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The Argosies by Alexander Hull

 

There may have been some benevolent force watching over Harber. In any case, that would be a comforting belief. Certainly Harber himself so believed, and I know he had no trouble at all convincing his wife. Yes, the Harbers believed.

But credulity, you may say, was ever the surest part in love's young golden dream: and you, perhaps, not having your eyes befuddled with the rose-fog of romance, will see too clearly to believe. What can I adduce for your conviction? The facts only. After all, that is the single strength of my position.

There was, of course, the strange forehanded, subtle planning of the other girl, of Janet Spencer. Why did she do it? Was it that, feeling her chances in Tawnleytown so few, counting the soil there so barren, driven by an ambition beyond the imagination of staid, stodgy, normal Tawnleytown girls, she felt she must create opportunities where none were? She was very lovely, Harber tells me, in a fiery rose-red of the fairy-tale way; though even without beauty it needn't have been hard for her. Young blood is prone enough to adventure; the merest spark will set it akindle. I should like to have known that girl. She must have been very clever. Because, of course, she couldn't have foreseen, even by the surest instinct, the coincidence that brought Harber and Barton together. Yes, there is a coincidence in it. It's precisely upon that, you see, that Harber hangs his belief.

I wonder, too, how many of those argosies she sent out seeking the golden fleece returned to her? It's a fine point for speculation. If one only knew.... ah, but it's pitiful how much one doesn't, and can't, know in this hard and complex world! Or was it merely that she tired of them and wanted to be rid of them? Or again, do I wrong her there, and were there no more than the two of them, and did she simply suffer a solitary revulsion of feeling, as Harber did? But no, I'm sure I'm right in supposing Barton and Harber to have been but two ventures out of many, two arrows out of a full quiver shot in the dark at the bull's-eye of fortune. And, by heaven, it was splendid shooting ... even if none of the other arrows scored!

Harber tells me he was ripe for the thing without any encouragement to speak of. Tawnleytown was dull plodding for hot youth. Half hidden in the green of fir and oak and maple, slumberous with midsummer heat, it lay when he left it. Thickly powdered with the fine white dust of its own unpaven streets, dust that sent the inhabitants chronically sneezing and weeping and red-eyed about town, or sent them north to the lakes for exemption, dust that hung impalpably suspended in the still air and turned the sunsets to things of glorious rose and red and gold though there wasn't a single cloud or streamer in the sky to catch the light, dust that lay upon lawns and walks and houses in deep gray accumulation ... precisely as if these were objects put away and never used and not disturbed until they were white with the inevitable powdery accretion that accompanies disuse. Indeed, he felt that way about Tawnleytown, as if it were a closed room of the world, a room of long ago, unused now, unimportant, forgotten.

So unquestionably he was ready enough to go. He had all the fine and far-flung dreams of surging youth. He peopled the world with his fancies, built castles on every high hill. He felt the urge of ambition fiercely stirring within him, latent power pulsing through him. What would you? Wasn't he young and in love?

For there had been, you must know, a good deal between them. What does one do in these deadly dull little towns for amusement, when one is young and fain and restless? Harber tells me they walked the streets and shaded lanes in the dim green coolness of evening, lounged in the orchard hammock, drifted down the little river, past still pools, reed-bordered, under vaulting sycamores, over hurrying reaches fretted with pebbles, forgot everything except one another and their fancies and made, as youth must, love. That was the programme complete, except for the talk, the fascinating, never-ending talk. Volumes on volumes of it—whole libraries of it.

So, under her veiled fostering, the feeling that he must leave Tawnleytown kept growing upon Harber until one evening it crystallized in decision.

It was on a Sunday. They had taken a lunch and climbed Bald Knob, a thousand feet above the town, late in the afternoon. The dying sun and the trees had given them a splendid symphony in black and gold, and had silenced them for a little. They sat looking down over the valley in which the well-known landmarks slowly grew dark and indistinguishable and dim lights blossomed one after another. The sound of church bells rose faintly through the still air. The pale last light faded in the sky.

