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The Best Short Stories of 1919 - and the Yearbook of the American Short Story
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Nothing now held the ship but a single iron dog which bound the two tallowed surfaces together. One stroke of the maul knocked this away. Still the ship hung fire.

"Run back and forth thwartships, you there; all you good people!" cried Hat hoarsely. "See if we can't start her that way."

So the ship's launching company ran back and forth, and fore and aft, until their tongues were hanging out. Elmer nudged his wife and asked her if she remembered that night when they had danced up and down themselves at a moonlight launching. Pearl replied with a trace of acid that she had good cause to remember it. It was then that Elmer had screwed his courage to the speaking point.

In vain, all in vain Hat Tyler roared her orders. The Minnie Williams budged not, nor felt a thrill of life along her keel. The crowd beside the ways scarcely drew breath; the suspense was racking.

At length the ship's company stopped for lack of breath; and in a moment of hush a voice cried: "You better get out of that traveling suit, Hat Tyler. You won't travel to-day."

It was Pearl Higgins. She followed up her witty saying by a peal of jeering laughter, which punctured the tense mood of that great throng of friends and neighbors; and such a roar of laughter went up at Hat's expense that the Minnie Williams—and Hat no less—quivered from stem to stern.

The sea captain burst frankly into tears.

"No, sir," Elmer said to a member of the Tall Stove Club who had missed the launching, "I never see Hat go all to pieces the way she did then. She was all broken up over it. Well, she might have mistrusted that Pearl had a bone to pick with her. Pearl had been between a sweat and a shiver to get in a word, and she see her chance and let her have it slap. 'T was just what the doctor ordered. It come in so kind of comical too. There was Hat, all twittered up in that great poison-green hat of hers with the little heap of crab apples over one eye—and she stood there and couldn't say ay, yes or no. And then it was boo-hoo, you know, same as women will when a thing ain't jest according to their liking. Hat's a smart woman, all right enough, but she don't show to her best advantage when she blubbers. I stood there looking at her and I couldn't think of nothing but that old adage that runs: 'Hell is nothing to put alongside of a woman that has been laughed at.' 'Pearl,' I says, 'you've done it now. You can't tell me you haven't made an enemy of that woman.' And Pearl says to me, 'That great baby! I guess she'll survive.' 'Well,' I says, 'the fat's in the fire.' And Pearl says to me, ''T won't hurt her if she does lose a little flesh over it.' I don't know why it is these women can't live together in peace without kicking up such a touse all the time over trifles."

Elmer was not free on the occasion itself to spend himself in narrative, however. His wife kept him close by her after her triumph. In grim silence she preceded him up the outside staircase, threw open the door to the house of Higgins and marched in. She commanded him to fetch a hod of coal. She rattled her irons, touched her finger to the bottom of a hot one—tszt—and brought it down on the ironing board with a masterful jounce. And then she glared out of the window at the massive stern of the Minnie Williams.

"I guess she'll know better another time," she said grimly.

"Ain't you two women been at swords' points long enough?" pleaded Elmer.

"If she thinks she can walk all over me she'll find she's mightily mistaken."

"All is, I mistrust she won't leave a stone unturned," Elmer said, scratching his ear. He was deep in the study of navigation again. "Hat's contrary; yes, she is; she's mulish when she's crossed. And I don't know when I've seen her get her back up the way she did to-day."

He spoke as briefly as possible on the subject, however. Good navigation began at home; and there were shallows there that would put to shame the terrors of Pollock Rip Slue. As he was going to bed near the hour of midnight he did just say that he would rather not have Hat Tyler for an enemy.

"There's no telling when she may bob up and put a spoke in your wheel," he said, taking off his necktie.

"You see to it that you put on a clean collar in the morning," said Pearl Higgins from the bed. "The one you've got on's filthy dirty."

"I wish you could see it in a little different light Pearl," said her spouse. "It ain't as if Hat Tyler was the fiend incarnate. But she'll naturally hanker to get back at you; and with me away and all——"

"I can take care of myself, thank you," said Pearl.

"Still and all, I don't like to leave you with things this way."

"A precious lot you care how you leave things—going off at your age and getting into this awful war when there ain't a particle of need of it."

"Ain't we had that all out once?"

"And then you stand up there and defend that woman."

"Now, Pearl——"

"Yes, you are! You're defending her, and I shouldn't wonder if you didn't think as much of her as ever you did in your heart of hearts. Oh, if you only knew how it wrings me to think of you and she together!"

"There, there! Why, in those days I hadn't so much as—I didn't so much as know you were on earth."

"We can't ever forget our first loves," said Pearl. "It's no use your standing up there and letting on. I know what I know. Put out the light and get into bed. Your feet are getting cold standing there that way."

Her mouth turned into the pillow, she went on: "I remember just as well as if it was yesterday when her father lay dying—you know how much he thought of that horse of his, and how it always had red tassels hung on its ears the first day of spring, and the brass on the harness was enough to put your eyes out, he worked over it so. He thought the world of that horse, and when he see he was going to go, he got up and said, 'Hat, shoot the horse. I won't be quiet in my grave for thinking what kind of treatment it may be getting.' And what does she do but out into the barn and shoot the gun into the air, and come back and let on like the horse is gone. And her poor father lying there at his last gasp."

"Still and all," said Elmer, "wouldn't it have been kind of too bad to put a young horse like that out of its misery? It warn't a day over ten years old."

"And now what?" continued Pearl. "I heard only to-day that she's been to the first selectman about having our place here condemned on the ground that it's unsafe. And the next thing I know I'll be turned out of house and home and won't know which way to turn nor where to lay my head. After I've slaved like a dog all my life and worse—and what thanks do I get for it? Why, my husband—walks away—and leaves me—in the lurch. That's how much he—thinks of me. Ain't you never coming to bed?"

Elmer, who had stood listening, now in fact had his lips ready puffed to blow out the light.

But he did not blow.

Instead he said, "My soul and body, what was that?"

A fearful sound smote upon their ears. Something had shouldered the house. The stovepipe in the kitchen fell down, there followed the sound as of some scaly creature dragging its body across the linoleum. Then there came a fall of plaster, and the kitchen stove itself appeared stealthily through the bedroom wall.

"My conscience!" said Elmer Higgins at the height of his mystification.

But we anticipate. It will be well at this point to look in on the affairs of Hat Tyler for a moment. When it became apparent that the Minnie Williams would not leave the ways until softer weather had loosened up the launching grease the crowd drifted away from her. The cook banked his fires and the crew went ashore for a carouse.

Then it was that Hat had it out with Tyler. Jed said himself afterward that it was a regular old-fashioned session, but further than that he would not commit himself, beyond saying that of course Hat was sensitive—awful sensitive—and just as thin-skinned as she could be, and it was only natural she should get up on her high horse when once she had him alone. It was not till near midnight that, red of eye and with her hair stringing down any old how, she put her head out of the companionway and looked vengefully at the Higgins place across the way.

"If looks could kill," Tyler said, thrusting his jaw out with hers, "there wouldn't be a grease spot left of that shack, would there, Hat?"

Hat made no answer. She had felt an indefinable sensation at the soles of her feet.

"We're away, Tyler, we're away!" she gasped.

It was even so. Swift as a swallow on the wing and noiseless as a thief in the night the Minnie Williams left the smoking ways, with that deep and graceful bow always so thrilling to beholders when there are beholders; the first and most beautiful motion of the ship.

"You christian her, Hat!" cried Tyler. "I'll drop the hook."

Hat broke the bottle over her stern works at the very moment that a roar of chain going out at the hawse pipe forward set the sleeping gulls flapping seaward. The Minnie Williams floated there lightly as a feather drifted from the wings of sleep, soundless save for the chain rattling out of her lockers. She had chosen that whimsical hour of the night to take her first bath, and who should say the lady nay?

Now by insensible degrees the near shore receded and the far shore drew near. Still slack chain rattled out of the hawse pipe.

Hat strode forward.

"For the Lord's sake, ain't you going to snub this ship!" she cried in a voice hoarse with fury.

Jed Tyler thrust a ghastly dewy face out of the windlass room.

"I can't do it, Hat!" he gasped.

"You can't! Don't tell me you can't! Everything's been done that's been tried. You drop that hook or I'll know the reason why!"

"The friction band's broke square in two."

"Oh, damn it all, if I must say so—there!" said Hat bitterly, for she was not captain in name only. "If there's any such thing as break it's break at a time like this. Let go that port anchor."

"Both wildcats will turn idle the way things are here."

"You do as I say! The weight of the chain may check her in some."

Tyler dropped his other hook.

"How much chain have we got on that starboard anchor? Do you know?"

"About one hundred and seventy-five fathoms."

Hat went aft again and gave a calculating glance. When the chain had been paid out to the bitter end the ship would bring up perforce if the anchor had caught on, for the bitter end had a round turn taken about the foot of the foremast, and was shackled to the keelson with a monster shackle. But—what was the width of the harbor at this point?

"Give her port helm, you ninny," said Hat, wrapping herself in her arms. She shivered, partly because the night was chill and partly from nervous excitement. There was no time to be lost.

"Can't. The rudder's bolted in the amidships position," said Jed in shaking accents.

