NOAKES leaned over a stand in one of the Maxineff laboratories and looked intently into a crucible, while he advanced the lever of a control-switch regulating the furnace beneath it. He held a steady hand on the lever, so that he might push it back instantly if he saw in the crucible too sudden a transformation. As he watched, the dull saffron powder took on a deeper hue about the edge, the body of it remaining unchanged. For several minutes he peered with keen intentness at the evil, inert little mass. No further change appeared. He leaned closer over it, regardless of the thin choking haze that spread about his face. In his attitude there was a rigidity of controlled excitement out of keeping with the seeming harmlessness of the experiment. He was as a man attuned to a tremendous hazard, anticipation and mental endurance taut, all his force focused on one throbbing desire. He bent closer, and the hand on the lever trembled in nervous premonition. The deepened hue touched only the edge, following regularly the contour of the vessel; it made no advance toward the centre of the substance.
‘It shall!’ Noakes breathed; and as if conning an oft-repeated formula, he said, ‘The entire mass should deepen in color, regularly and evenly. Heat! Heat!’
His glance shifted to the control-switch under his hand. Its metal knobs, marking the degrees of intensity of the current it controlled, caught the light and blinked like so many small, baleful eyes. Particularly one, that which would be capped next in the orbit of the lever, held him fascinated; the winking potentiality of it thralled him, as the troubled crystal devours the gaze of the Hindu magi.
He jerked back his head decisively; he would increase the current. The thought burned before him like a live thing; and in the light of it he saw many pictures—heliographs of happenings in and about the laboratories: flame, smoke dense and turgid, splintered wood, metal hurtling through air, bleeding hands, lacerated breasts, sightless eyes.
‘That’s the trouble with high explosives,’ he half groaned.
He turned away from the stand and went to the single window that lit the room. Through it he saw shops, store-houses, and small buildings similar to his own, all a part of the plant of Maxineff. He thought of each small laboratory as a potential inferno, each experimenter a bondman to ecstasy, the whole frenzied, gasping scheme a furtherance of the fame and power of Henry Maxineff, already world-known, inventor of the deadliest high explosives. One of the buildings had been turned into a temporary hospital. He thought of the pitiful occupant—his face scarred, one socket eyeless—and shivered.
‘It isn’t that I want to hedge,’ he said. ‘I shall take the chance; but having risked everything, I will go to her able and whole, offering it all without an apology.’
His gaze was drawn back to the crucible. In the thin haze above it a face seemed to shine. Avidly he gave himself to the spell his tight-strung imagination had conjured—a face oval and delicately tinted; lips joyously curved; gray eyes not large, but brimming with enthusiasm, fearlessness, and truth; a white brow beneath simply arranged light hair.
‘Let me bring with an avowal all that you have now, more!—for in your life there can’t be anything bigger than my love. And it’s that which makes the deal right. Don’t judge me yet! Wait until I’ve finished, and grant me that it’s worth while.’
He whispered to the face, and his breath made little swirls and eddies in the haze about it. The filmy curves wafted toward him, bringing it close to his lips. The lids fluttered. Then an acrid odor filled his throat and nostrils. The face vanished. He started back, distraught.
A rushing recollection of Maxineff’s tragedies came to him, more vivid even than the face. Halsey, who jarred the nitro, had been annihilated. Ewell was mad from the violent termination of an experiment similar to that now in development.
‘A year ago!’ Noakes said, ‘and still Ewell lives and raves!’
How alike the cases were! The difference lay in the crucible. If the mixture there were properly prepared, added heat would metamorphose it calmly from its present harmlessness into something new, wonderful, deadly. It would become imbued with marvelous possibility, a thing for which royal military bureaus, imperial navies, would pay a great price.
A twist of the lever would do it. Yet how alike— And Ewell was mad, injured gruesomely, living dead.
Again the blinking switch caught him, but he shrugged away its evil suggestiveness. He sought to flee the strain of the moment, to make it seem natural and like the smaller risks of his daily occupation. He assumed a tottering bravado, and as he put his hand to the lever, he smiled crookedly.
A light, quick tread sounded on the walk outside, on the double step; as the knob turned, a voice said,’May I come, Mr. Alchemist?’
His hand left the lever as if it pricked him.
‘Am I a wraith?’
