Blake arose like a boy on Christmas morning. He thrilled to an extravagant gladness. At breakfast the truth came to him--he was young! For the first time he realized that he had let himself grow up and lose his illusions; that he had become cynical, tired, prosaic, while all the time the flame of youth was merely smouldering. Old he was, but only as a stripling soldier is aged by battle; as for the real, rare joys of living and loving, he had never felt them. Myra Nell had appealed to his affection like a dear and clever child, and helped to keep some warmth in his heart. But this was magic. The sun had never been so bright, the air so sweet to his nostrils, the strength so vigorous in his limbs.
He had become so accustomed to the mysterious letters by this time that he had grown to look for them as a matter of course, and he was not disturbed when, on arriving at his office, he found one in his mail. Heretofore the writer had been positive in his statements, but now came the first hint of uncertainty.
"I cannot find Belisario Cardi," he wrote. "His hand is over all, and yet he is more intangible than mist. I am hedged about with difficulties and dangers which multiply as the days pass. I can do no more, hence the task devolves upon you. Be careful, for he is more desperate than ever. It is your life or his.
"ONE WHO KNOWS."
It was as daunting a message as he could have received--the withdrawal of assistance, the authoritative confirmation of his fears--yet Blake's spirit rose to meet the exigency with a new courage. It occurred to him that if Maruffi, or whoever the author was, had exhausted his usefulness, perhaps Vittoria could help. She had spent much time in her search for this very Cardi, and might have learned something of value concerning him. Oliveta, too, could be of assistance. He felt sure that the knowledge of his own peril would be enough to enlist their aid, and he gladly seized upon the thought that a common interest would draw him closer to the woman he loved.
He arrived at the La Branche house early that afternoon, and found young Rilleau sitting on a box beneath Myra Nell's window, with the girl herself embowered as before in a frame of roses.
"Any symptoms yet?" Norvin inquired, agreeably.
"Thousands! I'm slowly dying."
Lecompte nodded dolefully. "Look at her color."
"No doubt it's the glow from those red roses that I see in her cheeks."
"It's fever," Miss Warren exclaimed, indignantly. She took a hand-glass from her lap and regarded her vivid young features. "Smallpox attacks people differently. With me the first sign is fever." She had parted her abundant hair and swept it back from her brow in an attempt to make herself look ill, but with the sole effect of enhancing her appearance of abounding health. Madame la Branche's best black shawl was drawn about her plump and dimpled shoulders. Assuming a hollow tone, she inquired: "Do you see any other change in me?"
"Yes. And I rather like that way of doing your hair."
"Vittoria says I look like a picture of Sister Dolorosa, or something."
"Is Miss Fabrizi in?"
"In? How could she be out? Isn't she a dear, Norvin? I knew you'd meet some day."
"Does she play whist?"
"Of course not, silly. She's--nearly a nun. But we sat up in bed all night talking. Oh, it's a comfort to have some one with you at the last, some one in whom you can confide. I can't bear to--to soar aloft with so much on my conscience. I've confessed everything."
"What's to prevent her from catching the disease and soaring away with you?"
"She's a nurse. They're just like doctors, you know, they never catch anything. Is that hideous watchman still at his post?"
"Yes. Fast asleep, with his mouth open."
"I hope a fly crawls in," said the girl, vindictively; then, in an eager whisper: "Couldn't you manage to get past him? We'd have a lovely time here for a week."
Rilleau raised his voice in jealous protest.
"And leave me sitting on my throne? Never! I'm giving this box-party for you, Myra Nell."
"Oh, you could come, too."
"I respect the law," Norvin told her; but Lecompte continued to complain.
"I don't see what you're doing here at this time of day, anyhow, Blake, Have you no business responsibilities?"
"I'm a member of the Contagion Club; I've a right to be here."
"We were discussing rice, old shoes, and orange blossoms when you interrupted," the languid Mr. Rilleau continued. "Frankly, speaking as a friend, I don't see anything in your conversation so far to interest a sick lady. Why don't you talk to the yellow-haired nurse?"
"I intend to."
"Vittoria is back in the kitchen preparing my diet," said Myra Nell. "She's making fudge, I believe. I--I seem to crave sweet things. Maybe it's another symptom." "It must be," Blake acknowledged. "I'll ask her what she thinks of it." With a glance at the slumbering guard he vaulted the low fence and made his way around to the rear of the house.
He heard Vittoria singing as he came into the flower-garden, a low-pitched Sicilian love-song. He called to her, and she came to a window, smiling down at him, spotless and fresh in her stiff uniform.
"Do you know that you're trespassing and may get into trouble?" she queried.
"The watchman is asleep, and I had to speak to you."
"No wonder he sleeps. Myra Nell holds the poor fellow responsible for all her troubles, and those young men have nearly driven him insane."
"Is there any danger of smallpox, really?"
"Not the slightest. This quarantine is merely a matter of form. But that child--" She broke into a frank, sweet laugh. "She pretends to be horribly frightened. All the time she is acting--the little fraud!"
Norvin flushed a bit under her gaze.
"I had no chance to talk to you last night."
