Nora Helps the Blind
Nora, whom he remembered as a leggy brat in an orphan asylum, opened the eyes of sophisticated Peter Brent, at their unique meeting in New York.
NOW Nora O’Connell is, surely, no uncommon name. In New York, as Peter Brent reminded himself, there might be all of five thousand Nora O’Connells at that moment. And there was, certainly, no reason why the fact that one of these Nora O’Connells, domiciled in the more exclusive environs of Greenwich Village, was to marry a Balkan prince, should so challenge either memory or curiosity. Or cause him to abandon the pleasant program he had arranged for this April afternoon in favor of that which all the logic in him assured him would prove the wildest of wild-goose chases.
Even if this Nora O’Connell were the same he remembered—what of it? There might be a news story in it, but again, the Village was full of pseudo-nobility these days. Synthetic princes, doubtful dukes and imitation Russian countesses who smoked Russian cigarets—also made in America.
Anyway Peter Brent was no longer a reporter. Far from it.
Everywhere he went—and he went wherever he chose nowadays—he was a marked man. Brent the columnist, the man who had created the Mercurial Tube. When he did condescend to cover a news event it was something outstanding—a Dempsey-Firpo fight, a world’s series, or a presidential convention.
The Mercury office saw' him, in person, but seldom. His contacts with it were maintained mostly by messenger boys.
This April afternoon he had paused there, while a taxi waited for him at the curb below. As he passed through the city room, one of the sub-editors thrust a clipping at him.
“Might be a nifty for the Tube in this,” he suggested. Peter accepted the offering without enthusiasm. Everybody—barbers and bankers, bootleggers and barristers—were forever forcing the preposterous upon him, suggesting that he might get something out of nothing.
He scanned the item, swiftly:
GREENWICH VILLAGE GIRL BAGS A PRINCE
Prince Scofflauski, wdio claims to be at home in the Balkans, appeared at City Hall yesterday to file marriage intentions but was told that he must -return accompanied by his princess-to-be before a license would be issued. He departed, looking slightly dazed, but before he went it was learned that the princess-elect is Nora O’Connell, twentyfour, living in Greenwich Village at——
Scofflauski—get it?” the sub-editor interrupted, brightly. “The Village is full of scoff-lawsky’s these days.”
"^MORA O’CONNELL! He had a newspaperman’s -1^ memory; the picture that not uncommon name conjured came swiftly.
And yet he-had seen the Nora O’Connell he remembered only once, and she had been but twelve then, a leggy brat in an orphan asylum. Too old for her years and the skirts she wore. But the unconquerable independence of her! And—Peter grinned reminiscently— how she had slanged Tay Pay O’Connell to his face that day.
Eleven—no, twelve years ago.
Peter, just emerged from Harvard, had been a cub then, chasing news items for the Brenton Tribune, back in the Massachusetts mill city that “Who’s Who” now gave as his birthplace.
Tay Pay O’Connell had controlled the Tribune. Just as he controlled anything and everything that had to do with the destiny of Brenton.
“You’ll have to see Tay Pay,” anybody who wahted anything out of City Hall was assured, by those in the know.
Not see Tay Pay himself, of course. The big Irishman had become more exclusive in his way, when Peter was still a boy, than the remnants of the old aristocracy that lived on the Heights overlooking the mills below. Yet his hand had been manifest everywhere.
Every decent man in Brenton knew the part Tay Pay played in the city’s misrule. And they did just what all decent citizens do under like circumstances. Which is nothing.
They considered him an inescapable evil. They said he was crooked. But they did not say so to his face.
It had remained for a twelve-year-old, leggy brat in an orphan asylum to tell him to his face what others thought, hut wisely kept to themselves.
Now it came back to Peter—while the taxi waited.
A Christmas dinner at the orphanage. After that a Christmas tree. Tay Pay, ruddy and well fed, handing
out gifts like the feudal baron he was, in all truth. This girl, Nora O’Connell—if it were the same, which was preposterous—getting her present. A box of paints. She had glared at them. And then she had glared up at Tay Pay who stood beaming paternalistically at her.
“You big stiff!” she had said. “That’s what you gave me last year. Take them—and try to paint with them.”
And she had thrown the box of paints in his face.
A moment of frozen horror. Then the superintendent had leaped forward and, taking her by the arm, shaken her till her small teeth clicked.
“Let her be,” Tay Pay had commanded. And of Nora he had demanded, “What’s the matter with the paints?”
He had looked like a feudal baron still—the sort of feudal baron before whom sturdy yeomen quailed. But Nora O’Connell had not quailed.