Noakes looked at her silently. In the moment’s abstraction her presence seemed a manifestation of some psychic conduction which he tried lamely to understand—here, now, in a moment of danger of which she unknowingly was the moving force.
‘Then exorcise me quickly, but don’t sprinkle me with acid; it would be fatal to my clothes.’
Noakes warmed to the aura of light and cheer about her.
‘There isn’t an alkali in the shop; I won’t endanger you,’ he replied easily.
She moved into the room and paused a moment near the stand.
‘Mrs. Max says you are confining yourself too closely. I’ve been with her all morning.’
While she spoke she took off her hat and smoothed her hair.
‘I’m blown to pieces. I drove Cornish this morning; he got by everything on the way. He acted like a première danseuse when I passed the cooper’s shop.’
His joy at seeing her was discountenanced by his fear for her; and he was afraid of her. Her insinuated trust in him threw into murky relief the affair which occupied him. When she turned to him a flushed, joyful face, and gray eyes clear and unsullied, it flashed into his soul, as formedly as a Mene Tekel, that she would unhesitatingly brush out of her life-path the dust of doubt; that equivocation and willingness to balance motives were no part of her. He knew that in her were no dim angles of cross-grained purpose, no shadowy intersections of the lines of good and evil.
‘I say I’m blown to wisps; couldn’t you find me a mirror, please?’
‘What would I do with a mirror here? But see—’
He lifted the window sash, pulled in one shutter, and with a gesture of presentation, said, ‘As others see us!’
She turned her back while she arranged her hair before the makeshift mirror. Relieved from her direct gaze, he stepped quickly to the stand, and looked into the crucible. There was no change. He had expected none, but he could not be sure. Maxineff himself could not be sure of this new mixture. A run of the same temperature might bring about the change he looked for as readily as an increase. The suspense was unbearable.
‘Well, Cagliostro!’ she called. ‘You alchemists are capable of the utterest abstraction, aren’t you?’
‘Why have you come?’ he said quickly, frowning at her.
‘To take you driving,’ with an enticing smile.
‘Will you not go? Please, at once?’
Her manner lost something of its verve.
‘It isn’t safe, you know, really,’ he added.
‘And won’t you come?’
‘I cannot; not this morning.’
‘Well,’ she said, with a little sigh, as she thrust in her hat-pins, ‘Mrs. Max will be disappointed. On her command I came to break up this seclusion of yours. None of us have seen you for—’
‘A week, seven days!’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Oh—I’ve been working out some ideas.’
‘But you are so quiet about it! What are the ideas?’
Noakes hesitated, and she laughed merrily as she went toward the door.
‘We laity are hopeless, aren’t we? You are thinking that I couldn’t possibly understand?’
‘No, I wasn’t, because I scarcely understand myself.’
‘Of course, some secret formula Mr. Max has you on.’
‘Indeed, no,’ he said. ‘Mr. Max knows nothing about it—that is,’ he continued hurriedly, ‘it’s the sort of thing— At any rate, I’ll soon be through.’
She stood in the doorway, outlined against the bright incoming mid-daylight, her face turned back to him.
‘And then you will come out into the world again? Mrs. Max and Cornish and I shall be honored.’
‘Then I shall be free.’
He spoke the words with singular feeling.
‘Truly, though, Mr. Noakes,’ she said in a straightforward manner, ‘you are too busy. Mrs. Max says you are to break out, break out with the measles if nothing else will interrupt you, and you are to have tea with her this afternoon.’
Noakes looked doubtful. She went down the steps and turned again.
‘Oh, I almost forgot—here’s a letter for you.’
‘It came in the Maxineffs’ mail this morning. Mrs. Max suggested my bringing it to you.’
Noakes took the long, foreign-stamped envelope. The typed superscription was noncommittal, but at the Berlin postmark his eyes narrowed and the knuckles of the hand by his side whitened. He drew a quick breath and looked keenly at the girl.
‘Was Mr. Maxineff at home this morning?’ he asked quietly.
‘No; I believe he is in the city.’
‘Oh!’ he breathed. ‘Thank you very much.’
He slipped the letter into his pocket.
‘Well, I can’t stay any longer.’
Noakes pressed her hand.
‘And, Cagliostro, when the puzzle’s solved, come to see me. I’ll sing away the worries, Good-bye.’
