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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Fighting Chance - Chapter 15. The Enemy Listens
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The Fighting Chance - Chapter 15. The Enemy Listens Post by :Rick_Ostring Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3287

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The Fighting Chance - Chapter 15. The Enemy Listens

CHAPTER XV. THE ENEMY LISTENS

In September, her marriage to Siward excitingly imminent, Sylvia had been seized with a passion for wholesale renunciation and rigid self-chastisement. All that had been so materially desirable to her in life, all that she had heretofore worshipped, in and belonging to her own world, she now denied. Down went the miniature golden calf from the altar in her private shrine, its tiny crashing fall making considerable racket throughout her world, and the planets and satellites adjacent to that section of the social system which she had long been expected to dominate.

The spectacle of their youthful ruler-elect in sackcloth as the future bride of a business man had more than disconcerted them. The amazing announcement of Quarrier's engagement to Agatha Caithness stupefied the elect, rendering in one harrowing instant null and void the thousand petty plans and plots, intrigues and schemes, upon which future social constructions on the social structure had been based.

The grief and amazement of Major Belwether, already distracted by his non-participation, through his own fault, in Plank's consolidation of Amalgamated with Inter-County, was pitiable to the verge of the unpleasant. Like panic-stricken rabbits, his thoughts ran in circles, and he skipped in their wake, scurrying from Quarrier to Harrington, from Harrington to Plank, from Plank to Siward, in distracted hope of recovering his equilibrium and squatting safely somewhere in somebody's luxuriantly perpetual cabbage-patch. He even squeezed under the fence and hopped humbly about old Peter Caithness, who suddenly assumed monumental proportions among those who had so long tolerated him.

But Quarrier coldly drove him away and the increasing crowds besieging poor, bewildered old Peter Caithness trod upon the major, and there was nothing for him to do but to scuttle back to his own brush-heap and huddle there, squeaking pitifully.

As for Grace Ferrall, she lost no time in tears, but took Agatha publicly to her bosom, turned furiously on Quarrier in private, and for the first time in her life permitted herself the luxury of telling him exactly what she thought of him.

"You had your chance," she said; "but you are all surface! There's nothing to you but soft beard and manicuring, and the reticence of stupidity! The one girl for you--and you couldn't hold on to her! The one chance of your life--and it's escaped you, leaving a tuft of pompadour hair and a pair of woman's eyes protruding from the golden dust-heap your father buried you in. Now you'd better sit there and let it cover your mouth, and try to breathe through your nose. Agatha is looking for a new sensation; she's tried everything, now she's going to try you, that's all. She will be an invaluable leader, Howard, and we shall not yawn, I assure you. But, oh! the chance you've lost, for lack of a drop of red blood, and a barber to give you the beard of a man!"

Which merely deepened the fear and hatred which Quarrier had entertained for his pretty cousin from the depths of his silk-wadded cradle. As for Kemp Ferrall, now third vice-president of Inter-County, he only laughed with the tolerance of a man in safety; and, looking at Quarrier through the pickets of the financial fence, not only forgot how close his escape had been, but, being a busy and progressive young man, began to consider how he might ultimately extract a little profit from the expensive tenant of the enclosure.

Grace made the journey to town to express herself freely for Sylvia's benefit; but when she saw Sylvia, the girl's radiant beauty checked her, and all she could say was: "My dear! my dear, I knew you would do it! I knew you would fling him on his head. It's in your blood, you little jade! you little jilt! you mix of a baggage! I knew you'd behave like all the women of your race!"

Sylvia held Mrs. Ferrall's pretty face impressed between both her hands, and looking her mischievously in the eyes, she whispered:

"'Comme vous, maman, faut-il faire?--Eh! mes petits-enfants, pourquoi, Quand j'ai fait comme ma grand' mere, Ne feriez-vous pas comme moi?'"

"O Lord!" said Mrs. Ferrall, "I'll never meddle again--and the entire world may marry and take the consequences!" Then she drove to the Santa Regina, where Marion was to join her in her return to Shotover; and she was already trying to make up her disturbed mind as to which might prove the more suitable for Marion--Captain Voucher, gloomily recovering from his defeat by Quarrier, or Billy Fleetwood, who didn't want to marry anybody.

In the meanwhile, Siward's new duties as second vice-president of Inter-County had given him scant leisure for open-air convalescence. He was busy with Plank; he was also busy with the private investigation stirred up at the Patroons' Club and the Lenox, and which was slowly but inevitably resulting in clearing him, so that his restoration to good standing and full membership remained now only a matter of formal procedure.

