BY KATHARINE NEWLIN BURT
AUTHOR OF "THE BRANDING IRON" AND "THE RED LADY"
TO MAXWELL STRUTHERS BURT WHO BLAZED THE TRAIL
PART ONE: THE GOOD OLD WORLD
I. SHEILA'S LEGACY II. SYLVESTER HUDSON COMES FOR HIS PICTURE III. THE FINEST CITY IN THE WORLD IV. MOONSHINE V. INTERCESSION VI. THE BAWLING-OUT VII. DISH-WASHING VIII. ARTISTS IX. A SINGEING OF WINGS X. THE BEACON LIGHT XI. IN THE PUBLIC EYE XII. HUDSON'S QUEEN XIII. SYLVESTER CELEBRATES XIV. THE LIGHT OF DAWN XV. FLAMES
PART TWO: THE STARS
I. THE HILL II. ADVENTURE III. JOURNEY'S END IV. BEASTS V. NEIGHBOR NEIGHBOR VI. A HISTORY AND A LETTER VII. SANCTUARY VIII. DESERTION IX. WORK AND A SONG X. WINTER XI. THE PACK XII. THE GOOD OLD WORLD AGAIN XIII. LONELINESS XIV. SHEILA AND THE STARS
THE GOOD OLD WORLD
Just before his death, Marcus Arundel, artist and father of Sheila, bore witness to his faith in God and man. He had been lying apparently unconscious, his slow, difficult breath drawn at longer and longer intervals. Sheila was huddled on the floor beside his bed, her hand pressing his urgently in the pitiful attempt, common to human love, to hold back the resolute soul from the next step in its adventure. The nurse, who came in by the day, had left a paper of instructions on the table. Here a candle burned under a yellow shade, throwing a circle of warm, unsteady light on the head of the girl, on the two hands, on the rumpled coverlet, on the dying face. This circle of light seemed to collect these things, to choose them, as though for the expression of some meaning. It felt for them as an artist feels for his composition and gave to them a symbolic value. The two hands were in the center of the glow—the long, pale, slack one, the small, desperate, clinging one. The conscious and the unconscious, life and death, humanity and God—all that is mysterious and tragic seemed to find expression there in the two hands.
So they had been for six hours, and it would soon be morning. The large, bare room, however, was still possessed by night, and the city outside was at its lowest ebb of life, almost soundless. Against the skylight the winter stars seemed to be pressing; the sky was laid across the panes of glass like a purple cloth in which sparks burned.
Suddenly and with strength Arundel sat up. Sheila rose with him, drawing up his hand in hers to her heart.
"Keep looking at the stars, Sheila," he said with thrilling emphasis, and widened his eyes at the visible host of them. Then he looked down at her; his eyes shone as though they had caught a reflection from the myriad lights. "It is a good old world," he said heartily in a warm and human voice, and he smiled his smile of everyday good-fellowship.
Sheila thanked God for his return, and on the very instant he was gone. He dropped back, and there were no more difficult breaths.
Sheila, alone there in the garret studio above the city, cried to her father and shook him, till, in very terror of her own frenzy in the face of his stillness, she grew calm and laid herself down beside him, put his dead arm around her, nestled her head against his shoulder. She was seventeen years old, left alone and penniless in the old world that he had just pronounced so good. She lay there staring at the stars till they faded, and the cold, clear eye of day looked down into the room.
SYLVESTER HUDSON COMES FOR HIS PICTURE
Back of his sallow, lantern-jawed face, Sylvester Hudson hid successfully, though without intention, all that was in him whether of good or ill. Certainly he did not look his history. He was stoop-shouldered, pensive-eyed, with long hands on which he was always turning and twisting a big emerald. He dressed quietly, almost correctly, but there was always something a little wrong in the color or pattern of his tie, and he was too fond of brown and green mixtures which did not become his sallowness. He smiled very rarely, and when he did smile, his long upper lip unfastened itself with an effort and showed a horizontal wrinkle halfway between the pointed end of his nose and the irregular, nicked row of his teeth.
Altogether, he was a gentle, bilious-looking sort of man, who might have been anything from a country gentleman to a moderately prosperous clerk. As a matter of fact, he was the owner of a dozen small, not too respectable, hotels through the West, and had an income of nearly half a million dollars. He lived in Millings, a town in a certain Far-Western State, where flourished the most pretentious and respectable of his hotels. It had a famous bar, to which rode the sheep-herders, the cowboys, the ranchers, the dry-farmers of the surrounding country—yes, and sometimes, thirstiest of all, the workmen from more distant oil-fields, a dangerous crew. Millings at that time had not yielded to the generally increasing "dryness" of the West. It was "wet," notwithstanding its choking alkali dust; and the deep pool of its wetness lay in Hudson's bar, The Aura. It was named for a woman who had become his wife.
When Hudson came to New York he looked up his Eastern patrons, and it was one of these who, knowing Arundel's need, encouraged the hotel-keeper in his desire to secure a "jim-dandy picture" for the lobby of The Aura and took him for the purpose to Marcus's studio. On that morning, hardly a fortnight before the artist's death, Sheila was not at home.
Marcus, in spite of himself, was managed into a sale. It was of an enormous canvas, covered weakly enough by a thin reproduction of a range of the Rockies and a sagebrush flat. Mr. Hudson in his hollow voice pronounced it "classy." "Say," he said, "put a little life into the foreground and that would please me. It's what I'm seekin'. Put in an automobile meetin' one of these old-time prairie schooners—the old West sayin' howdy to the noo. That will tickle the trade." Mark, who was feeling weak and ill, consented wearily. He sketched in the proposed amendment and Hudson approved with one of his wrinkled smiles. He offered a small price, at which Arundel leapt like a famished hound.
When his visitors had gone, the painter went feverishly to work. The day before his death, Sheila, under his whispered directions, put the last touches to the body of the "automobile."
"It's ghastly," sighed the sick man, "but it will do—for Millings." He turned his back sadly enough to the canvas, which stood for him like a monument to fallen hope. Sheila praised it with a faltering voice, but he did not turn nor speak. So she carried the huge picture out of his sight.
The next day, at about eleven o'clock in the morning, Hudson called. He came with stiff, angular motions of his long, thin legs, up the four steep, shabby flights and stopped at the top to get his breath.
"The picture ain't worth the climb," he thought; and then, struck by the peculiar stillness of the garret floor, he frowned. "Damned if the feller ain't out!" He took a stride forward and knocked at Arundel's door. There was no answer. He turned the knob and stepped into the studio.
A screen stood between him and one half of the room. The other half was empty. The place was very cold and still. It was deplorably bare and shabby in the wintry morning light. Some one had eaten a meager breakfast from a tray on the little table near the stove. Hudson's canvas stood against the wall facing him, and its presence gave him a feeling of ownership, of a right to be there. He put his long, stiff hands into his pockets and strolled forward. He came round the corner of the screen and found himself looking at the dead body of his host.
The nurse, that morning, had come and gone. With Sheila's help she had prepared Arundel for his burial. He lay in all the formal detachment of death, his eyelids drawn decently down over his eyes, his lips put carefully together, his hands, below their white cuffs and black sleeves, laid carefully upon the clean smooth sheet.
Hudson drew in a hissing breath, and at the sound Sheila, crumpled up in exhausted slumber on the floor beside the bed, awoke and lifted her face.
It was a heart-shaped face, a thin, white heart, the peak of her hair cutting into the center of her forehead. The mouth struck a note of life with its dull, soft red. There was not lacking in this young face the slight exaggerations necessary to romantic beauty. Sheila had a strange, arresting sort of jaw, a trifle over-accentuated and out of drawing. Her eyes were long, flattened, narrow, the color of bubbles filled with smoke, of a surface brilliance and an inner mistiness—indescribable eyes, clear, very melting, wistful and beautiful under sooty lashes and slender, arched black brows.
Sheila lifted this strange, romantic face on its long, romantic throat and looked at Hudson. Then she got to her feet. She was soft and silken, smooth and tender, gleaming white of skin. She had put on an old black dress, just a scrap of a flimsy, little worn-out gown. A certain slim, crushable quality of her body was accentuated by this flimsiness of covering. She looked as though she could be drawn through a ring—as though, between your hands, you could fold her to nothing. A thin little kitten of silky fur and small bones might have the same feel as Sheila.
She stood up now and looked tragically and helplessly at Hudson and tried to speak.
He backed away from the bed, beckoned to her, and met her in the other half of the room so that the leather screen stood between them and the dead man. They spoke in hushed voices.
"I had no notion, Miss Arundel, that—that—of—this," Hudson began in a dry, jerky whisper. "Believe me, I wouldn't 'a' thought of intrudin'. I ordered the picture there from your father a fortnight ago, and this was the day I was to come and give it a last looking-over before I came through with the cash, see? I hadn't heard he was sick even, much less"—he cleared his throat—"gone beyond," he ended, quoting from the "Millings Gazette" obituary column. "You get me?"
"Yes," said Sheila, in her voice that in some mysterious way was another expression of the clear mistiness of her eyes and the suppleness of her body. "You are Mr. Hudson." She twisted her hands together behind her back. She was shivering with cold and nervousness. "It's done, you see. Father finished it."
