A Novelette Complete in This Issue
Should We Always Without Regard of Consequence Act in Accordance with Duty as Mass-Judgment Interprets It? It's an Important, a Puzzling Question That Is Asked in This Intense Study of a Man Who Was Confronted by One of the Gravest Problems Any One Ever Faced
SINCE they have found it worthwhile to invent hard words for the eternal questions: Why do people marry? and Why don't they? I take the liberty of looping back eighteen years in the life of Jolly Jack Corrigan and little Hester Whipple, whose real history is lost even to Bending Willow, where nobody's business is his own.
Few, even among rival mining engineers, called Jolly Jack a fool. He did too well in too many directions to be charged with that. He ate gluttonously and grew Falstaffian at forty, but his big roan horse never refused to carry him up-grade to Hammer Lock, where his stamp-mills flourished, or to carry him back in time to act an uncle's part to the nut-brown schoolma'am with the wild black eyes.
Everybody in the Hammer Lock district called him “Jolly Jack” to his broad face—everybody but Hetty Whipple, who referred to him as “the bear,” quite unsentimentally. Among all the mountain rocks, he represented to her the stoutest bulwark. Marriage? Hetty and Jolly Jack would have been abnormal had they never thought of that. Matrimony, in fact, was a standing joke between them, and in sentimental relations there is no gulf like a joke.
Hetty appealed to the good side of Corrigan's nature. This may sound Victorian, but it is true. He had taken his fun where he found it and lived by his own code ever since his Cornell days. At thirty, he had burnt out his matrimonial idea in one consuming blaze which left nothing better than a scar. Therefore, when Hester Whipple came out of the normal school and got herself a boarding-house and a social position and a dictatorship over Bending Willow's noisy brats, it was pleasure unalloyed for Jack Corrigan to take her case in hand and make things easy for her.
He didn't want to interfere with Hetty and her life. When she told him, raising serious black eyes, that she would never marry and that the “betterment of women” was her goal, he laughed aloud, then went away to indulge a fat man's chuckle. It piqued him just a little to think of her marrying. He would miss her girlish cleanliness and her sophomoric chatter about books and pictures.
Hetty Whipple's indifference to Jack Corrigan amounted to something less than aversion, although he repelled her a little, She approved of him as an idea; it was his body that she disliked. Once, at the Odd Fellows' Ball, she refused to waltz with him. “Bears always dance alone,” she said. Jack should have been hurt, but he saved the story for the whole camp to hear. She refused to admire his heavy, barrel-shaped figure. She was at the age when youth clamors for its Romeo; in her philosophy there was no place for a Falstaff. Jolly Jack, always intelligent, knew from the first that the schoolma'am of Bending Willow could never consider him in any light brighter than that which an indulgent uncle sheds upon his niece. He was rather pleasant as a friend; as a lover, he was far outside the pale.
But when Orrin Plagborn, a trim figure in whipcord breeches and plaited coat, came riding down from the Tin Mountain district, Corrigan was pleased and proud as though Hetty had been his own daughter. Plagborn had a large interest in the cyanide mills and was a director in several reliable mining companies. He was about thirty-five, rather godlike in exterior. Jack Corrigan felt that he could do nothing better for Hetty than to leave her alone.
That was after the last snowfall of 1902. Corrigan had been called to the Hammer Lock mills, and he realized that he would be gone a month or more; he expected to find Hetty Whipple a married woman when he came back. Upon saying good-by, he had teased her a little, promising her a gold mine for a wedding present—he had meant it, too—but she had been far too preoccupied with her own emotions to give heed to his.
Orrin Plagborn was in town again. Corrigan's last impression, ere he threw his giant bulk cross-saddle on the big roan horse and rode away, was of the sprightly young lover as he came striding down the board sidewalk with Hetty just after school was let out. Jack waved his hand to them, a half-humorous, almost fatherly salute; he might have been saying, “Bless you both, my children!” Strangely enough, Jolly Jack didn't chuckle when he thought of that.
HE HAD planned to be gone a month among the stamp-mills; intuition told him that his absence would drag into the fall. But something he heard in July, spoken from the steps of an assay office just below timber-line, caused him to swear softly as he turned his horse's head again toward Bending Willow. He had just shaken hands with the new metallurgist from the East who was back from the Plagborn holdings on Tin Mountain. The metallurgist had met Plagborn, who had been ever so agreeable, he proudly admitted—fine type of progressive miner. To this Jack Corrigan heartily agreed.
“Married, I suppose,” suggested Jack somewhat sheepishly. He had waited in vain for word from Hetty Whipple.
“I'd call him married,” grinned the metallurgist. “I met his wife in Chicago.”
“You met Mrs. Plagborn in Chicago?”
“Say I did! Charming lady—never been West. Crazy to come and live in the mines, but afraid to bring the children. There's one wise woman! Heard anything about the fire at Richards' sawmill?”
“Not a word. Well, so long. I'll be pushing on to Gallagher's.”
Jolly Jack's pushing-on did not stop at Gallagher's, but took him recklessly up hill and down glen, always pointing toward Bending Willow. It was late afternoon when he rode into the little town whose toy church, ugly store-fronts and cluttered lumber-yards seemed to have grown suddenly clamorous with accusing voices. Outwardly, however, he was still the generous Falstaff. He had time to pause at widow Crane's and ask after the boy who had left a leg under a D. & R.G. freight-car. He had time for all things save one. He dared not ask about Hetty Whipple. What had become of her? Surely she would not be in Bending Willow thus late in her summer vacation.
He had tied his horse to the pickets in front of Mrs. Hurley's cleanly painted clapboard house where Hetty had boarded, and he had just laid his hand on the gate when the door opened and Hetty herself came out. She was pink and pretty in summer muslin, but the impression which came to his mind was of a swallow which, in mad flutter toward escape, had battered itself against a window-pane.
“I just knew you were coming,” she said, giving him her hand. It was thinner than it had been.
Her lips were smiling, but her eyes were still and deep.
“Thought I'd give Hammer Lock a rest,” answered Corrigan, with a somewhat forced heartiness. “They ought to pay me to keep away. Thought I'd drop down and take a chance on seeing you.”
“I was going to write to you,” said Hetty slowly. Her voice died away, but her eyes were crying out to him.
“Anything happened, Hetty?”
She lied, and he pitied her for it. He looked down the crowed, dusty road leading past a row of little houses, each new and neatly painted. It wound down a mountain glen, at whose farthest visible point a great fir lifted its Gothic spire; it had kindled into flames from the rays of a sinking sun.
“I'm walking over to Moss Rock,” said she. “Don't you want to come?”
HE STALKED down the road beside her, silent and understanding. They had taken the spring trail and crossed the first corduroy bridge before she stopped and leaned against a red boulder, too tired to go on. Through all his placid years Corrigan remembered the slim being in a pink-muslin gown, her black hair blowing slightly, her face inscrutable—she had grown into a woman during the two months of his absence.
