The Folly of Others/Molly
THE morning was virginally young and chill. In the depths of the little valley of San Jacinto, a mere cleft high up on the shaggy mountain-side, still lingered a dark shadow, which the sun's rays, penetrating the interstices of the great pines and redwoods, were fast dissipating. It promised to be a glorious September day—a day of deep, bright skies, dazzling sunshine, tonic and bracing air.
The inn of San Jacinto, a primitive edifice of unpainted pine, built in the Spanish style around a small courtyard, was already wide-awake. Breakfast was over, and the twenty boarders, an unfashionable clan, were scattered along the veranda. A party of half a dozen men was starting on a deer-stalking expedition up the peak, others were going down the mountain in search of a bear which had been sighted the day before in that direction. The two men remaining were consumptives, come to try, as a last resort, the famous mountain air. Wrapped in over coats and shawls, they sat in the sun and watched the noisy departure of the hunters with a bitter indifference. Of the dozen women nearly all were middle-aged matrons, wearing worsted shawls and consuming tooth-picks.
As the last cautioning and jocular farewells were being shouted after the rapidly retreating expeditions a young man came out upon the veranda. He carried a folding easel, color-box, white umbrella and camp stool and a large canvas, and after a cool general good morning to the feminine assemblage he busied himself in strapping together these impedimenta, carefully keeping the blank side of the canvas outward. Then he lit a cigarette and went down the steps. Around the corner of the house he caught sight of some one waiting for him. He raised his hat and bowed gravely, she came forward and joined him, and the two walked away together across the little clearing in front of the inn and into the forest. A murmur, inarticulate, but significant, followed them.
Martin shook his shoulders impatiently as though to dislodge the swarm of human gnats. His glance as it rested on his companion expressed an irritated defiance; this was for the gossiping women. But underneath a reckless tenderness welled up irresistibly toward the pretty creature at his side. She walked a step in advance, holding her white cotton gown away from the slippery shining carpet of pine needles, which crackled crisply beneath their tread. She was tall, with a fine figure, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped. Her blue-black hair was braided closely at the back of her head. When she turned one could see that she had the true Irish beauty of gray-blue eyes, large and tender and alluringly shadowed by black lashes; full fresh lips and satiny fair skin. Her features possessed no classic clearness; the chin was heavy, the nostrils a little thick, the face too broad. With age these defects might develop into coarseness. But now in her dazzling youth the girl was, past question, beautiful, with the "devil's beauty" of freshness and bounding vitality.
The man was of a completely opposite type; of middle height, slender and wiry, blonde, clean-cut, well-groomed, well-dressed. He was young—not more than four and twenty—but his face was prematurely lined. The upright furrow between the eyebrows gave him an irritable and moody expression not contradicted by the listless drooping lids. The mouth was finely cut, delicate-lipped and undecided, and there were faint, bitter lines about its corners.
"We're early this morning," he said, finally, dropping the end of his cigarette.
"Yes," the girl answered, in the throaty, caressing, Milesian tones. "But I can't stay more than an hour. I must go back and look over the wash. And the cook's gone off on a spree; I'll have to get the dinner."
"What a nuisance," said Martin, crossly. "One more good sitting would finish this thing. I don't see why you have to bother about those infernal people. Let them go without their dinner."
"A nice idea, that! Sure, isn't dinner more important than your picture, Mr. Martin? You're in a bad humor this morning."
Martin growled something inaudible, and having arrived at the destination he dropped his traps and proceeded to set up the easel. The ground sloped from this point abruptly upward, and above him, be tween two slender pines which shot up sheer fifty feet to break out in a shower of silvery green, the girl took her stand. Against the red-brown and purplish-red patches of the shelving ground, and the gray-green masses of pine needles, illumined by golden beams of light, stood out her vigorous young figure. She held her broad hat by its white strings in one hand; the other rested against the gray trunk of the nearest tree. Her head was tilted slightly back, the eyes raised and fixed softly.
"Turn the right hand a little more—eyes not quite so high. No, more to the right—there," dictated Martin, squeezing out color on his palette. He moved his easel slightly and then stood for a long five minutes looking critically from the canvas to the model and back again. Then he began to paint.
