AT length, awed and a little shamefaced, "I beg your pardon," he stammered.
"For what?" she demanded quickly.
"For insisting. It wasn't - courteous. I'm sorry."
It was her turn to wonder; such delicacy of perception is not to be looked for in the make-up of a burglar. She tried to pass it off with a laugh. "The thief apologizes to the thief!"
Briefly hesitant, with a quick gesture she flung out a hand to him, generously. "You're right; I was unkind. Forgive me. Won't you shake hands? I - I do want to be a good comrade, since it has pleased Fate to throw us together so oddly." Her tone was almost plaintive, unquestionably appealing. Maitland was curiously moved by the touch of the slim, cool fingers that lay in his palm, but not unpleasantly. He frowned in perplexity, unable to analyze the sensation.
"You're not angry -?" she asked.
"No - but - but -"
"Why do you do this, little woman? Why do you stoop to this - trade of yo - of ours? Why sully your hands - and not only your hands - imperil your good name, to say nothing of your liberty -"
She drew her hand away quickly, interrupting him with a laugh that rang true as a coin new from the mint, honest and genuine. "And this," she cried, "this from Dan Anisty! Positively, sir, you are delightful! You grow more dangerously charming every minute! Your scruples, your consideration, your sympathy - they are touching - in you!" She wagged her head daintily in pretence of disapprobation. "But shall I tell you?" more seriously, doubtfully. "I think I shall ... truly. I do this sort of thing, since you must know, because - imprimis, because I like it. Indeed and I do! I like the danger, the excitement, the exercise of cunning and - and I like the rewards, too. Besides -"
The corners of her adorable mouth drooped ever so slightly.
"Why ... I need the money. You can't imagine how terribly. ... But this is not business! We must hurry. Will you, or shall I -?"
The crisis was passed; Maitland understood that he must wait until a more favorable time to renew his importunities. "I will," he said, dropping on his knees by the safe. "In my lady's service."
"Not at all," she interposed. "I insist. The job is now yours. Yours must be the profits."
"Then I wash my hands of the whole affair," he stated, in accents of finality. "I refuse. I shall go, and you can do as you will - blunder on," scornfully, "with your nitro-glycerine, your rags and drills and - and rouse the entire countryside, if you will."
"Ah, but -"
"Will you accept my aid?"
"On conditions, only," she stipulated. "Halvers?"
He shook his head.
"Half shares, or not at all!" She was firm.
"I'm not worthy the honor."
"But," he promised rashly, "I can save you - oh, heaps of trouble in other ways."
She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "If I must - then I do accept. We're partners, Dan Anisty and I!"
He nodded mute satisfaction, brushed the tools out of his way, and bent an attentive ear to the combination. The girl swept across the room and there followed a click simultaneous with the total extinction of light. "Why -?" he demanded, startled.
"The risk," she replied. "We have been frightfully careless."
Helplessly Maitland twirled the combination dial; without the light he was wholly at a loss. But a breath later her skirts rustled near him, the slide of the bull's-eye was jerked back and a circle of illumination thrown upon the lock. He lowered his head again, pretending to listen to the fall of the tumblers as the dial was turned, but covertly watching the letters and figures upon it. The room grew very silent, save for the faintly regular respiration of the girl bending at his side, her breath warm upon his cheek. The consciousness of her nearness almost stifled him. ... It is to be feared that Maitland prolonged his counterfeit study of the combination unnecessarily. Notwithstanding this, she seemed amazed by the ease with which he solved it.
"Splendid!" she applauded spontaneously, as the heavy door at length swung silently outward.
"Hush!" he cautioned.
Madness was running riot in his veins that night, swaying him to its will. He had never a doubt or thought of hesitancy, but forged ahead, wilfully blind to consequences. On the face of it he was playing the fool with rare adeptness, but the truth is that he simply could not have done other than as he did. Consciously he believed that he was merely testing the girl. The jewels lay in a secret compartment, behind the cash-drawer, which he withdrew brazenly. Fumbling in the aperture thus disclosed, he pressed the spring, releasing the panel at the back. It slid smoothly out of sight. The light of the bull's-eye discovered the canvas-bag within.
At his ear, incredulously, "How did you guess?" she breathed.
"Bribed the man Maitland hired to construct this," he fabricated shamelessly.
Rising, he passed over to the center-table, the girl following. "Steady with the light," he whispered; and loosed the string around the mouth of the bag, pouring its contents, a glistening, priceless, flaming, iridescent horde of treasure, upon the table.
"Oh!" said a small voice at his side. And again and again: "Oh! Oh! Oh!"
Maitland himself was moved by the wonder of it. The jewels seemed to fill the room with a flashing, amazing, coruscant glamour, rainbow-like. His breath came hot and fast as he gazed upon them, a queen's ransom, a fortune incalculable even to its owner. As for the girl he thought that the wonder of it must have struck her dumb. Not a sound came from the spot where she stood.
Then, abruptly, the sun went out. At least, that was the effect. The light of the handlamp vanished utterly, leaving a particolored blur swimming before his eyes, against impenetrable blackness. His lips opened; but a small hand fell firmly upon his own, and a tiny, tremulous whisper shrilled in his ear. "Hush - ah, hush!"
"Steady ... some one coming ... the jewels ..."
He heard the dull, musical clash of them as her hands swept them back into the bag, and a cold, sickening distrust rendered him almost faint with the sense of trust misplaced, illusions resolved into cold realities. His fingers closed convulsively about her wrists, but she was passive.
"Ah, but I might have expected that" came her reproachful whisper.
"Take them, then, my - my partner that was." Her tone cut like a knife, and the touch of the canvas-bag, as she forced it into his hands, was hateful to him.
"Forgive me -" he began.
For a space he listened, the silence seeming tremendous. Then, faint but distinct, he caught the tinkle and slide of the brazen rings supporting the smoking-room portiere. His hand sought the girl's; she had not moved, and the cool, firm pressure of her fingers steadied him. His mind worked quickly.
"Quick!" he told her, in the least of whispers. "Leave by the window you opened and wait for me by the motor-car."
There was no time to remonstrate with her. Already he had slipped away, shaping a course for the entrance to the passage, the thought dominant in his mind that at all costs the girl must be spared exposure. She was to be saved, whatever the hazard. Afterward ... the tapestry rustled, but he was yet too far away to spring. He crept on, crouching, vicious as a panther stalks its prey -
Like a thunderclap from a clear sky the glare of light leapt from the ceiling. Maitland paused, petrified, on tiptoe, eyes incredulous, brain striving to grapple with the astounding coincidence that had come to him. The third factor stood in the doorway, slender and tall, in evening dress - as was Maitland - a light, full overcoat hanging open from the shoulders, one hand holding back the curtain, the other arrested on the light switch. His lips opened and his eyes protruded with amazement. Feature for feature he was the counterpart of the man before him. In a word, here was the real Anisty.
(To be continued.)