26. At The Dusk
Within two days the city had regained its customary calm. It had, in fact, settled down to a more placid mood than at any time since the murder of Chief Donnelly. Immediately after the lynching the citizens had dispersed to their homes. No prisoners except the Mafiosi had been harmed, and of those who had been sought not one had escaped. The damage to the parish prison did not amount to fifty dollars. Through the community spread a feeling of satisfaction, which horror at the terrible details of the slaughter could not destroy. There was nowhere the slightest effort at dodging responsibility; those who had led in the assault were the best-known citizens and openly acknowledged their parts. It was realized now, even more fully than before the event, that the course pursued had been the only one compatible with public safety; and, while every one deplored the necessity of lynchings in general, there was no regret at this one, shocking as it had been.
This state of mind was reflected by the local press, and, for that matter, by the press of all the Southern cities where the gravity of the situation had become known, while to lend it further countenance, the Cotton Exchange, the Board of Trade, and the Chamber of Commerce promptly passed resolutions commending the action of the vigilance committee. There was some talk of legal proceedings; but no one took it seriously, except the police, who felt obliged to excuse their dereliction. Of course, the stir was national--international, indeed, since Italy demanded particulars; but, serene in the sense of an unpleasant duty thoroughly performed, New Orleans did not trouble to explain, except by a bare recital of facts.
In spite of the passive part he had played, Blake was perhaps more deeply affected by the doings at the prison than any other member of the party, and during the interval that followed he did not trust himself to see Vittoria. There was a double reason for this, for he not only recalled their last interview with consternation, but he still had a guilty feeling about Myra Nell. On the second afternoon after the lynching Bernie Dreux dropped in to tell him of his sister's return from Mobile.
"She read that I took a hand in the fuss," Bernie explained, "but, of course, she has no idea I did so much actual shooting. When she told me she was going to see you this afternoon, I came to warn you not to expose me."
"Do you regret your part?"
"Not the least bit. I'm merely surprised at myself."
"You surprised all your friends," Blake said, with a smile. "You seem to have changed lately."
In truth, the difference in Dreux's bearing was noteworthy, and many had remarked upon it. The dignity and force which had enveloped the little beau for the first time when he stood before the assembled thousands still clung to him; his eyes were steady and bright and purposeful; he had lost his wavering, deprecatory manner.
"Yes, I've just come of age," he declared, with some satisfaction. "I realize that I'm free, white, and twenty-one, for the first time. I'm going to quit idling and do something."
"What, for instance?"
"Well, I'm going to marry Felicite, to begin with, then maybe some of my friends will give me a job."
"I will," said Blake.
"Thanks, but--I'd rather impose on somebody else at the start. I want to make good on my own merits, understand? I've lived off my relatives long enough. It's just as bad to let the deceased members of your family support you as to allow the live ones--"
"Bernie!" Blake interrupted, gravely. "I'm afraid I won't marry Myra Nell."
"You think she won't have you, eh? She has been acting queerly of late; but leave it to me."
Norvin was spared the necessity of further explanation by the arrival of the girl herself. Miss Warren seemed strangely lacking in her usual abundance of animal spirits; she was obviously ill at ease, and the sight of her brother did not lessen her embarrassment. During the brief interchange of pleasantries her eyes were fixed upon Blake with a troubled gaze.
"We--I just ran in for a moment," she said, and seemed upon the point of leaving after inquiring solicitously about his health.
"My dear," said Bernie, with elaborate unction, "Norvin and I have just been discussing your engagement."
Miss Warren gasped and turned pale; Blake stammered.
With a desperate effort the girl inquired:
"D--do you love me, Norvin?"
"Of course I do."
"See!" Bernie nodded his satisfaction.
"Oh, Lordy!" said Myra Nell. "I--can't marry you, dear."
"What?" Blake knew that his expression was changing, and tried to stifle his relief.
As for Bernie, he flushed angrily, and his voice rang with his newly born determination.
"Don't be silly. Didn't he just say he loved you? And, for heaven's sake, don't look so scared. We won't devour you."
"I can't marry him," declared the girl, once more.
"Be-because I'm already married! There! Jimmy! I've been trying to get that out for a month."
Dreux gasped. "Myra Nell! You're crazy!"
She nodded, then turned to Blake with a look of entreaty, "P-please don't kill yourself, dear? I couldn't help it."