For twenty minutes he worked silently. At first his face brightened, his steel-colored eyes became suddenly alive, alert. But the artistic impulse was not strong enough to overcome his mental disturbance. Presently he frowned again, bit his lip, hesitated, and then threw down his brushes.
"No use—my morning's spoiled," he said angrily. "You always have something on hand."
"Well, I've got to look after the house, haven't I?" said Molly, dropping her gaze to his face, and in her turn pouting. "The trouble is you're too easy upset."
"You're right," said Martin suddenly, "I am. That's just the trouble with me."
He climbed up to where Molly was standing, and taking her hand, drew her toward a flat rock nearby.
"We can talk anyhow, can't we?" he said.
Molly sat down, smiling contentedly, and Martin threw himself on the soft mat of pine-needles and leaned against the gray rock-face to look at her.
"You're a sweet-tempered thing," he said, caressingly. "You're as sweet as you look. Else you never could put up with a crotchety fellow like me for a day! But perhaps you know how fond I am of you all the time I'm losing my temper—do you? No, you can't know how I love people like you—dear, soft, easy-tempered, kind creatures! Not that I ever saw one so good as you, though—or so pretty—else I couldn't have left her. I could be well and at peace with you, Molly. It would be like always having beautiful weather—blue skies and sunshine. Your eyes are bluer even than this sky, looking up at them this way. Lean down and kiss me, you dear!"
Molly had listened, a little puzzled as usual, but pleased and smiling; but now she blushed and moved away from him slightly.
"I never heard anybody talk like you," she said in her plaintive contralto.
"No, of course not, innocent. You never promised to marry anybody else, did you? What do you expect me to talk like? But don't you like what I said?"
"Oh—yes, I like it. But it is queer!"
"Well, very likely you'll often think me queer. But don't mind that. The things that you can't understand don't matter a confounded pin! Just remember that, Molly. You women are the best there is. … Unless it's being able to paint, really. Well, I don't know——"
He sighed, and turned to throw his arm along the rock and lay his head down on it.
Molly was silent—she generally was—and for long minutes the soft rush of the wind in the trees made a wide peace about them. Then Martin looked up, to find her eyes bent gravely upon him.
"How sweet this is," he murmured. "What are you thinking of, child?"
Molly blushed furiously. What she had been thinking was that Martin was something like the hero of a novel which one of the boarders had once given her—a sad, mysterious young man who turned out to have murdered somebody. Only the hero's eyes and hair were black, and——
"Nothing," she said hastily. "Only that I must go back to work."
"That's right—just as I was beginning to feel happy. Well, you'll have to come out and talk to me to-night—that's positive. And what's more, I insist on your kissing me now. Be kind, Molly—else I won't love you after all."
Molly yielded the kiss, rather frightened, and went. And Martin, lying full-length on the pine-needles, and thinking of her, basked lazily in the prospect of getting, once more, his own way, and doing something that all his respectable friends—they were not so many as formerly—would disapprove. With all his heart the young man hated what he called the respectable. He resisted whatever chance attraction he now and then felt in the people of "good society." He resented any claim that that world seemed to make upon him. And now, by this marriage, he would cut the whole thing, once and for all, and get his freedom. For Molly would not bind him. He would never have to keep up an establishment for her, nor to live in one city or quarter rather than another, nor to know fashion able people. His relatives then would not insist on looking him up, when they came to Paris, and trying to reform him. It would be jolly to scandalize them!
Martin, in this view of his intended marriage, felt much like the small boy who had persistently been a "holy terror" to his household; who had smoked the proscribed cigarette under his father's Roman nose, risked his young life in many a madcap way, tormented his tutors and his sisters, and finally had run away from school and "tramped it" through New England. He had committed these misdemeanors and others far more serious quite deliberately, and had taken his punishment serenely, upborne by that secret sense of satisfaction in the end attained. He realized now perfectly the price he must pay for his heart's desire.
