If there be trouble to herward and a lie of the
blackest can clear,
Lie while thy lips can move or a man is alive to hear.
---Kipling: Certain Maxims of Hafiz.
IN the dull, hot dusk of a summer's day, a green touring-car, swinging out of the east driveway of the park, pulled up smartly, trembling on the verge of the Fifty-Ninth Street cartracks, then more sedately (under the watchful regard of a mounted member of the traffic squad) crossed the Plaza and merged itself in the press of southbound vehicles on Fifth Avenue. In the big machine were one grimy, anxious-eyed chauffeur, and five young men, more or less disguised in dust, dusters, and goggles.
Of the passengers, four were in that state of subdued yet vibrant excitement which is apt to follow a long, hard drive over country roads. The fifth was Daniel Maitland, Esq., for whom no introduction is necessary other than mention of the fact that he was - and is - the identical gentleman of wealth and position whose solemn but sincere participation in the wildest of conceivable escapades had earned him the sobriquet of "Mad Maitland." Just at that time, to judge from his preoccupied pose, he was already weary of, if not bored by, the harebrained enterprise which, initiated on the spur of the moment and his own heedless suggestion, had brought him a hundred miles through the heat of a broiling afternoon, with a company of friends as irresponsible as himself, to seek dubious distraction in the night side of the city.
As the automobile progressed down the avenue, picking its way with elephantine nicety, twilight deepening, arc-lights blossoming suddenly upon their bronze columns into spheres of opalescent radiance, Mr. Maitland ceased to respond, ceased even to give heed, to the running fire of chaff, mostly personal, which occupied his companions. Listlessly engaged with a cigarette, he lounged upon the green leather cushions, half closing his eyes, and heartily wished himself free for the evening.
But he stood committed to the humor of the majority and lacked entirely the shadow of an excuse to desert; in addition to which he was altogether too lazy for the labor of manufacturing a lie of serviceable texture. So he abandoned himself to his fate, even though he foresaw with weariful particularity the program of the coming hours. To begin with, thirty minutes were to be devoted to a bath and dressing in his rooms. This was a prospect not so unpleasant to contemplate. It was the afterwards that repelled him: the dinner at Madeira's, the subsequent tour of the roof-gardens, the late supper at a club, and then, prolonged far into the small hours, the session around some green-covered table in a close room reeking with the fumes of good tobacco and hot with the fever of gambling.
Abstractedly Maitland frowned, tersely summing up the situation. " Beastly!" said he in an undertone. At this the green car wheeled abruptly around a corner below Thirty-Fourth Street, slid east half a block or more, and came to a palpitating halt. Maitland, looking up, recognized the entrance to his apartments, and sighed with relief for the brief respite from boredom that was to be his. He arose, negligently shaking off his duster, and stepped down to the sidewalk.
Somebody in the car called to him, and turning for a moment he stood at attention, an eyebrow raised quizzically, cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, hat pushed back from his forehead, hands in coat pockets, a tall, slender, sparely built figure of a man, clothed immaculately in flannels. When at length he was able to make himself heard -
"Good enough," he said clearly, though without raising his voice: "Madeira's in an hour. Right. Now, behave yourselves."
"Mind you show up on time!"
"Never fear," returned Maitland over his shoulder.
A witticism was flung back at him from the retreating car, but passed unregarded. Maitland's attention was completely distracted by the contemplation of the very unusual sight of a young and attractive woman coming out of a home for confirmed bachelors.
His apartment house stood upon a quiet block in a neighborhood severely respectable, a little west of Madison Avenue. An old-fashioned building, it contained but five suites of rooms, and these were exclusively occupied by men of his set and acquaintance. The janitor, himself a widower and confirmed misogynist, lived alone in the basement. Barring very special occasions when some one of the tenants felt called upon to give a tea in partial recognition of social obligations, no woman ever crossed the threshold of the building.
Therefore was Maitland astonished, and the more so because of the season. At any other time of the year he would readily have accounted for the phenomenon that now fell under his observation on the hypothesis that the woman was somebody's sister or cousin or aunt. But at present that explanation was unsatisfactory; he happened to know that not one of the tenants was in town, barring himself - and his own presence there was a thing entirely unforeseen.
