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Chapter 17
Late in the evening, Matthias gave it up, and shaking off Rideout (whose only hope had resided in the author's anxiety to save his play) betook himself to an out-of-the-way restaurant to idle with a tasteless meal.

He was at once dog-weary and heart-sick.

The net outcome of some ten hours of runnings to and from, of meetings and schemings, of conferences by telephone and of communications by telegraph with those who had promised financial support to Rideout's project, was an empty assurance, indifferently given by the Shuberts, to the effect that, if nothing happened to make them think otherwise, they might possibly be prepared to consider the advisability of producing "The Jade God" about the first of January.

The truth of the situation was that neither the Shuberts nor any other managerial concern was likely (as Wilbrow put it) "to look cross-eyed at the piece" until they could get full control of it; which would be in some three months, when Rideout's contract to produce would expire by limitation. And since Rideout might be counted upon to hold on to his contract rights till the last minute and leave nothing else undone in the effort to recoup his already substantial losses, it was useless to consider the play as anything but a property of potential value relegated indefinitely to abeyance.

Matthias believed in the play with all his heart. During the last three weeks he had watched it come to life and assume the form he had dreamed for it, coloured with the rich hues of his imagination and quick with the breath of living drama. And because he possessed in some measure that rare faculty of being able to weigh justly the work of his own hand, and had looked upon this and seen that it was good, he had counted on it to win him that recognition which, more than money, his pride craved—partly by way of some compensation for what it had suffered at the hands of Venetia Tankerville.

He was still sore with the hurt of that experience. Privately he doubted whether he would ever wholly recover from it; but the doubt was a very private one, never discovered even to his most sympathetic friends, not even to Helena, whose scorn of her sister-in-law remained immeasurable. Fortunate in having been able to afford those several weeks in the wooded hills of Maine, in their fragrant and passionless silences Matthias had found peace and regained confidence in his old, well-tried, wholesome code of philosophy; which held that though here and there a man ill-used by chance or woman might be found, the world was none the less sound and kind at heart, and good to live in.

For all that, he could not easily endure the thought of Venetia's lowering herself to use him to further her love affair with Marbridge; of Venetia going from his arms and lips to the lips and arms of that insolent animal, Marbridge: the one amused by her successful cunning, the other contemptuous in his conquest. And he often wondered with what justice he judged the woman. It comforted him a little, at times, to believe that she had not acted so cruelly altogether as a free agent, to think her meeting with Marbridge in New York a freak of chance and fate, her elopement an unpremeditated and spontaneous surrender to the indisputable magnetism of the man. Marbridge commanded the reluctant admiration of men who did not like him—who knew him too well to like him. How much more easily, then, might he not have overcome the scruples of a girl untutored in the knowledge of her own heart....

Or had it all been due merely to the fact that John Matthias was not a man to hold the love of women? Such men exist, antipathetic to the Marbridges of the world. Was he of their unhappy order, incapable of inspiring enduring love?

He could review a modest cycle of flirtations with women variously charming and willing to be amused, light-hearted attachments and short-lived, one and all, those that might have proved more lasting broken off without ill-will on either side—though always by the woman. Venetia alone had named Love to him as if it stood to her for something higher and more significant than the diversion of an empty hour—Venetia who was now in Italy, the bride of Marbridge!

And yet, oddly enough, it wasn't his memories of Venetia and his regrets and wounded self-esteem that rendered insipid his belated dinner and made him presently abandon it in favour of the distracting throngs of Broadway. They were thoughts of another woman altogether that urged him forth and homeward—a poignant sympathy for Joan Thursday, the friendless and forlorn, whose high anticipations had with his own that day gone crashing to disaster. He couldn't remember what had made him think of her, but now that he did, it was with disturbing interest.

He found himself suddenly very sorry for the girl—much more sorry for her than for himself. What to him was at worst a staggering reverse, to her must seem calamitous beyond repair.

It wasn't hard to conjure up a picture of the child, pitifully huddled upon her bed, in tears, heart-broken, desolate, perhaps (since he had not been home to pay her) supperless and hungry!

Matthias quickened his stride. His suddenly awakened and deep solicitude tormented him. He had received evidence that Joan's was a nature tempestuous and prone to extremes: he didn't like to contemplate the lengths to which despair might drive her.

