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Will You Walk Into My Parlor? by Theodore Dreiser

 

It was a sweltering noon in July. Gregory, after several months of meditation on the warning given him by his political friend, during which time nothing to substantiate it had occurred, was making ready to return to the seaside hotel to which his present prosperity entitled him. It was a great affair, the Triton, about sixty minutes from his office, facing the sea and amid the pines and sands of the Island. His wife, 'the girl,' as he conventionally referred to her, had been compelled, in spite of the plot which had been revealed or suggested, owing to the ailing state of their child, to go up to the mountains to her mother for advice and comfort. Owing to the imminence of the fall campaign, however, he could not possibly leave. Weekdays and Sundays, and occasionally nights, he was busy ferreting out and substantiating one fact and another in regard to the mismanagement of the city, which was to be used as ammunition a little later on. The mayor and his "ring," as it was called, was to be ousted at all costs. He, Gregory, was certain to be rewarded if that came to pass. In spite of that he was eminently sincere as to the value and even the necessity of what he was doing. The city was being grossly mismanaged. What greater labor than to worm out the details and expose them to the gaze of an abused and irritated citizenship?

But the enemy itself was not helpless. A gentleman in the publishing business of whom he had never even heard called to offer him a position in the Middle West which would take him out of the city for four or five years at the least, and pay him six or seven thousand dollars a year. On his failure to be interested some of his mail began to disappear, and it seemed to him as though divers strange characters were taking a peculiar and undue interest in his movements. Lastly, one of the politicians connected with his own party called to see him at his office.

"You see, Gregory, it's this way," he said after a short preamble, "you have got a line as to what's going on in connection with that South Penyank land transfer. The mayor is in on that, but he is absolutely determined that the public is not going to find it out, and so is his partner, Tilney--not until after the election, anyhow. They are prepared to use some pretty rough methods, so look out for yourself. You're fond of your wife, are you? Well, keep her close beside you, and the kid. Don't let them get you away from her, even for a moment, where you shouldn't be. You saw what happened to Crothers two or three years ago, didn't you? He was about to expose that Yellow Point Ferry deal, but of course no one knew anything about that--and then, zip!--all at once he was arrested on an old charge of desertion, an old debt that he had failed to pay was produced and his furniture seized, and his wife was induced to leave him. Don't let them catch you in the same way. If you have any debts bring them to us and let us see what we can do about them. And if you are interested in any other woman, break it off, send her away, get rid of her."

Gregory viewed him with an irritated, half-pitying smile.

"There isn't any other woman," he said simply. Think of his being faithless to "the girl" and the kid--the blue-eyed, pink-toed kid!

"Don't think I'm trying to pry into your affairs," went on the politician. "I'm just telling you. If you need any further advice or help, come to me. But whatever you do, look out for yourself," and with that he put on his high silk hat and departed.

Gregory stood in the center of his office after his visitor had gone, and gazed intently at the floor. Certainly, from what he had discovered so far, he could readily believe that the mayor would do just what his friend had said. And as for the mayor's friend, the real estate plunger, it was plain from his whispered history that no tricks or brutalities were beneath him. Another politician had once said in describing him that he would not stop short of murder, but that one would never catch him red-handed or in any other way, and certainly that appeared to be true. He was wealthier, more powerful, than he had ever been, much more so than the mayor.

Since he and his wife had come to this seaside hotel several things had occurred which caused him to think that something might happen, although there was no evidence as yet that his suspicions were well-founded. An unctuous, over-dressed, bejeweled, semi-sporty widow of forty had arrived, a business woman, she indicated herself to be, conducting a highly successful theatrical agency in the great city, and consequently weltering in what one of Gregory's friends was wont to describe as "the sinews of war." She abounded in brown and wine-colored silks, brown slippers and stockings, a wealth of suspiciously lustrous auburn hair. Her car, for she had one, was of respectable reputation. Her skill and willingness to risk at whist of good report. She was, in the parlance of the hotel clerks and idlers of the Triton veranda, a cheerful and liberal spender. Even while Mrs. Gregory was at Triton Hall, Mrs. Skelton had arrived, making herself comfortable in two rooms and bath on the sea front, and finding familiar friends in the manager and several stalwart idlers who appeared to be brokers and real estate dealers, and who took a respectable interest in golf, tennis, and the Triton Grill. She was unctuous, hearty, optimistic, and neither Gregory nor his wife could help liking her a little. But before leaving, his wife had casually wondered whether Mrs. Skelton would be one to engage in such a plot. Her friendliness, while possible of any interpretation, was still general enough to be free of suspicion. She might be looking for just such a situation as this, though--to find Gregory alone.

"Do be careful, dear," his wife cautioned. "If you become too doubtful, leave and go to another place. At least that will compel them to provide another set of people." And off she went, fairly serene in her faith in her husband's ability to manage the matter.

Thus, much against his will, at first, Gregory found himself alone. He began to wonder if he should leave, or weather it out, as he expressed it to himself. Why should he be driven from the one comfortable hotel on this nearest beach, and that when he most needed it, away from a region where he was regularly encountering most of his political friends, particularly at week-ends? For so near a place it had many advantages: a delightful golf course, several tennis courts, food and rooms reasonably well above complaint, and a refreshing and delightful view of the sea over a broad lawn. Besides it was absolutely necessary for him to be in the near-by city the greater portion of every single working day. His peculiar and pressing investigation demanded it and a comfortable place to rest and recuperate at night was also imperative.

"It's beautiful here," he said to himself finally, "and here is where I stick. I haven't a car, and where is there any other place as convenient? Besides, if they're going to follow me, they're going to follow me."

In consequence, he traveled meditatively back and forth between this place and the city, thinking of what might happen. Becoming a little doubtful, he decided to call on Frank Blount and talk it over with him. Blount was an old newspaper man who had first turned lawyer and then broker. Seemingly clientless the major portion of the time, he still prospered mightily. A lorn bachelor, he had three clubs, several hotels, and a dozen country homes to visit, to say nothing of a high power car. Just now he was held unduly close to his work, and so was frequenting this coast. He liked golf and tennis, and, incidentally, Gregory, whom he wished to see prosper though he could not quite direct him in the proper way. Reaching the city one morning, Gregory betook him to Blount's office, and there laid the whole case before him.

"Now, that's the way it is," he concluded, staring at the pink cheeks and partially bald head of his friend, "and I would like to know what you would do if you were in my place."

Blount gazed thoughtfully out through the high towers of the city to the blue sky beyond, while he drummed with his fingers on the glass top of his desk.

"Well," he replied, after a time, scratching his cheekbone thoughtfully, "I'd stick it out if I were you. If there is to be a woman, and she is attractive, you might have some fun out of it without getting yourself in any trouble. It looks like a sporty summer proposition to me. Of course, you'll have to be on your guard. I'd take out a permit to carry a revolver if I were you. They'll hear of it if they're up to anything, and it won't cheer them any. In the next place, you ought to make out a day-to-day statement of your exact movements, and swear to it before a notary. If they hear of that it won't cheer them any either, and it may make them try to think up something really original.

"Besides," he went on, "I haven't so very much to do evenings and week-ends, and if you want me to I'll just be around most of the time in case of trouble. If we're together they can't turn much of anything without one of us knowing something about it, and then, too, you'll have an eye-witness." He was wondering whether the lady might not be interesting to him also. "I'm over at Sunset Point, just beyond you there, and if you want me I'll come over every evening and see how you're making out. If any trick is turned, I'd like to see how it is done," and he smiled in a winsome, helpful manner.

"That's just the thing," echoed Gregory thoughtfully. "I don't want any trick turned. I can't afford it. If anything should happen to me just now I'd never get on my feet again politically, and then there's the wife and kid, and I'm sick of the newspaper business," and he stared out of the window.

"Well, don't be worrying about it," Blount insisted soothingly. "Just be on your guard, and if you have to stay in town late any night, let me know and I'll come and pick you up. Or, if I can't do that, stay in town yourself. Go to one of the big hotels, where you'll feel thoroughly safe."

For several days Gregory, to avoid being a nuisance, returned to the hotel early. Also he secured a permit, and weighted his hip pocket with an unwieldy weapon which he resented, but which he nevertheless kept under his pillow at night. His uncertainty worked on his imagination to such an extent that he began to note suspicious moves on the part of nearly everybody. Any new character about the hotel annoyed him. He felt certain that there was a group of people connected with Mrs. Skelton who were watching him, though he could not prove it, even to himself.

"This is ridiculous," he finally told himself. "I'm acting like a five-year-old in the dark. Who's going to hurt me?" And he wrote laughing letters to his wife about it, and tried to resume his old-time nonchalance.

It wasn't quite possible, however, for not long after that something happened which disturbed him greatly. At least he persuaded himself to that effect, for that was a characteristic of these incidents--their openness to another interpretation than the one he might fix on. In spite of Blount's advice, one night about nine he decided to return to Triton Hall, and that without calling his friend to his aid.

"What's the use?" he asked himself. "He'll be thinking I'm the biggest coward ever, and after all, nothing has happened yet, and I doubt whether they'd go that far, anyhow." He consoled himself with the idea that perhaps humanity was better than he thought.

But just the same, as he left the train at Triton and saw it glimmering away over the meadows eastward, he felt a little uncertain as to his wisdom in this matter. Triton Station was a lonely one at nearly all times save in the morning and around seven at night, and to-night it seemed especially so. Only he alighted from the train. Most people went to and fro in their cars by another road. Why should he not have done as Blount had suggested, he now asked himself as he surveyed the flat country about;--called him to his aid, or stayed in the city? After all, hiring a car would not have been much better either, as Blount had pointed out, giving a possible lurking enemy a much sought point of attack. No, he should have stayed in town or returned with Blount in his car, and telling himself this, he struck out along the lonely, albeit short, stretch of road which led to the hotel and which was lighted by only a half dozen small incandescent globes strung at a considerable distance apart.

En route, and as he was saying to himself that it was a blessed thing that it was only a few hundred yards and that he was well-armed and fairly well constructed physically for a contest, a car swerved about a bend in the road a short distance ahead and stopped. Two men got out and, in the shadow back of the lights, which were less flaring than was usual, began to examine a wheel. It seemed odd to him on the instant that its headlights were so dim. Why should they be so dim at this time of night and why should this strange car stop just here at this lonely bend just as he was approaching it? Also why should he feel so queer about it or them, for at once his flesh began to creep and his hair to tingle. As he neared the car he moved to give it as wide a berth as the road would permit. But now one of the men left the wheel and approached him. Instantly, with almost an involuntary urge, he brought the revolver out of his hip pocket and stuffed it in his coat pocket. At the same time he stopped and called to the stranger:

"Stay right where you are, Mister. I'm armed, and I don't want you to come near me. If you do I'll shoot. I don't know who you are, or whether you're a friend or not, but I don't want you to move. Now, if there's anything you want, ask it from where you are."

The stranger stopped where he stood, seemingly surprised.

"I was going to ask you for a match," he said, "and the way to Trager's Point."

"Well, I haven't a match," returned Gregory savagely, "and Trager's Point is out that way. There's the hotel...if you're coming from there, why didn't you ask for directions there, and for matches, too?" He paused, while the man in the shadow seemed to examine him curiously.

