JOHN BRUCE abstractedly twirled the tassel of the old and faded dressing gown which he wore, the temporary possession of which he owed to Paul Veniza, his host. From the chair in which he sat his eyes ventured stolen glances at the nape of a dainty neck, and at a great coiled mass of silken brown hair that shone like burnished copper in the afternoon sunlight, as Claire Veniza, her back turned toward him, busied herself about the room. He could walk now across the floor—and a great deal further, he was sure, if they would only let him. He had not pressed that point; it might be taking an unfair advantage of an already over-generous hospitality, but he was not at all anxious to speed his departure from—well, from where he was at that precise moment.

And now as he looked at Claire Veniza, his thoughts went back to the night he had stepped, at old Hawkins' invitation, into the traveling pawn-shop. That was not so very long ago—two weeks of grave illness, and then the past week of convalescence—but it seemed to span a great and almost limitless stretch of time, and to mark a new and entirely different era in his life; an era that perplexed and troubled and intrigued him with conditions and surroundings and disturbing elements that he did not comprehend—but at the same time made the blood in his veins to course with wild abandon, and the future to hold out glad and beckoning hands.

He loved, with a great, overwhelming, masterful love, the girl who stood there just across the room all unconscious of the worship that he knew was in his eyes, and which he neither tried nor wished to curb. Of his own love he was sure. He had loved her from the moment he had first seen her, and in his heart he knew he held fate kind to have given him the wound that in its turn had brought the week of convalescence just past. And yet—and yet—— Here dismay came, and his brain seemed to stumble. Sometimes he dared to hope; sometimes he was plunged into the depths of misery and despair. Little things, a touch of the hand as she had nursed him that had seemed like some God-given tender caress, a glance when she had thought he had not seen and which he had allowed his heart to interpret to its advantage with perhaps no other justification than its own yearning and desire, had buoyed him up; and then, at times, a strange, almost bitter aloofness, it seemed, in her attitude toward him—and this had checked, had always checked, the words that were ever on his lips.

A faint flush dyed his cheeks. But even so, and for all his boasted love, did he not in his own soul wrong her sometimes? The questions would come. What was the meaning of the strange environment in which she lived? Why should she have driven to a gambling hell late at night, and quite as though it were the usual thing, to transact business alone in that car with——

God! His hands clenched fiercely. He remembered that night, and how the same thought had come then, mocking him, jeering him, making sport of him. He was a cad, a pitiful, vile-minded cad! Thank God that he was at least still man enough to be ashamed of his own thoughts, even if they came in spite of him!

Perhaps it was the strange, unusual characters that surrounded her, that came and went in this curious place here, that fostered such thoughts; perhaps he was not strong enough yet to grapple with all these confusing things. He smiled a little grimly. The robbery of the safe, for instance—and that reptile whom he now knew to be his own attending physician, Doctor Crang! He had said nothing about his knowledge of the robbery—yet. As nearly as he could judge it had occurred two or three days prior to the time when his actual convalescence had set in, and as a material witness to the crime he was not at all sure that in law his testimony would be of much value. They must certainly have found him in an unconscious state immediately afterward—and Doctor Crang would as indubitably attack his testimony as being nothing more than the hallucination of a sick brain.

The luck of the devil had been with Crang! Why had he, John Bruce, gone drifting off into unconsciousness just at the psychological moment when, if the plan had been carried out as arranged and the other two had made their fake escape, Crang would have been left in the room with Claire and Paul Veniza—with the money in his pockets! He would have had Doctor Crang cold then! It was quite different now. He was not quite sure what he meant to do, except that he fully proposed to have a reckoning with Doctor Crang. But that reckoning, something, he could not quite define what, had prompted him to postpone until he had become physically a little stronger!

And then there was another curious thing about it all, which too had influenced him in keeping silent. Hawkins, Paul Veniza, Claire and Doctor Crang had each, severally and collectively, been here in this room many times since the robbery, and not once in his presence had the affair ever been mentioned! And—oh, what did it matter! He shrugged his shoulders as though to rid himself of some depressing physical weight. What did anything matter on this wonderful sunlit afternoon—save Claire there in her white, cool dress, that seemed somehow to typify her own glorious youth and freshness.

How dainty and sweet and alluring she looked! His eyes were no longer contented with stolen glances; they held now masterfully, defiant of any self-restraint, upon the slim figure that was all grace from the trim little ankles to the poise of the shapely head. He felt the blood quicken his pulse. Stronger than he had ever known it before, straining to burst all barriers, demanding expression as a right that would not be denied, his love rose dominant within him, and——

The tassel he had been twirling dropped from his hand. She had turned suddenly; and across the room her eyes met his, calm, deep and unperturbed at first, but wide the next instant with a startled shyness, and the color sweeping upward from her throat crimsoned her face, and in confusion she turned away her head.

John Bruce was on his feet. He stumbled a little as he took a step forward. His heart was pounding, flinging a red tide into the pallor of his cheeks that illness had claimed as one of its tolls.

“I—I did not mean to tell you like that,” he said huskily. “But I have wanted to tell you for so long. It seems as though I have always wanted to tell you. Claire—I love you.”

She did not answer.