Harber and Janet sat in the long grass, their hearts stirring with the same urgent, inarticulate thoughts, their hands clasped together.

“Let's wait for Eighty-seven,” she said.

Harber pressed her hand for reply.

In the mind of each of them Eighty-seven was the symbol of release from Tawnleytown, of freedom, of romance.

Presently a shifting light appeared in the east, a faint rumble became perceptible and increased. The swaying shaft of light intensified and a moment later the long-drawn poignancy of a chime-whistle blowing for the river-road crossing, exquisitely softened by distance, echoingly penetrated the still valley.

A streak of thunderous light swam into view and passed them, plunging into a gap in the west. The fire-box in the locomotive opened and flung a flood of light upon a swirling cloud of smoke. A sharp turn in the track, a weak blast of the whistle at the bridge-head, and the “Limited,” disdaining contemptible Tawnleytown, had swept out of sight—into the world—at a mile to the minute.

“If I were on it,” said Harber slowly.

Janet caught her breath sharply. “You're a man!” she said fiercely. “You could be—so easily!”

Harber was startled for a moment. Her kindling of his flame of adventure had been very subtle until now. Perhaps she hadn't been sure before to-day of her standing. But this afternoon, upon the still isolation of Bald Knob, there had been many kisses exchanged, and brave vows of undying love. And no doubt she felt certain of him now.

With Harber, however, the pathway had seemed leading otherwhere. He wasn't the sort of youth to kiss and ride away. And, discounting their adventurous talk, he had tacitly supposed that his course the last few weeks spelled the confinement of the four walls of a Tawnleytown cottage, the fetters of an early marriage. He had been fighting his mounting fever for the great world, and thinking, as the train sped by, that after all “home was best.” It would be. It must be. So, if his fine dreams were the price he must pay for Janet, still he would pay them! And he was startled by her tone.

Her slim fingers tightened upon his.

“Why do you stay?” she cried passionately. “Why don't you go?”

“There's you,” he began.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Oh, I'm selfish, maybe! I don't know! But it's as much for me as for you that I say it!”

Her words poured out tumultuously.

“Where are all our wonderful dreams—if you stay here? Gone aglimmering! Gone! I can't see them all go—I can't! Can you?”

Was he to have, then, both Janet and his dreams? His heart quickened. He leaned impulsively toward her.

She pushed his face away with her free hand.

“No—no! Wait till I'm through! We've always known we weren't like other Tawnleytown folk, haven't we, dear? We've always said that we wanted more out of life than they—that we wouldn't be content with half a loaf—that we wanted the bravest adventures, the yellowest gold, the finest emotions, the greater power! And if now ...

“See those fights down there—so few—and so faint. We can't live our lives there. Seventy-five dollars a month in the bank for you—and dull, deadly monotony for both of us—no dreams—no adventures—nothing big and fine! We can't be content with that! Why don't you go, John?

“Don't mind me—don't let me keep you—for as soon as you've won, you can come back to me—and then—we'll see the world together!”

“Janet—Janet!” said Harber, with pounding heart. “How do you know—that I'll win?”

“Ah,” she said strangely, “I know! You can't fail—I won't let you fail”!

Harber caught her suddenly in his arms and kissed her as if it were to be his last token of her.

“I'm going then!” he whispered. “I'm going!”

“When?”

“There's no time to be lost!” he said, thinking fast. “If I had known that you were willing, that you would wait—if ... Janet, I'm going to-morrow!”

Her arms tightened about him convulsively. “Promise me—promise me!” she demanded tensely, “that you'll never, never forget me—that you'll come back to me!”

Harber laughed in her face. “Janet,” he said solemnly, “I'll never forget you. I'll come back to you. I'll come back—'though 'twere ten thousand mile!'“

And they walked home slowly, wrapt once more in their fascinating talk, fanning the flames of one another's desires, painting for their future the rich landscapes of paradise. Youth! Brave, hot youth!

The next day Harber contemptuously threw over his job in the bank and fared forth into the wide world that was calling.