Hudson gave the canvas an absent glance and motioned Sheila to a chair with a stiff gesture of his arm.
"You set down," he said.
She obeyed, and he walked to and fro before her.
"Say, now," he said, "I'll take the picture all right. But I'd like to know, Miss Arundel, if you'll excuse me, how you're fixed?"
"Fixed?" Sheila faltered.
"Why, yes, ma'am—as to finances, I mean. You've got some funds, or some relations or some friends to call upon—?"
Sheila drew up her head a trifle, lowered her eyes, and began to plait her thin skirt across her knee with small, delicate fingers. Hudson stopped in his walk to watch this mechanical occupation. She struggled dumbly with her emotion and managed to answer him at last.
"No, Mr. Hudson. Father is very poor. I haven't any relations. We have no friends here nor anywhere near. We lived in Europe till quite lately—a fishing village in Normandy. I—I shall have to get some work."
"Say!" It was an ejaculation of pity, but there was a note of triumph in it, too; perhaps the joy of the gratified philanthropist.
"Now, look-a-here, little girl, the price of that picture will just about cover your expenses, eh?—board and—er—funeral?"
Sheila nodded, her throat working, her lids pressing down tears.
"Well, now, look-a-here. I've got a missus at home."
Sheila looked up and the tears fell. She brushed them from her cheeks. "A missus?"
"Yes'm—my wife. And a couple of gels about your age. Well, say, we've got a job for you."
Sheila put her hand to her head as though she would stop a whirling sensation there.
"You mean you have some work for me in your home?"
"You've got it first time. Yes, ma'am. Sure thing. At Millings, finest city in the world. After you're through here, you pack up your duds and you come West with me. Make a fresh start, eh? Why, it'll make me plumb cheerful to have a gel with me on that journey ... seem like I'd Girlie or Babe along. They just cried to come, but, say, Noo York's no place for the young."
"But, Mr. Hudson, my ticket? I'm sure I won't have the money—?"
"Advance it to you on your pay, Miss Arundel."
"But what is the work?" Sheila still held her hand against her forehead.
Hudson laughed his short, cracked cackle. "Jest old-fashioned house-work, dish-washing and such. 'Help' can't be had in Millings, and Girlie and Babe kick like steers when Momma leads 'em to the dish-pan. Not that you'd have to do it all, you know, just lend a hand to Momma. Maybe you're too fine for that?"
"Oh, no. I have done all the work here. I'd be glad. Only—"
He came closer to her and held up a long, threatening forefinger. It was a playful gesture, but Sheila had a distinct little tremor of fear. She looked up into his small, brown, pensive eyes, and her own were held as though their look had been fastened to his with rivets.
"Now, look-a-here, Miss Arundel, don't you say 'only' to me. Nor 'but.' Nor 'if.' Nary one of those words, if you please. Say, I've got daughters of my own and I can manage gels. I know how. Do you know my nickname? Well—say—it's 'Pap.' Pap Hudson. I'm the adopting kind. Sort of paternal, I guess. Kids and dogs follow me in the streets. You want a recommend? Just call up Mr. Hazeldean on the telephone. He's the man that fetched me here to buy that picture off Poppa."
"Oh," said Sheila, daughter of Mark who looked at stars, "of course I shouldn't think of asking for a recommendation. You've been only too kind—"
He put his hand on her shoulder in its thin covering and patted it, wondering at the silken, cool feeling against his palm.
"Kind, Miss Arundel? Pshaw! My middle name's 'Kind' and that's the truth. Why, how does the song go—''T is love, 't is love that makes the world go round'—love's just another word for kindness, ain't it? And it's not such a bad old world either, eh?"
Without knowing it, with the sort of good luck that often attends the enterprises of such men, Hudson had used a spell. He had quoted, almost literally, her father's last words and she felt that it was a message from the other side of death.
She twisted about in her chair, took his hand from her shoulder, and drew it, stiff and sallow, to her young lips.
"Oh," she sobbed, "you're kind! It is a good world if there are such men as you!"
When Sylvester Hudson went down the stairs a minute or two after Sheila's impetuous outbreak, his sallow face was deeply flushed. He stopped to tell the Irishwoman who rented the garret floor to the Arundels, that Sheila's future was in his care. During this colloquy, pure business on his side and mixed business and sentiment on Mrs. Halligan's, Sylvester did not once look the landlady in the eye. His own eyes skipped hers, now across, now under, now over. There are some philanthropists who are overcome with such bashfulness in the face of their own good deeds. But, sitting back alone in his taxicab on his way to the station to buy Sheila's ticket to Millings, Sylvester turned his emerald rapidly about on his finger and whistled to himself. And cryptically he expressed his glow of gratified fatherliness.
"As smooth as silk," said Sylvester aloud.
THE FINEST CITY IN THE WORLD
So Sheila Arundel left the garret where the stars pressed close, and went with Sylvester Hudson out into the world. It was, that morning, a world of sawing wind, of flying papers and dust-dervishes, a world, to meet which people bent their shrinking faces and drew their bodies together as against the lashing of a whip. Sheila thought she had never seen New York so drab and soulless; it hurt her to leave it under so desolate an aspect.
"Cheery little old town, isn't it?" said Sylvester. "Gee! Millings is God's country all right."
On the journey he put Sheila into a compartment, supplied her with magazines and left her for the most part to herself—for which isolation she was grateful. With her compartment door ajar, she could see him in his section, when he was not in the smoking-car, or rather she could see his lean legs, his long, dark hands, and the top of his sleek head. The rest was an outspread newspaper. Occasionally he would come into the compartment to read aloud some bit of information which he thought might interest her. Once it was the prowess of a record-breaking hen; again it was a joke about a mother-in-law; another time it was the Hilliard murder case, a scandal of New York high-life, the psychology of which intrigued Sylvester.
"Isn't it queer, though, Miss Arundel, that such things happen in the slums and they happen in the smart set, but they don't happen near so often with just plain folks like you and me! Isn't this, now, a real Tenderloin Tale—South American wife and American husband and all their love affairs, and then one day her up and shooting him! Money," quoth Sylvester, "sure makes love popular. Now for that little ro-mance, poor folks would hardly stop a day's work, but just because the Hilliards here have po-sition and spon-dulix, why, they'll run a couple of columns about 'em for a week. What's your opinion on the subject, Miss Arundel?"
He was continually asking this, and poor Sheila, strange, bewildered, oppressed by his intrusion into her uprooted life, would grope wildly through her odds and ends of thought and find that on most of the subjects that interested him, she had no opinions at all.
"You must think I'm dreadfully stupid, Mr. Hudson," she faltered once after a particularly deplorable failure.
"Oh, you're a kid, Miss Sheila, that's all your trouble. And I reckon you're half asleep, eh? Kind of brought up on pictures and country walks, in—what's the name of the foreign part?—Normandy? No friends of your own age? No beaux?"
Sheila shook her head, smiling. Her flexible smile was as charming as a child's. It dawned on the gravity of her face with an effect of spring moonlight. In it there was some of the mischief of fairyland.
"What you need is—Millings," prescribed Sylvester. "Girlie and Babe will wake you up. Yes, and the boys. You'll make a hit in Millings." He contemplated her for an instant with his head on one side. "We ain't got anything like you in Millings."
Sheila, looking out at the wide Nebraskan prairies that slipped endlessly past her window hour by hour that day, felt that she would not make a hit at Millings. She was afraid of Millings. Her terror of Babe and Girlie was profound. She had lived and grown up, as it were, under her father's elbow. Her adoration of him had stood between her and experience. She knew nothing of humanity except Marcus Arundel. And he was hardly typical—a shy, proud, head-in-the-air sort of man, who would have been greatly loved if he had not shrunk morbidly from human contacts. Sheila's Irish mother had wooed and won him and had made a merry midsummer madness in his life, as brief as a dream. Sheila was all that remained of it. But, for all her quietness, the shadow of his broken heart upon her spirit, she was a Puck. She could make laughter and mischief for him and for herself—not for any one else yet; she was too shy. But that might come. Only, Puck laughter is a little unearthly, a little delicate. The ear of Millings might not be attuned.... Just now, Sheila felt that she would never laugh again. Sylvester's humor certainly did not move her. She almost choked trying to swallow becomingly the mother-in-law anecdote.
But Sylvester's talk, his questions, even his jokes, were not what most oppressed her. Sometimes, looking up, she would find him staring at her over the top of his newspaper as though he were speculating about something, weighing her, judging her by some inner measurement. It was rather like the way her father had looked a model over to see if she would fit his dream.
At such moments Sylvester's small brown eyes were the eyes of an artist, of a visionary. They embarrassed her painfully. What was it, after all, that he expected of her? For an expectation of some kind he most certainly had, and it could hardly have to do with her skill in washing dishes.
She asked him a few small questions as they drew near to Millings. The strangeness of the country they were now running through excited her and fired her courage—these orange-colored cliffs, these purple buttes, these strange twisting canons with their fierce green streams.
"Please tell me about Mrs. Hudson and your daughters?" she asked.
This was a few hours before they were to come to Millings. They had changed trains at a big, bare, glaring city several hours before and were now in a small, gritty car with imitation-leather seats. They were running through a gorge, and below and ahead Sheila could see the brown plain with its patches of snow and, like a large group of red toy houses, the town of Millings, far away but astonishingly distinct in the clear air.
