Bannerman pushed back his chair a few inches, shifting position the better to benefit of a faint air that fanned in through the open window. Maitland, twisting the sticky stem of a liqueur glass between thumb and forefinger, sat in patient waiting for the lawyer to speak.
But Bannerman was in no hurry; his mood was rather one contemplative and genial. He was a round and cherubic little man, with the face of a guileless child, the acumen of a successful counsel for soulless corporations (that is to say, of a high order), no particular sense of humor, and a great appreciation of good eating. And Maitland was famous in his day as one thoroughly conversant with the art of ordering a dinner.
That which they had just discussed had been uncommon in all respects; Maitland's scheme of courses and his specification as to details had roused the admiration of the Primordial's chef and put him on his mettle. He had outdone himself in his efforts to do justice to Mr. Maitland's genius; and the Primordial in its deadly conservatism remains to this day one of the very few places in New York where good, sound cooking is to be had by the initiate.
Therefore Bannerman sucked thoughtfully at his cigar and thought fondly of a salad that had been to ordinary salads as his 80-H.-P. car was to an electric buckboard. While Maitland, with all time at his purchase, idly flicked the ash from his cigarette and followed his attorney's meditative gaze out through the window.
Because of the heat the curtains were looped back, and there was nothing to obstruct the view. Madison Square lay just over the sill, a dark wilderness of foliage here and there made livid green by arc-lights. Its walks teemed with humanity, its benches were crowded. Dimly from its heart came the cool plashing of the fountain, in lulls that fell unaccountably in the roaring rustle of restless feet. Over across, Broadway raised glittering walls of glass and stone; and thence came the poignant groan and rumble of surface cars crawling upon their weary and unvarying rounds.
And again Maitland thought of the City, and of Destiny, and of the grey girl the silhouette of whose hand was imprisoned beneath the brass bowl on his study desk. For by now he was quite satisfied that she and none other had trespassed upon the privacy of his rooms, obtaining access to them in his absence by means as unguessable as her motive. Momentarily he considered taking Bannerman into his confidence; but he questioned the advisability of this: Bannerman was so severely practical in his outlook upon life, while this adventure had been so madly whimsical, so engagingly impossible. Bannerman would be sure to suggest a call at the precinct police station.... If she had made way with anything, it would be different; but so far as Maitland had been able to determine, she had abstracted nothing, disturbed nothing beyond a few square inches of dust....
Unwillingly Bannerman put the salad out of mind and turned to the business whose immediate moment had brought them together. He hummed softly, calling his client to attention. Maitland came out of his reverie, vaguely smiling.
"I'm waiting, old man. What's up?"
"The Graeme business. His lawyers have been after me again. I even had a call from the old man himself."
"Yes? The Graeme business?" Maitland's expression was blank for a moment; then comprehension informed his eyes. "Oh, yes; in connection with the Dougherty investment swindle."
"That's it. Graeme's pleading for mercy."
Maitland lifted his shoulders significantly. "That was to be expected, wasn't it? What did you tell him?"
"That I'd see you."
"Did you hold out to him any hopes that I'd be easy on the gang?"
"I told him that I doubted if you could be induced to let up."
"Why, because Graeme himself is as innocent of wrong-doing and wrong-intent as you are."
"You believe that?"
"I do," affirmed Bannerman. His fat pink fingers drummed uneasily on the cloth for a few moments. "There isn't any question that the Dougherty people induced you to sink your money in their enterprise with intent to defraud you."
"I should think not," Maitland interjected, amused.
"But old man Graeme was honest, in intention at least. He meant no harm; and in proof of that he offers to shoulder your loss himself, if by so doing he can induce you to drop further proceedings. That proves he's in earnest, Dan, for although Graeme is comfortably well to do, it's a known fact that the loss of a cool half-million, while it's a drop in the bucket to you, would cripple him."
"Then why doesn't he stand to his associates, and make them each pay back their fair share of the loot? That'd bring his liability down to about fifty thousand."
"Because they won't give up without a contest in the courts. They deny your proofs--you have those papers, haven't you?"
"Safe, under lock and key," asserted Maitland sententiously. "When the time comes I'll produce them."
"And they incriminate Graeme?"
"They make it look as black for him as for the others. Do you honestly believe him innocent, Bannerman?"
"I do, implicitly. The dread of exposure, the fear of notoriety when the case comes up in court, has aged the man ten years. He begged me with tears in his eyes to induce you to drop it and accept his offer of restitution. Don't you think you could do it, Dan?"
