Read CHAPTER XVIII of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

A CONVERSATION OVERHEARD

In the upper chamber at La Lierre the days dragged very slowly by, and the man who lay in bed there counted interminable hours and prayed for the coming of night with its merciful oblivion of sleep. His inaction was made bitterer by the fact that the days were days of green and gold, of breeze-stirred tree-tops without his windows, of vagrant sweet airs that stole in upon his solitude, bringing him all the warm fragrance of summer and of green things growing.

He suffered little pain. There was, for the first three or four days, a dull and feverish ache in his wounded leg, but presently even that passed, and the leg hurt him only when he moved it. He thought sometimes that he would be grateful for a bit of physical anguish to make the hours pass more quickly.

The other inmates of the house held aloof from him. Once a day O’Hara came in to see to the wound, but he maintained a well-nigh complete silence over his work, and answered questions only with a brief yes or no. Sometimes he did not answer them at all. The old Michel came twice daily, but this strange being had quite plainly been frightened into dumbness, and there was nothing to be got out of him. He shambled hastily about the place, his one scared eye upon the man in bed, and as soon as possible fled away, closing the door behind him. Sometimes Michel brought in the meals, sometimes his wife, a creature so like him that the two might well have passed for twin survivors of some unknown race; sometimes thrice altogether in that first week Coira O’Hara brought the tray, and she was as silent as the others.

So Ste. Marie was left alone to get through the interminable days as best he might, and ever afterward the week remained in his memory as a sort of nightmare. Lying idle in his bed, he evolved many surprising and fantastic schemes for escape, for getting word to the outside world of his presence here, and one by one he gave them up in disgust as their impossibility forced itself upon him. Plans and schemes were useless while he lay bedridden, unfamiliar even with the house wherein he dwelt, with the garden and park that surrounded it.

As for aid from any of the inmates of the place, that was to be laughed at. They were engaged together in a scheme so desperate that failure must mean utter ruin to them all. He sometimes wondered if the two servants could be bribed. Avarice unmistakable gleamed from their little, glittering, ratlike eyes, but he was sure that they would sell out for no small sum, and in so far as he could remember there had been in his pockets, when he came here, not more than five or six louis. Doubtless the old Michel had managed to abstract those in his daily offices about the room, for Ste. Marie knew that the clothes hung in a closet across from his bed. He had seen them there once when the closet-door was open.

Any help that might come to him must come from outside and what help was to be expected there? Over and over again he reminded himself of how little Richard Hartley knew. He might suspect Stewart of complicity in this new disappearance, but how was he to find out anything definite? How was any one to do so?

It was at such times as this, when brain and nerves were strained and worn almost to breaking-point, that Ste. Marie had occasion to be grateful for the Southern blood that was in him, the strong tinge of fatalism which is common alike to Latin and to Oriental. It rescued him more than once from something like nervous breakdown, calmed him suddenly, lifted his burdens from outwearied shoulders, and left him in peace to wait until some action should be possible. Then, in such hours, he would fall to thinking of the girl for whose sake, in whose cause, he lay bedridden, beset with dangers. As long before, she came to him in a sort of waking vision a being but half earthly, enthroned high above him, calm-browed, very pure, with passionless eyes that gazed into far distance and were unaware of the base things below. What would she think of him, who had sworn to be true knight to her, if she could know how he had bungled and failed? He was glad that she did not know, that if he had blundered into peril the knowledge of it could not reach her to hurt her pride.

And sometimes, also, with a great sadness and pity, he thought of poor Coira O’Hara and of the pathetic wreck her life had fallen into. The girl was so patently fit for better things! Her splendid beauty was not a cheap beauty. She was no coarse-blown, gorgeous flower, imperfect at telltale points. It was good blood that had modelled her dark perfection, good blood that had shaped her long and slim and tapering hands.

“A queen among goddesses!” The words remained with him, and he knew that they were true. She might have held up her head among the greatest, this adventurer’s girl; but what chance had she had? What merest ghost of a chance?

He watched her on the rare occasions when she came into the room. He watched the poise of her head, her walk, the movements she made, and he said to himself that there was no woman of his acquaintance whose grace was more perfect certainly none whose grace was so native.

Once he complained to her of the desperate idleness of his days, and asked her to lend him a book of some kind, a review, even a daily newspaper, though it be a week old.

“I should read the very advertisements with joy,” he said.

She went out of the room and returned presently with an armful of books, which she laid upon the bed without comment.

“In my prayers, Mademoiselle,” cried Ste. Marie, “you shall be foremost forever!” He glanced at the row of titles and looked up in sheer astonishment. “May I ask whose books these are?” he said.

“They are mine,” said the girl. “I caught up the ones that lay first at hand. If you don’t care for any of them, I will choose others.”

