XII.

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FATE.

THE discovery of Josephine’s hidden predilection for Oliphant brought upon Octavia a rush of new excitement which she could not fathom or control. That fine sheathing of comparative indifference, which had enabled her to go on thus far without sacrificing her peace of mind, suddenly vanished, and she ceased to be merely a spectator of her relations with Oliphant. Like an actress carried away by her part, she became subject to the situation ; no longer felt that she was moulding it, but rather that she was at the mercy of events.

She was willing to confess, now, that during the busy weeks of their acquaintance a strong admiration for Oliphant had grown up in her mind. She had not suspected that a character so little salient, a presence so quiet, could acquire such sway over her; yet it had come to pass that if she missed seeing him for a single day she was conscious of a void and blankness in the day’s experience. There was a silent persuasive power about him, a something calmly strong, which had caused a belief to gain upon her that his worth was sound and complete beyond that of men who might be more brilliant, or of more flexible mind. And now her belief and her admiration were confirmed by the deep impression he had made upon Josephine. Who would ever have dreamed that that self-possessed, ambitious girl could fall in love with him? For a moment, indeed, Octavia allowed herself to doubt that it could be so. “At any rate,” she thought, “ if she does love him, what does it amount to ? Nothing but an icicle giving back a ray of the sun. She’s too cold. She can’t love him as — as I could.” But those unspoken words brought blushes to her cheeks, and frightened her. Was it already possible for her to come to such a climax, even in fancy ?

Moreover, had she not decided that love was an illusion, a tradition, a thing no one could be sure of ? If this was her conviction, surely she could not pretend to anything more than a friendly sentiment towards Oliphant; yet it irked her to suppose that she could be inferior to Josephine in the capacity for an honest and trusting affection. Besides, it was beyond all dispute that Oliphant cared for her, and not for Josephine. The knowledge gratified her ; but at the next instant she was thrilled by a notion of renouncing him for herself, and milking him marry Josephine. It was delightful to think how noble such a proceeding would be. Before she had time, however, to sketch it out in all its bearings, she had abandoned the scheme, and dropped helplessly back into the vortex of uncertainty from which circumstances would not permit her to escape.

Retreat might be another alternative; but what would become of her purpose, then? Had she not made an inward vow ? Was there not a duty for her to perform, a revenge to take ? Anger and pity and a gathering tenderness swept by turns through her heart, confusing her more and more ; but one thing, she saw, was decided : there could be no retreat. In the restlessness engendered by this conflict, she had gone out upon the grounds of High Lawn, after Josephine’s visit, and was walking aimlessly among the trees, when she saw a man’s figure passing up the driveway to the house. She could not tell who it was, but her heart throbbed quickly ; she at once thought of Eugene. Returning by a door near the silk-paneled room, she was disappointed to find that it was Raish Porter who awaited her. But he brought an invitation that promptly enlivened the coloring of her mood; for he had devised a yachting party, to come off the next day, in which the Wares, Count Fitz-Stuart, Josephine, Oliphant, and several others would be included. Mrs. Farley Blazer was not invited, and Octavia consented with eager readiness to go.

“It’s unusual to get people out on that sort of trip, here,” said Raish, “ and I’m as elated at my success as the sailor I ’ve heard of, who fiddled so well that the whales all came round him to be harpooned.”

Raish’s jovial deportment had nothing to do with the placidity that returned to Octavia. It was the prospect of the excursion that brought back her good spirits. Her perplexities were not solved, but they had disappeared : the knowledge that she was to have Oliphant by her side, on the yacht, furnished a thread which she was content to take for her clue through the maze, at present.

It was a cool morning when Raish’s small schooner - yacht, the Amaranth, glided out of the harbor, leaving behind the fossil part of Newport, with its tapemeasure sidewalks and huddled gambrelroofs, and quaint, cramped old Thames Street. The sky was half-clouded, like a face softened by pensive memories; but the gayety of the sailing-party was not abated, and their light talk and laughter around the deck played sympathetically into the murmur of the rippling tide. Smoothly the trim craft ran past Fort Adams and the bare hills arrayed in dull green, or, where the sun shone, in a warm, smiling brown that held a hint of rose ; past the Point of Trees and Ramshead, too, with Conanicut on the right, all blended of mild grays and varying greens, except for its border of rough rock harsh with shadow. Then, as they made out into the open ocean, they saw a white strip of marguerites, like a broad chalk-streak, amid the green on the right, and far away a line of blue and purple heights. Under the changing heaven Beaver Tail Light, with its blanched tower on the long, low point, was brought out in white-spotted clearness by wandering sunbeams, and swiftly reduced to moist dimness again, as if it had been a lantern - picture abruptiy dissolving.

“ Look there ! ” said Raish, pointing to the cliff, as the Amaranth buffeted her way gayly across the stronger waves that met them after they had passed Gooseberry Island and Spouting Rock. “ Look at that row of summer palaces ! Where can you show me anything to equal it ? Think of all that growing out of the quiet little town behind it, dressed in Quaker gray and white.”

“ The wicked worldling,” said Octavia, with a smile, " coming after the stern and pious parent.”

“ It’s a great contrast,” Oliphant assented. “I should like to know what is to be the result of the new development.”

“ I ’ll tell you,” said Raish, addressing several of the group. “ We have three epochs represented here: first, the early settlers, by the old stone mill; then the defunct American democracy, who built the older part of the town ; and these villas here, standing for the present American oligarchy. After that will come— revolution.”

He shrugged his shoulders, and looked quite French ; that is, like a cynic suddenly disordered by a gust of prophecy.

Mais non. How can you think possible ?” Fitz-Stuart exclaimed, a diminutive consternation agitating his features.

