Lane read this truth, and it wrung a deeper reverence from him. And he saw, too, the one way in which he could break her spirit, make her surrender, if he could stoop to it. If he could take her in his arms, and hold her tight, and kiss her dumb and blind, and make her understand his own love for her, his need of her, she would accede with the wondrous generosity of a woman's heart. But he could not do it.
In the end, out of sheer pity that overcame the strange delight he had in torturing her, he desisted in his appeals and demands and subtle arguments. The long strain left him spent. And with the sudden let-down of his energy, the surrender to her stronger will, he fell prey at once to the sadness that more and more was encompassing him. He felt an old and broken man.
To this sudden change in Lane Mel responded with mute anxiety and fear. The alteration of his spirit stunned her. As he bade her good-bye she clung to him.
"Daren, forgive me," she implored. "You don't understand.... Oh, it's hard."
"Never mind, Mel. I guess it was just one of my dreams. Don't cry.... Good-bye."
"But you'll come again?" she entreated, almost wildly.
Lane shook his head. He did not trust himself to look at her then.
"Daren, you can't mean that," she cried. "It's too late for me. I—I—Oh! You.... To uplift me—then to cast me down! Daren, come back."
In his heart he did not deny that cry of hers. He knew he would come back, knew it with stinging shame, but he could not tell her. It had all turned out so differently from what he had dreamed. If he had not loved her he would not have felt defeat. To have made her his wife would have been to protect her, to possess her even after he was dead.
At the last she let him go. He felt her watching him, and he carried her lingering clasp away with him, to burn and to thrill and to haunt, and yet to comfort him in lonely hours.
But the next day the old spirit resurged anew, and unreconciled to defeat, he turned to what was left him. Foolish and futile hopes! To bank on the single grain of good in his wayward sister's heart! To trust the might of his spirit—to beat down the influence of an intolerant and depraved young millionaire—verily he was mad. Yet he believed. And as a final resort he held death in his hand. Richard Swann swaggered by Lane that night in the billiard room of the Bradford Inn and stared sneeringly at him.
"I've got a date," he gayly said to his sycophantic friends, in a tone that would reach Lane's ears.
The summer night came when Lane drove a hired car out the river road, keeping ever in sight a red light in front of him. He broke the law and endangered his life by traveling with darkened lamps.
There was a crescent moon, clear and exquisitely delicate in the darkening blue sky. The gleaming river shone winding away under the dusky wooded hills. The white road stretched ahead, dimming in the distance. A night for romance and love—for a maiden at a stile and a lover who hung rapt and humble upon her whispers! But that red eye before him held no romance. It leered as the luxurious sedan swayed from side to side, a diabolical thing with speed.
Lane was driving out the state highway, mile after mile. He calculated that in less than ten minutes Swann had taken a girl from a bustling corner of Middleville out into the open country. In pleasant weather, when the roads were good, cars like Swann's swerved off into the bypaths, into the edge of woods. In bad weather they parked along the highway, darkened their lights and pulled their blinds. For this, great factories turned out automobiles. And there might have pealed out to a nation, and to God, the dolorous cry of a hundred thousand ruined girls! But who would hear? And on the lips of girls of the present there was only the wild cry for excitement, for the nameless and unknown! There was a girl in Swann's car and Lane believed it was his sister. Night after night he had watched. Once he had actually seen Lorna ride off with Swann. And to-night from a vantage point under the maples, when he had a car ready to follow, he had made sure he had seen them again.
The red eye squared off at right angles to the highway, and disappeared. Lane came to a byroad, a lane lined with trees. He stopped his car and got out. It did not appear that he would have to walk far. And he was right, for presently a black object loomed against the gray obscurity. It was an automobile, without lights, in the shadow of trees.
Lane halted. He carried a flash-light in his left hand, his gun in his right. For a moment he deliberated. This being abroad in the dark on an errand fraught with peril for some one had a familiar and deadly tang. He was at home in this atmosphere. Hell itself had yawned at his feet many and many a time. He was a different man here. He deliberated because it was wise to forestall events. He did not want to kill Swann then, unless in self-defense. He waited until that peculiarly quick and tight and cold settling of his nerves told of brain control over heart. Yet he was conscious of subdued hate, of a righteous and terrible wrath held in abeyance for the sake of his sister's name. And he regretted that he had imperiously demanded of himself this assurance of Lorna's wantonness.
Then he stole forward, closer and closer. He heard a low voice of dalliance, a titter, high-pitched and sweet—sweet and wild. That was not Lorna's laugh. The car was not Swann's.
Lane swerved to the left, and in the gloom of trees, passed by noiselessly. Soon he encountered another car—an open car with shields up—as silent as if empty. But the very silence of it was potent of life. It cried out to the night and to Lane. But it was not the car he had followed.
Again he slipped by, stealthily, yet scornful of his caution. Who cared? He might have shouted his mission to the heavens. Lane passed on. All he caught from the second car was a faint fragrance of smoke, wafted on the gentle summer breeze.
Another black object loomed up—a larger car—the sedan Lane recognized. He did not bolt or hurry. His footsteps made no sound. Crouching a little he slipped round the car to one side. At the instant he reached for the handle of the door, a pang shook him. Alas, that he should be compelled to spy on Lorna! His little sister! He saw her as a curly-headed child, adoring him. Perhaps it might not be Lorna after all. But it was for her sake that he was doing this. The softer moment passed and the soldier intervened.
With one swift turn and jerk he opened the door—then flashed his light. A scream rent the air. In the glaring circle of light Lane saw red hair—green eyes transfixed in fear—white shoulders—white arms—white ringed hands suddenly flung upward. Helen! The blood left his heart in a rush. Swann blinked in the light, bewildered and startled.
"Swann, you'll have to excuse me," said Lane, coolly. "I thought you had my sister with you. I've spotted her twice with you in this car.... It may not interest you or your—your guest, but I'll add that you're damned lucky not to have Lorna here to-night."
Then he snapped off his flash-light, and slamming the car door, he wheeled away.
Lane left his room and went into the shady woods, where he thought the July heat would be less unendurable, where the fever in his blood might abate. But though it was cool and pleasant there he experienced no relief. Wherever he went he carried the burden of his pangs. And his grim giant of unrest trod in his shadow.
He could not stay long in the woods. He betook himself to the hills and meadows. Action was beneficial for him, though he soon exhausted himself. He would have liked to fight out his battle that day. Should he go on spending his days and nights in a slowly increasing torment? The longer he fought the less chance he had of victory. Victory! There could be none. What victory could be won over a strange ineradicable susceptibility to the sweetness, charm, mystery of a woman? He plodded the fragrant fields with bent head, in despair. Loneliness hurt him as much as anything. And a new pang, the fiercest and most insupportable, had been added to his miseries. Jealousy! Thought of the father of Mel Iden's child haunted him, flayed him, made him feel himself ignoble and base. There was no help for that. And this fiend of jealousy added fuel to his love. Only long passionate iteration of his assurance of principle and generosity subdued that frenzy and at length gave him composure. Perhaps this had some semblance to victory.
Lane returned to town weaker in one way than when he had left, yet stronger in another. Upon the outskirts of Middleville he crossed the river road and sat down upon a stone wall. The afternoon was far spent and the sun blazing red. Lane wiped his moist face and fanned himself with his hat. Behind him the shade of a wooded garden or park looked inviting. Back in the foliage he espied the vine-covered roof of an old summer house.
A fresh young voice burst upon his meditations. "Hello, Daren Lane."
Lane turned in surprise to behold a girl in white, standing in the shade of trees beyond the wall. Somewhere he had seen that beautiful golden head, the dark blue, almost purple eyes.
"Good afternoon. You startled me," said Lane.
"I called you twice."
"Indeed? I beg pardon. I didn't hear."
"Don't you remember me?" Her tone was one of pique and doubt.
Then he remembered her. "Oh, of course. Bessy Bell! You must forgive me. I've been ill and upset lately. These bad spells of mine magnify time. It seems long since the Junior Prom."
"Oh, you're ill," she returned, compassionately. "You do look pale and—won't you come in? It's dusty and hot there. Come. I'll take you where it's nice and cool."
"Thank you. I'll be glad to."
She led him to a green, fragrant nook, where a bench with cushions stood half-hidden under heavy foliage. Lane caught a glimpse of a winding flagged path, and in the distance a cottage among the trees.
"Bessy, do you live here?" he asked. "It's pretty."
"Yes, this is my home. It's too damn far from town, I'll say. I'm buried alive," she replied, passionately.
The bald speech struck Lane forcibly. All at once he remembered Bessy Bell and his former interest. She was a type of the heretofore inexplicable modern girl. Lane looked at her, seeing her suddenly with a clearer vision. Bessy Bell had a physical perfection, a loveliness that needed neither spirit nor animation. But life had given this girl so much more than beauty. A softness of light seemed to shine round her golden head; smiles played in secret behind her red lips ready to break forth, and there was a haunting hint of a dimple in her round cheek; on her lay the sweetness of youth subtly dawning into womanhood; the flashing eyes were keen with intellect, with fire, full of promise and mystic charm; and her beautiful, supple body, so plainly visible, seemed quivering with sheer, restless joy of movement and feeling. A trace of artificial color on her face and the indelicacy of her dress but slightly counteracted Lane's first impression.
"You promised to call me up and make a date," she said, and sat down close to him.
"Yes. I meant it too. But Bessy, I was ill, and then I forgot. You didn't miss much."
"Hot dog! Hear the man. Daren, I'd throw the whole bunch down to be with you," she exclaimed.
At the end of that speech she paled slightly and her breath came quickly. She looked bold, provocative, expectant, yet sincere. Child or woman, she had to be taken seriously. Here indeed was the mystery that had baffled Lane. He realized his opportunity, like a flash all his former thought and conjecture about this girl returned to him.