Still incredulous, he mentally conned the list: Barnes, who occupied the first flat, was traveling on the continent; Conkling, of the third, had left a fortnight since to join a yachting party in the Mediterranean; Bannister and Wilkes of the fourth and fifth floors were in Newport and Buenos Ayres.
"Odd!" concluded Maitland.
So it was. She had just closed the door, apparently, and now stood poised, as if in momentary indecision, on the low stoop, glancing toward Fifth Avenue the while she fidgeted with a refractory button on a long white kid glove. Blurred though it was by the darkling twilight as well as by a thin veil, her face yet conveyed an impression of prettiness, an impression enhanced by careful grooming. From her hat, a small thing, something green with a superstructure of gray ostrich feathers, to the tips of her russet shoes - including her walking skirt and bolero of shimmering gray silk - she was distinctly "smart" and interesting.
He had keenly observant eyes, had Maitland, for all his detached pose; you are to understand that he comprehended all these points in the flickering of an instant, for the incident was over in two seconds. In one the lady's hesitation was resolved; in another she had passed down the steps and swept by Maitland without a glance, without even the trembling of an eyelash. And then he had a view of her back as she moved swiftly away toward the avenue.
Perplexed, he lingered upon the stoop until she had turned the corner, after which he let himself in with a latchkey and, dismissing the affair temporarily from his thoughts, or pretending to do so, ascended the single flight of stairs to his flat. Simultaneously heavy feet were to be heard clumping up the basement steps, and surmising that the janitor was coming to light the gas in the hall, the young man waited, leaning over the banisters. His guess proving correct, he called down:
"O'Hagan? Is that you?"
Th' saints presarve us ! But 'twas yersilf gave me th' sthart, Misther Maitland, sor!" O'Hagan paused in the gloom below, his upturned face quaintly illuminated by the flame of a wax taper in his gas-lighter.
"I'm dining in town to-night, O'Hagan, and dropped in to dress. Is anybody else at home?"
"Nivver a wan, sor. Shure, th' house do be quiet's anny tomb -"
"Then who was that lady who just came out, O'Hagan?"
"Leddy, sor?" - in unbounded amazement.
"Yes," impatiently. "A young lady left this house just as I was coming in. Who was she?"
"Shure an' I think ye must be dr'amin', sor. Divvle a female - rayspicts to ye - has been in this house for manny th' wake, sor."
"But, I tell you -"
"Belike 'twas some wan jist sthepped into the vesthibule, mebbe to tie her shoe, sor, and ye thought -"
"Oh, very well." Maitland gave up the inquiry as profitless. More than likely, he was prepared to concede, O'Hagan's theory was the right one; he could not have sworn that the woman had actually come out by the door; it was merely an impression, honest enough, but circumstantial.
"When you're through, O'Hagan," he told the Irishman, "you may come and shave me and lay out my things, if you will."
"Very good, sor. In wan moment."
Occasionally, in the absence of their valets, O'Hagan attended in that capacity one or another of the five bachelors, and, all things considered, made a very satisfactory gentleman's gentleman. He was, however, a trifle vague as to the duration of time; his one minute - had lengthened into ten ere he appeared to wait upon Maitland. The latter, with patience unruffled, employed the interval idly wandering through the flat, lighting the gas in every room and noting that all was as it should be, save that everything was badly in need of dusting. A memorandum was made of this circumstance to be spoken of to O'Hagan as something coming within the scope of his duties. As things turned out, however, Maitland's remarks to the janitor were very different from those he had contemplated.
In the end he brought up in the room that served him as study and lounging room, the "parlor" of the flat, fronting on the street. Standing beneath the chandelier, he looked about him for a moment. Here as elsewhere all was in order, but dusty.
Finding the atmosphere stale and oppressive, Maitland went to the windows and threw them open. A gush of warm air, humid and redolent of the streets, invaded the room, together with the roar of traffic. He rested his elbows on the sill and leaned out, staring absently into the night, for by now it was quite dark. Without concern he realized that he would be late at dinner; no matter, he would as willingly miss it altogether. For the time being he was absorbed in vain speculation about an unknown woman whose sole claim upon his consideration lay in a certain but quite immaterial glamour of mystery. Had she, or had she not, been in the house? And if she had, for what purpose? Upon what errand?