Sylvester, considering her question, turned his emerald slowly.
"The girls are all right, Miss Sheila. They're lookers. I guess I've spoiled 'em some. They'll be crazy over you—sort of a noo pet in the house, eh? I've wired to 'em. They must be hoppin' up and down like a popper full of corn."
"And Mrs. Hudson?"
Sylvester grinned—the wrinkle cutting long and deep across his lip. "Well, ma'am, she ain't the hoppin' kind."
A few minutes later Sheila discovered that emphatically she was not the hopping kind. A great, bony woman with a wide, flat, handsome face, she came along the station platform, kissed Sylvester with hard lips and stared at Sheila ... the stony stare of her kind.
"Babe ran the Ford down, Sylly," she said in the harshest voice Sheila had ever heard. "Where's the girl's trunk?"
Sylvester's sallow face reddened. He turned quickly to Sheila.
"Run over to the car yonder, Miss Sheila, and get used to Babe, while I kind of take the edge off Momma."
Sheila did not run. She walked in a peculiar light-footed manner which gave her the look of a proud deer.
"Momma" was taken firmly to the baggage-room, where, it would seem, the edge was removed with difficulty, for Sheila waited in the motor with Babe for half an hour.
Babe hopped. She hopped out of her seat at the wheel and shook Sheila's hand and told her to "jump right in."
"Sit by me on the way home, Sheila." Babe had a tremendous voice. "And leave the old folks to gossip on the back seat. Gee! you're different from what I thought you'd be. Ain't you small, though? You've got no form. Say, Millings will do lots for you. Isn't Pap a character, though? Weren't you tickled the way he took you up? Your Poppa was a painter, wasn't he? Can you make a picture of me? I've got a steady that would be just wild if you could."
Sheila sat with hands clenched in her shabby muff and smiled her moonlight smile. She was giddy with the intoxicating, heady air, with the brilliant sunset light, with Babe's loud cordiality. She wanted desperately to like Babe; she wanted even more desperately to be liked. She was in an unimaginable panic, now.
Babe was a splendid young animal, handsome and round and rosy, her body crowded into a bright-blue braided, fur-trimmed coat, her face crowded into a tight, much-ornamented veil, her head with heavy chestnut hair, crowded into a cherry-colored, velvet turban round which seemed to be wrapped the tail of some large wild beast. Her hands were ready to burst from yellow buckskin gloves; her feet, with high, thick insteps, from their tight, thin, buttoned boots, even her legs shone pink and plump below her short skirt, through silk stockings that were threatened at the seams. And the blue of her eyes, the red of her cheeks, the white of her teeth, had the look of being uncontainable, too brilliant and full to stay where they belonged. The whole creature flashed and glowed and distended herself. Her voice was a riot of uncontrolled vitality, and, as though to use up a little of all this superfluous energy, she was violently chewing gum. Except for an occasional slight smacking sound, it did not materially interfere with speech.
"There's Poppa now," she said at last. "Say, Poppa, you two sit in the back, will you? Sheila and I are having a fine time. But, Poppa, you old tin-horn, what did you mean by saying in your wire that she was a husky girl? Why, she's got the build of a sagebrush mosquito! Look-a-here, Sheila." Babe by a miracle got her plump hand in and out of a pocket and handed a telegram to her new friend. "Read that and learn to know Poppa!"
Sylvester laughed rather sheepishly as Sheila read:
Am bringing home artist's A1 picture for The Aura and artist's A1 daughter. Husky girl. Will help Momma.
"Well," said Sylvester apologetically, "she's one of the wiry kind, aren't you, Miss Sheila?"
Sheila was struggling with an attack of hysterical mirth. She nodded and put her muff before her mouth to hide an uncontrollable quivering of her lips.
"Momma" had not spoken. Her face was all one even tone of red, her nostrils opened and shut, her lips were tight. Sylvester, however, was in a genial humor. He leaned forward with his arms folded along the back of the front seat and pointed out the beauties of Millings. He showed Sheila the Garage, the Post-Office, and the Trading Company, and suddenly pressing her shoulder with his hand, he cracked out sharply:
"There's The Aura, girl!"
His eyes were again those of the artist and the visionary. They glowed.
Sheila turned her head. They were passing the double door of the saloon and went slowly along the front of the hotel.
It stood on that corner where the main business street intersects with the Best Residence Street. Its main entrance opened into the flattened corner of the building where the roof rose to a fantastic facade. For the rest, the hotel was of yellowish-brick, half-surrounded by a wooden porch where at milder seasons of the year in deep wicker chairs men and women were always rocking with the air of people engaged in serious and not unimportant work. At such friendlier seasons, too, by the curb was always a weary-looking Ford car from which grotesquely arrayed "travelers" from near-by towns and cities were descending covered with alkali dust—faces, chiffon veils, spotted silk dresses, high white kid boots, dangling purses and all, their men dust-powdered to a wrinkled sameness of aspect. At this time of the year the porch was deserted, and the only car in sight was Hudson's own, which wriggled and slipped its way courageously along the rutted, dirty snow.
Around the corner next to the hotel stood Hudson's home. It was a large house of tortured architecture, cupolas and twisted supports and strange, overlapping scallops of wood, painted wavy green, pinkish red and yellow. Its windows were of every size and shape and appeared in unreasonable, impossible places—opening enormous mouths on tiny balconies with twisted posts and scalloped railings, like embroidery patterns, one on top of the other up to a final absurdity of a bird cage which found room for itself between two cupolas under the roof.
Up the steps of the porch Mrs. Hudson mounted grimly, followed by Babe. Sylvester stayed to tinker with the car, and Sheila, after a doubtful, tremulous moment, went slowly up the icy path after the two women.
She stumbled a little on the lowest step and, in recovering herself, she happened to turn her head. And so, between two slender aspen trees that grew side by side like white, captive nymphs in Hudson's yard, she saw a mountain-top. The sun had set. There was a crystal, turquoise translucency behind the exquisite snowy peak, which seemed to stand there facing God, forgetful of the world behind it, remote and reverent and most serene in the light of His glory. And just above where the turquoise faded to pure pale green, a big white star trembled. Sheila's heart stopped in her breast. She stood on the step and drew breath, throwing back her veil. A flush crept up into her face. She felt that she had been traveling all her life toward her meeting with this mountain and this star. She felt radiant and comforted.
"How beautiful!" she whispered.
Sylvester had joined her.
"Finest city in the world!" he said.
Dickie Hudson pushed from him to the full length of his arm the ledger of The Aura Hotel, tilted his chair back from the desk, and, leaning far over to one side, set the needle on a phonograph record, pressed the starter, and absorbed himself in rolling and lighting a cigarette. This accomplished, he put his hands behind his head and, wreathed in aromatic, bluish smoke, gave himself up to complete enjoyment of the music.
It was a song from some popular light opera. A very high soprano and a musical tenor duet, sentimental, humoresque:
"There, dry your eyes, I sympathize Just as a mother would— Give me your hand, I understand, we're off to slumber land Like a father, like a mother, like a sister, like a brother."
Listening to this melody, Dickie Hudson's face under the gaslight expressed a rapt and spiritual delight, tender, romantic, melancholy.
He was a slight, undersized youth, very pale, very fair, with the face of a delicate boy. He had large, near-sighted blue eyes in which lurked a wistful, deprecatory smile, a small chin running from wide cheek-bones to a point. His lips were sensitive and undecided, his nose unformed, his hair soft and easily ruffled. There were hard blue marks under the long-lashed eyes, an unhealthy pallor to his cheeks, a slight unsteadiness of his fingers.
Dickie held a position of minor importance in the hotel, and his pale, innocent face was almost as familiar to its patrons as to those of the saloon next door—more familiar to both than it was to Hudson's "residence." Sometimes for weeks Dickie did not strain the scant welcome of his "folks." To-night, however, he was resolved to tempt it. After listening to the record, he strolled over to the saloon.
Dickie was curious. He shared Millings's interest in the "young lady from Noo York." Shyness fought with a sense of adventure, until to-night, a night fully ten nights after Sheila's arrival, the courage he imbibed at the bar of The Aura gave him the necessary impetus. He pulled himself up from his elbow, removed his foot from the rail, straightened his spotted tie, and pushed through the swinging doors out into the night.
It was a moonlit night, as still and pure as an angel of annunciation—a night that carried tall, silver lilies in its hands. Above the small, sleepy town were lifted the circling rim of mountains and the web of blazing stars. Sylvester's son, after a few crunching steps along the icy pavement, stopped with his hand against the wall, and stood, not quite steadily, his face lifted. The whiteness sank through his tainted body and brain to the undefiled child-soul. The stars blazed awfully for Dickie, and the mountains were awfully white and high, and the air shattered against his spirit like a crystal sword. He stood for an instant as though on a single point of solid earth and looked giddily beyond earthly barriers.
His lips began to move. He was trying to put that mystery, that emotion, into words ... "It's white," he murmured, "and sharp—burning—like—like"—his fancy fumbled—"like the inside of a cold flame." He shook his head. That did not describe the marvelous quality of the night. And yet—if the world had gone up to heaven in a single, streaming point of icy fire and a fellow stood in it, frozen, swept up out of a fellow's body.... Again he shook his head and his eyes were possessed by the wistful, apologetic smile. He wished he were not tormented by this queer need of describing his sensations. He remembered very vividly one of the many occasions when it had roused his father's anger. Dickie, standing with his hand against the cold bricks of The Aura, smiled with his lips, not happily, but with a certain amusement, thinking of how Sylvester's hand had cracked against his cheek and sent all his thoughts flying like broken china. He had been apologizing for his slowness over an errand—something about leaves, it had been—the leaves of those aspens in the yard—he had told his father that they had been little green flames—he had stopped to look at them.
"You damn fool!" Sylvester had said as he struck.
"You damn fool!" Once, when a stranger asked five-year-old Dickie his name, he had answered innocently "Dickie-damn-fool!"
"They'll probably put it on my tombstone," Dickie concluded, and, stung by the cold, he shrank into his coat and stumbled round the corner of the street. The reek of spirits trailed behind him through the purity like a soiled rag.
Number 18 Cottonwood Avenue was brilliantly lighted. Girlie was playing the piano, Babe's voice, "sassing Poppa," was audible from one end to the other of the empty street. Her laughter slapped the air. Dickie hesitated. He was afraid of them all—of Sylvester's pensive, small, brown eyes and hard, long hands, of Babe's bodily vigor, of Girlie's mild contemptuous look, of his mother's gloomy, furtive tenderness. Dickie felt a sort of aching and compassionate dread of the rough, awkward caress of her big red hand against his cheek. As he hesitated, the door opened—a blaze of light, yellow as old gold, streamed into the blue brilliance of the moon. It was blotted out and a figure came quickly down the steps. It had an air of hurry and escape. A small, slim figure, it came along the path and through the gate; then, after just an instant of hesitation, it turned away from Dickie and sped up the wide street.
Dickie named it at once. "That's the girl," he said; and possessed by his curiosity and by the sense of adventure which whiskey had fortified, he began to walk rapidly in the same direction. Out there, where the short street ended, began the steep side of a mesa. The snow on the road that was graded along its front was packed by the runners of freighting sleighs, but it was rough. He could not believe the girl meant to go for a walk alone. And yet, would she be out visiting already, she, a stranger? At the end of the street the small, determined figure did not stop; it went on, a little more slowly, but as decidedly as ever, up the slope. On the hard, frozen crust, her feet made hardly a sound. Above the level top of the white hill, the peak that looked remote from Hudson's yard became immediate. It seemed to peer—to lean forward, bright as a silver helmet against the purple sky. Dickie could see that "the girl" walked with her head tilted back as though she were looking at the sky. Perhaps it was the sheer beauty of the winter night that had brought her out. Following slowly up the hill, he felt a sense of nearness, of warmth; his aching, lifelong loneliness was remotely comforted because a girl, skimming ahead of him, had tilted her chin up so that she could see the stars. She reached the top of the mesa several minutes before he did and disappeared. She was now, he knew, on the edge of a great plateau, in summer covered with the greenish silver of sagebrush, now an unbroken, glittering expanse. He stood still to get his breath and listen to the very light crunch of her steps. He could hear a coyote wailing off there in the foothills, and the rushing noise of the small mountain river that hurled itself down upon Millings, ran through it at frenzied speed, and made for the canon on the other side of the valley. Below him Millings twinkled with a few sparse lights, and he could, even from here, distinguish the clatter of Babe's voice. But when he came to the top, Millings dropped away from the reach of his senses. Here was dazzling space, the amazing presence of the mountains, the pressure of the starry sky. Far off already across the flat, that small, dark figure moved. She had left the road, which ran parallel with the mountain range, and was walking over the hard, sparkling crust. It supported her weight, but Dickie was not sure that it would do the same for his. He tried it carefully. It held, and he followed the faint track of small feet. It did not occur to him, dazed as he was by the fumes of whiskey and the heady air, that the sight of a man in swift pursuit of her loneliness might frighten Sheila. For some reason he imagined that she would know that he was Sylvester's son, and that he was possessed only by the most sociable and protective impulses.
He was, besides, possessed by a fateful feeling that it was intended that out here in the brilliant night he should meet her and talk to her. The adventurous heart of Dickie was aflame.
When the hurrying figure stopped and turned quickly, he did not pause, but rather hastened his steps. He saw her lift her muff up to her heart, saw her waver, then move resolutely toward him. She came thus two or three steps, when a treacherous pitfall in the snow opened under her frightened feet and she went down almost shoulder deep. Dickie ran forward.
Bending over her, he saw her white, heart-shaped face, and its red mouth as startling as a June rose out here in the snow. And he saw, too, the panic of her shining eyes.
"Miss Arundel"—his voice came thin and tender, feeling its way doubtfully as though it was too heavy a reality—"let me help you. You are Miss Arundel, aren't you? I'm Dickie—Dickie Hudson, Pap Hudson's son. You hadn't ought to be scared. I saw you coming out alone and took after you. I thought you might find it kind of lonesome up here on the flat at night in all the moonlight—hearing the coyotes and all. And, look-a-here, you might have had a time getting out of the snow. Oncet a fellow breaks through it sure means a floundering time before a fellow pulls himself out—"
She had given him a hand, and he had pulled her up beside him. Her smile of relief seemed very beautiful to Dickie.
"I came out," she said, "because it looked so wonderful—and I wanted to see—" She stopped, looking at him doubtfully, as though she expected him not to understand, to think her rather mad. But he finished her sentence.
"—To see the mountains, wasn't it?"
"Yes." She was again relieved, almost as much so, it seemed, as at the knowledge of his friendliness. "Especially that big one." She waved her muff toward the towering peak. "I never did see such a night! It's like—it's like—" She widened her eyes, as though, by taking into her brain an immense picture of the night, she might find out its likeness.
Dickie, moving uncertainly beside her, murmured, "Like the inside of a cold flame, a very white flame."
Sheila turned her chin, pointed above the fur collar of her coat, and included him in the searching and astonished wideness of her look.
"You work at The Aura, don't you?" she asked with childlike brusquerie.
Dickie's sensitive, undecided mouth settled into mournfulness. He looked away.
"Yes, ma'am," he said plaintively.
Sheila's widened eyes, still fixed upon him, began to embarrass him. A flush came up into his face.
She moved her look across him and away to the range.
"It is like that," she said—"like a cold flame, going up—how did you think of that?"
Dickie looked quickly, gratefully at her. "I kind of felt," he said lamely, "that I had got to find out what it was like. But"—he shook his head with his deprecatory smile—"but that don't tell it, Miss Arundel. It's more than that." He smiled again. "I bet you, you could think of somethin' better to say about it, couldn't you?"
Sheila laughed. "What a funny boy you are! Not like the others. You don't even look like them. How old are you? When I first saw you I thought you were quite grown up. But you can't be much more than nineteen."
"Just that," he said, "but I'll be twenty next month."
"You've always lived here in Millings?"
"Yes, ma'am. Do you like it? I mean, do you like Millings? I hope you do."
Sheila pressed her muff against her mouth and looked at him over it. Her eyes were shining as though the moonlight had got into their misty grayness. She shook her head; then, as his face fell, she began to apologize.
"Your father has been so awfully kind to me. I am so grateful. And the girls are awfully good to me. But, Millings, you know?—I wouldn't have told you," she said half-angrily, "if I hadn't been so sure you hated it."
They had come to the edge of the mesa, and there below shone the small, scattered lights of the town. The graphophone was playing in the saloon. Its music—some raucous, comic song—insulted the night.
"Why, no," said Dickie, "I don't hate Millings. I never thought about it that way. It's not such a bad place. Honest, it isn't. There's lots of fine folks in it. Have you met Jim Greely?"
"Why, no, but I've seen him. Isn't that Girlie's—'fellow'?"
Dickie made round, respectful eyes. He was evidently very much impressed.
"Say!" he ejaculated. "Is that the truth? Girlie's aiming kind of high."
It was not easy to walk side by side on the rutted snow of the road. Sheila here slipped ahead of him and went on quickly along the middle rut where the horses' hoofs had beaten a pitted path.
She looked back at him over her shoulder with a sort of malice.
"Is it aiming high?" she said. "Girlie is much more beautiful than Jim Greely."
"Oh, but he's some looker—Jim."
"Do you think so?" she said indifferently, with a dainty touch of scorn.
Dickie staggered physically from the shock of her speech. She had been speaking—was it possible?—of Jim Greely....
"I mean Mr. James Greely, the son of the president of the Millings National Bank," he said painstakingly, and a queer confusion came to him that the words were his feet and that neither were under his control. Also, he was not sure that he had said "Natural," or "National."
"I do mean Mr. James Greely," Sheila's clear voice came back to him. "He is, I should think, a very great hero of yours."
"Yes, ma'am," said Dickie.
Astonished at the abject humility of his tone, Sheila stopped and turned quite around to look at him. He seemed to be floundering in and out of invisible holes in the snow. He stepped very high, plunged, put out his hand, and righted himself by her shoulder. And he stayed there, lurched against her for a moment. She shook him off and began to run down the hill. His breath had struck her face. She knew that he was drunk.