"You would. Well, I'm highly flattered. Why, may I ask?"
"Because I've fallen for you," she replied, leaning close to him. "That's the main reason, I guess.... But another is, I want you to tell me all about yourself—in the war, you know."
"I'd be glad to—if we get to be real friends," he said, thoughtfully. "I don't understand you."
"And I'll say I don't just get you," she retorted. "What do you want? Have you forgotten the silver platter?"
She turned away with a restless quivering. She had shown no shyness. She was bold, intense, absolutely without fear; and however stimulating or attractive the situation evidently was, it was neither new nor novel to her. Some strange leaven worked deep in her. Lane could put no other interpretation on her words and actions than that she expected him to kiss her.
"Bessy Bell, look at me," said Lane, earnestly. "You've said a mouthful, as the slang word goes. I'm sort of surprised, you remember. Bessy, you're not a girl whose head is full of excelsior. You've got brains. You can think.... Now, if you really like me—and I believe you—try to understand this. I've been away so long. All is changed. I don't know how to take girls. I'm ill—and unhappy. But if I could be your friend and could help you a little—please you—why it'd be good for me."
"Daren, they tell me you're going to die," she returned, breathlessly. Her glance was brooding, dark, pregnant with purple fire.
"Bessy, don't believe all you hear. I'm not—not so far gone yet."
"They say you're game, too."
"I hope so, Bessy."
"Oh, you make me think. You must believe me a pill. I wanted you to—to fall for me hard.... That bunch of sapheads have spoiled me, I'll say. Daren, I'm sick of them. All they want to do is mush. I like tennis, riding, golf. I want to do things. But it's too hot, or this, or that. Yet they'll break their necks to carry a girl off to some roadhouse, and dance—dance till you're melted. Then they stop along the river to go bathing. I've been twice. You see, I have to sneak away, or lie to mother and say I've gone to Gail's or somewhere."
"Bathing, at night?" queried Lane, curiously.
"Sure thing. It's spiffy, in the dark."
"Of course you took your bathing suits?"
"Hot dog! That would be telling."
Lane dropped his head and studied the dust at his feet. His heart beat thick and heavy. Through this girl the truth was going to be revealed to him. It seemed on the moment that he could not look into her eyes. She scattered his wits. He tried to erase from his mind every impression of her, so that he might begin anew to understand her. And the very first, succeeding this erasure, was a singular idea that she was the opposite of romantic.
"Bessy, can you understand that it is hard for a soldier to talk of what has happened to him?"
"I'll say I can," she replied.
"You're sorry for me?" he went on, gently.
"Sorry!... Give me a chance to prove what I am, Daren Lane."
"Very well, then. I will. We'll make a fifty-fifty bargain. Do you regard a promise sacred?"
"I think I do. Some of the girls quarrel with me because I get sore, and swear they're not square, as I try to be. I hate a liar and a quitter."
"Come then—shake hands on our bargain."
She seemed thrilled, excited. The clasp of her little hand showed force of character. She looked wonderingly up at him. Her appeal then was one of exquisite youth and beauty. Something of the baffling suggestion of an amorous expectation and response left her. This child would give what she received.
"First, then, it's for me to know a lot about you," went on Lane. "Will you tell me?"
"Sure. I'd trust you with anything," she replied, impulsively.
"How long have you been going with boys?"
"Oh, for two years, I guess. I had a passionate love affair when I was thirteen," she replied, with the nonchalance and sophistication of experience.
It was impossible for Lane to take this latter remark for anything but the glib boldness of an erotic child. But he was not making any assurances to himself that he was right. Bessy Bell was fifteen years old, according to time. But she had the physical development of eighteen, and a mental range beyond his ken. The lawlessness unleashed by the war seemed embodied in this girl.
"With an older boy?" queried Lane.
"No. He was a kid of my own age. I guess I outgrew Ted," she replied, dreamily. "But he still tries to rush me."
"With whom do you go to the secret club-rooms—above White's ice cream parlor?" asked Lane, abruptly.
Bessy never flicked an eyelash. "Hot dog! So you're wise to that? I thought it was a secret. I told Rose Clymer those fellows weren't on the level. Who told you I was there? Your sister Lorna?"
"No. No one told me. Never mind that. Who took you there? You needn't be afraid to trust me. I'm going to entrust my secrets to you by and bye."
"I went with Roy Vancey, the boy who was with me at Helen's the day I met you."
"Bessy, how often have you been to those club-rooms?"
"Were you ever there alone without any girls?"
"No. I had my chance. Dick Swann tried his damnedest to get me to go. But I've no use for him."
"I just don't like him, Daren," she replied, evasively. "I love to have fun. But I haven't yet been so hard up I had to go out with some one I didn't like."
"Has Swann had my sister Lorna at the club?"
Her replies had been prompt and frank. At this sudden query she seemed checked. Lane read in Bessy Bell then more of the truth of her than he had yet divined. Falsehood was naturally abhorrent to her. To lie to her parents or teachers savored of fun, and was part of the game. She did not want to lie to Lane, but in her code she could not betray another girl, especially to that girl's brother.
"Daren, I promised I'd tell you all about myself," she said.
"I shouldn't have asked you to give away one of your friends," he returned. "Some other time I'll talk to you about Lorna. Tell you what I know, and ask you to help me save her——"
"Save her! What do you mean, Daren?" she interrupted, with surprise.
"Bessy, I've paid you the compliment of believing you have intelligence. Hasn't it occurred to you that Lorna—or other of her friends or yours—might be going straight to ruin?"
"Ruin! No, that hadn't occurred to me. I heard Doctor Wallace make a crack like yours. Mother hauled me to church the Sunday after you broke up Fanchon Smith's dance. Doctor Wallace didn't impress me. These old people make me sick anyhow. They don't understand.... But Daren, I think I get your drift. So snow some more."
All in a moment, it seemed to Lane, this girl passed from surprise to gravity, then to contempt, and finally to humor. She was fascinating.
"To go back to the club," resumed Lane. "Bessy, what did you do there?"
"Oh, we toddled and shimmied. Cut up! Had an immense time, I'll say."
"What do you mean by cut up?"
"Why, we just ran wild, you know. Fool stunts!... Once Roy was sore because I kicked cigarettes out of Bob's mouth. But the boob was tickled stiff when I kicked for him. Jealous! It's all right with any one of the boys what you do for him. But if you do the same for another boy—good night!"
Bessy had no divination of the fact that her words for Lane had a clarifying significance.
"I suppose you played what we used to call kissing games?" queried Lane.
A sweet, high trill of laughter escaped Bessy's red lips.
"Daren, you are funny. Those games are as dead as Caesar.... This bunch of boys and girls paired off by themselves to spoon.... As for myself, I don't mind spooning if I like the fellow—and he hasn't been drinking. But otherwise I hate it. All the same I got what was coming to me from some of the boys of the Strong Arm Club."
"Why do they give it that name?" asked Lane, remembering Colonel Pepper's remarks.
"Why, if a girl doesn't come across she gets the strong arm.... I had to fight like the devil that last afternoon I went there."
"Did you fight, Bessy?"
"I'll say I did.... Roy Vancey is sore as a pup. He hasn't been near me or called me up since."
"Bessy, will you promise to stay away from that place—and not to go joy-riding with any of those boys—day or night—if I meet you, and tell you all about my experience in the war? I'll do my best to keep the time you spend with me from being tedious."
"It's another bargain," she returned deliberately, "if you just don't spend enough time with me to make me stuck on you—then throw me down. On the level, now, Daren?"
"I'll meet you as often as you want. And I'll be your friend as long as you prove to me I can be of any help, or pleasure, or good to you."
"Hot dog, but you're taking some job, Daren. Won't it be just spiffy? We'll meet here, afternoons, and evenings when mother's out. She's nutty on bridge. She makes me promise I won't leave the yard. So I'll not have to lie to meet you.... Daren, that day at Helen's, the minute I saw you I knew you were going to have something to do with my future."
"Bessy, a little while ago I made sure you had no romance in you," replied Lane, with a smile. "Now as we've gotten serious, let's think hard about the future. What do you want most? Do you care for study, for books? Have you any gift for music? Do you ever think of fitting yourself for useful work?... Or is your mind full of this jazz stuff? Do you just want to go from day to day, like a butterfly from flower to flower? Just this boy and that one—not caring much which—all this frivolity you hinted of, and worse, living this precious time of your youth all for excitement? What is it you want most?"
She responded with a thoughtfulness that inspired Lane's hope for her. This girl could be reached. She was like Lorna in many ways, but different in mentality. Bessy watched the gyrations of her shapely little foot. She could not keep still even in abstraction.
"A girl must have a good time," she replied presently. "I've done things I hated because I couldn't bear to be left out of the fun.... But I like most to read and dream. Music makes me strange inside, and to want to do great things. Only there are no great things to do. I've never been nutty about a career, like Helen is. And I always hated work.... I guess—to tell on the level—what I want most is to be loved."
With that she raised her eyes to Lane's. He tried to read her mind, and realized that if he failed it was not because she was not baring it. Dropping his own gaze, he pondered. The girl's response to his earnestness was intensely thought-provoking. No matter how immodestly she was dressed, or what she had confessed to, or whether she had really expected and desired dalliance on his part—here was the truth as to her hidden yearning. The seething and terrible Renaissance of the modern girl seemed remarkably exemplified in Bessy Bell, yet underneath it all hid the fundamental instinct of all women of all ages. Bessy wanted most to be loved. Was that the secret of her departure from the old-fashioned canons of modesty and reserve?
"Bessy," went on Lane, presently. "I've heard my sister speak of Rose Clymer. Is she a friend of yours, too?"
"You bet. And she's the square kid."
"Lorna told me she'd been expelled from school."
"Yes. She refused to tattle."
