HotFreeBooks.com
The Day of the Beast
by Zane Grey
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Daren, it is a beautiful thought, but it—it can't be," she whispered.

"Then let me come to see you when I need—when I'm down," he begged.

"No."

"Mel, what harm can it do—just to let me come?"

"No—don't ask me. Daren, I am no stone."

"You'll be sorry when I'm out there in—Woodlawn.... That won't be long."

That broke her courage and her restraint.

"Come, then," she whispered, in tears.



CHAPTER VIII

Lane's intentions and his spirit were too great for his endurance. It was some time before he got downtown again. And upon entering the inn he was told some one had just called him on the telephone.

"Hello, this is Lane," he answered. "Who called me?"

"It's Blair," came the reply. "How are you, old top?"

"Not so well. I've been down and out."

"Sorry. Suppose that's why you haven't called me up for so long?"

"Well, Buddy, I can't lay it all to that.... And how're you?"

The answer did not come. So Lane repeated his query.

"Well, I'm still hobbling round on one leg," replied Blair.

"That's good. Tell me about Reddie."

Again the reply was long in coming....

"Haven't you heard—about Red?"

"No."

"Haven't seen the newspapers lately?"

"I never read the papers, Blair."

"Right-o. But I had to.... Buck up, now, Dare!"

"All right. Shoot it quick," returned Lane, feeling his breast contract and his skin tighten with a chill.

"Red Payson has gone west."

"Blair! You don't mean—dead?" exclaimed Lane.

"Yes, Reddie's gone—and I guess it's just as well, poor devil!"

"How? When?"

"Two days ago, according to papers.... He died in Washington, D.C. Fell down in the vestibule of one of the government offices—where he was waiting.... fell with another hemorrhage—and died right there—on the floor—quick."

"My—God!" gasped Lane.

"Yes, it's tough. You see, Dare, I couldn't keep Reddie here. Heaven knows I tried, but he wouldn't stay.... I'm afraid he heard my mother complaining. Say, Dare, suppose I have somebody drive me in town to see you."

"I'd like that, Blair."

"You're on. And say, I've another idea. Tonight's the Junior Prom—did you know that?"

"No, I didn't."

"Well, it is. Suppose we go up? My sister can get me cards.... I tell you, Dare, I'd like to see what's going on in that bunch. I've heard a lot and seen some things."

"Did you hear how I mussed up Fanchon Smith's party?"

"You bet I did. That's one reason I want to see some of this dancing. Will you go?"

"Yes, I can stand it if you can."

"All right, Buddy, I'll meet you at the inn—eight o'clock."

Lane slowly made his way to a secluded corner of the lobby, where he sat down. Red Payson dead! Lane felt that he should not have been surprised or shocked. But he was both. The strange, cold sensation gradually wore away and with it the slight trembling of his limbs. A mournful procession of thoughts and images returned to his mind and he sat and brooded.

At the hour of his appointment with his friend, Lane went to the front of the lobby. Blair was on time. He hobbled in, erect and martial of bearing despite the crutch, and his dark citizen's suit emphasized the whiteness of his face. Being home had softened Blair a little. Yet the pride and tragic bitterness were there. But when Blair espied Lane a warmth burned out of the havoc in his face. Lane's conscience gave him a twinge. It dawned upon him that neither his spells of illness, nor his distress over his sister Lorna, nor his obsession to see and understand what the young people were doing could hold him wholly excusable for having neglected his comrade.

Their hand-clasp was close, almost fierce, and neither spoke at once. But they looked intently into each other's faces. Emotion stormed Lane's heart. He realized that Blair loved him and that he loved Blair—and that between them was a measureless bond, a something only separation could make tangible. But little of what they felt came out in their greetings.

"Dare, why the devil don't you can that uniform," demanded Blair, cheerfully. "People might recognize you've been 'over there.'"

"Well, Blair, I expected you'd have a cork leg by this time," said Lane.

"Nothing doing," returned the other. "I want to be perpetually reminded that I was in the war. This 'forget the war' propaganda we see and hear all over acts kind of queer on a soldier.... Let's find a bench away from these people."

After they were comfortably seated Blair went on: "Do you know, Dare, I don't miss my leg so much when I'm crutching around. But when I try to sit down or get up! By heck, sometimes I forget it's gone. And sometimes I want to scratch my lost foot. Isn't that hell?"

"I'll say so, Buddy," returned Lane, with a laugh.

"Read this," said Blair, taking a paper from his pocket, and indicating a column.

Whereupon Lane read a brief Associated Press dispatch from Washington, D.C., stating that one Payson, disabled soldier of twenty-five, suffering with tuberculosis caused by gassed lungs, had come to Washington to make in person a protest and appeal that had been unanswered in letters. He wanted money from the government to enable him to travel west to a dry climate, where doctors assured him he might get well. He made his statement to several clerks and officials, and waited all day in the vestibule of the department. Suddenly he was seized with a hemorrhage, and, falling on the floor, died before aid could be summoned.

Without a word Lane handed the paper back to his friend.

"Red was a queer duck," said Blair, rather hoarsely. "You remember when I 'phoned you last over two weeks ago?... Well, just after that Red got bad on my hands. He wouldn't accept charity, he said. And he wanted to beat it. He got wise to my mother. He wouldn't give up trying to get money from the government—back money owed him, he swore—and the idea of being turned down at home seemed to obsess him. I talked and cussed myself weak. No good! Red beat it soon after that—beat it from Middleville on a freight train. And I never heard a word from him.... Not a word...."

"Blair, can't you see it Red's way?" queried Lane, sadly.

"Yes, I can," responded Blair, "but hell! he might have gotten well. Doc Bronson said Red had a chance. I could have borrowed enough money to get him out west. Red wouldn't take it."

"And he ran off—exposed himself to cold and starvation—over-exertion and anger," added Lane.

"Exactly. Brought on that hemorrhage and croaked. All for nothing!"

"No, Blair. All for a principle," observed Lane. "Red was fired out of the hospital without a dollar. There was something terribly wrong."

"Wrong?... God Almighty!" burst out Blair, with hard passion. "Let me read you something in this same paper." With shaking hands he unfolded it, searched until he found what he wanted, and began to read:

"'If the actual needs of disabled veterans require the expenditure of much money, then unquestionably a majority of the taxpayers of the country will favor spending it. Despite the insistent demand for economy in Washington that is arising from every part of the country, no member of House or Senate will have occasion to fear that he is running counter to popular opinion when eventually he votes to take generous care of disabled soldiers.'"

Blair's trembling voice ceased, and then twisting the newspaper into a rope, he turned to Lane. "Dare, can you understand that?... Red Payson was a bull-headed boy, not over bright. But you and I have some intelligence, I hope. We can allow for the immense confusion at Washington—the senselessness of red tape—the callosity of politicians. But when we remember the eloquent calls to us boys—the wonderfully worded appeals to our patriotism, love of country and home—the painted posters bearing the picture of a beautiful American girl—or a young mother with a baby—remembering these deep, passionate calls to the best in us, can you understand that sort of talk now?"

"Blair, I think I can," replied Lane. "Then—before and after the draft—the whole country was at a white heat of all that the approach of war rouses. Fear, self-preservation, love of country, hate of the Huns, inspired patriotism, and in most everybody the will to fight and to sacrifice.... The war was a long, hideous, soul-racking, nerve-destroying time. When it ended, and the wild period of joy and relief had its run, then all that pertained to the war sickened and wearied and disgusted the majority of people. It's 'forget the war.' You and Payson and I got home a year too late."

"Then—it's just—monstrous," said Blair, heavily.

"That's all, Blair. Just monstrous. But we can't beat our spirits out against this wall. No one can understand us—how alone we are. Let's forget that—this wall—this thing called government. Shall we spend what time we have to live always in a thunderous atmosphere of mind—hating, pondering, bitter?"

"No. I'll make a compact with you," returned Blair, with flashing eyes. "Never to speak again of that—so long as we live!"

"Never to a living soul," rejoined Lane, with a ring in his voice.

They shook hands much the same as when they had met half an hour earlier.

"So!" exclaimed Blair, with a deep breath. "And now, Dare, tell me how you made out with Helen. You cut me short over the 'phone."

"Blair, that day coming into New York on the ship, you didn't put it half strong enough," replied Lane. Then he told Blair about the call he had made upon Helen, and what had transpired at her studio.

Blair did not voice the scorn that his eyes expressed. And, in fact, most of his talking was confined to asking questions. Lane found it easy enough to unburden himself, though he did not mention his calls on Mel Iden, or Colonel Pepper's disclosures.

"Well, I guess it's high time we were meandering up to the hall," said Blair, consulting his watch. "I'm curious about this Prom. Think we're in for a jolt. It's four years since I went to a Prom. Now, both of us, Dare, have a sister who'll be there, besides all our old friends.... And we're not dancing! But I want to look on. They've got an out-of-town orchestra coming—a jazz orchestra. There'll probably be a hot time in the old town to-night."

"Lorna did not tell me," replied Lane, as they got up to go. "But I suppose she'd rather I didn't know. We've clashed a good deal lately."

"Dare, I hear lots of talk," said Blair. "Margaret is chummy with me, and some of her friends are always out at the house. I hear Dick Swann is rushing Lorna. Think he's doing it on the q-t."

"I know he is, Blair, but I can't catch them together," returned Lane. "Lorna is working now. Swann got her the job."

"Looks bad to me," replied Blair, soberly. "Swann is cutting a swath. I hear his old man is sore on him.... I'd take Lorna out of that office quick."

"Maybe you would," declared Lane, grimly. "For all the influence or power I have over Lorna I might as well not exist."

They walked silently along the street for a little while. Lane had to accommodate his step to the slower movement of his crippled friend. Blair's crutch tapped over the stone pavement and clicked over the curbs. They crossed the railroad tracks and turned off the main street to go down a couple of blocks.

"Shades of the past!" exclaimed Blair, as they reached a big brick building, well-lighted in front by a sizzling electric lamp. The night was rather warm and clouds of insects were wheeling round the light. "The moths and the flame!" added Blair, satirically. "Well, Dare, old bunkie, brace up and we'll go over the top. This ought to be fun for us."

"I don't see it," replied Lane. "I'll be about as welcome as a bull in a china shop."

"Oh, I didn't mean any one would throw fits over us," responded Blair. "But we ought to get some fun out of the fact."

"What fact?" queried Lane, puzzled.

"Rather far-fetched, maybe. But I'll get a kick out of looking on—watching these swell slackers with the girls we fought for."

"Wonder why they didn't give the dance at the armory, where they'd not have to climb stairs, and have more room?" queried Lane, as they went in under the big light.