“ But, Mr. Porter,” objected Vivian, “ revolution belongs to the effete monarchies, you know. Surely, you don’t think we can descend to borrowing anything of the kind from them.”

“ Why not? ” Raish answered. “ We imitate them in everything else, as far as possible ; and we ’ll have to end by imitating them in that, too.”

Josephine laughed. “ I shall be safe, at any rate,” said she. “ When the time comes, and you are all blown up over here at Newport, I shall be quietly eating bread and milk in Jamestown. That’s the advantage of being pastoral and innocent.”

As the rest broke into a general buzz of conversation, Oliphant said to her, “ I should n’t think Jamestown would be likely to satisfy you.”

“ To tell you the truth,” she replied frankly, in a lower voice, “ it does n’t. I’d rather be in Newport and be destroyed with the rest, if it came to that.”

“ Oh, Raish is talking nonsense,” he said.

“ I’m not so sure,” Josephine answered, slowly. “ We ’re often told that society is in an unhealthy state, and I almost believe it is.”

“ Then why are you so fond of it ? ”

“ Well, it’s like taking arsenic, you know. If you once begin, even in small doses, you get to depending on it. But what’s your taste, Mr. Oliphant? Don’t you like arsenic? ”

“ I’m afraid I do,” he said, unconsciously stealing a glance at Octavia. “ I’ve begun to, lately. But there was a time when I used to dream of an idyllic sort of life in some sleepy little place not too far out of the world.”

“ Like Jamestown ? ”

“ Possibly.”

A gentle dreaminess suffused her face. “ It might be a very happy life,” she said, “ under certain conditions.” And as her eyes met his, he thought he saw burning deep within them a peculiarly tremulous flame.

“ Why is n’t Perry Thorburn here to-day ? ” he suddenly asked, glancing around as if the young man might have been hidden in the cabin and were about to emerge.

“ I’m sure I don’t know,” said Josephine. “ Does his absence trouble you ? ”

He saw that she was annoyed by his question, which was in fact a too significant one. Accordingly he began to praise the absent Perry, telling her that he had grown to like him very much. “ Still,” he added, smiling in a gallant manner, “ I can get along perfectly without him, at present.”

This speech was not a success, either. It was a refinement of pain to poor Josephine, who knew how superficial the complimentary tone must be, since his heart was really with Octavia. But she concealed its effect upon her, and kept him engaged in talk, drawing him always a little deeper, and always with that strange trembling light in her eyes. Oliphant felt the fascination, and even felt that he might begin to succumb to it before long. Meanwhile Octavia was left mainly to the attentions of Stillman Ware, who remarked with great satisfaction that Fitz-Stuart was progressing admirably with Vivian : they had gone away by themselves towards the forward part of the yacht, under the shadow of the foresail, and were apparently engrossed with each other. Oliphant several times resolved to move away from Josephine, but he still remained by her. She knew the power of the spell she could exercise, and had recklessly resolved to use it. Was it not her right, by nature ? Moreover, if Octavia was bent upon trifling with this man, any means were justifiable for saving him, even to winning him away from her. And Oliphant, though he did not know her motive, became conscious that she exhibited a singular interest in him. Shall we admit that the discovery excited his vanity a little ? Or shall we say that he enjoyed it because it was extraneous evidence, giving him a sense of his value which made it seem less audacious for him to hope that he could gain Octavia’s love ?

Octavia watched them, at first with scorn for what she considered Josephine’s unfairness, and then with a rankling envy of her friend’s easy power : finally, the desire to bring Oliphant to her feet — whether for mere triumph, or for the securing of a genuine happiness, she scarcely knew — began to rise to the point of fever.

The situation was, broken by an announcement of lunch in the cabin, made by Raish’s negro steward, Fortune.

“ Is n’t he a perfect specimen ? ” Porter asked his guests, as they assembled to go in. " You noticed the wonderful curl of his hair, I suppose. Why, it ’s so woolly that positively he has to put camphor in it, early in the summer, to keep the moths out! ”

Porter, as usual when at table, was in the best of spirits, and soon allayed for the time being the conflict and agitation that were threatened in the minds of Octavia, Oliphant, and Josephine. Several dainty and elaborate courses were served, but the choicest dish of all consisted of broiled green plover served on plates which had been washed in champagne. “ It’s the only way to get the finest flavor,” Raish declared ; “ and the only thing I know of that comes anywhere near plover served like this is the ‘ larks stewed in morning’s roseate breath, or roasted by a sunbeam’s splendor,’ which Tom Moore once offered to the Marquis of Lansdowne.”

He was so gay that one would have thought he had n’t a care in the world; but as a matter of fact he had not at all enjoyed Josephine’s proceedings toward Oliphant, since it was for his own interest that Perry’s attachment for her should come to a prosperous issue. He was disappointed, too, at Perry’s failure to join the party, and still more disturbed by the knowledge that that young speculator had not yet actually taken or paid for the Orbicular stock which he proposed to buy. But, as I say, he kept his company in capital humor. They suspected nothing ; and if he had never been going to give another entertainment — if he and they had all been destined to fade away into the mists and be seen no more, with the Amaranth turning to a phantom yacht under their feet — he could not have made a happier ending.

But they had no intention of fading. When they came out, with smiling lips and with the delicate tingle of wine in their veins, the mists had disappeared, and they turned to make the run homeward in a soft glow of sunshine. As they approached within a certain distance of the shore, a strange phenomenon saluted them. All at once the saltness of the air seemed to cease; the wind came from off the land, and poured around them in a breath of honey the mingled scent of flowers by thousands in the rich villa - gardens of Newport, and in the fields far away. It was an intoxicating aroma; it was like the exhalation from some enchanted territory of delights. In a minute or so, with a veering of the wind, it had passed ; but Oliphant, hanging over Octavia, murmured, “ This is a good omen for our return to land, is n’t it ? ”

“ Yes ; a much more hopeful one than the chilly mist we sailed out with.”

