STANDING in the middle of the road, watching the dust-cloud that 'rose behind the fast disappearing motor-car, Maitland cut a figure sufficiently forlorn and disconsolate to have distilled pity from the least sympathetic heart. His hands were pushed stiffly down to the very bottoms of his trouser-pockets; a rumpled silk hat was set awry on the back of his head; his shirt-bosom was sadly crumpled; above the knees, to a casual glance, he presented the appearance of a man carefully attired in evening dress; below, his legs were sodden and muddied, his shoes of patent-leather twin wrecks. Alas for jauntiness and elegance, ease and aplomb!
"Tricked," he observed casually, and protruded his lower lip, thus adding to the length of a countenance naturally long. "Outwitted by a chit of a girl! Dammit!"
But this was melodrama. Realizing which he strove to smile, a sorry attempt. "'Handsome Dan,'" quoted he and, cocking his head to one side, eyed the road inquiringly. "Where in thunder d'you suppose she got hold of that name?" Bestowed upon him in his callow college days, it had stuck to him burr-like for many a weary year. Of late, however, its use had lapsed among his acquaintances; he had begun to congratulate himself upon having lived it down. And now it was resurrected, flung at him in sincere mockery by a woman whom, to his knowledge, he had never before laid eyes upon. Odious appellation, hateful invention of an ingenious enemy!
"Handsome Dan! She must have known me all the time - all the time I was making an exhibition of myself. ... Wentworth'? I know no one of that name. Who the dickens can she be?"
If it had not been contrary to his code of ethics, he would gladly have raved, gnashed his teeth, footed the dance of rage with his shadow. Indeed his restraint was admirable under the circumstances. He did nothing whatever but stand still for a matter of five minutes, racking his memory vainly for a clue to the identity of "Miss Wentworth." At length he gave it up in despair and abstractedly felt for his watch-fob. It wasn't there. Neither, as investigation showed, was the watch. At this crowning stroke of misfortune, imagining that the timepiece must have slipped from his pocket into the water while he was tinkering with that infamous carbureter, Maitland turned eloquently red in the face.
"The price," he meditated aloud, with an effort to resume his pose, "is a high one to pay for a wave of a gray glove and the echo of a pretty girl's laugh." With which final fling at fortune he set off again for Maitland Manor, trudging heavily but at a round pace through dust that soon settled upon the damp cloth of his trouser-legs and completed their ruin. But Maitland was beyond being disturbed by such trifles. His wounded vanity engaged his solicitude to the exclusion of all other interests.
At the end of forty-five minutes he had covered the remaining distance between Greenfields station and Maitland Manor. For five minutes more he strode wearily over the side-path by the box-hedge which separated his ancestral acres from the public highway. At length, with an exclamation, he paused at the first opening in the living-wall, a wide entrance for a pebbled carriage-drive that wound away to the house, invisible in the waning light, situated in the shelter of the grove of trees that studded the lawn.
"Gasoline! Brrr!" said Maitland, shuddering and shivering with the combination of the nauseous odor and the night's coolness, now making itself felt unpleasantly. Though he hated the smell with all his heart, manfully inconsistent he raised his head, sniffing the air for further evidence, and got his reward in a sickening gust. "Tank leaked," he commented with brevity. "Quart of the stuff must have trickled out right here. Ugh! If it goes on at this rate, there'll be another breakdown before she gets home. Serve her right, too!" he added with vindictive emphasis. But for all his indignation he acknowledged to himself a sneaking wish that he might be at hand again, in such event, a second time to give gratuitous service to the gray lady.
Analyzing this frame of mind, not without surprise and disdain of himself for entertaining it he entered the drive-way and struck off across the lawn, making directly for his own front door. The hour was, according to his dead reckoning, two, or something later, and a chill was stealing in upon the land, wafted gently northward from the Sound. All the world, save Maitland, seemed to slumber, breathless. Gray shreds of mist stole wraith-like between the serried trunks of trees, veiling the wan and pallid face of the moon, now nearing the horizon, while in silent rivalry long and velvety shadows stole across ample breadths of dew-drenched grass. Somewhere a bird stirred and, chirped sleepily, and the inconsiderable sound was startling in the rapt silence.
In a moment or two the Manor came into view. Before its broad verandas its owner paused indefinitely, staring idly at the pale, columned facade and wondering if his entrance at that unholy hour would be apt to rouse the servants. It seemed unlikely; they were sound sleepers. He contemplated with mild amusement the prospect of their surprise in the morning when they should find the master in occupation.