His eyes focused upon the void of darkness beneath him - night made visible by the street-lamps - he found himself suddenly and acutely sensible of the wonder and mystery of the city; the city whose secret life was fluent upon the hot, hard pavements below, whose voice throbbed, sibilant, vague, strident, inarticulate, upon the night-air; the city of which he was a part equally with the girl in gray whom he had never seen before and was never in all likelihood to see again, though the two of them were to work out their destinies within the bounds of Manhattan Island. And yet --
"It would be strange," he said thoughtfully, ''if -" He shook his head, smiling. "'Two shall be born,'" quoted Mad Maitland sentimentally, "'Two shall be born the whole wide world apart -'"
A piano-organ, having maliciously sneaked up beneath his window, drove him indoors with a crash of metallic melody. As he dropped the curtains his eye was caught by a gleam of white upon his desk, a letter that had been placed there, doubtless by O'Hagan, in Maitland's absence. At the same time, a splashing and gurgling of water from the direction of the bathroom informed him that the janitor-valet was even then preparing the bath. But that could wait.
Maitland took up the envelope and tore the flap, remarking the name and address of his lawyer in its upper left-hand corner. Unfolding the enclosure he read a date a week old, and two lines requesting him to communicate with his legal adviser upon "a matter of pressing moment."
"Bother," said Maitland. "What the dickens."
He pulled up short, eyes lighting.
"That's so, you know," he argued.
"Bannermann will be delighted, and - and even business is better than rushing round town and pretending to enjoy yourself when it's hotter than the seven brass hinges. ... I'll do it!"
He stepped quickly to a telephone in one corner of the room, gave Central a number, and in a brief moment was in communication with the residence of the lawyer.
"This is Mr. Maitland. I wish to speak with Mr. Bannermann. ... That you, Bannermann? ... Yes. Been out of town and just got your letter. Only in for to-night. ... Entirely at your service. Can you dine with me at the Primordial? ... Good enough. In half an hour, then. Good-by."
Maitland hung up the receiver, waited a bit, and put it again to his ear. This time he called up Madeira's and requested the head-waiter to make his excuses to "Mr. Cressy and his party"; Mr. Maitland was detained upon a matter of business but would endeavor to join them later in the evening. With a satisfied smile he turned back to the desk, with purpose to replace the letter.
"Bath's ready, sor."
O'Hagan's announcement fell upon heedless ears. Maitland was motionless before his desk - transfixed with amazement.
"Bath's ready, sor "-imperatively.
"Maitland roused slightly. "Very well, in a minute, O'Hagan."
Wondering, he bent forward and drew the tip of one forefinger across the dark, polished wood of the desk. It left a dark, heavy line, and beside it, clearly defined in a thick layer of dust, was the silhouette of a hand, a woman's hand, small, delicate, unmistakably feminine of contour.
"Well!" declared Maitland frankly, "I am damned!"
Further and closer inspection developed the fact that the imprint had been only recently made. Within the hour unless Mad Maitland were indeed mad or dreaming - a woman had stood by his desk and rested her hand, palm down, upon it; not yet had the dust had time to settle and blur the sharp outlines.
Maitland shook his head with bewilderment, thinking of the gray girl. But no. He rejected his half-formed explanation - the obvious one. Besides, what had he there worth a thief's while? Beyond a few "articles of virtue and bigotry" and his pictures, there was nothing valuable in the entire flat. His papers? But he had nothing; a handful of letters, a check-book, a bank-book - all useless. Still -
It was a flat-topped desk of mahogany, with two pedestals of drawers, locked. Maitland determined this latter fact by trying to open them without a key; failing in which he produced a key-ring and had the drawers open in a jiffy. But their contents were undisturbed. And again he wagged his head from side to side, in solemn stupefaction. "This is beyond me. But I've got to know what it means."
O'Hagan was shuffling his impatience in the hall. Pondering, Maitland relocked the drawers and got upon his feet. A small bowl of beaten brass, which he used as an ash-receiver, stood ready to his hand. He took it up, carefully blew it clean of dust, and inverted it over the print of the hand. On top of the bowl he placed a heavy book.
"Come here, O'Hagan. ... You see that desk? I want you not to touch it. Don't touch anything on it until I give you permission. Don't even dust it. Understand?"
"Yiss, sor; very good, sor."