"Go douse your friend with a pail of water, Mouse." Dan, still grinning, picked up his shovel and went to work.
* * *
When Neville's watch went off duty, Larry found the sea no rougher than on countless other runs he had made along the Atlantic coast. The wind had freshened to a strong gale, but he reached the forecastle with no great difficulty.
Without marked change the San Gardo carried the same heavy weather from Barnegat Light to the Virginia capes. Beyond Cape Henry the blow began to stiffen and increased every hour as the freighter plowed steadily southward. Bucking head seas every mile of the way, she picked up Diamond Shoals four hours behind schedule. As she plunged past the tossing light-ship, Larry, squinting through a forecastle port, wondered how long its anchor chains would hold. The San Gardo was off Jupiter by noon the third day out, running down the Florida coast; the wind-bent palms showed faintly through the driving spray.
Neville's watch went on duty that night at eight. As his men left the forecastle a driving rain beat against their backs, and seas broke over the port bow at every downward plunge of the ship. To gain the fire-room door, they clung to rail or stanchion to save themselves from being swept overboard. They held on desperately as each wave flooded the deck, watched their chance, then sprang for the next support. On freighters no cargo space is wasted below decks in passageways for the crew.
When Larry reached the fire-room there was not a dry inch of cloth covering his wiry body. He and his fellow-stokers took up immediately the work of the men they had relieved, and during the first hours of their watch fired the boilers with no more difficulty than is usual in heavy weather.
At eleven o'clock the speaking-tube whistled, and a moment later Neville came to the end of the passage.
"What are you carrying?" he shouted to the water-tender. "We've got to keep a full head of steam on her to-night."
"We've got it, Mr. Neville—one hundred and sixty, an' we've held between that and sixty-five ever since I've been on."
"The captain says we've made Tortugas. We lost three hours on the run from Jupiter," Neville answered, and went back to his engine.
During the next hour no one on deck had to tell these men, toiling far below the water-line, that wind and sea had risen. They had warnings enough. Within their steel-incased quarters every bolt and rivet sounded the overstrain forced upon it. In the engine-room the oiler could no longer move from the throttle. Every few minutes now, despite his watchfulness, a jarring shiver spread through the hull as the propeller, thrown high, raced wildly in mid-air before he could shut off steam.
At eleven-thirty the indicator clanged, and its arrow jumped to half-speed ahead. A moment later the men below decks "felt the rudder" as the San Gardo, abandoning further attempts to hold her course, swung about to meet the seas head on.
Eight bells—midnight—struck, marking the end of the shift; but no one came down the ladders to relieve Neville's watch. The growls of the tired men rose above the noise in the fire-room. Again Neville came through the passage.
"The tube to the bridge is out of commission," he called, "but I can raise the chief. He says no man can live on deck; one's gone overboard already. The second watch can't get out of the forecastle. It's up to us, men, to keep this ship afloat, and steam's the only thing that'll do it."
For the next hour and the next the fire-room force and the two men in the engine-room stuck doggedly to their work. They knew that the San Gardo was making a desperate struggle, that it was touch and go whether the ship would live out the hurricane or sink to the bottom. They knew also, to the last man of them, that if for a moment the ship fell off broadside to the seas, the giant waves would roll her over and over like an empty barrel in a mill-race. The groaning of every rib and plate in the hull, the crash of seas against the sides, the thunder of waves breaking on deck, drowned the usual noises below.
The color of the men's courage began to show. Some kept grimly at their work, dumb from fear. Others covered fright with profanity, cursing the storm, the ship, their mates, cursing themselves. Larry, as he threw coal steadily through his fire-doors, hummed a broken tune. He gave no heed to Dan, who grew more savage as the slow hours of overtoil dragged by.
About four in the morning Neville called Larry to the engine-room. On his return Dan blazed out at him:
"Boot-lickin' Neville ag'in, was you? I'd lay you out, you shrimp, only I want you to do your work."
Larry took up his shovel; as usual his silence enraged Sullivan.
"You chicken-livered wharf-rat, ain't you got no spunk to answer wid?" Dan jerked a slice-bar from the fire and hurled it to the floor at Larry's feet. The little man leaped in the air; the white-hot end of the bar, bounding from the floor, missed his legs by an inch.
Larry's jaw shot out; he turned on Sullivan, all meekness gone.
"Dan," he cried shrilly, "if you try that again—"
"Great God! what's that!"
Dan's eyes were staring; panic showed on every face in the room. The sound of an explosion had come from the forward hold. Another followed, and another, a broadside of deafening reports. The terrifying sounds came racing aft. They reached the bulkhead nearest them, and tore through the fire-room, bringing unmasked fear to every man of the watch. The crew stood for a moment awed, then broke, and, rushing for the ladder, fought for a chance to escape this new, unknown madness of the storm.
Only Larry kept his head.
"Stop! Come back!" His shrill voice carried above the terrifying noise. "It's the plates bucklin' between the ribs."
"Plates! Hell! she's breakin' up!"
Neville rushed in from the engine-room.
"Back to your fires, men, or we'll all drown! Steam, keep up—" He was shouting at full-lung power, but his cries were cut short. Again the deafening reports started at the bows. Again, crash after crash, the sounds came tearing aft as if a machine-gun were raking the vessel from bow to stern. At any time these noises would bring terror to men locked below decks; but now, in the half-filled cargo spaces, each crashing report was like the bursting of a ten-inch shell.
Neville went among the watch, urging, commanding, assuring them that these sounds meant no real danger to the ship. He finally ended the panic by beating the more frightened ones back to their boilers.
Then for hours, at every plunge of the ship, the deafening boom of buckling plates continued until the watch was crazed by the sound.
This new terror began between four and five in the morning, when the men had served double time under the grueling strain. At sunrise another misery was added to their torture: the rain increased suddenly, and fell a steady cataract to the decks. This deluge and the flying spray sent gallons of water down the stack; striking the breeching-plates, it was instantly turned to steam and boiling water. As the fagged stokers bent before the boilers, the hot water, dripping from the breeching, washed scalding channels through the coal-dust down their bare backs. They hailed this new torment with louder curses, but continued to endure it for hours, while outside the hurricane raged, no end, no limit, to its power.
Since the beginning of the watch the bilge-pumps had had all they could do to handle the leakage coming from the seams of the strained hull. Twice Neville had taken the throttle and sent his oiler to clear the suctions. The violent lurching of the ship had churned up every ounce of sediment that had lain undisturbed beneath the floor-plates since the vessel's launching. Sometime between seven and eight all the bilge-pumps clogged at the same moment, and the water began rising at a rate that threatened the fires. It became a question of minutes between life and death for all hands. Neville, working frantically to clear the pumps, yelled to the oiler to leave the throttle and come to him. The water, gaining fast, showed him that their combined efforts were hopeless. He ran to the boiler-room for more aid. Here the water had risen almost to the fires; as the ship rolled, it slushed up between the floor-plates and ran in oily streams about the men's feet. Again panic seized the crew.
"Come on, lads!" Sullivan shouted above the infernal din. "We'll be drowned in this hell-hole!"
In the next second he was half-way up the ladder, below him, clinging to the rungs like frightened apes, hung other stokers.
"Come back, you fool!" Neville shouted. "Open that deck-door, and you'll swamp the ship!"
Dan continued to climb.
"Come down or I'll fire!"
"Shoot an' be damned to you!" Dan called back.
The report of Neville's revolver was lost in the noise; but the bullet, purposely sent high, spattered against the steel plate above Dan's head. He looked down. Neville, swaying with the pitching floor, was aiming true for his second shot. Cursing at the top of his voice, Dan scrambled down the ladder, pushing the men below him to the floor.
"Back to your boilers!" Neville ordered; but the stokers, huddled in a frightened group, refused to leave the ladder.
It was only a matter of seconds now before the fires would be drenched. Bilge-water was splashing against the under boiler-plates, filling the room with dense steam. Neville left the men and raced for the engine-room. He found Larry and the oiler working desperately at the valve-wheel of the circulating pump. Neville grasped the wheel, and gave the best he had to open the valve. This manifold, connecting the pump with the bilges, was intended only for emergency use. It had not been opened for months, and was now rusted tight. The three men, straining every muscle, failed to budge the wheel. After the third hopeless attempt, Larry let go, and without a word bolted through the passage to the fire-room.
"You miserable quitter!" Neville screamed after him, and bent again to the wheel.
As he looked up, despairing of any chance to loosen the rusted valve, Larry came back on the run, carrying a coal-pick handle. He thrust it between the spokes of the wheel.
"Now, Mr. Neville, all together!" His Celtic jaw was set hard.
All three threw their weight against the handle. The wheel stirred.
As they straightened for another effort, a louder noise of hissing steam sounded from the boilers, and the fire-room force, mad with fright, came crowding through the passage to the higher floor of the engine-room.
"Quick! Together!" Neville gasped.
The wheel moved an inch.
"Once more! Now!"
