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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flaming Jewel - Episode 8. Cup And Lip
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The Flaming Jewel - Episode 8. Cup And Lip Post by :JoePace Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3956

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The Flaming Jewel - Episode 8. Cup And Lip

EPISODE EIGHT. CUP AND LIP


I

Two miles beyond Clinch's Dump, Hal Smith pulled Stormont's horse to a walk. He was tremendously excited.

With naive sincerity he believed that what he had done on the spur of the moment had been the only thing to do.

By snatching the Flaming Jewel from Quintana's very fingers he had diverted that vindictive bandit's fury from Eve, from Clinch, from Stormont, and had centred it upon himself.

More than that, he had sown the seeds of suspicion among Quintana's own people. They never could discover Salzar's body. Always they must believe that it was Nicolas Salzar and no other who so treacherously robbed them, and who rode away in a rain of bullets, shaking the emblazoned morocco case above his masked head in triumph, derision and defiance.

At the recollection of what had happened, Hal Smith drew bridle, and, sitting his saddle there in the false dawn, threw back his handsome head and laughed until the fading stars overhead swam in his eyes through tears of sheerest mirth.

For he was still young enough to have had the time of his life. Nothing in the Great War had so thrilled him. For, in what had just happened, there was humour. There had been none in the Great Grim Drama.

Still, Smith began to realise that he had taken the long, long chance of the opportunist who rolls the bones with Death. He had kept his pledge to the little Grand Duchess. It was a clean job. It was even good drama----

The picturesque angle of the affair shook Hal Smith with renewed laughter. As a moving picture hero he thought himself the funniest thing on earth.

From the time he had poked a pistol against Sard's fat paunch, to this bullet-pelted ride for life, life had become one ridiculously exciting episode after another.

He had come through like the hero in a best-seller.... Lacking only a heroine.... If there had been any heroine it was Eve Strayer. Drama had gone wrong in that detail.... So perhaps, after all, it was real life he had been living and not drama. Drama, for the masses, must have a definite beginning and ending. Real life lacks the latter. In life nothing is finished. It is always a premature curtain which is yanked by that doddering old stage-hand, Johnny Death.

* * * * *

Smith sat his saddle, thinking, beginning to be sobered now by the inevitable reaction which follows excitement and mirth as relentlessly as care dogs the horseman.

He had had a fine time,--save for the horror of the Rocktrail.... He shuddered.... Anyway, at worst he had not shirked a clean deal in that ghastly game.... It was God's mercy that he was not lying where Salzar lay, ten feet--twenty--a hundred deep, perhaps--in immemorial slime----

He shook himself in his saddle as though to be rid of the creeping horror, and wiped his clammy face.

Now, in the false dawn, a blue-jay awoke somewhere among the oaks and filled the misty silence with harsh grace-notes.

Then reaction, setting in like a tide, stirred more sombre depths in the heart of this young man.

He thought of Riga; and of the Red Terror; of murder at noon-day, and outrage by night. He remembered his only encounter with a lovely child--once Grand Duchess of Esthonia--then a destitute refugee in silken rags.

What a day that had been.... Only one day and one evening.... And never had he been so near in love in all his life....

That one day and evening had been enough for her to confide to an American officer her entire life's history.... Enough for him to pledge himself to her service while life endured.... And if emotion had swept every atom of reason out of his youthful head, there in the turmoil and alarm--there in the terrified, riotous city jammed with refugees, reeking with disease, half frantic from famine and the filthy, rising flood of war--if really it all had been merely romantic impulse, ardour born of overwrought sentimentalism, nevertheless, what he had pledged that day to a little Grand Duchess in rags, he had fulfilled to the letter within the hour.

As the false dawn began to fade, he loosened hunting coat and cartridge sling, drew from his shirt-bosom the morocco case.

It bore the arms and crest of the Grand Duchess Theodorica of Esthonia.

His fingers trembled slightly as he pressed the jewelled spring. It opened on an empty casket.

In the sudden shock of horror and astonishment, his convulsive clutch on the spring started a tiny bell ringing. Then, under his very nose, the empty tray slid aside revealing another tray underneath, set solidly with brilliants. A rainbow glitter streamed from the unset gems in the silken tray. Like an incredulous child he touched them. They were magnificently real.

In the centre lay blazing the great Erosite gem,--the Flaming Jewel itself. Priceless diamonds, sapphires, emeralds ringed it. In his hands he held nearly four millions of dollars.

