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CHAPTER XVI


THE SHADOW OF A GIRL


CERTAIN things about the dinner at the Dallas house will always be obscure to me. Dallas was something in the Fish Commission, and I remember his reeling off fish eggs in billions while we ate our caviar. He had some particular stunt he had been urging the government to for years—something about forbidding the establishment of mills and factories on river-banks—it seems they kill the fish, either the smoke, or the noise, or something they pour into the water.

Mrs. Dallas was there, I think. Of course, I suppose she must have been; and there was a woman in yellow: I took her in to dinner, and I remember she loosened my clams for me so I could get them. But the only real person at the table was a girl across in white, a sublimated young woman who was as brilliant as I was stupid, who never by any chance looked directly at me, and who appeared and disappeared across the candles and orchids in a sort of halo of radiance.

When the dinner had progressed from salmon to roast, and the conversation had done the same thing—from fish to scandal—the yellow gown turned to me.

"We have been awfully good, haven't we, Mr. Blakeley?" she asked. "Although I am crazy to hear, I have not said 'wreck' once. I'm sure you must feel like the survivor of Waterloo, or some thing of the sort."

"If you want me to tell you about the wreck," I said, glancing across the table, "I'm sorry to be disappointing, but I don't remember anything."

"You are fortunate to be able to forget it." It was the first word Miss West had spoken directly to me, and it went to my head.

"There are some things I have not forgotten," I said, over the candles. "I recall coming to myself some time after, and that a girl, a beautiful girl—"

"Ah!" said the lady in yellow, leaning forward breathlessly. Miss West was staring at me coldly, but, once started, I had to stumble on.

"That a girl was trying to rouse me, and that she told me I had been on fire twice already." A shudder went around the table.

"But surely that isn't the end of the story," Mrs. Dallas put in aggrievedly. "Why, that's the most tantalizing thing I ever heard."

"I'm afraid that's all," I said. "She went her way and I went mine. If she recalls me at all, she probably thinks of me as a weak-kneed individual who faints like a woman when everything is over."

"What did I tell you?" Mrs. Dallas asserted triumphantly. "He fainted, did you hear? when everything was over! He hasn't begun to tell it."

I would have given a lot by that time if I had not mentioned the girl. But McKnight took it up there and carried it on.

"Blakeley is a regular geyser," he said. "He never spouts until he reaches the boiling point. And by that same token, although he hasn't said much about the Lady of the Wreck, I think he is crazy about her. In fact, I am sure of it. He thinks he has locked his secret in the caves of his soul, but I call you to witness that he has it nailed to his face. Look at him!"

I squirmed miserably and tried to avoid the startled eyes of the girl across the table. I wanted to choke McKnight and murder the rest of the party.

"It isn't fair," I said as coolly as I could. "I have my fingers crossed; you are five against one."

"And to think that there was a murder on that very train," broke in the lady in yellow. "It was a perfect crescendo of horrors, wasn't it? And what became of the murdered man, Mr. Blakeley?"

McKnight had the sense to jump into the conversation and save my reply.

"They say good Pittsburgers go to Atlantic City when they die," he said. "So—we are reasonably certain the gentleman did not go to the seashore."

The meal was over at last, and once in the drawing-room it was clear we hung heavy on the hostess' hands. "It is so hard to get people for bridge in September," she wailed. "There is absolutely nobody in town. Six is a dreadful number."

"It's a good poker number," her husband suggested.

The matter settled itself, however. I was hopeless, save as a dummy; Miss West said it was too hot for cards, and went out on a balcony that overlooked the Mall. With obvious relief Mrs. Dallas had the card-table brought, and—I was face to face with the minute I had dreaded and hoped for for a week.

Now it had come, it was more difficult than I had anticipated. I do not know if there was a moon, but there was the urban substitute for it—the arc light. It threw the shadow of the balcony railing in long black bars against her white gown, and as it swung sometimes her face was in the light. I drew a chair close so that I could watch her.

"Do you know," I said, when she made no effort at speech, "that you are a much more formidable person to-night, in that gown, than you were the last time I saw you?"

The light swung on her face; she was smiling faintly.

"The hat with the green ribbons!" she said. "I must take it back; I had almost forgotten."

"I have not forgotten—anything." I pulled myself up short. This was hardly loyalty to Richey. His voice came through the window just then, and perhaps I was wrong, but I thought she raised her head to listen.

"Look at this hand," he was saying. "Regular pianola: you could play it with your feet."

"He's a dear, isn't he?" Alison said unexpectedly. "No matter how depressed and downhearted I am, I always cheer up when I see Richey."

"He's more than that," I returned warmly. He is the most honorable fellow I know. If he wasn't so much that way, he would have a career before him. He wanted to put on the doors of our offices, Blakeley and McKnight, P. B. H., which is Poor But Honest."

From my comparative poverty to the wealth of the girl beside me was a single mental leap. From that wealth to the grandfather who was responsible for it was another.

"I wonder if you know that I had been to Pittsburg to see your grandfather when I met you?" I said.

"You!" She was surprised.

"Yes. And you remember the alligator bag that I told you was exchanged for the one you cut off my arm?" She nodded expectantly. "Well, in that valise were the forged Andy Bronson notes, and Mr. Gilmore's deposition that they were forged."

She was on her feet in an instant. "In that bag!" she cried. "Oh, why didn't you tell me that before? Oh, it's so ridiculous, so—so hopeless. Why, I could—"

She stopped suddenly and sat down again. "I do not know that I am sorry, after all," she said after a pause. "Mr. Bronson was a friend of my father's. I—I suppose it was a bad thing for you, losing the papers?"

"Well, it was not a good thing," I conceded. "While we are on the subject of losing things, do you remember—do you know that I still have your gold purse?"

She did not reply at once. The shadow of a column was over her face, but I guessed that she was staring at me.

"You have it!" She almost whispered.

"I picked it up in the street car," I said, with a cheerfulness I did not feel. "It looks like a very opulent little purse."

Why didn't she speak about the necklace? For just a careless word to make me sane again!

"You!" she repeated, horror-stricken. And then I produced the purse and held it out on my palm.

"I should have sent it to you before, I suppose, but, as you know, I have been laid up since the wreck."

We both saw McKnight at the same moment. He had pulled the curtains aside and was standing looking out at us. The tableau of give and take was unmistakable; the gold purse, her outstretched hand, my own attitude. It was over in a second; then he came out and lounged on the balcony railing.

"They're mad at me in there," he said airily, "so I came out. I suppose the reason they call it bridge is because so many people get cross over it."

The heat broke up the card group soon after, and they all came out for the night breeze. I had no more words alone with Alison.

I went back to the Incubator for the night. We said almost nothing on the way home; there was a constraint between us for the first time that I could remember. It was too early for bed, and so we smoked in the living-room and tried to talk of trivial things. After a time even those failed, and we sat silent. It was McKnight who finally broached the subject.

"And so she wasn't at Seal Harbor at all."

"No."

"Do you know where she was, Lollie?"

"Somewhere near Cresson."

"And that was the purse—her purse—with the broken necklace in it?"

"Yes, it was. You understand, don't you, Rich, that, having given her my word, I couldn't tell you?"

"I understand a lot of things," he said, without bitterness.

We sat for some time and smoked. Then Richey got up and stretched himself. "I'm off to bed, old man," he said. "Need any help with that game arm of yours?"

"No, thanks," I returned.

I heard him go into his room and lock the door. It was a bad hour for me. The first shadow between us, and the shadow of a girl at that.