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Not being specially gifted with originality of either thought or expression, Mr. Herbert Cressey stopped Banneker outside of his apartment with the remark made and provided for the delayed reunion of frequent companions: "Well I thought you were dead!"
By way of keeping to the same level Banneker replied cheerfully: "I'm not."
"Where've you been all this while?"
"Where were you Monday last? Didn't see you at Sherry's."
"And the week before? You weren't at The Retreat."
"And the week before that? Nobody's seen so much--"
"Working. Working. Working."
"I stopped in at your roost and your new man told me you were away and might be gone indefinitely. Funny chap, your new man. Mysterious sort of manner. Where'd you pick him up?"
"Oh, Lord! Hainer!" exclaimed Banneker appreciatively. "Well, he told the truth."
"You look pulled down, too, by Jove!" commented Cressey, concern on his sightly face. "Ridin' for a fall, aren't you?"
"Only for a test. I'm going to let up next week."
"Tell you what," proffered Cressey. "Let's do a day together. Say Wednesday, eh? I'm giving a little dinner that night. And, oh, I say! By the way--no: never mind that. You'll come, won't you? It'll be at The Retreat."
"Yes: I'll come. I'll be playing polo that afternoon."
"Not if Jim Maitland sees you first. He's awfully sore on you for not turning up to practice. Had a place for you on the second team."
"Don't want it. I'm through with polo."
"Ban! What the devil--"
"Work, I tell you. Next season I may be able to play. For the present I'm off everything."
"Have they made you all the editors of The Ledger in one?"
"I'm off The Ledger, too. Give you all the painful details Wednesday. Fare-you-well."
General disgust and wrath pervaded the atmosphere of the polo field when Banneker, making his final appearance on Wednesday, broke the news to Maitland, Densmore, and the others.
"Just as you were beginning to know one end of your stick from the other," growled the irate team captain.
Banneker played well that afternoon because he played recklessly. Lack of practice sometimes works out that way; as if luck took charge of a man's play and carried him through. Three of the five goals made by the second team fell to his mallet, and he left the field heartily cursed on all sides for his recalcitrancy in throwing himself away on work when the sport of sports called him. Regretful, yet well pleased with himself, he had his bath, his one, lone drink, and leisurely got into his evening clothes. Cressey met him at the entry to the guest's lounge giving on the general dining-room.
"Damned if you're not a good-lookin' chap, Ban!" he declared with something like envy in his voice. "Thinning down a bit gives you a kind of look. No wonder Mertoun puts in his best licks on your clothes."
"Which reminds me that I've neglected even Mertoun," smiled Banneker.
"Go ahead in, will you? I've got to bone some feller for a fresh collar. My cousin's in there somewhere. Mrs. Rogerson Lyle from Philadelphia. She's a pippin in pink. Go in and tell on yourself, and order her a cocktail."
Seeking to follow the vague direction, Banneker turned to the left and entered a dim side room. No pippin in pink disclosed herself. But a gracious young figure in black was bending over a table looking at a magazine, the long, free curve of her back turned toward him. He advanced. The woman said in a soft voice that shook him to the depths of his soul:
"Back so soon, Archie? Want Sis to fix your tie?"
She turned then and said easily: "Oh, I thought you were my brother.... How do you do, Ban?"
Io held out her hand to him. He hardly knew whether or not he took it until he felt the close, warm pressure of her fingers. Never before had he so poignantly realized that innate splendor of femininity that was uniquely hers, a quality more potent than any mere beauty. Her look met his straight and frankly, but he heard the breath flutter at her lips, and he thought to read in her eyes a question, a hunger, and a delight. His voice was under rigid control as he said:
"I didn't know you were to be here, Mrs. Eyre."
"I knew that you were," she retorted. "And I'm not Mrs. Eyre, please. I'm Io."
He shook his head. "That was in another world."
"Oh, Ban, Ban!" she said. Her lips seemed to cherish the name that they gave forth so softly. "Don't be a silly Ban. It's the same world, only older; a million years older, I think.... I came here only because you were coming. Are you a million years older, Ban?"
"Unfair," he said hoarsely.
"I'm never unfair. I play the game." Her little, firm chin went up defiantly. Yes: she was more lovely and vivid and desirable than in the other days. Or was it only the unstifled yearning in his heart that made her seem so? "Have you missed me?" she asked simply.
He made no answer.
"I've missed you." She walked over to the window and stood looking out into the soft and breathing murk of the night. When she came back to him, her manner had changed. "Fancy finding you here of all places!" she said gayly.
"It isn't such a bad place to be," he said, relieved to meet her on the new ground.
"It's a goal," she declared. "Half of the aspiring gilded youth of the city would give their eye-teeth to make it. How did you manage?"
"I didn't manage. It was managed for me. Old Poultney Masters put me in."
"Well, don't scowl at me! For a reporter, you know, it's rather an achievement to get into The Retreat."
"I suppose so. Though I'm not a reporter now."
"Well, for any newspaper man. What are you, by the way?"
"A sort of all-round experimental editor."
"I hadn't heard of that," said Io, with a quickness which apprised him that she had been seeking information about him.
"Nobody has. It's only just happened."
"And I'm the first to know of it? That's as it should be," she asserted calmly. "You shall tell me all about it at dinner."
"Am I taking you in?"
"No: you're taking in my cousin, Esther Forbes. But I'm on your left. Be nice to me."
Others came in and joined them. Banneker, his inner brain a fiery whorl, though the outer convolutions which he used for social purposes remained quite under control, drifted about making himself agreeable and approving himself to his host as an asset of the highest value. At dinner, sprightly and mischievous Miss Forbes, who recalled their former meeting at Sherry's, found him wholly delightful and frankly told him so. He talked little with Io; but he was conscious to his nerve-ends of the sweet warmth of her so near him. To her questions about his developing career he returned vague replies or generalizations.
"You're not drinking anything," she said, as the third course came on. "Have you renounced the devil and all his works?" There was an impalpable stress upon the "all."
His answer, composed though it was in tone, quite satisfied her. "I wouldn't dare touch drink to-night."
After dinner there was faro bank. Banneker did not play. Io, after a run of indifferent luck, declared herself tired of the game and turned to him.
"Take me out somewhere where there is air to breathe."
They stood together on the stone terrace, blown lightly upon by a mist-ladden breeze.
"It ought to be a great drive of rain, filling the world," said Io in her voice of dreams. "The roar of waters above us and below, and the glorious sense of being in the grip of a resistless current.... We're all in the grip of resistless currents. D'you believe that yet, Ban?"
"Skeptic! You want to work out your own fate. You 'strive to see, to choose your path.' Well, you've climbed. Is it success. Ban?"
"It will be."
"And have you reached the Mountains of Fulfillment?"
He shook his head. "One never does, climbing alone."
"Has it been alone, Ban?"
"So it has been for me--really. No," she added swiftly; "don't ask me questions. Not now. I want to hear more of your new venture."
He outlined his plan and hopes for The Patriot.
"It's good," she said gravely. "It's power, and so it's danger. But it's good.... Are we friends, Ban?"
"How can we be!"
"How can we not be! You've tried to drop me out of your life. Oh, I know, because I know you--better than you think. You'll never drop me out of your life again," she murmured with confident wistfulness. "Never, Ban.... Let's go in."
Not until she came to bid him good-night, with a lingering handclasp, her palm cleaving to his like the reluctant severance of lips, did she tell him that she was going away almost immediately. "But I had to make sure first that you were really alive, and still Ban," she said.
It was many months before he saw her again.
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