"No, I don't." Maitland shook his head with decision. "If I let up, the scoundrels get off scot-free. I have nothing against Graeme; I am willing to make it as light as I can for him; but this business has got to be aired in the courts; the guilty will have to suffer. It will be a lesson to the public, a lesson to the scamps, and a lesson to Graeme--not to lend his name too freely to questionable enterprises."
"And that's your final word, is it?"
"Final, Bannerman.... You go ahead; prepare your case and take it to court. When the time comes, as I say, I'll produce these papers. I can't go on this way, letting people believe that I'm an easy mark just because I was unfortunate enough to inherit more money than is good for my wholesome."
Maitland twisted his eyebrows in deprecation of Bannerman's attitude; signified the irrevocability of his decision by bringing his fist down upon the table--but not heavily enough to disturb the other diners; and, laughing, changed the subject.
For some moments he gossiped cheerfully of his new power-boat, Bannerman attending to the inconsequent details with an air of abstraction. Once or twice he appeared about to interrupt, but changed his mind: but because his features were so wholly infantile and open and candid, the time came when Maitland could no longer ignore his evident perturbation.
"Now what's the trouble?" he demanded with a trace of asperity. "Can't you forget that Graeme business and--"
"Oh, it's not that." Bannerman dismissed the troubles of Mr. Graeme with an airy wave of a pudgy hand. "That's not my funeral, nor yours.... Only I've been worried, of late, by your utterly careless habits."
Maitland looked his consternation. "In heaven's name, what now?" And grinned as he joined hands before him in simulated petition. "Please don't read me a lecture just now, dear boy. If you've got something dreadful on your chest wait till another day, when I'm more in the humor to be found fault with."
"No lecture." Bannerman laughed nervously. "I've merely been wondering what you have done with the Maitland heirlooms."
"What? Oh, those things? They're safe enough--in the safe out at Greenfields." "To be sure! Quite so!" agreed the lawyer, with ironic heartiness. "Oh, quite." And proceeded to take all Madison Square into his confidence, addressing it from the window. "Here's a young man, sole proprietor of a priceless collection of family heirlooms,-- diamonds, rubies, sapphires galore; and he thinks they're safe enough in a safe at his country residence, fifty miles from anywhere! What a simple, trustful soul it is!"
"Why should I bother?" argued Maitland sulkily. "It's a good, strong safe, and--and there are plenty of servants around," he concluded largely.
"Precisely. Likewise plenty of burglars. You don't suppose a determined criminal like Anisty, for instance, would bother himself about a handful of thick-headed servants, do you?"
"Anisty?"--with a rising inflection of inquiry.
Bannerman squared himself to face his host, elbows on table. "You don't mean to say you've not heard of Anisty, the great Anisty?" he demanded.
"I dare say I have," Maitland conceded, unperturbed. "Name rings familiar, somehow."
"Anisty,"--deliberately, "is said to be the greatest jewel thief the world has ever known. He has the police of America and Europe by the ears to catch him. They have been hot on his trail for the past three years, and would have nabbed him a dozen times if only he'd had the grace to stay in one place long enough. The man who made off with the Bracegirdle diamonds, smashing a burglar-proof vault into scrap-iron to get 'em--don't you remember?"
"Ye-es; I seem to recall the affair, now that you mention it," Maitland admitted, bored. "Well, and what of Mr. Anisty?"
"Only what I have told you, taken in connection with the circumstance that he is known to be in New York, and that the Maitland heirlooms are tolerably famous--as much so as your careless habits, Dan. Now, a safe deposit vault--"
"Um-m-m," considered Maitland. "You really believe that Mr. Anisty has his bold burglarious eye on my property?"
"It's a big enough haul to attract him," argued the lawyer earnestly; "Anisty always aims high.... Now, will you do what I have been begging you to do for the past eight years?"
"Seven," corrected Maitland punctiliously. "It's just seven years since I entered into mine inheritance and you became my counselor."
"Well, seven, then. But will you put those jewels in safe deposit?"
"Oh, I suppose so."
"Would it suit you if I ran out to-night?" Maitland demanded so abruptly that Bannerman was disconcerted.
"I--er--ask nothing better."
"I'll bring them in town to-morrow. You arrange about the vault and advise me, will you, like a good fellow?"
"Bless my soul! I never dreamed that you would be so--so--"
"Amenable to discipline?" Maitland grinned, boylike, and, leaning back, appreciated Bannerman's startled expression with keen enjoyment. "Well, consider that for once you've scared me. I'm off--just time to catch the ten-twenty for Greenfields. Waiter!"
He scrawled his initials at the bottom of the bill presented him, and rose. "Sorry, Bannerman," he said, chuckling, "to cut short a pleasant evening. But you shouldn't startle me so, you know. Pardon me if I run; I might miss that train."
