Justus Miles Forman.

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"Eleven will suit me perfectly," said Ste. Marie. "You're very good.
Thanks once more!" The Irishman did not seem to hear. He replaced the
watch in his pocket and turned away in silence. But before he left the
room he stood a moment beside one of the windows, staring out into the
morning sunshine, and the other man could see that his face had once
more settled into the still and melancholic gloom which was
characteristic of it. Ste. Marie watched, and for the first time the man
began to interest him as a human being. He had thought of O'Hara before
merely as a rather shady adventurer of a not very rare type, but he
looked at the adventurer's face now and he saw that it was the face of a
man of unspeakable sorrows. When O'Hara looked at one, one saw only a
pair of singularly keen and hard blue eyes set under a bony brow. When
those eyes were turned away, the man's attention relaxed, the face
became a battle-ground furrowed and scarred with wrecked pride and with
bitterness and with shame and with agony. Most soldiers of fortune have
faces like that, for the world has used them very ill, and they have
lost one precious thing after another until all are gone, and they have
tasted everything that there is in life, and the flavor which remains is
a very bitter flavor - dry, like ashes.

It came to Ste. Marie, as he lay watching this man, that the story of
the man's life, if he could be made to tell it, would doubtless be one
of the most interesting stories in the world, as must be the tale of the
adventurous career of any one who has slipped down the ladder of
respectability, rung by rung, into that shadowy no-man's-land where the
furtive birds of prey foregather and hatch their plots. It was plain
enough that O'Hara had, as the phrase goes, seen better days. Without
question he was a villain, but, after all, a generous villain. He had
been very decent about making amends for that poisoning affair. A
cheaper rascal would have behaved otherwise. Ste. Marie suddenly
remembered what a friend of his had once said of this mysterious
Irishman. The two had been sitting on the terrace of a café, and as
O'Hara passed by Ste. Marie's friend pointed after him and said: "There
goes some of the best blood that ever came out of Ireland. See what it
has fallen to!"

Seemingly it had fallen pretty low. He would have liked very much to
know about the downward stages, but he knew that he would never hear
anything of them from the man himself, for O'Hara was clad, as it were,
in an armor of taciturnity. He was incredibly silent. He wore mail that
nothing could pierce.

The Irishman turned abruptly away and left the room, and Ste. Marie,
with all the gay excitement of a little girl preparing for her first
nursery party, began to get himself ready to go out. The old Michel had
already been there to help him bathe and shave, so that he had only to
dress himself and attend to his one conspicuous vanity - the painstaking
arrangement of his hair, which he wore, according to the fashion of the
day, parted a little at one side and brushed almost straight back, so
that it looked rather like a close-fitting and incredibly glossy
skullcap. Richard Hartley, who was inclined to joke at his friend's
grave interest in the matter, said that it reminded him of
patent-leather.

When he was dressed - and he found that putting on his left boot was no
mean feat - Ste. Marie sat down in a chair by the window and lighted a
cigarette. He had half an hour to wait, and so he picked up the volume
of _Bayard_, which Coira O'Hara had not yet taken away from him, and
began to read in it at random. He became so absorbed that the old
Michel, come to summon him, took him by surprise. But it was a pleasant
surprise and very welcome. He followed the old man out of the room with
a heart that beat fast with eagerness.

The descent of the stairs offered difficulties, for the wounded leg
protested sharply against being bent more than a very little at the
knee. But by the aid of Michel's shoulder he made the passage in safety
and so came to the lower story. At the foot of the stairs some one
opened a door almost in their faces, but closed it again with great
haste, and Ste. Marie gave a chuckle of laughter, for, though it was
almost dark there, he thought he had recognized Captain Stewart.

"So old Charlie's with us to-day, is he?" he said, aloud, and Michel
queried:

"Comment, Monsieur?" because Ste. Marie had spoken in English.

They came out upon the terrace before the house, and the fresh, sweet
air bore against their faces, and little flecks of live gold danced and
shivered about their feet upon the moss-stained tiles. The gardener
stepped back for an instant into the doorway, and reappeared bearing
across his arms the short carbine with which Ste. Marie had already made
acquaintance. The victim looked at this weapon with a laugh, and the old
Michel's gnomelike countenance distorted itself suddenly and a weird
cackle came from it.