“They’re rotten,” she had assured him. “Nobody could paint with them. They’re graft stuff—just like all the stuff you ship down here. The things we wear and the things we eat—all graft!”
Even a precocious child of twelve—and the Lord knew she had looked precocious enough with her big black eyes fixed unflinchingly on Tay Pay—would not have discovered that for herself. She had but repeated what she had heard. And the superintendent had shaken in his shoes.
“I’m sure,” he had intervened, unhappily, “that---”
“Shut up!” Tay Pay had commanded. And of Nora, “What’s your name?”
“Puddin’ tame,” she had replied. “What’s your number—cucumber?”
And they had stood there, eyes locked, neither yielding an inch.
Peter had been assigned to cover the affair because he had a gift for what the city editor of the Tribune called “sob stuff.” And here was one whale of a story, from Brenton standards. His first big yarn!
But he had not written it—for obvious reasons.
Nor had its sequel ever been printed. Tay Pay shunned publicity; never with his permission did his right hand know of his left band’s doing.
Nevertheless, everybody in Brenton heard the story; heard that he had taken the waif who had defied him out of the orphanage, legally adopted her and given her his name. A girl of twelve, a bachelor of fifty. Why?
Tay Pay was not the sort to answer questions.
But to another question, almost as engrossing—what would he do with her—Brenton had been given its answer. He had sent her to boarding school and then, to finish her education, to France. And after that, dying, he had left her a million—or perhaps even ten. Nobody knew just how much, but there was no question but that it was aplenty.
Enough, anyway, to permit the orphan of twelve to buy for herself a Balkan prince at twenty-four—if this were the same Nora O’Connell.
Considering the possibility, Peter felt the tug of an impulse. An impulse that he combated with irritation and impatience, because it was so patently preposterous. And yet, in the end, it proved strong enough to make him change his program.
HpHE taxi was waiting to take him north. North to -*■ where a very lovely lady who was almost old enough to be his mother but who didn’t in the least look it—and who acted it still less—was waiting to pour tea for him. Peter admired her greatly and she, with that gracious charm which had won her fame and several fortunes, had permitted him to understand that it was quite mutual.
This afternoon she had not only prepared herself against his arrival with all the care with which she would have prepared herself for a first night, but she had—• as she reminded him over the telephone, between a pout and a plea—intended to ask his opinion about the second act of her new play.
In New York, where all the best cooks are men, a really clever woman no longer tries to reach a man’s heart via the alimentary canal.
She asks his advice.
But even so, Peter had been unable to put the impulse which was so patently preposterous in its proper place.
“Sorry,” he said; “but it’s business, you see.”
She suspected otherwise. But she knew men better than to reproach him.
“So am I sorry,” she said, in that voice which he had likened to Ellen Terry’s and to which she added, without the slightest effort, just the proper suggestion of childlike wistfulness. “Come to-morrow, if you can.”
“I can—and will,” he promised.
And so he found himself being taxied south through Fifth Avenue—Fifth Avenue which had once been a highway of romance to him, to traverse which, on top of a bus, had been to experience a series of thrills.
Fifth Avenue—and April at its brilliant best. But Peter failed to react.
“She was an ugly little brat,” he reminded himself, with a grimace.
He, like most men, might esteem an ugly woman, but he never became enthusiastic over one. And he had no illusions about the Nora O’Connell he remembered.
Of course he was familiar with the sort of fiction that presents an ugly little girl in her teens who, within the
first hundred pages, develops miraculously into the loveliest of heroines. But the ugliness that had been Nora O’Connell’s at twelve was the sort that would endure. The skinniness might be overcome. But her face—all out of drawing. And her mouth! Prodigious.
One glance at the Nora O’Connell who was to marry the prince would, he felt quite sure, tell him whether she was Tay Pay’s adopted daughter or not.
One glance did. She admitted him to her apartment herself. And—she was the Nora O’Connell he remembered.
“I’m from the Mercury,” he announced, reverting to the phrase he had used years before, when he first came to New York. “May I come in?”
This much can be said for Peter. Very few women in New York would have said him nay, even though he had proclaimed himself an installment collector.
“Do,” she acquiesced. “I’m bored stiff.”
The apartment was one she might have rented furnished, from some member of her sex with a penchant for modern interior decoration. The living-room was black and orange and futuristic. Peter was conscious of it, as a setting. But his eyes were all for Nora O’Connell.
Nora O’Connell was—well, incredible.