Through the texture of this new-found care ran a thread of irritation that it should have proved a care to him. He realized that he must of late have been giving a deal of thought to the girl. Formerly he had been aware of her much as he was of Madame Duprat; such kindness as he had shown her had been no greater than, and of much the same order as, he would have shown a stray puppy. Tonight he found himself unable to contemplate her as other than a vital figure in his life—a creature of fire and blood, of spirit and flesh, at once enigmatic and absolute, owning claims upon his consideration no less actual because passive. He who had pledged his ability and willingness to find her a foothold on the stage, was responsible for her present distress and disappointment. And if his good offices had been sought rather than voluntary, still was he responsible; for she wouldn't have dreamed of seeking them if he hadn't in the first place insisted on putting her under obligation to him. He had in a measure bidden her to look to him; now it was his part to look out for her.

Hardly a pleasant predicament: Matthias resented it bitterly, with impatience conceding the weight of that doctrine which teaches the fatal responsibility of man for his hand's each and every idle turn. He had paused to pity a stray child of the town; and because of that, he now found himself saddled with her welfare. A situation exasperating to a degree! And, he argued, it was merely this subconscious sense of duty which had of late held the girl so prominently in his mind—ever since, in fact, that night when she had broken down and impulsively kissed his hand. Just that one hot-headed, frantic, foolish act had primarily brought home to Matthias his obligations as the object of her unsought, unwelcome gratitude....

He found Joan waiting on the stoop: a silent and vigilant figure, aloof from the other lodgers—a woman and two or three men lounging on the steps. And as these moved aside to give Matthias way, Joan rose and slipped quietly indoors, where in the hall she turned back with a gesture that too clearly betrayed the strain and tensity of her emotions; but, to his gratification, she was dry of eye and outwardly composed.

"You were waiting for me?" he asked; and taking assent for granted rattled on with a show of cheerful contrition: "Sorry I'm late. There were ten dozen stones we had to turn, you know."

Her eyes questioned.

He smiled, apologetic: "No use; Rideout simply can't swing it."

"I've finished type-writing that book," she announced obliquely.

"Have you? That's splendid! Will you bring it to me? And then we can have a little talk."

She nodded—"I'll go fetch it right away"—and scurried hastily up the stairs as he went on to his room.

Leaving the door ajar and lighting his reading-lamp, Matthias closed the shutters at the long windows, adjusting their slats for ventilation. Then for some minutes he was left to himself. Resting against the edge of his work-table, he studied ruefully a cigarette which he was too indifferent or too distracted to continue smoking. Smouldering between his fingers, its slender stalk of pearly vapour ascended with hardly a waver in the still air, to mushroom widely above his head. It held his eyes and his thoughts in dreaming.

He was thinking, simply and unconsciously, of the Joan he had just realized in the half-light of the hallway: a straight, slim creature with eyes like troubled stars, her round little chin held high as if in mute defiance of outrageous circumstance; vividly alive; giving a strange impression, as of some half-wild thing, at once timid and spirited, odd and—beautiful.

To the sound of a light tap on the open door, the girl herself entered, a mute incarnation of that disturbing memory. She put down the manuscript before acknowledging his silent and intent regard. But becoming aware of this, her eyes wavered and fell, then again steadied to his. He was vastly concerned with the surprising length of her dark silken lashes and the delicate shadows on her warm, rich flesh. And he was sensitive to the virginal sweetness and fluent grace of her round and slender body. Vaguely he divined that the calm courage of her bearing was merely a na?ve mask for a nature racked by intense feeling....

"That's the last," she said quietly, indicating the manuscript. "I finished up this evening," she added, superfluously yet without any evidence of consciousness.

"Thank you. I'm glad to get it." Ransacking his pockets, Matthias found money, and paid her for the week.

"I suppose that'll be all?" she asked steadily. "I mean, you won't want any more type-writing done for a while?"

"I don't know," he said slowly. "We'll have to ... talk things over. Today has changed everything.... If you don't mind, I'll shut the door: people all the time passing through the hall...."