So Siward was becoming a very busy man among men; and Plank, still carrying on his broad shoulders burdens unbearable by any man save such a man as he, shook his heavy head, and ordered Siward into the open. And Siward, who had learned to obey, obeyed.

But September had nearly ended, when Leila, in Plank's private car, attended by Siward and Sylvia and two trained nurses, arrived at the Fells. The nurses--Plank's idea--were a surprise to Leila; and the day after her arrival at the Fells she dismissed them, got out of bed, and dressed and came downstairs all alone, on a pair of sound though faltering legs.

Sylvia and Siward were in the music-room, very busily figuring out the probable cost of a house in that section of the city east of Park Avenue, where the newly married imprudent are forming colonies--a just punishment for those reckless brides who marry for love, and are obliged to drive over two car-tracks to reach their wealthy friends and relatives of the Golden Zone.

And Leila, in her pretty invalid's gown of lace, stood silently at the music-room door, watching them. Her thick, dark hair was braided, and looped up under a black bow behind; and she looked like a curious and impertinent schoolgirl peeping at them there through the crack of the door, bending forward, her joined hands flattened between her knees.

"Oh," she said at length, in a frankly disappointed voice, "is that all you do when your chaperone is abed?"

"Angel!" cried Sylvia, springing up, "how in the world did you ever manage to come downstairs?"

"On the usual number of feet. If you think it's very gay up there--" She laid her hands in Sylvia's, and looked at Siward with all the old mockery in her eyes--eyes which slanted a little at the corners, Japanese-wise: "Stephen, you are growing positively plump. You'd better not do that until Sylvia marries you. Look at him, dear! He's getting all smooth in the cheeks, like a horrid undergraduate boy!"

She released one hand and greeted Siward. "Thank you," she said serenely, replying to his inquiry, "I am perfectly well. You pay me no compliment when you ask me, after you have seen me." And to Sylvia, looking at her white flannels: "What have you been playing? What do you find to do with yourself, Sylvia, with that plump sun-burned boy at your heels all day long? Are there no men about?"

"One's coming to-day," said Sylvia, laughing; and slipping her arm around Leila's waist, she strolled with her out through the tall glass doors to the terrace, with a backward glance of airy dismissal for Siward.

Plank had wired from New York, the night before, that he was coming; in another hour he would be there. Leila knew it perfectly well, and she looked into the wickedly expressive young face of the girl beside her, eyes soft but unsmiling.

"Child, child," she murmured, "you do not know how much of a man a man can be!"

"Yes, I do!" said Sylvia hotly.

Leila smiled. "Hush, you little silly! I've talked Stephen and praised Stephen to you for days and days, and the moment I dare mention another man you fly at me, hair on end!"

"Oh, Leila, I know it! I'm perfectly mad about him, that's all. But don't you think he is looking like himself again? And, Leila, isn't he strangely attractive?--I don't mean just because I happen to be in love with him, but give me a perfectly cold and unbiassed opinion, dear, because there is simply no use in a girl's blinding herself to facts, or in ignoring certain fixed laws of symmetry, which it is perfectly obvious that Mr. Siward fulfils in those well-known and established proportions which--"

"Sylvia!"

"What?" she asked, startled.

"Nothing. Only for two solid weeks--"

"Of course, if you are not interested--"

"But I am, child--I am! desperately interested! He is handsome! I knew him before you did, and I thought so then!"

"Did you?" said Sylvia, troubled.

"Yes, I did. When I wore short skirts I kissed him, too!"

"Did you? W--what did he wear?"

"Knickerbockers, silly! You don't think he was still in the cradle, do you? I'm not as aged as that!"

"I missed a great deal in my childhood," said Sylvia naively.

"By not knowing Stephen? Pooh! He used to pinch me, and then we'd put out our tongues in mutual derision. Once--"

"Stop!" said Sylvia faintly. "And anyhow, you probably taught him. ... Look at him as he saunters across the lawn, Leila--look at him!"

"Well? I see him."

"Isn't he almost an ideal?"

"He is. He certainly is, dear."

"Do you think he walks as though he were perfectly well?"

"Well, I don't know," said Leila thoughtfully. "Sometimes people whose walk is a gracefully languid saunter develop adipose tissue after forty."

"Nonsense! Really, Leila, do you think he walks like a perfectly well man?"

"He may be coming down with whooping-cough--"

Sylvia rose indignantly, but Leila pulled her back to the sun-warmed marble bench:

"A girl in love loses her sense of humour temporarily. Sit down, you little vixen!"

"Leila, you laugh at everything when I don't feel like it."

"I'm not in love, and that's why."

"You are in love!"