"But there was something else--"
"It can wait."
"Take a later train, then."
"What! With this grave peril hanging over me? Impossible! 'Night."
Bannerman, discomfited, saw Maitland's shoulders disappear through the dining-room doorway, meditated pursuit, thought better of it, and reseated himself, frowning.
"Mad Maitland, indeed!" he commented.
As for the gentleman so characterized, he emerged, a moment later, from the portals of the club, still chuckling mildly to himself as he struggled into a light evening overcoat. His temper, having run the gamut of boredom, interest, perturbation, mystification, and plain amusement, was now altogether inconsequential: a dangerous mood for Maitland. Standing on the corner of Twenty-sixth Street he thought it over, tapping the sidewalk gently with his cane. Should he or should he not carry out his intention as declared to Bannerman, and go to Greenfields that same night? Or should he keep his belated engagement with Cressy's party?
An errant cabby, cruising aimlessly but hopefully, sighted Maitland's tall figure and white shirt from a distance, and bore down upon him with a gallant clatter of hoofs.
"Kebsir?" he demanded breathlessly, pulling in at the corner.
Maitland came out of his reverie and looked up slowly. "Why yes, thank you," he assented amiably.
"Where to, sir?"
Maitland paused on the forward deck of the craft and faced about, looking the cabby trustfully in the eye. "I leave it to you," he replied politely. "Just as you please."
The driver gasped.
"You see," Maitland continued with a courteous smile, "I have two engagements: one at Sherry's, the other with the ten-twenty train from Long Island City. What would you, as man to man, advise me to do, cabby?"
"Well, sir, seein' as you puts it to me straight," returned the cabby with engaging candor, "I'd go home, sir, if I was you, afore I got any worse."
"Thank you," gravely. "Long Island City depôt, then, cabby."
Maitland extended himself languidly upon the cushions. "Surely," he told the night, "the driver knows best--he and Bannerman."
The cab started off jogging so sedately up Madison Avenue that Maitland glanced at his watch and elevated his brows dubiously; then with his stick poked open the trap in the roof.
"If you really think it best for me to go home, cabby, you'll have to drive like hell," he suggested mildly.
A whip-lash cracked loudly over the horse's back, and the hansom, lurching into Thirty-fourth Street on one wheel, was presently jouncing eastward over rough cobbles, at a regardless pace which roused the gongs of the surface cars to a clangor of hysterical expostulation. In a trice the "L" extension was roaring overhead; and a little later the ferry gates were yawning before them. Again Maitland consulted his watch, commenting briefly: "In time."
Yet he reckoned without the ferry, one of whose employees deliberately and implacably swung to the gates in the very face of the astonished cab-horse, which promptly rose upon its hind legs and pawed the air with gestures of pardonable exasperation. To no avail, however; the gates remained closed, the cabby (with language) reined his steed back a yard or two, and Maitland, lighting a cigarette, composed himself to simulate patience.
Followed a wait of ten minutes or so, in which a number of vehicles joined company with the cab; the passenger was vaguely aware of the jarring purr of a motor-car, like that of some huge cat, in the immediate rear. A circumstance which he had occasion to recall ere long.
In the course of time the gates were again opened. The bridge cleared of incoming traffic. As the cabby drove aboard the boat, with nice consideration selecting the choicest stand of all, well out upon the forward deck, a motor-car slid in, humming, on the right of the hansom.
Maitland sat forward, resting his forearms on the apron, and jerked his cigarette out over the gates; the glowing stub described a fiery arc and took the water with a hiss. Warm whiffs of the river's sweet and salty breath fanned his face gratefully, and he became aware that there was a moon. His gaze roving at will, he nodded an even-tempered approbation of the night's splendor: in the city a thing unsuspected.
Never, he thought, had he known moonlight so pure, so silvery and strong. Shadows of gates and posts lay upon the forward deck like stencils of lamp-black upon white marble. Beyond the boat's bluntly rounded nose the East River stretched its restless, dark reaches, glossy black, woven with gorgeous ribbons of reflected light streaming from pier-head lamps on the further shore. Overhead, the sky, a pallid and luminous blue around the low-swung moon, was shaded to profound depths of bluish-black toward the horizon. Above Brooklyn rested a tenuous haze. A revenue cutter, a slim, pale shape, cut across the bows like a hunted ghost. Farther out a homeward-bound excursion steamer, tier upon tier of glittering lights, drifted slowly toward its pier beneath the new bridge, the blare of its band, swelling and dying upon the night breeze, mercifully tempered by distance.