“I was certainly lucky to find you,” he persisted, not knowing how to begin. “I rather thought you'd be away for vacation, or taking your summer course at the normal school.”
He might have been talking to the red rock for all the heed she gave him. At last she opened her lips and said dryly,
“I sha'n't go on with the school here in the fall.”
“Not tired of the job already?” he asked, with assumed carelessness.
“No. Not that. I'm going to try for something in Denver—that is——”
“Hetty!” He turned and faced her, his voice suddenly gruff. “That's not the reason. Why don't you want to stay by your school?”
“They wouldn't have me after—that is— What am I saying? Jack, please don't look at me that way. Where am I to go? I can't stay. I don't know of any places——”
The eyes that had been still and deep had grown wild. Her hands were beating upon the rock; her lips were drawn with pain.
“There, there, little girl!” murmured Corrigan soothingly, patting her as he would a nervous child. “There's nothing in the world you can't square if you go at it right. That's it. Just lean on your Uncle Jack. We can fix it some way together, you and I.”
“I knew we could, Jack. I knew we could——”
She began her speech calmly enough, but her voice rose to a thin wail, then broke in a multitude of sobs. They convulsed her body. Suddenly she relaxed and sank to her knees, back bent, face hidden in her hands. Poor, repentant Magdalen, weeping in the shadow of a blood-red rock, pines whispering mournfully overhead!
Corrigan let her cry it out, and when at last she was still, he crouched beside her to lift away her hands.
“Hetty,” he said in the voice of authority, “have you talked to anybody else about this?”
“No.” She raised a face swollen and stained by tears. “Once I thought of going to Mrs. Hurley or the preacher's wife. I couldn't do that. What would they say? Then I packed my bag to go back to Iowa. But my father's a religious man. He wouldn't let me stay in the house a minute after——”
Her chin quivered, and tears sprang again to her eyes. Corrigan pitted her shoulders again with a: “There, there, there!”
“What's become of Plagborn?” he asked coldly, after a pause.
“He's gone back to Chicago, I think. I suppose you know.”
“That he's married?”
Her dark head droop)ed a little in acknowledgment.
“My God, why didn't I stay here?” he stormed.
“Those questions help when it's too late,” she replied in a tone of bitter irony.
“Too late!” he growled. “It isn't too late.”
When she taxed him with questioning eyes, he went on in a level tone:
“You've got to act now, Hetty. Time's precious. You realize that, don't you?” It was as if she hadn't heard, so he blundered on: “You can't be too choosy. There's no time to go out and find a husband good enough for you. I'm about all the loose timber there is lying round the camp. Hetty, if you're willing to tie up to a human misfit, fat and lots too old for you——”
“You mean—marry you?” Her eyes were frightened, her fingers clutching the red rock as she looked at the big body that was always rather repellent to her. Her look must have hurt Jack, but he plodded on:
“I'm no dove, and not much to look at. If I held a thing against you, I'd be a worse scoundrel than Plagborn. The game now is to be sensible—get married and, move away. I've got a chance to represent the company in New York; we could go to-morrow.“
She seemed to appreciate his chivalry a little and to relent toward him; but her eyes were on the sunset which had grown cherry-red and ashen purple, like cooling lava.
“That's doing a lot for me, Jack,” she admitted.
“Nonsense!” His attitude had something of the young lover's eagerness as he leaned over her and said: “I'm selfish; that's all. Giving you up hasn't been any snap for me.”
She studied him before her reply:
“You've never been in love with me.”
“How do you know?”
“Not much, anyhow. But suppose you should meet the woman—the one who counted? The danger's over with me; but with you——”
“I'm inoculated.” He laughed rather bitterly.
“And—and you want to try it with me?” she asked humbly.
“You'd make me very happy,” he confessed; but when he tried to kiss her, she drew away.
He stroked her hand when they went down the dusky trail together. The touch was a little more than fatherly, and Otto Keefer, of Keefer & Glolz, local butchers, spied them from the top of his meat-wagon as he drove in with the week's supply. So the town got it that Jack Corrigan had about fixed it with the schoolma'am.
An hour after the wedding, which was next morning, Corrigan repeated the question:
“Where is Plagborn?”
“They say he's gone East,” replied Hetty, coloring a little. This was the last time that Corrigan ever mentioned the man by name. But he knew that Plagborn was still at Tin Mountain. The metallurgist of Hammer Lock had told him so.
WHEN Jack Corrigan left the mines for good and came back to New York with a pretty little wife, it was cause for rejoicing among the relics of a famous class that remembered Jolly Jack's brand of humor in undergraduate days. Once again a dweller in the sleek apartments of Manhattan, Corrigan lapsed very rapidly into civilization. He became popular in a minute, as the saying goes, and his frontier breeziness, plus a dress suit, gave him a place among the picturesque raconteurs of the city. He carried an atmosphere of carefreedom. His public appearances gave an impression of one who had passed his fortieth year without any backward look of regret.
As a pair, the Corrigans were satisfactory to their new world, a comparatively large one. Publicly, Hetty learned to take on some of Jack's gay manner. Privately—well, what are doors for but to shut domestic secrets from the street? There was another door—that was the trouble—a door forever locked between Jack Corrigan and the woman he had taken so hastily as a matter of convenience to her. They never quarreled, the Corrigans; occasionally it would have been better if they had. But sometimes in her eyes would gather cold clouds, brooding and hostile. They were accusing, too—for whom? Certainly not for Jolly Jack.
Early in February, 1903, Hetty was confined, and Jack's familiars at the Cornell Club toasted him for a citizen who never failed to do the humorous thing.
“Isn't it just like Jack,” they chuckled, “to be the father of twins?” And they roared again.
As comic features, however, the Corrigan twins proved a disappointment. It is all very well to dramatize the remarkable family resemblance of Mike and Ike or Mrs. Katzenjammer's boisterous duplicates. But when the twins are born girls and lovely, it is hard to do much with them in the colored-supplement sense. Besides, to be mirth-provoking, twins must look, act and dress as a unit. The Corrigan twins were as different in coloring as Sweden from Japan; and as a difference of complexion has made many a war between the races of mankind, it is safe to say that dyestuff goes into character.
Twins are occasionally born this way—without any marked physical resemblance. The reason, which is biological, does not concern us further than that Irma and Frances Corrigan seemed to have nothing in common save the same parenthood and the same birthday.
Jack Corrigan seemed to take prosperity and popularity and parenthood with the light-heartedness peculiar to his rôle. It gave him a genial feeling of responsibility to hear the little things scampering round the house, to appreciate his share in the responsibility of their upbringing, to realize that these greedy, shrill-voiced little animals would one day be beautiful women with hearts to win and bodies to adorn.