Leila looked at her, then under her breath: "In love, am I--with the whole young world ringing with the laughter I had forgotten the very sound of? Do you call that love?--with the sea and sky laughing back at me, and the wind in my ears fairly tremulous with laughter? Do you, who look out upon the pretty world so seriously through those sea-blue eyes of yours, think that I can be in love?"

"Oh, Leila, a girl's happiness is serious enough, isn't it? Dear, it frightens me! I was so close to losing it--once."

"I lost mine," said Leila, closing her eyes for a moment. "I shall not sigh if I find it again."

They sat there in the sun, Leila's hand lying idly in Sylvia's, the soft sea-wind stirring their hair, and in their ears the thunderous undertone of the mounting sea.

"Look at Stephen!" murmured Sylvia, her enraptured eyes following him as he strolled hatless and coatless along the cliff's edge, the sun glimmering on his short hair, a tall, slim, well-coupled, strongly knit shape against the sky and sea.

But Leila's quick ear had caught a significant sound from the gravel drive behind her, and she stood up, a delicious colour tinting her face.

"Are you going in?" asked Sylvia. Then she, too, heard the subdued whirring of a motor from the front of the house, and she looked at Leila as she turned and recrossed the terrace, walking slowly but erect, her pretty head held high.

Then Sylvia faced the sea again and presently descended the terrace, crossing the long lawn toward the headland, where Siward stood looking out across the water.

Leila, from the music-room, watched her; then she heard Plank's voice, and his step on the stair, and she called out to him gaily:

"I am downstairs, thank you. How dared you send me those foolish nurses!"

She was laughing when he came into the room, standing there erect, head high, a brilliant colour in her cheeks; and she offered him both hands which he took between his own, holding them strongly, and looking into her face with steady, questioning eyes.

"Well?" she said, still smiling, but her scarlet under-lip trembled a little; then: "Yes, you may say what you wish--what I--I wish you to say. ... There can be no harm in talking about it. But--will you be very gentle with me? Don't m-make me cry; I h-have--I am t-trying to remember how it feels to laugh once more."


Sylvia, lying in the hot sand on the tiny crescent beach under the cliffs, listened gravely to Siward's figures, as, note-book in hand, he went over the real-estate problem, commenting thoughtfully as he discussed the houses offered.

"Twenty by a hundred and two; good rear, north side of the street--next door to the Tommy Barclays, you know, Sylvia; only they're asking forty-two-five."

"That is an outrage!" said Sylvia seriously; "besides, I remember there was a wretched cellar, and only a butler's pantry extension. I'd much rather have that little house in Sixty-fourth Street, where the Fetherbraynes live--next house on the west, you know. Then we can pull it down and build--when we want to."

"We won't be able to afford to build for a while, you know," said Siward doubtfully.

"What do we care, dear? We'll have millions of things to do, anyway, and what is the use of building?"

"As many things to do as that?" he said, looking over his note-book with a smile.

"More! Are we not just beginning to live, and open our eyes, silly? Listen: Books, books, books, from top to bottom of the house, that is what I want first of all--except my piano."

"Do let us have a little plumbing, dear," he said so seriously that for a fraction of a second she was on the verge of taking him seriously.

"Why extravagant plumbing when books furnish sufficient circulation for the flow of soul, dear?" she retorted gravely.

"Nobody we know will ever come to see us, if they think we read books," said Siward.

"Isn't it delightful!" sighed Sylvia. "We're going to become frumps! I mustn't forget the blue stockings for my trousseau, and you mustn't forget the California claret for the cellar, dear. We will need it when we read Henry James to each other."

Siward, resting his weight on one hand, laughed, and looked out at the surf drenching the reefs with silver.

"To think," he said, "that I could ever have been enough afraid of the sea to hate it! After all, at low tide the reef is always there in the same place and none the worse for the drenching. All that surf only shows how strong a rock can be."

He smiled, and turned to look at Sylvia; and she lay there, silent, blue eyes looking back into his. Suddenly they glimmered with tears, and she stretched out both arms, drawing his head down to hers convulsively, her quivering mouth crushed against his lips. Then she rose to her knees, to her feet, dazed, brushing the tears from her eyes.

"To think--to think," she stammered, "that I might have let you face the world alone! Dearest, dearest, we must fight a good fight. The sea is always there--always, always there!"

He looked straight into her eyes, fearlessly, tenderly, and she looked back with the divine, untroubled gaze of a child, laying her slender, sun-tanned hands in his.

And, deep in his body, as he stood there, he heard the low challenge of his soul on guard; and he knew that the Enemy listened.


(THE END)
Robert W. Chambers's Novel: Fighting Chance

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