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A STRAINED CONVERSATION
Arnold swung around the corner of the terrace that evening with footsteps still eager notwithstanding his long walk. The splendid egoism of youth had already triumphed, the tragedy of the day had become a dim thing. He himself was moving forward and onward. He glanced up at the familiar window, feeling a slight impulse of disappointment when he received no welcoming wave of the hand. It was the first time for weeks that Ruth had not been there. He climbed the five flights of stone stairs, still buoyant and light-hearted. Glancing into his own room, he found it empty, then crossed at once the passageway and knocked at Ruth's door. She was lying back in her chair, with her back toward the window.
"Why, Ruth," he exclaimed, "how dare you desert your post!"
He felt at once that there was something strange in her reception of him. She stopped him as he came across the room, holding out both her hands. Her wan face was strained as she gazed and gazed. Something of the beautiful softness of her features had passed for the moment. She was so anxious, so terrified lest she should misread what was written in his face.
"Arnold!" she murmured. "Oh, Arnold!"
He was a little startled. It was as though tragedy had been let loose in the room.
"Why do you look at me like that, dear?" he cried. "Is there anything so terrible to tell me? What have I done?"
"God knows!" she answered. "Don't come any nearer for a moment. I want to look at you."
She was leaning out from her chair. It was true, indeed, that at that moment some sort of fear had drained all the beauty from her face, though her eyes shone still like fierce stars.
"You have gone, Arnold," she moaned. "You have slipped away. You are lost to me."
"You foolish person!" he exclaimed, stepping towards her. "Never in my life! Never!"
She laid her hand upon the stick which leaned against her chair.
"Not yet," she implored. "Don't come to me yet. Stay there where I can see your face. Now tell me--tell me everything."
He laughed, not altogether easily, with a note half of resentment, half of protest.
"Dear Ruth," he pleaded, "what have I done to deserve this? Nothing has happened to me that I will not tell you about. You have been sitting here alone, fancying things. And I have news--great news! Wait till you hear it."
"Go on," she said, simply. "Tell me everything. Begin at last night."
He drew a little breath. It was, after all, a hard task, this, that lay before him. Last night in his mind lay far enough back now, a tangled web of disconnected episodes, linked together by a strangely sweet emotional thread of sentiment. And the girl was watching his face with every sense strained to catch his words and the meaning of them. Vaguely he felt his danger, even from the first.
"Well, I got there in plenty of time," he began. "It was a beautiful house, beautifully furnished and arranged. The people were queer, not at all the sort I expected. Most of them seemed half foreign. They were all very hard to place for such a respectable household as Mr. Weatherley's should be."
"They were not really, then, Mr. Weatherley's friends?" she asked quietly.
"As a matter of fact, they were not," he admitted. "That may have had something to do with it. Mrs. Weatherley was a foreigner. She came from a little island somewhere in the Mediterranean, and is half Portuguese. Most of the people were there apparently by her invitation. After dinner--such a dinner, Ruth--we played bridge. More people came then. I think there were eight tables altogether. After I left, most of them stayed on to play baccarat."
Her eyes still held his. Her expression was unchanged.
"Tell me about Mrs. Weatherley," she murmured.
"She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is pale and she has strange brown eyes, not really brown but lighter. I couldn't tell you the color for I've never seen anything else like it. And she has real red-brown hair, and she is slim, and she walks like one of these women one reads about. They say that she is a Comtesse in her own right but that she never uses the title."
"And was she kind?" asked Ruth.
"Very kind indeed. She talked to me quite a good deal and I played bridge at her table. It seems the most amazing thing in the world that she should ever have married a man like Samuel Weatherley."
"Now tell me the rest," she persisted. "Something else has happened--I am sure of it."
He dropped his voice a little. The terror was coming into the room.
"There was a man there named Rosario--a Portuguese Jew and a very wealthy financier. One reads about him always in the papers. I have heard of him many times. He negotiates loans for foreign governments and has a bank of his own. I left him there last night, playing baccarat. This morning Mr. Weatherley called me into his office and sent me up to the Milan Restaurant with a strange message. I was to find Mr. Rosario and to see that he did not lunch there--to send him away somewhere else, in fact. I didn't understand it, but of course I went."
"And what happened?" she demanded.
He held his breath for a moment.
"I was to take a table just inside the restaurant," he explained, "and to tell him directly he entered. I did exactly as I was told, but it was too late. Rosario was stabbed as he was on the point of entering the restaurant, within a few yards of where I was sitting."
She shivered a little, although her general expression was still unchanged.
"You mean that he was murdered?"
"He was killed upon the spot," Arnold declared.
He shook his head.
"No one knows. The man got away. I bought an evening paper as I came along and I see they haven't arrested any one yet."
"Was there a quarrel?" she asked.
"Nothing of the sort," he replied. "The other man seemed simply to have run out from somewhere and stabbed him with one thrust. I saw it all but I was powerless to interfere."
"You saw the man who did it?" she asked.
"Only his arm," Arnold answered. "He kept his body twisted around somehow. It was a blackguardly thing to do."
"It was horrible!" she murmured.
There was an interruption. The piece of tattered curtain which concealed the portion of the room given over to Isaac, and which led beyond to his sleeping chamber, was flung on one side. Isaac himself stood there, his black eyes alight with anger.
"Liar!" he exclaimed. "Liars, both of you!"
They looked at him without speech, his interruption was so sudden, so unexpected. The girl had forgotten his presence in the room; Arnold had never been conscious of it.