       * * * * *

Well, he went south, then east, then west, and west, and farther west. So far that presently, after three years, he found himself not west at all, but east—far east. There were between him and Janet Spencer now thousands on thousands of miles of vast heaving seas, and snow-capped mountain ranges, and limitless grassy plains.

Three years of drifting! You'd say, perhaps, knowing the frailty of vows, that the connection might have been lost. But it hadn't. Harber was but twenty-three. Faithfulness, too, comes easier then than later in life, when one has seen more of the world, when the fine patina of illusion has worn off. Besides, there was, I'm sure, a touch of genius about that girl, so that one wouldn't forget her easily, certainly not in three years. And then, you know, Harber had had her letters. Not many of them. Perhaps a dozen to the year.

Pitifully few, but they were filled with a wonderful fascination against which the realities of his wandering life had been powerless to contend. Like a slender cable they bound him—they held him!

Well, he was in Sydney now, standing on the water-front, beneath a bright-blue Australian sky, watching the crinkling water in the Circular Quay as it lifted and fell mightily but easily, and seeing the black ships ... ah, the ships! Those masterful, much more than human, entities that slipped about the great world nosing out, up dark-green tropical rivers in black, fir-bound fjords, through the white ice-flows of the Arctics, all its romance, all its gold! Three years hadn't dulled the keen edge of his appetite for all that; rather had whetted it.

Nevertheless, as he stood there, he was thinking to himself that he must have done with wandering; the old saw that a rolling stone gathered no moss was cropping up sharply, warningly, in his mind. He had in the three years, however—and this is rather remarkable—accumulated about three thousand dollars. Three thousand dollars! Why, in this quarter of the world, three thousand dollars should be like three thousand of the scriptural mustard-seed—they should grow a veritable forest!

What was puzzling him, however, was where to plant the seed. He was to meet here a man who had a plan for planting in the islands. There were wild rumours afloat of the fortunes that could be made in rubber and vanilla out in the Papuan “Back Beyond.” Harber was only half inclined to believe them, perhaps; but half persuaded is well along the way.

He heard his name called, and, turning, he saw a man coming toward him with the rolling gait of the seaman. As he came closer, Harber observed the tawny beard, the sea-blue eyes surrounded by the fine wrinkles of humour, the neat black clothing, the polished boots, and, above all, the gold earrings that marked the man in his mind as Farringdon, the sea-captain who had been anxious to meet him.

Harber answered the captain's gleam of teeth with one of his own, and they turned their backs upon the water and went to Harber's room, where they could have their fill of talk undisturbed. Harber says they talked all that afternoon and evening, and well into the next morning, enthusiastically finding one another the veritable salt of the earth, honourable, level-headed, congenial, temperamentally fitted for exactly what they had in mind—partnership.

“How much can you put in?” asked Harber finally.

“Five hundred pounds,” said the captain.

“I can match you,” said Harber.

“Man, but that's fine!” cried the captain. “I've been looking for you—you, you know—just you—for the last two years! And when Pierson told me about you ... why, it's luck, I say!”

It was luck for Harber, too. Farringdon, you see, knew precisely where he wanted to go, and he had his schooner, and he knew that part of the world, as we say, like a man knows his own buttons. Harber, then, was to manage the plantation; they were going to set out rubber, both Para and native, and try hemp and maybe coffee while they waited for the Haevia and the Ficus to yield. And Farringdon was ready to put the earnings from his schooner against Harber's wage as manager. The arrangement, you see, was ideal.

Skip seven years with me, please. Consider the plantation affair launched, carried, and consummated. Farringdon and Harber have sold the rubber-trees as they neared bearing, and have sold them well. They're out of that now. In all likelihood, Harber thinks, permanently. For that seven years has seen other projects blossom. Harber, says Farringdon, has “the golden touch.” There has been trading in the islands, and a short and fortunate little campaign on the stock-market through Sydney brokers, and there has been, more profitable than anything else, the salvaging of the Brent Interisland Company's steamer Pailula by Farringdon's schooner, in which Harber had purchased a half-interest; so the partners are, on the whole, rather well fixed. Harber might be rated at, perhaps, some forty thousand pounds, not counting his interest in the schooner.

