It was not with trumpets blowing, and it was not the next morning, that Conkling returned to the tumble-down old manor-house overlooking Lake Erie.
It was before sundown of the same day that he returned. And he went back without the reasons for doing so being altogether clear to his own mind. It was a movement born of subliminal propulsions as vague yet as compelling as those of a young mother creeping through midnight darkness to the disturbingly silent crib of the new life she had brought into being.
Conkling had thought, at first, to have Banning join him, for now that the movement had taken on dimensions so bewildering he felt the need not so much of pilotage from the older man as of partnership in the knowledge of a fact which had the power of leaving him a bit dizzy.
Yet his efforts to connect with Banning over the long-distance telephone had not met with success, and the mere despatch of a telegram, worded as judicially as he could contrive it, brought no sense of response and no companionable easing off of his own excitement.
It was noon before that initial high tension fried itself in its own juices. With the lengthening day Conkling grew, if not calmer, at least more coherent, and afterthought paced sedulously at his elbow. He began to see difficulties and dangers. The disturbing thought of even a second Alcazar crept into his mind, for such a thing as insurance, of course, had never entered the heads of those two old incompetents of the manor-house. Then his attention swung away from the Titian and centered more and more on Julia Keswick. He had no liking for the situation in which she had been left, short-lived as it was bound to prove. She was as wonderful, in a way, as the Titian itself. In many ways she was much more wonderful. She had been tragically held in, repressed, walled up with her own self-communing young soul. But the potentialities were there, and he was to throw open the gates of life for her. He had already seen knowledge come to that intent and eager young face. The memory of it, in fact, still had the power to quicken his pulse. That had never happened to him before. It was something which he could not analyze, which he had no wish to analyze. Instinct, he felt, had already shown itself infallible. Besides being infallible, it was also incontestable. It had swept him, helpless, into a feverish and unexpected happiness. And that happiness, he told himself, was only the beginning.
But now that the die had been cast, he had his obligations to the woman he loved. Yet he had passively left her in a situation which was anything but savory. She was a woman, in a way, but that house of hate, that atmosphere of fundamental intolerances, cramped her back into something akin to childhood. The memory of that raucous call bell began to grate on him. Equally distasteful to him grew the thought of her being confronted by two inquisitorial old tyrants who had stumbled across the new secret of her life. Their power to harm her was already gone. He would see to that promptly enough. But their power to make that day one of unhappiness for her remained still with them. He asked himself if she could possibly need him. And once that question had been put, his disquieted soul wondered if through the clairvoyance of passion she was not striving to reach him at that very moment, if she was not calling to him through the hot and lonely afternoon.
He put a sudden end to those questionings and his own mounting unrest. He did so by climbing into his car and starting out for the Keswick home, and he was racing before he was half-way there as though some etheric summons kept reminding him that he must make up for lost time.
When he arrived there he found the gate nailed up. This disturbed him, but it did not deter him. He promptly removed a moldering picket from the fence which ran beside the overgrown cedar hedge, crept through the opening and pushed his way on through the tangle of dry shrubbery. He heard the inhospitable scream of the peacock as he crossed the parched lawn, and the bawling of a neglected calf in one of the outbuildings beyond the grim-fronted manor-house. He stared up at that house as he entered the lengthening shadow from its dormer-windowed hip roof, and as he did so he was tempted to laugh down what seemed little more than half-hysteric fears huddling about his heart. It was sheer paganism, he tried to tell himself, this foolish fretting of his own soul with the thought that exceptional happiness such as his promised to be stood in some way involved with exceptional penalties. He even stopped and looked up at the house again, deciphering something reassuring in its unaltered and unaltering face. Then, of a sudden, his heart seemed to stop beating. For drifting out of its open attic window he saw a thinly-coiling column of smoke.
He stood, for a ponderable space of time, frowning vacuously up at it. Then, as he ran to the broken veranda steps, a thin tumult of voices crept down to him. He heard the repeated high-pitched call of "Unclean! Unclean!" and a voice which reminded him of the frenzied prayer of camp-meeting supplicants cry out, "And forgive, God, these abominations which have been thrust before thee!"
He did not stop to hear more. He went up the steps two at a time, tried the door, and found it locked. Then without hesitation he ran to one of the French windows, found it fastened and broke away its flimsy catch with one taurine thrust of his shoulder.
He called out as he crossed the shadowy room, knocking over a horsehair chair as he went. But his call remained unanswered. He circled about to the door that opened into the hallway, ran through it and started up the half-lighted stairs with the walnut banister. He was startled by the bright eyes of a cat staring down at him through the gloom. They seemed burning with hate, those luminous and barricading eyes. They even prompted Conkling, in advancing on them, to crouch low as a man crouches before the spring of a cougar. But they were gone, gone completely, by the time he reached the stairhead.
