"My baby! It's like I can't realize it. So young!"
"He took the measure of my finger, mamma, with a piece of string. A diamond, he says, not too flashy, but neat."
"We have 'em, and we suffer for 'em, and we lose 'em."
"He's going to trade in the flivver for a chummy roadster, and—"
"Oh, darling, it's like I can't bear it!"
At that, Miss Coblenz sat back on her tall wooden heels, mauve spats crinkling.
"Well, you're a merry little future mother-in-law, momsie."
"It ain't that, baby. I'm happy that my girl has got herself up in the world with a fine upright boy like Lester; only—you can't understand, babe, till you've got something of your own flesh and blood that belongs to you, that I—I couldn't feel anything except that a piece of my heart was going if—if it was a king you was marrying."
"Now, momsie, it's not like I was moving a thousand miles away. You can be glad I don't have to go far, to New York or to Cleveland, like Alma Yawitz."
"I am! I am!"
"Uncle—Uncle Mark, I guess, will furnish us up like he did Leon and Irma—only, I don't want mahogany—I want Circassian walnut. He gave them their flat-silver, too, Puritan design, for an engagement present. Think of it, mamma, me having that stuck-up Irma Sinsheimer for a relation! It always made her sore when I got chums with Amy at school and got my nose in it with the Acme crowd, and—and she'll change her tune now, I guess, me marrying her husband's second cousin."
"Didn't Lester want to—to come in for a while, Selene, to—to see—me?"
Sitting there on her heels, Miss Coblenz looked away, answering with her face in profile.
"Yes; only—I—well if you want to know it, mamma, it's no fun for a girl to bring a boy like Lester up here in—in this crazy room all hung up with gramaw's wreaths and half the time her sitting out there in the dark looking in at us through the door and talking to herself."
"Gramaw's an old—"
"Is—it any wonder I'm down at Amy's half the time. How—do you think a girl feels to have gramaw keep hanging onto that old black wig of hers and not letting me take the crayons or wreaths down off the wall. In Lester's crowd, they don't know—nothing about Revolutionary stuff and—and persecutions. Amy's grandmother don't even talk with an accent, and Lester says his grandmother came from Alsace-Lorraine. That's French. They think only tailors and old-clothes men and—"
"Well, they do. You—you're all right, mamma, as up to date as any of them, but how do you think a girl feels with gramaw always harping right in front of everybody the—the way granpa was a revolutionist and was—was hustled off barefooted to Siberia like—like a tramp. And the way she was cooking black beans when—my uncle—died. Other girls' grandmothers don't tell everything they know. Alma Yawitz's grandmother wears lorgnettes, and you told me yourself they came from nearly the same part of the Pale as gramaw. But you don't hear them remembering it. Alma Yawitz says she's Alsace-Lorraine on both sides. People don't—tell everything they know. Anyway—where a girl's got herself as far as I have."
Through sobs that rocked her, Mrs. Coblenz looked down upon her daughter.
"Your poor old grandmother don't deserve that from you! In her day, she worked her hands to the bone for you. With—the kind of father you had, we—we might have died in the gutter but—for how she helped to keep us out, you ungrateful girl—your poor old grandmother that's suffered so terrible!"
"I know it, mamma, but so have other people suffered."
"She's old, Selene—old."
"I tell you it's the way you indulge her, mamma. I've seen her sitting here as perk as you please, and the minute you come in the room, down goes her head like—like she was dying."
"It's her mind, Selene—that's going. That's why I feel if I could only get her back. She ain't old, gramaw ain't. If I could only get her back where she—could see for herself—the graves—is all she needs. All old people think of—the grave. It's eating her—eating her mind. Mark Haas is going to fix it for me after the war—maybe before—if he can. That's the only way poor gramaw can live—or die—happy, Selene. Now—now that my—my little girl ain't any longer my responsibility, I—I'm going to take her back—my little—girl"—her hand reached out, caressing the smooth head, her face projected forward and the eyes yearning down—"my all."
"It's you will be my responsibility now, ma."
"The first thing Lester says was a flat on Wasserman and a spare room for mother Coblenz when she wants to come down. Wasn't it sweet for him to put it that way right off, ma. 'Mother Coblenz,' he says."
"He's a good boy, Selene. It'll be a proud day for me and gramaw. Gramaw mustn't miss none of it. He's a good boy and a fine family."
"That's why, mamma, we—got to—to do it up right."
"Lester knows, child, he's not marrying a rich girl."
"A girl don't have to—be rich to get married right."
"You'll have as good as mamma can afford to give it to her girl."
"It—it would be different if Lester's uncle and all wasn't in the Acme Club crowd, and if I hadn't got in with all that bunch. It's the last expense I'll ever be to you, mamma."
"Oh, baby, don't say that!"
"I—me and Lester—Lester and me were talking, mamma—when the engagement's announced next week—a reception—"
"We can clear out this room, move the bed out of gramaw's room into ours, and serve the ice-cream and cake in—"
"Oh, mamma, I don't mean—that!"
"Who ever heard of having a reception here! People won't come from town way out to this old—cabbage patch. Even Gertie Wolf with their big house on West Pine Boulevard had her reception at the Walsingham Hotel. You—we—can't expect Mark Haas and all the relations—the Sinsheimers—and—all to come out here. I'd rather not have any."
"But, Selene, everybody knows we ain't millionaires, and that you got in with that crowd through being friends at school with Amy Rosen. All the city salesmen and the boys on Washington Avenue, even Mark Haas himself, that time he was in the store with Lester, knows the way we live. You don't need to be ashamed of your little home, Selene, even if it ain't on West Pine Boulevard."
"It'll be—your last expense, mamma. The Walsingham, that's where the girl that Lester Goldmark marries is expected to have her reception."
"But, Selene, mamma can't afford nothing like that."
Pink swam up into Miss Coblenz's face, and above the sheer-white collar there was a little beating movement at the throat, as if something were fluttering within.
"I—I'd just as soon not get married as—as not to have it like other girls."
"If I—can't have a trousseau like other girls and the things that go with marrying into a—a family like Lester's—I—then—there's no use. I—I can't! I—wouldn't!"
She was fumbling now for a handkerchief against tears that were imminent.
"Why, baby, a girl couldn't have a finer trousseau than the old linens back yet from Russia that me and gramaw got saved up for our girl—linen that can't be bought these days. Bed-sheets that gramaw herself carried to the border, and—"
"Oh, I know. I knew you'd try to dump that stuff on me. That old worm-eaten stuff in gramaw's chest."
"It's hand-woven, Selene, with—"
"I wouldn't have that yellow old stuff—that old-fashioned junk—if I didn't have any trousseau. If I can't afford monogrammed up-to-date linens, like even Alma Yawitz, and a—a pussy-willow-taffeta reception dress, I wouldn't have any. I wouldn't." Her voice crowded with passion and tears rose to the crest of a sob. "I—I'd die first!"
"Selene, Selene, mamma ain't got the money. If she had it, wouldn't she be willing to take the very last penny to give her girl the kind of a wedding she wants? A trousseau like Alma's cost a thousand dollars if it cost a cent. Her table-napkins alone they say cost thirty-six dollars a dozen, unmonogrammed. A reception at the Walsingham costs two hundred dollars if it costs a cent. Selene, mamma will make for you every sacrifice she can afford, but she ain't got the money."
"You—have got the money!"
"So help me God, Selene! You know, with the quarries shut down, what business has been. You know how—sometimes even to make ends meet, it is a pinch. You're an ungrateful girl, Selene, to ask what I ain't able to do for you. A child like you that's been indulged, that I ain't even asked ever in her life to help a day down in the store. If I had the money, God knows you should be married in real lace, with the finest trousseau a girl ever had. But I ain't got the money—I ain't got the money."
"You have got the money! The book in gramaw's drawer is seven hundred and forty. I guess I ain't blind. I know a thing or two."
"Why Selene—that's gramaw's—to go back—"
"You mean the bank-book's hers?"
"That's gramaw's to go back—home on. That's the money for me to take gramaw and her wreaths back home on."
"There you go—talking loony."
"Well, I'd like to know what else you'd call it, kidding yourself along like that."
"All right. If you think gramaw, with her life all lived, comes first before me, with all my life to live—all right!"
"Your poor old—"
"It's always been gramaw first in this house, anyway. I couldn't even have company since I'm grown up because the way she's always allowed around. Nobody can say I ain't good to gramaw; Lester say it's beautiful the way I am with her, remembering always to bring the newspapers and all, but just the same I know when right's right and wrong's wrong. If my life ain't more important than gramaw's, with hers all lived, all right. Go ahead!"
"Selene, Selene, ain't it coming to gramaw, after all her years' hard work helping us that—she should be entitled to go back with her wreaths for the graves? Ain't she entitled to die with that off her poor old mind? You bad, ungrateful girl, you, it's coming to a poor old woman that's suffered as terrible as gramaw that I should find a way to take her back."
"Take her back. Where—to jail? To prison in Siberia herself—"
"There's a way—"
"You know gramaw's too old to take a trip like that. You know in your own heart she won't ever see that day. Even before the war, much less now, there wasn't a chance for her to get passports back there. I don't say it ain't all right to kid her along, but when it comes to—to keeping me out of the—the biggest thing that can happen to a girl—when gramaw wouldn't know the difference if you keep showing her the bank-book—it ain't right. That's what it ain't. It ain't right!"
