Alas for the man and for the artist with the shifting point of perspective! Life shall be a confusion of ways to the one; the landscape shall rise up and confound the other. Take the case of Lorison. At one time he appeared to himself to be the feeblest of fools; at another he conceived that he followed ideals so fine that the world was not yet ready to accept them. During one mood he cursed his folly; possessed by the other, he bore himself with a serene grandeur akin to greatness: in neither did he attain the perspective.
Generations before, the name had been “Larsen.” His race had bequeathed him its fine-strung, melancholy temperament, its saving balance of thrift and industry.
From his point of perspective he saw himself an outcast from society, forever to be a shady skulker along the ragged edge of respectability; a denizen des trois-quartz de monde, that pathetic spheroid lying between the haut and the demi, whose inhabitants envy each of their neighbours, and are scorned by both. He was self-condemned to this opinion, as he was self-exiled, through it, to this quaint Southern city a thousand miles from his former home. Here he had dwelt for longer than a year, knowing but few, keeping in a subjective world of shadows which was invaded at times by the perplexing bulks of jarring realities. Then he fell in love with a girl whom he met in a cheap restaurant, and his story begins.
The Rue Chartres, in New Orleans, is a street of ghosts. It lies in the quarter where the Frenchman, in his prime, set up his translated pride and glory; where, also, the arrogant don had swaggered, and dreamed of gold and grants and ladies’ gloves. Every flagstone has its grooves worn by footsteps going royally to the wooing and the fighting. Every house has a princely heartbreak; each doorway its untold tale of gallant promise and slow decay.
By night the Rue Chartres is now but a murky fissure, from which the groping wayfarer sees, flung against the sky, the tangled filigree of Moorish iron balconies. The old houses of monsieur stand yet, indomitable against the century, but their essence is gone. The street is one of ghosts to whosoever can see them.
A faint heartbeat of the street’s ancient glory still survives in a corner occupied by the Café Carabine d’Or. Once men gathered there to plot against kings, and to warn presidents. They do so yet, but they are not the same kind of men. A brass button will scatter these; those would have set their faces against an army. Above the door hangs the sign board, upon which has been depicted a vast animal of unfamiliar species. In the act of firing upon this monster is represented an unobtrusive human levelling an obtrusive gun, once the colour of bright gold. Now the legend above the picture is faded beyond conjecture; the gun’s relation to the title is a matter of faith; the menaced animal, wearied of the long aim of the hunter, has resolved itself into a shapeless blot.
The place is known as “Antonio’s,” as the name, white upon the red-lit transparency, and gilt upon the windows, attests. There is a promise in “Antonio”; a justifiable expectancy of savoury things in oil and pepper and wine, and perhaps an angel’s whisper of garlic. But the rest of the name is “O’Riley.” Antonio O’Riley!
The Carabine d’Or is an ignominious ghost of the Rue Chartres. The café where Bienville and Conti dined, where a prince has broken bread, is become a “family ristaurant.”
Its customers are working men and women, almost to a unit. Occasionally you will see chorus girls from the cheaper theatres, and men who follow avocations subject to quick vicissitudes; but at Antonio’s—name rich in Bohemian promise, but tame in fulfillment—manners debonair and gay are toned down to the “family” standard. Should you light a cigarette, mine host will touch you on the “arrum” and remind you that the proprieties are menaced. “Antonio” entices and beguiles from fiery legend without, but “O’Riley” teaches decorum within.
It was at this restaurant that Lorison first saw the girl. A flashy fellow with a predatory eye had followed her in, and had advanced to take the other chair at the little table where she stopped, but Lorison slipped into the seat before him. Their acquaintance began, and grew, and now for two months they had sat at the same table each evening, not meeting by appointment, but as if by a series of fortuitous and happy accidents. After dining, they would take a walk together in one of the little city parks, or among the panoramic markets where exhibits a continuous vaudeville of sights and sounds. Always at eight o’clock their steps led them to a certain street corner, where she prettily but firmly bade him good night and left him. “I do not live far from here,” she frequently said, “and you must let me go the rest of the way alone.”
But now Lorison had discovered that he wanted to go the rest of the way with her, or happiness would depart, leaving, him on a very lonely corner of life. And at the same time that he made the discovery, the secret of his banishment from the society of the good laid its finger in his face and told him it must not be.