Of the two, Irma was the prettier. She had soft silver-gilt hair, naturally inclined to a baby-curl which never quite forsook her head. Her eyes were obvious and laughing, her mouth a rosebud. Hetty worship the twins, but she favored Irma a little. Frances, who was a study in apricot tones, had been quiet from her birth. Her eyes, sad and grave as a Hindu's, looked through and through.
They were in their fifth year before Jack Corrigan proclaimed his preference, even to himself. He had been too busy with the accumulation of friends and money to give more than casual attention to his little tribe. Occasionally, between office-hours and dressing-time, he would peer into the nursery to see the pretty picture of the young at evening prayer. Frances, her dark head obediently bowed over folded hands, would be God-blessing her parents quite correctly and according to form. Irma, squatted restlessly, her roving blue eyes unable to concentrate on anything, would be beseeching the Almighty in rapid tones, “God bless mother and make daddy give me a new doll for the one Frances broke and a new stove with tin kettles.”
Then there came a Sunday afternoon when Corrigan, risen from his customary nap, heard loud squawkings from the play-room. The twins, it seems, had chosen aviation as grounds for their quarrel.
“I'll go up and you'll go up, and muddie'll go and Rosie and Susan,” proclaimed Irma's shriller tone. Rosie was a stuffed pig and Susan a nurse.
“An' daddy,” announced Frances decisively.
“Not daddy!” objected Irma.
“Why not daddy? Aren't daddy just as much in the air-ship as anybody?”
“No. He's too big. He'll break it.”
“Then I won't go—I won't!”
“You're a very bad girl! When muddie and Rosie and Susan and God calls you up there——”
“I don't care. I stay with daddy.”
“You're a very bad girl! Daddy will spank you.”
“1 don't care,” insisted Frances's stubborn tone. “I'm going to be with him. I'm daddy's girl.”
“Not any more than I am!”
“I am so!”
When Corrigan came in to quell the riot, he was grinning; but it was Frances whom he picked up in his arms and fondled roughly, as a bear might fondle his favorite cub. That was his moment of choice. Then it was that he noticed how the dark little girl was growing to look more and more like her mother.
There was a certain something in Irma's cherub face, winning though it was to the majority, which woke in Corrigan an instinctive aversion. He always told himself that he was quite impartial, that he was giving his affection share and share alike. But it was Frances who found a place in his lap a little later when they were up evenings and he was giving them more of his attention.
“You oughtn't to play favorites so openly, Jack,” objected Hetty one night in her just and quiet way. “Irma might notice it. And she's very fond of you.”
“Pshaw!” laughed Corrigan.
“You aren't a little partial?” asked Hetty, searching him with her deep, still eyes which never lost their look of accusation.
“Share and share alike's my motto,” Jack blustered, whereupon he ostentatiously kissed the blond twin and granted one of the favors which she was always prompt to ask upon occasions of relenting.
PARENTAL favoritism is usually an unreasoning thing. If Corrigan preferred Frances because she was serious and condemned Irma because she was flighty, he might easily have been riding for a fall. Serious girls too often turn out to be dull prigs while flighty ones are just as apt to make good wives and merry ones. Frances Corrigan was no prig—that was sure. She grew into an athletic young animal, wholesomely fond of the boys and not without a sense of fun. A little later she developed a taste for reading, and she lost nothing in Corrigan's regard for that.
“Daddy's girl” became something of a nickname in the household. Undoubtedly she had what the Freudians would call “the father fixation.” Naturally, as the primitive woman turned her eyes toward the patriarch, head of her house, the dark twin sought out old Jack Corrigan, a final judge in everything. Not that Frances was indifferent to her mother. Family love was born in her, and if her affections leaned somewhat to the male side of the house, it was but the fine instinct of a woman in the making.
“I guess I'm getting a little bit old,” Corrigan complained to her half jokingly one evening.
“Isn't that thrilling, daddy?” she cried, borrowing lightness from his tone. “That'll give me an excuse to do nothing but take care of you!”
“You won't want me poking round after you're married,” he told her.
“I'd never call it 'poking round.'”
“Just because—well, you're my daddy.”
He gazed at her so long that she laughed.
“You look so funny—just as if you were going to deny parenthood!”
What imp, then, tempted him to the question:
“Fanny, suppose I wasn't your dad, but just a nice old gentleman round the house?”
“Do you think that's funny? You'll have me crying in a minute.”
“But just suppose,” he went on.
“Well, I suppose that's all you'd be. Just a nice old gentleman round the house. And I'd have to call you 'Mr. Corrigan.'”
“But I'd still be the same person——”
“Yes. Or—no; you wouldn't. You'd be sweet and everything else. But fathers—well, they're different. If you were just a perfectly terrible person, whooping and carousing around, I'd be the sort of little daughter that waits at the saloon door to take you home. The king can do no wrong; and that's because you're my——”
“Your father,” he muttered.
She saw that she had hurt him somehow.
“If you only knew how satisfied I am with you, old parent! And I love you like fury!”
This was a great comfort to Jack Corrigan, who never again approach her with the dangerous theme.
Next day she went to college. Corrigan hated to see her go, more on her mother's account than on his, he said. Hetty hadn't been very strong that summer, and with Frances's cheering words in his ear, he had one pitifully selfish thought. He would never be quite alone in the world. There would always be Frances to rely upon.
But if she knew——
There was always something bearlike about Jack Corrigan; he bore no resemblance to the snarling, growling bear of nursery myth—he was more like the plump, good-humored and satisfied bruin who, in the fall of the year, stuffed with rich herbs, seeks out a pleasant hollow tree-trunk and the joys of hibernation. That, too, isn't quite fair to Jack. He was never a dullard, never a comatose bourgeois, but bearlike he remained in all his business, social and domestic activities.
Upper West Side society, which welcomed the Corrigans at card-parties and dances, enjoyed the sight of his huge magnetic person. He played bridge cunningly, losing neither money nor temper. Or he would be found among the oldsters, making merry along the wall while the youngsters clung together, contorting according to modern ballroom requirements.
But sometimes the door between Jack's life and Hetty's would open a crack, whereupon he would close it softly. Once, when they were returning from a late party, his wife said, speaking out of the trancelike state into which she often sank,
“It's like being on another planet.”
“Being here and leaving so much—out there?” Her gesture went instinctively toward the West.
“You've never learned to care for me much, have you?” he complained.
“If I only knew—” She was unable to finish. Jack had slammed the psychological door in her face with some laughing comment on neighborhood affairs in West End Avenue.
