The Net


17. An Obligation Is Met

Montegut La Branche paused in the front hall at the foot of the stairs.

"It is late" he said; "no doubt Mademoiselle wishes to retire."

"I would like to offer a word of explanation," Norvin ventured, but Vittoria interposed, quietly:

"Mr. La Branche is right--explanations are unnecessary." Bowing graciously to them both, she mounted the stairs into the gloom above, followed by the old Creole's polite voice:

"A pleasant sleep, Mademoiselle, and happy dreams." Leading the way into the library, he placed the lamp upon a table, then, turning to his unbidden guest, inquired, coldly, "Well?"

His black eyes were flashing underneath his gray brows, and he presented a fierce aspect despite his gown, which resembled a Mother Hubbard, and his slippers, which flapped as he walked.

"I must apologize for my intrusion," said Norvin. "I wish you to understand how it came about."

"In view of your attentions to my wife's cousin, it was unfortunate that you should have selected this time, this place, for your--er--adventure."

"Exactly! I'm wondering how to spare Miss Warren any annoyance."

"I fear that will be impossible. She must know the truth."

"She must not know; she must not guess."

"M'sieu!" exclaimed the old man. "My wife and I can take no part in your intrigues. Myra Nell is too well bred to show resentment at your conduct, no matter what may be her feelings."

Norvin flushed with exasperation, then suddenly felt ashamed of himself. Surely he could trust this chivalrous old soul with a part of the truth. Once his scruples were satisfied, the man's very sense of honor would prevent him from even thinking of what did not concern him.

"I think you will understand better," he said, "when you have heard me through. I can't tell you everything, for I am not at liberty to do so. But you know, perhaps, that I am connected with the Committee of Justice."

"I do."

"You don't know the full extent of the task with which I am charged, however."

"Perhaps not." "Its gravity may be understood when you know that I have been marked for the same fate as Chief Donnelly."

The old man started.

"My labors have taken me into many quarters. I seek information through many channels. It was upon this business, in a way, that I came to see Miss Fabrizi."

"I do not follow you."

"She is a Sicilian. She knows much which would be of value to the Committee and to me. It was necessary for me to see her alone and secretly. If the truth were known it would mean her--life, perhaps."

The Creole's bearing altered instantly.

"Say no more. I believe you to be a man of honor, and I apologize for my suspicions."

"May I trust you to respect this confidence?"

"It is sealed."

"But this doesn't entirely relieve the situation. I can't explain to Madame La Branche or to Miss Myra Nell even as much as I've explained to you."

"Some day will you relieve me from my promise of secrecy?" queried the old man, with an eager, bird-like glance from his bright eyes.

"Assuredly. As soon as we have won our fight against the Mafia."

"Then I will lie for you, and confess later. I have never lied to my wife, M'sieu--except upon rare occasions," Mr. La Branche chuckled merrily. "And even then only about trifles. So, the result? Absolute trust; supreme confidence on her part. A happy state for man and wife, is it not? Ha! I am a very good liar, an adept, as you shall see, for I am not calloused by practice and therefore liable to forgetfulness. With me a lie is always fresh in my mind; it is a matter of absorbing interest, hence I do not forget myself. Heaven knows the excitement of nursing an innocent deceit and of seeing it grow and flower under my care will be most welcome, for the monotony of this abominable confinement--But I must inquire, do you play piquet?"

"I am rather good at it," Norvin confessed, whereat Papa La Branche seemed about to embrace him.

"You are sent from heaven!" he declared. "You deliver me from darkness. Thirty-seven games of Napoleon to-day! Think of it! I was dealing the thirty-eighth when you came. But piquet! Ah, that is a game, even though my angel wife abominates it. We have still five days of this hideous imprisonment, so let us agree to an hour before lunch, an hour before dinner, then--um-,--perhaps two hours in the evening at a few cents a game, eh? You agree, my friend?" The little man peered up timidly. "Perhaps--but no, I dare say you are sleepy, and it is late."

"I should enjoy a game or two right now," Norvin falsified. "But first, don't you think we'd better rehearse our explanation of my presence?"

"A good idea. You came to see me upon business. I telephoned, and you came like a good friend, then--let me see, I was so overjoyed to see a new face that I rushed forth to greet you, and behold! that scorpion, that loathsome reptile outside pronounced you infected. He forced you to enter, even against my protestations. It was all my fault. I am desolated with regrets. Eh? How is that? You see nature designed me for a rogue."