Man is too thoroughly an egoist not to be also an egotist; if he love, the object shall know it. During a lifetime he may conceal it through stress of expediency and honour, but it shall bubble from his dying lips, though it disrupt a neighbourhood. It is known, however, that most men do not wait so long to disclose their passion. In the case of Lorison, his particular ethics positively forbade him to declare his sentiments, but he must needs dally with the subject, and woo by innuendo at least.
On this night, after the usual meal at the Carabine d’Or, he strolled with his companion down the dim old street toward the river.
The Rue Chartres perishes in the old Place d’Armes. The ancient Cabildo, where Spanish justice fell like hail, faces it, and the Cathedral, another provincial ghost, overlooks it. Its centre is a little, iron-railed park of flowers and immaculate gravelled walks, where citizens take the air of evenings. Pedestalled high above it, the general sits his cavorting steed, with his face turned stonily down the river toward English Turn, whence come no more Britons to bombard his cotton bales.
Often the two sat in this square, but to-night Lorison guided her past the stone-stepped gate, and still riverward. As they walked, he smiled to himself to think that all he knew of her—except that be loved her—was her name, Norah Greenway, and that she lived with her brother. They had talked about everything except themselves. Perhaps her reticence had been caused by his.
They came, at length, upon the levee, and sat upon a great, prostrate beam. The air was pungent with the dust of commerce. The great river slipped yellowly past. Across it Algiers lay, a longitudinous black bulk against a vibrant electric haze sprinkled with exact stars.
The girl was young and of the piquant order. A certain bright melancholy pervaded her; she possessed an untarnished, pale prettiness doomed to please. Her voice, when she spoke, dwarfed her theme. It was the voice capable of investing little subjects with a large interest. She sat at ease, bestowing her skirts with the little womanly touch, serene as if the begrimed pier were a summer garden. Lorison poked the rotting boards with his cane.
He began by telling her that he was in love with some one to whom he durst not speak of it. “And why not?” she asked, accepting swiftly his fatuous presentation of a third person of straw. “My place in the world,” he answered, “is none to ask a woman to share. I am an outcast from honest people; I am wrongly accused of one crime, and am, I believe, guilty of another.”
Thence he plunged into the story of his abdication from society. The story, pruned of his moral philosophy, deserves no more than the slightest touch. It is no new tale, that of the gambler’s declension. During one night’s sitting he lost, and then had imperilled a certain amount of his employer’s money, which, by accident, he carried with him. He continued to lose, to the last wager, and then began to gain, leaving the game winner to a somewhat formidable sum. The same night his employer’s safe was robbed. A search was had; the winnings of Lorison were found in his room, their total forming an accusative nearness to the sum purloined. He was taken, tried and, through incomplete evidence, released, smutched with the sinister devoirs of a disagreeing jury.
“It is not in the unjust accusation,” he said to the girl, “that my burden lies, but in the knowledge that from the moment I staked the first dollar of the firm’s money I was a criminal—no matter whether I lost or won. You see why it is impossible for me to speak of love to her.”
“It is a sad thing,” said Norah, after a little pause, “to think what very good people there are in the world.”
“Good?” said Lorison.
“I was thinking of this superior person whom you say you love. She must be a very poor sort of creature.”
“I do not understand.”
“Nearly,” she continued, “as poor a sort of creature as yourself.”
“You do not understand,” said Lorison, removing his hat and sweeping back his fine, light hair. “Suppose she loved me in return, and were willing to marry me. Think, if you can, what would follow. Never a day would pass but she would be reminded of her sacrifice. I would read a condescension in her smile, a pity even in her affection, that would madden me. No. The thing would stand between us forever. Only equals should mate. I could never ask her to come down upon my lower plane.”
An arc light faintly shone upon Lorison’s face. An illumination from within also pervaded it. The girl saw the rapt, ascetic look; it was the face either of Sir Galahad or Sir Fool.
“Quite starlike,” she said, “is this unapproachable angel. Really too high to be grasped.”
“By me, yes.”
She faced him suddenly. “My dear friend, would you prefer your star fallen?” Lorison made a wide gesture.
“You push me to the bald fact,” he declared; “you are not in sympathy with my argument. But I will answer you so. If I could reach my particular star, to drag it down, I would not do it; but if it were fallen, I would pick it up, and thank Heaven for the privilege.”
They were silent for some minutes. Norah shivered, and thrust her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket. Lorison uttered a remorseful exclamation.