And there was a new significance in her gaze, as she spoke with lifted face, — a significance that referred to his lingering near Josephine so long before lunch, and to the slight shadow of jealousy which she allowed to rest upon her own mind, and was willing that he should perceive.

He sat down beside her, his face radiant with something more than the sunshine, and remained there until they came into port. He had made another advance ; they had entered a new phase in their friendship ; and to him the understanding established between them was the next thing to a mutual confession. Still, when he landed, he felt that he had left behind him, on that little voyage, the last vestige of the independence which had been his at the beginning of the season ; and this independence, albeit one of loneliness and sorrow, was something the loss of which might have to be regretted. He was drifting, now; he was at her mercy he knew ; yet the fact was sweet to him, and he rejoiced in it. One must “ give all for love ; ” but the price was not too great.

He longed to put his fate to the test; but somehow there was difficulty in finding room for any action so momentous in the crowded round of social occupations. The very next day was to culminate in that brilliant musical drainage entertainment, the well-vouched-for benefit concert in aid of Dana Sweetser’s movement, at which Justin was to make his public début; and during most of the interval Oliphant was busy in assisting about the final arrangements.

With the social support which had been pledged to it, the concert could not have missed being the success it was. Mrs. Farley Blazer would have done all the injury she could to the enterprise, because of Justin’s participation, except for the restraint put upon her by friendly regard for Dana. This prevented her active hostility, and she compromised by sending Tilly and Lord Hawkstane, in charge of some friends, while she herself stayed at home. Mrs. Chauncey Ware, however, threw her patronage unreservedly into the scales on Dana’s side; and the sibylline scrolls of gray hair that identified as hers a certain black bonnet, from under which they projected, were seen in one row of chairs with Stillman and Vivian and Count Fitz-Stuart. The mother and brother were thus gracious in respect of Justin because they believed the coolness that obviously had interposed between him and Vivian was to be permanent ; and in the fullness of their gratitude to Providence for the sacred gift of this lovers’ quarrel, they were able to spare a little gentle generosity for the young musician.

I am not going to describe the concert, but from the interest which Vivian Ware took in the music it must have been passably good. Several times she bent her head and wrote comments on the programme, with the small gold pencil which the count lent her for the purpose, and then folded up the paper, as if the brief record of her pleasure were too precious to be exposed to the outer air. The count betrayed a lover-like curiosity to see what she had written, but with corresponding coquetry she kept putting him off, and he did not get a sight of it, the whole evening.

After the performance, Justin appeared for two or three minutes in the eddying drift of copious silks, light shoulder-wraps, and black coats, moving towards the exit. Octavia in her pansy bonnet and Oliphant in evening dress were there to welcome him with hearty praise ; many bystanders regarded him with manifest admiration ; and as he drew near Vivian, she was so eager to thank him for his playing, that she dropped her programme in turning to meet him. He caught it before it had reached the floor, and offered to return it to her.

“Never mind,” she said. “It has some notes of my impressions. Keep it, and tell me by and by if I am right.”

Justin bowed, and almost instantly glided away. The count at first looked mortified that the programme should have escaped him ; but the expression was followed by one of serenity, as of a man who could afford so trifling a loss, in view of what he retained ; and so he went out with Vivian to join Stillman, who was busy finding the carriage.

XIII.

HAWKS AND DOVES.

The episode of the programme, however, had not escaped the notice of one or two ladies who were standing near.

They belonged to a small coterie which was in the habit of meeting every day or two at the houses of the several acquaintances who composed it. The members of this circle gathered together for self-improvement; that is, they devoted an hour to trimming and polishing their finger-nails, by means of the latest and most approved apparatus. This species of culture induced in them a liberality which extended to the improvement of other people, so far as that could be done by defining and thoroughly discussing their demerits, in order that if those persons should improve every one would know exactly how much they had done so.

Pious Mrs. Ballard Mole was one of this group. It had been proposed by somebody to hold concerts at the Casino on Sunday evenings, and this was enough to deter Mrs. Ballard Mole from going to any musical affair in that place, however worthy the object. None the less, though, was she willing to listen to reports of what had occurred at the Sweetser entertainment; and when Miss De Peyster (Roland’s ugly sister) began to say something about the strangeness of Vivian’s remark to Craig, Mrs. Mole experienced a chilly joy in thinking that if any germ of scandal had effected a lodgment in that distinguished audience, it was only a righteous judgment on the projectors of chimerical Sunday concerts that had not come to pass.

“ There seems to be something between those two, — some understanding that is n’t quite right, under the circumstances,” said Miss De Peyster, opening her case of nail instruments, and inspecting them as if she had been a surgeon about to begin vivisection.

She was seated on the broad veranda, shaded by vines and canvas curtains, of Mrs. Mole’s scriptural villa, called Petra, on the Cliff, where the conclave had been called for that morning.

“ Then, do you consider Vivian engaged to the count?” asked Mary Deering, who was one of the worldly representatives in this little circle.

“ Well, if she is n’t, it’s about time she should be,” Miss De Peyster answered, clicking her scissors sharply.

“ Oh, do you know what I heard yesterday ? ” This question proceeded from a lady who wore a jaunty ruby-tinted turban, and enjoyed great intimacy with Mrs. Farley Blazer.

“ No ; what ? ” “ Anything about the count ? ” Uttering responses of this sort, everybody became attentive, and there was a momentary pause in the wielding of their small steel weapons.

