At the door of Ben's office building she got out, leaving him in the carriage. As she looked back at him from the doorway something which seemed like anguish in his face moved her, and she returned to the wheel to say, "Never mind, Mart, we'll buy a new home down there."
He was struggling as if with the pangs of death, but he said, " 'Tis childish, I know, but I hate to say goodbye to it all."
She patted his hand as if soothing a child, and, turning, mounted the stairway. How weak and old he seemed at the moment!
Fordyce was at work. She could hear his typewriter click laboriously (he was his own typist as yet), and she stood for a moment in the hall with hand pressed hard upon her bosom, the full significance of this last visit overwhelming her. Here was the end of her own happiness—the beginning of long-drawn misery and heart-hunger. Her blood beat tumultuously in her throat, and each throb was a physical, smothering pain.
At last she grew calmer and knocked. Ben opened the door, and his face shone with joy. "You're late!" he reproachfully exclaimed; then, as he peered into the hall, he asked, "Where's the Captain?"
She was very white as she answered: "He can't come up this morning. He ain't able."
"Is he worse?" His face expressed swift concern.
"Yes—Dr. Steele came last night and examined him—"
"What did he say?"
"He told us to 'get out' of here—quick."
He drew her in and shut the door. " Tell me all about it. What is the matter?"
"It's his heart. He can't stand it here. We've got to get away—down the slope—to-morrow."
"Not to stay?"
"That's what Steele says. Mart's in bad shape."
He searched her face with earnest gaze. "I can't understand that. He seemed so happy and so much better, too."
"He's been a good deal worse than he let on, or else he fooled himself. The doctor found his heart jumping cogs right along."
"And he positively ordered you to go below?"
"Yes—he scared me. He said Mart might die any minute—if he stayed."
In the silence that followed his face became almost as white as her own, for he understood and shared her temptation. At last he said, slowly, "And you are going with him?"
"Yes, I must. Don't you see I must?"
He understood, too. Haney had refused to go without her, and to stay would be to shorten his life.
"How did the Captain take it ?" he asked with effort.
"Mighty hard at first, but he's fairly cheerful to-day. He wants to leave me here—but I'm going with him. It's my business to be where he is," she added. "He sure needs me now."
"What are you going to do with the house?"
"Leave it just as it is. He won't sell it or rent it. He wants you to look after all his business just the same—"
"I can't do that."
"Because I don't intend to stay here." As he spoke his excitement mounted. "My little world was all askew before you came. You've put the finishing-touch to it. I'm ready to make my own will at this moment."
"You mustn't talk that way," she admonished. "I don't like to see you lose your grip." Her words were commonplace, but her hesitating, tremulous voice betrayed her and exalted him. "I'm—we are depending on you."
His face, his eyes, filled her with light. She forgot all the rest of the world for the moment, and he, looking upon her with a knowledge that she loved him and was about to leave him, spoke fatefully—as if the words came forth in spite of his will. "You don't seem to realize how deeply I'm going to miss you. You cannot know how much your presence means to me here in this small town. I will not stay on without the hope of seeing you. If you go, I will not remain here another day."
She fought against the feeling of pride, of joy, which these words gave her. "You mustn't say that—you've got to stay with Alice."
" Alice!" his voice rose. "Alice has given me back my ring and is going home. When you are gone, what is left in this town for me ?" He rose and walked up and down, a choking sob in his throat. "My God! It's horrible to feel our good days ending in a crash like this. What does it all mean? I refuse to admit that our shining little world is only a house of cards. Are we never to see each other again? I refuse to say good-bye. I won't have it so!" He faced her again with curt inquiry. "Where are you going to live?"
"I don't know—maybe in Chicago—maybe in New York."
"No matter where it is, I will come to you. I cannot lose you out of my life—I will not!"
"No, you mustn't do that. It ain't square to Mart— I can't see you any more—now."
He seized upon the significance of that little final word. "What do you mean by now? Do you mean because Mart is worse ? Or do you mean that I have forfeited your good-will by my own action ?" He came closer to her and his voice was low and insistent as he continued: "Or do you mean—something very sweet and comforting to me ? Do you love me, Bertie ? Do you? Is that your meaning?"
She struggled against him as she answered: "I don't know— Yes, I do know—it ain't right for me—for you to say these things to me while I am Mart Haney's wife."
He caught at her hands and looked upon her with face grown older and graver as he bitterly wailed: "Why couldn't we have met before you went to him? You must not go with him now, for you are mine at heart, you belong to me."
She rose with instinctive desire to flee, but he held her hands in both of his and hurried on: "You do love me! I am sure of it! Why try to conceal it? You would marry me if you were free?" His eyes pierced her as he proceeded, transformed by the power of his own plea. "We belong to each other — don't you know we do? I am sorry for Alice, but I do not love her—I never loved her as I love you. She understands this. That is why she has returned my ring—there is nothing further for me to say to her. As for Marshall Haney I pity him, as you do, but he has no right to claim you."
"He don't claim me. He wants me to stay here." "Then why don't you?" "Because he needs me." "So do I need you."
"But not the way — I mean he is sick and helpless."
He drew her closer. "You must not go. I will not let you go. You're a part of my life now." His words ceased, but his eyes called with burning intensity.
She struggled, not against him, but in opposition to something within herself which seemed about to overwhelm her will. It was so easy to listen, to yield—and so hard to free her hands and turn away, but the thought of Haney waiting, and a knowledge of his confident trust in her, brought back her sterner self.
"No!" she cried out sharply, imperiously. "I won't have it! You mustn't touch me again, not while he lives! You mustn't even see me again!"
He understood and respected her resolution, but could not release her at the moment. "Won't you kiss me good-bye?"
She drew her hands away. "No, it's all wrong, and you know it! I'll despise you if you touch me again! Good-bye!"
Thereupon his clean, bright, honorable soul responded to her reproof, rose to dominion over the flesh, and he said: "Forgive me. I didn't mean to tempt you to anything wrong. Good-bye!" and so they parted in such anguish as only lovers know when farewells seem final, and their empty hearts, calling for a word of promise, are denied. .