"Excellent! But what is our important business?"

"True. Since I retired from active affairs I have no business. That is awkward, is it not? May I ask in what line you are engaged?"

"I am a cotton factor."

"Then I shall open an account with you. I shall give you money to invest. Come, there need be no deceit about that; I shall write you a check at once."

"That's hardly necessary, so long as we understand each other."

But Mr. La Branche insisted, saying:

"One lie is all that I dare undertake. I have told two at the same time, but invariably they clashed and disaster resulted. There! I trust you to make use of the money as you think best. But enough! What do women know of business? It is a mysterious word to them. Now--piquet!" He dragged Norvin to a seat at a table, then trotted away in search of cards, his slippers clap-clapping at every step as if in gleeful applause. "Shall we cut for deal, M'sieu? Ah!" He sighed gratefully as he won, and began to shuffle. "With four hours of piquet every day, and a lie upon my conscience, I feel that I shall be happy in spite of this execrable smallpox."

Myra Nell's emotions may be imagined when, on the following morning, she learned who had broken through the cordon while she slept.

"Lordy! Lordy!" she exclaimed, with round eyes. "He said he'd do it; but I didn't think he really would."

She had flounced into Vittoria's room to gossip while she combed her hair.

"Mr. La Branche says it's all his fault, and he's terribly grieved," Miss Fabrizi told her. "Now, now! Your eyes are fairly popping out."

"Wouldn't your eyes pop out if the handsomest, the richest, the bravest man in New Orleans deliberately took his life in his hands to see you and be near you?"

"But he says it was important business which brought him." Vittoria smiled guiltily.

"Tell that to your granny! You don't know men as I do. Have you really seen him? I'm not dreaming?"

"I have seen him, with these very eyes, and if you were not such a lazy little pig you'd have seen him, too. Shall you take your breakfast in your room, as usual?" Vittoria's eyes twinkled.

"Don't tease me!" Miss Warren exclaimed, with a furious blush. "I--I love to tease other people, but I can't stand it myself. Breakfast in my room, indeed! But of course I shall treat him with freezing politeness."

"Why should you pretend to be offended?"

"Don't you understand? This is bound to cause gossip. Why, the idea of Norvin Blake, the handsomest, the richest--"

"Yes, yes."

"The idea of his getting himself quarantined in the same house with me, and our being here together for days--maybe for months! Why, it will create the loveliest scandal. I'll never dare hold up my head again in public, never. You see how it must make me feel. I'm compromised." Myra Nell undertook to show horror in her features, but burst into a gale of laughter.

"Do you care for him very much?"

"I'm crazy about him! Why, dearie, after this--we're--we're almost married! Now watch me show him how deeply I'm offended."

But when she appeared in the dining-room, late as usual, her frigidity was not especially marked. On the contrary, her face rippled into one smile after another, and seizing Blake by both hands, she danced around him, singing:

"You did it! You did it! You did it! Hurrah for a jolly life in the pest-house!"

Madame La Branche was inclined to be shocked at this behavior, but inasmuch as Papa Montegut was beaming angelically upon the two young people, she allowed herself to be mollified.

"I couldn't believe Vittoria," Myra Nell told Norvin. "Don't you know the danger you run?"

Mr. La Branche exclaimed: "I am desolated at the consequences of my selfishness! I did not sleep a wink. I can never atone."

"Quite right," his wife agreed. "You must have been mad, Montegut. It was criminal of you to rush forth and embrace him in that manner."

"But, delight of my soul, the news he bore! The joy of seeing him! It unmanned me." The Creole waved his hands wildly, as if at a loss for words.

"Oh, you fibber! Norvin told me he'd never met you," said Myra Nell.

"Eh! Impossible! We are associates in business; business of a most important--But what does that term signify to you, my precious ladybird? Nothing! Enough, then, to say that he saved me from disaster. Naturally I was overjoyed and forgot myself."

His wife inquired, timidly, "Have your affairs gone disastrously?"

"Worse than that! Ruin stared us in the face until he came. Our deliverer!"

Blake flushed at this fulsome extravagance, particularly as he saw Myra Nell making faces at him.

