She swayed a little, but recovered as the pain of the shock was succeeded b_umbness. That out of the dark of this room, into the light of that lamp, i_his house so far removed from cities that it seemed not a part of the world … there should step this man! Why had there been no hint of his presence? Wh_ad not the clairvoyance of despair warned her? One of her hands rose an_ressed over her eyes, as if to sponge out this phantom. It was useless; i_as no dream; he was still there, this man she had neither seen nor heard o_or five years because her will was stronger than her desire, this man who ha_roken her heart as children break toys! And deep below all this presen_error was the abiding truth that she still loved him and always would lov_im. The shame of this knowledge did more than all else to rouse and to nerv_er.
"Karl?" It was like an echo.
"Yes." There was war in his voice and attitude and not without reason. He ha_ronged this woman, not with direct intention it was true, but nevertheless h_ad wronged her; and her presence here could mean nothing less than that fat_ad selected this spot for the reckoning. She could topple down his carefull_eared schemes with the same ease with which he had blown over hers. And t_im these schemes were life to his breath and salt to his blood, everything.
What was one woman? cynically. "Yes, it is I," in the tongue native to the_oth.
"And what do you here?"
"I am Admiral Killigrew's private secretary." He wet his lips. He was not s_trong before this woman as he had expected to be. The glamour of the old day_as faintly rekindled at the sight of her. And she _was_ beautiful.
"Then, this is the house?" in a whisper.
"You terrify me!"
"Hildegarde, this is your scheme," shrugging. "Tell them all you know; brea_e, ruin me. Here is a fair opportunity for revenge."
"God forbid!" she cried with a shiver. "Were you guilty of all crimes, I coul_nly remember that once I loved you."
"You shame me," he replied frankly, but with infinite relief. "You hav_utdone me in magnanimity. Will you forgive me?"
"Oh, yes. Forgiveness is one of the few things you men can not rob us of." Sh_poke without bitterness, but her eyes were dim and her lips dropped. "Wha_hall we do? They must not know that we have met."
"Cathewe knows," moodily.
"I had forgotten!"
"I leave all in your hands. Do what you will. If you break me—and God know_ell that you can do it—it would be only an act of justice. I have been _amned scoundrel; I am man enough to admit of that."
She saw his face more clearly now. Time had marked it. There were new lines a_he corners of his eyes and the cheek-bones were more prominent. Perhaps h_ad suffered too. "You will always have the courage to do," she said, "righ_r wrong in a great manner."
"Am I wrong to seek—"
"Hush! I know. It is what you must thrust aside or break to reach it, Karl.
The thing itself is not wrong, but you will go about it wrongly. You can no_elp that."
He did not reply. Perhaps she was right. Indeed, was she not herself a_xample of it? If there was one thing in his complex career that he regrette_ore than another it was the deception of this woman. He did not possess th_sual vanity of the sex; there was nothing here to be proud of; his dream o_onquest was not over the kingdom of women.
"Some one is coming," he said, listening.
"Leave it all to me."
"Ah! … " with a hand toward her.
"Do not say it. I understand the thought. If only you loved me, you woul_ay!" the iron in her voice unmistakable.
He let his hand fall. He was sorry.
Presently the others made their entrance upon the scene, a singula_nticlimax. The admiral rang for the cocktails. Introductions followed.
"Is it not strange?" said the singer to Laura. "I stole in here to look at th_rophies, when I discovered Mr. Breitmann whom I once knew in Munich."
"Mr. Cathewe," said the young hostess, "this is Mr. Breitmann, who is aidin_ather in the compilation of his book."
"Mr. Breitmann and I have met before," said Cathewe soberly.
The two men bowed. Cathewe never gave his hand to any but his intimates. Bu_aura, who was not aware of this ancient reserve, thought that both of the_howed a lack of warmth. And Fitzgerald, who was watching all comers now, wa_ure that the past of his friend and Breitmann interlaced in some way.
"So, young man," said Mrs. Coldfield, a handsome motherly woman, "you have ha_he impudence to let five years pass without darkening my doors. What excus_ave you?"
"I'm guilty of anything you say," Fitzgerald answered humbly. "What shall b_y punishment?"
"You shall take Miss Laura in and I shall sit at your left."
"For my sins it shall be as you say. But, really, I have been so little in Ne_ork," he added.
"I forgive you simply because you have not made a failure of your mother'_on. And you look like her, too." It is one of the privileges of old person_o compare the young with this or that parent.
"You are flattering me. Dad used to say that I was as homely as a hedge- fence."
"Now you're fishing, and I'm too old a fish to rise to such a cast."
"I heard you sing in Paris a few years ago," said M. Ferraud.
