O. Henry Memorial Award Stories of 1920 by Various - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1920
Each In His Generation ..............................................................................................3
The Camel's Back .....................................................................................................32
Break-Neck Hill .......................................................................................................59
Black Art And Ambrose............................................................................................67
The Judgment Of Vulcan..........................................................................................78
The Argosies........................................................................................................... 101
Alma Mater ............................................................................................................ 117
Slow Poison ............................................................................................................ 123
The Face In The Window ....................................................................................... 133
A Matter Of Loyalty ............................................................................................... 154
The Thing They Loved ........................................................................................... 188
No Flowers ............................................................................................................. 229
Footfalls ................................................................................................................. 239
The Last Room Of All ............................................................................................ 257
Each In His GenerationBY MAXWELL STRUTHERS BURT Scribner's Magazine
Every afternoon at four o'clock, except when the weather was very bad--autumn, winter, and spring--old Mr. Henry McCain drove up to the small, discreet, polished front door, in the small, discreet, fashionable street in which lived fairly old Mrs. Thomas Denby; got out, went up the white marble steps, rang the bell, and was admitted into the narrow but charming hall--dim turquoise-blue velvet panelled into the walls, an etching or two: Whistler, Brangwyn--by a trim parlour-maid. Ten generations, at least, of trim parlourmaids had opened the door for Mr. McCain. They had seen the sparkling victoria change, not too quickly, to a plum-coloured limousine; they had seen Mr. McCain become perhaps a trifle thinner, the colour in his cheeks become a trifle more confined and fixed, his white hair grow somewhat sparser, but beyond that they had seen very little indeed, although, when they had left Mr. McCain in the drawing-room with the announcement that Mrs. Denby would be down immediately, and were once again seeking the back of the house, no doubt their eyebrows, blonde, brunette, or red, apexed to a questioning angle.
In the manner of youth the parlour-maids had come, worked, fallen in love and departed, but Mr. McCain, in the manner of increasing age, had if anything grown more faithful and exact to the moment. If he were late the fraction of five minutes, one suspected that he regretted it, that it came near to spoiling his entire afternoon. He was not articulate, but occasionally he expressed an idea and the most common was that he "liked his things as he liked them"; his eggs, in other words, boiled just so long, no more--after sixty years of inner debate on the subject he had apparently arrived at the conclusion that boiled eggs were the only kind of eggs permissible--his life punctual and serene. The smallest manifestation of unexpectedness disturbed him. Obviously that was one reason why, after a youth not altogether constant, he had become so utterly constant where Mrs. Denby was concerned. She had a quality of perenniality, charming and assuring, even to each strand of her delicate brown hair. Grayness should have been creeping upon her, but it was not. It was doubtful if Mr. McCain permitted himself, even secretly, to wonder why. Effects, fastidious and constant, were all he demanded from life.
This had been going on for twenty years--this afternoon call; this slow drive afterward in the park; this return by dusk to the shining small house in the shining small street; the good-by, reticently ardent, as if it were not fully Mr. McCain's intention to return again in the evening. Mr. McCain would kiss Mrs. Denby's hand--slim, lovely, with a single gorgeous sapphire upon the third finger. "Good-by, my dear," he would say, "you have given me the most delightful afternoon of my life." For a moment Mrs. Denby's hand would linger on the bowed head; then Mr. McCain would straighten up, smile, square his shoulders in their smart, young-looking coat, and depart to his club, or the large, softly lit house where he dwelt alone. At dinner he would drink two glasses of champagne. Before he drained the last sip of the second pouring he would hold the glass up to the fire, so that the bronze coruscations at the heart of the wine glowed like fireflies in a gold dusk. One imagined him saying to himself: "A perfect woman! A perfect woman--God bless her!" Saying "God bless" any one, mind you, with a distinct warming of the heart, but a thoroughly late-Victorian disbelief in any god to bless.... At least, you thought as much.
And, of course, one had not the slightest notion whether he--old Mr. Henry McCain--was aware that this twenty years of devotion on his part to Mrs. Denby was the point upon which had come to focus the not inconsiderable contempt and hatred for him of his nephew Adrian.
It was an obvious convergence, this devotion of all the traits which composed, so Adrian imagined, the despicable soul that lay beneath his uncle's unangled exterior: undeviating self-indulgence; secrecy; utter selfishness--he was selfish even to the woman he was supposed to love; that is, if he was capable of loving any one but himself--a bland hypocrisy; an unthinking conformation to the dictates of an unthinking world. The list could be multiplied. But to sum it up, here was epitomized, beautifully, concretely, the main and minor vices of a generation for which Adrian found little pity in his heart; a generation brittle as ice; a generation of secret diplomacy; a generation that in its youth had covered a lack of bathing by a vast amount of perfume. That was it--! That expressed it perfectly! The just summation! Camellias, and double intentions in speech, and unnecessary reticences, and refusals to meet the truth, and a deliberate hiding of uglinesses!
Most of the time Adrian was too busy to think about his uncle at all--he was a very busy man with his writing: journalistic writing; essays, political reviews, propaganda--and because he was busy he was usually well-content, and not uncharitable, except professionally; but once a month it was his duty to dine with his uncle, and then, for the rest of the night, he was disturbed, and awoke the next morning with the dusty feeling in his head of a man who has been slightly drunk. Old wounds were recalled, old scars inflamed; a childhood in which his uncle's figure had represented to him the terrors of sarcasm and repression; a youth in which, as his guardian, his uncle had deprecated all first fine hot-bloodednesses and enthusiasms; a young manhood in which he had been told cynically that the ways of society were good ways, and that the object of life was material advancement; advice which had been followed by the stimulus of an utter refusal to assist financially except where absolutely necessary. There had been willingness, you understand, to provide a gentleman's education, but no willingness to provide beyond that any of a gentleman's perquisites. That much of his early success had been due to this heroic upbringing, Adrian was too honest not to admit, but then--by God, it had been hard! All the colour of youth! No time to dream--except sorely! Some warping, some perversion! A gasping, heart-breaking knowledge that you could not possibly keep up with the people with whom, paradoxically enough, you were supposed to spend your leisure hours. Here was the making of a radical. And yet, despite all this, Adrian dined with his uncle once a month.
The mere fact that this was so, that it could be so, enraged him. It seemed a renunciation of all he affirmed; an implicit falsehood. He would have liked very much to have got to his feet, standing firmly on his two long, well-made legs, and have once and for all delivered himself of a final philippic. The philippic would have ended something like this:
"And this, sir, is the last time I sacrifice any of my good hours to you. Not because you are old, and therefore think you are wise, when you are not; not because you are blind and besotted and damned--a trunk of a tree filled with dry rot that presently a clean wind will blow away; not because your opinions, and the opinions of all like you, have long ago been proven the lies and idiocies that they are; not even because you haven't one single real right left to live--I haven't come to tell you these things, although they are true; for you are past hope and there is no use wasting words upon you; I have come to tell you that you bore me inexpressibly. (That would be the most dreadful revenge of all. He could see his uncle's face!) That you have a genius for taking the wrong side of every question, and I can no longer endure it. I dissipate my time. Good-night!"He wouldn't have said it in quite so stately a way, possibly, the sentences would not have been quite so rounded, but the context would have been the same.
Glorious; but it wasn't said. Instead, once a month, he got into his dinner-jacket, brushed his hair very sleekly, walked six blocks, said good-evening to his uncle's butler, and went on back to the library, where, in a room rich with costly bindings, and smelling pleasantly of leather, and warmly yellow with the light of two shaded lamps, he would find his uncle reading before a crackling wood fire. What followed was almost a formula, an exquisite presentation of stately manners, an exquisite avoidance of any topic which might cause a real discussion. The dinner was invariably gentle, persuasive, a thoughtful gastronomic achievement. Heaven might become confused about its weather, and about wars, and things like that, but Mr. McCain never became confused about his menus. He had a habit of commending wine. "Try this claret, my dear fellow, I want your opinion.... A drop of this Napoleonic brandy won't hurt you a bit." He even sniffed the bouquet before each sip; passed, that is, the glass under his nose and then drank. But Adrian, with a preconceived image of the personality back of this, and the memory of too many offences busy in his mind, saw nothing quaint or amusing. His gorge rose. Damn his uncle's wines, and his mushrooms, and his soft-footed servants, and his house of nuances and evasions, and his white grapes, large and outwardly perfect, and inwardly sentimental as the generation whose especial fruit they were. As for himself, he had a recollection of ten years of poverty after leaving college; a recollection of sweat and indignities; he had also a recollection of some poor people whom he had known.