Beautiful? Not at all. Pretty? That adjective fell even flatter. The one word that might describe her did not exist.
The beneficent years had remedied her defects in figure. She no longer looked like the child victim of an Indian famine. She was slim, yet compactly molded. Not tall, she did not seem small. As for her mouth, it was still too large for beauty. Her nose was short, with wide nostrils. Gaminesque. Her eyes alone—oddly, yet exquisitely shaped—would have merited praise from a connoisseur.
And yet, as he suddenly realized, even a prince from the Balkans might marry this Nora O’Connell for something other than her money. She had it, that whatever it may be that can drive a man a little mad.
The westering sun filled the living-room with a golden haze, through which she moved with the grace of the convent-bred.
Faint amusement flickered in the corners of her eyes as she faced him.
“Well?” she asked. “You’re from the Mercury—what next?”
“You’re to marry Prince de Scofflauski, I believe,” he said.
“Really?” she commented.
The word was without inflection, tossed at him casually, yet he sensed mockery.
“The prince has filed marriage intentions—or tried to. Why fence about it?” he suggested, coolly. “The marriage of a Balkan prince is, presumably, worth a line.”
“How thrilling!” she commented. “And flattering. What do you wish to know?”
EVEN if the years—or she herself—had bleached her hair to ash blond, made of her mouth a rosebud and her nose pure Grecian, he would have placed her as the girl who' had slanged Tay Pay. She had the same quality still, tempered a bit, but that more deadly. He felt a challenge and rose to it.
“I think,” said he, deliberately, “that what I’d like most to know is what Tay Pay would think of his money being used to buy a Balkan prince.”
This was direct enough, he believed, to shake her poise —she did not, he felt sure, remember him. But there was not the slightest change in her expression. She did not, as any other woman he would have, even ask how he happened to know about Tay Pay.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she replied. “But do you know—I wonder if Tay Pay wouldn’t think I was getting a darned good bargain.”
“I doubt it,” he assured her. “From what I remember of Tay Pay--”
“I think I might claim to know Tay Pay better than you,” she reminded him. “He knew what he wanted, got it—and paid for it. And he never got stung!”
“I can agree with that. But he never bought a Balkan prince that I can remember.”
“Naturally not,” she agreed. “He wouldn’t know what to do with one. He could hardly marry him. But I can, you see.”
“I see,” retorted Peter.
“Which means that you don’t see at all. I suppose it’s congenital. You are young and you look intelligent —but you’re bound by American prejudices. You— can’t see beyond the obvious!”
This to Peter Brent! To whom to state the obvious vas to invite a withering shaft of that mental agility— ' it, if you choose—that had won for him his place in the limelight that is New York’s super-sun.
“It’s obvious, to you, that I am buying a Balkan prince,” she went on. “And it is, to me, equally obvious that you consider a Balkan prince dear—in the commercial sense—at any price. You do, don’t you?” “American prejudice, probably,” replied Peter. “Of
course I haven’t seen the prince as yet. But--”
“The prince,” she cut in, “is what you in your novel— every newspaperman writes one sooner or later, doesn’t he?—would describe as a splendid specimen of manhood--”
“Heaven forbid!” said Peter, sincerely.
“And,” she went on, “although I have never seen him in his stocking-feet, I think I can assure you that he stands six feet in them. He fought in the war with great distinction. He is an accomplished sportsman—this description will come in handy when you write your story, won’t it?—a fine tennis player and one of the best
fancy skaters I ever met--”
She paused abruptly.
“I feel quite sure you have no idea how mulish you look!” she flashed. “What do you think is necessary for happiness in marriage?”
“The obvious reply to that,” said he, “is that I’m a bachelor.”
THE very lovely lady whom he had disappointed this afternoon would have applauded that—and repeated it—as a sample of dear Peter’s delightful cynicism.
But Nora O’Connell---
“And a clever turner of phrases,” said she. “It’s a terrible habit to get into. Can’t you break yourself of it? Such things sound awfully smart and they pass well in a crowd—but where do they get you?”
To which he might have replied that they had gotten him to where he was to-day. But a fame that one has to explain is no fame at all.
The best he could manage was a counter-attack.
“Just where do you expect your philosophy to land you?”
“Oh, I may come a cropper,” she admitted. “But I’d rather come a cropper than develop that cynicism that
absolutely refuses to take a chance--”
“The philosophy, I fear, of extreme youth.”
“Then I hope I’ll never be other than young.”
“I don’t think you ever will be,” he assured her, involuntarily.