Presently Maitland's attention was distracted and drawn, by the abrupt cessation of its motor's pulsing, to the automobile on his right. He lifted his chin sharply, narrowing his eyes, whistled low; and thereafter had eyes for nothing else.
The car, he saw with the experienced eye of a connoisseur, was a recent model of one of the most expensive and popular foreign makes: built on lines that promised a deal in the way of speed, and furnished with engines that were pregnant with multiplied horse-power: all in all not the style of car one would expect to find controlled by a solitary woman, especially after ten of a summer's night.
Nevertheless the lone occupant of this car was a woman. And there was that in her bearing, an indefinable something,--whether it lay in the carriage of her head, which impressed one as both spirited and independent, or in an equally certain but less tangible air of self-confidence and reliance,--to set Mad Maitland's pulses drumming with excitement. For, unless indeed he labored gravely under a misapprehension, he was observing her for the second time within the past few hours.
Could he be mistaken, or was this in truth the same woman who had (as he believed) made herself free of his rooms that evening?
In confirmation of such suspicion he remarked her costume, which was altogether worked out in soft shades of grey. Grey was the misty veil, drawn in and daintily knotted beneath her chin, which lent her head and face such thorough protection against prying glances; of grey suede were the light gauntlets that hid all save the slenderness of her small hands; and the wrap that, cut upon full and flowing lines, cloaked her figure beyond suggestion, was grey. Yet even its ample drapery could not dissemble the fact that she was quite small, girlishly slight, like the woman in the doorway; nor did aught temper her impersonal and detached composure, which had also been an attribute of the woman in the doorway. And, again, she was alone, unchaperoned, unprotected....
Yes? Or no? And, if yes: what to do? Was he to alight and accost her, accuse her of forcing an entrance to his rooms for the sole purpose (as far as ascertainable) of presenting him with the outline of her hand in the dust of his desk's top?... Oh, hardly! It was all very well to be daringly eccentric and careless of the world's censure; but one scarcely cared to lay one's self open either to an unknown girl's derision or to a sound pummeling at the hands of fellow passengers enraged by the insult offered to an unescorted woman....
The young man was still pondering ways and means when a dull bump apprised him that the ferry-boat was entering the Long Island City slip. "The devil!" he exclaimed in mingled disgust and dismay, realizing that his distraction had been so thorough as to permit the voyage to take place almost without his realizing it. So that now--worse luck!--it was too late to take any one of the hundred fantastic steps he had contemplated half seriously. In another two minutes his charming mystery, so bewitchingly incarnated, would have slipped out of his life, finally and beyond recall. And he could do naught to hinder such a finale to the adventure.
Sulkily he resigned himself to the inevitable, waiting and watching, while the boat slid and blundered clumsily, paddle-wheels churning the filthy waters over side, to the floating bridge; while the winches rattled, and the woman, sitting up briskly in the driver's seat of the motor-car, bent forward and advanced the spark; while the chain fell clanking and the car shot out, over the bridge, through the gates, and away, at a very considerable, even if lawful, rate of speed.
Whereupon, writing Finis to the final chapter of Romance, voting the world a dull place and life a treadmill, anathematizing in no uncertain terms his lack of resource and address, Maitland paid off his cabby, alighted, and to that worthy's boundless wonder, walked into the waiting-room of the railway terminus without deviating a hair's-breadth from the straight and circumscribed path of the sober in mind and body.
The ten-twenty had departed by a bare two minutes. The next and last train for Greenfields was to leave at ten-fifty-nine. Maitland with assumed nonchalance composed himself upon a bench in the waiting-room to endure the thirty-seven minute interval. Five minutes later an able-bodied washerwoman with six children in quarter sizes descended upon the same bench; and the young man in desperation allowed himself to be dispossessed. The news-stand next attracting him, he garnered a fugitive amusement and two dozen copper cents by the simple process of purchasing six "night extras," which he did not want, and paying for each with a five-cent piece. Comprehending, at length, that he had irritated the news-dealer, he meandered off, jingling his copper-fortune in one hand, lugging his newspapers in the other, and made a determined onslaught upon a slot machine. The latter having reluctantly disgorged twenty-four assorted samples of chewing-gum and stale sweetmeats, Maitland returned to the washerwoman, and sowed dissension in her brood by presenting the treasure-horde to the eldest girl with instructions to share it with her brothers and sisters.
It is difficult to imagine what folly might next have been recorded against him had not, at that moment, a ferocious and inarticulate howl from the train-starter announced the fact that the ten-fifty-nine was in waiting.
