MRS. DURHAM opened the door to Victoria's familiar knock. "Well?" she said, removing a thick cork penholder from her mouth. She wore a gingham apron plentifully besprinkled with ink-stains, and her hair showed signs of her recent labors.
Victoria threw down her muff and slung her fur collar across the room. "I saw the consul, and he has taken the matter up; but it seems there is red tape enough to strangle us all. I'm sorry I ever touched the thing."
"What is he going to do?"
Victoria subsided into a chair. "About what you suggested. He is going to cable to half a dozen proper authorities,—have Valdeck shadowed if they think best. I suggested having his rooms searched, but there are all sorts of difficulties. He's a Russian subject, or claims to be; the consul intimated all sorts of horrifying international complications. He seemed disgusted that I brought the thing to him, and I must confess I'm sorry I did. If I hadn't seen that child die, I don't think I should have touched it, but—well, it's done now; the machinery is going."
"Yes," said Mrs. Durham, whirling about in her office chair; "it now remains to be seen who will be drawn in, and what sort of a sausage will be the result."
"I'm inclined to think I shall season it largely myself," Victoria answered, ruefully. "Philippa is going to make it warm for me when she finds herself dragged in by the ears—the brooch, I mean, with her pathetic little story about dear mother's heirloom, too."
Mrs. Durham chuckled, but sobered suddenly. "Be very careful," she advised, "how you go about that. She would be an unpleasant enemy. She, as the challenged party, has the choice of weapons, and unless I vastly misjudge her, they will be of a type that you wouldn't soil your hands with."
"I know it. Oh, why didn't you head me off? I'll get myself and every one else into a hornet's nest."
"Because, dear, I believe that dangerous animals should not be left at large; such creatures owe their immunity to the trouble they give lazy hunters."
"And besides," added Victoria, "it isn't your fight, and it will be entertaining to watch."
Mrs. Durham swung completely about and faced her friend. "You have such a disagreeable little way of dragging the Sunday clothes off my rag doll, but it's invaluable from a literary standpoint."
"Apparently I'm to be a sort of god from the machine for every one's benefit but my own," murmured Victoria. "But the Philippa question is serious."
A knock at the door startled them both, and Victoria rose reluctantly to answer the summons.
"Good morning, dear," a well-known voice trilled, gaily. "I stopped in early, as you told me you were always home. May I come in, or do I disturb?"
"We were just talking of you." Victoria's expression was composite.
"Speaking of angels," Mrs. Durham added, rising to greet their visitor.
Philippa entered, more gorgeous than ever, rustling aggressively in her silk petticoats. Her light tan cloth gown, with its cleverly combined touches of gold and brown, set off her blonde prettiness to perfection. She felt a glow of pleasure as she noted Victoria's dishevelled appearance, and the bespattered apron that concealed Mrs. Durham's graceful figure. She regarded her friend with a new and cruel interest, bred of the last-night confidences. It was delightful to feel that she held this girl's reputation in the hollow of her hand—this girl who had let her read scorn of her, Philippa's, life and character—the girl whose appearance had forced her to hedge and definitely engage herself when she had other more interesting occupations. Truly, it was a sweet morsel. Her musings gave her an expression, half-sweet, half-sinister, and added a new tone of superiority to her voice. Victoria was instantly conscious of the change, but was too full of her story to wonder at its origin.
The talk drifted on to indifferent topics as Mrs. Durham kept the ball rolling on things operatic and literary. Then she rose, excusing herself gracefully on the plea of work, and left the friends alone. Victoria plunged into the subject next her consciousness.
"I hope," she said, "you won't be angry, but I've something to say about that pin you had on yesterday."
Philippa's face showed a kaleidoscope of expressions, but a painful recollection dominated.
"Do you know, Victoria, I lost it—I can't imagine how. I was dining last night at the Denisons', and when I got home, it was gone. I can't imagine how; the fastening was secure. I must have pulled it off with my wraps. I'm heartbroken over it!"
