Hewson's note was from Mrs. Rock, asking him to breakfast with her at the Walholland the next morning. She said that they were just off the steamer, which had got in late, and they had started so suddenly from London that she had not had time to write and have her apartment opened. She came to business in the last sentence where she said that Miss Hernshaw joined her in kind remembrances, and wished her to say that he must not fail them, or if he could not come to breakfast, to let them know at what hour during the day he would be kind enough to call; it was very important they should see him at the earliest possible moment.
Hewson instantly decided that this summons was related to the affair of his apparition, without imagining how or why, and when Miss Hernshaw met him, and almost before she could say that Mrs. Rock would be down in a moment, began with it, he made no feint of having come for anything else.
[Illustration: "'WHY, THERE ISN'T ANY PUNISHMENT SEVERE ENOUGH FOR A
CRIME LIKE THAT'"]
As he entered the door of Mrs. Rock's parlor, where the breakfast table was laid, the girl came swiftly toward him, with the air of having turned from watching for him at the window. "Well, what do you think of me?" she demanded as soon as she had got over Mrs. Rock's excuses for having her receive him. He had of course to repeat, "What do I think of you?" but he knew perfectly what she meant.
She disdained to help him pretend that he did not know. "It was I who told that horrible woman about your experience at St. Johnswort. I didn't dream that she was an interviewer, but that doesn't excuse me, and I am willing to take any punishment for my—I don't know what to call it—mischief."
She was so intensely ready, so magnificently prepared for the stake, if that should be her sentence, that Hewson could not help laughing. "Why there isn't any punishment severe enough for a crime like that," he began, but she would not allow him to trifle with the matter.
"Oh, I didn't think you would be so uncandid! The instant I read that interview I made Mrs. Rock get ready to come. And we started the first steamer. It seemed to me that I could not eat or sleep, till I had seen you and told you what I had done and taken the consequences. And now do you think it right to turn it off as a joke?"
"I don't wish to make a joke of it," said Hewson, gravely, in compliance with her mood. "But I don't understand, quite, how you could have got the story over there in time for you—"
"It was cabled to their London edition—that's what it said in the paper; and by this time they must have it in Australia," said Miss Hernshaw, with unrelieved severity.
"Oh!" said Hewson, giving himself time to realize that he was the psychical hero of two hemispheres. "Well," he resumed "what do you expect me to say?"
"I don't know what I expect. I expected you to say something without my prompting you. You know that it was outrageous for me to talk about your apparition without your leave, and to be the means of its getting into the newspapers."
"I'm not sure you were the means. I have told the story a hundred times, myself."
"But that doesn't excuse me. You knew the kind of people to tell it to, and I didn't."
"Oh, I am afraid I was willing to tell it to all kinds of people—to any kind that would listen."
"You are trying to evade me, Mr. Hewson," she said, with a severity he found charming. "I didn't expect that of you."
The appeal was not lost upon Hewson. "What do you want me to say?"
"I want you," said Miss Hernshaw, with an effect of giving him another trial, "to say—to acknowledge that you were terribly annoyed by that interview."
"If you will excuse me from attaching the slightest blame to you for it,
I will acknowledge that I was annoyed."
Miss Hernshaw drew a deep breath as of relief. "I will arrange about the blame," she said loftily. "And now I wish to tell you how I never supposed that girl was an interviewer. We were all together at an artist's house in Rome, and after dinner, we got to telling ghost-stories, the way people do, around the fire, and I told mine—yours I mean. And before we broke up, this girl came to me—it was while we were putting on our wraps—and introduced herself, and said how much she had been impressed by my story—of course, I mean your story—and she said she supposed it was made up. I said I should not dream of making up a thing of that kind, and that it was every word true, and I had heard the person it happened to tell it himself. I don't know! I was vain of having heard it, so, at first hand."
"I can understand," said Hewson, sadly.
"And then I told her who the person was, and where it happened—and about the burglary. You can't imagine how silly people get when they begin going in that direction."
"I am afraid I can," said Hewson.
"She seemed very grateful somehow; I couldn't see why, but I didn't ask; and then I didn't think about it again till I saw it in that awful newspaper. She sent it to me herself; she was such a simpleton; she thought I would actually like to see it. She must have written it down, and sent it to the paper, and they printed it when they got ready to; she needed the money, I suppose. Then I began to wonder what you would say, when you remembered how I blamed you for telling the same story—only not half so bad—at that dinner."
"I always felt you were quite right," said Hewson. "I have always thanked you in my own mind for being so frank with me."
"Well, and what do you think now, when you know that I was ten times as bad as you—ten times as foolish and vulgar!"
"I haven't had time to formulate my ideas yet," Hewson urged.
