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MAX BRAND
[as FREDERICK FAUST]

THE GAMBLER AND THE STAKE

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First published in All-Story Weekly, 28 April 1917

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-05-24
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All-Story Weekly, 28 April 1917, with "The Gambler and the Stake"



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"MR. BRENT."

Brent opened his eyes by degrees. He considered his valet dimly. "What time is it, Harwood?" he asked in a drawling voice.

"Eleven o'clock, sir. But Mr. Frederick Winton has called, and I thought you might care to make an exception in his favor. He is the gentleman you won the money from at Monte Carlo, sir, and I thought you might care to see him. He is very anxious about it.

"I don't remember him," said Brent, still with a drawling voice. "I won money from a good many men at Monte Carlo, Harwood."

"Exactly, sir. But Mr. Winton is the gentleman from whom you won when all your money was gone. You told him then that you hoped the time would come when you could voluntarily return the favor which he had involuntarily done for you. I remember your words, sir."

"Very well," said Brent. "Raise the curtain, Harwood. This room is dim enough to put me to sleep again whether I will or no."

He drew himself up on one elbow as the light slanted into the room, struck a glimmering reflection from the tall mirror, and glinted on the polished woodwork of the foot of the bed. It fell upon Brent, and showed a lean, pallid face, square chinned, with expressionless eyes.

He was one of those men who at thirty-five look twenty-five, and who at twenty-five might well be considered thirty-five. His face was unlined, save that, whether he waked or slept, there was the hint of a frown on his forehead and the suggestion of a smile about his lips.

He sat up on the side of the bed, put his feet into the softly-furred slippers, and held out his arms to the dressing- gown which Harwood gave him.

"I begin to remember, Harwood," he said slowly. "This man Winton lost to me on two evenings—or was it three?—when I was flat.

"You played with him four afternoons, and two of the sessions lasted into the night," said Harwood. 11 You were quite flat. Afterward he entertained you on his yacht.

"Yes; I remember now. A good-looking fellow; rich American family; about my age?

"I presume so, sir.

"Good nerve for cards until the stakes go high?

"You told me to note him as such, sir," said Harwood.

"I am going to the bathroom for a shower. Tell him 111 be with him in five minutes, and ask him to excuse my negligee. Harwood, it's a strange thing that we sigh when go to sleep and groan when we wake up. Does it affect you in this manner?"

Despite the years he had spent in that service, Harwood could never quite make up his mind when his master was mocking him and when he was in earnest.

"I don't know," he answered, backing through the door into the reception-room. "I think I rarely sigh, Mr. Brent; I am quite sure I never groan, sir."

It seemed to Harwood when he closed the door that his master was actually smiling as he turned away toward the bathroom. He would have given half a month's pay to be sure, but he dared not open the door again without a proper excuse. Inquisitiveness, he had learned, was not desirable.

In a few moments Brent himself appeared. His face was still of the unusual pallor, but his eyes, though always expressionless, in some indefinable manner suggested a reserve strength of utter self-possession. He greeted Winton with an easy though unsmiling courtesy.

"I won't keep you long," said Winton, after they had passed the formalities of the greeting. "111 get right down to business, since it is more or less of a business matter which has brought me."

He paused, somewhat abashed by the steady consideration of Brent's gaze.

"If the suggestion does not embarrass you," said Brent, "may I hope that you are about to give me an opportunity of returning the favor which you once did me?

"Not a favor on my part," exclaimed Winton hastily. "Not at all. Of course I was doing my bitter best to outdo you at the cards, though you were good enough to say at the time that the opportuneness of your winnings from me placed you under a—under a—"

He came to a stammering halt.

"Under a personal obligation to you," said Brent quietly. "I was quite broke. My winnings from you were a godsend. I assure you that I still look upon the matter in that light. I hope this will make it easier for you to go ahead.

"It does," said Winton, feeling rather clumsily for his words. "Not that any obligation exists, you know, but since you have this Quixotic feeling about the thing, I thought—I thought—

"Damn it all," he broke out, stirring in his chair, "this is most embarrassing; but the whole point is that I am about to ask you to do me a service of a very painful and personal nature."

Brent's face remained unchanged, but his voice took on a deeper and friendlier significance.

"My dear Mr. Winton," he said, leaning slightly toward his guest, "I give you my word that I am most eager to serve you. Please tell me in what way I may do so."

Winton cleared his throat and frowned spasmodically to fortify his resolution, but his gaze shifted to a comer of the room as he talked.

"Very well," said he. "This is the case. I will state it outright, and before I am through you will understand that I cannot be in the slightest degree offended if you refuse me your assistance. I am desperately in love for the first time in my life, and with a girl who likes me as a friend but will have none of me as a lover. I am determined to win her, and in that determination I cannot help remembering the old maxim—"

He stopped with an apologetic smile, and his eyes sought Brent's for an instant with an appeal for understanding.

