The Tree of Heaven (collection)/The Ghost of Chance
THE GHOST OF CHANCE
As young Leeds entered the imposing bronze and marble portico of the Algonquin Trust Building, where he had a studio on the top floor, the elevator boy handed him a telegram and he opened it with instinctive foreboding of trouble. Meanwhile, the Ghost of Chance, which had followed him into the building, looked over his shoulder at the telegram.
There was evidently trouble enough in it; he had turned rather white as he stood there, eyes riveted on the yellow paper. Minute after minute sped; the elevators whizzed up and down in their gilded cages; people passed and repassed; the ornamental marble pavement of the rotunda echoed the clatter of footsteps. Several people he knew nodded to him as they entered or left the elevators: an architect domiciled on the top floor in the east wing, McManus, of the Belden Building and Construction Company; young Farren, private Secretary to De Peyster Thorne, president of the great Algonquin Trust Company, and director of about everything worth directing in the five boroughs.
"Mr. Farren!" called out Leeds; and, as that suave man checked his speed, wheeled, and came back, "Mr. Farren, could I see Mr. Thorne for half a second?"
Farren's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "If it's a favor you want to ask, don't ask it now——"
"It is, and I've got to——"
"Better not; he's in a devilish humor; he'd foreclose on his own grandmother to-day."
"But I can't wait! I'll use your telephone while you're taking my card."
Farren shrugged, turned, and led the way across the rotunda, ushered Leeds into the outer office, and took his card. Leeds went to a desk and used the telephone vigorously until Farren reappeared, nodding; and Leeds walked into the president's private room. De Peyster Thorne, handsome, rather too elaborately groomed, and ruddier of face and neck than usual, looked up to return the young man's greeting with an expressionless word and nod. He did not see the Ghost of Chance standing at Leeds's elbow.
"I'm awfully sorry," said Leeds, "but I don't see how I can finish the key panel on time, Mr. Thorne."
"Why not?" said Thorne, a darker flush mounting his heavy face and neck.
"I've a telegram this moment from my model; she's ill. I telephoned for another, but there's scarcely a chance I can get one I want. Something went wrong with the colors yesterday and I scraped out all I had done, expecting to finish to-day with a drier, dry to-morrow, and have Mr. McManus set the key panel in the ballroom Thursday morning. Now, I've probably got to spend to-day chasing up a red-haired model; and if I do, I cannot finish by Thursday. Couldn't you give me one day more?"
"Mr. Leeds," said Thorne, biting off his words unpleasantly, "a contract is a contract. Can you fulfill yours?"
"I've told you," began Leeds, astonished—for never before had Thorne looked or spoken in that way—"I told you that my model——"
"Can you keep your contract?" repeated Thorne sharply.
"There's a ghost of a chance if I can get a proper model," replied Leeds, keeping his temper.
"Then you'd better take that ghost of a chance, Mr. Leeds. On reflection it will occur to you that my housewarming can scarcely be postponed to suit your rather erratic convenience. If the key panel is not in place, the room will be as attractive as a man in evening clothes without a collar. I'd rather tear out the entire frieze, and call the contract void! and I'll do it, too, if the contract is not fulfilled."
"Is that the language you employ in all your commercial transactions? " asked Leeds without a trace of the passion that clutched at him.
"It is. An artist is as amenable to the commercial code of responsibility as any man I deal with—I don't care a damn who he is or how he likes it. … Is there anything more I can do for you, Mr. Leeds?"
"No," said Leeds thoughtfully, "unless you choose to take a kindergarten course in the elements of decency."
Leaving the door ajar as he went out, and far too amazed and furious to notice Mr. Farren, the amused secretary, he crossed the corridor, followed by the Ghost of Chance, entered an elevator, and shot up to the top floor. Black rage and astonishment still possessed him when he met McManus in the hall, and he would have passed on with a nod and a scowl had that genial Irishman permitted.
"Phwat the divil's up now, Misther Leeds?" inquired the big contractor and builder. "I'll lay twinty to wan ye've joost come from Thorne."
Leeds laid his hand on the door knob of his studio.
"I have; I—I'm not in very good humor, Mr. McManus—" He jerked open the door and started to enter.
"Hould on!—don't be runnin' away. Sure haven't I come from him meself—an' kept me temper, too, Irish that I am! Phwat's wrong betchune you an' Misther Thorne an' the hydrant?"
"Nothing much; my model is ill and I can't promise to give you that key panel to set. Thorne said—one or two things—oh, I can't talk about it; he said one or two things——"
"Bedad, thin, he said a dozen things to me; an' me as cool as a Waldorf julep, an' he dammin' the gildin' whin I asked f'r the sivinth installment due this day. 'It's an expert I'll have f'r to examine it,' sez he. 'Projooce the wad,' sez I, 'an' afther that I'll talk talks to anny expert ye name. An' he had to."
Leeds's heart turned heavy. "I don't know what Thorne means to do," he said. "I'm not much on contracts; I've done my best. I suppose he will rip it out if he wants to. If he does, and if he cancels the contract, it will about ruin me. I never had but four other commissions; it cost me more to execute them than I was paid."
The big Irishman studied the younger man with keen, kindly eyes. He knew what Leeds's frieze really was—a piece of work that for sheer inspired beauty had not its equal in modern mural art. He knew—even his artisans knew. And he knew, also, that in this fifth essay, a young man, of whom the public had already heard, was stepping half unconsciously into the highest place in the Western world of art. All this McManus was shrewdly aware of, and he was aware, too, that Leeds was more or less conscious of it, and that Thorne was utterly unconscious that, in his new house, the golden ballroom already contained the mural masterpiece of the twentieth century—an exquisite, gay riot of color and design, so lovely, so fresh, that, concealed under the miracle of its simplicity, the marvelous technical perfections of color, drawing, and composition were almost unnoticed in the blinding brilliancy of the ensemble.
"Did that red-necked madman say he'd rip it out?" inquired McManus, his fiery blue eyes aglitter.
"That's what he said. I don't know whether the work is good or bad; I'm two years stale on it. I could paint a better one now. But if he holds me to the letter of the contract and throws back two years' work on my hands, what can I do? I—I never imagined he was that sort of a man; I knew he didn't care much for painting—his architects got him to give me the work—my first commission that promised any profit——"
Something tightened in his throat, and he turned his head sharply to the window of the corridor.
"Arrah, thin," said McManus hastily, "don't be frettin'. G'wan, now, an paint like the divil. Give him anny ould thing f'r to ploog the key. Sure, 'tis his fri'nds will tell him fasht enough the bargain he's got in a frieze—a frieze, begob! that no man twixt the two poles can paint like you!—an' that's the truth, Misther Leeds, though ye don't know it, bein' modestlike an' misthrustin' av the powers God sinds ye. Ploog him up with a key panel—anny ould daub, I tell ye!—f'r to clinch the contract come pay-day! An' I'll set it accordin' to conthract Thursday comin'; an' afther he's opened his big gilt house to the millionaires he consorts with, an afther the bunch has christened their muddy wits with the j'yful juice, go to him quietlike, yer foot in yer hand an' the tongue in the cheek o' ye, an' say modestlike: 'Wisha, sorr, me mastherpiece is not quite to me likin'; an I'm thinkin' to add a few millions to its value wid a stroke av a badger brush.'"
The big Irishman laughed heartily and laid an enormous paw on Leeds's shoulder—a gesture so kindly that the familiarity seemed without offense.
"Phwat does the like o' youse care for Mr. Thorne an' his big red neck an' the pants o' him wid the creases, an' his collar buttoned by his valley? F'r all his scarf pin an' his shiny shoes an' his Thrust Company an' his millions, I seen a bit of a lass give him the frozen face an hour ago."
Leeds looked up curiously.