But just at present nothing much seemed worth having except Molly. Martin had never in his life denied himself anything possible to be obtained, and it was not to be expected that he would be withheld from the course he now contemplated by any weak scruples or misgivings as to its prudence. It was distinctly imprudent; it would enrage his family; their world would call him a fool and probably turn its back on him. He faced this prospect quite calmly. As for the family, they had pretty well resigned themselves to his uselessness. His father had tried to tie him down to business, and failed; his mother and sisters had tried to involve him in society, and had failed still more signally. And for the little circle of blue-blooded or moneyed people who formed that world of theirs, he had already practically cut himself off from it. Instead of performing the duties of citizenship, as interpreted by his relatives, he had chosen to go to Paris and study painting. He had worked hard for three years, and had accomplished something.
Then a fit of restlessness had driven him away across Europe, and by way of China, Japan, and the Sandwich Islands back to his own country. A letter from his father, meeting him at San Francisco, was the first cause of his present sojourn in out-of-the-way San Jacinto, the centre of the lumber-lands owned by the company of which the elder Martin was president. The mission which this letter had, much to his surprise, suggested to him was nearly fulfilled. In fact, it would probably have been finished before now if it had not been for Molly O'Flynn. Molly, sweet seventeen, simple, adorable, bewitching!
Martin went back and picked up his tools, and stood a moment contemplating the canvas. His eyes gleamed. He said to himself that it was good—the best thing he had ever done. One or two more days would finish it. And it should be seen in the world!
Then his face changed again and darkened. He was realizing anew his limitations. With years of hard work he might attain technical excellence of a sort, though never technical mastery. He might become a clever painter—he would never be a great artist. The creative impulse remained with him only an impulse—uncertain, fitful. Love for his art was after all not the keynote of his life—merely its sub-dominant, sure sooner or later to be resolved and pass away into something else. Flashes of in sight such as this came to him when he looked upon his handiwork and found it good. Where a stronger talent would have exulted, finding in such achievement not only a step attained but a stepping-stone to something better, Martin recognized only that he had exceeded his own uncertain level, and that his next work would probably be infinitely bad. He had no staying-power, he had not the steadfastness of the true worshipper; he bowed his head once again before this bitter truth.
The next moment he flashed up in defiance. He would work and he would succeed. He must. He would live for Art—and Molly—and let the rest go.
He took the picture back to the inn and set it in his room with its face to the wall. Then he lounged about the veranda until dinner-time, consuming a cigarette or two and a novel of de Maupassant. After the meal the only two young ladies in the place made a desperate attack upon him. But Martin, with the nonchalance of an old campaigner, evaded their suggestion of "a climb," and presently went off by him self into the woods. There were one or two points in connection with his plans for the future which must be settled, and he meant to get them out of the way. Molly would be busy all the afternoon, but she had promised to walk with him after supper.
He went aimlessly, dreaming with half-closed eyes, in the direction of the saw-mill, and presently struck an old and disused log-road which led from the vicinity of the inn directly to the mill. Twenty minutes' sauntering down the easy descent brought him within sight of the building. There was little or no under brush to obstruct the long vistas of light and shadow down the rows of slender tree columns. Here and there grew a thicket of wild rose-bushes, studded now with scarlet haws; or a great rock, rusty-brown and purple, cropped out through the thin soil. The trees were all redwoods or pines. For variety there was an occasional black, charred trunk, shattered by one of the terrific electric storms not infrequent in those mountains; or one clothed from top to base with a close, moss-like lichen of the vividest green, or riddled all over with neat little holes, the store houses of the woodpecker. The incessant tap-tapping of this tireless toiler greeted Martin from all sides, and with the chatter of squirrels, the scream of a blue-jay flashing like an animate flame through the trees, and the stately swing and wash of the wind in the pine-tops, served to intensify the solitude.
Then came the square outline of the mill, the crashing hum of the machinery, the fresh, sweet smell of the great piles of sawdust which surrounded the building, masses of pinkish yellow and pale brown. Beyond was the line of the big flume which carried the dressed lumber straight down the mountain to the town at its foot.
Martin halted a few paces above the mill and stood looking meditatively down upon it. He wondered whimsically how much of the revenue it brought in to Martin senior, that gentleman would now be disposed to assign him as a reward for the successful accomplishment of his behest.