"Why, you poor frightened little thing! I'm delighted! I am indeed," he told her, reassuringly.
"Don't you care? Aren't you going to storm and--and raise the dickens?" she queried. "Maybe this is your way of hiding your despair?"
"Not at all. I'm glad--so long as you're happy."
"And you're not mad with anguish nor crushed with--Why, the idea! I'm perfectly furious!
I ran away because I was afraid of you, and I haven't seen my husband once, not once, do you understand, since we were married. Oh, you--brute!
By this time Dreux had recovered his power of speech, and yelled in furious voice:
"Who is the reptile?"
There came a timid rap, the office door opened, and Lecompte Rilleau inserted his head, saying gently:
"Me! I! I'm it!"
Blake rose so suddenly that his chair upset, whereupon Rilleau, who saw in this abrupt movement a threat, propelled himself fully into view, crying with determination:
"Here! Don't you touch her! She's mine! You take it out of me!"
Blake's answering laugh seemed so out of character that the bridegroom took it as merely a new phase of insanity, and edged in front of his wife protectingly.
"I wanted to come in at first and break the news, but she wouldn't let me," he explained.
"You have a weak heart. You--you mustn't fight!" implored Myra Nell; but Lecompte only shrugged.
"P-PLEASE DON'T KILL YOURSELF, DEAR? I COULDN'T HELP IT"
"That's all a bluff." Then to Norvin: "I'll admit it was
a mean trick, and I guess my heart really might have petered out if she'd married you; but I'm all right now, and you can have satisfaction."
"I don't know whether to be angry or amused at you children," Norvin told them. "Understand, once for all, that our engagement wasn't serious. There have been a lot of mistakes and misunderstandings--that's all. Now tell us how and when this all happened."
"Y-yes!" echoed Bernie, who was still dazed.
Myra Nell seemed more chagrined than relieved.
"It was perfectly simple," she informed them. "It happened during the Carnival. I--never heard a man talk the way he did, and I was really worried about his heart. I said no--for fifteen minutes, then we arranged to be married secretly. When it was all over, I was frightened and ran away. You're such a deep, desperate, unforgiving person, Norvin. I--I think it was positively horrid of you."
"Good Lord!" breathed her brother. "What a perverted sense of responsibility!"
"Are we forgiven?"
"It's all right with me, if it is with Norvin," said Bernie, somewhat doubtfully.
"Forgiven?" Blake took the youthful pair by the hands, and in his eyes was a brightness they had never seen. "Of course you are, and let me tell you that you haven't cornered all the love in the world. I've never cared but for one woman. Perhaps you will wish me as much happiness as I wish you both?"
"Then you have found your Italian girl?" queried Myra Nell, with flashing eagerness.
"Vittoria!" Miss Warren shrieked. "Vittoria--a countess!
So, she's the one who spoiled everything?"
"Gee! You'll be a count," said Rilleau.
There followed a period of laughing, incoherent explanations, and then the beaming bridegroom tugged at Myra Nell's sleeve, saying:
"Now that it's all over, I'm mighty tired of being a widower."
She flung her arms about his neck and lifted her blushing face to his, explaining to her half-brother, when she could:
"I don't know what you'll do without some one to look after you, Bernie, but--it's perfectly grand to elope."
Dreux rose with a grin and winked at Norvin as he said:
"Oh, don't mind me. I'll get along all right." And seizing his hat he rushed out with his thin face all ablaze. When Blake was finally alone, he closed his desk and with bounding heart set out for the foreign quarter. His day had dawned; he could hardly contain himself. But, as he neared his goal, strange doubts and indecisions arose in his mind; and when he had reached Oliveta's house he passed on, lacking courage to enter. He decided it was too soon after the tragedy at the parish prison to press his suit; that to intrude himself now would be in offensively bad taste. Then, too, he began to reason that if Margherita had wished to see him she would have sent for him--all in all, the hour was decidedly unpropitious. He dared not risk his future happiness upon a blundering, ill-timed declaration; therefore he walked onward. But no sooner had he passed the house than a thousand voices urged him to return, in this the hour of the girl's loneliness, and lay his devotion at her feet. Torn thus by hesitation and by the sense of his unworthiness, he walked the streets, hour after hour. At one moment he approached the house desperately determined; the next he fled, mastered by the fear of dismissal. So he continued his miserable wanderings on into the dusk.
