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

THE JOINT IN THE ARMOR

Ste. Marie put down a book as O’Hara came into the room and rose to meet his visitor.

“I’m compelled,” said the Irishman, “to put you on your honor to-day if you are to go out as usual. Michel has been sent on an errand, and I am busy with letters. I shall have to put you on your honor not to make any effort to escape. Is that agreed to? I shall trust you altogether. You could manage to scramble over the wall somehow, I suppose, and get clean away, but I think you won’t try it if you give your word.”

“I give my word gladly,” said Ste. Marie. “And thanks very much. You’ve been uncommonly kind to me here. I regret more than I can say that we that we find ourselves on opposite sides, as it were. I wish we were fighting for the same cause.”

The Irishman looked at the younger man sharply for an instant, and he made as if he would speak, but seemed to think better of it. In the end he said:

“Yes, quite so. Quite so. Of course you understand that any consideration I have used toward you has been by way of making amends for for an unfortunate occurrence.”

Ste. Marie laughed.

“The poison,” said he. “Yes, I know. And of course I know who was at the bottom of that. By the way, I met Stewart in the garden the other day. Did he tell you? He was rather nervous and tried to shoot me, but he had left his revolver at the house at least it wasn’t in his pocket when he reached for it.”

O’Hara’s hard face twitched suddenly, as if in anger, and he gave an exclamation under his breath, so the younger man inferred that “old Charlie” had not spoken of their encounter. And after that the Irishman once more turned a sharp, frowning glance upon his prisoner as if he were puzzled about something. But, as before, he stopped short of speech and at last turned away.

“Just a moment!” said the younger man. He asked: “Is it fair to inquire how long I may expect to be confined here? I don’t want to presume upon your good-nature too far, but if you could tell me I should be glad to know.”

The Irishman hesitated a moment and then said:

“I don’t know why I shouldn’t answer that. It can’t help you, so far as I can see, to do anything that would hinder us. You’ll stay until Arthur Benham comes of age, which will be in about two months from now.”

“Yes,” said the other. “Thanks. I thought so. Until young Arthur comes of age and receives his patrimony or until old David Stewart dies. Of course that might happen at any hour.”

The Irishman said: “I don’t quite see what Ah, yes, to be sure! Yes, I see. Well, I should count upon eight weeks if I were you. In eight weeks the boy will be independent of them all, and we shall go to England for the wedding.”

“The wedding?” cried Ste. Marie. “What wedding? Ah!”

“Arthur Benham and my daughter are to be married,” said O’Hara, “so soon as he reaches his majority. I thought you knew that.”

In a very vague fashion he realized that he had expected it. And still the definite words came to him with a shock which was like a physical blow, and he turned his back with a man’s natural instinct to hide his feeling. Certainly that was the logical conclusion to be drawn from known premises. That was to be the O’Haras’ reward for their labor. To Stewart the great fortune, to the O’Haras a good marriage for the girl and an assured future. That was reward enough surely for a few weeks of angling and decoying and luring and lying. That was what she had meant, on the day before, by saying that she could see all the to-morrows. He realized that he must have been expecting something like this, but the thought turned him sick, nevertheless. He could not forget the girl as he had come to know her during the past week. He could not face with any calmness the thought of her as the adventuress who had lured poor Arthur Benham on to destruction. It was an impossible thought. He could have laughed at it in scornful anger, and yet What else was she?

He began to realize that his action in turning his back upon the other man in the middle of a conversation must look very odd, and he faced round again trying to drive from his expression the pain and distress which he knew must be there, plain to see. But he need not have troubled himself, for the other man was standing before the next window and looking out into the morning sunlight, and his hard, bony face had so altered that Ste. Marie stared at him with open amazement. He thought O’Hara must be ill.

“I want to see her married!” cried the Irishman, suddenly, and it was a new voice, a voice Ste. Marie did not know. It shook a little with an emotion that sat uncouthly upon this grim, stern man.

“I want to see her married and safe!” he said. “I want her to be rid of this damnable, roving, cheap existence. I want her to be rid of me and my rotten friends and my rotten life.”

He chafed his hands together before him, and his tired eyes fixed themselves upon something that he seemed to see out of the window and glared at it fiercely.

“I should like,” said he, “to die on the day after her wedding, and so be out of her way forever. I don’t want her to have any shadows cast over her from the past. I don’t want her to open closet doors and find skeletons there. I want her to be free free to live the sort of life she was born to and has a right to.”

He turned sharply upon the younger man.