‘Good-bye, Miss Becky. Excuse my untractableness, won’t you?’
With a pat to her hat and a smile to Noakes, she was gone.
He watched her a moment, then strode rapidly to the stand. Looking through the faint haze, he saw her pass down the straight path which led to the great gate of the Maxineff work-yard. When she was close to it he grasped the switch-lever with cramped fingers. His face was colorless. He moved the lever forward with a jerk, and lifting his eyes, saw her pass out of the gate.
Beyond reach of time he waited. Evenly, insistently, a dull brown suffused the mass. Still he waited, fearfully wondering at the stability of this new thing. It kept its even coloring. He pushed back the lever, watched again, and waited.
He was afire with joy. He had succeeded; he had created a thing new to the world, an explosive which would be more powerful than the deadliest in existence; he had perfected the work of a week’s exquisite danger; he had won.
‘I am glad, glad!’ he said faintly.
As he straightened up he found himself suddenly weak. The strain had been galling, and the madness of gratification consumed his strength. He moved toward the door, stepping very gently, for he knew not how slight a vibration might shatter the delicate affinity in his discovery.
He remembered the foreign letter, and taking it from his pocket, tore open the envelope.
He looked through the open door, conscious for the first time of the perfectness of the day. It was good to be alive, he thought, free, something accomplished, with leave to tell a girl—
A tall man entered the gate and took the walk toward the laboratory. Noakes looked at him in a moment of amazement, almost of stupefaction. The necessity of instant action startled him to movement. As quickly as he thought, he pushed the door three-quarters shut, replaced the jars from which he had taken his materials, filled a second crucible with a harmless haphazard mixture, and placed it over a dead furnace in a stand in the corner behind the door. He lifted the window-sash. With all his strength he hurled his priceless crucible. By a marvel of speed he had the sash lowered, and was behind the door, when the building was shaken by an explosion.
‘What is that, Mr. Noakes?’ came in deep, calm tones from the door.
‘Good morning, Mr. Maxineff,’ said Noakes, turning slowly. ‘The racket? Some half-baked fulminate I put in the ditch out there an hour ago.’
‘So long since?’ said the older man, advancing toward the window.
‘Yes, sir. I think the jarring of the wagon you see leaving the chemical house caused it.’
A hole several feet in diameter marked the spot where the crucible fell. The stuff had delayed not an instant in working its havoc. Noakes was glad there was too little of it to cause a suspicious deal of damage.
Maxineff looked reflectively about the yard, while Noakes nervously eyed his chief’s expressive profile. His eyes wandered to the fine gray head of this tall, straight man. He could not fail to be impressed afresh by the forceful exterior, significant of the inner attitude which had won for Henry Maxineff a name honored among nations.
‘What of your work?’ he said.
Noakes was glad those seeing eyes were not on him.
‘I’m beat,’ he said. ‘I’ve gone at it every way I know, and I have been consistently and finally unsuccessful.’
In the ensuing pause Noakes realized that this was the first admission of failure he had ever made to his chief. The surprise it called forth was grateful to him.
‘What’s the trouble? But I think the trouble with you is that you have overreached yourself, Noakes.’
‘Oh, no; the idea is a fine, tremendous one. Sheer stupidity is my trouble, I think.’
His humility seemed real, and perhaps the unusualness of it brought a curious expression to Maxineff’s face, and into his eyes a contemplative light that Noakes did not care to meet.
‘I met Miss Hallam as I entered,’ Maxineff said carelessly.
The remark may have meant much, or it may have had merely an intentional indication of the intimacy accorded Noakes above the other assistants in the laboratories.
‘Yes? She came to tell me that Mrs. Max will permit me to have tea with her this afternoon.’
‘You are coming, I hope?’
‘Indeed, yes. I confess I am tired out. I gave up the experiment early this morning. I understood the fulminate was running low, and spent my morning blundering over making some. I couldn’t do that even, familiar as I am with the process.’
‘Well, leave it all and come with me over the yard. I am inspecting this morning. Be my secretary for a while.’
Five o’clock had passed when they emerged upon the New England town’s stolid main street. They walked beneath the venerable flanking trees toward the Maxineff villa, which surmounted a wooded continuation of the street.
In a high gray-and-white room they found Mrs. Maxineff. She touched a bell as she said in an odd manner of inflecting, ‘But you are late!’