"Bannermann was right," he conceded, "any -" The syllables died upon his lips; his gaze became fixed; his heart thumped madly for an instant; and instinctively he held his breath, tip-toeing to the edge of the veranda the better to command a view of the library windows. These opened from ceiling to floor and should by rights have presented to his vision a blank expanse of dark glass, but, oddly enough, even while thinking of his lawyer's warning, he had fancied - "Ah!" he cried softly.
A disk of white light, perhaps a foot or eighteen inches in diameter, flitted swiftly across the glass and vanished. "Ah, the devil, the devil!" murmured the young man unconsciously.
The light appeared again, dancing across the inside wall of the room, and was lost as abruptly as before. Maitland on impulse buttoned his top-coat across his chest, turned up the collar to hide the whiteness of his linen, darted stealthily a yard or two to one side, and with one noiseless bound reached the floor of the veranda. A breath later he was at the front door, where at the first glance, he discovered the means of entrance used by the midnight marauder. The doors stood ajar, showing a black interval between. So that, then, was the way! Cautiously Maitland put a hand upon the knob and pushed.
A sharp and penetrating squeak brought him to an abrupt standstill, heart hammering wildly. Gathering himself for a sudden spring, if need be, he crept back toward the library windows and reconnoitering cautiously, determined the fact that the bolts had been withdrawn on the inside of one window-frame which was swinging wide. "It's a wise crook that provides for his own quick exit," considered Maitland.
The sagacious one was not, apparently, leaving, just then. On the contrary, having made all things ready for a hurried flight upon the first alarm, the intruder had turned back, as was clearly indicated by the motion of the light within. The clink of steel touching steel was audible, and Maitland nodded. Bannermann was indeed justified; that very moment the safe was being attacked.
Maitland returned noiselessly to the door. His mouth had settled into a hard, unyielding, thin line, and there was a dangerous light in his eyes. The fop had disappeared, giving way to the man that was in Maitland - the man ready to fight for his own, naked hands against revolver, if need be. True, he had but to go to the gun-room to find firearms in plenty, but these must be loaded and precious moments wasted in the process - moments in which the burglar might gain access to and make off with his booty. Maitland had no notion of permitting anything of this sort to occur. He counted upon taking his enemy unawares, difficult as he conceived such a feat to be in the case of a professional cracksman.
In the hallway, groping his way to the library door, his fingers encountered its panels; it was closed, doubtless secured upon the inside; the slightest movement of the handle was calculated to alarm the housebreaker. Maitland paused, deliberating another and better plan. He had in mind a short passageway connecting the library with the smoking-room. In the library itself a heavy tapestry curtained this opening, while an equally heavy portiere took the place of a door at the other end. In the natural order of things a burglar would overlook this.
Inch by inch the young man edged down the hallway and into the smoking-room, the door to which stood providentially open. Once inside it was but a moment's work to feel his way to the velvet folds and draw them aside, fortunately without rattling the brass rings from which the curtain depended. He entered the passage, acutely alert, recognizing from the click of metal that the intruder was still at his difficult task.
Inch by inch - there was the tapestry. Very gently the householder pushed it aside. The insidious fragrance of burning varnish from the dark lantern penetrated the passage while he stood on its threshold, feeling along the wall for the electric-light switch. Unhappily he missed it at the first cast and - heard from within a quick, deep hiss of breath. Something had put the burglar on guard.
Another instant wasted and it would be too late. The young man had to chance it. Without further hesitation he stepped boldly into the danger-zone, at the same time making one final, desperate pass at the spot where the switch should have been - and missed it again. On the instant there came a click of a different caliber from those that had preceded it. A revolver had been cocked, somewhere there in the blank darkness.
Then followed a voice, accents ringing sharp and imperative: "Stand where you are!"
Maitland knew enough not to move. On the other hand, the warning came too late his fingers had found the switch at last and turned it. The glare dazzled both momentarily, but the flash and report for which Maitland waited did not come. When his eyes had focused themselves to the suddenly altered conditions, he saw, directly before him and some six feet distant, a woman, a slight figure, dark-cloaked, resolute upon her two feet, head framed in veiling, features effectually disguised in a motor-mask whose round, staring goggles shone blank in the blinding light.
On her part, she must have recognized him on the instant. As for him, his wits were wool-gathering, scattered by the revolver which stared him in the face. New as the experience was to him, he seemed to find it fascinating and gave back look for look to the black, expressionless, deadly eye, of the muzzle, seeming to see the very point of the bullet that lurked in the cylinder - seeing, indeed, farther, clear into the eternity that lay on the other side of a slender trembling fingertip.
