The Firing Line - Robert William Chambers - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1908

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About
Chapter 1 - A SKIRMISH
Chapter 2 - A LANDING
Chapter 3 - AN ADVANCE

About Chambers:

Robert William Chambers (May 26, 1865 – December 16, 1933) was an American artist and writer. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to William P. Chambers (1827 - 1911), a famous lawyer, and Caroline Chambers (née Boughton), a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island. Robert's brother was Walter Boughton Chambers, the world famous architect. Robert was first educated at the the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute,and then entered the Art Students' League at around the age of twenty, where the artist Charles Dana Gibson was his fellow student. Chambers studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and at Académie Julian, in Paris from 1886 to 1893, and his work was displayed at the Salon as early as 1889. On his return to New York, he succeeded in selling his illustrations to Life, Truth, and Vogue magazines. Then, for reasons unclear, he devoted his time to writing, producing his first novel, In the Quarter (written in 1887 in Munich ) . His most famous, and perhaps most meritorious, effort is The King in Yellow, a collection of weird fiction short stories, connected by the theme of a book (to which the title refers) which drives those who read it insane. Chambers' fictitious drama The King in Yellow features in Karl Edward Wagner's story "The River of Night's Dreaming", while James Blish's story "More Light" purports to include much of the actual text of the play. Chambers later turned to writing romantic fiction to earn a living. According to some estimates, Chambers was one of the most successful literary careers of his period, his later novels selling well and a handful achieving best-seller status. Many of his works were also serialized in magazines. After 1924 he devoted himself solely to writing Historical fiction . On July 12, 1898, he married Elsa Vaughn Moller (1882-1939). They had a son, Robert Edward Stuart Chambers (later calling himself Robert Husted Chambers) who also gained some fame as an author. H. P. Lovecraft said of him in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans - equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them." Frederic Taber Cooper commented, "So much of Chambers's work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better." He died in New York on December 16th 1933. A critical essay on Chambers' work appears in S. T. Joshi's book The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004). Source: Wikipedia

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Chapter 1 A SKIRMISH

As the wind veered and grew cooler a ribbon of haze appeared above the Gulf-stream.

Young Hamil, resting on his oars, gazed absently into the creeping mist. Under it the ocean sparkled with subdued brilliancy; through it, shoreward, green palms and palmettos turned silvery; and, as the fog spread, the sea-pier, the vast white hotel, bathing-house, cottage, pavilion, faded to phantoms tinted with rose and pearl.

Leaning there on his oars, he could still make out the distant sands flecked with the colours of sunshades and bathing-skirts; the breeze dried his hair and limbs, but his swimming-shirt and trunks still dripped salt water.

Inshore a dory of the beach guard drifted along the outer line of breakers beyond which the more adventurous bathers were diving from an anchored raft. Still farther out moving dots indicated the progress of hardier swimmers; one in particular, a girl capped with a brilliant red kerchief, seemed to be already nearer to Hamil than to the shore.

It was all very new and interesting to him—the shore with its spectral palms and giant caravansary, the misty, opalescent sea where a white steam-yacht lay anchored north of him—the Ariani—from which he had come, and on board of which the others were still doubtless asleep—Portlaw, Malcourt, and Wayward. And at thought of the others he yawned and moistened his lips, still feverish from last night's unwisdom; and leaning forward on his oars, sat brooding, cradled by the flowing motion of the sea.

The wind was still drawing into the north; he felt it, never strong, but always a little cooler, in his hair and on his wet swimming-shirt. The flat cloud along the Gulf-stream spread thickly coastward, and after a little while the ghosts of things terrestrial disappeared.

All around him, now, blankness—save for the gray silhouette of the Ariani. A colourless canopy surrounded him, centred by a tiny pool of ocean. Overhead through the vanishing blue, hundreds of wild duck were stringing out to sea; under his tent of fog the tarnished silver of the water formed a floor smoothly unquiet.

Sounds from the land, hitherto unheard, now came strangely distinct; the cries of bathers, laughter, the muffled shock of the surf, doubled and redoubled along the sands; the barking of a dog at the water's edge. Clear and near sounded the ship's bell on the Ariani; a moment's rattle of block and tackle, a dull call, answered; and silence. Through which, without a sound, swept a great bird with scarce a beat of its spread wings; and behind it, another, and, at exact intervals another and another in impressive processional, sailing majestically through the fog; white pelicans winging inland to the lagoons.

A few minutes later the wind, which had become fitful, suddenly grew warm. All around him now the mist was dissolving into a thin golden rain; the land-breeze freshened, blowing through distant jasmine thickets and orange groves, and a soft fragrance stole out over the sea.

As the sun broke through in misty splendour, the young man, brooding on his oars, closed his eyes; and at the same instant his boat careened violently, almost capsizing as a slender wet shape clambered aboard and dropped into the bows. As the boat heeled under the shock Hamil had instinctively flung his whole weight against the starboard gunwale. Now he recovered his oars and his balance at the same time, and, as he swung half around, his unceremonious visitor struggled to sit upright, still fighting for breath.

"I beg your pardon," she managed to say; "may I rest here? I am—" She stopped short; a flash of sudden recognition came into her eyes—flickered, and faded. It was evident to him that, for a moment, she thought she had met him before.

"Of course you may stay here," he said, inclined to laugh.

She settled down, stretching slightly backward as though to give her lungs fuller play. In a little while her breathing grew more regular; her eyes closed for a moment, then opened thoughtfully, skyward.

Hamil's curious and half-amused gaze rested on her as he resumed the oars. But when he turned his back and headed the boat shoreward a quick protest checked him, and oars at rest, he turned again, looking inquiringly at her over his shoulder.

"I am only rowing you back to the beach," he said.

"Don't row me in; I am perfectly able to swim back."

"No doubt," he returned drily, "but haven't you played tag with Death sufficiently for one day?"

"Death?" She dismissed the grotesque suggestion with a shrug, then straightened up, breathing freely and deeply. "It is an easy swim," she remarked, occupied with her wet hair under the knotted scarlet; "the fog confused me; that was all."