Twilight was settling when Margherita Ginini finished her packing. The big living-room was stripped of its furnishings; trunks and cases stood about in a desolate confusion. There was no look of home or comfort remaining anywhere, and the whole house echoed dismally to her footsteps. From the rear came the sound of Oliveta's listless preparations.
Pausing at an open window, Margherita looked down upon the street which she had grown to love--the suggestion of darkness had softened it, mellowed it with a twilight beauty, like the face of an old friend seen in the glow of lamplight. The shouting of urchins at play floated upward, stirring the chords of motherhood in her breast and emphasizing her loneliness. With Oliveta gone what would be left? Nothing but an austere life compressed within drab walls; nothing but sickness and suffering on every side. She had begun to think a great deal about those walls of late and--The bells of a convent pealed out softly in the distance, bringing a tightness to her throat. In spite of herself she shuddered. Those laughing children's voices mocked at her empty life. They seemed always to jeer at that hungry mother-love, but never quite so loudly as now. She remembered surprising Norvin Blake at play with these very children one day, and the half-abashed, half-defiant light in his eyes when he discovered her watching him. Thinking of him, she recalled just such another twilight hour as this when, in a whirl of shamed emotion, she had been compelled to face the fact of her love. A sudden trembling weakness seized her at the memory, and she saw again those cold gray walls, which never echoed to the gleeful crowing of babes or the thrilling merriment of little voices. In that brief hour of her awakening life had opened gloriously, bewilderingly, only to close again, leaving her soul bruised and sore with rebellion.
She crossed the floor listlessly in answer to a knock, for the repeated attentions of her neighbors, although sincere and touching, were intrusive; then she fell back at sight of the man who entered.
The magic of this evening hour had brought him to her in spite of all his fears; but his heart was in his throat, and he could hardly manage a greeting. As he passed the threshold of the disordered room he looked round him in dismay.
"What is this?" he asked.
"Oliveta is going home to Sicily. It is our parting."
"To-morrow--I go to the Sisters."
"No, no!" he cried, in a voice which thrilled her. "I won't let you. For hours I've been trying to come here--Dearest, don't answer until you know everything. Sometimes I fear I was the one who was dreaming at that moment when you confessed you loved me, for it is all so unreal--But my love is not unreal. It has lived with me night and day since that first moment at Terranova--I couldn't speak before, but all these years seem only hours, and I've been living in the gardens of Sicily where you first smiled at me and awoke this love. You asked me to take no part--I had to refuse--I've tried to make a man of myself, not for my own sake, not for what the world would say, but for you--"
In the tumult of feeling that his words aroused she held fast to one thought.
"What--what about Myra Nell?" she gasped.
"Myra Nell is married!"
The curling lashes which had lain half closed during his headlong speech flew open to display a look of wonderment and dawning gladness.
"Yes," he reiterated. "She is married. She has been married ever since the Carnival, and she's very happy. But I didn't know. I was tied by a miserable misunderstanding, so I couldn't come to you honestly until today. And now--I--I'm--afraid--"
"What do you fear?" she heard herself say. The breathless delight of this moment was so intense that she toyed with it, fearing to lose the smallest part. She withheld the confession trembling upon her lips which he was too timid to take for granted, too blind to see.
"Can you take me, in spite of my wretched cowardice back there in Sicily? I would understand, dear, if you couldn't forget it, but--I love you so--I tried so hard to make myself worthy--you'll never know how hard it was--I couldn't do what you asked me, the other day, but, thank God, my hands are clean."
He held them out as if in evidence; then, to his great, his never-ending surprise, she came forward and placed her two palms in his. She stood looking gravely at him, her surrender plain in the curve of her tremulous lip, the droop of her faltering, silk-fringed lids.
Knowledge came to him with a blinding, suffocating suddenness which set his brain to reeling and wrung a rapturous cry from his throat.
After a long time he felt her shudder in his arms.
"What is it, heart of my life?" he whispered, without lifting his lips from her tawny cloud of hair.
"Those walls!" she said. "Those cold, gray walls!"
A sob rose, caught, then changed to a laugh of deep contentment, and she nestled closer.
Children's voices were wafted up to them through the fragrant, peaceful dusk, and the two fell silent again, until Oliveta came and stood beside them with her face transfigured.
"God be praised!" said the peasant girl, as she put her hands in theirs. "Something told me I should not return to Sicily alone."