Q U I N
ALICE HEGAN RICE
Author of "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch," "Lovey Mary," "Sandy," "Calvary Alley," etc.
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1921
Copyright, 1921, by THE CENTURY CO.
PRINTED IN U. S. A.
TO MY MERRIEST FRIEND
JOSEPHINE F. HAMILL
The Table of Contents was not in the original text and has been created for the convenience of the reader.
CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 20 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 21 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 22 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 23 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 24 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 25 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 26 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 27 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 28 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 29 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 30 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 31 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 32 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 33 CHAPTER 17
Q U I N
If the dollar Quinby Graham tossed up on New Year's eve had not elected to slip through his fingers and roll down the sewer grating, there might have been no story to write. Quin had said, "Tails, yes"; and who knows but that down there under the pavement that coin of fate was registering "Heads, no"? It was useless to suggest trying it over, however, for neither of the young privates with town leave for twenty-four hours possessed another coin.
The heavier of the two boys, Cass Martel,—the lame one, whose nose began quite seriously, as if it had every intention of being a nose, then changed abruptly into a button,—scraped the snow from the sewer grating with his cane, and swore savagely under his breath. But Quin shrugged his shoulders with a slow, easy-going laugh.
"That settles it," he said triumphantly. "We got to go to the Hawaiian Garden now, because it's the only place that's free!"
"I'll be hanged if I know what you want to go to a dance for," argued his companion fiercely. "Here you been on your back for six months, and your legs so shaky they won't hardly hold you. Don't you know you can't dance?"
"Sure," agreed Quin amicably. "I don't mean to dance. But I got to go where I can see some girls. I'm dead sick of men. Come on in. We don't need to stay but a little while."
"That's too long for me," said Cass. "If you weren't such a bonehead for doing what you start out to do, we could do something interesting."
One might have thought they were Siamese twins, from the way in which Cass ignored the possibility of each going his own way. He glared at his tall companion with a mingled expression of rage and dog-like devotion.
"Cut it out, Cass," said Quin at last, putting an end to an argument that had been in progress for fifteen minutes. "I'm going to that dance, and I'm going to make love to the first girl that looks at me. I'll meet you wherever you say at six o'clock."
Cass, seeing that further persuasion was useless, reluctantly consented.
"Well, you take care of yourself, and don't forget you are going home with me for the night," he warned.
"Where else could I go? Haven't got a red cent, and I wouldn't go back out to the hospital if I had to bunk on the curbstone! So long, cherie!"
Sergeant Quinby Graham, having thus carried his point, adjusted his overseas cap at a more acute angle, turned back his coat to show his distinguished-conduct medal, and went blithely up the steps to the dance-hall. He was tall and outrageously thin, and pale with the pallor that comes from long confinement. His hands and feet seemed too big for the rest of him, and his blond hair stuck up in a bristly mop above his high forehead. But Sergeant Graham walked with the buoyant tread of one who has a good opinion not only of himself but of mankind in general.
The only thing that disturbed his mind was the fact that, swagger as he would, his shoulders, usually so square and trim, refused to fill out his uniform. It was the first time he had had it on for six months, his wardrobe having been limited to pajamas and bath-robes during his convalescence in various hospitals at home and abroad.
Two years before, when he had left a lumber camp in Maine to answer America's first call for volunteers to France, his personal appearance had concerned him not in the least. But the army had changed that, as it had changed most things for Quin.
He checked his overcoat at the hall entrance, stepped eagerly up to the railing that divided the spectators from the dancers, and drew a deep breath of satisfaction. Here, at last, was something different from the everlasting hospital barracks: glowing lights, holiday decorations, the scent of flowers instead of the stale fumes of ether and disinfectants; soul-stirring music in place of the wheezy old phonograph grinding out the same old tunes; and, above all, girls, hundreds of them, circling in a bewildering rainbow of loveliness before him.
Was it any wonder that Quin's foot began to twitch, and that, in spite of repeated warnings at the hospital, a blind desire seized him to dance? At the mere thought his heart gained a beat—that unruly heart, which had caused so much trouble. It had never been right since that August day in the Sevzevais sector, when, to quote his citation, he "had shown great initiative in assuming command when his officer was disabled, and, with total disregard for his personal safety, had held his machine-gun against almost impossible odds." In the accomplishment of this feat he had been so badly gassed and wounded that his career as a soldier was definitely, if gloriously, ended.