"Fortunately everything is arranged now," he assured his hostess. But this did not satisfy Miss Warren, who, with apparent innocence, questioned the two men until Papa La Branche began to bog and flounder in his explanations. Fortunately for the men, she was diverted for the moment by discovering that the table was set for only four.

"Oh, we need another place," she exclaimed, "for Vittoria!"

The old lady said, quietly: "No, dear. While we were alone it was permissible, but it is better now in this way."

Myra Nell's ready acquiescence was a shock to Norvin, arguing, as it did, that these people regarded the Countess Margherita as an employee. Could it be that they were so utterly blind?

He was allowed little time for such thoughts, however, since Myra Nell set herself to the agreeable task of unmasking her lover and confounding Montegut La Branche. But Cousin Althea was not of a suspicious nature, and continued to beam upon her husband, albeit a trifle vaguely. Then when breakfast was out of the way the girl added to Norvin's embarrassment by flirting with him so outrageously that he was glad to flee to Papa Montegut's piquet game.

At the first opportunity he said to Vittoria: "I feel dreadfully about this. Why, they seem to think you're a--a--servant! It's unbearable!"

"That is part of my work; I am accustomed to it." She smiled.

"Then you have changed. But if they knew the truth, how differently they'd act!"

"They must never suspect; more depends upon it than you know."

"I feel horribly guilty, all the same."

"It can make no difference what they think of me. I'm afraid, however, that you have--made it--difficult for Myra Nell."

"So it appears. I didn't think of her when I entered this delightful prison."

"You had no choice."

"It wasn't altogether that. I wanted to be near you, Vittoria."

Her glance was level and cool, her voice steady. "It was chivalrous to try to spare me the necessity of explaining. The situation was trying; but we were both to blame, and now we must make the best of it. Myra Nell's misunderstanding is complete, and she will be unhappy unless you devote yourself to her."

"I simply can't. I think I'll keep to myself as much as possible."

"You don't know that girl," Vittoria said. "You think she is frivolous and inconsequent, that she has the brightness of a sunbeam and no more substance; but you are mistaken. She is good and true and steadfast underneath, and she can feel deeply."

Blake found that it was impossible to isolate himself. Mr. La Branche clung to him like a drowning man; his business affairs called him repeatedly to the telephone; Myra Nell appropriated him with all the calm assurance of a queen, and Madame La Branche insisted upon seeing personally to his every want. The only person of whom he saw little was Vittoria Fabrizi.

His disappearance, of course, required much explaining and long conversations with his office, with his associates, and with police headquarters, where his plight was regarded as a great joke. This was all very well; but there were other and unforeseen consequences.

Bernie Dreux heard of the affair with blank amazement, which turned into something resembling rage. His duty, however, was plain. He packed a valise and set out for the quarantined house like a man marching to his execution; for he had a deathly horror of disease, and smallpox was beyond compare the most loathsome.

But the Health Department had given strict orders, and he was turned away; nay, he was rudely repulsed. Crushed, humiliated, he retired to his club, and there it was that Rilleau found him, steeped in melancholy and a very insidious brand of Kentucky Bourbon.

When Lecompte accused Blake of breaking the rules of the game, the little bachelor rose resolutely to his sister's defense.

"Norvin's got a perfect right to protect her," he lied, "and I honor him for it."

"You mean he's engaged to her?" Rilleau inquired, blankly.

Bernie nodded.

"Well, so am I, so are Delevan and Mangny, and the others."

"Not this way." Mr. Dreux's alcoholic flush deepened. "He thought she was in danger, so he flew to her side. Mighty unselfish to sacrifice his business and brave the disease. He did it with my consent, y'understand? When he asked me, I said, 'Norvin, my boy, she needs you.' So he went. Unselfish is no word for it; he's a man of honor, a hero."

Mr. Rilleau's gloom thickened, and he, too, ordered the famous Bourbon. He sighed.

"I'd have done the same thing; I offered to, and I'm no hero. I suppose that ends us. It's a great disappointment, though. I hoped--during Carnival week that she'd--Well, I wanted her for my real queen."

Bernie undertook to clap the speaker on the shoulder and admonish him to buck up; but his eye was wavering and his aim so uncertain that he knocked off Mr. Rilleau's hat. With due apologies he ran on:

"She couldn't have been queen at all, only for him. He made it possible."

"I had as much to say about it as he did."