"Lost!" cried Victoria, aghast, seeing the one plank of her proof against Valdeck disappear into thin air. She looked sharply at her friend. For once she did not question the truth of her statement; the chagrin was genuine. "It must be found!" she ejaculated, sharply. "It must! You see"—and she floundered into her explanations—"I know more about that pin than you can guess. I know that Mr. Valdeck gave it to you; I'll tell you all. Of course, you couldn't very well tell me before everybody at the tea; I understood that perfectly. I admired the quick way you turned it off, and I ought to have had more tact than to blurt out such a question—but that's just like me."
Philippa played amazement. "Why, Vic, what are you talking about? Are you insane?"
"I'm going to tell you the whole story," Victoria went on, disregarding the interruption, "and let you judge for yourself."
Philippa's thoughts during the recital were a series of repressed exclamations. "Heavens! she's accusing him of burglary! Did one ever hear of such vindictiveness! Lucius was right; she's a danger in petticoats! What a horrible lie! Oh! it's murder now! What next, I wonder! The wickedness of it! She's overstepping herself; nobody will believe that. Can such women live, to play with a man's life and character like that? She'd ruin him for vengeance! And the calm of her! She'll go to any length. Poor Lucius! How wise he was to tell me!" And running in and out of these comments, like an arabesque movement in a Persian rug, stood the Pharisee's thankfulness in every tone and variation. Never had Philippa felt more virtuous than now as she beheld the iniquities of her friend's character in all their blackness. Yet she must contain her righteous indignation if she was to save Valdeck from the net that would be cast about him.
Victoria's story reached its climax. Philippa's mental exclamation points multiplied. His mother's pin that he gave me out of his great love of me a part of the plunder! What won't she say! The very idea! She ought to be buried alive for such infamy. Never mind, a day of retribution will come, and the dispensing hand of justice may be the small white-gloved one lying here so meekly. She looked at the hand meditatively.
"What will you do?" she asked, at length, "for, of course, you will have to prove such a remarkable story."
Victoria described her visit to the French consulate, and the measures that would probably be taken.
Her listener's heart stopped beating.
Detectives! A search! Impossible! The whole villainous plot was clear as day. Evidently Victoria knew of Valdeck's secret connection with the Polish Educational League. The money he was collecting he would be unable to explain without implicating himself and the generous patriots, without putting himself and them practically into the power of the Russian secret police. Valdeck had assured her that even in America there was no safety once their positions were well authenticated.
On fire to put him on his guard, she cut short the interview. She must go at once. She must warn him, must help him at any cost. Her manner was strangely abstracted, and to Victoria's amazement she did not try to defend her protégé, but took her leave with unaccustomed quiet. Victoria looked after her with puzzled eyes.
"Now what on earth—" she began aloud.
"What did she say?" came from Mrs. Durham, peeping in between the curtains of her room.
"Nothing at all. I don't understand it."
"Didn't get angry? didn't make any demur to your statements concerning 'dear mamma's' jewels?"
"She didn't seem really surprised, either, now that I come to think of it. I can 't make it out." Victoria sighed, wearily. "I wish I knew what she has up her sleeve—for she has something."
"Do you suppose," Mrs. Durham ventured, shrewdly, "that he has told her himself—oh, not the real thing, but some explanation?"
Victoria shook her head. "Hardly; it is too grave. It wouldn't do for him to block me by fighting fire with a fire sure to burn him just as badly."
"That's just it; I don't see any explanation. Oh, it's probably only imagination. She was quiet about it for the reason that she wasn't sufficiently interested. You know how one always attributes a deeper motive than the apparent one because the obvious appears too simple."
"That is the habit of wily people," said Mrs. Durham; "but Vic, my dear, you are not of that kind. You are direct; that is your power and your charm. I'll back an impression of yours against three of my own, and I'm not so very modest and humble about my own penetration. My advice to you, my girl, is, if you feel there is a screw loose in the elegant Miss Ford, watch her. You are very apt to be right."
"I don't intend," said Victoria, rising, "to bother my head about it longer. Mr. Conway and I are going to lunch at the Casino. Don't you want to come?"
Mrs. Durham shook her head. "No, I can't. I have to be at Miss Allison's at two."