"Arrah, thin, that's what crazed him. I was there in his office discoorsin' on conthracts, pwhen the dure opened an' a young lady sthepped in—not seein' me pwhere I sat behind the dure.
"'Naida!' sez he, joompin up, the Burrgundy flush on the face an' neck av him.
"'I came to tell you that I can't do it,' sez she, her purty face like a rose in blush. 'I'm sorry,' she sez, 'but I thought you ought to be told, an' I drove downtown in a hurry,' sez she, 'f'r to tell you,' she sez, 'that I was not in me right mind when you asked me to marry you,' sez she. 'So I'm sorry—I'm so sorry,' she sez, 'an' good-by!' an wid that the breath stopped in her an she gulped, scairtlike.
"'Phwat!' sez he, bitin' the worrud in two halves. An' she gulped an shook her head.
"Wid that he began in a wild way, clane forgettin' me in the corner, me hat on me two knees; an' the young lady was a bit wild, too, bein' very young an' excited; an' there they had it like John Drew an' his leadin' lady—quietlike an' soft-spoken, but turrible as a dress-shirt drama, till she said: 'No! No! No!' wid a little sob, an' out o' the dure an' off, he afther her. Sorra the sight av her he got, with Farren hunting her, an' himself ridin' up an down in the cages when the porther tould him she'd dodged an' gone up to the top floor."
"So that was why he was so ugly," said Leeds curiously.
"It was. He was smooth enough till the lass came in an' left him her sweet little mitten. But whin he came back, red as a bottle o' Frinch wine, an' the two eyes o' him like black holes burnt in a blanket—save us! All that was close an' hard an' mean an' sly an' bitter an' miserly came out in the man, an' the way he talked to me av honest work done wud stir the neck hair on a fightin' pup. I was wild; but I sez to meself, lave him talk his talk; it's all wan on pay-day. An' so it is, Misther Leeds; it is so. G'wan into ye're workshop, an shpit on ye're hands, an' we'll ploog that key space by 5 p.m., come Thursday, bad cess to the bad, an' luck to the likes of us, glory be!"
Leeds stood half inside his threshold, the edge of the open door grasped in his hand, gazing thoughtfully at the floor.
"All right, McManus," he said quietly; "I'll do what I can to save my bread, but"—he looked straight at the Irishman—"it's bitter bread we learn to eat sometimes—we who are employed."
"Troth, I've swallyed worse nor that; I have so, Misther Leeds. Bide the time, sorr. An' phwin it comes!—paste him wan."
"Oh, I'll have forgotten him by that time," said Leeds, laughing, as McManus, with a significant and powerful gesture, turned on his broad heel and strode off toward his own rooms, where Kenna, his partner, had been making frantic signals to him for the last five minutes.
Leeds entered his studio, the Ghost of Chance at his heels, closing the door behind him. Through the golden gloom of the room his huge picture loomed up, somber in the subdued light; an aromatic odor of wet colors and siccatif hung in the air.
First, he laid aside his overcoat and hat, unhooked from a door peg a short painting blouse and pulled it over his head; then he moved about briskly, opening ventilators to air the place, manipulating the curtains for top and side lights, dragging the carved mahogany model stand into the position marked by the chalk crosses on the polished floor. Presently he touched a spring; the top shade rolled up with a click; a flood of pure north light fell upon the gorgeous colors of the canvas. He began to adjust the delicate machinery of the complex easel, turning a silver screw to regulate the pitch of the heavy canvas, twisting a cogwheel here, a lever there, until he had brought that part of the canvas within reach whereon he expected to work.
He was one of those modest, dissatisfied young men who can never be content with the work done, perfectly aware of possibilities not yet attained, willing to try for them, vaguely confident of attaining them; a young man who would go far—had gone far—farther than he realized. Yet, although the critics were joyously bellowing his praises as the coming man, his work so far had barely given him a living.
He required great surfaces to cover, and the beauty of the results was apparent in the new marble library, the Hotel Oneida, the Theater Regent, and the new Brooklyn Academy of Music. Superb color, faultless taste, vigor, delicacy—all were his. The technique that sticks out like dry bones, the spineless lack of construction, fads, pitiful eccentricities to cover inability—nothing of these had ever, even in his student days, threatened him with the pitfall of common disaster. Nor was there in his work the faintest hint of physical weakness—nothing unwholesome, smug, suggestive—nothing sugary, nothing insincerely brutal; perhaps because he was a very normal young man, inclined to normal pleasures, and worldly enough to conform to the civilized code outside the barriers of which genius is popularly supposed to pasture.
And still, with all this, he had been paid so little for his work heretofore, and to produce his work had cost him so much in materials and in model and studio hire, that he scarcely knew how to make both ends meet in the most cruelly expensive metropolis of all the world.
For the first time, when approached by Thorne, he had dared name a price for his work which might give him a decent profit when the last brush stroke was laid on; and, while Thorne's big new house slowly rose, stone on stone, overlooking the Park, he had worked on the frieze of life-size figures—two hundred in all—which was to complete the golden ballroom with an exquisite, springlike garland of youth and loveliness.
He had accepted Thorne's cut-throat, cast-iron contract with the deadly time clause; he had used up every second of time, shirking nothing, sparing no expense; making life-size study after study, scintillating with a cleverness that would not only have satisfied but turned the heads of ninety-nine painters in a hundred. But he was the hundredth.
He had given himself just time to complete his work and say: "I can do no better. I have done all that was in me." But, though he had foreseen trouble and delay from models, and the dozens of vexations artists fall heir to, he could not have foreseen that a young girl he never heard of should, at a critical moment, bring out a side of Thorne's character he did not suspect existed in him—the sharp, ugly brutality of wounded arrogance, which vents itself where opportunity offers; the fiercely sullen desire to hurt, to stamp its power upon those who have no defense.
And now, with the entire frieze all but completed, the man had suddenly snarled at him—for no reason on earth save a willingness to crush and dominate. There was not a day of grace named in the contract; there was no grace to be expected from Thorne, who cared no more for the frieze that hid part of his golden-lacquered paneling than for the gilded sconces below. If one or the other did not suit him, he'd tear them out without a word and cover the raw space with ten thousand dollars' worth of hothouse roses for his housewarming. Leeds understood that. He was beginning to appreciate the man. He must try to beat him.
He stood there confronting his defaced picture, examining it as keenly as a physician might inspect an interesting phase of human misfortune, pondering the remedy. And, as he stood, silent, preoccupied, his telephone bell rang, and he stepped to the receiver.
"Hello! Is this the Models' League?"
"Yes, James Leeds. Yes, I wanted a model with red hair, if possible, and good limbs."
"Well, that can't be helped. Send any model as close to Miss Clancey's type as you can. Send her now. She's to take a cab. I'm in a desperate hurry."
"Yes, Miss Clancey is ill. I want a girl of her type, but don't waste time hunting. Send me somebody at once."
"All right. … Good-by!"
He hung up the receiver, walked back to his canvas, and began to set a huge ivory-faced palette table, squeezing out tube after tube of color, rainbow fashion, ending in a curly mass of silver white. Then he uncorked a jar of turpentine, filled a bowl with it, and began searching among twisted tubes and scrapers for an ivory palette knife, whistling thoughtfully the while.
A slight sound behind one of the great screens attracted his attention, and he glanced up. Nothing stirred. He sorted some paint rags, and picked up a bottle of drying medium. As he held it to the light, again a sudden sound came from the screen; he turned squarely, surprised, and the same instant a girl stepped out and raised a pair of very lovely and frightened eyes to his.
"Do you want a model?" she asked sweetly, but unsteadily. "Because, if you do——"
"Good Heavens!" he said, exasperated. "Have you been behind that screen all this time while I've been telephoning for a model?"
"Ye-s. I—I came in. I heard you."
"But why didn't you come out? Why on earth——"
"I think I was a trifle frightened."