"I tell you that Rosario was a robber of mankind," Isaac cried. "He was one of those who feed upon the bones of the poor. His place was in Hell and into Hell he has gone. Honor to the hand which started him on his journey!"
"You go too far, Isaac," Arnold protested. "I never heard any particular harm of the man except that he was immensely wealthy."
Isaac stretched out his thin hand. His bony forefinger pointed menacingly towards Arnold.
"You fool!" he cried. "You brainless creature of brawn and muscle! You have heard no harm of him save that he was immensely wealthy! Listen. Bear that sentence in your mind and listen to me, listen while I tell you a story. A party of travelers was crossing the desert. They lost their way. One man only had water, heaps of water. There was enough in his possession for all, enough and to spare. The sun beat upon their heads, their throats were parched, their lips were black, they foamed at the mouth. On their knees they begged and prayed for water; he took not even the trouble to reply. He kept himself cool and refreshed with his endless supply; he poured it upon his head, he bathed his lips and drank. So he passed on, and the people around died, cursing him. Last of all, one who had seen his wife sob out her last breath in his arms, more terrible still had heard his little child shriek with agony, clutch at him and pray for water--he saw the truth, and what power there is above so guided his arm that he struck. The man paid the just price for his colossal greed. The vultures plucked his heart out in the desert. So died Rosario!"
Arnold shook his head.
"The cases are not similar, Isaac," he declared.
"You lie!" Isaac shrieked. "There is not a hair's-breadth of difference! Rosario earned his wealth in an office hung with costly pictures; he earned it lounging in ease in a padded chair, earned it by the monkey tricks of a dishonest brain. Never an honest day's work did he perform in his life, never a day did he stand in the market-place where the weaker were falling day by day. In fat comfort he lived, and he died fittingly on the portals of a restaurant, the cost of one meal at which would have fed a dozen starving children. Pity Rosario! Pity his soul, if you will, but not his dirty body!"
"The man is dead," Arnold muttered.
"Dead, and let him rot!" Isaac cried fiercely. "There may be others!"
He caught up his cloth cap and, without another word, left the room. Arnold looked after him curiously, more than a little impressed by the man's passionate earnestness. Ruth, on the other hand, was unmoved.
"Isaac is Isaac," she murmured. "He sees life like that. He would wear the flesh off his bones preaching against wealth. It is as though there were some fire inside which consumed him all the time. When he comes back, he will be calmer."
But Arnold remained uneasy. Isaac's words, and his attitude of pent-up fury, had made a singular impression upon him. For those few moments, the Hyde Park demagogue with his frothy vaporings existed no longer. It seemed to Arnold as though a flash of the real fire had suddenly blazed into the room.
"If Isaac goes about the world like that, trouble will come of it," he said thoughtfully. "Have you ever heard him speak of Rosario before?"
"Never," she answered. "I have heard him talk like that, though, often. To me it sounds like the waves beating upon the shores. They may rage as furiously, or ripple as softly as the tides can bring them,--it makes no difference ... I want you to go on, please. I want you to finish telling me--your news."
Arnold looked away from the closed door. He looked back again into the girl's face. There was still that appearance of strained attention about her mouth and eyes.
"You are right," he admitted. "These things, after all, are terrible enough, but they are like the edge of a storm from which one has found shelter. Isaac ought to realize it."
"Tell me what this is which has happened to you!" she begged.
He shook himself free from that cloud of memories. He gave himself up instead to the joy of telling her his good news.
"Listen, then," he said. "Mr. Weatherley, in consideration not altogether, I am afraid, of my clerklike abilities, but of my shoulders and muscle, has appointed me his private secretary, with a seat in his office and a salary of three pounds a week. Think of it, Ruth! Three pounds a week!"
A smile lightened her face for a moment as she squeezed his fingers.
"But why?" she asked. "What do you mean about your shoulders and your muscle?"
"It is all very mysterious," he declared, "but do you know I believe Mr. Weatherley is afraid. He shook like a leaf when I told him of the murder of Rosario. I believe he thinks that there was some sort of blackmailing plot and he is afraid that something of the kind might happen to him. My instructions are never to leave his office, especially if he is visited by any strangers."
"It sounds absurd," she remarked. "I should have thought that of all the commonplace, unimaginative people you have ever described to me, Mr. Weatherley was supreme."
"And I," Arnold agreed. "And so, in a way, he is. It is his marriage which seems to have transformed him--I feel sure of that. He is mixing now with people whose manners and ways of thinking are entirely strange to him. He has had the world he knew of kicked from beneath his feet, and is hanging on instead to the fringe of another, of which he knows very little."
Ruth was silent. All the time Arnold was conscious that she was watching him. He turned his head. Her mouth was once more set and strained, a delicate streak of scarlet upon the pallor of her face, but from the fierce questioning of her eyes there was no escape.
"What is it you want to know that I have not told you, Ruth?" he asked.
"Tell me what happened to you last night!"
He laughed boisterously, but with a flagrant note of insincerity.
"Haven't I been telling you all the time?"
"You've kept something back," she panted, gripping his fingers frantically, "the greatest thing. Speak about it. Anything is better than this silence. Don't you remember your promise before you went--you would tell me everything--everything! Well?"
Her words pierced the armor of his own self-deceit. The bare room seemed suddenly full of glowing images of Fenella. His face was transfigured.
"I haven't told you very much about Mrs. Weatherley," he said, simply. "She is very wonderful and very beautiful. She was very kind to me, too."
Ruth leaned forward in her chair; her eyes read what she strove yet hated to see. She threw herself suddenly back, covering her face with her hands. The strain was over. She began to weep.
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