Afterward, when the dinner was over, Adrian would go home and awake his wife, Cecil, who, with the brutal honesty of an honest woman, also some of the ungenerosity, had early in her married life flatly refused any share in the ceremonies described. Cecil would lie in her small white bed, the white of her boudoir-cap losing itself in the white of the pillow, a little sleepy and a little angrily perplexed at the perpetual jesuitical philosophy of the male. "If you feel that way," she would ask, "why do you go there, then? Why don't you banish your uncle utterly?" She asked this not without malice, her long, violet, Slavic eyes widely open, and her red mouth, a trifle too large, perhaps, a trifle cruel, fascinatingly interrogative over her white teeth. She loved Adrian and had at times, therefore, the right and desire to torture him. She knew perfectly well why he went. He was his uncle's heir, and until such time as money and other anachronisms of the present social system were done away with, there was no use throwing a fortune into the gutter, even if by your own efforts you were making an income just sufficiently large to keep up with the increased cost of living.
Sooner or later Adrian's mind reverted to Mrs. Denby. This was usually after he had been in bed and had been thinking for a while in the darkness. He could not understand Mrs. Denby. She affronted his modern habit of thought."The whole thing is so silly and adventitious!" "What thing?"
Adrian was aware that his wife knew exactly of what he was talking, but he had come to expect the question. "Mrs. Denby and my uncle." He would grow rather gently cross. "It has always reminded me of those present-day sword-and-cloak romances fat business men used to write about ten years ago and sell so enormously--there's an atmosphere of unnecessary intrigue. What's it all about? Here's the point! Why, if she felt this way about things, didn't she divorce that gentle drunkard of a husband of hers years ago and marry my uncle outright and honestly? Or why, if she couldn't get a divorce--which she could-didn't she leave her husband and go with my uncle? Anything in the open! Make a break
-have some courage of her opinions! Smash things; build them up again! Thank God nowadays, at least, we have come to believe in the cleanness of surgery rather than the concealing palliatives of medicine. We're no longer--we modern people--afraid of the world; and the world can never hurt for any length of time any one who will stand up to it and tell it courageously to go to hell. No! It comes back and licks hands."
"I'll tell you why. My uncle and Mrs. Denby are the typical moral cowards of their generation. There's selfishness, too. What a travesty of love! Of course there's scandal, a perpetual scandal; but it's a hidden, sniggering scandal they don't have to meet face to face; and that's all they ask of life, they, and people like them--never to have to meet anything face to face. So long as they can bury their heads like ostriches! ... Faugh!" There would be a moment's silence; then Adrian would complete his thought. "In my uncle's case," he would grumble in the darkness, "one phase of the selfishness is obvious. He couldn't even get himself originally, I suppose, to face the inevitable matter-of-fact moments of marriage. It began when he was middle-aged, a bachelor--I suppose he wants the sort of Don Juan, eighteen-eighty, perpetual sort of romance that doesn't exist outside the brains of himself and his like.... Camellias!"
Usually he tried to stir up argument with his wife, who in these matters agreed with him utterly; even more than agreed with him, since she was the escaped daughter of rich and stodgy people, and had insisted upon earning her own living by portrait-painting. Theoretically, therefore, she was, of course, an anarchist. But at moments like the present her silent assent and the aura of slight weariness over an ancient subject which emanated from her in the dusk, affronted Adrian as much as positive opposition."Why don't you try to understand me?" "I do, dearest!"--a pathetic attempt at eager agreement.
"Well, then, if you do, why is the tone of your voice like that? You know by now what I think. I'm not talking convention; I believe there are no laws higher than the love of a man for a woman. It should seek expression as a seed seeks sunlight. I'm talking about honesty; bravery; a willingness to accept the consequences of one's acts and come through; about the intention to sacrifice for love just what has to be sacrificed. What's the use of it otherwise? That's one real advance the modern mind has made, anyhow, despite all the rest of the welter and uncertainty.""Of course, dearest."
He would go on. After a while Cecil would awake guiltily and inject a fresh, almost gay interest into her sleepy voice. She was not so unfettered as not to dread the wounded esteem of the unlistened-to male. She would lean over and kiss Adrian.
"Do go to sleep, darling! What's the sense? Pretty soon your uncle will be dead--wretched old man! Then you'll never have to think of him again." Being a childless woman, her red, a trifle cruel mouth would twist itself in the darkness into a small, secretive, maternal smile.
But old Mr. Henry McCain didn't die; instead he seemed to be caught up in the condition of static good health which frequently companions entire selfishness and a careful interest in oneself. His butler died, which was very annoying. Mr. McCain seemed to consider it the breaking of a promise made fifteen or so years before. It was endlessly a trouble instructing a new man, and then, of course, there was Adlington's family to be looked after, and taxes had gone up, and Mrs. Adlington was a stout woman who, despite the fact that Adlington, while alive, had frequently interrupted Mr. McCain's breakfast newspaper reading by asserting that she was a person of no character, now insisted upon weeping noisily every time Mr. McCain granted her an interview. Also, and this was equally unexpected, since one rather thought he would go on living forever, like one of the damper sort of fungi, Mr. Denby came home from the club one rainy spring night with a slight cold and died, three days later, with extraordinary gentleness."My uncle," said Adrian, "is one by one losing his accessories. After a while it will be his teeth."
Cecil was perplexed. "I don't know exactly what to do," she complained. "I don't know whether to treat Mrs. Denby as a bereaved aunt, a non-existent family skeleton, or a released menace. I dare say now, pretty soon, she and your uncle will be married. Meanwhile, I suppose it is rather silly of me not to call and see if I can help her in any way. After all, we do know her intimately, whether we want to or not, don't we? We meet her about all the time, even if she wasn't motoring over to your uncle's place in the summer when we stop there."So she went, being fundamentally kindly and fundamentally curious. She spoke of the expedition as "a descent upon Fair Rosamund's tower."
The small, yellow-panelled drawing-room, where she awaited Mrs. Denby's coming, was lit by a single silver vase-lamp under an orange shade and by a fire of thin logs, for the April evening was damp with a hesitant rain. On the table, near the lamp, was a silver vase with three yellow tulips in it, and Cecil, wandering about, came upon a double photograph frame, back of the vase, that made her gasp. She picked it up and stared at it. Between the alligator edgings, facing each other obliquely, but with the greatest amity, were Mr. Thomas Denby in the fashion of ten years before, very handsome, very wellgroomed, with the startled expression which any definite withdrawal from his potational pursuits was likely to produce upon his countenance, and her uncle-in-law, Mr. Henry McCain, also in the fashion of ten years back. She was holding the photographs up to the light, her lips still apart, when she heard a sound behind her, and, putting the frame back guiltily, turned about. Mrs. Denby was advancing toward her. She seemed entirely unaware of Cecil's malfeasance; she was smiling faintly; her hand was cordial, grateful."You are very good," she murmured. "Sit here by the fire. We will have some tea directly."
Cecil could not but admit that she was very lovely; particularly lovely in the black of her mourning, with her slim neck, rising up from its string of pearls, to a head small and like a delicate white-and-gold flower. An extraordinarily well-bred woman, a sort of misty Du Maurier woman, of a type that had become almost non-existent, if ever it had existed in its perfection at all. And, curiously enough, a woman whose beauty seemed to have been sharpened by many fine-drawn renunciations. Now she looked at her hands as if expecting Cecil to say something."I think such calls as this are always very useless, but then--"
"Exactly--but then! They mean more than anything else in the world, don't they? When one reaches fifty-five one is not always used to kindness.... You are very kind...." She raised her eyes.Cecil experienced a sudden impulsive warmth. "After all, what did she or any one else know about other peoples' lives? Poor souls! What a base thing life often was!"
"I want you to understand that we are always so glad, both Adrian and myself.... Any time we can help in any way, you know--"
"Yes, I think you would. You--I have watched you both. You don't mind, do you? I think you're both rather great people--at least, my idea of greatness."
Cecil's eyes shone just a little; then she sat back and drew together her eager, rather childish mouth. This wouldn't do! She had not come here to encourage sentimentalization. With a determined effort she lifted her mind outside the circle of commiseration which threatened to surround it. She deliberately reset the conversation to impersonal limits. She was sure that Mrs. Denby was aware of her intention, adroitly concealed as it was. This made her uncomfortable, ashamed. And yet she was irritated with herself. Why should she particularly care what this woman thought in ways as subtle as this? Obvious kindness was her intention, not mental charity pursued into tortuous bypaths. And, besides, her frank, boyish cynicism, its wariness, revolted, even while she felt herself flattered at the prospect of the confidences that seemed to tremble on Mrs. Denby's lips. It wouldn't do to "let herself in for anything"; to "give herself away." No! She adopted a manner of cool, entirely reflective kindliness. But all along she was not sure that she was thoroughly successful. There was a lingering impression that Mrs. Denby was penetrating the surface to the unwilling interest beneath. Cecil suspected that this woman was trained in discriminations and half-lights to which she and her generation had joyfully made themselves blind. She felt uncomfortably young; a little bit smiled at in the most kindly of hidden ways. Just as she was leaving, the subversive softness came close to her again, like a wave of too much perfume as you open a church-door; as if some one were trying to embrace her against her will.
"You will understand," said Mrs. Denby, "that you have done the very nicest thing in the world. I am horribly lonely. I have few women friends. Perhaps it is too much to ask--but if you could call again sometime. Yes ... I would appreciate it so greatly."She let go of Cecil's hand and walked to the door, and stood with one long arm raised against the curtain, her face turned toward the hall.