This had been done to make sure that that giant tail-piece should meet the water squarely, as otherwise the thrust of the ship might snap the rudder post like a pipe-stem.

"Well, I guess the horse is out of the stable, then, that's what I guess," Hat said hoarsely. "She's launched herself now with a vengeance."

They fell silent. With the indifference to danger of a sleepwalker the Minnie Williams marched across the starlit harbor.

Presently Hat brought down a heavy hand on her spouse's lean shoulder.

"You see what she's going to do, don't you?" she cried. "She's going to mix it with the Higgins place, that's what she's going to do! Give them a blue light. They're awake. I see a light burning in that south window."

Tyler fetched a blue light; but his matches were wet with the sweat of his efforts in the windlass room. He could not strike fire.

"What are you doing? What are you doing, man?" shrieked Hat. "Come, if you can't strike a light give them a shot out of that shotgun. The whole place is coming down round their ears in a minute."

"I give away the last cartridges I had yisterday to a boy that come asking for them."

"I suppose you'd give 'em the shirt off your back if they come asking for it," cried Hat. "I never saw such a man. Get up the patent fog horn."

"I ain't got the key to the box," said Jed in the sulky tones of a man who can't begin to comply with the demands upon him.

"Ain't got the key! This is a pretty time to come telling me that. Run forward and see if you can't kink up the chain in the hawse pipe somehow."

Jed Tyler affected not to hear this. There was a glorious crash coming, and for his part he meant to be an eyewitness. Followed a marvelous silence, during which with fateful celerity the Minnie Williams stalked the unsuspecting Higgins house. The seaward end of the wharf on which it stood had rotted away and fallen in, and nothing now remained but the line of spiles, which rose out of the water like a row of bad teeth from which the gums had fallen away. And on top of each spile roosted a huge sea gull of marvelous whiteness, fatted with the spoils of the harbor.

So quietly had the Minnie Williams stolen upon them that the spiles on which they slept stirred and swayed out before they took note of the invasion. At the touch they rose shrieking on the night air with a vast flapping of wings.

The ship passed between the long rows of spiling with nice judgment. Certainly in the circumstance she was doing the best she could by herself and her owners. At the left of her lay a little steamer tied up for the winter, the top of her stack swathed like a sore thumb; and only twenty feet to the right, under water, lurked, as Hat well knew, a cruel weed-grown stone abutment. To the fine angular stern of the Minnie Williams the Higgins place would be like nothing so much as a pillow stuffed with eiderdown.

That fated residence stood forlorn in the starshine. It was old, it was gray, it suffered from some sort of shingle mange, and blue and yellow tin tobacco signs were tacked on here and there. The crazy outside staircase was like an aspiration that had come to nothing.

No knight of old ever couched lance against the shield of his enemy with surer aim than that which distinguished the Minnie Williams when she set her main boom against the house of Higgins to overthrow it. And it availed it nothing that it was founded upon a rock.

"My God, Tyler, can't you see what's taking place?" yelled Hat Tyler.

Tyler unquestionably could. He had set a cold corn-cob pipe between his teeth; he answered nothing, but his fascinated saucer eyes were fixed on the precise spot where as it seemed the boom was destined to be planted. This was at a place about six feet below the square of soapstone with a hole in it, through which the stovepipe passed. He was not disappointed. The boom in fact exerted its whole pressure against the body of the stove itself, with the result which we have seen. The stove made its way across the kitchen and appeared in the bedroom at the moment when Elmer had made up his lips to blow the flame.

Nor was this all. The inexorable stern of the Minnie Williams followed after, raising the roof of the Higgins place with the skillful care of an epicure taking the cover off his favorite dish. The roof yielded with only a gentle rippling motion, and the ship's lifeboat, which hung from davits aft, scraped the remains of supper off the supper table with her keel.

Zinie Shadd, returning late from a lodge meeting which had wound up with a little supper in the banquet hall, felt a queer stir through his members to see the Higgins place alter its usually placid countenance, falter, turn half round, and get down on its knees with an apparently disastrous collapse of its four walls and of everything within them. The short wide windows narrowed and lengthened with an effect of bodily agony as the ribs of the place were snapped off short all round the eaves.

"God help them poor creatures inside!" he was moved to utter out of the goodness of his heart. "She went in jest as easy," he recounted later to one of his cronies. "It warn't no more exertion for her than 't would be to you to stick your finger through a cream puff."

"How come it they 'scaped with a whole skin?"

"I don't see for the life of me. Elmer says himself it's just another case of where it's for a man to live, and if it ain't for him to he won't, and if it's for him to be will, and that's about all there is to it."

Elmer's exact phrase has been that he guessed nothing coming from the sea side would ever cheat the gallows.

Pearl Higgins told a friend of hers that the one thing that came into her mind as she lay there was that the place had been torpedoed.

"I knew what it was just as well as I wanted to," she said. She had known all along that if any place would get it it would be the Higgins place, on account of its exposed position, right in line with anything that showed up at the mouth of the harbor. Of course if she had stopped to think she would have known that a torpedo didn't come through a house at the snail's pace the stove was moving at when it looked through at her.

"But my land, at a time like that what is a body to think?" she inquired. Of course as soon as she could get her wits together she could see that it was her own stove, and nothing to be afraid of in itself if only she knew what was animating it.

There was the rub. The truth is, the performance of the stove, at that hour of the night, too, was so wholly out of the ordinary that she and Elmer had not so much as stirred out of their tracks for the fraction of a second it took the thing to come clear into the room. Pearl said later that she thought she was seeing things.

"Scared? I was petrified! I couldn't stir hand or foot," she told her friend. "You talk about your flabbergasted women! I never had such a feeling come over me before."

Of course neither of them had the faintest notion of what was at the back of it, and that made it all the worse. Pearl lay there under the clothes as limp as a rag, and the main boom of the Minnie Williams, which as we know was the thing behind it all, urged the stove forward until it was in square contact with the foot of the bed.

Now if there was one thing on which Pearl Higgins prided herself it was her bed. It was a mountainous, whale-backed, feather-bedded four-poster, built in the days of San Domingo mahogany, and quite capable of supporting the weight of a baby elephant without a quiver. Equipped with the legs of a colossus it had a frame to match. Tradition had it that a governor of the state had once lain in it. If there was one thing sure, therefore, it was that the bed would not collapse. But then again the Minnie Williams was a lady not to be denied. She must come on; she could not help it for her heart, for the bitter end of the chain cable was not yet, and she still had way on her.

The bed, the stove and the boom met, they fitted together as if they had been made for one another from the beginning, they engaged each other like vertebra in a spine, they stiffened. There came a fearful rending of laths; the mopboard buckled; two vases of alabaster fell from the parlor mantel, and almost at the same moment the red plush clock with the stone cuckoo-bird over the dial and the music box "where its gizzard should have been," as Elmer always said, fell likewise. Pearl said afterward she knew that had gone because it started playing there on the floor at a great rate. And the next thing she knew she was in the parlor herself; and such a mess! She didn't know as she ever wanted to lay eyes on it again after that night's works.

Elmer, uncertain what part to play, walked along with the bed, still carrying the hand lamp in his hand, to light the Minnie Williams along, and dodging falling walls and plaster. He said when questioned by Zinie Shadd that he hadn't felt any particular alarm, on account of the deliberate way she had come poking in there, with a kind of a root-hog-or-die look about her; and he said he never for a minute doubted his ability and Pearl's to make good their escape if the worst came to the worst.

It really wasn't until the parlor went, as he explained to the Tall Stove Club, that he took it into his head to look over his shoulder; and it was then that he saw the lifeboat sweeping on victoriously across the kitchen, or what had been the kitchen. And on top of that he saw Hat Tyler looking down as cool as a cucumber, and her husband standing beside her.

"She had come on deck jest as she was," he stated at that time with a quiet chuckle, "and I never see anything like so much interest showing in a human countenance before."

Hat Tyler might well show interest; for after the house came the land—and the land, well she knew it, was made of sterner stuff. A shriek from Pearl told Elmer that his wife had found her tongue, as he phrased it. The fact is she had caught sight of Hat Tyler standing over her like an avenging fury.

But precisely at this moment the chain cable, which had all this time lain lethargic on the floor of the harbor, roused itself link by link, tautened, took a grip on the hook and snubbed the ship. None too soon, it had run out to the bitter end.

Pearl Higgins' bed halted, the stove halted, and Elmer set down his lamp. The boom receded. With the same swanlike ease she had used in effecting an entrance, the Minnie Williams floated out into the stream again.

And in the very instant of that heaven-sent reversal Hat Tyler cried in trumpet tones, "Travel yourself, and see how you like it!"

A shriek of demoniac laughter came on the heels of that. There were none present to laugh with Hat, but that laugh of hers rang in Pearl Higgins' ears like the last trump. She got herself over the side of the bed in short order. Too late, alas! Hat Tyler's had been a Parthian shot. The ship was out of the house altogether by then, and the roof had settled back over its joists at a rakish angle. The whole after part of the house was mashed into a neat concavity which would have made a perfect mold for the Minnie Williams' stern, and the Minnie Williams was in the stream again, with not a scratch about her.

"Ain't that something?" Elmer Higgins said, standing at the edge of this declivity. "Ain't that something huge?"