The books were: Diana of the Crossways, Richard Feverel, Henri Lavedan’s Le Duel, Maeterlinck’s Pelleas et Melisande, Don Quixote de la Mancha, in Spanish, a volume of Virgil’s Eclogues, and the Life of the Chevalier Bayard, by the Loyal Servitor. Ste. Marie stared at her.

“Do you read Spanish,” he demanded, “and Latin, as well as French and English?”

“My mother was Spanish,” said she. “And as for Latin, I began to read it with my father when I was a child. Shall I leave the books here?”

Ste. Marie took up the Bayard and held it between his hands.

“It is worn from much reading, Mademoiselle,” he said.

“It is the best of all,” said she. “The very best of all. I didn’t know I had brought you that.”

She made a step toward him as if she would take the book away, and over it their eyes met and were held. In that moment it may have come to them both who she was, who so loved the knight without fear and without reproach the daughter of art Irish adventurer of ill repute for their faces began suddenly to flush with red, and after an instant the girl turned away.

“It is of no consequence,” said she. “You may keep the book if you care to.”

And Ste. Marie said, very gently: “Thank you, Mademoiselle. I will keep it for a little while.”

So she went out of the room and left him alone.

This was at noon on the sixth day, and, after he had swallowed hastily the lunch which had been set before him, Ste. Marie fell upon the books like a child upon a new box of sweets. Like the child again, it was difficult for him to choose among them. He opened one and then another, gloating over them all, but in the end he chose the Bayard, and for hours lost himself among the high deeds of the Preux Chevalier and his faithful friends among whom, by the way, there was a Ste. Marie who died nobly for France. It was late afternoon when at last he laid the book down with a sigh and settled himself more comfortably among the pillows.

The sun was not in the room at that hour, but from where he lay he could see it on the tree-tops, gold upon green. Outside his south window the leaves of a chestnut which stood there quivered and rustled gently under a soft breeze. Delectable odors floated in to Ste. Marie’s nostrils, and he thought how very pleasant it would be if he were lying on the turf under the trees instead of bedridden in this upper chamber, which he had come to hate with a bitter hatred.

He began to wonder if it would be possible to drag himself across the floor to that south window, and so to lie down for a while with his head in the tiny balcony beyond, his eyes turned to the blue sky. Astir with the new thought, he sat up in bed and carefully swung his feet out till they hung to the floor. The wound in the left leg smarted and burned, but not too severely, and with slow pains Ste. Marie stood up. He almost cried out when he discovered that it could be done quite easily. He essayed to walk, and he was a little weak, but by no means helpless. He found that it gave him pain to raise his left leg in the ordinary action of walking or to bend that knee, but he could get about well enough by dragging the injured member beside him, for when it was straight it supported him without protest.

He took his pillows across to the window and disposed them there, for it was a French window opening to the floor, and the level of the little balcony outside was but a few inches above the level of the room. Then the desire seized him to make a tour of his prison walls. He went first to the closet where he had seen his clothes hanging, and they were still there. He felt in the pockets and withdrew his little English pigskin sovereign-purse. It had not been tampered with, and he gave an exclamation of relief over that, for he might later on have use for money. There were eight louis in it, each in its little separate compartment, and in another pocket he found a fifty-franc note and some silver. He went to the two east windows and looked out. The trees stood thick together on that side of the house, but between two of them he could see the park wall fifty yards away. He glanced down, and the side of the house was covered thick with the ivy which had given the place its name, but there was no water-pipe near, nor any other thing which seemed to offer foot or hand hold, unless, perhaps, the ivy might prove strong enough to bear a man’s weight. Ste. Marie made a mental note to look into that when he was a little stronger, and turned back to the south window where he had disposed his pillows.

The unaccustomed activity was making his wound smart and prickle, and he lay down at once with head and shoulders in the open air, and out of the warm and golden sunshine and the emerald shade the breath of summer came to him and wrapped him round with sweetness and pillowed him upon its fragrant breast.

He became aware after a long time of voices below, and turned upon his elbows to look. The ivy had clambered upon and partly covered the iron grille of the little balcony, and he could observe without being seen. Young Arthur Benham and Coira O’Hara had come out of the door of the house, and they stood upon the raised and paved terrace which ran the width of the façade, and seemed to hesitate as to the direction they should take. Ste. Marie heard the girl say:

“It’s cooler here in the shade of the house,” and after a moment the two came along the shady terrace whose outer margin was set at intervals with stained and discolored marble nymphs upon pedestals, and between the nymphs with moss-grown stone benches. They halted before a bench upon which, earlier in the day, a rug had been spread out to dry in the sun and had been forgotten, and after a moment’s further hesitation they sat down upon it. Their faces were turned toward the house, and every word that they spoke mounted in that still air clear and distinct to the ears of the man above.