The wheel turned and did not stop. The three men dropped the lever, seized the wheel, and threw the valve wide open.
"Good work, men!" Neville cried, and fell back exhausted.
The centrifugal pump was thrown in at the last desperate moment. When the rusted valve finally opened, water had risen to the lower grate-bars under every boiler in the fire-room. But once in action, the twelve-inch suction of the giant pump did its work with magic swiftness. In less than thirty seconds the last gallon of water in the bilges had been lifted and sent, rushing through the discharge, overboard.
Neville faced the boiler-room crew sternly.
"Now, you cowards, get to your fires!" he said.
As the men slunk back through the passage Dan growled:
"May that man some day burn in hell!"
"Don't be wishin' him no such luck," an angry voice answered; "wish him down here wid us."
* * *
The morning dragged past; noon came, marking the sixteenth hour that the men, imprisoned below the sea-swept decks, had struggled to save the ship. Sundown followed, and the second night of their unbroken toil began. They stuck to it, stood up somehow under the racking grind, their nerves quivering, their bodies craving food, their eyes gritty from the urge of sleep, while always the hideous noises of the gale screamed in their ears. The machine-gun roar of buckling plates, raking battered hull, never ceased.
With each crawling minute the men grew more silent, more desperate. Dan Sullivan let no chance pass to vent his spleen on Larry. Twice during the day his fellow-stokers, watching the familiar scene, saw the big man reach the point of crushing the small one; but the ever-expected blow did not fall.
Shortly after midnight the first hope came to the exhausted men that their fight might not be in vain. Though the buckling plates still thundered, though the floor under their feet still pitched at crazy angles, there was a "feel" in the fire-room that ribs and beams and rivets were not so near the breaking-point.
Neville came to the end of the passage.
"The hurricane's blowing itself to death," he shouted. "Stick to it, boys, for an hour longer; the second watch can reach us by then."
The hour passed, but no relief came. The wind had lost some force, but the seas still broke over the bows, pouring tons of water to the deck. The vessel pitched as high, rolled as deep, as before.
As the men fired their boilers they rested the filled scoops on the floor and waited for the ship to roll down. Then a quick jerk of the fire-door chain, a quick heave of the shovel, and the door was snapped shut before the floor rolled up again. Making one of these hurried passes, Larry swayed on tired legs. He managed the toss and was able to close the door before he fell hard against Dan. His sullen enemy instantly launched a new tirade, fiercer, more blasphemous, than any before. He ended a stream of oaths, and rested the scoop ready for his throw.
"I'll learn yuh, yuh snivelin'—" The ship rolled deep. Dan jerked the fire-door open—"yuh snivelin' shrimp!" He glared at Larry as he made the pass. He missed the opening. His shovel struck hard against the boiler front. The jar knocked Dan to the floor, pitched that moment at its steepest angle. He clutched desperately to gain a hold on the smooth-worn steel plates, his face distorted by fear as he slid down to the fire.
Larry, crying a shrill warning, sprang between Sullivan and the open furnace. He stooped, and with all the strength he could gather shoved the big stoker from danger. Then above the crashing sounds a shriek tore the steam-clouded air of the fire-room. Larry had fallen!
As his feet struck the ash-door, the ship rolled up. A cascade falling from Dan's fire had buried Larry's legs to the knees under a bed of white-hot coals. He shrieked again the cry of the mortally hurt as Dan dragged him too late from before the open door.
"Mouse! Mouse!" Horror throbbed in Sullivan's voice. "You're hurted bad!" He knelt, holding Larry in his arms, while others threw water on the blazing coals.
"Speak, lad!" Dan pleaded. "Speak to me!"
The fire-room force stood over them silenced. Accident, death even, they always expected; but to see Dan Sullivan show pity for any living thing, and above all, for the Bunker Mouse—
The lines of Larry's tortured face eased.
"It's the last hurt I'll be havin', Dan," he said before he fainted.
"Don't speak the word, Mouse, an' you just after savin' me life!" Then the men in the fire-room saw a miracle: tears filled the big stoker's eyes.
Neville had heard Larry's cry and rushed to the boiler-room.
"For God's sake! what's happened now?"
Dan pointed a shaking finger. Neville looked once at what only a moment before had been the legs and feet of a man. As he turned quickly from the sight the engineer's face was like chalk.
"Here, two of you," he called unsteadily, "carry him to the engine-room."
Dan threw the men roughly aside.
"Leave him be," he growled. "Don't a one of you put hand on him!" He lifted Larry gently and, careful of each step, crossed the swaying floor.
"Lay him there by the dynamo," Neville ordered when they had reached the engine-room.
"'T ain't fittin', sir, an' him so bad' hurt. Let me be takin' him to the store-room."
Neville looked doubtfully up the narrow stairs.
"We can't get him there with this sea running."
Sullivan spread his legs wide, took both of Larry's wrists in one hand, and swung the unconscious man across his back. He strode to the iron stairs and began to climb. As he reached the first grating Larry groaned. Dan stopped dead; near him the great cross-heads were plunging steadily up and down.
"God, Mr. Neville, did he hit ag'in' somethin'?" The sweat of strain and fear covered his face.
The vessel leaped to the crest of a wave, and dropped sheer into the trough beyond.
"No; but for God's sake, man, go on! You'll pitch with him to the floor if she does that again!"
Dan, clinging to the rail with his free hand, began climbing the second flight.
At the top grating Neville sprang past him to the store-room door.
"Hold him a second longer," he called, and spread an armful of cotton waste on the vise bench.
Dan laid Larry on the bench. He straightened his own great body for a moment, then sat down on the floor and cried.
Neville, pretending not to see Dan's distress, brought more waste. As he placed it beneath his head Larry groaned. Dan, still on the floor, wrung his hands, calling on the saints and the Virgin to lighten the pain of this man it had been his joy to torture.
Neville turned to him.
"Get up from there!" he cried sharply. "Go see what you can find to help him."
Dan left the room, rubbing his red-flanneled arm across his eyes. He returned quickly with a can of cylinder oil, and poured it slowly over the horribly burned limbs.
"There ain't no bandages, sir; only this." He held out a shirt belonging to the engineer; his eyes pleaded his question. Neville nodded, and Dan tore the shirt in strips. When he finished the task, strange to his clumsy hands, Larry had regained consciousness and lay trying pitifully to stifle his moans.
"Does it make you feel aisier, Mouse?" Dan leaned close to the quivering lips to catch the answer.
"It helps fine," Larry answered, and fainted again.
"You'll be leavin' me stay wid him, sir?" Dan begged. "'T was for me he's come to this."
Neville gave consent and left the two men together.
* * *
Between four and five in the morning, when Neville's watch had lived through thirty-three unbroken hours of the fearful grind, a shout that ended in a screaming laugh ran through the fire-room. High above the toil-crazed men a door had opened and closed. A form, seen dimly through the smoke and steam, was moving backward down the ladder. Again the door opened; another man came through. Every shovel in the room fell to the steel floor; every man in the room shouted or laughed or cried.
The engine-room door, too, had opened, admitting the chief and his assistant. Not until he had examined each mechanical tragedy below did the chief give time to the human one above.
"Where's that man that's hurt?" he asked as he came, slowly, from an inspection of the burned-out bearings down the shaft alley.
Neville went with him to the store-room. Dan, sagging under fatigue, clung to the bench where Larry lay moaning.
"You can go now, Sullivan," Neville told him.
Dan raised his head, remorse, entreaty, stubbornness in his look.
"Let me be! I'll not leave him!"
The chief turned to Neville.
"What's come over that drunk?" he asked.
"Ever since the Mouse got hurt, Sullivan's acted queer, just like a woman."
"Get to your quarters, Sullivan," the chief ordered. "We'll take care of this man."
Dan's hands closed; for an instant he glared rebellion from blood-shot eyes. Then the iron law of sea discipline conquering, he turned to Larry.
"The Blessed Virgin aise you, poor Mouse!" he mumbled huskily and slouched out through the door.
* * *
At midday the San Gardo's captain got a shot at the sun. Though his vessel had been headed steadily northeast for more than thirty hours, the observation showed that she had made twenty-eight miles sternway to the southwest. By two in the afternoon the wind had dropped to half a gale, making a change of course possible. The captain signaled full speed ahead, and the ship, swinging about, began limping across the gulf, headed once more toward Galveston.
Neville, who had slept like a stone, came on deck just before sunset. The piled-up seas, racing along the side, had lost their breaking crests; the ship rose and fell with some degree of regularity. He called the boatswain and went to the store-room.
They found Larry in one of his conscious moments.
"Well, Mouse, we're going to fix you in a better place," the engineer called with what heart he could show.
"Thank you kindly, sir," Larry managed to answer; "but 't is my last voyage, Mr. Neville." And the grit that lay hidden in the man's soul showed in his pain-twisted smile.
They carried him up the last flight of iron stairs to the deck. Clear of the engine-room, the boatswain turned toward the bow.
"No. The other way, Boson," Neville ordered.
