Read CHAPTER VIII of Apron-Strings , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

Hat in hand, and on tiptoe, Clare slipped from her room to the hall, and down the stairs leading to the service-entrance beneath the front steps.  Her coat was over an arm, and a Japanese wrist-bag hung beside it.  As noiselessly as possible, she let herself out.  Then bareheaded still, but not too hurriedly, and forcing a pleasant, unconcerned expression, she turned away from the brownstone house-going toward the Rectory.

Across the street, waiting under steps that offered him the right concealment, a man was loitering.  In the last hour he had seen a number of people enter Tottie’s, and five had left-the child and Mrs. Colter, a fat man and a slim, and a quaint-looking girl with her hair in pig-tails.  He had stayed on till Clare came out; then as she fled, but without a single look back, he prepared to follow.

But he did not forsake his hiding-place until she had turned the first corner.  Then he raced forward, peered around the corner cautiously, located her by the bobbing of her yellow head among other heads all hatted, and fell in behind her at a discreet distance.

Now she put on her hat-but without stopping.  She adjusted her coat, too.  At the end of the block, she crossed the street and made a second turn.

Once more the man ran at top speed, and was successful in locating the hat tilted so smartly.  And again he settled down to the pace no faster than hers.  Thus the flight and the pursuit began.

At first, Clare walked at a good rate, with her head held high.  But gradually she went more slowly, and with head lowered, as if she were thinking.

She did not travel at random.  Her course was a northern one, though she turned to right and left alternately, so that she traced a Greek pattern.  Presently, rounding a corner, she turned up the steps of a house exteriorally no different from Tottie’s, save for the changed number on the tympanum of colored glass above its front door, and the white card lettered in black in a front window-a card that marked the residence as the headquarters of the Gramercy Club for Girls.

Clare rang.

The man came very near to missing her as she waited for the answering of the bell.  And it seemed as if she could not fail to see him, for she looked about her from the top of the steps.  When she was admitted, he sat down on a coping to consider his next move.

Twice he got up and went forward as it to mount the steps of the Club; but both times he changed his mind.  Then, near at hand, occupying a neighboring basement, he spied a small shop.  In the low window of the shop, among hats and articles of handiwork, there swung a bird-cage.  He hurried across the street, entered the store, still without losing sight of the steps of the Club, and called forward the brown-cheeked, foreign-looking girl busily engaged with some embroidery in the rear of the place.  A question, an eager reply, a taking down of the canary, and he went out, carrying the cage.

Very erect he was as he strode back to the Club.  Here was a person about to go through with an unpleasant program, but virtuously determined on his course.  His jaw was set grimly.  He climbed to the storm-door, and rang twice, keeping his finger on the bell longer than was necessary.  Then, very deliberately, he adjusted his pince-nez.

A maid answered his ring-a maid well past middle-age, with gray hair, and an air of authority.  She looked her displeasure at his prolonged summoning.

“Miss Crosby is here,” he began; “I mean the young woman who just came in.”  He was very curt, very military; and ignored the reproof in her manner.  “Please say that Mr. Hull has come.”

The maid promptly admitted him.

But to make sure that he would not fail in his purpose to see Clare-that she would not escape from the Club as quietly as she had left Tottie’s, he now lifted the bird-cage into view.  “Tell Miss Crosby that Mr. Hull has brought the canary,” he added.

“Very well,”-the servant went up the stairs at a leisurely pace that was irritating.

She did not return.  Instead, Clare herself appeared at the top of the staircase, and descended slowly, looking calmly at him as she came.  Her hat was off, and she had tidied her hair.  Something in her manner caused him to move his right arm, as if he would have liked to screen the cage.  She glanced at the bird, then at him.  Her look disconcerted him.  His pince-nez dropped to the end of its ribbon, and clinked musically against a button.

She did not speak until she reached his side.  “I just called the Northrups on the ’phone and asked for you,” she began.

“Oh?” He made as if to set the cage down.

“You’d better bring it into the sitting-room,” she said.

“Yes.”  He reddened.

The sitting-room of the Club was a full sister to that garish front-parlor of Tottie’s, but a sister tastefully dressed.  The woodwork was ivory.  The walls were covered with silk tapestry in which an old-blue shade predominated.  The curtains of velvet, and the chairs upholstered in the same material, were of a darker blue that toned in charmingly with the walls.  Oriental rugs covered the floor.