The long discipline of pain to which he had been subjected had not, however, conquered Quin's buoyancy. He was still tremendously vital, and when he wanted anything he wanted it inordinately and immediately. Just now, when every muscle in him was keeping time to that soul-disturbing music, he heard his own imperative desire voiced at his elbow:
"I don't want to go home. I want to dance. Nobody will notice us. Just one round, Captain Phipps."
The voice was young and singularly vibrant, and the demand in it was quite as insistent as the demand that was clamoring in Quin's own khaki-covered breast.
He craned his neck to see the speaker; but she was hidden by her escort, in whose supercilious profile he recognized one of the officers in charge of his ward at the hospital.
"You foolish child!" the officer was saying, fingering his diminutive mustache and viewing the scene with a somewhat contemptuous smile. "You said if I would bring you in for a moment you wouldn't ask to stay."
"I know, but I always break my promises," said the coaxing voice; "and besides I'm simply crazy to dance."
"You surely don't imagine that I would get out on the floor with all this hoi-poloi?"
Quin saw a pair of small gloved hands grasp the railing resolutely, and he was straightway filled with indignation that any man, of whatever rank, should stand back on his dignity when a voice like that asked a favor. A similar idea had evidently occurred to the young lady, for she said with some spirit:
"The only difference I can see between these boys and you is that they are privates who got over, and you are an officer who didn't."
Quin could not hear the answer, but as the officer shifted his position he caught his first glimpse of the girl. She was very young and obviously imperious, with white skin and coal-black hair and the most utterly destructive brown eyes he had ever encountered. Discretion should have prompted him to seek immediate safety out of the firing-line, but instead he put himself in the most exposed position possible and waited results.
They arrived on schedule time.
"Captain Phipps!" called a page. "Wanted on the telephone."
"Will you wait for me here just a second?" asked the officer.
"I don't know whether I will or not," was the spirited answer; "I may go home."
"Then I'll follow you," said the Captain as he pushed his way through the crowd to the telephone-booth.
It was just at this moment, when the jazz band was breaking into its most beguiling number, that Quin's eyes and the girl's eyes met in a glance of mutual desire. History repeated itself. Once again, "with total disregard for his personal safety, Sergeant Graham assumed command when his officer was disabled," and rashly flung himself into the breach.
"Will you dance it with me?" he asked eagerly, and he blushed to the roots of his stubbly hair.
There was an ominous pause, during which the young girl stood irresolute, while Mrs. Grundy evidently whispered "Don't" in one ear and instinct whispered "Do" in the other. It lasted but a second, for the next thing Quin knew, a small gloved hand was slipped into his, a blue plume was tickling his nose, and he was gliding a bit unsteadily into Paradise.
What his heart might do after that dance was of absolutely no consequence to him. It could beat fast or slow, or even stop altogether, if it would only hold out as long as the music did. Round and round among the dancers he guided his dainty partner, carefully avoiding the entrance end of the hall, and devoutly praying that his clumsy army shoes might not crush those little high-heeled brown pumps tripping so deftly in and out between them. He was not used to dancing with officers' girls, and he held the small gray-gloved hand in his big fist as if it were a bird about to take flight.
Next to the return of the Captain, he dreaded that other dancers, seeing his prize, would try to capture her; but there was a certain tempered disdain in the poise of his little partner's head, an ability to put up a quick and effective defense against intrusion, that protected him as well.
Neither of them spoke until the music stopped, and then they stood applauding vociferously, with the rest, for an encore.
"I ought to go," said the Radiant Presence, with a guilty glance upward from under long eyelashes. "You don't see a very cross-looking Captain charging around near the door, do you?"
"No," said Quin, without turning his head, "I don't see him"—and he smiled as he said it.
Now, Quin's smile was his chief asset in the way of looks. It was a leisurely smile, that began far below the surface and sent preliminary ripples up to his eyes and the corners of his big mouth, and broke through at last in a radiant flash of good humor. In this case it met a very prompt answer under the big hat.
"You see, I'm not supposed to be dancing," she explained rather condescendingly.
"Nor me, either," said Quin, breathing heavily.
Then the band decided to be accommodating, and the saxophone decided to out-jazz the piano, and the drum got its ambition roused and joined in the competition, and the young couple who were not supposed to be dancing out-danced everything on the floor!
Quin's heart might have adjusted itself to that first dance, but the rollicking encore, together with the emotional shock it sustained every time those destructive eyes were trained upon him, was too much for it.