"And how long could you have kept afloat if the fog had not lifted?" he inquired with gentle sarcasm. To which, adroitly adjusting hair and kerchief, she made no answer. So he added: "There is supposed to be a difference between mature courage and the fool-hardiness of the unfledged—"

"What?"

The quick close-clipped question cutting his own words silenced him. And, as he made no reply, she continued to twist the red kerchief around her hair, and to knot it securely, her doubtful glance returning once or twice to his amused face.

When all had been made fast and secure she rested one arm on the gunwale and dropped the other across her knees, relaxing in every muscle a moment before departure. And, somehow, to Hamil, the unconscious grace of the attitude suggested the "Resting Hermes"—that sculptured concentration of suspended motion.

"You had better not go just yet," he said, pointing seaward.

She also had been watching the same thing that he was now looking at, a thin haze which again became apparent over the Gulf-stream.

"Do you think it will thicken?" she asked.

"I don't know; you had a close call last time—"

"There was no danger."

"I think there was danger enough; you were apparently headed straight out to sea—"

"I heard a ship's bell and swam toward it, and when the fog lifted I found you."

"Why didn't you swim toward the shore? You could hear the surf—and a dog barking."

"I"—she turned pink with annoyance—"I suppose I was a trifle tired—if you insist. I realised that I had lost my bearings; that was all. Then I heard a ship's bell… . Then the mist lifted and I saw you—but I've explained all that before. Look at that exasperating fog!"

Vexation silenced her; she sat restless for a few seconds, then:

"What do you think I had better do?"

"I think you had better try to endure me for a few minutes longer. I'm safer than the fog."

But his amusement left her unresponsive, plainly occupied with her own ideas.

Again the tent of vapour stretched its magic folds above the boat and around it; again the shoreward shapes faded to phantoms and disappeared.

He spoke again once or twice, but her brief replies did not encourage him. At first, he concluded that her inattention and indifference must be due to self-consciousness; then, slightly annoyed, he decided they were not. And, very gradually, he began to realise that the unconventional, always so attractive to the casual young man, did not interest her at all, even enough to be aware of it or of him.

This cool unconsciousness of self, of him, of a situation which to any wholesome masculine mind contained the germs of humour, romance, and all sorts of amusing possibilities, began to be a little irksome to him. And still her aloofness amused him, too.

"Do you know of any decorous reason why we should not talk to each other occasionally during this fog?" he asked.

She turned her head, considered him inattentively, then turned it away again.

"No," she said indifferently; "what did you desire to say?"

Resting on his oars, the unrequited smile still forlornly edging his lips, he looked at his visitor, who was staring into the fog, lost in her own reflections; and never a glimmer in her eyes, never a quiver of lid or lash betrayed any consciousness of his gaze or even of his presence. And he continued to inspect her with increasing annoyance.

The smooth skin, the vivid lips slightly upcurled, the straight delicate nose, the cheeks so smoothly rounded where the dark thick lashes swept their bloom as she looked downward at the water—all this was abstractly beautiful; very lovely, too, the full column of the neck, and the rounded arms guiltless of sunburn or tan.

So unusually white were both neck and arms that Hamil ventured to speak of it, politely, asking her if this was not her first swim that season.

Voice and question roused her from abstraction; she turned toward him, then glanced down at her unstained skin.

"My first swim?" she repeated; "oh, you mean my arms? No, I never burn; they change very little." Straightening up she sat looking across the boat at him without visible interest at first, then doubtfully, as though in an effort to say something polite.

"I am really very grateful to you for letting me sit here. Please don't feel obliged to amuse me during this annoying fog."

"Thank you; you are rather difficult to talk to. But I don't mind trying at judicious intervals," he said, laughing.

She considered him askance. "If you wish to row in, do so. I did not mean to keep you here at sea—"

"Oh, I belong out here; I'm from the Ariani yonder; you heard her bell in the fog. We came from Nassau last night… . Have you ever been to Nassau?"

The girl nodded listlessly and glanced at the white yacht, now becoming visible through the thinning mist. Somewhere above in the viewless void an aura grew and spread into a blinding glory; and all around, once more, the fog turned into floating golden vapour shot with rain.

The girl placed both hands on the gunwales as though preparing to rise.

"Not yet!" said Hamil sharply.

"I beg your pardon?"—looking up surprised, still poised lightly on both palms as though checked at the instant of rising into swift aërial flight—so light, so buoyant she appeared.

"Don't go overboard," he repeated.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm going to row you in."

"I wish to swim; I prefer it."

"I am only going to take you to the float—"

"But I don't care to have you. I am perfectly able to swim in—"

"I know you are," he said, swinging clear around in his seat to face her, "but I put it in the form of a request; will you be kind enough to let me row you part way to the float? This fog is not ended."

She opened her lips to protest; indeed, for a moment it looked as if she were going overboard without further argument; then perhaps some belated idea of civility due him for the hospitality of his boat restrained her.

"You understand, of course, that I am quite able to swim in," she said.

"Yes; may I now row you part way? The fog is closing in again."

She yielded with a pretty indifference, none the less charming because there was no flattery in it for him. He now sat facing her, pushing his oars through the water; and she stole a curious glance at his features—slightly sullen for the moment—noticing his well-set, well-shaped head and good shoulders.

That fugitive glance confirmed the impression of recognition in her mind. He was what she had expected in breeding and physique—the type usually to be met with where the world can afford to take its leisure.

As he was not looking at her she ventured to continue her inspection, leaning back, and dropping her bare arm alongside, to trail her fingers through the sunlit water.

"Have we not rowed far enough?" she asked presently. "This fog is apparently going to last forever."

"Like your silence," he said gaily.

Raising her eyes in displeasure she met his own frankly amused.

"Shall I tell you," he asked, "exactly why I insisted on rowing you in? I'm afraid"—he glanced at her with the quick smile breaking again on his lips—"I'm afraid you don't care whether I tell you or not. Do you?"

"If you ask me—I really don't," she said. "And, by the way, do you know that if you turned around properly and faced the stern you could make better progress with your oars?"