Boarding the train in a thankful spirit, Maitland settled himself as comfortably as he might in the smoker and endeavored to find surcease of ennui in his collection of extras. In vain: even a two-column portrait of Mr. Dan Anisty, cracksman, accompanied by a vivacious catalogue of that notoriety's achievements in the field of polite burglary, hardly stirred his interest. An elusive resemblance which he traced in the features of Mr. Anisty, as presented by the Sketch-Artist-on-the-Spot, to some one whom he, Maitland, had known in the dark backwards and abysm of time, merely drew from him the comment: "Homely brute!" And he laid the papers aside, cradling his chin in the palm of one hand and staring for a weary while out of the car window at a reeling and moonsmitten landscape. He yawned exhaustively, his thoughts astray between a girl garbed all in grey, Bannerman's earnest and thoughtful face, and the pernicious activities of Mr. Daniel Anisty, at whose door Maitland laid the responsibility for this most fatiguing errand....
The brakeman's wolf-like yelp--"Greenfields!"--was ringing in his ears when he awoke and stumbled down aisle and car-steps just in the nick of time. The train, whisking round a curve cloaked by a belt of somber pines, left him quite alone in the world, cast ruthlessly upon his own resources.
An hour had elapsed; it was now midnight; the moon rode high, a cold white disk against a background of sapphire velvet, its pellucid rays revealing with disheartening distinctness the inanimate and lightless roadside hamlet called Greenfields; its general store and postoffice, its soi-disant hotel, its straggling line of dilapidated habitations, all wrapped in silence profound and impenetrable. Not even a dog howled; not a belated villager was in sight; and it was a moral certainty that the local livery service had closed down for the night.
Nevertheless, Maitland, with a desperation bred of the prospective five-mile tramp, spent some ten valuable minutes hammering upon the door of the house infested by the proprietor of the livery stable. He succeeded only in waking the dog, and inasmuch as he was not on friendly terms with that animal, presently withdrew at discretion and set his face northwards upon the open road.
It stretched before him invitingly enough, a ribbon winding silver-white between dark patches of pine and scrub-oak or fields lush with rustling corn and wheat. And, having overcome his primary disgust, as the blood began to circulate more briskly in his veins, Maitland became aware that he was actually enjoying the enforced exercise. It could have been hardly otherwise, with a night so sweet, with airs so bland and fragrant of the woods and fresh-turned earth, with so clear a light to show him his way.
He stepped out briskly at first, swinging his stick and watching his shadow, a squat, incredibly agitated silhouette in the golden dust. But gradually and insensibly the peaceful influences of that still and lovely hour tempered his heart's impatience; and he found himself walking at a pace more leisurely. After all, there was no hurry; he was unwearied, and Maitland Manor lay less than five miles distant.
Thirty minutes passed; he had not covered a third of the way, yet remained content. By well-remembered landmarks, he knew he must be nearing the little stream called, by courtesy, Myannis River; and in due course, he stepped out upon the long wooden structure that spans that water. He was close upon the farther end when--upon a hapchance impulse--he glanced over the nearest guard-rail, down at the bed of the creek. And stopped incontinently, gaping.
Stationary in the middle of the depression, hub-deep in the shallow waters, was a motor-car; and it, beyond dispute, was identical with that which had occupied his thoughts on the ferry-boat. Less wonderful, perhaps, but to him amazing enough, it was to discover upon the driver's seat the girl in grey.
His brain benumbed beyond further capacity for astonishment, he accepted without demur this latest and most astounding of the chain of amazing coincidences which had thus far enlivened the night's earlier hours; and stood rapt in silent contemplation, sensible that the girl had been unaware of his approach, deadened as his footsteps must have been by the blanket of dust that carpeted both road and bridge deep and thick.
On her part she sat motionless, evidently lost in reverie, and momentarily, at least, unconscious of the embarrassing predicament which was hers. So complete, indeed, seemed her abstraction that Maitland caught himself questioning the reality of her.... And well might she have seemed to him a pale little wraith of the night, the shimmer of grey that she made against the shimmer of light on the water,--a shape almost transparent, slight, and unsubstantial--seeming to contemplate, and as still as any mouse....
Looking more attentively, it became evident that her veil was now raised. This was the first time that he had seen her so. But her countenance remained so deeply shadowed by the visor of a mannish motoring-cap that the most searching scrutiny gained no more than a dim and scantily satisfactory impression of alluring loveliness.
Maitland turned noiselessly, rested elbows on the rail, and, staring, framed a theory to account for her position, if not for her patience.
On either hand the road, dividing, struck off at a tangent, down the banks and into the river-bed. It was credible to presume that the girl had lost control of the machine temporarily and that it, taking the bit between its teeth, had swung gaily down the incline to its bath.
Why she lingered there, however, was less patent. The water, as has been indicated, was some inches below the tonneau; it did not seem reasonable to assume that it should have interfered with either running-gear or motor....