In the smallest possible compass, Miss Coblenz crouched now upon the floor, head down somewhere in her knees, and her curving back racked with rising sobs.
"Selene—but some day—"
"Some day nothing! A woman like gramaw can't do much more than go down-town once a year, and then you talk about taking her to Russia! You can't get in there, I—tell you—no way you try to fix it after—the way gramaw—had—to leave. Even before the war, Ray Letsky's father couldn't get back on business. There's nothing for her there even after she gets there. In thirty years do you think you can find those graves? Do you know the size of Siberia? No! But I got to pay—I got to pay for gramaw's nonsense. But I won't. I won't go to Lester, if I can't go right. I—"
"Baby, don't cry so—for God's sake don't cry so!
"I wish I was dead."
"Sh-h-h—you'll wake gramaw."
"O God, help me to do the right thing!"
"If gramaw could understand, she'd be the first one to tell you the right thing. Anybody would."
"No! No! That little bank-book and its entries are her life—her life."
"She don't need to know, mamma. I'm not asking that. That's the way they always do with old people to keep them satisfied. Just humor 'em. Ain't I the one with life before me—ain't I, mamma?"
"O God, show me the way!"
"If there was a chance, you think I'd be spoiling things for gramaw? But there ain't, mamma—not one."
"I keep hoping if not before, then after the war. With the help of Mark Haas—"
"With the book in her drawer like always, and the entries changed once in a while, she'll never know the difference. I swear to God she'll never know the difference, mamma!"
"Mamma, promise me—your little Selene. Promise me?"
"Selene, Selene, can we keep it from her?"
"I swear we can, mamma."
"Poor, poor gramaw!"
"Mamma? Mamma darling?"
"O God, show me the way!"
"Ain't it me that's got life before me? My whole life?"
"Then, mamma, please—you will—you will—darling?"
* * *
In a large, all-frescoed, seventy-five dollars an evening with lights and cloak-room service ballroom of the Hotel Walsingham, a family hostelry in that family circle of St. Louis known as its West End, the city holds not a few of its charity-whists and benefit musicales; on a dais which can be carried in for the purpose, morning readings of "Little Moments from Little Plays," and with the introduction of a throne-chair, the monthly lodge-meetings of the Lady Mahadharatas of America. For weddings and receptions, a lane of red carpet leads up to the slight dais; and, lined about the brocade and paneled walls, gilt-and-brocade chairs, with the crest of Walsingham in padded embroidery on the backs. Crystal chandeliers, icicles of dripping light, glow down upon a scene of parquet floor, draped velours, and mirrors wreathed in gilt.
At Miss Selene Coblenz's engagement reception, an event properly festooned with smilax and properly jostled with the elbowing figures of waiters tilting their plates of dark-meat chicken salad, two olives, and a finger-roll in among the crowd, a stringed three-piece orchestra, faintly seen and still more faintly heard, played into the babel.
Light, glitteringly filtered through the glass prisms, flowed down upon the dais; upon Miss Selene Coblenz, in a taffeta that wrapped her flat waist and chest like a calyx and suddenly bloomed into the full inverted petals of a skirt; upon Mr. Lester Goldmark, his long body barely knitted yet to man's estate, and his complexion almost clear, standing omnivorous, omnipotent, omnipresent, his hair so well brushed that it lay like black japanning, a white carnation at his silk lapel, and his smile slightly projected by a rush of very white teeth to the very front. Next in line, Mrs. Coblenz, the red of a fervent moment high in her face, beneath the maroon-net bodice the swell of her bosom fast, and her white-gloved hands constantly at the opening and shutting of a lace-and-spangled fan. Back, and well out of the picture, a potted hydrangea beside the Louis Quinze armchair, her hands in silk mitts laid out along the gold-chair sides, her head quavering in a kind of mild palsy, Mrs. Miriam Horowitz, smiling and quivering her state of bewilderment.
With an unfailing propensity to lay hold of to whomsoever he spake, Mr. Lester Goldmark placed his white-gloved hand upon the white-gloved arm of Mrs. Coblenz.
"Say, mother Coblenz, ain't it about time this little girl of mine was resting her pink-satin double A's? She's been on duty up here from four to seven. No wonder uncle Mark bucked."
Mrs. Coblenz threw her glance out over the crowded room, surging with a wave of plumes and clipped heads like a swaying bucket of water which crowds but does not lap over its sides.
"I guess the crowd is finished coming in by now. You tired, Selene?"
Miss Coblenz turned her glowing glance.
"Tired! This is the swellest engagement-party I ever had."
Mrs. Coblenz shifted her weight from one slipper to the other, her maroon-net skirts lying in a swirl around them.
"Just look at gramaw, too! She holds up her head with the best of them. I wouldn't have had her miss this, not for the world."
"Sure one fine old lady! Ought to have seen her shake my hand, mother Coblenz. I nearly had to holler, 'Ouch!'"
"Mamma, here comes Sara Suss and her mother. Take my arm, Lester honey. People mamma used to know." Miss Coblenz leaned forward beyond the dais with the frail curve of a reed.
"Howdado, Mrs. Suss.... Thank you. Thanks. Howdado, Sara. Meet my fiance, Lester Haas Goldmark; Mrs. Suss and Sara Suss, my fiance.... That's right; better late than never. There's plenty left.... We think he is, Mrs. Suss. Aw, Lester honey, quit! Mamma, here's Mrs. Suss and Sadie."
"Mrs. Suss! Say—if you hadn't come, I was going to lay it up against you. If my new ones can come on a day like this, it's a pity my old friends can't come, too.
"Well, Sadie, it's your turn next, eh?... I know better than that. With them pink cheeks and black eyes, I wish I had a dime for every chance." (Sotto.) "Do you like it, Mrs. Suss? Pussy-willow taffeta.... Say, it ought to be. An estimate dress from Madame Murphy—sixty-five with findings. I'm so mad, Sara, you and your mamma couldn't come to the house that night to see her things. If I say so myself, Mrs. Suss, everybody who seen it says Jacob Sinsheimer's daughter herself didn't have a finer. Maybe not so much, but every stitch, Mrs. Suss, made by the same sisters in the same convent that made hers.... Towels! I tell her it's a shame to expose them to the light, much less wipe on them. Ain't it?... The goodness looks out from his face. And such a love-pair! Lunatics, I call them. He can't keep his hands off. It ain't nice, I tell him.... Me? Come close. I dyed the net myself. Ten cents' worth of maroon color. Don't it warm your heart, Mrs. Suss? This morning, after we got her in Lester's uncle Mark's big automobile, I says to her, I says, 'Mamma, you sure it ain't too much.' Like her old self for a minute, Mrs. Suss, she hit me on the arm. 'Go 'way,' she said, 'on my grandchild's engagement-day anything should be too much? Here, waiter, get these two ladies some salad. Good measure, too. Over there by the window, Mrs. Suss. Help yourselves."
"Mamma, sh-h-h, the waiters know what to do."
Mrs. Coblenz turned back, the flush warm to her face.
"Say, for an old friend, I can be my own self."
"Can we break the receiving-line now, Lester honey, and go down with everybody? The Sinsheimers and their crowd over there by themselves, we ought to show we appreciate their coming."
Mr. Goldmark twisted high in his collar, cupping her small bare elbow in his hand.
"That's what I say, lovey; let's break. Come, mother Coblenz, let's step down on high society's corns."
"You and Selene go down with the crowd, Lester. I want to take gramaw to rest for a while before we go home. The manager says we can have room fifty-six by the elevator for her to rest in."
"Get her some newspapers, ma, and I brought her a wreath down to keep her quiet. It's wrapped in her shawl."
Her skirts delicately lifted, Miss Coblenz stepped down off the dais. With her cloud of gauze scarf enveloping her, she was like a tulle-clouded "Springtime," done in the key of Botticelli.
"Oop-si-lah, lovey-dovey!" said Mr. Goldmark, tilting her elbow for the downward step.
"Oop-si-lay, dovey-lovey!" said Miss Coblenz, relaxing to the support.
Gathering up her plentiful skirts, Mrs. Coblenz stepped off, too, but back toward the secluded chair beside the potted hydrangea. A fine line of pain, like a cord tightening, was binding her head, and she put up two fingers to each temple, pressing down the throb.
"Mrs. Coblenz, see what I got for you!" She turned, smiling. "You don't look like you need salad and green ice-cream. You look like you needed what I wanted—a cup of coffee."
"Aw, Mr. Haas—now where in the world—aw, Mr. Haas!"
With a steaming cup outheld and carefully out of collision with the crowd, Mr. Haas unflapped a napkin with his free hand, inserting his foot in the rung of a chair and dragging it toward her.
"Now," he cried, "sit and watch me take care of you!"