"The old maxim that all is fair in war and love," said Brent. "Exactly. Please continue.

"Because," said Winton, "I think it is hard for a woman to make up her mind.

"When she has a mind," said Brent. "Or to read her own heart," suggested Winton.

"There is generally nothing written there," stated Brent.

"Then why is it wrong to force their hands by right means or wrong?

"It is not wrong," said Brent. "It saves them the trouble of thinking when they have nothing to think, and it supplies them an emotion when they have nothing to feel.

"By the Lord, Brent," breathed Winton, "you are a jewel of a fellow. Already my conscience begins to fee! easy. I have always felt that a man can teach a woman to love him.

"Surely he can," said Brent, "just as a fire can always teach a mirror to give back his reflection—unless the mirror is too dull. You can't warm your hands in front of the mirror, but on the whole it's a pleasant delusion.

"By Jove, you're a heartless chap," mused Winton.

"Not at all—merely reasonable," said Brent. "I think the metaphor holds. That's why marriages are unhappy. They get along well enough as long as the man is afire, but when the passion dies out on his side there is absolute darkness. The mirror has nothing to reflect, you see, until—the divorce court brings a ray of light.

"This is going a little too strong for me," said Winton. "You make me feel cold to the heart.

"I am sorry," said Brent. "I don't mean to discourage you. I love to see a man gather experience. Please go on with your story. It begins to have the lyric pulse."

"Very well," said Winton. "I have searched for a long time for some means of acquiring a controlling power over this girl. At last I have found one. Her great weakness is for her brother, who recently inherited the family estate, and his great weakness is a love for gambling.

"And that is where I enter the plot," said Brent without emotion.

"Exactly," said Winton; and his eyes again wandered to the corner of the room. "If you could meet this brother and play cards with him, I know that we would have him in our grip in a short time.

"He hasn't much money. His father left only a small estate, a little cash, and a country place up the Hudson, where the girl is now. A few nights of heavy losing would break him completely, I'm sure. Break him in every way, for the fellow has no heart, I'm positive. When his money is gone his nerve will be gone. He will think of suicide.

"Then we could step in and propose that he use his influence with his sister in return for the money he has lost. He has a mean nature. I know he will do it; and I know she cannot resist the pressure he will put to bear upon her."

His wavering eyes leaped to Brent's face, and he half rose in a final appeal.

"Brent," he whispered, tense with the force of his desire, "will you help me in this thing? You are the one man who could do it. I know other gamblers, but none like you. This man is a celebrated hand with the cards himself: He wins largely. He might turn the game on me.

"But you never lose; and if you play with him you will madden him as you madden every one who plays with you. He will be led on by a desire to break through the strength of your surety, to make you frown, to make you flush with pleasure or anger, to see your hands shake the slightest moment.

"I know what it is. I have played against you. I know the excitement of the thing. He will be lost after the first hand. Brent!"

Brent reached for a cigarette and poised it a moment before he lighted it.

"I am going to do this thing," he said at last, and then waved aside Winton's enthusiastically extended hand of gratitude. "I am going to do this thing, though I confess that I hardly like the game. I have always played with the stakes in sight on the table; but it seems in this case that we are playing two hands against one and two stakes against one stake.

"It seems that we are going to get enough gold to balance against a heart, eh, Winton? Well, I suppose it can be done, if it's a woman's heart. And I promised myself to repay that favor. So here's my hand to see you through in this game to the best of my ability."

They shook hands silently across the table, and Winton flushed with excitement.

"There may be some trouble," went on Brent. "I am rather widely known as a successful and professional gambler. Perhaps this chap may take to cover when he sees me.

"No danger of that," exclaimed Winton. "Don't fear for that. He will be like the rest—like me—he will think that he is the man who will break your luck. The point is that it isn't luck. It is you. They think that 'Jack of Spades' is an empty name. By the way, how did you get that name?"

"I don't know," said Brent coldly, "save that it is supposed to be my lucky card and that my first name is John. I believe that no one has ever addressed me by that name—habitually.

"I beg your pardon," said Winton, "I didn't know it irritated you. If you can start this game this evening, 111 call for you in a car at eight o'clock. I know the place where Cransion plays nearly every night, and well go there. One thing more. I hardly know how to remunerate you for this favor, but—

"There is only one way you can do it," said Brent as Winton hesitated. "Raise such a big flame that the mirror will actually seem to be on fire."

On the tenth morning following, the dawn of the May day lighted one by one the upper reaches of New York's skyscrapers and passed gradually down to the shadowy mass of the lower buildings, but in the gambling-rooms the glow diffused from the electric lights shut out the thoughts of day. Down the luminous vista of the apartment the round mahogany tables glimmered with golden brown reflections and sudden soft waverings of light as the players leaned forward to pick up their cards.