DURING the term of Frances's absence at Bryn Mawr, the Corrigans went out sometimes as sponsors for the fair-haired Irma, who flirted steadily from six to three, lived on her restless feet and talked much without saying anything. She was away a great deal that winter, blowing featherlight from week-end to week-end. She returned home only when the dance-vortex was in her neighborhood or when a change of attire required it. Then she would entwine Corrigan's bull neck with wheedling arms and acclaim him among fathers. He got used to her caresses, even encouraged them, because she was her mother's adoration.
How often he wished that he could render her the same quality of affection which he gave to Frances quite without asking! But it was of Frances alone that he thought, early in the new year, when Hetty's health began to decline. He wanted to write to her, confessing his premonitions and the loneliness which seemed already gathering round his days. Instead, he sent her affectionate, cheerful letters, gossiping of everything under the sun save the one important topic.
Hetty's health was failing, and Hetty wouldn't admit it. They had put her to bed, and she had irrational moments which came with fever. More than anything else she worried lest the girls might take alarm, that she might become an invalid to interfere with Irma's house-parties and Frances's freshman Latin.
IT WAS nearing Easter, 1921, when certain eminent physiologists met in Corrigan's prosperous West End Avenue apartment. All of them, save one, wore impressive morning coats, a style of costuming affected by physicians consulting over a wealthy patient. The one exception was small and wrinkled, and rather shabby in his suit of gray. He, it proved, was the Eminence among eminent physiologists. His the voice of decision, the power of veto.
After a half-hour of furtive talk under a cloud of rich Havana smoke—Corrigan had opened his humidor to them—they filed out to Corrigan and permitted the shabby gray Eminence to do the talking.
“The case is inoperative, Mr. Corrigan,” he said in his sour little tone. “Vitality very low, heart-action irregular. Operation? Sorry. We can't permit a patient to die under anesthetics.”
Corrigan was sorry, too, but he shook hands stolidly at the door and tiptoed back to Hetty's room.
The nurse, who had been sitting by the bed, rose and went out, a tactful admission that Corrigan should be alone with his wife.
The sick woman, propped among the pillows, had turned her hollow eyes toward a bedside table where from silver-framed photographs smiled her twins.
Corrigan, as he took the chair beside her, had a feeling that she had changed in an hour. Her cheeks were fleshless, her lips ashen. The hair, which straggled in a thin braid across her pillow, was grayer than his, despite the fact that Hetty had just passed her fortieth year.
He was afraid she would ask what the doctors had been saying, and he was strengthening himself for a cheerful lie when she laid a skeleton hand in his great paw and said,
“Jack, I don't think I've ever told you how good you've been to me.”
“Pshaw!” was all old Jack could say; her speech surprised as well as touched him. Never before in their married life had she thanked him for his act of chivalry which had united them. “We've been a team, and that's a fact,” he blundered, trying to make his tone casual.
Her eyes were wandering a little as she said:
“I took you away from your mountains. I don't think you ever liked New York.”
“Het, old girl, what are you giving us?” He had quite regained his humorous manner; but her hand was burning hot as it lay in his big clasp. “Ask all the world.”
“I know what they say. But I've lived with you.”
Jack made no effort to reply; his voice was gone.
“You were always like a bear,” she said feverishly. “A great bear. I thought of that the first time I saw you. You were so clumsy and good-natured and strong. People called you jolly. I often wondered——”
A look of terrible earnestness came over Jack's broad face.
“Wondered what, dear?”
“How you might destroy.”
She closed her eyes. His unconscious mind, cunningly alive, turned sharply on the picture which it had held in shadow for years. The sharp tang of pine-needles was in his nostrils; they had crackled and dried underfoot, a slippery carpet to the very edge of the cliff. How like hell the cañon yawned below! A branch cracked. Dead logs and boulders rolled boisterously into the river.
“Did the doctors come?” asked Hetty, staring suddenly like one caught napping.
“Oh, yes—yes!” Had that fool nurse been talking?
“They needn't come again, Jack. I'm dying.”
“That's nonsense!” he declared almost fiercely. “You're taking a grand brace. We'll have you in Palm Beach pretty soon.”
“No.” Her eyes had grown hard; her jaw was set. She had become a woman of iron. In the contraction of her pupils he recognized the work of morphine which had been given her to allay the pain.
“No,” she insisted. “You don't need to lie to me, Jack Corrigan.” Then, softening momentarily: “I haven't wanted the girls to know. But I think you ought to send for them now.”
“I have. I wired Frances this morning to 'phone Irma at Radnor and bring her on. They're coming on the noon train. Sort of thought it might cheer you up, having them round,” he added, determined still to evade the truth he dare not face.
“I see,” she said in a rough, thin voice he hardly recognized. “I may live till they come. But you owe me something, Jack. You oughtn't to let me go without telling——”
“I haven't been ungrateful—I haven't! But you hadn't any right to keep it from me.
Jack Corrigan shuffled his great body until the chair creaked under him.
“Keep what?” he asked thickly.
“Don't lie to me. I'm dying. Tell me the truth. Jack! Why did you kill my—kill Orrin?”
His mouth fell open.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“They found his body,” she explained, with a peculiar calmness, “nearly a year later. It was at the bottom of a cañon near Tin Mountain. They said it was a landslide. I remember how you left me at Denver the week after we were married.”
Jack Corrigan was unable to meet her eyes; yet a small voice, cold and distant as a question from the tomb, was asking again,
“Why did you kill him?”
A great bear, half breaking from the trap, Corrigan rose, bulky and savage, mad with the pain.
“Yes, by God!” he growled. “If you want the truth, you shall have it. I killed him. I broke him barehanded and threw him over the side.”
The confession died on his lips as quickly as it had come. With silence came remorse and that caution which had kept him silent so many years. Hester had demanded the truth—a dying woman's right—and it had rushed from him like froth from a wounded grizzly's fangs. He saw her lying there, her jaws locked, her eyes closed. He was blaming himself for the cruelty of his hot confession when again she looked at him and asked,
“Can't you see? Haven't you any feeling in the matter—after what he did to you? Were you going to let him walk away scot-free, go strutting back to his friends and family in the East?”
“I know all that. But—” She sighed, too feeble to say any more.
Once or twice he tried to speak to her, but she had settled back into the calm which precedes death. Finally he gave it up and tiptoed out of the room, well aware of the words that would have followed that significant “but.” “I know all that, but nobody should have hurt the man I loved. I've lived with you, Jack, and been as good a wife as I knew how to be. But I have never ceased to love the father of my children, the man who should have been my husband.”
Near the telephone at the front of the apartment, he found the trained nurse waiting for him.
“I've called Dr. Christy back,” she whispered.
Corrigan only nodded.
THE arrival of the twins, shortly after that, was characteristic of their relative understanding. Frances was the first to come. She had brought Irma from Philadelphia, but the blond twin had lost her mink neck-piece somewhere in the Pennsylvania Station; after all, a neck-piece was a neck-piece, so she had delayed to find it.