"Oh, all right," he returned indifferently. "I don't want anything you don't want to give," but instead of returning to the car, he stood where he was, following Gregory with his eyes.

Gregory's skin seemed to rise on the back of his neck like the fur of a cat. He fairly tingled as he drew his revolver from his pocket and waved it ominously before him.

"Now, I'm going to walk around you two," he called, "and I want you to stand right where you are. I have you covered, and at the first move I'll shoot. You won't have any trouble out of me if you're not looking for it, but don't move," and he began orienting his own position so as to keep them directly in range of his eyes and weapon.

"Don't move!" he kept calling until he was well up the road, and then suddenly, while the men, possibly in astonishment, were still looking at him, turned and ran as fast as he could, reaching the hotel steps breathless and wet.

"That's the last lone trip for me," he said solemnly to himself.

When he spoke to Blount about it the latter seemed inclined to pooh-pooh his fears. Why should any one want to choose any such open place to kill or waylay another? There might have been other passengers on the train. A stray auto might be coming along there at any time. The men might have wanted a match, and not have been coming from the hotel at all. There was another road there which did not turn in at the hotel.

Still Gregory was inclined to believe that harm had been intended him--he could scarcely say why to himself--just plain intuition, he contended.

And then a day or two later--all the more significant now because of this other incident--Mrs. Skelton seemed to become more and more thoughtful as to his comfort and well-being. She took her meals at one of the tables commanding a view of the sea, and with (most frequently) one or the other, or both, broker friends as companions, to say nothing of occasional outside friends. But usually there was a fourth empty chair, and Gregory was soon invited to occupy that, and whenever Blount was present, a fifth was added. At first he hesitated, but urged on by Blount, who was amused by her, he accepted. Blount insisted that she was a comic character. She was so dressy, sporty, unctuous, good-natured--the very best kind of a seaside companion.

"Why, man, she's interesting," the latter insisted one night as they were taking a ride after dinner. "Quite a sporty 'fair and forty,' that. I like her. I really do. She's probably a crook, but she plays bridge well, and she's good at golf. Does she try to get anything out of you?"

"Not a thing, that I can see," replied Gregory. "She seems to be simple enough. She's only been here about three weeks."

"Well, we'd better see what we can find out about her. I have a hunch that she's in on this, but I can't be sure. It looks as though she might be one of Tilney's stool pigeons. But let's play the game and see how it comes out. I'll be nice to her for your sake, and you do the same for mine."

Under the warming influence of this companionship, things seemed to develop fairly rapidly. It was only a day or two later, and after Gregory had seated himself at Mrs. Skelton's table, that she announced with a great air of secrecy and as though it were hidden and rather important information, that a friend of hers, a very clever Western girl of some position and money, one Imogene Carle of Cincinnati, no less, a daughter of the very wealthy Brayton Carle's of that city, was coming to this place to stay for a little while. Mrs. Skelton, it appeared, had known her parents in that city fifteen years before. Imogene was her owny ownest pet. She was now visiting the Wilson Fletchers at Gray's Cove, on the Sound, but Mrs. Skelton had prevailed upon her parents to let her visit her here for a while. She was only twenty, and from now on she, Mrs. Skelton, was to be a really, truly chaperone. Didn't they sympathize with her? And if they were all very nice--and with this a sweeping glance included them all--they might help entertain her. Wouldn't that be fine? She was a darling of a girl, clever, magnetic, a good dancer, a pianist--in short, various and sundry things almost too good to be true. But, above all other things, she was really very beautiful, with a wealth of brown hair, brown eyes, a perfect skin, and the like. Neither Blount nor Gregory offered the other a single look during this recital, but later on, meeting on the great veranda which faced the sea, Blount said to him, "Well, what do you think?"

"Yes, I suppose it's the one. Well, she tells it well. It's interesting to think that she is to be so perfect, isn't it?" he laughed.

A few days later the fair visitor put in an appearance, and she was all that Mrs. Skelton had promised, and more. She was beautiful. Gregory saw her for the first time as he entered the large dining room at seven. She was, as Mrs. Skelton had described her, young, certainly not more than twenty-one at most. Her eyes were a light gray-brown, and her hair and skin and hands were full of light. She seemed simple and unpretentious, laughing, gay, not altogether fine or perfect, but fairly intelligent, and good to look at--very. She was at Mrs. Skelton's table, the brokers paying her marked attention, and, at sight, Blount liked her, too.

"Say," he began, "some beauty, eh? I'll have to save you from yourself, I fancy. I'll tell you how we'll work it. You save me, and I'll save you. The old lady certainly knows how to select 'em, apparently, and so does Tilney. Well now, my boy, look out!" and he approached with the air of one who was anxious to be a poor stricken victim himself.

Gregory had to laugh. However much he might be on his guard, he was interested, and as if to heighten this she paid more attention to Mrs. Skelton and her two friends than she did to Gregory or Blount. She was, or pretended to be absolutely sincere, and ignorant of her possible role as a siren, and they in turn pretended to accept her at her own valuation, only Blount announced after dinner very gaily that she might siren him all she blanked pleased. He was ready. By degrees, however, even during this first and second evening, Gregory began to feel that he was the one. He caught her looking at him slyly or shyly, or both, and he insisted to himself stubbornly and even vainly enough that he was her intended victim. When he suggested as much to Blount the other merely laughed.

"Don't be so vain," he said. "You may not be. I wish I were in your place. I'll see if I can't help take her attention from you," and he paid as much attention to her as any one.

However, Gregory's mind was not to be disabused. He watched her narrowly, while she on her part chattered gaily of many things--her life the winter before in Cincinnati, the bathing at Beachampton where she had recently been, a yachting trip she had been promised, tennis, golf. She was an expert at tennis, as she later proved, putting Gregory in a heavy perspiration whenever he played with her, and keeping him on the jump. He tried to decide for himself at this time whether she was making any advances, but could not detect any. She was very equitable in the distribution of her favors, and whenever the dancing began in the East room took as her first choice one of the brokers, and then Blount.

The former, as did Mrs. Skelton and the brokers, had machines, and by her and them, in spite of the almost ever-present Blount, Gregory was invited to be one of a party in one or the other of their cars whenever they were going anywhere of an afternoon or evening. He was suspicious of them, however, and refused their invitations except when Blount was on the scene and invited, when he was willing enough to accept. Then there were whist, pinochle, or poker games in the hotel occasionally, and in these Gregory as well as Blount, when he was there, were wont to join, being persistently invited. Gregory did not dance, and Imogene ragged him as to this. Why didn't he learn? It was wonderful! She would teach him! As she passed amid the maze of dancers at times he could not help thinking how graceful she was, how full of life and animal spirits. Blount saw this and teased him, at the same time finding her very companionable and interesting himself. Gregory could not help thinking what a fascinating, what an amazing thing, really, it was (providing it were true) that so dark a personality as Tilney could secure such an attractive girl to do his vile work. Think of it, only twenty-one, beautiful, able to further herself in many ways no doubt, and yet here she was under suspicion of him, a trickster possibly. What could be the compulsion, the reward?

"My boy, you don't know these people," Blount was always telling him. "They're the limit. In politics you can get people to do anything--anything. It isn't like the rest of life or business, it's just politics, that's all. It seems a cynical thing to say, but it's true. Look at your own investigations! What do they show?"

"I know, but a girl like that now--" replied Gregory solemnly.

But after all, as he insisted to Blount, they did not know that there was anything to all this. She might and she might not be a siren. It might be possible that both of them were grossly misjudging her and other absolutely innocent people.

So far, all that they had been able to find out concerning Mrs. Skelton was that she was, as she represented herself to be, the successful owner and manager of a theatrical agency. She might have known the better days and connections which she boasted. Gregory felt at times as though his brain were whirling, like a man confronted by enemies in the dark, fumbling and uncertain, but he and Blount both agreed that the best thing was to stay here and see it through, come what might. It was a good game even as it stood, interesting, very. It showed, as Blount pointed out to him, a depth to this political mess which he was attempting to expose which previously even he had not suspected.

"Stick by," the other insisted sport-lovingly. "You don't know what may come of this. It may provide you the very club you're looking for. Win her over to your side if you can. Why not? She might really fall for you. Then see what comes of it. You can't be led into any especial trap with your eyes open."

Gregory agreed to all this after a time. Besides, this very attractive girl was beginning to appeal to him in a very subtle way. He had never known a woman like this before--never even seen one. It was a very new and attractive game, of sorts. He began to spruce up and attempt to appear a little gallant himself. A daily report of his movements was being filed each morning, though. Every night he returned with Blount in his car, or on an early train. There was scarcely a chance for a compromising situation, and still there might be--who knows?

On other evenings, after the fashion of seaside hotel life, Gregory and Imogene grew a little more familiar. Gregory learned that she played and sang, and, listening to her, that she was of a warm and even sensuous disposition. She was much more sophisticated than she had seemed at first, as he could now see, fixing her lips in an odd inviting pout at times and looking alluringly at one and another, himself included. Both Blount and himself, once the novelty of the supposed secret attack had worn off, ventured to jest with her about it, or rather to hint vaguely as to her mission.

"Well, how goes the great game to-night?" Blount once asked her during her second or third week, coming up to where she and Gregory were sitting amid the throng on the general veranda, and eyeing her in a sophisticated or smilingly cynical way.

"What game?" She looked up in seemingly complete innocence.

"Oh, snaring the appointed victim. Isn't that what all attractive young women do?"

"Are you referring to me?" she inquired with considerable hauteur and an air of injured innocence. "I'd have you know that I don't have to snare any one, and particularly not a married man." Her teeth gleamed maliciously.

Both Gregory and Blount were watching her closely.

"Oh, of course not. Not a married man, to be sure. And I wasn't referring to you exactly--just life, you know, the game."

"Yes, I know," she replied sweetly. "I'm jesting, too." Both Gregory and Blount laughed.

"Well, she got away with it without the tremor of an eyelash, didn't she?" Blount afterward observed, and Gregory had to agree that she had.

Again, it was Gregory who attempted a reference of this kind. She had come out after a short instrumental interpretation at the piano, where, it seemed to him, she had been posing in a graceful statuesque way--for whose benefit? He knew that she knew he could see her from where he sat.

"It's pretty hard work, without much reward," he suggested seemingly idly.

"What is? I don't quite understand," and she looked at him questioningly.

"No?" he smiled in a light laughing manner. "Well, that's a cryptic way I have. I say things like that. Just a light hint at a dark plot, possibly. You mustn't mind me. You wouldn't understand unless you know what I know."

"Well, what is it you know, then, that I don't?" she inquired.

"Nothing definite yet. Just an idea. Don't mind me."

"Really, you are very odd, both you and Mr. Blount. You are always saying such odd things and then adding that you don't mean anything. And what's cryptic?"

Gregory, still laughing at her, explained.

"Do you know, you're exceedingly interesting to me as a type. I'm watching you all the while."

"Yes?" she commented, with a lifting of the eyebrows and a slight distention of the eyes. "That's interesting. Have you made up your mind as to what type I am?"

"No, not quite yet. But if you're the type I think you are, you're very clever. I'll have to hand you the palm on that score."