“You’ve seen her!” he cried. “You’ve talked to her; you know her! Think of that girl dragged about Europe with me ever since she was a little child! Think of the people she’s had to know, the things she’s had to see! Do you wonder that I want to have her free of it all, married and safe and comfortable and in peace? Do you? I tell you it has driven me as nearly mad as a man can be. But I couldn’t go mad, because I had to take care of her. I couldn’t even die, because she’d have been left alone without any one to look out for her. She wouldn’t leave me. I could have settled her somewhere in some quiet place where she’d have been quit at least of shady, rotten people, but she wouldn’t have it. She’s stuck to me always, through good times and bad. She’s kept my heart up when I’d have been ready to cut my throat if I’d been alone. She’s been the bravest and faithfulest Well, I And look at her! Look at her now! Think of what she’s had to see and know the people she’s had to live with and look at her! Has any of it stuck to her? Has it cheapened her in any littlest way? No, by God! She has come through it all like a like a Sister of Charity through a city slum like an angel through the dark.”

The Irishman broke off speaking, for his voice was beyond control, but after a moment he went on again, more calmly:

“This boy, this young Benham, is a fool, but he’s not a mean fool. She’ll make a man of him. And, married to him, she’ll have the comforts that she ought to have and the care and freedom. She’ll have a chance to live the life that she has a right to, among the sort of people she has a right to know. I’m not afraid for her. She’ll do her part and more. She’ll hold up her head among duchesses, that girl. I’m not afraid for her.”

He said this last sentence over several times, standing before the window and staring out at the sun upon the tree-tops.

“I’m not afraid for her.... I’m not afraid for her.”

He seemed to have forgotten that the younger man was in the room, for he did not look toward him again or pay him any attention for a long while. He only gazed out of the window into the fresh morning sunlight, and his face worked and quivered and his lean hands chafed restlessly together before him. But at last he seemed to realize where he was, for he turned with a sudden start and stared at Ste. Marie, frowning as if the younger man were some one he had never seen before. He said:

“Ah, yes, yes. You were wanting to go out into the garden. Yes, quite so. I I was thinking of something else. I seem to be absent-minded of late. Don’t let me keep you here.”

He seemed a little embarrassed and ill at ease, and Ste. Marie said:

“Oh, thanks. There’s no hurry. However, I’ll go, I think. It’s after eleven. I understand that I’m on my honor not to climb over the wall or burrow under it or batter it down. That’s understood. I ”

He felt that he ought to say something in acknowledgment of O’Hara’s long speech about his daughter, but he could think of nothing to say, and, besides, the Irishman seemed not to expect any comment upon his strange outburst. So, in the end, Ste. Marie nodded and went out of the room without further ceremony.

He had been astonished almost beyond words at that sudden and unlooked-for breakdown of the other man’s impregnable reserve, and dimly he realized that it must have come out of some very extraordinary nervous strain, but he himself had been in no state to give the Irishman’s words the attention and thought that he would have given them at another time. His mind, his whole field of mental vision, had been full of one great fact the girl was to be married to young Arthur Benham. The thing loomed gigantic before him, and in some strange way terrifying. He could neither see nor think beyond it. O’Hara’s burst of confidence had reached his ears very faintly, as if from a great distance poignant but only half-comprehended words to be reflected upon later in their own time.

He stumbled down the ill-lighted stair with fixed, wide, unseeing eyes, and he said one sentence over and over aloud, as the Irishman standing beside the window had said another.

“She is going to be married. She is going to be married.”

It would seem that he must have forgotten his previous half-suspicion of the fact. It would seem to have remained, as at the first hearing, a great and appalling shock, thunderous out of a blue sky.

Below, in the open, his feet led him mechanically straight down under the trees, through the tangle of shrubbery beyond, and so to the wall under the cedar. Arrived there, he awoke all at once to his task, and with a sort of frowning anger shook off the dream which enveloped him. His eyes sharpened and grew keen and eager. He said:

“The last arrow! God send it reached home!” and so went in under the lilac shrubs.

He was there longer than usual; unhampered now, he may have made a larger search, but when at last he emerged Ste. Marie’s hands were over his face and his feet dragged slowly like an old man’s feet.

Without knowing that he had stirred he found himself some distance away, standing still beside a chestnut-tree. A great wave of depression and fear and hopelessness swept him, and he shivered under it. He had an instant’s wild panic, and mad, desperate thoughts surged upon him. He saw utter failure confronting him. He saw himself as helpless as a little child, his feeble efforts already spent for naught, and, like a little child, he was afraid. He would have rushed at that grim encircling wall and fought his way up and over it, but even as the impulse raced to his feet the momentary madness left him and he turned away. He could not do a dishonorable thing even for all he held dearest.

He walked on in the direction which lay before him, but he took no heed of where he went, and Mlle. Coira O’Hara spoke to him twice before he heard or saw her.