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The Black Bag Part 38

"Mr. Kirkwood!" the reply came on the instant. She knew his voice! "Please, Mrs. Hallam, I will see Mr. Kirkwood."

"You have no time to waste with him, Dorothy," said the woman coldly. "I must insist--"

"But you don't seem to understand; it is Mr. Kirkwood!" argued the girl,--as if he were ample excuse for any imprudence!

Kirkwood's scant store of patience was by this time rapidly becoming exhausted. "I should advise you not to interfere any further, Mrs. Hallam,"

he told her in a tone low, but charged with meaning.

How much did he know? She eyed him an instant longer, in sullen suspicion, then swung open the door, yielding with what grace she could. "Won't you come in, Mr. Kirkwood?" she inquired with acidulated courtesy.

"If you press me," he returned winningly, "how can I refuse? You are too good!"

His impertinence disconcerted even himself; he wondered that she did not slap him as he passed her, entering the room; and felt that he deserved it, despite her attitude. But such thoughts could not long trouble one whose eyes were enchanted by the sight of Dorothy, confronting him in the middle of the dingy room, her hands, bristling dangerously with hat pins, busy with the adjustment of a small gray toque atop the wonder that was her hair. So vivacious and charming she seemed, so spirited and bright her welcoming smile, so foreign was she altogether to the picture of her, worn and distraught, that he had mentally conjured up, that he stopped in an extreme of disconcertion; and dropped the hand-bag, smiling sheepishly enough under her ready laugh--mirth irresistibly incited by the plainly-read play of expression on his mobile countenance.

"You must forgive the unconventionally, Mr. Kirkwood," she apologized, needlessly enough, but to cover his embarrassment. "I am on the point of going out with Mrs. Hallam--and of course you are the last person on earth I expected to meet here!"

"It's good to see you, Miss Calendar," he said simply, remarking with much satisfaction that her trim walking costume bore witness to her statement that she was prepared for the street.

The girl glanced into a mirror, patted the small, bewitching hat an infinitesimal fraction of an inch to one side, and turned to him again, her hands free. One of them, small but cordial, rested in his grasp for an instant all too brief, the while he gazed earnestly into her face, noting with concern what the first glance had not shown him,--the almost imperceptible shadows beneath her eyes and cheek-bones, pathetic records of the hours the girl had spent, since last he had seen her, in company with his own grim familiar, Care.

Not a little of care and distress of mind had seasoned her portion in those two weary days. He saw and knew it; and his throat tightened inexplicably, again, as it had out there in the corridor. Possibly the change in her had passed unchallenged by any eyes other than his, but even in the little time that he had spent in her society, the image of her had become fixed so indelibly on his memory, that he could not now be deceived. She was changed--a little, but changed; she had suffered, and was suffering and, forced by suffering, her nascent womanhood was stirring in the bud. The child that he had met in London, in Antwerp he found grown to woman's stature and slowly coming to comprehension of the nature of the change in herself,--the wonder of it glowing softly in her eyes....

The clear understanding of mankind that is an appanage of woman's estate, was now added to the intuitions of a girl's untroubled heart. She could not be blind to the mute adoration of his gaze; nor could she resent it.

Beneath it she colored and lowered her lashes.

"I was about to go out," she repeated in confusion. "I--it's pleasant to see you, too."

"Thank you," he stammered ineptly; "I--I--"

"If Mr. Kirkwood will excuse us, Dorothy," Mrs. Hallam's sharp tones struck in discordantly, "we shall be glad to see him when we return to London."

"I am infinitely complimented, Mrs. Hallam," Kirkwood assured her; and of the girl quickly: "You're going back home?" he asked.

She nodded, with a faint, puzzled smile that included the woman. "After a little--not immediately. Mrs. Hallam is so kind--"

"Pardon me," he interrupted; "but tell me one thing, please: have you any one in England to whom you can go without invitation and be welcomed and cared for--any friends or relations?"

"Dorothy will be with me," Mrs. Hallam answered for her, with cold defiance.

Deliberately insolent, Kirkwood turned his back to the woman. "Miss Calendar, will you answer my question for yourself?" he asked the girl pointedly.