“You need not have brought an-excuse,” Clare observed, as she closed the door to the hall.

“Well, I thought,” he explained, smiling a little sheepishly, “that perhaps -”

“Particularly,” she interrupted, cuttingly, “as I remember how you said a little while ago that you hate a liar.”  She lifted her brows.

She had caught him squarely.  The cage was a lie.  He put it behind a chair, where it would be out of sight.

“Well, you see,” he went on lamely, “if you hadn’t wanted to see me, why-why -” (Here he was, apologetic!)

“Oh, I quite understand.  It’s always legitimate for a man to cheat a woman, isn’t it?  It’s not legitimate for a woman to cheat a man.”  She seated herself.

He winced.  He had expected something so different-weeping, pleading, the wringing of hands; or, a hidden face and heaving shoulders, and, of course, more lies.  Instead, here was only quiet composure, more dignity of carriage than he had ever noted in her before, and a firmly shut mouth.  He had anticipated being hurt by the sobbing confessions he would force from her.  But her cool indifference, her self-possession, were hurting him far more.  Their positions were unpleasantly reversed.  And he was standing before her, as if he, and not she, was the culprit!

“Sit down, please,” she bade, courteously.

He sat, pulling at his mustache.  Now he was getting angry.  His look roved beyond her, as he sought for the right beginning.

“What I’d like to ask,” he commenced, “is, are you prepared to tell me all I ought to know-about yourself?” ("Tell me the truth” was what he would have liked to say, but the confounded cage made impossible any allusion to truth!)

She smiled.  “And I’d like to know, are you prepared to tell me all-all I ought to know-about yourself?”

“Oh, now come!” he returned-and could go no further.  Here was more of the unexpected:  he was being put on the defensive!

“You’ve been a soldier,” she went on; “you’ve seen a lot of the world before you met me.  But you didn’t recite anything you’d done.  You expected me to take you ‘as is,’ and I thought, naturally enough, that that was the way you meant to take me.”

“But I don’t see why a girl should know about matters in which she is not concerned-which were a part of a man’s past.”

“Exactly.  And that’s just the way I felt about matters in which you were not concerned.  But-I was wrong, wasn’t I?  You’re not an American.  You’re a European.  And you have the Continental attitude toward women-proprietorship, and so on.”

He stared.  He had never heard her talk like this before.  “Ah, um,” he murmured, still worrying the mustache.  She was using no slang, and that “Continental attitude”-his glance said, “Where did you come by that?”

“I’ve known all along that you had the Old World bias-the idea that it is justice for the Pot to call the Kettle black-the idea that a man can do anything, but that a woman is lost forever if she happens to make one mistake.  That all belongs, of course, right back where you came from.  No doubt your mother taught -”

“Please leave my mother out of this discussion!” Here was something he could say with great severity and dignity-something that would imply the contrast between what Clare Crosby stood for and the high standards of his mother, whose fame might not be tarnished even through the mention of her name by a culpable woman.

Clare laughed.  “Early Victorian,” she commented, cheerfully; “that do-not-sully-the-fair-name-of-mother business.  It’s in your blood, Felix,-along with the determination you feel never to change when once you’ve made up your mind, as if your mind were something that has set itself solid, as metal does when it’s run into a mold.”

“Oh, indeed!  Just like that!”

She nodded.  “Precisely.  And when you make up your mind that someone is wrong, or has hurt your vanity (which is worse), you are just middle-class enough to love to swing a whip.”

He got up.  “Pardon me if I don’t care to listen to your opinion of me any longer,” he said.  “It just happens that I’ve caught you at your tricks today.”

“It just happens that you think you’ve caught me-you’ve dropped to that conclusion.  But-do you know anything?”

“Well-well, -”

“You shall.  Please sit down again.  And feel that you were justified-that I am really a culprit of some kind-just as you are.”

He sat, too astonished to retort-but too curious to take himself away.

“Because I really want to tell you quite a little about myself.”  There was a glint of real humor in her eyes.  “And first of all, I want to tell the real truth, and it’ll make you feel a lot better-it’ll soothe your vanity.”

“You seem to have a rather sudden change in your opinion of me.”  He tried to be sarcastic.  And he leaned back, folding his arms.

“Oh, no.  I’ve always known that you were vain, and hard.  But I didn’t expect perfection.”

“Ah.”