The silence was rendered only more intense by the low guttural of occasional voices and now and then the muffled tapping as a dealer shuffled his cards. And linking the entire scene together wound the smoke of cigarettes and cigars in thin, silver drifts and gray-blue coils; but for each group the rest of the rooms had long ago ceased to exist, save that around one table a little crowd had gathered, watching breathlessly the high play of two gamblers.

A little stir passed through the group around the table, then the breathless silence of expectancy held them. The dealer loosened his collar and leaned forward on his elbows. Herbert Cransion wrote a check with trembling hands. He was a handsome fellow, scarcely well into his twenties, and flushed now with wine and excitement he looked boyish.

"Call your five thousand and raise you five thousand," he said, and as he spoke his mouth twitched nervously.

The eyes of the group shifted from him to the man who sat opposite, John Brent, his face as colorless as ever and the hint of a smile on his lips. They were playing stud poker. In front of Cransion lay exposed the ace of hearts, the ace of diamonds, and the three of clubs. In front of John Brent lay the eight of spades, the seven of spades, and the nine of hearts. He reached into his wallet and counted out a stack of bills.

"Call your five thousand and raise you ten thousand," he said.

One of the bystanders, a heavily built man with a great expanse of shirt front, passed a nervous hand over his bald head. "Great Scott!" he whispered. "The man is betting on an incompleted straight."

Cransion half rose from his seat. "Silence over there!" he cried fiercely. "Let Brent play his own hand. Call your ten thousand and raise you ten thousand," he continued as he sank back into his seat; and he commenced to write again with a shaking hand in his checkbook.

Brent drummed lightly on his buried card. The smile on his lips never changed. "Call your ten thousand and raise you twenty thousand," he said as he counted out the money.

The dealer commenced to wipe his hands on his handkerchief, and Cransion drew far back in his chair with a sudden expression of fear. A glance at the cards on the table, however, reassured him. He seemed for a moment as if he were about to utter some protest, then made a strange gesture of abandon and wrote again in his check-book.

"Call your twenty thousand," he said in a somewhat stammering voice and pushed the check slowly toward the pile of checks and bills which lay heaped upon the table.

"Deal?" asked the dealer.

"Deal," said Brent.

"Cards up first," said Cransion. "It makes no difference, and I'd rather like to see this draw."

Without a word Brent turned up his buried card. It was the ten of diamonds. Cransion turned up the ace of spades. He rose in tremulous excitement.

"You need a jack to beat me and get your straight," he said, "and if I get another ace you're beaten anyway." He sat down and bit his lip. "Deal," he called.

The queen of diamonds flashed into the air and fell beside Cransion's cards. He caught a deep breath, passed a hand across his eyes, and then leaned forward to watch Brent's draw.

Again the dealer's hand moved, a card shone in the air, and the jack of spades fell beside Brent's hand.

Cransion's chair scraped loudly as he rose.

"Proprietor," he called, "I challenge this deal! I—"

As he spoke he reached suddenly forward and laid his hand upon the pile of money. Brent did not rise, but his hand fell lightly on his hip. The smile remained, and his voice came velvet smooth, but something in that purring sound made the group about the table draw back.

"Cards are a gentleman's game, Mr. Cransion," he said. "They were never meant for yellow dogs. Take your hands off the money, or I'll forget that you have a man's name and remember that you have a dog's heart!"

Cransion straightened as if he had received a blow, glared at Brent for a moment, through narrowing eyes, and then whirled and left the room.

Brent overtook Cransion in the reception-room, which was luckily empty.

"Mr. Cransion," he called softly.

Cransion turned and flushed sullenly when he saw his pursuer.

"Well?" he queried shortly.

"We are going into the library," said Brent. "I have something to say which will interest you."

He led the way as he spoke and passed into the library, where he took a chair. He knew that Cransion would hesitate and then follow.

"To-night finished your bank-account, Cransion," he stated without prelude when they sat facing one another.

For a moment Cransion stared at him defiantly, as if he were about to retort with some insolent phrase, but under Brent's impersonal eye his sullenness disappeared.

With one hand he covered his mouth to hide its nervous twitching.

"Finished," he said—"more than finished."

"Account overdrawn?2

"Yes. Oh, God, what a fool I have been!" he cried with a half- tremulous fierceness. "They told me who you were, but I dreamed—I dreamed that I would be the one successful man—I dreamed that I would become famous by breaking the nerve and the fortune of Jack of Spades."

He burst into hysterical laughter.

"Look at me now!" he exclaimed, sobering suddenly. "I am not half a man. I'm a shaking woman, and I've ruined every one dependent upon me. There's only one honorable way left to me. But why do I tell you this?

"Because I'm going to show you a way out of this trouble," said Brent. "It's not a comfortable way nor a particularly honorable way, but I judge you are eager to get away from this embarrassment."

Cransion laughed shortly. "Eager? Dear God, man, tell me what to do, and it's done.