Even before he arrived at the second and steeper stairway leading to the attic he once more caught the sound of voices from that upper story. They were excited voices, shrill with ecstasy, though one seemed fuller-timbred than the other. It was this voice which he heard intone: "Lust shall not dwell in this house! This abomination has been in our house and has been a curse to us! Cleanse us, O God, of the grossness which has been thrust upon us!" and through this strange incantation the shriller voice piped: "Nor shall we fatten on nakedness and live slothfully on the fruits of sin! And she who has degraded herself before Thine eyes shall be lashed with scorpions and branded with shame!"
And crowding on this came the drunken chanting of the deeper voice: "Therefore will I discover thy skirts upon thy face that thy shame may appear. I have seen thine adulteries and thy neighings, the lewdness of thy whoredom and thine abominations on the hills in the fields—and thou wilt be made clean!"
Conkling, emerging from the well of the narrow stairway, stood panting and stunned. The air was thick with smoke, and for a moment or two he found it far from easy to see. But he made out two gaunt old women, disheveled and rapt, so intent on their own ends that they neither challenged nor regarded him. He saw the taller one kneeling beside the bone-white sarcophagus which stood toward the center of the attic floor. In this wide basin of marble she had built what first impressed him as a funeral pyre. Heavy coils of smoke were rising from it as she rocked her body back and forth and prayed aloud. But a vaguely familiar smell about that heavy smoke brought Conkling toward her at a bound, for his nostrils, he knew, were sniffing the odors of burning canvas impregnated with oil. But he stopped midway in his flight and ran to the far side of the room, where he knew the Titian stood. He saw there only the empty frame from which the canvas had been slashed. That took him at a leap back to the sarcophagus.
As he stared down through the thick air he saw a stretch of rimpled canvas belly up with the heat of the flames beneath it. He saw the mellowed and magic ivory gold of a rounded breast swell up and burst in a darkening bubble of heat. He stooped forward with a gasp and caught at one unseared edge of the crumpled-up canvas. Then he just as quickly dropped it and wheeled about. For a repeated hissing sound, followed by a gasp that might have been an echo of his own, fell on his ears.
He saw Lavinia Keswick, with her hair down, with a face like a mænad and with a crop of plaited leather in her hand. Beyond her in the blue-gray air he saw the slender white back of a girl. Her posture impressed him as singularly unnatural, until he suddenly wakened to the fact that she was tied with a cotton rope to the heavy-timbered easel in front of her. Then as he saw the mænad with the flying scant tresses raise the whip in her hand he realized what was taking place.
He forgot about the crumpled canvas in the narrow marble basin. He ran for the claw that held the whip, caught it and twisted it back. With almost one and the same movement he wrested the rawhide from that shaking claw and sent the bony figure tumbling back over a headless winged lion in marble.
"You muckers! Oh, you muckers!" he cried out, reverting in his excitement to the language of his school-days. Then he turned back to the easel. "Oh, God! Oh, God!" he kept mumbling as he tugged at the knotted cotton rope, for he could see two stripes of red across the whiteness of the stooping slender back.
The girl's face, when he had set her free, was as white as the shoulders from which the clothing had been stripped. She said nothing. She did not even raise her eyes to his. But she drew back as he essayed a futile effort to lift her fallen waist up about her naked shoulders. His hands were shaking and the thick air stung his throat. He turned about, dazed, as he heard the renewed shrill duet of voices in prayer. The two frenzied old women were on their knees side by side in front of the smoking sarcophagus. They were on their knees, swaying back and forth and calling on God to cleanse their house of its lewdness. In the sarcophagus lay nothing but a layer of smoldering ashes, subsiding slowly, like melting snow. And Conkling, who knew by this time entirely what it meant, felt a blind wave of hate untouched by pity well through his body.
"You fools!" he gasped. "You hopeless fools!"
He was even sobbing a little with the nauseous reaction of it all, and he tried to smother his shame by a parade of ferocity as he turned back to the white-faced girl.
"They've made their nest, the muckers, and now they can lie in it!" he cried, as the girl shrank away a little to stare at the intoning pair still on their knees. She, he remembered as he in turn stared at the youthful face with the prematurely tragic look in its eyes, was all that he could get out of it now. But it was enough, God knew! And the time for claiming his own was at hand.
"You must come with me," he said as he reached for her. He felt the weight of her body on his arm, weak and relaxed, as he groped his way toward the stairhead.
He thought for a moment that she had fainted. But she said very quietly, "This way," as he made a wrong turn in the gloom of the lower hallway.