"There is no use," she said, "in attempting to hide my husband's life, for every one knows what it was, but then--yes, I think you will understand. I am a childless woman, you see; he was infinitely pathetic."Cecil felt that she must run away, instantly. "I do--" she said brusquely. "I understand more than other women. Perfectly! Good-by!"
She found herself brushing past the latest trim parlour-maid, and out once more in the keen, sweet, young dampness. She strode briskly down the deserted street. Her fine bronze eyebrows were drawn down to where they met. "Good Lord! Damn!"--Cecil swore very prettily and modernly--"What rotten taste! Not frankness, whatever it might seem outwardly; not frankness, but devious excuses! Some more of Adrian's hated pastgeneration stuff! And yet--no! The woman was sincere--perfectly! She had meant it--that about her husband. And she was lovely--and she was fine, too! It was impossible to deny it. But--a childless woman! About that drunken tailor's model of a husband! And then-Uncle Henry! ..." Cecil threw back her head; her eyes gleamed in the wet radiance of a corner lamp; she laughed without making a sound, and entirely without amusement.
But it is not true that good health is static, no matter how carefully looked after. And, despite the present revolt against the Greek spirit, Time persists in being bigotedly Greek. The tragedy--provided one lives long enough--is always played out to its logical conclusion. For every hour you have spent, no matter how quietly or beautifully or wisely, Nemesis takes toll in the end. You peter out; the engine dulls; the shining coin wears thin. If it's only that it is all right; you are fortunate if you don't become greasy, too, or blurred, or scarred. And Mr. McCain had not spent all his hours wisely or beautifully, or even quietly, underneath the surface. He suddenly developed what he called "acute indigestion."
"Odd!" he complained, "and exceedingly tiresome! I've been able to eat like an ostrich all my life." Adrian smiled covertly at the simile, but his uncle was unaware that it was because in Adrian's mind the simile applied to his uncle's conscience, not his stomach.
It was an odd disease, that "acute indigestion." It manifested itself by an abrupt tragic stare in Mr. McCain's eyes, a whiteness of cheek, a clutching at the left side of the breast; it resulted also in his beginning to walk very slowly indeed. One day Adrian met Carron, his uncle's physician, as he was leaving a club after luncheon. Carron stopped him. "Look here, Adrian," he said, "is that new man of your uncle's--that valet, or whatever he is--a good man?"
Adrian smiled. "I didn't hire him," he answered, "and I couldn't discharge him if I wanted--in fact, any suggestion of that kind on my part, would lead to his employment for life. Why?"
"Because," said Carron, "he impresses me as being rather young and flighty, and some day your uncle is going to die suddenly. He may last five years; he may snuff out tomorrow. It's his heart." His lips twisted pityingly. "He prefers to call it by some other name," he added, "and he would never send for me again if he knew I had told you, but you ought to know. He's a game old cock, isn't he?""Oh, very!" agreed Adrian. "Yes, game! Very, indeed!"
He walked slowly down the sunlit courtway on which the back door of the club opened, swinging his stick and meditating. Spring was approaching its zenith. In the warm May afternoon pigeons tumbled about near-by church spires which cut brown inlays into the soft blue sky. There was a feeling of open windows; a sense of unseen tulips and hyacinths; of people playing pianos.... Too bad, an old man dying that way, his hand furtively seeking his heart, when all this spring was about! Terror in possession of him, too! People like that hated to die; they couldn't see anything ahead. Well, Adrian reflected, the real tragedy of it hadn't been his fault. He had always been ready at the slightest signal to forget almost everything--yes, almost everything. Even that time when, as a sweating newspaper reporter, he had, one dusk, watched in the park his uncle and Mrs. Denby drive past in the cool seclusion of a shining victoria. Curious! In itself the incident was small, but it had stuck in his memory more than others far more serious, as concrete instances are likely to do.... No, he wasn't sorry; not a bit! He was glad, despite the hesitation he experienced in saying to himself the final word. He had done his best, and this would mean his own release and Cecil's. It would mean at last the blessed feeling that he could actually afford a holiday, and a little unthinking laughter, and, at thirty-nine, the dreams for which, at twenty-five, he had never had full time. He walked on down the courtway more briskly.
That Saturday night was the night he dined with his uncle. It had turned very warm; unusually warm for the time of year. When he had dressed and had sought out Cecil to say good-by to her he found her by the big studio window on the top floor of the apartment where they lived. She was sitting in the window-seat, her chin cupped in her hand, looking out over the city, in the dark pool of which lights were beginning to open like yellow water-lilies. Her white arm gleamed in the gathering dusk, and she was dressed in some diaphanous blue stuff that enhanced the bronze of her hair. Adrian took his place silently beside her and leaned out. The air was very soft and hot and embracing, and up here it was very quiet, as if one floated above the lower clouds of perpetual sound.
Cecil spoke at last. "It's lovely, isn't it?" she said. "I should have come to find you, but I couldn't. These first warm nights! You really understand why people live, after all, don't you? It's like a pulse coming back to a hand you love." She was silent a moment. "Kiss me," she said, finally. "I--I'm so glad I love you, and we're young."
He stooped down and put his arms about her. He could feel her tremble. How fragrant she was, and queer, and mysterious, even if he had lived with her now for almost fifteen years! He was infinitely glad at the moment for his entire life. He kissed her again, kissed her eyes, and she went down the stairs with him to the hall-door. She was to stop for him at his uncle's, after a dinner to which she was going.
Adrian lit a cigarette and walked instead of taking the elevator. It was appropriate to his mood that on the second floor some one with a golden Italian voice should be singing "Louise." He paused for a moment. He was reminded of a night long ago in Verona, when there had been an open window and moonlight in the street. Then he looked at his watch. He was late; he would have to hurry. It amused him that at his age he should still fear the silent rebuke with which his uncle punished unpunctuality.
He arrived at his destination as a near-by church clock struck the half-hour. The new butler admitted him and led him back to where his uncle was sitting by an open window; the curtains stirred in the languid breeze, the suave room was a little penetrated by the night, as if some sly, disorderly spirit was investigating uninvited. It was far too hot for the wood fire--that part of the formula had been omitted, but otherwise each detail was the same. "The two hundredth time!" Adrian thought to himself. "The two hundredth time, at least! It will go on forever!" And then the formula was altered again, for his uncle got to his feet, laying aside the evening paper with his usual precise care. "My dear fellow," he began, "so good of you! On the minute, too! I----" and then he stumbled and put out his hand. "My glasses!" he said.Adrian caught him and held him upright. He swayed a little. "I----Lately I have had to use them sometimes, even when not reading," he murmured. "Thank you! Thank you!"
Adrian went back to the chair where his uncle had been sitting. He found the glasses-gold pince-nez--but they were broken neatly in the middle, lying on the floor, as if they had dropped from someone's hand. He looked at them for a moment, puzzled, before he gave them back to his uncle."Here they are, sir," he said. "But--it's very curious. They're broken in such an odd way."
His uncle peered down at them. He hesitated and cleared his throat. "Yes," he began; then he stood up straight, with an unexpected twist of his shoulders. "I was turning them between my fingers," he said, "just before you came in. I had no idea--no, no idea! Shall we go in? I think dinner has been announced."
There was the sherry in the little, deeply cut glasses, and the clear soup, with a dash of lemon in it, and the fish, and afterward the roast chicken, with vegetables discreetly limited and designed not to detract from the main dish; and there was a pint of champagne for Adrian and a mild white wine for his uncle. The latter twisted his mouth in a dry smile. "One finds it difficult to get old," he said. "I have always been very fond of champagne. More aesthetically I think than the actual taste. It seems to sum up so well the evening mood--dinner and laughter and forgetting the day. But now----" he flicked contemptuously the stem of his glass--"I am only allowed this uninspired stuff." He stopped suddenly and his face twisted into the slight grimace which Adrian in the last few weeks had been permitted occasionally to see. His hand began to wander vaguely over the white expanse of his shirt.
Adrian pushed back his chair. "Let me--!" he began, but his uncle waved a deprecating hand. "Sit down!" he managed to say. "Please!" Adrian sank back again. The colour returned to his uncle's cheeks and the staring question left his eyes. He took a sip of wine.
"I cannot tell you," he observed with elaborate indifference, "how humiliating this thing is becoming to me. I have always had a theory that invalids and people when they begin to get old and infirm, should be put away some place where they can undergo the unpleasant struggle alone. It's purely selfish--there's something about the sanctity of the individual. Dogs have it right--you know the way they creep off? But I suppose I won't. Pride fails when the body weakens, doesn't it, no matter what the will may be?" He lifted his wine-glass. "I am afraid I am giving you a very dull evening, my dear fellow," he apologized. "Forgive me! We will talk of more pleasant things. I drink wine with you! How is Cecil? Doing well with her painting?"
Adrian attempted to relax his own inner grimness. He responded to his uncle's toast. But he wished this old man, so very near the mysterious crisis of his affairs, would begin to forego to some extent the habit of a lifetime, become a little more human. This ridiculous "façade"! The dinner progressed.