Dickie followed her as fast as he could. Several times he fell, but, on the whole, he made fairly rapid progress, so that, by the time she dashed into the Hudsons' gate, he was only a few steps behind her and caught the gate before it shut. Sheila fled up the steps and beat at the door with her fist. Dickie was just behind her.
Sylvester himself opened the door. Back of him pressed Babe.
"Why, say," she said, "it's Sheila and she's got a beau already. You're some girl—"
"Please let me in," begged Sheila; "I—I am frightened. It's your brother, Dickie—but I think—there's something wrong—"
Sylvester put his hand on her and pushed her to one side.
He strode out on the small porch. Dickie wavered before him on the top step.
"I thought I'd make the ac-acquaintance of the young lady," he began doubtfully. "I saw her admiring at the stars and I—"
"Oh, you did!" snarled Hudson. "All right. Now go and make acquaintance with the bottom step." He thrust a long, hard hand at Dickie's chest, and the boy fell backward, clattering ruefully down the steps with a rattle of thin knees and elbows. At the bottom he lay for a minute, painfully huddled in the snow.
"Go in, Miss Sheila," said Sylvester. "I'm sorry my son came home to-night and frightened you. He usually has more sense. He'll have more sense next time."
He ran down the steps, but before he could reach the huddled figure it gathered itself fearfully together and fled, limping and staggering across the yard, through the gate and around the corner of the street.
Hudson came up, breathing hard.
"Where's Sheila?" he asked sharply.
"She ran upstairs," said Babe. "Ain't it a shame? What got into Dick?"
"Something that will get kicked out of him good and proper to-morrow," said his father grimly.
He stood at the bottom of the steep, narrow stairs, looking up, his hands thrust into his pockets, his under lip stuck out. His eyes were unusually gentle and pensive.
"I wouldn't 'a' had her scared that way for anything," he said, "not for anything. That's likely to spoil all my plans."
He swore under his breath, wheeled about, and going into the parlor he shut the door and began walking to and fro. Babe crept rather quietly up the stairs. There were times when even Babe was afraid of "Poppa."
Babe tiptoed up the first flight, walked solidly and boldly up the second, and ran up the third. She had decided to have a talk with Sheila, to soothe her indignation, and, if possible, to explain Dickie. It seemed to Babe that Dickie needed explanation.
Sheila's room was at the top of the house—the very room, in fact, whose door opened on the bird cage of a balcony between two cupolas. Babe came to the door and knocked. A voice answered sharply: "Come in," and Babe, entering, shut the door and leaned against it.
It was a small, bare, whitewashed room, with a narrow cot, a washstand, a bureau, and two extraordinary chairs—a huge one that rocked on damaged springs, enclosed in plaited leather like the case of an accordion, and one that had been a rocker, but stood unevenly on its diminished legs. Babe had protested against Momma's disposal of the "girl from Noo York," and had begged that Sheila be allowed to share her own red, white, and blue boudoir below. But Sheila had preferred her small room. It was red as a rose at sunset, still and high, remote from Millings, and it faced The Hill.
Now, the gaslight flared against the bare walls and ceiling. Sheila's hat and coat and muff lay on the bed where she had thrown them. She stood, looking at Babe. Her face was flushed, her eyes gleamed, that slight exaggeration of her chin was more pronounced than usual.
Babe put her head on one side. "Oh, say, Sheila, why bother about Dickie. Nobody cares about Dickie. He'll get a proper bawlin'-out from Poppa to-morrow. But I'd think myself simple to be scared by him. He's harmless. The poor kid can't half help himself now. He got started when he was awful young."
"Oh," said Sheila, as sharply as before, stopping before Babe, "I'm not frightened. I'm angry—angry at myself. I like Dickie. I like him!"
Babe's lips fell apart. She sat down in the accordion-plaited chair and rocked. A squealing, shaking noise accompanied the motion. Her fingers sought and found against the chair-back a piece of chewing-gum which she had stuck there during her last visit to Sheila. Babe hid and resurrected chewing-gum as instinctively as a dog hides and resurrects his bones.
"I can see you likin' Dickie," she remarked ironically.
"But I do, I tell you! He was sweet. He didn't say a word or do a thing to frighten me—"
"But he was full, Shee, you know he was."
"Yes. He'd been drinking. I smelt it. And he didn't walk very straight, and he was a little mixed in his speech. But, all the same, he was as good as gold. And friendly and nice. I might have walked home quietly with him and sent him away at the door. And he wouldn't have been seen by his father." Sheila's eyes filled. "It was dreadful—to—to knock him down the steps!"
"Say, if you'd had as much to put up with from Dickie as Poppa's had—"
"Oh," said Sheila in a tone that welled up as from under a weight, "if I had always lived in Millings, I'd drink myself!"
Babe looked red and resentful, but Sheila's voice rushed on.
"That saloon is the only interesting and attractive place in town. The only thrilling people that ever come here go in through those doors. I've seen some wonderful-looking men. I'd like to paint them. I've made some drawings of them—men from over there back of the mountains."
"You mean the cowboys from over The Hill, I guess," drawled Babe contemptuously. "Those sagebrush fellows from Hidden Creek. I don't think a whole lot of them. Put one of them alongside of one of our town boys! Why, they don't speak good, Sheila, and they're rough as a hill trail. You'd be scared to death of them if you knew them better."
"They look like real men to me," said Sheila. "And I never did like towns."
"But you're a town girl."
"I am not. I've been in cities and I've been in the country. I've never lived in a town."
"Well, there'll be a dance one of these days next summer in the Town Hall, and maybe you'll meet some of those rough-necks. You'll change your mind about them. Why, I'd sooner dance with a sheep-herder from beyond the bad-lands, or with one of the hands from the oil-fields, than with those Hidden Creek fellows. Horse-thieves and hold-ups and Lord knows what-all they are. No account runaways. Nothing solid or respectable about them. Take a boy like Robert, now, or Jim—"
Sheila put her hands to her ears. Her face, between the hands, looked rather wicked in a sprite-like fashion.
"Don't mention to me Mr. James Greely of the Millings National Bank!"
Babe rose pompously. "I think you're kind of off your bat to-night, Sheila Arundel," she said, chewing noisily. "First you run out at night with the mercury at 4 below and come dashing back scared to death, banging at the door, and then you tell me you like Dickie and ask me not to mention the finest fellow in Millings!"
"The finest fellow in the finest city in the world!" cried Sheila and laughed. Her laugh was like a torrent of silver coins, but it had the right maliceful ring of a brownie's "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
Babe stopped in the doorway and spoke heavily.
"You're short on sense, Sheila," she said. "You're kind of dippy ... going out to look at the stars and drawing pictures of that Hidden Creek trash. But you'll learn better, maybe."
"Wait a minute, Babe!" Sheila was sober again and not unpenitent. "I'm coming down with you. I want to tell your father that Dickie was sweet to me. I don't want him to—to—what was it he was going to do to-morrow?"
"Bawl Dickie out."
"Yes. I don't want him to do that. It sounds awful."
"Well, it is. But it won't hurt Dickie any. He's used to it."
Babe, forgiving and demonstrative, here forgot the insult to Millings and Jim Greely, put her arm round Sheila, and went down the stairs, squeezing the smaller girl against the wall.
"I guess I won't go with you to see Poppa," she said, stopping at the top of the last flight. "Poppa's kind of a rough talker sometimes."
Sheila looked rather alarmed. "You mean you think he—he will bawl me out?"
"I wouldn't wonder." Babe smiled, showing a lump of putty-colored chewing-gum between her flashing teeth.
Sheila stood halfway down the stairs. She had not yet quite admitted to herself that she was afraid of Sylvester Hudson and now she did admit it. But with a forlorn memory of Dickie, she braced herself and went slowly down the six remaining steps. The parlor door was shut and back of it to and fro prowled Sylvester. Sheila opened the door.
Hudson's face, ready with a scowl, changed. He came quickly toward her.
"Well, say, Miss Sheila, I am sure-ly sorry—"
Sheila shook her head. "Not half so sorry as I am, Mr. Hudson. I came down to apologize."
He pulled out a chair and Sheila sat down. Sylvester placed himself opposite to her and lighted a huge black cigar, watching her meanwhile curiously, even anxiously. His face was as quiet and sallow and gentle as usual. Sheila's fear subsided.
"You came down to apologize?" repeated Hudson. "Well, ma'am, that sounds kind of upside down to me."
"I behaved like a goose. Your son hadn't done or said anything to frighten me. He was sweet. I like him so much. He was coming home and saw me walking off alone, and he thought that I might be lonely or frightened or fall into the snow—which I did"—Sheila smiled coaxingly; "I went down up to my neck and Dickie pulled me out and was—lovely to me. It wasn't till I was halfway down the hill that I—that it came to me, all of a sudden, that—perhaps—he'd been drinking—"
"Perhaps," said Sylvester dryly. "It's never perhaps with Dickie."
Sheila's eyes filled. For a seventeen-year-old girl the situation was difficult. It was not easy to discuss Dickie's habit with his father.
"I am so—sorry," she faltered. "I behaved absurdly. Just because I saw that he wasn't quite himself I ran away from him and made a scene. Truly, Mr. Hudson, he had not said or done anything the least bit horrid. He'd been sensible and nice and friendly—Oh, dear!" For she saw before her a relentless and incredulous face. "You won't believe me now, I suppose!"