"I'm sorry. I'd like you two to be friends. He is the rarest thing in the world, a well-balanced enthusiast."
"Why don't you marry him, Vic? You seem to admire him so much."
"I'm altogether too fond of him for that," she answered, gravely.
Mrs. Durham nodded. "Yes, as one nears the years of, say—indiscretion, it's well to treasure an occasional illusion. It makes one think kindly of one's self as well as of others."
"Besides," Victoria went on, occupied with her own chain of thought, "he keeps my mind too busy when we are together; I have no leisure to think of anything but the subject in hand. And I've always observed that to fall in love with a person, there must be a possibility of an occasional silence, or, at least, a lull: then one's senses begin to take note. But with a person who keeps your intellect continually occupied, there is no leisure for emotions. That's why you see so many clever people fall in love with stupid ones, or those for whom they are entirely unfitted."
"Why don't you give lectures on the tender passion?" asked Mrs. Durham, with fine irony.
"Because," returned Victoria, "I should probably champion the idea of return-tickets, good for six months, for matrimonial explorers. How on earth does a person know whether he likes a country he has never seen? And from what I have known of my friends who have settled in the holy united states of matrimony, I think they all regret not having had the land prospected."
"I cancel your lecture tour, my dear. As I remarked before, your directness is startling. However, that does not alter my belief that you would be very happy married to the right man."
"But," objected Victoria, "how am I to know the right man ? They all say they are—and I don't know."
Mrs. Durham stamped her foot. "Go on to your Platonic rendezvous; there is no convincing you of obvious facts."
Victoria planted herself firmly before her chum. "Do you want to get rid of me, or do you think twenty-five is so old that you wish to provide for me as one sends a pauper to the old ladies home? I won't marry till I've found Galahad, Don Quixote, and Satan himself rolled into one. He'd be worth studying."
"And I'll bet you the proceeds of my next chef-d'œuvre," Mrs. Durham replied, "that you marry the most ordinary of mortals, and before you're five years older, too."
"Cassandra!" and Victoria shook her friend by the shoulders.
"Cassandra's prophecies were fulfilled, if you will recall your Iliad, my lady, so put that in your cigarette and smoke it."
"You are incorrigible," said Victoria, freeing her captive. "I'm going—I'll be home early, though. Morton is going driving with somebody, he told me, so we won't linger over the coffee."
Pushing in her rebellious hairpins with her familiar gesture, she found her hat and gloves, smoothed herself down, and waved a final good-by.
Twenty minutes later she was in sight of the low building situated in the centre of the Park. Morton was waiting for her, wandering up and down in the checkered light and shade under the wistaria arbor now bare and gray. His face lighted with affectionate greeting as he recognized the swing of her strong young body and the free stride of her walk.
"Hello, Empress of India, Queen of the Isles! I hope you re as hungry as I am."
She held out her hand in frank delight at his presence.
"Starved—and starving for a good old-fashioned talk with you, too." She gave his shoulder a familiar pat, and they turned toward the restaurant. "It's like old times, isn't it? And I have so much to say that I'm positively choked."
He looked at her carefully, taking in every detail of her dress and person.
"You're looking extremely well, Tory. Do you know, I've often wondered why you haven't married."
She turned on him sharply. "I say, what has got into you all to-day? Mrs. Durham has been sermonizing from the same text, and now you begin. What put it into your head? Are you contemplating it yourself?"
With her usual logic she had hit the nail on the head, and Morton, who was bursting to tell, had a struggle to prevent his secret slipping from him. He sought the usual refuge of exaggerated humor.
"Alas! the only girl I ever loved has refused to tell me when she'll marry me. There are others, I know, and I have even been told that I'm a catch; but somehow—well, my affairs aren't interesting. You tell me of yours. I had the table put here," he added, as he drew out her chair for her, "because I knew that you would insist on 'out-of-doors' if you froze for it; but the lunch is hot, so I'll let you have your way."
"Line of least resistance," she laughed. "By the way, speaking of resistance, I see you won your case."