"Dare, you're far back in the past," said Blair, sardonically. "The armory is on the ground floor—one big hall—open, you know. The Assembly Hall is a regular maze for rooms and stairways."

Blair labored up the stairway with Lane's help. At last they reached the floor from which had blared the strains of jazz. Wide doors were open, through which Lane caught the flash of many colors. Blair produced his tickets at the door. There did not appear to be any one to take them.

Lane experienced an indefinable thrill at the scene. The air seemed to reek with a mixed perfume and cigarette smoke—to resound with high-keyed youthful laughter, wild and sweet and vacant above the strange, discordant music. Then the flashing, changing, whirling colors of the dancers struck Lane as oriental, erotic, bizarre—gorgeous golds and greens and reds striped by the conventional black. Suddenly the blare ceased, and the shrill, trilling laughter had dominance. The rapid circling of forms came to a sudden stop, and the dancers streamed in all directions over the floor.

"Dare, they've called time," said Blair. "Let's get inside the ropes so we can see better."

The hall was not large, but it was long, and shaped like a letter L with pillars running down the center. Countless threads of many-colored strings of paper had been stretched from pillars to walls, hanging down almost within reach of the dancers. Flags and gay bunting helped in the riotous effect of decoration. The black-faced orchestra held forth on a raised platform at the point where the hall looked two ways. Recesses, alcoves and open doors to other rooms, which the young couples were piling over each other to reach, gave Lane some inkling of what Blair had hinted.

"Now we're out in the limelight," announced Blair, as he halted. "Let's stand here and run the gauntlet until the next dance—then we can find seats."

Almost at once a stream of gay couples enveloped them in passing. Bright, flashing, vivid faces and bare shoulders, arms and breasts appeared above the short bodices of the girls. Few of them were gowned in white. The colors seemed too garish for anything but musical comedy. But the freshness, the vividness of these girls seemed exhilarating. The murmur, the merriment touched a forgotten chord in Lane's heart. For a moment it seemed sweet to be there, once more in a gathering where pleasure was the pursuit. It breathed of what seemed long ago, in a past that was infinitely more precious to remember because he had no future of hope or of ambition or dream. Something had happened to him that now made the sensations of the moment stingingly bitter-sweet. The freshness and fragrance, the color and excitement, the beauty and gayety were not for him. Youth was dead. He could never enter the lists with these young men, many no younger than he, for the favor and smile of a girl. Resignation had not been so difficult in the spiritual moment of realization and resolve, but to be presented with one concrete and stunning actuality after another, each with its mocking might-have-been, had grown to be a terrible ordeal.

Lane looked for faces he knew. On each side of the pillar where he and Blair stood the stream of color and gayety flowed. Helen and Margaret Maynard went by on the far edge of that stream. Across the hall he caught a glimpse of the flashing golden beauty of Bessy Bell. Then near at hand he recognized Fanchon Smith, a petite, smug-faced little brunette, with naked shoulders bulging out of a piebald gown. She espied Lane and her face froze. Then there were familiar faces near and far, to which Lane could not attach names.

All at once he became aware that other of his senses besides sight were being stimulated. He had been hearing without distinguishing what he heard. And curiously he listened, still with that strange knock of memory at his heart. Everybody was talking, some low, some high, all in the spirit of the hour. And in one moment he had heard that which killed the false enchantment.

"Not a chance!..."

"Hot dog—she's some Jane!"

"Now to the clinch—"

"What'll we do till the next spiel—"

"Have a shot?——"

"Boys, it's only the shank of the evening. Leave something peppy for the finish."

"Mame, you look like a million dollars in that rag."

"She shakes a mean shimmy, believe me...."

"That egg! Not on your life!"

"Cut the next with Ned. We'll sneak down and take a ride in my car...."

"Oh, spiffy!"

Lane's acutely strained attention was diverted by Blair's voice.

"Look who's with my sister Margie."

Lane turned to look through an open space in the dispersing stream. Blair's sister was passing with Dick Swann. Elegantly and fastidiously attired, the young millionaire appeared to be attentive to his partner. Margaret stood out rather strikingly from the other girls near her by reason of the simplicity and modesty of her dress. She did not look so much bored as discontented. Lane saw her eyes rove to and fro from the entrance of the hall. When she espied Lane she nodded and spoke with a smile and made an evident move toward him, but was restrained by Swann. He led her past Lane and Blair without so much as glancing in their direction. Lane heard Blair swear.

"Dare, if my mother throws Marg at that—slacker, I'll block the deal if it's the last thing I ever do," he declared, violently.

"And I'll help you," replied Lane, instantly.

"I know Margie hates him."

"Blair, your sister is in love with Holt Dalrymple."

"No! Not really? Thought that was only a boy-and-girl affair.... Aha! the nigger music again! Let's find a seat, Dare."

Saxophone, trombone, piccolo, snare-drum and other barbaric instruments opened with a brazen defiance of music, and a vibrant assurance of quick, raw, strong sounds. Lane himself felt the stirring effect upon his nerves. He had difficulty in keeping still. From the lines of chairs along the walls and from doors and alcoves rushed the gay-colored throng to leap, to close, to step, to rock and sway, until the floor was full of a moving mass of life.

The first half-dozen couples Lane studied all danced more or less as Helen and Swann had, that day in Helen's studio. Then, by way of a remarkable contrast, there passed two young people who danced decently. Lane descried his sister Lorna in the throng, and when she and her partner came round in the giddy circle, Lane saw that she wiggled and toddled like the others. Lane, as she passed him, caught a glance of her eyes, flashing, reproachful, furious, directed at some one across her partner's shoulder. Lane followed that glance and saw Swann. Apparently he did not notice Lorna, and was absorbed in the dance with his own partner, Helen Wrapp. This byplay further excited Lane's curiosity. On the whole, it was an ungraceful, violent mob, almost totally lacking in restraint, whirling, kicking, swaying, clasping, instinctively physical, crude, vulgar and wild. Down the line of chairs from his position, Lane saw the chaperones of the Prom, no doubt mothers of some of these girls. Lane wondered at them with sincere and persistent amaze. If they were respectable, and had even a slight degree of intelligence, how could they look on at this dance with complacence? Perhaps after all the young people were not wholly to blame for an abnormal expression of instinctive action.

That dance had its several encores and finally ended.

Margaret and Holt made their way up to Lane and Blair. The girl was now radiant. It took no second glance for Lane to see how matters stood with her at that moment.

"Say, beat it, you two," suddenly spoke up Blair. "There comes Swann. He's looking for you. Chase yourselves, now, Marg—Holt. Leave that slacker to us!"

Margaret gave a start, a gasp. She looked hard at her brother. Blair wore a cool smile, underneath which there was sterner hidden meaning. Then Margaret looked at Lane with slow, deep blush, making her really beautiful.

"Margie, we're for you two, strong," said Lane, with a smile. "Go hide from Swann."

"But I—I came with him," she faltered.

"Then let him find you—in other words, let him get you.... 'All's fair in love and war.'"

Lane had his reward in the sweet amaze and confusion of her face, as she turned away. Holt rushed her off amid the straggling couples.

"Dare, you're a wiz," declared Blair. "Margie's strong for Holt—I'm glad. If we could only put Swann out of the running."

"It's a cinch," returned Lane, with sudden heat.

"Pard, you don't know my mother. If she has picked out Swann for Margie—all I've got to say is—good night!"

"Even if we prove Swann——"

"No matter what we prove," interrupted Blair. "No matter what, so long as he's out of jail. My mother is money mad. She'd sell Margie to the devil himself for gold, position—the means to queen it over these other mothers of girls."

"Blair, you're—you're a little off your nut, aren't you?"

"Not on your life. That talk four years ago might have been irrational. But now—not on your life.... The world has come to an end.... Oh, Lord, look who's coming! Lane, did you ever in your life see such a peach as that?"

Bessy Bell had appeared, coming toward them with a callow youth near her own age. Her dress was some soft, pale blue material that was neither gaudy nor fantastical. But it was far from modest. Lane had to echo Blair's eulogy of this young specimen of the new America. She simply verified and stabilized the assertion that physically the newer generations of girls were markedly more beautiful than those of any generation before.

Bessy either forgot to introduce her escort or did not care to. She nodded a dismissal to him, spoke sweetly to Blair, and then took the empty chair next to Lane.

"You're having a rotten time," she said, leaning close to him. She seemed all fragrance and airy grace and impelling life.

Lane had to smile. "How do you know?"

"I can tell by your face. Now aren't you?"

"Well, to be honest, Miss Bessy"

"For tripe's sake, don't be so formal," she interrupted. "Call me Bessy."

"Oh, very well, Bessy. There's no use to lie to you. I'm not very happy at what I see here."

"What's the matter with it—with us?" she queried, quickly. "Everybody's doing it."

"That is no excuse. Besides, that's not so. Everybody is not—not——"

"Well, not what?"

"Not doing it, whatever you meant by that," returned Lane, with a laugh.

"Tell me straight out what you think of us," she shot at Lane, with a purple flash of her eyes.

She irritated Lane. Stirred him somehow, yet she seemed wholesome, full of quick response. She was daring, sophisticated, provocative. Therefore Lane retorted in brief, blunt speech what he thought of the majority of the girls present.

Bessy Bell did not look insulted. She did not blush. She did not show shame. Her eyes darkened. Her rosy mouth lost something of its soft curves.

"Daren Lane, we're not all rotten," she said.

"I did not say or imply you all were," he replied.

She gazed up at him thoughtfully, earnestly, with an unconscious frank interest, curiosity, and reverence.

"You strike me funny," she mused. "I never met a soldier like you."

"Bessy, how many soldiers have you met who have come back from France?"

"Not many, only Blair and you, and Captain Thesel, though I really didn't meet him. He came up to me at the armory and spoke to me. And to-night he cut in on Roy's dance. Roy was sore."

"Three. Well, that's not many," replied Lane. "Not enough to get a line on two million, is it?"

"Captain Thesel is just like all the other fellows.... But you're not a bit like them."

"Is that a compliment or otherwise?"

"I'll say it's a compliment," she replied, with arch eyes on his.

"Thank you."

"Well, you don't deserve it.... You promised to make a date with me. Why haven't you?"

"Why child, I—I don't know what to say," returned Lane, utterly disconcerted. Yet he liked this amazing girl. "I suppose I forgot. But I've been ill, for one reason."

"I'm sorry," she said, giving his arm a squeeze. "I heard you were badly hurt. Won't you tell me about your—your hurts?"

"Some day, if opportunity affords. I can't here, that's certain."

"Opportunity! What do you want? Haven't I handed myself out on a silver platter?"