"By 'better' do you mean quicker progress?" he asked, so naively that she concluded he was a trifle stupid. The best-looking ones were usually stupid.

"Yes, of course," she said, impatient. "It's all very well to push a punt across a mill-pond that way, but it's not treating the Atlantic with very much respect."

"You were not particularly respectful toward the Atlantic Ocean when you started to swim across it."

But again the echo of amusement in his voice found no response in her unsmiling silence.

He thought to himself: "Is she a prude, or merely stupid! The pity of it!—with her eyes of a thinking goddess!—and no ideas behind them! What she understands is the commonplace. Let us offer her the obvious."

And, aloud, fatuously: "This is a rarely beautiful scene—"

"What?" crisply.

And feeling mildly wicked he continued:

—"Soft skies, a sea of Ionian azure; one might almost expect to see a triareme heading up yonder out of the south, festooned with the golden fleece. This is just the sort of a scene for a triareme; don't you think so?"

Her reply was the slightest possible nod.

He looked at her meanly amused:

"It's really very classical," he said, "like the voyage of Ulysses; I, Ulysses, you the water nymph Calypso, drifting in that golden ship of Romance—"

"Calypso was a land nymph," she observed, absently, "if accuracy interests you as much as your monologue."

Checked and surprised, he began to laugh at his own discomfiture; and she, elbow on the gunwale, small hand cupping her chin, watched him with an expressionless directness that very soon extinguished his amusement and left him awkward in the silence.

"I've tried my very best to be civil and agreeable," he said after a moment. "Is it really such an effort for you to talk to a man?"

"Not if I am interested," she said quietly.

He felt that his ears were growing red; she noticed it, too, and added: "I do not mean to be too rude; and I am quite sure you do not either."

"Of course not," he said; "only I couldn't help seeing the humour of romance in our ocean encounter. I think anybody would—except you—"

"What?"

The crisp, quick question which, with her, usually seemed like an exclamation, always startled him into temporary silence; then he began more carefully:

"There was one chance in a million of your finding my boat in the fog. If you hadn't found it—" He shook his head. "And so I wish you might recognise in our encounter something amusing, humourous"—he looked cautiously at her—"even mildly romantic—ah—enough to—to—"

"To what?"

"Why—to say—to do something characteristically—ah—"

"What?"

"—Human!" he ventured—quite prepared to see her rise wrathfully and go overboard.

Instead she remained motionless, those clear, disconcerting eyes fixed steadily on him. Once or twice he thought that her upper lip quivered; that some delicate demon of laughter was trying to look out at him under the lashes; but not a lid twitched; the vivid lips rested gravely upon each other. After a silence she said:

"What is it, human, that you expect me to do? Flirt with you?"

"Good Lord, no!" he said, stampeded.

She was now paying him the compliment of her full attention; he felt the dubious flattery, although it slightly scared him.

"Why is it," she asked, "that a man is eternally occupied in thinking about the effect he produces on woman—whether or not he knows her—that seems to make no difference at all? Why is it?"

He turned redder; she sat curled up, nursing both ankles, and contemplating him with impersonal and searching curiosity.

"Tell me," she said; "is there any earthly reason why you and I should be interested in each other—enough, I mean, to make any effort toward civility beyond the bounds of ordinary convention?"

He did not answer.

"Because," she added, "if there is not, any such effort on your part borders rather closely on the offensive. And I am quite sure you do not intend that."

He was indignant now, but utterly incapable of retort.

"Is there anything romantic in it because a chance swimmer rests a few moments in somebody's boat?" she asked. "Is that chance swimmer superhuman or inhuman or ultra-human because she is not consciously, and simperingly, preoccupied with the fact that there happens to be a man in her vicinity?"

"Good heavens!" he broke out, "do you think I'm that sort of noodle—"

"But I don't think about you at all," she interrupted; "there is not a thought that I have which concerns you as an individual. My homily is delivered in the abstract. Can't you—in the abstract—understand that?—even if you are a bit doubtful concerning the seven deadly conventions?"

He rested on his oars, tingling all over with wrath and surprise.

"And now," she said quietly, "I think it time to go. The sun is almost shining, you see, and the beauty of the scene is too obvious for even you to miss."

"May I express an opinion before you depart?"

"If it is not a very long or very dissenting opinion."

"Then it's this: two normal and wholesome people—man and a woman, can not meet, either conventionally or unconventionally, without expressing some atom of interest in one another as individuals. I say two—perfectly—normal—people—"

"But it has just happened!" she insisted, preparing to rise.

"No, it has not happened."

"Really. You speak for yourself of course—"

"Yes, I do. I am interested; I'd be stupid if I were not. Besides, I understand conventions as well as you do—"

"You don't observe them—"

"I don't worship them!"

She said coolly: "Women should be ritualists. It is safer."

"It is not necessary in this case. I haven't the slightest hope of making this incident a foundation for another; I haven't the least idea that I shall ever see you again. But for me to pretend an imbecile indifference to you or to the situation would be a more absurd example of self-consciousness than even you have charged me with."

Wrath and surprise in her turn widened her eyes; he held up his hand: "One moment; I have not finished. May I go on?"

And, as she said nothing, he resumed: "During the few minutes we have been accidentally thrown together, I have not seen a quiver of human humour in you. There is the self-consciousness—the absorbed preoccupation with appearances."

"What is there humourous in the situation?" she demanded, very pink.

"Good Lord! What is there humourous in any situation if you don't make it so?"

"I am not a humourist," she said.

She sat in the bows, one closed hand propping her chin; and sometimes her clear eyes, harboring lightning, wandered toward him, sometimes toward the shore.

"Suppose you continue to row," she said at last. "I'm doing you the honour of thinking about what you've said."

He resumed the oars, still sitting facing her, and pushed the boat slowly forward; and, as they continued their progress in silence, her brooding glance wavered, at intervals, between him and the coast.

"Haven't you any normal human curiosity concerning me?" he asked so boyishly that, for a second, again from her eyes, two gay little demons seemed to peer out and laugh at him.