"Persuade your sister to marry Frederick Winton, and I'll restore these checks to you as soon as the marriage ceremony is finished."

Cransion's face lighted and then went blank again. He seemed about to speak, but a growing frown took the place of words.

"Do I understand that Winton has set you on to do this?" he asked at last. "Am I a mere tool in another man's game? No, by Heaven, no Cransion has ever fallen so low as that, and I shall not be the first one. And yet—"

He buried his face in his arms and groaned.

"It is your one way out of the difficulty," said Brent, and the suggestion of a smile on his lips altered into a perceptible sneer. "If you have enough strength with your sister all will be well with you."

Cransion started to his feet. Under the stress of his emotions the wine-flush had died from his face and left it gray.

"You do not know her," he said bitterly, "or you could not make this suggestion. If she were an ordinary girl I might be able to do it; but she is a saint—a golden-haired saint. How could I say this thing to her and watch her eyes grow narrow with scorn? She would do it for me; she would make any sacrifice for me and to save the family place and name. But how in God's name can I talk to her of it?

"By simply forgetting the golden hair and the possibility of scorn in the eyes," said Brent in his changeless voice. "I have no doubt that the color of her hair makes you think her an angel. But my dear fellow you must remember that the differences between women are surface differences. All hair, whether black or yellow, grows gray in time. All lips are apt to grow thin and wrinkled.

"If she were cross-eyed you would never think of her as an angel. When you talk with her try to picture her as she will be ten years from to-day. I have found it an excellent antidote against pretty women. The angelic part of women stops with the glow and the bloom of youth. We imagine they have souls till the wrinkles begin to write something else on their faces.

"But she doesn't love him," said Cransion half to himself.

"All the better," said Brent. "Marriage is a business affair—a thing which begins with a business contract between two parties. Marriages which begin with the lyric impulse end in Reno. Romance, my dear Cransion, is the invention of poets, and is far better left to books.

"Far better that your sister should marry with her eyes unblinded by illusion. Lovers take happiness for granted and are horrified by disappointment. A marriage of convenience presupposes nothing but automobiles and a good cook. It is better to expect nothing and get a little than to expect everything and get a morning after.

"I can't do it," muttered Cransion, wringing his hands. "Dear God, I wish that I could!

"Very well, then," said Brent. "Then you know what to expect. I will wait until the day after to-morrow. If I do not hear from you before then you may expect that the bank shall discover that your account is overdrawn; that you are faced with bankruptcy; that your family estate will be lost to you; that both you and your sister will be confronted with the long torture of poverty.

"Go home and think it over, Cransion. Listen to me. At first you will think of suicide; but when you look down the mouth of the revolver you will change your mind. You will remember the good advice I have given you and will decide to follow it. Now go."

Ho watched Cransion hurry from the room, and his sneer changed to as grim a smile.

"A rotten affair," said Brent softly. "Quite the rottenest you have ever mixed in, John Brent."

On the morning of the second day, as he was about to leave his apartment.

Harwood showed in Frederick Winton. His excited manner told Brent at once that all was well.

"The thing is done," cried Winton. "What a wonder you are, man! I shall never forget this! A letter came this morning, a long letter. Read it.

"I don't care to read your first—er&mdash love-letter, Winton," said Brent coldly.

"By Jove," said Winton, "don't be so infernally cynical, Brent. This letter is so far from a love-letter that it gives me a chill. But that will pass. Man, I'll so surround her with affection that she cannot choose but give me back a small measure after a while.

"But what in the world did you say to Cransion? You must have given him a wonderful talk and a heartless one. Read the letter. It's all there, and it's from the lady herself, not from Cransion."

Brent took the fold of paper and spread it out with manifest distaste. The writing was in a running delicate feminine hand, and in spite of himself a little thrill of pity touched him as he read:

Dear Frederick:

Herbert has talked with me, and that is why I write this letter. I cannot write it happily, but at least I can write it truthfully.

I am still a little dazed alter that talk with my brother, and I fed strangely cold and a little bitter. He commenced by speaking to me of you, and pressed alt your good qualities upon me. I know they are very many, and I have always liked you as a friend, liked you very sincerely; but friendship is so different from love. At least it is with a girl To me U has always been something I have looked forward to as one looks forward to a brave to-morrow. They say it comes from little things, a remembered word, or a glance, perhaps; but I should have to take it to my heart and make it flower and grow strong through all my days.

If I find the dawn of reality cold and gray, waking from such a dream, will you forgive me?

I told Herbert these things, and he replied with strange arguments which may be true; but, oh. I still think they are not. He said that a girl's dreams stop with the glow and bloom of youth, and that only wrinkles can write true knowledge on their faces. And he said that it is far better to leave romance to poets; and many other things he said, which I knew did not come out of his own mind. So I tasked him with it, and asked him if he had heard them from you, and at last he confessed that he had heard them from a man named John Brent, a professional gambler—what a heartless and terrible man he must be.