The chief, passing them, stopped.
"Where are you taking him, Mr. Neville?"
"The poor fellow's dying, sir," Neville answered in a low voice.
"Well, where are you taking him?" the chief persisted.
"I'd like to put him in my room, sir."
"A stoker in officers' quarters!" The chief frowned. "Sunday-school discipline!" He disappeared through the engine-room door, slamming it after him.
They did what they could, these seamen, for the injured man; on freighters one of the crew has no business to get hurt. They laid Larry in Neville's berth and went out, leaving a sailor to watch over him.
The sun rose the next day in a cloudless sky, and shone on a brilliant sea of tumbling, white-capped waves. Far off the starboard bow floated a thin line of smoke from a tug's funnel, the first sign to the crew since the hurricane that the world was not swept clean of ships. Two hours later the tug was standing by, her captain hailing the San Gardo through a megaphone.
"Run in to New Orleans!" he shouted.
"I cleared for Galveston, and I'm going there," the San Gardo's captain called back.
"No, you ain't neither."
"I'd like to know why, I won't."
"Because you can't,"—the answer carried distinctly across the waves,—"there ain't no such place. It's been washed clean off the earth."
The San Gardo swung farther to the west and with her engine pounding at every stroke, limped on toward the Mississippi.
At five o'clock a Port Eads pilot climbed over the side, and taking the vessel through South Pass, straightened her in the smooth, yellow waters of the great river for the hundred-mile run to New Orleans.
When the sun hung low over the sugar plantations that stretch in flat miles to the east and west beyond the levees, when all was quiet on land and water and ship, Neville walked slowly to the forecastle.
"Sullivan," he called, "come with me."
Dan climbed down from his bunk and came to the door; the big stoker searched Neville's face with a changed, sobered look.
"I've been wantin' all this time to go to 'im. How's he now, sir?"
"He's dying, Sullivan, and has asked for you."
Outside Neville's quarters Dan took off his cap and went quietly into the room.
Larry lay with closed eyes, his face ominously white.
Dan crept clumsily to the berth and put his big hand on Larry's shoulder.
"It's me, Mouse. They wouldn't leave me come no sooner."
Larry's head moved slightly; his faded eyes opened.
Dan stooped in awkward embarrassment until his face was close to Larry.
"I come to ask you—" Dan stopped. The muscles of his thick neck moved jerkily—"to ask you, Mouse, before—to forgit the damn mean things—I done to you, Mouse."
Larry made no answer; he kept his failing sight fixed on Dan.
After a long wait Sullivan spoke again.
"An' to think you done it, Mouse, for me!"
A light sprang to Larry's eyes, flooding his near-sighted gaze with sudden anger.
"For you!" The cry came from his narrow chest with jarring force. "You! You!" he repeated in rising voice. "It's always of yourself you're thinkin', Dan Sullivan!" He stopped, his face twitching in pain; then with both hands clenched he went on, his breast heaving at each word hurled at Dan:
"Do you think I followed you from ship to ship, dragged you out of every rum-hole in every port, for your own sake!"
He lay back exhausted, his chest rising and falling painfully, his eyelids fluttering over his burning eyes.
Dan stepped back, and, silenced, stared at the dying man.
Larry clung to his last moments of life, fighting for strength to finish. He struggled, and raised himself on one elbow.
"For you!" he screamed. "No, for Mary! For Mary, my own flesh and blood—Mary, the child of the woman I beat when I was drunk an' left to starve when I got ready!"
Through the stateroom door the sun's flat rays struck full on Larry's inspired face. He swayed on his elbow; his head fell forward. By a final effort he steadied himself. His last words came in ringing command.
"Go back! Go—" he faltered, gasping for breath—"go home sober to Mary an' the child that's comin'!"
The fire of anger drifted slowly from Larry's dying gaze. The little man fell back. The Bunker Mouse went out, all man, big at the end.
[Note 13: Copyright, 1917, by The Pictorial Review Company. Copyright, 1918, by Richard Matthews Hallet.]
BY RICHARD MATTHEWS HALLET
From The Pictorial Review
In pursuance of a policy to detain us on the island at Sick Dog until the arrival of his daughter, Papa Isbister thought fit to tell us the fate of Rainbow Pete, of whose physical deformity and thirst for gold we knew something already. Rainbow Pete had come to Mushrat Portage, playing his flute, at a time when preparations were being made to blast a road-bed through the wilderness for the railroad.
Mushrat Portage had been but recently a willow clump, and a black rock ledge hanging over a precipitous valley: the hand of the Indian could be seen one day parting the leaves of the trail, and on the next, drills came and tins of black powder, and hordes of greedy men, blind with a burning zeal for "monkeying with powder" as our host of Sick Dog said. They were strange men, hoarse men, unreasonable men who cast sheep's-eyes at the dark woman from Regina, whose shack, rented of Scarecrow Charlie, crowned the high point of the ledge. She was the only woman on Mushrat, and at a time just before the blasting began, when Rainbow Pete sauntered over the trail with his pick and his flute and his dirty bag of rock specimens, she was hungrily watched and waited on by the new inhabitants of that ancient portage—Mushrat, whose destinies were soon to be so splendid, and whose skies were to be rocked and rent by the thunders of men struggling with reluctant nature, monkeying with powder.
When Pete laid down his tools and guns on the table at Scarecrow Charlie's, where the woman was employed, had he in his heart some foreshadowing presentiment of the peril he was in, of the sharp destroying fire of a resolute woman's eyes, which he was subjecting himself to, in including her in his universal caress? Who knows? Perhaps his flute had whispered tidings to him. He was, said Papa Isbister, immensely proud of his plaything, this huge gaunt sailor, who had been bent into the shape of a rainbow—the foot of a rainbow—by a chance shot, which shattered his hip and gave him an impressive forward cant, which appeared to women, it seemed—I quote my old friend—in the light of an endearing droop.
The romantic visitation of this musical sailorman made the efforts of all Mushrat as nothing. But Rainbow Pete seemed unaware of the fiery jealousies glowing in the night on all sides of him when he fixed his eyes on her for the first time—with that mellow assurance of a careless master of the hearts and whims of women.
"What's this he said to her?" said our old friend. "It was skilful; it was put like a notable question if she took it so."
"You don't want to go out to-night," he said to her, with his guns on the table.
"No, I do not," she said to the man.
"There you will be taking the words out of my mouth to suit your heart," he went on saying to her. "Mark this, I'm making this a command to you. You don't want to go out to-night. Do not do it."
This he told her was on account of stray bullets, because he was meaning to shoot up that place.
Heh! It was a trick of his, to trap her into denying him when he had made no offer.
Old Isbister laughed heartily at this picture of Pete in the days of his triumph.
He was a captivating man, it appeared. He was tattooed. On his arms were snakes and the like of that, daggers and the like of that, dragons and the like of that. This was a romantic skin to the man; and his blue eyes were like the diamond drills they were bringing to Mushrat.
"Oh my," said the woman, leaning at his table, "this is what will be keeping me from mass, I shouldn't wonder."
This was a prairie woman from Regina; now mark, it was whispered to be no credit to human nature that she had had to leave that town. No. She was a full woman, very deep, with burning eyes. It was hard talking with her, because of her lingering speech. Oh, she was a massive woman, for the small shoes she wore. She was tall, as high as Rainbow Pete's shoulder. She purchased scent for her hair. This I know, having seen it standing in the bottles. She was a prairie woman.
This was a wild night we spent on Mushrat, after Pete's reproving the woman there in Scarecrow Charlie's place. Smash McGregor, the little doctor, was sitting between us in his yellow skull-cap; and Willis Countryman was reading and drinking in one corner, listening to the laughing men there. They were laughing, thinking of the fortunes there would be here when blasting begun.
But Rainbow Pete was not one of the rockmen. No. He told them strange tales of gold. Heh! He was athirst for gold. Strange tales he told of gold. Once how in Australia he had hold of a lump of it as big as poor McGregor's skull, but isn't it a perishing pity, oh my, this was just a desert where he was, there was no water, he grew faint carrying the nugget. Our mouths were open when the man told us he had dropped it in the desert, with his name carved on it.
"There it is to this day, sinking in the sands," he said. Oh, the proud woman from Regina. There she turned her dark eyes over our heads, never looking at the plausible man at all; but she had heard him.
"Gold?" said Smash McGregor. "Why, there's gold enough in the world."
"Ay, there's comfort too, if you know where to take it," said Rainbow Pete, twirling here at his mustache and looking at the woman.
"There's gold," said McGregor, "for any man."
"Yes, my hearty," said Pete, "it's twinkling in the river-beds, it shines in the sands under your feet, but still it's hard to get in your two fisties."
"Why," said Smash McGregor, "did you never hear there's a pot of gold at the foot of every rainbow?"
Oh, my friend, as he went mentioning the rainbow, there was a thunder-cap on the brow of that great sailor.
"So they call me—Rainbow Pete," he said.
"Look then," said McGregor, "take the pick, and strike the ground at your feet."