“I’m not cold,” she said. “I was just thinking. I ought to tell you something. You have selected a strange confidante. But you cannot expect a chance acquaintance, picked up in a doubtful restaurant, to be an angel.”
“Norah!” cried Lorison.
“Let me go on. You have told me about yourself. We have been such good friends. I must tell you now what I never wanted you to know. I am—worse than you are. I was on the stage . . . I sang in the chorus . . . I was pretty bad, I guess . . . I stole diamonds from the prima donna . . . they arrested me . . . I gave most of them up, and they let me go . . . I drank wine every night . . . a great deal . . . I was very wicked, but—”
Lorison knelt quickly by her side and took her hands.
“Dear Norah!” he said, exultantly. “It is you, it is you I love! You never guessed it, did you? ‘Tis you I meant all the time. Now I can speak. Let me make you forget the past. We have both suffered; let us shut out the world, and live for each other. Norah, do you hear me say I love you?”
“In spite of—”
“Rather say because of it. You have come out of your past noble and good. Your heart is an angel’s. Give it to me.”
“A little while ago you feared the future too much to even speak.”
“But for you; not for myself. Can you love me?”
She cast herself, wildly sobbing, upon his breast.
“Better than life—than truth itself—than everything.”
“And my own past,” said Lorison, with a note of solicitude—”can you forgive and—”
“I answered you that,” she whispered, “when I told you I loved you.” She leaned away, and looked thoughtfully at him. “If I had not told you about myself, would you have—would you—”
“No,” he interrupted; “I would never have let you know I loved you. I would never have asked you this—Norah, will you be my wife?”
She wept again.
“Oh, believe me; I am good now—I am no longer wicked! I will be the best wife in the world. Don’t think I am—bad any more. If you do I shall die, I shall die!”
While he was consoling, her, she brightened up, eager and impetuous. “Will you marry me to-night?” she said. “Will you prove it that way. I have a reason for wishing it to be to-night. Will you?”
Of one of two things was this exceeding frankness the outcome: either of importunate brazenness or of utter innocence. The lover’s perspective contained only the one.
“The sooner,” said Lorison, “the happier I shall be.”
“What is there to do?” she asked. “What do you have to get? Come! You should know.”
Her energy stirred the dreamer to action.
“A city directory first,” he cried, gayly, “to find where the man lives who gives licenses to happiness. We will go together and rout him out. Cabs, cars, policemen, telephones and ministers shall aid us.”
“Father Rogan shall marry us,” said the girl, with ardour. “I will take you to him.”
An hour later the two stood at the open doorway of an immense, gloomy brick building in a narrow and lonely street. The license was tight in Norah’s hand.
“Wait here a moment,” she said, “till I find Father Rogan.”
She plunged into the black hallway, and the lover was left standing, as it were, on one leg, outside. His impatience was not greatly taxed. Gazing curiously into what seemed the hallway to Erebus, he was presently reassured by a stream of light that bisected the darkness, far down the passage. Then he heard her call, and fluttered lampward, like the moth. She beckoned him through a doorway into the room whence emanated the light. The room was bare of nearly everything except books, which had subjugated all its space. Here and there little spots of territory had been reconquered. An elderly, bald man, with a superlatively calm, remote eye, stood by a table with a book in his hand, his finger still marking a page. His dress was sombre and appertained to a religious order. His eye denoted an acquaintance with the perspective.
“Father Rogan,” said Norah, “this is he.”
“The two of ye,” said Father Rogan, “want to get married?”
They did not deny it. He married them. The ceremony was quickly done. One who could have witnessed it, and felt its scope, might have trembled at the terrible inadequacy of it to rise to the dignity of its endless chain of results.
Afterward the priest spake briefly, as if by rote, of certain other civil and legal addenda that either might or should, at a later time, cap the ceremony. Lorison tendered a fee, which was declined, and before the door closed after the departing couple Father Rogan’s book popped open again where his finger marked it.
In the dark hall Norah whirled and clung to her companion, tearful.
“Will you never, never be sorry?”
At last she was reassured.
At the first light they reached upon the street, she asked the time, just as she had each night. Lorison looked at his watch. Half-past eight.
Lorison thought it was from habit that she guided their steps toward the corner where they always parted. But, arrived there, she hesitated, and then released his arm. A drug store stood on the corner; its bright, soft light shone upon them.