For when I refused to listen to his arguments, Herbert told me everything—how he had played with this gambler on ten nights, and lost everything—more than everything—to him; but how he played on and on, hoping to break the courage of this "Jack of Spades." And then he told me that he was ruined, and that the only thing left for him to do was to kill himself. So I sat there and felt the old order of my life die about me, and a new life close around me like a hand upon my heart. And then Herbert told me that I could save him and save the honor of our name by marrying you.

I will do this thing if it saves so much. A woman's dreams cannot weigh against such affairs. If you still want me, you can take me whenever you will.

At first I was rather bitter that you should have hired another man to win me and that I should go to pay a gambling debt; but I am trying to forget this, and to face necessity bravely and with clear eyes.

If I do not love you now, I will promise you very honestly to be true to you always, and in time, perhaps. I can come to love you.

Does this content you?

Margaret Cransion.

For some moment Brent kept his eyes upon the signature, and then he became aware that the cigarette had burned to his fingers. He tossed it into an ash-receiver and returned the letter to Winton in silence.

"You're right," said Winton. "There is nothing to say about such a letter. What a wonderful girl she is! And what a dirty hound I feel to torture her so; and yet—

"And does it content you?" said Brent at last.

"Content me?" cried Winton. "Can you ask me that seriously? Do you suppose that a starving man will turn his back on bread and water? No, no! And I remember what you said to me the other day.

"You understand these things, Brent. You have seen men, women, and events of twenty nations. You understand life and human nature. You must be right. A woman is like a mirror—and the fire of a man's love can fill her with light."

Brent walked across the room and stared out the window.

"Don't take me too seriously," he said. "It is the curse of our times that an epigram is taken for a prophecy. Our words are building-blocks. God knows we can build them into wonderful toy castles, but unless they are cemented together with vital emotion our thoughts lack substance, and the first wind of human passion will blow down our playhouses! Pah! I am growing old!"

He turned and faced his guest with a smile.

"Go sport with Amaryllis," he said. "This May-time is glorious in the country. The crocuses and the Dutchman's Breeches are out now, and there are all sorts of things to find in the woods. Go out to conquer, Winton. I wish you all happiness."

Winton considered him a moment with new eyes.

"Look here, Brent," he said suddenly, "why not come out with me? You won't have to bother with the people at the house. T know you like to be alone," he went on, noticing Brent's deprecatory shake of the head, "and there's a little lodge on my place about half a mile from the house. You can be absolutely alone there with your man. I'll give you a fellow to cook for you."

He laid a hand on Brent's shoulder.

"Come out where there's a real sun and a real wind and a real sky," he continued enthusiastically. "I'd love to have you. There's a piano in the lodge, and you can drum it to your heart's content.

"A piano?" said Brent.

"Yes; and horses to ride, and wonderful roads to ride them on, and automobiles waiting for you, and big lawns to be lazy on, and a smell of the woods that 'II put new life in you.

"You remind me of an angel tempting the devil to be good," smiled Brent. "No more. I'll start to-night if I may."

He paused a moment, drumming on the table, with far-off eyes. "But the devil is sometimes uncomfortable company, Winton. Had you thought of that?"

Winton had not exaggerated the charm of his country estate. It lay far up the Hudson, on the banks of a small tributary river which wound lazily between wooded banks, and the estate itself stretched out running miles of undulating land, whispering groves, and broad, sunny lawns.

Brent gave himself wholly to the quiet charm of the place. In the evening he ate alone in his lodge, and during his supper he watched the slow dropping of the day through his window, the perpetual mystery of change when the life-radiant colors of the day fade and night sends her long shadows stalking before her like somber heralds who robbed the trees of their gaiety at a single touch and made them dark figures of ominous prophecy.

Then he sat at the piano and recalled old airs, touching them softly as if for fear of startling the listening evening calm. And later still he sat on the-pillared veranda and heard the night winds touch the trees with the infinite caress of sleep. And late every night Winton came whistling down the path to sit with him a few moments and recount the adventure of the day.

The Cransion estate lay only a few miles up the river, and Winton laid steady siege to the heart of Margaret Cransion. He told of breathless automobile rides, and of the poised tea-cups at afternoon receptions, of dances, and haunting phrases of repartee.

Then Brent smiled broadly under the shelter of the dark and gave advice, and suggested entertainments, and sent his visitor away singing while he went back into the lodge and slept a not dreamless sleep.

For who shall deny the lyric voice of spring? Who shall take the scent of early flowers and not consider the faint sadness of remembered perfumes? Who shall lie prone on the grass with the touch of chill wind on his face and the warmth of a full sun in his heart, without thrilling to the eternal gladness of living and the eternal sorrow of change? Who shall look on the stars without knowing the vanity of fact and the dear reality of dreams?