One of Janet Spencer's argosies, then, its cargo laden, is ready to set sail for the hills of home. In short, Harber is now in one of the island ports of call, waiting for the steamer from Fiji. In six weeks he will be in Tawnleytown if all goes well.

It isn't, and yet it is, the same Harber. He's thirty now, lean and bronzed and very fit. He can turn a hundred tricks now where then he could turn one. The tropics have agreed with him. There seems to have been some subtle affinity between them, and he almost wishes that he weren't leaving them. He certainly wouldn't be, if it were not for Janet.

Yes, that slender thread has held him. Through ten years it has kept him faithful. He has eyed askance, ignored, even rebuffed, women. The letters, that still come, have turned the trick, perhaps, or some clinging to a faith that is inherent in him. Or sheer obstinacy? Forgive the cynicism. A little of each, no doubt. And then he hadn't often seen the right sort of women. I say that deliberately, because:

The night before the steamer was due there was a ball—yes, poor island exiles, they called it that!—and Harber, one of some thirty “Europeans” there, went to it, and on the very eve of safety ...

The glare and the oily smell of the lanterns, the odour of jasmine, frangipanni, vanilla, and human beings sickeningly mingled in the heat, the jangling, out-of-tune music, the wearisome island gossip and chatter, drove him at length out into the night, down a black-shadowed pathway to the sea. The beach lay before him presently, gleaming like silver in the soft blue radiance of the jewelled night. As he stood there, lost in far memories, the mellow, lemon-coloured lights from the commissioner's residence shone beautifully from the fronded palms and the faint wave of the waltzes of yesteryear became poignant and lovely, and the light trade-wind, clean here from the reek of lamps and clothing and human beings, vaguely tanged with the sea, blew upon him with a light, insistent pressure. Half dreaming, he heard the sharp sputter of a launch—bearing belated comers to the ball, no doubt—but he paid no attention to it. He may have been on the beach an hour before he turned to ascend to the town.

And just at the top of the slope he came upon a girl.

She hadn't perceived him, and she stood there, slim and graceful, the moonlight bright upon her rapt face, with her arms outstretched and her head flung back, in an attitude of utter abandonment. Harber felt his heart stir swiftly. He knew what she was feeling, as she looked out over the shimmering half-moon of harbour, across the moaning white feather of reef, out to the illimitable sea, and drank in the essence of the beauty of the night. Just so, at first, had it clutched him with the pain of ecstasy, and he had never forgotten it. There would be no voicing that feeling; it must ever remain inarticulate. Nor was the girl trying to voice it. Her exquisite pantomime alone spelled her delight in it and her surrender to it.

He saw at a glance that he didn't know her. She was “new” to the islands. Her clothes were evidence enough for that. There was a certain verve to them that spoke of a more sophisticated land. She might have been twenty-five though she seemed younger. She was in filmy white from slipper to throat, and over her slender shoulders there drifted a gossamer banner of scarf, fluttering in the soft trade-wind. Harber was very close to see this, and still she hadn't observed him.

“Don't let me startle you, please!” he said, as he stepped from the shadow of the trumpet-flower bush that had hitherto concealed him.

Her arms came down slowly, her chin lowered; her pose, if you will, melted away. Her voice when she spoke was low and round and thrilled, and it sent an answering thrill through Harber.

“I'm mad!” she said. “Moon-mad—or tropic-mad. I didn't hear you. I was worshipping the night!”

“As I have been,” said Harber, feeling a sudden pagan kinship with her mood.

She smiled, and her smile seemed the most precious thing in the world. “You, too? But it isn't new to you ... and when the newness is gone every one—here at least—seems dead to it!”

“Sometimes I think it's always new,” replied Harber. “And yet I've had years of it ... but how did you know?”

“You're Mr. Harber, aren't you?”

“Yes. But—-”

“Only that I knew you were here, having heard of you from the Tretheways, and I'd accounted for every one else. I couldn't stay inside because it seemed to me that it was wicked when I had come so far for just this, to be inside stuffily dancing. One can dance all the rest of one's life in Michigan, you know! So——”

“It's the better place to be—out here,” said Harber abruptly. “Need we go in?”

“I don't know,” she said doubtfully. “Maybe you can tell me. You see, I've promised some dances. What's the usage here? Dare I run away from them?”

“Oh, it might prove a three-day scandal if you did,” said Harber. “But I know a bench off to the right, where it isn't likely you'll be found by any questing partner, and you needn't confess to having had a companion. Will you come and talk to me?”

“I'm a bird of passage,” she answered, smiling, “and I've only to unfold my wings and fly away from the smoke of scandal. Yes, I'll come—if you won't talk—too much. You see, after all, I won't flatter you. It's the night I want, not talk ... the wonderful night!”

But, of course, they did talk. She was an American girl, she told him, and had studied art a little, but would never be much of a painter. She had been teaching classes in a city high school in the Middle West, when suddenly life there seemed to have gone humdrum and stale. She had a little money saved, not much, but enough if she managed well, and she'd boldly resigned and determined, once at least before she was too old, to follow spring around the world. She had almost given up the idea of painting now, but thought presently she might go in for writing, where, after all, perhaps, her real talent lay. She had gotten a letter of introduction in Suva to the Tretheways and she would be here until the next steamer after the morrow's.

These were the bare facts. Harber gave a good many more than he got, he told me, upon the theory that nothing so provoked confidence as giving it. He was a little mad himself that night, he admits, or else very, very sane. As you will about that. But, from the moment she began to talk, the thought started running through his head that there was fate in this meeting.

There was a sort of passionate fineness about her that caught and answered some instinct in Harber ... and I'm afraid they talked more warmly than the length of their acquaintance justified, that they made one another half-promises, not definite, perhaps, but implied; promises that....

“I must go in,” she said at last, reluctantly.

He knew that she must, and he made no attempt to gainsay her.

“You are going to America,” she went on. “If you should——”

And just at that moment, Harber says, anything seemed possible to him, and he said eagerly: “Yes—if you will—I should like——”

How well they understood one another is evident from that. Neither had said it definitely, but each knew.

“Have you a piece of paper?” she asked.

Harber produced a pencil, and groped for something to write upon. All that his pockets yielded was a sealed envelope. He gave it to her.

She looked at it closely, and saw in the brilliant moonshine that it was sealed and stamped and addressed.

“I'll spoil it for mailing,” she said.

“It doesn't matter,” Harber told her ineptly. “Or you can write it lightly, and I'll erase it later.”

There was a little silence. Then suddenly she laughed softly, and there was a tiny catch in the voice. “So that you can forget?” she said bravely. “No! I'll write it fast and hard ... so that you can ... never ... forget!”

And she gave him first his pencil and envelope, and afterward her hand, which Harber held for a moment that seemed like an eternity and then let go. She went into the house, but Harber didn't follow her. He went off to his so-called hotel.

In his room, by the light of the kerosene-lamp, he took out the envelope and reed what she had written. It was:

Vanessa Simola, Claridon, Michigan.

He turned over the envelope and looked at the address on the other side, in his own handwriting:

Miss Janet Spencer, Tawnleytown....

And the envelope dropped from his nerveless fingers to the table.

Who shall say how love goes or comes? Its ways are a sacred, insoluble mystery, no less. But it had gone for Harber: and just as surely, though so suddenly, had it come! Yes, life had bitterly tricked him at last. She had sent him this girl ... too late! The letter in the envelope was written to tell Janet Spencer that within six weeks he would be in Tawnleytown to claim her in marriage.

One must be single-minded like Harber to appreciate his terrible distress of mind. The facile infidelity of your ordinary mortal wasn't for Harber. No, he had sterner stuff in him.

Vanessa! The name seemed so beautiful ... like the girl herself, like the things she had said. It was an Italian name. She had told him her people had come from Venice, though she was herself thoroughly a product of America. “So that you can never forget,” she had said. Ah, it was the warm blood of Italy in her veins that had prompted that An American girl wouldn't have said that!