“Please leave me here as usual to-night,” said Norah, sweetly. “I must—I would rather you would. You will not object? At six to-morrow evening I will meet you at Antonio’s. I want to sit with you there once more. And then—I will go where you say.” She gave him a bewildering, bright smile, and walked swiftly away.
Surely it needed all the strength of her charm to carry off this astounding behaviour. It was no discredit to Lorison’s strength of mind that his head began to whirl. Pocketing his hands, he rambled vacuously over to the druggist’s windows, and began assiduously to spell over the names of the patent medicines therein displayed.
As soon as be had recovered his wits, he proceeded along the street in an aimless fashion. After drifting for two or three squares, he flowed into a somewhat more pretentious thoroughfare, a way much frequented by him in his solitary ramblings. For here was a row of shops devoted to traffic in goods of the widest range of choice—handiworks of art, skill and fancy, products of nature and labour from every zone.
Here, for a time, he loitered among the conspicuous windows, where was set, emphasized by congested floods of light, the cunningest spoil of the interiors. There were few passers, and of this Lorison was glad. He was not of the world. For a long time he had touched his fellow man only at the gear of a levelled cog-wheel—at right angles, and upon a different axis. He had dropped into a distinctly new orbit. The stroke of ill fortune had acted upon him, in effect, as a blow delivered upon the apex of a certain ingenious toy, the musical top, which, when thus buffeted while spinning, gives forth, with scarcely retarded motion, a complete change of key and chord.
Strolling along the pacific avenue, he experienced singular, supernatural calm, accompanied by an unusual a activity of brain. Reflecting upon recent affairs, he assured himself of his happiness in having won for a bride the one he had so greatly desired, yet he wondered mildly at his dearth of active emotion. Her strange behaviour in abandoning him without valid excuse on his bridal eve aroused in him only a vague and curious speculation. Again, he found himself contemplating, with complaisant serenity, the incidents of her somewhat lively career. His perspective seemed to have been queerly shifted.
As he stood before a window near a corner, his ears were assailed by a waxing clamour and commotion. He stood close to the window to allow passage to the cause of the hubbub—a procession of human beings, which rounded the corner and headed in his direction. He perceived a salient hue of blue and a glitter of brass about a central figure of dazzling white and silver, and a ragged wake of black, bobbing figures.
Two ponderous policemen were conducting between them a woman dressed as if for the stage, in a short, white, satiny skirt reaching to the knees, pink stockings, and a sort of sleeveless bodice bright with relucent, armour-like scales. Upon her curly, light hair was perched, at a rollicking angle, a shining tin helmet. The costume was to be instantly recognized as one of those amazing conceptions to which competition has harried the inventors of the spectacular ballet. One of the officers bore a long cloak upon his arm, which, doubtless, had been intended to veil the I candid attractions of their effulgent prisoner, but, for some reason, it had not been called into use, to the vociferous delight of the tail of the procession.
Compelled by a sudden and vigorous movement of the woman, the parade halted before the window by which Lorison stood. He saw that she was young, and, at the first glance, was deceived by a sophistical prettiness of her face, which waned before a more judicious scrutiny. Her look was bold and reckless, and upon her countenance, where yet the contours of youth survived, were the finger-marks of old age’s credentialed courier, Late Hours.
The young woman fixed her unshrinking gaze upon Lorison, and called to him in the voice of the wronged heroine in straits:
“Say! You look like a good fellow; come and put up the bail, won’t you? I’ve done nothing to get pinched for. It’s all a mistake. See how they’re treating me! You won’t be sorry, if you’ll help me out of this. Think of your sister or your girl being dragged along the streets this way! I say, come along now, like a good fellow.”
It may be that Lorison, in spite of the unconvincing bathos of this appeal, showed a sympathetic face, for one of the officers left the woman’s side, and went over to him.
“It’s all right, Sir,” he said, in a husky, confidential tone; “she’s the right party. We took her after the first act at the Green Light Theatre, on a wire from the chief of police of Chicago. It’s only a square or two to the station. Her rig’s pretty bad, but she refused to change clothes—or, rather,” added the officer, with a smile, “to put on some. I thought I’d explain matters to you so you wouldn’t think she was being imposed upon.”
“What is the charge?” asked Lorison.
“Grand larceny. Diamonds. Her husband is a jeweller in Chicago. She cleaned his show case of the sparklers, and skipped with a comic-opera troupe.”
The policeman, perceiving that the interest of the entire group of spectators was centred upon himself and Lorison—their conference being regarded as a possible new complication—was fain to prolong the situation—which reflected his own importance—by a little afterpiece of philosophical comment.