He nodded. "Yes, but it was more trouble than it was worth; the law—"
"Tell me," she broke in, abruptly, "do you know anything about extradition? I've managed to get myself mixed up in a possible Franco-Russian-American row, and I'm beginning to be sorry for it."
"You'll be considerably more sorry before you're through, my dear, unsophisticated infant. You'll have subpœnas and things served on you."
She held up an appealing hand. "Don't! You make me feel like a dining-table."
"You'll feel more like the dinner when they dish you up, young lady. How did you ever get mixed up in the thing?"
"That's the worst of it," Victoria answered, ruefully. "I did it. I've pushed the button, and I suppose it's opened the Exposition, like the President and the World's Fair. Yes, you might just as well settle back and listen, for I'm going to tell you the whole story. This is the fourth time in two days—Mrs. D., the French consul, Philippa Ford, and now you."
"Why Miss Ford?" hastily inquired Morton.
"Because she was mixed up in it, too. I'm not shouting this about generally. I told Mrs. Durham because the thing struck me all of a heap, and I had to get it out or die. I told the French consul because I had to shift the responsibility. I told Philippa because I thought she ought to know, and I tell you because you are a sort of twin, and because I want your help. Bob is at college, and, besides, he's too much of a boy to be of any use."
"Don't forget to eat," Morton observed, kindly; "nothing like nourishment when you have to act and think."
Victoria obediently devoured what was put before her as she went over the familiar story. She was too engrossed to notice that her unvarnished opinion of Philippa's character for veracity and honor wrought a sudden and subtle change in Morton's manner. He recalled Philippa's affectionate tributes to Victoria, and the first doubt that had ever dimmed his old and deep affection settled over his heart. After all, Tory was no better than the average woman swayed by jealousy, the fundamental fault; he had always believed her above such pettiness and personal spite. He was far too loyal in his love to doubt Philippa for a moment. She stood on the altar he had built for her, free from all question. The queen could do no wrong, and since she was unspeakably good and true and honorable, there was only one other opinion open to him. Victoria had been mistaken in the matter of the pin, or misled by some chance resemblance of design. As far as the story concerned Valdeck, he was more than ready to believe it. He had mistrusted the Pole from the first, and had watched with ever deepening dislike the mysterious stranger's advance into the good graces of his lady-love.
Victoria finished her narration and sat silent, staring out across the bare court to the deserted trellis and the empty carriage sheds.
Morton was uncomfortable. To have detected Victoria in a meanness was a severe blow to him; he began to realize what an exalted opinion he had held of her. He had been foolish; women were women the world over—all but Philippa; his heart warmed at the thought of her.
"Are you sure you cannot be mistaken?" he asked, at length. "Resemblances are extraordinary, you know, and in the matter of the pin, no sane jury would convict a man because of such a bit of circumstantial evidence. The same jeweller might have made many similar pieces. Why shouldn't Miss Ford's mother have possessed such a jewel?"
Victoria's laugh was short and of the kind termed nasty. "Because Philippa has been trotting Valdeck about with her, evidently for some months—and two and two make four."
"Miss Ford would hardly accept such a present from any man, and much less from one she hardly knew."
"How little you know Philippa!" retorted Victoria, with cool decision.
"I thought you were friends." The tone of Morton's voice would have enlightened his hearer at any other time, but her absorption in her "case" blinded her for the moment.
"Friends!" she answered, with an expressive shrug; "friends—what do you call friends? I've known her for years—granted. She uses me—and thinks I don't know it. So she chooses to call me her darling, and assumes that my attitude is one of adoration. It is not; I have told her so frequently. She amuses me. In return for my usefulness, she gives me a certain cynical satisfaction, an intellectual treat. She is a great actress of parlor comedy, worthy of the closest observation. If I were on the stage I would give years to the study of her method; it is pure, unalloyed, instinctive genius."
Every word of Victoria's speech carried with it her own condemnation to Morton's ears. It hurt him, stabbed him, tortured the fine affection that he had held so long. He longed to declare his position and champion his lady's cause, but his promise held him dumb. He stared unseeing at the bare winter landscape before him. A short hour before it had not seemed unbeautiful, the pale blue sky, the gray lace-work of bare branches and the brown, snow-spotted lawns; the air had not seemed chill, nor the earth unkind. Now, it was all unmitigated ugliness.