“ Yes ; the count. Dana Sweetser says he was walking, the other morning, over where the Cliff begins, you know, — that bare spot where it’s so quiet, — and he noticed three Frenchmen sitting on the grass, with a basket of breakfast and some claret; and they were talking quite loud and laughing, don’t you know, so they did n’t notice him. And he made out that they were creditors of the count’s. They ’re lying in wait for him, in a sort of way ; at any rate, watching him. Mr. Sweetser says he believes they even have a detective keeping his eye on Hartman’s, where the count stays, you know. Is n’t it odd, — a man who might have been King of England, may be, having creditors after him ? ”

The rest agreed that it was very odd, and that the count’s speedy engagement to Vivian, with a claim on the Ware property, ought to be wished for by every one who understood the pathos of the situation.

“ Besides,” Mrs. Mole declared, “ he’s a much more desirable person than that penniless pianist.”

“ But Mr. Craig plays the organ in church,” Mary Deering suggested, with a spice of malice, and spoiled the effect of her shot by sending off another: “ The count is penniless, too, it appears.”

“ Temporarily, my dear,” Mrs. Ballard Mole retorted, assuming a mien of devout loyalty. “ Temporarily penniless ; that is all. It can’t last.”

“ The creditors evidently think it can’t, or sha’n’t,” whispered Mary to Mrs. Richards, who was present.

Then they all began talking about other things and people. There were rumors of an approaching divorce, to be assorted ; and the ladies next devoted themselves sadly to comment on various unfortunate traits in their associates, which ought to be corrected, as well as to the ins and outs of sundry quarrels that had begun to shatter the harmony of Newport society. Gradually an approach was made to the subject of Mrs. Blazer’s confidential relations with Porter ; though, in deference to Mrs. Blazer’s friend, who was there, the approach was characterized by Christian tenderness.

“ It’s really a pity, you know,” said Miss De Peyster to the friend, “ when her husband is about, and they ’re not living together. I don’t believe there’s anything in it, you know ; but so many will take that view.”

Mrs. Richards burst into uncontrollable laughter. “ Oh, the funniest thing yet! ” she ejaculated, while the jewels on her generous bosom shook with sympathetic humor. “ Sarah Loyall made a mistake yesterday, and called Mr. Porter ‘ Mr. Blazer,’ in Mrs. Blazer’s presence. But she was equal to the occasion : she said, ‘ Oh, Mrs. Loyall, don’t make him out to be anything so disagreeable as a husband ! ’ Was n’t that rich ? ”

There was great amusement on the veranda, at this; even the ruby-turbaned friend of Mrs. Blazer joining in the merriment.

Snip, snip, went the scissors, as the ladies chattered on, and deftly labored to modify the lingering vestiges of a savage state at the termination of their soft, white fingers. The scissors were stumpy, curved and sharply pointed like the beaks of hawks ; and as they continued their work they seemed at the same time to be tearing numerous reputations into fragments.

Mrs. Deering finished her task first, and, being obliged to go, bade the rest good-morning. As soon as she had disappeared, the lady in the.ruby turban saw an opportunity to equalize matters for Mrs. Farley Blazer by introducing a slight diversion at Mary’s expense.

“ I ’m afraid,” she observed, “ our last remarks were n’t entirely agreeable to Mrs. Deering.”

“ Oh,” began Mrs. Ballard Mole, “on account of” —

“ Mr. Atlee, of course,” supplemented Mrs. Richards.

“ It really is becoming disgraceful,” said the ruby turban, “ the way those two are going on. It grows worse and worse.”

“ Can’t something be done to stop it?” queried Mrs. Mole, in a regenerating frame of mind. “ I really wish there could.”

“ Stop it? ” Miss De Peyster shrilled. “ Stop an avalanche! Why, he goes with her everywhere, — driving, hunting, polo ; and not satisfied with that, they take quiet walks together in the twilight. Then they are on the Cliff, Sundays. He never goes to church with her, I notice, but he spends a great deal of time at the house, and is constantly there at dinner while Mr. Deering is in New York. I should think she would have some consideration for her children’s sakes, at least. What she can find in the man, either! Really and truly, I think sometimes people ought just to be exiled ! ”

An instant’s silence intervened after this outburst ; and then Mrs. Richards said sweetly, ‘‘My dear, you shouldn’t use the steel. It’s injurious, very.” She referred merely to the fact that Miss De Peyster, in her preoccupied excitement, was rather fiercely prodding one of her finger-nails with the smooth end of a flat steel file.

They had now reached the powdering and polishing stage of their work, and the remarks interchanged gradually took on a more suave and dignified character.

The reflections which had been made upon Mary Deering were not, however, confined to the self-improving coterie whose confidences we have allowed ourselves to summarize. Oliphant had here and there come upon the traces of similar ones, which, aided by his own observation, had disturbed him excessively. He noticed the increasing imprudence of his cousin’s conduct; also that Roger now came on to Newport less frequently than before, and that when he did come there was a queer kind of restraint on his part towards his wife. The ruddy-faced, short-haired broker’s former air of confidence was perceptibly subdued. To Oliphant the change was pathetic, and he had resolved to speak to his cousin seriously. He fancied that he understood the case. Mary Deering had simply had her head turned by the frivolities of the place, and had been led into making an idol of this Anglicized nonentity, who to her mind represented the most important local tendency. Nevertheless, the idol or fetich was a man, and she ought not to carry her admiration too far.

Obeying his advisory impulse, he betook himself to her house, on the second day after the concert; but Mary was not at home. He decided to wait; and in a moment or two, seeing the door into the dining-room half open and some one apparently seated at the table there, he moved to the threshold, half believing that it was Atlee. With a rush of sudden anger, he determined to upbraid the dandy, and so stepped forward vigorously. But, to his astonishment, he beheld only little Clarence in a chair by the table.

The boy had a glass of claret and water before him, and was smoking a cigarette.