"It is my old friend?" demanded Ste. Marie, and the gardener cackled
once more, stroking the barrel of the weapon as if it were a faithful
dog.

"The same, Monsieur," said he. "But she apologizes for not doing
better."

"Beg her for me," said the young man, "to cheer up. She may get another
chance."

Old Michel's face froze into an expression of anxious and rather
frightened solicitude, but he waved his arm for the prisoner to precede
him, and Ste. Marie began to limp down across the littered and unkempt
sweep of turf. Behind him, at the distance of a dozen paces, he heard
the shambling footfalls of his guard, but he had expected that, and it
could not rob him of his swelling and exultant joy at treading once more
upon green grass and looking up into blue sky. He was like a man newly
released from a dungeon rather than from a sunny and by no means
uncomfortable upper chamber. He would have liked to dance and sing, to
run at full speed like a child until he was breathless and red in the
face. Instead of that he had to drag himself with slow pains and some
discomfort, but his spirit ran ahead, dancing and singing, and he
thought that it even halted now and then to roll on the grass.

As he had observed a week before, from the top of the wall, a double row
of larches led straight down away from the front of the house, making a
wide and long vista interrupted half-way to its end by a rond point, in
the centre of which were a pool and a fountain. The double row of trees
was sadly broken now, and the trees were untrimmed and uncared for. One
of them had fallen, probably in a wind-storm, and lay dead across the
way. Ste. Marie turned aside toward the west and found himself presently
among chestnuts, planted in close rows, whose tops grew in so thick a
canopy above that but little sunshine came through, and there was no
turf under foot, only black earth, hard-trodden, mossy here and there.

From beyond, in the direction he had chanced to take, and a little
toward the west, a soft morning breeze bore to him the scent of roses so
constant and so sweet, despite its delicacy, that to breathe it was like
an intoxication. He felt it begin to take hold upon and to sway his
senses like an exquisite, an insidious wine.

"The flower-gardens, Michel?" he asked, over his shoulder. "They are
before us?"

"Ahead and to the left, Monsieur," said the old man, and he took up once
more his slow and difficult progress.

But again, before he had gone many steps, he was halted. There began to
reach his ears a rich but slender strain of sound, a golden thread of
melody. At first he thought that it was a 'cello or the lower notes of a
violin, but presently he became aware that it was a woman singing in a
half-voice without thought of what she sang - as women croon to a child,
or over their work, or when they are idle and their thoughts are far
wandering.

The mistake was not as absurd as it may seem, for it is a fact that the
voice which is called a contralto, if it is a good and clear and fairly
resonant voice, sounds at a distance very much indeed like a 'cello or
the lower register of a violin. And that is especially true when the
voice is hushed to a half-articulate murmur. Indeed, this is but one of
the many strange peculiarities of that most beautiful of all human
organs. The contralto can rarely express the lighter things, and it is
quite impossible for it to express merriment or gayety, but it can
thrill the heart as can no other sound emitted by a human throat, and it
can shake the soul to its very innermost hidden deeps. It is the soft,
yellow gold of singing - the wine of sound; it is mystery; it is shadowy,
unknown, beautiful places; it is enchantment. Ste. Marie stood still and
listened. The sound of low singing came from the right. Without
realizing that he had moved, he began to make his way in that direction,
and the old Michel, carbine upon arm, followed behind him. He had no
doubt of the singer. He knew well who it was, for the girl's speaking
voice had thrilled him long before this. He came to the eastern margin
of the grove of chestnuts and found that he was beside the open rond
point, where the pool lay within its stone circumference, unclean and
choked with lily-pads, and the fountain - a naked lady holding aloft a
shell - stood above. The rond point was not in reality round; it was an
oval with its greater axis at right angles to the long, straight avenue
of larches. At the two ends of the oval there were stone benches with
backs, and behind these, tall shrubs grew close and overhung, so that
even at noonday the spots were shaded.

* * * * *




XX

THE STONE BENCH AT THE ROND POINT


Mlle. Coira O'Hara sat alone upon the stone bench at the hither end of
the rond point. With a leisurely hand she put fine stitches into a
mysterious garment of white, with lace on it, and over her not too
arduous toil she sang, à demi voix, a little German song all about the
tender passions.