Lane could find no ready retort for this query. He gazed at her, marveling at the apparently measureless distance between her exquisite physical beauty and the spiritual beauty that should have been harmonious with it. Still he felt baffled by this young girl. She seemed to resemble Lorna, yet was different in a way he could not grasp. Lorna had coarsened in fibre. This girl was fine, despite her coarse speech. She did not repel.

"Mr. Lane, will you dance with me?" she asked, almost wistfully. She liked him, and was not ashamed of it. But she seemed pondering over what to make of him—how far to go.

"Bessy, I dare not exert myself to that extent," he replied, gently. "You forget I am a disabled soldier."

"Forget that? Not a chance," she flashed. "But I hoped you might dance with me once—just a little."

"No. I might keel over."

She shivered and her eyes dilated. "You mean it as a joke. But it's no joke.... I read about your comrade—that poor Red Payson!" ... Then both devil of humor and woman of fire shone in her glance. "Daren, if you did keel over—you'd die in my arms—not on the floor!"

Then another partner came up to claim her. As the orchestra blurted forth and Bessy leaned to the dancer's clasp she shouted audaciously at Lane: "Don't forget that silver platter!"

Lane turned to Blair to find that worthy shaking his handsome head.

"Did you hear what she said?" asked Lane, close to Blair's ear.

"Every word," replied Blair. "Some kid!... She's like the girl in the motion-pictures. She comes along. She meets the fellow. She looks at him—she says 'good day'—then Wham, into his arms.... My God!... Lane, is that kid good or bad?"

"Good!" exclaimed Lane, instantly.

"Bah!"

"Good—still," returned Lane. "But alas! She is brazen, unconscious of it. But she's no fool, that kid. Lorna is an absolute silly bull-headed fool. I wish Bessy Bell was my sister—or I mean that Lorna was like her."

"Here comes Swann without Margie. Looks sore as a pup. The——"

"Shut up, Blair. I want to listen to this jazz."

Lane shut his eyes during the next number and listened without the disconcerting spectacle in his sight. He put all the intensity of which he was capable into his attention. His knowledge of music was not extensive, but on the other hand it was enough to enable him to analyze this jazz. Neither music nor ragtime, it seemed utterly barbarian in character. It appealed only to primitive, physical, sensual instincts. It could not be danced to sanely and gracefully. When he opened his eyes again, to see once more the disorder of dancers in spirit and action, he seemed to have his analysis absolutely verified.

These dances were short, the encores very brief, and the intermissions long. Perhaps the dancers needed to get their breath and rearrange their apparel.

After this number, Lane left Blair talking to friends, and made his way across the hall to where he espied Lorna. She did not see him. She looked ashamed, hurt, almost sullen. Her young friend, Harry, was bending over talking earnestly. Lane caught the words: "Lorna dear, that Swann's only stringing you—rushing you on the sly. He won't dance with you here—not while he's with that swell crowd."

"It's a lie," burst out Lorna. She was almost in tears.

Lane took her arm, making her start.

"Well, kids, you're having some time, aren't you," he said, cheerfully.

"Sure—are," gulped Harry.

Lorna repressed her grief, but not her sullen resentment.

Lane pretended not to notice anything unusual, and after a few casual remarks and queries he left them. Strolling from place to place, mingling with the gay groups, in the more secluded alcoves and recesses where couples appeared, oblivious to eyes, in the check room where a sign read: "check your corsets," out in the wide landing where the stairway came up, Lane passed, missing little that might have been seen or heard. He did not mind that two of the chaperones stared at him in supercilious curiosity, as if speculating on a possible faux pas of his at this dance. Both boys and girls he had met since his return to Middleville, and some he had known before, encountered him face to face, and cut him dead. He heard sarcastic remarks. He was an outsider, a "dead one," a "has been" and a "lemon." But Margaret was gracious to him, and Flossie Dickerson made no bones of her regard. Dorothy, he was relieved and glad to see, was not present.

Lane had no particular object in mind. He just wanted to rub elbows with this throng of young people. This was the joy of life he had imagined he had missed while in France. How much vain longing! He had missed nothing. He had boundlessly gained.

Out on this floor a railing ran round the curve of the stairway. Girls were sitting on it, smoking cigarettes, and kicking their slipper-shod feet. Their partners were lounging close. Lane passed by, and walking to a window in the shadow he stood there. Presently one of the boys threw away his cigarette and said: "Come on, Ironsides. I gotta dance. You're a rotten dancer, but I love you."

They ran back into the hall. The young fellow who was left indolently attempted to kiss his partner, who blew smoke in his face. Then at a louder blast of jazz they bounced away. The next moment a third couple appeared, probably from another door down the hall. They did not observe Lane. The girl was slim, dainty, gorgeously arrayed, and her keen, fair face bore traces of paint wet by perspiration. Her companion was Captain Vane Thesel, in citizen's garb, well-built, ruddy-faced, with tiny curled moustache.

"Hurry, kid," he said, breathlessly, as he pulled at her. "We'll run down and take a spin."

"Spiffy! But let's wait till after the next," she replied. "It's Harold's and I came with him."

"Tell him it was up to him to find you."

"But he might get wise to a car ride."

"He'd do the same. Come on," returned Thesel, who all the time was leading her down the stairway step by step.

They disappeared. From the open window Lane saw them go down the street and get into a car and ride away. He glanced at his watch, muttering. "This is a new stunt for dances. I just wonder." He watched, broodingly and sombrely. It was not his sister, but it might just as well have been. Two dances and a long intermission ended before Lane saw the big auto return. He watched the couple get out, and hurry up, to disappear at the entrance. Then Lane changed his position, and stood directly at the head of the stairway under the light. He had no interest in Captain Vane Thesel. He just wanted to get a close look at the girl.

Presently he heard steps, heavy and light, and a man's deep voice, a girl's low thrill of laughter. They turned the curve in the stairway and did not see Lane until they had mounted to the top.

With cool steady gaze Lane studied the girl. Her clear eyes met his. If there was anything unmistakable in Lane's look at her, it was not from any deception on his part. He tried to look into her soul. Her smile—a strange indolent little smile, remnant of excitement—faded from her face. She stared, and she put an instinctive hand up to her somewhat dishevelled hair. Then she passed on with her companion.

"Of all the nerve!" she exclaimed. "Who's that soldier boob?"

Lane could not catch the low reply. He lingered there a while longer, and then returned to the hall, much surprised to find it so dark he could scarcely distinguish the dancers. The lights had been lowered. If the dance had been violent and strange before this procedure, it was now a riot. In the semi-darkness the dancers cut loose. The paper strings had been loosened and had fallen down to become tangled with the flying feet and legs. Confetti swarmed like dark snowdrops in the hot air. Lane actually smelled the heat of bodies—a strangely stirring and yet noxious sensation. A rushing, murmuring, shrill sound—voices, laughter, cries, and the sliding of feet and brushing of gowns—filled the hall—ominous to Lane's over-sensitive faculties, swelling unnaturally, the expression of unrestrained physical abandon. Lane walked along the edge of this circling, wrestling melee, down to the corner where the orchestra held forth. They seemed actuated by the same frenzy which possessed the dancers. The piccolo player lay on his back on top of the piano, piping his shrill notes at the ceiling. And Lane made sure this player was drunk. On the moment then the jazz came to an end with a crash. The lights flashed up. The dancers clapped and stamped their pleasure.

Lane wound his way back to Blair.

"I've had enough, Blair," he said. "I'm all in. Let's go."

"Right-o," replied Blair, with evident relief. He reached a hand to Lane to raise himself, an action he rarely resorted to, and awkwardly got his crutch in place. They started out, with Lane accommodating his pace to his crippled comrade. Thus it happened that the two ran a gauntlet with watching young people on each side, out to the open part of the hall. There directly in front they encountered Captain Vane Thesel, with Helen Wrapp on his arm. Her red hair, her green eyes, and carmined lips, the white of her voluptuous neck and arms, united in a singular effect of allurement that Lane felt with scorn and melancholy.

Helen nodded to Blair and Lane, and evidently dragged at her escort's arm to hold him from passing on.

"Look who's here! Daren, old boy—and Blair," she called, and she held the officer back. The malice in her green glance did not escape Lane, as he bowed to her. She gloried in that situation. Captain Thesel had to face them.

It was Blair's hand that stiffened Lane. They halted, erect, like statues, with eyes that failed to see Thesel. He did not exist for them. With a flush of annoyance he spoke, and breaking from Helen, passed on. A sudden silence in the groups nearby gave evidence that the incident had been observed. Then whispers rose.

"Boys, aren't you dancing?" asked Helen, with a mocking sweetness. "Let me teach you the new steps."

"Thanks, Helen," replied Lane, in sudden weariness. "But I couldn't go it."

"Why did you come? To blow us up again? Lose your nerve?"

"Yes, I lost it to-night—and something more."

"Blair, you shouldn't have left one of your legs in France," she said, turning to Blair. She had always hated Blair, a fact omnipresent now in her green eyes.

Blair had left courtesy and endurance in France, as was evinced by the way he bent closer to Helen, to speak low, with terrible passion.

"If I had it to do over again—I'd see you and your kind—your dirt-cheap crowd of painted hussies where you belong—in the clutch of the Huns!"



CHAPTER IX

Miss Amanda Hill, teacher in the Middleville High School, sat wearily at her desk. She was tired, as tired as she had ever been on any day of the fifteen long years in which she had wrestled with the problems of school life. Her hair was iron gray and she bent a worn, sad, severe face over a mass of notes before her.

At that moment she was laboring under a perplexing question that was not by any means a new one. Only this time it had presented itself in a less insidious manner than usual, leaving no loophole for charitable imagination. Presently she looked up and rapped on her desk.

"These young ladies will remain after school is dismissed," she said, in her authoritative voice: "Bessy Bell—Rose Clymer—Gail Matthews—Helen Tremaine—Ruth Winthrop.... Also any other girls who are honest enough to admit knowledge of the notes found in Rose Clymer's desk."

The hush that fell over the schoolroom was broken by the gong in the main hall, sounding throughout the building. Then followed the noise of shutting books and closing desks, and the bustle and shuffling of anticipated dismissal.

In a front seat sat a girl who did not arise with the others, and as one by one several girls passed her desk with hurried step and embarrassed snicker she looked at them with purple, blazing eyes.

Miss Hill attended to her usual task with the papers of the day's lessons and the marking of the morrow's work before she glanced up at the five girls she had detained. They sat in widely separated sections of the room. Rose Clymer, pretty, fragile, curly-haired, occupied the front seat of the end row. Her face had no color and her small mouth was set in painful lines. Four seats across from her Bessy Bell leaned on her desk, with defiant calmness, and traces of scorn still in her expressive eyes. Gail Matthews looked frightened and Helen Tremaine was crying. Ruth Winthrop bent forward with her face buried in her arms.