Gingerly he balanced the emblazoned case, fascinated. Then he replaced the empty tray, closed the box, thrust it into the bosom of his flannel shirt and buttoned it in.

Now there was little more for this excited young man to do. He was through with Clinch. Hal Smith, hold-up man and dish-washer at Clinch's Dump, had ended his career. The time had now arrived for him to vanish and make room for James Darragh.

Because there still remained a very agreeable role for Darragh to play. And he meant to eat it up--as Broadway has it.

For by this time the Grand Duchess of Esthonia--Ricca, as she was called by her companion, Valentine, the pretty Countess Orloff-Strelwitz--must have arrived in New York.

At the big hunting lodge of the late Henry Harrod--now inherited by Darragh--there might be a letter--perhaps a telegram--the cue for Hal Smith to vanish and for James Darragh to enter, play his brief but glittering part, and----

Darragh's sequence of pleasing meditations halted abruptly.... To walk out of the life of the little Grand Duchess did not seem to suit his ideas--indefinite and hazy as they were, so far.

He lifted the bridle from the horse's neck, divided curb and snaffle thoughtfully, touched the splendid animal with heel and knee.

As he cantered on into the wide forest road that led to his late uncle's abode, curiosity led him to wheel into a narrower trail running east along Star Pond, and from whence he could take a farewell view of Clinch's Dump.

He smiled to think of Eve and Stormont there together, and now in safety behind bolted doors and shutters.

He grinned to think of Quintana and his precious crew, blood-crazy, baffled, probably already distrusting one another, yet running wild through the night like starving wolves galloping at hazard across a famine-stricken waste.

"Only wait till Stormont makes his report," he thought, grinning more broadly still. "Every State Trooper north of Albany will be after Senor Quintana. Some hunting! And, if he could understand, Mike Clinch might thank his stars that what I've done this night has saved him his skin and Eve a broken heart!"

He drew his horse to a walk, now, for the path began to run closer to Star Pond, skirting the pebbled shallows in the open just ahead.

Alders still concealed the house across the lake, but the trail was already coming out into the starlight.

Suddenly his horse stopped short, trembling, its ears pricked forward.

Darragh sat listening intently for a moment. Then with infinite caution, he leaned over the cantle and gently parted the alders.

On the pebbled beach, full in the starlight, stood two figures, one white and slim, the other dark.

The arm of the dark figure clasped the waist of the white and slender one.

Evidently they had heard his horse, for they stood motionless, looking directly at the alders behind which his horse had halted.

To turn might mean a shot in the back as far as Darragh knew. He was still masked with Salzar's red bandanna. He raised his rifle, slid a cartridge into the breech, pressed his horse forward with a slight touch of heel and knee, and rode slowly out into the star-dusk.

What Stormont saw was a masked man, riding his own horse, with menacing rifle half lifted for a shot! What Eve Strayer thought she saw was too terrible for words. And before Stormont could prevent her she sprang in front of him, covering his body with her own.

At that the horseman tore off his red mask:

"Eve! Jack Stormont! What the devil are you doing over _here_?"

Stormont walked slowly up to his own horse, laid one unsteady hand on its silky nose, kept it there while dusty, velvet lips mumbled and caressed his fingers.

"I knew it was a cavalryman," he said quietly. "I suspected you, Jim. It was the sort of crazy thing you were likely to do.... I don't ask you what you're up to, where you've been, what your plans may be. If you needed me you'd have told me.

"But I've got to have my horse for Eve. Her feet are wounded. She's in her night-dress and wringing wet. I've got to set her on my horse and try to take her through to Ghost Lake."

Darragh stared at Stormont, at the ghostly figure of the girl who had sunk down on the sand at the lake's edge. Then he scrambled out of the saddle and handed over the bridle.

"Quintana came back," said Stormont. "I hope to reckon with him some day.... I believe he came back to harm Eve.... We got out of the house.... We swam the lake.... I'd have gone under except for her----"

In his distress and overwhelming mortification, Darragh stood miserable, mute, irresolute.

Stormont seemed to understand: "What you did, Jim, was well meant," he said. "I understand. Eve will understand when I tell her. But that fellow Quintana is a devil. You can't draw a herring across any trail he follows. I tell you, Jim, this fellow Quintana is either blood-mad or just plain crazy. Somebody will have to put him out of the way. I'll do it if I ever find him."