“But, first, let me tell you-when I left Tottie’s just now, I thought of the river.  Suicide-that’s what first came to my mind.”

“I’m very glad you changed it,”-this with almost a parental note.  Her mention of the river had soothed his vanity!

“Oh, are you?” She laughed merrily.

“And what brought about the-the -”

“Sue Milo.”

“Er-who do you say?” He had expected a compliment.

“A woman you don’t know-a woman that you must have seen go into Tottie’s just after Barbara left-as you stood sentry.”

“Ah, yes.”  He had the grace to blush again.

“She is the secretary at the Church near by-you know, St. Giles.  She keeps books, and answers telephones, and types sermons, and does all the letters for the Rector-formerly my husband.”

An involuntary start-which he adroitly made the beginning of an assent.

“I’ve met her only a few times.  But I feel as if I’d known her all my life.  Oh, how dear her attitude was!” Sudden tears trembled in her eyes.

“Different from mine, eh?”

“Absolutely!  It was the contrast between you and her that made me see things as they are-twenty blocks, I walked-and such a change!”

“Fancy!”

“When I was thinking I might as well die, I said, ’If he were in trouble today, I’d be tender and kind to him.  But when I cried out to him, what I got was no faith-no help-only suspicion.’  All my devotion since I’ve known you-it counted for nothing the moment you knew something was wrong.  And I was half-crazy with fear just at the thought of losing you.”  Her look said that she had no such fear now.

He shifted his feet uneasily.

“Then I said to myself, ’Why, you poor thing, it’s only a question of time when you’d lose him anyhow.’  Even if we married, Felix, we wouldn’t be happy long.  It would be like living over a charge of dynamite.  Any minute our home might blow up.”

He smiled loftily.  “And Miss-er-What’s-her-name, she fixed everything?”

“She helped me!  I’ve never met anyone just like her before.  I’ve met plenty of the holier-than-thou variety.  That’s the only sort I knew before I ran away from my husband.”  She was finding relief in talking so frankly.  “Then there’s Tottie’s kind-ugh!  But Miss Milo is the new kind-a woman with a fair attitude toward other women; with a generous attitude toward mistakes even.  That old lady you saw go in-she’s so good that she’d send me to the stake.”  She laughed.  “But her daughter-if she knew that I had sinned as much as you have, she’d treat me even better than she’d treat you.”

“You’ll be a militant next,” he observed sneeringly.

“Oh, I’m one already!  But I’m not blaming anything on anybody else.  For whatever’s gone wrong, I can just thank myself.  All these ten years, I’ve taken the attitude that I mustn’t be discovered-that I must hide, hide, hide.  I have been living over a charge of dynamite, and I set it myself.  I’ve been afraid of a scarecrow that I dressed myself.

“I don’t know why I did it.  Because if they’d ever traced me, what harm would it have done?-I wouldn’t have gone back unless I was carried by main force.  But the papers said I was dead.  So I just set myself to keep the idea up.  Next thing, I met you.  Then I wasn’t afraid of a shadow-I had something real to fear:  losing you.

“But now I don’t care what you think, or what you’re going to do, or what you say.  I’m not even going to let Alan Farvel think that Barbara’s his-when she isn’t.”

He shot a swift look at her.  So!  The child was her own, after all!  His lip curled.

She understood.  “Oh, get the whole thing clear while you’re about it,” she said indifferently.  “I’m not trying to cover.  At least I didn’t lose sight of the child.  Miss Milo praised me for that.-But-the truth is, I’m not like most other women.  I’m not domestic.  I never can be.  Why worry about it.”

“You take it all very cool, I must say!  And you’re jolly sure of yourself.  Don’t need help, eh?  Highty-tighty all at once.”  But there was a note of respect in his voice.

“I’ve got friends,” she said proudly.  “And if I need help I know where to get it.”

The maid entered.  “Your tea is ready, Miss.”

Clare stood up and put out a hand.  “We’ll run across each other again,
I suppose,” she said cordially.

He could scarcely believe his ears-which were burning.  “Oh, then you’re not lighting out?”

“When I love little old New York so much?  Not a chance!  No, you can go and get your supper without a fear.”  She laughed saucily.  Then as he turned, “Oh, don’t forget the bird.”

He leaned down, hating her for the ridiculousness of his situation.  He did not glance round again.  The gray-haired maid showed him out.