Through an open window the night, full of soft, distant sound, made itself felt once more. The candles, under their red shades, flickered at intervals. The noiseless butler came and went. How old his uncle was getting to look, Adrian reflected. There was a grayness about his cheeks; fine, wire-like lines about his mouth. And he was falling into that sure sign of age, a vacant absent-mindedness. Half the time he was not listening to what he, Adrian, was saying; instead, his eyes sought constantly the shadows over the carved sideboard across the table from him. What did he see there? What question was he asking? Adrian wondered. Only once was his uncle very much interested, and that was when Adrian had spoken of the war and the psychology left in its train. Adrian himself had not long before been released from a weary round of training-camps, where, in Texas dust, or the unpleasant resinous summer of the South, he had gone through a repetition that in the end had threatened to render him an imbecile. He was not illusioned. As separate personalities, men had lost much of their glamour for him; there had been too much sweat, too much crowding, too much invasion of dignity, of everything for which the world claimed it had been struggling and praying. But alongside of this revolt on his part had grown up an immense pity and belief in humanity as a mass--struggling, wormlike, aspiring, idiotic, heroic. The thought of it made him uncomfortable and at the same time elate.
His uncle shook a dissenting head. On this subject he permitted himself mild discussion, but his voice was still that of an old, wearied man, annoyed and bewildered. "Oh, no!" he said. "That's the very feature of it that seems to me most dreadful; the vermicular aspect; the massed uprising; the massed death. About professional armies there was something decent--about professional killing. It was cold-blooded and keen, anyway. But this modern war, and this modern craze for self-revelation! Naked! Why, these books--the young men kept their fingers on the pulses of their reactions. It isn't clean; it makes the individual cheap. War is a dreadful thing; it should be as hidden as murder." He sat back, smiled. "We seem to have a persistent tendency to become serious to-night," he remarked.
Serious! Adrian saw a vision of the drill-grounds, and smiled sardonically; then he raised his head in surprise, for the new butler had broken all the rules of the household and was summoning his uncle to the telephone in the midst of dessert. He awaited the expected rebuke, but it did not come. Instead, his uncle paused in the middle of a sentence, stared, and looked up. "Ah, yes!" he said, and arose from his chair. "Forgive me, Adrian, I will be back shortly." He walked with a new, just noticeable, infirmness toward the door. Once there he seemed to think an apology necessary, for he turned and spoke with absent-minded courtesy.
"You may not have heard," he said, "but Mrs. Denby is seriously ill. Her nurse gives me constant bulletins over the telephone."
Adrian started to his feet, then sat down again. "But--" he stuttered--"but--is it as bad as all that?"
Adrian picked up his fork and began to stir gently the melting ice on the plate before him, but his eyes were fixed on the wall opposite, where, across the shining table, from a mellow gold frame, a portrait of his grandfather smiled with a benignity, utterly belying his traditional character, into the shadows above the candles. But Adrian was not thinking of his grandfather just then, he was thinking of his uncle--and Mrs. Denby. What in the world----! Dangerously ill, and yet here had been his uncle able to go through with--not entirely calmly, to be sure; Adrian remembered the lack of attention, the broken eyeglasses; and yet, still able to go through with, not obviously shaken, this monthly farce; this dinner that in reality mocked all the real meaning of blood-relationship. Good Lord! To Adrian's modern mind, impatient and courageous, the situation was preposterous, grotesque. He himself would have broken through to the woman he loved, were she seriously ill, if all the city was cordoned to keep him back. What could it mean? Entire selfishness on his uncle's part? Surely not that! That was too inhuman! Adrian was willing to grant his uncle exceptional expertness in the art of self-protection, but there was a limit even to self-protection. There must be some other reason. Discretion? More likely, and yet how absurd! Had Mr. Denby been alive, a meticulous, a fantastic delicacy might have intervened, but Mr. Denby was dead. Who were there to wound, or who left for the telling of tales? A doctor and the servants. This was not altogether reasonable, despite what he knew of his uncle. Here was some oddity of psychology he could not follow. He heard the curtains stir as his uncle reentered. He looked up, attentive and curious, but his uncle's face was the mask to which he was accustomed."How is Mrs. Denby?" he asked.
Mr. McCain hesitated for the fraction of a second. "I am afraid, very ill," he said. "Very ill, indeed! It is pneumonia. I--the doctor thinks it is only a question of a little time, but-well, I shall continue to hope for the best." There was a metallic harshness to his concluding words. "Shall we go into the library?" he continued. "I think the coffee will be pleasanter there."They talked again of the war; of revolution; of the dark forces at large in the world.
Through that hour or two Adrian had a nakedness of perception unusual even to his sensitive mind. It seemed to him three spirits were abroad in the quiet, softly-lit, booklined room; three intentions that crept up to him like the waves of the sea, receded, crept back again; or were they currents of air? or hesitant, unheard feet that advanced and withdrew? In at the open windows poured at times the warm, enveloping scent of the spring; pervading, easily overlooked, lawless, persistent, inevitable. Adrian found himself thinking it was like the presence of a woman. And then, overlapping this, would come the careful, dry, sardonic tones of his uncle's voice, as if insisting that the world was an ordinary world, and that nothing, not even love or death, could lay disrespectful fingers upon or hurry for a moment the trained haughtiness of the will. Yet even this compelling arrogance was at times overtaken, submerged, by a third presence, stronger even than the other two; a presence that entered upon the heels of the night; the ceaseless murmur of the streets; the purring of rubber tires upon asphalt; a girl's laugh, high, careless, reckless. Life went on. Never for a moment did it stop.
"I am not sorry that I am getting old," said Mr. McCain. "I think nowadays is an excellent time to die. Perhaps for the very young, the strong--but for me, things are too busy, too hurried. I have always liked my life like potpourri. I liked to keep it in a china jar and occasionally take off the lid. Otherwise one's sense of perfume becomes satiated. Take your young girls; they remain faithful to a love that is not worth being faithful to--all noise, and flushed laughter, and open doors." Quite unexpectedly he began to talk in a way he had never talked before. He held his cigar in his hand until the ash turned cold; his ringers trembled just a little.
"You have been very good to me," he said. Adrian raised startled eyes. "Very good. I am quite aware that you dislike me"--he hesitated and the ghost of a smile hovered about his lips--"and I have always disliked you. Please!" He raised a silencing hand. "You don't mind my saying so? No. Very well, then, there is something I want to tell you. Afterward I will never mention it again. I dare say our mutual dislike is due to the inevitable misunderstanding that exists between the generations. But it is not important. The point is that we have always been well-bred toward each other. Yes, that is the point. You have always been a gentleman, very considerate, very courteous, I cannot but admire you. And I think you will find I have done the best I could. I am not a rich man, as such things go nowadays, but I will hand you on the money that will be yours quite unimpaired, possibly added to. I feel very strongly on that subject. I am old-fashioned enough to consider the family the most important thing in life. After all, we are the only two McCains left." He hesitated again, and twisted for a moment his bloodless hands in his lap, then he raised his eyes and spoke with a curious hurried embarrassment. "I have sacrificed a great deal for that," he said. "Yes, a great deal."The soft-footed butler stood at his elbow, like an actor in comedy suddenly cast for the role of a portentous messenger. "Miss Niles is calling you again, sir," he said. "On, yes!--ah--Adrian, I am very sorry, my dear fellow. I will finish the conversation when I come back."
This time the telephone was within earshot; in the hall outside. Adrian heard his uncle's slow steps end in the creaking of a chair as he sat down; then the picking up of the receiver. The message was a long one, for his uncle did not speak for fully a minute; finally his voice drifted in through the curtained doorway.
"You think ... only a few minutes?" "... Ah, yes! Conscious? Yes. Well, will you tell her, Miss Niles?--yes, please listen very carefully--tell her this. That I am not there because I dared not come. Yes; on her account. She will understand. My heart--it's my heart. She will understand. I did not dare. For her sake, not mine. Tell her that. She will understand. Please be very careful in repeating the message, Miss Niles. Tell her I dared not come because of my heart.... Yes; thank you. That's it.... What? Yes, I will wait, Miss Niles."
Adrian, sitting in the library, suddenly got to his feet and crossed to the empty fireplace and stood with his back to it, enlightenment and a puzzled frown struggling for possession of his face. His uncle's heart! Ah, he understood, then! It was discretion, after all, but not the kind he thought--a much more forgiveable discretion. And, yet, what possible difference could it make should his uncle die suddenly in Mrs. Denby's house? Fall dead across her bed, or die kneeling beside it? Poor, twisted old fool, afraid even at the end that death might catch him out; afraid of a final undignified gesture.
A motor blew its horn for the street crossing. Another girl laughed; a young, thin, excited girl, to judge by her laughter. The curtains stirred and again there was that underlying scent of tulips and hyacinths; and then, from the hall outside, came the muffled thud of a receiver falling to the floor. Adrian waited. The receiver was not picked up. He strode to the door. Crumpled up over the telephone was old Mr. McCain.