"Really, you puzzle me," she said seriously. "Truly, you do. I don't understand you at all. What is it you are talking about? If it's anything that has any sense in it I wish you'd say it out plain, and if not I wish you wouldn't say it at all."

Gregory stared. There was an odd ring of defiance in her voice.

"Please don't be angry, will you?" he said, slightly disconcerted. "I'm just teasing, not talking sense."

She arose and walked off, while he strolled up and down the veranda looking for Blount. When he found him, he narrated his experience.

"Well, it's just possible that we are mistaken. You never can tell. Give her a little more rope. Something's sure to develop soon."

And thereafter it seemed as if Mrs. Skelton and some others might be helping her in some subtle way about something, the end or aim of which he could not be quite sure. He was in no way disposed to flatter himself, and yet it seemed at times as if he were the object of almost invisible machinations. In spite of what had gone before, she still addressed him in a friendly way, and seemed not to wish to avoid him, but rather to be in his vicinity at all times.

A smug, dressy, crafty Jew of almost minute dimensions arrived on the scene and took quarters somewhere in the building, coming and going and seeming never to know Mrs. Skelton or her friends, and yet one day, idling across some sand dunes which skirted an adjacent inlet, he saw them, Imogene and the antlike Jew, walking along together. He was so astounded that he stopped in amazement. His first thought was to draw a little nearer and to make very sure, but realizing, as they walked slowly in his direction, that he could not be mistaken, he beat a hasty retreat. That evening Blount was taken in on the mystery, and at dinner time, seeing the Hebrew enter and seat himself in state at a distant table, he asked casually, "A newcomer, isn't he?"

Mrs. Skelton, Imogene, and the one broker present, surveyed the stranger with curious but unacquainted indifference.

"Haven't the slightest idea," answered the broker.

"Never saw him before. Cloaks and suits, I'll lay a thousand."

"He looks as though he might be rich, whoever he is," innocently commented Imogene.

"I think he came Thursday. He doesn't seem to be any one in particular, that's sure," added Mrs. Skelton distantly, and the subject was dropped.

Gregory was tempted to accuse the young woman and her friends then and there of falsehood, but he decided to wait and study her. This was certainly becoming interesting. If they could lie like that, then something was surely in the air. So she was a trickster, after all, and she was so charming. His interest in her and Mrs. Skelton and their friends grew apace.

And then came the matter of the mysterious blue racer, or "trailer," as Gregory afterward came to call it, a great hulking brute of a car, beautifully, even showily, made, and with an engine that talked like no other. There was a metallic ring about it which seemed to carry a long way through the clear air and over the sands which adjoined the sea. It was the possession, so he learned later through Mrs. Skelton, of one of four fortunate youths who were summering at the next hotel west, about a mile away. The owner, one Castleman by name, the son and heir to a very wealthy family, was a friend of hers whom she had first met in a commercial way in the city. They came over after Imogene's arrival, she explained, to help entertain, and they invariably came in this car. Castleman and his friends, smart, showy youths all, played tennis and bridge, and knew all the latest shows and dances and drinks. They were very gay looking, at least three of them, and were inclined to make much of Imogene, though, as Mrs. Skelton cautiously confided to Gregory after a time, she did not propose to allow it. Imogene's parents might not like it. On the other hand, Gregory and Blount, being sober men both and of excellent discretion, were much more welcome!

Almost every day thereafter Mrs. Skelton would go for a ride in her own car or that of Castleman, taking Gregory if he would, and Imogene for companions. Blount, however, as he explicitly made clear at the very beginning, was opposed to this.

"Don't ever be alone with her, I tell you, or just in the company of her and her friends anywhere except on this veranda. They're after you, and they're not finding it easy, and they're beginning to work hard. They'll give themselves away in some way pretty soon, just as sure as you're sitting there. They want to cut me out, but don't let them do it--or if you do, get some one in my place. You don't know where they'll take you. That's the way people are framed. Take me, or get them to use my machine and you take some other man. Then you can regulate the conditions partially, anyhow."

Gregory insisted that he had no desire to make any other arrangements, and so, thereafter, whenever an invitation was extended to him, Blount was always somehow included, although, as he could see, they did not like it. Not that Imogene seemed to mind, but Mrs. Skelton always complained, "Must we wait for him?" or "Isn't it possible, ever, to go anywhere without him?"

Gregory explained how it was. Blount was an old and dear friend of his. They were practically spending the summer together. Blount had nothing to do just now. . . . They seemed to take it all in the best part, and thereafter Blount was always ready, and even willing to suggest that they come along with him in his car.

But the more these accidental prearrangements occurred, the more innocently perverse was Mrs. Skelton in proposing occasional trips of her own. There was an interesting walk through the pines and across the dunes to a neighboring hotel which had a delightful pavilion, and this she was always willing to essay with just Gregory. Only, whenever he agreed to this, and they were about to set out, Imogene would always appear and would have to be included. Then Mrs. Skelton would remember that she had forgotten her parasol or purse or handkerchief, and would return for it, leaving Imogene and Gregory to stroll on together. But Gregory would always wait until Mrs. Skelton returned. He was not to be entrapped like this.

By now he and Imogene, in spite of this atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty, had become very friendly. She liked him, he could see that. She looked at him with a slight widening of the eyes and a faint distention of the nostrils at times, which spelled--what? And when seated with him in the car, or anywhere else, she drew near him in a gently inclusive and sympathetic and coaxing way. She had been trying to teach him to dance of late, and scolding him in almost endearing phrases such as "Now, you bad boy," or "Oh, butterfingers!" (when once he had dropped something), or "Big, clumsy one--how big and strong you really are. I can scarcely guide you."

And to him, in spite of all her dark chicane, she was really beautiful, and so graceful! What a complexion, he said to himself on more than one occasion. How light and silken her hair! And her eyes, hard and gray-brown, and yet soft, too--to him. Her nose was so small and straight, and her lip line so wavily cut, like an Englishwoman's, full and drooping in the center of the upper lip. And she looked at him so when they were alone! It was disturbing.

But as to the Blue Trailer on these careening nights. Chancing one night to be invited by Mrs. Skelton for a twenty-five-mile run to Bayside, Blount accompanying them, they had not gone ten miles, it seemed to him, when the hum of a peculiarly and powerfully built motor came to him. It was like a distant bee buzzing, or a hornet caught under a glass. There was something fierce about it, savage. On the instant he recalled it now, recognized it as the great blue machine belonging to young Castleman. Why should he be always hearing it, he asked, when they were out? And then quite thoughtlessly he observed to Imogene:

"That sounds like Castleman's car, doesn't it?"

"It does, doesn't it?" she innocently replied. "I wonder if it could be."

Nothing caused him to think any more about it just then, but another time when he was passing along a distant road he heard its motor nearby on another road, and then it passed them. Again, it brought its customary group to the same inn in which he and Blount and Imogene and Mrs. Skelton were.

Suddenly it came to him just what it meant. The last time he had heard it, and every time before that, he now remembered, its sound had been followed by its appearance at some roadside inn or hotel whenever he Imogene and Blount happened to be in the same party; and it always brought with it this selfsame group of young men ("joy riders," they called themselves), accidentally happening in on them, as they said. And now he remembered (and this fact was corroborated by the watchful Blount) that if the car had not been heard, and they had not appeared, either Mrs. Skelton or Imogene invariably sought the ladies' retiring room once they had reached their destination, if they had one, when later the car would be heard tearing along in the distance and the "joy riders" would arrive. But what for? How to compromise him exactly, if at all?

One night after Mrs. Skelton had left them in one of these inns, but before the joy riders had arrived, Gregory was sitting at the edge of a balcony overlooking a silent grove of pines when suddenly it seemed to him that he heard it coming in the distance, this great rumbling brute, baying afar off, like a bloodhound on the scent. There was something so eerie, uncanny about it or about the night, which made it so. And then a few moments later it appeared, and the four cronies strolled in, smart and summery in their appearance, seemingly surprised to find them all there. Gregory felt a bit cold and chill at the subtlety of it all. How horrible it was, trailing a man in this way! How tremendous the depths of politics, how important the control of all the great seething cities' millions, to these men--Tilney and his friends,--if they could find it important to plot against one lone investigating man like this! Their crimes! Their financial robberies! How well he knew some of them--and how near he was to being able to prove some of them and drive them out, away from the public treasury and the emoluments and honors of office!

That was why he was so important to them now--he a self-established newspaperman with a self-established investigating bureau. Actually, it was villainous, so dark and crafty. What were they planning, these two smiling women at his side and these four smart rounders, with their pink cheeks and affable manners? What could they want of him really? How would it all end?

As Mrs. Skelton, Imogene, Blount and himself were preparing to return, and Castleman and his friends were entering their own car, a third party hitherto unknown to Blount or Gregory appeared and engaged the two women in conversation, finally persuading them to return with them in their car. Mrs. Skelton thereupon apologized and explained that they were old friends whom she had not seen for a long time, and that they would all meet at the hotel later for a game of bridge. Blount and Gregory, left thus to themselves, decided to take a short cut to a nearby turnpike so as to beat them home. The move interested them, although they could not explain it at the time. It was while they were following this road, however, through a section heavily shaded with trees, that they were suddenly confronted by the blazing lights of another machine descending upon them at full speed from the opposite direction, and even though Blount by the most amazing dexterity managed to throw his car into the adjacent fence and wood, still it came so close and was traveling at such terrific speed that it clipped their left rear wheel as he did so.

"Castleman's car!" Blount said softly after it had passed. "I saw him. They missed us by an inch!"

"What do you think of that!" exclaimed Gregory cynically. "I wonder if they'll come back to see the result of their work?"

Even as they were talking, however, they heard the big car returning.

"Say, this looks serious! I don't like the looks of it!" whispered Blount. "That car would have torn us to bits and never been scratched. And here they are now. Better look out for them. It's just as well that we're armed. You have your gun, haven't you?"

The other group approached most brazenly.

"Hello! Any trouble?" they called from a distance. "So sorry," and then as though they had just discovered it, "--well, if it isn't Gregory and Blount! Well, well, fellows, so sorry! It was an accident, I assure you. Our steering gear is out of order."

Gregory and Blount had previously agreed to stand their ground, and if any further treachery were intended it was to be frustrated with bullets. The situation was partially saved or cleared up by the arrival of a third car containing a party of four middle-aged men who, seeing them in the wood and the other car standing by, stopped to investigate. It was Gregory's presence of mind which kept them there.

"Do you mind staying by, Mister, until that other car leaves?" he whispered to one of the newcomers who was helping to extricate Blount's machine. "I think they purposely tried to wreck us, but I'm not sure; anyway, we don't want to be left alone with them."

Finding themselves thus replaced and the others determined to stay, Castleman and his followers were most apologetic and helpful. They had forgotten something back at the inn, they explained, and were returning for it. As they had reached this particular spot and had seen the light of Blount's car, they had tried to stop, but something had gone wrong with the steering gear. They had tried to turn, but couldn't, and had almost wrecked their own car. Was there any damage? They would gladly pay. Blount assured them there was not, the while he and Gregory accepted their apologies in seeming good part, insisting, however, that they needed no help. After they had gone Blount and Gregory, with the strangers as guards, made their way to the hotel, only to find it dark and deserted.