At this point in Maitland's meditations the grey girl appeared to have arrived at a decision. She straightened up suddenly, with a little resolute nod of her head, lifting one small foot to her knee, and fumbled with the laces of her shoe.
Maitland grasped her intention to abandon the machine, with her determination to wade! Clearly this would seem to demonstrate that there had been a breakdown, irreparable so far as frail feminine hands were concerned.
One shoe removed, its fellow would follow, and then.... Out of sheer chivalry, the involuntary witness was moved to earnest protest.
"Don't!" he cried hastily. "I say, don't wade!"
Her superb composure claimed his admiration. Absolutely ignorant though she had been of his proximity, the voice from out of the skies evidently alarmed her not at all. Still bending over the lifted foot, she turned her head slowly and looked up; and "Oh!" said a small voice tinged with relief. And coolly knotting the laces again, she sat up. "I didn't hear you, you know."
"Nor I see you," Maitland supplemented unblushingly, "until a moment ago. I--er--can I be of assistance?"
"Idiot!" said Maitland severely, both to and of himself. Aloud: "I think I can."
"I hope so,"--doubtfully. "It's very unfortunate. I ... was running rather fast, I suppose, and didn't see the slope until too late. Now," opening her hands in a gesture ingenuously charming with its suggestion of helplessness and dependence, "I don't know what can be the matter with the machine."
"I'm coming down," announced Maitland briefly. "Wait."
"Thank you, I shall."
She laughed, and Maitland could have blushed for his inanity; happily he had action to cloak his embarrassment. In a twinkling he was at the water's edge, pausing there to listen, with admirable docility, to her plaintive objection: "But you'll get wet and--and ruin your things. I can't ask that of you."
He chuckled, by way of reply, slapping gallantly into the shallows and courageously wading out to the side of the car. Whereupon he was advised in tones of fluttered indignation:
"You simply wouldn't listen to me! And I warned you! Now you're soaking wet and will certainly catch your death of cold, and--and what can I do? Truly, I am sorry...."
Here the young man lost track of her remark. He was looking up into the shadow of the motoring-cap, discovering things; for the shadow was set at naught by the moon luster that, reflected from the surface of the stream, invested with a gentle and glamorous radiance the face that bent above him. And he caught at his breath sharply, direst fears confirmed: she was pretty indeed--perilously pretty. The firm, resolute chin, the sensitive, sweet line of scarlet lips, the straight little nose, the brows delicately arched, the large, alert, tawny eyes with the dangerous sweet shadows beneath, the glint as of raw copper where her hair caught the light--Maitland appreciated them all far too well; and clutched nervously the rail of the seat, trying to steady himself, to re-collect his routed wits and consider sensibly that it all was due to the magic of the moon, belike; the witchery of this apparition that looked down into his eyes so gravely.
"Of course," he mumbled, "it's too beautiful to endure. Of course it will all fade, vanish utterly in the cold light of day...."
Above him, perplexed brows gathered ominously. "I beg pardon?"
"I--er--yes," he stammered at random.
Positively, she was laughing at him! He, Maitland the exquisite, Mad Maitland the imperturbable, was being laughed at by a mere child, a girl scarcely out of her teens. He glanced upward, caught her eye a-gleam with merriment, and looked away with much vain dignity.
"I was saying," he manufactured, "that I did not mind the wetting in the least. I'm happy to be of service."
"You weren't saying anything of the sort," she contradicted calmly. "However...." She paused significantly.
Maitland experienced an instantaneous sensation as of furtive guilt, decidedly the reverse of comfortable. He shuffled uneasily. There was a brief silence, on her part expectant, on his, blank. His mental attitude remained hopeless: for some mysterious reason his nonchalance had deserted him in the hour of his supremest need; not in all his experience did he remember anything like this--as awkward.
The river purled indifferently about his calves; a vagrant breeze disturbed the tree-tops and died of sheer lassitude; Time plodded on with measured stride. Then, abruptly, full-winged inspiration was born out of the chaos of his mind. Listening intently, he glanced with covert suspicion at the bridge: it proved untenanted, inoffensive of mien; nor arose there any sound of hoof or wheel upon the highway. Again he looked up at the girl; and found her in thoughtful mood, frowning, regarding him steadily beneath level brows.
He assumed a disarming levity of demeanor, smiling winningly. "There's only one way," he suggested--not too archly--and extended his arms.
"Indeed?" She considered him with pardonable dubiety.
Instantly his purpose became as adamant.
"I must carry you. It's the only way."