Cecil came later. She was very quick and helpful, and jealously solicitous on Adrian's account, but in the taxicab going home she said the one thing Adrian had hoped she wouldn't say, and yet was sure she would. She belonged to a sex which, if it is honest at all, is never reticently so. She believed that between the man she loved and herself there were no possible mental withdrawals. "It is very tragic," she said, "but much better--you know it is better. He belonged to the cumberers of the earth. Yes, so much better; and this way, too!"
In the darkness her hand sought his. Adrian took it, but in his heart was the same choked feeling, the same knowledge that something was gone that could not be found again, that, as a little boy, he had had when they sold, at his father's death, the country place where he had spent his summers. Often he had lain awake at night, restless with the memory of heliotrope, and phlox, and mignonette, and afternoons quiet except for the sound of bees.
"Contact!"BY FRANCES NOYES HART From Pictorial Review
The first time she heard it was in the silk-hung and flower-scented peace of the little drawing-room in Curzon Street. His sister Rosemary had wanted to come up to London to get some clothes--Victory clothes they called them in those first joyous months after the armistice, and decked their bodies in scarlet and silver, even when their poor hearts went in black--and Janet had been urged to leave her own drab boarding-house room to stay with the forlorn small butterfly. They had struggled through dinner somehow, and Janet had finished her coffee and turned the great chair so that she could watch the dancing fire (it was cool for May), her cloudy brown head tilted back against the rose-red cushion, shadowy eyes half closed, idle hands linked across her knees. She looked every one of her thirty years--and mortally tired--and careless of both facts. But she managed an encouraging smile at the sound of Rosemary's shy, friendly voice at her elbow. "Janet, these are yours, aren't they? Mummy found them with some things last week, and I thought that you might like to have them."She drew a quick breath at the sight of the shabby packet. "Why, yes," she said evenly. "That's good of you, Rosemary. Thanks a lot." "That's all right," murmured Rosemary diffidently. "Wouldn't you like something to read? There's a most frightfully exciting Western novel----"
The smile took on a slightly ironical edge. "Don't bother about me, my dear. You see, I come from that frightfully exciting West, and I know all about the pet rattlesnakes and the wildly Bohemian cowboys. Run along and play with your book--I'll be off to bed in a few minutes."
Rosemary retired obediently to the deep chair in the corner, and with the smile gone but the irony still hovering, she slipped the cord off the packet. A meager and sorry enough array--words had never been for her the swift, docile servitors that most people found them. But the thin gray sheet in her fingers started out gallantly enough--"Beloved." Beloved! She leaned far forward, dropping it with deft precision into the glowing pocket of embers. What next? This was more like--it began "Dear Captain Langdon" in the small, contained, even writing that was her pride, and it went on soberly enough, "I shall be glad to have tea with you next Friday--not Thursday, because I must be at the hut then. It was stupid of me to have forgotten you--next time I will try to do better." Well, she had done better the next time. She had not forgotten him again--never, never again. That had been her first letter; how absurd of Jerry, the magnificently careless, to have treasured it all that time, the miserable, stilted little thing! She touched it with curious fingers. Surely, surely he must have cared, to have cared so much for that!
It seemed incredible that she hadn't remembered him at once when he came into the hut that second time. Of course she had only seen him for a moment and six months had passed--but he was so absurdly vivid, every inch of him, from the top of his shining, dark head to the heels of his shining, dark boots--and there were a great many inches! How could she have forgotten, even for a minute, those eyes dancing like blue fire in the brown young face, the swift, disarming charm of his smile, and, above all, his voice-how, in the name of absurdity could any one who had once heard it ever forget Jeremy Langdon's voice? Even now she had only to close her eyes, and it rang out again, with its clipped, British accent and its caressing magic, as un-English as any Provincial troubadour's! And yet she had forgotten--he had had to speak twice before she had even lifted her head.
"Miss America--oh, I say, she's forgotten me, and I thought that I'd made such an everlasting impression!" The delighted amazement reached even her tired ears, and she had smiled wanly as she pushed the pile of coppers nearer to him."Have you been in before? It's stupid of me, but there are such hundreds of thousands of you, and you are gone in a minute, you see. That's your change, I think."
"Hundreds of thousands of me, hey?" He had leaned across the counter, his face alight with mirth. "I wish to the Lord my angel mother could hear you--it's what I'm forever tellin' her, though just between us, it's stuff and nonsense. I've got a well-founded suspicion that I'm absolutely unique. You wait and see!"
And she had waited--and she had seen! She stirred a little, dropped the note into the flames, and turned to the next, the quiet, mocking mouth suddenly tortured and rebellious.
"No, you must be mad," it ran, the trim writing strangely shaken. "How often have you seen me--five times? Do you know how old I am. How hard and tired and useless? No-no a thousand times. In a little while we will wake up and find that we were dreaming."
That had brought him to her swifter than Fate, triumphant mischief in every line of his exultant face. "Just let those damned old cups slip from your palsied fingers, will you? I'm goin' to take your honourable age for a little country air--it may keep you out of the grave for a few days longer. Never can tell! No use your scowlin' like that--the car's outside, and the big chief says to be off with you. Says you have no more colour than a banshee, and not half the life--can't grasp the fact that it's just chronic antiquity. Fasten the collar about your throat--no, higher! Darlin', darlin', think of havin' a whole rippin' day to ourselves. You're glad, too, aren't you, my little stubborn saint?"Oh, that joyous and heart-breaking voice, running on and on--it made all the other voices that she had ever heard seem colourless and unreal--
"Darlin' idiot, what do I care how old you are? Thirty, hey? Almost old enough to be an ancestor! Look at me--no, look at me! Dare you to say that you aren't mad about me!" Mad about him--mad, mad! She lifted her hands to her ears, but she could no more shut out the exultant voice now than she could on that windy afternoon.
"Other fellow got tired of you, did he? Good luck for us, what? You're a fearfully tiresome person, darlin'. It's goin' to take me nine-tenths of eternity to tell you how tiresome you are. Give a chap a chance, won't you? The tiresomest thing about you is the way you leash up that dimple of yours. No, by George, there it is! Janie, look at me----"
She touched the place where the leashed dimple had hidden with a delicate and wondering finger--of all Jerry's gifts to her the most miraculous had been that small fugitive. Exiled now, forever and forever.
"Are you comin' down to White Orchards next week-end? I'm off for France on the twelfth and you've simply got to meet my people. You'll be insane about 'em--Rosemary's the most beguilin' flibbertigibbet, and I can't wait to see you bein' a kind of an elderly grandmother to her. What a bewitchin' little grandmother you're goin' to be one of these days----"
Oh, Jerry! Oh, Jerry, Jerry! She twisted in her chair, her face suddenly a small mask of incredulous terror. No, no, it wasn't true, it wasn't true--never--never--never! And then, for the first time, she heard it. Far off but clear, a fine and vibrant humming, the distant music of wings! The faint, steady pulsing was drawing nearer and nearer--nearer still--it must be flying quite high. The hateful letters scattered about her as she sprang to the open window--no, it was too high to see, and too dark, though the sky was powdered with stars--but she could hear it clearly, hovering and throbbing like some gigantic bird. It must be almost directly over her head, if she could only see it."It sounds--it sounds the way a humming-bird would look through a telescope," she said half aloud, and Rosemary murmured sleepily but courteously, "What, Janet?" "Just an airplane--no, gone now. It sounded like a bird. Didn't you hear it?" "No," replied Rosemary drowsily. "We get so used to the old things that we don't even notice them any more. Queer time to be flying!" "It sounded rather--beautiful," said Janet, her face still turned to the stars. "Far off, but so clear and sure. I wonder--I wonder whether it will be coming back?"
Well, it came back. She went down to White Orchards with Rosemary for the following week-end, and after she had smoothed her hair and given a scornful glance at the pale face in the mirror, with its shadowy eyes and defiant mouth, she slipped out to the lower terrace for a breath of the soft country air. Halfway down the flight of steps she stumbled and caught at the balustrade, and stood shaking for a moment, her face pressed against its rough surface. Once before--once before she had stumbled on those steps, but it was not the balustrade that had saved her. She could feel his arms about her now, holding her up, holding her close and safe. The magical voice was in her ears. "Let you go? I'll never let you go! Poor little feet, stumblin' in the dark, what would you do without Jerry? Time's comin', you cheeky little devils, when you'll come runnin' to him when he whistles! No use tryin' to get away--you belong to him."Oh, whistle to them now, Jerry--they would run to you across the stars!
"How'd you like to marry me before I go back to-morrow? No? No accountin' for tastes, Miss Abbott--lots of people would simply jump at it! All right--April, then. Birds and flowers and all that kind o' thing--pretty intoxicatin', what? No, keep still, darlin' goose. What feller taught you to wear a dress that looks like roses and smells like roses and feels like roses? This feller? Lord help us, what a lovely liar!"And suddenly she found herself weeping helplessly, desperately, like an exhausted child, shaken to the heart at the memory of the rose-coloured dress.