"Oh! … I see … you have never before posed?"
"Never. I—I really have not made up my mind to pose now. I suppose I had better do—do something. I've—the fact is, I've got to do something to earn my living."
She was red-haired, white-skinned, blue-eyed, shod and gloved to perfection, and plainly scared. He looked at her from head to foot.
"As a matter of fact," he said, delighted, "you are a sort of God-sent miracle. Whether you mean to pose or not for a living, I want you to pose for me to-day. Don't be frightened; sit down here in this chair. I'm in desperate need of somebody. Won't you help me?"
She looked at him in breathless silence.
"Won't you please sit here—just a moment?" he said.
She bent her head a trifle, and moved forward to the offered chair with a grace that claimed his instant and serious attention. But he had no time to wonder or speculate on the reasons for such a woman with such a presence being in his studio to seek employment; he took a chair opposite, scrutinizing her fresh young beauty with frank approval. Indeed, he heartily approved of everything about her—the masses of red-gold hair, the lovely azure-tinted eyes, the wonderfully paintable white skin.
"Your coloring—your figure—your hands are beautiful," he said slowly. "I can give you all day to-day, and I'll take all the time you can give me to-morrow. You see, that canvas must be finished to-day, be dry by to-morrow, and be delivered Thursday. Tell me, is it only head and shoulders and costume, or will you pose without drapery for——"
A bright flush stained her face. "I—I am not a model!" she stammered.
"Not a model," he repeated blankly. "Oh, no, of course not—I forgot."
"Did you—do I look like—" Words failed her; she glanced appalled at the canvas, then straight at him, self-possessed again, but paler.
"I can't help what you think of me," she said. "I am perfectly aware of my indiscretion—but your door was open and this—this is my hour of need."
"Certainly," he said, soothingly, "I see——"
"No, you don't see! I came in here to—to hide! By and by I shall go out." She sat up very straight. "I am determined," she said, "to remain concealed here until I can leave this building without annoyance. May I?" She ended so sweetly, so piteously, that Leeds caught his breath in astonishment.
"So—may I stay here for a while?"
"Well, there's a model coming to pose for that figure—if you refuse to pose——"
"Which figure?" demanded the girl.
"That one on the left—the one that is scraped down."
"You mean that I couldn't stay here while you painted?"
"I don't believe you would care to. You wouldn't bother me, but I don't think you'd care to."
"Why?" The blue eyes met his so purely, so fearlessly, that he gave her a frank and gentle answer.
"Oh! Then—then hadn't you better dismiss your model for the day?" she said, "because I've got to stay."
"But I can t. The paint on that canvas is exactly in the right condition, neither too wet nor too dry. I've simply got to use a drier, and paint on it now. That picture must be dry to-morrow."
"It certainly must!"
The girl rose, stood for a moment nervously twisting her veil up over her hat; then: "But I can't go! You don't understand. I've—I've run away!"
"Run away! From whom?"
"Somebody," she said vaguely, looking about the room. Suddenly he remembered the story McManus told. And he spoke of it, watching her curiously.
"Exactly," she said, nodding her pretty head, while the tint of excitement deepened on her cheeks, "I ran away from him! You know who I am, don't you? You know my sister, anyhow."
She hesitated, searching his face; then impulsively: "I usually decide all matters very quickly!" She made an impatient little gesture and seated herself, looking up at him with bright eyes and heightened color: "For three months I've stood it——"
"Being engaged. I had not really thought much about it—we're usually indifferent and obedient in my family—and no doubt I'd have gone on and married just as my sisters have—if something had not happened." She dropped her head, looking thoughtfully at the floor. Then: "I simply could not stand him, Mr. Leeds; I woke up this morning, understanding that I couldn't marry him. I was so excited—and dreadfully afraid of telling him—and I was so sorry for my mother, but I couldn't do it; I knew that, and it was time he knew, too.
"So I told my mother, and there was trouble, and I went out and found a cab and drove here as fast as I could, and I said: 'Mr. Thorne, I cannot do it!' You know what I said. That Irishman told you!"
"So that's all; I simply ran away from him; and I won't go home and live on my mother, because we are as poor as mice and rabbits, and if I don't marry Mr. Thorne my mother will probably expire of mortification, and if I don't marry at all by Monday next, I'll lose what my grandfather left me in a horrid will, which forces me to marry before I'm twenty-one—and that's next Monday. All my sisters did it—Mrs. Egerton, and Mrs. Clay-Dwyning, and another you don't know. But I won't, I won't, I won't! And my mother will probably starve unless I earn our living, so I'd better begin at once."
"I think you had, too," said Leeds gravely.
"Oh, I thought of that when I was running away from Mr. Thorne; and when he came up in one elevator, I came down; and when he came down I went up, and I turned into the first corridor I saw, and entered somebody's office and shut the door.
"A man came to ask me what I wanted. And I asked him if he required a stenographer, and he said he did—very offensively—so I marched out and walked about the hallways trying to find my way out. Then I heard Mr. Thorne's voice on the stairs, and I opened your door and hid. And before I had courage to leave, you came and talked and talked with that Irishman. And now what am I to do? You know who I am, and you know my sisters—or you did once, before you went abroad to study—for they've told me they knew you at Narragansett when you were a boy of twelve."
"Are you their little sister, Naida?" he asked curiously, when she stopped, clean out of breath, flushed and fascinating in her consternation.
"Yes; I'm Naida. Do you really remember me? I wish I could be civil and say the same to you, but I don't, Mr. Leeds, though since everybody says you are a very great artist, I pretend I do know you, and I say: 'Oh, yes, James Leeds; he was such a jolly fellow when he was a boy at Narragansett!'
"But I'm careful not to tell them that I was so little that you never even looked at me, or that I was so young I couldn't remember you. Oh, dear, what frauds we all are! And here I am, compromising myself and not caring, after having driven my mother distracted, jilted my fiancé, and beggared myself. I think I'd better pose for you."
"Why, coward that I am, I don't want to face the consequences of my own deeds. But I won't go back after smashing the finances so dreadfully."
"Suppose you help me a little, then. And while you're helping me to avert financial ruin we'll talk of your future," he said laughingly.
She looked up quickly. "I heard what you and that Irishman were saying. Are you truly in trouble about your picture?"
"All kinds of trouble," he assented.
"Could I really help you?"
"Indeed you could."
"Of course, I would compromise myself, wouldn't I?" she asked innocently. "I've been doing it all day, haven't I?"
He sat there perplexed, fascinated, watching her in silence.
She shrugged her pretty shoulders. A rather valuable fur stole slipped down to the floor, and he picked it up and sat smoothing it and watching the exquisite color wane and deepen in her cheeks.
The telephone rang. He rose and set the receiver to his ear.
"No, that model won't do. You need not send anybody now; I have exactly the model I require. Good-by."
Turning to her he said: "You heard me say that I needed no model. Will you help me now? This is an hour of direst need with me."
"I—I don't know——"
"Will you? If you will, I will promise to help you—not to become an artist's model; that is silly. But I promise you, on my honor, that you shall have an offer which no woman need refuse; an offer suitable and honorable, where you may enjoy absolute independence and freedom from all annoyance, live your own life freely, without taxing your mother's resources, and without care or dread of importunities from anybody attempting to marry you. Will you?"
"If—if you could do that for me I'd be grateful enough to do anything for you," she said slowly.
The Ghost of Chance sat watching them. His job was nearly ended.
A curious exhilaration, a gayety rather foreign to Leeds's nature, took possession of him. He lifted a beautiful garment, all stiff with turquoise and gold, and held it toward her. He laid two jeweled sandals at her feet, pulled a table to the screen, and opened a box full of glittering gilded articles.
There was color enough in her face now, flooding it from brow to throat.