There comes a tide in the affairs of men when the years lap softly, leaving no particular inundations on the celebrated sands of time. Between forty and fifty, that span of years which begin the first slight gradations from the apex of life, the gray hair, upstanding like a thick-bristled brush off Mr. Haas's brow, had not so much as whitened, or the slight paunchiness enhanced even the moving-over of a button. When Mr. Haas smiled, his mustache, which ended in a slight but not waxed flourish, lifted to reveal a white-and-gold smile of the artistry of careful dentistry, and when, upon occasion, he threw back his head to laugh, the roof of his mouth was his own.
He smiled now, peering through gold-rimmed spectacles attached by a chain to a wire-encircled left ear.
"Sit," he cried, "and let me serve you!"
Standing there with a diffidence which she could not crowd down, Mrs. Coblenz smiled through closed lips that would pull at the corners.
"The idea, Mr. Haas—going to all that trouble!"
"'Trouble,' she says! After two hours hand-shaking in a swallowtail, a man knows what real trouble is!"
She stirred around and around the cup, supping up spoonfuls gratefully.
"I'm sure much obliged. It touches the right spot."
He pressed her down to the chair, seating himself on the low edge of the dais.
"Now you sit right here and rest your bones."
"But my mother, Mr. Haas. Before it's time for the ride home, she must rest in a quiet place."
"My car'll be here and waiting five minutes after I telephone."
"You—sure have been grand, Mr. Haas!"
"I shouldn't be grand yet to my—let's see what relation is it I am to you?"
"Honest, you're a case, Mr. Haas—always making fun!"
"My poor dead sister's son marries your daughter. That makes you my—nothing-in-law."
"Honest, Mr. Haas, if I was around you, I'd get fat laughing."
"I wish you was."
"Selene would have fits. 'Never get fat, mamma,' she says, 'if you don't want——'"
"I don't mean that."
"I mean I wish you was around me."
She struck him then with her fan, but the color rose up into the mound of her carefully piled hair.
"I always say I can see where Lester gets his comical ways. Like his uncle, that boy keeps us all laughing."
"Gad, look at her blush! I know women your age would give fifty dollars a blush to do it that way."
She was looking away again, shoulders heaving to silent laughter, the blush still stinging.
"It's been so—so long, Mr. Haas, since I had compliments made to me—you make me feel so—silly."
"I know it, you nice, fine woman, you, and it's a darn shame!"
"I mean it. I hate to see a fine woman not get her dues. Anyways, when she's the finest woman of them all!"
"I—the woman that lives to see a day like this—her daughter the happiest girl in the world with the finest boy in the world—is getting her dues all right, Mr. Haas."
"She's a fine girl, but she ain't worth her mother's little finger nail."
"I must be going now, Mr. Haas—my mother—"
"That's right. The minute a man tries to break the ice with this little lady, it's a freeze-out. Now, what did I say so bad? In business, too. Never seen the like. It's like trying to swat a fly to come down on you at the right minute. But now, with you for a nothing-in-law, I got rights."
"If—you ain't the limit, Mr. Haas!"
"Don't mind saying it, Mrs. C., and, for a bachelor, they tell me I'm not the worst judge in the world, but there's not a woman on the floor stacks up like you do."
"Well—of all things!"
"My mother, Mr. Haas, she—"
"And if anybody should ask you if I've got you on my mind or not, well I've already got the letters out on that little matter of the passports you spoke to me about. If there's a way to fix that up for you, and leave it to me to find it, I—"
She sprang now, trembling, to her feet, all the red of the moment receding.
"Mr. Haas, I—I must go now. My—mother—"
He took her arm, winding her in and out among crowded-out chairs behind the dais.
"I wish it to every mother to have a daughter like you, Mrs. C."
"No! No!" she said, stumbling rather wildly through the chairs. "No! No! No!"
He forged ahead, clearing her path of them.
Beside the potted hydrangea, well back and yet within an easy view, Mrs. Horowitz, her gilt armchair well cushioned for the occasion, and her black grenadine spread decently about her, looked out upon the scene, her slightly palsied head well forward.
"Mamma, you got enough? You wouldn't have missed it, eh? A crowd of people we can be proud to entertain, not? Come; sit quiet in another room for a while, and then Mr. Haas, with his nice big car, will drive us all home again. You know Mr. Haas, dearie—Lester's uncle that had us drove so careful in his fine big car. You remember, dearie—Lester's uncle?"
Mrs. Horowitz looked up, her old face cracking to smile.
"My grandchild! My grandchild! She'm a fine one. Not? My grandchild! My grandchild!"
"You—mustn't mind, Mr. Haas. That's—the way she's done since—since she's—sick. Keeps repeating—"
"My grandchild! From a good mother and a bad father comes a good grandchild. My grandchild! She'm a good one. My—"
"Mamma, dearie, Mr. Haas is in a hurry. He's come to help me walk you into a little room to rest before we go home in Mr. Haas's big fine auto. Where you can go and rest, mamma, and read the newspapers. Come."
"My back—ach—my back!"
"Yes, yes, mamma; we'll fix it. Up! So—la!"
They raised her by the crook of each arm, gently.
"So! Please, Mr. Haas, the pillows. Shawl. There!"
Around a rear hallway, they were almost immediately into a blank, staring hotel bedroom, fresh towels on the furniture-tops only enhancing its staleness.
"Here we are. Sit her here, Mr. Haas, in this rocker."
They lowered her almost inch by inch, sliding down pillows against the chair-back.
"Now, Shila's little mamma, want to sleep?"
"I got—no rest—no rest."
"You're too excited, honey, that's all."
"Here—here's a brand-new hotel Bible on the table, dearie. Shall Shila read it to you?"
"Now, now, mamma. Now, now; you mustn't! Didn't you promise Shila? Look! See, here's a wreath wrapped in your shawl for Shila's little mamma to work on. Plenty of wreaths for us to take back. Work awhile, dearie, and then we'll get Selene and Lester, and, after all the nice company goes away, we'll go home in the auto."
"I begged he should keep in his hate—his feet in the——"
"I know! The papers. That's what little mamma wants. Mr. Haas, that's what she likes better than anything—the evening papers."
"I'll go down and send 'em right up with a boy, and telephone for the car. The crowd's beginning to pour out now. Just hold your horses there, Mrs. C., and I'll have those papers up here in a jiffy."
He was already closing the door after him, letting in and shutting out a flare of music.
"See, mamma, nice Mr. Haas is getting us the papers. Nice evening papers for Shila's mamma." She leaned down into the recesses of the black grenadine, withdrawing from one of the pockets a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles, adjusting them with some difficulty to the nodding head. "Shila's—little mamma! Shila's mamma!"
"Aylorff, the littlest wreath for—Aylorff—Meine Kraentze—"
"Mein Mann. Mein Suehn."
"Aylorff—der klenste Kranz far ihm!"
"Ssh-h-h, dearie—talk English, like Selene wants. Wait till we get on the ship—the beautiful ship to take us back. Mamma, see out the window! Look! That's the beautiful Forest Park, and this is the fine Hotel Walsingham just across—see out—Selene is going to have a flat on—"
"Sey hoben gestorben far Freiheit. Sey hoben—"
"There, that's the papers!"
To a succession of quick knocks, she flew to the door, returning with the folded evening editions under her arm.
"Now," she cried, unfolding and inserting the first of them into the quivering hands, "now, a shawl over my little mamma's knees and we're fixed!"
With a series of rapid movements, she flung open one of the black-cashmere shawls across the bed, folding it back into a triangle. Beside the table, bare except for the formal, unthumbed Bible, Mrs. Horowitz rattled out her paper, her near-sighted eyes traveling back and forth across the page.
Music from the ferned-in orchestra came in drifts, faint, not so faint. From somewhere, then immediately from everywhere, beyond, below, without, the fast shouts of newsboys mingling.
Suddenly and of her own volition, and with a cry that shot up through the room, rending it like a gash, Mrs. Horowitz, who moved by inches, sprang to her supreme height, her arms, the crooks forced out, flung up.
"My darlings—what died—for it! My darlings what died for it—my darlings—Aylorff—my husband!" There was a wail rose up off her words, like the smoke of incense curling, circling around her. "My darlings what died to make free!"
"Mamma—darling—mamma—Mr. Haas! Help! Mamma! My God!"
"Aylorff—my husband—I paid with my blood to make free—my blood—my son—my—own—" Immovable there, her arms flung up and tears so heavy that they rolled whole from her face down to the black grenadine, she was as sonorous as the tragic meter of an Alexandrian line; she was like Ruth, ancestress of heroes and progenitor of kings. "My boy—my own—they died for it! Mein Mann! Mein Suehn!"
On her knees, frantic to press her down once more into the chair, terrified at the rigid immobility of the upright figure, Mrs. Coblenz paused then, too, her clasp falling away, and leaned forward to the open sheet of the newspaper, its black headlines facing her:
BANS DOWN 100,000 SIBERIAN PRISONERS LIBERATED
In her ears a ringing silence, as if a great steel disk had clattered down into the depths of her consciousness. There on her knees, trembling seized her, and she hugged herself against it, leaning forward to corroborate her gaze.
MOST RIGID AUTOCRACY IN THE WORLD OVERTHROWN
"Mamma! Mamma! My God, Mamma!"
"Home, Shila; home! My husband who died for it—Aylorff! Home now, quick! My wreaths! My wreaths!"