"Yes.... Your people ought to do that.... Or, if you like, I'll volunteer.... I've a little business to transact in New York, first.... Jack, your tunic and breeches are soaked; I'll be glad to chip in something for Eve.... Wait a moment----"

He stepped into cover, drew the morocco box from his grey shirt, shoved it into his hip pocket.

Then he threw off his cartridge belt and hunting coat, pulled the grey shirt over his head and came out in his undershirt and breeches, with the other garments hanging over his arm.

"Give her these," he said. "She can button the coat around her waist for a skirt. She'd better go somewhere and get out of that soaking-wet night-dress----"

Eve, crouched on the sand, trying to wring out and twist up her drenched hair, looked up at Stormont as he came toward her holding out Darragh's dry clothing.

"You'd better do what you can with these," he said, trying to speak carelessly.... "_He says you'd better chuck--what you're wearing----"

She nodded in flushed comprehension. Stormont walked back to his horse, his boots slopping water at every stride.

"I don't know any place nearer than Ghost Lake Inn," he said ... "except Harrod's."

"That's where we're going, Jack," said Darragh cheerfully.

"That's _your place, isn't it?"

"It is. But I don't want Eve to know it.... I think it better she should not know me except as Hal Smith--for the present, anyway. You'll see to that, won't you?"

"As you wish, Jim.... Only, if we go to your own house----"

"We're not going to the main house. She wouldn't, anyway. Clinch has taught that girl to hate the very name of Harrod--hate every foot of forest that the Harrod game keepers patrol. She wouldn't cross my threshold to save her life."

"I don't understand, but--it's all right--whatever _you say, Jim."

"I'll tell you the whole business some day. But where I'm going to take you now is into a brand new camp which I ordered built last spring. It's within a mile of the State Forest border. Eve won't know that it's Harrod property. I've a hatchery there and the State lets me have a man in exchange for free fry. When I get there I'll post my man.... It will be a roof for to-night, anyway, and breakfast in the morning, whenever you're ready."

"How far is it?"

"Only about three miles east of here."

"That's the thing to do, then," said Stormont bluntly.

He dropped one sopping-wet sleeve over his horse's neck, taking care not to touch the saddle. He was thinking of the handful of gems in his pocket; and he wondered why Darragh had said nothing about the empty case for which he had so recklessly risked his life.

What this whole business was about Stormont had no notion. But he knew Darragh. That was sufficient to leave him tranquil, and perfectly certain that whatever Darragh was doing must be the right thing to do.

Yet--Eve had swum Star Pond with her mouth filled with jewels.

When she had handed the morocco box to Quintana, Stormont now realised that she must have played her last card on the utterly desperate chance that Quintana might go away without examining the case.

Evidently she had emptied the case before she left her room. He recollected that, during all that followed, Eve had not uttered a single word. He knew why, now. How could she speak with her mouth full of diamonds?

A slight sound from the shore caused him to turn. Eve was coming toward him in the dusk, moving painfully on her wounded feet. Darragh's flannel shirt and his hunting coat buttoned around her slender waist clothed her.

The next instant he was beside her, lifting her in both arms.

As he placed her in the saddle and adjusted one stirrup to her bandaged foot, she turned and quietly thanked Darragh for the clothing.

"And that was a brave thing you did," she added, "--to risk your life for my father's property. Because the morocco case which you saved proved to be empty does not make what you did any the less loyal and gallant."

Darragh gazed at her, astounded; took the hand she stretched out to him; held it with a silly expression on his features.

"Hal Smith," she said with perceptible emotion, "I take back what I once said to you on Owl Marsh. No man is a real crook by nature who did what you have done. That is 'faithfulness unto death'--the supreme offer--loyalty----"

Her voice broke; she pressed Darragh's hand convulsively and her lip quivered.

Darragh, with the morocco case full of jewels buttoned into his hip pocket, stood motionless, mutely swallowing his amazement.

What in the world did this girl mean, talking about an _empty case?

But this was no time to unravel that sort of puzzle. He turned to Stormont who, as perplexed as he, had been listening in silence.

"Lead your horse forward," he said. "I know the trail. All you need do is to follow me." And, shouldering his rifle, he walked leisurely into the woods, the cartridge belt sagging _en bandouliere across his woollen undershirt.