"Stand there and gawk! I would if I was you!" cried his wife. "Oh, will I ever get that laugh out of my ears if I live to be a hundred? Did ever you hear anything so hateful? I think you're a pretty small part of a man myself! The least you could have done was to have lit into her when you had the chance.

"But no, not you! What do you do but stand there and never so much as open your mouth!"

"I was so kind of took aback," Elmer advanced, "what with one thing and another, I couldn't seem to lay my hands on jest the words I wanted. And she standing there jest as she was too. Ain't she immense? Where you going to look to for a solider woman than Hat?"

"It's just like her for all the world, pushing herself in where she's not wanted," sobbed Pearl miserably. "The gall of her! And she just itching to get this house out of the way too! I suppose you'll be just contrary-minded enough now to say that she didn't do it on purpose?"

"No," said Elmer, solemn as a judge. "She forelaid for it all right, all right. I been saying right along she warn't a woman to sit quiet under a blow, and I told you as much at the time, mamma, if you'll recollect. I said, 'When Hat hits back I look out from under.'"

He picked a lump of plaster out of his ear and lifted high the lamp.

"But my grief, my grief, when all is said and done, ain't she a dabster!" he whispered with a tinge of admiration. "And warn't it—warn't it nice calculation?"



THE MEEKER RITUAL[14]

[Note 14: Copyright, 1919, by The Century Company. Copyright, 1920, by Joseph Hergesheimer.]

BY JOSEPH HERGESHEIMER

From The Century

I. THE ROCK OF AGES

The entire pretension is so ridiculous that it is difficult to credit the extent of its acceptance. I don't mean McGeorge's story, but the whole sweep of spiritism. It ought to be unnecessary to point out the puerility of the evidence—the absurd babble advanced as the speech of wise men submerged in the silent consummation of death, the penny tricks with bells and banjos, the circus-like tables and anthropomorphic Edens. Yet, so far as the phrase goes, there is something in it; but whatever that is, lies in demonstrable science, the investigations of the subconscious by Freud and Jung.

McGeorge himself, a reporter with a sufficient education in the actual, tried to repeat impartially, with the vain illusion of an open mind, what he had been told; but it was clear that his power of reasoning had been disarranged. We were sitting in the Italian restaurant near his paper to which he had conducted me, and he was inordinately troubled by flies. A small, dark man, he was never without a cigarette; he had always been nervous, but I had no memory of such uneasiness as he now exhibited.

"It's rather dreadful," he said, gazing at me for an instant, and then shifting his glance about the white plaster walls and small flock of tables, deserted at that hour. "I mean this thing of not really dying—hanging about in the wind, in space. I used to have a natural dread of death; but now I'm afraid of—of keeping on. When you think of it, a grave's quite a pleasant place. It's restful. This other—" He broke off, but not to eat.

"My editor," he began anew, apparently at a tangent, "wouldn't consider it. I was glad. I'd like to forget it, go back. There might be a story for you."

Whatever he had heard in connection with the Meeker circle, I assured him, would offer me nothing; I didn't write that sort of thing.

"You'd appreciate Lizzie Tuoey," he asserted.

McGeorge had been sent to the Meeker house to unearth what he could about the death of Mrs. Kraemer. He described vividly the location, which provided the sole interest to an end admitted normal in its main features. It was, he said, one of those vitrified wildernesses of brick that have given the city the name of a place of homes; dreadful. Amazing in extent, it was without a single feature to vary the monotony of two-storied dwellings cut into exact parallelograms by paved streets; there was a perspective of continuous facades and unbroken tin roofs in every direction, with a grocery or drug-store and an occasional saloon at the corners, and beyond the sullen red steeple of a church.

Dusk was gathering when McGeorge reached the Meekers. It was August, and the sun had blazed throughout the day, with the parching heat; the smell of brick dust and scorched tin was hideous. His word. There was, too, a faint metallic clangor in the air. He knew that it came from the surface-cars, yet he could not rid himself of the thought of iron furnace-doors.

He had, of course, heard of the Meekers before. So had I, for that matter. A crack-brained professor had written a laborious, fantastic book about their mediumship and power of communication with the other world. They sat together as a family: the elder Meekers; the wife's sister; a boy, Albert, of fourteen; Ena, close to twenty; and Jannie, a girl seventeen years old and the medium proper. Jannie's familiar spirit was called Stepan. He had, it seemed, lived and died in the reign of Peter the Great; yet he was still actual, but unmaterialized, and extremely anxious to reassure every one through Jannie of the supernal happiness of the beyond. What messages I read, glancing over hysterical pages, gave me singularly little comfort, with the possible exception of the statement that there were cigars; good cigars Stepan, or Jannie, explained, such as on earth cost three for a quarter.

However, most of what McGeorge told me directly concerned Lizzie Tuoey. The Meekers he couldn't see at all. They remained in an undiscovered part of the house—there was a strong reek of frying onions from the kitchen—and delegated the servant as their link with the curious or respectful or impertinent world.

Lizzie admitted him to the parlor, where, she informed him, the sittings took place. There wasn't much furniture beyond a plain, heavy table, an array of stiff chairs thrust back against the walls, and on a mantel a highly painted miniature Rock of Ages, with a white-clad figure clinging to it, washed with a poisonous green wave, all inclosed in a glass bell. At the rear was a heavy curtain that, he found, covered the entrance to a smaller room.

Lizzie was a stout, cheerful person, with the ready sympathies and superstitions of the primitive mind of the south of Ireland. She was in a maze of excitement, and his difficulty was not to get her to talk, but to arrest her incoherent flood of invocations, saints' names, and credulity.

Her duties at the Meekers had been various; one of them was the playing of mechanical music in the back room at certain opportune moments. She said that Stepan particularly requested it; the low strains made it easier for him to speak to the dear folks on this side. It couldn't compare, though, Stepan had added, with the music beyond; and why should it, Lizzie had commented, and all the blessed saints bursting their throats with tunes! She swore, however, that she had had no part in the ringing of the bells or the knocks and jumps the table took.

She had no explanation for the latter other than the conviction that the dear God had little, if any, part in it. Rather her choice of an agent inclined to the devil. Things happened, she affirmed, that tightened her head like a kettle. The cries and groaning from the parlor during a sitting would blast the soul of you. It was nothing at all for a stranger to faint away cold. The light would then be turned up, and water dashed on the unconscious face.

She insisted, McGeorge particularized, that the Meekers took no money for their sittings. At times some grateful person would press a sum on them; a woman had given two hundred and seventy dollars after a conversation with her nephew, dead, as the world called it, twelve years. All the Meekers worked but Jannie; she was spared every annoyance possible, and lay in bed till noon. At the suggestion of Stepan, she made the most unexpected demands. Stepan liked pink silk stockings. He begged her to eat a candy called Turkish paste. He recommended a "teeny" glass of Benedictine, a bottle of which was kept ready. He told her to pinch her flesh black to show—Lizzie Tuoey forgot what.

Jannie was always dragged out with a face the color of wet laundry soap. She had crying fits; at times her voice would change, and she'd speak a gibberish that Mr. Meeker declared was Russian; and after a trance she would eat for six. There was nothing about the senior Meeker Lizzie could describe, but she disliked Mrs. Meeker intensely. She made the preposterous statement that the woman could see through the blank walls of the house. Ena was pale, but pretty, despite dark smudges under her eyes; she sat up very late with boys or else sulked by herself. Albert had a big grinning head on him, and ate flies. Lizzie had often seen him at it. He spent hours against the panes of glass and outside the kitchen door.

It wasn't what you could name gay at the Meekers, and, indeed, it hadn't been necessary for the priest to insist on the girl finding another place; she had decided that independently after she had been there less than a month. Then Mrs. Kraemer had died during a sitting. She would be off, she told McGeorge, the first of the week.

The latter, whose interest at the beginning had been commendably penetrating, asked about Mrs. Meeker's sister; but he discovered nothing more than that—Lizzie Tuoey allowed for a heretic—she was religious. They were all serious about the spiritism, and believed absolutely in Jannie and Stepan, in the messages, the voices and shades that they evoked.

However, questioned directly about Mrs. Kraemer's presence at a sitting, the servant's ready flow of comment and explanation abruptly dwindled to the meager invocation of holy names. It was evidently a business with which she wanted little dealing, even with Mrs. Kraemer safely absent, and with no suspicion of criminal irregularity.

The reporting of that occurrence gave a sufficiently clear impression of the dead woman. She was the relict of August, a naturalized American citizen born in Salzburg, and whose estate, a comfortable aggregate of more than two millions, came partly from hop-fields in his native locality. There was one child, a son past twenty, not the usual inept offspring of late-acquired wealth, but a vigorously administrative youth who spent half the year in charge of the family investment in Germany. At the beginning of the Great War the inevitable overtook the Salzburg industry; its financial resources were acquired by the Imperial Government, and young Kraemer, then abroad, was urged into the German Army.

McGeorge, with a great deal of trouble, extracted some additional angles of insight on Mrs. Kraemer from the reluctant Lizzie.