"O my God, Mamma!"
"Yes, yes, darling; your wreaths. Let—let me think. Freedom!—O my God, help me to find a way! O my God!"
From the floor beside her, the raffia wreath half in the making, Mrs. Coblenz reached up, pressing it flat to the heaving old bosom.
"There, darling, there!"
"I paid with my blood—"
"Yes, yes, mamma; you—paid with your blood. Mamma—sit, please. Sit and—let's try to think. Take it slow, darling—it's like we can't take it in all at once. I—we—sit down, darling. You'll make yourself terrible sick. Sit down, darling, you—you're slipping."
Heavily, the arm at the waist gently sustaining, Mrs. Horowitz sank rather softly down, her eyelids fluttering for the moment. A smile had come out on her face, and, as her head sank back against the rest, the eyes resting at the downward flutter, she gave out a long breath, not taking it in again.
"Mamma! You're fainting!" She leaned to her, shaking the relaxed figure by the elbows, her face almost touching the tallowlike one with the smile lying so deeply into it. "Mamma! My God, darling, wake up! I'll take you back. I'll find a way to take you. I'm a bad girl, darling, but I'll find a way to take you. I'll take you if—if I kill for it. I promise before God I'll take you. To-morrow—now—nobody can keep me from taking you. The wreaths, mamma! Get ready the wreaths! Mamma, darling, wake up. Get ready the wreaths! The wreaths!" Shaking at that quiet form, sobs that were full of voice, tearing raw from her throat, she fell to kissing the sunken face, enclosing it, stroking it, holding her streaming gaze closely and burningly against the closed lids. "Mamma, I swear to God I'll take you! Answer me, mamma! The bank-book—you've got it! Why don't you wake up—mamma? Help!"
Upon that scene, the quiet of the room so raucously lacerated, burst Mr. Haas, too breathless for voice.
"Mr. Haas my mother—help—my mother! It's a faint, ain't it? A faint?"
He was beside her at two bounds, feeling of the limp wrists, laying his ear to the grenadine bosom, lifting the reluctant lids, touching the flesh that yielded so to touch.
"It's a faint, ain't it, Mr. Haas? Tell her I'll take her back. Wake her up, Mr. Haas! Tell her I'm a bad girl, but I—I'm going to take her back. Now! Tell her! Tell her, Mr. Haas, I've got the bank-book. Please! Please! O my God!"
He turned to her, his face working to keep down compassion.
"We must get a doctor, little lady."
She threw out an arm.
"No! No! I see! My old mother—my old mother—all her life a nobody—she helped—she gave it to them—my mother—a poor little widow nobody—she bought with her blood that freedom—she—"
"God, I just heard it downstairs—it's the tenth wonder of the world. It's too big to take in. I was afraid—"
"Mamma darling, I tell you, wake up! I'm a bad girl, but I'll take you back. Tell her, Mr. Haas, I'll take her back. Wake up, darling! I swear to God—I'll take you!"
"Mrs. Coblenz, my—poor little lady—your mother don't need you to take her back. She's gone back where—where she wants to be. Look at her face, little lady; can't you see she's gone back?"
"No! No! Let me go. Let me touch her. No! No! Mamma darling!"
"Why, there wasn't a way, little lady, you could have fixed it for that poor—old body. She's beyond any of the poor fixings we could do for her. You never saw her face like that before. Look!"
"The wreaths—- the wreaths!"
He picked up the raffia circle, placing it back again against the quiet bosom.
"Poor little lady!" he said. "Shila—that's left for us to do. You and me, Shila—we'll take the wreaths back for her."
"My darling—my darling mother! I'll take them back for you! I'll take them back for you!"
"We'll take them back for her—Shila."
"We'll take them back for her—Shila."
"We'll take them back for you, mamma. We'll take them back for you, darling!"
THE STRANGE-LOOKING MAN
[Note 15: Copyright, 1917, by The Pagan Publishing Company. Copyright, 1918, by Fanny Kemble Johnson.]
BY FANNY KEMBLE JOHNSON
From The Pagan
A TINY village lay among the mountains of a country from which for four years the men had gone forth to fight. First the best men had gone, then the older men, then the youths, and lastly the school boys. It will be seen that no men could have been left in the village except the very aged, and the bodily incapacitated, who soon died, owing to the war policy of the Government which was to let the useless perish that there might be more food for the useful.
Now it chanced that while all the men went away, save those left to die of slow starvation, only a few returned, and these few were crippled and disfigured in various ways. One young man had only part of a face, and had to wear a painted tin mask, like a holiday-maker. Another had two legs but no arms, and another two arms but no legs. One man could scarcely be looked at by his own mother, having had his eyes burned out of his head until he stared like Death. One had neither arms nor legs, and was mad of his misery besides, and lay all day in a cradle like a baby. And there was a quite old man who strangled night and day from having sucked in poison-gas; and another, a mere boy, who shook, like a leaf in a high wind, from shell-shock, and screamed at a sound. And he too had lost a hand, and part of his face, though not enough to warrant the expense of a mask for him.
All these men, except he who had been crazed by horror of himself, had been furnished with ingenious appliances to enable them to be partly self-supporting, and to earn enough to pay their share of the taxes which burdened their defeated nation.
To go through that village after the war was something like going through a life-sized toy-village with all the mechanical figures wound up and clicking. Only instead of the figures being new, and gay, and pretty, they were battered and grotesque and inhuman.
There would be the windmill, and the smithy, and the public house. There would be the row of cottages, the village church, the sparkling waterfall, the parti-colored fields spread out like bright kerchiefs on the hillsides, the parading fowl, the goats and cows,—though not many of these last. There would be the women, and with them some children; very few, however, for the women had been getting reasonable, and were now refusing to have sons who might one day be sent back to them limbless and mad, to be rocked in cradles—for many years, perhaps.
Still the younger women, softer creatures of impulse, had borne a child or two. One of these, born the second year of the war, was a very blonde and bullet-headed rascal of three, with a bullying air, and of a roving disposition. But such traits appear engaging in children of sufficiently tender years, and he was a sort of village plaything, here, there, and everywhere, on the most familiar terms with the wrecks of the war which the Government of that country had made.
He tried on the tin mask and played with the baker's mechanical leg, so indulgent were they of his caprices; and it amused him excessively to rock the cradle of the man who had no limbs, and who was his father.
In and out he ran, and was humored to his bent. To one he seemed the son he had lost, to another the son he might have had, had the world gone differently. To others he served as a brief escape from the shadow of a future without hope; to others yet, the diversion of an hour. This last was especially true of the blind man who sat at the door of his old mother's cottage binding brooms. The presence of the child seemed to him like a warm ray of sunshine falling across his hand, and he would lure him to linger by letting him try on the great blue goggles which he found it best to wear in public. But no disfigurement or deformity appeared to frighten the little fellow. These had been his playthings from earliest infancy.
One morning, his mother, being busy washing clothes, had left him alone, confident that he would soon seek out some friendly fragment of soldier, and entertain himself till noon and hunger-time. But occasionally children have odd notions, and do the exact opposite of what one supposes.
On this brilliant summer morning the child fancied a solitary ramble along the bank of the mountain-stream. Vaguely he meant to seek a pool higher up, and to cast stones in it. He wandered slowly straying now and then into small valleys, or chasing wayside ducks. It was past ten before he gained the green-gleaming and foam-whitened pool, sunk in the shadow of a tall gray rock over whose flat top three pine-trees swayed in the fresh breeze. Under them, looking to the child like a white cloud in a green sky, stood a beautiful young man, poised on the sheer brink for a dive. A single instant he stood there, clad only in shadow and sunshine, the next he had dived so expertly that he scarcely splashed up the water around him. Then his dark, dripping head rose in sight, his glittering arm thrust up, and he swam vigorously to shore. He climbed the rock for another dive. These actions he repeated in pure sport and joy in life so often that his little spectator became dizzy with watching.
At length he had enough of it and stooped for his discarded garments. These he carried to a more sheltered spot and rapidly put on, the child still wide-eyed and wondering, for indeed he had much to occupy his attention.
He had two arms, two legs, a whole face with eyes, nose, mouth, chin, and ears, complete. He could see, for he had glanced about him as he dressed. He could speak, for he sang loudly. He could hear, for he had turned quickly at the whir of pigeon-wings behind him. His skin was smooth all over, and nowhere on it were the dark scarlet maps which the child found so interesting on the arms, face, and breast of the burned man. He did not strangle every little while, or shiver madly, and scream at a sound. It was truly inexplicable, and therefore terrifying.
The child was beginning to whimper, to tremble, to look wildly about for his mother, when the young man observed him.
"Hullo!" he cried eagerly, "if it isn't a child!"
He came forward across the foot-bridge with a most ingratiating smile, for this was the first time that day he had seen a child and he had been thinking it remarkable that there should be so few children in a valley, where, when he had travelled that way five years before, there had been so many he had scarcely been able to find pennies for them. So he cried "Hullo," quite joyously, and searched in his pockets.
But, to his amazement, the bullet-headed little blond boy screamed out in terror, and fled for protection into the arms of a hurriedly approaching young woman. She embraced him with evident relief, and was lavishing on him terms of scolding and endearment in the same breath, when the traveler came up, looking as if his feelings were hurt.