“A gentleman like you, Sir,” he went on affably, “would never notice it, but it comes in my line to observe what an immense amount of trouble is made by that combination—I mean the stage, diamonds and light-headed women who aren’t satisfied with good homes. I tell you, Sir, a man these days and nights wants to know what his women folks are up to.”
The policeman smiled a good night, and returned to the side of his charge, who had been intently watching Lorison’s face during the conversation, no doubt for some indication of his intention to render succour. Now, at the failure of the sign, and at the movement made to continue the ignominious progress, she abandoned hope, and addressed him thus, pointedly:
“You damn chalk-faced quitter! You was thinking of giving me a hand, but you let the cop talk you out of it the first word. You’re a dandy to tie to. Say, if you ever get a girl, she’ll have a picnic. Won’t she work you to the queen’s taste! Oh, my!” She concluded with a taunting, shrill laugh that rasped Lorison like a saw. The policemen urged her forward; the delighted train of gaping followers closed up the rear; and the captive Amazon, accepting her fate, extended the scope of her maledictions so that none in hearing might seem to be slighted.
Then there came upon Lorison an overwhelming revulsion of his perspective. It may be that he had been ripe for it, that the abnormal condition of mind in which he had for so long existed was already about to revert to its balance; however, it is certain that the events of the last few minutes had furnished the channel, if not the impetus, for the change.
The initial determining influence had been so small a thing as the fact and manner of his having been approached by the officer. That agent had, by the style of his accost, restored the loiterer to his former place in society. In an instant he had been transformed from a somewhat rancid prowler along the fishy side streets of gentility into an honest gentleman, with whom even so lordly a guardian of the peace might agreeably exchange the compliments.
This, then, first broke the spell, and set thrilling in him a resurrected longing for the fellowship of his kind, and the rewards of the virtuous. To what end, he vehemently asked himself, was this fanciful self-accusation, this empty renunciation, this moral squeamishness through which he had been led to abandon what was his heritage in life, and not beyond his deserts? Technically, he was uncondemned; his sole guilty spot was in thought rather than deed, and cognizance of it unshared by others. For what good, moral or sentimental, did he slink, retreating like the hedgehog from his own shadow, to and fro in this musty Bohemia that lacked even the picturesque?
But the thing that struck home and set him raging was the part played by the Amazonian prisoner. To the counterpart of that astounding belligerent—identical at least, in the way of experience—to one, by her own confession, thus far fallen, had he, not three hours since, been united in marriage. How desirable and natural it had seemed to him then, and how monstrous it seemed now! How the words of diamond thief number two yet burned in his ears: “If you ever get a girl, she’ll have a picnic.” What did that mean but that women instinctively knew him for one they could hoodwink? Still again, there reverberated the policeman’s sapient contribution to his agony: “A man these days and nights wants to know what his women folks are up to.” Oh, yes, he had been a fool; he had looked at things from the wrong standpoint.
But the wildest note in all the clamour was struck by pain’s forefinger, jealousy. Now, at least, he felt that keenest sting—a mounting love unworthily bestowed. Whatever she might be, he loved her; he bore in his own breast his doom. A grating, comic flavour to his predicament struck him suddenly, and he laughed creakingly as he swung down the echoing pavement. An impetuous desire to act, to battle with his fate, seized him. He stopped upon his heel, and smote his palms together triumphantly. His wife was—where? But there was a tangible link; an outlet more or less navigable, through which his derelict ship of matrimony might yet be safely towed—the priest!
Like all imaginative men with pliable natures, Lorison was, when thoroughly stirred, apt to become tempestuous. With a high and stubborn indignation upon him, be retraced his steps to the intersecting street by which he had come. Down this he hurried to the corner where he had parted with—an astringent grimace tinctured the thought—his wife. Thence still back he harked, following through an unfamiliar district his stimulated recollections of the way they had come from that preposterous wedding. Many times he went abroad, and nosed his way back to the trail, furious.
At last, when he reached the dark, calamitous building in which his madness had culminated, and found the black hallway, he dashed down it, perceiving no light or sound. But he raised his voice, hailing loudly; reckless of everything but that he should find the old mischief-maker with the eyes that looked too far away to see the disaster he had wrought. The door opened, and in the stream of light Father Rogan stood, his book in hand, with his finger marking the place.