Their eyes met and, briefly, it was as if their fingers had touched, swiftly, furtively. But she broke the spell —it was almost that—abruptly.
“I met the prince in Switzerland last winter,” she said. “We skated a lot. I’m not so very good at skating, but when we skate together, I’m wonderful. And I adore skating—and almost all the things he does so well.”
“Am I still looking mulish?” he protested.
“No; but like a woman convinced against her will, you’re of the same opinion still. The prince was in Switzerland looking for an American heiress. Oh, yes, he was. His princess must have the price. There’s no getting away from it. He might shoot himself for love, but he couldn’t marry for it. To an American that is inconceivable-”
“Not to all Americans,” he interposed. “Some do marry for money, I believe.”
“Exactly. If I should marry an American I’d have to choose between two types—the fortune-hunter and the stern-visaged young hero of current fiction who would refuse to touch a penny of my money. He would expect me to run a home on anywhçre from two to ten thousand a year—and be happy!”
"There is something in that,” admitted Peter, thoughtfully.
“And I’m not domestically inclined. I hate cooking —funny, isn’t it, when you remember that I spring from the race that has presented America with so many excellent cooks--”
“It doesn’t seem to be presenting us with so many these days,” he remarked.
She smiled, but refused to be diverted.
“I could be happy on two thousand a year — or nothing — anywhere save in a flat,” she assured him.
“I don’t want to settle down. I want to—live.
Do you know what I’d like to do most?
I’d like to buy a little schooner and sail it around the world. All by myself. I have dreamed of that—”
“So have I,” Peter broke in, impetuously, to his own astonishment.
And hers as well.
For it was not Brent the sophisticate that spoke, but another Brent—the Peter Brent who had come to New York full of eagerness and impulse.
“Why don’t you?” she demanded.
The suggestion was like a dash of cold water. He became, instinctively, Peter the sophisticate. And Peter the sophisticate was not the man to fling success such as he had achieved aside as casually as she suggested.
But she, apparently, expected no answer.
She rose and, abruptly, turned an impish handspring.
This, with a swift swirl of her skirts, brought her to her feet before the mantel. She took a cigaret case from there, extracted one for herself and tossed another to him, as he stared with frankly-startled eyes.
“Aren’t I making good copy for you?” she remarked. “American heiress turns handsprings with joy at prospect of marrying a Balkan prince!”
“For a second you suggested a professional acrobat, rather than an heiress,” he commented. "I wondered what had struck you—”
“Desire to display one of my few accomplishments,” she mocked. “You can describe me not as a finished
pianist or as possessed of a lovely voice, but as almost equal to a professional when it comes to turning handsprings. I developed the talent back in the orphan asylum. Rather a new note—what?”
“Unusual, at least,” he admitted. “And the prince —does he applaud?”
“You forget that I’m buying him. He must applaud. That is another virtue.”
She lit her cigaret, took one puff and then tossed it away.
“Silly habit—I’m breaking myself of it,” she remarked. “Smoking is getting too effeminate, don’t you think?”
And that was the only line of all the interview that Peter printed, after all. He used it in his column the next day.
NORA O’CONNELL had, flippantly enough, furnished him with material that the Mercury would have first-paged and which every paper in the country would have lifted. But he had not written it.
Nora O’Connell herself asked him that.
The Mercury that might have carried the story was spread out before him: he was having a ten o’clock breakfast when the telephone rang. He was temperamental about telephone calls; sometimes he answered and sometimes he did not.
“Used discreetly a telephone is a convenience,” he had explained. “Answered indiscriminately it becomes a curse!”
One of his inflexible rules was never to pay any attention to the telephone until he was through with his breakfast.
This morning he was not through ^breakfast. And yet he rose and crossed to the phone. ¿ All with a curious, absolutely inexplicable alacrity.
The voice that greeted him was Nora’s. He recognized it at once, and it seemed to project her vivid personality into his apartment.
“I was never so mortified in all my life,” she assured him. “I expected to find myself on the first page—and I wasn’t. And then I searched the paper through and found not even a line. Was I as uninteresting as all
“To the contrary,” he replied. “I was afraid you might discover that you were more interesting than you realized.”
“Are you flattering me, or just trying to evade?”
“Neither. It happens to be the truth.” “You mean that I would have horrified the natives? But I thought newspapers liked nothing better than a chance to do just that?”
“Then why didn’t you publish it?”
Why, indeed? He couldn’t explain it. No more than he could explain how he had known she was at the other end of the telephone wire before he had answered.