Moving to one end of the spindle-legged sofa, she made place at her side for Maxineff, and motioned Noakes to a chair near them.
‘Ah, I see it: you will be a second Max—all science, all absence, and a woman waiting at home! Immolation, you call it?’ she continued, her hands moving quickly among the appurtenances of the tea-table. ‘That is what you prefer, my young Mr. Noakes.’
‘I am under orders, you know, Mrs. Max,’ said Noakes, with a deferential inclination of the head toward Maxineff.
A servant brought in buttered rusks, and served the men with tea.
‘Orders! For orders do you permit circles about your eyes as dark as they themselves are? Then you are easily immolate!’
Over his cup Maxineff smiled encouragement to his wife.
‘You are practical, my friend. Confess now, there is a reason for your—your application?’
Noakes’s attitude was uncompromising. He placed his cup on the table before he spoke.
‘The reason you are thinking of, Mrs. Max, is not for a poor man.’
Mrs. Maxineff lifted her shoulders and displayed her palms in a manner that marked her nationality.
‘So! Science has made your dark skin white; love for this business of killing men has kept you hid a week.’
‘Of saving men,’ Maxineff corrected, while his wife smiled as at the recurrence of a customary witticism.
‘And you gave the orders, Max! You are to be blamed for this display of energy.’
‘Don’t scold, dear. It will be a wonderful thing!’
‘A new explosive?’ she interrupted.
‘Do you remember the day we motored from Stoneham? I first thought of it then. I have been too busy to work on it, so I turned the idea over to Noakes.’
‘And I have made application to a home for the feeble-minded, Mrs. Max,’ Noakes said. ‘Mr. Max will never commission me again.’
‘I’ll be with you to-morrow, and we shall see wherein is the difficulty.’
‘But, Max, another? Now I see your scheme of universal peace quite puffed away!’
‘This will bring it nearer!’ Maxineff said enthusiastically.
Mrs. Maxineff shrugged her shoulders as she walked toward the long windows.
‘Stay to dinner, will you?’ she said to Noakes.
‘Thanks, but I couldn’t with propriety. I forgot to have luncheon to-day, and your tea has given me a keen anticipation for dinner; my zest would be embarrassing to you, and past my control. Besides, I shall take a half-mile walk to-night.’
‘Lucky Becky! Then come again soon. Max, dear,’ she said, turning to her husband, ‘I cannot hear that again. I shall be on the porch.’
When she passed through the window, Noakes seated himself to listen to a new exposition of the subject which chiefly aroused Maxineff’s interest and loosed his speech. Frequently he bent his head in acquiescence, and occasionally interjected a pertinent question under the guidance of his secondary mind; but his thoughts moved in a circle of smaller radius.
What to him was a policy of world-peace? He cared not a jot what scheme of universal pacification men dreamed over. Maxineff’s argument was not new to him; when he gave it serious attention he doubted its practicability.
The older man’s voice seemed far away, as it said, ‘Each new explosive deals a blow at war,—war!’
Noakes had heard the same thing when his chief concluded with the government an agreement which secured to it the exclusive use of his latest product.
‘This new thing will make war too dreadful a course for the least humanitarian nation to pursue. That the variance of nations tends toward equilibrium is incontrovertible. Granted then—’
Noakes was practical. He placed before himself a definite goal. He exerted every power to attain it, and used the means at his disposal. If he encompassed it, he put it to the use for which it was intended. He gave no thought to the extraneous influence it exerted on other phases upon which his life touched. He had made a great discovery—not a fortunate accident like that of the man who discovered nitro. With great danger to himself, he had followed a line of reasoning to its proximate end; the resulting discovery he would use to his individual advantage. He did not accord to himself the godlike privilege of casting discord among the nations, and he did not care what peaceful zoo the lion, the bear, and the various species of eagle found as common refuge.
‘On the other hand, if to each is given coextensive power—’ The voice slipped away, as Noakes humorously wondered why Maxineff had never been a delegate to a Peace conference.
The great man’s argument was advanced step by step. The light faded. Secure in the dusk, Noakes no longer maintained a semblance of attention. He weighed the chances of the present and actualized his long-time dreams.
A servant clicked soft light from the wall, and removed the tea-table.