"Won't you help me?" he asked. "It is ruin for me if you don't."
She searched his face. There was nothing in the eyes that a woman might not look upon, might not meet with a smile, might not respond to. She measured him in breathless silence, red lips parted. He was her own kind.
Then excitement transfigured him. She scarcely knew his face, lighted into quick enthusiasm.
"Never, never, have I had such a model!" he cried, delighted as a boy. "Never have I seen such color, such exquisite loveliness. Good Heavens! A man might really paint with you before him! Don't—don't look at me that way—don't be frightened. I'm simply astonished at my fortune—I don't mean to be rude—you know I don't!"
"Yes, I know it," she said tremulously.
"May I suggest how you should tie the sandals?"
"Am I to to be barefooted?"
"With sandals, you know, and that gorgeous gold and blue Byzantine robe hung straight from the shoulders! Everything is here. I'll step out and smoke a cigarette. Will you knock when you are ready?"
She nodded, looking down at the crumpled heaps of gold and turquoise stuff.
Enchanted he saw her raise her pretty arms and begin to unpin her hat, with its floating veil. Then he went out.
For half an hour he walked the resounding corridor, smoking madly. Once or twice he doubted her—half convinced that she meant to lock him out—and the idea scared him. But at last a low knocking on the inside of the door summoned him; he entered, blinking in the flood of light after the darkness of the hallway, and the vision was revealed slowly to his dazzled eyes.
White—a trifle too pale; her eyes burned like azure stars under the gold-red glory of her hair, which fell in two loose, heavy braids straight down, framing her body from shoulders to hips. The rounded throat, the white arms glimmering along the seams of the blue and golden robe, the sandals accenting the snowy feet—and in her eyes the straight, fearless gaze of a child—left him mute, stunned, utterly spellbound, overwhelmed by a magic that sometimes wears another name.
She did not need to ask his criticism. The faint rose color came into her face again slowly.
She turned and mounted the model stand without a word, seating herself in the carved marble chair; and, glancing at the painted figure, let her arms fall in harmony with the drawing. Then she placed one little sandal-shod foot upon the silken cushion at her feet. When she looked up, with a pale smile, he had already begun to paint.
His hand, not steady at first—for a new emotion had given him new eyes—became steadier. Magnificent tints and hues grew upon the canvas, stiff gold folds and creases shimmered, framing the snowy contours of perfect arms.
The glory of hair, the wonder of wide azure-tinted eyes, the lips full scarlet, all took color and loveliness as his brushes flew. And into the picture came something else—a joyousness, a tint of youth and freshness, and something subtle, indefinable.
And now he seemed to hold the whole power of the world in his grasp. The color-wet point of every brush hovered, then left its message of beauty on an enchanted canvas. Power was his; he dominated; he could do anything, achieve anything—with her before him. Difficulties? There were none. He had but to wet a brush with purest tints, look her in the eyes, and the thing was wrought.
Twice she rested. He said nothing, nor did she, and, when she was ready, he went on. But already the work was done—finished! He lingered over it, thrilled, touching it here and there fearlessly, with the silent certainty of mastery.
At last he lay back on his chair, and the arm supporting his palette dropped to his side.
"Won't you have mercy?" she asked in a low voice.
"Are you tired? Oh, I am so sorry!" he cried, springing to his feet.
She rose. He held out his hand. She laid hers on his arm and descended.
"You are terribly tired!" he said anxiously, almost tenderly.
"No—but—I am a little—hungry."
He dragged out his watch. "Good Lord! It's four—almost dark!" he cried. "What a—a beast I am! I must be crazy!"
She stood smiling beside him, looking curiously at the picture in the fading light.
"Am I as—as glorious as that!" she said under her breath. It was not a question, besides he scarcely dared answer, for the magic was thick about him.
"Do you know," she said slowly, "there is something in that canvas that I have never before seen?"
"What is it?"
"The—the eyes you have given me—as though I had just opened them on paradise."
"They are like yours."
"But I—I never saw paradise. What a heavenly beauty you have given me. My soul was never as untroubled as is hers—the lovely, snowy, golden saint you have raised up on my shadow. What eyes do you see with to work such miracles?"
"You are the miracle. I never painted like that until you came."
She turned to look at him. And, perhaps, the magic light was strong enough to dazzle her, too, for she thought there was something in his eyes that he had painted into hers upon the canvas.
For a little while they stood silent. Then she raised her head. "And now?" she questioned.
"Yes. What am I to do?"
He gazed at her blankly. "You are not going away?"
"Your picture is finished."
"Yes, but where are you going?"
"Where?" She pressed her white hand over her brow. "I—I don't exactly know. I—I thought you had a plan——"
"As long as you have run away," he began slowly——"
"Yes? And as long as I have done all the dreadful things I have done. Go on! "
"All those dreadful things——"
"Yes; all those common horrid things. Go on."
"That we—that we might further degrade ourselves by——"
"By taking tea together."
"Do you think so?"
"I do," he said solemnly.
She reflected for a moment. "But what after that?"
"We must consider the situation at the tea table," he said gravely. "We'll go out as soon as you can change your gown. And—is there any likelihood of our jumping any of your family if we go to Sherry's?"
"I'll risk it," she said slowly.
"Then," and he smiled at her through a rosy light which really didn't exist, "then I'll go out and smoke until you are ready."
And he did, no longer tormented with the fears of being locked out, and presently she opened the door and stood a moment on the threshold, looking at him.
"I wonder," she said, "if ever a girl has done as mad a thing as I have to-day?"
She stepped out and closed the door behind her.
"Listen," she said; "a thousand dreadful questions are on my lips—tortured pride refuses to ask for mercy—but—oh, I do care to know what you think of me!"
He told her as much as he dared tell, haltingly, stammering under the enchantment thickening always around them.
"More. May shall I say——"
Dazed, their young heads turned, they descended the marble steps together.
Elevator boys, hall servants, the gorgeous porter in his green and gilt livery, stared at the runaway. She passed them, head high.
"There is going to be a great deal of trouble about nothing, I fear," she said softly, as they walked out into Fifth Avenue.
"I fear so," he mused.
"You—you will probably be evicted by Mr. Thorne when the porter tells him where I've been."
"Probably," he smiled.
"Where will you go when you are evicted?"
"Where are you going?"
She glanced at him sweetly. "To tea—with you."
"And after that?" he asked unsteadily.
But she pretended not to hear him, repeating, "To tea with the great artist, Mr. Leeds. Oh, you are surprised that I know how great you are? Did you think I didn't know? Dear me, don't my sisters talk of you as though our family discovered you?"
"That settles it then," he said, enchanted.
"What settles what, if you please?"
"My status. I'm one of your family and entitled to advise you."
A moment later two flushed young people entered Sherry's, utterly oblivious of cloak rooms, bellboys, and butlers, and instinctively chose a remote table secluded in a corner, banked high with verdure.
They may have had tea. They were so absorbed in talking to each other that they not only paid no attention to what they ordered, but did not notice whether they had eaten anything or not, when the early winter night found them on Fifth Avenue once more, strolling slowly uptown, absorbed in one another to the exclusion of time and similar unimportant trifles.
She was saying in that full-throated sweet voice, pitched a trifle lower than the roar of traffic, "Yes, I do trust you. I have been horrid and common and silly to go dashing around that trust company, but you are perfectly lovely to understand, and I'll do exactly what you tell me to do—except——"
"Oh—you wouldn't ask me that!"
"To—to marry him——"
"Good God," he breathed.
After a silence he said: "I have promised you an offer. But first you must go back as though nothing had happened."
"Yes, I will. There's no use in my going to a hotel like a silly, romantic creature, and starting out to look for work in the morning. Besides, my mother would be frantic and call up the police. Besides, I haven't enough money to really run away; I have only a dollar and some pennies."