What an amazing thing it all was, Gregory said to himself over and over, the great metropolis threaded with plots like this for spoil--cold blooded murder attempted, and that by a young girl and these young men scarcely in their middle twenties, and yet there was no way to fix it on them. Here he was, fairly convinced that on two occasions murder had been planned or attempted, and still he could prove nothing, not a word, did not even dare to accuse any one! And Imogene, this girl of beauty and gayety, pretending an affection for him--and he half believing it--and at the same time convinced that she was in on the plot in some way. Had he lost his senses?

He was for getting out now posthaste, feeling as he did that he was dealing with a band of murderers who were plotting his death by "accident" in case they failed to discredit him by some trick or plot, but Blount was of another mind. He could not feel that this was a good time to quit After all, everything had been in their favor so far. In addition, Blount had come to the conclusion that the girl was a very weak tool of these other people, not a clever plotter herself. He argued this, he said, from certain things which he had been able thus far to find out about her. She had once been, he said, the private secretary or personal assistant to a well known banker whose institution had been connected with the Tilney interests in Penyank, and whose career had ended in his indictment and flight. Perhaps there had been some papers which she had signed as the ostensible secretary or treasurer, which might make her the victim of Tilney or of some of his political friends. Besides, by now he was willing to help raise money to carry Gregory's work on in case he needed any. The city should be protected from such people. But Blount considered Imogene a little soft or easy, and thought that Gregory could influence her help him if he tried.

"Stick it out," he insisted. "Stick it out. It looks pretty serious, I know, but you want to remember that you won't be any better off anywhere else, and here we at least know what we're up against. They know by now that we're getting on to them. They must. They're getting anxious, that's all, and the time is getting short. You might send for your wife, but that wouldn't help any. Besides, if you play your cards right with this girl you might get her to come over to your side. In spite of what she's doing, I think she likes you." Gregory snorted. "Or you might make her like you, and then you could get the whole scheme out of her. See how she looks at you all the time! And don't forget that every day you string this thing along without letting them bring it to a disastrous finish, the nearer you are to the election. If this goes on much longer without their accomplishing anything, Tilney won't have a chance to frame up anything new before the election will be upon him, and then it will be too late. Don't you see?"

On the strength of this, Gregory agreed to linger a little while longer, but he felt that it was telling on his nerves. He was becoming irritable and savage, and the more he thought about it the worse he felt. To think of having to be pleasant to people who were murderers at heart and trying to destroy you!

The next morning, however, he saw Imogene at breakfast, fresh and pleasant, and with that look of friendly interest in her eyes which more and more of late she seemed to wear and in spite of himself he was drawn to her, although he did his best to conceal it.

"Why didn't you come back last night to play cards with us?" she asked. "We waited and waited for you."

"Oh, haven't you heard about the latest 'accident'?" he asked, with a peculiar emphasis on the word, and looking at her with a cynical mocking light in his eyes.

"No. What accident?" She seemed thoroughly unaware that anything had happened.

"You didn't know, of course, that Castleman's car almost ran us down after you left us last night?"

"No!" she exclaimed with genuine surprise. "Where?"

"Well, just after you left us, in the wood beyond Bellepoint. It was so fortunate of you two to have left just when you did." And he smiled and explained briefly and with some cynical comments as to the steering gear that wouldn't work.

As he did so, he examined her sharply and she looked at him with what he thought might be pain or fear or horror in her glance. Certainly it was not a look disguising a sympathetic interest in the plans of her friends or employers, if they were such. Her astonishment was so obviously sincere, confusing, revealing, in a way that it all but won him. He could not make himself believe that she had had a hand in that anyhow. It must be as Blount said, that she was more of a tool herself than anything else. She probably couldn't help herself very well or didn't know the lengths to which her pretended "friends" were prepared to go. Her eyes seemed troubled, sad. She seemed weaker, more futile, than at any time since he had known her, and this, while it did not add particularly to his respect, softened his personal animosity. He felt that under the circumstances he might come to like her. He also thought that she might be made to like him enough to help him. He had the emotional mastery of her, he thought, and that was something. He had described the incident with all the vividness of detail that he could, showing how he and Blount had escaped death by a hair's breadth. She seemed a little sick, and shortly after left the table. Gregory had taken good care to make it plain that the strangers in the other car had been informed as to the exact details of the case, and had offered their services as witnesses in case they were wanted.

"But we don't propose to do anything about it," he said genially, "not now, anyhow," and it was that she seemed to become a little sick or faint, and left him.

Whether owing to this conversation or the accident itself, or to circumstances concerning which he knew nothing, there now seemed to come a temporary lull in the activities of this group. The Blue Trailer disappeared as an active daily fact in their lives. Mrs. Skelton was called to the city on business for a few days, as well as Mr. Diamondberg, the "cloak and suit man," as Blount always called him, who in all the time he had been there had never publicly joined them. Mrs. Skelton came back later as cheerful and optimistic as ever, but in the meanwhile there had been an approach on the part of Imogene toward himself which seemed to promise a new order of things. She was freer, more natural and more genial than she had been hitherto. She was with him more, smiling, playful, and yet concerned, he thought. Because of their conversation the morning after the accident, he felt easier in her presence, more confidential, as though he might be able to talk to her about all this soon and get her to help him.

They had two hours together on the second afternoon of the absence of the others which brought them within sight of each other's point of view. It began after lunch, because Gregory had some reports to examine and was staying here to do it. She came over and stood beside him.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm looking up some facts," he replied enigmatically, smiling up at her. "Sit down."

They fell into conversation first about a tennis match which was being held here, and then about his work, which he described in part after observing that she knew all about it, or ought to.

"Why do you always talk to me that way about everything in connection with you?" she asked after a moment's pause. "You have such a queer way of speaking, as though I knew something I ought not to know about your affairs."

"Well, you do, don't you?" he questioned grimly, staring at her.

"Now, there it is again! What do you mean by that?"

"Do you really need to have me explain to you?" he went on in a hard cynical manner. "As though you didn't know! I don't suppose you ever heard of the Union Bank of Penyank, for instance? Or Mr. Swayne, its president? Or Mr. Riley, or Mr. Mears, the cashier?"

At the mention of these, as at the mention of the automobile accident, there was something which seemed to click like a camera shutter in her eyes, only this time there was no sign of pain, none even of confusion. She seemed, except for a faint trace of color, to be fairly calm and poised. She opened her mouth slightly, but more in an attempted smile of tolerance than anything else.

"The Union Bank? Mr. Swayne? Mr. Tilney? What are you talking about?" she persisted. "Who is Mr. Swayne, and where is the Union Bank?"

"Really, now, Miss Carle," he said with a kind of dogmatic fury, "if you want me to have any regard of any kind for you in the future, quit lying about this. You know well enough what I mean. You know who Mr. Swayne is, all right, and why he left Eastridge. You also know Mr. Diamondberg, although I heard you say you didn't, and that right after I had seen you walking with him out here on the dunes three weeks ago. You don't remember that, I suppose?" this as she fluttered slightly.

She stared, completely shaken out of her composure, and a real flush spread over her cheeks and neck. For the moment her expression hardened the least bit, then gave way to one of mingled weakness and confusion. She looked more or less guilty and genuinely distrait.

"Why, Mr. Gregory," she pleaded weakly, "how you talk! Positively, I haven't the slightest idea of what you mean, and I wish you wouldn't be so rough. I don't think you know what you're talking about, or if you do you certainly don't know anything about me. You must have me mixed up with some one else, or with something that I don't know anything about." She moved as if to leave.

"Now listen to me a minute," he said sharply, "and don't be so ready to leave. You know who I am, and just what I'm doing. I'm running an investigation bureau on my own account with which I mean to break up the present city political ring, and I have a lot of evidence which might cause Mr. Tilney and the mayor and some others a lot of trouble this fall, and they know it, and that's why you're out here. Mr. Tilney is connected with the mayor, and he used to be a bosom friend of your friend, Jack Swayne. And Diamondberg and Mrs. Skelton are in his employ right now, and so are you. You think I don't know that Castleman and his friends were working with you and Mrs. Skelton, and Diamondberg and these 'brokers' also, and that Castleman tried to run into us the other night and kill me, and that I'm being watched here all the time and spied on, but I am, and I know it, and I'm not in the dark as to anything--not one thing--not even you," and he leered at her angrily.

"Now wait a moment," he went on quickly as she opened her mouth and started to say something. "You don't look to me to be so crafty and devilish as all this seems, or I wouldn't be talking to you at all, and your manner all along has been so different--you've appeared so friendly and sympathetic, that I've thought at times that maybe you didn't know exactly what was going on. Now, however, I see that you do. Your manner the other morning at breakfast made me think that possibly you were not so bad as you seemed. But now I see that you've been lying to me all along about all this, just as I thought, only I must say that up to now I haven't been willing to believe it. This isn't the first time an attempt has been made to get people in this way, though. It's an old political trick, only you're trying to work it once more, and I don't propose that you shall work it on me if I can help it. Plainly, you people wouldn't hesitate to kill me, any more than Tilney hesitated to ruin Crothers three years ago, or than he would hesitate to ruin me or any other man or woman who got in his path, but he hasn't got me yet, and he's not going to, and you can tell him that for me. He's a crook. He controls a bunch of crooks--the mayor and all the people working with him--and if you're in with them, as I know you are, and know what you're doing, you're a crook too."

"Oh, oh, oh! Don't!" she exclaimed. "Please don't! This is too terrible! To think that you should talk to me in this way!" but she made no attempt to leave.

"Now I want to tell you something more, Miss Carle--if that's your real name--" Gregory went on as she was putting her hands to her temples and exclaiming, and she winced again. "As I said before, you don't look to me to be as bad as you seem, and for that reason I'm talking to you now. But just see how it is: Here I am, a young man just starting out in the world really, and here you are trying to ruin me. I was living here with my wife and my little two-year-old baby peacefully enough until she had to go to the mountains because our little boy was taken sick, and then you and Mrs. Skelton and Diamondberg and Castleman and the 'brokers' and all the rest of the crowd that are and have been around here watching and spying, came and began to cause me trouble. Now I'm not helpless. And you needn't think I wasn't warned before you came, because I was. There are just as many influential men on my side of the fence right now as there are on Tilney's--will be--and he isn't going to get away with this thing as easily as he thinks. But just think of your part in all this! Why should you want to ruin me or help these people? What have I ever done to you? I can understand Tilney's wanting to do it. He thinks that I have facts which will injure him, and I have, and that because I haven't made any public statement the evidence is still in my hands, and that if I am put out of the way or discredited the whole thing will blow over and nothing will happen to him--but it won't. Not now any more. It can't. This thing will go on just the same, whether I am here or not. But that isn't the point either. I was told two months ago that you would come, not by Mrs. Skelton, but by friends of mine, and that an attempt would be made on my life," and at that she opened her eyes wide and sat there apparently amazed, "and here you are on schedule time and doing just as you were told, and apparently you aren't the least bit ashamed to do it. But don't you think it's a pretty shabby game for you to play?" He stared at her wearily and she at him, but now for the moment she said nothing, just sat there.