"Girls," began Miss Hill, presently. "I know you regard me as a cross old schoolteacher."

She had spoken impulsively, a rare thing with her, and occasioned in this instance by the painful consciousness of how she was judged, when she was really so kindly disposed toward the wayward girls.

"Girls, I've tried to get into close touch with you, to sympathize, to be lenient; but somehow, I've failed," she went on. "Certainly I have failed to stop this note-writing. And lately it has become—beyond me to understand. Now won't you help me to get at the bottom of the matter? Helen, it was you who told me these notes were in Rose's desk. Have you any knowledge of more?"

"Ye—s—m," said Helen, raising her red face. "I've—I've one—I—was afraid to g—give up."

"Bring it to me."

Helen rose and came forward with an expressive little fist and opening it laid a crumpled paper upon Miss Hill's desk. As Helen returned to her seat she met Bessy Bell's fiery glance and it seemed to wither her.

The teacher smoothed out the paper and began to read. "Good Heavens!" she breathed, in amaze and pain. Then she turned to Helen. "This verse is in your handwriting."

"Yes'm—but I—I only copied it," responded the culprit.

"Who gave you the original?"

"Rose."

"Where did she get it?"

"I—I don't know—Miss Hill. Really and tru—truly I don't," faltered Helen, beginning to cry again.

Gail and Ruth also disclaimed any knowledge of the verse, except that it had been put into their hands by Rose. They had read it, copied it, written notes about it and discussed it.

"You three girls may go home now," said Miss Hill, sadly.

The girls hastily filed out and passed the scornful Bessy Bell with averted heads.

"Rose, can you explain the notes found in your possession?" asked the teacher.

"Yes, Miss Hill. They were written to me by different boys and girls," replied Rose.

"Why do you seem to have all these writings addressed to you?"

"I didn't get any more than any other girl. But I wasn't afraid to keep mine."

"Do you know where these verses came from, before Helen had them?"

"Yes, Miss Hill."

"Then you know who wrote them?"

"Yes."

"Who?"

"I won't tell," replied Rose, deliberately. She looked straight into her teacher's eyes.

"You refuse when I've assured you I'll be lenient?" demanded Miss Hill.

"I'm no tattletale." Rose's answer was sullen.

"Rose, I ask you again. A great deal depends on your answer. Will you tell me?"

The girl's lip curled. Then she laughed in a way that made Miss Hill think of her as older. But she kept silent.

"Rose, you're expelled until further notice." Miss Hill's voice trembled with disappointment and anger. "You may go now."

Rose gathered up her books and went into the cloakroom. The door in the outer hall opened and closed.

"Miss Hill, it wasn't fair!" exclaimed Bessy Bell, hotly. "It wasn't fair. Rose is no worse than the other girls. She's not as bad, for she isn't sly and deceitful. There were a dozen girls who lied when they went out. Helen lied. Ruth lied. Gail lied. But Rose told the truth so far as she went. And she wouldn't tell all because she wanted to shield me."

"Why did she want to shield you?"

"Because I wrote the verses."

"You mean you copied them?"

"I composed them," Bessy replied coolly. Her blue eyes fearlessly met Miss Hill's gaze.

"Bessy Bell!" ejaculated the teacher.

The girl stood before her desk and from the tip of her dainty boot to the crown of her golden hair breathed forth a strange, wilful and rebellious fire.

Miss Hill's lips framed to ask a certain question of Bessy, but she refrained and substituted another.

"Bessy, how old are you?"

"Fifteen last April."

"Have you any intelligent idea of—do you know—Bessy, how did you write those verses?" asked Miss Hill, in bewilderment.

"I know a good deal and I've imagination," replied Bessy, candidly.

"That's evident," returned the teacher. "How long has this note-and verse-writing been going on?"

"For a year, at least, among us."

"Then you caught the habit from girls gone higher up?"

"Certainly."

Bessy's trenchant brevity was not lost upon Miss Hill.

"We've always gotten along—you and I," said Miss Hill, feeling her way with this strange girl.

"It's because you're kind and square, and I like you."

Something told the teacher she had never been paid a higher compliment.

"Bessy, how much will you tell me?"

"Miss Hill, I'm in for it and I'll tell you everything, if only you won't punish Rose," replied the girl, impulsively. "Rose's my best friend. Her father's a mean, drunken brute. I'm afraid of what he'll do if he finds out. Rose has a hard time."

"You say Rose is no more guilty than the other girls?"

"Rose Clymer never had an idea of her own. She's just sweet and willing. I hate deceitful girls. Every one of them wrote notes to the boys—the same kind of notes—and some of them tried to write poetry. Most of them had a copy of the piece I wrote. They had great fun over it—getting the boys to guess what girl wrote it. I've written a dozen pieces before this and they've all had them."

"Well, that explains the verses.... Now I read in these notes about meetings with the boys?"

"That refers to mornings before school, and after school, and evenings when it's nice weather. And the literary society."

"You mean the Girl's Literary Guild, with rooms at the Atheneum?"

"Yes. But, Miss Hill, the literary part of it is bunk. We meet there to dance. The boys bring the girls cigarettes. They smoke, and sometimes the boys have something with them to drink."

"These—these girls—hardly in their teens—smoke and drink?" gasped Miss Hill.

"I'll say they do," replied Bessy Bell.

"What—does the 'Bell-garter' mean?" went on the teacher, presently.

"One of the boys stole my garter and fastened a little bell to it. Now it's going the rounds. Every girl who could has worn it."

"What's the 'Old Bench'?"

"Down in the basement here at school there's a bench under the stairway in the dark. The boys and girls have signals. One boy will get permission to go out at a certain time, and a girl from his room, or another room, will go out too. It's all arranged beforehand. They meet down on the Old Bench."

"What for?"

"They meet to spoon."

"I find the names Hardy Mackay, Captain Thesel, Dick Swann among these notes. What can these young society men be to my pupils?"

"Some of the jealous girls have been tattling to each other and mentioning names."

"Bessy! Do you imply these girls who talk have had the—the interest or attention of these young gentlemen named?"

"Yes."

"In what way?"

"I mean they've had dates to meet in the park—and other places. Then they go joy riding."

"Bessy, have you?"

"Yes—but only just lately."

"Thank you Bessy, for your—your frankness," replied Miss Hill, drawing a long breath. "I'll have another talk with you, after I see your mother. You may go now."

It was an indication of Miss Hill's mental perturbation that for once she broke her methodical routine. For many years she had carried a lunch-basket to and from school; for so many in fact that now on Saturdays when she went to town without it she carried her left hand forward in the same position that had grown habitual to her while holding it. But this afternoon, as she went out, she forgot the basket entirely.

"I'll go to Mrs. Bell," soliloquized the worried schoolteacher. "But how to explain what I can't understand! Some people would call this thing just natural depravity. But I love these girls. As I think back, every year, in the early summer, I've always had something of this sort of thing to puzzle over. But the last few years it's grown worse. The war made a difference. And since the war—how strange the girls are! They seem to feel more. They're bolder. They break out oftener. They dress so immodestly. Yet they're less deceitful. They have no shame. I can blind myself no longer to that. And this last is damning proof of—of wildness. Some of them have taken the fatal step!... Yet—yet I seem to feel somehow Bessy Bell isn't bad. I wonder if my hope isn't responsible for that feeling. I'm old-fashioned. This modern girl is beyond me. How clearly she spoke! She's a wonderful, fearless, terrible girl. I never saw a girl so alive. I can't—can't understand her."

In the swift swinging from one consideration of the perplexing question to another Miss Hill's mind naturally reverted to her errand, and to her possible reception. Mrs. Bell was a proud woman. She had married against the wishes of her blue-blooded family, so rumor had it, and her husband was now Chief of Police in Middleville. Mrs. Bell had some money of her own and was slowly recovering her old position in society.

It was not without misgivings that Miss Hill presented herself at Mrs. Bell's door and gave her card to a servant. The teacher had often made thankless and misunderstood calls upon the mothers of her pupils. She was admitted and shown to a living room where a woman of fair features and noble proportions greeted her.

"Bessy's teacher, I presume?" she queried, graciously, yet with just that slight touch of hauteur which made Miss Hill feel her position.

"I am Bessy's teacher," she replied, with dignity. "Can you spare me a few minutes?"

"Assuredly. Please be seated. I've heard Bessy speak of you. By the way, the child hasn't come home yet. How late she always is!"

Miss Hill realized, with a protest at the unfairness of the situation, that to face this elegant lady, so smiling, so suave, so worldly, so graciously superior, and to tell her some unpleasant truths about her daughter, was a task by no means easy, and one almost sure to prove futile. But Miss Hill never shirked her duty, and after all, her motive was a hope to help Bessy.

"Mrs. Bell, I've come on a matter of importance," began Miss Hill. "But it is so delicate a one I don't know how to broach it. I believe plain speaking best."

Here Miss Hill went into detail, sparing not to call a spade a spade. But she held back the names of the young society gentlemen mentioned in the notes. Miss Hill was not sure of her ground there and her revelation was grave enough for any intelligent mother.

"Really, Miss Hill, you amaze me!" exclaimed Mrs. Bell. "Bessie has fallen into bad company. Oh, these public schools! I never attended one, but I've heard what they are."

"The public schools are not to blame," replied Miss Hill, bluntly.

Mrs. Bell gave her visitor a rather supercilious stare.

"May I ask you to explain?"

"I'm afraid I can't explain," replied Miss Hill, conscious of a little heat. "I've proofs of the condition. But as I can't understand it, how can I explain? I have my own peculiar ideas, only, lately, I've begun to doubt them. A year or so ago I would have said girls had their own way too much—too much time to themselves—too much freedom. But now I seem to feel life isn't like what it was a few years ago. Girls are bound to learn. And they never learn at home, that's sure. The last thing a mother will do is to tell her daughter what she ought to know. There's always been a shadow between most mothers and daughters. And in these days of jazz it has become a wall. Perhaps that's why girls don't confide in their mothers.... Mrs. Bell, I considered it my duty to acquaint you with the truth about these verses and notes, and what they imply. Would you care to read some of them?"

"Thank you, but they wouldn't interest me in the least," replied Mrs. Bell, coldly. "I wouldn't insult Bessy or her girl friends. I imagine it's all some risque suggestion overheard and made much of or a few verses mischievously plagiarized. I'm no prude, Miss Hill. I know enough not to be strict, which is apparently the fault of the school system. As for my own daughter I understand her perfectly and trust her implicitly. I know the blood in her. And I shall remove her from public school and place her in a private institution under a tutor, where she'll no longer be exposed to contaminating influences.... I thank you for your intention, which I'm sure is kind—and, will you please excuse me? I must dress for my bridge party. Good afternoon, Miss Hill."

The schoolteacher plodded homeward, her eyes downcast and sad. The snub given her by the mother had not hurt her as had the failure to help the daughter.

"I knew it—I knew it. I'll never try again. That woman's mind is a wilderness where her girl is concerned. How brainless these mothers are!... Yet if I'd ever had a girl—I wonder—would I have been blind? One's own blood—that must be the reason. Pride. Could I have believed of my girl what I admitted of hers? Perhaps not till too late. That would be so human. But, oh! the mystery—the sadness of it—the fatality!"

Rose Clymer left the High School with the settled, indifferent bitterness of one used to trouble. Every desire she followed, turn what way she would, every impulse reaching to grasp some girlish gleam of happiness, resulted in the inevitable rebuke. And this time it had been disgrace. But Rose felt she did not care if she could only deceive her father. No cheerful task was it to face him. Shivering at the thought she resolved to elude the punishment he was sure to inflict if he learned why she had been expelled.

She had no twinge of conscience. She was used to slights and unkindness, and did not now reflect upon the justice of her dismissal. What little pleasure she got came from friendships with boys, and these her father had forbidden her to have. In the bitter web of her thought ran the threads that if she had pretty clothes like Helen, and a rich mother like Bessy, and a father who was not a drunkard, her lot in life would have been happy.

Rose lived with her stepfather in three dingy rooms in the mill section of Middleville. She never left the wide avenues and lawns and stately residences, which she had to pass on her way to and from school, without contrasting them with the dirty alleys and grimy walls and squalid quarters of the working-class. She had grown up in that class, but in her mind there was always a faint vague recollection of a time when her surroundings had been bright and cheerful, where there had been a mother who had taught her to love beautiful things. To-day she climbed the rickety stairs to her home and pushed open the latchless door with a revolt brooding in her mind.

A man in his shirt sleeves sat by the little window.

"Why father—home so early?" she asked.

"Yes lass, home early," he replied wearily. "I'm losing my place again."

He had straggling gray hair, bleared eyes with an opaque, glazy look and a bluish cast of countenance. His chin was buried in the collar of his open shirt; his shoulders sagged, and he breathed heavily.

One glance assured Rose her father was not very much under the influence of drink. And fear left her. When even half-sober he was kind.

"So you've lost your place?" she asked.

"Yes. Old Swann is layin' off."

This was an untruth, Rose knew, because the mills had never been so full, and men never so in demand. Besides her father was an expert at his trade and could always have work.

"I'm sorry," she said, slowly. "I've been thinking lately that I'll give up school and go to work. In an office uptown or a department store."

"Rose, that'd be good of you," he replied. "You could help along a lot. I don't do my work so well no more. But your poor mother won't rest in her grave. She was so proud of you, always dreamin'."

The lamp Rose lighted showed comfortless rooms, with but few articles of furniture. It was with the deft fingers of long practice that the girl spread the faded table-cloth, laid the dishes, ground the coffee, peeled the potatoes, and cut the bread. Then presently she called her father to the meal. He ate in silence, having relapsed once more into the dull gloom natural to him. When he had finished he took up his hat and with slow steps left the room.

"No more study for me," mused Rose, and she felt both glad and sorry. "What will Bessy say? She won't like it. I wonder what old Hill did to her. Let her off easy. I won't get to see Bessy so much now. No more afternoons in the park. But I'll have the evenings. Best of all, some nice clothes to wear. I might some day have a lovely gown like that Miss Maynard wore the night of the Prom."

Rose washed and dried the dishes, put them away, and cleaned up the little kitchen in a way that spoke well for her. And she did it cheerfully, for in the interest of this new idea of work she forgot her trouble and discontent. Taking up the lamp she went to her room. It contained a narrow bed, a bureau, a small wardrobe and a rug. The walls held several pictures, and some touches of color in the way of ribbons, bright posters, and an orange-and-blue banner. A photograph of Bessy Bell stood on the bureau and the girl's beauty seemed like a light in the dingy room.

Rose looked in the mirror and smiled and tossed her curly head. She studied the oval face framed in its mass of curls, the steady gray-blue eyes, the soft, wistful, tenderly curved lips. "Yes, I'm pretty," she said. "And I'm going to buy nice things to wear."

Suddenly she heard a pattering on the roof.

"Rain! What do you know about that? I've got to stay in. If I spoil that relic of a hat I'll never have the nerve to go ask for a job."

She prepared for bed, and placing the lamp on the edge of the bureau, she lay down to become absorbed in a paper-backed novel. The mill-clock was striking ten when she finished. There was a dreamy light in her eyes and a glow upon her face.

"How grand to be as beautiful as she was and turn out to be an heiress with blue blood, and a lovely mother, and handsome lovers dying for her!"

Then she flung the novel against the wall.

"It's only a book. It's not true."

Rose blew out the lamp and went to sleep.

During the night she dreamed that the principal of the High School had called to see her father, and she awoke trembling.

The room was dark as pitch; the rain pattered on the roof; the wind moaned softly under the eaves. A rat somewhere in the wall made a creaking noise. Rose hated to awaken in the middle of the night. She listened for her father's breathing, and failing to hear it, knew he had not yet come home. Often she was left alone until dawn. She tried bravely to go to sleep again but found it impossible; she lay there listening, sensitive to every little sound. The silence was almost more dreadful than the stealthy unknown noises of the night. Vague shapes seemed to hover over her bed. Somehow to-night she dreaded them more. She was sixteen years old, yet there abided with her the terror of the child in the dark.

She cried out in her heart—why was she alone? It was so dark, so silent. Mother! Mother!... She would never—never say her prayers again!

The brazen-tongued mill clock clanged the hour of two, when shuffling uncertain footsteps sounded on the hollow stairs. Rose raised her head to listen. With slow, weary, dragging steps her father came in. Then she lay back on the pillow with a sigh of relief.



CHAPTER X

In the following week Rose learned that work was not to be had for the asking. Her love of pretty things and a desire to be independent of her father had occupied her mind to the exclusion of a consideration of what might be demanded of a girl seeking a position. She had no knowledge of stenography or bookkeeping; her handwriting was poor. Moreover, references from former employers were required and as she had never been employed, she was asked for recommendations from the principal of her school. These, of course, she could not supply. The stores of the better class had nothing to offer her except to put her name on the waiting-list.

Finally Rose secured a place in a second-rate establishment on Main Street. The work was hard; it necessitated long hours and continual standing on her feet. Rose was not rugged enough to accustom herself to the work all at once, and she was discharged. This disheartened her, but she kept on trying to find other employment.

One day in the shopping district, some one accosted her. She looked up to see a young man, slim, elegant, with a curl of his lips she remembered. He raised his hat.

"How do you do, Mr. Swann," she answered.

"Rose, are you on the way home?"

"Yes."

"Let's go down this side street," he said, throwing away his cigarette. "I've been looking for you."

They turned the corner. Rose felt strange to be walking alone with him, but she was not embarrassed. He had danced with her once. And she knew his friend Hardy Mackay.

"What're you crying about?" he said.

"I'm not."

"You have been then. What for?"

"Oh, nothing."

"Come, tell me."

"I—I've been disappointed."

"What about?" He was persistent, and Rose felt that he must be used to having his own way.

"It was about a job I didn't get," replied Rose, trying to laugh.

"So you're looking for a job. Heard you'd been fired by old Hill. Gail told me. I had her out last night in my new car."

"I could go back to school. Miss Hill sent for me.... Was Bessy with you and Gail?"

"No. Gail and I were alone. We had a dandy time.... Rose, will you meet me some night and take a ride? It'll be fine and cool."

"Thank you, Mr. Swann. It's very kind of you to ask me."

"Well, will you go?" he queried, impatiently.

"No," she replied, simply.

"Why not?"

"I don't want to."

"Well, that's plain enough," he said, changing his tone. "Say, Rose, you're in Clark's store, aren't you?"

"I was. But I lost the place."

"How's that?"

"I couldn't stand on my feet all day. I fainted. Then he fired me."

"So you're hunting for another job?" inquired Swann, thoughtfully.

"Yes."

"Sorry. It's too bad a sweet kid like you has to work. You're not strong, Rose.... Well, I'll turn off at this corner. You won't meet me to-night?"

"No, thanks."

Swann pulled a gold case from his pocket, and extracting a cigarette, tilted it in his lips as he struck a match. His face wore a careless smile Rose did not like. He was amiable, but he seemed so sure, so satisfied, almost as if he believed she would change her mind.

"Rose, you're turning me down cold, then?"

"Take it any way you like, Mr. Swann," she replied. "Good day."

Rose forgot him almost the instant her back was turned. He had only annoyed her. And she had her stepfather to face, with news of her discharge from the store. Her fears were verified; he treated her brutally. Next day Rose went to work in a laundry.

And then, very soon it seemed, her school days, the merry times with the boys, and Bessy—all were far back in the past. She did not meet any one who knew her, nor hear from any one. They had forgotten her. At night, after coming home from the laundry and doing the housework, she was so tired that she was glad to crawl into bed.

But one night a boy brought her a note. It was from Dick Swann. He asked her to go to Mendleson's Hall to see the moving-pictures. She could meet him uptown at the entrance. Rose told the boy to tell Swann she would not come.

This invitation made her thoughtful. If Swann had been ashamed to be seen with her he would not have invited her to go there. Mendleson's was a nice place; all the nice people of Middleville went there. Rose found herself thinking of the lights, the music, the well-dressed crowd, and then the pictures. She loved moving-pictures, especially those with swift horses and cowboys and a girl who could ride. All at once a wave of the old thrilling excitement rushed over her. Almost she regretted having sent back a refusal. But she would not go with Swann. And it was not because she knew what kind of a young man he was—what he wanted. Rose refused from dislike, not scruples.

Then came a Saturday night which seemed a climax of her troubles. She was told not to come back to work until further notice, and that was as bad as being discharged. How could she tell her stepfather? Of late he had been hard with her. She dared not tell him. The money she earned was little enough, but during his idleness it had served to keep them.

Rose had scarcely gone a block when she encountered Dick Swann. He stopped her—turned to walk with her. It was a melancholy gift of Rose's that she could tell when men were even in the slightest under the influence of drink. Swann was not careless now or indifferent. He seemed excited and gay.

"Rose, you're just the girl I'm looking for," he said. "I really was going to your home. Got that job yet?"

"No," she replied.