"I can't advise you, I'm afraid," he said, coldly; "but I'd be careful if I were you. It's no light matter to bring accusations against man or woman—you have that to learn."
She looked up, hurt that the quick, never-failing sympathy and understanding, the whole-souled appropriation of each other's griefs, joys, and cares that had been a feature of their friendship, should fail her now. A quick thought of her long absence and of possible divergencies of character flashed over her. Her mobile face clouded sadly. She felt very shut out and alone. She, too, realized how much this association and companionship had meant to her. How she had idealized and turned to their perfect friendship as a prop and stay. Her throat ached cruelly. So it was over, this dream of an earthly friendship! Something had deviated them from their parallel during her three years absence, in spite of their constant correspondence. They had grown in different directions. Filled with a nameless sadness they sat silent, and in the silence the breach widened; they looked at each other as passengers on passing ships might watch the breadth of separating waters increase with each pulse-beat of the engines.
Victoria rose hastily. "It's very late, Morton," she said, with an effort at cheerfulness. "You have your drive, you say, and I must go back to the studio. Does your road lead my way, or do we separate here?"
Morton glanced at his watch. "My horses are at the driving-club; I'll walk down with you."
They walked fast and in silence for the most part, except for such desultory conversation as their mutual embarrassment seemed to make necessary. They parted with their old phrases of affection, but the hearty freedom had left them, and both felt it with a shock of loneliness. Victoria turned toward her temporary home, and Morton made his way to the club, where he ordered his team with such dejection that even the hostler wondered. While he waited he went over the interview. He honestly believed that he looked at the case impersonally, for the bias lay too deep, was too much a part of himself, for him to realize its presence. He would not admit the possibility of anything but the most angelic sentiments in Philippa. Philosophers have contended that real Platonic affection between man and woman is impossible, yet he admitted to himself that the utter annihilation of all his respect for all his other friends could not grieve him as did this suspicion of meanness in Victoria. She had always stood to him as a type of the "big and white," as his college slang briefly and picturesquely put it. And after all she was only small and spotted like the rest of the world. He felt instinctively that he must read just his valuation of all things.
The stamping of his horses on the wooden floor roused him, and he went to them with his usual slaps and sugar, mounted to the seat of his light runabout and signed his readiness. With the opening of the sliding-doors the friend vanished and the lover came. "When half-gods go, the gods arrive." Victoria the disappointing fled from his mind and made place for Philippa the perfect. His heart sang as he pulled up before the wide, old-fashioned front of the house, and his smile held all his love and trust enthroned, as he saw her graceful figure step between the swinging-doors and descend to meet him.
She looked up into his face with eyes of such superhuman innocence that his soul went out to her. And this was the woman Victoria had dared to accuse of lying, duplicity, veniality, vanity, the quartet of feminine vices he most detested. Philippa, the down-trodden angel, appealed to all the chivalry in him. It was with a new and protecting tenderness that he assisted her to her place at his side. Heretofore she had dazzled and baffled him, now she was his to shield and comfort, and the joy of it was very keen.
"Well, dear?" she said as they turned toward the Park.
"Very well, dear," he answered, happily. "And you?"
"I'm tired," she said, her voice full of the infantile, pathetic quality that so endeared her to those who did not know her. "Let's see, I dined out last night, since you had your old class dinner to go to; and to-day I called on dear Victoria, and I have just been lunching with a lot of girls. Awfully stupid—I hate girls' affairs, anyway. They are all gossip and backbite, and I hate it so!"
Morton, in his thirst of her every look and movement, very nearly ran down a nurse and baby-carriage. She laughed indulgently and merrily. Life was very exciting and full just now; she almost forgave him for being engaged to her.
"What have you been doing all this while? You haven't accounted for your time yet, you know."
He touched up the off horse as he answered: "Class dinner last night, rather good fun; and this morning—well, just some business that wouldn't interest you; and then I took Victoria out to lunch at the Casino. After that I came for you."