Ste. Marie halted his dragging steps a little way off, but the girl
heard him and turned to look. After that she rose hurriedly and stood as
if poised for flight, but Ste. Marie took his hat in his hands and came
forward.

"If you go away, Mademoiselle," said he, "if you let me drive you from
your place, I shall limp across to that pool and fall in and drown
myself, or I shall try to climb the wall yonder and Michel will have to
shoot me."

He came forward another step.

"If it is impossible," he said, "that you and I should stay here
together for a few little moments and talk about what a beautiful day it
is - if that is impossible, why then I must apologize for intruding upon
you and go on my way, inexorably pursued by the would-be murderer who
now stands six paces to the rear. Is it impossible, Mademoiselle?" said
Ste. Marie.

The girl's face was flushed with that deep and splendid understain. She
looked down upon the white garment in her hand and away across the broad
rond point, and in the end she looked up very gravely into the face of
the man who stood leaning upon his stick before her.

"I don't know," she said, in her deep voice, "what my father would wish.
I did not know that you were coming into the garden this morning, or - "

"Or else," said Ste. Marie, with a little touch of bitterness in his
tone - "or else you would not have been here. You would have remained in
the house."

He made a bow.

"To-morrow, Mademoiselle," said he, "and for the remainder of the days
that I may be at La Lierre, I shall stay in my room. You need have no
fear of me."

All the man's life he had been spoiled. The girl's bearing hurt him
absurdly, and a little of the hurt may have betrayed itself in his face
as he turned away, for she came toward him with a swift movement,
saying:

"No, no! Wait! - I have hurt you," she said, with a sort of wondering
distress. "You have let me hurt you.... And yet surely you must see,...
you must realize on what terms.... Do you forget that you are not among
your friends... outside?... This is so very different!"

"I had forgotten," said he. "Incredible as it sounds, I had for a moment
forgotten. Will you grant me your pardon for that? And yet," he
persisted, after a moment's pause - "yet, Mademoiselle, consider a
little! It is likely that - circumstances have so fallen that it seems I
shall be here within your walls for a time, perhaps a long time. I am
able to walk a little now. Day by day I shall be stronger, better able
to get about. Is there not some way - are there hot some terms under
which we could meet without embarrassment? Must we forever glare at each
other and pass by warily, just because we - well, hold different views
about - something?"

It was not a premeditated speech at all. It had never until this moment
occurred to him to suggest any such arrangement with any member of the
household at La Lierre. At another time he would doubtless have
considered it undignified, if not downright unwise, to hold intercourse
of any friendly sort with this band of contemptible adventurers. The
sudden impulse may have been born of his long week of almost intolerable
loneliness, or it may have come of the warm exhilaration of this first
breath of sweet, outdoor air, or perhaps it needed neither of these
things, for the girl was very beautiful - enchantment breathed from her,
and, though he knew what she was, in what despicable plot she was
engaged, he was too much Ste. Marie to be quite indifferent to her.
Though he looked upon her sorrowfully and with pain and vicarious shame,
he could not have denied the spell she wielded. After all, he was Ste.
Marie.

Once more the girl looked up very gravely under her brows, and her eyes
met the man's eyes. "I don't know," she said. "Truly, I don't know. I
think I should have to ask my father about it. - I wish," she said, "that
we might do that. I should like it. I should like to be able to talk to
some one - about the things I like - and care for. I used to talk with my
father about things; but not lately. There is no one now." Her eyes
searched him. "Would it be possible, I wonder," said she. "Could we two
put everything else aside - forget altogether who we are and why we are
here. Is that possible?"

"We could only try, Mademoiselle," said Ste. Marie. "If we found it a
failure we could give it up." He broke into a little laugh. "And
besides," he said, "I can't help thinking that two people ought to be
with me all the time I am in the garden here - for safety's sake. I might
catch the old Michel napping one day, you know, throttle him, take his
rifle away, and escape. If there were two, I couldn't do it."

For an instant she met his laugh with an answering smile, and the smile
came upon her sombre beauty like a moment of golden light upon darkness.
But afterward she was grave again and thoughtful. "Is it not rather
foolish," she asked, "to warn us - to warn me of possibilities like that?
You might quite easily do what you have said. You are putting us on our
guard against you."