"I can't altogether, Miss Sheila, for I reckon you wouldn't have run away from a true-blue, friendly fellow, would you?"
"Yes, Mr. Hudson, I would. Because, you see, I did. It was just a sort of panic. Too much moonshine."
"Yes, ma'am. Too much moonshine inside of Dickie. I hope"—he leaned toward her, and Sheila, the child, could not help but be flattered by his deference—"I hope you're not thinking that Dickie's unfortunate habit is my fault. I'm his father and I own that saloon. But, all the same, it's not my fault nor The Aura's fault either. I never did spoil Dickie. And I'm a sober man myself. He's just naturally ornery, no account. He always was. I believe he's kind of lacking in the upper story."
"Oh, no, Mr. Hudson!"
The protest was so emphatic that Sylvester pulled his cigar out of his mouth, brushed away the smoke, and looked searchingly at Sheila. She was sitting very straight. Against the crimson plush of an enormous chair-back her small figure looked extravagantly delicate and her little pointed fingers on the arms, startlingly white and fine. A color flamed in her cheeks, her eyes and lips were possessed by the remorseful earnestness of her appeal.
"Well, say, if you think not!" Sylvester narrowed his eyes and thrust the cigar back into a hole made by his mouth for its reception; "you're the first person that hasn't kind of agreed with me on that point. I can't see why he took to the whiskey, anyway. Moderation's my motto and always was. It's the motto of The Aura. There ain't a bar east nor west of the Rockies, Miss Sheila, believe me, that has the reputation for decency and moderation that my Aura has. She's classy, she's stylish—well, sir—she's exquisite"—he pronounced it ex-squisit—"I don't mind sayin' so. She's a saloon in a million. And she's famous. You can hear talk of The Aura in the best clubs, the most se-lect bars of Chicago and Noo York and San Francisco. She's mighty near perfect. Well, say, there was an Englishman in there one night two summers ago. He was some Englishman, too, an earl, that was him. Been all over the world, east, west, and in between. Had a glass in his eye—one of those fellers. Do you know what he told me, Miss Sheila? Can you guess?"
"That The Aura was classy?" suggested Sheila bravely.
"More'n that," Sylvester leaned farther toward her and emphasized his words with the long forefinger.
"'It's all but perfect'—that's what he said—'it only needs one thing to make it quite perfect!'"
"What was the thing?"
But Hudson did not heed her question. "Believe me or not, Miss Sheila, that saloon—"
"But I do believe you," said Sheila with her enchanting smile. "And that's just the trouble with Dickie, isn't it? Your saloon is—must be—the most fascinating place in Millings. Why, Mr. Hudson, ever since I came here, I've been longing to go into it myself!"
She got up after this speech and went to stand near the stove. Not that she was cold—the small room, which looked even smaller on account of its huge flaming furniture and the enormous roses on its carpet and wall-paper, was as hot as a furnace—but because she was abashed by her own speech and by his curious reception of it. The dark blood of his body had risen to his face; he had opened his eyes wide upon her, had sunk back again and begun to smoke with short, excited puffs.
Sheila thought that he was shocked and she was very close to tears. She blinked at the stove and moved her fingers uncertainly. "Nice girls," she thought, "never want to go into saloons!"
Then Sylvester spoke. "You're a girl in a million, Miss Sheila!" he said. His voice was more cracked than usual. Sheila transferred her blinking, almost tearful look from the stove to him. "You're a heap too good for dish-washing," said Sylvester.
For some reason the girl's heart began to beat unevenly. She had a feeling of excitement and suspense. It was as if, after walking for many hours through a wood where there was a lurking presence of danger, she had heard a nearing step. She kept her eyes upon Sylvester. In his there was that mysterious look of appraisal, of vision. He seemed nervous, rolled his cigar and moved his feet.
"Are you satisfied with your work, Miss Sheila?"
Sheila assembled her courage. "I know you'll think me a beast, Mr. Hudson, after all your kindness—and it isn't that I don't like the work. But I've a feeling—no, it's more than a feeling!—I know that your wife doesn't need me. And I know she doesn't want me. She doesn't like to have me here. I've been unhappy about that ever since I came. And it's been getting worse. Yesterday she said she couldn't bear to have me whistling round her kitchen. Mr. Hudson"—Sheila's voice broke childishly—"I can't help whistling. It's a habit. I couldn't work at all if I didn't whistle. I wouldn't have told you, but since you asked me—"
Sylvester held up his long hand. Its emerald glittered.
"That's all right," he said. "I wanted to learn the truth about it. Perhaps you've noticed, Miss Sheila, that I'm not a very happy man at home."
"I mean," said Sylvester heavily—"Momma."
Sheila overcame a horrible inclination to laugh.
"I'm so sorry," she said uncertainly. She was acutely embarrassed, but did not know how to escape. And she was sorry for him, for certainly it seemed to her that a man married to Momma had just cause for unhappiness.
"I ought to be ashamed of myself for bringing you here, Miss Sheila. You see, that's me. I'm so all-fired soft-hearted that I just don't think. I'm all feelings. My heart's stronger than my head, as the palmists say." He rose and came over to Sheila; standing beside her and smiling so that the wrinkle stood out sharply across his unwilling lip. "Did you ever go to one of those fellows?" he asked.
"Yes, ma'am. Well, now, say, did they ever tell you that you were going to be the pride and joy of old Pap Hudson? Give me your little paw, girl!"
Sheila's hand obeyed rather unwillingly her irresolute, polite will. Hudson's came quickly to meet it, spread it out flat in his own long palm, and examined the small rigid surface.
"Well, now, Miss Sheila, I can read something there."
"What can you read?"
"You're goin' to be famous. You're goin' to make Millings famous. Girl, you're goin' to be a picture that will live in the hearts of fellows and keep 'em warm when they're herding winter nights. The thought of you is goin' to keep 'em straight and pull 'em back here. You 're goin' to be a—a sort of a beacon light."
He was holding her slim hand with its small, crushable bones in an excited grip. He was bending forward, not looking at the palm, but at her. Sheila pulled back, wincing a little.
"What do you mean, Mr. Hudson? How could I be all that?"
Sylvester let her go. He began to pace the room. He stopped and looked at her, almost wistfully.
"You really think that I've been kind of nice to you?" he asked.
"Indeed, you have!"
"I'm not a happy man and I've got to be sort of distrustful. I haven't got much faith in the thankfulness of people. I've got fooled too often."
"Try me," said Sheila quickly.
He looked at her with a long and searching look. Then he sighed.
"Some day maybe I will. Run away to bed now."
Sheila felt as if she had been pushed away from a half-opened door. She drew herself up and walked across the huge flowers of the carpet. But before going out she turned back. Sylvester quickly banished a sly smile.
"You won't be angry with Dickie?" she asked.
"Not if it's going to deal you any misery, little girl."
"You're very kind to me."
He put up his hand. "That's all right, Miss Sheila," he said. "That's all right. It's a real pleasure and comfort to me to have you here and I'll try to shape things so they'll suit you—and Momma too. Trust me. But don't you ask me to put any faith in Dickie's upper story. I've climbed up there too often. I'll give up my plan to go round there to-morrow and—" He paused grimly.
"And bawl him out?" suggested Sheila with one of her Puckish impulses.
"Hump! I was going a little further than that. He would likely have done the bawlin'. But don't you worry yourself about Dickie. He's safe for this time—so long's you don't blame me, or—The Aura."
His voice on the last word suffered from one of its cracks. It was as though it had broken under a load of pride and tenderness.
Sheila saw for a moment how it was with him. To every man his passion and his dream: to Sylvester Hudson, his Aura. More than wife or child, he loved his bar. It was a fetish, an idol. To Sheila's fancy Dickie suddenly appeared the sacrifice.
Dickie's room in The Aura Hotel was fitted in between the Men's Lavatory and the Linen Room. It smelt of soiled linen and defective plumbing. Also, into its single narrow window rose the dust of ashes, of old rags and other refuse thrown light-heartedly into the back yard, which not being visible from the street supplied the typical housewife of a frontier town with that relaxation from any necessity to keep up an appearance of economy and cleanliness so desirable to her liberty-loving soul. The housekeeper at The Aura was not Mrs. Hudson, but an enormously stout young woman with blonde hair, named Amelia Plecks. She was so tightly laced and booted that her hard breathing and creaking were audible all over the hotel. When Dickie woke in his narrow room after his moonlight adventure, he heard this heavy breathing in the linen room and, groaning, thrust his head under the pillow. With whatever bitterness his kindly heart could entertain, he loathed Amelia. She took advantage of the favor of Sylvester and of her own exalted position in the hotel to taunt and to humiliate him. His plunge under the pillow did not escape her notice.
"Ain't you up yet, lazybones?" she cried, rapping on the wall. "You won't get no breakfast. It's half-past seven. Who's at the desk to see them Duluth folks off? Pap's not going to be pleased with you."
"I don't want any breakfast," muttered Dickie.
Amelia laughed. "No. I'll be bound you don't. Tongue like a kitten and a head like a cracked stove!"
She slapped down some clean sheets on a shelf and creaked toward the hall, but stopped at the open door. Sylvester Hudson was coming down the passage and she was in no mind to miss the "bawling-out" of Dickie which this visit must portend. She shut the linen-room door softly, therefore, and controlled her breathing.