"That big blue machine that was to have killed me the other night," he went on, stretching matters a little in so far as his own knowledge was concerned, "was all arranged for long before you came down here. I haven't the slightest idea why you work for Tilney, but I know now that that's what you're doing, and I'm sick of you and the whole thing. You're just a plain little crook, that's all, and I'm through with you and this whole thing, and I don't want you to talk to me any more. What's more, I'm not going to leave this hotel, either, and you can take that news to Tilney if you want to, or Mrs. Skelton or whoever else is managing things here for him. I've kept a day-to-day record of everything that's happened so far, and I have witnesses, and if anything more happens to me here I'm going to the newspapers and expose the whole thing. If you had any sense of decency left you wouldn't be in on anything like this, but you haven't--you're just a shabby little trickster, and that lets you out, and that's all I have to say."

He stood up and made as if to walk off, while Miss Carle sat there, seemingly dazed, then jumped up and called after him:

"Mr. Gregory! Please! Please! Mr. Gregory, I want to tell you something!"

He stopped and turned. She came hurriedly up to him.

"Don't go," she pleaded, "not just yet. Wait a minute. Please come back. I want to talk to you." And though he looked at her rather determinedly, he followed her.

"Well?" he asked.

"You don't understand how it is," she pleaded, with a look of real concern in her eyes. "And I can't tell you either, just now, but I will some time if you will let me. But I like you, and I really don't want to do you any harm. Really, I don't. I don't know anything about these automobile things you're telling about--truly I don't. They're all terrible and horrible to me, and if they are trying to do anything like that, I don't know it, and I won't have anything more to do with it--really I won't. Oh, it's terrible!" and she clenched her hands. "I do know Mr. Diamondberg now, I admit that, but I didn't before I came down here, and Mr. Swayne and Mr. Tilney. I did come here to see if I could get you interested in me, but they didn't tell me just why. They told me--Mrs. Skelton did--that you, or some people whom you represented, were trying to get evidence against some friends of theirs--Mr. Tilney's, I believe--who were absolutely innocent, that you weren't happy with your wife, and that if some one, any one, were able to make you fall in love with her or just become very good friends, she might be able to persuade you not to do it, you see. There wasn't any plan, so far as I know, to injure you bodily in any way. They didn't tell me that they wanted to injure you physically--really they didn't. That's all news to me, and dreadful. All they said was that they wanted to get some one to get you to stop--make it worth your while in a money way, if I could. I didn't think there was anything so very wrong in that, seeing all they have done for me in the past--Mr. Tilney, Mrs. Skelton and some others. But after I saw you a little while I--" she paused and looked at him, then away, "I didn't think you were that kind of a man, you see, and so--well, it's different now. I don't want to do anything to hurt you. Really I don't. I couldn't--now."

"So you admit now that you do know Mr. Tilney," he commented sourly, but not without a sense of triumph behind it all.

"I just told you that," she said.

She stopped, and Gregory stared at her suspiciously. That she liked him was plain, and in a sense it was different from that of a mere passing flirtation, and as for himself--well, he couldn't help liking her in a genial way. He was free to admit that to himself, in spite of her trickery, and that she was attractive, and as yet she personally had not done anything to him, certainly nothing that he could prove. She seemed even now so young, although so sophisticated and wise, and much about her face, its smoothness, the delicate tracery of hair about her forehead, the drooping pout of the upper lip, sharpened his interest and caused him to meditate.

"Well?" he inquired after a time.

"Oh, I wish you wouldn't turn on me so and leave me," she pleaded. "I haven't done anything to you, have I? Not yet, anyhow."

"That's just the point--not yet. There's the whole story in a nutshell."

"Yes, but I promise you faithfully that I won't, that I don't intend to. Really I don't. You won't believe me, but that's true. And I won't, I give you my word,--truly. Why won't you still be friends with me? I can't tell you any more about myself now than I have--not now--but I will some time, and I wish you would still be friends with me. I promise not to do anything to cause you trouble. I haven't really, have I? Have I?"

"How should I know?" he answered testily and roughly, the while believing that this was a deliberate attempt on her part to interest him in spite of himself, to get him not to leave yet. "It seems to me you've done enough, being with these people. You've led me into going about with them, for one thing. I would never have gone with them on most of these trips except for you. Isn't that enough? What more do you want? And why can't you tell me now," he demanded, feeling in a way the authority of a victor, "who these people are and all about them? I'd like to know. It might be a help to me, if you really wanted to do something for me. What are their plans, their game?"

"I don't know. I can't tell you any more than I have, truly I can't. If I find out, maybe I will some time. I promise to. But not now. I can't, now. Can't you trust me that much? Can't you see that I like you, when I tell you so much? I haven't any plan to injure you personally, truly I haven't. I'm obliged to these people in one way and another, but nothing that would make me go that far. Won't you believe me?" She opened her eyes very wide in injury. There was something new in her expression, a luring, coaxing something.

"I haven't any one who is really close to me any more," she went on, "not anybody I like. I suppose it's all my own fault, but--" her voice became very sweet.

In spite of his precautions and the knowledge that his wife was the best and most suitable companion for him in the world, and that he was permanently fixed through his affection for his child and the helpful, hopeful mother of it, nevertheless he was moved by some peculiarity of this girl's temperament. What power had Tilney over her, that he could use her in this way? Think of it--a beautiful girl like this!

"What about Mrs. Skelton?" he demanded. "Who is she, anyhow? And these three gardeners around here? What is it they want?" (There were three gardeners of the grounds who whenever he and Imogene had been alone together anywhere managed somehow to be working near the scene--an arrival which caused him always instanter to depart.) "And Diamondberg?"

She insisted that in so far as the gardeners were concerned she knew absolutely nothing about them. If they were employed by Mrs. Skelton or any one, it was without her knowledge. As for Diamondberg, she explained that she had only met him since she had come here, but that she really did not like him. For some reason Mrs. Skelton had asked her to appear not to know him. Mrs. Skelton, she persisted, had known her years before in Cincinnati, as she had said, but more recently in the city. She had helped her to get various positions, twice on the stage. Once she had worked for Mr. Swayne, yes, for a year, but only as a clerk. She had never known anything about him or his plans or schemes, never. When Gregory wanted to know how it was that he was to be trapped by her, if at all, she insisted that she did not believe that he was to be trapped. It was all to have been as she said.

Gregory could not quite make out whether she was telling him the exact truth, but it was near enough, and it seemed to him that she could not be wholly lying. She seemed too frank and wishful. There was something sensuously affectionate in her point of view and her manner. He would know everything in the future, she insisted, if he wanted to, but only not now--please not now. Then she asked about his wife, where she was, when she was coming back.

"Do you love her very much?" she finally asked naively.

"Certainly I love her. Why do you ask? I've a two-year-old boy that I'm crazy about."

She looked at him thoughtfully, a little puzzled or uncertain, he thought.

They agreed to be friends after a fashion before they were through. He confessed that he liked her, but still that he did not trust her--not yet. They were to go on as before, but only on condition that nothing further happened to him which could be traced to her. She frankly told him that she could not control the actions of the others. They were their own masters, and, after a fashion, hers, but in so far as she could she would protect him. She did not believe that they intended to try much longer. In so far as she was concerned, he might go away if he chose. She could see him anywhere, if he would. She was not sure if that would make any difference in their plans or not. Anyhow, she would not follow him if he did go unless he wished it, but she would prefer that he did. Perhaps nothing more would happen here. If she heard of anything she would tell him, or try to, in time. But she could not say more than that now. After a while, maybe, as soon as she could get out of here . . . there were certain things over which she had no control. She was very enigmatic and secretive, and he took it to mean that she was involved in some difficult situation and could not easily extricate herself.

"I wouldn't take too much stock in her, at that," Blount reflected when Gregory had told him about it. "Just keep your eyes open, that's all. Don't have anything to do with her in a compromising way. She may be lying to you again. Once a crook, always a crook." Such was his philosophy.

Mrs. Skelton returned on the third day after his long conversation with Imogene, and in spite of the fact that they had seemed to come closer together than ever before, to have established a friendly semi-defensive pact, still he sensed treachery. He could not make out what it was. She seemed to be friendly, simple, gay, direct, even wooing--and yet--what? He thought at one time that she might be the unconscious psychologic victim of Mrs. Skelton or of some one else; at other times, an absolutely unprincipled political philanderer. While pretending to be "on the level," as he phrased it, with him, she was crossing his path in such odd ways, making him uncertain as to whether, in spite of all she had said and was saying, she was still engaged in trying to compromise him. The whole thing began to take on the fascination of a game with the unconquerable lure of sex at the bottom of it--steeled as he was against compromising himself in any way.

Thus once, after a late card game, when he stepped out on a small veranda or balcony which graced the end of the hall nearest which his room was situated, and which commanded a splendid view of the sea, he found her just outside his door, alone, diaphanously attired, and very sympathetic and genial. Now that they were friends and had had this talk, there was something in her manner which always seemed to invite him on to a closer life with her without danger to himself, as she seemed to say. She would shield him against all, at her own expense. At the same time he was far--very far--from yielding. More than once he had insisted that he did not want to have anything to do with her in an affectional way, and yet here she was on this occasion, and although there might or there might not have been anything very alarming in that, he argued with himself afterward, yet since he had told her, this could be made to look as though she were trying to overpersuade him, to take him off his guard. Any guest of the hotel might have done as much (her room was somewhere near there), but Rule One, as laid down by Blount, and as hitherto practised by him, was never, under any circumstances which might be misinterpreted, to be alone with her. And besides, when he withdrew, as, he did at once, excusing himself lightly and laughingly, he saw two men turning in at a cross corridor just beyond, and one, seeing him turn back, said to the other, "It must be on the other side, Jim." Well, there might not have been anything very significant in that, either. Any two men might accidentally turn into a hall on an end balcony of which a maiden was sitting in very diaphanous array, but still--

It was the same whenever he walked along the outer or sea wall at night, listening to the thunder of the water against the rapp which sustained the walk, and meditating on the night and the beauty of the hotel and the shabbiness of politics. Imogene was always about him when she might be with safety, as he saw it, but never under such circumstances as could be made to seem that they were alone together. Bullen, one of the two brokers, who seemed not a bad sort after his kind, came out there one night with Mrs. Skelton and Imogene, and seeing Gregory, engaged him in conversation and then left Imogene to his care. Gregory, hating to appear asininely suspicious under such circumstances, was genuinely troubled as to what to do in such cases as these. Always now he was drawn to her, painfully so, and yet-- He had told her more than once that he did not wish to be alone with her in this way, and yet here she was, and she was always insisting that she did not wish him to be with her if he objected to it, and yet look at this! Her excuse always was that she could not help it, that it was purely accidental or planned by them without her knowledge. She could not avoid all accidents. When he demanded to know why she did not leave, clear out of all of this, she explained that without great injury to herself and Mrs. Skelton she could not, and that besides he was safer with her there.

"What is this?" he asked on this occasion. "Another plan?" Feeling her stop and pull back a little, he felt ashamed of himself. "Well, you know what I've been telling you all along," he added gruffly.

"Please don't be so suspicious, Ed. Why do you always act so? Can't I even walk out here? I couldn't avoid this to-night, truly I couldn't. Don't you suppose I have to play a part too--for a time, anyhow? What do you expect me to do--leave at once? I can't, I tell you. Won't you believe me? Won't you have a little faith in me?"