"I've got one for you. It's at the Telephone Exchange. They need an operator. My dad owns the telephone company. I've got a pull. I'll get you the place. You can learn it easy. Nice job—short hours—you sit down all the time—good pay. What do you say, Rose?"

"I—I don't know—what to say," she faltered. "Thanks for thinking of me."

"I've had you in mind for a month. Rose, you take this job. Take it whether you've any use for me or not. I'm not rotten enough to put this in your way just to make you under obligations to me."

"I'll think about it. I—I do need a place. My father's out of work. And he's—he's not easy to get along with."

"I tell you what, Rose. You meet me to-night. We'll take a spin in my car. It'll be fine down the river road. Then we can talk it over. Will you?"

Rose looked at him, and thought how strange it was that she did not like him any better, now when she ought to.

"Why have you tried to—to rush me?" she asked.

"I like you, Rose."

"But you don't want me to meet you—go with you, when I—I can't feel as you do?"

"Sure, I want you to, Rose. Nobody ever likes me right off. Maybe you will, after you know me. The job is yours. Don't make any date with me for that. I say here's your chance to have a ride, to win a friend. Take it or not. It's up to you. I won't say another word."

Rose's hungry, lonely heart warmed toward Swann. He seemed like a ray of light in the gloom.

"I'll meet you," she said.

They arranged the hour and then she went on her way home.

The big car sped through River Park. Rose shivered a little as she peered into the darkness of the grove. Then the car shot under the last electric light, out into the country, with the level road white in the moonlight, and the river gleaming below. There was a steady, even rush of wind. The car hummed and droned and sang. And mingled with the dry scent of dust was the sweet fragrance of new-mown hay. Far off a light twinkled or it might have been a star.

Swann put his arm around Rose. She did not shrink—she did not repulse him—she did not move. Something strange happened in her mind or heart. It was that moment she fell.

And she fell wide-eyed, knowing what she was doing, not in a fervor of excitement, without pleasure or passion, bitterly sure that it was better to be with some one she could not like than to be alone forever. The wrong to herself lay only in the fact that she could not care.



CHAPTER XI

Toward the end of June, Lane's long vigil of watchfulness from the vantage-point at Colonel Pepper's apartment resulted in a confirmation of his worst fears.

One afternoon and evening of a warm, close day in early summer he lay and crouched on the attic floor above the club-rooms from three o'clock until one the next morning. From time to time he had changed his position to rest. But at the expiration of that protracted period of spying he was so exhausted from the physical strain and mental shock that he was unable to go home. All the rest of the night he lay upon Colonel Pepper's couch, wide awake, consumed by pain and distress. About daylight he fell into a sleep, fitful and full of nightmares, to be awakened around nine o'clock by Pepper. The old gambler evinced considerable alarm until Lane explained how he happened to be there; and then his feeling changed to solicitude.

"Lane, you look awful," he said.

"If I look the way I feel it's no wonder you're shocked," returned Lane.

"Ahuh! What'd you see?" queried the other, curiously.

"When?"

"Why, you numskull, while you were peepin' all that time."

Lane sombrely shook his head. "I couldn't tell—what I saw. I want to forget.... Maybe in twenty-four hours I'll believe it was a nightmare."

"Humph! Well, I'm here to tell you what I've seen wasn't any nightmare," returned Pepper, with his shrewd gaze on Lane. "But we needn't discuss that. If it made an old bum like me sick what might not it do to a sensitive high-minded chap like you.... The question is are you going to bust up that club."

"I am," declared Lane, grimly.

"Good! But how—when? What's the sense in lettin' them carry on any longer?"

"I had to fight myself last night to keep from breaking in on them.... But I want to catch this fellow Swann with my sister. She wasn't there."

"Lane, don't wait for that," returned Pepper, nervously. "You might never catch him.... And if you did...."

His little plump well-cared-for hand shook as he extended it.

"I don't know what I'll do.... I don't know," said Lane, darkly, more to himself.

"Lane, this—this worry will knock you out."

"No matter. All I ask is to stand up—long enough—to do what I want to do."

"Go home and get some breakfast—and take care of yourself," replied Pepper, gruffly. "Damn me if I'm not sorry I gave Swann's secret away."

"Oh no, you're not," said Lane, quickly. "But I'd have found it out by this time."

Pepper paced up and down the faded carpet, his hands behind his back, a plodding, burdened figure.

"Have you any—doubts left?" he asked, suddenly.

"Doubts!" echoed Lane, vaguely.

"Yes—doubts. You're like most of these mothers and fathers.... You couldn't believe. You made excuses for the smoke—saying there was no fire."

"No more doubts, alas!... My God! I saw," burst out Lane.

"All right. Buck up now. It's something to be sure.... You've overdone your strength. You look...."

"Pepper, do me a favor," interposed Lane, as he made for the door. "Get me an axe and leave it here in your rooms. In case I want to break in on those fellows some time—quick—I'll have it ready."

"Sure, I'll get you anything. And I want to be around when you butt in on them."

"That's up to you. Good-bye now. I'll run in to-morrow if I'm up to it."

Lane went home, his mind in a tumult. His mother had just discovered that he had not slept in his bed, and was greatly relieved to see him. Breakfast was waiting, and after partaking of it Lane felt somewhat better. His mother appeared more than usually sombre. Worry was killing her.

"Lorna did not sleep at home last night," she said, presently, as if reluctantly forced to impart this information.

"Where was she?" he queried, blankly.

"She said she would stay with a friend."

"What friend?"

"Some girl. Oh, it's all right I suppose. She's stayed away before with girl friends.... But what worried me...."

"Well," queried Lane, as she paused.

"Lorna was angry again last night. And she told me if you didn't stop your nagging she'd go away from home and stay. Said she could afford to pay her board."

"She told me that, too," replied Lane, slowly. "And—I'm afraid she meant it."

"Leave her alone, Daren."

"Poor mother! I'm afraid I'm a—a worry to you as well as Lorna," he said, gently, with a hand going to her worn cheek. She said nothing, although her glance rested upon him with sad affection.

Lane clambered wearily up to his little room. It had always been a refuge. He leaned a moment against the wall, and felt in his extremity like an animal in a trap. A thousand pricking, rushing sensations seemed to be on the way to his head. That confusion, that sensation as if his blood vessels would burst, yielded to his will. He sat down on his bed. Only the physical pains and weariness, and the heartsickness abided with him. These had been nothing to daunt his spirit. But to-day was different. The dark, vivid, terrible picture in his mind unrolled like a page. Yesterday was different. To-day he seemed a changed man, confronted by imperious demands. Time was driving onward fast.

As if impelled by a dark and sinister force, he slowly leaned down to pull his bag from under the bed. He opened it, and drew out his Colt's automatic gun. Though the June day was warm this big worn metal weapon had a cold touch. He did not feel that he wanted to handle it, but he did. It seemed heavy, a thing of subtle, latent energy, with singular fascination for him. It brought up a dark flowing tide of memory. Lane shut his eyes, and saw the tide flow by with its conflict and horror. The feel of his gun, and the recall of what it had meant to him in terrible hours, drove away a wavering of will, and a still voice that tried to pierce his consciousness. It fixed his sinister intention. He threw the gun on the bed, and rising began to pace the floor.

"If I told what I saw—no jury on earth would convict me," he soliloquized. "But I'll kill him—and keep my mouth shut."

Plan after plan he had pondered in mind—and talked over with Blair—something to thwart Richard Swann—to give Margaret the chance for happiness and love her heart craved—to put out of Lorna's way the evil influence that had threatened her. Now the solution came to him. Sooner or later he would catch Swann with his sister in an automobile, or at the club rooms, or at some other questionable place. He knew Lorna was meeting Swann. He had tried to find them, all to no avail. What he might have done heretofore was no longer significant; he knew what he meant to do now.

But all at once Lane was confronted with remembrance of another thing he had resolved upon—equally as strong as his determination to save Lorna—and it was his intention to persuade Mel Iden to marry him.

He loved his sister, but not as he loved Mel Iden. Whatever had happened to Lorna or might happen, she would be equal to it. She had the boldness, the cool, calculating selfishness of the general run of modern girls. Her reactions were vastly different front Mel Iden's. Lane had lost hope of saving Lorna's soul. He meant only to remove a baneful power from her path, so that she might lean to the boy who wanted to marry her. When in his sinister intent he divined the passionate hate of the soldier for the slacker he refused to listen to his conscience. The way out in Lorna's case he had discovered. But what relation had this new factor of his dilemma to Mel Iden? He could never marry her after he had killed Swann.

Lane went to bed, and when he rested his spent body, he pondered over every phase of the case. Reason and intelligence had their say. He knew he had become morbid, sick, rancorous, base, obsessed with this iniquity and his passion to stamp on it, as if it were a venomous serpent. He would have liked to do some magnificent and awful deed, that would show this little, narrow, sordid world at home the truth, and burn forever on their memories the spirit of a soldier. He had made a sacrifice that few understood. He had no reward except a consciousness that grew more luminous and glorious in its lonely light as time went on. He had endured the uttermost agonies of hell, a thousand times worse than death, and he had come home with love, with his faith still true. To what had he returned?

No need for reason or intelligence to knock at the gates of his passion! The war had left havoc. The physical, the sensual, the violent, the simian—these instincts, engendering the Day of the Beast, had come to dominate the people he had fought for. Why not go out and deliberately kill a man, a libertine, a slacker? He would still be acting on the same principle that imbued him during the war.

His thoughts drifted to Mel Iden. Strange how he loved her! Why? Because she was a lonely soul like himself—because she was true to her womanhood—because she had fallen for the same principle for which he had sacrificed all—because she had been abandoned by family and friends—because she had become beautiful, strange, mystic, tragic. Because despite the unnamed child, the scarlet letter upon her breast, she seemed to him infinitely purer than the girl who had jilted him.

Lane now surrendered to the enchantment of emotion embodied in the very name of Mel Iden. He had long resisted a sweet, melancholy current. He had driven Mel from his mind by bitter reflection on the conduct of the people who had ostracized her. Thought of her now, of what he meant to do, of the mounting love he had so strangely come to feel for her, was his only source of happiness. She would never know his secret love; he could never tell her that. But it was something to hold to his heart, besides that unquenchable faith in himself, in some unseen genius for far-off good.

The next day Lane, having ascertained where Joshua Iden was employed, betook himself that way just at the noon hour. Iden, like so many other Middleville citizens, gained a livelihood by working for the rich Swann. In his best days he had been a master mechanic of the railroad shops; at sixty he was foreman of one of the steel mills.

As it chanced, Iden had finished his noonday meal and was resting in the shade, apart from other laborers there. Lane remembered him, in spite of the fact that the three years had aged and bowed him, and lined his face.