Ste. Marie wriggled back into the room and sat up to consider. The thought of deliberately listening to a conversation not meant for him sent a hot flush to his cheeks. He told himself that it could not be done, and that there was an end to the matter. Whatever might hang upon it, it could not be asked of him that he should stoop to dishonor. But at that the heavy and grave responsibility, which really did hang upon him and upon his actions, came before his mind’s eye and loomed there mountainous. The fate of this foolish boy who was set round with thieves and adventurers even though his eyes were open and he knew where he stood that came to Ste. Marie and confronted him; and the picture of a bitter old man who was dying of grief came to him; and a mother’s face; and hers. There could be no dishonor in the face of all this, only a duty very clear and plain. He crept back to his place, his arms folded beneath him as he lay, his eyes at the thin screen of ivy which cloaked the balcony grille.

Young Arthur Benham appeared to be giving tongue to a rather sharp attack of homesickness. It may be that long confinement within the walls of La Lierre was beginning to try him somewhat.

“Mind you,” he declared, as Ste. Marie’s ears came once more within range “mind you, I’m not saying that Paris hasn’t got its points. It has. Oh yes! And so has London, and so has Ostend, and so has Monte Carlo. Verrée much so! I like Paris. I like the theatres and the vaudeville shows in the Champs-Elysees, and I like Longchamps. I like the boys who hang around Henry’s Bar. They’re good sports all right, all right! But, by golly, I want to go home! Put me off at the corner of Forty-second Street and Broadway, and I’ll ask no more. Set me down at 7 P.M., right there on the corner outside the Knickerbocker, for that’s where I would live and die.” There came into the lad’s somewhat strident voice a softness that was almost pathetic. “You don’t know Broadway, Coira, do you? Nix! of course not. Little girl, it’s the one street of all this large world. It’s the equator that runs north and south instead of east and west. It’s a long, bright, gay, live wire! that’s what Broadway is. And I give you my word of honor, like a little man, that it is not slow. No-o, indeed! When I was there last it was being called the ‘Gay White Way.’ It is not called the ‘Gay White Way’ now. It has had forty other new, good names since then, and I don’t know what they are, but I do know that it is forever gay, and that the electric signs are still blazing all along the street, and the street-cars are still killing people in the good old fashion, and the news-boys are still dodging under the automobiles to sell you a Woild or a Choinal or, if it’s after twelve at night, a Morning Telegraph. Coira, my girl, standing on that corner after dark you can see the electric signs of fifteen theatres, not one of them more than five minutes’ walk away; and just round the corner there are more. I want to go home! I want to take one large, unparalleled leap from here and come down at the corner I told you about. D’you know what I’d do? We’ll say it’s 7 P.M. and beginning to get dark. I’d dive into the Knickerbocker that’s the hotel that the bright and happy people go to for dinner or supper and I’d engage a table up on the terrace. Then I’d telephone to a little friend of mine whose name is Doe John Doe and in about ten minutes he’d have left the crowd he was standing in line with and he’d come galloping up, that glad to see me you’d cry to watch him. We’d go up on the terrace, where the potted palms grow, for our dinner, and the tables all around us would be full of people that would know Johnnie Doe and me, and they’d all make us drink drinks and tell us how glad they were to see us aboard again. And after dinner,” said young Arthur Benham, with wide and smiling eyes “after dinner we’d go to see one of the roof-garden shows. Let me tell you they’ve got the Marigny or the Ambassadeurs or the Jardin de Paris beaten to a pulp to a pulp! And after the show we’d slip round to the stage-door you bet we would! and capture the two most beautiful ladies in the world and take ’em off to supper.”

He wrinkled his young brow in great perplexity. “Now I wonder,” said he, anxiously “I wonder where we’d go for supper. You see,” he apologized, “it’s two years since I left the Real Street, and, gee! what a lot can happen on Broadway in two years! There’s probably half a dozen new supper-places that I don’t know anything about, and one of them’s the place where the crowd goes. Well, anyhow, we’d go to that place, and there’d be a band playing, and the electric fans would go round and round, and Johnnie Doe and I and the two most beautiful ladies would put it all over the other pikers there.”

Young Benham gave a little sigh of pleasure and excitement. “That’s what I’d like to do to-night,” said he, “and that’s what I’ll do, you can bet your sh boots, when all this silly mess is over and I’m a free man. I’ll hike back to good old Broadway, and if ever you see any one trying to pry me loose from it again you can laugh yourself to death, because he’ll never, never succeed.

“That’s where I’ll go,” he said, nodding, “when this waiting is over straight back to Liberty Land and the bright lights. The rest of the family can stay here till they die, if they want to and I suppose they do I’m going home as soon as I’ve got my money. Old Charlie’ll manage all that for me. He’ll get a lawyer to look after it, and I won’t have to see anybody in the family at all.

“Nine more weeks shut in by stone walls!” said the boy, staring about him with a sort of bitterness. “Nine weeks more!”