Bernie whispered: "He lent me the money, y'understand? It was all right, under the circumstances, everything being settled but the date, y'understand?"

Rilleau rose at last, saying: "You're all to be congratulated. He is the best fellow in New Orleans, and there's only one man I'd rather see your sister marry than him; that's me. Now I'm going to select a present before the rush commences. What would you think of an onyx clock with gold cupids straddling around over it?"

"Fine! I'm sorry, old man--I like you, y'understand?" Bernie upset his chair in rising to embrace his friend, then catching sight of August Kulm, who entered at the moment, he made his way to him and repeated his explanations.

Mr. Kulm was silent, attentive, despairing, and spoke vaguely of suicide, whereupon Dreux set himself to the task of drowning this Teutonic instinct in the flowing bowl.

"I don't know what has happened to the boys," Myra Nell complained to Norvin, on the second day after his arrival. "Lecompte was going to read me the Rubaiyat, and Raymond Cline promised me a bunch of orchids; but nobody has shown up."

"It's jealousy," he said, lightly.

"I suppose so. Of course it was nice of you to compromise me this way--it's delicious, in fact--but I didn't think it would scare off the others."

"You think I have compromised you?"

"You know you have, terribly. I'm engaged to all of them--everybody, in fact, except you--"

"But they know my presence here is unintentional."

"Oh! Is it, really?" She laughed.

"Don't you believe it is?"

"Goodness! Don't spoil all my pleasure. If ever I saw two cringing, self-conscious criminals, it's you and Papa Montegut. Men are so deceitful. Heigh-ho! I thought this was going to be splendid, but you play cards all day with Mr. La Branche while I die of loneliness."

"What would you like me to do?" he faltered.

"I don't know. It's very dull. Couldn't you sally forth and drag in Lecompte or Murray or Raymond?" She looked up with eyes beaming. "Bernie was furious, wasn't he?"

Mr. La Branche came trotting in with the evening newspaper in his hand. "It's in the paper," he chuckled. "Those reporters get everything."

"What's in the paper?" Myra Nell snatched the sheet from his hand and read eagerly as he went trotting out again with his slippers applauding every step. "Oh, Lordy!"

Blake read over her shoulder, and his face flushed.

"Norvin, we're really, truly engaged, now. See!" After a pause, "And you've never even asked me."

There was only one thing to say.

"Myra Nell," he began, "I want you--Will you--"

"Oh, you goose, you're not taking a cold shower!"

"Will you do me the honor to be my wife?"

She burst into delightful laughter. "So you actually have the courage to propose? Shall I take time to think it over, or shall I answer now?"

"Now, by all means."

"Very well, of course I--won't."

"Why not?" he exclaimed, with a start.

"The idea! You don't mean it!"

"I do."

"Why, Norvin, you're old enough to be my father."

"Oh, no, I'm not."

"Do you think I could marry a man with gray hair?"

"It all gets gray after a while."

"No. I'll be engaged to you, but I'll never marry any one, never. That would spoil all the fun. This very thing shows how stupid it must be; the mere rumor has scared the others away."

"You're a Mormon."

"I'm not. I'll tell you what I'll do; if I ever marry any one, I'll marry you."

"That's altogether too indefinite."

"I don't see it. Meanwhile we're engaged, aren't we?"

"If that's the case--" He reached uncertainly for her hand, and pressed it. "I--I'm very happy!"

She waited an instant, watching him shyly, then said: "Now I must show this to Vittoria. But--please don't look so frightened."

The next instant she was gone. When Miss Fabrizi entered her room, a half-hour later, it was to find her with her eyes red from weeping.

As for Norvin, he had risen to the occasion as best he could. He loved Myra Nell sincerely, tenderly, in a big-brotherly way; he would have gone to any lengths to serve her, yet he could not feel toward her as he felt toward Vittoria Fabrizi. He nerved himself to stand by his word, even though it meant the greatest sacrifice. But the thought agonized him.

Nor was he made more easy as time went on, for Mr. and Mrs. La Branche took it for granted that he was their cousin's affianced lover; and while the girl herself now bewildered him with her shy, inviting coquetry, or again berated him for placing her in an unwelcome position, he could never determine how much she really cared.

When the quarantine was finally lifted he walked out with feelings akin to those of a prisoner who has been reprieved.