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XXVEdit

Only three hours had passed since Ethel had startled Ernest from his sombre reveries, but within this brief space their love had matured as if each hour had been a year. The pallor had vanished from his cheeks and the restiveness from his eyes. The intoxication of her presence had rekindled the light of his countenance and given him strength to combat the mighty forces embodied in Reginald Clarke. The child in him had made room for the man. He would not hear of surrendering without a struggle, and Ethel felt sure she might leave his fate in his own hand. Love had lent him a coat of mail. He was warned, and would not succumb. Still she made one more attempt to persuade him to leave the house at once with her.

“I must go now,” she said. “Will you not come with me, after all? I am so afraid to think of you still here.”

“No, dear,” he replied. “I shall not desert my post. I must solve the riddle of this man's life; and if, indeed, he is the thing he seems to be, I shall attempt to wrest from him what he has stolen from me. I speak of my unwritten novel.”

“Do not attempt to oppose him openly. You cannot resist him.”

“Be assured that I shall be on my guard. I have in the last few hours lived through so much that makes life worth living, that I would not wantonly expose myself to any danger. Still, I cannot go without certainty—cannot, if there is some truth in our fears, leave the best of me behind.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“My play—I am sure now that it is mine— I cannot take from him; that is irretrievably lost. He has read it to his circle and prepared for its publication. And, no matter how firmly convinced you or I may be of his strange power, no one would believe our testimony. They would pronounce us mad. Perhaps we are mad!”

“No; we are not mad; but it is mad for you to stay here,” she asserted.

“I shall not stay here one minute longer than is absolutely essential. Within a week I shall have conclusive proof of his guilt or innocence.”

“How will you go about it?”

“His writing table—”

“Yes, perhaps I can discover some note, some indication, some proof “

“It's a dangerous game.”

“I have everything to gain.”

“I wish I could stay here with you,” she said. “Have you no friend, no one whom you could trust in this delicate matter?”

“Why, yes—Jack.”

A shadow passed over her face. “Do you know,” she said, “I have a feeling that you care more for him than for me “Nonsense,” he said, “he is my friend, you, you—immeasurably more.”

“Are you still as intimate with him as when I first met you?”

“Not quite; of late a troubling something, like a thin veil, seems to have passed between us. But he will come when I call him. He will not fail me in my hour of need.”

“When can he be here?”

“In two or three days.”

“Meanwhile be very careful. Above all, lock your door at night.”

“I will not only lock, but barricade it. I shall try with all my power to elucidate this mystery without, however, exposing myself to needless risks.”

“I will go, then. Kiss me good-bye.”

“May I not take you to the car?”

“You had better not.”

At the door she turned back once more. “Write me every day, or call me up on the telephone.” He straightened himself, as if to convince her of his strength. Yet when at last the door had closed behind her, his courage forsook him for a moment. And, if he had not been ashamed to appear a weakling before the woman he loved, who knows if any power on earth could have kept him in that house where from every corner a secret seemed to lurk!

There was a misgiving, too, in the woman's heart as she left the boy behind,—a prey to the occult power that, seeking expression in multiple activities, has made and unmade emperors, prophets and poets.

As she stepped into a street car she saw from afar, as in a vision, the face of Reginald Clarke. It seemed very white and hungry. There was no human kindness in it—only a threat and a sneer.