She was an impressive figure of a lady in fine lavender muslin ruffles, a small hat, blazing diamonds, and a hook in her nose, but Roman and not Jew. A bullying voice and a respectful chauffeur in a glittering car completed the picture. She had nothing favorable to say for the location of the Meeker house; indeed, she complained pretty generally, in her loud, assertive tones, about the inefficiency of city administration in America, but she held out hopes of improvement in the near future. She grew impatiently mysterious—hints were not her habit—in regard to the good shortly to enfold the entire earth. Lizzie gathered somehow that this was bound up with her son, now an officer in a smart Uhlan regiment.

A man of Mrs. Kraemer's type, and the analogy is far closer than common, would never have come to the Meekers for a message from a son warring in the north of France. It is by such lapses that women with the greatest show of logic prove the persistent domination of the earliest emotional instincts. After all, Lizzie Tuoey and Mrs. Kraemer were far more alike than any two such apparently dissimilar men.

At this point McGeorge was lost in the irrelevancy of Lizzie's mind. She made a random statement about Mrs. Meeker's sister and a neighbor, and returned to the uncertain quality of Jannie's temper and the limitations of a medium. It seemed that Jannie was unable to direct successful sittings without a day between for the recuperation of her power. It used her up something fierce. Stepan as well, too often recalled from the joys of the beyond, the cigars of the aroma of three for a quarter, grew fretful; either he refused to answer or played tricks, such as an unexpected sharp thrust in Albert's ribs, or a knocked message of satirical import, "My! wouldn't you just like to know!"

McGeorge had given up the effort to direct the conversation; rather than go away with virtually nothing gained, he decided to let the remarks take what way they would. In this he was wise, for the girl's sense of importance, her normal pressing necessity for speech, gradually submerged her fearful determination to avoid any contact with an affair so plainly smelling of brimstone. She returned to Miss Brasher, the sister, and her neighbor.

The latter was Mrs. Doothnack, and, like Mrs. Kraemer, she had a son fighting in the north of France. There, however, the obvious similitude ended; Edwin Doothnack served a machine-gun of the American Expeditionary Forces, while his mother was as poor and retiring as the other woman was dogmatic and rich. Miss Brasher brought her early in the evening to the Meekers, a little person with the blurred eyes of recent heavy crying, excessively polite to Lizzie Tuoey. Naturally, this did nothing to increase the servant's good opinion of her.

The sister soon explained the purpose of their visit: Edwin, whose regiment had occupied a sacrifice position, was missing. There his mother timidly took up the recital. The Meekers were at supper, and Lizzie, in and out of the kitchen, heard most of the developments. When the report about Edwin had arrived, Mrs. Doothnack's friends were reassuring; he would turn up again at his regiment, or else he had been taken prisoner; in which case German camps, although admittedly bad, were as safe as the trenches. She had been intensely grateful for their good will, and obediently set herself to the acceptance of their optimism, when—it was eleven nights now to the day—she had been suddenly wakened by Edwin's voice.

"O God!" Edwin had cried, thin, but distinct, in a tone of exhausted suffering—"O God!" and "Mummer!" his special term for Mrs. Doothnack. At that, she declared, with straining hands, she knew that Edwin was dead.

Miss Brasher then begged darling Jannie to summon Stepan and discover the truth at the back of Mrs. Doothnack's "message" and conviction. If, indeed, Edwin had passed over, it was their Christian duty to reassure his mother about his present happiness, and the endless future together that awaited all loved and loving ones. Jannie said positively that she wouldn't consider it. A sitting had been arranged for Mrs. Kraemer to-morrow, so that she, without other means, might get some tidings of the younger August.

Mrs. Doothnack rose at once with a murmured apology for disturbing them, but Miss Brasher was more persistent. She had the determination of her virginal fanaticism, and of course she was better acquainted with Jannie. Lizzie wasn't certain, but she thought that Miss Brasher had money, though nothing approaching Mrs. Kraemer; probably a small, safe income.

Anyhow, Jannie got into a temper, and said that they all had no love for her, nobody cared what happened so long as they had their precious messages. Stepan would be cross, too. At this Albert hastily declared that he would be out that evening; he had been promised moving-pictures. That old Stepan would be sure to bust his bones in. Jannie then dissolved into tears, and cried that they were insulting her dear Stepan, who lived in heaven. Albert added his wails to the commotion, Mrs. Doothnack sobbed from pure nervousness and embarrassment, and only Miss Brasher remained unmoved and insistent.

The result of this disturbance was that they agreed to try a tentative sitting. Stepping out into the kitchen, Mrs. Meeker told Lizzie that she needn't bother to play the music that evening.

Here the latter, with a sudden confidence in McGeorge's charitable knowledge of life, admitted that Jannie's bottle of Benedictine was kept in a closet in the room behind the one where the sittings were held. The Meekers had disposed themselves about the table, the circle locked by their hands placed on adjoining knees, with Jannie at the head and Mrs. Doothnack beyond. The servant, in the inner room for a purpose which she had made crystal clear, could just distinguish them in a dim, red-shaded light through the opening of the curtain.

By this time familiarity with the proceeding had bred its indifference, and Lizzie lingered at the closet. The knocks that announced Stepan's presence were a long time in coming; then there came an angry banging and a choked cry from Albert. The table plainly rocked and rose from the floor, and Jannie asked in the flat voice of the tranced:

"Is Edwin there? Here's his mother wanting to speak to him."

The reply, knocked out apparently on the wood mantel, and repeated for the benefit of the visitor, said that those who had won to the higher life couldn't be treated as a mere telephone exchange. Besides which, a party was then in progress, and Stepan was keeping waiting Isabella, consort of King Ferdinand, a lady who would not be put off. This business about Edwin must keep. Miss Brasher said in a firm voice:

"His mother is much distressed and prays for him to speak."

The answer rattled off was not interpreted, but Lizzie gathered that it was extremely personal and addressed to Miss Brasher. There was a silence after that, and then the table rose to a perceptible height and crashed back to the floor. In the startling pause which followed a voice, entirely different from any that had spoken, cried clear and low:

"O God!"

This frightened Lizzie to such an extent that she fled to the familiar propriety of the kitchen; but before she was out of hearing, Mrs. Doothnack screamed, "Edwin!"

Nothing else happened. The firm Miss Brasher and her neighbor departed immediately. Jannie, however looked a wreck, and cold towels and Benedictine were liberally applied. She sobbed hysterically, and wished that she were just a plain girl without a call. Further, she declared that nothing could induce her to proceed with the sitting for Mrs. Kraemer to-morrow. Stepan, before returning to Isabella of Castile, had advised her against it. With such droves of soldiers coming over, it was more and more difficult to control individual spirits. Things in the beyond were in a frightful mess. They might see something that would scare them out of their wits.

Mrs. Meeker, with a share of her sister's aplomb, said that she guessed they could put up with a little scaring in the interest of Mrs. August Kraemer. She was sick of doing favors for people like Agnes's friend, and made it clear that she desired genteel associates both in the here and the hereafter. Jannie's face began to twitch in a manner common to it, and her eyes grew glassy. At times, Lizzie explained, she would fall right down as stiff as a board, and they would have to put her on the lounge till she recovered. Her sentimental reading of Jannie's present seizure was that she was jealous of Ferdinand's wife.

Not yet, even, McGeorge confessed, did he see any connection between the humble little Mrs. Doothnack and Mrs. Kraemer, in her fine lavender and diamonds. He continued putting the queries almost at random to Lizzie Tuoey, noting carelessly, as if they held nothing of the body of his business, her replies. While the amazing fact was that, quite aside from his subsequent credulity or any reasonable skepticism, the two presented the most complete possible unity of causation and climax. As a story, beyond which I have no interest, together they are admirable. They were enveloped, too, in the consistency of mood loosely called atmosphere; that is, all the details of their surrounding combined to color the attentive mind with morbid shadows.

It was purely on Lizzie Tuoey's evidence that McGeorge's conversion to such ridiculous claims rested. She was not capable of invention, he pointed out, and continued that no one could make up details such as that, finally, of the Rock of Ages. The irony was too biting and inevitable. Her manner alone put what she related beyond dispute.

On the contrary, I insisted, it was just such minds as Lizzie's that could credit in a flash of light—probably a calcium flare—unnatural soldiers, spooks of any kind. Her simple pictorial belief readily accepted the entire possibility of visions and wonders.

I could agree or not, he proceeded wearily; it was of small moment. The fate waited for all men. "The fate of living," he declared, "the curse of eternity. You can't stop. Eternity," he repeated, with an uncontrollable shiver.

"Stepan seemed to find compensations," I reminded him.

"If you are so damned certain about the Tuoey woman," he cried, "what have you got to say about Mrs. Kraemer's death? You can't dismiss her as a hysterical idiot. People like her don't just die."

"A blood clot." His febrile excitement had grown into anger, and I suppressed further doubts.

He lighted a cigarette. The preparations for Mrs. Kraemer's reception and the sitting, he resumed, were elaborate. Mr. Meeker lubricated the talking-machine till its disk turned without a trace of the mechanism. A new record—it had cost a dollar and a half and was by a celebrated violinist—was fixed, and a halftone semi-permanent needle selected. Lizzie was to start this after the first storm of knocking, or any preliminary jocularity of Stepan's, had subsided.