Noakes rose, uttered a commonplace, and bade his chief good-night.
Soon he was descending the village street, keeping pace with his rapid thoughts.
From the exchange he dispatched a messenger to the house a half-mile away.
He dressed quickly, the while reading repeatedly his foreign letter. When dressed, he sat on the bed, chin in his palms, and looked at the blank bedroom wall. A frown hung between his brows. Later he sat before the shelves in his study, absently scanning the backs of the books.
‘When? When?’ he said aloud.
In the morning Maxineff would come to search for that which he had found. He might be there for weeks, from morning till night. In that case the work must be delayed and misguided. The proportions were finely calculated; the method could not be bettered. He could duplicate it in an hour. If only he could repeat the experiment before—
‘To-night!’ he said, and left the room with a firm step.
He dined well, though with few words for the kindly lady in whose home he lived.
He took the path by the side of the road which led in the opposite direction from the Maxineff place. He lit his first pipe since morning. How good life was! The town, the plant, Maxineff, were all behind him. Ahead was a goal toward which he bore with increasing lightness of heart. Clearly defined decisions, unregretted, faded into the brightness of anticipation. His pack of problems dropped from him. One day more and he could speak—one evening of companionable friendship.
Her yard was a gnomish alternation of unsullied light and alluring shade. The moon utilized impartially natural and artificial features of landscape as detail for the picture of gray, black, and silver. Noakes traversed less rapidly the curved driveway, pausing where it was cut by a paved way to the door.
Through a window he saw her seated on the piano-bench, her head bent forward, her mellow-tinted hair coiled low. She was singing softly.
She came to the door to meet him.
‘Will duty call you back before you have been with me just a little while?’ she asked as they entered the room.
‘No, duty has lost her voice at present.’
She dropped into a big arm-chair. He turned his back to the light, and sat facing her.
‘What have you been doing this week?’
‘Singing mostly.’
‘Sing now, please.’
‘No, let’s talk first.’
‘Well, how did Cornish behave on your way back?’
‘Quite as well as if you had been with us, Noakes.’
He leaned forward quickly.
‘Do you know, that’s the first time you’ve called me “Noakes”?’
‘It slipped. Mrs. Max says it, you know; I am weak about taking on colloquialisms.’
‘And you are sorry you have been so easily influenced?’ Noakes asked in ponderous aggrievement.
‘You do not seem to be overjoyed.’
‘I am,’ he said gently.
‘Don’t be hilarious over it.’
‘I will; I wish—’
‘Well, certainly; “Noakes” it shall be.’
‘Thanks, Miss Beck.’
‘Haven’t you done anything but work these days?’
‘I have thought more or less.’
‘Strange; what about?’
‘You, of course.’
‘Steady! Spring has passed.’
‘And to-night I heard a queer thing about you.’
‘What?’ she asked in an engaging manner of invitation to confidence.
‘That you are to be married. I have it on the word of my landlady.’
‘So it is rumored in the village.’
‘I am glad my family is not so anxious to thrust me off as my friends are.’
‘And you are unwilling to be thrust off, as you put it?’
‘Married? No, not unwilling; unprepared. It is so very final, you know. A woman gives up everything.’
‘Not necessarily.’
‘Oh, yes she does: freedom, family, associations.’
‘And in return?’
‘From the right man she gets—a sort of compensation.’
‘Not a high valuation.’
‘A true one; she knows she cares more than he does.’
‘No, no!’ Noakes spoke from a full heart.
‘She does; and knowing it, she need not expect equal return—only part compensation. But how good he ought to be!’
‘Good?’ he asked doubtfully.
‘Yes, everything she thinks he is.’
‘No man loved of woman is that.’
‘Noakes, you are disillusioning, and incorrect, and moreover traitorous to your kind.’
‘Not a bit of it; you overpraise my kind.’
‘But—let’s be definite—you know he may be all—’
‘And may not always have been; in which connection he may not be expected to enlighten the dreaming lady, may he?’
‘I think he may.’
‘But he may possess a certain masculine trait, a kind of secretiveness.’
‘Secretive,’ she mused. ‘Then he is a bit of a coward, I think.’
‘He would be a cad,’ Noakes said quickly, ‘to tell her things that would pain her.’
‘Understanding will come sooner or later,’ she said oracularly. ‘It is better to become accustomed to a thing than have it come as a revelation.’