Philippa divined at once that the "lie" was in circulation, and she took the bull by the horns.
"I suppose she took occasion to abuse Valdeck?" she said, tentatively.
Morton was surprised.
"Yes, I intended to speak to you of it. She told me she had put you on your guard. You remember I told you, dear, that I hardly thought him a gentleman."
Philippa flamed. "Between saying a man isn't a gentleman and accusing him of murder and burglary there is a long stretch."
"Then you think she is entirely mistaken?"
Philippa hesitated. "You know how fond I was of her, and I know how much you thought of her; yet, Morton, dear,—but I can't help it, I am forced to believe she is doing this thing out of sheer vindictiveness and personal spite. It hurts me more than I can tell you to say such a thing,—but I can't help it, it's true." Her voice quivered, but how satisfying it was to say it!
Morton's heart stood still. "What makes you say that?" he asked. "Just what do you mean?"
"I can't very well tell you all. She knows that I guess the truth, and I suppose she will try and work me into the disgrace she is preparing for Valdeck, but I have you, Morton, and nothing else matters. Tell me, didn't she try to shake your confidence in me in some way?"
Morton remained silent, and Philippa understood.
"She told you that story about my"—a tear crept into her blue, childlike eyes—"my poor mother's pin. She told me she knew Valdeck had given it to me. The very idea!"
Morton was evidently aghast. "But why on earth," he exclaimed, "should she do such a thing?"
"It's a very delicate subject,"—she blushed deeply,—"but I have heard it I mustn't tell you just where, but on good authority, for it was pretty well known in Paris, there was a love-affair, and she is furiously jealous—even of me, when she found that I was his friend. She interprets every one's feelings for the man by her own sentiments, and she is bent on ruining him—and me, too, if she can incidentally. She is circulating a lie, a wicked, cruel lie. She accuses him of robbery, and by inference, she accuses me of helping him; I believe that's about what it amounts to; at any rate, she says I accepted presents of jewelry from him. She states that she recognized my poor mother's pin as part of the stolen property. It's outrageous!"
Morton set his lips hard and cut his horses sharply with his whip. "I don't remember this pin of yours, Philippa," he said, after a tense moment, more to say something than to voice any particular thought.
She colored quickly. "It's gone—I don't know how or where. I had it on yesterday, in fact it was in the afternoon at a tea that she pretended to recognize it. I dined with some friends, but when I reached home it was gone!"
"Yes, gone, and where, unless Victoria stole it for some purpose, I don't know."
Morton shrank as if he had been burned. "Don't say that!" he begged, huskily. "Don't make this wretched thing any worse than it is."
"You couldn't," Philippa murmured, darkly. "I never would have believed it of her—never. But some awful change has come over her since she has been away; she is not the same."
Morton nodded, and drove on in silence. Rapidly he pieced out the two conversations, one by the other. Philippa was the unquestioned soul of honor, consequently it was her story Victoria's confidences completed, not Victoria's substantiated by Philippa's comments. He was inexpressibly saddened. Even the radiant presence of his lady-love failed to rouse him from the mournful apathy into which he fell. He was still too loyal to the old affection to talk over the miserable downfall, even with Philippa. But something, and that his very darling illusion, had vanished from his life, and he faced, sadly enough, what he believed to be a loathsome reality.
The drive was completed in silence on his part, with chattering small talk on hers. She had winged her shaft and sent it home, and now watched its venom spread with a light-hearted satisfaction worthy of a Lucretia Borgia of psychology. She had nothing now to fear from Victoria, and she was at the same time vindicating and serving Valdeck, in whom she confided with something of the blind faith that Morton reposed in her. Properly circulated, in ten days the story of Victoria's past would effectually sift among her friends and acquaintances, and cut her off silently and surely from all social life. The wicked slander against Valdeck would fall of itself, once the spring of vindictiveness was exposed to the public gaze, and Lucius, noble, generous, patriotic martyr, would pass over the net that was set for his feet, and his tormentor be herself involved in the meshes!