But her lips were expressionless, and she only said: "I have no curiosity. Is that criminally abnormal?"

"Yes; if it is true. Is it?"

"I suppose it is too unflattering a truth for you to believe." She checked herself, looked up at him, hesitated. "It is not absolutely true. It was at first. I am normally interested now. If you knew more about me you would very easily understand my lack of interest in people I pass; the habit of not permitting myself to be interested—the necessity of it. The art of indifference is far more easily acquired than the art of forgetting."

"But surely," he said, "it can cost you no effort to forget me."

"No, of course not." She looked at him, unsmiling: "It was the acquired habit of indifference in me which you mistook for—I think you mistook it for stupidity. Many do. Did you?"

But the guilty amusement on his face answered her; she watched him silently for a while.

"You are quite right in one way," she said; "an unconventional encounter like this has no significance—not enough to dignify it with any effort toward indifference. But until I began to reprove man in the abstract, I really had not very much interest in you as an individual."

And, as he said nothing: "I might better have been in the beginning what you call 'human'—found the situation mildly amusing—and it is—though you don't know it! But"—she hesitated—"the acquired instinct operated automatically. I wish I had been more—human; I can be." She raised her eyes; and in them glimmered her first smile, faint, yet so charming a revelation that the surprise of it held him motionless at his oars.

"Have I paid the tribute you claim?" she asked. "If I have, may I not go overboard at my convenience?"

He did not answer. She laid both arms along the gunwales once more, balancing herself to rise.

"We are near enough now," she said, "and the fog is quite gone. May I thank you and depart without further arousing you to psychological philosophy?"

"If you must," he said; "but I'd rather row you in."

"If I must? Do you expect to paddle me around Cape Horn?" And she rose and stepped lightly onto the bow, maintaining her balance without effort while the boat pitched, fearless, confident, swaying there between sky and sea.

"Good-bye," she said, gravely nodding at him.

"Good-bye, Calypso!"

She joined her finger tips above her head, preliminary to a plunge. Then she looked down at him over her shoulder.

"I told you that Calypso was a land nymph."

"I can't help it; fabled Calypso you must remain to me."

"Oh; am I to remain—anything—to you—for the next five minutes?"

"Do you think I could forget you?"

"I don't think so—for five minutes. Your satisfied vanity will retain me for so long—until it becomes hungry again. And—but read the history of Ulysses—carefully. However, it was nice of you—not to name yourself and expect a response from me. I'm afraid—I'm afraid it is going to take me almost five minutes to forget you—I mean your boat of course. Good-bye!"

Before he could speak again she went overboard, rose swimming with effortless grace. After a dozen strokes or so she turned on one side, glancing back at him. Later, almost among the breakers, she raised one arm in airy signal, but whether to him or to somebody on the raft he did not know.

For five minutes—the allotted five—he lay on his oars watching the sands. At moments he fancied he could still distinguish her, but the distance was great, and there were many scarlet head-dresses among the bathers ashore and afloat.

And after a while he settled back on his oars, cast a last glance astern, and pulled for the Ariani, aboard of which Portlaw was already bellowing at him through an enormous megaphone.

Malcourt, who looked much younger than he really was, appeared on the after deck, strolling about with a telescope tucked up under one arm, both hands in his trousers pockets; and, as Hamil pulled under the stern, he leaned over the rail: "Hello, Hamil! Any trade with the natives in prospect? How far will a pint of beads go with the lady aborigines?"

"Better ask at the Beach Club," replied Hamil, laughing; "I say, Malcourt, I've had a corking swim out yonder—"

"Go in deep?" inquired Malcourt guilelessly.

"Deep? It's forty fathoms off the reef."

"I didn't mean the water," murmured Malcourt.


Chapter 2 A LANDING

The Ariani was to sail that evening, her destination being Miami and the West Coast where Portlaw desired to do some tarpon fishing and Wayward had railroad interests. Malcourt, always in a receptive attitude, was quite ready to go anywhere when invited. Otherwise he preferred a remunerative attention to business.

Hamil, however, though with the gay company aboard, was not of them; he had business at Palm Beach; his luggage had already been sent ashore; and now, prepared to follow, he stood a little apart from the others on the moonlit deck, making his adieux to the master of the Ariani.

"It's been perfectly stunning—this cruise," he said. "It was kind of you, Wayward; I don't know how to tell you how kind—but your boat's a corker and you are another—"

"Do you like this sort of thing?" asked Wayward grimly.

"Like it? It's only a part of your ordinary lives—yours and Portlaw's; so you are not quite fitted to understand. But, Wayward, I've been in heavy harness. You have been doing this sort of heavenly thing—how many years?"

"Too many. Tell me; you've really made good this last year, haven't you, Garry?"

Hamil nodded. "I had to."

He laid his hand on the older man's arm. "Why do you know," he said, "when they gave me that first commission for the little park at Hampton Hills—thanks to you—I hadn't five dollars in all the world."

Wayward stood looking at him through his spectacles, absently pulling at his moustache, which was already partly gray.

"Garry," he said in his deep, pleasant voice that was however never very clear, "Portlaw tells me that you are to do his place. Then there are the new parks in Richmond Borough, and this enormous commission down here among the snakes and jungles. Well—God bless you. You're twenty-five and busy. I'm forty-five and"—he looked drearily into the younger man's eyes—"burnt out," he said with his mirthless laugh—"and still drenching the embers with the same stuff that set 'em ablaze… . Good-bye, Garry. Your boat's alongside. My compliments to your aunt."

At the gangway the younger man bade adieu to Malcourt and Portlaw, laughing as the latter indignantly requested to know why Hamil wasted his time attending to business.

Malcourt drew him aside:

"So you're going to rig up a big park and snake preserve for Neville Cardross?"

"I'm going to try, Louis. You know the family, I believe, don't you?"

Malcourt gazed placidly at him. "Very well indeed," he replied deliberately. "They're a, good, domestic, mother-pin-a-rose-on-me sort of family… . I'm a sort of distant cousin—run of the house and privilege of kissing the girls—not now, but once. I'm going to stay there when we get back from Miami."