"You like me just a bit, don't you, funny, quiet little thing? But you'd never lift a finger to hold me--that's the wonder of you--that's why I'll never leave you. No, not for heaven. You can't lose me--no use tryin'."
But she had lost you, Jerry--you had left her, for all your promises, to terrified weeping in the hushed loveliness of the terrace, where your voice had turned her still heart to a dancing star, where your fingers had touched her quiet blood to flowers and flames and butterflies. She had believed you then--what would she ever believe again? And then she caught back the despairing sobs swiftly, for once more she heard, far off, the rushing of wings. Nearer--nearer--humming and singing and hovering in the quiet dusk. Why, it was over the garden! She flung back her head, suddenly eager to see it; it was a friendly and thrilling sound in all that stillness. Oh, it was coming lower--lower still--she could hear the throb of the propellers clearly. Where was it? Behind those trees, perhaps? She raced up the flight of steps, dashing the treacherous tears from her eyes, straining up on impatient tiptoes. Surely she could see it now! But already it was growing fainter-drifting steadily away, the distant hum growing lighter and lighter--lighter still----"Janet!" called Mrs. Langdon's pretty, patient voice. "Dinner-time, dear! Is there any one with you?" "No one at all, Mrs. Langdon. I was just listening to an airplane." "An airplane? Oh, no, dear--they never pass this way any more. The last one was in October, I think----"
The soft, plaintive voice trailed off in the direction of the dining-room and Janet followed it, a small, secure smile touching her lips. The last one had not passed in October. It had passed a few minutes before, over the lower garden.
She quite forgot it by the next week--she was becoming an adept at forgetting. That was all that was left for her to do! Day after day and night after night she had raised the drawbridge between her heart and memory, leaving the lonely thoughts to shiver desolately on the other side of the moat. She was weary to the bone of suffering, and they were enemies, for all their dear and friendly guise; they would tear her to pieces if she ever let them in. No, no, she was done with them. She would forget, as Jerry had forgotten. She would destroy every link between herself and the past--and pack the neat little steamer trunk neatly--and bid these kind and gentle people good-by--and take herself and her bitterness and her dullness back to the class-room in the Western university town--back to the Romance languages. The Romance languages!
She would finish it all that night, and leave as soon as possible. There were some trinkets to destroy, and his letters from France to burn--she would give Rosemary the rosecoloured dress--foolish, lovely little Rosemary, whom he had loved, and who was lying now fast asleep in the next room curled up like a kitten in the middle of the great bed, her honey-coloured hair falling about her in a shining mist. She swept back her own cloud of hair resolutely, frowning at the candle-lit reflection in the mirror. Two desolate pools in the small, pale oval of her face stared back at her--two pools with something drowned in their lonely depths. Well, she would drown it deeper!
The letters first; how lucky that they still used candle-light! It would make the task much simpler--the funeral pyre already lighted. She moved one of the tall candelabra to the desk, sitting for a long time quite still, her chin cupped in her hands, staring down at the bits of paper. She could smell the wall-flowers under the window as though they were in the room--drenched in dew and moonlight, they were reckless of their fragrance. All this peace and cleanliness and orderly beauty--what a ghastly trick for God to have played--to have taught her to adore them, and then to snatch them away! All about her, warm with candle-light, lay the gracious loveliness of the little room with its dark waxed furniture, its bright glazed chintz, its narrow bed with the cool linen sheets smelling of lavender, and its straight, patterned curtains--oh, that hateful, mustard-coloured den at home, with its golden-oak day-bed!
She wrung her hands suddenly in a little hunted gesture. How could he have left her to that, he who had sworn that he would never leave her? In every one of those letters beneath her linked fingers he had sworn it--in every one perjured--false half a hundred times. Pick up any one of them at random--
"Janie, you darling stick, is 'dear Jerry' the best that you can do? You ought to learn French! I took a perfectly ripping French kid out to dinner last night--name's Liane, from the Varietés--and she was calling me 'mon grand cheri' before the salad, and 'mon p'tit amour' before the green mint. Maybe that'll buck you up! And I'd have you know that she's so pretty that it's ridiculous, with black velvet hair that she wears like a little Oriental turban, and eyes like golden pansies, and a mouth between a kiss and a prayer-and a nice affable nature into the bargain. But I'm a ghastly jackass--I didn't get any fun out of it at all--because I really didn't even see her. Under the pink shaded candles to my blind eyes it seemed that there was seated the coolest, quietest, whitest little thing, with eyes that were as indifferent as my velvety Liane's were kind, and mockery in her smile. Oh, little masquerader! If I could get my arms about you even for a minute--if I could kiss so much as the tips of your lashes--would you be cool and quiet and mocking then? Janie, Janie, rosy-red as flowers on the terrace and sweeter--sweeter--they're about you now--they'll be about you always!"Burn it fast, candle--faster, faster. Here's another for you.
"So the other fellow cured you of using pretty names, did he--you don't care much for dear and darling any more? Bit hard on me, but fortunately for you, Janie Janet, I'm rather a dab at languages--'specially when it comes to what the late lamented Boche referred to as 'cosy names.' Querida mi alma, douchka, Herzliebchen, carissima; and bien, bienaimée, I'll not run out of salutations for you this side of heaven--no--nor t'other. I adore the serene grace with which you ignore the ravishing Liane. Haven't you any curiosity at all, my Sphinx? No? Well, then, just to punish you, I'll tell you all about it. She's married to the best fellow in the world--a liaison officer working with our squadron--and she worships the ground that he walks on and the air that he occasionally flies in. So whenever I run up to the City of Light, en permission, I look her up, and take her the latest news--and for an hour, over the candles, we pretend that I am Philippe, and that she is Janie. Only she says that I don't pretend very well--and it's just possible that she's right.
" Mon petit coeur et grand trésor, I wish that I could take you flying with me this evening. You'd be daft about it! Lots of it's a rotten bore, of course, but there's something in me that doesn't live at all when I'm on this too, too solid earth. Something that lies there, crouched and dormant, waiting until I've climbed up into the seat, and buckled the strap about me and laid my hands on the 'stick.' It's waiting--waiting for a word--and so am I. And I lean far forward, watching the figure toiling out beyond till the call comes back to me, clear and confident, 'Contact, sir?' And I shout back, as restless and exultant as the first time that I answered it--'Contact!'
"And I'm off--and I'm alive--and I'm free! Ho, Janie! That's simpler than Abracadabra or Open Sesame, isn't it? But it opens doors more magical than ever they swung wide, and something in me bounds through, more swift and eager than any Aladdin. Free! I'm a crazy sort of a beggar, my little love--that same thing in me hungers and thirsts and aches for freedom. I go half mad when people or events try to hold me--you, wise beyond wisdom, never will. Somehow, between us, we've struck the spark that turns a mere piece of machinery into a wonder with wings--somehow, you are forever setting me free. It is your voice--your voice of silver and peace--that's eternally whispering 'Contact!' to me-and I am released, heart, soul, and body! And because you speed me on my way, Janie, I'll never fly so far, I'll never fly so long, I'll never fly so high that I'll not return to you. You hold me fast, forever and forever."You had flown high and far indeed, Jerry--and you had not returned. Forever and forever! Burn faster, flame!
"My blessed child, who's been frightening you? Airplanes are by all odds safer than taxis
-and no end safer than the infernal duffer who's been chaffing you would be if I could once get my hands on him. Damn fool! Don't care if you do hate swearing--damn fools are damn fools, and there's an end to it. All those statistics are sheer melodramatic rot-the chap who fired 'em at you probably has all his money invested in submarines, and is fairly delirious with jealousy. Peg (did I ever formally introduce you to Pegasus, the best pursuit-plane in the R.F.C.--or out of it?)--Peg's about as likely to let me down as you are! We'd do a good deal for each other, she and I--nobody else can really fly her, the darling! But she'd go to the stars for me--and farther still. Never you fear--we have charmed lives, Peg and I--we belong to Janie.
"I think that people make an idiotic row about dying, anyway. It's probably jolly good fun--and I can't see what difference a few years here would make if you're going to have all eternity to play with. Of course you're a ghastly little heathen, and I can see you wagging a mournful head over this already--but every time that I remember what a shocking sell the After Life (exquisite phrase!) is going to be for you, darling, I do a bit of head-wagging myself--and it's not precisely mournful! I can't wait to see your blank consternation--and you needn't expect any sympathy from me. My very first words will be, 'I told you so!' Maybe I'll rap them out to you with a table-leg!
"What do you think of all this Ouija Planchette rumpus, anyway? I can't for the life of me see why any one with a whole new world to explore should hang around chattering with this one. I know that I'd be half mad with excitement to get at the new job, and that I'd find re-assuring the loved ones (exquisite phrase number two) a hideous bore. Still, I can see that it would be nice from their selfish point of view! Well, I'm no ghost yet, thank God--nor yet are you--but if ever I am one, I'll show you what devotion really is. I'll come all the way back from heaven to play with foolish Janie, who doesn't believe that there is one to come from. To foolish, foolish Janie, who still will be dearer than the prettiest angel of them all, no matter how alluringly her halo may be tilted or her wings ruffled. To Janie who, Heaven forgive him, will be all that one poor ghost has ever loved!"