"Say, would you mind stopping a bit?—just for a second?" he gasped, when his breath seemed about to desert him permanently.
"You surely aren't tired?" scoffed the young lady, lifting a pair of finely arched eyebrows.
"No; but, you see—as a matter of fact, ever since I was gassed——"
The word acted like a charm. The girl's sensitive face, over which the expressions played like sunlight on water, softened to instant sympathy, and Quin, who up to now had been merely a partner, suddenly found himself individual.
"Did you see much actual service?" she asked, her eyes wide with interest.
"Sure," said Quin, bracing himself against a post and trying to keep his breath from coming in jerks; "saw sixteen months of it."
Her quick glance swept from the long scar on his forehead to the bar on his breast.
"What do all those stars on the rainbow ribbon mean?" she demanded.
"Major engagements," said Quin diffidently.
"And the silver one in the middle?"
"A citation," He glanced around to make sure none of the other boys were near, then confessed, as if to a crime: "That's where I got my medal."
"Come over here and sit down this minute," she commanded. "You've got to tell me all about it."
It would be very pleasant to chronicle the fact that our hero modestly declined to take advantage of the opportunity thus offered. But it must be borne in mind that, his heart having failed him at a critical hour, he had to fall back upon his tongue as the only means at hand of detaining the Celestial Being who at any moment might depart. With what breath he had left he told his story, and, having a good story to tell, he did it full justice. Sometimes, to be sure, he got his pronouns mixed, and once he lost the thread of his discourse entirely; but that was when he became too conscious of those star-like eyes and the flattering absorption of the little lady who for one transcendent moment was deigning "to love him for the dangers he had passed." With unabated interest and curiosity she drank in every detail of his recital, her half-parted lips only closing occasionally to say, "Wonderful!" or "How perfectly wonderful!"
On and on went the music, round and round went the dancers, and still the private in the uniform that was too big and the officer's girl in blue and gray sat in the alcove, totally oblivious to everything but each other.
It was not until the girl happened to look at the ridiculous little watch that was pretending to keep time on her wrist that the spell was broken.
"Merciful heaven!" she exclaimed dramatically, "It's six o'clock. What will the family say to me? I must fly this minute."
"But ain't you going to finish this dance with me?" asked Quin with tragic insistence.
"Ought you to dance again?" The note was personal and divinely solicitous.
"I oughtn't, but I am"; and, with superb disregard for doctors and syntax alike, Quin put a firm arm around that slender yielding figure and swept her into the moving crowd.
They danced very quietly this time, for he was determined to hold out to the end. In fact, from the dreamy, preoccupied look on their faces one might have mistaken them for two zealous young acolytes lost in the performance of a religious rite.
Quin was still in a trance when he helped her on with her coat and piloted her down the crowded stairs. He could not bear to have her jostled by the boisterous crowd, and he glared at the men whose admiring glances dared to rest too long upon her.
Now that the dance was over, the young lady was in a fever of impatience to get away. Qualms of remorse seized her for the way she had treated her one-time escort, and she hinted at the trouble in store for her if the family heard of her escapade.
Outside the pavements were white with snow, and falling flakes glistened against the blue electric lights. Holiday crowds thronged the sidewalks, and every other man was in uniform.
"I left my car at the corner," said Quin's companion, nervously consulting her watch for the fourth time. "You needn't come with me; I can find it all right."
But Quin hadn't the slightest intention of forgoing one second of that delectable interview. He followed her to her car, awkwardly helped her in, and stood looking at her wistfully. In her hurry to get home she seemed to have forgotten him entirely. In two minutes she would never know that she had met him, while he——
"Good-by, Soldier Boy," she said, suddenly holding out her hand.
"My name is Graham," stammered Quin—"Sergeant Quinby Graham; Battery C, Sixth Field Artillery. And yours?"
She was fussing with the starter by this time, but she smiled up at him and shook her head.
"I? Oh, I haven't any! I'm just an irresponsible young person who is going to gets fits for having stayed out so late. But it was worth it, wasn't it—Sergeant Slim?"
And then, before he knew what had happened, the small runabout was skilfully backed out of its narrow space and a red tail-light was rapidly wagging down the avenue, leaving him standing dazed on the curbstone.
"Where in the devil have you been?" demanded a cross voice behind him, and turning he encountered Cass's snub-nose and irate eyes.