Rainbow Pete was not hearing them.
"This is a man I have been following on many trails," he muttered, "This man who made a rainbow of me. Mark this, he shall thirst, if I meet him. Ay! He shall burn with these fingers at his throat. He shall have gold poured into him like liquid, however."
It was plain he had no love for this man who had fashioned him in the form of a rainbow.
"What is this man called?" said the little doctor.
"It's a dark man wearing a red cap, called Pal Yachy," said Rainbow Pete. "He spends his time escaping me. Look, where he shot me in the hip."
Now we shielded him, and he drew out his shirt showing the wound in the thigh which made a rainbow of him; but stop, didn't McGregor discover the strange business on his spine?
"What's this, however?" he said.
"This is a palm-tree," said the man. "Stand close about me."
Oh my, we stood close, watching the man twisting up his shirt, and here we saw the palm-tree going up his spine, and every joint of his spine was used for a joint of the tree, like; and the long blue leaves were waving on his shoulder-blade when he would be rippling the skin. This was a fine broad back like satin to be putting a palm-tree on. Look, as I am lifting my head, here I see the dark woman silent at the bar, burning up with curiosity at what we are hiding here. Listen, it's the man's voice, under his shirt.
"This was done in the South Seas, when I was young," he said to us, "and the bigger I grow, the bigger the tree is. And now what next?" Then he put his shirt back, and stood up to be fixing an eye on the woman from Regina.
He was first to be waited on at Scarecrow Charlie's. Yes, he was first. This was a mystery of a man to that dark woman from Regina.
Now in these days before blasting began, they were fond of talking marriage on Mushrat, thinking of this woman from Regina, who was at the disposal of no man there. They were full of doubts and wonderments, when they would be idling together in Scarecrow Charlie's. But now one morning when they were idling there, Shoepack Sam must be yawning and saying to them,
"Oh, my, this is the time now, before the sun is up, I'm glad I am not married. It's a pleasure to be a single man at this hour."
Heh! Heh! As a usual thing we are not gratified at all for this favor of heaven. A single man, Shoepack Sam was saying, would not have to be looking at the wreck of his wife in the morning; and this is when women were caught unawares in the gill-nets time is lowering for them.
"They are pale about the gills then," he said. "They are just drowned fish. They have stayed in the nets too long."
"No, it's not certain," said Rainbow Pete. "She might be pleasant-looking on the pillow with her hair adrift."
Then Shoepack told him that the salt water had leaked into his brains, what with his voyages.
"Still, this is a beautiful cheek," said Pete, speaking low, because she was moving about beyond the boards.
"These things are purchased," said Shoepack, scraping his feet together in yellow moosehides. "Listen to me, I have seen them in a long line, on her shelf, with many odors."
So they were talking together, and Rainbow Pete was putting his fingers to the flute and staring down the valley, where Throat River was twisting like a rag.
"I could have had a wife for speaking at Kicking Horse," he said.
"There is one for speaking now," said Shoepack.
"In a few days I go North," Rainbow Pete went muttering. "There is gold at Dungeon Creek. I have seen samples of this vein."
"She will be the less trouble to you then, if you are not satisfied on this question," said Shoepack Sam.
Then Rainbow Pete said he was not so certain of her, on questioning himself. He was a modest man.
"This palm-tree and the other designs you have not been speaking about will be enticing her," said Shoepack Sam. "But do not speak to her of going away at the time of asking her."
"This is wisdom," said Rainbow Pete, and he put his lips to the flute, to be giving us a touch of music.
This was a light reason for marriage, disn't it seem? This was what Willis Countryman called a marriage of convenience, in the fashion of frogs. Ay! It was convenient to them to be married. He was a great reader—Willis.
So they were married, I'm telling you, but it's impossible to know what he said to her in speaking about it. They were married by the man called Justice of the Peace on Mushrat. This was before the blasting, and it was the first marriage on Mushrat.
Then they lived together in the little house she had chosen, sitting on the black ledge above Scarecrow Charlie's eating-place. Now it was a wonderment to Mushrat, to hear the sound of Rainbow Pete's old flute dropping from the dark ledge, by night, when they were taking their opinion of matrimony up there together, with a candle at the window.
But now look here, when Shoepack Sam came plucking him at the elbow, saying, "Was I right or was I wrong?" then Rainbow Pete stared at him with his eyes like drills, and he said to him, "You were curious and nothing more." Oh my, isn't this the perversity of married men.
They bore him a grudge on Mushrat, for his silence, because, disn't it seem, this was like a general marriage satisfying all men's souls. It was treasonable. Oh my, it was sailor's mischief to be living on that ledge, and dropping nothing but notes from his greasy flute. These are sweet but they are hard to be turning into language.
Now one morning, when I saw him coming from the ledge with his bag of specimens over his shoulder, I saw without speaking to him that he was parching with his thirst for gold. He was going away into the bush, thinking no more of his new wife. Oh, he was a casual man.
"How is this?" I said. "Can she be left alone on the ledge?"
"Can she not?" said Rainbow Pete. "Old fellow, this is a substantial woman. She was alone before I came."
"This is not the same thing," I said.
"It is the same woman," said Rainbow Pete, "she will be missing nothing but the flute."
Oh my, wasn't the flute a little thing to reckon with. He went North, dreaming of gold, and here the matter they were thinking about was locked in his heart. They were angry with the man on Mushrat. This was not what they were looking for between friends. They were hoping to learn the result of the experiment; but this was vain.
When he was gone, I saw her looking down into the valley, where the first shots were being fired in the rock. Ay, the sun was dazzling her eyes, but she dis not move, sitting as if her arms have been chopped from the shoulders.
Now it was not many days after this that the blasting was begun on Mushrat. Men came with instruments stamped by the government; these they pointed down the trail and drove stakes into the ground. These were great days on Mushrat. Oh yes, numbers of Swedes and Italians were in a desperate way monkeying with powder. It's a fetching business. In a week, look here, Scarecrow Charlie left his eating-place to go monkeying with powder like the others, and disn't he get a bolt of iron through his brain one morning? Oh, it's very much as if some one had pushed a broom-handle through his skull.
That dark woman from Regina was not dismayed. She ran the eating-place herself. This was a famous place: they heard of this as far West as Regina and they came here to work and eat, attracted by her. She was valuable to the contractors, bringing labor here. Disn't it seem an achievement for a married woman? Still, Rainbow Pete was not remembered after a time; and she was a dark beauty, with a reputation for not saying much.
My, my, these were golden days for Smash McGregor. I ponder over them, thinking what a business he had. He was paid by the contractors to be sorting out arms and legs, putting the short ones together in one box, and the long ones in another, marked with charcoal to be shipped. Oh, they were just gathering up parts of mortals in packing cases, dispatching them to Throat River Landing; and blood was leaking on the decks every way in little lines. They were unlikely consignments.
Then, my friend, there came one night a dark man wearing a red cap and here under his arm he had the instrument with strings. This was the Chief Contractor under the Government in this region. He was rich; at Winnipeg he had stabled many blood horses. Then they were clustering about him at Scarecrow Charlie's, asking him his name. This, he said, was Pal Yachy.
Oh my, now we knew him. This was the man who had given Pete his shape of a rainbow. Disn't it seem an unfortunate thing for him to be coming here? Still he did not know at first that this dark woman standing there was the wife of Rainbow Pete.
He went flashing at her with his teeth, the dark musician. Ay, he was better with the music than Rainbow Pete's old flute. He sang, plucking this instrument, with a jolly face. Heh! Heh! She leaned over the bar, looking at him, and dreaming of the prairies.
Then they told him that this woman was the wife of Rainbow Pete.
"Aha," he said, "but, my friends, a rainbow is not for very long. It is beautiful, but look, it vanishes in air."
Was he afraid, without saying so? That I can not tell you. Still he stayed on Mushrat. He was the destroyer of his countrymen. They blew themselves to pieces in his service, coming in great numbers when he crooked his finger.
Then my friend, he made himself noticeable to that dark woman. He took his instrument to the ledge and sang to her.
This I know from Willis Countryman who lived near that place. He told me that the man sang in the night a soft song and that the woman listened. Ay, she listened in the window, looking down into the valley where Throat River went roaring and the great Falls were like rags waving in the dark. Ay, she sat watching the River come out of the North, where Rainbow Pete was cruising after gold.
This Willis Countryman I'm telling you about was a fine man in his old age for reading. Oh, it was not easy talking to the man, with his muttering and muttering and his chin down firm intil the book. When he had his shack on Mouse Island the fire jumped over from the wind-rows they were burning in a right of way. What next? Disn't he put his furs in a canoe to sink in the lee of the island, and there he went on reading in the night with his chin out of water, and the light from his house blazing and lighting up the book in his fist. Oh my, he was great for reading, Willis.
Well, here, one night he came telling me about some queer women on a beach, singing. "Ay! It was impossible to keep away from them while they were at it. What is their name again?"