II

When Stormont gently halted his horse it was dawn, and Eve, sagging against him with one arm around his neck, sat huddled up on her saddle fast asleep.

In a birch woods, on the eastern slope of the divide, stood the log camp, dimly visible in the silvery light of early morning.

Darragh, cautioning Stormont with a slight gesture, went forward, mounted the rustic veranda, and knocked at a lighted window.

A man, already dressed, came and peered out at him, then hurried to open the door.

"I didn't know you, Captain Darragh----" he began, but fell silent under the warning gesture that checked him.

"I've a guest outside. She's Clinch's step-daughter, Eve Strayer. She knows me by the name of Hal Smith. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir----"

"Cut _that out, too. I'm Hal Smith to you, also. State Trooper Stormont is out there with Eve Strayer. He was a comrade of mine in Russia. I'm Hal Smith to him, by mutual agreement. _Now do you get me, Ralph?"

"Sure, Hal. Go on; spit it out!"

They both grinned.

"You're a hootch runner," said Darragh. "This is your shack. The hatchery is only a blind. That's all you have to know, Ralph. So put that girl into my room and let her sleep till she wakes of her own accord.

"Stormont and I will take two of the guest-bunks in the _L. And for heaven's sake make us some coffee when you make your own. But first come out and take the horse."

They went out together. Stormont lifted Eve out of the saddle. She did not wake. Darragh led the way into the log house and along a corridor to his own room.

"Turn down the sheets," whispered Stormont. And, when the bed was ready: "Can you get a bath towel, Jim?"

Darragh fetched one from the connecting bath-room.

"Wrap it around her wet hair," whispered Stormont. "Good heavens, I wish there were a woman here."

"I wish so too," said Darragh; "she's chilled to the bone. You'll have to wake her. She can't sleep in what she's wearing; it's almost as damp as her hair----"

He went to the closet and returned with a man's morning robe, as soft as fleece.

"Somehow or other she's got to get into that," he said.

There was a silence.

"Very well," said Stormont, reddening.... "If you'll step out I'll--manage...." He looked Darragh straight in the eyes: "I have asked her to marry me," he said.

* * * * *

When Stormont came out a great fire of birch-logs was blazing in the living-room, and Darragh stood there, his elbow on the rough stone mantel-shelf.

Stormont came straight to the fire and set one spurred boot on the fender.

"She's warm and dry and sound asleep," he said. "I'll wake her again if you think she ought to swallow something hot."

At that moment the fish-culturist came in with a pot of steaming coffee.

"This is my friend, Ralph Wier," said Darragh. "I think you'd better give Eve a cup of coffee." And, to Wier, "Fill a couple of hot water bags, old chap. We don't want any pneumonia in this house."

When breakfast was ready Eve once more lay asleep with a slight dew of perspiration on her brow.

Darragh was half starved: Stormont ate little. Neither spoke at all until, satisfied, they rose, ready for sleep.

At the door of his room Stormont took Darragh's offered hand, understanding what it implied:

"Thanks, Jim.... Hers is the loveliest character I have ever known.... If I weren't as poor as a homeless dog I'd marry her to-morrow.... I'll do it anyway, I think.... I _can't let her go back to Clinch's Dump!"

"After all," said Darragh, smiling, "if it's only money that worries you, why not talk about a job to _me_!"

Stormont flushed heavily: "That's rather wonderful of you, Jim----"

"Why? You're the best officer I had. Why the devil did you go into the Constabulary without talking to me?"

Stormont's upper lip seemed inclined to twitch but he controlled it and scowled at space.

"Go to bed, you darned fool," said Darragh, carelessly. "You'll find dry things ready. Ralph will take care of your uniform and boots."

Then he went into his own quarters to read two letters which, conforming to arrangements made with Mrs. Ray the day he had robbed Emanuel Sard, were to be sent to Trout Lodge to await his arrival.

Both, written from the Ritz, bore the date of the day before: the first he opened was from the Countess Orloff-Strelwitz:


"Dear Captain Darragh,

"--You are so wonderful! Your messenger, with the _ten thousand dollars which you say you already have recovered from those miscreants who robbed Ricca, came aboard our ship before we landed. It was a godsend; we were nearly penniless,--and oh, _so shabby!

"Instantly, my friend, we shopped, Ricca and I. Fifth Avenue enchanted us. All misery was forgotten in the magic of that paradise for women.