Yet he could, prompted by swift intuition, ask in turn: “Did you really think I’d write the story?”
The smallest fraction of a second intervened before she replied:
But he knew that she hadn’t, and something in him quickened.
“Then I am sorry,” he lied in turn.
He was quite unprepared for her reply to that.
“One thing I did find find in the Mercury— among the classified ads—was the description of an eleven-ton schooner. Why don’t you buy it, sail around the world—and save your soul, Peter Brent?”
And then she hung up.
His coffee and toast were cold, but he finished then, unaware of the fact.
What did she mean? The telephone, on which his perplexed eyes rested as if it could answer the riddle preserved its bland composure until, presently, it shrilled again.
This time, it brought to him the voice of the very lovely lady who was old enough to be his mother but didn’t look it. She had called Continued on page 60
Nora Helps the Blind
Continued from page 22
him up to remind him of his promise. He assured her he had not forgotten.
At four o’clock she greeted him with the precise note of camaraderie that keyed all their contacts. She was almost fifty, but she managed to look hardly thirty and she was not only a great actress but an artist to her finger tips.
Ever since he had acclaimed her, in his column, with the superlatives he reserved for rare bursts of appreciation, he had been on terms with her that permitted him to share the intimacy of her apartment at times like this.
Here, in her beautiful drawing-room, he was at home. He could stretch his legs, take his ease in the most comfortable of great chairs while she, curled up on the couch with the studied grace that had become her second nature, met his every mood. And he—found it good.
She did not ask him what he had been up to the afternoon before, or reproach him for failing her. But she was feminine and from behind—not with—her eyes, she watched him.
Every night, during the season, she filled great auditoriums with her personality. To fill her little black-and-gold drawing-room was no task at all. She held the interests of thousands; to hold the every thought of one man while she talked to him alone was something she had never found an effort.
And yet, this afternoon--
“What did she mean by that about the schooner?” ran Peter’s inner thoughts. “And how in the devil did she know my name?”
The loveliest and—so Peter believed— the greatest of living actresses came to her feet abruptly.
“Peter Brent!” she protested. “What has come over you? You sit there mooning—like a man in love!”
In her lovely voice was laughing impatience and a touch of chagrin as well.
But Peter was too amazed to notice such subtleties. “Love?” he echoed. “Me!”
“Well—what were you thinking of?” He might have evaded in 'any of half a dozen ways, graceful if insincere.
“Why—-something somebody said to me,” he admitted, ineptly.
Ever so briefly she hesitated. But for once impulse was too strong for her.
“And what was her name?” she asked, softly.
“Oh, don’t be an ass!” advised Peter, with the brutal masculine directness that was permitted between them.
Nevertheless he blushed. Boyishly almost. And she said no more. But she served him his tea earlier than usual and when he rose to depart—also earlier than usual, she gave him a swift, curious glance but offered no protest.
In his mail the next morning there was one letter that seemed to leap out to meet his fingers.
To this there was no beginning, nor signature. Just a swiftly penned:
I almost bought myself a boat yesterday. Not the one I saw advertised in the Mercury—that proved a dud. Altogether too ladylike. But moored near it was a lugger—at least I think it must be a lugger. Anyway it was everything it should be. Old and wise looking, with the savor of the seven seas in every timber. You could see that it had gone everywhere, done everything, seen everything.
The man at the yard told me two people could handle it, it was “that small,” and yet that it was big enough —or anyway sturdy enough—to ride out a hurricane. I almost bought it on the spot. But then I thought of you. I want it, but you need it.
New York has done awful things to you, Peter Brent. Escape while—and if—you can.
P.S. “The MacFirths of Foray, as everyone knows, had an ark of their ain at the Flood!”
Now Peter had not the slightest idea of buying a disreputable old boat. But the postscript, with its quotation, was— well, simply staggering.
“Always remember, Peter,” his father had said once, “that being a mere Brent
will get you nowhere. But the MacFirth
in you should carry you far--•”
“Stop teasing him,” his mother—a MacFirth—had intervened.
But Peter’s father must have his joke. “Your mother,” he had gone on, “could not tell you this without seeming boastful. But never forget, Peter, that you are at least half MacFirth and that ‘The MacFirths of Foray, as everyone knows, had an ark of their ain at the flood!’ ”
And here was Nora O’Connell quoting the same phrase to him.
Except for that he would not, presumably, have bothered to call her up. And a bother it was, for it took him all of twenty minutes to get her number.
“Oh—it’s you!” she said then. “Want to know where the lugger lies moored?” “No—I want to know why you think I need a lugger—and where you get that saying about the MacFirths.”