"Mr. Iden, do you remember me?" asked Lane. He caught the slight averting of Iden's eyes from his uniform, and divined how the father of Mel Iden hated soldiers. But nothing could daunt Lane.

"Yes, Lane, I remember you," returned Iden. He returned Lane's hand-clasp, but not cordially.

Lane had mapped out in his mind this little interview. Taking off his hat, he carefully lowered himself until his back was propped against the tree, and looked frankly at Iden.

"It's warm. And I tire so easily. The damned Huns cut me to pieces.... Not much like I was when I used to call on Mel!"

Iden lowered his shadowed face. After a moment he said: "No, you're changed, Lane.... I heard you were gassed, too."

"Oh, everything came my way, Mr. Iden.... And the finish isn't far off."

Iden shifted his legs uneasily, then sat more erect, and for the first time really looked at Lane. It was the glance of a man who had strong aversion to the class Lane represented, but who was fair-minded and just, and not without sympathy.

"That's too bad, Lane. You're a young man.... The war hit us all, I guess," he said, and at the last, sighed heavily.

"It's been a long pull—Blair Maynard and I were the first to enlist, and we left Middleville almost immediately," went on Lane.

He desired to plant in Iden's mind the fact that he had left Middleville long before the wild era of soldier-and-girl attraction which had created such havoc. Acutely sensitive as Lane was, he could not be sure of an alteration in Iden's aloofness, yet there was some slight change. Then he talked frankly about specific phases of the war. Finally, when he saw that he had won interest and sympathy from Iden he abruptly launched his purpose.

"Mr. Iden, I came to ask if you will give your consent to my marrying Mel."

The older man shrank back as if he had been struck. He stared. His lower jaw dropped. A dark flush reddened his cheek.

"What!... Lane, you must be drunk," he ejaculated, thickly.

"No. I never was more earnest in my life. I want to marry Mel Iden."

"Why?" rasped out the father, hoarsely.

"I understand Mel," replied Lane, and swiftly he told his convictions as to the meaning and cause of her sacrifice. "Mel is good. She never was bad. These rotten people who see dishonor and disgrace in her have no minds, no hearts. Mel is far above these painted, bare-kneed girls who scorn her.... And I want to show them what I think of her. I want to give her boy a name—so he'll have a chance in the world. I'll not live long. This is just a little thing I can do to make it easier for Mel."

"Lane, you can't be the father of her child," burst out Iden.

"No. I wish I were. I was never anything to Mel but a friend. She was only a girl—seventeen when I left home."

"So help me God!" muttered Iden, and he covered his face with his hands.

"Say yes, Mr. Iden, and I'll go to Mel this afternoon."

"No, let me think.... Lane, if you're not drunk, you're crazy."

"Not at all. Why, Mr. Iden, I'm perfectly rational. Why, I'd glory in making that splendid girl a little happier, if it's possible."

"I drove my—my girl from her mother—her home," said Iden, slowly.

"Yes, and it was a hard, cruel act," replied Lane, sharply. "You were wrong. You—"

The mill whistle cut short Lane's further speech. When its shrill clarion ended, Iden got up, and shook himself as if to reestablish himself in the present.

"Lane, you come to my house to-night," he said. "I've got to go back to work.... But I'll think—and we can talk it over. I still live where you used to come as a boy.... How strange life is!... Good day, Lane."

Lane felt more than satisfied with the result of that interview. Joshua Iden would go home and tell Mel's mother, and that would surely make the victory easier. She would be touched in her mother's heart; she would understand Mel now, and divine Lane's mission; and she would plead with her husband to consent, and to bring Mel back home. Lane was counting on that. He must never even hint such a hope, but nevertheless he had it, he believed in it. Joshua Iden would have the scales torn from his eyes. He would never have it said that a dying soldier, who owed neither him nor his daughter anything, had shown more charity than he.

Therefore, Lane went early to the Iden homestead, a picturesque cottage across the river from Riverside Park. The only change Lane noted was a larger growth of trees and a fuller foliage. It was warm twilight. The frogs had begun to trill, sweet and melodious sound to Lane, striking melancholy chords of memory. Joshua Iden was walking on his lawn, his coat off, his gray head uncovered. Mrs. Iden sat on the low-roofed porch. Lane expected to see a sad change in her, something the same as he had found in his own mother. But he was hardly prepared for the frail, white-haired woman unlike the image he carried in his mind.

"Daren Lane! You should have come to see me long ago," was her greeting, and in her voice, so like Mel's, Lane recognized her. Some fitting reply came to him, and presently the moment seemed easier for all. She asked about his mother and Lorna, and then about Blair Maynard. But she did not speak of his own health or condition. And presently Lane thought it best to come to the issue at hand.

"Mr. Iden, have you made up your mind to—to give me what I want?"

"Yes, I have, Lane," replied Iden, simply. "You've made me see what Mel's mother always believed, though she couldn't make it clear to me.... I have much to forgive that girl. Yet, if you, who owe her nothing—who have wasted your life in vain sacrifice—if you can ask her to be your wife, I can ask her to come back home."

That was a splendid, all-satisfying moment for Lane. By his own grief he measured his reward. What had counted with Joshua Iden had been his faith in Mel's innate goodness. Then Lane turned to the mother. In the dusk he could see the working of her sad face.

"God bless you, my boy!" she said. "You feel with a woman's heart. I thank you.... Joshua has already sent word for Mel to come home. She will be back to-morrow.... You must come here to see her. But, Daren, she will never marry you."

"She will," replied Lane.

"You do not know Mel. Even if you had only a day to live she would not let you wrong yourself."

"But when she learns how much it means to me? The army ruined Mel, as it ruined hundreds of thousands of other girls. She will let one soldier make it up to her. She will let me go to my death with less bitterness."

"Oh, my poor boy, I don't know—I can't tell," she replied, brokenly. "By God's goodness you have brought about one miracle. Who knows? You might change Mel. For you have brought something great back from the war."

"Mrs. Iden, I will persuade her to marry me," said Lane. "And then, Mr. Iden, we must see what is best for her and the boy—in the future."

"Aye, son. One lesson learned makes other lessons easy. I will take Mel and her mother far away from Middleville—where no one ever heard of us."

"Good! You can all touch happiness again.... And now, if you and Mrs. Iden will excuse me—I will go."

Lane bade the couple good night, and slowly, as might have a lame man, he made his way through the gloaming, out to the road, and down to the bridge, where as always he lingered to catch the mystic whispers of the river waters, meant only for his ear. Stronger to-night! He was closer to that nameless thing. The shadows of dusk, the dark murmuring river, held an account with him, sometime to be paid. How blessed to fall, to float down to that merciful oblivion.



CHAPTER XII

Several days passed before Lane felt himself equal to the momentous interview with Mel Iden. After his call upon Mel's father and mother he was overcome by one of his sick, weak spells, that happily had been infrequent of late. This one confined him to his room. He had about fought and won it out, when the old injury at the base of his spine reminded him that misfortunes did not come singly. Quite unexpectedly, as he bent over with less than his usual caution, the vertebra slipped out; and Lane found his body twisted like a letter S. And the old pain was no less terrible for its familiarity.

He got back to his bed and called his mother. She sent for Doctor Bronson. He came at once, and though solicitous and kind he lectured Lane for neglecting the osteopathic treatment he had advised. And he sent his chauffeur for an osteopath.

"Lane," said the little physician, peering severely down upon him, "I didn't think you'd last as long as this."

"I'm tough, Doctor—hard to kill," returned Lane, making a wry face. "But I couldn't stand this pain long."

"It'll be easier presently. We can fix that spine. Some good treatments to strengthen ligaments, and a brace to wear—we can fix that.... Lane, you've wonderful vitality."

"A doctor in France told me that."

"Except for your mental condition, you're in better shape now than when you came home." Doctor Bronson peered at Lane from under his shaggy brows, walked to the window, looked out, and returned, evidently deep in thought.

"Boy, what's on your mind?" he queried, suddenly.

"Oh, Lord! listen to him," sighed Lane. Then he laughed. "My dear Doctor, I have nothing on my mind—absolutely nothing.... This world is a beautiful place. Middleville is fine, clean, progressive. People are kind—thoughtful—good. What could I have on my mind?"

"You can't fool me. You think the opposite of what you say.... Lane, your heart is breaking."

"No, Doctor. It broke long ago."

"You believe so, but it didn't. You can't give up.... Lane, I want to tell you something. I'm a prohibitionist myself, and I respect the law. But there are rare cases where whiskey will effect a cure. I say that as a physician. And I am convinced now that your case is one where whiskey might give you a fighting chance."

"Doctor! What're you saying?" ejaculated Lane, wide-eyed with incredulity.

Doctor Bronson enlarged upon and emphasized his statement.

"I might live!" whispered Lane. "My God!... But that is ridiculous. I'm shot to pieces. I'm really tired of living. And I certainly wouldn't become a drunkard to save my life."

At this juncture the osteopath entered, putting an end to that intimate conversation. Doctor Bronson explained the case to his colleague. And fifteen minutes later Lane's body was again straight. Also he was wringing wet with cold sweat and quivering in every muscle.

"Gentlemen—your cure is—worse than—the disease," he panted.

Manifestly Doctor Branson's interest in Lane had advanced beyond the professional. His tone was one of friendship when he said, "Boy, it beats hell what you can stand. I don't know about you. Stop your worry now. Isn't there something you care for?"

"Yes," replied Lane.

"Think of that, or it, or her, then to the exclusion of all else. And give nature a chance."

"Doctor, I can't control my thoughts."

"A fellow like you can do anything," snapped Bronson. "There are such men, now and then. Human nature is strange and manifold. All great men do not have statues erected in their honor. Most of them are unknown, unsung.... Lane, you could do anything—do you hear me?—anything."

Lane felt surprise at the force and passion of the practical little physician. But he was not greatly impressed. And he was glad when the two men went away. He felt the insidious approach of one of his states of depression—the black mood—the hopeless despair—the hell on earth. This spell had not visited him often of late, and now manifestly meant to make up for that forbearance. Lane put forth his intelligence, his courage, his spirit—all in vain. The onslaught of gloom and anguish was irresistible. Then thought of Mel Iden sustained him—held back this madness for the moment.