"Home is the place for you," he said, laughing under his breath. "When am I to come to tell you about my plan for you?"
"You'd better hurry," she said sincerely. "I'll probably lose courage and be bullied into something or other if you don't."
"May I come to-morrow?"
"No; there's a luncheon I don't dare cut out, and in the evening there's a dance at the Carringtons'. Do you—do you ever go about? I go to the Lanarks' dance to-night——"
"I was asked to that dance, too——"
"Oh!" she cried enraptured, "will you come? Please—please! If you don't, I won't go. Mr. Thorne will be there, and between mamma and him I'll be driven into something before I know it. Will you?"
"Yes, I will. And I'll do more," he added under his breath; "I'll lay that offer before you."
"That will be perfectly delightful! You won't fail, will you? And"—she paused at the door of her own house and gave him a small gloved hand—"and I want to tell you how happy I am to have helped you, and how glad I am that you are able to keep to that wicked contract, and that I have had a perfectly lovely time, and I shall never—never forget how nice you have been even if I have behaved like a brainless ninny. And I am so glad you don't think me as horrid as I seemed to be. I was reckless for the first time in my life, and did all those desperate things because I've been—I've been a trifle unhappy."
And so he left her, the door opening to engulf her, she turning her pretty head to nod to him as it closed. And he went away soberly, walking up the dark avenue under the flaring electric lights, absorbed, almost stunned, by what had come so suddenly into a life that, but a few hours since, had seemed to him too full, too complete, to hold anything except the love he bore for his profession.
He dined at the club where he lived, read the evening papers, scarcely conscious of what he was reading, then went upstairs to his room, sat a long while on the bed's edge, staring at vacancy, and finally lay down, closing his eyes. The Ghost of Chance stood by the bed a moment, considering his victim.
Hour after hour he lay there, thinking as clearly as the tumult in his breast permitted. Later he bathed, dressed very carefully, and, descending, climbed into a hansom.
"I've a ghost of a chance," he muttered. "Thorne told me to take it once, and his advice was good. Now, I'll try it again—for I have got a ghost of a chance again, and I'll take that chance to-night!"
And so he came to the great house of the Lanarkses, overlooking the wintry park, and he climbed out of his humble hansom amid the clustering clatter of the rich and great and agreeable, and entered the house which he might not have troubled himself to enter, had a young girl with red hair and wonderful blue eyes not asked him.
After drifting about in the scented crush for half an hour, he caught a glimpse of her surrounded by a dozen men, among them a diplomat or two, and several attachés; and now, with the intention of claiming her, he marked her down in the glittering throng as carefully as he might have marked a flushed quail in a thicket of golden willow.
But when, pressing his way through barriers of black coats and threading half an acre of rustling silk and lace, he found the spot where he had expected to find her, she was no longer there; only the red fez of the Turkish Ambassador, nodding affably above the press, indicated that he had reached the spot upon the floor that he had aimed at.
Glancing up at the gilded musicians gallery to verify his bearings, he struck a circle, as he would have done in the woods, and presently came across young Terriss, who was also in love with her—but Leeds did not know that.
"Thorne took her off," said Terriss sullenly. "They're in the conservatory. By the way, I didn't know you knew her."
"I do," growled Leeds.
"That pasty-white Russian prince, the fellow with a fat face and a thin nose splitting a brace of eyes too close together"—Terriss shrugged his shoulders—"he's hanging about, looking for her, too. Her mother steered him off. I suppose it will be announced to-night."
Leeds saw her mother and recalled himself to her memory, and her mother's cordiality surprised and flattered him until he found he could not get past her to the conservatory.
Meanwhile the musicians were playing away madly. He attempted to dodge her, affably explaining that it was his dance with her daughter.
"But Naida is not in here," said her mother, carefully riding him off.
"Doubtless," continued her mother cheerfully, "Naida is waiting for you with Constance. Do you remember my daughter Constance? If you take me across, Mr. Leeds, we can find Naida."
Steered off, vaguely aware of too much sweetness in the matron's guileless smile, he looked back and beheld the girl he was seeking emerging from the thicket of palms with Thorne, followed by a heavy and very white young man, with rings on his fingers and under his eyes.
The girl looked at Leeds as though she had never before seen him. For a moment, as he instinctively stepped forward, they faced one another in silence. Then a faint recognition animated her eyes. She looked at Thorne, at the Russian, at her mother, then, as Leeds said a conventional but decisive word or two, she smiled, laid one hand on his shoulder as he encircled her waist with his right arm, nodded at her mother, and glided off into the glitter with a man who danced well enough to leave her indifferent and occupied with her own reflections.
How long she had been dancing with him she did not know, nor care, when his voice roused her from a meditation that had left her red mouth sullen and her eyebrows bent.
"What did you say?" she asked. "I beg your pardon——"
"Nothing. I wondered whether you were bored? I dance pretty well, you know."
"You dance very well. Do I look bored?"
"You certainly do."
They swung out through the center of the perfumed crush a little recklessly, but with sufficient skill.
"I wish you would look at me—once," he said. "What has happened since we parted?"
She raised her eyes, amused. "The inevitable. I couldn't escape."
"I can't give you up yet to your own reflections," he said. "You dance too perfectly. What do you mean by the 'inevitable'?"
"Oh, it is not you or the dancing that I meant! You must not mind me; I am likely to say anything to-night."
"Absolutely anything to anybody." She raised her eyes again to his face. It was a cleanly modeled countenance, rather lean—not at all like Thorne's or Prince Minksky's.
A vague feeling of being at home again after a foreign tour came over her, a comfortable sensation, lasting for a second—time enough to contrast his amiable features with the features of the man she had been with in the conservatory.
Constantly passing dancers nodded to them, exchanged a word or two or a brief smile—Terriss with a pretty girl who called her Naida, the British third secretary, very gay in his greeting, dozens and dozens, all whirling by; and through the brilliant glare, the scented breezy wavering scene, Leeds guided the girl with the ruddy gold hair and the sulky mouth—sulky, for she was preoccupied again, oblivious of all in her perfect grace and poise, swinging where he led, as easily, as unconsciously as a wind-blown bird floating half asleep in the flow of the upper air.
"If you are really too much bored," he breathed——
She looked up disturbed. "I told you it was not you. You don't bore me. You don't know me well enough."
"Is there no chance that I might know you better?"
"No, no chance."
"May I try it?"
Her beautiful brows unbent. "Why, yes, try it; but I am not worth the effort."
"Very well. For this evening you and I will speak the absolute and unvarnished truth; shall we? You may ask me whatever you care to; I will ask you. Dare you?"
She had shaken her head first, but at the word "dare" her indifference changed to a slight amusement.
"Oh, I dare anything to-night," she said. "What question am I to answer?"
"Is it a bargain that we tell the truth?" he persisted.
"Certainly, if it amuses you. It won't amuse me."
"And I may venture to be cheerfully impertinent?"
She nodded, smiling.
"Then tell me why you asked me to come to this dance?"
She hesitated. A little more color crept into her face.
"Am I to answer truthfully?"
Then her entire personality changed with an impulse as illogical, as sudden as any caprice that ever swept over a heart too young to bear bitterness.
"I asked you," she said, "to come because—because I was happy with you to-day. But now—now it is too late. I am for sale once more. … Will you buy me?"
"Willingly," he returned, amazed but smiling.
"Too late," she said, looking up; "I have sold myself."
They were on the outer edge of the whirl now. Her hand slid from his shoulder, and she stepped back, flushed, brilliant-eyed, perfectly self-possessed.
"Thank you for offering to purchase," she laughed, looking him straight in the face. "Shall we finish the dance? I am ready."
"Let me see your card," he said coolly. She held out the cluster of ivory and gold filigree for his inspection.
"I thought you had undertaken to amuse me," she observed. "I didn't bargain to amuse you." Her blue eyes were too brilliant, her color almost feverish now.