Quin's own eyes were shining and his face was flushed. With a laugh he flung his arm around his buddy's shoulder and affectionately punched his head.
"In heaven," he answered laconically.
"Funny place to leave your overcoat!" said Cass, viewing him with suspicion. "Quin Graham, have you had a drink?"
Quin hilariously declared his innocence. The draught of which he had so freely imbibed, though far more potent than any earthly brew, was one against which there are no prohibitory laws.
The fact that Cass had neglected to tell the family that he was bringing a friend home to supper did not in the least affect his welcome. It was not that the daily menu was of such a lavish nature that a guest or two made no difference; it was simply that the Martels belonged to that casual type which accepts any interruption to the regular order of things as a God-sent diversion.
In the present instance Rose had only to dispatch Edwin to the grocery for eggs and cheese, and send Myrna next door to borrow a chafing-dish, and, while these errands were being accomplished, to complete her own sketchy toilet. Rose was an impressionist when it came to dress. She got the desired effect with the least possible effort, as was evinced now by the way she was whirling two coils of chestnut hair, from which the tangles had not been removed, into round puffs over each ear. A dab of rouge on each cheek, a touch of red on the lips, a dash of powder over the whole, sleeves turned back, neck turned in, resulted in a poster effect that was quite satisfactory.
Of course the Martels had heard of Quinby Graham: his name had loomed large in Cass's letters from France and later in his conversation; but this was the first time the hero was to be presented in person.
"What's he like, Rose?" asked Myrna, arriving breathlessly with the chafing-dish. Myrna was twelve and seemed to labor under the constant apprehension that she was missing something, due no doubt to the fact that she was invariably dispatched on an errand when anything interesting was pending.
"Don't know," said Rose; "the hall was pitch-dark. He's got a nice voice, though, and a dandy handshake."
"I bid to sit next to him at supper," said Myrna, hugging herself in ecstasy.
"You can if you promise not to take two helps of the Welsh rabbit."
Myrna refused to negotiate on any such drastic terms. "Are we going to have a fire in the sitting-room?" she asked.
"I don't know whether there is any more wood. Papa Claude promised to order some. You go see while I set the table. I've a good notion to call over the fence and ask Fan Loomis to come to supper."
"Oh, Rose, please do!" cried Myrna. "I won't take but one help."
Cass, in the meanwhile, was making his guest at home in the sitting-room by permitting him to be useful.
"You can light the lamp," he said, "while I make a fire."
Quin was willing to oblige, but the lamp was not. It put up a stubborn resistance to all efforts to coax it to do its duty.
"I bet it hasn't been filled," said Cass; then, after the fashion of mankind, he lifted his voice in supplication to the nearest feminine ear:
His older sister, coming to the rescue, agreed with his diagnosis of the case, and with Quin's assistance bore the delinquent lamp to the kitchen.
"Hope you don't mind being made home-folks," she said, patting the puffs over her ears and looking at him sideways.
"Mind?" said Quin. "If you knew how good all this looks to me! It's the first touch of home I've had in years. Wish you'd let me set the table—I'm strong on K. P."
"Help yourself," said Rose; "the plates are in the pantry and the silver in the sideboard drawer. Wait a minute!"
She took a long apron from behind the door and handed it to him.
"How do these ends buckle up?" he asked, helplessly holding out the straps of the bib.
"They button around your little neck," she told him, smiling. "Turn round; I'll fix it."
"Why turn round?" said Quin.
Their eyes met in frank challenge.
"You silly boy!" she said—but she put her arms around his neck and fastened the bib just the same.
How that supper ever got itself cooked and served is a marvel. Everybody took a turn at the stirring and toasting, everybody contributed a missing article to the table, and there was much rushing from kitchen to dining-room, with many collisions and some upsets.
Quin was in the highest of spirits. Even Cass had never seen him quite like this. With his white apron over his uniform, he pranced about, dancing attendance on Rose, and keeping Myrna and Edwin in gales of laughter over his antics. Every now and then, however, his knees got wabbly and his breath came short, and by the time supper was prepared he was quite ready to sit down.
"What a shame Nell's not here!" said Rose, breaking the eggs into the chafing-dish. "Then we could have charades. She's simply great when she gets started."
"Who is Nell?" asked Quin.
"Eleanor Bartlett, our cousin. She's like chicken and ice-cream—the rich Bartletts have her on weekdays and we poor Martels get her only on Sundays. Hasn't Cass ever told you about Nell?"
