"Don't!" she said, starting back in alarm—"don't!"
His face changed instantly, the clear candor of his voice reassured her. "Don't be afraid. I mean what I said. You need have no fear that I—that my offence will be repeated;" then, with intent to demonstrate his self-command, he abruptly changed the subject. "The Congdons sent their love to you, and Miss Franklin commissioned me to tell you that she will give you all hei time next summer—if you wish her to do so."
She was glad of this message and added: "I need her, sure thing. Every day I spend here makes me seem like Mary Ann—I don't see how people can talk as smooth as they do. I'm crazy to get to school again and make up for lost time. Joe Moss makes me feel like a lead quarter. Being here with all these nice people and not able to talk with them is no fun. Couldn't I whirl in and go to school somewhere back here?"
"Oh no, that isn't necessary. You are getting your education by association—you are improving very fast."
Her face lighted up. "Am I ? Do you mean it?"
"I do mean it. No one would know—to see you here—that you had not enjoyed all the advantages."
"Oh yes, but I'm such a bluff. When I open my mouth they all begin to grin. They're onto my game all right."
He smiled. "That's because of your picturesque phrases—they like to hear you speak. I assure you no one would think of calling you awkward or—or lacking in—in charm."
Haney's return cut short this defensive dialogue, and with a sense of relief Bertha retreated—almost fled to her room—leaving the two men to discuss their business.
At the moment she had no wish to participate in a labor controversy. She was entirely the woman at last, roused to the overpowering value of her own inheritance. Her desire to manage, to calculate, to plan her husband's affairs was gone, and in its place was a willingness to submit, a wish for protection which she had not hitherto acknowledged. She brooded for a time on Ben's words, then hurriedly began to dress— with illogical desire to make herself beautiful in his eyes. As she re-entered the room she caught Haney's repeated declaration—"I will be loyal to the men"— and Ben's reply.
"Very well, I'll go back and do the best I can to keep them in line, but Williams says the governor is entirely on the side of the mine-operators."
"Does he?" retorted Haney. "Well, you say to the governor that Mart Haney was a gambler and saloonkeeper during the other 'war,' and now that he's a mine-owner, with money to hire a regiment of deppy-ties, his heart is with the red-neckers—just where it was. Owning a paying mine has not changed me heart to a stone."
Ben, as well as Bertha, understood the pride he took in not whiffling with the shift of wind, but at the same time he considered it a foolish kind of loyalty. "Very well, I'll take the six-o'clock train to-night in order to be on hand."
"What's the rush?" said Haney; "stay on a day or two and see the town with us—'tis a great show."
Bertha, re-entering at this moment in her shining gown, put the young attorney's Spartan resolution to rout. He stammered: "I ought to be on the ground before the mine-owners begin to open fire, and, besides— Alice is not very well."
At the mention of Alice's name Bertha's glance wavered and her eyelids fell. She did not urge him to stay, and Haney spoke up, heartily: "I'm sorry to hear she's not well. She was pretty as a rose the night of the dinner."
"She lives on her nerves," Ben replied, falling into sadness. "One day she's up in the clouds and dancing, the next she's flat in her bed in a darkened room unwilling to see anybody."
" 'Tis the way of the White Death," thought Haney, but he spoke hopefully: "Well, spring is here and a long summer before her—she'll be herself against October."
"I trust so," said Ben, but Bertha could see that he was losing hope and that his life was being darkened by the presence of the death angel.
Haney changed the current of all their thinking by saying to Bertha: "If you are minded to go home, now is your chance, acushla. You can return with Mr. Fordyce, while Lucius and I go on to New York the morning."
"No, no!" she cried out in a panic. "No, I am going with you—I want to see New York myself," she added, in justification. The thought of the long journey with Ben Fordyce filled her with a kind of terror, a feeling she had never known before. She needed protection against herself.
"Very well," said Haney, "that's settled. Now let's show Mr. Fordyce the town."
Ben put aside his doubt and went forth with them, resolute to make a merry day of it. He seemed to regain all his care-free temper, but Bertha remained uneasy and at times abnormally distraught. She spoke with effort and listened badly, so busily was she wrought upon by unbidden thoughts. The question of her lover's disloyalty to Alice Heath, strange to say, had not hitherto troubled her—so selfishly, so childishly had her own relationship to him filled her mind. She now saw that Alice Heath was as deeply concerned in Ben's relationship to her as Haney, and the picture of the poor, pale, despairing lady, worn with weeping, persistently came between her and the scenes Mart pointed out on their trips about the city. Did Alice know—did she suspect ? Was that why she was sinking lower and lower into the shadow ?
With these questions to be answered, as well as those she had already put to herself concerning Mart, she could not enjoy the day's outing. She rode through the parks with cold hands and white lips, and sat amid the color and bustle and light of the dining-room with only spasmodic return of her humorous, girlish self. The love which shone from Ben's admiring eyes only added to her uneasiness.
She was very lovely in a new gown that disclosed her firm, rounded young bosom, like a rosebud within its calyx—the distraction upon her brow somehow adding to the charm of her face—and Ben thought her the most wonderful girl he had ever known, so outwardly at ease and in command was she. "Could any one," he thought, "be more swiftly adaptable?"
They went to the theatre, and her beauty and her curiously unsmiling face aroused the admiration and curiosity of many others of those who saw her. At last, under the influence of the music, her eyes lost their shadow and grew tender and wistful. She ceased to question herself and gave herself up to the joy of the moment. The play and the melody — hackneyed to many of those present—appealed to her imagination, liberating her from the earth and all its concerns. She turned to Ben with eyes of rapture, saying, "Isn't it lovely!"
And he, to whom the music was outworn and a little shoddy, instantly agreed. "Yes, it is very beautiful," and he meant it, for her pleasure in it brought back a knowledge of the charm it had once possessed.
They dined together at the hotel, but the thought of Ben's departure brought a pang into Bertha's heart, and she fell back into her uneasy, distracted musing. She was being tempted, through her husband, who repeated with the half-forgetfulness of age and weakness, "You'd better go back with Mr. Fordyce, Bertie," but there was something stronger than her individual will in her reply—some racial resolution which came down the line of her good ancestry, and with almost angry outcry she answered:
"There's no use talking that! I'm going with you," and with this she ended the outward siege, but the inward battle was not closed till she had taken and dropped the hand her lover held out in parting next morning, and even then she turned away, with his eyes and the tender cadences of his voice imprinted so vividly on her memory that she could not banish them, and she set face towards the farther East with the contest of duty and desire still going forward in her blood.