"I wrote some verses which one of the girls copied. Miss Hill found them and raised the roof. She kept us all in after school. She let some of the girls off. But she expelled Rose and sent me home. Then she called on mama. I don't know what she said, but mama didn't let me go back. I've had a hateful old tutor for a month. In the fall I'm going to private school."
"Rose went to work. She had a hard time. I never heard from her for weeks. But she's a telephone operator at the Exchange now. She called me up one day lately and told me. I hope to see her soon."
"About those verses, Bessy. How did Miss Hill find out who wrote them?"
"I told her. Then she sent me home."
"Have you any more verses you wrote?"
"Yes, a lot of them. If you lend me your pencil, I'll write out the verse that gave Miss Hill heart disease."
Bessy took up a book that had been lying on the seat, and tearing out the fly-leaf, she began to write. Her slim, shapely hand flew. It fascinated Lane.
"There!" she said, ending with a flourish and a smile.
But Lane, foreshadowing the import of the verse, took the page with reluctance. Then he read it. Verses of this significance were new to him. Relief came to Lane in the divination that Bessy could not have had experience of what she had written. There was worldliness in the verse, but innocence in her eyes.
"Well, Bessy, my heart isn't much stronger than Miss Hill's," he said, finally.
Her merry laughter rang out.
"Bessy, what will you do for me?"
"Bring me every scrap of verse you have, every note you've got from boys and girls."
"Shall I get them now?"
"Yes, if it's safe. Of course, you've hidden them."
"Mama's out. I won't be a minute."
Away she flew under the trees, out through the rose bushes, a white, graceful, flitting figure. She vanished. Presently she came bounding into sight again and handed Lane a bundle of notes.
"Did you keep back any?" he asked, as he tried to find pockets enough for the collection.
"I'll go home and read them all. Then I'll meet you here to-night at eight o'clock."
"But—I've a date. I'll break it, though."
"Gail and a couple of boys—kids."
"Does your mother know?"
"I'd tell her about Gail, but that's all. We go for ice cream—then meet the boys and take a walk."
"Bessy, you're not going to do that sort of thing any more."
Lane bent over her, took her hands. She instinctively rebelled, then slowly yielded.
"That's part of our bargain?" she asked.
"Yes, it certainly is."
"Then I won't ever again."
"Bessy, I trust you. Do you understand me?"
"I—I think so."
"Daren, will you care for me—if I'm—if I do as you want me to?"
"I do now," he replied. "And I'll care a thousand times more when you prove you're really above these things.... Bessy, I'll care for you as a friend—as a brother—as a man who has almost lost his faith and who sees in you some hope to keep his spirit alive. I'm unhappy, Bessy. Perhaps you can help me—make me a little happier.... Anyway, I trust you. Good-bye now. To-night, at eight o'clock."
Lane went home to his room and earnestly gave himself up to the perusal of the writings Bessy Bell had given him. He experienced shocks of pain and wonder, between which he had to laugh. All the fiendish wit of youthful ingenuity flashed forth from this verse. There was a parody on Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break," featuring Colonel Pepper's famous and deplorable habit. Miss Hill came in for a great share of opprobrium. One verse, if it had ever come under the eyes of the good schoolteacher, would have broken her heart.
Lane read all Bessy's verses, and then the packet of notes written by Bessy's girl friends. The truth was unbelievable. Yet here were the proofs. Over Bessy and her friends Lane saw the dim dark shape of a ghastly phantom, reaching out, enfolding, clutching. He went downstairs to the kitchen and here he burned the writings.
"It ought to be told," he muttered. "But who's going to tell it? Who'd believe me? The truth would not be comprehended by the mothers of Middleville.... And who's to blame?"
It would not do, Lane reflected, to place the blame wholly upon blind fathers and mothers, though indeed they were culpable. And in consideration of the subject, Lane excluded all except the better class of Middleville. It was no difficult task to understand lack of moral sense in children who were poor and unfortunate, who had to work, and get what pleasures they had in the streets. But how about the best families, where there were luxurious homes, books, education, amusement, kindness, love—all the supposed stimuli needed for the proper guidance of changeful vagrant minds? These good influences had failed. There was a greater moral abandonment than would ever be known.
Before the war Bessy Bell would have presented the perfect type of the beautiful, highly sensitive, delicately organized girl so peculiarly and distinctively American. She would have ripened before her time. Perhaps she would not have been greatly different in feeling from the old-fashioned girl: only different in that she had restraint, no deceit.
But after the war—now—what was Bessy Bell? What actuated her? What was the secret spring of her abnormal tendencies? Were they abnormal? Bessy was wild to abandon herself to she knew not what. Some glint of intelligence, some force of character as exceptional in her as it was wanting in Lorna, some heritage of innate sacredness of person, had kept Bessy from the abyss. She had absorbed in mind all the impurities of the day, but had miraculously escaped them in body. If her parents could have known Bessy as Lane now realized her they would have been horrified. But Lane's horror was fading. Bessy was illuminating the darkness of his mind.
To understand more clearly what the war had done to Bessy Bell, and to the millions of American girls like her, it was necessary for Lane to understand what the war had done to soldiers, to men, and to the world.
Lane could grasp some infinitesimal truth of the sublime and horrible change war had wrought in the souls of soldiers. That change was too great for any mind but the omniscient to grasp in its entirety. War had killed in some soldiers a belief in Christ: in others it had created one. War had unleashed the old hidden primitive instincts of manhood: likewise it had fired hearts to hate of hate and love of love, to the supreme ideal consciousness could conceive. War had brought out the monstrous in men and as well the godlike. Some soldiers had become cowards; others, heroes. There were thousands of soldiers who became lions to fight, hyenas to snarl, beasts to debase, hogs to wallow. There were equally as many who were forced to fight, who could not kill, whose gentleness augmented under the brutal orders of their officers. There were those who ran toward the front, heads up, singing at the top of their lungs. There were those who slunk back. Soldiers became cold, hard, materialistic, bitter, rancorous: and qualities antithetic to these developed in their comrades.
Lane exhausted his resources of memory and searched in his notes for a clipping he had torn from a magazine. He reread it, in the light of his crystallizing knowledge:
"Had I not been afraid of the scorn of my brother officers and the scoffs of my men, I would have fled to the rear," confesses a Wisconsin officer, writing of a battle.
"I see war as a horrible, grasping octopus with hundreds of poisonous, death-dealing tentacle that squeeze out the culture and refinement of a man," writes a veteran.
A regimental sergeant-major: "I considered myself hardboiled, and acted the part with everybody, including my wife. I scoffed at religion as unworthy of a real man and a mark of the sissy and weakling." Before going over the top for the first time he tried to pray, but had even forgotten the Lord's Prayer.
"If I get out of this, I will never be unhappy again," reflected one of the contestants under shell-fire in the Argonne Forest. To-day he is "not afraid of dead men any more and is not in the least afraid to die."
"I went into the army a conscientious objector, a radical, and a recluse.... I came out of it with the knowledge of men and the philosophy of beauty," says another.
"My moral fiber has been coarsened. The war has blunted my sensitiveness to human suffering. In 1914 I wept tears of distress over a rabbit which I had shot. I could go out now at the command of my government in cold-blooded fashion and commit all the barbarisms of twentieth-century legalized murder," writes a Chicago man.
A Denver man entered the war, lost himself and God, and found manhood. "I played poker in the box-car which carried me to the front and read the Testament in the hospital train which took me to the rear," he tells us.
"To disclose it all would take the genius and the understanding of a god. I learned to talk from the side of my mouth and drink and curse with the rest of our 'noble crusaders.' Authority infuriated me and the first suspicion of an order made me sullen and dangerous.... Each man in his crudeness and lewdness nauseated me," writes a service man.
"When our boy came back," complains a mother, "we could hardly recognize for our strong, impulsive, loving son whom we had loaned to Uncle Sam this irritable, restless, nervous man with defective hearing from shells exploding all about him, and limbs aching and twitching from strain and exposure, and with that inevitable companion of all returned oversea boys, the coffin-nail, between his teeth."
"In the army I found that hard drinkers and fast livers and profane-tongued men often proved to be the kindest-hearted, squarest friends one could ever have," one mother reports.
So then the war brought to the souls of soldiers an extremity of debasement and uplift, a transformation incomprehensible to the mind of man.
Upon men outside the service the war pressed its materialism. The spiritual progress of a thousand years seemed in a day to have been destroyed. Self-preservation was the first law of nature. And all the standards of life were abased. Following the terrible fever of patriotism and sacrifice and fear came the inevitable selfishness and greed and frenzy. The primitive in man stalked forth. The world became a place of strife.
What then, reflected Lane, could have been the effect of war upon women? The mothers of the race, of men! The creatures whom emotions governed! The beings who had the sex of tigresses! "The female of the species!" What had the war done to the generation of its period—to Helen, to Mel Iden, to Lorna, to Bessy Bell? Had it made them what men wanted?
At eight o'clock that night Lane kept his tryst with Bessy. The serene, mellow light of the moon shone down upon the garden. The shade appeared spotted with patches of moonlight; the summer breeze rustled the leaves; the insects murmured their night song. Romance and beauty still lived. No war could kill them. Bessy came gliding under the trees, white and graceful like a nymph, fearless, full of her dream, ripe to be made what a man would make of her.
Lane talked to Bessy of the war. Words came like magic to his lips. He told her of the thunder and fire and blood and heroism, of fight and agony and death. He told her of himself—of his service in the hours that tried his soul. Bessy passed from fascinated intensity to rapture and terror. She clung to Lane. She kissed him. She wept.