But presently the weapon wavered and was lowered. The woman's voice, tinged with irony, brought him to his senses. "Oh!" she remarked coolly, "it's only you."
Gasping, he parroted the pronoun: "You - you!"
"Were you expecting to find any one else?" she inquired suavely.
"I confess -" He lifted his shoulders helplessly. "Certainly I did not ezpect to find you here, Miss Wentworth. And then the black cloak, you know -"
"Reversible, of course; gray inside, as you see - Handsome Dan!" And the girl laughed shortly, pulling aside an edge of the garment to reveal its silken gray lining with the ruffles of the gray skirt beneath. He nodded stupefied appreciation of the device - wondering, now that he had caught her, what he was to do with her. Simultaneously he was troubled by the repetition of that obsolete nick-name.
"Handsome Dan," he iterated, all but mechanically. "Why do you call me that? Do you know me? I could swear we had never met until this night!"
"But you are altogether too modest," she laughed. "Not that it is a bad trait in the character of a professional, sir! But, really! it does seem incredible that a gentleman so widely known as Handsome Dan Anisty, whose portrait and biography have occupied space in every yellow journal in America during the past two months, should feel surprise at being recognized." And, thrusting the revolver in a pocket of her cloak, "I thought you a servant - or Maitland himself," she concluded.
"But" he temporized, trying to get his bearings.
"You are certainly a very bold man, and as surely a very careless one." Did he catch a glint of admiration in the eyes behind the goggles? Now, if they ever get hold of my portrait and publish it. ... Well!" she sighed, lifting slender, bare fingers to the mass of ruddy hair, "I suppose in that event I shall have to become a natural blonde."
Her humor, her splendid composure, the lightness of her tone, combined with the half-laughing, half-serious look that she swept up at him, eased the tension of his emotions. For the first time since he had entered the room he smiled. Then, for a time, he regarded her steadfastly in silence, thinking deeply. So he resembled this burglar, Anisty, strongly enough to be mistaken for him - eh? Plainly enough the girl believed him to be Anisty. ... Well, and why not? Why shouldn't he be Anisty for the time being, if it suited his purpose so to masquerade?
It might possibly suit his purpose. His position was uncommonly difficult. As Maitland he had on his hands a female thief, a hardened character, a common malefactor (strange that he found so little relish in the terms!) caught red-handed; as Maitland, his duty was to hand her over to the law, to be dealt with as - what she was. Yet, even as these considerations were urging themselves upon him, he knew that his eyes were appraising her with open admiration and interest. She stood before him, slight, delicate, pretty, appealing in her ingenuous candor. How could he bring himself to deal with her as he might with - well, Anisty himself?
As Anisty, however - if he chose to assume that expert's identity for the nonce - he would be placed at once on a plane of equality with the girl as a fellow of her craft she could hardly refuse his attentions. As Anisty, he would be in a position to earn her friendship, to gain her confidence, to learn something of her needs, to aid and protect her from the consequences of her misdeeds, possibly even to divert her footsteps into the paths of a calling less hazardous and more honorable. Worthy ambition: to reform a burglar! Maitland regained something of his lost self-esteem, applauding himself for entertaining so laudable a motive.
Thus he chose his course for better or worse in those few seconds, thereby proving his incontestible title to the name of Mad Maitland. His face lightened, his manner changed, he assumed with avidity the role for which she had cast him and which he stood so ready to accept and act. "Well and good," he conceded. "I suppose one may as well own up -"
"Oh, I know you," she assured him, with a little, confident shake of her head. "There's no deceiving me. But," and her smile became rueful, "if only you'd waited ten minutes more. Of course, I recognized you from the first, down there by the river, and knew very well what your lay was. You gave yourself completely away by mentioning the distance from the river to the Manor. And I did so want to get ahead of you on this job! What a feather in my cap, to have forestalled Dan Anisty! ... But hadn't you better have a little care with those lights? You seem to forget that there are servants in the house. Really, you know, I find you most romantically audacious, Mr. Anisty - quite in keeping with your reputation."
"You overwhelm me," he murmured. "Believe me, I have slight conceit in my fame, such as it is." And, crossing to the windows, he loosed the heavy velvet curtains and let them fall together, drawing their edges close so that no ray of light might penetrate the windows.
She watched him with interest. "You seem well acquainted here."
"Of course. Any man of imagination is at pains to study every house he enters. I have a map of the premises, house and grounds, here." He indicated his forehead with a long forefinger.
