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- The Guest of Quesnay - 30/37 -
the time of danger, and the thought was troubling me when I learned that Madame Harman was here, near this inn, of which I knew. So I brought him."
"The inconceivable selfishness, the devilish brutality of it!" Ward's face was scarlet. "You didn't care how you sacrificed her--"
"Sacrificed!" The professor suddenly released the huge volume of his voice. "Sacrificed!" he thundered. "If I could give him back to her as he is now, it would be restoring to her all that she had loved in him, the real SELF of him! It would be the greatest gift in her life."
"You speak for her?" demanded Ward, the question coming like a lawyer's. It failed to disturb Keredec, who replied quietly:
"It is a quibble. I speak for her, yes, my dear sir. Her action in defiance of her family and her friends proved the strength of what she felt for the man she married; that she have remained with him three years--until it was impossible--proved its persistence; her letters, which I read with reverence, proved its beauty--to me. It was a living passion, one that could not die. To let them see each other again; that was all I intended. To give them their new chance--and then, for myself, to keep out of the way. That was why--" he turned to me--"that was why I have been guilty of pretending to have that bad rheumatism, and I hope you will not think it an ugly trick of me! It was to give him his chance freely; and though at first I had much anxiety, it was done. In spite of all his wicked follies theirs had been a true love, and nothing in this world could be more inevitable than that they should come together again if the chance could be given. And they HAVE, my dear sirs! It has so happened. To him it has been a wooing as if for the first time; so she has preferred it, keeping him to his mistake of her name. She feared that if he knew that it was the same as his own he might ask questions of me, and, you see, she did not know that I had made this little plan, and was afraid--"
"We are not questioning Mrs. Harman's motives," George interrupted hotly, "but YOURS!"
"Very well, my dear sir; that is all. I have explained them."
"You have?" I interjected. "Then, my dear Keredec, either you are really insane or I am! You knew that this poor, unfortunate devil of a Harman was tied to that hyenic prowler yonder who means to fatten on him, and will never release him; you knew that. Then why did you bring him down here to fall in love with a woman he can never have? In pity's name, if you didn't hope to half kill them both, what DID you mean?"
"My dear fellow," interposed George quickly, "you underrate Professor Keredec's shrewdness. His plans are not so simple as you think. He knows that my cousin Louise never obtained a divorce from her husband."
"What?" I said, not immediately comprehending his meaning.
"I say, Mrs. Harman never obtained a divorce."
"Are you delirious?" I gasped.
"It's the truth; she never did."
"I saw a notice of it at the time. 'A notice?' I saw a hundred!"
"No. What you saw was that she had made an application for divorce. Her family got her that far and then she revolted. The suit was dropped."
"It is true, indeed," said Keredec. "The poor boy was on the other side of the world, and he thought it was granted. He had been bad before, but from that time he cared nothing what became of him. That was the reason this Spanish woman--"
I turned upon him sharply. "YOU knew it?"
"It is a year that I have known it; when his estate was--"
"Then why didn't you tell me last night?"
"My dear sir, I could not in HIS presence, because it is one thing I dare not let him know. This Spanish woman is so hideous, her claim upon him is so horrible to him I could not hope to control him--he would shout it out to her that she cannot call him husband. God knows what he would do!"
"Well, why shouldn't he shout it out to her?"
"You do not understand," George interposed again, "that what Professor Keredec risked for his 'poor boy,' in returning to France, was a trial on the charge of bigamy!"
The professor recoiled from the definite brutality. "My dear sir! It is not possible that such a thing can happen."
"I conceive it very likely to happen," said George, "unless you get him out of the country before the lady now installed here as his wife discovers the truth."
"But she must not!" Keredec lifted both hands toward Ward appealingly; they trembled, and his voice betrayed profound agitation. "She cannot! She has never suspected such a thing; there is nothing that could MAKE her suspect it!"
"One particular thing would be my telling her," said Ward quietly.
"Never!" cried the professor, stepping back from him. "You could not do that!"
"I not only could, but I will, unless you get him out of the country-- and quickly!"