Jannie had on new pink silk stockings and white kid slippers. Her head had been marcelled special, and she was so nervous that she tore three hair-nets. At this she wept, and stamped her foot, breaking a bottle of expensive scent.

When Mrs. Kraemer's motor stopped at the door, Lizzie went forward, and Mrs. Meeker floated down the stairs.

Stopping him sharply, I demanded a repetition of the latter phrase. It was Lizzie's. McGeorge, too, had expressed surprise, and the girl repeated it. Mrs. Meeker, she declared, often "floated." One evening she had seen Mrs. Meeker leave the top story by a window and stay suspended over the bricks twenty feet below.

Mrs. Kraemer entered the small hall like a keen rush of wind; her manner was determined, an impatience half checked by interest in what might follow. She listened with a short nod to Mr. Meeker's dissertation on the necessity of concord in all the assembled wills. The spirit world must be approached reverently, with trust and thankfulness for whatever might be vouchsafed.

The light in the front room, a single gas-burner, was lowered, and covered by the inevitable red-paper hood, and the circle formed. Lizzie was washing dishes, but the kitchen door was open, so that she could hear the knocks that were the signal for the music. They were even longer coming than on the night before, and she made up her mind that Stepan had declared a holiday from the responsibilities of a control. At last there was a faint vibration, and she went cautiously into the dark space behind the circle. The curtains had always hung improperly, and she could see a dim red streak of light.

The knocks at best were not loud; several times when she was about to start the record they began again inconclusively. Stepan finally communicated that he was exhausted. Some one was being cruel to him. Could it be Jannie? There was a sobbing gasp from the latter. Mrs. Kraemer's voice was like ice-water; she wanted some word from August, her son. She followed the name with the designation of his rank and regiment. And proud of it, too, Lizzie added; you might have taken from her manner that she was one of us. Her version of Mrs. Kraemer's description sounded as though August were an ewe-lamb. McGeorge, besotted in superstition, missed this.

Independently determining that the moment for music had come, Lizzie pressed forward the lever and carefully lowered the lid. The soft strains of the violin, heard through the drawn curtains, must have sounded illusively soothing and impressive.

"Stepan," Jannie implored, "tell August's mamma about him, so far away amid shot and shell."

"Who is my mother?" Stepan replied, with a mystical and borrowed magnificence.

"August, are you there?" Mrs. Kraemer demanded. "Can you hear me? Are you well?"

"I'm deaf from the uproar," Stepan said faintly. "Men in a green gas. He is trying to reach me; something is keeping him back."

"August's alive!" Mrs. Kraemer's exclamation was in German, but Lizzie understood that she was thanking God.

"Hundreds are passing over," Stepan continued. "I can't hear his voice, but there are medals. He's gone again in smoke. The other——" The communication halted abruptly, and in the silence which followed Lizzie stopped the talking-machine, the record at an end.

It was then that the blaze of light occurred which made her think the paper shade had caught fire and that the house would burn down. She dragged back the curtain.

McGeorge refused to meet my interrogation, but sat with his gaze fastened on his plate of unconsumed gray macaroni. After a little I asked impatiently what the girl thought she had seen.

After an inattentive silence McGeorge asked me, idiotically I thought, if I had ever noticed the game, the hares and drawn fish, sometimes frozen into a clear block of ice and used as an attraction by provision stores. I had, I admitted, although I could see no connection between that and the present inquiry.

It was, however, his description of the column of light Lizzie Tuoey saw over against the mantel, a shining white shroud through which the crudely painted Rock of Ages was visible, insulated in the glass bell. Oh, yes, there was a soldier, but in the uniform that might be seen passing the Meekers any hour of the day, and unnaturally hanging in a traditional and very highly sanctified manner. The room was filled with a coldness that made Lizzie's flesh crawl. It was as bright as noon; the circle about the table was rigid, as if it had been frozen into immobility, while Jannie's breathing was audible and hoarse.

Mrs. Kraemer stood wrung with horror, a shaking hand sparkling with diamonds raised to her face. It was a lie, she cried in shrill, penetrating tones. August couldn't do such a thing. Kill him quickly!

The other voice was faint, McGeorge said, hardly more than a sigh; but Lizzie Tuoey had heard it before. She asserted that there was no chance for a mistake.

"O God!" it breathed. "Mummer!"

This much is indisputable, that Mrs. Kraemer died convulsively in the Meeker hall. Beyond that I am congenitally incapable of belief. I asked McGeorge directly if it was his contention that, through Stepan's blunder, the unfortunate imperialistic lady, favored with a vignette of modern organized barbarity, had seen Mrs. Doothnack's son in place of her own.

He didn't, evidently, think this worth a reply. McGeorge was again lost in his consuming dread of perpetual being.

II. THE GREEN EMOTION

Virtually buried in a raft of ethical tracts of the Middle Kingdom, all more or less repetitions of Lao-tsze's insistence on heaven's quiet way, I ignored the sounding of the telephone; but its continuous bur—I had had the bell removed—triumphed over my absorption, and I answered curtly. It was McGeorge. His name, in addition to the fact that it constituted an annoying interruption, recalled principally that, caught in the stagnant marsh of spiritism, he had related an absurd fabrication in connection with the Meeker circle and the death of Mrs. August Kraemer.

Our acquaintance had been long, but slight. He had never attempted to see me at my rooms, and for this reason only—that his unusual visit might have a corresponding pressing cause—I directed Miss Maynall, at the telephone exchange, to send him up. Five minutes later, however, I regretted that I had not instinctively refused to see him. It was then evident that there was no special reason for his call. It was inconceivable that any one with the least knowledge of my prejudices and opinions would attempt to be merely social, and McGeorge was not without both the rudiments of breeding and good sense.

At least such had been my impression of him in the past, before he had come in contact with the Meekers. Gazing at him, I saw that a different McGeorge was evident, different even from when I had seen him at the Italian restaurant where he had been so oppressed by the fear not of death, but of life. In the first place, he was fatter and less nervous, he was wearing one of those unforgivable soft black ties with flowing ends, and he had changed from Virginia cigarettes to Turkish.

A silence had lengthened into embarrassment, in which I was combating a native irritability with the placid philosophical acceptance of the unstirred Tao, when he asked suddenly:

"Did you know I was married?" I admitted that this information had eluded me, when he added in the fatuous manner of such victims of a purely automatic process, "To Miss Ena Meeker that was."

I asked if he had joined the family circle in the special sense, but he said not yet; he wasn't worthy. Then I realized that there was a valid reason for his presence, but, unfortunately, it operated slowly with him; he had to have a satisfactory audience for the astounding good fortune he had managed. He wanted to talk, and McGeorge, I recalled, had been a man without intimates or family in the city. Almost uncannily, as if in answer to my thought, he proceeded:

"I'm here because you have a considerable brain and, to a certain extent, a courageous attitude. You are all that and yet you won't recognize the truth about the beyond, the precious world of spirits."

"Material."

However, I indicated in another sense that I wasn't material for any propaganda of hysterical and subnormal seances. His being grew inflated with the condescending pity of dogmatic superstition for logic.

"Many professors and men of science are with us, and I am anxious, in your own interest, for you to see the light. I've already admitted that you would be valuable. You can't accuse me of being mercenary." I couldn't. "I must tell you," he actually cried out, in sudden surrender to the tyrannical necessity of self-revelation. "My marriage to Ena was marvelous, marvelous, a true wedding of souls. Mr. Meeker," he added in a different, explanatory manner, "like all careful fathers, is not unconscious of the need, here on earth, of a portion of worldly goods. For a while, and quite naturally, he was opposed to our union.

"There was a Wallace Esselmann." A perceptible caution overtook him, but which, with a gesture, he evidently discarded. "But I ought to explain how I met the Meekers. I called." I expressed a surprise, which he solemnly misread. "It became necessary for me to tell them of my admiration and belief," he proceeded.

"I saw Mrs. Meeker and Ena in the front room where the sittings are held. Mrs. Meeker sat straight up, with her hands folded; but Ena was enchanting." He paused, lost in the visualization of the enchantment. "All sweet curves and round ankles and little feet." Then he unexpectedly made a very profound remark: "I think pale girls are more disturbing than red cheeks. They've always been for me, anyway. Ena was the most disturbing thing in the world."

Here, where I might have been expected to lose my patience disastrously, a flicker of interest appeared in McGeorge and his connection with the Meekers. A normal, sentimental recital would, of course, be insupportable; but McGeorge, I realized, lacked the cooerdination of instincts and faculties which constitutes the healthy state he had called, by implication, stupid. The abnormal often permits extraordinary glimpses of the human machine, ordinarily a sealed and impenetrable mystery. Hysteria has illuminated many of the deep emotions and incentives, and McGeorge, sitting lost in a quivering inner delight, had the significant symptoms of that disturbance.

He may, I thought, exhibit some of the primitive "complex sensitiveness" of old taboos, and furnish an illustration, for a commentary on the sacred Kings, of the physical base of religious fervor.

"An ordinary prospective mother-in-law," said McGeorge, "is hard enough, but Mrs. Meeker——" He made a motion descriptive of his state of mind in the Decker parlor. "Eyes like ice," he continued; "and I could see that I hadn't knocked her over with admiration. Ena got mad soon, and made faces at her mother when she wasn't looking, just as if she were a common girl. It touched me tremendously. Then—I had looked down at the carpet for a moment—Mrs. Meeker had gone, without a sound, in a flash. It was a good eight feet to the door and around a table. Space and time are nothing to her."

Silence again enveloped him; he might have been thinking of the spiritistic triumphs of Mrs. Meeker or of Ena with her sweet curves. Whatever might be said of the latter, it was clear that she was no prude. McGeorge drew a deep breath; it was the only expression of his immediate preoccupation.

"It was quite a strain," he admitted presently. "I called as often as possible and a little oftener. The reception, except for dear Ena, was not prodigal. Once they were having a sitting, and I went back to the kitchen. Of course Lizzie Tuoey, their former servant, was no more, and they had an ashy-black African woman. Some one was sobbing in the front room—the terrible sobs of a suffocating grief. There was a voice, too, a man's, but muffled, so that I couldn't make out any words. That died away, and the thin, bright tones of a child followed; then a storm of knocking, and blowing on a tin trumpet.

"A very successful sitting. I saw Jannie directly afterward, and the heroic young medium was positively livid from exhaustion. She had a shot of Benedictine and then another, and Mr. Meeker half carried her up to bed. I stayed in the kitchen till the confusion was over, and Albert came out and was pointedly rude. If you want to know what's thought of you in a house, watch the young.

"Ena was flighty, too; it irritated her to have me close by—highly strung. She cried for no reason at all and bit her finger-nails to shreds. There was a fine platinum chain about her neck, with a diamond pendant, I had never seen before, and for a long while she wouldn't tell me where it had come from. The name, Wallace Esselmann, finally emerged from her hints and evasions. He was young and rich, he had a waxed mustache, and the favor of the Meekers generally.

"Have you ever been jealous?" McGeorge asked abruptly. Not in the degree he indicated, I replied; however, I comprehended something of its possibilities of tyrannical obsession. "It was like a shovelful of burning coals inside me," he asserted. "I was ready to kill this Esselmann or Ena and then myself. I raved like a maniac; but it evidently delighted her, for she took off the chain and relented.

"At first," McGeorge said, "if you remember, I was terrified at the thought of living forever; but I had got used to that truth, and the blessings of spiritualism dawned upon me. No one could ever separate Ena and me. The oldest India religions support that——"

"With the exception," I was obliged to put in, "that all progression is toward nothingness, suspension, endless calm."

"We have improved on that," he replied. "The joys that await us are genuine twenty-two carat—the eternal companionship of loving ones, soft music, summer——"

"Indestructible lips under a perpetual moon."

He solemnly raised a hand.

"They are all about you," he said; "they hear you; take care. What happened to me will be a warning."

"Materialize the faintest spirit," I told him, "produce the lightest knock on that Fyfe table, and I'll give you a thousand dollars for the cause." He expressed a contemptuous superiority to such bribery. "By your own account," I reminded him, "the Meekers gave this Esselmann every advantage. Why?"

McGeorge's face grew somber.

"I saw him the next time I called, a fat boy with his spiked mustache on glazed cheeks, and a pocketful of rattling gold junk, a racing car on the curb. He had had Ena out for a little spin, and they were discussing how fast they had gone. Not better than sixty-eight, he protested modestly.

"Albert hung on his every word; he was as servile to Esselmann as he was arrogant to me. He said things I had either to overlook completely or else slay him for. I tried to get his liking." McGeorge confessed to me that, remembering what the Meekers' old servant had told him about Albert's peculiar habit, he had even thought of making him a present of a box of flies, precisely in the manner you would bring candy for a pretty girl.

"It began to look hopeless," he confessed of his passion. "Ena admitted that she liked me better than Wallace, but the family wouldn't hear of it. Once, when Mr. Meeker came to the door, he shut it in my face. The sittings kept going right along, and the manifestations were wonderful; the connection between Jannie and Stepan, her spirit control, grew closer and closer. There was a scientific investigation—some professors put Jannie on a weighing-machine during a seance and found that, in a levitation, she had an increase in weight virtually equal to the lifted table. They got phonograph records of the rapping——"

"Did you hear them?" I interrupted.

"They are still in the laboratory," he asserted defiantly, "But I have a photograph that was taken of an apparition." He fumbled in an inner pocket and produced the latter. The print was dark and obscured, but among the shadows a lighter shape was traceable: it might have been a woman in loose, white drapery, a curtain, light-struck; anything, in fact. I returned it to him impatiently.

"That," he informed me, "was a Christian martyr of ancient times."

"Burned to a cinder," I asked, "or dismembered by lions?"

"Can't you even for a minute throw off the illusion of the flesh?"

"Can you?"

He half rose in a flare of anger; for my question, in view of his admissions, had been sharply pressed.

"All love is a sanctification," McGeorge said, recovering his temper admirably. "The union of my beloved wife and me is a holy pact of spirits, transcending corruption."

"You married her against considerable opposition," I reminded him.

"I had the hell of a time," he said in the healthy manner of the former McGeorge. "Everything imaginable was done to finish me; the powers of earth and of the spirit world were set against me. For a while my human frame wasn't worth a lead nickel."

"The beyond, then, isn't entirely the abode of righteousness?"

"There are spirits of hell as well as of heaven."

"The Chinese," I told him, "call them Yin and Yang, spirits of dark and light. Will you explain—it may be useful, if things are as you say—how you fought the powers from beyond?"

"Do you remember what Lizzie Tuoey thought about Jannie and Stepan?" he asked, apparently irrelevantly. "That time Stepan had an engagement with Isabella of Spain." I didn't. "Well, she said that Jannie was jealous of the queen."

McGeorge had, by his own account, really a dreadful time with what was no better than common or, rather, uncommon murder. Two things were evident on the plane of my own recognition—that he had succeeded in holding the illusive affections of Ena, no small accomplishment in view of her neurotic emotional instability, and that the elder Meekers had an interest in the most worldly of all commodities, not exceeded by their devotion to the immaculate dream of love beyond death.

The girl met McGeorge outside the house; he called defiantly in the face of an unrelenting, outspoken opposition. It was in the Meeker front room that he first realized his mundane existence was in danger. He could give no description of what happened beyond the fact that suddenly he was bathed in a cold, revolting air. It hung about him with the undefinable feel and smell of death. A rotten air, he described it, and could think of nothing better; remaining, he thought, for half a minute, filling him with instinctive abject terror, and then lifting.

Ena, too, was affected; she was as rigid as if she were taking part in a seance; and when she recovered, she hurried from the room. Immediately after McGeorge heard her above quarrelling with Jannie. She returned in tears, and said that they would have to give each other up. Here McGeorge damned the worlds seen and unseen, and declared that he'd never leave her. This, with his complete credulity, approached a notable courage or frenzy of desire. He had no doubt but they would kill him. Their facilities, you see, were unsurpassed.

Worse followed almost immediately. The next morning, to be accurate, McGeorge was putting an edge on his razor—he had never given up the old type—when an extraordinary seizure overtook him; the hand that held the blade stopped being a part of him. It moved entirely outside his will; indeed, when certain possibilities came into his shocked mind, it moved in opposition to his most desperate determination.

A struggle began between McGeorge in a sweating effort to open his fingers and drop the razor to the floor, and the will imposing a deep, hard gesture across his throat. He was twisted, he said, into the most grotesque positions; the hand would move up, and he would force it back perhaps an inch at a time. During this the familiar, mucid feel closed about him.

I asked how the force was applied to his arm, but he admitted that his fright was so intense that he had no clear impression of the details. McGeorge, however, did try to convince me that his wrist was darkly bruised afterward. He was, he was certain, lost, his resistance virtually at an end when, as if from a great distance, he heard the faint ring of the steel on the bath-room linoleum.

That, he told himself, had cured him; the Meekers, and Ena in particular, could have their precious Wallace Esselmann. This happened on Friday, and Sunday evening he was back at the Meeker door. The frenzy of desire! Love is the usual, more exalted term. Perhaps. It depends on the point of view, the position adopted in the attack on the dark enigma of existence. Mine is unpresumptuous.

They were obviously surprised to see him,—or, rather, all were but Ena,—and his reception was less crabbed than usual. McGeorge, with what almost approached a flash of humor, said that it was evident they had expected him to come from the realm of spirits. In view of their professed belief in the endless time for junketing at their command, they clung with amazing energy to the importance of the present faulty scheme.

Ena was wonderfully tender, and promised to marry him whenever he had a corner ready for her. McGeorge, a reporter, lived with the utmost informality with regard to hours and rooms. He stayed that night almost as long as he wished, planning, at intervals, the future. Sometime during the evening it developed that Jannie was in disfavor; the sittings had suddenly become unsatisfactory. One the night before had been specially disastrous.

Stepan, in place of satisfying the very private curiosity of a well-known and munificent politician, had described another party that had made a wide ripple of comment and envious criticism among the shades. It had been planned by a swell of old Rome, faithful in every detail to the best traditions of orgies; and Stepan's companion, a French girl of the Maison Doree, had opened the eyes of the historic fancy to the latent possibilities of the dance.