‘I see,’ Noakes said; ‘like taking a tonic in midwinter to fend off spring fever. You forget,’ he continued in a different tone, looking at her speculatively, ‘that understanding may never come.’
‘Then he has put her on a lower intellectual plane; he has withheld from her, as he might from a child.’
‘No, he has loved her too well to hurt her.’
‘Loved her so ill that he has deceived her from the beginning.’
‘To my mind there is something active in deception; this would be rather an omission.’
‘An omission that is an insult to her.’
‘Not at all!’ Noakes spoke somewhat vehemently.
‘Don’t think I mean,’ she said, ‘that there should be a detailed interchange of trivial confidence. That would be tiresome. If, however, there were one big thing in his life that might influence her feeling toward him, he should tell it, and let her judge.’
‘Not smooth over a disagreeable occurrence?’
‘Never! It would be cruel.’
Noakes sat very still. Norfloxacin IP
‘If I were the girl,—’ she began, and checked the speech with a faint laugh. ‘But we will not be dramatic, nor personal.’
Noakes told himself he had always known that this was her thought; she was too clear-hearted to feel anything else. The understanding of which she had half-seriously spoken must never come, and the only means of avoiding it was to-night’s silence, the silence of all the days to follow. He foresaw the revelation which might come, and realized that any abnegation was worthless except the sacrifice of his love. Alive, aware of its possible fulfillment, he could not condemn himself to the sacrifice. She had not asked it of him, and he would not face that which she might ask if he obeyed the weak voice which counseled a surrender to her judgment. To the last intoxicating drop he would drink, in reverent loving-thankfulness for the draught vouchsafed him. He would care, not in fearful accumulation of credit against a day of reckoning, but in surrender to the brimming abundance of their store. He would secure to her freedom from that possible pain by following the inevitable trend.
His regard was a compelling force with which he had lived and grown since he had known Becky. He had not spoken of it to her, silenced by the piteous bane of insufficient income; but now almost he was free. When he spoke, the breadth and depth of the thing it was would induce her assent. Of this he was so sure that he did not consider the possibility of refusal. His failure to anticipate such a chance was by no means due to an under-estimation of her powers of will, determination, or selection; rather to the feeling which, with the beat of his heart, knocked for freedom to go out, out, about the world, and with its sweeping lines converged again, to enter and permeate a heart attuned to reception and response.
He sat beside her on the piano-bench, and placed before her the songs he liked best.
Her voice was a pure soprano, of an expressive sweetness which affected Noakes as nothing else he had known. It seemed to him that her clarity of soul found expression in her exquisitely pure singing tones.
With hands tight-clasped between his knees, fearing to look at her, Noakes listened while she sang him into a half-visualized dream, as obsessing as it was immanent, which he clung to and enjoyed to the full in order that he might ignore the longing then to speak his thought. His dream keyed him to a responsiveness which made his throat throb in sympathy with the vibration of her tones.
Presently he went away.
Alone in the silver-splotched yard, the spell yet held him; but when the white road pointed a way back to what he had left behind, a fog of uncertainty encircled him, dissipating the glow of his dream, checking his anticipation, crushing his problem close to him in the narrow circle of his vision, so close that, although a thing solved and set aside, it loomed ominous and insistent.
He followed the road back to what he had left behind.
In the laboratory Noakes bent over a crucible. The room was still. Not even the night-sounds penetrated the shut door and closed window. The light from a single bulb played upon the set lines of his jaw, and upon the still hand which lay on the switch-lever. He drew a deep breath that quivered through the room with startling distinctness. He bent closer to the tiny quantity of powder in the bottom of the vessel.
Suddenly he stood erect and looked about him. His glance slowly circled the room, and fell to the hand on the switch-lever. Then he advanced the lever.
It came as a burst of light taken up and radiated by clouds of fume and gas with which the air was instantly impregnated. Around Noakes was a white-hot brilliance which he could not face, and could not escape. His eyes pained horribly. He heard a crescendo roaring as of a billow breaking on the shore; as suddenly as it had come, the light went out. He was in darkness. He trained his gaze into the void and succeeded only in augmenting the pain back of his eyes. The darkness was impenetrable. He began to realize what had happened. With a low moan he crumpled and sank to the floor.