“Weren’t you known as Peter MacFirth back in Brenton? And as for the rest, ‘The MacFirths of Foray, as everyone knows, had an ark—”
“If so they, according to all accounts, needed it,” he interrupted. “But why should I?”
“The man is blind!” she remarked, as if to herself.
“Please help the blind,” he suggested. She apparently considered this, while he waited her answer. Then:
“I’m not sure, but I think I’ll be at home at three,” she said. “If you want to chance finding me, come—and I’ll try to open your eyes.”
Now that was not the sort of invitation he was accustomed to these days. He was asked to consult his convenience. But he chanced it—and she was at home.
“And it was a special effort, too,” she assured him, when he thanked her. “Oh, don’t say you are flattered—because you’re not going to be. Indeed, I think it might be wise of me to put everything movable out of your reach, in case you feel the impulse to throw something at me?”
“Is it to be as bad as that?” he asked. “For most operations an anaesthetic is used,” she replied. “But not for an operation on the ego. And that is what I plan.”
“Please begin at once,” he begged.
“I wonder just how I best can,” she said, thoughtfully.
Peter watched her. What she had said bad had not the slightest effect on him. He was thinking that even in repose there was a vividness about her, a sense of arrested motion.
She glanced up and met his eyes.
“The trouble with you,” she announced, “is that you think you’ve conquered New York. Oh, yes, you do! But you haven’t. New York has conquered you, reduced you to bondage—-—”
“A not unpleasant bondage,” he contributed.
“I wonder if you really find it so,” she challenged.
Did he? He wondered. He had come to New York determined to conquer. No one, hitherto, had questioned but that he had.
New York had been his oyster. He had opened it with the sword of his wit. Only to discover that it had lost its savor--
“You’ve achieved—but what?” she pressed. “Is there anything in New York worth achieving?”
“Why not sutetitute life for New York and be done with it?”
“You’ve answered my question! That is what New York has done to you. The only excuse for living is—to live. And be alive! You were, back in Brenton. You were young, eager and enthusiastic. And you could be surprised. I remember how your mouth popped open that day when I threw the paints in Tay Pay’s face---•”
“I had no idea I made such an enduring impression---”
“Oh, not on me alone, but on all the girls at the orphanage. How little you must have known of my sex not to have guessed that. We were almost at the matinee-idol stage and you were our emotional escape.”
“I should have thought that the paints were yours,” he remarked.
Her mouth quirked. __
“You were to blame for that. You grinned—you’ve forgotten, but I haven’t —when I came to get my gift. And I suspected you were laughing at my legs. They were awful, I know.”
“Dare I say they have improved?” “Thanks. I wish I could say as much for you,” she retorted, rising.
“The operation is not over—so soon?” he protested.
“You argue too much! I’ve diagnosed your condition; now I’m going to show you the remedy. I’ll take you aboard the lugger and then wash my hands of you!” And she turned to her telephone and called a taxi.
They taxied through the Arch, into Fifth Avenue. As they passed a famous restaurant, Peter turned impulsively toward her.
“Instead of washing your hands of me, won’t you have dinner with me, afterward? As a reward for my amenability?” “In other words, if you let me show you the lugger will I let you show me your New York,” she commented.
But she acquiesced and he was content.
PRESENTLY, the taxi turned east, and they glimpsed the river swept by an April breeze. They left the taxi and went down a dingy wharf. A watchman, to whom Nora nodded as to an old acquaintance, put them aboard the lugger.
“Just the place for a honeymoon,” he remarked, with a wink for Peter. “She’s built to stand squalls of all kinds.”
The lugger was old, battered and ugly. About forty feet long, Peter judged, and eleven or twelve tons. Small, yet with a suggestion of imperishable seaworthiness about her. And of romance.
“She’s named the Lizzie B.,” added Nora. “But you could change that to the Nora O’C.—acknowledging your gratitude to me.”
They inspected the Lizzie B. from stem to stern. The cabin was close and smelly, dark and dingy, and he so proclaimed.
“But that’s because it’s been closed up so long,” she protested. “Don’t be so finicky!”
He wasn’t, really. No man can resist the call of the sea when he sets foot upon a boat such as the Lizzie B.
“Wouldn’t you rather have this than that snippy-nosed little schooner over there?” Nora demanded, when they returned to the deck. “That’s the one the Mercury advertised. But she’s just a boat and the Lizzie B. is a personality. Can’t you feel it?”