“Ah!” cried Lorison. “You are the man I want. I had a wife of you a few hours ago. I would not trouble you, but I neglected to note how it was done. Will you oblige me with the information whether the business is beyond remedy?”
“Come inside,” said the priest; “there are other lodgers in the house, who might prefer sleep to even a gratified curiosity.”
Lorison entered the room and took the chair offered him. The priest’s eyes looked a courteous interrogation.
“I must apologize again,” said the young man, “for so soon intruding upon you with my marital infelicities, but, as my wife has neglected to furnish me with her address, I am deprived of the legitimate recourse of a family row.”
“I am quite a plain man,” said Father Rogan, pleasantly; “but I do not see how I am to ask you questions.”
“Pardon my indirectness,” said Lorison; “I will ask one. In this room to-night you pronounced me to be a husband. You afterward spoke of additional rites or performances that either should or could be effected. I paid little attention to your words then, but I am hungry to hear them repeated now. As matters stand, am I married past all help?”
“You are as legally and as firmly bound,” said the priest, “as though it had been done in a cathedral, in the presence of thousands. The additional observances I referred to are not necessary to the strictest legality of the act, but were advised as a precaution for the future—for convenience of proof in such contingencies as wills, inheritances and the like.”
Lorison laughed harshly.
“Many thanks,” he said. “Then there is no mistake, and I am the happy benedict. I suppose I should go stand upon the bridal corner, and when my wife gets through walking the streets she will look me up.”
Father Rogan regarded him calmly.
“My son,” he said, “when a man and woman come to me to be married I always marry them. I do this for the sake of other people whom they might go away and marry if they did not marry each other. As you see, I do not seek your confidence; but your case seems to me to be one not altogether devoid of interest. Very few marriages that have come to my notice have brought such well-expressed regret within so short a time. I will hazard one question: were you not under the impression that you loved the lady you married, at the time you did so;”
“Loved her!” cried Lorison, wildly. “Never so well as now, though she told me she deceived and sinned and stole. Never more than now, when, perhaps, she is laughing at the fool she cajoled and left, with scarcely a word, to return to God only knows what particular line of her former folly.”
Father Rogan answered nothing. During the silence that succeeded, he sat with a quiet expectation beaming in his full, lambent eye.
“If you would listen—” began Lorison. The priest held up his hand.
“As I hoped,” he said. “I thought you would trust me. Wait but a moment.” He brought a long clay pipe, filled and lighted it.
“Now, my son,” he said.
Lorison poured a twelve month’s accumulated confidence into Father Rogan’s ear. He told all; not sparing himself or omitting the facts of his past, the events of the night, or his disturbing conjectures and fears.
“The main point,” said the priest, when he had concluded, “seems to me to be this—are you reasonably sure that you love this woman whom you have married?”
“Why,” exclaimed Lorison, rising impulsively to his feet—”why should I deny it? But look at me—am fish, flesh or fowl? That is the main point to me, I assure you.”
“I understand you,” said the priest, also rising, and laying down his pipe. “The situation is one that has taxed the endurance of much older men than you—in fact, especially much older men than you. I will try to relieve you from it, and this night. You shall see for yourself into exactly what predicament you have fallen, and how you shall, possibly, be extricated. There is no evidence so credible as that of the eyesight.”
Father Rogan moved about the room, and donned a soft black hat. Buttoning his coat to his throat, he laid his hand on the doorknob. “Let us walk,” he said.
The two went out upon the street. The priest turned his face down it, and Lorison walked with him through a squalid district, where the houses loomed, awry and desolate-looking, high above them. Presently they turned into a less dismal side street, where the houses were smaller, and, though hinting of the most meagre comfort, lacked the concentrated wretchedness of the more populous byways.
At a segregated, two-story house Father Rogan halted, and mounted the steps with the confidence of a familiar visitor. He ushered Lorison into a narrow hallway, faintly lighted by a cobwebbed hanging lamp. Almost immediately a door to the right opened and a dingy Irishwoman protruded her head.
“Good evening to ye, Mistress Geehan,” said the priest, unconsciously, it seemed, falling into a delicately flavoured brogue. “And is it yourself can tell me if Norah has gone out again, the night, maybe?”
“Oh, it’s yer blissid riverence! Sure and I can tell ye the same. The purty darlin’ wint out, as usual, but a bit later. And she says: ‘Mother Geehan,’ says she, ‘it’s me last noight out, praise the saints, this noight is!’ And, oh, yer riverence, the swate, beautiful drame of a dress she had this toime! White satin and silk and ribbons, and lace about the neck and arrums—’twas a sin, yer reverence, the gold was spint upon it.”