"And you will have no chance now." Vittoria tipped her chin the slightest bit.
"I must see you, alone."
"To-night. You can slip away on some pretext or other. It is really important."
She regarded him questioningly. "If that is true I will try, but--I cannot meet you at Oliveta's house. Besides, you must not go into that quarter alone at night."
"What do you mean?" he inquired, wondering how she could know of his danger.
"Because--no American is safe there now. Perhaps I can meet you on the street yonder."
"I'll be waiting."
"It may be late, unless I tell Myra Nell."
"Heaven above! She'd insist on coming, too, just because it's forbidden."
"Very well. Now go before you are discovered."
During the afternoon his excitement increased deliciously, and that evening he found himself pacing the shaded street near the La Branche home, with the eager restlessness of a lover.
It was indeed late when Vittoria finally appeared.
"Myra Nell is such a chatterbox," she explained, "that I couldn't get her to bed. Have you waited long?"
"I dare say. I'm not sure."
"This is very exciting, is it not?" She glanced over her shoulder up the ill-lighted street. Rows of shade trees cast long inky blots between the corner illuminations; the houses on either side sat well back in their yards, increasing the sense of isolation. "It is quite a new experience for me."
"For me, too."
"I hope we're not seen. Signore Norvin Blake and a trained nurse! Oh, the comment!"
"There's a bench near by where we can sit. Passers-by will take us for servants."
"You are the butler, I am the maid," she laughed.
"I am glad you can laugh," he told her. "You were very sad, there at Terranova."
"I've learned the value of a smile. Life is full of gladness if we can only bring ourselves to see it. Now tell me the meaning of this. I knew it must be important or I would not have come." Back of the bench upon which she had seated herself a jessamine vine depended, filling the air with perfume; the night was warm and still and languorous; through the gloom she regarded him with curiosity.
"I hate to begin," he said. "I dread to speak of unpleasant things--to you. I wish we might just sit here and talk of whatever we pleased."
"We cannot sit here long on any account. But let me guess. It is your work against--those men."
"Exactly. You know the history of our struggle with the Mafia?"
"I am leading a hard fight, and I think you can help me."
"Why do you think so?" she asked, in a low voice. "I have given up my part. I have no desire for revenge."
"Nor have I. I do not wish to harm any man; but I became involved in this through a desire to see justice done, and I have reached a point where I cannot stop or go back. It started with the arrest of Gian Narcone. You know how Donnelly was killed. They took his life for Narcone's, and he, too, was my--dear friend."
"All this is familiar to me," she said, in a strained tone.
"I will tell you something that no one knows but myself, I have a friend among the Mafiosi, and it is he, not I, who has brought the murderers of Mr. Donnelly to an accounting."
"You know him?"
"Yes. At least I think I do."
"His--name?" She was staring at him oddly.
"I feel bound not to reveal it even to you. He has told me many things, among them that Belisario Cardi is alive, is here, and that it is he who worked all this evil."
"What has all this to do with me?" she inquired. "Have I not told you that I gave my search into other hands?"
"It was Cardi who killed--one whom we both loved, one for whose life I would have given my own; it was Cardi who destroyed my next-best friend, a simple soul who lived for nothing but his duty. Now he has threatened my life also--does that count for nothing with you?"
She leaned forward, searching his face earnestly. "You are a brave man. You should go away where he cannot harm you."
"I would like very much to," he confessed, "but I am too great a coward to run away."
"And why do you tell me this?"
"I need your help. My mysterious friend can do no more; he has said so. I'm not equal to it alone."
"Oh," she cried, as if yielding to a feeling long suppressed, "I did so want to be rid of it all, and now you are in danger--the greatest danger. Won't you give it up?"
He shook his head, puzzled at her vehemence. "I don't wish to drag you into it against your will, but Oliveta lives there among her countrypeople. She must know many things which I, as an outsider, could never learn. I--need help."
There was a long silence before the girl said:
"Yes, I will help, for I am still the same woman you knew in Sicily. I am still full of hatred. I would give my life to convict Martel's assassins; but I am fighting myself. That is why I have gone to live with Oliveta until I have conquered and am ready to become a Sister."
"Please don't say that."
"Oliveta, you know, is alone," she went on, with forced composure, "and so I watch over her. She is to be married soon, and when she is safe, then I think I can return to the Sisters and live as I long to. It will be a good match, much better than I ever hoped for, and she loves, which is even more blessed to contemplate." Vittoria laid her hands impulsively upon his arm. "Meanwhile I cannot refuse such aid as I can give you, for you have already suffered too much through me. You have suffered, have you not?"
"It has turned my hair gray," he laughed, trying not to show the depth of his feeling. "But now that I know you are safe and well and happy, nothing seems to matter. Does Myra Nell know who you are?"
"No one knows save you and Oliveta. If that child even dreamed--" She lifted her slender hands in an eloquent gesture. "My secret would be known in an hour. Now I must go, for even housemaids must observe the proprieties."
"It's late. I think I had better see you safely home."
"I dare say our watchman has found himself a comfortable bed--"
"The slumbers of night-watchmen are notoriously deep."