He slit the envelope, letting the letter fall to the table, and put it in his pocket.

Yet why should he save it? He could never see her again, he knew. Vain had been those half-promises, those wholly lies, that his eyes and lips had given her. For there was Janet, with her prior promises. Ten years Janet had waited for him ... ten years ... and suddenly, aghast, he realized how long and how terrible the years are, how they can efface memories and hopes and desires, and how cruelly they had dealt with him, though he had not realized it until this moment. Janet ... why, actually, Janet was a stranger, he didn't know Janet any more! She was nothing but a frail phantom of recollection: the years had erased her! But this girl—warm, alluring, immediate....

No—no! It couldn't be.

So much will the force of an idea do for a man, you see. Because, of course, it could have been. He had only to destroy the letter that lay there before him, to wait on until the next sailing, to make continued love to Vanessa, and never to go to Tawnleytown again. There was little probability that Janet would come here for him. Ten years and ten thousand miles ... despite all that he had vowed on Bald Knob that Sunday so long ago, wouldn't you have said that was barrier enough?

Why, so should I! But it wasn't.

For Harber took the letter and put it in a fresh envelope, and in the morning he went aboard the steamer without seeing the girl again ... unless that bit of white standing near the top of the slope, as the ship churned the green harbour water heading out to sea, were she, waving.

But he kept the address she had written.

Why? He never could use it. Well, perhaps he didn't want to forget too soon, though it hurt him to remember. How many of us, after all, have some little memory like that, some intimate communion with romance, which we don't tell, but cling to? And perhaps the memory is better than the reality would have been. We imagine ... but that again is cynical. Harber will never be that now. Let me tell you why.

It's because he hadn't been aboard ship on his crossing to Victoria twenty-four hours before he met Clay Barton.

Barton was rolled up in rugs, lying in a deck-chair, biting his teeth hard together to keep them from chattering, though the temperature was in the eighties, and most of the passengers in white. Barton appeared to be a man of forty, whereas he turned out to be in his early twenties. He was emaciated to an alarming degree and his complexion was of the pale, yellow-green that spoke of many recurrences of malaria. The signs were familiar to Harber.

He sat down beside Barton, and, as the other looked at him half a dozen times tentatively, he presently spoke to him.

“You've had a bad time of it, haven't you?”

“Terrible,” said Barton frankly. “They say I'm convalescent now. I don't know. Look at me. What would you say?”

Harber shook his head.

Barton laughed bitterly. “Yes, I'm pretty bad,” he agreed readily. And then, as he talked that day and the two following, he told Harber a good many things.

“I tell you, Harber,” he said, “we'll do anything for money. Here I am—and I knew damned well it was killing me, too. And yet I stuck it out six months after I'd any earthly business to—just for a few extra hundreds.”

“Where were you? What were you doing?” asked Harber.

“Trading-post up a river in the Straits Settlements,” said Barton. “A crazy business from the beginning—and yet I made money. Made it lots faster than I could have back home. Back there you're hedged about with too many rules. And competition's too keen. You go into some big corporation office at seventy-five a month, maybe, and unless you have luck you're years getting near anything worth having. And you've got to play politics, bootlick your boss—all that. So I got out.

“Went to California first, and got a place in an exporting firm in San Francisco. They sent me to Sydney and then to Fiji. After I'd been out for a while and got the hang of things, I cut loose from them.

“Then I got this last chance, and it looked mighty good—and I expect I've done for myself by it. Five years or a little better. That's how long I've lasted. Back home I'd have been good for thirty-five. A short life and a merry one, they say. Merry. Good God!”

He shook his head ironically.

“The root of all evil,” he resumed after a little. “Well, but you've got to have it—can't get along without it in this world. You've done well, you say?”

Harber nodded.

“Well, so should I have, if the cursed fever had let me alone. In another year or so I'd have been raking in the coin. And now here I am—busted—done—;—fini, as the French say. I burned the candle at both ends—and got just what was coming to me, I suppose. But how could I let go, just when everything was coming my way?”