"You know perfectly well that you despise me. Can you say that I had any right to give your name?"
"It must have got out sooner or later. I never asked any one not to mention my name when I told the story—"
"I see that you think I took a liberty, and I did. But that's nothing. That isn't the point. How I do keep beating about the bush! Mrs. Rock says it was a great deal worse to tell where it happened, for that would give the place the reputation of being haunted and nobody could ever live there afterwards, for they couldn't keep servants, even if they didn't have the creeps themselves, and it would ruin the property."
Hewson had not been able, when she touched upon this point, to elude the keen eye with which she read his silent thought.
"Is that true?" she demanded.
"Oh, no; oh, no," he began, but he could not frame in plausible terms the lies he would have uttered. He only succeeded in saying, "Those things soon blow over."
"Then how," she said, sternly, "does it happen that in every town and village, almost, there are houses that you can hardly hire anybody to live in, because people say they are haunted? No, Mr. Hewson, it's very kind of you, and I appreciate it, but you can't make me believe that it will ever blow over, about St. Johnswort. Have you heard from Mr. St. John since?"
"Yes," Hewson was obliged to own.
"And was he very much troubled about it? I should think he was a man that would be, from the way he behaved about the burglary. Was he?" she persisted, seeing that Hewson hesitated.
"Yes, I must say he was."
There was a sound of walking to and fro in the adjoining room, a quick shutting as of trunk-lids, a noise as of a skirt shaken out, and steps advanced to the door. Miss Hernshaw ran to it and turned the key in the lock. "Not yet, Mrs. Rock," she called to the unseen presence within, and she explained to Hewson, as she faced him again, "She promised that I should have it all out with you myself, and now I'm not going to have her in here, interrupting. Well, did he write to you?"
"Yes, he wrote to me. He wanted me to deny the story."
"And did you?"
"Of course not!" said Hewson, with a note of indignation. "It was true.
Besides it wouldn't have been of any use."
"No, it would have been wicked and it would have been useless. And then what did he say?"
"Nothing? And you have never heard another word from him?"
"Yes, he came to see me last night."
"Here in New York? Is he here yet?"
"I suppose so."
"I believe at the Overpark."
Miss Hernshaw caught her breath, as if she were going to speak, but she did not say anything.
"Why do you insist upon all this, Miss Hernshaw?" he entreated. "It can do you no good to follow the matter up!"
"Do you think I want to do myself good?" she returned. "I want to do myself harm! What did he say when he came to see you?"
"Well, you can imagine," said Hewson, not able to keep out of his tone the lingering disgust he felt for St. John.
"He all but shed tears," said Hewson, recalled to a humorous sense of St. John's behavior. "I felt sorry for him; though," he added, darkly, "I can't say that I do now."
Miss Hernshaw didn't seek to fathom the mystery of his closing words.
"Had he been actually inconvenienced by that thing in the paper?"
"Oh," Hewson groaned. "If you must know—"
"I must! The worst!"
"It had fairly turned him out of house and home. His servants had all left him, and he had been reduced to taking his meals at the inn. He showed me a handful of letters from people whom he had asked to visit him, withdrawing their acceptances, or making excuses for not accepting."
"Ah!" said Miss Hernshaw, with a deep, inward breath, as if this now were indeed something like the punishment she had expected. "And will it—did he think—did he say anything about the pecuniary effect—the—whether it would hurt the property?"
"He seemed to think it would," answered Hewson, reluctantly, and he added, unfortunately for his generous purpose, "I really can't enter upon that part."
She arched her eyebrows in grieved surprise. "But that is the very part that I want you to enter upon Mr. Hewson. You must tell me, now! Did he say that it had injured the property very much?"
"He did, but—"
"I think St. John is a man to put the worst face on that matter."
"You are saying that to keep me from feeling badly. But I ought to feel badly—I wish to feel badly. I suppose he said that it wasn't worth anything now."
"Something of that sort," Hewson helplessly admitted.
"Very well, then, I will buy it for whatever he chooses to ask!" With the precipitation which characterized all her actions, Miss Hernshaw rose from the chair in which she had been provisionally sitting, pushed an electric button in the wall, swirled away to the other side of the room, unlocked the door behind which those sounds had subsided, and flinging it open, said, "You can come out, Mrs. Hock; I've rung for breakfast."
Mrs. Rock came smoothly forth, with her vague eyes wandering over every other object in the room, till they rested upon Hewson, directly before her. Then she gave him her hand, and asked, with a smile, as if taking him into the joke. "Well, has Rosalie had it out with you?"
"I have had it out with him, Mrs. Rock," Miss Hernshaw answered, "and I will tell you all about it later. Now I want my breakfast."
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