So it chanced that when Brent, standing under a willow by the river on a morning, heard the light drip of water from suspended oars, and looking up and saw a skiff take the bend close to the shore, and in the skiff a girl who smiled for the joy of the rowing and the splendor of the spring morning, he looked upon her not as a picture, but as beauty which had lived beyond the dream for the golden reality of wind and sun and laughter.

She had turned in the boat with her hands resting on the oars, and the sun lay white on her half-bared arms and on her throat and forehead and made a golden fire of her uncovered hair. He could never tell why he brushed off his hat as if even the shadow of its brim obscured his watching as she came floating down over the green and dun shadows of the river.

For as she came her smile grew out upon him, and the loveliness of wide, clear eyes, and now he heard the music of the ripple from the bow. Very near she was, breathlessly near.

Then the boat struck an obstacle, a submerged root, perhaps; but he never knew or cared. He only saw the skiff heel sharply to one side, heard her cry of alarm, saw her hand fall from the oar, and saw the oar slip into the water. In a moment the boat had righted itself, but John Brent strode into the water waist deep.

With one hand he caught the prow of the boat, and with the other arrested the oar as it floated down the current. And she, shrinking back a little from this sudden apparition, was aware of a pale, stern face and eyes that burned strangely into her own.

As he handed her the oar she blushed, thanking him, and dipped her oars for a stroke which would have sent her farther out into the current and out of the life of John Brent; but when she made the stroke the skiff only surged a few inches forward.

She turned again and saw his hand grasping the prow strongly. She looked a moment longer and wondered at the cold suggestion of a smile upon his lips.

"The truth is," he was saying, "that I have been standing here, yearning for a boat in which I could row down the river. May I not row us both?"

She stared at him silently, but he watched a whimsical little smile grow at the corners of her mouth, and swung himself lightly into the skiff.

"If you will sit at the stern now," he said, "we will make excellent progress without fear of unshipping any more oars."

Partly because of the quiet command of his voice and partly because she wished to look him in the face to argue the question, she relinquished the oars and sat in the stern seat.

"But," she began, "you are dripping with water, and besides—"

She stopped as he sent the boat leaping toward the center of the stream with a great stroke of the oars.

"The sun is ample warrant that my wet clothes will dry in a few moments," he said, "and for the rest I know that we have not been introduced; but for my part I am not the least curious about your name, and I hope you will be satisfied if I admit that I am a man with two arms, two legs, and two eyes; and for my past history I will also confess that I have been born, have lived a life chiefly of eating, sleeping, and working, and am now about to—"

He broke off into a laugh, and she noticed that the sound vas very low and that it broke off suddenly as if he were unaccustomed to it. She would have remonstrated further, perhaps, but the flash and run of the sun on the water blinded her, and the strong movement of his arms gave her an unusual feeling of helplessness.

So she gave herself to strange thoughts, her chin resting on her hand, and the other hand trailing white in the water while she watched the shifting reflections of trees and sky move past her in the water with a musing smile.

On either side the woodland moved slowly back. The morning mist had not yet vanished, but floated against the trees in silver drifts, and veiled every inrunning of the shores with bright mystery. Deep silence everywhere as the great brown- trunked trees rolled past, a thousand points of light on the dew- dripping leaves—deep silence, save for the swirl of water round the oars and now and then the solitary splash of a fish, a startling and loud sound in that unusual quiet which almost left an echo in the air.

And as Brent grew warm to the pulling rhythm of the oars and the forward cadence of the skiff he fixed his glance upon her, on the glowing curve of her throat, till it was lost under the transparent wave of her shirt-waist, on the faintly cleft chin, on the lure of unconsciously smiling lips, on the shining eyes, until it seemed to him that his gaze drew upon her with an almost physical power, forcing her eyes up and up to meet his.

They did rise at last by fluttering degrees, and the hunger of his glance plunged into them, held them, grappled with the clear aloofness until the smile left his lips and she was gravely, almost tremulously, aware of him. And she said:

"I must turn back. See, we have come to the landing of the Winton estate. I must turn back, and I must go alone."

He stood upon the steps of the landing, and she drew away with a long pull of the oars. He ran down to the lowest step.

"Your name," he called. "I shall know your name!"

"It is Margaret Cransion," she answered; then, seeing the sudden stir of pain on his face: "And yours?"

The misted beauty of the morning went blank to him. When he raised his head he saw a little gap of blue water between the skiff and the foot of the landing. He could not let her float out of his life like this!

An impulse struck away his reason, and he ran down the remaining steps and sprang into the air.

If he had landed an inch or two more to one side he would have overturned the boat. As it was it rocked perilously, and her high-pitched outcry thrilled him back to common sense.

She sat with eyes wide with wonder and terror, shrinking as far as possible into the stem.

"Brent laughed softly, a brooding sound which did not quiet her fears.