Jannie, at this, had spoiled everything, but mostly the temper of the munificent politician, by a piercing scream. She had gone on, Ena admitted, something terrible. When Mr. Meeker had tried to bundle her to bed, she had kicked and scratched like never before. And since then she declared that she'd never make another effort to materialize shameless spirits.

Argument, even the temporary absence of Benedictine, had been unavailing. Very well, Mrs. Meeker had told her grimly, she would have to go back to cotton stockings; and no more grilled sweetbreads for supper, either; she'd be lucky if she got scrapple. She didn't care; everything was black for her. Black it must have been, I pointed out to McGeorge; it was bad enough with worry limited to the span of one existence, but to look forward to a perpetuity of misery—

McGeorge returned the latter part of the week with the plans for their marriage, an elopement, considerably advanced; but only Jannie was at home. She saw him listlessly in the usual formal room, where—he almost never encountered her—he sat in a slight perplexity. Jannie might be thought prettier than Ena, he acknowledged, or at least in the face. She had quantities of bright brown hair, which she affected to wear, in the manner of much younger girls, confined, with a ribbon, and flowing down her back. Her eyes, too, were brown and remarkable in that the entire iris was exposed. Her full under lip was vividly rouged, while her chin was unobtrusive.

That evening she was dressed very elaborately. The pink silk stockings and preposterous kid slippers were in evidence; her dress was black velvet, short, and cut like a sheath; and there was a profusion of lacy ruffles and bangles at her wrists. To save his soul, McGeorge couldn't think of anything appropriate to talk about. Jannie was a being apart, a precious object of special reverence. This, together with her very human pettishness, complicated the social problem. He wanted excessively to leave,—there was no chance of seeing Ena,—but neither could he think of any satisfactory avenue of immediate escape.

Jannie's hands, he noticed, were never still; her fingers were always plaiting the velvet on her knees. She would sigh gustily, bite her lips, and accomplish what in an ordinary person would be a sniffle. Then suddenly she drew nearer to McGeorge and talked in a torrent about true love. She doubted if it existed anywhere. Spirits were no more faithful than humans.

This, for McGeorge, was more difficult than the silence; all the while, he told me, his thoughts were going back to the scene in the bath-room. He had no security that it wouldn't be repeated and with a far different conclusion. He had a passing impulse to ask Jannie to call off her subliminal thugs; the phrasing is my own. There was no doubt in his disordered mind that it was she who, at the instigation of the elder Meekers, was trying to remove him in the effort to secure Wallace Esselmann.

She dissolved presently into tears, and cried that she was the most miserable girl in existence. She dropped an absurd confection of a handkerchief on the floor, and he leaned over, returning it to her. Jannie's head drooped against his shoulder, and, to keep her from sliding to the floor, he was obliged to sit beside her and support her with an arm. It had been a temporary measure, but Jannie showed no signs of shifting her weight; and, from wishing every moment for Ena's appearance, he now prayed desperately for her to stay away.

McGeorge said that he heard the girl murmur something that sounded like, "Why shouldn't I?" Her face was turned up to him in a way that had but one significance for maiden or medium. She was, he reminded me, Ena's sister, about to become his own; there was a clinging, seductive scent about her, too, and a subtle aroma of Benedictine; and, well, he did what was expected.

However, no sooner had he kissed her than her manner grew inexplicable. She freed herself from him, and sat upright in an expectant, listening attitude. Her manner was so convincing that he straightened up and gazed about the parlor. There was absolutely no unusual sight or sound; the plain, heavy table in the center of the room was resting as solidly as if it had never playfully cavorted at the will of the spirits, the chairs were back against the walls, the miniature Rock of Ages, on the mantel, offered its testimony to faith.

One insignificant detail struck his eye—a weighty cane of Mr. Meeker's stood in an angle of the half-opened door to the hall, across the floor from where Jannie and he were sitting.

III

After a little, with nothing apparently following, the girl's expectancy faded; her expression grew petulant once more, and she drew sharply away from McGeorge, exactly as if he had forced a kiss on her and she was insulted by the indignity. Lord! he thought, with an inward sinking, what she'll do to me now will be enough!

He rose uneasily and walked to the mantel, where he stood with his back to Jannie, looking down absently at the fringed gray asbestos of a gas hearth. An overwhelming oppression crept over him when there was a sudden cold sensation at the base of his neck, and a terrific blow fell across his shoulders.

McGeorge wheeled instinctively, with an arm up, when he was smothered in a rain of stinging, vindictive battering. The blows came from all about him, a furious attack against which he was powerless to do anything but endeavor to protect his head. No visible person, he said solemnly, was near him. Jannie was at the other side of the room.

"Did you see her clearly while this was going on?" I asked.

Oh, yes, he assured me sarcastically; he had as well glanced at his diary to make sure of the date. He then had the effrontery to inform me that he had been beaten by Mr. Meeker's cane without human agency. He had seen it whirling about him in the air. McGeorge made up his mind that the hour of his death had arrived. A fog of pain settled on him, and he gave up all effort of resistance, sinking to his knees, aware of the salt taste of blood. But just at the edge of unconsciousness the assault stopped.

After a few moments he rose giddily, with his ears humming and his ribs a solid ache. The cane lay in the middle of the room, and Jannie stood, still across the parlor, with her hands pressed to scarlet cheeks, her eyes shining, and her breast heaving in gasps.

"Why not after such a violent exercise?"

McGeorge ignored my practical comment.

"She was delighted," he said; "she ran over to me and, throwing her arms about my neck, kissed me hard. She exclaimed that I had helped Jannie when everything else had failed, and she wouldn't forget it. Then she rushed away, and I heard her falling up-stairs in her high-heeled slippers."

Naturally he had half collapsed into a chair, and fought to supply his laboring lungs with enough oxygen. It's an unpleasant experience to be thoroughly beaten with a heavy cane under any condition, and this, he was convinced, was special.

I asked if he was familiar with Havelock Ellis on hysterical impulses, and he replied impatiently that he wasn't.

"There are two explanations," I admitted impartially, "although we each think there is but one. I will agree that yours is more entertaining. Jannie was jealous again. The Roman orgies, the young person from the grands boulevards, were more than she could accept; and she tried, in the vocabulary lately so prevalent, a reprisal. But I must acknowledge that I am surprised at the persistent masculine flexibility of Stepan."

"It was at the next sitting," McGeorge concluded, "that Stepan announced the wedding of Ena and me. The spirits awaited it. There was a row in the Meeker circle; but he dissolved, and refused to materialize in any form until it was accomplished."

"To the music of the spheres," I added, with some attempt at ordinary decency.



THE CENTENARIAN[15]

[Note 15: Copyright, 1919, by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1920, by Will E. Ingersoll.]

BY WILL E. INGERSOLL

From Harper's Magazine

There were few who knew—and, frankly, there were few who seemed to care to know—what Old Dalton meant when he mumbled, in his aspirate and toothless quest for expression of the thoughts that doddered through his misty old brain, "Thay wur-rld luks diff'rent now—all diff'rent now, yagh!" Sometimes he would go on, after a pause, in a kind of laborious elucidation: "Na, na! Ma there, now, she's gone. I—egh, egh—I went to school 'long of her; an' et didn't matter so much, mun, about th' rest going, 's long as she wer' here. But now—she's gone, ey. Agh-m! Ey, now she's gone-like, an' th' ain't nobody to help me keep—keep a-hold o' things. I'm a hundred years old, mun. Agh-m! You wouldn't—you wouldn't know what I was meanin', now, when I tell you this here world has growed all yellow-like, this month back. Ey, that's it, mun—all queer-like. Egh, it's time I was movin' on—movin' on."

Part of this monologue—a very small part—was Old Dalton's own, repeated over and over, and so kept in mind ever since the more initiative years a decade ago when he first began to think about his age. Another part of the utterance—more particularly that about "movin' on"—consisted of scraps of remarks that had been addressed to him, which he had hoarded up as an ape lays away odds and ends, and which he repeated, parrotlike, when the sun and his pipe warmed Old Dalton into speech. But that idea that the earth was growing yellow—that was a recent uncanny turn of his fancy, his own entirely.

He was pretty well past having any very definite inclination, but there seemed no special reason why the old man should wish to "move on." He appeared comfortable enough, pulling away at his blackened old pipe on the bench by the door. No man above fifty, and few below that age, enjoyed better health than he had; and many of fifty there are who look nearer death than Old Dalton did.

"Crack me a stick 'r two o' wood, grampa," his married great-granddaughter, with whom he lived, would sometimes say; and up and at it the old man would get—swinging his ax handily and hitting his notch cleanly at every clip.

Assuredly, his body was a wonderful old machine—a grandfather's clock with every wheel, bearing, and spring in perfect order and alignment. Work had made it so, and work kept it so, for every day after his smoke Old Dalton would fuss about at his "chores" (which, partly to please him, were designedly left for him to do)—the changing of the bull's tether-picket, watering the old horse, splitting the evening's wood, keeping the fence about the house in repair, and driving the cows o' nights into the milking-pen.