The priest heard Lorison catch his breath painfully, and a faint smile flickered across his own clean-cut mouth.
“Well, then, Mistress Geehan,” said he, “I’ll just step upstairs and see the bit boy for a minute, and I’ll take this gentleman up with me.”
“He’s awake, thin,” said the woman. ‘I’ve just come down from sitting wid him the last hour, tilling him fine shtories of ould County Tyrone. ‘Tis a greedy gossoon, it is, yer riverence, for me shtories.”
“Small the doubt,” said Father Rogan. “There’s no rocking would put him to slape the quicker, I’m thinking.”
Amid the woman’s shrill protest against the retort, the two men ascended the steep stairway. The priest pushed open the door of a room near its top.
“Is that you already, sister?” drawled a sweet, childish voice from the darkness.
“It’s only ould Father Denny come to see ye, darlin’; and a foine gentleman I’ve brought to make ye a gr-r-and call. And ye resaves us fast aslape in bed! Shame on yez manners!”
“Oh, Father Denny, is that you? I’m glad. And will you light the lamp, please? It’s on the table by the door. And quit talking like Mother Geehan, Father Denny.”
The priest lit the lamp, and Lorison saw a tiny, towsled-haired boy, with a thin, delicate face, sitting up in a small bed in a corner. Quickly, also, his rapid glance considered the room and its contents. It was furnished with more than comfort, and its adornments plainly indicated a woman’s discerning taste. An open door beyond revealed the blackness of an adjoining room’s interior.
The boy clutched both of Father Rogan’s hands. “I’m so glad you came,” he said; “but why did you come in the night? Did sister send you?”
“Off wid ye! Am I to be sint about, at me age, as was Terence McShane, of Ballymahone? I come on me own r-r-responsibility.”
Lorison had also advanced to the boy’s bedside. He was fond of children; and the wee fellow, laying himself down to sleep alone in that dark room, stirred-his heart.
“Aren’t you afraid, little man?” he asked, stooping down beside him.
“Sometimes,” answered the boy, with a shy smile, “when the rats make too much noise. But nearly every night, when sister goes out, Mother Geehan stays a while with me, and tells me funny stories. I’m not often afraid, sir.”
“This brave little gentleman,” said Father Rogan, “is a scholar of mine. Every day from half-past six to half-past eight—when sister comes for him—he stops in my study, and we find out what’s in the inside of books. He knows multiplication, division and fractions; and he’s troubling me to begin wid the chronicles of Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Corurac McCullenan and Cuan O’Lochain, the gr-r-reat Irish histhorians.” The boy was evidently accustomed to the priest’s Celtic pleasantries. A little, appreciative grin was all the attention the insinuation of pedantry received.
Lorison, to have saved his life, could not have put to the child one of those vital questions that were wildly beating about, unanswered, in his own brain. The little fellow was very like Norah; he had the same shining hair and candid eyes.
“Oh, Father Denny,” cried the boy, suddenly, “I forgot to tell you! Sister is not going away at night any more! She told me so when she kissed me good night as she was leaving. And she said she was so happy, and then she cried. Wasn’t that queer? But I’m glad; aren’t you?”
“Yes, lad. And now, ye omadhaun, go to sleep, and say good night; we must be going.”
“Which shall I do first, Father Denny?”
“Faith, he’s caught me again! Wait till I get the sassenach into the annals of Tageruach, the hagiographer; I’ll give him enough of the Irish idiom to make him more respectful.”
The light was out, and the small, brave voice bidding them good night from the dark room. They groped downstairs, and tore away from the garrulity of Mother Geehan.
Again the priest steered them through the dim ways, but this time in another direction. His conductor was serenely silent, and Lorison followed his example to the extent of seldom speaking. Serene he could not be. His heart beat suffocatingly in his breast. The following of this blind, menacing trail was pregnant with he knew not what humiliating revelation to be delivered at its end.
They came into a more pretentious street, where trade, it could be surmised, flourished by day. And again the priest paused; this time before a lofty building, whose great doors and windows in the lowest floor were carefully shuttered and barred. Its higher apertures were dark, save in the third story, the windows of which were brilliantly lighted. Lorison’s ear caught a distant, regular, pleasing thrumming, as of music above. They stood at an angle of the building. Up, along the side nearest them, mounted an iron stairway. At its top was an upright, illuminated parallelogram. Father Rogan had stopped, and stood, musing.
“I will say this much,” he remarked, thoughtfully: “I believe you to be a better man than you think yourself to be, and a better man than I thought some hours ago. But do not take this,” he added, with a smile, “as much praise. I promised you a possible deliverance from an unhappy perplexity. I will have to modify that promise. I can only remove the mystery that enhanced that perplexity. Your deliverance depends upon yourself. Come.”
He led his companion up the stairway. Halfway up, Lorison caught him by the sleeve. “Remember,” he gasped, “I love that woman.”
“You desired to know.
The priest reached the landing at the top of the stairway. Lorison, behind him, saw that the illuminated space was the glass upper half of a door opening into the lighted room. The rhythmic music increased as they neared it; the stairs shook with the mellow vibrations.
Lorison stopped breathing when he set foot upon the highest step, for the priest stood aside, and motioned him to look through the glass of the door.
His eye, accustomed to the darkness, met first a blinding glare, and then he made out the faces and forms of many people, amid an extravagant display of splendid robings—billowy laces, brilliant-hued finery, ribbons, silks and misty drapery. And then he caught the meaning of that jarring hum, and he saw the tired, pale, happy face of his wife, bending, as were a score of others, over her sewing machine—toiling, toiling. Here was the folly she pursued, and the end of his quest.
But not his deliverance, though even then remorse struck him. His shamed soul fluttered once more before it retired to make room for the other and better one. For, to temper his thrill of joy, the shine of the satin and the glimmer of ornaments recalled the disturbing figure of the bespangled Amazon, and the base duplicate histories lit by the glare of footlights and stolen diamonds. It is past the wisdom of him who only sets the scenes, either to praise or blame the man. But this time his love overcame his scruples. He took a quick step, and reached out his hand for the doorknob. Father Rogan was quicker to arrest it and draw him back.
“You use my trust in you queerly,” said the priest sternly. “What are you about to do?”
“I am going to my wife,” said Lorison. “Let me pass.”
“Listen,” said the priest, holding him firmly by the arm. “I am about to put you in possession of a piece of knowledge of which, thus far, you have scarcely proved deserving. I do not think you ever will; but I will not dwell upon that. You see in that room the woman you married, working for a frugal living for herself, and a generous comfort for an idolized brother. This building belongs to the chief costumer of the city. For months the advance orders for the coming Mardi Gras festivals have kept the work going day and night. I myself secured employment here for Norah. She toils here each night from nine o’clock until daylight, and, besides, carries home with her some of the finer costumes, requiring more delicate needlework, and works there part of the day. Somehow, you two have remained strangely ignorant of each other’s lives. Are you convinced now that your wife is not walking the streets?”
“Let me go to her,” cried Lorison, again struggling, “and beg her forgiveness!’
“Sir,” said the priest, “do you owe me nothing? Be quiet. It seems so often that Heaven lets fall its choicest gifts into hands that must be taught to hold them. Listen again. You forgot that repentant sin must not compromise, but look up, for redemption, to the purest and best. You went to her with the fine-spun sophistry that peace could be found in a mutual guilt; and she, fearful of losing what her heart so craved, thought it worth the price to buy it with a desperate, pure, beautiful lie. I have known her since the day she was born; she is as innocent and unsullied in life and deed as a holy saint. In that lowly street where she dwells she first saw the light, and she has lived there ever since, spending her days in generous self-sacrifice for others. Och, ye spalpeen!” continued Father Rogan, raising his finger in kindly anger at Lorison. “What for, I wonder, could she be after making a fool of hersilf, and shamin’ her swate soul with lies, for the like of you!”
“Sir,” said Lorison, trembling, “say what you please of me. Doubt it as you must, I will yet prove my gratitude to you, and my devotion to her. But let me speak to her once now, let me kneel for just one moment at her feet, and—”
“Tut, tut!” said the priest. “How many acts of a love drama do you think an old bookworm like me capable of witnessing? Besides, what kind of figures do we cut, spying upon the mysteries of midnight millinery! Go to meet your wife to-morrow, as she ordered you, and obey her thereafter, and maybe some time I shall get forgiveness for the part I have played in this night’s work. Off wid yez down the shtairs, now! ‘Tis late, and an ould man like me should be takin’ his rest.”