"When I heard your name," he explained, "I saw at once that I could not leave you so suddenly. I couldn't possibly out of mere politeness. You see, we have a mutual friend; and I'm sure that Frederick Winton would not approve if he learned that I had left you as unceremoniously as I was about to do just now."

He resumed the oars and headed the boat into the stream.

"But," she protested somewhat anxiously, "you are rowing the wrong way. You are going downstream, and my place is up- stream.

"The longest way round is the sweetest way home," caroled Brent. "Besides, your place lies too near; we would arrive there far too soon. I should not have the time to ask the questions which I must ask of you, which I am in duty bound to ask of you as Winton's friend.

"But he will ask a great many more questions if I am late for lunch," she said, eying him a little dubiously.

He waved an inclusive arm to sky and river and trees.

"The whole morning pleads excuses for you!" he said.

She gave a little laugh of abandon, a low, delighted sound which ran upon his senses like the musical plashing of the ripples from the bow.

"Oh," she said, "I loathe convention. Row on. Why should I care whether or not you know Mr. Winton?"

"But I do know him," he assured her solemnly, "and suppose I should tell him that I had been rowing with you on the river, and then suppose that he should start to ask me questions, and suppose I could not answer them—now wouldn't that be embarrassing?

"And what questions would you have to answer to Mr. Frederick Winton?"

She had turned her glance toward the shore, and he was so rapt watching the smile which grew softly around her mouth that it was a minute or so before he remembered his answer.

"As an old friend of Mr. Winton," he remarked, "I certainly will be expected to lake a great deal of notice of his intended bride."

At this her glance came suddenly and coldly back to him.

"Yes?" she queried with polite disinterest.

"To be quite frank," he went on with more assurance, "Winton rather respects my taste, and he will be sure to ask my criticism of many things. You see it is up to me in defense of my reputation to make a sensible report.

"Of course," she admitted, regarding him with steady mockery. "And am I to be cross-examined?

"You don't have to say a word," he declared. "Not a word. All you have to do is to be looked at."

She flushed a little at that and moved the hand on which her chin rested so that it hid the lower part of her face.

"I beg of you to help me out," complained Brent. "Consider that I must actually photograph you in my mind.

"I refuse to regard you as a camera," she said, smiling faintly.

"I assure you that I am as impersonal as one," he stated. "And consider the woeful degree of my present ignorance when I really can't say whether your eyes are black, blue-black, or blue. You will not look at me?"

She kept her gaze stubbornly down, but not without an effort. He could see the tinge of color grow along her throat, the hand tighten against her chin, and then her eyes went up to him suddenly as if she steeled herself to the act.

"And if you are Mr. Winton's friend, am I not to know your name?" she asked.

Under the shock of her eyes he knew that he was lost, utterly lost. It was as if every restraint of his life snapped. He gave himself to the freedom of tremendous movement with a great lift of the heart, as an eagle sits poised to every wind on the rock top, until he sees his prey and launches himself with one upward beat of his wings into the full current of the storm.

He had no care to guard his actions or his words. It were as if the river had gathered the purpose of his life into its current and were sweeping him on to an unknown destination.

"Your name?" she was repeating.

He caught a sudden breath and his face set to lines of determination.

"I will tell you a story instead," he began. "Do you mind?

"By all means a story!" she cried.

"Very well," he began, and as he spoke his voice went cold and level. "This story has to do with an American, a rather young man of rather old family, and who repeated in his life the somewhat unsavory traditions of his forebears.

"For, you see, one of those forebears was a pirate in the days of Blackboard—a venomous pirate with a cold heart. And this young man who is the hero or the villain of my story could not become a pirate, because they are so out of date, so he did the next best thing and became a professional gambler, and a very successful one."

She was staring at him now with strangely narrowed eyes, and her face had become somewhat pale. He frowned to gather his thoughts.

"Now it happened that one day a friend came to our villain and asked him a favor. It seems that he was in love with a young girl who liked him as a friend but not as a lover, and he was determined to win her by fair means or foul, remembering that love, like war, justifies strange measures. He told our villain, the gambler, that the one weakness of the girl was for her brother, and that his weakness was for gambling; and he proposed that the villainous gambler entice the brother into a series of games and win away his fortune.

"Then he was to tell the boy that the one way he could redeem his lost estate was by forcing his sister into a marriage with the villainous gambler's friend."

"And you," said Margaret Cransion, her lips moving slowly as if they were numb with cold, "are the gambler—you are John Brent!"

But his glance seemed to travel through her and past her, as if he were so intent on his story that he did not notice her scorn or her shrinking.

"And all this happened as they planned," he went on, "and the girl was won; and when the man went out to woo the girl, to his country estate he took his gambler with him. And then a strange thing happened to the villain of the tale, for the quiet beauty of the May-time—for it was May—the sleeping airs of night, the hushing sounds of wind in the trees, the good warmth of the sun, the breath of the woodland flowers, entered into him, and he forgot his pirate ancestors; and it seemed to him as if he had become a little boy again, and it seemed also as if all his pirate life were merely ventures he had read in a book and would soon forget."