"Oh, indeed no! I--couldn't impose upon you. I'm--very heavy, you know--"
"Never mind," firmly insistent. "You can't stay here all night, of course."
"But are you sure?" (She was yielding!) "I don't like to--"
He shook his head, careful to restrain the twitching corners of his lips.
"It will take but a moment," he urged gravely. "And I'll be quite careful."
"Well--" She perceived that, if not right, he was stubborn; and with a final small gesture of deprecation, weakly surrendered. "I'm sorry to be such a nuisance," she murmured, rising and gathering skirts about her.
Maitland stoutly denied the hideous insinuation: "I am only too glad--"
She balanced herself lightly upon the step. He moved nearer and assured himself of a firm foothold on the pebbly river-bed. She sank gracefully into his arms, proving a considerable burden-- weightier, in fact, than he had anticipated. He was somewhat staggered; it seemed that he embraced countless yards of ruffles and things ballasted with (at a shrewd guess) lead. He swayed.
Then, recovering his equilibrium, incautiously glanced into her eyes. And lost it again, completely.
"I was mistaken," he told himself; "daylight will but enhance...."
She held herself considerately still, perhaps wondering why he made no move. Perhaps otherwise; there is reason to believe that she may have suspected--being a woman.
At length, "Is there anything I can do," she inquired meekly, "to make it easier for you?"
"I'm afraid," he replied, attitude apologetic, "that I must ask you to put your arm around my ne--my shoulders. It would be more natural."
The monosyllable was heavy with meaning--with any one of a dozen meanings, in truth. Maitland debated the most obvious. Did she conceive he had insinuated that it was his habit to ferry armfuls of attractive femininity over rocky fords by the light of a midnight moon?
No matter. While he thought it out, she was consenting. Presently a slender arm was passed round his neck. Having awaited only that, he began to wade cautiously shorewards. The distance lessened perceptibly, but he contemplated the decreasing interval without joy, for all that she was of an appreciable weight. For all burdens there are compensations.
Unconsciously, inevitably, her head sank toward his shoulder; he was aware of her breath, fragrant and warm, upon his cheek.... He stopped abruptly, cold chills running up and down his back; he gritted his teeth; he shuddered perceptibly.
"What is the matter?" she demanded, deeply concerned, but at pains not to stir.
Maitland made a strange noise with his tongue behind clenched teeth. "Urrrrgh," he said distinctly.
She lifted her head, startled; relief followed, intense and instantaneous.
"I'm sorry," he muttered humbly, face aflame, "but you ... tickled."
"I'm--so--sorry!" she gasped, violently agitated. And laughed a low, almost a silent, little laugh, as with deft fingers she tucked away the errant lock of hair.
"Ass!" Maitland told himself fiercely, striding forward.
In another moment they were on dry land. The girl slipped from his arms and faced him, eyes dancing, cheeks crimson, lips a tense, quivering, scarlet line. He met this with a rueful smile.
"But--thank you--but," she gasped explosively, "it was so funny!"
Wounded dignity melted before her laughter. For a time, there in the moonlight, under the scornful regard of the disabled motor-car's twin headlights, these two rocked and shrieked, while the silent night flung back disdainful echoes of their mad laughter.
Perhaps the insane incongruity of their performance first became apparent to the girl; she, at all events, was the first to control herself. Maitland subsided, rumbling, while she dabbed at her eyes with a wisp of lace and linen.
"Forgive me," she said faintly, at length; "I didn't mean to--"
"How could you help it? Who'd expect a hulking brute like myself to be ticklish?"
"You are awfully good," she countered more calmly.
"Don't say that. I'm a clumsy lout. But--" He held her gaze inquiringly. "But may I ask--"
"Oh, of course--certainly: I am--was--bound for Greenpoint-on-the-Sound--"
"Ten miles!" he interrupted.
The corners of her red lips drooped: her brows puckered with dismay. Instinctively she glanced toward the waterbound car.
"What am I to do?" she cried. "Ten miles!... I could never walk it, never in the world! You see, I went to town to-day to do a little shopping. As we were coming home the chauffeur was arrested for careless driving. He had bumped a delivery wagon over--it wasn't really his fault. I telephoned home for somebody to bail him out, and my father said he would come in. Then I dined, returned to the police-station, and waited. Nobody came. I couldn't stay there all night. I 'phoned to everybody I knew, until my money gave out; no one was in town. At last, in desperation, I started home alone."
Maitland nodded his comprehension. "Your father--?" he hinted delicately.
"Judge Wentworth," she explained hastily. "We've taken the Grover place at Greenpoint for the season."
"I see,"--thoughtfully. And this was the girl who he had believed had been in his rooms that evening, in his absence! Oh, clearly, that was impossible. Her tone rang with truth. She interrupted his train of thought with a cry of despair. "What will they think!"
