of listening; and after a moment he made an almost imperceptible gesture of acquiescence, and turned to her with the old, easy, half-impudent, half-challenging air.
"Gray has a butterfly in his collection which shows four distinct forms. Once people thought these forms were distinct species; now they know they all are the same species of butterfly in various suits of disguise--just as you might persuade yourself that unhappiness and happiness are radically different. But some people find satisfaction in being unhappy, and some find it in being happy; and as it's all only the gratification of that imperious egotism we call conscience, the specific form of all is simply ethical selfishness."
He laughed unrestrainedly at his own will-o'-the-wisp philosophy, looking very handsome and care-free there where the noon sun slanted across the white arcade all thick with golden jasmine bloom.
And Shiela, too intelligent to mistake him, smiled a little at his gay perversity.
He met Portlaw, later, at the Beach Club for luncheon; and, as the latter looked particularly fat, warm, and worried, Malcourt's perverse humour remained in the ascendant, and he tormented Portlaw until that badgered gentleman emitted a bellow of exasperation.
"What on earth's the matter?" asked Malcourt in pretended astonishment. "I thought I was being funny."
"Funny! Does a man want to be prodded with wit at his own expense when the market is getting funnier every hour--at his expense? Go and look at the tape if you want to know why I don't enjoy either your wit or this accursed luncheon."
"What's happening, Portlaw?"
"I wish you'd tell me."
"Partly, I suppose."
"People say so. I don't believe it. There's a rotten lot of gambling going on. How do I know what's the matter?"
"Perhaps there isn't anything the matter, old fellow."
"Well, there is. I can sniff it 'way down here. And I'm going home to walk about and listen and sniff some more. Sag, sag, sag!--that's what the market has been doing for months. Yet, if I sell it short, it rallies on me and I'm chased to cover. I go long and the thing sags like the panties on that French count, yonder.... Who's the blond girl with him?"
"Hope springs eternal in the human beast," observed Malcourt. "Hope is a bird, Porty, old chap--"
"Hope is a squab," growled Portlaw, swallowing vast quantities of claret, "all squashy and full of pin-feathers. That's what hope is. It needs a thorough roasting, and it's getting it."
"Exquisite metaphor," mused Malcourt, gazing affably at the rather blond girl who crumbled her bread and looked occasionally and blankly at him, occasionally and affectionately at the French count, her escort, who was consuming lobster with characteristic Gallic thoroughness and abandon.
"The world," quoted Malcourt, "is so full of a number of things. You're one of 'em, Portlaw; I'm several.... Well, if you're going North I'd better begin to get ready."
"What have you got to do?"
"One or two friends of mine who preside in the Temple of Chance yonder. Oh, don't assume that babyish pout! I've won enough back to keep going for the balance of the time we remain."
Portlaw, pleased and relieved, finished his claret.
"You've a few ladies to take leave of, also," he said briskly.
"Really, Portlaw!"--in gentle admonition.
"Haw! Haw!" roared Portlaw, startling the entire café; "you'd better get busy. There'll be a run on the bank. There'll be a waiting line before Malcourt & Co. opens for business, each fair penitent with her little I.O.U. to be cashed! Haw! Haw! Sad dog! Bad dog! The many-sided Malcourt! Come on; I've got a motor across the--"
"And I've an appointment with several superfluous people and a girl," said Malcourt drily. Then he glanced at the blond companion of the count who continued crumbling bread between her brilliantly ringed fingers as though she had never before seen Louis Malcourt. The price of diamonds varies. Sometimes it is merely fastidious observance of convention and a sensitive escort. It all depends on the world one inhabits; it does indeed.