To every man in this world is assigned his duty. To every man is given just the mental and physical equipment he needs for that duty. Some men obtusely face away from their appointed work; some are carried afield by exigency; some are drawn by avarice or ambition into alien paths; but a minor proportion of happy ones follow out their destiny. There do not occur many exceptions to the rule that the men who find their work and do it, all other conditions being equal, not only live to old age, but to an extreme, a desirable, a comfortable, and a natural old age.

Old Dalton had been built and outfitted to be a simple, colloquial home-maker, family-raiser, and husbandman. His annals were never intended to be anything more than plain and short. His was the function of the tree—to grow healthily and vigorously; to propagate; to give during his life, as the tree gives of its fruit and shade, such pleasant dole and hospitable emanation as he naturally might; and in the fullness of time to return again to the sod.

He had found and done thoroughly this appointed work of his. He was doing it still, or at least that part of it which, at the age of one hundred years, fittingly remained for him to do. He was tapering off, building the crown of his good stack. When Death, the great Nimrod, should come to Old Dalton, he would not find him ready caught in the trap of decrepitude. He would find him with his boots on, up and about—or, if in bed, not there except as in the regular rest intervals of his diurnal round.

And the fact that he, a polyp in the great atoll of life, had found his exact place and due work was the reason that, at one hundred years, life was yet an orange upon the palate of Old Dalton.

Nanny Craig—who later became Mother Dalton—had, in remote eighteen hundred and twenty, been a squalling, crabbed baby, and had apparently started life determined to be crotchety. If she had adhered to this schedule she would have been buried before she was sixty and would have been glad to go. But Old Dalton—then young Dave Dalton—married her out of hand at seventeen, and so remade and conserved her in the equable, serene, and work-filled atmosphere of the home he founded that Nanny far outdid all her family age records, recent or ancestral, and lived to ninety-three. She was seven years younger than Dave, and now three months dead.

Dave had missed her sorely. People had said the Message would not be long coming to him after she went. Perhaps if he had been in the usual case of those who have passed the seventh decade—weary and halt and without employment or the ability or wish for it—he would have brooded and worried himself into the grave very soon after the passing of his old "mate" and one living contemporary. But he was a born, inured, and inveterate worker, and as long as there were "chores" for him to do he felt ample excuse for continuing to exist. Old Dalton still had the obsession, too, that while and where he lived he was "boss" and manager; and one solid, sustaining thought that helped to keep him living was that if he died the Dalton farm (it was the original old homestead that these young descendants of his occupied) would be without its essential head and squire.

So sturdy, so busy, and so well had he been always that all the deaths he had seen in his journey down a hundred years of mortality had failed to bring home to him the grave and puissant image of death as a personal visitant.

"Ey, I'm always out wur-rkin' when they send fur me, I guess," was the joke he had made at eighty and repeated so often since that now he said it quite naively and seriously, as a fact and a credible explanation.

But, although it took time to show its effect, Nanny's going hit him a little harder than any of the other deaths he had witnessed. She had traveled with him so long and so doughtily that he had never been able to form any anticipative picture of himself without her. Indeed, even now it felt as if she had merely "gone off visitin'," and would be back in time to knit him a pair of mitts before the cold weather came.

It was the odd idea about the world growing "yellow-lookin'"—sometimes he said "red-lookin'" and at other times seemed not quite certain which description conveyed the vague hue of his fancy—that appeared to be pulling him to pieces, undermining him, more than any other influence. Most people, however, were accustomed to consider the hallucination an effect of Mother Dalton's removal and a presage of Old Dalton's own passing.

This odd yellowness (or redness), as of grass over which chaff from the threshing-mill has blown, lay across the old pasture on this afternoon of his second century, as Old Dalton went to water the superannuated black horse that whinnied at his approach.

"Ey, Charley," he said, reflectively, as he took the old beast by the forelock to lead it up to the pump—"ey, Charley-boy"; then, as the horse, diminishing the space between its forefoot and his heel with a strange ease, almost trod on him—"ey, boy—steady there, now. Es yur spavin not throublin' ye th' day, then? Ye walk that free. S-steady, boy—ey!"

But Grace, the granddaughter, glancing across the pasture as she came to the kitchen door to empty potato peelings, put it differently.

"See how hard it be's gettin' for grampa to get along, Jim," she said to her husband, who sat mending a binder-canvas at the granary door. "I never noticed it before, but that old lame Charley horse can keep right up to him now."

Jim Nixon stuck his jack-knife into the step beside him, pushed a rivet through canvas and fastening-strap, and remarked, casually: "He ought to lay off now—too old to be chorin' around. Young Bill could do all the work he's doin', after he comes home from school, evenings."

"He's not bin the same sence gramma died," Gracie Nixon observed, turning indoors again. "It ain't likely we'll have him with us long now, Jim."

The old man, coming into the house a little haltingly that evening, stopped sharply as his granddaughter, with a discomposingly intent look, asked, "Tired to-night, grampa?"

"Ey?" His mouth worked, and his eyes, the pupils standing aggressively and stonily in the center of the whites, abetted the protest of the indomitable old pioneer. "Tired nothin'. You young ones wants t'l maind yur own business, an' that'll—egh—kape yous busy. Where's me pipe, d'ye hear, ey? An' the 'bacca? Yagh, that's it." The old man's fingers crooked eagerly around the musty bowl. He lit, sucked, and puffed noisily, lowering himself on a bench and feeling for the window-sill with his elbow. "In my taime," he continued, presently, in an aggrieved tone, "young ones was whopped fur talkin' up t'l thur elders like that. Lave me be, now, an' go 'n' milk thame cows I just fetched. Poor beasts, their bags es that full—ey, that full. They're blattin' to be eased."

With indulgent haste, the young couple, smiling sheepishly at each other like big children rebuked, picked up their strainer-pails and went away to the corral. The old man, his pipe-bowl glowing and blackening in time to his pulling at it, smoked on alone in the dusk. In the nibbling, iterative way of the old, he started a kind of reflection; but it was as if a harmattan had blown along the usual courses of his thought, drying up his little brooklet of recollection and withering the old aquatic star-flowers that grew along its banks. His mind, in its meandering among old images, groped, paused, fell pensive. His head sank lower between his shoulders, and the shoulders eased back against the wall behind his bench. When Jim Nixon and his wife, chasing each other merrily back and forth across the dewy path like the frolicsome young married couple they were, reached the door-yard, they found the old man fallen "mopy" in a way uncommon for him, and quite given over to a thoughtless, expressionless torpor and staring.

"You'll be tired-like, grampa, eh?" Jim Nixon said, as he came over to the veteran and put a strong hand under Old Dalton's armpit. "Come on, then. I'll help you off to your bed."

But the old man flamed up again, spiritedly, although perhaps this time his protest was a little more forced. "Ye'll not, then, boy," he mumbled. "Ye'll just lave me be, then. I'm—egh, egh"—he eased gruntingly into a standing position—"I'm going to bed annyway, though." He moved off, his coattail bobbing oddly about his hips and his back bowed. The two heard him stump slowly up the stairs.

Jim Nixon drew the boot-jack toward him and set the heel of his boot thoughtfully into the notch. "They go quick, Gracie," he observed, "when they get as old as him. They go all at onct, like. Hand me thon cleaver, an' I'll be makin' a little kindlin' for th' mornin'."

The alcove where the old man's bed stood was only separated by a thin partition from the room where the young couple slept; and the sounds of their frolic, as they chased, slapped, and cast pillows at each other, came to him companionably enough as he drew the blankets up about his big, shrunken chest and turned the broad of his back to the comfortable hay-stuffed bed-tick.

But all the merry noise and sociable proximity of the young people staved not off the great joust with loneliness this mighty knight of years had before he slept—a loneliness more than that of empty house and echoing stair; more than that, even, of Crusoe's manless island; utterly beyond even that of an alien planet; of spaces not even coldly sown with God-aloof stars—the excellent, the superlative loneliness of one soul for another. It is a strange, misty, Columbus-voyage upon which that hardy soul goes who dares to be the last of his generation.

There was in that bed a space between him and the wall—a space kept habitually yet for the Nanny who never came to fill it, who never again would come to fill it. (There would have been no great demonstration on the old man's part even if she had miraculously come. Merely a grunt of satisfaction; perhaps a brief, "Ey, ma—back?" and then a contented lapsing into slumber.) His want of her was scarcely emotional; at least it did not show itself to him that way. It took more the form of a kind of aching wish to see things "as they was" again. But that ache, that uneasiness, had upon Old Dalton all the effect of strong emotion—for it rode him relentlessly through all these days of his December, its weight and presence putting upon the tired old heart an added task. The ordinary strain of life he might have endured for another decade, with his perfect old physique and natural habits of life. But this extra pressure—he was not equipped for that!

"They go quick, at that age," his granddaughter's man had said. But, although even he himself did not know it, Old Dalton had been "going" for weeks—ever since the first confident feeling that "ma" would come back again had given place to the ache of her coming long delayed.

To-night it was cold in bed for August. Old Dalton wished "they" would fetch him another quilt.

But it should not have been cold that August evening. Beyond the wooden bed a small, rectangular window with sash removed showed a square of warm sky and a few stars twinkling dully in the autumnal haze. An occasional impatient tinkle of the cow-bell down in the corral indicated midges, only present on bland days and nights when there is in the air no hint of frost to stiffen the thin swift mite-wings.

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