He told her how his ideal had been to fight for Helen, for Lorna, for her, and all American girls. And then he talked about what he had come home to—of the shock—the realization—the disappointment and grief. He spoke of his sister Lorna—how he had tried so hard to make her see, and had failed. He importuned Bessy to help him as only a girl could. And lastly, he brought the conversation back to her and told her bluntly what he thought of the vile verses, how she dragged her girlhood pride in the filth and made of herself a byword for vicious boys. He told her the truth of what real men thought and felt of women. Every man had a mother. No war, no unrest, no style, no fad, no let-down of morals could change the truth. From the dark ages women had climbed on the slow realization of freedom, honor, chastity. As the future of nations depended upon women, so did their salvation. Women could never again be barbarians. All this modern license was a parody of love. It must inevitably end in the degradation and unhappiness of those of the generation who persisted on that downward path. Hard indeed it would be to encounter the ridicule of girls and the indifference of boys. But only through the intelligence and courage of one could there ever be any hope for the many.
Lane sat there under the moonlit maples and talked until he was hoarse. He could not rouse a sense of shame in Bessy, because that had been atrophied, but as he closely watched her, he realized that his victory would come through the emotion he was able to arouse in her, and the ultimate appeal to the clear logic of her mind.
When the time came for him to go she stood before him in the clear moonlight.
"I've never been so excited, so scared and sick, so miserable and thoughtful in all my life before," she said. "Daren, I know now what a soldier is. What you've seen—what you've done. Oh! it was grand!... And you're going to be my—my friend.... Daren, I thought it was great to be bad. I thought men liked a girl to be bad. The girls nicknamed me Angel Bell, but not because I was an angel, I'll tell the world.... Now I'm going to try to be the girl you want me to be."
The time came when Daren had to make a painful choice. His sister Lorna grew weary of his importunities and distrustful of his espionage. One night she became violent and flatly told him she would not stay in the house another day with him in it. Then she ran out, slamming the door behind her. Lane remained awake all night, in the hope that she would return. But she did not. And then he knew he must make a choice.
He made it. Lorna must not be driven from her home. Lane divided his money with his mother and packed his few effects. Mrs. Lane was distracted over the situation. She tried to convince Lane there was some kind of a law to keep a young girl home. She pleaded and begged him to remain. She dwelt on his ill health. But Lane was obdurate; and not the least of his hurts was the last one—a divination that in spite of his mother's distress there was a feeling of relief of which she was unconscious. He assured her that he would come to see her often during the afternoons and would care as best he could for his health. Then he left, saying he would send an expressman for the things he had packed.
Broodingly Lane plodded down the street. He had feared that sooner or later he would be forced to leave home, and he had shrunk from the ordeal. But now, that it was over, he felt a kind of relief, and told himself that it was of no consequence what happened to him. All that mattered was for him to achieve the few tasks he had set himself.
Then he thought of Mel Iden. She had been driven from home and would know what it meant to him. The longing to see her increased. Every disappointment left him more in need of sympathy. And now, it seemed, he would be ashamed to go to Mel Iden or Blair Maynard. Such news could not long be kept from them. Middleville was a beehive of gossips. Lane had a moment of blank despair, a feeling of utter, sick, dazed wonder at life and human nature. Then he lifted his head and went on.
Lane's first impulse was to ask Colonel Pepper if he could share his lodgings, but upon reflection he decided otherwise. He engaged a small room in a boarding house; his meals, which did not seem of much importance, he could get anywhere.
This change of residence brought Lane downtown, and naturally increased his activities. He did not husband his strength as before, nor have the leisure for bad spells. Home had been a place of rest. He could not rest in a drab little bare room he now occupied.
He became a watcher, except during the stolen hours with Bessy Bell. Then he tried to be a teacher. But he learned more than he thought. He no longer concentrated his vigilance on his sister. Having failed to force that issue, he bided his time, sensing with melancholy portent the certainty that he would soon be confronted with the stark and hateful actuality. Thus he wore somewhat away from his grim resolve to kill Swann. That adventure on the country road, when he had discovered Swann with Helen instead of Lorna, had somehow been a boon. Nevertheless he spied upon Lorna in the summer evenings when it was possible to follow her, and he dogged Swann's winding and devious path as far as possible. Apparently Swann had checked his irregularities as far as Lorna was concerned. Still Lane trusted nothing. He became an almost impassive destiny with the iron consequences in his hands.
Days passed. Every other afternoon and night he spent hours with Bessy Bell, and found a mounting happiness in the change in her, a deep and ever deeper insight into the causes that had developed her. The balance of his waking hours, which were many, he passed on the streets, in the ice cream parlors and confectionery dens, at the motion-picture theatres. He went many and odd times to Colonel Pepper's apartment, and took a peep into the club-rooms. Some of these visits were fruitful, but he did not see whom he expected to see there. At night he haunted the parks, watching and listening. Often he hired a cheap car and drove it down the river highway, where he would note the cars he passed or met. Sometimes he would stop to get out and make one of his scouting detours, or he would follow a car to some distant roadhouse, or go to the outlying summer pavilions where popular dances were given. More than once, late at night, he was an unseen and unbidden guest at one of the gay bathing parties. Strange and startling incidents seemed to gravitate toward Lane. He might have been predestined for this accumulation of facts. How vain it seethed for wild young men and women to think they hid their tracks! Some trails could not be hidden.
Toward the end of that protracted period of surveillance, Lane knew that he had become infamous in the eyes of most of that younger set. He had been seen too often, alone, watching, with no apparent excuse for his presence. And from here and there, through Bessy and Colonel Pepper, and Blair, who faithfully hunted him up, Lane learned of the unfavorable light in which he was held. Society, in the persons of the younger matrons, took exception to Lane's queer conduct and hinted of mental unbalance. The young rakes and libertines avoided him, and there was not a slacker among them who could meet his eye across cafe or billiard room.
Yet despite the peculiar species of ignominy and disgrace that Middleville gossips heaped upon Lane's head and the slow, steady decline of his speaking acquaintance with the elite, there were some who always greeted him and spoke if he gave them a chance. Helen Wrapp never failed of a green flashing glance of mockery and enticement. She smiled, she beckoned, she once called him to her car and asked him to ride with her, to come to see her. Margaret Maynard rose above dread of her mother and greeted Lane graciously when occasion offered. Dorothy Dalrymple and Elinor always evinced such unhesitating intention of friendship that Lane grew to avoid meeting them. And twice, when he had come face to face with Mel Iden, her look, her smile had been such that he had plunged away somewhere, throbbing and thrilling, to grow blind and sick and numb. It was the failure of his hopes, and the suffering he endured, and the vain longings she inspired that heightened his love. She wrote him after the last time they had passed on the street—a note that stormed Lane's heart. He did not answer. He divined that his increasing loneliness, and the sure slow decline of his health, and the heartless intolerance of the same class that had ostracized her were added burdens to Mel Iden's faithful heart. He had seen it in her face, read it in her note. And the time would come, sooner or later, when he could go to her and make her marry him.
To be a mystery is overpoweringly sweet to any girl and Bessy Bell was being that. Her sudden desire for solitude had worried her mother, and her distant superiority had incited the vexation of her friends. When they exerted themselves to win Bessy back to her old self she looked dreamily beyond them and became more aloof. Doctor Bronson, in reply to Mrs. Bell's appeal to him, looked the young woman over, asked her a few questions, marveled at the imperious artifice with which she evaded him, and throwing up his hands said Bessy was beyond him.
The dark fever, rising from the school yards and the playgrounds and the streets, subtly poisoning the blood of Bessy Bell, slowly lost its heat and power for the time being. Bessy lived in the full secret expression of her girlish adoration. She was worshipping a hero; she was glorifying in her sacrifice; she was faithful to a man; she was being a woman. At first she grew pale, tense, quiet, and seemed to be going into a decline. Then that stage passed; and the roseleaf flush returned to her cheeks, the purple fire deepened in her eyes, the quivering life in all her supple young body.
Night after night loneliness had no fears for her. If she heard a whistle on the avenue, the honk of a car—the familiar old signals of the boys and girls, she smiled her disdain, and curling comfortably in her great chair, bent her lovely head over her books.
In the beginning her dreams were all of Daren Lane, of the strangeness and glory of this soldier who spent so many secret hours with her. And when the time came that she did not see him so often her dreams were just as full. But gradually, as the days went by, other figures than Lane's were limned upon her fancy—vague figures of heroes, knights, soldiers. He still dominated her romances, though less personally. She built around him. Every day brought her new strange desires.
One evening in August when Bessy sat alone the telephone bell rang sharply. She ran to take down the receiver.
"Hello, hello, that you, Bessy?" came the hurried call in a girl's voice.
"Rose! Oh, how are you?"
"Fine. But say, Angel, I can't take time to talk. Something doing. Are you alone?"
"Yes, all alone, old girl."
"Listen, then, and get this.... I'm here, you know, telephone girl at the Exchange. Just heard your father on the wire. Some one has betrayed the secret of the club. There's a warrant out for the arrest of the boys. For gambling. You know there's a political vice drive on. Some time to-night they'll be raided.... But early. Bess, are you getting this?"
"Sure. Hurry—hurry," replied Bessy, in excitement.
"I tried to get Dick on the wire, but couldn't. Same with two more of the boys. But I did get wise to this. Gail and Lorna have a date at the club to-night.... Never mind how I found out. Dick has thrown me down for Gail. I'm sore as a pup. But I don't want your father to pinch those girls.... Now, Bess, I'm tied here. But you get a move on. Don't waste time. You can save them. You must. Do something. If you can't find somebody, go straight to the club. You know where the key for the outside entrance is kept. Hurry and it'll be safe. Good-bye."
Bessy stood statue-like for a moment, her big eyes glowing, changing, darkening with rapid thought, then she flew upstairs to her room, snatched a veil and a soft hat, and putting these on as she went, she flew out of the house without putting out the lights or locking the door.
It was a dark windy night, slightly cool for August, and a fine misty rain was blowing. Bessy's footsteps pattered softly as she ran block after block, and she did not slacken her pace till she reached the house where Daren Lane had his room. In answer to her ring a woman appeared, who told her Mr. Lane was out.