He made a prolonged effort to remember, sighed painfully, fixed his gaze. I brought him back as if from a fit of epilepsy by the interjection of the word, "Siren."
"Ay," he said, slowly and sadly. "The men put wax in their ears—" Now mark this. The day after I was hearing this of Willis, the woman put her hand on my arm as I was passing the ledge.
"You are a friend of my husband's," she whispered to me.
"What now?" I said.
"Will he come back to me, I wonder?" she said, looking in the valley.
"This is a long business, searching for gold," I went muttering.
"No man can say I have been unfaithful to him," she said to me, the fierce woman, breathing through her teeth. "I have been speaking to no man."
"This is certain," I said to her.
"If he dis not come according to my dream I am a lost woman, by this way of going on," she said to me.
How is this? There were tears flowing on the face, while she was telling me she was bewitched by the singing of Pal Yachy.
Oh, at first she would just lie listening there, but now the man with his sweet voice was drawing her from her bed, to come putting aside the scented bottles and leaning in the window.
Now I said, "My good woman, I am an old man with knowledge of the world. This man is a—what's this again—siren. He has a fatal voice. You must simply put wax in your ears not to hear it when he comes."
What next? Disn't she confess to me that she has listened to him too many times to be deaf to him. No, she must watch the valley when he comes singing his rich song; her cheeks were wet then, and the wind went shaking her. No, this was not a moment for wax. I was an old man. She prevailed upon me to sit outside her window in a chair, watching for him.
"Oh, I am afraid," she whispered to me, "being alone so high out of the valley."
There I sat by night, hearing sounds of thunder below this crag. Pebbles came rattling on the window, the rapid was choked with flying rock. They were growing rich, these madmen monkeying with powder. The government sent them gold in sacks, to pay those who were left for the lives that had been lost.
They were mad; they tumbled champagne out of bottles into tubs, frisking about in it. They had heard that this was done with money.
But Pal Yachy was more foolish. He came singing; oh my, this was a powerful song, ringing against the ledges. This was a fantastic Italian, singing like an angel to the deserted woman. Her eyes were dark; the breast heaved. Oh, these sweet notes were never lost on her.
Now at this time, too, Pal Yachy offered a great prize for the first child to be born on Mushrat. He came grinning under his red cap, saying to us, "There are so many dying, should there not be a prize offered for new life?"
He had learned what manner the woman had of surprising Rainbow Pete. It was a great prize he offered. When the child was born, he stopped the monkeying with powder in the valley for that day, though this too was a great loss in money. The woman pleased him.
Then, my friend, on the night of the day when this child was born, Rainbow Pete came back into the valley. Oh my, it's plain to us, looking at the man under the stars, he has been toughing it. Ay! His beard was tangled, the great bones were rising on his bare chest, his fingers twitched as he was drooping over us. Now I'm telling you his eyes were dim, and the sun had bleached his mustache the color of a lemon. There he stood before us, holding the bag over his shoulder, while he went scratching his bold nose like the picture of a pirate. Still he was gentle in the eye; he was mild in misfortune. Oh, this sailorman was just used to toughing it.
Look here, there he stopped, in the shadow of this great rock I'm speaking of, and these men of Mushrat came asking him if he had made the grade. They were fresh from dipping their carcasses in champagne. They were sparkling men, not accountable to themselves.
"Have you made the grade?" they went bawling to him. This is to say, had he struck gold?
"Oh, there's gold enough," Pete went rumbling at them, "but it's too far to the North, mate. There's no taickle made for getting purchase on it."
"So I am thinking," said the little medicine-man, McGregor. "It lies still at the foot of the rainbow."
"Ay," said Rainbow Pete; but with this word we went thinking of Pal Yachy. Still we did not speak the name of that Italian. No, this would be stronger in the ear of that sailorman than gunpowder in the valley.
"Look you here," said Rainbow Pete. "I am starving. I have not eaten in two days. This is the curse falling on me for hunting gold."
Then they laughed, these mad rockmen, mocking him with their eyes. Their eyes were twitching; there was powder in the corners of them.
"Are you not master of the eating-place?" they howled at him. "Look, there it stands; is not your wife alone in it?"
"Oh my, oh my, he stood looking at them with a ghastly face. Disn't he seem the casual man? It's as if he had forgotten that woman. He had no memories at all.
"My wife," said the rainbow-man.
"Look," said Shoepack Sam—oh, he remembered treason well—"he is forgetful that he has a wife on Mushrat."
This was so appearedly. There he stood in the blue star-shine, fingering his flute to bring her back to mind. Now, I thought, he will be asking what description of wife is this answering to my name on Mushrat? Oh, man is careless in appointing himself among various women.
Now, my friend, Rainbow Pete, blew a note on his flute to settle the thing clear in his mind. Oh, he was not too brisk in looking up at the black ledge, with the candle in the window. Now he was taken by the knees. This is not the convenient part of a marriage of convenience. No. But Shoepack Sam was waving a hand to us to be telling the man nothing of destiny at that moment.
"Come," he said, "the flute is nothing now. There must be more song than this, by what is going on."
Here he took Rainbow by the elbow, telling him to come and eat at Scarecrow Charlie's, for he will need his strength.
"I am in charge here for the day," said Shoepack.
"How is this?" said Rainbow, whispering.
They went laughing on all sides of him. Oh the demons, they were cackling while he sat devouring a great moose joint, until he was close to braining them with the yellow ball of the joint. He went eating like a timber-wolf from Great Bear.
"This is the palm-tree man," they sang in his ear. "Oh, why is it he grew no cocoanuts stumbling on that lost trail? Isn't it convenient for the man he is married this night?"
Oh, they were full of mischief with him, remembering the secret face he had for them in the days of his experiment.
"Drink this," said Shoepack Sam. There he put champagne in a glass before him. Oh, they were careful of the man.
"Here, take my hand, and let me see if strength is coming back," said Shoepack. "What is a rainbow without colors?"
Then the little medicine-man took his pulse, kneeling on the floor beside him. Oh, the great sailor was puzzled. Still he drank what was in the glass before him and after this he put his mustache into his mouth, sipping it by chance.
"What is this you are preparing?" he said, pointing his bold nose to them. Oh, the eyes were like a dreamer's: he was a child to appearances.
Then they went speaking to him of the stringed instrument they had heard humming on the ledge, speaking another language than his own.
"This is a wife to be defended," said Shoepack Sam, padding there with his yellow shoepacks bringing another drink. But still there was no word of Pal Yachy. That black Italian was not popular at Throat River.
"Now I see you are speaking of another man," said Rainbow Pete. Then Shoepack Sam went roaring, it was time for honest men to speak, when an honest woman was being taken by a voice.
"Wait," said Rainbow Pete, with his thumb in the foam, "this is unlikely she will want me cruising in, with another man singing in her ear."
Oh my, he was a considerate man, he was a natural husband, thinking of his wife's feelings.
"Are you a man?" said Smash McGregor. "Here she has fed you when you were starving—this is her food you have been eating. Will you pass this ledge, leaving her to fortune?"
Rainbow Pete went putting the edge of the cruiser's ax to his twisted thumb.
"I come to her in my shoes only," he said. "This is not what she will be wanting. I have no gold."
They were shouting to him to have no thought of that, those mad rockmen. There would be gold in plenty. There would be gold. Only go up on the ledge.
"Heard you nothing of the prize?" they bawled to him, the mischief makers. "Oh, there will be no lack of money."
"How is this?" said Rainbow Pete. But they would not be answering him. No! No! They went tumbling him out of Scarecrow Charlie's place, and making for the ledge with him. Oh my, the mystified man. This was a great shameface he had behind his mustache.
"I am much altered for the worse," he went muttering to us. "She will think nothing of me now."
"There is still time for constancy," said Shoepack Sam. "Do not lose hope."
Then he told them to be quiet, looking up at the dark ledge where the woman lay.
"Old Greyback," said Rainbow Pete, whispering to me, "I am mistrustful of this moment."
"Hist!" said McGregor, "that was the sound of his string. He will be beginning now."
Ay, the voice began. We were wooden men, in rows, listening to this Italian singing here a golden dream between his teeth.
"Who is this man?" said Rainbow Pete. Heh! Heh! Had he not heard this voice before? We were dumb. Oh, this was wild, this was sweet, the long cry of the man over the deep valley. He sang in his throat, saying to the woman there would be no returning. The night was blue. I'm telling you. He was a cunning beggar, Pal Yachy, for making the stars burn in their sockets.
Now I saw him lift his arm to his head, the wicked sailor, listening to the tune of his enemy. Ay, this was the man who had fashioned him in the form of a rainbow. Still he did not know it, dreaming on his feet. He went swaying like a poplar.
Look, I am an old man, but I stood thinking of my airly days. Yes, yes. My brain was heavy. Oh, it was a sweet dagger here twisting in the soul of man. I went picturing the deep snow to me, and the dark spruces of the North; oh, the roses are speaking to me again from this cheek that has been gone from me so long.