"Yet, spendthrifts that we naturally are, we were not silly enough to be extravagant. Ricca was wild for American sport-clothes. I, also. Yet--only _two gowns apiece, excepting our sport clothes. And other necessaries. Don't you think we were economical?"

"Furthermore, dear Captain Darragh, we are hastening to follow your instructions. We are leaving to-day for your chateau in the wonderful forest, of which you told us that never-to-be-forgotten day in Riga.

"Your agent is politeness, consideration and kindness itself. We have our accommodations. We leave New York at midnight.

"Ricca is so excited that it is difficult for her to restrain her happiness. God knows the child has seen enough unhappiness to quench the gaiety of anybody!

"Well, all things end. Even tears. Even the Red Terror shall pass from our beloved Russia. For, after all, Monsieur, God still lives.

"VALENTINE."

"P. S. Ricca has written to you. I have read the letter. I have let it go uncensored."


Darragh went to the door of his room:

"Ralph! Ralph!" he called. And, when Wier hurriedly appeared:

"What time does the midnight train from New York get into Five Lakes?"

"A little before nine----"

"You can make it in the flivver, can't you?"

"Yes, if I start _now_."

"All right. Two ladies. You're to bring them to the _house_, not _here_. Mrs. Ray knows about them. And--get back here as soon as you can."

He closed his door again, sat down on the bed and opened the other letter. His hand shook as he unfolded it. He was so scared and excited that he could scarcely decipher the angular, girlish penmanship:


"To dear Captain Darragh, our champion and friend--

"It is difficult for me, Monsieur, to express my happiness and my deep gratitude in the so cold formality of the written page.

"Alas, sir, it will be still more difficult to find words for it when again I have the happiness of greeting you in proper person.

"Valentine has told you everything, she warns me, and I am, therefore, somewhat at a loss to know what I should write to you.

"Yet, I know very well what I would write if I dare. It is this: that I wish you to know--although it may not pass the censor--that I am most impatient to see you, Monsieur. _Not because of kindness past, nor with an unworthy expectation of benefits to come. But because of friendship,--_the deepest, sincerest of my WHOLE LIFE.

"Is it not modest of a young girl to say this? Yes, surely all the world which was once _en regle_, formal, artificial, has been burnt out of our hearts by this so frightful calamity which has overwhelmed the world with fire and blood.

"If ever on earth there was a time when we might venture to express with candour what is hidden within our minds and hearts, it would seem, Monsieur, that the time is now.

"True, I have known you only for one day and one evening. Yet, what happened to the world in that brief space of time--and to us, Monsieur--brought _us together as though our meeting were but a blessed reunion after the happy intimacy of many years.... I speak, Monsieur, for myself. May I hope that I speak, also, for you?

"With a heart too full to thank you, and with expectations indescribable--but with courage, always, for any event,--I take my leave of you at the foot of this page. Like death--I trust--my adieu is not the end, but the beginning. It is not farewell; it is a greeting to him whom I most honour in all the world.... And would willingly obey if he shall command. And otherwise--_all else that in his mind--and heart--he might desire.

"THEODORICA."


It was the most beautiful love-letter any man ever received in all the history of love.

And it had passed the censor.


III

It was afternoon when Darragh awoke in his bunk, stiff, sore, confused in mind and battered in body.

However, when he recollected where he was he got out of bed in a hurry and jerked aside the window curtains.

The day was magnificent; a sky of royal azure overhead, and everywhere the silver pillars of the birches supporting their splendid canopy of ochre, orange, and burnt-gold.

Wier, hearing him astir, came in.

"How long have you been back! Did you meet the ladies with your flivver?" demanded Darragh, impatiently.

"I got to Five Lakes station just as the train came in. The young ladies were the only passengers who got out. I waited to get their two steamer trunks and then I drove them to Harrod Place----"

"How did they seem, Ralph--worn-out--worried--ill?"

Wier laughed: "No, sir, they looked very pretty and lively to me. They seemed delighted to get here. They talked to each other in some foreign tongue--Russian, I should say--at least, it sounded like what we heard over in Siberia, Captain----"

"It _was Russian.... You go on and tell me while I take another hot bath!----"

Wier followed him into the bath-room and vaulted to a seat on the deep set window-sill:

"--When they weren't talking Russian and laughing they talked to me and admired the woods and mountains. I had to tell them everything--they wanted to see buffalo and Indians. And when I told them there weren't any, enquired for bears and panthers.