"Well, come on," he returned crossly, as much irritated with himself as any one. "Give me your arm. Give a dog a bad name, you know," and he walked her courteously but firmly in the direction of the principal veranda, trying to be nice to her at the same time.

"I tell you, Imogene, I can't and I won't do this. You must find ways of avoiding these things. If not, I'm not going to have anything to do with you at all. You say you want me to be friends with you, if no more. Very well. But how are we going to do it?" and after more arguments of this kind they parted with considerable feeling, but not altogether antagonistic, at that.

Yet by reason of all this finally, and very much to his personal dissatisfaction, he found himself limited as to his walks and lounging places almost as much as if he had been in prison. There was a little pergola at one end of the lawn with benches and flowering vines which had taken his fancy when he first came, and which he had been accustomed to frequent as a splendid place to walk and smoke, but not any more. He was too certain of being picked up there, or of being joined by Mrs. Skelton and Imogene, only to be left with Imogene, with possibly the three gardeners or a broker as witnesses. He could not help thinking how ridiculous it all was.

He even took Imogene, he and Blount, in Blount's car, and Mrs. Skelton with them or not, as the case might be--it was all well enough so long as Blount was along--to one place or another in the immediate vicinity--never far, and always the two of them armed and ready for any emergency or fray, as they said. It seemed a risky thing to do, still they felt a little emboldened by their success so far, and besides, Imogene was decidedly attractive to both of them. Now that she had confessed her affection for Gregory she was most alluring with him, and genial to Blount, teasing and petting him and calling him the watchdog. Blount was always crowing over how well he and Gregory were managing the affair. More than once he had pointed out, even in her presence, that there was an element of sport or fascinating drama in it, that she "couldn't fool them," all of which was helping mightily to pass the time, even though his own and Gregory's life, or at least their reputation, might be at stake.

"Go on, go on, is my advice," Blount kept saying now that he was being amused. "Let her fall in love with you. Make her testify on your behalf. Get a confession in black and white, if you can. It would be a great thing in the campaign, if you were compelled to use it." He was a most practical and political soul, for all his geniality.

Gregory could not quite see himself doing that, however. He was too fond of her. She was never quite so yielding, so close to him, as now. When he and Blount were out with her, now, the two of them ventured to rag her as to her part in all this, asking her whether the other car were handy, whether the gardeners had been properly lined up, and as to who was behind this tree or that house. "There'd be no use in going if everything wasn't just right," they said. She took it all in good part, even laughing and mocking them.

"Better look out! Here comes a spy now," she would sometimes exclaim at sight of a huckster driving a wagon or a farm-hand pushing a wheelbarrow.

To both Blount and Gregory it was becoming a farce, and yet between themselves they agreed that it had its charm. They were probably tiring her backers and they would all quit soon. They hoped so, anyhow.

But then one night, just as they had concluded that there might not be so very much to this plot after all, that it was about all over, and Mrs. Gregory was writing that she would soon be able to return, the unexpected happened. They were returning from one of those shorter outings which had succeeded the longer ones of an earlier day, Blount and Gregory and Imogene, and true to his idea of avoiding any routine procedure which might be seized upon by the enemy as something to expect and therefore to be used, Blount passed the main entrance and drove instead around to a side path which led to a sunk-in porch flanked on either side by high box hedges and sheltered furry pines. True also to their agreed plan of never being separated on occasions like this, they both walked to the door with Imogene, Blount locking his car so that it could not be moved during his absence. On the steps of this side porch they chaffered a little, bantering Imogene about another safe night, and how hard it was on the gardeners to keep them up so late and moving about in the dark in this fashion, when Imogene said she was tired and would have to go. She laughed at them for their brashness.

"You two think you're very smart, don't you?" she smiled a little wearily. "It would serve you right if something did happen to both of you one of these days--you know so much."

"Is that so?" chuckled Blount. "Well, don't hold any midnight conferences as to this. You'll lose your beauty sleep if you do."

To which Gregory added, "Yes, with all this hard work ahead of you every day, Imogene, I should think you'd have to be careful."

"Oh, hush, and go on," she laughed, moving toward the door.

But they had not gone more than a hundred and fifty feet down the shadowy side path before she came running after them, quite out of breath.

"Oh dear!" she called sweetly as she neared them, and they having heard her footsteps had turned. "I'm so sorry to trouble you, but some one has locked that side door, and I can't open it or make them hear. Won't one of you come and help me?" Then, as the two of them turned, "That's right. I forgot. You always work in pairs, don't you?"

Blount chortled. Gregory smiled also. They couldn't help it. It was so ridiculous at times--on occasions like this, for instance.

"Well, you see how it is," Gregory teased, "the door may be very tightly closed, and it might take the two of us to get it open."

Seeing that Blount was really coming, he changed his mind. "I guess I can get it open for her. Don't bother this time. I'll have to be going in, anyhow," he added. The thought came to him that he would like to be with Imogene a little while--just a few moments.

Blount left them after a cautioning look and a cheery good night. In all the time they had been together they had not done this, but this time it seemed all right. Gregory had never felt quite so close to Imogene as he did this evening. She had seemed so warm, laughing, gay. The night had been sultry, but mellow. They had tittered and jested over such trifling things, and now he felt that he would like to be with her a while longer. She had become more or less a part of his life, or seemingly so, such a genial companion. He took her arm and tucked it under his own.

"It was nice over there at the Berkeley," he commented, thinking of an inn they had just left. "Beautiful grounds--and that music! It was delightful, wasn't it?" They had been dancing together.

"Oh, dear," she sighed, "the summer will soon be over, and then I'll have to be going back, I suppose. I wish it would never end. I wish I could stay here forever, just like this, if you were here." She stopped and looked at the treetops, taking a full breath and stretching out her arms. "And do look at those fire-flies," she added, "aren't they wonderful?" She hung back, watching the flashing fire-flies under the trees.

"Why not sit down here a little while?" he proposed as they neared the steps. "It isn't late yet."

"Do you really mean it?" she asked warmly.

"You see, I'm beginning to be so foolish as to want to trust you. Isn't that idiotic? Yes, I'm even going to risk fifteen minutes with you."

"I wish you two would quit your teasing, just once," she pleaded. "I wish you would learn to trust me and leave Blount behind just once in a while, seeing that I've told you so often that I mean to do nothing to hurt you without telling you beforehand."

Gregory looked at her, pleased. He was moved, a little sorry for her, and a little sorrier for himself.

In spite of himself, his wife and baby, as he now saw, he had come along a path he should not have, and with one whom he could not conscientiously respect or revere. There was no future for them together, as he well knew, now or at any other time. Still he lingered.

"Well, here we are," he said, "alone at last. Now you can do your worst, and I have no one to protect me."

"It would serve you right if I did, Mr. Smarty. But if I had suggested that we sit down for a minute you would have believed that the wood was full of spies. It's too funny for words, the way you carry on. But you'll have to let me go upstairs to change my shoes, just the same. They've been hurting me dreadfully, and I can't stand them another minute. If you want to, you can come up to the other balcony, or I'll come back here. I won't be a minute. Do you mind?"

"Not at all," he assented, thinking that the other balcony would not be as open as this, much too private for him and her. "Certainly not. Run along. But I'd rather you came back here. I want to smoke, anyhow," and he drew out his cigar and was about to make himself comfortable when she came back.

"But you'll have to get this door open for me," she said. "I forgot about that."

"Oh, yes, that's right."

He approached it, looking first for the large key which always hung on one side at this hour of the night, but not seeing it, looked at the lock. The key was in it.

"I was trying before. I put it there," she explained.

He laid hold of it, and to his surprise it came open without any effort whatsoever, a thing which caused him to turn and look at her.

"I thought you said it wouldn't open," he said.

"Well, it wouldn't before. I don't know what makes it work now, but it wouldn't then. Perhaps some one has come out this way since. Anyhow, I'll run up and be down right away." She hurried up the broad flight of stairs which ascended leisurely from this entrance.

Gregory returned to his chair, amused but not conscious of anything odd or out of the way about the matter. It might well have been as she said. Doors were contrary at times, or some one might have come down and pushed it open. Why always keep doubting? Perhaps she really was in love with him, as she seemed to indicate, or mightily infatuated, and would not permit any one to injure him through her. It would seem so, really. After all, he kept saying to himself, she was different now to what he had originally thought, and what she had originally been, caught in a tangle of her own emotions and compelled by him to do differently from what she had previously planned. If he were not married as happily as he was, might not something come of this? He wondered.

The black-green wall of the trees just beyond where he was sitting, the yellow light filtering from the one bowl lamp which ornamented the ceiling, the fireflies and the sawing katydids, all soothed and entertained him. He was beginning to think that politics was not such a bad business after all, his end of it at least, or being pursued even. His work thus far had yielded him a fair salary, furnishing as it had excellent copy for some of the newspapers and political organizations--the best was being reserved for the last--and was leading him into more interesting ways than the old newspaper days had, and the future, outside of what had happened in the last few weeks, looked promising enough. Soon he would be able to deal the current administration a body blow. This might raise him to a high position locally. He had not been so easily frustrated as they had hoped, and this very attractive girl had fallen in love with him.

For a while he stared down the black-green path up which they had come, and then fixed his eyes in lazy contemplation on one of the groups of stars showing above the treetops. Suddenly--or was it suddenly?--more a whisper or an idea--he seemed to become aware of something that sounded, as he listened more keenly, like a light footfall in the garden beyond the hedge. It was so very light, a mere tickle of the grass or stirring of a twig. He pricked up his ears and on the instant strained every muscle and braced himself, not that he imagined anything very dreadful was going to happen, but--were they up to their old tricks again? Was this the wonderful gardeners again? Would they never stop? Removing the cigar from his mouth and stilling the rocker in which he had been slowly moving to and fro, he decided not to stir, not even to move his hands, so well concealed was he from the bushes on either side by the arrangement of the posts, one of which was to the left of him. In this position he might see and not be seen. Did they know he was there? How had they found out? Were they always watching yet? Was she a part of it? He decided to get up and leave, but a moment later thought it better to linger just a little, to wait and see. If he left and she came back and did not find him there--could it be that there was some new trick on foot?

While he was thus swiftly meditating, he was using his ears to their utmost. Certainly there was a light footfall approaching along the other side of the hedge to the left, two in fact, for no sooner was one seemingly still, near at hand, than another was heard coming from the same direction, as light and delicate as that of a cat--spies, trappers, murderers, even, as he well knew. It was so amazing, this prowling and stalking, so desperate and cruel, that it made him a little sick. Perhaps, after all, he had better have kept Blount with him--not have lingered in this fashion. He was about to leave, a nervous thrill chasing up and down his spine, when he heard what he took to be Imogene's step on the stair. Then she was coming back, after all, as she had said. She was not a part of this as he had feared--or was she? Who could tell? But it would be foolish to leave now. She would see that he was wholly suspicious again, and that stage had somehow seemed to be passing between them. She had promised on more than one occasion to protect him against these others, let alone herself. Anyhow he could speak of these newcomers and then leave. He would let her know that they were hanging about as usual, always ready to take advantage of his good nature.