Heh! Heh! I should not be speaking of this. It was a sorrowful harp, the voice of that fiend. It was like the wind following the eddy into Lookout Cavern. Now it went choking that great sailor at the throat; look, he was mild, he was a simple man for crying. The tears rolled in his cheek, they sparkled there like the champagne.
Oh my, the song was done.
He was dumb, the great sailor, twisting his mustache.
"Come now," said McGregor, "quick, he will be going into the house."
They were gulls for diving at the ledge; but Rainbow Pete held out his arm, stopping them.
"Stand away," he said, "I will be going into my house with old Greyback here and no other."
This arm was not yet withered he had. No! They stayed in their tracks, as we were going up the ledge.
The door was open of that house; the stringed instrument was laid against it. Ay, the strings were humming still, the song was spinning round like a leaf in the cavern of it; but the black Italian was inside.
Yes, he had gone before into the chamber where she was lying, with his beautiful smile.
The door here was open. Look, by candle-light I saw her lying in a red blanket, staring at the notable singer. Yes, I saw the bottles containing odors standing in a row. There was scent in the room. Now she closed her eyes, this prairie woman, lying under him like death. My friend, there is no doubt she was beautiful upon the pillow without the aid of scented bottles.
Heh! I felt him quiver, this great sailor, when he saw Pal Yachy standing there, but I put my arms about him whispering to him to wait. It was dark where we were, there was a light from the stove only.
Oh my, there the dark Italian was glittering and heaving; he went holding in his fist a canvas sack stamped by the Government, containing the proper weight of gold.
"This is his weight in gold," he said, and there he laid it at her knees. Still her eyes were closed against that demon of a singer, as he went saying, "But now my dear one, there must be no more talk of husbands. Ha! ha! they are like smoke, these husbands. When it has drifted, there must be new fire. So they say in my country."
She lay, not speaking to him, with the sack of gold heavy against her knees.
"Is this plain?" said that Italian. Look now, Rainbow Pete is in his very shadow. Ay, in the shadow of this man who had fashioned him like a rainbow.
"This is a great sum," said Pal Yachy, never looking behind him. "To this must be added the silence of one day in the valley."
"The silence," she went whispering, "the silence."
Ha! ha! this was not so dangerous as song. She was leaning on her elbow, clutching the red blanket to her throat, with her long fingers twisting at the bag. Now my heart stumbled. Oh now, I thought, the gold is heavy against her; this is a misfortunate time to be forsaking her husband, isn't it? Look, the shadow was deeper in the cheek of this sailor. He saw nothing, I fancied, but the gold lying on the blanket.
What next I knew? Here was McGregor in his yellow skull, whispering,
"Is this the gold then at the foot of the rainbow? This is fool's gold where the heart is concerned."
Then, my friend, she threw it clear of the bed. Ay! I heard it falling on the ledge there, but at this time she did not know that Rainbow Pete was in the room.
When she had thrown it, then she saw him, standing behind that demon of a singer. Her eyes were strange then. By the expression of her eyes Pal Yachy saw that he was doomed. He was like a frozen man.
"Wait now," said Rainbow Pete, "am I in my house here?"
"Am I not your wife?" cried the dark woman from Regina.
Oh, the pleasant sailor. The song had touched him.
"Look now," he said to Pal Yachy, "you made a rainbow of me in the beginning. Do you bring gold here now to plant at my feet, generous man?"
My, my, this fantastic Italian knew that words were wasted now. He was like a snake with his sting. But Rainbow Pete was not an easy man. He broke the arm with one twist, look, the knife went spinning on the ledge. And at this moment the blasting in the rock began again below the ledge. They were at it again, monkeying with powder. Oh, it was death they were speaking to down there. It was like a battle between giants going on, there were thunders and red gleams in the black valley; and the candle-flame went shivering with the great noises.
"Here," said Rainbow Pete, "I will scatter you like the rocks of the valley."
Oh, the righteous man. Isn't it a strange consideration, the voice of Pal Yachy moving this crooked sailor to good deeds? Ay! He was a noble man, hurling the Italian from the house by his ears. Oh, it's a circumstance to be puzzling over. He threw the gold after him. Ay, the gold after—like dirt; and here the clothes hung loose on his own body where he had been starving in the search for bags like that.
Now, as he went kneeling by his wife, he discovered his son, by the crowing under the blanket.
"Look here at the little nipper, old Greyback," he said, "come a little way into the room. Look now, at the fat back for putting a little palm-tree on, while he is young. This is truth, old fellow, here is true gold lying at the foot of the rainbow, according to the prophecy."
Our old friend stopped to breathe and blink.
"He had staked this claim but he had never worked it," he said solemnly. But isn't it strange, the same man who had been fashioning him like a rainbow, should be pointing out the gold to him. Oh, there's no doubt Pal Yachy was defeated in the end by his own voice—
He went away that night, leaving all to the sub-contractors. Heh! He was not seen on Mushrat again. Still he had a remarkable voice. Many times afterward I have heard Rainbow Pete playing on his flute—this is in the evening when the ledge is quiet—but this is not the same thing. No, no, he could never bewitch her with his music, she must love him for his intention only, to be charming her. Ay! This is safer.
GET READY THE WREATHS
[Note 14: Copyright, 1917, by The International Magazine Company. Copyright 1918, by Fannie Hurst.]
BY FANNIE HURST
From The Cosmopolitan Magazine
WHERE St. Louis begins to peter out into brick-and limestone-kilns and great scars of unworked and overworked quarries, the first and more unpretentious of its suburbs take up—Benson, Maplehurst, and Ridgeway Heights intervening with one-story brick cottages and two-story packing-cases—between the smoke of the city and the carefully parked Queen Anne quietude of Glenwood and Croton Grove.
Over Benson hangs a white haze of limestone, gritty with train and foundry smoke. At night, the lime-kilns, spotted with white deposits, burn redly, showing through their open doors like great, inflamed diphtheretic throats, tongues of flame bursting and licking-out.
Winchester Road, which runs out from the heart of the city to string these towns together, is paved with brick, and its traffic, for the most part, is the great tin-tired dump-carts of the quarries and steel interurban electric cars, which hum so heavily that even the windows of outlying cottages titillate.
For blocks, from Benson to Maplehurst and from Maplehurst to Ridgeway Heights, Winchester Road repeats itself in terms of the butcher, the baker, the corner saloon. A feed store. A monument-and stone-cutter. A confectioner. A general-merchandise store, with a glass case of men's collars outside the entrance. The butcher, the baker, the corner saloon.
At Benson, where this highway cuts through, the city, wreathed in smoke, and a great oceanic stretch of roofs are in easy view, and at closer range, an outlying section of public asylums for the city's discard of its debility and its senility.
Jutting a story above the one-storied march of Winchester Road, The Convenience Merchandise Corner, Benson, overlooks, from the southeast up-stairs window, a remote view of the City Hospital, the Ferris wheel of an amusement-park, and on clear days, the oceanic waves of roof. Below, within the store, that view is entirely obliterated by a brace of shelves built across the corresponding window and brilliantly stacked with ribbons of a score of colors and as many widths. A considerable flow of daylight thus diverted, The Convenience Merchandise Corner, even of early afternoon, fades out into half-discernible corners; a rear-wall display of overalls and striped denim coats crowded back into indefinitude, the haberdashery counter, with a giant gilt shirt-stud suspended above, hardly more outstanding.
Even the notions and dry-goods, flanking the right wall in stacks and bolts, merge into blur, the outline of a white-sateen and corseted woman's torso surmounting the top-most of the shelves with bold curvature.
With spring sunshine even hot against the steel rails of Winchester Road, and awnings drawn against its inroads into the window display, Mrs. Shila Coblenz, routing gloom, reached up tiptoe across the haberdashery counter for the suspended chain of a cluster of bulbs, the red of exertion rising up the taut line of throat and lifted chin.
"A little light on the subject, Milt."
"Let me, Mrs. C."
Facing her from the outer side of the counter, Mr. Milton Bauer stretched also, his well-pressed, pin-checked coat crawling up.
All things swam out into the glow. The great suspended stud; the background of shelves and boxes; the scissors-like overalls against the wall; a clothes-line of children's factory-made print frocks; a center-bin of women's untrimmed hats; a headless dummy beside the door, enveloped in a long-sleeved gingham apron.
Beneath the dome of the wooden stud, Mrs. Shila Coblenz, of not too fulsome but the hour-glass proportions of two decades ago, smiled, her black eyes, ever so quick to dart, receding slightly as the cheeks lifted.
"Two twenty-five, Milt, for those ribbed assorted sizes and reenforced heels. Leave or take. Bergdorff & Sloan will quote me the whole mill at that price."
With his chest across the counter and legs out violently behind, Mr. Bauer flung up a glance from his order-pad.
"Have a heart, Mrs. C. I'm getting two forty for that stocking from every house in town. The factory can't turn out the orders fast enough at that price. An up-to-date woman like you mustn't make a noise like before the war."