"You didn't tell me that?" observed Hamil, surprised.

"No," said Malcourt carelessly, "I didn't know it myself. Just made up my mind to do it. Saves hotel expenses. Well—your cockle-shell is waiting. Give my regards to the family—particularly to Shiela." He looked curiously at Hamil; "particularly to Shiela," he repeated; but Hamil missed the expression of his eyes in the dusk.

"Are you really going to throw us over like this?" demanded Portlaw as the young men turned back together across the deck.

"Got to do it," said Hamil cheerfully, offering his hand in adieu.

"Don't plead necessity," insisted Portlaw. "You've just landed old man Cardross, and you've got the Richmond parks, and you're going to sting me for more than I'm worth. Why on earth do you cut and run this way?"

"No man in his proper senses really knows why he does anything. Seriously, Portlaw, my party is ended—"

"Destiny gave Ulysses a proud party that lasted ten years; wasn't it ten, Malcourt?" demanded Portlaw. "Stay with us, son; you've nine years and eleven months of being a naughty boy coming to you—including a few Circes and grand slams—"

"He's met his Circe," cut in Malcourt, leaning languidly over the rail; "she's wearing a scarlet handkerchief this season—"

Portlaw, laughing fatly, nodded. "Louis discovered your Circe through the glasses climbing into your boat—"

"What a busy little beast you are, Malcourt," observed Hamil, annoyed, glancing down at the small boat alongside.

"'Beast' is good! You mean the mere sight of her transformed Louis into the classic shote," added Portlaw, laughing louder as Hamil, still smiling through his annoyance, went over the side. And a moment later the gig shot away into the star-set darkness.

From the bridge Wayward wearily watched it through his night glasses; Malcourt, slim and graceful, sat on the rail and looked out into the Southern dusk, an unlighted cigarette between his lips.

"That kills our four at Bridge," grumbled Portlaw, leaning heavily beside him. "We'll have to play Klondike and Preference now, or call in the ship's cat… . Hello, is that you, Jim?" as Wayward came aft, limping a trifle as he did at certain times.

"That girl had a good figure—through the glasses. I couldn't make out her face; it was probably the limit; combinations are rare," mused Malcourt. "And then—the fog came! It was like one of those low-down classical tricks of Jupiter when caught philandering."

Portlaw laughed till his bulky body shook. "The Olympian fog was wasted," he said; "John Garret Hamil 3d still preserves his nursery illusions."

"He's lucky," remarked Wayward, staring into the gloom.

"But not fortunate," added Malcourt; "there's a difference between luck and fortune. Read the French classics."

Wayward growled; Malcourt, who always took a malicious amusement in stirring him up, grinned at him sideways.

"No man is fit for decent society until he's lost all his illusions," he said, "particularly concerning women."

"Some of us have been fools enough to lose our illusions," retorted Wayward sharply, "but you never had any, Malcourt; and that's no compliment from me to you."

Portlaw chuckled. "We never lose illusions; we mislay 'em," he suggested; "and then we are pretty careful to mislay only that particular illusion which inconveniences us." He jerked his heavy head in Malcourt's direction. "Nobody clings more frantically to illusions than your unbaked cynic; Louis, you're not nearly such a devil of a fellow as you imagine you are."

Malcourt smiled easily and looked out over the waves.

"Cynicism is old-fashioned," he said; "dogma is up to date. Credo! I believe in a personal devil, virtuous maidens in bowers, and rosewood furniture. As for illusions I cherish as many as you do!" He turned with subtle impudence to Wayward. "And the world is littered with the shattered fragments."

"It's littered with pups, too," observed Wayward, turning on his heel. And he walked away, limping, his white mess jacket a pale spot in the gloom.

Malcourt looked after him; an edge of teeth glimmering beneath his full upper lip.

"It might be more logical if he'd cut out his alcohol before he starts in as a gouty marine missionary," he observed. "Last night he sat there looking like a superannuated cavalry colonel in spectacles, neuritis twitching his entire left side, unable to light his own cigar; and there he sat and rambled on and on about innate purity and American womanhood."

He turned abruptly as a steward stepped up bearing a decanter and tray of glasses.

Portlaw helped himself, grumbling under his breath that he meant to cut out this sort of thing and set Wayward an example.

Malcourt lifted his glass gaily:

"Our wives and sweethearts; may they never meet!"

They set back their empty glasses; Portlaw started to move away, still muttering about the folly of self-indulgence; but the other detained him.

"Wayward took it out of me in 'Preference' this morning while Garry was out courting. I'd better liquidate to-night, hadn't I, Billy?"

"Certainly," said Portlaw.

The other shook his head. "I'll get it all back at Miami, of course. In the mean time—if you don't mind letting me have enough to square things—"

Portlaw hesitated, balancing his bulk uneasily first on one foot, then the other.

"I don't mind; no; only—"

"Only what?" asked Malcourt. "I told you I couldn't afford to play cards on this trip, but you insisted."

"Certainly, certainly! I expected to consider you as—as—"

"I'm your general manager and I'm ready at all times to earn my salary. If you think it best to take me away from the estate for a junketing trip and make me play cards you can do it of course; but if you think I'm here to throw my money overboard I'm going back to-morrow!"

"Nonsense," said Portlaw; "you're not going back. There's nothing doing in winter up there that requires your personal attention—"

"It's a bad winter for the deer—I ought to be there now—"

"Well, can't Blake and O'Connor attend to that?"

"Yes, I suppose they can. But I'm not going to waste the winter and my salary in the semi-tropics just because you want me to—"

"O Lord!" said Portlaw, "what are you kicking about? Have I ever—"

"You force me to be plain-spoken; you never seem to understand that if you insist on my playing the wealthy do-nothing that you've got to keep me going. And I tell you frankly, Billy, I'm tired of it."