"Yes?" Hildegarde von Mitter wondered who this little man could be.
"And you sing no more?"
"No. The bird has flown; only the woman remains." They were at the table now, and she absently plucked the flowers beside her plate.
"Ah, to sing as you did, and then to disappear, to vanish! You had no right t_o so. You belonged to the public," animatedly.
"The public is always selfish; it always demands more than any single perso_an give to it. Pardon?" she said as Cathewe leaned to speak to her. "I di_ot hear."
M. Ferraud nibbled his crisp celery.
"I asked, what will you do?" repeated Cathewe for her ear only.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you know that he was here?"
"I should not have been seated at this table had I known."
"Some day you are going to tell me all about it," he asserted; "and you ar_oing to smile when you answer me."
"Thank you. I forgot. My dear friend, I am never going to tell you all abou_t. Why did you not come first?" her voice vibrating.
"You still love him."
"That is not kind," striving hard to keep the smile on her trembling lips.
"Oh, I beg of you, do not make this friendship impossible. Do not rob me o_he one man I trust."
Cathewe motioned aside the fish and reached for his sauterne. "I have love_ou faithfully and loyally for seven years. I have tried to win you by al_hose roads a man may honorably traverse in quest of the one woman. For seve_ears; and for something like three I have stayed away at your command. Wil_ou believe it? Sometimes my hands ache for his throat … Smile, they ar_ooking."
It was a crooked smile. "Why did I ever tell you?"
"Why did you ever tell me … only part? It is the other part I wish to know.
Till I learn what that is I shall never leave you. You will find that there i_ difference between love and infatuation."
"As I have never known infatuation I can not tell the difference. Now, n_ore, unless you care to see me break down before them. For if you tell m_hat you have loved me seven years, I have loved him eight," cruelly, fo_athewe was pressing her cruelly.
"Devil take him! What do you find in the man?"
"What do you find in me?" her eyes filled with anger.
"Forgive me, Hildegarde; I am blind and mad to-night. I did not expect to fin_im here either."
Breitmann had tried ineffectually to read their lips. She had given her word, and once given, he knew of old that she never broke it; but he was keenl_live that in some way he was the topic of the inaudible conversation. As h_at here to-night he knew why he had never loved Hildegarde, why in fact, h_ad never loved any woman. The one great passion which comes in the span o_ife was centered in the girl beside him, dividing her moments between him an_itzgerald. Strange, but he had not known it till he saw the two wome_ogether. For once his nice calculations had ceased to run smoothly; ther_ppeared now a knot in the thread for which he saw no untying.
"You do not sing now?" asked Laura across the table.
"No," Hildegarde answered, "my voice is gone."
"Oh, I am so sorry."
"It does not matter. I can hum a little to myself; there is yet some pleasur_n that. But in opera, no, never again. Has not Mrs. Coldfield told you? No?
Imagine! One night in Dresden, in the middle of the aria, my voice brok_iserably and I could not go on."
"And her heart nearly broke with it," interposed Mrs. Coldfield, with the bes_ntentions, nearer the truth than she knew. "I am sorry, Laura, that I neve_old you before."
Hildegarde laughed. "Sooner or later this must happen. I worked too hard, perhaps. At any rate, the opera will know me no more."
There was the hard blue of flint in Cathewe's eyes as they met and hel_reitmann's. There was a duel, and the latter was routed. But hate burne_iercely in the breast against the man who could compel him to lower his eyes.
Some day he would pay back that glance.
Now, M. Ferraud had missed nothing. He twisted the talk into other channel_ith his usual adroitness, but all the while there was bubbling in his min_he news that these two men had met before. The history of Hildegarde vo_itter was known to him. But how much did she know, or this man Cathewe? Th_oman was a thoroughbred. He, Anatole Ferraud, knew; it was his business t_now; and that she should happen upon the scene he considered as one of thes_are good pieces of luck that fall to the lot of few. There would be somethin_ore than treasure hunting here; an intricate comedy-drama, with as many well- defined sides as a diamond. He ate his endive with pleasure and sipped the ol_ellow _Pol Roger_ with his eyes beaming toward the gods. To be, after _ashion, the prompter behind the scenes; to be able to read the final lin_efore the curtain! Butterflies and butterflies and pins and pins.
Did Laura note any of the portentous glances, those exchanged between th_inger and Cathewe and Breitmann? Perhaps. At all events she felt a curiosit_o know how long Hildegarde von Mitter had known her father's secretary. Ther_as no envy in her heart as again she acknowledged the beauty of the othe_oman; moreover, she liked her and was going to like her more. Impression_ere made upon her almost instantly, for good or bad, and rarely changed.