“ What does this mean ? ” cried Oliphant. “Are you crazy, Clarence?”

“ I ‘m trying to soothe my nerves,” the child answered, looking up wearily at him. Oliphant was horrified at the premature age in his unformed little countenance. He stood speechless. “ It ’s just what papa does now,” Clarence continued, calmly, “ whenever he comes here. I don’t know what the matter is, but ” — At this point he slid from his chair, and rapidly made his way towards Oliphant. “ Oh, cousin Oliphant, papa does n’t seem a bit happy ! Last time he came here, he took me out on the piazza, and mamma and Mr. Atlee were talking all the time, inside here, and papa said to me, he asked me, — was n’t it queer ? — if I did n’t want to go away with him back to New York, or way out West somewhere; and I said I did n’t, unless mamma and all of us were going. And then he said, ’ Um,’like that,”—Clarence pursed his lips up severely, — “ and he said he did n’t think there was any room for us here, he did. Now what did he mean, cousin Oliphant ? ”

His cousin took him by the hand and led him away into the other room, sickened and aghast by the dreary, unconscious revelation ; but just as he was making a suitably superficial reply, Mary Deering appeared from the hall.

She dismissed Clarence with harsh peremptoriness, to his nurse, and returned to Oliphant, looking, as he conceived, rather distraught and ill at ease. It was late; the dusk was beginning to throw its soft folds of crape around the trees and the house, casting deeper shadows into the small interior. Oliphant thought Mrs. Deering must have a prescient sense of his object in calling upon her. Ah, how sadly unlike that bright, playfully mischievous face with which she met him when he first dropped down in Newport was the mobile, anxious one that he saw opposite to him now !

A crisis impended. He opened his attack weakly with some general inquiries about Roger.

Suddenly they heard steps ascending to the piazza. There was an impetuous knock at the door. Again Oliphant thought of Atlee, and became so excited that he braced himself for a personal encounter. Mary Deering, overwrought and expectant of some painful scene, uttered a low cry. But, as they rose to meet the new-comer, their suspense relaxed ; for it was Stillman Ware whom they descried in the increasing gloom.

“ Is my sister here?” he inquired at once.

They both answered, “ No.”

“ I meant,” said Stillman, in a shaky and unnerved sort of way, “is Mr. Oliphant here ? Ah, yes, that is Mr. Oliphant. I have just been to Mrs. Gifford’s to look for my sister ; and she is n’t there. We can’t find her. Do you know anything about young Craig’s movements ? ”

“ Nothing,” returned Oliphant. “ except that he told me he should be out of town this afternoon.”

“Then,” cried Stillman, clapping one hand to his distracted little bald forehead, “ they have gone together ! My God, Oliphant, she has run away with him ! ”

XIV.

THE FLIGHT OF A METEOR.

No one could tell how the elopement had come about, but every one was voluble in relating that the event had really taken place, and there were many wild rumors and surmises added to the fact. It was said that several persons had suspected that something of the kind was about to happen; there was also a story of a clandestine meeting effected by the two young people near the Forty Steps, the night after the concert. A servant had seen a woman’s white figure in the grassy street there, which was presently joined by a dark, shadowy man, and both had disappeared over the edge of the Cliff, so that the servant had thought them to be ghosts, and kept silence, through fear. The fashionable world was excitedly scandalized ; poor little Stillman continued in great agitation ; Mrs. Ware took it upon herself to be “ prostrated,” and her course in so doing was generally approved by her friends. A search was begun for the fugitives, and Stillman even engaged detective assistance.

But, whatever else might be in doubt, it was soon made clear that Octavia and Oliphant received a large share of blame for the occurrence. The circumstance of the two runaways having dined at High Lawn with the widow and widower, a few days before, came to light, and was construed as a proof of connivance. It was also remembered that, on the previous Sunday, Octavia and Oliphant had strolled on the Cliff Walk with Justin, and that, by turning often, they kept meeting Vivian, who was likewise sauntering in the throng there with Count Fitz-Stuart.

In reality our friends knew nothing about the scheme ; but the false construction placed upon them was strengthened by Oliphant’s receiving very promptly a message from Craig, dated at Tiverton, and saying that Vivian and he, having been quietly married, had taken lodging for a short time in that modest and drowsy watering - place, which gazes so meekly from the mainland towards the prouder shores of Aquidneck Island. The reason for their precipitancy was that the count, becoming urgent, and being sustained by Mrs. Chauncey Ware and Stillman, had insisted upon an ultimate decision as to his suit, and Vivian had been driven to an unexpected mode of settling the question.

Oliphant hastened by the first train to Tiverton ; and finding that Justin had no capital beyond two or three hundred dollars, a large part of which he had received for his services in the Sweetser concert, he made the heartiest offers of assistance. “ You know,” he said, “ I was going to send you to Germany. I meant to hand you, as a first installment, a thousand dollars. Why not take it now ? ”

“ Because I’m not going to Germany just yet,” said Justin, with buoyant good fellowship and enviable serenity. “ I shall go on with my work at Trinity and find people to take piano lessons.”

“ But if you need me you will let me know ?” queried Oliphant almost plaintively, pleading with the portentous selfreliance of the new husband. “ Miss Vivian, — Mrs. Craig, I mean, — I rely upon you to see to this;” and he appealed to her.

Vivian was dressed in white, as usual. Her costume was an expensive work of artifice, imported from Paris, and by a rare purity of outline, with a draping of folds from one shoulder across the waist, produced a semi-statuesque Greek effect, which gained an amusing piquancy from its utter inappropriateness to Vivian’s quick, whimsical, and wholly modern attitudes and gestures. The three were standing on a plot of grass in front of the absurdly stunted and riotously ugly French-roofed cottage where the lovers had ensconced themselves. Vivian gave a little half jump, which disarranged her classic folds, and said, “ You are a dear good fellow, Mr. Oliphant; and we appreciate you. But I ’m sure my husband can make his own way. Can’t you, Justin?”

She placed one hand for an instant on Justin’s arm, in token of dependence and of possession, but quickly took it away again. Then she fronted towards Oliphant, with a shining happiness in her eyes, the like of which he had never seen.

He had come to play the part of a venerable benefactor, bestowing something of practical value on these children. He went away as the recipient of an inspiration from that spectacle of ideal love which made him poor by contrast, and reproached him with his poverty.

Intending to go and describe his visit to Octavia (to whom he had already sent a note saying that he had heard from the truants), he was prevented from doing so, on his return, by an occurrence so extraordinary as to merit recital.

Transcontinental Telegraph stock, under the impulse imparted to it through the private wire from Thorburn’s villa, had been executing some interesting but not unnatural manœuvres. First it fell off a very little in price ; then it began to rise; and as it ascended there were many purchases made on the strength of a rumor that Thorburn had gone to work in earnest to “ peg ” the stock quite up to par. The buyers were very confident; they wore a joyous look, as of men at last released from all harassing doubts, and kindly presented with a free pass to fortune. No one could explain precisely why the thing was so certain, but few thought of questioning. It was one of those grand spontaneous movements of the human mind which, in Wall Street, teach us that faith in the unseen and the unknowable still survives, notwithstanding the churches may bemoan its decline. Suddenly, however, Transcontinental began to go down again. It dropped below the point from which it had started, and kept on sinking, by eighths and quarters, from one figure to another, with ominous regularity. Did this shake the sublime confidence of the multitude? Not at all. A few timid souls here and there shrank affrighted, and parted with their holdings ; but there were plenty of people who had bought at the highest prices, and now not only kept increasing their margins, but also invested in more shares.

Their courage was apparently justified when the stock began to rally and went up several points in a few days. Many now sold out and cleared handsome amounts. Those, however, who were anxious to “ get in ” and go on with the flood-tide were more numerous; and Thorburn accommodated them with a good deal of stock which he had acquired at a lower price. At last, after one or two more of these ups and downs, and when Thorburn had sold a sufficient quantity “ short,” Transcontinental took its final plunge. It had been like a kite sailing aloft and gleefully watched by school-boys, as it rose or fell with the wind; but the pulling of the string had brought it to such a point that, without warning, the kite came tilting over on its head, and made straight for the ground.

Perry ran to his father for advice. That heroic old gentleman told him that without pluck and endurance he never would make an “ operator.” He pointed out some of the reasons why Transcontinental never could remain for a great length of time at the bottom of the heap.

“ Still,” he said, “ I can’t advise you. You must decide everything for yourself, and make up your mind whether you are carrying too much load or not.”

Reassured, Perry held on, and many of his friends and their acquaintance, knowing this, did likewise. Some actually continued to buy in afresh. Presently, however, he and they awoke to the fact that they were in a financial Bay of Fundy, where the ebb of the tide was abnormal and altogether beyond their calculations. The sinking went on immitigably. Old Thorburn professed to be unable to account for it, and seemed perplexed. Then Perry, who had assumed altogether too large a risk, and was already severely depleted by his margins, decided to take care of himself. He got rid of nearly all his Transcontinental at an enormous sacrifice, paid in full for a couple of hundred shares which he retained, and found that his losses amounted to nearly fifty thousand dollars.

“ Now, sir,” he said to his father, with pardonable indignation in his tone, “ I ‘ve acted without consulting you,” and he explained his situation, omitting to speak of the shares he had kept; “ but I should like to know what you meant by getting me into this trap. I consider that I ‘ve been treated outrageously!”

Old Thorburn displayed no anger. On the contrary, he leaned back in his chair, beneath the spider-web design of his alcove, and laughed slyly, then broadly ; finishing up with a second sly chuckle. “ Why, my dear boy,” said he, in his heavy, spongy voice, “ what are you talking about ? Can’t you see the point? ”

“ The point, eh ? Is it a joke ?”

“ Of course it is, — for you and me. Some of the outsiders, I suppose, think it’s pretty serious. I just wanted to show you how to do things.”

“ Well, you’ve shown me how to lose fifty thousand dollars.”

Old Thorburn broke into a roar of laughter. “ Exactly !” he cried. “And now that you know how, don’t you do it again. That’s my advice, Perry. By George, this is the neatest piece of tactics I ever carried through ! ”

“ You call it neat, then, to swindle your own son ? ” Perry inquired, with intense disgust.

“ ’ Swindle ’ is your word, not mine,” returned his father. “ Call it what you like. I call it keeping my own counsel.

I ‘ve taught you not to trust anybody in business, — not even me.” Thorburn’s manner conveyed a sort of virtuous surprise at himself that he could not be trusted. “ And at the same time, I ’ve used you to good purpose in making the mob do just what I wanted. Damn it, Perry,” — the old gentleman was beginning to exhibit heat, — “I should think you would have some kind of appreciation, instead of growling like a hurt child.”

Perry’s expression was far from conveying respect. “ Perhaps I have some kind of appreciation,” he said, curtly. “ And now I suppose you ’re going to work to drive the stock up, after buying all you wanted from me and from the rest at a ruinous rate.”

“ We shall see,” answered the elder man, crafty glee reappearing in his eyes. “ I don’t like to tell you anything about it, because you see — ha, ha! — you might not believe me.”

At this climax, his merriment entirely overcame him, and Perry scornfully left him to enjoy it by himself. The only satisfaction he had was in the thought of the shares he owned, which would receive the benefit of his father’s next move, and probably bring him back in the long run a third of what he had lost. Yet even this prospect gave him a certain horror of himself, because it reminded him that he was acting on the same instinct of deceit which struck him as so hideous in his father.