She shook her head slightly to indicate a mild degree of impatience with his punctiliousness about that blessed door. Unconscious of this, having closed it, he returned to her, frowning a little as he reviewed her circumstances with a mind that seemed suddenly to have lost its customary efficiency of grasp.

He found her eyes and lost them again, glancing aside in inexplicable embarrassment.

"I'm sorry," he said slowly, looking down at the manuscript she had just delivered, and abstractedly disarranging it with thin, long fingers—"awfully sorry about the way things have turned out. I—"

She interrupted him sharply: "O no, you're not!"

He looked up quickly, amazed and disconcerted by the hint of anger in her tone. A little tremor ran through her body and she lifted her chin a trace higher while she met his stare with eyes hot and shining. Red spots like signals blazed in her either cheek.

Confused, he stammered: "I beg your pardon—!"

"I say you're not sorry. You're glad. You're glad, just like anybody else might be. I don't blame you."

She shot these words at him like bullets, with a disturbing display of passionate resentment. He opened his lips to speak, and thinking better of it, or else not thinking at all in his astonishment, gaped witlessly, wholly incapable of conceiving what had got into the girl.

With a flush of scornful satisfaction her eyes remarked these evidences, so easily to be misinterpreted; then quickly she lowered her head and turned away, leaning against the table, her back to the light and face in shadow.

"I don't blame you," she repeated in a sullen murmur.

He demanded blankly: "My dear girl, what do you mean?"

"I mean.... Why, just that you're glad to get rid of me!" she returned, looking away. He noticed the nervous strength with which her hands closed over the edge of the table, the whitening of their small knuckles.... "It's perfectly natural, I guess. I've been a nuisance so long, you've got every right to be tired of having me hang around—"

"But, my dear young woman—!"

She interrupted impatiently: "Oh, don't call me that. It don't mean anything. I guess I know when I'm not wanted. I'll go now and never bother you any more."

Moving a pace or two away, she resumed before Matthias could muster faculties to cope with this emergency:

"All the same, I don't want you to think I don't appreciate how good you've been to me—and patient, and all that. I am grateful—honest'—but I'm not as dumb as you think: I know when I'm in the way, all right!"

"But you entirely misunderstand me—"

"O no, I don't! You've made yourself plain enough, if you didn't think I had sense enough to see. It don't take brains to see through a man who's only trying to be polite and kind—all the time bored—"

"But, Miss Thursday—"

She turned toward the door.

He made a gesture of open exasperation. This was all so unfair! He had only meant to be kind and considerate and—and everything like that! And now she had drawn against him one of those unique and damnable indictments which seem to be peculiarly the product of a certain type of feminine mentality, and against which man is constitutionally incapable of setting up any effective defence, reason and logic alike being arbitrarily ruled out of court by the essential injustice of the charge. She chose to accuse him of having adopted toward her a mental attitude of which he was wholly guiltless; and there was no way by which he might persuade her of his innocence!

And it was so confoundedly clear that she considered herself, temporarily at least, abused and altogether justified of her complaint!

"Please," he begged, "don't go yet. Give me a chance!"

Her hand was on the knob. She hesitated, with an air of expectant and generous concession.

"You're really quite unfair," he began; but paused to regain control of himself and to wonder a little, blindly, why it was that he tolerated her impudence—for it couldn't be called anything less. It would be much more sensible and quite just to bow to her construction of their indefinite relations and let her go her ways without more argument.

In spite of everything, he could not refrain from one last attempt to set himself right.

"I don't quite know what to say to you," he resumed patiently, "when you insist on putting thoughts into my head that never were there. I've really wanted to help you—"

"Why?"

The monosyllable brought him up startled and staring. "Why? I hardly know...."

"Didn't you know better?"

"I don't understand you—"

Her eyes were wide and dark to his; all trace of petulance had faded from her manner. "You ought to. You ought to know," she insisted quietly, "that a man like you can't be just kind to a girl like me without.... Oh!" she cried, "I suppose it would've been different if the show had gone out—and everything—but now, with that hope gone—and nothing more to do for you—with no prospects but to lose you—the only friend I've got in the world—!"