Late in the afternoon of the next day, behind a livery horse, two men were covering the roadway between town and the Hallam place. To one the way seemed long. He leaned back wearily and pulled a soft hat down over his bandaged eyes.
‘Where are we?’ he asked.
‘At the gate,’ the driver replied.
Noakes stiffened. The gate closed behind them, and the wheels rumbled on the driveway.
‘Is—is any one in front?’
‘Miss Hallam is on the porch, sir.’
The vehicle came to a stop.
‘Afternoon, Miss Beck,’ Noakes called.
He tried to make it sound pleasant and commonplace, and knew that he failed.
Grasping the side of the vehicle, he descended clumsily.
Becky took his hand and pressed it warmly. She turned and took a step toward the house, still holding his hand. He withdrew it.
‘I—don’t, please; I know the way.’
With the shuffling tread of the blind he ascended the walk, stopping uncertainly at the foot of the steps. He heard Becky, at his side, draw a quick breath, as if about to speak. He half-turned to her, and hearing nothing more, mounted the steps heavily.
‘Do you know,’ he said, as he paused at the top, ‘I’ve never counted these steps before. I didn’t know there were so many. Let’s sit inside, if you don’t mind.’
He went a little way, and Becky put her hand on his arm.
‘It’s this way, Noakes,’ she said gently, as she guided him into the room in which they were the night before.
‘Thank you. It’s a bit hard to be led,’ Noakes said huskily.
They sat on a deep couch.
‘Noakes, was it wise to come? I am glad you are here, but won’t it hurt you, retard your recovery?’ Becky asked anxiously.
‘I had to come.’
‘Mr. Max told me—both he and the doctor telephoned me early this morning—that in spite of all they said to you, you insisted on coming.’
‘I am fit, sound except for my eyes; that’s the shame of it,’ he said bitterly. ‘They couldn’t persuade me that I should rest now, rest to recover from a shock that will last a lifetime.’
‘I thought—I was afraid you might add fresh danger by coming out so soon.’
‘I tell you I had to come!’ he said with level forcefulness. ‘As for my eyes, the harm is done.’
‘Is it irremediable?’
‘I am blind.’
‘But soon—some day, surely—’
‘No. The doctor gives me banalities for answers. I suppose he thinks I would go to pieces if he told me the truth.’
‘Yes, perhaps he thinks you could not bear the truth,’ Becky assented very gently.
Her low, feeling tones brought a lump to Noakes’s throat. He felt the sympathy which quivered in her voice, and it nearly unmanned him; but he misunderstood her meaning. He thought that she felt with him the sting of being deprived of full knowledge of his condition, the hurt of their doubting his strength. That Becky meant something far different, he might have known from her humble acquiescence, and the sudden touch of her hand on his arm.
‘I’ve been trying to think it out,’ Noakes said, his voice low at first, roughening and increasing in volume as he spoke, ‘but here I am, unweakened in mind and body, and put aside—Not to see, never to see for myself the beautiful things about me; shut out from everything; with power to do, and ability to appreciate, yet put out in darkness; never to—O Becky, you, I can’t ever see you again!’
‘Don’t! You mustn’t, please!’
‘I didn’t intend to speak so to you. I haven’t the right. You must pardon me.’ He was silent a moment. ‘I came to say something else.’
He turned his head about impatiently, calling upon his bandaged eyes to perform their function.
‘Is it dark yet?’ he asked.
‘We are in the gloaming,’ Becky answered softly.
Noakes shut his lips, taking counsel of his powers of control before he spoke.
‘Becky,’ he began, and gave a tired little sigh. ‘Let me call you “Becky” to-day.’
‘Yes,’ she acquiesced quietly.
‘Becky,’ he continued, lingering over the word, thinking of the privilege of its use as an accolade conferred by her, ‘you need not speak when I have finished; I’ll go away then.’
‘What is it?’ Becky asked. ‘Tell me.’
Noakes leaned forward, pressing his temples; then sat erect and turned his face toward her.
‘I love you,’ he said. ‘I think it has been through more lifetimes than this; I know I shall always love you. I could no more grow away from it than I could add a cubit to my stature by taking thought. I kept silent because I was poor. Don’t think of this as a bit of sordidness creeping in. My love would not ask of you any sacrifice. I could not give you the things you are accustomed to, so I said nothing. I planned and worked for a time when I would be privileged to speak.’