As she spoke she took the battered old wheel in her gloved hands.
“Think of driving her through a gale!” she suggested. “Is there anything in New York that could equal that thrill?” “Perhaps not,” he admitted. “But isn’t there something more to life than just a
thrill? Man must work--”
The glance she gave him checked him. “I’ve done my best,” she said. “Show me your wonderful New York!”
They dined in the famous restaurant, where a haughty headwaiter not only recognized Peter, but so far unbent as to award him personal attention. To a true New Yorker no greater tribute can be paid. But Nora refused to be impressed.
The dinner he ordered she approved of ■—if with reservations.
“But can’t you imagine even canned beans tasting better aboard the Lizzie B.?” she added. “I hate to seem to criticize; but you are showing me what New York has to offer her servants, aren’t you?”
This he acknowledged.
“What next?” she asked. They had finished dinner.
“What is your preference?”
“Not mine—but yours. That’s what’s we are investigating.”
They went to a play—“Rain.” He had seen it before, and so he watched her reactions rather than what was taking place on the stage.
“It’s interesting,” she admitted. “But át makes me want to see the place myself. Why sit in an orchestra chair when you can be on the stage—a real stage—yourself? Time enough for that when you’re seventy!”
And so it went, the evening through.
He tried to show New York to her as one might tell a fairy-story to a child. But she scorned it, like children who demand: “But I want a real, true story!”
As he taxied her south again, after midnight, he was no longer at ease. He was irritated. And the taxi-driver thought they were lovers quarreling!
“I’ve got money enough to buy the lugger—and live on it and loaf,” announced Peter, with more heat than a sophisticate should ever know. “But I’d have no respect for myself if I did. A
man must work--”
“Must he?” asked Nora.
“You know he must! Supposing every man quit his work to do what he wanted?” “Supposing he did?”
The cool nonchalance of that staggered him.
“Civilization would crumble!” he protested.
“And wouldn’t that be awful? No tworoom apartments, no radios, no telephones, no automobiles—none of the things men give their lives for so willingly ■—so much more willingly than they do for their country!”
“Now you’re just being flippant—and perverse!”
“I’m not. Men who would shrink from dying for their country, do die—spiritually and emotionally—for what? Things —just things!”
He would have argued that, but she gave him no chance.
“And is the work that you are doing so important? I read your column this morning. Clever and flippant. Sarcastic and snobbish. I don’t know what you are capable of—but is that the best you can do?”
“I suppose I might buy the lugger,” he suggested, sarcastically.
She made a little gesture of defeat. “If I could only make you see yourself as I see you-”
“I think you have managed to get the idea across very well.”
“Which means that you feel misunderstood. Oh, well. It serves me right. Why should I have bothered anyway?”
“I rather wondered, myself,” said he, stiffly.
“At least you’re still human enough to sulk and be rather nasty,” she replied. “But—well, let’s assume that I have a warm Irish heart and that I felt sorry for you and let my sympathy carry me too far!”
The taxi was drawing toward the curb. “Suppose I sailed off. What do you think would happen?” he demanded.
“I don’t know. But you must have an idea—else you are lost!”
The taxi stopped, she stepped out before he could assist her.
“No. Don’t bother to get out,” she commanded, and indeed she filled the doorway of the taxi so he could not, as she offered her hand and added “Good-
Às he took her hand, her eyes met his, half mocking, half disdainful. And for a second he felt the craziest, most primitive of impulses-—an impulse to draw her to him and kiss, fiercely, the mouth that flouted him.
“I know so little about sailing,” he said, “that I doubt if I’d get outside New York harbor right side up!”
“A MacFirth of Foray would never have thought of that," she retorted. “He’d just—sail!”
And, freeing her hand, she added: “And a MacFirth of Foray would have —obeyed that impulse just now. I’m afraid you’re mostly Brent—whatever that may be—after all!”
Before he could recover, she had slammed the taxi door in his face and achieved sanctuary.
DAWN found him still consuming cigarets and still himself consumed by a fire which showed no diminishment. A conflagration deliberately set by a girl who was to marry a Balkan prince!
But Peter intended to say a word about that.
There must, indeed, have been much of the MacFirth of Foray in him after all —the MacFirth whose herald had once proclaimed, from the battlements of his castle:
“Hear ye, ye people and listen, ye nations. The great MacFirth of Foray having risen, the day has begun!”
In any event, when, shortly after nine, Peter pressed the button that evoked the bell in Nora’s apartment, even that MacFirth who had gone forth to challenge Rob Roy could not have looked grimmer about the mouth.