"Do you suppose I spend my time talking about my precious family?" growled Cass.
"No, but Nell's different," said Rose; "she's a sort of Solomon's baby—I mean the baby that Solomon had to decide about. Only in this case neither old Madam Bartlett nor Papa Claude will give up their half; they'd see her dead first."
"You did tell me about her," said Quin to Cass, "one night when we were up in the Cantigny offensive. I remember the place exactly. Something about an orphan, and a lawsuit, and a little girl that was going to be an actress."
"That's the dope," said Cass. "Only she's not a kid any more. She grew up while I was in France. She's a great girl, Nell is, when you get her away from that Bartlett mess!"
"Does anybody know where Papa Claude is?" Rose demanded, dexterously ladling out steaming Welsh rabbit on to slices of crisp brown toast.
"He is here, mes enfants, he is here!" cried a joyous voice from the hall, followed by a presence at once so exuberant and so impressive that Quin stared in amazement.
"This is Quinby Graham, grandfather," said Cass, by way of introduction.
The dressy old gentleman with the flowing white locks and the white rose in his buttonhole bore down upon Quin and enveloped his hand in both his own.
"I welcome you for Cassius' sake and for your own!" he declared with such effusion that Quin was visibly embarrassed. "My grandson has told me of your long siege in the hospital, of your noble service to your country, of your gallant conduct at——"
"Sit down, Papa Claude, and finish your oration after supper," cried Rose; "the rabbit won't wait on anybody."
Thus cut short, Mr. Martel took his seat and, nothing daunted, helped himself bountifully to everything within reach.
"I am a gourmet, Sergeant Graham, but not a gourmand. Edwin Booth used to say——"
"Sir?" answered Edwin Booth's namesake from the kitchen, where he had been dispatched for more bread.
"No, no, my son, I was referring to——"
But Papa Claude, as usual, did not get to finish the sentence. The advent of the next-door neighbor, who had been invited and then forgotten, caused great amusement owing to the fact that there was no more supper left.
"Give her some bread and jam, Myrna," said Rose; "and if the jam is out, bring the brown sugar. You don't mind, do you, Fan?"
Fan, an amiable blonde person who was going to be fat at forty, declared that she didn't want a thing to eat, honestly she didn't, and that besides she adored bread and brown sugar.
"We won't stop to wash up," said Rose; "Myrna will have loads of time to do it in the morning, because she doesn't have to go to school. We'll just clear the table and let the dishes stand."
"We are incorrigible Bohemians, as you observe," said Mr. Martel to Quin, with a deprecating arching of his fine brows. "We lay too little stress, I fear, on the conventions. But the exigencies of the dramatic profession—of which, you doubtless know, I have been a member for the past forty years——"
"Take him in the sitting-room, Mr. Graham," urged Rose; "I'll bring your coffee in there."
Without apparently being conscious of the fact, Mr. Martel, still discoursing in rounded periods, was transferred to the big chair beside the lamp, while Quin took up his stand on the hearth-rug and looked about him.
Such a jumble of a room as it was! Odds and ends of furniture, the survival of various household wrecks; chipped bric-a-brac; a rug from which the pattern had long ago vanished; an old couch piled with shabby cushions; a piano with scattered music sheets. On the walls, from ceiling to foot-board, hung faded photographs of actors and actresses, most of them with bold inscriptions dashed across their corners in which the donors invariably expressed their friendship, affection, or if the chirography was feminine their devoted love, for "dear Claude Martel." Over the mantel was a portrait of dear Claude himself, taken in the role of Mark Antony, and making rather a good job of it, on the whole, with his fine Roman profile and massive brow.
It was all shabby and dusty and untidy; but to Quinby Graham, standing on the hearth-rug and trying to handle his small coffee-cup as if he were used to it, the room was completely satisfying. There was a cozy warmth and mellowness about it, a kindly atmosphere of fellowship, a sense of intimate human relations, that brought a lump into his throat. He had almost forgotten that things could be like this!
So absorbed was he in his surroundings, and in the imposing old actor encompassed by the galaxy of pictured notables, that he lost the thread of Mr. Martel's discourse until he heard him asking:
"What is the present? A clamor of the senses, a roar that deafens us to the music of life. I dwell in the past and in the future, Sergeant Graham—the dear reminiscent past and the glorious unborn future. And that reminds me that Cassius tells me that you are both about to receive your discharge from the army and are ready for the next great adventure. May I ask what yours is to be? A return, perhaps, to your native city?"