He heard an inarticulate sound at his side, and quickly continued:—
‘Last night I thought the time was close at hand. I thought in a few days I could come to you, and ask you for your love. Success of a certain kind was about to crown an effort of a despicable kind. Of that I must tell you. To-night I am confessing a wrong I have done you. That’s what it is. O, Becky, the explosion last night took away my sight, made me a useless blind man, but it opened my eyes too! It is as if a scroll were outspread before me, on which is a record of all my tendencies and crucial acts. I can see my failures at the crises of my life, and I can trace them back to causes, can see wherein a lightly taken determination has later borne bitter fruit. Last night I thought I had reached the pinnacle of attainment; in reality I had fallen lower than ever before. The success which was to be the beginning of all good things was stolen. I robbed Maxineff of it. He gave me an idea to work out. I followed his instructions to a point where I knew a different treatment might bring about a fine result. I saw great possibilities in the experiment and determined to keep for myself the benefits of it. From that point I followed my own ideas, and called the thing mine. I opened correspondence with the representatives of a foreign government. They agreed to buy the secret in case of a successful test. It was an excellent bargain I made—I put a high price on the betrayal of my benefactor! The experiment was successful. I was forced to destroy the result, why it is needless to say. Last night, when I left you, I went back to repeat the experiment, intending to make a small quantity to be used in the test which would have taken place to-morrow. Something went wrong with the unstable stuff,—and you know the rest.’
In relief from the tension of his confession, his voice dropped lower as he said, ‘Now you know me!’
He shifted his position, stretching out his hands toward her. He touched her face, started, and drew back.
‘And Becky, do you realize that it was after I left you last night that I went back? After what you told me? O Becky, I am glad I cannot see you now!’
His voice quivered off to a whisper.
‘It is poor consolation that I know myself for what you judge me. I know bitterly well; I see much now. I could not come to the weakest agreement with the self I want to be, until I had told you of the wrong I have done you. And let me think my love is not distasteful to you. I know I am past your caring for, and I’ll never ask it of you, but let me keep on loving you. Won’t you, Becky?’
He paused and listened. He heard Becky’s uneven breathing.
‘I don’t offer any excuse; there is none to offer. I want only the comparative peace of the assurance that those I have wronged understand now. I have talked with Mr. Maxineff. He was with me afterwards, when the pain—He hushed me far too gently, but he will not forget. You will not forget either, Becky, and you will not excuse. If, though, you should ask me why, I would say again, I love you. It is the only reason. I was thinking of you while I was making myself unfit for you to think of me.’
‘Do you care so much?’ Becky asked softly.
‘Yes. May I keep on caring?’
‘To what good?’
‘For the sake of the little good in me, which love of you will keep alive and growing.’
‘You ask nothing of me. What will you find in caring for me?’
‘There will be a constant joy in knowing that you permit me to care.’
Becky was silent.
‘If you won’t let me, I am afraid it will make no difference, because I cannot help it, you know. I don’t want to help it; you don’t mind my saying so?’
For a moment neither of them spoke. Noakes rose.
‘I—Becky, I thank you for hearing me out.’
He went a step away from her.
‘I’m going.’
She did not rise.
‘I am glad you have not spoken of my—my mistake; and somehow I am sorry. I know what you—’
‘How do you know what I think?’
‘I know; that’s all.’
‘Don’t go, please,’ Becky said.
‘Hadn’t I better? I’m tired, and the doctor—A last acknowledgment: I am afraid to hear you.’
‘But I don’t want you to go,’ she said softly.
Something in her tone made Noakes turn sharply.
‘Yes, Noakes?’
‘You don’t—’
‘You love me, and blind?’
‘You are brave!’
Her hands were in his when he sat by her side.
‘I talked with the doctor this morning,’ she said.
‘As I did.’
‘No. He gave me a message for you.’
‘A message from the doctor?’
‘It was Mr. Max’s notion that I should tell you.’
‘What is it?’ Noakes asked quickly.
‘Your eyes—they will be well in time, if you are very careful.’
As Noakes breathed deep in relief and gratitude, one of his hands engaged two of Becky’s, and he found a different use for the other.
‘Noakes,’ Becky said, ‘I’ll take care of the eyes.’