"I am going to," he said. "But I warn you, you may not like it."
"Try. Perhaps I may."
"I'm going to rub out these names," he said, watching her.
"That will be deliciously rude and impertinent. Do it. Can you think of anything else?"
"Oh, yes!" he said, filling in the card with his own name.
"Let me see," she breathed, looking over his shoulder. "Delightful! Why, what you have done is exquisitely indecent, and will certainly involve us both in everything unpleasant. Now, what else are you going to do?"
"That sale," he reflected—"you remember?"
"Oh, yes! "
"No, it isn't," she said with a laugh ending in a little check. "But you may compromise me if you—if you can manage it. I'll flirt with you if you can keep the others off."
"I'll do my best," he said, looking at her, scarcely knowing what he was saying. "You danced too well for me to let you go when I bored you; now that I don't, do you think I shall let you go? "
She was on the verge of something—laughter or tears. He felt it, yet knew that she would not pass the verge.
"Now I have amused you a little," he said, "will you sit out the rest of this dance with me?"
"How can I help it? Your name has replaced the others."
He erased his name, and, from memory, filled in the other names in sequence. Then pocketing the tablets, he said airily: "Technically, I recover my self-respect—but, there's a second conservatory beyond this one where I may lose yours."
"I hope it is dark," she said calmly.
"It is. We'll go to the farthest corner."
Passing through palms and tree ferns, they heard the music behind them cease; and they moved a trifle more quickly.
"It's locked," he said.
"I don't care. Unlock it."
He turned the key. They entered. A few electric bulbs glimmered here and there, gilding thickets of blossoms. There were no chairs to be found, and he had started to return for them, when she called his attention to a green bench under a mass of flowering vines, and, seating herself, looked up at him expectantly.
"Now," he said, as he took his place beside her, "you may tell me anything or nothing, as you please. You are terribly excited—I'm rather excited, too. Every normal man is always reckless; every normal woman is, once in a lifetime. It's a crisis; you've reached it. I'm a decent sort of fellow—safer than the next man, maybe. And now I'm keyed up, ready to listen, ready to talk, seriously or frivolously—ready to make love—either way."
"Make love to me, seriously?" she said gayly. "Ah, but you are safe to say so—knowing that I am sold!" After a moment she looked up: "Why don't you ask me who bought me?"
"Oh, I know," he nodded.
"How do you know?"
"I saw your face—after the bargain."
The smile on her mouth remained, but he looked away, unable to meet her haunted eyes.
"Rub out these names," she said suddenly, offering to take the card again. And, as he made no movement, she suddenly tore it to pieces in her gloved hands and held the fragments toward him with a miserable little laugh. He took them, retaining her hand in his.
"You are the prettiest girl in the world," he said lightly. "Shall I tell you more?"
"Do you know that I am engaged to Mr. Thorne again?"
"But I am going to make love to you."
"But—I am really going to marry him—on Monday."
He laughed, looking her in the eyes.
"Do you not believe me?" she asked.
"No," he said, laughing.
"But it is true. I have put it off—I have waited until the last moment—you know what I said to-day——"
Incredulous, smiling, he recovered the hand she had withdrawn. She suffered it to lie in his, looking at him almost frightened.
"It is stupid not to believe me," she said. "Can't a man tell when a girl is speaking the truth? I tell you I must marry him on Monday, if I'm to get anything from my grandfather——"
His hand, holding hers, relaxed; he looked at her uneasily.
"All my sisters did the same thing," she went on—"all hung back until the last moment. Then, like me, deadly tired of the pressure, they gave in in a hurry. I'm the youngest and last—thank Heaven!"
"What is all this?" he demanded.
"Nothing—indolence—an idea that I might fall in love, perhaps—kept me from marrying."
Her voice trailed, vaguely reminiscent; she gazed at him with dimmed, speculative eyes, resting her chin on one curved wrist, elbow denting her silken knee.
"If a girl has a fool for a grandfather, what can she do? And I'm tired of the home pressure."
She bent her head, idly lifting finger after finger of the white gloved hand that lay passively in his palm.
"So there you are," she added; and, as he said nothing, she went on: "Tuesday, I'm twenty-one. Isn't it absurd and dreadful? But there you are; I put it off and put it off, vowing and declaring I wouldn't marry just to inherit my part. Mother has wept most of this year; but I said 'No! no! no!' and I refused to be the victim of any grandfather, and I declined to consider his wishes, or Mr. Thorne's."
She shrugged her shoulders: "But—you see? Cupidity at the last moment!"
"Whose cupidity?" he asked coolly.
"Mine," she said, but he knew she was not truthful.
"That's all right," he observed cheerfully—"as long as it was not your family's." And, still smiling, he thought of her mother adroitly blocking his way until the daughter and the merchant had concluded the bargain and patched up a broken truce.
"It will be one of those 'married-while-you-wait' affairs," she said, watching him; "traveling clothes and a few of the family. Don't you want to come? You must come!" she added; "will you?"
"I have an idea," he said, with a curious stare, "that I may be present at your wedding."
"Good! Come with Jack Terriss and Prince Minsksky."
"Oh, do you already number me with the Jack Terrisses?" he drawled.
"Certainly. Am I not pretty? Wouldn't you kiss me if you—could? He always wants to; others have wanted to. Then I number you with the others; they were no more serious than you are."
"Is it they or you who are not serious?" he asked. "I think if you gave any of them the chance you have given Thorne——"
"Yes, but I don't love any of them. And Mr. Thorne is inevitable."
"I see," said Leeds carelessly. "So I am to say to-night: 'Much happiness!' and other stupidities. Am I not to say all these things?"
"Yes, if you like."
"But I won't."
"That would be rude, wouldn't it?" She looked up at him smiling, yet with something of concern, for he had both her hands now.
"Do you know what I am going to do?" he asked.
"I am going to make love to you at once."
"You may; I'm engaged."
He listened a moment; the music rang distantly; somebody was missing a dance with the woman whose gloved hands lay in his.
"If you are going to marry for pure cupidity, why not take me?" he asked. "Any man would do for your amiable grandfather—and it seems to be all the same to you."
"I did not know you well enough to ask you," she said audaciously.
"Would I have done as well as anybody?" he demanded.
"Yes, as well—for me. Mother prefers the inevitable one."
"Would I have done better than anybody—for you?" he persisted.
"Must I answer?"
"Yes; you have only fibbed once to-night."
"Then—I'd rather—not answer. Don't—don't pretend to be serious. Be as frivolous as you will; make love to me if you wish—only don't pretend."
"No, I won't pretend," he said. She looked at him; his face caught fire though he strove to speak gayly: "I never believed I should fall in love like this—not even when I first met you. You are faultlessly beautiful, with your thick, ruddy-gold hair—the hair I painted into my picture—and I painted your splendid, innocent eyes, and that scarlet, sulky mouth—not sullen then, Naida. Had I known such things were bought and sold I should have bid——"
"Stop," she breathed.
"But all I should have offered was an ordinary heart—and you say that counts nothing against—other considerations."
"Nothing," she said, setting her lips.
"It counts nothing," he repeated, watching her.
"Nothing—absolutely nothing. Is this how you amuse me? Is this what you call making love?"
"Partly this," he said, "partly"—and he deliberately and unskillfully kissed her—"partly this."
She rose, blushing scarlet, whisking her hands from his. He stood up to confront her, rather white.
"You are too—" she began unsteadily.
"Brutal. I have been kissed before—but not stupidly—as you did. It was almost an affront—if such a woman as I can be affronted." Cheeks and eyes were ablaze.
"I told you," he said between lips almost colorless, "that I should speak the truth. I do; I love you. Can you give me a ghost of a chance?"