"I dare say," he ventured hopefully, "I could hire a team at some farm-house--"
"But the delay! It's so late already!"
Undeniably late: one o'clock at the earliest. A thought longer Maitland hung in lack of purpose, then without a word of explanation turned and again, began to wade out.
"What do you mean to do?" she cried, surprised.
"See what's the trouble," he called back. "I know a bit about motors. Perhaps--"
She stopped; and Maitland forbore to encourage her to round out her question. It was no difficult matter to supply the missing words. Why had he not thought of investigating the motor before insisting that he must carry her ashore?
The humiliating conviction forced itself upon him that he was not figuring to great advantage in this adventure. Distinctly a humiliating sensation to one who ordinarily was by way of having a fine conceit of himself. It requires a certain amount of egotism to enable one to play the exquisite to one's personal satisfaction; Maitland had enjoyed the possession of that certain amount; theretofore his approval of self had been passably entire. Now--he could not deny--the boor had shown up through the polish of the beau.
Intolerable thought! "Cad!" exclaimed Maitland bitterly. This all was due to hasty jumping at conclusions: if he had not chosen to believe a young and charming girl identical with an--an adventuress, this thing had not happened and he had still retained his own good-will. For one little moment he despised himself heartily--one little moment of clear insight into self was his. And forthwith he began to meditate apologies, formulating phrases designed to prove adequate without sounding exaggerated and insincere.
By this time he had reached the car, and--through sheer blundering luck--at once stumbled upon the seat of trouble: a clogged valve in the carbureter. No serious matter: with the assistance of a repair kit more than commonly complete, he had the valve clear in a jiffy.
News of this triumph he shouted to the girl, receiving in reply an "Oh, thank you!" so fervently grateful that he felt more guilty than ever.
Ruminating unhappily on the cud of contemplated abasement, he waded round the car, satisfying himself that there was nothing else out of gear; and apprehensively cranked up. Whereupon the motor began to hum contentedly: all was well. Flushed with this success, Maitland climbed aboard and opened the throttle a trifle. The car moved. And then, with a swish, a gurgle, and a watery whoosh! it surged forward, up, out of the river, gallantly up the slope.
At the top the amateur chauffeur shut down the throttle and jumped out, turning to face the girl. She was by the step almost before he could offer a hand to help her in, and as she paused to render him his due meed of thanks, it became evident that she harbored little if any resentment; eyes shining, face aglow with gratitude, she dropped him a droll but graceful little courtesy.
"You are too good!" she declared with spirit. "How can I thank you?"
"You might," he suggested, looking down into her face from his superior height, "give me a bit of a lift--just a couple of miles up the road. Though," he supplemented eagerly, "if you'd really prefer, I should be only too happy to drive the car home for you?"
"Two miles, did you say?"
He fancied something odd in her tone; besides, the question was superfluous. His eyes informed with puzzlement, he replied: "Why, yes--that much, more or less. I live--"
"Of course," she put in quickly, "I'll give you the lift--only too glad. But as for your taking me home at this hour, I can't hear of that."
"Besides, what would people say?" she countered obstinately. "Oh, no," she decided; and he felt that from this decision there would be no appeal; "I couldn't think of interfering with your ... arrangements."
Her eyes held his for a single instant, instinct with mischief, gleaming with bewildering light from out a face schooled to gravity. Maitland experienced a sensation of having grasped after and missed a subtlety of allusion; his wits, keen as they were, recoiled, baffled by her finesse. And the more he divined that she was playing with him, as an experienced swordsman might play with an impertinent novice, the denser his confusion grew.
"But I have no arrangements--" he stammered.
"Don't!" she insisted--as much as to say that he was fabricating and she knew it! "We must hurry, you know, because.... There, I've dropped my handkerchief! By the tree, there. Do you mind--?"
"Of course not." He set off swiftly toward the point indicated, but on reaching it cast about vainly for anything in the nature of a handkerchief. In the midst of which futile quest a change of tempo in the motor's impatient drumming surprised him.
Startled, he looked up. Too late: the girl was in the seat, the car in motion--already some yards from the point at which he had left it. Dismayed, he strode forward, raising his voice in perturbed expostulation.
Over the rear of the seat a grey gauntlet was waved at him, as tantalizing as the mocking laugh that came to his ears.
He paused, thunderstruck, appalled by this monstrosity of ingratitude.
The machine gathered impetus, drawing swiftly away. Yet in the stillness the farewell of the grey girl came to him very clearly.
"Good-by!" with a laugh. "Thank you and good-by--Handsome Dan!"