He did not question whether she would receive him. She would, if he had to batter down doors as was the custom of the MacFirths in other days.
But of that there was no need.
“Isn’t this early—for you?” she demanded, as she permitted him to enter.
“I’ve bought the lugger,” he announced curtly.
Nora gave him a swift glance.
“Truly! I’m so glad!” said she.
This he ignored.
“How much money have you—-one million or ten?” he demanded.
“Is this your early morning mood?” she demanded. “Why do you ask?”
“I want to know.”
He thought for a moment she was going to defy him. And so did she! Then:
“Oh—about fifty thousand,” she said. “Fifty thousand?” he echoed, incredulously. “Why, I’ve got that much myself. I don’t understand. Everybody knew that Tay Pay left you millions—” “Tay Pay used to say that everybody knew his business better than be knew it himself. He left me what he had—” “But what did he do with the rest of it?”
“Has it never occurred to you that Tay Pay did what he did for the joy of it—without thought of money? That that might have been the lesser part of it?” Now, suddenly, he realized why Tay Pay had adopted Nora.
They were akin. In spirit, if not of flesh.
“Does the Prince know you have but fifty thousand?” he demanded, abruptly. “You might ask him,” she suggested. They looked glances. Then:
“I will,” he said, and departed without another word.
Nora stood as he had her left for a moment. Then:
“I hope they don’t come to blows,” she murmured.
FROM the living-room she went to her own private domain, to prepare herself for the street. She had no intention of awaiting Peter’s return. He would find her gone. Yet she paused at the door of her apartment and then, yielding to something stronger than her will, she went slowly back to the living-room and stood gazing out of the window. Presently a taxi drew up below and Peter sprang out.
The bell shrilled. She tautened, but made no move. Again it shrilled, longer and more vociferously.
“Mercy!” she gasped, and ran to let him in.
“Why did you tell me that you were going to marry the Prince?” he demanded.
“I didn’t. You said I was going to. All I said was, ‘Really?’ ”
“You gave me the impression that you
were crazy about him--”
“And instead you find him crazy about me!” she replied. “Wasn’t that upsetting?
After you had felt so sure he was just going to marry me for my money—-—” “You told me he must marry for money——”
“And that’s just what I told him. He really must—and not be foolish!”
“Do you love him?” he demanded, abruptly.
“How personal! And how ferocious you sound. Do I get eaten up if I make the wrong answer?”
He took an impetuous step toward her and she added, hastily:
“I like him tremendously and I think it was dear of him to try to get a marriage license and act so cave-manlike about it. But it was silly, too, because I had told him that it was no use.”
So far had the MacFirth of Foray that was in him carried Peter. The ancient chieftains of the clan must have clapped each other’s ghostly backs in glee.
But there was, after all, some Brent in Peter too.
“I think,” said he, talking when a MacFirth would have acted, “that I see what you meant by my losing my soul. New York got me. I lost my perspective. I thought I was a success. But I was—just a squirrel in a cage. You’ve given me a lead. You can’t conquer New York. It’s
too big, it conquers you--■”
“Go on,” she commanded, as he paused.
“Why, that’s all. Except that I’ve got a glimpse of something good enough to make a book—or possibly a play. I may
not have it in me to put it across--”
“I know you have—else I wouldn’t have bothered,” she assured him.
“Was that—the only reason you bothered?” he asked.
Their eyes met. And suddenly her expression changed. She looked—well, anything but like the Nora O’Connell who had defied Tay Pay. Or even the Nora O’Connell who had so bedevilled Peter Brent.
A breathless moment. Even the ancient MacFirths of Foray must have tried to hold the breath that was not in them. And then made the celestial welkin ring with the ancient challenge of the clan.
For Peter had acted as a MacFirth of Foray should.
“Where,” gasped Nora, “did you get that idea?”
Peter kissed her again before answering. “Wasn’t it in the back of your mind— that I might?” he demanded.
“Perhaps,” she confessed. “But if you
hadn’t bought the lugger-”
“The girl would never have been mine,” he finished, joyously, yet huskily. And added, “Let’s go see the lugger right now!”
“Let’s,” said she. “Not in a taxi—but on top of a bus. And—you can hold my hand if you want to.”
“I do!” he assured her.
She put her hands behind his neck and gave him a swift kiss.
“You’re saved!” she said, solemnly. “And I have saved you. Yesterday you
would have died first. But now-”
“It will be no more than a funeral march of a sophisticate,” he finished for her. “Let’s go.”