This was a severe disappointment to Bessy, and left her an alternative that required more than courage, but she did not vacillate. She sped swiftly on in the dark, for the electric lights were few and far between, until the black of the gloomy building, where the boys had their club, loomed up. On the corner Bessy saw a man standing with his back to a telegraph pole. This occasioned her much concern; perhaps he might be watching the building. But he had not seen her, of that she was certain. The possibility that he might be a spy made her task all the harder.
Bessy returned the way she come, crossed at the next corner, hurried round the block and up to the outside stairway that was her objective point.
By feeling along the brick wall she brought up, with a sudden bump, at the back of the stairway. Then she deliberated. If she went around to the front so as to get access to the steps, she might pass in range of the loiterer whom she mistrusted. That risk she would not incur. Examining the wall that enclosed the box-like stairway as best she could in the dark, she found it rickety, full of holes and cracks, and she decided she would climb it. A sheer perpendicular board wall, some twelve or fifteen feet high, shrouded in pitchy darkness and apparently within earshot of a police spy, did not daunt Bessy Bell. Slipping her strong fingers in crevices and her slim toes in cracks, she climbed up and up, till she got hold of the railing post on the first platform. Here she had great difficulty to keep from falling, but lifting and squirming her supple body, by a desperate effort she got her knees on the platform, and then pulled herself to safety. Once on the stairs she ran up the remaining few steps to the landing, where she rested panting and triumphant.
As she was about to go on she heard footsteps, which froze her. A man was crossing the street. He came from the direction of the corner where she had seen the supposed spy. Presently she saw him stop under one of the trees to scratch a match, and in the round glow of light she saw him puff at a cigar. Then he passed on with uncertain steps, as of one slightly under the influence of drink.
Bessy's heart warmed to life and began to beat again. Then she sought for the key. She had been told where it was, but did not remember. Slipping her hand under the railing, close to the wall, she felt a string, and, pulling at it suddenly, found the key in her hand. She glided into the dim hall, feeling along the wall for a door, until she found it. With trembling fingers she inserted the key in the lock, and the door swung inward silently. Bessy went in, leaving the key on the outside.
Dark as it had been without, it was light compared to the ebon blackness within. Bessy felt ice form in the marrow of her bones. The darkness was tangible; it seemed to envelop her in heavy folds. The sudden natural impulse to fly out of the thick creeping gloom, down the stairway to the light, strung her muscles for instant action, but checked by the swiftly following thought of her purpose, they relaxed, and she took not a backward step.
"Rose did her part and I'll do mine," she cogitated. "I've got to save them. But what to do—I may have to wait. I know—in the big room—the closet behind the curtain! I can find that even in this dark, and once in there I won't be afraid."
Bessy, fired by this inspiration, groped along the wall through the room to the large chamber, stumbled over chairs and a couch and at last got her hands on the drapery. She readily found the knob, turned it, opened the door and stepped in.
"I hope they won't be long," she thought. "I hope the girls come first. I don't want to burst into a room full of boys. Won't Daren be surprised when I tell him—maybe angry! But it's bound to come out all right, and father will never know."
Early one August evening Lane went out to find a cool misty rain blowing down from the hills. At the inn he encountered Colonel Pepper, who wore a most woebegone and ludicrous expression. He pounced at once upon Lane.
"Daren, what do you think?" he wailed, miserably.
"I don't think. I know. You've gone and done it—pulled that stunt of yours again," returned Lane.
"Yes—but oh, so much worse this time."
"Worse! How could it be worse, unless you mean some one punched your head."
"No. That would have been nothing.... Daren, this—this time I—it was a lady!" gasped Pepper.
"Oh, say now, Pepper—not really?" queried Lane, incredulously.
"It was. And a lady I—I admire very much."
"Miss Amanda Hill."
"The schoolteacher? Nice little woman like that! Pepper, why couldn't you pick on one of these Middleville gossips or society dames?"
"Lord—I didn't know who she was—until after—and I couldn't have helped it anyway," he replied, mopping his red face. "When—I saw her—and she recognized me—I nearly died.... It was at White's Confectionery Den. And I'm afraid some people saw me."
"Well. You old duffer! And you say you admire this lady very much?"
"Indeed I do. I call on her."
"Colonel, your name is Dennis," replied Lane, with merciless humor. "It serves you right."
The little man evidently found relief in his confession and in Lane's censure.
"I'm cured forever," he declared vehemently. "And say, Lane, I've been looking for you. Have you been at my rooms lately—you know—to take a peep?"
"I have not," replied Lane, turning sharply. A slight chill went over him. "I thought that club stuff was off."
"Off—nothing," whispered Colonel Pepper, drawing Lane aside. "Swann and his strong-arm gang just got foxy. They quit for a while. Now they're rushing the girls in there—say from four to five—and in the evenings a little while, not too late. Oh, they're the slick bunch, picking out the ice cream soda hour when everybody's downtown.... You run up to my rooms right now. And I'll gamble——"
"I'll go," interrupted Lane, grimly.
Not fifteen minutes before he had seen his sister Lorna and a chum, Gail Williams, go into White's place. Lane's pulse quickened. As he started to go he ran into Blair Maynard who grasped at him: "What's hurry, old scout?"
"Blair, I'm never in a hurry if you want me. But the fact is I've got rather urgent business. How about to-morrow?"
"Sure. Meet you here. I just wanted to unload on you, Dare. Looks as if my mother has hatched it up between Margie and our esteemed countryman, Richard Swann."
It was not often that Lane cursed, but he did so now.
"But Blair, didn't you tell your mother what this fellow is?" remonstrated Lane.
"Well, I'll say I did," replied Blair, sardonically. "Cut no ice whatever. She didn't believe. She didn't care for any proofs. All rich young men had their irregularities!... Good God! Doesn't it make you sick?"
"But how about Holt Dalrymple?"
"Holt's turned over a new leaf. He's working hard, and I think he has taken a tumble to himself. Listen to this. He met Margie with Dick Swann out at one of the lake dances—Watkins' Lake. And he cut her dead. I'm sorry for Margie. She sure is rank poison these days.... Well, speak of the devil!"
Holt Dalrymple collided with them at the entrance of the inn. The haggard, sullen, heated look that had characterized him was gone. He was sunburned, and his dark eyes were bright. He greeted his friends warmly. They chatted for a moment. Then Lane grew thoughtful, all the while gazing at Holt.
"What's the idea?" queried that worthy, presently. "Anything wrong with me?"
"Boy, you're just great. Seeing you has done me good.... You ask what's the idea. Holt, would you do me a favor?"
"Would I? Listen to the guy," returned young Dalrymple. "Daren, I'd do any old thing for you."
"Do you happen to know Bessy Bell?" went on Lane.
Dalrymple quickened with surprise. "Yes, I know her. Some little peach!... I almost ran into her down on West Street a few minutes ago. She wore a white veil. She didn't see me, or recognize me. But I sure knew her. She was almost running. I bet a million to myself she had a date at the club."
"You lose, Holt," replied Lane, shortly. "Bessy Bell is one Middleville kid who has come clean through this mess."
"Say Dare, I like to hear you talk," responded Blair, half in jest and half in earnest. "But aren't you getting a trifle unbalanced? That's how my mother apologizes for me."
"Cut the joshing, boys. Listen," returned Lane. "And don't ever tell this to a soul. I interested myself in Bessy Bell. I've met her more times than I can count. I wanted to see if it was possible to turn one of these girls around. I failed on my sister Lorna. But Bessy Bell is true blue. She had all this modern tommyrot. She had everything else too. Brains, sweetness, common sense, romance. All I tried to do was to make her forget the tommyrot. And I think I did."
"Well, I'll be darned!" ejaculated Blair. "Dare, that was ripping fine of you.... What'll you do next, I wonder."
"Come on with your favor," added Holt, with a keen bright smile.
"Would you be willing to see Bessy occasionally—and sort of be nice to her—you know?" asked Lane, earnestly. "I can't keep up my attention to her much longer. She might miss me. Take it from me, Holt, back of all this modern stuff—deep in Bessy, and in every girl who has not been debased—is the simple and good desire to be liked."
"Daren, I'll do that little thing, believe me," returned Holt, warmly.
Shaking hands with his friends, Lane left them, and went on his way. White's place was full as a beehive. As he passed, Lane found himself looking for Bessy Bell's golden head, though he knew he would not see it. He wondered if Holt had really met her, veiled and in a hurry. That had a strange look. But no shadow of distrust of Bessy came to Lane. In a few moments he reached the dark stairway leading to Colonel Pepper's apartment. Lane forgot he was weak. But at the top, with his breast laboring, he remembered well enough. He went into the Colonel's rooms and through them without making a light. And when he reached the place where he had spied upon the club he was wet with sweat and shaking with excitement. Carefully, so as not to make noise, he stole to the peep-hole and applied his eye.
He saw a gleam of light on shiny waxed floor, and then, moving to get the limit of his narrow vision, he descried Swann, evidently just arrived. With him was Gail Williams, a slip of a child not over fifteen—looking up at him as if excited and pleased. Next Lane espied his sister Lorna with a tall, well-built man. Although his back was toward Lane, he could not mistake the soldierly bearing of Captain Vane Thesel! Lorna looked perturbed and sulky, and once, turning her face toward Swann, she seemed resentful. Captain Thesel had his hand at her elbow and appeared to be talking earnestly.
Lane left his post, taking care to make no noise. But once back in the Colonel's rooms, he hurried. Feeling in the dark corner where he had kept the axe ready for just such an emergency as this, he grasped it and rushed out. Tiptoeing down the hall, he found the narrow door, stole down the black stairway and entered the main hall. Here he paused, suddenly checked in his hurry.
"This won't do," he thought, and shook his head. "Much as I'd like to kill those two dogs I can't—I can't.... I'll smash their faces, though—and if I ever catch...."