“Is it so hard as that?” asked the girl.

There was no foolish coquetry in her tone. She spoke as if the words involved no personal question at all, but there was a little smile at her lips, and Arthur Benham turned toward her quickly and caught at her hands.

“No, no!” he cried. “I didn’t mean that. You know I didn’t mean that. You’re worth nine years’ waiting. You’re the best d’you hear? the best there is. There’s nobody anywhere that can touch you. Only well, this place is getting on my nerves. It’s got me worn to a frazzle. I feel like a criminal doing time.”

“You came very near having to do time somewhere else,” said the girl. “If this M. Ste. Marie hadn’t blundered we should have had them all round our ears, and you’d have had to run for it.”

“Yes,” the boy said, nodding gravely. “Yes, that was great luck.”

He raised his head and looked up along the windows above him.

“Which is his room?” he asked, and Mlle. O’Hara said:

“The one just overhead, but he’s in bed far back from the window. He couldn’t possibly hear us talking.”

She paused for a moment in frowning hesitation, and in the end said:

“Tell me about him, this Ste. Marie! Do you know anything about him?”

“No,” said Arthur Benham, “I don’t not personally, that is. Of course I’ve heard of him. Lots of people have spoken of him to me. And the odd part of it is that they all had a good word to say. Everybody seemed to like him. I got the idea that he was the best ever. I wanted to know him. I never thought he’d take on a piece of dirty work like this.”

“Nor I,” said the girl, in a low voice. “Nor I.”

The boy looked up.

“Oh, you’ve heard of him, too, then?” said he.

And she said, still in her low voice, “I saw him once.”

“Well,” declared young Benham, “it’s beyond me. I give it up. You never can tell about people, can you? I guess they’ll all go wrong when there’s enough in it to make it worth while. That’s what old Charlie always says. He says most people are straight enough when there’s nothing in it, but make the pot big enough and they’ll all go crooked.”

The young man’s face turned suddenly hard and old and bitter.

“Gee! I ought to know that well enough, oughtn’t I?” he said. “I guess nobody knows that better than I do after what happened to me.... Come along and take a walk in the garden, Maud! I’m sick of sitting still.”

Mlle. Coira O’Hara looked up with a start, as if she had not been listening, but she rose when the boy held out his hand to her, and the two went down from the terrace and moved off toward the west.

Ste. Marie watched them until they had disappeared among the trees, and then turned on his back, staring up into the softly stirring canopy of green above him and the little rifts of bright blue sky. He did not understand at all. Something mysterious had crept in where all had seemed so plain to the eye. Certain words that young Arthur Benham had spoken repeated themselves in his mind, and he could not at once make them out. Assuredly there was something mysterious here.

In the first place, what did the boy mean by “dirty work”? To be sure, spying, in its usual sense, is not held to be one of the noblest of occupations, but in such a cause as this! It was absurd, ridiculous, to call it “dirty work.” And what did he mean by the words which he had used afterward? Ste. Marie did not quite follow the idiom about the “big enough pot,” but he assumed that it referred to money. Did the young fool think he was being paid for his efforts? That was ridiculous, too.

The boy’s face came before him as it had looked with that sudden hard and bitter expression. What did he mean by saying that no one knew the crookedness of humanity under money temptation better than he knew it after something that had happened to him? In a sense his words were doubtless very true. Captain Stewart and he must have been “old Charlie”; Ste. Marie remembered that the name was Charles O’Hara, and O’Hara’s daughter stood excellent examples of that bit of cynicism, but obviously the boy had not spoken in that sense certainly not before Mlle. O’Hara! He meant something else, then. But what what?

Ste. Marie rose with some difficulty to his feet and carried the pillows back to the bed whence he had taken them. He sat down upon the edge of the bed, staring in great perplexity across the room at the open window, but all at once he uttered an exclamation and smote his hands together.

“That boy doesn’t know!” he cried. “They’re tricking him, these others!”

The lad’s face came once more before him, and it was a foolish and stubborn face, perhaps, but it was neither vicious nor mean. It was the face of an honest, headstrong boy who would be incapable of the cold cruelty to which all circumstances seemed to point.

“They’re tricking him somehow!” cried Ste. Marie again. “They’re lying to him and making him think ”

What was it they were making him think, these three conspirators? What possible thing could they make him think other than the plain truth? Ste. Marie shook a weary head and lay down among his pillows. He wished that he had “old Charlie” in a corner of that room with his fingers round “old Charlie’s” wicked throat. He would soon get at the truth then; or O’Hara, either, that grim and saturnine chevalier d’industrie, though O’Hara would be a bad handful to manage; or Ste. Marie’s head dropped back with a little groan when the face of young Arthur’s enchantress came between him and the opposite wall of the room and her great and tragic eyes looked into his.

It seemed incredible that that queen among goddesses should be what she was!