"You are clumsy and silly," she said. "I—I was ready for almost anything—supposing you were clever enough to carry it all off lightly——"
"I can; I've kissed plenty of girls, but only one I've cared for—that's why I was so awkward; I was scared to death. Why on earth did I awake at the eleventh hour to find that I loved you!"
"You are imposing on us both," she said calmly. "Besides, I don't believe you've kissed very many girls. Jack Terriss says you have no use for them except as models."
"Jack's crazy. Girls? Why, the girls I've kissed," he explained blandly, "would fill that ballroom——"
"And overflow into this conservatory," she added, quietly curious, yet perfectly convinced now that his experience had been as limited as her own. For she had never before been kissed.
"If you'll let me show you—" he suggested.
"Show me what?"
"That I do know how to kiss a girl——"
She looked at him, then sat up straight, stripping off her gloves. Her face was hot; she used her fan.
He picked up one of her hands and she demurred, but he held to it with a fascinated determination that made a struggle unreasonable.
"What is the use," she said, "of kissing a girl who is engaged? No, I will not! I forbid you! I—please don't do——"
"Do what?" he asked.
"That! You have done it twice when I asked you not to."
"Was I clumsy this time?"
"No—no—no!" Hands locked, she bent backward, evading him breathlessly, yet looking into his eyes with a curiosity, a fear, and something else that no man had ever seen in her gaze—something that he saw, and which the scarlet mouth, no longer sulky, tremblingly confirmed.
"There is a chance—a ghost of a chance!" he said, steadying his voice.
"No—no! There is no chance—even if you did——"
"Love me! No chance, no ghost of a chance. Release me—please—I beg you. Oh, won't you listen? You—you must not put your arm around me——"
The struggle was brief; she strained away from him desperately; and when he had her closer, she avoided his lips, hiding her face—and, as the hiding place happened to be, by some dreadful mistake, his shoulder, he drew her face upward and kissed her mouth again and again, until her head lay there quietly, eyes closed, wet lashes on her burning cheeks.
Then he used what voice he could command in a very manly and earnest fashion; and whether she heeded or whether even she heard was uncertain, for the tears kept her lashes wet, and her hands covered her face.
This was all very well, particularly when he drew one hand away, and her slim fingers closed convulsively over his. Between them they wrecked her delicate ivory fan, but neither seemed conscious of any loss.
"Now will you give me a ghost of a chance?" he whispered.
"Look at me, Naida——"
"You must. I love you."
"How can you—a girl bought—sold——"
"I bid higher, dear."
"I know—my—my first kiss. You will not believe it—of a girl you kissed so easily. But it is—I have never before been kissed. But I can't take the price; I'm sold— You had better kiss me for all the years to come."
He bent his head; her eyes unclosed, and, looking up at him, she put both arms around his neck.
"You do love me," he breathed.
She only looked at him.
"I might—if there was time. How can I have time to love you?"
"Marry me; and you shall have years of time."
"But suppose I found I did not love you, silly?"
"You would be no worse off than if you married the inevitable."
Her head lay on his shoulder; she looked at him reflectively. "Suppose," she said, "suppose I marry neither of you—for a while—and let that wretched inheritance go!"
"For God's sake, let it go!" he said fiercely. "Give me a ghost of a chance; that is all I ask—more than I dare hope."
"And—if I loved you—in the remote future, would you marry a penniless girl?"
"Will that penniless girl promise me?" he asked under his breath.
"No!" said her mother from the glass door way. And they both stood up.
"The dishonorable part you have played," continued the quivering matron, "matches your lack of the elemental decencies, and your ignorance of the ordinary observances of conventional—" Fury choked her.
"I only desire to marry your daughter, madam."
She hesitated, turned to the man beside her, and looked up at him.
"Good-by," she said; "don't forget."
Forget what, silly child? A flirt whom he had so easily kissed in a conservatory? Why, men find them everywhere—and not too difficult. Her first? Why, some man must be a coquette's first—and in her case it happened to be Leeds.
So she walked slowly to the door, and her mother took her arm, and she looked back at the man standing there, his hands fumbling the shreds of her broken fan.
"Good night!" she said; and to her mother: "You hurt my arm, dear."
"Are you mad?" hissed that horrified matron.
"Quite. I told him I was likely to do anything to-night."
"You have done it!"
"I hope so, mother."
"That I've made him love me."
"Merciful Heaven! What has—" She halted, turning her tall daughter to face her. "Is it champagne?" she demanded.
"No; do I look dreadfully mussed? Oh, well—it was my first kiss, you know. One doesn't understand how to take it coolly; I was very awkward—and fool enough to cry. My head aches. I fancy I look perfectly disreputable. Mother, will you—there he is now!—will you please keep off your Thornes and your Russians until I can escape? I will be in the dressing room—quite ready to go, mother dear."
"Naida," she said, her voice trembling, "I tell you now that if you are actually in love——"
"If you are, don't consider my my wishes——"
"About Mr. Thorne?"
"About anybody—even a man disreputable enough to kiss you——"
"Any man—to save my inheritance, mother?"
"Any eligible man, we decided."
"Then it's got to be somebody?"
"It has, little daughter—unless we're a pair of fools!"
"Well, then if it's to be a man, I think—I think——" She turned and looked back into the long conservatories. But what she thought she did not utter, for at that moment the Russian spied her and came up palled and speechlessly fierce. And she took his arm very sweetly.
"Now we'll dance until daylight if you desire," she said, heading him off in the midst of an astonished inquiry concerning her disappearance. "I think we had better have the jolliest time we can—while it lasts. Because," she added pensively, "I may run away from everybody some day. I'm quite likely to do anything, you know; am I not, mother?"
His alarm was so genuine that she threw back her head and laughed the most delicious and carefree laugh he had ever heard from her.
"Ah! It iss a pleasantry!" he said, inexpressibly relieved.
"Of course," she said gayly. "I shall keep my legacy and marry somebody—you or Thorne or somebody. Therefore, monsieur, I require sleep; therefore"—she dropped his arm and a courtesy at the same time—"adieu, monsieur."
"So soon, mademoiselle!"
"None too soon, monsieur. Mother! If you are ready? The prince is waiting to make his adieus."
An hour later her mother kissed her good night with the humble and modest conviction that she had done well by every daughter, and had garnered every penny with which that miserable will had tantalized her so long.
"Good night, Naida," she said affectionately. "De Peyster is a lovable fellow. If you can't love him you can't love anybody."
"I don't know; I'll see how I sleep, mother."
"What do you mean, Naida?" she asked anxiously.
"That's just it—I don't know exactly what I do mean. But I'll know if I don't sleep. Good night, mother. If I am not in my room in the morning you will know I have married—somebody."
"You—you wouldn't do——"
"Oh, you know I am likely to do anything! I wish I could guess what it is to be—the next thing I am destined to do."
She turned over in her great white bed, burying her hot cheeks in the pillow. She heard her mother leave the room; then her maid tiptoeing about, and presently the click of the electric button. She opened her eyes in darkness, and lying there fell a-thinking of the ghost of a chance a man had lost forever—or was it the man who had lost it? Was it not the maid after all?
"Men kiss pretty women when they can," she reasoned, raising her hands to her heated cheeks. "He meant nothing that he will not forget this time next month. … So that is how it feels to be kissed! And I sniveled. … dear me!
"Still—if I had only had time—I could have made him love me—I think. … But artists are notoriously inconstant. … and usually very poor. If I—I could have married him, I should have felt morally obliged to bring him something. So there you are; I didn't know he was like that or I might have hunted him up and given him a chance a year ago. … Why didn't he take it? He—it is impossible he could suddenly love me—now—at the last moment, when it's too late. … And I suppose it was abominable of him to have kissed me. … And he did it so frequently. … As a matter of fact, I, lying here, am a thoroughly kissed girl. … And I'm shamelessly indifferent to his guilt and mine. So—I think I'll sleep a little. …"
But she couldn't.