"George!" I exclaimed, coming forward between them. "This won't do at all. You can't--"
"That's enough," he said, waving me back, and I saw that his hand was shaking, too, like Keredec's. His face had grown very white; but he controlled himself to speak with a coolness that made what he said painfully convincing. "I know what you think," he went on, addressing me, "but you're wrong. It isn't for myself. When I sailed for New York in the spring I thought there was a chance that she would carry out the action she begun four years ago and go through the form of ridding herself of him definitely; that is, I thought there was some hope for me; I believed there was until this morning. But I know better now. If she's seen him again, and he's been anything except literally unbearable, it's all over with ME. From the first, I never had a chance against him; he was a hard rival, even when he'd become only a cruel memory." His voice rose. "I've lived a sober, decent life, and I've treated HER with gentleness and reverence since she was born, and HE'S done nothing but make a stew-pan of his life and neglect and betray her when he had her. Heaven knows why it is; it isn't because of anything he's done or has, it's just because it's HIM, I suppose, but I know my chance is gone for good! THAT leaves me free to act for her; no one can accuse me of doing it for myself. And I swear she sha'n't go through that slough of despond again while I have breath in my body!"
"Steady, George!" I said.
"Oh, I'm steady enough," he cried. "Professor Keredec shall be convinced of it! My cousin is not going into the mire again; she shall be freed of it for ever: I speak as her relative now, the representative of her family and of those who care for her happiness and good. Now she SHALL make the separation definite--and LEGAL! And let Professor Keredec get his 'poor boy' out of the country. Let him do it quickly! I make it as a condition of my not informing the woman yonder and her lawyer. And by my hope of salvation I warn you--"
"George, for pity's sake!" I shouted, throwing my arm about his shoulders, for his voice had risen to a pitch of excitement and fury that I feared must bring the whole place upon us. He caught himself up suddenly, stared at me blankly for a moment, then sank into a chair with a groan. As he did so I became aware of a sound that had been worrying my subconsciousness for an indefinite length of time, and realised what it was. Some one was knocking for admission.
I crossed the room and opened the door. Miss Elizabeth stood there, red- faced and flustered, and behind her stood Mr. Cresson Ingle, who looked dubiously amused.
"Ah--come in," I said awkwardly. "George is here. Let me present Professor Keredec--"
"'George is here!'" echoed Miss Elizabeth, interrupting, and paying no attention whatever to an agitated bow on the part of the professor. "I should say he WAS! They probably know THAT all the way to Trouville!"
"We were discussing--" I began.
"Ah, I know what you were discussing," she said impatiently. "Come in, Cresson." She turned to Mr. Ingle, who was obviously reluctant. "It is a family matter, and you'll have to go through with it now."
"That reminds me," I said. "May I offer--"
"Not now!" Miss Elizabeth cut short a rather embarrassed handshake which her betrothed and I were exchanging. "I'm in a very nervous and distressed state of mind, as I suppose we all are, for that matter. This morning I learned the true situation over here; and I'm afraid Louise has heard; at least she's not at Quesnay. I got into a panic for fear she had come here, but thank heaven she does not seem to--Good gracious! What's THAT?"
It was the discordant voice of Mariana la Mursiana, crackling in strident protest. My door was still open; I turned to look and saw her, hot-faced, tousle-haired, insufficiently wrapped, striving to ascend the gallery steps, but valiantly opposed by Madame Brossard, who stood in the way.
"But NO, madame," insisted Madame Brossard, excited but darkly determined. "You cannot ascend. There is nothing on the upper floor of this wing except the apartment of Professor Keredec."
"Name of a dog!" shrilled the other. "It is my husband's apartment, I tell you. Il y a une femme avec lui!"
"It is Madame Harman who is there," said Keredec hoarsely in my ear. "I came away and left them together."
"Come," I said, and, letting the others think what they would, sprang across the veranda, the professor beside me, and ran toward the two women who were beginning to struggle with more than their tongues. I leaped by them and up the steps, but Keredec thrust himself between our hostess and her opponent, planting his great bulk on the lowest step. Glancing hurriedly over my shoulder, I saw the Spanish woman strike him furiously upon the breast with both hands, but I knew she would never
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