Her voice broke at a high pitch, and she fell silent, turning away to stare with swimming eyes down at the table. He saw her trembling violently, her lips quivering. His amazement was extraordinary and bewildering. He heard his voice, as it might have been another's, saying: "Does it really mean so much to you?"

"Oh, can't you see!"

With a little, helpless motion of her hands, she lifted quickly to him a face of flushed and tear-dimmed loveliness. Another man might have been numb to its appeal: to Matthias it proved irresistible, coming sharp upon the shock of comprehending that she offered him her love, herself.

In a stride, hardly knowing what he did, he folded the girl in his arms. She lay therein for an instant as though bewitched by the exquisite wonder of this consummation of her fondest, maddest dreams; then in a breath became a woman reanimate and wild with love, clinging to him with all her strength, in an ecstasy of impassioned tenderness.

Bending his head, Matthias found her lips.

"My dear, dear girl!" he murmured.

"Oh," she breathed, "I have loved you always—always!"

"If I had only known, if I had only guessed—!"

"How could you? I didn't know ... not till a little while ago.... And even then, I couldn't have told you ... only the thought of losing you ... my dear, my dear!"

"I never guessed...."

"You're not sorry? You're not angry with me—?"

"Angry? I adore you!"

"You will love me always?"

"Always and forever."

"And never send me away from you?"

"You shall never leave me but of your own will."

"I think I was going mad with the thought of losing you!"

"My beloved girl!..."

The dusky stillness of the room was murmurous with whispers, sighs, terms of endearment half smothered and all but inaudible.

To these a foreign and alarming sound: a rapping at the door.

Matthias lifted his head, wincing from the interruption. The girl in his arms moved feebly, as if to disengage. He held her for a moment still more close. Her heart sounded sonorously against his bosom. "Hush!" he said in a low and warning voice. And then the rapping was repeated. At once he released her. She moved away, blushing and dishevelled, the fragrant freshness of her starched linen waist a crumpled disorder, her hair in disarray; her crimson face one of many evidences of the tumult of her senses.

In the hallway a man's voice said: "He must be in. There's a light—"

A woman answered impatiently: "Of course he's in; but the chances are he's asleep." She called in a louder tone: "Jack—Jack Matthias!"

Recognizing the voice of his aunt, that person groaned aloud—"O Lord!"—stole a glance at Joan, hesitated, shrugged, as if to say: There's no help for it! Then he answered the door.

Helena swept in with a swirl of impatient skirts. "Good heavens!" she cried. "What ails you, Jackie? We knocked half a dozen times. Were you—?"

Her glance encountering Joan, the words dried on her lips.

Tankerville, at her heels, jerked a motor gauntlet from his fat hand in order to grasp that of Matthias. "Surprised you—eh?" he chuckled—"getting in so late. Well, it's all accidental. We were bound home—been visiting the Hastings for a week, you know—but the car broke down just this side of Poughkeepsie and delayed us and...."

He became distressfully aware of his wife's silence, simultaneously ascertained the cause of it, and cut his speech short in full stride.

Matthias laughed a little, quietly: no good trying to carry off this situation; by many a clue aside from Joan's confusion, they were betrayed.

"You've caught us," he said cheerfully. "We may as well own up. Helena, this is Joan—Miss Thursday—my fiancée. And Joan, this is my aunt, Mrs. Tankerville—and her husband."

And immediately he was conscious of the necessity of bridging the pause that would inevitably hold these three confounded, pending adjustment to his amazing announcement.

"We had intended to keep it quiet for a while," he pursued evenly, shutting the door.... "Helena, let me help you with that cloak.... But since you've declared yourselves in, we can only ask you to hold your peace until we're ready. I'm sure we can count on you both."

Tankerville puffed an explosive: "Oh—certainly!"

Helena glanced shrewdly from Joan to Matthias. He smiled his confidence in her, knowing that he might count upon her doing the right thing to put the girl at ease—just shoulders of the girl as positively as he might count upon her violent opposition to the match as soon as she discovered that he had engaged himself to her pet abomination, a woman of the stage.

With a bright nod to him, she turned back to Joan; drew slowly near to her; dropped kindly hands upon the shoulders of the girl.

"But, my dear!" she exclaimed in a tone of expostulation—"you are beautiful!"


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