"We saw two deer on the Scaur, and a woodchuck near the house; I thought they'd jump out of the flivver----"

He began to laugh at the recollection: "No, sir, they didn't act tired and sad; they said they were crazy to get into their knickerbockers and go to look for you----"

"Where did you say I was?" asked Darragh, drying himself vigorously.

"Out in the woods, somewhere. The last I saw of them, Mrs. Ray had their hand-bags and Jerry and Tom were shouldering their trunks."

"I'm going up there right away," interrupted Darragh excitedly. "--Good heavens, Ralph, I haven't any clothes here, have I?"

"No, sir. But those you wore last night are dry----"

"Confound it! I meant to send some decent clothes here---- All right; get me those duds I wore yesterday--and a bite to eat! I'm in a hurry, Ralph----"

He ate while dressing, disgustedly arraying himself in the grey shirt, breeches, and laced boots which weather, water, rock, and brier had not improved.

In a pathetic attempt to spruce up, he knotted the red bandanna around his neck and pinched Salzar's slouch hat into a peak.

"I look like a hootch-running Wop," he said. "Maybe I can get into the house before I meet the ladies----"

"You look like one of Clinch's bums," remarked Wier with native honesty.

Darragh, chagrined, went to his bunk, pulled the morocco case from under the pillow, and shoved it into the bosom of his flannel shirt.

"That's the main thing anyway," he thought. Then, turning to Wier, he asked whether Eve and Stormont had awakened.

It appeared that Trooper Stormont had saddled up and cantered away shortly after sunrise, leaving word that he must hunt up his comrade, Trooper Lannis, at Ghost Lake.

"They're coming back this evening," added Wier. "He asked you to look out for Clinch's step-daughter."

"She's all right here. Can't you keep an eye on her, Ralph?"

"I'm stripping trout, sir. I'll be around here to cook dinner for her when she wakes up."

Darragh glanced across the brook at the hatchery. It was only a few yards away. He nodded and started for the veranda:

"That'll be all right," he said. "Nobody is coming here to bother her.... And don't let her leave, Ralph, till I get back----"

"Very well, sir. But suppose she takes it into her head to leave----"

Darragh called back, gaily: "She can't: she hasn't any clothes!" And away he strode in the gorgeous sunshine of a magnificent autumn day, all the clean and vigorous youth of him afire in anticipation of a reunion which the letter from his lady-love had transfigured into a tryst.

For, in that amazing courtship of a single day, he never dreamed that he had won the heart of that sad, white-faced, hungry child in rags--silken tatters still stained with the blood of massacre,--the very soles of her shoes still charred by the embers of her own home.

Yet, that is what must have happened in a single day and evening. Life passes swiftly during such periods. Minutes lengthen into days; hours into years. The soul finds itself.

Then mind and heart become twin prophets,--clairvoyant concerning what hides behind the veil; comprehending with divine clair-audience what the Three Sisters whisper there--hearing even the whirr of the spindle--the very snipping of the Eternal Shears!

* * * * *

The soul finds itself; the mind knows itself; the heart perfectly understands.

He had not spoken to this young girl of love. The blood of friends and servants was still rusty on her skirt's ragged hem.

Yet, that night, when at last in safety she had said good-bye to the man who had secured it for her, he knew that he was in love with her. And, at such crises, the veil that hides hearts becomes transparent.

At that instant he had seen and known. Afterward he had dared not believe that he had known.

But hers had been a purer courage.

* * * * *

As he strode on, the comprehension of her candour, her honesty, the sweet bravery that had conceived, created, and sent that letter, thrilled this young man until his heavy boots sprouted wings, and the trail he followed was but a path of rosy clouds over which he floated heavenward.

* * * * *

About half an hour later he came to his senses with a distinct shock.

Straight ahead of him on the trail, and coming directly toward him, moved a figure in knickers and belted tweed.

Flecked sunlight slanted on the stranger's cheek and burnished hair, dappling face and figure with moving, golden spots.

Instantly Darragh knew and trembled.

But Theodorica of Esthonia had known him only in his uniform.

As she came toward him, lovely in her lithe and rounded grace, only friendly curiosity gazed at him from her blue eyes.