He was beside her now—only her head was lowered and averted and he could not look into her face. Her fingers were plucking tremulously at a fold of her dress. He caught her hand between both his own.

“Claire—Claire, I love you!” he whispered.

She disengaged her hand gently; and, still refusing to let him see her face, shook her head slowly.

“I—I——-” Her voice was very low. “Oh, don't you know?”

“I know I love you,” he answered passionately. “I know that nothing else but that matters.”

Again she shook her head.

“I thought perhaps he would have told you. I—I am going to marry Doctor Crang.”

John Bruce stepped back involuntarily; and for a moment incredulity and helpless amazement held sway in his expression—then his lips tightened in a hurt, half angry way.

“Is that fair to me, Claire—to give me an answer like that?” he said in a low tone. “I know it isn't true, of course; it couldn't be—but—but it isn't much of a joke either, is it?”

“It is true,” she said monotonously.

He leaned suddenly forward, and taking her face between his hands, made her lift her head and look at him. The brown eyes were swimming with tears. The red swept her face in a great wave, and, receding, left it deathly pale—and in a frenzy of confusion she wrenched herself free from him and retreated a step.

“My God!” said John Bruce hoarsely. “You—and Doctor Crang! I don't understand! It is monstrous! You can't love that——” He checked himself, biting at his lips. “You can't love Doctor Crang. It is impossible! You dare not stand there and tell me that you do. Answer me, Claire—answer me!”

She seemed to have regained her self-control—or perhaps it was the one defense she knew. The little figure was drawn up, her head held back.

“You have no right to ask me that,” she said steadily.

“Right!” John Bruce echoed almost fiercely. His soul itself seemed suddenly to be in passionate turmoil; it seemed to juggle two figures before his consciousness, contrasting one with the other in most hideous fashion—this woman here whom he loved, who struggled to hold herself bravely, who stood for all that was pure, for all that he reverenced in a woman; and that sallow, evil-faced degenerate, a drug fiend so lost to the shame of his vice that he pricked himself with his miserable needle quite as unconcernedly in public as one would smoke a cigarette—and worse—a crook—a thief! Was it a coward's act to tell this girl what the man was whom she proposed to marry? Was it contemptible to pull a rival such as that down from the pedestal which in some fiendish way he must have erected for himself? Surely she did not know the man for what he actually was! She could not know! “Right!” he cried out. “Yes, I have the right—both for your sake and for my own. I have the right my love gives me. Do you know how I came here that first night?”

“Yes,” she said with an effort. “You told me. You were in a fight in Ratti's place, and were wounded.”

He laughed out harshly.

“And I told you the truth—as far as it went,” he said. “But do you know how I came to be in this locality after leaving you in that motor car? I followed you. I loved you from the moment I saw you that night. It seems as though I have always loved you—as I always shall love you. That is what gives me the right to speak. And I mean to speak. If it were an honorable man to whom you were to be married it would be quite another matter; but you cannot know what you are doing, you do not know this man as he really is, or what he——”

“Please! Please stop!” she cried out brokenly. “Nothing you could say would tell me anything I do not already know.”

“I am not so sure!” said John Bruce grimly. “Suppose I told you he was a criminal?”

“He is a criminal.” Her voice was without inflection.

“Suppose then he were sent to jail—to serve a sentence?”

“I would marry him when he came out,” she said. “Oh, please do not say any more! I know far more about him than you do; but—but that has nothing to do with it.”

For an instant, motionless, John Bruce stared at Claire; then his hands swept out and caught her wrists in a tight grip and held her prisoner.

“Claire!” His voice choked. “What does this mean? You do not love him; you say you know he is even a criminal—and yet you are going to marry him! What hold has he got on you? What is it? What damnable trap has he got you in? I am going to know, Claire! I will know! And whatever it is, whatever the cause of it, I'll crush it, strangle it, sweep it out of your dear life at any cost! Tell me, Claire!”

Her face had gone white; she struggled a little to release herself.

“You—you do not know what you are saying. You——” Her voice broke in a half sob.

“Claire, look at me!” He was pleading now with his soul in his eyes and voice. “Claire, I——”

“Oh, please let me go!” she cried out frantically. “You cannot say anything that will make any difference. I—it only makes it harder.” The tears were brimming in her eyes again. “Oh, please let me go—there's—there's some one coming.”

John Bruce's hands dropped to his sides. The door, already half open, was pushed wide, and Hawkins, the old chauffeur, stood on the threshold. And as John Bruce looked in that direction, he was suddenly and strangely conscious that somehow for the moment the old man dominated his attention even to the exclusion of Claire. There was something of curious self-effacement, of humbleness in the bent, stoop-shouldered figure there, who twisted a shapeless hat awkwardly in his hands; but also something of trouble and deep anxiety in the faded blue eyes as they fixed on the girl, and yet without meeting her eyes in return, held upon her as she walked slowly now toward the door.

“Dear old Hawkins,” she said softly, and laid her hand for an instant on the other's arm as she passed by him, “you and Mr. Bruce will be able to entertain each other, won't you? I—I'm going upstairs for a little while.”

And the old man made no answer; but, turning on the threshold, he watched her, his attitude, it seemed to John Bruce, one of almost pathetic wistfulness, as Claire disappeared from view.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook