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Through the winding lanes, between the tall hedges, honeysuckle wreathed and starred with wild roses, out onto the broad main road, Sabatini's great car sped noiselessly on its way back to London. They seemed to pass in a few moments from the cool, perfumed air of the country into the hot, dry atmosphere of the London suburbs. Almost before they realized that they were on their homeward way, the fiery glow of the city was staining the clouds above their heads. Arnold leaned a little forward, watching, as the car raced on to its goal. This ride through the darkness seemed to supply the last thrill of excitement to their wonderful day. He glanced towards Ruth, who lay back among the cushions, as though sleeping, by his side.
"You are tired?"
"Yes," she answered simply.
They were in the region now of electric cars--wonderful vehicles ablaze with light, flashing towards them every few minutes, laden with Sunday evening pleasure seekers. Their automobile, however, perfectly controlled by Sabatini's Italian chauffeur, swung from one side of the road to the other and held on its way with scarcely abated speed.
"You have enjoyed the day?" he asked.
She opened her eyes and looked at him. He saw the shadows, and wondered.
"Of course," she whispered.
His momentary wonder at her reticence passed. Again he was leaning a little forward, looking up the broad thoroughfare with its double row of lights, its interminable rows of houses growing in importance as they rushed on.
"It is we ourselves who pass now along the lighted way!" he exclaimed, holding her arm for, a moment. "It is an enchanted journey, ours, Ruth."
She laughed bitterly.
"An enchanted journey which leads to two very dreary attic rooms on the sixth floor of a poverty-stricken house," she reminded him. "It leads back to the smoke-stained city, to the four walls within which one dreams empty dreams."
"It isn't so bad as that," he protested.
Her lips trembled for a moment; she half closed her eyes. An impulse of pain passed like a spasm across her tired features.
"It is different for you," she murmured. "Every day you escape. For me there is no escape."
He felt a momentary twinge of selfishness. Yet, after all, the great truths were incontrovertible. He could lighten her lot but little. There was very little of himself that he could give her--of his youth, his strength, his vigorous hold upon life. Through all the tangle of his expanding interests in existence, the medley of strange happenings in which he found himself involved, one thing alone was clear. He was passing on into a life making larger demands upon, him, a life in which their companionship must naturally become a slighter thing. Nevertheless, he spoke to her reassuringly.
"You cannot believe, Ruth," he said, "that I shall ever forget? We have been through too much together, too many dark days."
"There wasn't much for either of us to look forward to, was there, when we first looked down on the river together and you began to tell me fairy stories."
"They kept our courage alive," he declared. "I am not sure that they are not coming true."
She half closed her eyes.
"For you, Arnold," she murmured. "Not all the fancies that were ever spun in the brain of any living person could alter life very much for me."
He took her hand and held it tightly. Yet it was hard to know what to say to her. It was the inevitable tragedy, this, of their sexes and her infirmity. He realized in those few minutes something of how she was feeling,--the one who is left upon the lonely island while the other is borne homeward into the sunshine and tumult of life. There was little, indeed, which he could say. It was not the hour, this, for protestation.
They passed along Piccadilly, across Leicester Square, and into the Strand. The wayfarers in the streets, of whom there were still plenty, seemed to be lingering about in sheer joy of the cooler night after the unexpected heat of the day, the women in light clothes, the men with their coats thrown open and carrying their hats. They passed down the Strand and into Adam Street, coming at last to a standstill before the tall, gloomy house at the corner of the Terrace. Arnold stepped out onto the pavement and helped his companion to alight. The chauffeur lifted his hat and the car glided away. As they stood there, for a moment, upon the pavement, and Arnold pushed open the heavy, shabby door, it seemed, indeed, as though the whole day might have been a dream.
Ruth moved wearily along the broken, tesselated pavement, and paused for a moment before the first flight of stairs. Arnold, taking her stick from her, caught her up in his arms. Her fingers closed around his neck and she gave a little sigh of relief.
"Will you really carry me up all the way, Arnie?" she whispered. "I am so tired to-night. You are sure that you can manage it?"
He laughed gayly.
"I have done it many times before," he reminded her. "To-night I feel as strong as a dozen men."
One by one they climbed the flight of stone steps. Curiously enough, notwithstanding the strength of which he had justly boasted, as they neared the top of the house he felt his breath coming short and his heart beating faster, as though some unusual strain were upon him. She had tightened her grasp upon his neck. She seemed, somehow, to have come closer to him, yet to hang like a dead weight in his arms. Her cheek was touching his. Once, toward the end, he looked into her face, and the fire of her eyes startled him.
"You are not really tired," he muttered.
"I am resting like this," she whispered.
He stood at last upon the top landing. He set her down with a little thrill, assailed by a medley of sensations, the significance of which confused him. She seemed still to cling to him, and she pointed to his door.
"For five minutes," she begged, "let us sit in our chairs and look down at the river. To-night it is too hot to sleep."
Even while he opened his door, he hesitated.
"What about Isaac?" he asked.
She shivered and looked over her shoulder. They were in his room now and she closed the door. On the threshold she stood quite still for a moment, as though listening. There was something in her face which alarmed him.
"Do you know, I believe that I am afraid to go back," she said. "Isaac has been stranger than ever these last few days. All the time he is locked up in his room, and he shows himself only at night."
Arnold dragged her chair up to the window and installed her comfortably. He himself was thinking of Isaac's face under the gaslight, as he had seen him stepping away from the taxicab.
"Isaac was always queer," he reminded her, reassuringly.
She drew him down to her side.
"There has been a difference these last few days," she whispered. "I am afraid--I am terribly afraid that he has done something really wrong."
Arnold felt a little shiver of fear himself.
"You must remember," he said quietly, "that after all Isaac is, in a measure, outside your life. No one can influence him for either good or evil. He is not like other men. He must go his own way, and I, too, am afraid that it may be a troublous one. He chose it for himself and neither you nor I can help. I wouldn't think about him at all, dear, if you can avoid it. And for yourself, remember always that you have another protector."
The faintest of smiles parted her lips. In the moonlight, which was already stealing into the room through the bare, uncurtained window, her face seemed like a piece of beautiful marble statuary, ghostly, yet in a single moment exquisitely human.
"I have no claim upon you, Arnold," she reminded him, "and I think that soon you will pass out of my life. It is only natural. You must go on, I must remain. And that is the end of it," she added, with a little quiver of the lips. "Now let us finish talking about ourselves. I want to talk about your new friends."
"Tell me what you really think of them?" he begged. "Count Sabatini has been so kind to me that if I try to think about him at all I am already prejudiced."
"I think," she replied slowly, "that Count Sabatini is the strangest man whom I ever met. Do you remember when he stood and looked down upon us? I felt--but it was so foolish!"
"You felt what?" he persisted.
She shook her head.
"I cannot tell. As though we were not strangers at all. I suppose it is what they call mesmerism. He had that soft, delightful way of speaking, and gentle mannerism. There was nothing abrupt or new about him. He seemed, somehow, to become part of the life of any one in whom he chose to interest himself in the slightest. And he talked so delightfully, Arnold. I cannot tell you how kind he was to me."
"It's a clear case of hero worship," he declared. "You're going to be as bad as I have been."
"And yet," she said slowly, "it is his sister of whom I think all the time. Fenella she calls herself, doesn't she?"
"You like her, too?" Arnold asked eagerly.
"I hate her," was the low, fierce reply.
Arnold drew a little away.
"You can't mean it!" he exclaimed. "You can't really mean that you don't like her!"
Ruth clutched at his arm as though jealous of his instinctive disappointment.
"I know that it's brutally ungracious," she declared. "It's a sort of madness, even. But I hate her because she is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen here in life. I hate her for that, and I hate her for her strength. Did you see her come across the lawn to us to-night, Arnold?"
He nodded enthusiastically.
"You mean in that smoke-colored muslin dress?"
"She has no right to wear clothes like that!" Ruth cried. "She does it so that men may see how beautiful she is. I--well, I hate her!"
There was a silence. Then Ruth rose slowly to her feet. Her tone was suddenly altered, her eyes pleaded with his.
"Don't take any notice of me to-night, Arnold," she implored. "It has been such a wonderful day, and I am not used to so much excitement. I am afraid that I am a little hysterical. Do be kind and help me across to my room."
"Is there any hurry?" he asked. "It hasn't struck twelve yet."
"I want to go, please," she begged. "I shall say foolish things if I stay here much longer, and I don't want to. Let me go."
He obeyed her without further question. Once more he supported her with his arms, but she kept her face turned away. When he had reached her door he would have left her, but she still clutched his arm.
"I am foolish," she whispered, "foolish and wicked to-night. And besides, I am afraid. It is all because I am overtired. Come in with me for one moment, please, and let me be sure that Isaac is all right. Feel how I am trembling."
"Of course I will come," he answered. "Isaac can't be angry with me to-night, anyhow, for my clothes are old and dusty enough."
He opened the door and they passed across the threshold. Then they both stopped short and Ruth gave a little start. The room was lit with several candles. There was no sign of Isaac, but a middle-aged man, with black beard and moustache, had risen to his feet at their entrance. He glanced at Ruth with keen interest, at Arnold with a momentary curiosity.
"What are you doing here?" Ruth demanded. "What right have you in this room?"
The man did not answer her question.
"I shall be glad," he said, "if you will come in and shut the door. If you are Miss Ruth Lalonde, I have a few questions to ask you."
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