"Leave or take."
"You could shave an egg," he said.
"And rush up those printed lawns. There was two in this morning, sniffing around for spring dimities."
"Any cotton goods? Next month this time, you'll be paying an advance of four cents on percales."
"Can't tempt you with them wash silks, Mrs. C.? Neatest little article on the market to-day."
"No demand. They finger it up, and then buy the cotton stuffs. Every time I forget my trade hacks rock instead of clips bonds for its spending-money, I get stung."
"This here wash silk, Mrs. C., would—"
"Send me up a dress-pattern off this coral-pink sample for Selene."
"This here dark mulberry, Mrs. C., would suit you something immense."
"That'll be about all."
He flopped shut his book, snapping a rubber band about it and inserting it in an inner coat pocket.
"You ought to stick to them dark, winy shades, Mrs. C. With your coloring and black hair and eyes, they bring you out like a Gipsy. Never seen you look better than at the Y. M. H. A. entertainment."
Quick color flowed down her open throat and into her shirtwaist. It was as if the platitude merged with the very corpuscles of a blush that sank down into thirsty soil.
"You boys," she said, "come out here and throw in a jolly with every bill of goods. I'll take a good fat discount instead."
"Fact. Never seen you look better. When you got out on the floor in that stamp-your-foot kind of dance with old man Shulof, your hand on your hip and your head jerking it up, there wasn't a girl on the floor, your own daughter included, could touch you, and I'm giving it to you straight."
"That old thing! It's a Russian folk-dance my mother taught me the first year we were in this country. I was three years old then, and, when she got just crazy with homesickness, we used to dance it to each other evenings on the kitchen floor."
"Say, have you heard the news?"
"Hammerstein is bringing over the crowned heads of Europe for vaudeville."
Mrs. Coblenz moved back a step, her mouth falling open.
"Why—Milton Bauer—in the old country a man could be strung up for saying less than that!"
"That didn't get across. Try another. A Frenchman and his wife were traveling in Russia, and—"
"If—if you had an old mother like mine upstairs, Milton, eating out her heart and her days and her weeks and her months over a husband's grave somewhere in Siberia and a son's grave somewhere in Kishinef, you wouldn't see the joke, neither."
Mr. Bauer executed a self-administered pat sharply against the back of his hand.
"Keeper," he said, "put me in the brain-ward. I—I'm sorry, Mrs. C., so help me! Didn't mean to. How is your mother, Mrs. C.? Seems to me, at the dance the other night, Selene said she was fine and dandy."
"Selene ain't the best judge of her poor old grandmother. It's hard for a young girl to have patience for old age sitting and chewing all day over the past. It's right pitiful the way her grandmother knows it, too, and makes herself talk English all the time to please the child and tries to perk up for her. Selene, thank God, ain't suffered, and can't sympathize!"
"What's ailing her, Mrs. C.? I kinda miss seeing the old lady sitting down here in the store."
"It's the last year or so, Milt. Just like all of a sudden, a woman as active as mamma always was, her health and—her mind kind of went off with a pop."
"Doctor says with care she can live for years, but—but it seems terrible the way her—poor mind keeps skipping back. Past all these thirty years in America to—even weeks before I was born. The night they—took my father off to Siberia, with his bare feet in the snow—for distributing papers they found on him—papers that used the word 'svoboda'—'freedom.' And the time, ten years later—they shot down my brother right in front of her for—the same reason. She keeps living it over—living it over till I—could die."
"Say, ain't that just a shame, though!"
"Living it, and living it, and living it! The night with me, a heavy three-year-old, in her arms that she got us to the border, dragging a pack of linens with her! The night my father's feet were bleeding in the snow, when they took him! How with me a kid in the crib, my—my brother's face was crushed in—with a heel and a spur—all night, sometimes, she cries in her sleep—begging to go back to find the graves. All day she sits making raffia wreaths to take back—making wreaths—making wreaths!"
"Say, ain't that tough!"
"It's a godsend she's got the eyes to do it. It's wonderful the way she reads—in English, too. There ain't a daily she misses. Without them and the wreaths—I dunno—I just dunno. Is—is it any wonder, Milt, I—I can't see the joke?"
"My God, no!"
"I'll get her back, though."
"Why, you—she can't get back there, Mrs. C."
"There's a way. Nobody can tell me there's not. Before the war—before she got like this, seven hundred dollars would have done it for both of us—and it will again, after the war. She's got the bank-book, and every week that I can squeeze out above expenses, she sees the entry for herself. I'll get her back. There's a way lying around somewhere. God knows why she should eat out her heart to go back—but she wants it. God, how she wants it!"
"Poor old dame!"
"You boys guy me with my close-fisted buying these last two years. It's up to me, Milt, to squeeze this old shebang dry. There's not much more than a living in it at best, and now with Selene grown up and naturally wanting to have it like other girls, it ain't always easy to see my way clear. But I'll do it, if I got to trust the store for a year to a child like Selene. I'll get her back."
"You can call on me, Mrs. C., to keep my eye on things while you're gone."
"You boys are one crowd of true blues, all right. There ain't a city salesman comes out here I wouldn't trust to the limit."
"You just try me out."
"Why, just to show you how a woman don't know many real friends she has got, why—even Mark Haas, of the Mound City Silk Company, a firm I don't do two hundred dollars' worth of business with a year, I wish you could have heard him the other night at the Y. M. H. A., a man you know for yourself just comes here to be sociable with the trade."
"Fine fellow, Mark Haas!"
"'When the time comes, Mrs. Coblenz,' he says, 'that you want to make that trip, just you let me know. Before the war there wasn't a year I didn't cross the water twice, maybe three times, for the firm. I don't know there's much I can do; it ain't so easy to arrange for Russia, but, just the same, you let me know when you're ready to make that trip.' Just like that he said it. That from Mark Haas!"
"And a man like Haas don't talk that way if he don't mean it."
"Mind you, not a hundred dollars a year business with him. I haven't got the demands for silks."
"That wash silk I'm telling you about though, Mrs. C., does up like a—"
"There's ma thumping with the poker on the upstairs floor. When it's closing-time, she begins to get restless. I—I wish Selene would come in. She went out with Lester Goldmark in his little flivver, and I get nervous about automobiles."
Mr. Bauer slid an open-face watch from his waistcoat.
"Good Lord, five-forty, and I've just got time to sell the Maplehurst Emporium a bill of goods!"
"Good-night, Milt; and mind you put up that order of assorted neckwear yourself. Greens in ready-tieds are good sellers for this time of the year, and put in some reds and purples for the teamsters."
"No sooner said than done."
"And come out for supper some Sunday night, Milt. It does mamma good to have young people around."
He reached across the counter, placing his hand over hers.
"Good-night, Mrs. C.," he said, a note lower in his throat; "and remember, that call-on-me stuff wasn't just conversation."
"Good-night, Milt," said Mrs. Coblenz, a coating of husk over her own voice and sliding her hand out from beneath, to top his. "You—you're all right!"
* * *
Upstairs, in a too tufted and too crowded room directly over the frontal half of the store, the window overlooking the remote sea of city was turning taupe, the dusk of early spring, which is faintly tinged with violet, invading. Beside the stove, a base-burner with faint fire showing through its mica, the identity of her figure merged with the fat upholstery of the chair, except where the faint pink through the mica lighted up old flesh, Mrs. Miriam Horowitz, full of years and senile with them, wove with grasses, the ecru of her own skin, wreaths that had mounted to a great stack in a bedroom cupboard.
A clock, with a little wheeze and burring attached to each chime, rang six, and upon it, Mrs. Coblenz, breathing from a climb, opened the door.
"Ma, why didn't you rap for Katie to come up and light the gas? You'll ruin your eyes, dearie."
She found out a match, immediately lighting two jets of a center-chandelier, turning them down from singing, drawing the shades of the two front and the southeast windows, stooping over the upholstered chair to imprint a light kiss.
"A fine day, mamma. There'll be an entry this week. Fifty dollars and thirteen cents and another call for garden implements. I think I'll lay in a hardware line after we—we get back. I can use the lower shelf of the china-table, eh, ma?"
Mrs. Horowitz, whose face, the color of old linen in the yellowing, emerged rather startling from the still black hair strained back from it, lay back in her chair, turning her profile against the upholstered back, half a wreath and a trail of raffia sliding to the floor. It was as if age had sapped from beneath the skin, so that every curve had collapsed to bagginess, the cheeks and the underchin sagging with too much skin. Even the hands were crinkled like too large gloves, a wide, curiously etched marriage band hanging loosely from the third finger.
Mrs. Coblenz stooped, recovering the wreath.
"Say, mamma, this one is a beauty! That's a new weave, ain't it? Here, work some more, dearie—till Selene comes with your evening papers."
With her profile still to the chair-back, a tear oozed down the corrugated surface of Mrs. Horowitz's cheek. Another.
"Now, mamma! Now, mamma!"