But Dickie knew that she was there and, when his father rapped, he knew why she was there.
He tumbled wretchedly from his bed, swore at his injured ankle, hopped to the door, unlocked it, and hopped back with panic swiftness before his father's entrance. He sat in his crumpled pajamas amidst his crumpled, dingy bedclothes, his hair scattered over his forehead, his large, heavy eyes fixed anxiously upon Sylvester.
"Say, Poppa—" he began.
Then "Pap's" voice cracked out at him.
"You hold your tongue," snapped Sylvester, "or you'll get what's comin' to you!" He jerked Dickie's single chair from against the wall, threw the clothing from it, and sat down, crossing his legs, and holding up at his son the long finger that had frightened Sheila. Dickie blinked at it.
"You know what I was plannin' to do to you after last night? I meant to come round here and pull you out of your covers and onto the floor there"—he pointed to a spot on the boards to which Dickie fearfully directed his own eyes—"and kick the stuffin' out of you." Dickie contemplated the long, pointed russet shoes of his parent and shuddered visibly. Nevertheless in the slow look he lifted from the boot to his father's face, there was a faint gleam of irony.
"What made you change your mind?" he asked impersonally.
It was this curious detachment of Dickie's, this imperturbability, that most infuriated Hudson. He flushed.
"Just a little sass from you will bring me back to the idea," he said sharply.
Dickie lowered his eyes.
"What made me change was—Miss Arundel's kindness. She came and begged you off. She said you hadn't done anything or said anything to frighten her, that you'd been"—Sylvester drawled out the two words in the sing-song of Western mockery—"'sweet and love-ly.'"
Dickie's face was pink. He began to tie a knot in the corner of one of his thin gray sheet-blankets.
"I don't know how sweet and lovely you can be, Dickie, when you're lit up, but I guess you were awful sweet. Anyway, if you didn't say anything or do anything to scare her, you don't deserve a kickin'. But, just the same, I've a mind to turn you out of Millings."
This time, Dickie's look was not ironical. It was terrified. "Oh, Poppa, say! I'll try not to do it again."
"I never heard that before, did I?" sneered Sylvester. "You put shame on me and my bar. And I'm not goin' to stand it. If you want to get drunk buy a bottle and come up here in your room. God damn you! You're a nice son for the owner of The Aura!"
He stood up and looked with frank disgust at the thin, huddled figure. Under this look, Dickie grew slowly redder and his eyes watered.
Sylvester lifted his upper lip. "Faugh!" he said. He walked over to the door. "Get up and go down to your job and don't you bother Miss Sheila—hear me? Keep away from her. She's not used to your sort and you'll disgust her. She's here under my protection and I've got my plans for her. I'm her guardian—that's what I am." Sylvester was pleased like a man that has made a discovery. "Her guardian," he repeated as though the word had a fine taste.
Dickie watched him. There was no expression whatever in his face and his lips stood vacantly apart. He might have been seven years old.
"Keep away from her—hear me?"
"Yes, sir," said Dickie meekly.
After his father had gone out, Dickie sat for an instant with his head on one side, listening intently. Then he got up, limped quietly and quickly on his bare feet out into the hall, and locked the linen-room door on the outside.
"Amelia's clean forgot to lock it," he said aloud. "Ain't she careless, though, this morning!"
He went back. There was certainly a sound now behind the partition, a sound of hard breathing that could no longer be controlled.
"I'll hand the key over to Mary," soliloquized Dickie in the hollow and unnatural voice of stage confidences. "She'll be goin' in for the towels about noon."
Then he fell on his bed and smothered a fit of chuckling.
Suddenly the mirth died out of him. He lay still, conscious of a pain in his head and in his ankle and somewhere else—an indeterminate spot deep in his being. He had been forbidden to see the girl who ran away out into the night to look at the stars, the girl who had not laughed at his attempt to describe the white ecstasy of the winter moon. He had frightened her—disgusted her. He must have been more drunk than he imagined. It was disgusting—and so hopeless. Perhaps it would be better to leave Millings.
He sat up on the edge of his bed and let his hands hang limply down between his knees. It seemed to him that his thoughts were like a wheel, half-submerged in running water. The wheel went round rapidly, plunging in and out of his consciousness. Hardly had he grasped the meaning of one half when it went under and another blur of moving spokes emerged. Something his father had said, for instance, now began to pass through his mind.... "I've got my plans for her".... Dickie tried to stop the turning wheel because this speech gave him a distinct feeling of anger and alarm. By an effort of his will, he held it before his contemplation.... What possible plans could Sylvester have for Sheila? Did she understand his plans? Did she approve of them? She was so young and small, with that sad, soft mouth and those shining, misty eyes. Dickie, with almost a paternal air, shook his ruffled head. He shut his eyes so that the long lashes stood out in little points. A vision of those two faces—Sheila's so gleaming fair and open, Sylvester's so dark and shut—stood there to be compared. Her guardian, indeed!
Dickie dressed slowly and dragged himself down to the desk, where very soberly and sadly he gave the key of the linen room to Mary. Then he sat down, turned on the Victor, and lit a cigarette. The "Duluth folks" had gone without any assistance from him. There was nothing to do. It occurred to Dickie, all at once, that in Millings there was always nothing to do. Nothing, that is, for him to do. Perhaps, after all, he didn't like Millings. Perhaps that was what was wrong with him.
The Victor was playing:
"Here comes Tootsie, Play a little music on the band. Here comes Tootsie, Tootsie, you are looking simply grand. Play a little tune on the piccolo and flutes, The man who wrote the rag wrote it especially for Toots. Here comes Tootsie—play a little music on the band."
On the last nasal note, the door of The Aura flew open and a resplendent figure crossed the chocolate-colored varnish of the floor. Tootsie herself was not more "simply grand." This was a young man, perhaps it would be more descriptive to say the young man that accompanies the young woman on the cover of the average American magazine. He had—a nose, a chin, a beautiful mouth, large brown eyes, wavy chestnut hair, a ruddy complexion, and, what is not always given to the young man on the cover, a deep and generous dimple in the ruddiest part of his right cheek. He was dressed in the latest suit produced by Schaffner and Marx; he wore a tie of variegated silk which, like Browning's star, "dartled" now red, now blue. The silk handkerchief, which protruded carefully from his breast pocket, also "dartled." So did the socks. One felt that the heart of this young man matched his tie and socks. It was resplendent with the vanity and hopefulness and illusions of twenty-two years.
The large, dingy, chocolate-colored lobby became suddenly a background to Mr. James Greely, cashier of the Millings National Bank, and the only child of its president.
Upon the ruffled and rumpled Dickie he smiled pleasantly, made a curious gesture with his hand—they both belonged to the Knights of Sagittarius and the Fire Brigade—and came to lean upon the desk.
"Holiday at the bank this morning," he said, "in honor of Dad's wedding-anniversary. We're giving a dance to-night in the Hall. Want to come, Dickie?"
"No," said Dickie, "I hurt my ankle last night on the icy pavement. And anyhow I can't dance. And I sort of find girls kind of tiresome."
"That's too bad. I'm sure sorry for you, Hudson. Particularly as I came here just for the purpose of handing you over the cutest little billy-doo you ever saw."
He drew out of his pocket an envelope and held it away from Dickie.
"You're trying to job me, Jim,"—but Dickie had his head coaxingly on one side and his face was pink.
"I'll give it to you if you can guess the sender."
"Well, sir, it ain't Girlie's fist—not the fist she uses when she drops me billy-doos."
Dickie's eyes fell. He turned aside in his chair and stopped the grinding of the graphophone. He made no further guess. Jim, with his dimple deepening, tossed the small paper into the air and caught it again deftly.
"It's from the young lady from Noo York who's helping Mrs. Hudson," he said. "I guess she's kind of wishful for a beau. She's not much of a looker Girlie tells me."
"Haven't you met her yet, Jim?" Dickie's hands were in his pockets, but his eyes followed the gyrations of the paper.
"No. Ain't that a funny thing, too? Seems like I never get round to it. I just saw her peeping at me one day through the parlor curtains while I was saying sweet nothings to Girlie on the porch. I guess she was kind of in-ter-ested. She's skinny and pale, Girlie says. Your mother hasn't got any use for her. I bet you, it won't be long before she makes tracks back to Noo York, Dickie. Girlie says she won't be lingering on here much longer. Too much competition."
Jim handed the note to Dickie, who had listened to this speech with his seven-year-old expression. He made no comment, but silently unfolded Sheila's note.
The writing itself was like her, slender and fine and straight, a little reckless, daintily desperate. That "I," now, on the white paper might be Sheila skimming across the snow.
"My dear Dickie—somehow I can't call you 'Mr. Hudson'—I am so terribly sorry about the way I acted to you last night. I don't know why I was so foolish. I have tried to explain to your father that you did nothing and said nothing to frighten me, that you were very polite and kind, but I am afraid he doesn't quite understand. I hope he won't be very cross with you, because it was all my fault—no, not quite all, because I think you oughtn't to have followed me. I'm sure you're sorry that you did. But it was a great deal my fault, so I'm writing this to tell you that I wasn't really frightened nor very angry. Just sorry and disappointed. Because I thought you were so very nice. And not like Millings. And you liked the mountains better than the town. I wanted—I still want—you to be my friend. For I do need a friend here, dreadfully. Will you come to see me some afternoon? I hope you didn't hurt yourself when you slipped on those icy steps.