"If I really find that I can't sleep," she said softly to herself, "I'm likely to do almost anything. I wonder whether he is asleep."
He was not; he was seated in a rather small, dark, and chilly room not half a mile uptown. Jaws set, chin on his clenched fist, looking into the hollow eyes of a ghost the Ghost of Chance. But the ghost as yet had made no sign.
For a while she lay there, wide-eyed, restless, face and arms flushed, her heart quickening to the rapid rush of disordered thought hurrying her onward—whither, she scarcely knew, until she found herself standing before her mirror, the electric light flooding the room once more.
"I can't lie there," she said to herself; "I can't sleep; it seems to me as if I could never sleep again."
The small gilt clock struck the hour—five! She considered it, turned and went to the window, and, raising the shade, looked out. The shadows of the electric lamps played quivering over the snow; nothing else stirred. She crossed the room and opened her door, listening there in the darkness. Then, treading softly, the tips of her fingers on the mahogany rail to guide her, she felt her way down the stairs, her small bare feet brushing the velvet carpet.
There was an electric jet in the lower hall; she turned it on, groped about on the telephone shelf for the directory, and turned the leaves noiselessly until she came to the letter, L. Very carefully she traced the column of names, eyes following her moving finger, until she found what she wanted. Then she turned, unhooked the receiver, and pressed it to her ear:
"Hello!" she almost whispered. "Please give me nine—O—three—Lenox Hill."
And after a throbbing wait:
"Is this the Lenox Club?"
"Has Mr. Leeds come in yet?"
"Perhaps he isn't asleep. Please find out. … No, I can't give my name."
"Yes; it is of great importance. If he is asleep, please wake him."
"Yes, I'll hold the wire."
The receiver against her ear was trembling, but she could not control her hand.
"Yes! … Is that you, Mr. Leeds?"
"Can't you guess who it is?"
"You can't! Do you mean to intimate that other gir—other people call you up at five o'clock in the morning!"
"Of course it is I!"
"I am at home. I could not sleep, so I thought I would find out whether you could. Besides, I wanted to know whether you stayed for the cotillon."
"But why didn't you?"
"Oh! that is very nice of you—to say that I— And haven't you really been asleep? "
"Thinking of me!"
"All alone in your room at this ghastly hour of the morning, thinking about me? Do you expect me to believe——"
"I won't tell you—now."
"Haven't I enough to keep me awake thinking?"
"No, I don't mean that. You know perfectly well that you gave me sufficient to think about—for the rest of my days."
"Don't say that over the 'phone! Yes, it was the first—the very first time it had ever been—been done to me."
"No, I don't forget anything; I never shall. What do you mean by a ghost of a chance?"
"Oh! Do you truly mean that? I am so—so dreadfully happy to hear you say that——"
"Do you mean now?—at five o'clock in the——"
"I do! I am in love with you! But I'm not insane——"
"Oh, this is dreadful!—Yes, I'll hold the wire. Yes, the other name for it is the Church of the Transfiguration, but——"
"Nobody will do it for us at this hour!"
"Well, I'll wait——"
She leaned against the telephone shelf, the receiver pressed convulsively to her ear, blue eyes closed. Years seemed to drag Time in endless chains across her vision; her knees fell trembling; thought, run riot, raced through her brain, and every little pulse clamored to the heart's hard beating.
"Yes!" she gasped with a start; "I'm still here."
"No, I am not dressed for—for the street——"
"Yes—if you wish it. … It will take only a few minutes. But, oh—do you think——?"
"Truly I will; I do love you."
"Yes, I will hurry. Good-by——"
"I do! I do! You will see!"
Up the dark stairway once more in velvet-footed haste, giving herself no moment for considering what she was about to do; masses of heavy, glowing hair in a tangle, with comb and brush flying; the soft, intimate perfume of lace and delicate linen, silk, and the flutter of ribbon; then gown and hat and furs—a stare at the unknown face in the mirror—her last adieu to the girl she had known so long. But, in the dark outside her door, she heard the summons—the voiceless call of the Ghost of Chance, waiting attendance; and her heart responded passionately. Down through the darkness again—fumbling at chain and bolt—the keen night air in her throat; and, through the wintry silence veiled in darkness, the yellow lamps of a brougham gilding her face, dazzling her as she laid her groping hand on the arm of the man who sprang forward to guide her.
"You mustn't shiver so—you must not tremble that way," he whispered. "It is all right, dear; I've got McManus and Kenna for witnesses; they're at the church; I've made arrangements. Naida! Naida! The inevitable was never inevitable while there was the ghost of a chance that you loved me."
She caught his hands in hers, staring into his face, which was as white as her own. "Oh!" she breathed. "I love you so. As maid—as wife, you have taken all there is to me—all of good, of evil—with my first kiss! I am yours—no matter what an outward fate might hold for me. … Listen; look at me! Am I to go with you? Shall you repent it? Wait—hush, dear; it is not too late yet. I am not thinking of myself—for the first time in my life I am not thinking of self; nor of my mother; she is easily reconciled. I am thinking of you—of you and all that splendor your spirit lives in—all the heavenly world into which you set me—into which you painted me, transfigured, with eyes that seemed just opening in paradise!
"Tell me, dear; your life is important; it is really not your own to throw away. Shall I go with you? Shall I stay here, quiet with your memory—my life already fulfilled?"
His answer was so low that she bent her head close to his to listen. And, after a long while, unclosing her eyes, she saw through the carriage window the dim gas lamps shining and the stained light of a church window tracing across the snow a celestial pathway tinted with crimson, azure, and gold. The horses halted with a snowy thud of dancing hoofs; the wintry air rushed into her face as the carriage door was opened by two tall Irishmen wearing very shiny silk hats.
"Naida, Mr. McManus—Mr. Kenna——"
The tall hats of the tall Irishmen swept the snow; to each in turn she offered an unsteady little hand; then leaning on Leeds's arm she entered the iron gateway, the two contractors following.
"The purty lady," purred Kenna; "d'ye mind the little hand of her, McManus?"
"I did so; an I seen the mitten to fit it. Shquare yer chist, man; we're walkin' on shtocks and bonds; we're walkin' on the red neck o' pride and power, Kenna. Whisht; cock yer hat, an' thread majestic!"
And so through the snowy darkness of dawn they passed across the frozen gardens to that little church around the corner where no sweeter bride shall ever kneel than knelt there then at prayer among the tinted shadows. And behind them knelt the Ghost of Chance.
The sun rose at seven; and a little later the bride left the church, her pale, enraptured face uplifted to the rosy zenith. She returned to earth presently: "Jim, shall we stop and breakfast with—our mother?"
He pressed her hand in agonized acquiescence; he was too scared to speak. At the same time he seemed to be conscious of something at his elbow, laughing in silence. It was the Ghost of Chance bidding them au revoir. Then the brougham drove up at a signal from Kenna; the bride entered, and Leeds turned to McManus: "At five o'clock this morning I wired Thorne that the key panel was finished and ready to deliver. We leave for Florida this afternoon. Will you see that the contract is carried out?"
"Arrah, leave it to Kenna, Misther Leeds. Is that all, sorr?"
"There is wan little item I'm thinkin' yer sweet lady has forgotten—but mayhap she has no need av it—now——"
"What's that, McManus?"
"The other mitten, sorr," giggled McManus. Leeds looked at him for a full second; they shook hands very seriously.
Then, as the carriage wheeled and drove west, the bride, leaning on her husband's shoulder to look back, caught a last glimpse of a snowy little church, an ice-festooned fountain behind the shrubbery, and, moving majestically in the middle distance, shoulder to shoulder, arm under arm, two dignified Irishmen, their tall hats burnished into splendor by the rising sun.