"I shouldn't want much," he reflected. "Just enough to keep Molly and me in Paris until the fickle goddess slopes her swift wings in my direction."
A man came out of the mill office and closed and locked the door behind him. Martin recognized Steve Purdy, the foreman, overseer and general superintendent. Whatever his title, the material fact was that this man held the affairs of the company practically in his hands. The stock was owned by Eastern capitalists, one of whom—not Martin senior—had, at the time of the formation of the company, installed and vouched for Purdy. The remoteness of this property and the fact that the owners occupied them selves with affairs of greater financial moment combined to give Purdy almost unquestioned control.
"He's going home to dinner," mused Martin. "And I'll go with him. Hang the fellow, I like to look at him. That's more than he could say for me, I fancy."
This reflection called a humorous smile to Martin's lips—a smile of covert triumph. He had beaten this handsome giant in love, and he was about to beat him in war, too. He had carried off the girl who was trying to make up her mind to marry Purdy, and he was going to spoil Purdy's game with the company.
"Hallo, there!" he shouted, slipping and sliding down to the level where the other stood. The over seer glanced up, scowled frankly and returned a brusque nod to this greeting. Then he looked over Martin's head and jingled the keys in his pockets. He was a magnificent figure—six feet three in height, and admirably proportioned. His mountaineer's dress of rough brown corduroy, flannel shirt and heavy boots set off his stalwart frame and the beauty of his bronze skin, crisp black hair and beard and dark eyes. Martin, with the painter's eye, looked him over approvingly.
"Going in my direction?" he inquired cheerfully.
"Well, no; I'm going to look after the men," said Purdy shortly.
"Oh! I wanted to ask you about that deer hunt. You see, I shall probably leave next week, and I'd like to get a head or two before I go."
"Well, I'm busy this week—I can't get off. O'Flynn'll get you somebody if you're set on going. Good day."
Without more ceremony he turned his back squarely and walked away.
"I like that," said Martin. "No humbug about it. I wonder," he added, meditatively, "how he managed to humbug the company successfully." And he wondered, too, if his own protracted and apparently aimless stay in the valley had drawn the overseer's suspicion upon him, or if Purdy were merely jealous. Revolving this question in his mind he took his departure as he had come. On the homeward way he thought out his plans for the coming week, which promised, certainly, to be an eventful one.
It was after seven o'clock when Molly came out to where he was walking up and down at the side of the house. She had put on a dark stuff gown, for the air had grown sharp as the sun went down, and she wore a sailor hat. In the dim light her slight paleness was scarcely perceptible.
"Come, let's go up to the rock," she said, with what seemed to Martin a charming diffidence. "I don't want to pass all those people, and besides this way is shorter."
"Just as you like," said Martin, amiably. I don't care about the people, though. We're engaged now, you know."
For answer Molly smiled again. Martin had never found her talkative, but her soft eyes were eloquent of all sorts of delightful things.
They climbed hand-in-hand up through the woods behind the inn. Molly took the lead, making her way unhesitatingly through an apparently trackless maze. As they ascended it grew lighter. The sunset glow lingered in the west above the mountain-tops, and trickled down through the trees in little rivulets of primrose light. When they finally came out upon the great flat rock above the valley this color had faded, and there remained only a clear, pale radiance on the horizon. But behind and above them the great snow-peaks of the farther mountain range, towering royally into the sky, glittered still in rosy light. Below lay the valley and the pine-covered mountain side, and far down in indistinguishable shadow the foothills and the mesa.
"Molly," said Martin, finally, "your father hasn't come back from town yet, has he?"
"No. He won't be back till late."
"Then I'll see him to-morrow."
Martin smiled faintly at the thought of this interview. But the image of whiskey-bibbing old Julius O'Flynn did not trouble him in the least. Once in Paris Molly and he would shrug their shoulders at all relatives. He began to talk to her of Paris, and the heavenly life they would lead there.