"Oh, don't flatten your ears and show your teeth," protested Portlaw amiably. "I only supposed you had enough—with such a salary—to give yourself a little rope on a trip like this, considering you've nobody but yourself to look out for, and that I do that and pay you heavily for the privilege"—his voice had become a mumble—"and all you do is to take vacations in New York or sit on a horse and watch an army of men plant trout and pheasants, and cut out ripe timber—O hell!"

"What did you say?"

Portlaw became good-humouredly matter of fact: "I said 'hell,' Louis—which meant, 'what's the use of squabbling.' It also means that you are going to have what you require as a matter of course; so come on down to my state-room and let us figure it up before Jim Wayward begins to turn restless and limp toward the card-room."

As they turned and strolled forward, Malcourt nudged him:

"Look at the fireworks over Lake Worth," he said; "probably Palm Beach's welcome to her new and beardless prophet."

"It's one of their cheap Venetian fetes," muttered Portlaw. "I know 'em; they're rather amusing. If we weren't sailing in an hour we'd go. No doubt Hamil's in it already; probably Cardross put him next to a bunch of dreams and he's right in it at this very moment."

"With the girl in the red handkerchief," added Malcourt. "I wish we had time."

"I believe I've seen that girl somewhere," mused Portlaw.

"Perhaps you have; there are all kinds at Palm Beach, even yours, and," he added with his easy impudence, "I expect to preserve my notions concerning every one of them. Ho! Look at that sheaf of sky-rockets, Billy! Zip! Whir-r! Bang! Great is Diana of the Ephesians!—bless her heart!"

"Going up like Garret Hamil's illusions," said Portlaw, sentimentally. "I wonder if he sees 'em and considers the moral they are writing across the stars. O slush! Life is like a stomach; if you fill it too full it hurts you. What about that epigram, Louis? What about it?"

The other's dark, graceful head was turned toward the fiery fete on shore, and his busy thoughts were with that lithe, dripping figure he had seen through the sea-glasses, climbing into a distant boat. For the figure reminded him of a girl he had known very well when the world was younger; and the memory was not wholly agreeable.


Chapter 3 AN ADVANCE

Hamil stood under the cocoanut palms at the lake's edge and watched the lagoon where thousands of coloured lanterns moved on crafts, invisible except when revealed in the glare of the rushing rockets.

Lamps glittered everywhere; electric lights were doubly festooned along the sea wall, drooping creeper-like from palm to palmetto, from flowering hibiscus to sprawling banyan, from dainty china-berry to grotesque screw-pine tree, shedding strange witch-lights over masses of blossoms, tropical and semi-tropical. Through which the fine-spun spray of fountains drifted, and the great mousy dusk-moths darted through the bars of light with the glimmering bullet-flight of summer meteors.

And everywhere hung the scent of orange bloom and the more subtle perfume of white and yellow jasmine floated through the trees from gardens or distant hammocks, combining in one intoxicating aroma, spiced always with the savour of the sea.

Hamil was aware of considerable noise, more or less musical, afloat and ashore; a pretentious orchestra played third-rate music under the hotel colonnade; melody arose from the lantern-lit lake, with clamourous mandolins and young voices singing; and over all hung the confused murmur of unseen throngs, harmonious, capricious; laughter, voice answering voice, and the distant shouts as brilliantly festooned boats hailed and were hailed across the water.

Hamil passed on to the left through crowded gardens, pressing his way slowly where all around him lantern-lit faces appeared from the dusk and vanished again into it; where the rustle of summer gowns sweeping the shaven lawns of Bermuda grass sounded like a breeze in the leaves.

Sometimes out of the dusk all tremulous with tinted light the rainbow ray of a jewel flashed in his eyes—or sometimes he caught the glint of eyes above the jewel—a passing view of a fair face, a moment's encountering glance, and, maybe, a smile just as the shadows falling turned the garden's brightness to a mystery peopled with phantoms.

Out along the shell road he sauntered, Whitehall rising from tropic gardens on his right, on his left endless gardens again, and white villas stretching away into the starlight; on, under the leaning coco-palms along quays and low walls of coquina where the lagoon lay under the silvery southern planets.

After a little he discovered that he had left the bulk of the throng behind, though in front of him and behind, the road was still dotted with white-clad groups strolling or resting on the sea-wall.

Far out on the lake the elfin pageant continued, but now he could scarcely hear the music; the far cries and the hiss of the rockets came softly as the whizzing of velvet-winged moths around orange blossoms.

The January night was magnificent; he could scarcely comprehend that this languid world of sea and palm, of heavy odour and slow breezes, was his own land still. Under the spell the Occident vanished; it was the Orient—all this dreamy mirage, these dim white walls, this spice-haunted dusk, the water inlaid with stars, the fairy foliage, the dew drumming in the stillness like the sound of goblin tattooing.

Never before had he seen this enchanted Southern land which had always been as much a part of his mother-land as Northern hill and Western plain—as much his as the roaring dissonance of Broadway, or the icy silence of the tundras, or the vast tranquil seas of corn rippling mile on mile under the harvest moon of Illinois.

He halted, unquiet in the strangeness of it all, restless under its exotic beauty, conscious of the languor stealing over him—the premonition of a physical relaxation that he had never before known—that he instinctively mistrusted.

People in groups passed and repassed along the lagoon wall where, already curiously tired, he had halted beside an old bronze cannon—some ancient Spanish piece, if he could judge by the arms and arabesques covering the breech, dimly visible in the rays of a Chinese lantern.

Beyond was a private dock where two rakish power-boats lay, receiving their cargo of young men and girls—all very animated and gay under the gaudy electric lanterns strung fore and aft rainbow fashion.

He seated himself on the cannon, lingering until both boats cleared for the carnival, rushing out into the darkness like streaks of multi-coloured flame; then his lassitude increasing, he rose and sauntered toward the hotel which loomed like a white mountain afire above the dark masses of tropic trees. And again the press of the throng hemmed him in among the palms and fountains and hedges of crimson hibiscus; again the dusk grew gay with voices and the singing overtone of violins; again the suffocating scent of blossoms, too sweet and penetrating for the unacclimated, filtered through and through him, till his breath came unevenly, and the thick odours stirred in him strange senses of expectation, quickening with his pulses to a sudden prophecy.