"My native city happens to be a river," said Quin. "I was born on a house-boat going up the Yangtse-Kiang."
"Indeed!" cried Mr. Martel with interest. "What a romantic beginning! And your family?"
"Haven't got any. You see, sir," said Quin, expanding under the flattering attention of his host, "my people were all missionaries. Most of them died off before I was fourteen, and I was shipped back to America to go to school. I didn't hold out very long, though. After two years in high school I ran away and joined the navy."
"And since then you have been a soldier of fortune, eh? No cares, no responsibilities. Free to roam the wide world in search of adventure."
Quin studied the end of his cigarette.
"That ain't so good as it sounds," he said. "Sometimes I think I'd amounted to more if I had somebody that belonged to me."
"Isn't it rather early in the season for a young man's fancy to be lightly turning——"
The quotation was lost upon Quin, but the twinkle in the speaker's expressive eye was not.
"I didn't mean that," he laughingly protested; "I mean a mother or a sister or somebody like that, who would be a kind of anchor. Take Cass, for instance; he's steady as a rock."
"Ah! Cassius! One in ten thousand. From the time he was twelve he has shared with me the financial burden. An artist, Sergeant Graham, must remain aloof from the market-place. Now that I have retired permanently from the stage in order to devote my time exclusively to writing, my only business engagement is a series of lectures at the university, where, as you know, I occupy the chair of Dramatic Literature."
The chair thus euphemistically referred to was scarcely more than a three-legged stool, which he occupied four mornings in the week, the rest of his time being spent at home in the arduous task of writing tragedies in blank verse.
"What I got to think about is a job," said Quin, much more interested in his own affairs than in those of his host.
"Commercial or professional?" inquired Mr. Martel.
"Oh, I can turn my hand to 'most anything," bragged Quin, blowing smoke-rings at the ceiling. "It's experience that counts, and, believe me, I've had a plenty."
"Experience plus education," added Mr. Martel; "we must not underestimate the advantages of education."
"That's where I'm short," admitted Quin. "My folks were all smart enough. Guess if they had lived I'd been put through college and all the rest of it. My grandfather was Dr. Ezra Quinby. Ever hear of him?"
Mr. Martel had to acknowledge that he had not.
"Guess he is better known in China than in America," said Quin. "He died before I was born."
"And you have no people in America?"
"No people anywhere," said Quin cheerfully; "but I got a lot of friends scattered around over the world, and a bull-dog and a couple of cats up at a lumber-camp near Portland."
"Cassius tells me that you are thinking of returning to Maine."
Quin ran his fingers through his hair and laughed. "That was yesterday," he said. "To-day you couldn't get me out of Kentucky with a machine-gun!"
Claude Martel rose and laid an affectionate hand on his shoulder. "Then, my boy, we claim you as our own. Cassius' home is your home, his family your family, his——"
The address of welcome was cut short by Cass's arrival with an armful of wood which he deposited on the hearth, and a moment later the girls, followed by Edwin, came trooping in from the kitchen.
"Let's make a circle round the fire and sing the old year out," suggested Rose gaily. "Myrna, get the banjo and the guitar. Shall I play on the piano, Papa Claude, or will you?"
Mr. Martel, expressing the noble sentiment that age should always be an accompaniment to youth, took his place at the piano and, with a pose worthy of Rubinstein, struck a few preliminary chords, while the group about the fire noisily settled itself for the evening.
"You can put your head against my knees, if you like," Rose said to Quin, who was sprawling on the floor at her feet. "There, is that comfy?"
"I'll say it's all right!" said Quin with heartfelt satisfaction.
There was something free and easy and gipsy-like about the evening, a sort of fireside picnic that brought June dreams in January. As the hours wore on, the singing, which had been noisy and rollicking, gradually mellowed into sentiment, a sentiment that found vent in dreamy eyes and long-drawn-out choruses, with a languorous over-accentuation of the sentimental passages. One by one, the singers fell under the spell of the music and the firelight. Cass and Fan Loomis sat shoulder to shoulder on the broken-springed couch and gazed with blissful oblivion into the red embers on the hearth. Rose, whose voice led all the rest, surreptitiously wiped her eyes when no one was looking; Edwin and Myrna, solemnly plucking their banjo and guitar, were lost in moods of dormant emotion; while Papa Claude at the piano let his dim eyes range the pictured walls, while his memory traveled back through the years on many a secret tryst of its own.