"Sincerely SHEILA ARUNDEL"
Dickie put the note into his pocket and looked unseeingly at Jim. Jim was turning up the bottoms of his trousers preparing to go.
"So you won't come to our dance?" he asked straightening himself, more ruddy than ever.
"Well, sir," said Dickie slowly and indifferently, "I wouldn't wonder if I would."
On that night, while all Millings was preparing itself for the Greelys' dance, while Dickie, bent close to his cracked mirror, was tying his least crumpled tie with not too steady fingers, while Jim was applying to his brown crest a pomade sent to him by a girl in Cheyenne, while Babe was wondering anxiously whether green slippers could be considered a match or a foil to a dress of turquoise blue, while Girlie touched her cream-gold hair with cream-padded finger-tips, Sheila Arundel prowled about her room with hot anger and cold fear in her heart.
Nothing, perhaps, in all this mysterious world is so inscrutable a mystery as the mind of early youth. It crawls, the beetle creature, in a hard shell, hiding the dim, inner struggle of its growing wings, moving numbly as if in a torpid dream. It has forgotten the lively grub stage of childhood, and it cannot foresee the dragon-fly adventure just ahead. This blind, dumb, numb, imprisoned thing, an irritation to the nerves of every one who has to deal with it, suffers. First it suffers darkly and dimly the pain growth, and then it suffers the sharp agony of a splitting shell, the dazzling wounds of light, the torture of first moving its feeble wings. It drags itself from its shell, it clings to its perch, it finds itself born anew into the world.
When Sheila had left the studio with Sylvester, she was not yet possessed of wings. Now, the shell was cracking, the dragon-fly adventure about to begin. To a changed world, changed stars—the heavens above and the earth beneath were strange to her that night.
It had begun, this first piercing contact of reality, rudely enough. Mrs. Hudson had helped to split the protecting shell which had saved Sheila's growing dreams. Perhaps "Momma" had her instructions, perhaps it was only her own disposition left by her knowing husband to do his trick for him. Sheila had not overstated the unhappiness that Mrs. Hudson's evident dislike had caused her. In fact, she had greatly understated it. From the first moment at the station, when the hard eyes had looked her over and the harsh voice had asked about "the girl's trunk," Sheila's sensitiveness had begun to suffer. It was not easy, even with Babe's good-humored help, to go down into the kitchen and submit to Mrs. Hudson's hectoring. "Momma" had all the insolence of the underdog. Of her daughters, as of her husband, she was very much afraid. They all bullied her, Babe with noisy, cheerful effrontery—"sass" Sylvester called it—and Girlie with a soft, unyielding tyranny that had the smothering pressure of a large silk pillow. Girlie was tall and serious and beautiful, the proud possessor of what Millings called "a perfect form." She was inexpressibly slow and untidy, vain and ignorant and self-absorbed. At this time her whole being was centered upon the attentions of Jim Greely, with whom she was "keeping company." With Jim Greely in her mind, she had looked Sheila over, thin and weary Sheila in her shabby black dress, and had decided that here no danger threatened. Nevertheless she did not take chances. Sheila had been in Millings a fortnight and had not met the admirable Jim. Her attempt that morning to send the note to Dickie by Jim was exactly the action that led to the painful splitting of her shell.
She had seen from her window Sylvester's departure after breakfast. There was something in his grim, angular figure, moving carefully over the icy pavement in the direction of the hotel, that gave her a pang for Dickie. She was sure that Hudson was going to be very disagreeable in spite of her attempt to soften his anger. And she was sorry that Dickie, with his odd, wistful, friendly face and his eyes so wide and youthful and apologetic for their visions, should think that she was angry or disgusted. She wrote her letter in a little glow of rescue, and was proud of the tact of that reference to his "fall down the steps"—for she reasoned that the self-esteem of any boy of nineteen must suffer poignantly over the memory of being knocked down by his father before the eyes of a strange girl. She wrote her note and ran down the stairs, then stopped to wonder how she could get it promptly to Dickie. It was intended as a poultice to be applied after the "bawling-out," and she could not very well take it to him herself. She knew that he worked in the hotel, and the hotel was just around the corner. All that was needed was a messenger.
She was standing, pink of cheek and vague of eye, fingering her apron like a cottage child and nibbling at the corner of her envelope, the light from a window on the stairs falling on the jewel-like polish of her hair, when Girlie opened the door of the "parlor" and came out into the hall. Girlie saw her and half-closed the door. Her lazy eyes, as reflective and receptive and inexpressive as small meadow pools under a summer sky, rested upon Sheila. In the parlor a pleasant baritone voice was singing,
"Treat me nice, Miss Mandy Jane, Treat me nice. Don't you know I'se not to blame, Lovers all act just the same, Treat me nice..."
Girlie's fingers tightened on the doorknob.
"What do you want, Sheila?" she asked, and into the slow, gentle tones of her voice something had crept, something sinuous and subtle, something that slid into the world with Lilith for the eternal torment of earth's daughters.
"I want to send this note to your brother," said Sheila with the simplicity of the aristocrat. "Is that Mr. Greely? Is he going past the hotel?"
She took a step toward Jim, but Girlie held out her soft long hand.
"Give it to me. I'll ask him."
Sheila surrendered the note.
"You'd better get back to the dishes," said Girlie over her shoulder. "Momma's kind of rushed this morning. She's helping Babe with her party dress. I wouldn't 'a' put in my time writing notes to Dickie to-day if I'd 'a' been you. Sort of risky."
She slid in through the jealous door and Sheila hurried along the hall to the kitchen where there was an angry clash and clack of crockery.
The kitchen was furnished almost entirely with blue-flowered oilcloth; the tables were covered with it, the floor was covered with it, the shelves were draped in it. Cold struck up through the shining, clammy surface underfoot so that while Sheila's face burned from the heat of the stove her feet were icy. The back door was warped and let in a current of frosty air over its sill, a draught that circled her ankles like cold metal. On the table in the middle of the room, "Momma" had placed an enormous tin dish-pan piled high with dirty dishes, over which she was pouring the contents of the kettle. Steam rose in clouds, half-veiling her big, fierce face which, seen through holes in the vapor, was like that of a handsome, vulgar witch.
Through the steam she shot at Sheila a cruel look. "Aren't you planning to do any work to-day, Sheila?" she asked in her voice of harsh, monotonous accents. "Here it's nine o'clock and I ain't been able to do a stroke to Babe's dress. I dunno what you was designed for in this house—an ornament on the parlor mantel, I guess."
Sheila's heart suffered one of the terrible swift enlargements of angry youth. It seemed to fill her chest and stop her breath, forcing water into her eyes. She could not speak, went quickly up and took the kettle from "Momma's" red hand.
The table at which dish-washing was done, was inconveniently high. When the big dishpan with its piled dishes topped it, Sheila's arms and back were strained over her work. She usually pulled up a box on which she stood, but now she went to work blindly, her teeth clenched, her flexible red lips set close to cover them. The Celtic fire of her Irish blood gave her eyes a sort of phosphorescent glitter. "Momma" looked at her.
"Don't show temper!" she said. "What were you doin'? Upstairs work?"
"I was writing a letter," said Sheila in a low voice, beginning to wash the plates and shrinking at the pain of scalding water.
"Hmp! Writing letters at this hour! One of your friends back East? I thought it was about time somebody was looking you up. What do your acquaintance think of you comin' West with Sylly?"
Now that she was at liberty to put a "stroke" of work; on Babe's dress, "Momma" seemed in no particular hurry to do so. She stood in the middle of the kitchen wrapping her great bony arms in her checked apron and staring at Sheila. Her eyes were like Girlie's turned to stone, as blank and blind as living eyes can be.
Sheila did not answer. She was white and her hands shook.
"Hmp!" said "Momma" again. "We aren't goin' to talk about our acquaintance, are we? Well, some folks' acquaintance don't bear talkin' about; they're either too fine or they ain't the kind that gets into decent conversation." She walked away.
Sheila did her work, holding her anger and her misery away from her, refusing to look at them, to analyze their cause. It was a very busy day. The help Babe usually gave, and "Momma's" more effectual assistance, were not to be had. Sheila cleaned up the kitchen, swept the dining-room, set the table and cooked the supper. Her exquisite French omelette and savory baked tomatoes were reviled. The West knows no cooking but its own, and, like all victims of uneducated taste, it prefers the familiar bad to the unfamiliar good.
"You've spoiled a whole can of tomatoes," said Babe.
Sylvester laughed good-humoredly: "Oh, well, Miss Sheila, you'll learn!" This, to Sheila, whose omelette had been taught her by Mimi Lolotte and whose baked tomatoes, delicately flavored with onion, were something to dream about. And she had toasted the bread golden brown and buttered it, and she had made a delectable vegetable soup! She had never before been asked to cook a meal at Number 18 Cottonwood Avenue and she was eager to please Sylvester. His comment, "You'll learn," fairly took her breath. She would not sit down with them at the table, but hurried back into the kitchen, put her scorched cheek against some cold linoleum, and cried.