Suddenly she knew him, went scarlet to her yellow hair, then white: and tried to speak--but had no control of the short, rosy upper lip which only quivered as he took her hands.

The forest was dead still around them save for the whisper of painted leaves sifting down from a sunlit vault above.

Finally she said in a ghost of a voice: "My--friend...."

"If you accept his friendship...."

"Friendship is to be shared.... Ours mingled--on that day.... Your share is--as much as pleases you."

"All you have to give me, then."

"Take it ... all I have...." Her blue eyes met his with a little effort. All courage is an effort.

Then that young man dropped on both knees at her feet and laid his lips to her soft hands.

In trembling silence she stood for a moment, then slowly sank on both knees to face him across their clasped hands.

So, in the gilded cathedral of the woods, pillared with silver, and azure-domed, the betrothal of these two was sealed with clasp and lip.

Awed, a little fearful, she looked into her lover's eyes with a gaze so chaste, so oblivious to all things earthly, that the still purity of her face seemed a sacrament, and he scarcely dared touch the childish lips she offered.

But when the sacrament of the kiss had been accomplished, she rested one hand on his shoulder and rose, and drew him with her.

Then _his moment came: he drew the emblazoned case from his breast, opened it, and, in silence, laid it in her hands. The blaze of the jewels in the sunshine almost blinded them.

That was _his moment.

The next moment was Quintana's.

* * * * *

Darragh hadn't a chance. Out of the bushes two pistols were thrust hard against his stomach. Quintana's face was behind them. He wore no mask, but the three men with him watched him over the edges of handkerchiefs,--over the sights of levelled rifles, too.

The youthful Grand Duchess had turned deadly white. One of Quintana's men took the morocco case from her hands and shoved her aside without ceremony.

Quintana leered at Darragh over his levelled weapons:

"My frien' Smith!" he exclaimed softly. "So it is you, then, who have twice try to rob me of my property!

"Ah! You recollec'? Yes? How you have rob me of a pacquet which contain only some chocolate?"

Darragh's face was burning with helpless rage.

"My frien', Smith," repeated Quintana, "do you recollec' what it was you say to me? Yes?... How often it is the onexpected which so usually happen? You are quite correc', l'ami Smith. It has happen."

He glanced at the open jewel box which one of the masked men held, then, like lightning, his sinister eyes focussed on Darragh.

"So," he said, "it was also you who rob me las' night of my property.... What you do to Nick Salzar, eh?"

"Killed him," said Darragh, dry lipped, nerved for death. "I ought to have killed you, too, when I had the chance. But--_I'm white, you see."

At the insult flung into his face over the muzzles of his own pistols, Quintana burst into laughter.

"Ah! You _should have shot me! You are quite right, my frien'. I mus' say you have behave ver' foolish."

He laughed again so hard that Darragh felt his pistols shaking against his body.

"So you have kill Nick Salzar, eh?" continued Quintana with perfect good humour. "My frien', I am oblige to you for what you do. You are surprise? Eh? It is ver' simple, my frien' Smith. What I want of a man who can be kill? Eh? Of what use is he to me? Voila!"

He laughed, patted Darragh on the shoulder with one of his pistols.

"You, now--_you could be of use. Why? Because you are a better man than was Nick Salzar. He who kills is better than the dead."

Then, swiftly his dark features altered:

"My frien' Smith," he said, "I have come here for my property, not to kill. I have recover my property. Why shall I kill you? To say that I am a better man? Yes, perhaps. But also I should be oblige to say that also I am a fool. Yaas! A poor damfool."

Without shifting his eyes he made a motion with one pistol to his men. As they turned and entered the thicket, Quintana's intent gaze became murderous.

"If I mus' kill you I shall do so. Otherwise I have sufficient trouble to keep me from ennui. My frien', I am going home to enjoy my property. If you live or die it signifies nothing to me. No! Why, for the pleasure of killing you, should I bring your dirty gendarmes on my heels?"

He backed away to the edge of the thicket, venturing one swift and evil glance at the girl who stood as though dazed.

"Listen attentively," he said to Darragh. "One of my men remains hidden very near. He is a dead shot. His aim is at your--sweetheart's--body. You understan'?"

"Yes."

"Ver' well. You shall not go away for one hour time. After that----" he took off his slouch hat with a sweeping bow--"you may go to hell!"

Behind him the bushes parted, closed.

Jose Quintana had made his adieux.

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