Had there come to him, the radiant and the confident, a moment of terrible and shattering surprise--a moment when he realized that there were no pretty angels with shining wings waiting to greet him--a moment when he saw before him only the overwhelming darkness, blacker and deeper than the night would be, when she blew out the little hungry flame that was eating up the sheet that held his laughter? Oh, gladly would she have died a thousand deaths to have spared him that moment!
"My little Greatheart, did you think that I did not know how brave you are? You are the truest soldier of us all, and I, who am not much given to worship, am on my knees before that shy gallantry of yours, which makes what courage we poor duffers have seem a vain and boastful thing. When I see you as I saw you last, small and white and clear and brave, I can't think of anything but the first crocuses at White Orchards, shining out, demure and valiant, fearless of wind and storm and cold--fearless of Fear itself. You see, you're so very, very brave that you make me ashamed to be afraid of poetry and sentiment and pretty words--things of which I have a good, thumping Anglo-Saxon terror, I can tell you! It's because I know what a heavenly brick you are that I could have killed that statistical jackass for bothering you; but I'll forgive him, since you say that it's all right. And so ghosts are the only things in the world that frighten you--even though you know that there aren't any. You and Madame de Staël, hey? 'I do not believe in ghosts, but I fear them!' It's pretty painful to learn that the mere sight of one would turn you into a gibbering lunatic. Nice sell for an enthusiastic spirit who'd romped clear back from heaven to give you a pleasant surprise--I don't think! Well, no fear, young Janie--I'll find some way if I'm put to it--some nice, safe, pretty way that wouldn't scare a neurasthenic baby, let alone the dauntless Miss Abbott. I'll find--"
Oh, no more of that--no more! She crushed the sheet in her hands fiercely, crumpling it into a little ball--the candle-flame was too slow. No, she couldn't stand it--she couldn't-she couldn't, and there was an end to it. She would go raving mad--she would kill herself
-she would--She lifted her head, wrenched suddenly back from that chaos of despair, alert and intent. There it was again, coming swiftly nearer and nearer from some immeasurable distance--down--down--nearer still--the very room was humming and throbbing with it-she could almost hear the singing in the wires. She swung far out over the window edge, searching the moon-drenched garden with eager eyes--surely, surely it would never fly so low unless it were about to land! Engine trouble, perhaps--though she could detect no break in the huge, rhythmic pulsing that was shaking the night. Still--
"Hush--listen!" begged Janet, raising an imperative hand--and then her own eyes widened. "Why--it's gone!" There was a note of flat incredulity in her voice. "Heavens, how those things must eat up space! Not a minute, ago it was fairly shaking this room, and now--"Rosemary stifled a small pink yawn and smiled ingratiatingly.
"Perhaps you were asleep too," she suggested humbly. "I don't believe that airplanes ever fly this way any more. Or it might have been that fat Hodges boy on his motorcycle--he does make the most dreadful racket. Oh, Janet, what a perfectly ripping night--do see!"
They leaned together on the window-sill, silenced by the white and shining beauty that had turned the pleasant garden into a place of magic and enchantment. The corners of Janet's mouth lifted suddenly. How absurd people were! The fat Hodges boy and his motorcycle! Did they all regard her as an amiable lunatic--even little, lovely, friendly Rosemary, wavering sleepily at her side? It really was maddening. But she felt, amazingly enough, suddenly quiet and joyous and indifferent--and passionately glad that the wanderer from the skies had won safely through and was speeding home. Home! Oh, it was a crying pity that it need ever land--anything so fleet and strong and sure should fly forever! But if they must rest, those beating wings--the old R.F.C. toast went singing through her head and she flung it out into the moonlight, smiling--"Happy landings! Happy landings, you!"
The next day was the one that brought to White Orchards what was to be known for many moons as "the Big Storm." It had been gathering all afternoon, and by evening the heat had grown appalling and incredible, even to Janet's American and exigent standards. The smouldering copper sky looked as though it had caught fire from the world and would burn forever; there was not so much as a whisper of air to break the stillness--it seemed as though the whole tortured earth were holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Every one had struggled through the day assuring one another that when evening came it would be all right--dangling the alluring thought of the cool darkness before each other's hot and weary eyes; but the night proved even more outrageous than the day. To the little group seated on the terrace, dispiritedly playing with their coffee, it seemed almost a personal affront. The darkness closed in on them, smothering, heavy, intolerable; they could feel its weight, as though it were some hateful and tangible thing.
"Like--like black cotton wool," explained Rosemary, stirred to unwonted resentment. She had spent the day curled up in the largest Indian chair on the terrace, round-eyed with fatigue and incredulity.
"I honestly think that we must be dreaming," she murmured to her feverish audience; "I do, honestly. Why, it's only May, and we never, never--there was that day in August about five years ago that was almost as bad, though. D'you remember, Mummy?"
"It's hardly the kind of thing that one is likely to forget, love. Do you think that it is necessary for us to talk? I feel somehow that I could bear it much more easily if we kept quite quiet."
Janet stirred a little, uneasily. She hated silence--that terrible, empty space waiting to be filled up with your thoughts--why, the idlest chatter spared you that. She hated the terrace, too--she closed her eyes to shut out the ugly darkness that was pressing against her; behind the shelter of her lids it was cooler and stiller, but open-eyed or closed, she could not shut out memory. The very touch of the bricks beneath her feet brought back that late October day. She had been sitting curled up on the steps in the warm sunlight, with the keen, sweet air stirring her hair and sending the beech-leaves dancing down the flagged path--there had been a heavenly smell of burning from the far meadow, and she was sniffing it luxuriously, feeling warm and joyous and protected in Jerry's great tweed coat--watching the tall figure swinging across from the lodge gate with idle, happy eyes-not even curious. It was not until he had almost reached the steps that she had noticed that he was wearing a foreign uniform--and even then she had promptly placed him as one of Rosemary's innumerable conquests, bestowing on him a friendly and inquiring smile. "Were you looking for Miss Langdon?" Even now she could see the courteous, grave young face soften as he turned quickly toward her, baring his dark head with that swift foreign grace that turns our perfunctory habits into something like a ritual."But no," he had said gently, "I was looking for you, Miss Abbott." "Now will you please tell me how in the world you knew that I was Miss Abbott?" And he had smiled--with his lips, not his eyes. "I should be dull indeed if that I did not know. I am Philippe Laurent, Miss Abbott." And "Oh," she had cried joyously, "Liane's Philippe!" "But yes--Liane's Philippe. They are not here, the others? Madame Langdon, the little Miss Rosemary?" "No, they've gone to some parish fair, and I've been wicked and stayed home. Won't you sit down and talk to me? Please!" "Miss Abbott, it is not to you that I must talk. What I have to say is indeed most difficult, and it is to Jeremy's Janie that I would say it. May I, then?" It had seemed to Jeremy's Janie that the voice in which she answered him came from a great distance, but she never took her eyes from the grave and vivid face. "Yes. And quickly, please."
So he had told her--quickly--in his exquisitely careful English, and she had listened as attentively and politely, huddled up on the brick steps in the sunlight, as though he were running over the details of the last drive, instead of tearing her life to pieces with every word. She remembered now that it hadn't seemed real at all--if it had been to Jerry that these horrors had happened could she have sat there so quietly, feeling the colour bright in her cheeks, and the wind stirring in her hair, and the sunlight warm on her hands? Why, for less than this people screamed, and fainted, and went raving mad!"You say--that his back is broken?" "But yes, my dear," Liane's Philippe had told her, and she had seen the tears shining in his gray eyes. "And he is badly burned?" "My brave Janie, these questions are not good to ask--not good, not good to answer. This
I will tell you. He lives, our Jerry--and so dearly does he love you that he will drag back that poor body from hell itself--because it is yours, not his. This he has sent me to tell you, most lucky lady ever loved.""You mean--that he isn't going to die?" "I tell you that into those small hands of yours he has given his life. Hold it fast." "Will he--will he get well?" "He will not walk again; but have you not swift feet to run for him?"
And there had come to her, sitting on the terrace in the sunshine, an overwhelming flood of joy, reckless and cruel and triumphant. Now he was hers forever, the restless wanderer--delivered to her bound and helpless, never to stray again. Hers to worship and serve and slave for, his troth to Freedom broken--hers at last!"I'm coming," she had told the tall young Frenchman breathlessly. "Take me to him-please let's hurry."
" Ma pauvre petite, this is war. One does not come and go at will. God knows by what miracle enough red tape unwound to let me through to you, to bring my message and to take one back.""What message, Philippe?"
"That is for you to say, little Janie. He told me, 'Say to her that she has my heart--if she needs my body, I will live. Say to her that it is an ugly, broken, and useless thing; still, hers. She must use it as she sees fit. Say to her--no, say nothing more. She is my Janie, and has no need of words. Tell her to send me only one, and I will be content.' For that one word, Janie, I have come many miles. What shall it be?"