She turned oftenest to Fitzgerald, for he made particular effort to entertain, and he succeeded better than he dreamed. It kept turning over in her mind wha_ whimsical, capricious, whirligig was at work. It was droll, this man at he_ide, chatting to her as if he had known her for years, when, seven or eigh_ays ago, he had stood, a man all unknown to her, on a city corner, sellin_laster of Paris statuettes on a wager; and but for Mrs. Coldfield, she ha_assed him for ever. Out upon the prude who would look askance at her fo_armless daring!
"Drop into my room before you turn in," urged Fitzgerald to Cathewe.
"That I shall, my boy. I've some questions to ask of you."
But a singular idea came into creation, and this was for him, Cathewe, to pa_reitmann a visit on the way to Fitzgerald's room. Not one man in a thousan_ould have dared put this idea into a plan of action. But neither external_or conventions deterred Cathewe when he sought a thing. He rapped lightly o_he door of the secretary's room.
Cathewe did so, gently closing the door behind him. Breitmann was in hi_hirt-sleeves. He rose from his chair and laid down his cigarette. A fain_mile broke the thin line of his mouth. He waited for his guest, or, rather, this intruder, to break the silence. And as Cathewe did not speak at once, there was a tableau during which each was speculatively busy with the eyes.
"The vicissitudes of time," said Cathewe, "have left no distinguishable mark_pon you."
Breitmann bowed. He remained standing.
And Cathewe had no wish to sit. "I never expected to see you in this house."
"A compliment which I readily return."
"A private secretary; I never thought of you in that capacity."
"One must take what one can," tranquilly.
"A good precept." Cathewe rolled the ends of his mustache, a trifle perplexe_ow to put it. "But there should be exceptions. What," and his voice becam_risp and cold, "what was Hildegarde von Mitter to you?"
"And what is that to you?"
"My question first."
"I choose not to answer it."
Again they eyed each other like fencers.
"Were you married?"
Breitmann laughed. Here was his opportunity to wring this man's heart; for h_new that Cathewe loved the woman. "You seem to be in her confidence. As_er."
"A poltroon would say as much. There is a phase in your make-up I have neve_ully understood. Physically you are a brave man, but morally you are a ca_nd a poltroon."
"Not if you are careful. I have answered your questions; you had better leav_t once."
"She is loyal to you. It was not her voice that broke that night; it was he_eart, you have some hold over her."
"None that she can not throw off at any time." Breitmann's mind was workin_trangely.
"If she would have me I would marry her tomorrow," went on Cathewe, playin_penly, "I would marry her to-morrow, priest or protestant, for her religio_ould be mine."
There was a spark of admiration in Breitmann's eyes. This man Cathewe was ou_f the ordinary. Well, as for that, so was he himself. He walked silently t_he door and opened it, standing aside for the other to pass. "She i_erfectly free. Marry her. She is all and more than you wish her to be. Wil_ou go now?"
Cathewe bowed and turned on his heel. Breitmann had really got the better o_im.
A peculiar interview, and only two strong men could have handled it in so fe_ords. Not a word above normal tones; once or twice only, in the flutter o_he eyelids or in the gesture of the hands, was there any sign that had thes_een primitive times the two would have gone joyously at each other's throats.
"I owed her that much," said Breitmann as he locked the door.
"It did not matter at all to me," was Cathewe's thought, as he knocked o_itzgerald's door and heard his cheery call, "I only wanted to know what sor_f man he is."
"Oh, I really don't know whether I like him or not," declared Fitzgerald. "_ave run across him two or three times, but we were both busy. He has told m_ little about himself. He's been knocked about a good deal. Has a title, bu_oesn't use it."
"A title? That is news to me. Probably it is true."
"I was surprised to learn that you knew him at all."
"Not very well. Met him in Munich mostly."
A long pause.
"Isn't Miss Killigrew just rippin'? There's a comrade for some man. Luck_evil, who gets her! She is new to me every day."
"I think I warned you."
"You were a nice one, never to say a word that you knew the admiral!"
"Are you complaining?"
Fitzgerald laughed; no not exactly; he wasn't complaining.
"You remember the caravan trails in the Lybian desert; the old ones on the wa_o Khartoum? The pathway behind her is like that, marked with the bleache_ones of princely and ducal and common hopes." Cathewe stretched out in hi_hair. "Since she was eighteen, Jack, she has crossed the man-trail like _andstorm, and quite as innocently, too."
"Oh, rot! I'm no green and salad youth."
"Your bones will be only the tougher, that's all."
"But what's your opinion regarding Breitmann?"
Cathewe laced his fingers and bent his chin on them. "There's a great rasca_r a great hero somewhere under his skin."