"I'm going to work hard and do something great, sweetheart. We'll go back to the old studio in the Quartier Latin, and all the fellows will come and look at you and adore you, and want to paint you. You'll get on with them famously, Molly. They're the best fellows in the world, and the best company. I'll teach you French, and when you've been with me a year in Paris you'll forget that you ever lived anywhere else. And in the summer we'll have a cottage in the country, or perhaps go on a long tramp, sketching all the way——"
He ran on eagerly, and Molly listened, smiling, but without any undue enthusiasm. Presently she interrupted him. He was saying:
"Probably my father won't cut off my allowance. But if he should take a notion to do it, I've got a little money of my own, enough to buy us bread and cheese. Still, anyhow, we shan't be rich, you know——"
"But I thought you were," said Molly. Her tone was unmistakably aggrieved. Then gathering courage she went on quickly. "And I thought we should live in the East,—in New York. I'm afraid to cross the ocean. And I don't believe I'd like Paris——"
"Oh, you would. And you wouldn't like New York. We couldn't live there, dearest. There is nothing to keep me there. I want to sail at once. You shall get all your trinkets and gowns in Paris. There'll be money enough for those, little girl."
"Oh, will there?" said Molly, half comforted. He couldn't be so very poor, certainly.
"And, now," said Martin, taking both her hands and turning to look into her eyes, "I want to tell you something. In the first place I don't believe you quite know who I am. Do you know my Christian name?"
"I thought it was Charlie. Your initials are C. M.——"
"My name is Crosby Martin. Do you recognize it? It's my father's name, too, and he is president of the company here, you know."
"Oh!" said the girl.
"Yes. I came up here on business for the company. I've about finished that up, and, Molly, can you be ready to start with me in a week?"
"A week? Oh, I can't."
"Surely you can, dearest. We'll stop in San Francisco and get anything you want afterward. And I want to get away. Besides, there's no reason for waiting."
By dint of argument and entreaty Martin finally carried his point, and wrung an unwilling consent from the girl's lips. He attached no importance to her hesitation, her lack of demonstration, her half shrinking from his caress. In his eyes, these were, indeed, only so many charms, they meant but youth and innocence.
After a little he asked suddenly:
"Molly, what was there between you and Steve Purdy?"
"Why—why he wanted to marry me," stammered the girl, taken by surprise.
"I know that. But you never led him to think you would?"
"I don't know. Father wanted me to marry him. If you hadn't come here——"
"Don't speak that way to me——"
"I didn't mean to be sharp, little girl. But you never cared for that fellow, did you?"
"You know what I mean."
Martin drew back and looked at her.
"Oh, I don't know. I've always known him, ever since I was a baby, and he's always been good to me——"
"And if I hadn't happened in you would have married him. I see. Molly, are you quite sure that you prefer me, after all?"
If he had held off a moment longer, looking at her with those steely eyes, speaking in that tone of cool sarcasm, she might have answered. But suddenly her large eyes swam in tears, and in an instant Martin was on his knees beside her, pouring out a flood of passionate protestations. … Later he remembered that she had not after all answered his question. The jealousy, which was a part of his very nature, woke again. In the end it swept away his self-control. He could not resist the impulse to worry this suddenly discovered bone of contention, scorning himself all the while for his weakness. And finally when Molly found her tongue and amazed him by an eager defense of her whilom suitor, he quite lost his head and in a reckless instant out came the secret which he had meant to guard until the success of his enterprise was quite assured.
"You must have nothing more to do with that man, do you hear? He isn't fit to speak to you. Why, Molly, he's nothing but a thief—a common thief. He's been robbing the company right and left for years, falsifying accounts, drawing pay for straw men——"
"I don't believe it!" cried the girl.
"When I tell you it's true, Molly? I've got the proofs. And before long the company will have them, too——"
Here Martin paused, dimly conscious that he was making a fool of himself.
"Steve!" murmured the girl. "Then—if you're sure it's true what are you going to do to him?"
Her tone and glance were full of concern, almost terror. Martin pulled himself up suddenly.
"That depends," he said. "Now, Molly, of course you understand that is my secret. And you belong to me, so it's your secret, too. You're a sensible girl. Even if you wanted you couldn't do anything against me. And, of course, if you repeat a word of what I've just told you, you put my life in danger. You know that as well as I do."