“I know,” said Harber. “But unless you can use it——”

“You're right there. Not much in it for me now. Still, the medicos say a cold winter back home will.... I don't know. Sometimes I don't think I'll last to....

“Where's the use, you ask, Harber? You ask me right now, and I can't tell you. But if you'd asked me before I got like this, I could have told you quick enough. With some men, I suppose, it's just an acquisitive nature. With me, that didn't cut any figure. With me, it was a girl. I wanted to make the most I could for her in the shortest time. A girl ... well....”

Harber nodded. “I understand. I came out for precisely the same reason myself,” he remarked.

“You did?” said Barton, looking at him sadly. “Well, luck was with you, then. You look so—so damned fit! You can go back to her ... while I ... ain't it hell? Ain't it?” he demanded fiercely. “Yes,” admitted Harber, “it is. But at the same time, I'm not sure that anything's ever really lost. If she's worth while——”

Barton made a vehement sign of affirmation.

“Why, she'll be terribly sorry for you, but she won't care,” concluded Harber. “I mean, she'll be waiting for you, and glad to have you coming home, so glad that....”

“Ah ... yes. That's what ... I haven't mentioned the fever in writing to her, you see. It will be a shock.”

Harber, looking at him, thought that it would, indeed.

“I had a letter from her just before we sailed,” went on the other, more cheerfully. “I'd like awfully, some time, to have you meet her. She's a wonderful girl—wonderful. She's clever. She's much cleverer than I am, really ... about most things. When we get to Victoria, you must let me give you my address.”

“Thanks,” said Harber. “I'll be glad to have it.”

That was the last Harber saw of him for five days. The weather had turned rough, and he supposed the poor fellow was seasick, and thought of him sympathetically, but let it rest there. Then, one evening after dinner, the steward came for him and said that Mr. Clay Barton wanted to see him. Harber followed to Barton's stateroom, which the sick man was occupying alone. In the passageway near the door, he met the ship's doctor.

“Mr. Harber?” said the doctor. “Your friend in there—I'm sorry to say—is——”

“I suspected as much,” said Harber. “He knows it himself, I think.”

“Does he?” said the doctor, obviously relieved. “Well, I hope that he'll live till we get him ashore. There's just a chance, of course, though his fever is very high now. He's quite lucid just now, and has been insisting upon seeing you. Later he mayn't be conscious. So——”

Harber nodded. “I'll go in.”

Barton lay in his berth, still, terribly thin, and there were two pink patches of fever burning upon his cheek-bones. He opened his eyes with an infinite weariness as Harber entered the room, and achieved a smile.

“Hard luck, old fellow,” said Harber, crossing to him. “'Sall up!” said Barton, grinning gamely. “I'm through. Asked 'em to send you in. Do something for me, Harber—tha's right, ain't it—Harber's your name?”

“Yes. What is it, Barton?”

Barton closed his eyes, then opened them again.

“Doggone memory—playin' tricks,” he apologized faintly. “This, Harber. Black-leather case inside leather grip there—by the wall. Money in it—and letters. Everything goes—to the girl. Nobody else. I know you're straight. Take 'em to her?”

“Yes,” said Harber.

“Good,” said Barton. “All right, then! Been expecting this. All ready for it. Name—address—papers—all there. She'll have no trouble—getting money. Thanks, Harber.” And after a pause, he added: “Better take it now—save trouble, you know.”

Harber got the leather case from the grip and took it at once to his own stateroom.

When he returned, Barton seemed for the moment, with the commission off his mind, a little brighter.

“No end obliged, Harber,” he murmured.

“All right,” said Harber, “but ought you to talk?”

“Won't matter now,” said Barton grimly. “Feel like talking now. To-morrow may be—too late!” And after another pause, he went on: “The fine dreams of youth—odd where they end, isn't it?

“This—and me—so different. So different! Failure. She was wise—but she didn't know everything. The world was too big—too hard for me. 'You can't fail,' she said, 'I won't let you fail!' But you see——”

Harber's mind, slipping back down the years, with Barton, to his own parting, stopped with a jerk.

“What!” he exclaimed.

Barton seemed drifting, half conscious, half unconscious of what he was saying. He did not appear to have heard Harber's exclamation over the phrase so like that Janet had given him.

“We weren't like the rest,” droned Barton. “No—we wanted more out of life than they did. We couldn't be content—with half a loaf. We wanted—the bravest adventures—the yellowest gold—the....”

Picture that scene, if you will. What would you have said? Harber saw leaping up before him, with terrible clarity, as if it were etched upon his mind, that night in Tawnleytown ten years before. It was as if Barton, in his semidelirium, were reading the words from his past!

“I won't let you fail! ... half a loaf ... the bravest adventures ... the yellowest gold.” Incredible thing! That Barton and his girl should have stumbled upon so many of the phrases, the exact phrases! And suddenly full knowledge blinded Harber.... No! No! He spurned it. It couldn't be. And yet, he felt that if Barton were to utter one more phrase of those that Janet had said and, many, many times since, written to him, the impossible, the unbelievable, would be stark, unassailable fact.

He put his hand upon Barton's arm and gently pressed it.

“Barton,” he said, “tell me—Janet—Tawnleytown?”

Barton stared with glassy, unseeing eyes for a moment; then his eyelids fell.

“The bravest adventures—the yellowest gold,” he murmured. Then, so faintly as almost to baffle hearing: “Where—all—our—dreams? Gone—aglimmering. Gone.”

That was all.

Impossible? No, just very, very improbable. But how, by its very improbability, it does take on the semblance of design! See how by slender a thread the thing hung, how every corner of the plan fitted. Just one slip Janet Spencer made; she let her thoughts and her words slip into a groove; she repeated herself. And how unerringly life had put her finger upon that clew! So reasoned Harber.

Well, if the indictment were true, there was proof to be had in Barton's leather case!

Harber, having called the doctor, went to his stateroom.

He opened the leather case. Inside a cover of yellow oiled silk he found first a certificate of deposit for three thousand pounds, and beneath it a packet of letters.

He unwrapped them.

And, though somehow he had known it without the proof, at the sight of them something caught at his heart with a clutch that made it seem to have stopped beating for a long time. For the sprawling script upon the letters was almost as familiar to him as his own. Slowly he reached down and took up the topmost letter, drew the thin shiny sheets from the envelope, fluttered them, dazed, and stared at the signature:

Yours, my dearest lover, JANET.

Just so had she signed his letters. It was Janet Spencer. Two of her argosies, each one laden with gold for her, had met in their courses, had sailed for a little together.

The first reasonable thought that came to Harber, when he was convinced of the authenticity of the miracle, was that he was free—free to go after the girl he loved, after Vanessa Simola. I think that if he could have done it, he'd have turned the steamer back to the Orient in that moment. The thought that the ship was plunging eastward through a waste of smashing heavy seas was maddening, no less!

He didn't want to see Janet or Tawnleytown, again. He did have, he told me, a fleeting desire to know just how many other ships Janet might have launched, but it wasn't strong enough to take him to see her. He sent her the papers and letters by registered mail under an assumed name.

And then he went to Claridon, Michigan, to learn of her people when Vanessa might be expected home. They told him she was on her way. So, fearing to miss her if he went seeking, he settled down there and stayed until she came. It was seven months of waiting he had ... but it was worth it in the end.

       * * * * *

And that was Harber's romance. Just an incredible coincidence, you say. I know it. I told Harber that. And Mrs. Harber.

And she said nothing at all, but looked at me inscrutably, with a flicker of scorn in her sea-gray eyes.

Harber smiled lazily and serenely, and leaned back in his chair, and replied in a superior tone: “My dear Sterne, things that are made in heaven—like my marriage—don't just happen. Can't you see that your stand simply brands you an unbeliever?”

And, of course, I can see it. And Harber may be right. I don't know. Does any one, I wonder?