Every hour he lived made her dearer, yet farther away. It was the unattainableness of her, the impossibility of a fruition of love that slowly and surely removed her. On the other hand, the image of her sweet face, of her form, of her beauty, of her movements—every recall of these physical things enhanced her charm, and his love. He had cherished a delusion that it was Mel Iden's spirit alone, the wonderful soul of her, that had stormed his heart and won it. But he found to his consternation that however he revered her soul, it was the woman also who now allured him. That moment of revelation to Lane was a catastrophe. Was there no peace on earth for him? What had he done to be so tortured? He had a secret he must hide from Mel Iden. He was human, he was alone, he needed love, but this seemed madness. And at the moment of full realization Doctor Bronson's strange words of possibility returned to haunt and flay him. He might live! A fierce thrill like a flame leaped from his heart, along his veins. And a shudder, cold as ice, followed it. Love would kill his resignation. Love would add to his despair. Mel Iden could never love him. He did not want her love. And yet, to live on and on, with such love as would swell and mount from his agony, with the barrier between them growing more terrible every day, was more than he cared to face. He would rather die.

And so, at length, Lane's black demon of despair overthrew even his thoughts of Mel, and fettered him there, in darkness and strife of soul. He was an atom under the grinding, monstrous wheels of his morbid mood.

Sometime, after endless moments or hours of lying there, with crushed breast, with locked thoughts hideous and forlorn, with slow burn of pang and beat of heart, Lane heard a heavy thump on the porch outside, on the hall inside, on the stairs. Thump—thump, slow and heavy! It roused him. It drove away the drowsy, thick and thunderous atmosphere of mind. It had a familiar sound. Blair's crutch!

Presently there was a knock on the door of his room and Blair entered. Blair, as always, bright of eye, smiling of lip, erect, proud, self-sufficient, inscrutable and sure. Lane's black demon stole away. Lane saw that Blair was whiter, thinner, frailer, a little farther on that road from which there could be no turning.

"Hello, old scout," greeted Blair, as he sat down on the bed beside Lane. "I need you more than any one—but it kills me to see you."

"Same here, Blair," replied Lane, comprehendingly.

"Gosh! we oughtn't be so finicky about each other's looks," exclaimed Blair, with a smile.

But neither Lane nor Blair made further reference to the subject.

Each from the other assimilated some force, from voice and look and presence, something wanting in their contact with others. These two had measured all emotions, spanned in little time the extremes of life, plumbed the depths, and now saw each other on the heights. In the presence of Blair, Lane felt an exaltation. The more Blair seemed to fade away from life, the more luminous and beautiful the light of his countenance. For Lane the crippled and dying Blair was a deed of valor done, a wrong expiated for the sake of others, a magnificent nobility in contrast to the baseness and greed and cowardice of the self-preservation that had doomed him. Lane had only to look at Blair to feel something elevating in himself, to know beyond all doubt that the goodness, the truth, the progress of man in nature, and of God in his soul, must grow on forever.

Mel Iden had been in her home four days when Lane first saw her there.

It was a day late in June when the rich, thick, amber light of afternoon seemed to float in the air. Warm summer lay on the land. The bees were humming in the rose vines over the porch. Mrs. Iden, who evidently heard Lane's step, appeared in the path, and nodding her gladness at sight of him, she pointed to the open door.

Lane halted on the threshold. The golden light of the day seemed to have entered the room and found Mel. It warmed the pallor of her skin and the whiteness of her dress. When he had seen her before she had worn something plain and dark. Could a white gown and the golden glow of June effect such transformation? She came slowly toward him and took his hand.

"Daren, I am home," was all she could say.

Long hours before Lane had braced himself for this ordeal. It was himself he had feared, not Mel. He played the part he had created for her imagination. Behind his composure, his grave, kind earnestness, hid the subdued and scorned and unwelcome love that had come to him. He held it down, surrounded, encompassed, clamped, so that he dared look into her eyes, listen to her voice, watch the sweet and tragic tremulousness of her lips.

"Yes, Mel, where you should be," replied Lane.

"It was you—your offer to marry me—that melted father's heart."

"Mel, all he needed was to be made think," returned Lane. "And that was how I made him do it."

"Oh, Daren, I thank you, for mother's sake, for mine—I can't tell you how much."

"Mel, please don't thank me," he answered. "You understand, and that's enough. Now say you'll marry me, Mel."

Mel did not answer, but in the look of her eyes, dark, humid, with mysterious depths below the veil, Lane saw the truth; he felt it in the clasp of her hands, he divined it in all that so subtly emanated from the womanliness of her. Mel had come to love him.

And all that he had endured seemed to rise and envelop heart and soul in a strange, cold stillness.

"Mel, will you marry me?" he repeated, almost dully.

Slowly Mel withdrew her hands. The query seemed to make her mistress of herself.

"No, Daren, I cannot," she replied, and turned away to look out of a window with unseeing eyes. "Let us talk of other things.... My father says he will move away—taking me and—and—all of us—as soon as he sells the home."

"No, Mel, if you'll forgive me, we'll not talk of something else," Lane informed her. "We can argue without quarreling. Come over here and sit down."

She came slowly, as if impelled, and she stood before him. To Lane it seemed as if she were both supplicating and inexorable.

"Do you remember the last time we sat together on this couch?" she asked.

"No, Mel, I don't."

"It was four years ago—and more. I was sixteen. You tried to kiss me and were angry because I wouldn't let you."

"Well, wasn't I rude!" he exclaimed, facetiously. Then he grew serious. "Mel, do you remember it was Helen's lying that came between you and me—as boy and girl friends?"

"I never knew. Helen Wrapp! What was it?"

"It's not worth recalling and would hurt you—now," he replied. "But it served to draw me Helen's way. We were engaged when she was seventeen.... Then came the war. And the other night she laughed in my face because I was a wreck.... Mel, it's beyond understanding how things work out. Helen has chosen the fleshpots of Egypt. You have chosen a lonelier and higher path.... And here I am in your little parlor asking you to marry me."

"No, no, no! Daren, don't, I beg of you—don't talk to me this way," she besought him.

"Mel, it's a difference of opinion that makes arguments, wars and other things," he said, with a cruelty in strange antithesis to the pity and tenderness he likewise felt. He could hurt her. He had power over her. What a pang shot through his heart! There would be an irresistible delight in playing on the emotions of this woman. He could no more help it than the shame that surged over him at consciousness of his littleness. He already loved her, she was all he had left to love, he would end in a day or a week or a month by worshipping her. Through her he was going to suffer. Peace would now never abide in his soul.

"Daren, you were never like this—as a boy," she said, in wondering distress.

"Like what?"

"You're hard. You used to be so—so gentle and nice."

"Hard! I? Yes, Mel, perhaps I am—hard as war, hard as modern life, hard as my old friends, my little sister——" he broke off.

"Daren, do not mock me," she entreated. "I should not have said hard. But you're strange to me—a something terrible flashes from you. Yet it's only in glimpses.... Forgive me, Daren, I didn't mean hard."

Lane drew her down upon the couch so that she faced him, and he did not release her hand.

"Mel, I'm softer than a jelly-fish," he said. "I've no bone, no fiber, no stamina, no substance. I'm more unstable than water. I'm so soft I'm weak. I can't stand pain. I lie awake in the dead hours of night and I cry like a baby, like a fool. I weep for myself, for my mother, for Lorna, for you...."

"Hush!" She put a soft hand over his lips.

"Very well, I'll not be bitter," he went on, with mounting pulse, with thrill and rush of inexplicable feeling, as if at last had come the person who would not be deaf to his voice. "Mel, I'm still the boy, your schoolmate, who used to pull the bow off your braid.... I am that boy still in heart, with all the war upon my head, with the years between then and now. I'm young and old.... I've lived the whole gamut—the fresh call of war to youth, glorious, but God! as false as stairs of sand—the change of blood, hard, long, brutal, debasing labor of hands, of body, of mind to learn to kill—to survive and kill—and go on to kill.... I've seen the marching of thousands of soldiers—the long strange tramp, tramp, tramp, the beat, beat, beat, the roll of drums, the call of bugles, the boom of cannon in the dark, the lightnings of hell flaring across the midnight skies, the thunder and chaos and torture and death and pestilence and decay—the hell of war. It is not sublime. There is no glory. The sublimity is in man's acceptance of war, not for hate or gain, but love. Love of country, home, family—love of women—I fought for women—for Helen, whom I imagined my ideal, breaking her heart over me on the battlefield. Not that Helen failed me, but failed the ideal for which I fought!... My little sister Lorna! I fought for her, and I fought for a dream that existed only in my heart. Lorna—Alas!... I fought for other women, all women—and you, Mel Iden. And in you, in your sacrifice and your strength to endure, I find something healing to my sore heart. I find my ideal embodied in you. I find hope and faith for the future embodied in you. I find—"

"Oh Daren, you shame me utterly," she protested, freeing her hands in gesture of entreaty. "I am outcast."

"To a false and rotten society, yes—you are," he returned. "But Mel, that society is a mass of maggots. It is such women as you, such men as Blair, who carry the spirit onward.... So much for that. I have spoken to try to show you where I hold you. I do not call your—your trouble a blunder, or downfall, or dishonor. I call it a misfortune because—because—"

"Because there was not love," she supplemented, as he halted at fault. "Yes, that is where I wronged myself, my soul. I obeyed nature and nature is strong, raw, inevitable. She seeks only her end, which is concerned with the species. For nature the individual perishes. Nature cannot be God. For God has created a soul in woman. And through the ages woman has advanced to hold her womanhood sacred. But ever the primitive lurks in the blood, and the primitive is nature. Soul and nature are not compatible. A woman's soul sanctions only love. That is the only progress there ever was in life. Nature and war made me traitor to my soul."

"Yes, yes, Mel, it's true—and cruel, what you say," returned Lane. "All the more reason why you should do what I ask. I am home after the war. All that was vain is vain. I forget it when I can. I have—not a great while left. There are a few things even I can do before that time. One of them—the biggest to me—concerns you. You are in trouble. You have a boy who can be spared much unhappiness in life. If you were married—if the boy had my name—how different the future! Perhaps there can be some measure of happiness for you. For him there is every hope. You will leave Middleville. You will go far away somewhere. You are young. You have a good education. You can teach school, or help your parents while the boy is growing up. Time is kind. You will forget.... Marry me, Mel, for his sake."

She had both hands pressed to her breast as if to stay an uncontrollable feeling. Her eyes, dilated and wide, expressed a blending of emotions.

"No, no, no!" she cried.

Lane went on just the same with other words, in other vein, reiterating the same importunity. It was a tragic game, in which he divined he must lose. But the playing of it had inexplicably bitter-sweet pain. He knew now that Mel loved him. No greater proof needed he than the perception of her reaction to one word on his lips—wife. She quivered to that like a tautly strung lyre touched by a skilful hand. It fascinated her. But the temptation to accept his offer for the sake of her boy's future was counteracted by the very strength of her feeling for Lane. She would not marry him, because she loved him.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse