"Money can do much, but it can't buy happiness."
"That's true, too—but 'tis able to buy comfort, and that's next door to happiness in the long-run, I'm thinkin'. But I'm watchin' her, and I don't intend to stand in her way, miss. I've told her so, and when the conquering lad comes along I mane to get out of the road."
"Have you said that?" Her face reached towards his with sudden intensity, and a snakelike brilliancy glittered in her eyes. " You've gone as far as that ?"
"Then act, for the time has come to make your promise good. Bertha already loves a man as every girl should love who marries happily, and the gossips are even now busy with her name."
He was hard hit, and slowly said: "I don't believe it! Who is the man?—tell me!" He demanded this in a tone that was not to be denied.
She delivered her sentence quickly. "She loves Ben. Haven't you seen it? She has loved him from their first meeting. I have known it for a long time, almost from the first; now everybody knows it, and the society reporters are beginning their innuendoes. The next thing will be her picture in the sensational press, and a scandal. Don't you know this ? It must not happen! We must make way for them—you and I. We cumber the path."
He sank back into his seat and studied her from beneath his overhanging eyebrows as intently, as alertly, as silently as he was wont to do when watching the faces of his opponents in a game of high hazard. There was something uncanny, almost elfish, in the woman's voice and eyes, and yet even before her words were fully uttered the truth stood revealed to him. His eyes lost their stern glare, his hands, which had clutched the arms of his chair, relaxed. "Are you sure?" he asked again, but more gently. "You've got to be sure," he ended, almost in menace.
"You may trust a jealous woman," she answered. "I don't blame them—observe that. We are the ones to blame—we who are crippled and in the way, and it is our duty to take ourselves off. What is the use of spoiling their lives just for a few years of selfish gratification of our own miserable selves?"
He felt about for comfort. "They are young; they can wait," he stammered, huskily.
"But they won't wait!" she replied. "Love like theirs can't wait. Don't you understand? They are in danger of forgetting themselves? Can't you see it? Ben talks of nothing else, dreams of nothing else but her, and she is fighting temptation every day, and shows it. It's all so plain to me that I can't bear to see them together. They have loved each other from the very first night they met—I felt it that day we first rode together. I've watched her grow into Ben's life till she absorbs his every thought. He's a good boy, and I want to keep him so. He respects your claim, and he is trying to be loyal to me, but he can't hold out. I am ready to sacrifice myself, but that would not save him. He loves your wife, and until you free her he is in danger of wronging her and himself and you. I've given up. There is nothing more on this earth for me! What do you expect to gain by holding to a wife's garment when she—the woman—is gone?"
The wildness in her eyes and voice profoundly affected Haney, who was without subtlety in affairs of the heart. The women he had known had been mainly coarse-fibred or of brutish directness of passion and purpose, and this woman's words and tone at once confused and appalled him. All she said of his unworthi-ness as a husband was true. He had gone to Sibley at first to win Bertha at less cost than making her his wife—but of that he had repented, and on his deathbed (as he thought) he had sought to endow her with his gold. Since then he had lived, but only as half a man. Up to this moment he had hoped to regain his health, but now every hope died within him.
Part of this he admitted at once, but he ended brokenly: "Tis a hard task you set for me. She's the vein of me bosom. 'Tis easy talkin', but the doin' is like takin' y'r heart in your two hands and throwin' it away. I knew she liked the lad—I had no doubt the lad liked her—but I did not believe she'd go to him so. I can't believe it yet—but I will not stand in her way. As I told her, I did not expect to tie her to an old hulk; I thought I was dying when I married her, and I only had the ceremony then to make sure that me money should feed her and protect her from the storms of the world. I wanted to take her out of a hole where she was sore pressed, and I wanted to make her people comfortable. I've brought her to this house. Me money-has always been to her hand. It rejoices me to see her spend it, and I've been hoping that these things—me money—would make up for me poor, old, crippled body. I've been a rough man. I lived as men who have no ties have always lived—till I met her, then I quit the game. I put aside everything that could make her ashamed. I'm no toad, miss—I know she has that in her soul that can take her out of my level. Were I twenty years younger and a well man I could folly her—but 'tis no use debating now. I'll talk with her this night—" He paused abruptly and turned upon her with piercing inquiry: "Have you discussed this with Ben?"
She was beginning to tremble in face of the storm which she foresaw looming before her. "No—I lacked the courage."
A faintly bitter smile stirred his upper lip. "Shall I tell him what you have said to me?"
"No, no!" she exclaimed, in sudden affright, "I will tell him."
"Be sure ye do. As for these editors, I have me own way of dealing with them. I will soon know whether you are right or wrong. Ye're a sick woman, and such, they say, have queer fancies. You admit you're jealous, and I've heard that jealous women are built of hell-fire and vitriol. Annyhow, you've not shaken me faith in me girl—but ye have in Ben, for I know the heart of man. We're all alike when it comes to the question of women."
"Please don't misunderstand me—it is to keep them both what they are, good and true, that I come to you —we must not tempt them to evil."