And she had cried out exultantly, "Why, tell him that I say--" But the word had died in her throat. Her treacherous lips had mutinied, and she had sat there, feeling the blood drain back out of her face--out of her heart--feeling her eyes turn back with sheer terror, while she fought with those stiffened rebels. Such a little word "Live!"--surely they could say that. Was it not what he was waiting for, lying far away and still--schooled at last to patience, the reckless and the restless! Oh, Jerry, Jerry, live! Even now she could feel her mind, like some frantic little wild thing, racing, racing to escape Memory. What had he said to her? "You, wise beyond wisdom, will never hold me--you will never hold me-you will never--"And suddenly she had dropped her twisted hands in her lap and lifted her eyes to Jerry's ambassador.
"Will you please tell him--will you please tell him that I say--'Contact'?" "Contact?" He had stood smiling down at her, ironical and tender. "Ah, what a race! That is the prettiest word that you can find for Jerry? But then it means to come very close, to touch, that poor harsh word--there he must find what comfort he can. We, too, in aviation use that word--it is the signal that says--'Now, you can fly!' You do not know our vocabulary, perhaps?""I know very little." "That is all then? No other message? He will understand, our Jerry?" And Janie had smiled--rather a terrible small smile. "Oh, yes," she told him. "He will understand. It is the word that he is waiting for, you see." "I see." But there had been a grave wonder in his voice.
"Would it----" she had framed the words as carefully as though it were a strange tongue that she was speaking--"would it be possible to buy his machine? He wouldn't want any one else to fly it."
"Little Janie, never fear. The man does not live who shall fly poor Peg again. Smashed to kindling-wood and burned to ashes, she has taken her last flight to the heaven for good and brave birds of war. Not enough was left of her to hold in your two hands.""I'm glad. Then that's all--isn't it? And thank you for coming."
"It is I who thank you. What was hard as death you have made easy. I had thought the lady to whom Jeremy Langdon gave his heart the luckiest creature ever born--now I think him that luckiest one." The grave grace with which he had bent to kiss her hand made of the formal salutation an accolade--"My homage to you, Jerry's Janie!" A quick salute, and he had turned on his heel, swinging off down the flagged path with that swift, easy stride
-past the sun-dial--past the lily-pond--past the beech-trees--gone! For hours and hours after he had passed out of sight she had sat staring after him, her hands lying quite still in her lap--staring, staring--they had found her there when they came back, sitting where Rosemary was seated now. Why, there, on those same steps, a bare six months ago-Something snapped in her head, and she stumbled to her feet, clinging to the arm of her chair.
"Oh, I say, poor girl! What is it, dear child--what's the matter? Is it the heat, Janie?" "The heat!" She could hear herself laughing--frantic, hateful, jangling laughter that wouldn't stop. "Oh, Jerry! Oh-h, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!""It's this ghastly day. Let me get her some water, Mrs. Langdon. Don't cry so, Janie-please, please don't, darling." "I c-can't help it--I c-can't----" She paused, listening intently, her hand closing sharply over Rosemary's wrist. "Oh, listen, listen--there it comes again--I told you so!" "Thank Heaven," murmured Mrs. Langdon devoutly, "I thought that it never was going to rise this evening. It's from the south, too, so I suppose that it means rain."
"Rain?" repeated Janet vaguely. "Why in the world should it mean rain?" Her small, pale face looked suddenly brilliant and enchanted, tilted up to meet the thunderous music that was swinging nearer and nearer. "Oh, do listen, you people! This time it's surely going to land!"Rosemary stared at her blankly. "Land? What are you talking about, Janie?" "My airplane--the one that you said was the fat Hodges boy on a motorcycle! Is there any place near here that it can make a landing?" "Darling child--" Mrs. Langdon's gentle voice was gentler than ever-- "darling child, it's this wretched heat. There isn't any airplane, dear--it's just the wind rising in the beeches." "The wind?" Janet laughed aloud--they really were too absurd. "Why, Mrs. Langdon, you can hear the engines, if you'll only listen! You can hear them, can't you, Mr. Bain?"
The young engineer shook his head. "No plane would risk flying with this storm coming, Miss Abbott. There's been thunder for the last hour or so, and it's getting nearer, too. It's only the wind, I think."
"Oh, you're laughing at me--of course, of course you hear it. Why, it's as clear as--as clear as--" Her voice trailed off into silence. Quite suddenly, without any transition or warning, she knew. She could feel her heart stand perfectly still for a minute, and then plunge forward in mad flight, racing, racing--oh, it knew, too, that eager heart! She took her hand from the arm of the chair, releasing Rosemary's wrist very gently.
"Yes, of course, it's the heat," she said quietly. She must be careful not to frighten them, these kind ones. "If you don't mind, Mrs. Langdon, I think that I'll go down to the gate to watch the storm burst. No, please, don't any of you come--I'll promise to change everything if I get caught--yes, everything! I won't be long; don't wait for me."
She walked sedately enough until she came to the turn in the path, but after that she ran, only pausing for a minute to listen breathlessly. Oh, yes--following, following, that gigantic music! How he must be laughing at her now--blind, deaf, incredulous little fool that she had been, to doubt that Jerry would find a way! But where could he land? Not in the garden--not at the gates--oh, now she had it--the far meadow. She turned sharply; it was dark, but the path must be here. Yes, this was the wicket gate; her groping fingers were quite steady--they found the latch--released it--the gate swung to behind her flying footsteps. "Oh, Jerry, Jerry!" sang her heart. Why hadn't she worn the rose-coloured frock? It was she who would be a ghost in that trailing white thing. To the right here--yes, there was the hawthorn hedge--only a few steps more--oh, now! She stood as still as a small statue, not moving, not breathing, her hands at her heart, her face turned to the black and torn sky. Nearer, nearer, circling and darting and swooping--the gigantic humming grew louder--louder still--it swept about her thunderously, so close that she clapped her hands over her ears, but she stood her ground, exultant and undaunted. Oh, louder still--and then suddenly the storm broke. All the winds and the rains of the world were unleashed, and fell howling and shrieking upon her, she staggered under their onslaught, drenched to the bone, her dress whipping frantically about her, blinded and deafened by that tumultuous clamour. She had only one weapon against it--laughter--and she laughed now--straight into its teeth. And as though hell itself must yield to mirth, the fury wavered--failed--sank to muttering. But Janie, beaten to her knees and laughing, never even heard it die."Jerry?" she whispered into the darkness, "Jerry?"
Oh, more wonderful than wonder, he was there! She could feel him stir, even if she could not hear him--so close, so close was he that if she even reached out her hand, she could touch him. She stretched it out eagerly, but there was nothing there--only a small, remote sound of withdrawal, as though some one had moved a little."You're afraid that I'll be frightened, aren't you?" she asked wistfully. "I wouldn't be--I wouldn't--please come back'" He was laughing at her, she knew, tender and mocking and caressing; she smiled back, tremulously. "You're thinking, 'I told you so!' Have you come far to say it to me?" Only that little stir--the wind was rising again. "Jerry, come close--come closer still. What are you waiting for, dear and dearest?" This time there was not even a stir to answer her; she felt suddenly cold to the heart. What had he always waited for?
"You aren't waiting--you aren't waiting to go?" She fought to keep the terror out of her voice, but it had her by the throat. "Oh, no, no--you can't--not again! Jerry, Jerry, don't go away and leave me--truly and truly I can't stand it--truly!"
She wrung her hands together desperately; she was on her knees to him--did he wish her to go lower still? Oh, she had never learned to beg!
"I can't send you away again--I can't. When I sent you to France I killed my heart--when I let you go to death, I crucified my soul. I haven't anything left but my pride--you can have that, too. I can't send you back to your heaven. Stay with me--stay with me, Jerry!"Not a sound--not a stir--but well she knew that he was standing there, waiting. She rose slowly to her feet.
"Very well--you've won," she said hardly. "Go back to your saints and seraphs and angels; I'm beaten. I was mad to think that you ever cared--go back!" She turned, stumbling, the sobs tearing at her throat; he had gone several steps before she realized that he was following her--and all the hardness and bitterness and despair fell from her like a cloak."Oh, Jerry," she whispered, "Jerry, darling, I'm so sorry. And you've come so far--just to find this! What is it that you want; can't you tell me?" She stood tense and still, straining eyes and ears for her answer--but it was not to eyes or ears that it came. "Oh, of course!" she cried clearly. "Of course, my wanderer! Ready?" She stood poised for a second, head thrown back, arms flung wide--a small figure of Victory, caught in the flying wind. And, "Contact, Jerry!" she called joyously into the darkness. "Contact!"
There was a mighty whirring, a thunder and a roaring above the storm. She stood listening breathlessly to it rise and swell--and then grow fainter--fainter still--dying, dying--dying--
But Janie, her small white face turned to the storm-swept sky behind which shone the stars, was smiling radiantly. For she had sped her wanderer on his way--she had not failed him!