And at the same instant he saw the girl of whom he had been thinking.

She was on the edge of a group of half a dozen or more men in evening dress, and women in filmy white—already close to him—so near that the frail stuff of her skirt brushed him, and the subtle, fresh aroma of her seemed to touch his cheek like a breath as she passed.

"Calypso," he whispered, scarcely conscious that he spoke aloud.

A swift turn of her head, eyes that looked blankly into his, and she had passed.

A sudden realisation of his bad manners left his ears tingling. What on earth had prompted him to speak? What momentary relaxation had permitted him an affront to a young girl whose attitude toward him that morning had been so admirable?

Chagrined, he turned back to seek some circling path through the dense crowd ahead; and was aware, in the darkness, of a shadowy figure entering the jasmine arbour. And though his eyes were still confused by the lantern light he knew her again in the dusk.

As they passed she said under her breath: "That was ill-bred. I am disappointed."

He wheeled in his tracks; she turned to confront him for an instant.

"I'm just a plain beast," he said. "You won't forgive me of course."

"You had no right to say what you did. You said 'Calypso'—and I ought not to have heard you… . But I did… . Tell me; if I am too generous to suspect you of intentional impertinence, you are now too chastened to suspect that I came back to give you this chance. That is quite true, isn't it?"

"Of course. You are generous and—it's simply fine of you to overlook it."

"I don't know whether I intend to overlook it; I was surprised and disappointed; but I did desire to give you another chance. And I was so afraid you'd be rude enough to take it that—I spoke first. That was logical. Oh, I know what I'm doing—and it's particularly common of me—being who I am—"

She paused, meeting his gaze deliberately.

"You don't know who I am. Do you?"

"No," he said. "I don't deserve to. But I'll be miserable until I do."

After a moment: "And you are not going to ask me—because, once, I said that it was nice of you not to?"

The hint of mockery in her voice edged his lips with a smile, but he shook his head. "No, I won't ask you that," he said. "I've been beastly enough for one day."

"Don't you care to know?"

"Of course I care to know."

"Yet, exercising all your marvellous masculine self-control, you nobly refuse to ask?"

"I'm afraid to," he said, laughing; "I'm horribly afraid of you."

She considered him with clear, unsmiling eyes.

"Coward!" she said calmly.

He nodded his head, laughing still. "I know it; I almost lost you by saying 'Calypso' a moment ago and I'm taking no more risks."

"Am I to infer that you expect to recover me after this?"

And, as he made no answer: "You dare not admit that you hope to see me again. You are horribly afraid of me—even if I have defied convention and your opinions and have graciously overlooked your impertinence. In spite of all this you are still afraid of me. Are you?"

"Yes," he said; "as much as I naturally ought to be."

"That is nice of you. There's only one kind of a girl of whom men are really afraid… . And now I don't exactly know what to do about you—being, myself, as guilty and horrid as you have been."

She regarded him contemplatively, her hands joined behind her back.

"Exactly what to do about you I don't know," she repeated, leisurely inspecting him. "Shall I tell you something? I am not afraid to; I am not a bit cowardly about it either. Shall I?"

"If you dare," he said, smiling and uncertain.

"Very well, then; I rather like you, Mr. Hamil."

"You are a trump!" he blurted out, reddening with surprise.

"Are you astonished that I know you?"

"I don't see how you found out—"

"Found out! What perfectly revolting vanity! Do you suppose that the moment I left you I rushed home and began to make happy and incoherent inquiries? Mr. Hamil, you disappoint me every time you speak—and also every time you don't."

"I seem to be doomed."

"You are. You can't help it. Tell me—as inoffensively as possible—are you here to begin your work?"

"M-my work?"

"Yes, on the Cardross estate—"

"You have heard of that!" he exclaimed, surprised.

"Y-es—" negligently. "Petty gossip circulates here. A cracker at West Palm Beach built a new chicken coop, and we all heard of it. Tell me, do you still desire to see me again?"

"I do—to pay a revengeful debt or two."

"Oh! I have offended you? Pay me now, if you please, and let us end this indiscretion."

"You will let me see you again, won't you?"

"Why? Mr. Hamil."

"Because I—I must!"

"Oh! You are becoming emphatic. So I am going… . And I've half a mind to take you back and present you to my family… . Only it wouldn't do for me; any other girl perhaps might dare—under the circumstances; but I can't—and that's all I'll tell you."

Hamil, standing straight and tall, straw hat tucked under one arm, bent toward her with the formality and engaging deference natural to him.

"You have been very merciful to me; only a girl of your caste could afford to. Will you forgive my speaking to you as I did?—when I said 'Calypso!' I have no excuse; I don't know why I did. I'm even sorrier for myself than for you."

"I was hurt… . Then I supposed that you did not mean it. Besides"—she looked up with her rare smile—"I knew you, Mr. Hamil, in the boat this morning. I haven't really been very dreadful."

"You knew even then?"

"Yes, I did. The Palm Beach News published your picture a week ago; and I read all about the very remarkable landscape architect who was coming to turn the Cardross jungle into a most wonderful Paradise."

"You knew me all that time?"

"All of it, Mr. Hamil."

"From the moment you climbed into my boat?"

"Practically. Of course I did not look at you very closely at first… . Does that annoy you? It seems to … or something does, for even in the dusk I can see your ever-ready blush—"

"I don't know why you pretend to think me such a fool," he protested, laughing; "you seemed to take that for granted from the very first."

"Why not? You persistently talked to me when you didn't know me—you're doing it now for that matter!—and you began by telling me that I was fool-hardy, not really courageous in the decent sense of the word, and that I was a self-conscious stick and a horribly inhuman and unnatural object generally—and all because I wouldn't flirt with you—"

His quick laughter interrupted her. She ventured to laugh a little too—a very little; and that was the charm of her to him—the clear-eyed, delicate gravity not lightly transformed. But when her laughter came, it came as such a surprisingly lovely revelation that it left him charmed and silent.