He half shipped the oars, letting the boat drift carelessly with the current, and the cynical smile changed and softened as he spoke. She would have spoken to break the charm of the spell which he seemed to gather around her as he spoke. but her voice failed her, and she remained intent and half fearful.

"And it chanced that on a morning the gambler went down by the riverside, and as he stood there under a tree he saw a girl in a boat float around the bend of the river. She had turned in the boat, letting it drift, and as she grew out upon him with the sun blindingly white upon her throat and arms and making a golden fire of her hair, it seemed to the gambler that a new sense of beauty and a strange sense of pain and bitterness drifted into his life.

"So he stood and watched, and when the boat came near it struck some snags, and the girl cried out, and the gambler slopped the boat and righted it and returned the oar the girl had lost, and then he climbed into the boat himself and rowed down the river.

"But as he rowed the mysterious brightness of the morning and the glow and glimmer of woodland reflections on the river worked havoc in the gambler's heart. He hardly dared look on the girl; she was so beautiful it all seemed like a dream from which he dreaded an awakening.

"At last he stood on the steps of the landing of his friend's estate, and then the girl in the boat told her name. It was the name of the girl whom his friend was to marry, and the gambler saw that if he let the girl go then that she would drift out of his life, and he remembered that he had played once with this girl for the stake and that he had won her for another man.

"I say he remembered all this with great bitterness, and he decided that he would win her again and for himself. So he jumped back in the boat and rowed on down the current."

She was very pale now, and her eyes were strange as if with fear.

He continued in a changed voice:

"For the gambler had made up his mind to follow the footsteps of his sea-roving ancestors, and steal away this girl as his ancestors had stolen away gold. But first he took out his wallet, as I do now, and he took from the wallet the checks which he had won from the girl's brother, as I do now; then he tore up the checks one by one, and tossed them into the river. (See how white they trail out behind the boat!)

"For he was determined that he would have no hold upon the girl save his love for her. Then he shipped the oars and leaned forward in the boat and he said to this girl:

"'Margaret Cransion, I love you with my whole heart! Will you marry me?'"

Suddenly his eyes grew burningly aware of her. He rose and sat beside her in the stem, and she drew back tremulous with fear and her eyes alive with something more than fear, her left hand raised to her breast as if to protect herself against him.

He caught the hand where it lay and circled her with his other arm. She would have protested, but when she looked up to his set face, paler than before, she forgot her words. She was aware now of the beating of her heart, and a warm force rose in her which she felt she must fight against without knowing why. She struggled to speech.

"God help me against you and against myself!" she whispered.

As if in answer to her appeal, a bird in the woodland by the river broke into song—a gay, trilling whistle, glad with the spirit of that May day, a song as bright as the sun which glinted on the forest leaves.

"Listen!" he whispered. "The music! It is speaking for me!"

The lilting pulse of the rhythm seemed to take the place of her heart-beats, and the blood ran with a tender pain like music to her heart, and ever his arm drew her closer, closer.

Her lips parted now, her face flushed delicately, and now and then her breath caught with an emotion wholly new.

"Do you hear?" he was saying. "Do you understand? It is more than my power which holds you so! More than the voice of the music which holds us so. It is love!

"No," she cried, with a half sob. "It cannot be! You are speaking empty words. We do not know each other. It is some enchantment. I—I—oh, this will stop when the singing stops!"

"But our hearts will not stop!" he said. "And the music will beat on in them. Dearest, can you deny the power and the glory of it? The singing is in our blood forever, love, love, love! I know it is strange and new. Beauty is forever strange and new, and love is both beauty and truth molded together to make an eternal singing.

"Margaret, Margaret, my golden-haired, deep-eyed Margaret, we are lost to ourselves and won to each other. Do you not know it? It is the morning which gives you to me! It is the silver drifting mist: It is the golden running sunlight on the river, and the green-and-dun shadows by the shore, and now through the silence the first breath of this high song, as far away and faint as eternity. There is still a hope for me. There is a ghost of chance. I see it in the tremble of your lips. It makes a shadow of your eyes. Margaret!"

The singing stopped, and they sat with bowed heads. A listening silence came upon them. The bright wonder of the morning grew dim. The whole world lay at wait.

He tilted her face back until her hair touched soft and fragrant at his cheek, and the drooping eyelids wavered, rose, and suddenly he was drinking of the deep and misted wonder of her eyes.

"Dearest, I cannot help myself," she said, "for the river carries me away from my old life and into yours."

Now the bird in the woodland by the river broke again into the oldest of all songs, the song of songs which no man shall hear twice in his life; and a water-dog on a rock by the river basking in the sunlight opened his eyes to watch and raised his head to listen.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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