But now, her step having reached the bottom of the stair and ceased, she did not come out. Instead, a light that was beside the door, but out at this hour, was turned on, and glancing back he could see her shadow, or thought he could, on the wall opposite, to the right. She was doing something--what? There was a mirror below the light. She might be giving her hair a last pat. She had probably arrayed herself slightly differently for him to see. He waited. Still she did not come. Then swiftly, a sense of something treacherous came over him, a creeping sensation of being victimized and defeated. He felt, over his taut nerves, this thrilling fear which seemed to almost convey the words: Move! Hurry! Run! He could not sit still a moment longer, but, as if under a great compulsion, leaped to his feet and sprang to the door just as he thought he heard additional movements and even whispers in the dark outside. What was it? Who? Now he would see!

Inside he looked for her, and there she was, but how different! When she had gone upstairs she had been arrayed in a light summery dress, very smart and out-door-ish, but here she was clothed in a soft clinging housedress such as one would never wear outside the hotel. And instead of being adjusted with her customary care, it was decidedly awry, as though she might have been in some disturbing and unhappy contest. The collar was slightly torn and pulled open, a sleeve ripped at the shoulder and wrist, the hang of the skirt over the hips awry, and the skirt itself torn, a ragged slit over the knee. Her face had been powdered to a dead white, or she herself was overcome with fear and distress, and the hair above it was disarranged, as though it had been shaken or pulled to one side. Her whole appearance was that of one who had been assailed in some evil manner and who had come out of the contest disarranged as to her clothes and shaken as to her nerves.

Brief as his glance was, Gregory was amazed at the transformation. He was so taken aback that he could not say anything, but just what it all meant came to him in an intuitive flash. To fly was his one thought, to get out of the vicinity of this, not to be seen or taken near it. With one bound he was away and up the easy stair three at a time, not pausing to so much as look back at her, meeting her first wide half-frightened stare with one of astonishment, anger and fear. Nor did he pause until he had reached his own door, through which he fairly jumped, locking himself in as he did so. Once inside, he stood there white and shaking, waiting for any sound which might follow, any pursuit, but hearing none, going to his mirror and mocking at himself for being such a fool as to be so easily outwitted, taken in, after all his caution and sophisticated talk. Lord! he sighed. Lord!

And after all her protests and promises, this very evening, too, he thought. What a revelation of the unreliability and treachery of human nature! So she had been lying to him all the time, leading him on in the face of his almost boastful precautions and suspicions, and to-night, almost at the close of the season, had all but succeeded in trapping him! Then Tilney was not so easily to be fooled, after all. He commanded greater loyalty and cunning in his employees than he had ever dreamed. But what could he say to her, now that he knew what she really was, if ever he saw her again? She would just laugh at him, think him a fool, even though he had managed to escape. Would he ever want to see her again? Never, he thought. But to think that any one so young, so smooth, so seemingly affectionate, could be so ruthless, so devilishly clever and cruel! She was much more astute than either he or Blount had given her credit for.

After moving the bureau and chairs in front of the door, he called up Blount and sat waiting for him to come.

Actually, as he saw it now, she had meant to stage a seeming assault in which he would have been accused as the criminal and if they had sufficient witnesses he might have had a hard time proving otherwise. After all, he had been going about with her a great deal, he and Blount, and after he had told himself that he would not

Her witnesses were there, close upon him, in the dark. Even though he might be able to prove his previous good character, still, considering the suspicious fact that he had trifled with her and this treacherous situation so long, would a jury or the public believe him? A moment or two more, and she would have screamed out that he was attacking her, and the whole hotel would have been aroused. Her secret friends would have rushed forward and beaten him. Who knows?--they might even have killed him! And their excuse would have been that they were justified. Unquestionably she and her friends would have produced a cloud of witnesses. But she hadn't screamed--there was a curious point as to that, even though she had had ample time (and she had had) and it was expected of her and intended that she should! Why hadn't she? What had prevented her? A strange, disturbing exculpating thought began to take root in his mind, but on the instant also he did his best to crush it.

"No, no! I have had enough now," he said to himself. "She did intend to compromise me and that is all there is to it. And in what a fashion. Horrible. No, this is the end. I will get out now to-morrow, that is one thing certain, go to my wife in the mountains, or bring her home." Meanwhile, he sat there trembling, revolver in hand, wiping the sweat from his face, for he did not know but that even yet they might follow him here and attempt the charge of assault anyhow. Would they--could they? Just then some one knocked on his door, and Gregory, after demanding to know who it was, opened it to Blount. He quickly told him of his evening's experience.

"Well," said Blount, heavily and yet amusedly, "she certainly is the limit. That was a clever ruse, say what you will, a wonder. And the coolness of her! Why, she joked with us about it! I thought you were taking a chance, but not a great one. I was coming around to thinking she might be all right, and now think of this! I agree with you that it is time for you to leave. I don't think you'll ever get her over to your side. She's too crafty."

The next morning Gregory was up early and on the veranda smoking and meditating as to his exact course. He would go now, of course, and probably never see this girl with her fiend's heart again. What a revelation! To think that there were such clever, ruthless, beautiful sirens about in the same world with such women as his wife! Contrast them--his wife, faithful, self-sacrificing, patient, her one object the welfare of those whom she truly loved, and then put on the other side of the scale this girl--tricky, shameless, an actress, one without scruples or morals, her sole object in life, apparently, to advance herself in any way that she might, and that at the expense of everybody and everything!

He wanted to leave without seeing her, but in spite of himself he sat on, telling himself that it would do no harm to have just one last talk with her in order to clear up whether she had really intended to scream or no--whether she was as evil as he really thought now, confront her with her enormous treachery and denounce her for the villainess she was. What new lie would she have on her tongue now, he wondered? Would she be able to face him at all? Would she explain? Could she? He would like to take one more look at her, or see if she would try to avoid him completely. This morning she must be meditating on how unfortunately she had failed, missed out, and only last night she had taken his hand and smoothed it and whispered that she was not so bad, so mean, as he thought her to be, and that some day he would find it out. And now see!

He waited a considerable time, and then sent up word that he wanted to see her. He did not want to see this thing closed in this fashion with no chance to at least berate her, to see what new lie she would tell. After a while she came down, pale and seemingly exhausted, a weary look about her eyes as though she had not slept. To his astonishment she came over quite simply to where he was sitting, and when he stood up at her approach as if to ward her off, stood before him, seemingly weaker and more hopeless than ever. What an excellent actress, he thought! He had never seen her so downcast, so completely overcome, so wilted.

"Well," he began as she stood there, "what new lie have you fixed up to tell me this morning?"

"No lie," she replied softly.

"What! Not a single lie? Anyhow, you'll begin by shamming contrition, won't you? You're doing that already. Your friends made you do it, of course, didn't they? Tilney was right there--and Mrs. Skelton! They were all waiting for you when you went up, and told you just what to do and how it had to be done, wasn't that it? And you had to do it, too, didn't you?" he sneered cynically.

"I told you I didn't have anything to say," she answered. "I didn't do anything--I mean I didn't intend to--except to signal you to run, but when you burst in on me that way--" He waved an impatient hand. "Oh, all right," she went on sadly. "I can't help it if you won't believe me. But it's true just the same. Everything you think, all except that automobile plot, and this is true, but I'm not asking you to believe me any more. I can't help it if you won't. It's too late. But I had to go through my part anyhow. Please don't look at me that way, Ed--not so hard. You don't know how really weak I am, or what it is that makes me do these things. But I didn't want to do anything to hurt you last night, not when I left you. And I didn't. I hadn't the slightest intention, really I hadn't. Oh, well, sneer if you want to! I couldn't help myself, though, just the same--believe it or not. Nothing was farther from my mind when I came in, only--oh, what a state my life has come to, anyhow!" she suddenly exclaimed. "You don't know. Your life's not a mess, like mine. People have never had you in any position where they could make you do things. That's just the trouble--men never know women really." ("I should say not!" he interpolated.) "But I have had to do so many things I didn't want to do--but I'm not pleading with you, Ed, really I'm not. I know it's all over between us and no use, only I wish I could make you believe that as bad as I am I've never wanted to be as bad to you as I've seemed. Really, I haven't. Oh, honestly--"

"Oh, cut that stuff, please!" he said viciously. "I'm sick of it. It wasn't to hear anything like that that I sent for you. The reason I asked you to come down here was merely to see how far you would face it out, whether you would have the nerve to come, really, that was all--oh, just to see whether you would have a new lie to spring, and I see you have. You're a wonder, you are! But I'd like to ask you just one favor: Won't you please let me alone in the future? I'm tired, and I can't stand it any longer. I'm going away now. This fellow Tilney you are working for is very clever, but it's all over. It really is. You'll never get another chance at me if I know myself." He started to walk off.

"Ed! Ed!" she called. "Please--just a minute--don't go yet, Ed," she begged. "There's something I want to say to you first. I know all you say is true. There's nothing you can say that I haven't said to myself a thousand times. But you don't understand what my life has been like, what I've suffered, how I've been pushed around, and I can't tell you now, either--not now. Our family wasn't ever in society, as Mrs. Skelton pretended--you knew that, of course, though--and I haven't been much of anything except a slave, and I've had a hard time, too, terrible," and she began dabbing her eyes. "I know I'm no good. Last night proved it to me, that's a fact. But I hadn't meant to do you any harm even when I came alone that way--really I didn't. I pretended to be willing, that was all. Hear me out, Ed, anyhow. Please don't go yet. I thought I could signal you to run without them seeing me--really I did. When I first left you the door was locked, and I came back for that sole reason. I suppose they did something to it so I couldn't open it. There were others up there; they made me go back--I can't tell you how or why or who--but they were all about me--they always are. They're determined to get you, Ed, in one way or another, even if I don't help them, and I'm telling you you'd better look out for yourself. Please do. Go away from here. Don't have anything more to do with me. Don't have anything more to do with any of these people. I can't help myself, honestly I can't. I didn't want to, but--oh--" she wrung her hands and sat down wearily, "you don't know how I'm placed with them, what it is--"

"Yes? Well, I'm tired of that stuff," Gregory now added grimly and unbelievingly. "I suppose they told you to run back and tell me this so as to win my sympathy again? Oh, you little liar! You make me sick. What a sneak and a crook you really are!"

"Ed! Ed!" she now sobbed. "Please! Please! Won't you understand how it is? They have watched every entrance every time we've gone out since I came here. It doesn't make any difference which door you come through. They have men at every end. I didn't know anything about it until I went upstairs. Really, I didn't. Oh, I wish I could get out of all this! I'm so sick of it all. I told you that I'm fond of you, and I am. Oh, I'm almost crazy! I wish sometimes that I could die, I'm so sick of everything. My life's a shabby mess, and now you'll hate me all the time," and she rocked to and fro in a kind of misery, and cried silently as she did so.

Gregory stared at her, amazed but unbelieving.

"Yes," he insisted, "I know. The same old stuff, but I don't believe it. You're lying now, just as you have been all along. You think by crying and pretending to feel sad that you might get another chance to trick me, but you won't. I'm out of this to-day, once and for all, and I'm through with you. There's no use in my appealing to the police under this administration, or I'd do that. But I want to tell you this. If you follow me any longer, or any of this bunch around here, I'm going to the newspapers. There'll be some way of getting this before the courts somewhere, and I'll try it. And if you really were on the level and wanted to do anything, there's a way, all right, but you wouldn't do it if you had a chance, never, not in a million years. I know you wouldn't."