"I wonder," she said, "if you can be amusing—except when you don't mean to be."

"If you'll give me a chance to try—"

"Perhaps. I was hardly fair to you in that boat."

"If you knew me in the boat this morning, why did you not say so?"

"Could I admit that I knew you without first pretending I didn't? Hasn't every woman a Heaven-given right to travel in a circle as the shortest distance between two points?"

"Certainly; only—"

She shook her head slowly. "There's no use in my telling you who I am, now, considering that I can't very well escape exposure in the near future. That might verge on effrontery—and it's horrid enough to be here with you—in spite of several thousand people tramping about within elbow touch… . Which reminds me that my own party is probably hunting for me… . Such a crowd, you know, and so easy to become separated. What do you suppose they'd think if they suspected the truth?… And the worst of it is that I cannot afford to do a thing of this sort… . You don't understand; but you may some day—partly. And then perhaps you'll think this matter all over and come to a totally different conclusion concerning my overlooking your recent rudeness and—and my consenting to speak to you."

"You don't believe for one moment that I could mistake it—"

"It depends upon what sort of a man you really are… . I don't know. I give you the benefit of all doubts."

She stood silent, looking him candidly in the eyes, then with a gesture and the slightest shrug, she turned away toward the white road outside. He was at her elbow in two steps.

"Oh, yes—the irony of formality."

She nodded. "Good night, then, Mr. Hamil. If circumstances permitted it would have been delightful—this putting off the cloak of convention and donning motley for a little unconventional misbehaviour with you… . But as it is, it worries me—slightly—as much as the episode and your opinion are worth."

"I am wondering," he said, "why this little tincture of bitterness flavours what you say to me?"

"Because I've misbehaved; and so have you. Anyway, now that it's done, there's scarcely anything I could do to make the situation more flagrant or less flippant—"

"You don't really think—"

"Certainly. After all is said and done, we don't know each other; here we are, shamelessly sauntering side by side under the jasmine, Paul-and-Virginia-like, exchanging subtleties blindfolded. You are you; I am I; formally, millions of miles apart—temporarily and informally close together, paralleling each other's course through life for the span of half an hour—here under the Southern stars… . O Ulysses, truly that island was inhabited by one, Calypso; but your thrall is to be briefer than your prototype's. See, now; here is the road; and I release you to that not impossible she—"

"There is none—"

"There will be. You are very young. Good-bye."

"The confusing part of it to me," he said, smiling, "is to see you so—so physically youthful with even a hint of almost childish immaturity!—and then to hear you as you are—witty, experienced, nicely cynical, maturely sure of yourself and—"

"You think me experienced?"

"Yes."

"Sure of myself?"

"Of course; with your cool, amused poise, your absolute self-possession—and the half-disdainful sword-play of your wit—at my expense—"

She halted beside the sea-wall, adorably mocking in her exaggerated gravity.

"At your expense?" she repeated. "Why not? You have cost me something."

"You said—"

"I know what I said: I said that we might become friends. But even so, you have already cost me something. Tell me"—he began to listen for this little trick of speech—"how many men do you know who would not misunderstand what I have done this evening? And—do you understand it, Mr. Hamil?"

"I think—"

"If you do you are cleverer than I," she said almost listlessly, moving on again under the royal palms.

"Do you mean that—"

"Yes; that I myself don't entirely understand it. Here, under this Southern sun, we of the North are in danger of acquiring a sort of insouciant directness almost primitive. There comes, after a while, a certain mental as well as physical luxury in relaxation of rule and precept, permitting us a simplicity which sometimes, I think, becomes something less harmless. There is luxury in letting go of that live wire which keeps us all keyed to one conventional monotone in the North. I let go—for a moment—to-night. You let go when you said 'Calypso.' You couldn't have said it in New York; I couldn't have heard you, there… . Alas, Ulysses, I should not have heard you anywhere. But I did; and I answered… . Say good night to me, now; won't you? We have not been very wicked, I think."

She offered her hand; smooth and cool it lay for a second in his.

"I can't let you return alone," he ventured.

"If you please, how am I to explain you to—the others?"

And as he said nothing:

"If I were—different—I'd simply tell them the truth. I could afford to. Besides we'll all know you before very long. Then we'll see—oh, yes, both of us—whether we have been foolishly wise to become companions in our indiscretion, or—otherwise… . And don't worry about my home-arrival. That's my lawn—there where that enormous rubber-banyan tree straddles across the stars… . Is it not quaint—the tangle of shrubbery all over jasmine?—and those are royal poincianas, if you please—and there's a great garden beyond and most delectable orange groves where you and I and the family and Alonzo will wander and eat pine-oranges and king-oranges and mandarins and—oh, well! Are you going to call on Mr. Cardross to-morrow?"

"Yes," he said, "I'll have to see Mr. Cardross at once. And after that, what am I to do to meet you?"

"I will consider the matter," she said; and bending slightly toward him: "Am I to be disappointed in you? I don't know, and you can't tell me." Then, impulsively: "Be generous to me. You are right; I am not very old, yet. Be nice to me in your thoughts. I have never before done such a thing as this: I never could again. It is not very dreadful—is it? Will you think nicely of me?"

He said gaily: "Now you speak as you look, not like a world-worn woman of thirty wearing the soft, fresh mask of nineteen."

"You have not answered me," she said quietly.

"Answered you, Calypso?"

"Yes; I ask you to be very gentle and fastidious with me in your thoughts; not even to call me Calypso—in your thoughts."

"What you ask I had given you the first moment we met."

"Then you may call me Calypso—in your thoughts."

"Calypso," he pleaded, "won't you tell me where to find you?"

"Yes; in the house of—Mr. Cardross. This is his house."

She turned and stepped onto the lawn. A mass of scarlet hibiscus hid her, then she reappeared, a pale shape in the dusk of the oleander-bordered path.

He listened; the perfume of the oleanders enveloped him; high under the stars the fronds of a royal palm hung motionless. Then, through the stillness, very far away, he heard the southern ocean murmuring in its slumber under a million stars.