Corrigan was not sorry, for this would give him an opportunity to tell Frances first.
Her cheeks had paled to ivory as she gave him her good, straight mouth to kiss and clung to him for an instant, more afraid, more pathetically afraid than he had ever seen her before.
“How bad is it, daddy?” she whispered.
“Come in here,” he said, and pass his arm about her waist to lead her into the library. He had often brought her there to read to her or scold her or give her first lessons in mechanical drawing.
To-day she stood by the window, pale and very erect as she gazed out upon the dirty snow piles of West End Avenue. Suddenly she turned.
“I can't seem to think, daddy,” she told him. “She was so well when I went away. What could have happened?”
“She hasn't been well since late fall,” he growled. “Things got worse when you left—after Christmas vacation. She wouldn't even consider an operation——”
“Operation!” broke in Hetty's daughter. “You never told me a word!”
“She wouldn't let me tell you. She fooled all of us into thinking she was getting well. Then last night there was a collapse, and this morning we called a consultation.”
“What did they say?” Only her pallor and the agonized twining of her fingers betrayed her.
“Dr. Shorn—he's the big specialist, you know—said it was hopeless.”
“Does mother know?” asked the girl.
“I didn't have to tell her. She gave up this morning. She's been a little delirious, but she knows.” He paced off the rug three times, carefully following the border, before he blurted out, “Your mother is dying!”
He took her into his arms and drew her to his knee as he had done so often when she was a crying little girl.
“I'll have to—I'll have to cry a little,” she wailed softly.
“Yes; cry, darling,” he said; then, loosing one of the bitter imps from his hidden self, he added, “There's plenty of it to do in this world.”
But an instant later she raised her face, calm with an inward serenity he had always adored in her.
“Daddy,” she whispered, “we've got this thing to do—all of us. We mustn't break. We'll work it out together, because we belong to each other—she'll want that, daddy. Oh, my dear daddy——”
He had pressed her bearlike against his great body, quivering uncouthly, when fate knocked at the library door—three summoning knocks. The trained nurse stood there, her face inscrutable, an expert in deaths.
“Would you come to Mrs. Corrigan now?” she asked, with tremendous quietude.
TOGETHER they went down the hall to the sick-room. Dr. Christy, a tall, gray, saturnine figure, leaned over the bed. A window had been opened wide, as if to release the troubled spirit.
Poor Hetty lay among her pillows, just as she had been when her husband left her to sleep; but her mouth had grown shapeless with the struggle for breath which sent her breast heaving as though the imprisoned lungs would burst. Dr. Christy, with a terse, secretive gesture, motioned the family to Hetty's side.
At that instant Irma, belated by her tremendous trifle, burst into the room.
“Mother!” she cried hysterically. “Mother darling, can't you speak to me? Don't you know me?”
The dying woman's face, preoccupied with pain of a soul in labor, lay rigid and aloof as a mask. The mother's favorite, as uncontrolled in grief as in joy, called the name again and again. She might have been shouting into the Black Gates, where even the echoes are voiceless. Frances was standing still, her eyes shining, her finger on her lips; was she listening for those unresponsive echoes?
Quite unaccountably the face on the pillow seemed to gather bloom; it was the last glow of fever dying with the body it had devoured. Hetty's eyes opened—insane eyes, staring wide with pupils like needle-points.
“Who's calling me?” she asked, her voice unnaturally strong.
“Mother dear—” Frances had taken an emaciated hand, but poor Hetty was beyond sight or hearing.
“My baby!” she babbled. “If you had seen him—your father. To leave him dead like that— And you never saw him! He was beautiful like you—like——”
Her jaw fell, and her eyes rolled up with the last torment of her crucifixion. Jack Corrigan turned away, cold with a fear that dwarfed everything else—even his pity for her.
At that instant Irma ran to the bed and threw herself, sobbing, on her knees. But the gaunt woman, propped among pillows, had neither look nor word for her favorite daughter.
“She's dead!” It was Irma's voice, torn and uncontrolled.
Jack went back to help Frances lift her sister from the floor. He did not look toward the bed, but the glance he gave the dark girl was humble and appealing. There was no response in her troubled eyes. They had the deep, still look which Hetty's had held that day when Jack had ridden back to Bending Willow.
Surely, in that momentary confidence, thrown disconnectedly from dying lips, Hetty Whipple could not have conveyed much to the girl who had lived thus far in ignorance of her origin. Yet what of the look in Frances's eyes when she walked alone out of the death-chamber, her face as blank as mountain snow? Jack Corrigan made a piteous effort to follow her, to call after her, to beseech an explanation. In stead, he stood dumb. How much had Frances guessed from her mother's words?
IT WAS five days after the gas-driven pomp of a modern automobile funeral that Corrigan completed arrangements for a trip to California. Fear was growing big within him, and with it an impulse to escape fate by running away from it. A change of scene would be good for them all, he argued through a hundred sophistries. An apartment whose atmosphere was still heavy with death was no place, he told himself, for young girls with all the effulgence of life before them.
Actually, he was tormented by a desire to be stirring, to leave certain ill memories behind him and to divert the minds of Hetty's twins from thoughts which might even now be quickening in their hearts. Five days seemed to have cured the downy Irma of her grief. She had screamed and fainted at her mother's graveside, but the following morning she had consoled herself with a dressmaker and plans for a frivolous mourning frock. What had gone on in Frances's heart, he had been quite unable to tell. The deep, still look had never left her; yet it had given him a world of comfort to have her sit on the arm of his chair, as she used to do, running her fingers down his collar or patting him possessively. Then he would look up and find that her eyes were upon him, studying, studying. An embarrassment had come between them, making it quite impossible for him to ask the question which he knew was in both of their minds.
He came home early on the afternoon of the fifth day. There was his own packing to be done, and certain drawers of his desk must be purged of every evidence of a past which had died with Hetty Whipple. He had the futile hope that the destruction of little harmless relics might clear the record forever. Surely, Jolly Jack had not grown morbid. Yet he seemed to be forever listening to catch some murmur from Hetty's dying lips.
The apartment smelled of moth-wax as he came into the wide hall; again he seemed to sniff the scent of crushed pine-needles, to hear the roaring of loose timber in the gulf below the cliff-edge. In the drawing-room beyond his study he could hear voices.
Peering in, he saw Irma and Frances, black-clad figures crouching over a yellow chest. He recognized the chest as one that had stood in Hetty's room ever since he could remember; and the sight of it open to the day, its lid yawning to vomit scraps of silk, paper, trinkets, photographs, filled him with an unreasonable nervousness and irritation.
However, he had assumed his mask of paternal indulgence as he stepped into the room and permitted Irma to cling wooingly after her filial kiss. Frances hardly looked up from the rummaging that had absorbed her.