"I got a heaviness—here—inside. I got a heaviness—"
Mrs. Coblenz slid down to her knees beside the chair.
"Now, mamma; shame on my little mamma! Is that the way to act when Shila comes up after a good day? Ain't we got just lots to be thankful for, the business growing and the bank-book growing, and our Selene on top? Shame on mamma!"
"I got a heaviness—here—inside—here."
Mrs. Coblenz reached up for the old hand, patting it.
"It's nothing, mamma—a little nervousness."
"I'm an old woman. I—"
"And just think, Shila's mamma, Mark Haas is going to get us letters and passports and—"
"My son—my boy—his father before him—"
"Mamma—mamma, please don't let a spell come on! It's all right. Shila's going to fix it. Any day now, maybe—"
"You'm a good girl. You'm a good girl, Shila." Tears were coursing down to a mouth that was constantly wry with the taste of them.
"And you're a good mother, mamma. Nobody knows better than me how good."
"You'm a good girl, Shila."
"I was thinking last night, mamma, waiting up for Selene—just thinking how all the good you've done ought to keep your mind off the spells, dearie."
"Why, a woman with as much good to remember as you've got oughtn't to have time for spells. I got to thinking about Coblenz to-day, mamma, how—you never did want him, and when I—I went and did it anyway, and made my mistake, you stood by me to—to the day he died. Never throwing anything up to me! Never nothing but my good little mother, working her hands to the bone after he got us out here to help meet the debts he left us. Ain't that a satisfaction for you to be able to sit and think, mamma, how you helped—"
"His feet—blood from my heart in the snow—blood from my heart!"
"The past is gone, darling. What's the use tearing yourself to pieces with it? Them years in New York, when it was a fight even for bread, and them years here trying to raise Selene and get the business on a footing, you didn't have time to brood then, mamma. That's why, dearie, if only you'll keep yourself busy with something—the wreaths—the—"
"His feet—blood from my—"
"But I'm going to take you back, mamma. To papa's grave. To Aylorff's. But don't eat your heart out until it comes, darling. I'm going to take you back, mamma, with every wreath in the stack; only, you mustn't eat out your heart in spells. You mustn't, mamma; you mustn't."
Sobs rumbled up through Mrs. Horowitz, which her hand to her mouth tried to constrict.
"For his people he died. The papers—I begged he should burn them—he couldn't—I begged he should keep in his hate—he couldn't—in the square he talked it—the soldiers—he died for his people—they got him—the soldiers—his feet in the snow when they took him—the blood in the snow—O my God—my—God!"
"Mamma, darling, please don't go over it all again. What's the use making yourself sick? Please!"
She was well forward in her chair now, winding her dry hands one over the other with a small rotary motion.
"I was rocking—Shila-baby in my lap—stirring on the fire black lentils for my boy—black lentils—he—"
"My boy. Like his father before him. My—"
"Mamma, please! Selene is coming any minute now. You know how she hates it. Don't let yourself think back, mamma. A little will-power, the doctor says, is all you need. Think of to-morrow, mamma; maybe, if you want, you can come down and sit in the store awhile and—"
"I was rocking. O my God, I was rocking, and—"
"Don't get to it—mamma, please! Don't rock yourself that way! You'll get yourself dizzy. Don't, ma; don't!"
"Outside—my boy—the holler—O God, in my ears all my life! My boy—the papers—the swords—Aylorff—Aylorff—"
"It came through his heart out the back—a blade with two sides—out the back when I opened the door—the spur in his face when he fell—Shila—the spur in his face—the beautiful face of my boy—my Aylorff—my husband before him—that died to make free!" And fell back, bathed in the sweat of the terrific hiccoughing of sobs.
"Mamma, mamma—my God! What shall we do? These spells! You'll kill yourself, darling. I'm going to take you back, dearie—ain't that enough? I promise. I promise. You mustn't, mamma! These spells—- they ain't good for a young girl like Selene to hear. Mamma, ain't you got your own Shila—your own Selene? Ain't that something? Ain't it? Ain't it?"
Large drops of sweat had come out and a state of exhaustion that swept completely over, prostrating the huddled form in the chair.
With her arms twined about the immediately supporting form of her daughter, her entire weight relaxed, and footsteps that dragged without lift, one after the other, Mrs. Horowitz groped out, one hand feeling in advance, into the gloom of a room adjoining.
"Rest! O my God, rest!"
"Yes, yes, mamma; lean on me."
"Yes, yes, darling."
Her voice had died now to a whimper that lay on the room after she had passed out of it.
* * *
When Selene Coblenz, with a gust that swept the room, sucking the lace curtains back against the panes, flung open the door upon that chromatic scene, the two jets of gas were singing softly into its silence, and, within the nickel-trimmed base-burner, the pink mica had cooled to gray. Sweeping open that door, she closed it softly, standing for the moment against it, her hand crossed in back and on the knob. It was as if standing there with her head cocked and beneath a shadowy blue sailor-hat, a smile coming out, something within her was playing, sweetly insistent to be heard. Philomela, at the first sound of her nightingale self, must have stood thus, trembling with melody. Opposite her, above the crowded mantelpiece and surmounted by a raffia wreath, the enlarged-crayon gaze of her deceased maternal grandparent, abetted by a horrible device of photography, followed her, his eyes focusing the entire room at a glance. Impervious to that scrutiny, Miss Coblenz moved a tiptoe step or two further into the room, lifting off her hat, staring and smiling through a three-shelved cabinet of knick-knacks at what she saw far beyond. Beneath the two jets, high lights in her hair came out, bronze showing through the brown waves and the patches of curls brought out over her cheeks.
In her dark-blue dress with the row of silver buttons down what was hip before the hipless age, the chest sufficiently concave and the silhouette a mere stroke of hard pencil, Miss Selene Coblenz measured up and down to America's Venus de Milo, whose chief curvature is of the spine. Slim-etched, and that slimness enhanced by a conscious kind of collapse beneath the blue-silk girdle that reached up halfway to her throat, hers were those proportions which strong women, eschewing the sweetmeat, would earn by the sweat of the Turkish bath.
When Miss Coblenz caught her eye in the square of mirror above the mantelpiece, her hands flew to her cheeks to feel of their redness. They were soft cheeks, smooth with the pollen of youth, and hands still casing them, she moved another step toward the portiered door.
Mrs. Coblenz emerged immediately, finger up for silence, kissing her daughter on the little spray of cheek-curls.
"Shh-h-h! Gramaw just had a terrible spell."
She dropped down into the upholstered chair beside the base-burner, the pink and moisture of exertion out in her face, took to fanning herself with the end of a face-towel flung across her arm.
"Poor gramaw!" she said. "Poor gramaw!"
Miss Coblenz sat down on the edge of a slim, home-gilded chair, and took to gathering the blue-silk dress into little plaits at her knee.
"Of course—if you don't want to know where I've been—or anything—"
Mrs. Coblenz jerked herself to the moment.
"Did mamma's girl have a good time? Look at your dress all dusty! You oughtn't to wear you best in that little flivver."
Suddenly Miss Coblenz raised her eyes, her red mouth bunched, her eyes all iris.
"Of course—if you don't want to know—anything."
At that large, brilliant gaze, Mrs. Coblenz leaned forward, quickened.
"Well, why—why don't you ask me something?"
"Why I—I dunno, honey, did—did you and Lester have a nice ride?"
There hung a slight pause, and then a swift moving and crumpling-up of Miss Coblenz on the floor beside her mother's knee.
"You know—only, you won't ask."
With her hand light upon her daughter's hair, Mrs. Coblenz leaned forward, her bosom rising to faster breathing.
"We—we were speeding along and—all of a sudden—out of a clear sky—he—he popped. He wants it in June—so we can make it our honeymoon to his new territory out in Oklahoma. He knew he was going to pop, he said, ever since the first night he saw me at the Y. M. H. A. He says to his uncle Mark, the very next day in the store, he says to him, 'Uncle Mark,' he says, 'I've met the little girl.' He says he thinks more of my little finger than all of his regular crowd of girls in town put together. He wants to live in one of the built-in-bed flats on Wasserman Avenue, like all the swell young marrieds. He's making twenty-six hundred now, mamma, and if he makes good in the new Oklahoma territory, his uncle Mark is—is going to take care of him better. Ain't it like a dream, mamma—your little Selene all of a sudden in with—the somebodys?"
Immediately tears were already finding staggering procession down Mrs. Coblenz' face, her hovering arms completely encircling the slight figure at her feet.
"My little girl! My little Selene! My all!"
"I'll be marrying into one of the best families in town, ma. A girl who marries a nephew of Mark Haas can hold up her head with the best of them. There's not a boy in town with a better future than Lester. Like Lester says, everything his uncle Mark touches turns to gold, and he's already touched Lester. One of the best known men on Washington Avenue for his blood-uncle, and on his poor dead father's side related to the Katz & Harberger Harbergers. Was I right, mamma, when I said if you'd only let me stop school, I'd show you? Was I right, momsie?"