"I meant to, Mademoiselle," said Ste. Marie. "I meant to. Consider my
reasons. Consider what I was pleading for!" And he gave a little laugh
when the color began again to rise in the girl's cheeks.

She turned away from him, shaking her head, and he thought that he had
said too much and that she was offended, but after a moment the girl
looked up, and when she met his eyes she laughed outright.

"I cannot forever be scowling and snarling at you," said she. "It is
quite too absurd. Will you sit down for a little while? I don't know
whether or not my father would approve, but we have met here by
accident, and there can be no harm, surely, in our exchanging a few
civil words. If you try to bring up forbidden topics I can simply go
away; and, besides, Michel stands ready to murder you if it should
become necessary. I think his failure of a week ago is very heavy on his
conscience."

Ste. Marie sat down in one corner of the long stone bench, and he was
very glad to do it, for his leg was beginning to cause him some
discomfort. It felt hot and as if there were a very tight band round it
above the knee. The relief must have been apparent in his face, for
Mlle. O'Hara looked at him in silence for a moment, and she gave a
little, troubled, anxious frown. Men can be quite indifferent to
suffering in each other if the suffering is not extreme, and women can
be, too, but men are quite miserable in the presence of a woman who is
in pain, and women, before a suffering man, while they are not
miserable, are always full of a desire to do something that will help.
And that might be a small, additional proof - if any more proof were
necessary - that they are much the more practical of the two sexes.

The girl's sharp glance seemed to assure her that Ste. Marie was
comfortable, now that he was sitting down, for the frown went from her
brows, and she began to arrange the mysterious white garment in her lap
in preparation to go on with her work.

Ste. Marie watched her for a while in a contented silence. The leaves
overhead stirred under a puff of air, and a single yellow beam of
sunlight came down and shivered upon the girl's dark head and played
about the bundle of white over which her hands were busy. She moved
aside to avoid it, but it followed her, and when she moved back it
followed again and danced in her lap as if it were a live thing with a
malicious sense of humor. It might have been Tinker Bell out of _Peter
Pan_, only it did not jingle. Mlle. O'Hara uttered an exclamation of
annoyance, and Ste. Marie laughed at her, but in a moment the leaves
overhead were still again, and the sunbeam, with a sense of humor, was
gone to torment some one else.

Still neither of the two spoke, and Ste. Marie continued to watch the
girl bent above her sewing. He Was thinking of what she had said to him
when he asked her if she read Spanish - that her mother had been Spanish.
That would account, then, for her dark eyes. It would account for the
darkness of her skin, too, but not for its extraordinary clearness and
delicacy, for Spanish women are apt to have dull skins of an opaque
texture. This was, he said to himself, an Irish skin with a darker
stain, and he was quite sure that he had never before seen anything at
all like it.

Apart from coloring, she was all Irish, of the type which has become
famous the world over, and which in the opinion of men who have seen
women in all countries, and have studied them, is the most beautiful
type that exists in our time.

Ste. Marie was dark himself, and in the ordinary nature of things he
should have preferred a fair type in women. In theory, for that matter,
he did prefer it, but it was impossible for him to sit near Coira O'Hara
and watch her bent head and busy, hovering hands, and remain unstirred
by her splendid beauty. He found himself wondering why one kind of
loveliness more than another should exert a potent and mysterious spell
by virtue of mere proximity, and when the woman who bore it was entirely
passive. If this girl had been looking at him the matter would have been
easy to understand, for an eye-glance is often downright hypnotic; but
she was looking at the work in her hands, and, so far as could be
judged, she had altogether forgotten his presence; yet the mysterious
spell, the potent enchantment, breathed from her like a vapor, and he
could not be insensible to it. It was like sorcery.

The girl looked up so suddenly that Ste. Marie jumped. She said:

"You are not a very talkative person. Are you always as silent as this?"

"No," said he, "I am not. I offer my humblest apologies. It seems as if
I were not properly grateful for being allowed to sit here with you,
but, to tell the truth, I was buried in thought."

They had begun to talk in French, but midway of Ste. Marie's speech the
girl glanced toward the old Michel, who stood a short distance away, and
so he changed to English.

"In that case," she said, regarding her work with her head on one side
like a bird - "in that case you might at least tell me what your thoughts
were. They might be interesting."

Ste. Marie gave a little embarrassed laugh.

"I'm sorry," said he, "but I'm afraid they were too personal. I'm afraid
if I told you you'd get up and go away and be frigidly polite to me when
next we passed each other in the garden here. But there's no harm," he
said, "in telling you one thing that occurred to me. It occurred to me
that, as far as a young girl can be said to resemble an elderly woman,
you bear a most remarkable resemblance to a very dear old friend of mine
who lives near Dublin - Lady Margaret Craith. She's a widow, and almost
all of her family are dead, I believe - I didn't know any of them - and
she lives there in a huge old house with a park, quite alone with her
army of servants. I go to see her whenever I'm in Ireland, because she
is one of the sweetest souls I have ever known."

He became aware suddenly that Mlle. O'Hara's head was bent very low over
her sewing and that her face, or as much of it as he could see, was
crimson.

"Oh, I - I beg your pardon!" cried Ste. Marie. "I've done something
dreadful. I don't know what it is, but I'm very, very sorry. Please
forgive me if you can!"

"It is nothing," she said, in a low voice, and after a moment she looked
up for the swiftest possible glance and down again. "That is my - aunt,"
she said. "Only - please let us talk about something else! Of course you
couldn't possibly have known."

"No," said Ste. Marie, gravely. "No, of course. You are very good to
forgive me."

He was silent a little while, for what the girl had told him surprised
him very much indeed, and touched him, too. He remembered again the
remark of his friend when O'Hara had passed them on the boulevard:

"There goes some of the best blood that ever came out of Ireland. See
what it has fallen to!"

"It is a curious fact," said he, "that you and I are very close
compatriots in the matter of blood - if 'compatriots' is the word. You
are Irish and Spanish. My mother was Irish and my people were Béarnais,
which is about as much Spanish as French; and, indeed, there was a great
deal of blood from across the mountains in them, for they often married
Spanish wives."

He pulled the _Bayard_ out of his pocket.

"The Ste. Marie in here married a Spanish lady, didn't he?"

The girl looked up to him once more.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, I remember. He was a brave man, Monsieur. He had
a great soul. And he died nobly."

"Well, as for that," he said, flushing a little, "the Ste. Maries have
all died rather well."

He gave a short laugh.

"Though I must admit," said he, "that the last of them came precious
near falling below the family standard a week ago. I should think that
probably none of my respected forefathers was killed in climbing over a
garden-wall. Autres temps, autres moeurs."

He burst out laughing again at what seemed to him rather comic, but
Mlle. O'Hara did not smile. She looked very gravely into his eyes, and
there seemed to be something like sorrow in her look. Ste. Marie
wondered at it, but after a moment it occurred to him that he was very
near forbidden ground, and that doubtless the girl was trying to give
him a silent warning of it. He began to turn over the leaves of the book
in his hand.

"You have marked a great many pages here," said he.

And she said: "It is my best of all books. I read in it very often. I am
so thankful for it that there are no words to say how thankful I am - how
glad I am that I have such a world as that to - take refuge in sometimes
when this world is a little too unbearable. It does for me now what the
fairy stories did when I was little. And to think that it's true, true!
To think that once there truly were men like that - sans peur et sans
reproche! It makes life worth while to think that those men lived even
if it was long ago."

Ste. Marie bent his head over the little book, for he could not look at
Mlle. O'Hara just then. It seemed to him well-nigh the most pathetic
speech that he had ever heard. His heart bled for her. Out of what mean
shadows had the girl to turn her weary eyes upward to this sunlight of
ancient heroism!

"And yet, Mademoiselle," said he, gently, "I think there are such men
alive to-day, if only one will look for them. Remember, they were not
common even in Bayard's time. Oh yes, I think there are preux chevaliers
nowadays, only perhaps they don't go about things in quite the same
fashion. Other times, other manners," he said again.

"Do you know any such men?" she demanded, facing him with shadowy eyes.

And he said: "Yes, I know men who are in all ways as honorable and as


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Online LibraryJustus Miles FormanJason → online text (page 16 of 23)