"And Papa La Branche has finished his solitaire. There is no danger."
No one was in sight as they stole in through the driveway to the servants' door. She gave him her hand, and he pressed it closely, whispering:
"When shall I see you again?"
"After the quarantine. I can do nothing until then."
"You will go back to Oliveta's house?"
"Yes, but you must never come there, even in daylight." She thought for a moment while he still retained her hand. "I will instruct you later--" She broke off suddenly, and at the same instant Blake heard a stir in the darkness behind him.
Vittoria drew him quickly into the black shadows of the rear porch, where they stood close together, afraid to move until the man had passed. The kitchen gallery was shielded by a latticework covered with vines, and Blake felt reasonably safe within its shelter. He was beginning to breathe easier when a voice barely an arm's-length away inquired, gruffly:
He would have given something handsome to be out of this foolish predicament, which he knew must be very trying to his companion. But the fates were against him. To his horror, the man struck a match and mounting the steps to the porch flashed it directly into his face.
"Good evening," said Blake, with rather a weak attempt at assurance.
"What are you doing here?" the guard demanded. "Don't you know that this house is quarantined?"
"I do. Kindly lower your voice; there are people asleep."
The fellow's eyes took in the girl in her stiffly starched uniform before the match burned out and darkness engulfed them once more.
"I'm not a burglar."
"Humph! I don't know whether you are or not."
"I assure you," urged Vittoria.
"Strike another match and I'll prove to you that I'm not dangerous." When the light flared up once more Norvin selected a card from his case and handed it to the watchman. "I am Norvin Blake, president of the Cotton Exchange."
But this information failed of the desired effect. "Oh, I know you, but this ain't exactly the right time to be calling on a lady."
Vittoria felt her companion's muscles stiffen.
"I will explain my presence later," he said, stiffly; then, turning to Vittoria, "I am sorry I disturbed this estimable man. Good night."
"Just a minute," the watchman broke in. "You needn't say good night."
"What do you mean?"
"This house is quarantined for smallpox."
"Nobody can come or go without the doctor's permission."
"I understand that."
"Now that you're here, I reckon you'll stay."
Miss Fabrizi uttered a smothered exclamation.
"You're crazy!" said Blake, angrily.
"Yes? Well, that's my instructions."
"I haven't been inside."
"That don't make any difference; the lady has."
"It's absurd. You can't force--"
"'Sh-h!" breathed Vittoria.
Some one had entered the kitchen at their back. A light flashed through the window, the door opened, and Mr. La Branche, clad in a rusty satin dressing-gown and carpet slippers, stood revealed, a lamp in his hand.
"I thought I heard voices," he said. "What is the trouble?"
"There's no trouble at all, sir," Blake protested, then found himself absurdly embarrassed.
Vittoria and the guard both began to speak at once, and at length she broke into laughter, saying:
"Poor Mr. Blake, I fear he has been exposed to contagion. It was necessary for him to talk with me on a matter of importance, and now this man tells him he cannot leave."
But from Papa La Branche's expression it was evident that he saw nothing humorous in the situation.
"To talk with you! At this hour!"
"I'm working for the Board of Health, and those are my orders," declared outraged authority.
"It was imperative that I see Miss Fabrizi; the blame for this complication is entirely mine," Norvin assured the old creole.
The representative of the Board of Health inquired, loudly: "Didn't the doctors tell you that nobody could come or go, Mr. La Branche?"
"But, my dear man, this is no ordinary case. Now that I have explained, I shall go, first apologizing to Mr. La Branche for disturbing him."
"No, you won't"
The master of the house stepped aside, holding his light on high.
"Miss Fabrizi is my guest," he said, quietly, "so no explanations are necessary. This man is but doing his duty, and, therefore, Mr. Blake, I fear I shall have to offer you the poor hospitality of my roof until the law permits you to leave."
"Impossible, sir! I--"
"I regret that we have never met before; but you are welcome, and I shall do my best to make you comfortable." He waved his hand commandingly toward the open door.
"Thank you, but I can't accept, really."
"I fear that you have no choice."
"But the idea is ridiculous, preposterous! I'm a busy man; I can't shut myself up this way for a week or more. Besides, I couldn't allow myself to be forced upon strangers in this manner."
"If you are a good citizen, you will respect the law," said La Branche, coldly.
"Bother the law! I have obligations! Why--the very idea is absurd! I'll see the health officers and explain at once--"
The old gentleman, however, still waited, while the watchman took his place at the top of the steps as if determined to do his duty, come, what might.
Norvin found Vittoria's eyes upon him, and saw that beneath her self-possession she was intensely embarrassed. Evidently there was nothing to do now but accept the situation and put an end to the painful scene at any sacrifice. Once inside, he could perhaps set himself right; but for the present no explanations were possible. He might have braved the Board of Health, but he could not run away from Papa La Branche's accusing eye. Bowing gravely, he said:
"You are quite right, sir, and I thank you for your hospitality. If you will lead the way, I will follow."
The two culprits entered the big, empty kitchen, then followed the rotund little figure which waddled ahead of them into the front part of the house.