But it was the lank Sergeant with the big feet, and the hair that stood up where it shouldn't, who dared to dream the most preposterous dream of them all. For, as he sang there in the firelight, a little god was busy lighting the tapers in the most sacred shrines of his being, until he felt like a cathedral at high mass with all the chimes going.
"There's a long, long trail a-winding Into the land of my dreams, Where the nightingales are singing And a white moon beams."
How many times he had sung it in France!—jolting along muddy, endless roads, heartsick, homesick.
"There's a long, long night of waiting Until my dreams all come true, Till the day when I'll be going Down that long, long trail with you."
What had "you" meant to him then? A girl—a pretty girl, of course; but any girl. And now?
Ah, now he knew what he had been going toward, not only on those terrible roads in France, but all through the years of his life. An exquisite, imperious little officer's girl with divinely compassionate eyes, who wasn't ashamed to dance with a private, and who had let him hold her hand at parting while she said in accents an angel might have envied, "Good-by, Soldier Boy."
Quin sighed profoundly and slipped his arm under his head, and at the same moment the owner of the knee upon which he was leaning also heaved a sigh and shifted her position, and somehow in the adjustment two lonely hands came in contact and evidently decided that, after all, substitutes were some comfort.
It was not until all the whistles in town had announced the birth of the New Year that the party broke up, and it was not until then that Quin realized that he was very tired, and that his pulse was behaving in a way that was, alas, all too familiar.
Friday after New Year's found Sergeant Graham again flat on his back at the Base Hospital, facing sentence of three additional weeks in bed. In vain had he risked a reprimand by hotly protesting the point with the Captain; in vain had he declared to the nurse that he would rather live on his feet than die on his back. Judgment was passed, and he lay with an ice-bag on his head and a thermometer in his mouth and hot rage in his heart.
What made matters worse was that Cass Martel had come over from the Convalescent Barracks only that morning to announce that he had received his discharge and was going home. To Quin it seemed that everybody but himself was going home—that is, everybody but the incurables. At that thought a dozen nameless fears that had been tormenting him of late all seemed to get together and rush upon him. What if the doctors were holding him on from month to month, experimenting, promising, disappointing, only in the end to bunch him with the permanently disabled and ship him off to some God-forsaken spot to spend the rest of his life in a hospital?
He gripped his hands over his chest and gave himself up to savage rebellion. If they would let him alone he might get well! In France it had been his head. Whenever the wound began to heal and things looked a bit cheerful, some saw-bones had come along and thumped and probed and X-rayed, and then it had been ether and an operation and the whole blooming thing over again. Then, when they couldn't work on his head any longer, they'd started up this talk about his heart. Of course his heart was jumpy! All the fellows who had been badly gassed had jumpy hearts. But how was he ever going to get any better lying there on his back? What he needed was exercise and decent food and something cheerful to think about. He wanted desperately to get away from his memories, to forget the horrors, the sickening sights and smells, the turmoil and confusion of the past two years. In spite of his most heroic efforts, he kept living over past events. This time last year he had been up in the Toul sector, where half the men he knew had gone west. It was up there old Corpy had got his head shot off....
He resolutely fixed his attention on a spider that was swinging directly over his head and tried to forget old Corpy. He thought instead of Captain Phipps, but the thought did not calm him. What sense was there in his ordering more of this fool rest business? Well, he told himself fiercely, he wasn't going to stand for it! The war was over, he had done his part, he was going to demand his freedom. Discipline or no discipline, he would go over Phipps' head and appeal to the Colonel.
Throwing aside the ice-bag, he looked around for his uniform. But the nurse had evidently mistrusted the look in his eyes when she gave him the Captain's orders, for the hook over his bed was empty. He raised himself in his cot and glared savagely down the ward, sniffing the air suspiciously. Two orderlies were wheeling No. 17 back from the operating-room, and Quin already caught the faint odor of ether. The first whiff of it filled him with loathing.
Thrusting his bare feet into slippers and his arms into a shabby old bath-robe, he flung himself out of bed and slipped out on the porch. The air was cold and bracing and gloriously free from the hospital combination of wienerwuerst, ether, and dried peaches that had come to be a nightmare odor to him. He sat on the railing and drew in deep, refreshing breaths, and as he did so things began to right themselves. Fair play to Quin amounted almost to a religion, and it was suddenly borne in upon him that he would not be where he was had he observed the rules of the game. But then again, if he had not danced, he never would have——
At that moment something so strange happened that he put a hot hand to a hotter brow and wondered if he was delirious. The singularly vibrant voice that had been echoing in his memory since New Year's eve was saying directly behind him:
"I shall give them all the chocolate they want, Captain Harold Phipps, and you may court-martial me later if you like!"