Breaking the thought off abruptly, he passed down the dim hallway to the door of the club-rooms. He raised the axe and was about to smash the lock when he espied a key in the keyhole. The door was not locked. Lane set down the axe and noiselessly turned the knob and peeped in. The first room was dark, but the door on the opposite side was ajar, and through it Lane saw the larger lighted room and the shiny floor. Moving figures crossed the space. Removing the key, Lane slipped inside the room and locked the door. Then he tip-toed to the opposite door.
Thesel and Lorna were now so close that Lane could hear them.
"But I thought I had a date with Dick," protested Lorna. Her face was red and she stamped her foot.
"See here, kiddo. If you're as thick as that I'll have to put you wise," answered Thesel, good-humoredly, as he tilted back his cigarette to blow smoke at the ceiling. "Dick is through with you."
"Oh, is he?" choked Lorna.
"Say, Cap, I heard a noise," suddenly called out Swann, rather nervously.
There was a moment's silence. Lane, too, had heard a noise, but could not be sure whether it was inside the building or not.
Swann hurried over to join Thesel. They looked blankly at each other. The air might have been charged. Both girls showed alarm.
Then Lane, with his hand on the gun in his pocket, strode out to confront them.
"Oh—h!" gasped Lorna, as if appalled at sight of her brother's face.
"Fellows, I'll have to break up your little party," said Lane, coolly.
Thesel turned ghastly white, while Swann grew livid with rage. He seemed to expand. His hand went back to his right hip.
When Lane got within six feet of them, Swann drew a small automatic pistol. But before he could raise it, Lane had leaped into startling activity. With terrific swing he brought his gun down on Swann's face. Then as swiftly he turned on Thesel. Swann had hardly hit the floor, a sodden heap, when Thesel, with bloody visage, reeled and fell like a log. Lane bent over them, ready to beat either back. But both were unconscious.
"Daren—for God's sake—don't murder them!" whispered Lorna, hoarsely.
Lane's humanity was in abeyance then, but his self-control did not desert him.
"You girls must hurry out of here," he ordered.
"Oh, Gail is fainting," cried Lorna.
The little Williams girl was indeed swaying and sinking down. Lane grasped her and shook her. "Brace up. If you keel over now, you'll be found out sure.... It's all right. You'll not be hurt. There——"
A heavy thumping on the door by which Lane had entered and a loud authoritative voice from the hall silenced him.
"Open up here! You're pinched!"
That voice Lane recognized as belonging to Chief of Police Bell. For a moment, fraught with suspense, Lane was at a loss to know what to do.
"Open up! We've got the place surrounded.... Open up, or we'll smash the door in!"
Lane whispered to the girls: "Is there a place to hide you?"
The Williams girl was beyond answering, but Lorna, despite her terror, had not lost her wits.
"Yes—there's a closet—hid by a curtain—here," she whispered, pointing.
Lane half carried Gail. Lorna brushed aside a heavy curtain and opened a door. Lane pushed both girls into the black void and closed the door after them.
"Once more—open up!" bellowed the officer in the hall, accompanying his demand with a thump on the door. Lane made sure some one had found his axe. He did not care how much smashing the policemen did. All that concerned Lane then was how to avert discovery from the girls. It looked hopeless. Then, as there came sudden splintering blows on the door, Lane espied Swann's cigarettes and matches on the music box. Lane seldom smoked. But while the officers were breaking in the door, Lane leisurely lighted a cigarette; and when two of them came in he faced them coolly.
The first was Chief Bell, a large handsome man, in blue uniform. The second one was a patrolman. Neither carried a weapon in sight. Bell swept the big room in one flashing blue glance—took in Lane and the prone figures on the floor.
"Well, I'll be damned," he ejaculated. "What am I up against?"
"Hello, Chief," replied Lane, coolly. "Don't get fussed up now. This is no murder case."
"Lane, what's this mean?" burst out Bell.
Lane was rather well acquainted with Chief Bell, and in a way there was friendship between them. Bell, for one, had always been sturdily loyal to the soldiers.
"Well, Chief, I was having a little friendly game with Mr. Swann and Captain Thesel," drawled Lane. "We got into an argument. And as both were such ferocious fighters I grew afraid they'd hurt me bad—so I had to soak them."
"Don't kid me," spoke up Bell, derisively. "Little game—hell! Where's the cards, chips, table?"
"Chief, I didn't say we played the game to-night."
"Lane, you're a liar," replied Bell, thoughtfully. "I'm sure of that. But you've got me buffaloed." He knelt on the floor beside the fallen men and examined each. Swann's shirt as well as face was bloody. "For a crippled soldier you've got some punch left. What'd you hit them with?"
"I'll tell you Chief. I fetched an axe with me to do the dirty job, but I decided I should use a dangerous weapon only on men. So I soaked them with a lollypop."
"Lane, are you really nutty?" demanded Bell, curiously.
"No more than you. I hit them with something hard, so it would leave a mark."
"You left one, I'll say. Thesel will lose that eye—it's gone now—and Swann is also disfigured for life. What a damned shame!"
"Chief, are you sure it's any kind of a shame?"
Lane's query appeared to provoke thought. Bell replaced the little automatic pistol he had picked up beside Swann, and rising he looked at Lane.
"Swann was a slacker. Thesel was your Captain in the war. Have these facts anything to do with your motive?"
"No, Chief," replied Lane, in sarcasm. "But when I got into action I think the facts you mentioned sort of rejuvenated a disabled soldier."
"Lane, you beat me," declared Bell, shaking his head. "Why, I had you figured as a pretty good chap.... But you've done some queer things in Middleville."
"Chief, if you're an honest officer you'll admit Middleville needs some queer things done."
Bell gazed doubtfully at Lane.
"Smith, search the rooms," he ordered, addressing his patrolman.
"We were alone here," spoke up Lane. "And I advise you to hurry those wounded veterans to a hospital in the rear."
Swann showed signs of recovering consciousness. Bell bent over him a moment. Lane had only one hope—that the patrolman would miss the door. But he brushed aside the curtain. Then he grunted.
"See here, Chief—a door—and somebody's holding it from the inside," he declared.
"Wait, Smith," ordered Bell, striding forward. But before he got half-way across the room the door opened. A girl stepped out and shut it back of her. Lane sustained a singular shock. That girl was Bessy Bell.
"Hello, Dad—it's Bessy," she said, clearly. She was pale, but did not seem frightened.
Chief Bell halted in the middle of a stride and staggered a little as his foot came down. A low curse of utter amaze escaped his lips. Suddenly he became tensely animated.
"How'd you come here?" he demanded, towering over her.
"What'd you come for?"
"To warn Daren Lane that you were going to raid these club-rooms to-night."
"Who told you?"
"I won't tell. I got it over the 'phone. I ran over here. I knew where the key was. I've been here before—afternoons—dancing.... I let myself in.... But when they—they came I got frightened and hid in the closet."
Chief Bell seemed about to give way to passion, but he controlled it. After that moment he changed subtly.
"Is Daren Lane your friend?" he demanded.
"Yes. The best and truest any girl ever had.... Dad, you know mother told you I had changed lately. I have. And it's through Daren."
"Where'd you see him?"
"He has been coming out to the house in the afternoons."
"Well, I'm damned," muttered the Chief, and wheeled away. Sight of his gaping patrolman seemed to galvanize him into further realization of the situation. "Smith, beat it out and draw the other men round in front. Give me time enough to get Bessy out. Send hurry call for ambulance.... And Smith, keep your mouth shut. I'll make it all right. If Mrs. Bell hears of this my life will be a hell on earth."
"Mum's the word, Chief. I'm a married man myself," he replied, and hurried out.
Lane was watching Bessy. What a wonderful girl! Modern tendencies might have corrupted the girls of the day, but for sheer nerve, wit and courage they were immeasurably superior to those of former generations. Bessy faced her father calmly, lied magnificently, gazed down at the ghastly, bloody faces with scarcely a shudder, and gave Lane a smile from her purple eyes, as if to cheer him, to assure him she could save the situation. It struck Lane that Chief Bell looked as if he might be following a similar line of thought.
"Bessy, put on your hat," ordered Bell. "And here ... tuck that veil around. There, now you beat it for home. Lane, go with her to the stairs. Take a good look in the street. Bessy, go home the back way. And Lane, you hurry back."
Lane followed Bessy out and caught up with her in the hall. She clasped his arm.
"Some adventure, I'll say!" she burst out, in breathless whisper. "It was great until I recognized your voice. Then all inside me went flooey."
"Bessy, you're the finest little girl in the world," returned Lane, stirred to emotion.
"Here, Daren, cut that. You didn't raise me on soft soap and mush. If you get to praising me I'll fall so far I'll never light.... Now, Dare, go back and fool Dad. You must save the girls. It doesn't matter about me. He's my Dad."
"I'll do my best," replied Lane.
They reached the landing of the outside stairway. Peering down, Lane did not see any one.
"I guess the coast is clear. Now, beat it, Bessy."
She lifted the white veil and raised her face. In the dim gray light Lane saw it as never before.
"Kiss me, Daren," she whispered.
Lane had never kissed her. For an instant he was confused.
"Why—little girl!" he exclaimed.
"Hurry!" she whispered, imperiously.
Some instinct beyond Lane's ken prompted him to do what she asked.
"Good-bye, my little Princess," he whispered. "Don't ever forget me."
"Never, Daren. Good-bye." She slipped down the stairway and in a moment more vanished in the gray gloom of the misty night.
Only then did Lane understand what she, with her woman's intuition, had divined—that they would never be together again. The realization gave him a pang. Bessy was his only victory.
Slowly Lane made his way back to the club-rooms. He had begun to weaken under the strain and felt the approach of something akin to collapse. When he reached the large room he found Swann half conscious and Thesel showing signs of coming to.