"Quite right, too, and well worth one's while. If rumor is to be believed, you have ordinarily more than your labor for your pains. You have taught me something already. ... Ah, well!" she sighed, "I suppose I may as well acknowledge my inferiority - as neophyte to hierophant. Master!" She courtesied low, "I beg you to proceed and let thy chela profit through observation!" A small white hand gestured significantly toward the collection of burglar's tools - drills and chisels, skelton-keys, putty and all - neatly displayed upon a rug before the massive safe.
"You mean that you wish me to crack this safe for you?", he inquired, with inward consternation.
"Not for me. Disappointment I admit is mine but not because of the money loss I sustain. In the presence of the master I am content to stand humbly to one side, as befits one of my lowly state in - the ranks of our profession. I resign, abdicate in your favor, sir, claiming nothing by right of priority."
"You are too generous," he mumbled, confused by her thinly veiled ridicule.
"Not at all," she replied briskly. "I am entirely serious. My loss of to-day will prove my gain of to-morrow. I look for incalculable benefit through study of your methods. My own, I confess," with a contemptuous toss of her head toward the burglar's kit, "are clumsy, antiquated, out of date. But then I'm only an amateur."
"Oh, but a woman!" he began to apologize on her behalf.
"Oh, but a woman!" she rapped out smartly. "I wish you to understand that this woman, at least, is no mean -" And she hesitated.
"Thief?" he supplied crudely.
"Yes, thief ! We're two of a feather, at that."
"True enough. ... But - you were first in the field. I fail to see why I should reap any reward for tardiness. The spoils must be yours."
It was a test. Maitland watched her keenly, fascinated by the subtlety of the game. "But I refuse, Mr. Anisty - positively refuse to go to work while you stand aside and - and laugh."
Pride! He stared, openly amazed, at this bewilderingly feminine bundle of inconsistencies. With each facet of her character that she disclosed to him, minute by minute, the study of her became to him the more engrossing. He drew nearer, eyes speculative. "I will agree," he said slowly, " to crack the safe, but upon conditions."
She drew back imperceptibly, amused but asserting her dignity. "Yes?" she led him on, though in no accent of encouragement.
"Back there, in the river," he drawled deliberately, forcing the pace, "I found you - beautiful."
She flushed, lip curling. "And, back there, in the river, I thought you - a gentleman!"
"Although a burglar?"
"A gentleman for all that!"
"I promise you I mean no harm," he prefaced. "But don't you see how I am putting myself in your power? Every moment you know me better, while I have not yet even looked into your face with the light full upon it. Honor among thieves, little woman!"
She chose to ignore the caressing note in his voice. "You're wasting time," she hinted crisply.
"I am aware of that fact. Permit me to remind you that you are helping me to waste it. I will not go ahead until I have seen your face. It is simply an ordinary precaution."
"Oh, if it's a matter of business -"
"Self-preservation," he corrected with immense gravity.
She hesitated but a moment longer, then with a quick gesture removed her mask. Maitland's breath came fast as he bent forward peering into her face but he schooled his own features to an intent but inoffensive expression. He feared the loud thumping of his heart would betray him. As he looked it became evident that the witchery of moonlight had not served to exaggerate the sensitive, the almost miniature, beauty of her. If anything its charm was greater there in the full glare of the electric chandelier, as she faced him, giving him glance for glance, quite undismayed by the intentness of his scrutiny. In the clear light her eyes were lustrous pools of tawny flame, her hair showed itself of a rich and luminous coppery hue, spun to immeasurable fineness, a faint color burned in her cheeks, but in contrast her forehead was as snow - the pure, white and close-grained skin that is the heritage of the red-haired woman the world over, as well as her chiefest charm - while her lips. ... As for her lips, the most coherent statement to be extracted from Maitland is to the effect that they were altogether desirable, from the very first.
The hauteur of her pose, the sympathy and laughter that lurked in her mouth, the manifest breeding in the delicate modeling of her nostrils and the firm, straight arch of her nose, the astonishing allurement of her eyes, combined with their resolute dignity, these, while they bewitched the young man, abashed him. He found himself suddenly endowed with a painful appreciation of his own imperfections, the littleness of his cosmos, the coarseness of his masculine fiber, the poor futility of his ways contrasted with her perfections. He felt as if rebuked for some unwarrantable presumption. ... For he had looked into eyes that were windows of a soul, and the soul was that of a child, unsullied and immaculate.
You may smile; but as for Maitland - it was no laughing matter. From that moment his understanding was clear that, whatever she might claim to be, however damning the circumstances in which she appeared to him, there was no evil in her. But what he did not know, and did not even guess, was that, from the same instant, his being was in bondage to her will. So love comes, strangely masked.