“Daddy dear,” pleaded Irma, loving him with her greedy, childish mouth, “don't say you couldn't get the tickets!”
“I got 'em all right,” he agreed, fighting against his blind instinct to brush her aside and address himself to Frances. “We leave Monday on the Twentieth Century.”
“We'll go straight to Del Monte, won't we, daddy? At this time of year——”
“Straight to Del Monte,” he agreed, but he was gazing down into the contents of the box.
“What's all this, Fan?” he asked, forcing carelessness into his tone.
The girl was kneeling. At his question, she lifted her face, brown, innocent and very sweet. The scrap of old lace she held across her hands took on the aspect of a sacred relic.
“Some of mother's things,” she said. “She told me last fall that if anything happened——”
“There'll be plenty of time for that when we get back,” he broke in somewhat impatiently. “There's a lot of packing to be done in two days.”
“It won't take long,” she assured him, and went tranquilly on with her work of exploration.
She seemed always to have that—tranquillity. An inner reserve of it. Where Irma's flighty little ego was always seeking, never finding, flitting without direction, coquetting with facts, Frances's mind moved straight and true to its mark. Jack Corrigan, a helpless tower of a man, stood over her and wished pitifully to give his confidence for hers. She would understand, and, understanding, help.
He stood there just an instant, pulling his mind together as one would the mouth of a sack, writhing with a load of mischievous secrets. Then he turned and stalked into his library.
NO SATIRIST, whether bitter or kindly, could have called him “Jolly Jack” as he threw his bearlike body into a swivel chair and unrolled the top of his old-fashioned desk. He, too, had relics to overhaul and destroy, that they might pass into nothingness, like the body of poor Hetty Whipple. It took some searching among the bright brethren of his key-ring before he had selected the one he wished. It had been five years since he had used it.
There was little enough of importance to be found in that drawer, once it was open. Several bundles of business papers, mostly pertaining to properties he had made over to Hetty—these had been in safe-deposit for a long time, and Jack had taken them home one day to look them over. There were two scrawled work-sheets from income-tax reports which Corrigan had filled out for Hetty. Out of the jumble fell a faded satin rosebud—a silly millinery thing. How came it there? Oh, yes; it had been one of many stitched to Hetty's first imported gown. Jack had treasured it bashfully.
He found other things among the papers, things that looked up at him like the faces of dead children, or things that lurked and stung.
A cheap and frivolous photograph of the Coney Island variety fell with a brittle clatter on the blotter before him. What a jubilant honeymoon token! Hetty and Jack had posed for this in Denver the week of their marriage. Jolly Jack had been himself that day—or had managed to appear so. The camera-man had seated him on a wooden donkey, a fuzzy silk hat over one eye. Clinging to his broad belt was Hetty, smiling girlishly out of the picture.
How they had frolicked on the brink of tragedy! The night after that picture was taken, Corrigan had left her in an obscure boarding-house to steal away into the mountains. He was not to be gone for long, he had taken pains to inform the little bride, left quite alone and friendless during his week of absence.
Jack Corrigan sat pawing over the papers in the drawer. It was hard to believe that Hetty was gone. They had wiped out so many scores; he had grown to love her, never losing consciousness of a certain grudging quality in Hetty's yielding to him. She made him remember the man whose name was never spoken; Hester had given her heart to a scoundrel, and Jolly Jack had made the best of a bad situation. Plagborn seemed to be always standing in the background, a conquering ghost. What unseen will had forced Hetty, already at the Black Gate, to that half-betraying speech? Could the man, her betrayer, be waiting beyond the shadows, still powerful with the claims he always had upon her?
Corrigan growled, and his thick hand was like the fore paw of a grizzly as it scratched among the papers. A battered letter, already yellowing with age, came up under his savage pawing. He snatched out at it and held it up to his quick, small eyes. No need to read it again.
He crumpled the letter, then tore it into bits. Thus the he bear wreaks vengeance on the garment of a tormenter who has evaded him. He was rummaging again in the memorial pile when the voice of Frances, low and distinct, floated in from the big room beyond.
“Irma!” The call was significant, insistent.
Through the half-open door he could see a picture. Two graceful, black-clad figures crouching among varicolored scraps which poured like lava out of the camphor-wood box. Kneeling there on the golden-brown carpet, their gestures seemed to characterize them, accentuate their difference. Irma had spread a strip of yellow silk across her slim forearm and contemplated the effect, her head a little to one side. Frances had raised a small unmounted photograph between her palms.
“Irma!” she repeated, and her voice clamored for attention.
Irma turned her vain little head, eyebrows slightly raised. Between her fingertips Frances held out the unmounted photograph to pass it across the yellow box.
“My goodness!” exclaimed Irma, as soon as she had taken the print and her round blue eyes were upon it. “Why, that's mother!”
CORRIGAN had now forgotten the problems of his desk. His ears were straining toward the dialogue in the next room.
“Doesn't she look sweet and young?” resumed Irma, after a pause. “What is that funny little building?”
“It must be her schoolhouse,” explained Frances's deeper tone.
“But who's that beside her? He's very nice-looking.”
Jack Corrigan's heart stood still while Frances, rising, went round the box to peer over her sister's shoulder.
“He's handsome,” she agreed.
“I didn't know they dressed so well in the mining camps. Mother seems to be very fond of him.”
Frances, her eyes temporarily diverted, wass gazing down into another pile of scraps. Finally she looked up and held out her hand for the photograph.
“Let me see.”
She studied the picture carefully for a long time, and it was Irma who broke the silence.
“I wonder why she kept it so long?” She had lowered her voice, but her whisper was audible to the man in the next room.
“I wonder,” said Frances carelessly.
She crouched—absorbed in her thoughts, the brittle snap-shots crackling in her hand. But Irma was again busily plundering the camphor-wood box.
“How per-fectly lovely!” she cried, and rose to hold one of Hetty's old tea-gowns against her breast.
“It's simply falling to pieces,” she rippled on. “But look at the real lace! I don't think mother would mind—do you?”
“I don't know,” said Frances coldly.
Irma rolled the garment under her arm and left the room, probably in search of scissors. An instant later, Frances came into the library. Corrigan braced himself in his swivel chair and made a show of a fatherly smile. He motioned her toward him, but Frances took an armchair a few feet away.
Her dark eyes looked too large for her little face as she sat there, and she seemed so worried and helpless—never before had he thought of her as helpless. The air was electric with questions. In the embarrassing moment before either spoke, Corrigan had about made up his mind to tell Fanny everything. She would understand.
“Daddy,” she began, “I was wondering—about this picture.” She leaned over and laid the unmounted photograph on his desk. He had never seen it before; it took but a glimpse for him to recognize Plagborn's graceful, self-assured figure beside Hetty Whipple. “Hetty and Orrin, May 11, 1902,” scrawled across its face, made it easier to identify.
“Oh, yes,” said Corrigan vacantly, staring down into the smiling faces.
“There's something about mother there—she seems so young.” The girl's eyes were bright with sudden tears. “Who was Orrin?”
“Just one of the fellows round the camp,” he replied vaguely.
“I know.” She was persistent. “But what was he?”
“A lover of life, my dear.”
“Just what do you mean by that?” she asked.
“Nothing much. Only, your mother was very popular—naturally she would be. The younger crowd at Bending Willow took a lot of pictures.”
“Do you know, daddy,” confessed his daughter by courtesy, “I never thought of mother as a girl—like that. She couldn't have been much older than I am now.” Jack Corrigan sat, an inarticulate lump. “Haven't you any pictures taken about that time?” she asked. He wondered what prompted the question. He thought of the undignified tintype taken of the newly wed Corrigans in Denver. He preferred her not to see that.
“Oh, shucks!” he objected. “I was never young like those people. At Bending Willow they called me the 'dancing bear.' I never went in much for picture-galleries.”
Frances rose and plucked the photograph from his desk. By her manner, by the whole tone of her interview, he realized that she had come to his library to say more important things. A thin curtain had fallen between them, half revealing the truth of Hetty's dying words.
“Daddy,” Frances asked, “I wonder if you'd mind my keeping this picture?”
“Why not?” His tone was impatient, almost rude. He was struggling with an impulse to call her back and tell her everything as she left him and went down the hall toward her bedroom.
Corrigan rose and walked heavily into the drawing-room to gaze upon Hetty's treasures, scattered across the rug around the camphor-wood box. A bitter memory of his married life came to him as he gazed down upon the significant trifles. He had taken Hester on an impulse, to save her from a frightful situation. How had she repaid him? She had kept Plagborn's picture in her treasure-chest, just as she had cherished his ideal in her heart. At that instant. Jack had finally made up his mind to tell everything to Frances—Irma, somehow, didn't count.
THE Corrigans were to leave for California by the Twentieth Century Limited on the afternoon of Friday. In those days of preparation Frances had worked feverishly, setting the house in order, while Irma had gadded among her friends, enjoying herself in an elaborate series of good-bys. Frances had gone about like one possessed by a demon—an industrious demon—prodding her always on to some new task that would mean forgetfulness. Those were bad days for Jolly Jack Corrigan, who could not bear to meet the look in her eyes. Her face had grown stern and a little haggard.
He had intimations of her sleepless nights—Jack was resting none too well. At three o'clock on Friday morning, he peered into the hall and saw lights blazing under her door. Poor child! He sympathized with her uncertainty. He himself was dangling, all astruggle, like some poor wretch slowly hanged. The light under her door attracted him, filled him with an impulse to knock, to throw himself at his knees at her feet and implore her forgiveness—for what? For having avenged himself on the man who would have destroyed her mother?
Corrigan tiptoed down the hall and stood a long time listening at her door. Many times he raised his knuckles to knock, but courage failed him. He went back to his room and paced the floor until daylight. By then, he had made up his mind strongly, irrevocably. He would tell Frances at the first opportunity. She knew too much to be put off forever, and it wasn't fair to deceive her like this. Fatherhood, after all, is merely a biological accident—thus he argued. It's the protection and the shelter and the mutual affection between youth and age that make parenthood genuine. What was Plagborn to Hetty's daughters? Less than nothing. Jack had been the real father—in the ethical sense.
It would be easy to make Frances understand, he decided in that early-morning watch. Ever since babyhood she had been the one to run to him with her troubles. He had answered all her questions; she had relied on him in everything. Calm, sweet, reasoning Frances would understand, once she knew how unworthy Plagborn had been to be called “father.” The thought of her origin might shock her at first, but he realized that modern women, scientifically trained, think tolerantly of the things which would have stunned the pallid Victorians.
Jack dressed himself, strong, with the resolve that he would talk with her right after breakfast, when the trunks were out of the way and they could have a few vacant hours before lunch and train-time. He wanted his girl—he never thought of Irma that way—to start her new life with no haunting mysteries to dog her steps. She wanted the truth—she had hinted at it several times since her mother's death. He realized the danger to himself, but held it lightly.
He never felt the comfort of her and the need of her more than he did that morning when the three sat down to their last breakfast in the West End Avenue apartment. Frances's eyes were heavy, but Jolly Jack pretended not to notice them. He gabbled breezily on, awaiting the confessional hour. After his second cup of coffee, he was hiding behind his paper, rehearsing his speech, when the telephone-bell rang and a subordinate from the New York office held him for a quarter of an hour with reports on unfinished business.
WHEN he had done with this, he was annoyed to find that Frances had gone down to the storeroom to superintend the putting-away of family boxes. Jack Corrigan retired to his library to chafe and smoke and growl over badly printed mineral reports. Nothing so unnerves the criminal as a stay of execution. It was nearing noon when Frances at last came to him; she was carefully dressed for the street.
“Oh, going somewhere?” he began clumsily. “I thought maybe we could talk a little.”
He threw away his dead cigar and studied her as she took a chair beside him. He wanted to take her on his knee and comfort her, as he had always done in minor crises.
“I came to talk, da—” Her hesitation on the beloved nickname filled Corrigan with a sudden cold fear. He recalled her joking threat of a few years back. If he wasn't her father, he'd become just an old gentleman round the house. Instead of her daddy, he'd be nothing more to her than Mr. Corrigan—any Mr. Corrigan.
“What was it you wanted to say, Fan?” asked old Jack, swallowing hard.
“I've been thinking all the time about what mother said when she was—going.” Frances bit her lip and her trembling chin proclaimed the struggle, but she went calmly on. “I know she was delirious, and people aren't responsible when they're that way——”
“She was responsible,” broke in Jack gruffly. A voice behind him seemed to be urging: “Tell her now! Tell her now!” But he was silent.
“Why shouldn't we have been told?” she asked impetuously. “Why should we have been raised like this, never knowing the truth about anything? Hadn't we a right to know about our father?”
“Fan, I'm your father,” Corrigan protested huskily.
“No,” she persisted.
“But because you misunderstood something your mother said—”
“I thought I'd misunderstood,” she broke in. “I prayed that I had. But the minute I saw that picture, I knew. That's our father—Irma's and mine.” A sudden shame overcame him, and he sat like a lump, a fist under his double chin. “Isn't it true, what I say?” Her question pierced the silence like a needle.
Corrigan cleared his throat.
“Yes,” he said.
“Then why were we never told?” resumed the prosecution.
“Your mother thought it would be better as it was.”
“Why? There wasn't—there wasn't any disgrace?”
Corrigan shook his head and braced himself for a merciful falsehood.
“No, my dear; nothing could have been more honorable. But your mother was peculiar about some things. She preferred you shouldn't know.”
“He couldn't have been dead long when you married——”
“How do you know he's dead?” broke in Corrigan, surprised out of his caution by the girl's amazing knowledge.
“His body was found under a cliff in the summer of 1903.”
Corrigan's jaw dropped; his eyes protruded from their fleshy sockets. It was as though the corpse of Plagborn, smeared with blood, newly broken against the rocks, had risen to accuse him.
“It was in a wild part of Colorado, and it had been lying there nearly a year before the miners picked it up,” went on the girl's rapid tones. “They said it was an accident. He been warned not to go that way, because there were landslides in the mountains.”
“Who told you that?” he asked finally, out of an arctic silence.
Frances rose and swayed over to the bookshelves. At a low corner, under the shadow of a davenport, was a row of thick volumes with “Mineral Reports” stamped in gilt on their backs. Corrigan had brought them from Colorado and had seldom opened them. She chose the volume next to the end, and when she had raised its cover, a shred of newspaper fluttered to the floor.
With the agility of a mountain-beast, Corrigan fell upon the accursed scrap. He knew it by heart. He had dropped it in that book eighteen years before, intending to destroy it as soon as Hetty's back was turned. And there it had lain all these years to bide its time and tell tales:
PLAGBORN'S BODY FOUND.
HE GLANCED stupidly at the well-known head-lines and allowed his eyes to travel down the column whose details were no news to him. He was numbly grateful to find that the report had been torn away at the end so that there was no further biographical data than, “Orrin W. Plagborn, who comes of a prominent Chicago family, was married in——”
“I found it there last summer,” said Frances, standing beside him, unrelenting as an executioner. “Mother and I had come to town to do some shopping.”
“Did she see it?” asked Corrigan, his paws now fast in the cruel teeth of the trap.
“I showed it to her—I don't know why. She wouldn't tell me anything, but it seem a dreadful thing for her—I couldn't understand why. She went to her room and was dreadfully upset. I wonder if that was the beginning——”
“I think so,” he agreed, but it was with the voice of a man already breaking into old age. “You've found everything, Frances,” he added pitifully.
“No.” She resumed her seat, and it was hard to realize that this logical being, ruthless and impersonal as she tore the story from him, was the same girl—“daddy's girl,” he had called her an hour ago. “No,” she insisted; “there are some other things I've got to know. Why did you want to keep the news of—of my father's death from mother?”
“Why?” Corrigan tried to swallow. “Well, if I had told her at the time of his death——”
He could have bitten out his tongue. What had he said? But Frances was too quick for him.
“At the time of his death? Then you knew of his death at the time. His body wasn't found until a year later.”
“Don't look at me like that, Fan!” he implored.
“You were there!” she whispered, bending forward, her eyes terrible. “You knew he was dead, because you were there!”
The great bear, half breaking from the trap, rose to his full height, mad with the pain.
“Yes, by God!” he thundered. “If you want the truth, you shall have it. I killed him. I killed him with my bare hands.”
Frances had covered her face. Corrigan stood above her for an instant, his huge body trembling all over. His little Fan, his favorite, his adored, had covered her face to blot him out, a monster.
“Fanny dearest”—he was blubbering like a schoolboy—“it wasn't right for you to get it all twisted in your mind like this. A few facts are worse than a pack of lies. Please give me a chance to tell you——”
He had taken her by the wrist, but she struggled away, panic-stricken.
“Don't! Please don't!” she pleaded. “You killed him. Ah, let me go away!”
“If you had known the circumstances—” That was another thing he shouldn't have said.
“Oh! There were circumstances?”
She was looking at him again, a command in her inexorable eyes. What could he say now? In his own defense could he brand the foreheads of Hester's children?
“Men go wild over property up there,” he said roughly. “Money and liquor.”
She had arisen stiffly and was holding out her hand.
“There's only one thing I'll ask of you now, da—Mr. Corrigan. Would you let me have that picture of my father and mother?”
His fingers were unsteady as he picked up the unmounted photograph and handed it over to her.
“You're not going, Fanny?” he begged humbly, like the old man he had become.
“Yes,” said she unbendingly. “Of course Irma and I can't stay here any longer.”
“I've got so used to you, Fanny,” he told her, wringing his big hands. “I can't see you away from me long.”
“That's very good of you,” replied the level tones. “But after this, of course we couldn't stay here—could we? Don't think I don't appreciate what you've done.”
“But where will you go? What will you do?”
“Back to college. I'll make my own way. Other girls have done it.”
She turned toward the door, the limp photograph waving in her hand. For an instant she hesitated, and a blind hope told him that she would relent. Her eyes softened toward him just for an instant; then she hurried out.
“Fanny!” he cried after her, beating his breast.
There was no response. He threw himself down on the davenport and wound his arms round his head.
Distantly, out of his stupor, he had heard voices in consultation. There had been hurrying feet, then the sound of a door closed, the bang of finality.
Like a fallen colossus he lay there, dreaming stony dreams. In his youth he had loved a woman, and she had repaid him with ashes. Then, in middle age, he had devoted his years to a generous deed. He had not loved Hetty as men should love. But she had given him children—Plagborn's children. Had a father ever worshiped more deeply than Jack Corrigan worshiped the dark twin who but now had turned to a stranger before his eyes?
Œdipus, thou wert a happy king, being blind!
A broken colossus, Jack Corrigan lay until twilight stole into the room. All sensation had left him. He had a feeling that he would die there, his soul to follow poor Hetty's. Would she, too, turn away from him?
Then there came light footsteps on the rug. He was half roused by warm breath against his cheek and two slim arms twining about his shoulders. His heart revived an instant as he reached out and strained the gentle body against his breast. Frances had relented and come back to him!
“Fan,” he whispered, “I knew you'd understand! My girl! Daddy's girl.”
“This is Irma,” said a sharp voice in his ear. An electric light clicked on.
He turned on his cushions and saw the yellow curls, the blue eyes so coaxing and so shallow.
“Daddy,” she whimpered, “Frances shouldn't have done that. I won't go with her. I think she's been horrid. I don't want to leave you, daddy!”
For the first time. Jack Corrigan drew her to him with a fierce paternal love. It was the instinctive embrace of a lonely animal, hungry for its kind. He held her away from him for an instant, trying to read into that vivacious, pleasure-loving face something more than a desire to be sheltered and fed and clothed luxuriously.
“I'm glad you want to stay,” he said, and, as he stroked her hand, he studied its dimpled knuckles and oval nails—a hand that loved to lie on a velvet cushion and have dainties dropped into it.
“You're the only one, daddy,” she coaxed, snuggling again, “the only daddy I've ever known.”
Thus easily did she renounce her blood. And as she was speaking the words, he had a feeling that never before in all her careless life had she looked so much like Plagborn.