"Lane, come here," said the Chief, drawing Lane away from the writhing forms on the floor. "You're under arrest."
"Yes, sir. What's the charge?"
"Let's see. That's the puzzler," replied the Chief, scratching his head. "Suppose we say gambling and fighting."
"Fine!" granted Lane, with a smile.
"When the ambulance comes you get out of sight until we pack these fellows out. I'll leave the door open—so if there's any reason you want to come back—why—"
Chief Bell half averted his face, seemingly not embarrassed, but rather pondering in thought. "Thanks, Chief. You understand me perfectly," responded Lane. "I'll appear at police headquarters in half an hour."
The officer laughed, and returning to the injured men he knelt beside them. Swann sat up moaning. Blood had blinded his sight. He did not see Lane pass. Sounds of an ambulance bell had caught Lane's quick ear. Finding the washroom, he went in and, locking the door, leaned there to wait. In a very few moments the injured Swann and Thesel had been carried out. Lane waited five minutes after the sound of wheels had died away. Then he hurried out and opened the door of the closet.
Lorna almost fell over him in her eagerness. If she had been frightened, she had recovered. Gail staggered out, pale and sick looking.
"Oh, Daren, can you get us out?" whispered Lorna, breathlessly.
"Hurry, and don't talk," replied Lane.
He led them out into the hall and down to the stairway where he had taken Bessy. As before, all appeared quiet below.
"I guess it's safe.... Girls, let this be a lesson to you."
"Never any more for mine," whimpered Gail.
But Lorna was of more tempered metal.
"Believe me, Daren, I'm glad you knocked the lamps out of those swell boobs," she whispered, passionately. "Dick Swann used me like dirt. The next guy like him who tries to get gay with me will have some fall, I'll tell the world.... Me for Harry! There's nothing in this q-t stuff.... And say, what do you know about Bessy Bell? She came here to save us.... Hot dog, but she's a peach!"
Lane admonished the girls to hurry and watched them until they reached the street and turned the corner out of sight.
The reaction from that night landed Lane in the hospital, where, during long weeks when he did have a lucid interval, he saw that his life was despaired of and felt that he was glad of it.
But he did not die. As before, the weak places in his lungs healed over and he began to mend, and gradually his periods of rationality increased until he wholly gained his mental poise. It was, however, a long time before he was strong enough to leave the hospital.
During the worst of his illness his mother came often to see him; after he grew better she came but seldom. Blair and Colonel Pepper were the only others who visited Lane. And as soon as his memory returned and interest revived he learned much peculiarly significant to him.
The secret of the club-rooms, so far as girls were concerned, never became fully known to Middleville gossips. Strange and contrary rumors were rife for a long time, but the real truth never leaked out. There was never any warrant sworn for Lane's arrest. What the general public had heard and believed was the story concocted by Thesel and Swann, who claimed that Lane, over a gambling table, had been seized by one of the frenzied fits common to deranged soldiers, and had attacked them. Thesel lost his left eye and Swann carried a hideous red scar from brow to cheek. Neither the club-room scandal nor his disfigurement for life in any wise prevented Mrs. Maynard from announcing the engagement of her daughter Margaret to Richard Swann. The most amazing news was to hear that Helen Wrapp had married a rich young politician named Hartley, who was running for the office of magistrate. According to Blair, Daren Lane had divided Middleville into two dissenting factions, a large one who banned him in disgrace, and a small one who lifted their voices in his behalf. Of all the endless bits of news, little and big, the one that broke happily on Lane's ears was the word of a nurse, who told him that during his severe illness a girl had called on the telephone every day to inquire for him. She never gave her name. But Lane knew it was Mel and the mere thought of her made him quiver.
By the time Lane was strong enough to leave the hospital an early winter had set in. The hospital expenses had reduced his finances so materially that he could not afford the lodgings he had occupied before his illness. He realized fully that he should leave Middleville for a dry warm climate, if he wanted to live a while longer. But he was not greatly concerned about this. There would be time enough to consider the future after he had fulfilled the one hope and ambition he had left.
Rooms were at a premium. Lane was forced to apply in the sordid quarter of Middleville, and the place he eventually found was a small, bare hall bedroom, in a large, ramshackle old house, of questionable repute. But beggars could not be choosers. There was no heat in this room, and Lane decided that what time he spent in it must be in bed. He would not give any one his address.
Once installed here, Lane waited only a few days to assure himself that he was strong enough to carry out the plan upon which he had set his heart.
Late that afternoon he went to the town hall and had a marriage license made out for himself and Mel Iden. Upon returning, he found that snow had begun to fall heavily. Already the streets were white. Suddenly the thought of the nearness of Christmas shocked him. How time sped by!
That night he dressed himself carefully, wearing the service uniform he had so well preserved, and sallied forth to the most fashionable restaurant in Middleville, where in the glare and gayety he had his dinner. Lane recognized many of the dining, dancing throng, but showed no sign of it. He became aware that his presence had excited comment. How remote he seemed to feel himself from that eating, drinking, dancing crowd! So far removed that even the jazz music no longer affronted him. Rather surprised he was to find he really enjoyed his dinner. From the restaurant he engaged a taxi.
The bright lights, the falling snow, the mantle of white on everything, with their promise of the holiday season, pleased Lane with the memory of what great fun he used to have at Christmas-time.
When he arrived at Mel's home the snow was falling thickly in heavy flakes. Through the pall he caught a faint light, which grew brighter as he plodded toward the cottage. He stamped on the porch and flapped his arms to remove the generous covering of snow that had adhered to him. And as he was about to knock, the door opened, and Mel stood in the sudden brightness.
"Hello, Mel, how are you?—some snow, eh?" was his cheery greeting, and he went in and shut the door behind him.
"I—what! Aren't you glad to see me?"
Lane had not prepared himself for anything. He knew he could win now, and all he had allowed himself was gladness. But being face to face with Mel made it different. It had been long since he last saw her. That interval had been generous. To look at her now no one could have guessed her story. Warmth and richness of color had come back to her; and vividly they expressed her joy at sight of him.
"Glad?—I've been living—on my hopes—that you—"
Her faltering speech trailed off here, as Lane took one long stride toward her.
Lane put a firm hand to each of her cheeks, and tilting a suddenly rosy face, he kissed her full on the lips. Then he turned away without looking at her and stepped to the little open grate, where a small red fire glowed. Mel gasped there behind him and then became perfectly still.
"Nice fire, Mel," he spoke out, naturally, as if nothing unusual had happened. But the thin hands he extended to the warmth of the coals trembled like aspen leaves in the wind. How silent she was! It thrilled him. What strange sweet revel in the moment.
When he turned it seemed he saw her eyes, her lips, her whole face luminous. The next instant she came out of her spell; and Lane divined if he let her wholly recover, he would have a woman to deal with.
"Daren, what's wrong with you?" she inquired.
"Why, Mel!" he ejaculated, in feigned reproach.
"You don't look irrational, but you act so," she said, studying him more closely. The hand that had been pressed to her breast dropped down.
"Had my last crazy spell two weeks ago," he replied.
"You mean my kissing you? Well, I refuse to apologize. You see I was not prepared to find you so improved. Why, Mel, you're changed. You're just—just lovely."
Again the rich color stained her cheeks.
"Thank you, Daren," she said. "I have changed. You did it.... I've gotten well, and—almost happy.... But let's not talk of myself. You—there's so much—"
"Mel, I don't want to talk about myself, either," he declared. "When a man's got only a day or so longer—"
"Hush!—Or—Or—," she threatened, with a slight distension of nostrils and a paling of cheek.
"Or what?" demanded Lane.
"Or I'll do to you what you did to me."
"Oh, you'd kiss me to shut my lips?"
"Yes, I would."
"Fine, Mel. Come on. But you'd have to keep steadily busy all evening. For I've come to talk." Mel came closer to him, with a catch in her breathing, a loving radiance in her eyes. "Daren, you're strange—not like your old self. You're too gay—too happy. Oh, I'd be glad if you were sincere. But you have something on your mind."
Lane knew when to unmask a battery.
"No, it's in my pocket," he flashed, and with a quick motion he tore out the marriage license and thrust it upon her. As her dark eyes took in the meaning of the paper, and her expression changed, Lane gazed down upon her with a commingling of emotions.
"Oh, Daren—No—No!" she cried, in a wildness of amaze and pain.
Then Lane clasped her close, with a force too sudden to be gentle, and with his free hand he lifted her face.
"Look here. Look at me," he said sternly. "Every time you say no or shake your head—I'll do this."
And he kissed her twice, as he had upon his entrance.
Mel raised her head and gazed up at him, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, as if both appalled and enthralled.
"Daren. I—I don't understand you," she said, unsteadily. "You frighten me. Let me go—please, Daren. This is—so—so unlike you. You insult me."
"Mel, I can't see it that way," he replied. "I'm only asking you to come out and marry me to-night."
That galvanized her, and she tried to slip from his embrace.
"I told you no—no—no," she cried desperately.
"That's three," said Lane, and he took them mercilessly. "You will marry me," he said sternly.
"Oh, Daren, I can't—I dare not.... Ah!—"
"You will go right now—marry me to-night."
"Please be kind, Daren.... I don't know how you—"
"Mel, where're your coat, and hat, and overshoes?" he questioned, urgently.
"I told you—no!" she flashed, passionately.
Lane made good his threat, and this last onslaught left her spent and white.
"You must like my kisses, Mel Iden," he said.
"I implore you—Daren"
"I implore you to marry me."
"Dear friend, listen to reason," she begged. "You don't love me. You've just a chivalrous notion you can help me—and my boy—by giving us your name. It's noble, Daren, thank you. But—"
"Take care," warned Lane, bending low over her. "I can make good my word all night."
"Boy, you've gone crazy," she whispered, sadly.