"Yes," said Molly, mournfully. She knew Steve Purdy rather better than Martin did. She sat for some moments in a stunned silence, and then rose. "It's getting late. I must go in," she said, hurriedly.
On the homeward walk Martin exerted himself to the utmost to efface the impression which he perceived his indiscreet disclosure had made. He could be very fascinating when he chose, and now he did choose passionately. Before they reached the inn he had won the girl to speech and even to smiles again. She clung to him as he half supported her down the rocky slope, and kissed him good-night quite willingly. Martin left her, elated with the consciousness that he could make her love him. Filled with the thought of her, all remembrance of the folly into which a jealous impulse had swept him faded from his mind as a thing of little importance after all.
But he had underestimated the effect on Molly of the evening's revelations. He did not understand the girl. What he mistook for maidenly shyness hid from him almost completely the workings of her mind. His experience, which naturally he believed more comprehensive than it really was, had not included much acquaintance with her type. He did not realize the nature of his own influence over her, nor the fact that when she was outside his compelling presence this influence was subject to sudden decrease. Almost at the moment of the tender parting which lingered in his memory Molly's feeling was undergoing a revulsion which, if he could have known of it, would have astonished him beyond measure.
It was one thing to marry a handsome gentleman, fashionably dressed, with apparently plenty of money and nothing to do but spend it; it was quite another to marry a poor painter, who said himself that he was poor, and who would take her to a strange country, where she could not even speak the language. Molly was not cold-blooded enough to put it quite so plainly, but, more vaguely, this was what she felt. To her feeling of undefined resentment she assigned a more obvious cause; the man she had promised to marry was going to put Steve in prison. Steve had always been good to her father, and he loved her. Was she to stand calmly by and see him trapped?
Meantime Martin, in blissful unconsciousness of the adverse emotion he had aroused, was walking up and down in the darkness under the soft southern stars, puffing desultorily at a cigar, with great breaths of the pine-scented air in between, and thinking of Paris. He had made his choice now for good and all. It was to be Paris and art and Molly, instead of New York and the life of "society" and—Eleanor Harcourt. And only three months ago he had deserted the Boulevardes, broken his brushes in despair, and made np his mind to go home and submit to his manifest and most orthodox destiny. This course would please his people, and it was better than wasting his life before a shrine which remained inexorably closed. He had wandered through the Orient in a mood of resignation rather cheerful than otherwise. Except for the underlying bitterness of his consciousness of failure, the prospect would, in fact, have been very endurable. Eleanor Harcourt was one of the bright particular stars of the set in which his mother and sisters shone mildly, and they perfectly approved of her, as he was very well aware. She was, besides, a very clever and charming girl, perfectly versed in social ways and wiles as well as in the points of horses, dogs, and yachts, foot-ball, tennis and golf, and the thousand and one other things that girls know nowadays. Martin was keenly alive to the attraction of her quick and catholic intelligence, and her letters were the only ones he had looked forward to during his voluntary exile.
And now, his cigar being smoked out, he was going in to burn his ships—to write to Eleanor Harcourt and to his father. He went up the steps and along the veranda to his room. Somebody was strumming on a banjo in the "parlor," and the clan of women had assembled there. The veranda was deserted.
Martin lit his lamp and took from his pocketbook Miss Harcourt's last letter and a little photograph of her which he had the habit of carrying. It was a decidedly handsome face, fine and clear and lit by stunning dark eyes. The photograph had all her characteristic style, even to the little trick of gesture, the half-haughty turn of the neck and chin, which he had often laughed at and secretly admired. It brought her very vividly before him. He laid it down and read her letter again.
He had known for some time that she cared about him. And now he found suddenly that the idea of burning the letters and the photograph, as he had intended, was a decided wrench. But he meant to sever completely the tie, such as it was, which bound him to her. He had made his choice, and he was willing to abide by it.
