The Net


15. The End Of The Quest

Evidently the alarm had spread, for there were others ahead of Blake. Several men were grouped beneath an open window. They were strangely excited; some were panting as if from violent exertion; a young French Creole, Lecompte Rilleau, was sprawled at full length upon the grassy banquette, either badly injured or entirely out of breath. He raised a listless hand to the newcomer, as if waving him to the attack. Norvin recognized them all as admirers of Myra Nell--cotton brokers, merchants, a bank cashier--a great relief surged over him.

"Thank God! You're here--in time," he gasped. "What's happened to--her?"

Raymond Cline started to speak, but just then Blake heard the girl herself calling to him, and saw her leaning from a window, her piquant beauty framed with blushing roses which hung about the sill.

"Myra Nell! You're safe!" he cried, shakingly. "What have they done to you?"

She smiled piteously and shook her dark head.

"You were good to come. I am a prisoner."

"A prisoner!" Norvin stared at the young men about him. "Come on," he said, "let's get her out!"

But Murray Logan quieted him. "It's no use, old man."

"What d'you mean?"

"You can't go in."

"Can't--go--in?" As Blake stared uncomprehendingly at the speaker he heard rapid footsteps approaching and saw Achille Marigny coming on the wings of the wind. It was he who appeared in the distance as Norvin rounded the corner, and it was plain now that he was well-nigh spent.

Rilleau reared himself on one elbow and cried with difficulty:

"Welcome, Achille."

"Take it easy, Marigny," called Cline; "we've saved her."

Some one laughed, and the suspicion that he had been hoaxed swept over Blake.

"What's the joke?" he demanded. "I was frightened to death."

"The house is quarantined."

"I never dreamed you'd all come," Miss Warren was saying, sweetly. "It was very gallant, and I shall never forget it--never."

"She says her--beauty is--gone," wildly panted Marigny, who had run himself blind and as yet could hear nothing but the drumming in his ears.

"Judge for yourself." Cline steadied him against the low iron fence and pointed to the girl's bewitching face embowered in the leafy window above.

From where he lay flat on his back, idly flapping his hands, Rilleau complained: "I have a weak heart. Will somebody get me a drink?"

"It was splendid of you," Myra Nell called down to the group. "I love you for it. Please get me out, right away."

Norvin now perceived a burly individual seated upon the steps of the La Branche mansion. He approached with a view to parleying, but the man forestalled him" saying warningly:

"You can't go in. They've got smallpox in there."


"Go away from that door!" screamed Myra Nell; but the fellow merely scowled.

"I hate to offend the lady," he explained to Norvin, in a hoarse whisper; "but I can't let her out."

Miss Warren repeated in a fury:

"Go away, I tell you. These are friends of mine. If you were a gentleman you'd know you're not wanted. Norvin, make him skedaddle."

Blake shook his head. "You've scared us all blue. If you're quarantined I don't see what we can do."

"The idea! You can at least come in."

"If you go in, you can't come out," belligerently declared the watchman. "Them's orders."

"Oh-h! You monster!" cried his prisoner.

"She says herself she's got it," the man explained.

"I never did!" Myra Nell wrung her hands. "Will you stand there and let me perish? Do you refuse to save me?"

"Where is Madame la Branche?" Norvin asked.

"Asleep. And Cousin Montegut is playing solitaire in the library."

"Then who has the smallpox?"

"The cook! They took her screaming to the pest-house an hour after I came. I shall be the next victim; I feel it. We're shut up here for a week, maybe longer. Think of that! There's nothing to do, nobody to talk to, nothing to look at. We need another hand for whist. I--I supposed somebody would volunteer."

"I'd love to," Rilleau called, faintly, from the curb, "but I wouldn't survive a week. My heart is beating its last, and besides--I don't play whist."

Mr. Cline called the attention of his companions to two figures which had appeared in the distance, and began to chant:

"The animals came in two by two,
The elephant and the kangaroo,"

"Gentlemen, here come the porpoise and the antelope. We are now complete."

The new arrivals proved to be Bernie Dreux and August Kulm, the latter a fat Teutonic merchant whose place of business was down near the river. Mr. Kulm had evidently run all the way, for he was laboring heavily and his gait had long since slackened into a stumbling trot. His eyes were rolling wildly; his fresh young cheeks were purple and sheathed in perspiration.

Miss Warren exclaimed, crossly:

"Oh, dear! I didn't send for Bernie. I'll bet he's furious."

And so it proved. When her half-brother's horrified alarm had been dispelled by the noisy group of rescuers it was replaced by the blackest indignation. He thanked them stiffly and undertook to apologize for his sister, in the midst of which Rilleau, who had now managed to regain his feet, suggested the formation of "The Myra Nell Contagion Club."

"Its object shall be the alleviation of our lady's distress, and its membership shall be limited to her rejected suitors," he declared. "We'll take turns amusing her. I'll appoint myself chairman of the entertainment committee and one of us will always be on guard. We'll sing, we'll dance, we'll cavort beneath the window, and help to while the dreary hours away."

His suggestion was noisily accepted, then after an exchange of views Murray Logan confessed that he had bolted a directors' meeting, and that ruin stared him in the face unless he returned immediately. Achille Marigny, it appeared, had unceremoniously fled from the trial of an important lawsuit, and Raymond Cline was needed at the bank. Foote, Delavan, and the others admitted that they, too, must leave Miss Warren to her fate, at least until after 'Change had closed. And so, having put themselves at her service with extravagant protestations of loyalty, promising candy, books, flowers, a choir to sing beneath her window, they finally trooped off, half carrying the rotund Mr. Kulm, who had sprinted himself into a jelly-like state of collapse.

Rilleau alone maintained his readiness to brave the perils of smallpox, leprosy, or plague at Miss Warren's side, until Bernie informed him that the very idea was shocking, whereupon he dragged himself away with the accusation that all his heart trouble lay at her door.

"Oh, you spoiled it all!" Myra Nell told her brother, indignantly. "You might at least have let him come in. Cousin Althea would have chaperoned us."

"The idea! Why did you do such an atrocious thing?"

"Where you frightened, Norvin?" The girl beamed hopefully down upon him.

"Horribly. I'm not over it yet. I'm half inclined to act on Lecompte's suggestion and break in."

She clapped her hands gleefully, whereupon the watchman arose, saying:

"No you don't!"

"I wouldn't allow such a thing," said Bernie, firmly. "It would mean a scandal."

"I--I can't stay here alone, for a whole week. I'll die."

"Then I'll join you myself," her brother offered.

Myra Nell looked alarmed. "Oh, not you; I want some one to nurse me when I fall ill."

"What makes you think you'll catch it? Were you exposed?"

"Exposed! Heavens! I can feel the disease coming on this very minute. The place is full of germs; I can spear 'em with a hat-pin." She shuddered and managed to counterfeit a tear.

"I've an idea," said Norvin. "I'll get that trained nurse who saved you when you fell off the horse."

"Vittoria? She might do. But, Norvin, the horse threw me." She warned him with a grimace which Bernie did not see. "He's a frightful beast."

"I can't afford a trained nurse," Dreux objected, "and you don't need one, anyhow."

"All right for you, Bernie; if you don't care any more for my life than that, I'll sicken and die. When a girl's relatives turn against her it's time she was out of the way."

"Oh, all right," said her brother, angrily. "It's ruinous, but I suppose you must have it your way."

Myra Nell shook her head gloomily. "No--not if you are going to feel like that. Of course, if she were here she could cut off my hair when I take to my bed; she could bathe my face with lime-water when my beauty goes; she could listen to my ravings and understand, for she is a--woman. But no, I'm not worth it. Perhaps I can get along all right, and, anyhow, I'll have to teach school or--or be a nun if I'm all pock-marks."

"Good Lord!" Bernie wiped his brow with a trembling hand. "D'you think that'll happen, Norvin?"

"It's bound to," the girl predicted, indifferently. "But what's the odds?" Suddenly a new thought dilated her eyes with real horror. "Oh!" she cried. "Oh! I just happened to remember. I'm to be Queen of the Carnival! Now, I'll be scarred and hideous, even if I happen to recover; but I won't recover. You shall have my royal robe, Bunny. Keep it always. And Norvin shall have my hair."

"Here! I--don't want your hair," Blake asserted, nervously. "I mean not without--"

"It is all I have to give."

"You may not catch the smallpox, after all."

"We'll--have Miss Fabrizi b-by all means," Bernie chattered.

"You stay here and talk to her while I go," Norvin suggested, quickly. "And, Myra Nell, I'll fetch you a lot of chocolates. I'll fetch you anything, if you'll only cheer up."

"Remember, It's against my wishes," the girl said. "But she's not at the hospital now; she's living in the Italian quarter." She gave him the street, and number, and he made off in all haste.

On his way he had time to think more collectedly of the girl he had just left. Her prank had shocked him into a keen realization of his feeling for her, and he began to understand the large part she played in his life. Many things inclined him to believe that her regard for him was really deeper than her careless levity indicated, and it seemed now that they had been destined for each other.

It was dusk when he reached his destination. A nondescript Italian girl ushered him up a dark stairway and into an old-fashioned drawing-room with high ceiling, and long windows which opened out upon a rusty overhanging iron balcony. The room ran through to a court in the rear, after the style of so many of these foreign-built houses. It had once been the home of luxury and elegance, but had long since fallen into a state of shabby decay. He was still lost in thoughts of the important step which he contemplated when he heard the rustle of a woman's garment behind him and rose as a tall figure entered the room.

"Miss Fabrizi?" he inquired. "I came to find you--"

He paused, for the girl had given a smothered cry. The light was poor and the shadows played tricks with his eyes. He stepped forward, peering strangely at her, then halted.

"Margherita!" he whispered; then in a shaking voice, "My God!"

"Yes," she said, quietly, "it is I."

He touched her gently, staring as if bereft of his senses. He felt himself swept by a tremendous excitement. It struck him dumb; it shook him; it set the room to whirling dizzily. The place was no longer ill-lit and shabby, but illumined as if by a burst of light. And through his mad panic of confusion he saw her standing there, calm, tawny, self-possessed.

"Caro Norvin! You have found me, indeed," he heard her say. "I wondered when the day would come."

"You--you!" he choked. His arms were hungry for her, his heart was melting with the wildest ecstasy that had ever possessed it. She was clad as he often remembered her, in a dress which partook of her favorite and inseparable color, her hair shone with that unforgettable luster; her face was the face he had dreamed of, and there was no shock of readjustment in his recognition of her. Rather, her real presence made the cherished mental image seem poor and weak.

"I came to see Miss Fabrizi. Why are you here?" He glanced at the door as if expecting an interruption.

"I am she."


"Hush!" She laid her fingers upon his lips. "I am no longer the Contessa Margherita. I am Vittoria Fabrizi."

"Then--you have been here--in New Orleans for a long time?"

"More than a year."

"Impossible! I--You--It's inconceivable! Why have we never met?"

"I have seen you many times."

"And you didn't speak? Why, oh, why, Margherita?"

"My friend, if you care for me, for my safety and my peace of mind, you must not use that name. Collect yourself. We will have explanations. But first, remember, I am Vittoria Fabrizi, the nurse, a poor girl."

"I shall remember. I don't understand; but I shall be careful. I don't know what it all means, why you--didn't let me know." In spite of his effort at self-control he fell again into a delicious bewilderment. His spirits leaped, he felt unaccountably young and exhilarated; he laughed senselessly and yet with a deep throbbing undernote of delight. "What are names and reasons, anyhow? What are worries and hopes and despairs? I've found you. You live; you are safe; you are young. I feared you were old and changed--it has seemed so long and--and my search dragged so. But I never ceased thinking and caring--I never ceased hoping--"

She laid a gentle hand upon his arm. "Come, come! You are upset. It will all seem natural enough when you know the story."

"Tell me everything, all at once. I can't wait." He led her to a low French lit de repos near by, and seated himself beside her. Her nearness thrilled him with the old intoxication, and he hardly heeded what he was saying. "Tell me how you came to be Vittoria Fabrizi instead of Margherita Ginini; how you came to be here; how you knew of my presence and yet--Oh, tell me everything, for I'm smothering. I'm incoherent. I--I--"

"First, won't you explain how you happened to come looking for me?"

He gathered his wits to tell her briefly of Myra Nell, feeling a renewed sense of strangeness in the fact that these two knew each other. She made as if to rise.

"Please!" he cried; "this is more important than Miss Warren's predicament. She's really delighted with her adventure, you know."

"True, she is in no danger. There is so much to tell! That which has taken four years to live cannot be told in five minutes. I--I'm afraid I am sorry you came."

"Don't destroy my one great moment of gladness."

"Remember I am Vittoria Fabrizi--"

"I know of no other name."

"Lucrezia is here, also, and she, too, is another. You have never seen her. You understand?"

He nodded. "And her name?"

"Oliveta! We are cousins."

"I respect your reasons for these changes. Tell me only what you wish."

"Oh, I have nothing to conceal," she said, relieved at his growing calmness. "They are old family names which I chose when I gave up my former life. You wonder why? It is part of the story. When Martel died the Contessa Margherita died also. She could not remain at Terranova where everything spoke of him. She was young; she began a long quest. As you know, it was fruitless, and when in time her ideas changed she was born to a new life."

"You have--abandoned the search?"

"Long ago. You told me truly that hatred and revenge destroy the soul. I was young and I could not understand; but now I know that only good can survive--good thoughts, good actions, good lives."

"And is the Donna Teresa here?"

Vittoria shook her head. "She has gone--back, perhaps, to her land of sunshine, her flowers, and her birds and her dream-filled mountain valleys. It was two years ago that we lost her. She could not survive the change. I have--many regrets when I think of her."

"You know, of course, that I returned to Sicily, and that I followed you?"

"Yes. And when I learned of it I knew there was but one thing to do."

"I was unwise--disloyal there at Terranova." She met his eyes frankly, but made no sign. "Is that why you avoided me?"

"Ah, let us not speak of that old time. When one severs all connections with the past and begins a new existence, one should not look back. But I have not lost interest in you, my friend, I have learned much from Myra Nell; seeing her was like seeing you, for she hardly speaks of any one else. Many times we nearly met--only a moment separated us--you came as I went, or I came in time barely to miss you. You walked one street as I walked another; we were in the same crowds, our elbows touched, our paths crossed, but we never chanced to meet until this hour. Now I am almost sorry--"

"But why--if you have forgiven me; how could you be so indifferent? You must have known how I longed for you."

Her look checked him on the brink of a passionate avowal.

"Does my profession tell you nothing?" she asked.

"You are a--nurse. What has that to do with it?"

"Do you know that I have been with the Sisters of Mercy? I--I am one of them."


"In spirit at least. I shall be one in reality, as soon as I am better fitted."

"A nun!" He stared at her dumbly, and his face paled.

"I have given all I possess to the Order excepting only what I have settled upon Oliveta. This is her house, I am her guest, her pensioner. I am ready to take the last step--to devote my life to mercy. Now you begin to understand my reason for waiting and watching you in silence. You see it is very true that Margherita Ginini no longer exists. I have not only changed my name, I am a different woman. I am sorry," she said, doing her best to comfort him--"yes, and it is hard for me, too. That is why I would have avoided this meeting."

"If you contemplate this--step," he inquired, dully, "why have you left the hospital?"

"I am not ready to take Orders. I have much to--overcome. Now I must prepare Oliveta to meet you, for she has not changed as I have, and there might be consequences."

"What consequences?"

"We wish to forget the past," she said, non-committally. When she returned from her errand she saw him outlined blackly against one of the long windows, his hands clasped behind his back, his head low as if in meditation. He seemed unable to throw off this spell of silence as they drove to the La Branche home, but listened contentedly to her voice, so like the low, soft music of a cello.

After he left her it was long before he tried to reduce his thoughts to order. He preferred to dwell indefinitely upon the amazing fact that he at last had found her, that he had actually seen and touched her. Finally, when he brought himself to face the truth in its entirety, he knew that he was deeply disappointed, and he felt that he ought to be hopeless. Yet hope was strong in him. It blazed through his very veins, he felt it thrill him magically.

When he fell asleep that night it was with a smile upon his lips, for hope had crystallized into a baseless but none the less assured belief that he would find a way to win her.