"Well, now you may be talking sense," he laughed. "But that's neither here nor there.... Mel, I may die any day now!"
"Oh, my God!—don't say that," she cried, as if pierced by a blade.
"Yes. Mel, make me happy just for that little while."
"Happy?" she whispered.
"Yes. I've failed here in every way. I've lost all. And this thing would make the bitterness endurable."
"I'd die for you," she returned. "But marry you!—Daren—dearest—it will make you the laughing-stock of Middleville."
"Whatever it makes me, I shall be proud."
"Oh, I cannot, I dare not," she burst out.
"You seem to forget the penalty for these unflattering negatives of yours," he returned, coolly, bending to her lips.
This time she did not writhe or quiver or breathe. Lane felt surrender in her, and when he lifted his face from hers he was sure. Despite the fact that he had inflexibly clamped his will to one purpose, holding his emotion in abeyance, that brief instant seemed to be the fullest of his life.
"Mel, put your arm round my neck," he commanded.
"Now the other."
Again she complied.
"Lift your face—look at me."
She essayed to do this also, but failed. Her head sank on his breast. He had won. Lane held her a moment closely. And then a great and overwhelming pity and tenderness, his first emotions, flooded his soul. He closed his eyes. Dimly, vaguely, they seemed to create vision of long future time; and he divined that good and happiness would come to Mel Iden some day through the pain he had given her.
"Where did you say your things are?" he asked. "It's a bad night."
"They're in—the hall," came in muffled tones from his shoulder. "I'll get them."
But she made no effort to remove her arms from round his neck or to lift her head from his breast. Lane had lost now that singular exaltation of will, and power to hold down his emotions. Her nearness stormed his heart. His test came then, when he denied utterance to the love that answered hers.
"No—Mel—you stay here," he said, freeing himself. "I'll get them."
Opening the hall door he saw the hat-rack where as a boy he had hung his cap. It now held garments over which Lane fumbled. Mel came into the hall.
"Daren, you'll not know which are mine," she said.
Lane watched her. How the shapely hands trembled. Her face shone white against her dark furs. Lane helped her put on the overshoes.
"Now—just a word to mother," she said.
Lane caught her hand and held it, following her to the end of the hall, where she opened a door and peeped into the sitting-room.
"Mother, is dad home?" she asked.
"No—he's out, and such a bad night! Who's with you, Mel?"
"Oh, is he up again? I'm glad. Bring him in.... Why, Mel, you've your hat and coat on!"
"Yes, mother dear. We're going out for a while."
"On such a night! What for?"
"Daren and I are going to—to be married.... Good-bye. No more till we come back."
As one in a dream, Lane led Mel out in the whirling white pall of snow. It seemed to envelop them. It was mysterious and friendly, and silent.
They crossed the bridge, and Lane again listened for the river voices that always haunted here. Were they only murmurings of swift waters? Beyond the bridge lay the railroad station. A few dim lights shone through the white gloom. Lane found a taxi.
They were silent during the ride through the lonely streets. When the taxi stopped at the address given the driver, Lane whispered a word to Mel, jumped out and ran up the steps of a house and rang the bell.
"Is Doctor McCullen at home?" he inquired of the maid who answered the ring. He was informed the minister had just gone to his room.
"Will you ask him to come down upon a matter of importance?"
The maid invited him inside. In a few moments a tall, severe-looking man wearing a long dressing-coat entered the parlor.
"Doctor McCullen, I regret disturbing you, but my business is urgent. I want to be married at once. The lady is outside in a car. May I bring her in?"
"Ah! I seem to remember you. Isn't your name Lane?"
"Who is the woman you want to marry?"
"Miss Iden! You mean Joshua Iden's daughter?"
The minister showed a grave surprise. "Aren't you rather late in making amends? No, I will not marry you until I investigate the matter," he replied, coldly.
"You need not trouble yourself," replied Lane curtly, and went out.
The instant opposition stimulated Lane, and he asked the driver, "John, do you know where we can find a preacher?" "Yis, sor. Mr. Peters of the Methodist Church lives round the corner," answered the man.
"Drive on, then."
Lane got inside the taxi and slammed the door. "Mel, he refused to marry us."
Mel was silent, but the pressure of her hand answered him.
"Daren, the car has stopped," said Mel, presently.
Lane got out, walked up the steps, and pulled the bell. He was admitted. He had no better luck here. Lane felt that his lips shut tight, and his face set. Mel said nothing and sat by him, very quiet. The taxi rolled on and stopped again, and Lane had audience with another minister. He was repulsed here also.
"We're trying a magistrate," said Lane, when the car stopped again.
"But, Daren. This is where Gerald Hartley lives. Not him, Daren. Surely you wouldn't go to him?"
"Why not?" inquired Lane.
"It hasn't been two months since he married Helen Wrapp. Hadn't you heard?"
"I'd forgotten," said Lane.
"Besides, Daren, he—he once asked me to marry him—before the war."
Lane hesitated. Yes, he now remembered that in the days before the war the young lawyer had been Mel's persistent admirer. But a reckless mood had begun to manifest itself in Lane during the last hour, and it must have communicated its spirit to Mel, for she made no further protest. The world was against them. They were driving to the home of the man she had refused to marry, who had eventually married a girl who had jilted Lane. In an ordinary moment they would never have attempted such a thing. The mansion before which the car stopped was well lighted; music and laughter came faintly through the bright windows.
A maid opened the door to Lane and showed him into a drawing-room. In a library beyond he saw women and men playing cards, laughing and talking. Several old ladies were sitting close together, whispering and nodding their heads. A young fair-haired girl was playing the piano. Lane saw the maid advance and speak to a sharp-featured man whom he recognized as Hartley. Lane wanted to run out of the house. But he clenched his teeth and swore he would go through with it.
"Mr. Hartley," began Lane, as the magistrate came through the curtained doorway, "I hope you'll pardon my intrusion. My errand is important. I've come to ask you to marry me to a lady who is waiting outside."
When Hartley recognized his visitor he started back in astonishment. Then he laughed and looked more closely at Lane. It was a look that made Lane wince, for he understood it to relate to his mental condition.
"Lane! Well, by Jove!" he exclaimed. "Going to get married! You honor me. The regular fee, which in my official capacity I must charge, is one dollar. If you can pay that I will marry you."
"I can pay," replied Lane, quietly, and his level steady gaze disconcerted Hartley.
"Where's the woman?"
"She's outside in a taxi."
"Is she over eighteen?"
Lane expected the question as to who the woman was. It was singular that the magistrate neglected to ask this, the first query offered by every minister Lane has visited.
"Fetch her in," he said.
Lane went outside and hesitated at the car door, for he had an intuitive flash which made him doubtful. But what if Hartley did make a show of this marriage? The marriage itself was the vital thing. Lane helped Mel out of the car and led her up the icy steps. The maid again opened the door.
"Mr. Lane, walk right in," said Hartley. "Of course, it's natural for the lady to be a little shy, but then if she wants to be married at this hour she must not mind my family and guests. They can be witnesses."
He spoke in a voice in which Lane's ears detected insincerity. "Be seated, and wait until I get my book," he continued, and left the room.
Hartley had hardly glanced at Mel, and her veil had hidden her features. He had gone toward his study rubbing his hands in a peculiar manner which Lane remembered and which recalled the man as he had looked many a time in the Bradford billiard room when a good joke was going the rounds. Lane saw him hurry from his study with pleasant words of invitation to his guests, a mysterious air about him, a light upon his face. The ladies and gentlemen rose from their tables and advanced from the library to the door of the drawing-room. A girl of striking figure seized Hartley's arm and gesticulated almost wildly. It was Helen Wrapp. Her husband laughed at her and waved a hand toward the drawing-room and his guests. Turning swiftly with tigerish grace, she bent upon Lane great green eyes whose strange expression he could not fathom. What passionately curious eyes did she now fasten on his prospective bride!
Lane gripped Mel's hand. He felt the horror of what might be coming. What a blunder he had made!
"Will the lady kindly remove her veil?" Hartley's voice sounded queer. His smile had vanished.
As Mel untied and thrust back the veil her fingers trembled. The action disclosed a lovely face as white as snow.
"Mel Iden!" burst from the magistrate. For a moment there was an intense silence. Then, "I'll not marry you," cried Hartley vindictively.
"Why not? You said you would," demanded Lane.
"Not to save your worthless lives," Hartley returned, facing them with a dark meaning in his eyes.
Lane turned to Mel and led her from the house and down to the curb without speaking once.
Once more they went out into the blinding snow-storm. Lane threw back his head and breathed the cold air. What a relief to get out of that stifling room!
"Mel, I'm afraid it's no use," he said, finally.
"We are finding what the world thinks of us," replied Mel. "Tell the man to drive to 204 Locust Street."
Once more the driver headed his humming car into the white storm.
Once more Lane sat silent, with his heart raging. Once more Mel peered out into the white turmoil of gloom.
"Daren, we're going to Dr. Wallace, my old minister. He'll marry us," she said, presently.
"Why didn't I think of him?"
"I did," answered Mel, in a low voice. "I know he would marry us. He baptized me; he has known and loved me all my life. I used to sing in his choir and taught his Sunday School for years."
"Yet you let me go to those others. Why?"
"Because I shrank from going to him."
Once more the car lurched into the gutter, and this time they both got out and mounted the high steps. Lane knocked. They waited what appeared a long time before they heard some one fumbling with the lock. Just then the bell in the church tower nearby began chiming the midnight hour. The door opened, and Doctor Wallace himself admitted them.
"Well! Who's this?... Why, if it's not Mel Iden! What a night to be out in!" he exclaimed. He led them into a room, evidently his study, where a cheerful wood fire blazed. There he took both her hands and looked from her to Lane. "You look so white and distressed. This late hour—this young man whom I know. What has happened? Why do you come to me—the first time in so many months?"