"Oh, Ed! Ed! You don't know me, or how I feel, or what I'll do," she whimpered. "You haven't given me a chance. Why don't you suggest something, if you don't believe me, and see?"

"Well, I can do that easily enough," he replied sternly. "I can call that bluff here and now. Write me out a confession of all that's been going on here. Let me hear you dictate it to a stenographer, and then come with me to a notary public or the district attorney, and swear to it. Now we'll see just how much there is to this talk about caring for me," and he watched her closely, the while she looked at him, her eyes drying and her sobs ceasing. She seemed to pause emotionally and stare at the floor in a speculative, ruminative mood. "Yes? Well, that's different, isn't it? I see how it is now. You didn't think I'd have just the thing to call your bluff with, did you? And just as I thought, you won't do it. Well, I'm onto you now, so good day. I have your measure at last. Good-by!" and he started off.

"Ed!" she called, jumping up suddenly and starting after him. "Ed! Wait--don't go! I'll do what you say. I'll do anything you want. You don't believe I will, but I will. I'm sick of this life, I really am. I don't care what they do to me now afterwards, but just the same I'll come. Please don't be so hard on me, Ed. Can't you see--can't you see--Ed--how I feel about you? I'm crazy about you, I really am. I'm not all bad, Ed, really I'm not--can't you see that? Only--only--" and by now he had come back and was looking at her in an incredulous way. "I wish you cared for me a little, Ed. Do you, Ed, just a little? Can't you, if I do this?"

He looked at her with mingled astonishment, doubt, contempt, pity, and even affection, after its kind. Would she really do it? And if she did what could he offer her in the way of that affection which she craved? Nothing, he knew that. She could never extricate herself from this awful group by which she was surrounded, her past, the memory of the things she had tried to do to him, and he--he was married. He was happy with his wife really, and could make no return. There was his career, his future, his present position. But that past of hers--what was it? How could it be that people could control another person in this way she claimed, especially scoundrels like these, and why wouldn't she tell him about it? What had she done that was so terrible as to give them this power? Even if he did care for her what chance would he have, presuming her faithfulness itself, to either confront or escape the horde of secret enemies that was besetting him and her just now? They would be discovered and paraded forth at their worst, all the details. That would make it impossible for him to come forth personally and make the charge which would constitute him champion of the people. No, no, no! But why, considering all her efforts against him, should she come to his rescue now, or by doing so expect him to do anything for her by way of return? He smiled at her dourly, a little sadly.

"Yes. Well, Imogene, I can't talk to you about that now, not for the present, anyhow. You're either one of the greatest actresses and crooks that ever lived, or you're a little light in the upper story. At any rate, I should think that you might see that you could scarcely expect me to like you, let alone to love you, all things considered, and particularly since this other thing has not been straightened out. You may be lying right now, for all I know--acting, as usual. But even so--let's first see what you do about this other, and then talk."

He looked at her, then away over the sea to where some boats were coming towards them.

"Oh, Ed," she said sadly, observing his distracted gaze, "you'll never know how much I do care for you, although you know I must care a lot for you, to do this. It's the very worst thing I can do for me--the end, maybe, for me. But I wish you would try and like me a little, even if it were only for a little while."

"Well, Imogene, let's not talk about that now," he replied skeptically. "Not until we've attended to this other, anyhow. Certainly you owe me that much. You don't know what my life's been, either--one long up-hill fight. But you'd better come along with me just as you are, if you're coming. Don't go upstairs to get any hat--or to change your shoes. I'll get a car here and you can come with me just as you are."

She looked at him simply, directly, beatenly.

"All right, Ed, but I wish I knew how this is going to end. I can't come back here after this, you know, if they find it out. I know I owe this to you, but, oh dear, I'm such a fool! Women always are where love is concerned, and I told myself I'd never let myself get in love any more, and now look at me!"

They went off to the city together, to his office, to a notary, to the district attorney's office--a great triumph. She confessed all, or nearly so, how she had formerly been employed by Mr. Swayne; how she had met Mr. Tilney there; how, later, after Swayne had fled, Tilney had employed her in various capacities, secretary, amanuensis, how she had come to look upon him as her protector; where and how she had met Mrs. Skelton, and how the latter, at Mr. Tilney's request (she was not sure, only it was an order, she said) had engaged--commanded, rather--her to do this work, though what the compulsion was she refused to say, reserving it for a later date. She was afraid, she said.

Once he had this document in his possession, Gregory was overjoyed, and still he was doubtful of her. She asked him what now, what more, and he requested her to leave him at once and to remain away for a time until he had time to think and decide what else he wished to do. There could be nothing between them, not even friendship, he reassured her, unless he was fully convinced at some time or other that no harm could come to him--his wife, his campaign, or anything else. Time was to be the great factor.

And yet two weeks later, due to a telephone message from her to his office for just one word, a few minutes, anywhere that he would suggest, they met again, this time merely for a moment, as he told himself and her. It was foolish, he shouldn't do it, but still-- At this interview, somehow, Imogene managed to establish a claim on his emotions which it was not easy to overcome. It was in one of the small side booths in the rather out-of-the-way Grill Parzan Restaurant in the great financial district. Protesting that it was only because she wished to see him just once more that she had done this, she had come here, she said, after having dropped instantly and completely out of the life at Triton Hall, not returning even for her wardrobe, as he understood it, and hiding away in an unpretentious quarter of the city until she could make up her mind what to do. She seemed, and said she was, much alone, distrait. She did not know what was to become of her now, what might befall her. Still, she was not so unhappy if only he would not think badly of her any more. He had to smile at her seemingly pathetic faith in what love might do for her. To think that love should turn a woman about like this! It was fascinating, and so sad. He was fond of her in a platonic way, he now told himself, quite sincerely so. Her interest in him was pleasing, even moving, "But what is it you expect of me?" he kept saying over and over. "You know we can't go on with this. There's 'the girl' and the kid. I won't do anything to harm them, and besides, the campaign is just beginning. Even this is ridiculously foolish of me. I'm taking my career in my hands. This lunch will have to be the last, I tell you."

"Well, Ed," she agreed wistfully, looking at him at the very close of the meal, "you have made up your mind, haven't you? Then you're not going to see me any more? You seem so distant, now that we're back in town. Do you feel so badly toward me, Ed? Am I really so bad?"

"Well, Imogene, you see for yourself how it is, don't you?" he went on. "It can't be. You are more or less identified with that old crowd, even though you don't want to be. They know things about you, you say, and they certainly wouldn't be slow to use them if they had any reason for so doing. Of course they don't know anything yet about this confession, unless you've told them, and I don't propose that they shall so long as I don't have to use it. As for me, I have to think of my wife and kid, and I don't want to do anything to hurt them. If ever Emily found this out it would break her all up, and I don't want to do that. She's been too square, and we've gone through too much together. I've thought it all over, and I'm convinced that what I'm going to do is for the best. We have to separate, and I came here to-day to tell you that I can't see you any more. It can't be, Imogene, can't you see that?"

"Not even for a little while?"

"Not even for a day. It just can't be. I'm fond of you, and you've been a brick to pull me out of this, but don't you see that it can't be? Don't you really see how it is?"

She looked at him, then at the table for a moment, and then out over the buildings of the great city.

"Oh, Ed," she reflected sadly, "I've been such a fool. I don't mean about the confession--I'm glad I did that--but just in regard to everything I've done. But you're right, Ed. I've felt all along that it would have to end this way, even the morning I agreed to make the confession. But I've been making myself hope against hope, just because from the very first day I saw you out there I thought I wouldn't be able to hold out against you, and now you see I haven't. Well, all right, Ed. Let's say good-bye. Love's a sad old thing, isn't it?" and she began to put on her things.

He helped her, wondering over the strange whirl of circumstances which had brought them together and was now spinning them apart.

"I wish I could do something more for you, Imogene, I really do," he said. "I wish I could say something that would make it a little easier for you--for us both--but what would be the use? It wouldn't really, now would it?"

"No," she replied brokenly.

He took her to the elevator and down to the sidewalk, and there they stopped for a moment.

"Well, Imogene," he began, and paused. "It's not just the way I'd like it to be, but--well--" he extended his hand "--here's luck and good-by, then."

He turned to go.

She looked up at him pleadingly.

"Ed," she said, "Ed--wait! Aren't you--don't you want to?" she put up her lips, her eyes seemingly misty with emotion.

He came back and putting his arm about her, drew her upturned lips to his. As he did so she clung to him, seeming to vent a world of feeling in this their first and last kiss, and then turned and left him, never stopping to look back, and being quickly lost in the immense mass which was swirling by. As he turned to go though he observed two separate moving-picture men with cameras taking the scene from different angles. He could scarcely believe his senses. As he gazed they stopped their work, clapped their tripods together and made for a waiting car. Before he could really collect his thoughts they were gone--and then--

"As I live!" he exclaimed. "She did do this to me after all, or did she? And after all my feeling for her!--and all her protestations! The little crook! And now they have that picture of me kissing her! Stung, by George! and by the same girl, or by them, and after all the other things I've avoided! That's intended to make that confession worthless! She did that because she's changed her mind about me! Or, she never did care for me." Grim, reducing thought!) "Did she--could she--know--do a thing like that?" he wondered. "Is it she and Tilney, or just Tilney alone, who has been following me all this time?" He turned solemnly and helplessly away.

Now after all his career was in danger. His wife had returned and all was seemingly well, but if he proceeded with his exposures as he must, then what? This picture would be produced! He would be disgraced! Or nearly so. Then what? He might charge fraud, a concocted picture, produce the confession. But could he? Her arms had been about his neck! He had put his about her! Two different camera men had taken them from different angles! Could he explain that? Could he find Imogene again? Was it wise? Would she testify in his behalf? If so what good would it do? Would any one, in politics at least, believe a morally victimized man? He doubted it. The laughter! The jesting! The contempt! No one except his wife, and she could not help him here.

Sick at heart and defeated he trudged on now clearly convinced that because of this one silly act of kindness all his work of months had been undone and that now, never, so shy were the opposing political forces, might he ever hope to enter the promised land of his better future--not here, at least--that future to which he had looked forward with so much hope--neither he nor his wife, nor child.

"Fool! Fool!" he exclaimed to himself heavily and then--"fool! fool!" Why had he been so ridiculously sympathetic and gullible? Why so unduly interested? but finding no answer and no clear way of escape save in denial and counter charges he made his way slowly on toward that now dreary office where so long he had worked, but where now, because of this he might possibly not be able to work, at least with any great profit to himself.

"Tilney! Imogene! The Triton!" he thought--what clever scoundrels those two were--or Tilney anyhow--he could not be sure of Imogene, even now, and so thinking, he left the great crowd at his own door, that crowd, witless, vast, which Tilney and the mayor and all the politicians were daily and hourly using--the same crowd which he had wished to help and against whom, as well as himself, this little plot had been hatched, and so easily and finally so successfully worked.

 
 
 

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