Thorburn senior proceeded to encourage the market, for the purpose of realizing the immense profits which formed the object of all his strategy ; but his victims were, for the most part, too much crippled to take the field again and share in the benefit of the gradual rise which presently began. Many of them, indeed, were wrecked for life by the terrible throw their invisible antagonist had given them.

Raish Porter was a heavy sufferer ; and, besides being greatly out of pocket, he had to endure the disappointment of learning that Perry, owing to the absorption of half his private property in the recent “deal,” would be unable to take at present the block of Orbicular stock which had been promised him. It was a painful crisis for Raish ; but he did not lose his nerve. His quiet, searching eye remained imperturbable as ever; his bluff, self-confident demeanor underwent no change ; and perhaps he would have found a way out of his dilemma, had it not been for sundry other unlucky accidents.

Mr. Hobart had become dissatisfied with the slow progress of the Orbicular Company, from which as yet he could get no return on his investment; and, what was more serious, he began to evince suspiciousness regarding the value of the company’s patents. Raish suggested that he should ask Judge Malachi Hixon to confer with his (Raish’s) lawyer, Strange, and investigate the subject anew. Raish was fond of extolling the judge’s incorruptibility, but this was chiefly with a feeling that it might some time be peculiarly useful to have Hixon considered unimpeachable ; privately, he believed that he could insinuate his own prepared statements into that gentleman’s mind, and induce him to ratify them.

Accordingly it was settled that Strange should call upon the judge, at the Ocean House. He did so, and was courteously received by the learned Malachi, who was grappling at the moment with an especially huge and black cigar, the pressure of his lips upon which greatly increased the usual complexity of wrinkles in his face.

“ So you think this is a good thing, Mr. Strange?” he asked.

“ Oh, excelsior,” said Strange, casually as it were, and softly. He was a small, dexterous, accommodating man, with a conical head, which looked as if it would make a great effort to pass through almost any required knothole.

Have you got any papers with you — schedules, lists of the patents, and so forth ? ”

“ Why, certainly ; any amount,” Mr. Strange replied, apparently eager to empty the contents of his satchel. But, after bustling at it, he paused, and launched into a general disquisition, He told of the marvelous growth of the corporation, and named some of the substantial men who held its stock ; and he was very ingenuous and pleasing and enthusiastic, altogether.

Judge Hixon, nevertheless, continued to mention the papers. Strange showed him one or two, and then, after feeling around a little, came to his point. “ I’ve told you enough in a general way,” he said, “ to satisfy you of the excellence of the concern and its prospects. We should like very much to have you for a stockholder, judge, — very much, indeed. Now, anything you can do in the way of satisfying Mr. Hobart, or any one else who should fall into similar confusion about the details of the affair, will be of as much service to my client, of course, as to Mr. Hobart. Mr. Porter can let you have five thousand dollars’ worth of the stock, just as well as not, and — and you need n’t pay for it until convenient.”

Mr. Strange was bland, but slightly nervous: his conical head looked as if it were preparing to dodge. Judge Malachi Hixon straightened up in his chair, and removed his right leg from its resting-place on the knee of the left. He gazed steadily at Mr. Strange, who hastily noted the judge’s resemblance to a harassed and dejected specimen of the American eagle, and was in suspense as to which of the attributes of that typical bird the judge was about to offer, — the arrows or the olive-branch.

It is a very liberal proposition,” said Judge Hixon slowly. “ I have n’t got any too much money laid up, and this may prove profitable. Did you bring the stock with you ?”

“ Oh, yes,” said Strange, diving into his bag with the greatest alacrity.

“ Never mind it now,” resumed the judge, genially, taking the cigar out of of his mouth and letting the wrinkles ameliorate themselves. Then he placed it between his teeth once more, and the wrinkles all came back. “ You can wait till I send for it,” he explained. “ Meanwhile, leave me any papers you like, and I will look them over.” “ With the greatest pleasure,” said Strange, and left a few.

He reported his success to Raish. The game had always worked well before, and they had no reason to suppose that it would not do so now. But Malachi Hixon immediately set to work investigating in earnest. He started the district attorney in New York upon the case, and rapidly pumped into his own mental reservoir whatever knowledge Hobart had of the company’s transactions. By means of brief research and some detective work, it was found that the enterprise had been built up from small beginnings by advertising in metropolitan journals, then copying these advertisements with laudatory notices in rural papers throughout several States, and by sustaining a showy office upon the receipts which rapidly flowed in. Apparently, all the money obtained was spent in clerk-hire and more advertising. Then Porter had flown for higher game ; and, through his business and social connections, had induced a number of capitalists to put in considerable sums. The district attorney was surprised at some of the names Strange had given him, but his inquiry corroborated the list. Little by little, he ascertained that these men were convinced that the Orbicular Manufacturing Company was fraudulent, but did not dare to appear against its promoter, for fear of injuring their own credit with the banks; since a prosecution must reveal their want of judgment in making such an investment. Fortunately Hobart, being a man of irritable leisure, and vindictive as well, was not restrained by any such scruples.

It was important, however, to obtain further evidence of imposture by proving the unauthorized character of some of the manufactures contemplated by Raish. Unexpectedly, this came to hand, through the labors of the detective. A workman employed in another machineworks was brought to confess that he had traced the patterns of appliances made by his employers, and had furnished them to Raish, who in turn had had drawings made from them, with which he shrewdly dazzled the minds of successive investors.

On the evening of Oliphant’s return from Tiverton, after he had dined comfortably at the Queen Anne cottage with Raish, the latter noticed that his guest was thoughtful and looked despondent. The truth is, Eugene was overburdened with anxiety for the results of Justin’s rash proceeding, with worry about Mary Deering, and with his own problem in connection with Octavia.

“ Do you ever feel gloomy?” Raish asked him, blowing out a cloud of smoke which thinly veiled the cheery twinkle of his eyes.

“ Yes, I do,” answered Oliphant solemnly.

“ Well, I don’t! ” Raish affirmed, with hearty satisfaction. " It does n’t pay. I ’ve seen a good many vicissitudes, and I ‘ve been through more than one Saturday night when I didn’t have a red cent in my pocket, and did n’t know where my Sunday’s dinner was coming from. But I’ve always smoked the best cigars and drank the very best wines, and I never have felt gloomy.”

There was such a superabundance of ease and buoyancy in Raish’s tone that Oliphant began to feel decidedly better.

Ten minutes later, some one rang at the door. James returned to the parlor and announced a strange gentleman, on business. “ Well, let’s see him,” said Raish, good-humoredly. “ I have n’t any appointment at this hour, but show him right in, James.”

The visitor proved to be a sergeant of police, in plain clothes, with requisition papers from the Governor of Rhode Island and a warrant for Raish’s arrest on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses.

“Never heard anything so ridiculous in ray life ! ” exclaimed Raish, cordially. “ How do you explain it, sergeant ? W ho ’s the complainant? By the way, have a cigar ? ”

“Thank you, sir,” said the sergeant, accepting the favor. “ The complaint was entered by Mr. Hobart. You know him, I suppose.”

“ I have an idea that I do,” ‘Raish responded. “ But I never was aware that the Hobart 1 know could be so silly and suicidal as to do this. Sit down, and let’s see if we can’t straighten the tiring out, somehow.”

After a brief colloquy, Raisli perceived that there was no escape: he was given a letter from Hobart, informing him of the workman’s confession. Nevertheless, he maintained his jauntiness, and proposed to the sergeant that he be allowed to remain in the house over night, and proceed to New York in the morning.

This the sergeant at first refused: he had two other officers waiting outside, and said it was impossible to keep them up all night. But Raish insisted on their being asked in. “ We ’ll give ’em some supper, at any rate,” he declared, with as much welcome as if they had been the most desired of companions. “ Better stay over, sergeant,” he continued, invitingly. “ 1 ’ll give you all a fine sail on my yacht to Wickford, first thing in the morning, and we can take any train you like from Providence. It’s nothing but a dyspeptic whim of old Hobart’s,” he added to Oliphant: “ 1 don t see why I should be so inconvenienced by it.”

The officer was really charmed by Raish’s ease and hospitality, and at length fell in with the plan. 11 is prisoner then applied himself to packing a valise, and setting his affairs in order as well as he could, though he was not allowed to handle a single object without close surveillance, nor to be for a moment out of sight. About one o’clock, Raisli asked permission to walk up and down the open piazza at one side of the house, with Oliphant. This was granted, but the sergeant took a chair out, too, and remained on guard.

Raish tramped leisurely to and fro with his friend, talking in his customary entertaining way. All at once, Oliphant was startled out of the mood of a quiet listener by seeing Raish put his fingers into his vest-pocket and then suddenly raise his arm, carrying a small object to his lips.

Without having time to reflect, Oliphant instinctively struck down the arm and clutched Raish’s hand. There was a small phial in it, which Raish attempted to throw away ; but his friend was too quick for him, and seized it. The sergeant came promptly to their side, and pinioned the brilliant financier.

“ Yes, it’s poison,” Raish confessed in a species of gasp, answering Oliphant’s look of amazement and reproach. “Cyanide of potassium. In two minutes I should have been a dead man. Oh, yes, it’s all up, Oliphant, my boy. Too bad, too bad ! ” He lifted his forehead, and gazed at the sky for an instant. “ You remember what I said this evening about the best cigars ? ” he went on, smiling sarcastically. “Well, there they are : all those stars ! Those are the smouldering stumps, it strikes me.” He groaned slightly. “ Ah,” he cried, “ I was too respectable ! I ought to have been like the gamblers over there, who are plying their game at this moment, and are left in peace ; or else like old Thorburn, who cleaned me out, and prevented me from warding off this accident. I ’ll tell you what I ’m reminded of: that fellow who was porter (see the pun ?) on a drawing-room car, and had a wife at each end of the line. By his painstaking diligence in bigamy he attained to the ripe honors of a term in the penitentiary ; but the only thing he regretted was that he could n’t divide his term, as he had all his other possessions, between the two wives ! I would be willing to make that sacrifice myself, for Thorburn and the other gamblers.”

Something of his wonted hilarity returned to him as he finished. “ I’m more sorry than I can tell you, for all this,” said Oliphant. “ Is there anything I can do for you, Porter ? ”

“ Nothing whatever, my boy.” The sergeant here explained that he felt obliged to put handcuffs upon his prisoner, and Raish, having submitted to that operation, talked on without embarrassment. “ I only want you,” he said, “ to recognize the correctness of what I have said to you about the hollowness and humbug of society here. I ’m a humbug, and therefore I was able to perceive it all. I don’t speak from envy: what good would that do me now ? No, I merely notice that I am a straw on the current, or a falling cigarstump in the sky, that shows what may happen as soon as a general combustion begins.”

When the first chill and distant gray light of morning came, Oliphant accompanied his quondam host and the police officers to the wharves, whence they were rowed out to the Amaranth, He watched her getting under sail, and waited until the pretty schooner was well out in the harbor. Far above her, one star glimmered wearily in the pale, whitish-blue of the sky ; but that, too, faded while the yacht was growing smaller, and disappeared.

George Parsons Lathrop.