"I assure you, Madam," said he, "that I only meant to give your little boy these pennies." He examined himself with an air of wonder. "What on earth is there about me to frighten a child?" he queried plaintively.
The young peasant-woman smiled indulgently on them both, on the child now sobbing, his face buried in her skirt, and on the boyish, perplexed, and beautiful young man.
"It is because he finds the Herr Traveler so strange-looking," she said, curtsying. "He is quite small," she showed his smallness with a gesture, "and it is the first time he has even seen a whole man."
THE CALLER IN THE NIGHT
[Note 16: Copyright, 1917, by The Stratford Journal. Copyright, 1918, by Burton Kline.]
BY BURTON KLINE
From The Stratford Journal
BY the side of a road which wanders in company of a stream across a region of Pennsylvania farmland that is called "Paradise" because of its beauty, you may still mark the ruins of a small brick cabin in the depths of a grove. In summertime ivy drapes its jagged fragments and the pile might be lost to notice but that at dusk the trembling leaves of the vine have a way of whispering to the nerves of your horse and setting them too in a tremble. And the people in the village beyond have a belief that three troubled human beings lie buried under those ruins, and that at night, or in a storm, they sometimes cry aloud in their unrest.
The village is Bustlebury, and its people have a legend that on a memorable night there was once disclosed to a former inhabitant the secret of that ivied sepulchre.
* * *
All the afternoon the two young women had chattered in the parlor, cooled by the shade of the portico, and lost to the heat of the day, to the few sounds of the village, to the passing hours themselves. Then of a sudden Mrs. Pollard was recalled to herself at the necessity of closing her front windows against a gust of wind that blew the curtains, like flapping flags, into the room.
"Sallie, we're going to get it again," she said, pausing for a glance at the horizon before she lowered the sash.
"Get what?" Her visitor walked to the other front window and stooped to peer out.
Early evening clouds were drawing a black cap over the fair face of the land.
"I think we're going to have some more of Old Screamer Moll this evening. I knew we should, after this hot—"
"There! Margie, that was the expression I've been trying to remember all afternoon. You used it this morning. Where did you get such a poetic nickname for a thunder—O-oh!"
For a second, noon had returned to the two women. From their feet two long streaks of black shadow darted back into the room, and vanished. Overhead an octopus of lightning snatched the whole heavens in its grasp, shook them, and disappeared.
The two women screamed, and threw themselves on the sofa. Yet in a minute it was clear that the world still rolled on, and each looked at the other and laughed at her fright—till the prospect of an evening of storm sobered them both.
"Mercy!" Mrs. Pollard breathed in discouragement. "We're in for another night of it. We've had this sort of thing for a week. And to-night of all nights, when I wanted you to see this wonderful country under the moon!"
Mrs. Pollard, followed by her guest, Mrs. Reeves, ventured to the window timidly again, to challenge what part of the sky they could see from under the great portico outside, and learn its portent for the night.
An evil visage it wore—a swift change from a noon-day of beaming calm. Now it was curtained completely with blue-black cloud, which sent out mutterings, and then long brooding silences more ominous still in their very concealment of the night's intentions.
There was no defence against it but to draw down the blinds and shut out this angry gloom in the glow of the lamps within. And, with a half hour of such glow to cozen them, the two women were soon merry again over their reminiscences, Mrs. Pollard at her embroidery, Mrs. Reeves at the piano, strumming something from Chopin in the intervals of their chatter.
"The girl" fetched them their tea. "Five already!" Mrs. Pollard verified the punctuality of her servant with a glance at the clock. "Then John will be away for another night. I do hope he won't try to get back this time. Night before last he left his assistant with a case, and raced his horse ten miles in the dead of the night to get home," Mrs. Pollard proudly reported, "for fear I'd be afraid in the storm."
"And married four years!" Mrs. Reeves smilingly shook her head in indulgence of such long-lived romance.
In the midst of their cakes and tea the bell announced an impatient hand at the door.
"Well, 'speak of angels!'" Mrs. Pollard quoted, and flew to greet her husband. But she opened the door upon smiling old Mr. Barber, instead, from the precincts across the village street.
Mr. Barber seemed to be embarrassed. "I—I rather thought you mought be wanting something," he said in words. By intention he was making apology for the night. "I saw the doctor drive away, but I haven't seen him come back. So I—I thought I'd just run over and see—see if there wasn't something you wanted." He laughed uneasily.
Mr. Barber's transparent diplomacy having been rewarded with tea, they all came at once to direct speech. "It ain't going to amount to much," Mr. Barber insisted. "Better come out, you ladies, and have a look around. It may rain a bit, but you'll feel easier if you come and get acquainted with things, so to say." And gathering their resolution the two women followed him out on the portico.
They shuddered at what they saw.
Night was at hand, two hours before its time. Nothing stirred, not a vocal chord of hungry, puzzled, frightened chicken or cow. The whole region seemed to have caught its breath, to be smothered under a pall of stillness, unbroken except for some occasional distant earthquake of thunder from the inverted Switzerland of cloud that hung pendant from the sky.
Mr. Barber's emotions finally ordered themselves into speech as he watched. "Ain't it grand!" he said.
The two women made no reply. They sat on the steps to the portico, their arms entwined. The scene beat their more sophisticated intelligences back into silence. Some minutes they all sat there together, and then again Mr. Barber broke the spell.
"It do look fearful, like. But you needn't be afraid. It's better to be friends with it, you might say. And then go to bed and fergit it."
They thanked him for his goodness, bade him good-by, and he clinked down the flags of the walk and started across the street.
He had got midway across when they all heard a startling sound, an unearthly cry.
It came out of the distance, and struck the stillness like a blow.
"What is it? What is it, Margie?" Mrs. Reeves whispered excitedly.
Faint and quavering at its beginning, the cry grew louder and more shrill, and then died away, as the breath that made it ebbed and was spent. It seemed as if this unusual night had found at last a voice suited to its mood. Twice the cry was given, and then all was still as before.
At its first notes the muscles in Mrs. Pollard's arm had tightened. But Mr. Barber had hastened back at once with reassurance.
"I guess Mrs. Pollard knows what that is," he called to them from the gate. "It's only our old friend Moll, that lives down there in the notch. She gets lonesome, every thunderstorm, and let's it off like that. It's only her rheumatiz, I reckon. We wouldn't feel easy ourselves without them few kind words from old Moll!"
The two women applauded as they could his effort toward humor. Then, "Come on, Sallie, quick!" Mrs. Pollard cried to her guest, and the two women bolted up the steps of the portico and flew like girls through the door, which they quickly locked between themselves and the disquieting night.
Once safe within, relief from their nerves came at the simple effort of laughter, and an hour later, when it was clear that the stars still held to their courses, the two ladies were at their ease again, beneath the lamp on the table, with speech and conversation to provide an escape from thought. The night seemed to cool its high temper as the hours wore on, and gradually the storm allowed itself to be forgotten.
Together, at bed time, the two made their tour of the house, locking the windows and doors, and visiting the pantry on the way for an apple. Outside all was truly calm and still, as, with mock and exaggerated caution, they peered through one last open window. A periodic, lazy flash from the far distance was all that the sky could muster of its earlier wrath. And they tripped upstairs and to bed, with that hilarity which always attends the feminine pursuit of repose.
* * *
But in the night they were awakened.
Not for nothing, after all, had the skies marshalled that afternoon array of their forces. Now they were as terribly vociferous as they had been terrifyingly still before. Leaves, that had drooped melancholy and motionless in the afternoon, were whipped from their branches at the snatch of the wind. The rain came down in a solid cataract. The thunder was a steady bombardment, and the frolic powers above, that had toyed and practised with soundless flashes in the afternoon, had grown wanton at their sport, and hurled their electric shots at earth in appallingly accurate marksmanship. Between the flashes from the sky, the steady glare of a burning barn here and there reddened the blackness. The village dead, under the pelted sod, must have shuddered at the din. Even the moments of lull were saturate with terrors. In them rose audible the roar of waters, the clatter of frightened animals, the rattle of gates, the shouts of voices, the click of heels on the flags of the streets, as the villagers hurried to the succor of neighbors fighting fires out on the hills. For long afterward the tempest of that night was remembered. For hours while it lasted, trees were toppled over, and houses rocked to the blast.
And for as long as it would, the rain beat in through an open window and wetted the two women where they lay in their bed, afraid to stir, even to help themselves, gripped in a paralysis of terror.
Their nerves were not the more disposed to peace, either, by another token of the storm. All through the night, since their waking, in moments of stillness sufficient for it to be heard, they had caught that cry of the late afternoon. Doggedly it asserted itself against the uproar. It insisted upon being heard. It too wished to shriek relievingly, like the inanimate night, and publish its sickness abroad. They heard it far off, at first. But it moved, and came nearer. Once the two women quaked when it came to them, shrill and clear, from a point close at hand. But they bore its invasion along with the wind and the rain, and lay shameless and numb in the rude arms of the night.
They lay so till deliverance from the hideous spell came at last, in a vigorous pounding at the front door.
"It's John!" Mrs. Pollard cried in her joy. "And through such a storm!"
She slipped from the bed, threw a damp blanket about her, and groped her way out of the room and down the stair, her guest stumbling after. They scarcely could fly fast enough down the dark steps. At the bottom Mrs. Pollard turned brighter the dimly burning entry lamp, shot back the bolt with fingers barely able to grasp it in their eagerness, and threw open the door.
"John!" she cried.
But there moved into the house the tall and thin but heavily framed figure of an old woman, who peered about in confusion.
In a flash of recognition Mrs. Pollard hurled herself against the intruder to thrust her out.
"No!" the woman said. "No, you will not, on such a night!" And the apparition herself, looking with feverish curiosity at her unwilling hostesses, slowly closed the door and leaned against it.
Mrs. Pollard and her friend turned to fly, in a mad instinct to be anywhere behind a locked door. Yet before the instinct could reach their muscles, the unbidden visitor stopped them again.
"No!" she said. "I am dying. Help me!"
The two women turned, as if hypnotically obedient to her command. Their tongues lay thick and dead in their mouths. They fell into each other's arms, and their caller stood looking them over, with the same fevered curiosity. Then she turned her deliberate scrutiny to the house itself.
In a moment she almost reassured them with a first token of being human and feminine. On the table by the stairs lay a book, and she went and picked it up. "Fine!" she mused. Then her eye travelled over the pictures on the walls. "Fine!" she said. "So this is the inside of a fine house!" But suddenly, as her peering gaze returned to the two women, she was recalled to herself. "But you wanted to put me out—on a night like this! Hear it!"
For a moment she looked at them in frank hatred. And on an impulse she revenged herself upon them by sounding, in their very ears, the shrill cry they had heard in the afternoon, and through the night, that had mystified the villagers for years from the grove. The house rang with it, and with the hard peal of laughter that finished it.
All three of them stood there, for an instant, viewing each other. But at the end of it the weakest of them was the partly sibylline, partly mountebank intruder. She swayed back against the wall. Her head rolled limply to one side, and she moaned, "O God, how tired I am to-night!"
Frightened as they still were, their runaway hearts beating a tattoo that was almost audible, the two other women made a move to support her. But she waved them back with a suddenly returning air of command. "No!" she said. "You wanted to put me out!"
The creature wore some sort of thin skirt whose color had vanished in the blue-black of its wetness. Over her head and shoulders was thrown a ragged piece of shawl. From under it dangled strands of grizzled gray hair. Her dark eyes were hidden in the shadows of her impromptu hood. The hollows of her cheeks looked deeper in its shadows.
She loosed the shawl from her head, and it dropped to the floor, disclosing a face like one of the Fates. She folded her arms, and there was a rude majesty in the massive figure and its bearing as she tried to command herself and speak.
"I come here—in this storm. Hear it! Hear that! I want shelter. I want comfort. And what do you say to me!... Well, then I take comfort from you. You thought I was your husband. You called his name. Well, I saw him this afternoon. He drove out. I called to him from the roadside. 'Let me tell your fortune! Only fifty cent!' But he whipped up his horse and drove away. You are all alike. But I see him now—in Woodman's Narrows. It rains there, same as here. Thunder and lightning, same as here. Trees fall. The wind blows. The wind blows!"
The woman had tilted her head and fixed her eyes, shining and eager, as if on some invisible scene, and she half intoned her words as if in a trance.
"I see your husband now. His wagon is smashed by a tree. The horse is dead. Your husband lies very still. He does not move. There!"—she turned to them alert again to their presence—"there is the husband that you want. If you don't believe me, all I say is, wait! He is there. You will see!"
She ended in a peal of laughter, which itself ended in a weary moan. "Oh, why can't you help me!" She came toward them, her arms outstretched. "Don't be afraid of me. I want a woman to know me—to comfort me. I die to-night. It's calling me, outside. Don't you hear?...
"Listen to me, you women!" she went on, and tried to smile, to gain their favor. "I lied to you, to get even with you. You want your husband. Well, I lied. He isn't dead. For all you tried to shut me out. Do you never pity? Do you never help? O-oh—"
Her hand traveled over her brow, and her eyes wandered.
"No one knows what I need now! I got to tell it, I got to tell it! Hear that?" There had been a louder and nearer crash outside. "That's my warning. That says I got to tell it, before it's too late. No storm like this for forty years—not since one night forty years ago. My God, that night!" Another heavy rumble interrupted her. "Yes, yes!" she turned and called. "I'll tell it! I promise!"
She came toward her audience and said pleadingly, "Listen—even if it frightens you. You've got to listen. That night, forty years ago"—she peered about her cautiously—"I think—I think I hurt two people—hurt them very bad. And ever since that night—"
The two women had once again tried to fly away, but again she halted them. "Listen! You have no right to run away. You got to comfort me! You hear? Please, please, don't go."
She smiled, and so seemed less ugly. What could her two auditors do but cling to each other and hear her through, dumb and helpless beneath her spell?
"Only wait. I'll tell you quickly. Oh, I was not always like this. Once I could talk—elegant too. I've almost forgotten now. But I never looked like this then. I was not always ugly—no teeth—gray hair. Once I was beautiful too. You laugh? But yes! Ah, I was young, and tall, and had long black hair. I was Mollie, then. Mollie Morgan. That's the first time I've said my name for years. But that's who I was. Ask Bruce—he knows."
She had fallen back against the wall again, her eyes roaming as she remembered. Here she laughed. "But Bruce is dead these many years. He was my dog." A long pause. "We played together. Among the flowers—in the pretty cottage—under the vines. Not far from here. But all gone now, all gone. Even the woods are gone—the woods where Bruce and I hunted berries. And my mother!"
Again the restless hands sought the face and covered it.
"My mother! Almost as young as I. And how she could talk! A fine lady. As fine as you. And oh, we had good times together. Nearly always. Sometimes mother got angry—in a rage. She'd strike me, and say I was an idiot like my father. The next minute she'd hug me, and cry, and beg me to forgive her. It all comes back to me. Those were the days when she'd bake a cake for supper—the days when she cried, and put on a black dress. But mostly she wore the fine dresses—all bright, and soft, and full of flowers. Oh, how she would dance about in those, sometimes. And always laughed when I stared at her. And say I was Ned's girl to my finger-tips. I never understood what she meant—then."
The shrill speaker of a moment before had softened suddenly. The creature of the woods sniffed eagerly this atmosphere of the house, and faint vestiges of a former personage returned to her, summoned along with the scene she had set herself to recall.
"But oh, how good she was to me! And read to me. And taught me to read. And careful of me? Ha! Never let me go alone to the village. Said I was too good for such a place. Some day we would go back to the world—whatever she meant by that. Said people there would clap the hands when they saw me—more than they had clapped the hands for her. Once she saw a young man walk along the road with me. Oh, how she beat my head when I came home! Nearly killed me, she was so angry. Said I mustn't waste myself on such trash. My mother—I never understood her then.
"She used to tell me stories—about New York, and Phil'delph. Many big cities. There they applaud, and clap the hands, when my mother was a queen, or a beggar girl, in the theatre, and make love and kill and fight. Have grand supper in hotel afterward. And I'd ask my mother how soon I too may be a queen. And she'd give me to learn the words they say, and I'd say them. Then she'd clap me on the head again and tell me, 'Oh, you're Ned's girl. You're a blockhead, just like your father!' And I'd say, 'Where is my father? Why does he never come?' And after that my mother would always sit quiet, and never answer when I talked.
"And then she'd be kind again, and make me proud, and tell me I'm a very fine lady, and have fine blood. And she'd talk about the day when we'd go back to the world, and she'd buy me pretty things to wear. But I thought it was fine where we were—there in the cottage, I with the flowers, and Bruce. In those days, yes," the woman sighed, and left them to silence for a space,—for silent seemed the wind and rain, on the breaking of her speech.
A rumble from without started her on again.
"Yes, yes! I'm telling! I'll hurry. Then I grow big. Seventeen. My mother call me her little giantess, her handsome darling, her conceited fool, all at the same time. I never understood my mother—then.
"But then, one day, it came!"
The woman pressed her fingers against her eyes, as if to shut out the vision her mind was preparing.
"Everything changed then. Everything was different. No more nights with stories and books. No more about New York and Phil'delph. Never again.
"I was out in the yard one day, on my knees, with the flowers. It was Springtime, and I was digging and fixing. And I heard a horse's hoofs on the road. A runaway, I thought at first. I stood up to look, and—" She faltered, and then choked out, "I stood up to look, and the man came!" And with the words came a crash that rocked the house.
"Hear that!" the woman almost shrieked. "That's him—that's the man. I hear him in every storm!...
"He came," she went, more rapidly. "A tall man—fine—dressed in fine clothes—brown hair—brown eyes! Oh, I often see those brown eyes. I know what they are like. He came riding along the bye-road. When he caught sight of my mother he almost fell from his horse. The horse nearly fell, the man pulled him in so sharp. 'Good God!' the man said. 'Fanny! Is this where you are! Curse you, old girl, is this where you are!' Funny, how I remember his words. And then he came in.
"And he talked to my mother a long time. Then he looked round and said, 'So this is where you've crawled to!' And he petted Bruce. And then he came to me, and looked into my face a long time, and said, 'So this is his girl, eh? Fanny junior, down to the last eyelash! Come here, puss!' he said. And I made a face at him. And he put his hands to his sides and laughed and laughed at me. And he turned to my mother and said, 'Fanny, Fanny, what a queen!' I thought he meant be a queen in the theatre. But he meant something else. He came to me again, and squeezed me and pressed his face against mine. And my mother ran and snatched him away. And I ran behind the house.
"And by-and-by my mother came to find me, and said, 'Oho, my little giantess! So here you are! What are you trembling for!' And she kicked me. 'Take that!' she said.
"And I didn't understand—not then. But I understand now.
"Next day the man came again, and talked to my mother. But I saw him look and look at me. And by-and-by he reached for my hand. And my mother said, 'Stop that! None of that, my little George! One at a time, if you please!' And he laughed and let me go. And they went out and sat on a bench in the yard. And the man stroked my mother's hair. And I watched and listened. They talked a long time till it was night. And I heard George say, 'Well, Fanny, old girl, we did for him, all right, didn't we?' I've always remembered it. And they laughed and they laughed. Then the man said, 'God, how it does scare me, sometimes!' And my mother laughed at him for that. And George said, 'Look what I've had to give up. And you penned up here! But never mind. It will blow over. Then we'll crawl back to the old world, eh, Fanny?'"
All this the woman had rattled off like a child with a recitation, as something learned long ago and long rehearsed against just this last contingency of confession.
"Oh, I remember it!" she said, as if her volubility needed an explanation. "It took me a long time to understand. But one day I understood.
"He came often, then—George did. And I was not afraid of him any more. He was fine, like my mother. Every time I saw him come my stomach would give a jump. And I liked to have him put his face against mine, the way I'd seen him do to mother. And every time he went away I'd watch him from the hilltop till I couldn't see him any more. And at night I couldn't sleep. And George came very often—to see me, he told me, and not my mother.
"And my mother was changed then. She never hit me again, because George said he'd kill her if she did. But she acted very strange when he told her that, and looked and looked at me. And didn't speak to me for days and days. But I didn't mind—I could talk to George. And we'd go for long walks, and he'd tell me more about New York and Phil'delph—more than my mother could tell. Oh, I loved to hear him talk. And he said such nice things to me—such nice things to me! Bruce—I forgot all about Bruce. Oh, I was happy!... But that was because I knew nothing....
"Yes, I pleased George. But by-and-by he changed too. Then I couldn't say anything that he liked. 'Stupid child!' he called me. I tried, ever so hard, to please him. But it was like walking against a wind, that you can't push aside. You women, you just guess how I felt then! You just guess! You want your husband. It was the same with me. I want George. But he wouldn't listen to me no more."
The woman seemed to sink, to shrivel, under the weight of her recollection. Finding her not a monster but a woman after all, her two hearers were moved to another slight token of sympathy. They were "guessing," as she commanded. But still, with a kind of weary magnanimity, she waved them back, away from the things she had yet to make clear.
"But one day I saw it. One day I saw something. I came home with my berries, and George was there. His breath was funny, and he talked funny, and walked funny. I'd seen people in the village that way. But—my mother was that way, too. She looked funny—had very red cheeks, and talked very fast. Very foolish. And her breath was the same as George's. And she laughed and laughed at me, and made fun of me.
"I said nothing. But I didn't sleep that night. I wondered what would happen. Many days I thought of what was happening. Then I knew. My mother was trying to get George away from me. That was what had happened.
"Another day I came back with my berries, and my mother was not there. Neither was George there. So! She had taken George away. My George. Well! I set out to look. No rest for me till I find them. I knew pretty well where they might be. I started for George's little brick house down in the hollow. That's where he had taken to living—hunting and fishing. It was late—the brick house was far away—I was very tired. But I went. And—"
She had been speaking more rapidly. Here she stopped to breathe, to swallow, to collect herself for the final plunge.
"I heard a runaway horse. 'George's horse!' I said. 'George is coming back to me, after all! George is coming back to me! She can't keep him!' And, yes, it was George's horse. But nobody on him. I was so scared I could hardly stand. Something had happened to George. Only then did I know how much I wanted him—when something had happened to him. I almost fell down in the road, but I crawled on. And presently I came to him, to George. He was walking in the road, limping and stumbling and rolling—all muddy—singing to himself. He didn't know me at first. I ran to him—to my George. And he grabbed me, and stumbled, and fell. And he grabbed my ankle. 'Come to me, li'l' one!' he said. 'Damn the old hag!' he said. 'It's the girl I want—Ned's own!' he said. 'Come here to me, Ned's own. I want you!' And he pinched me. He bit my hand. And—and I—all of a sudden I was afraid.
"And I snatched myself loose. 'George!' I screamed. 'No!' I said—I don't know why. I was very scared. I was wild. I kicked away—and ran—ran, ran—away—I don't know where—to the woods. And oh, a long time I heard George laugh at me. 'Just like the very old Ned!' I heard him shout. But I ran, till I fell down tired. And there I sat and thought.
"And all of a sudden I understood. All at once I knew many things. I knew then what my mother had said about Ned sometimes. He was my father. He was dead. Somebody had killed him, I knew—I knew it from what they said. George knew my father, then, too. What did he know? That was it! He—he was the man that killed my father. He was after my mother then—he had been after her before, and made her breathe funny, made a fool of her. That was why my beautiful mother was so strange to me sometimes. That's why there was no more New York and Phil'delph. George did that—spoiled everything. Now he was back—making a fool of her again—my mother! And wanted to make a fool of me. Oh, then I knew! That man! And I had liked him. His brown hair, his brown eyes! But oh, I understood, I understood.
"I got up from the ground. Everything reeled and fell apart. There was nothing more for me. Everything spoiled. Our pretty cottage—the stories—all gone. Spoiled. So I ran back. Maybe I could bring my mother back. Maybe I could save something. Oh, I was sick. The trees, they bent and rolled the way George walked. The wind bent them double. They held their stomachs, as if they were George, laughing at me. They seemed to holler 'Ned's girl!' at me. I was dizzy, and the wind nearly blew me over. But I had to hurry home.
"I got near. No one there. Not even George. But I had to find my beautiful little mother. All round I ran. The brambles threw me down. I fell over a stump and struck my face. I could feel the blood running down over my cheeks. It was warmer than the rain. No matter, I had to find my mother. My poor little mother.
"Bruce growled at me when I got to the house. He didn't know me. That's how I looked! But there was a light in the house. Yes, my mother was there! But George was there, too. That man! They had bundles all ready to go away. They weren't glad to see me. I got there too soon. George said, 'Damn her soul! Always that girl of Ned's! I'll show her!' And he kicked me.
"George kicked me!...
"But my mother—she didn't laugh when she saw me. She was very scared. She shook George, and said, 'George! Come away, quick! Look at her face! Look at her eyes!' she said.
"Oh, my mother, my little mother. She thought I would hurt her. Even when she'd been such a fool. I was the one that had to take care of her, then. But she wanted to go away—with that man! That made me wild.
"'You, George!' I said, 'You've got to go! You've—you've done too much to us!' I said. 'You go!' And 'Mother!' I said. 'You've got to leave him! He's done too much to us!' I said.
"She only answered, 'George, come, quick!' And she dragged George toward the door. And George laughed at me. Laughed and laughed—till he saw my eyes. He didn't laugh then. Nor my mother. My mother screamed when she saw my eyes. 'Shut up, George!' she screamed. 'She's not Ned's girl now!' And George said, 'No, by God! She's your brat now, all right! She's the devil's own!'
"And they ran for the door. I tried to get there first, to catch my little mother. My mother only screamed, as if she were wild. And they got out—out in the dark. 'Mother!' I cried. 'Mother! Come back, come back!' No answer. My mother was gone.
"Oh, that made me feel, somehow, very strong. 'I'll bring you back!' I shouted. 'You, George! I'll send you away. Wait and see!' They never answered. Maybe they never heard. The wind was blowing, like to-night.
"But I knew where I could find them. I knew where to go to find George. And I ran to my loft, for my knife. But, O my God, when I saw poor Mollie in the glass! Teeth gone. I wasn't beautiful any more. And my eyes!—they came out of the glass at me, like two big dogs jumping a fence. I ran from them. I didn't know myself. I ran out of the door, in the night. I went after that man. He had done too much. That storm—the lightning that night! Awful! But no storm kept me back. Rain—hail—but I kept on. Trees fell—but I went on. I called out. I laughed then, myself. I'll get him! I say, 'Look out for Ned's girl! Look out for Ned's girl!' I say...."
Unconsciously the woman was re-enacting every gesture, repeating every phrase and accent of her journey through the night, that excursion out of the world, from which there had been no return for her. "Look out for Ned's girl!"—the house rang with the cry. But this second journey, of the memory, ended in a moan and a faint.
"I said I would tell it! Help me!" she said.
In some fashion they worked her heavy bulk out of its crazy wrappings and into a bed. John arrived, to help them. Morning peered timidly over the eastern hills, as if fearful of beholding what the night had wrought. In its smiling calm the noise of the storm was already done away. But the storm in the troubled mind raged on.
For days it raged, in fever and delirium. Then they buried the rude minister of justice in the place where she commanded—under the pile of broken stones and bricks among the trees in the hollow. And it is said that the inquisitive villagers who had a part in the simple ceremonies stirred about till they made the discovery of two skeletons under the ruins. And to this day there are persons in Bustlebury with a belief that at night, or in a storm, they sometimes hear a long-drawn cry issuing from that lonely little hollow.
THE INTERVAL 
[Note 17: Copyright 1917, by The Boston Transcript Co. Copyright, 1918, by Vincent O' Sullivan.]
BY VINCENT O'SULLIVAN
From The Boston Evening Transcript
Mrs. Wilton passed through a little alley leading from one of the gates which are around Regent's Park, and came out on the wide and quiet street. She walked along slowly, peering anxiously from side to side so as not to overlook the number. She pulled her furs closer round her; after her years in India this London damp seemed very harsh. Still, it was not a fog to-day. A dense haze, gray and tinged ruddy, lay between the houses, sometimes blowing with a little wet kiss against the face. Mrs. Wilton's hair and eyelashes and her furs were powdered with tiny drops. But there was nothing in the weather to blur the sight; she could see the faces of people some distance off and read the signs on the shops.
Before the door of a dealer in antiques and second-hand furniture she paused and looked through the shabby uncleaned window at an unassorted heap of things, many of them of great value. She read the Polish name fastened on the pane in white letters.
"Yes; this is the place."
She opened the door, which met her entrance with an ill-tempered jangle. From somewhere in the black depths of the shop the dealer came forward. He had a clammy white face, with a sparse black beard, and wore a skull cap and spectacles. Mrs. Wilton spoke to him in a low voice.
A look of complicity, of cunning, perhaps of irony, passed through the dealer's cynical and sad eyes. But he bowed gravely and respectfully.
"Yes, she is here, madam. Whether she will see you or not I do not know. She is not always well; she has her moods. And then, we have to be so careful. The police—Not that they would touch a lady like you. But the poor alien has not much chance these days."
Mrs. Wilton followed him to the back of the shop, where there was a winding staircase. She knocked over a few things in her passage and stooped to pick them up, but the dealer kept muttering, "It does not matter—surely it does not matter." He lit a candle.
"You must go up these stairs. They are very dark; be careful. When you come to a door, open it and go straight in."
He stood at the foot of the stairs holding the light high above his head as she ascended.
* * *
The room was not very large, and it seemed very ordinary. There were some flimsy, uncomfortable chairs in gilt and red. Two large palms were in corners. Under a glass cover on the table was a view of Rome. The room had not a business-like look, thought Mrs. Wilton; there was no suggestion of the office or waiting-room where people came and went all day; yet you would not say that it was a private room which was lived in. There were no books or papers about; every chair was in the place it had been placed when the room was last swept; there was no fire and it was very cold.
To the right of the window was a door covered with a plush curtain. Mrs. Wilton sat down near the table and watched this door. She thought it must be through it that the soothsayer would come forth. She laid her hands listlessly one on top of the other on the table. This must be the tenth seer she had consulted since Hugh had been killed. She thought them over. No, this must be the eleventh. She had forgotten that frightening man in Paris who said he had been a priest. Yet of them all it was only he who had told her anything definite. But even he could do no more than tell the past. He told of her marriage; he even had the duration of it right—twenty-one months. He told too of their time in India—at least, he knew that her husband had been a soldier, and said he had been on service in the "colonies." On the whole, though, he had been as unsatisfactory as the others. None of them had given her the consolation she sought. She did not want to be told of the past. If Hugh was gone forever, then with him had gone all her love of living, her courage, all her better self. She wanted to be lifted out of the despair, the dazed aimless drifting from day to day, longing at night for the morning, and in the morning for the fall of night, which had been her life since his death. If somebody could assure her that it was not all over, that he was somewhere, not too far away, unchanged from what he had been here, with his crisp hair and rather slow smile and lean brown face, that he saw her sometimes, that he had not forgotten her....
"Oh, Hugh, darling!"
When she looked up again the woman was sitting there before her. Mrs. Wilton had not heard her come in. With her experience, wide enough now, of seers and fortune-tellers of all kinds, she saw at once that this woman was different from the others. She was used to the quick appraising look, the attempts, sometimes clumsy, but often cleverly disguised, to collect some fragments of information whereupon to erect a plausible vision. But this woman looked as if she took it out of herself.
Not that her appearance suggested intercourse with the spiritual world more than the others had done; it suggested that, in fact, considerably less. Some of the others were frail, yearning, evaporated creatures, and the ex-priest in Paris had something terrible and condemned in his look. He might well sup with the devil, that man, and probably did in some way or other.
But this was a little fat, weary-faced woman about fifty, who only did not look like a cook because she looked more like a sempstress. Her black dress was all covered with white threads. Mrs. Wilton looked at her with some embarrassment. It seemed more reasonable to be asking a woman like this about altering a gown than about intercourse with the dead. That seemed even absurd in such a very commonplace presence. The woman seemed timid and oppressed; she breathed heavily and kept rubbing her dingy hands, which looked moist, one over the other; she was always wetting her lips, and coughed with a little dry cough. But in her these signs of nervous exhaustion suggested overwork in a close atmosphere, bending too close over the sewing-machine. Her uninteresting hair, like a rat's pelt, was eked out with a false addition of another color. Some threads had got into her hair too.
Her harried, uneasy look caused Mrs. Wilton to ask compassionately: "Are you much worried by the police?"
"Oh, the police! Why don't they leave us alone? You never know who comes to see you. Why don't they leave me alone? I'm a good woman. I only think. What I do is no harm to any one."...
She continued in an uneven querulous voice, always rubbing her hands together nervously. She seemed to the visitor to be talking at random, just gabbling, like children do sometimes before they fall asleep.
"I wanted to explain—" hesitated Mrs. Wilton.
But the woman, with her head pressed close against the back of the chair, was staring beyond her at the wall. Her face had lost whatever little expression it had; it was blank and stupid. When she spoke it was very slowly and her voice was guttural.
"Can't you see him? It seems strange to me that you can't see him. He is so near you. He is passing his arm round your shoulders."
This was a frequent gesture of Hugh's. And indeed at that moment she felt that somebody was very near her, bending over her. She was enveloped in tenderness. Only a very thin veil, she felt, prevented her from seeing. But the woman saw. She was describing Hugh minutely, even the little things like the burn on his right hand.
"Is he happy? Oh, ask him does he love me?"
The result was so far beyond anything she had hoped for that she was stunned. She could only stammer the first thing that came into her head. "Does he love me?"
"He loves you. He won't answer, but he loves you. He wants me to make you see him; he is disappointed, I think, because I can't. But I can't unless you do it yourself."
After a while she said:
"I think you will see him again. You think of nothing else. He is very close to us now."
Then she collapsed, and fell into a heavy sleep and lay there motionless, hardly breathing. Mrs. Wilton put some notes on the table and stole out on tip-toe.
* * *
She seemed to remember that downstairs in the dark shop the dealer with the waxen face detained her to shew some old silver and jewellery and such like. But she did not come to herself, she had no precise recollection of anything, till she found herself entering a church near Portland Place. It was an unlikely act in her normal moments. Why did she go in there? She acted like one walking in her sleep.
The church was old and dim, with high black pews. There was nobody there. Mrs. Wilton sat down in one of the pews and bent forward with her face in her hands.
After a few minutes she saw that a soldier had come in noiselessly and placed himself about half-a-dozen rows ahead of her. He never turned round; but presently she was struck by something familiar in the figure. First she thought vaguely that the soldier looked like her Hugh. Then, when he put up his hand, she saw who it was.
She hurried out of the pew and ran towards him. "Oh, Hugh, Hugh, have you come back?"
He looked round with a smile. He had not been killed. It was all a mistake. He was going to speak....
Footsteps sounded hollow in the empty church. She turned and glanced down the dim aisle.
It was an old sexton or verger who approached. "I thought I heard you call," he said.
"I was speaking to my husband." But Hugh was nowhere to be seen.
"He was here a moment ago." She looked about in anguish. "He must have gone to the door."
"There's nobody here," said the old man gently. "Only you and me. Ladies are often taken funny since the war. There was one in here yesterday afternoon said she was married in this church and her husband had promised to meet her here. Perhaps you were married here?"
"No," said Mrs. Wilton, desolately. "I was married in India."
* * *
It might have been two or three days after that, when she went into a small Italian restaurant in the Bayswater district. She often went out for her meals now: she had developed an exhausting cough, and she found that it somehow became less troublesome when she was in a public place looking at strange faces. In her flat there were all the things that Hugh had used; the trunks and bags still had his name on them with the labels of places where they had been together. They were like stabs. In the restaurant, people came and went, many soldiers too among them, just glancing at her in her corner.
This day, as it chanced, she was rather late and there nobody there. She was very tired. She nibbled at the food they brought her. She could almost have cried from tiredness and loneliness and the ache in her heart.