He turned up the lamp and set it where the light fell full on the portrait of Molly, which he had placed on the easel. There was his justification—the double motive of his course; the motive henceforth of his life. It was not Molly alone; it was art also. Even in that wretched light he could assure himself, looking at the picture with critical dispassionateness, that it was—as he had said in the first delight of creation—good, the best thing he had ever done. Who could say? He might yet do something really worth while. In the atmosphere he loved, with few business or social cares, with a companion who would steady but not fetter him, he could set to work in earnest. Molly had no social experience or ambitions, no preconceived ideas to unfit her for the modest life they would lead. The beer and tobacco, the shirt-sleeves and slang of Bohemia would not discompose her. She was not hidebound by conventionalities nor wedded to fashionable follies. Imagine Eleanor Harcourt in the old studio among the men who were used to congregate there!
Martin burst into a short laugh. He began to walk up and down the room, his eyes glowing as he dreamed of the future. An occasional glance at the portrait on the easel reassured him as to the foundation for these golden visions, the usual offspring of his sanguine mood. Finally he sat down at the table and dashed off his two letters. To his father he wrote that he had obtained pretty conclusive proof against Purdy, and that he intended to go to town on the following day, consult a lawyer and, if possible, immediately arrest the overseer on a charge of embezzlement. Then, in a few words, he announced his intended marriage, adding:
"As to the income from the lumber business, which you offered to assign me if I succeeded in 'stopping the leak,' that offer, I take it, was conditioned on my settling in New York. You will probably not care to renew it under the present circumstances. If you wish to continue my present allowance, it won't come amiss. If not, I can live without it."
Sentiment was wasted on Martin senior, as his son was well aware. The second letter was even shorter and almost as business-like. Having sealed, addressed and stamped them ready for the post, Martin rose, stretching out his arms with a sigh of relief. The photograph of Miss Harcourt and her letter lay on the table. Martin tore up the letter. But with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders he put the picture back in his pocket-book. Some potent, though unacknowledged, sentiment held him back from destroying it. Presentiment, perhaps.
For in the morning, on completing his leisurely toilet and preparing to go to breakfast, Martin found under his door a note. Its contents, when he had succeeded in deciphering them, produced in his brain what might be described as a mental earthquake. Molly wrote, she said, so that he might know that she had gone with Steve of her own "free wil," and not try to follow them or to bring her back. For they would neither of them be taken alive. She had told Steve, because she could not stand by and see him put in prison. And Steve had said that if she did not go with him he would stay and kill Mr. Martin and be hung, perhaps. So she was going to marry Steve "insted." She hoped Mr. Martin would forgive her and be happy without her; and she remained his "obediant servant, M. O'Flynn."
Martin's first impulse, as he looked at the bit of cheap paper with its absurdly childish scrawl, was to pinch himself to make sure he was awake. Was it actually Molly—lovable Molly—who had sent him that hideous thing? Then the meaning of it came upon him. He felt himself deserted—all his air-castles demolished at a breath. With Steve Purdy had gone, too, half the results of his work here, for of course the embezzler had carried his spoils with him. For a moment Martin hugged the idea that the fugitives might be caught and brought back; then he rejected it. How could he confess what an infernal fool he had been?—and to what end, after all? The girl had never cared for him. Anger, shame, self-pity swept over him in a bitter flood. He flung himself into a chair and put his head down on his arms. When he straightened up his eyes were wet. Their first glance fell on two letters, sealed, addressed, and stamped, lying on the table. Mechanically Martin reached out for them and carefully he tore them in pieces.
Later in the day, when he had finished packing his trunks, he came and stood before the portrait of Molly. How pretty she was, what vigorous grace in every line of the figure, what charm in the coloring, the massy hair, the soft, alluring, befooling eyes! No wonder those eyes had made an idiot of him. Who could have resisted their mute eloquence? He had mistaken for feeling a mere trick of color and light and shade, that was all!
But there on the canvas was the charm which had captured him. That figure was alive, palpitating, real. He had created something at last. But——. The old doubt, the old prevision of ultimate failure enveloped him sombrely. There was the limit; beyond it he could never go; to it he might never again attain. And he loved and reverenced his art too much to make of it a toy or to give it a divided allegiance. Better a total renunciation than such sacrilege.
He bent forward suddenly and pressed his lips to the canvas. Then, with the pocket-knife which he held in his hand, he cut it into shreds.