"Why--yes; several friends; none in London, but--"

"Dorothy--"

"One moment, Mrs. Hallam," Kirkwood flung crisply over his shoulder. "I'm going to ask you something rather odd, Miss Calendar," he continued, seeking the girl's eyes. "I hope--"

"Dorothy, I--"

"If you please, Mrs. Hallam," suggested the girl, with just the right shade of independence. "I wish to listen to Mr. Kirkwood. He has been very kind to me and has every right...." She turned to him again, leaving the woman breathless and speechless with anger.

"You told me once," Kirkwood continued quickly, and, he felt, brazenly, "that you considered me kind, thoughtful and considerate. You know me no better to-day than you did then, but I want to beg you to trust me a little. Can you trust yourself to my protection until we reach your friends in England?"

"Why, I--" the girl faltered, taken by surprise.

"Mr. Kirkwood!" cried Mrs. Hallam angrily, finding her voice.

Kirkwood turned to meet her onslaught with a mien grave, determined, unflinching. "Please do not interfere, Madam," he said quietly.

"You are impertinent, sir! Dorothy, I forbid you to listen to this person!"

The girl flushed, lifting her chin a trifle. "Forbid?" she repeated wonderingly.

Kirkwood was quick to take advantage of her resentment. "Mrs. Hallam is not fitted to advise you," he insisted, "nor can she control your actions. It must already have occurred to you that you're rather out of place in the present circumstances. The men who have brought you hither, I believe you already see through, to some extent. Forgive my speaking plainly ... But that is why you have accepted Mrs. Hallam's offer of protection. Will you take my word for it, when I tell you she has not your right interests at heart, but the reverse? I happen to know, Miss Calendar, and I--"

"How dare you, sir?"

Flaming with rage, Mrs. Hallam put herself bodily between them, confronting Kirkwood in white-lipped desperation, her small, gloved hands clenched and quivering at her sides, her green eyes dangerous.

But Kirkwood could silence her; and he did. "Do you wish me to speak frankly, Madam? Do you wish me to tell what I know--and all I know--," with rising emphasis,--"of your social status and your relations with Calendar and Mulready? I promise you that if you wish it, or force me to it...."

But he had need to say nothing further; the woman's eyes wavered before his and a little sob of terror forced itself between her shut teeth. Kirkwood smiled grimly, with a face of brass, impenetrable, inflexible. And suddenly she turned from him with indifferent bravado.

"As Mr. Kirkwood says, Dorothy," she said in her high, metallic voice, "I have no authority over you. But if you're silly enough to consider for a moment this fellow's insulting suggestion, if you're fool enough to go with him, unchaperoned through Europe and imperil your--"

"Mrs. Hallam!" Kirkwood cut her short with a menacing tone.

"Why, then, I wash my hands of you," concluded the woman defiantly. "Make your choice, my child," she added with a meaning laugh and moved away, humming a snatch from a French _chanson_ which brought the hot blood to Kirkwood's face.

But the girl did not understand; and he was glad of that. "You may judge between us," he appealed to her directly, once more. "I can only offer you my word of honor as an American gentleman that you shall be landed in England, safe and sound, by the first available steamer--"

"There's no need to say more, Mr. Kirkwood," Dorothy informed him quietly.

"I have already decided. I think I begin to understand some things clearly, now.... If you're ready, we will go."

From the window, where she stood, holding the curtains back and staring out, Mrs. Hallam turned with a curling lip.

[Illustration: From the window, Mrs. Hallam turned with a curling lip.]

"'The honor of an American gentleman,'" she quoted with a stinging sneer; "I'm sure I wish you comfort of it, child!"

"We must make haste, Miss Calendar," said Kirkwood, ignoring the implication. "Have you a traveling-bag?"

She silently indicated a small valise, closed and strapped, on a table by the bed, and immediately passed out into the hall. Kirkwood took the case containing the gladstone bag in one hand, the girl's valise in the other, and followed.

As he turned the head of the stairs he looked back. Mrs. Hallam was still at the window, her back turned. From her very passiveness he received an impression of something ominous and forbidding; if she had lost a trick or two of the game she played, she still held cards, was not at the end of her resources. She stuck in his imagination for many an hour as a force to be reckoned with.

For the present he understood that she was waiting to apprise Calendar and Mulready of their flight. With the more haste, then, he followed Dorothy down the three flights, through the tiny office, where Madam sat sound asleep at her over-burdened desk, and out.

Chapter end

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