Quin glanced up hastily, and there, framed in the doorway, in a Red Cross uniform, stood his dream girl, looking so much more ravishing than she had before that he promptly snatched the blue and gray vision from its place of honor and installed a red, white, and blue one instead. So engrossed was he in the apparition that he quite failed to see Captain Phipps surveying him over her shoulder.
"Number 7!" said the Captain with icy decision, "weren't you instructed to stay in bed?"
"I was, sir," said Quin, coming to attention and presenting a decidedly sorry aspect.
"Go back at once, and add three days to the time indicated. This way, Miss Bartlett."
Now, it is well-nigh impossible to preserve one's dignity when suffering a reprimand in public; but when you are handicapped by a shabby bath-robe, a three days' growth of beard, and a grouch that gives you the expression of a bandit, and the public happens to be the one being on earth whom you are most anxious to please, the situation becomes tragic.
Quin set his jaw and shuffled ignominiously off to bed, thankful for once that he had been considered unworthy a second glance from those luminous brown eyes. His satisfaction, however, was short-lived. A moment later the young lady appeared at the far end of the ward, carrying an absurd little basket adorned with a large pink bow, from which she began to distribute chocolates.
A feminine presence in the ward always created a flutter, but the previous flutters were mere zephyrs compassed to the cyclone produced by the new ward visitor. Some one started the phonograph, and Michaelis, who had been swearing all day that he would never be able to walk again, actually began to dance. Witticisms were exchanged from bed to bed, and the man who was going to be operated on next morning flung a pillow at an orderly and upset a vase of flowers. Things had not been so cheerful for weeks.
Quin, lying in the last bed in the ward, alternated between rapture and despair as he watched the progress of the visitor. Would she recognize him? Would she speak to him if she did, when he looked like that? Perhaps if he turned his face to the wall and pretended to be asleep she would pass him by. But he did not want her to pass him by. This might be the only chance he would ever have to see her again!
Back in his fringe of consciousness he was frantically groping for the name the Captain had mentioned: Barnet? Barret? Bartlett? That was it! And with the recovery of the name Quin's mind did another somersault. Bartlett? Where had he heard that name? Eleanor Bartlett? Some nonsense about "Solomon's baby." Why, Rose Martel, of course.
Then all thought deserted him, for the world suddenly shrank to five feet two of femininity, and he heard a gay, impersonal voice saying:
"May I put a cake of chocolate on your table?"
For the life of him, he could not answer. He only lay there with his mouth open, looking at her, while she straightened the contents of her basket. One more moment and she would be gone. Quin staked all on a chance shot.
"Thank you, Miss Eleanor Bartlett," he said, with that ridiculous blush that was so out of keeping with his audacity.
She looked at him in amazement; then her face broke into a smile of recognition.
"Well, bless my soul, if it isn't Sergeant Slim! What are you doing here?"
"Same thing I been doing for six months," said Quin sheepishly; "counting the planks in the ceiling."
"But I thought you had got well. Oh, I hope it wasn't the dancing——"
"Lord, no," said Quin, keeping his hand over his bristly chin. "I'm husky, all right. Only they've got so used to seeing me laying around that they can't bear to let me go."
"Do you have to lie flat on your back like that, with no pillow or anything?"
"It ain't so bad, except at mess-time."
"And you can't even sit up to eat?"
"Not supposed to."
Miss Bartlett eyed him compassionately.
"I am coming out twice a week now—Mondays and Fridays—and I'm going to bring you something nice every time I come. How long will you be here?"
"Three weeks," said Quin—adding, with a funny twist of his lip, "three weeks and three days."
"Oh! Were you the boy on the porch? How funny I didn't recognize you! I'm going to ask Captain Phipps to let you off those extra days."
"No, you mustn't." Quin objected earnestly; "I'll take what's coming to me. Besides," he added, "one of those days might be a Monday or a Friday!"
This seemed to amuse her, for she smiled as she wrote his name and bed number in a small notebook, with the added entry: "Oyster soup, cigarettes, and a razor."
Just as she was leaving, she remembered something and turned back.
"How did you know my name?" she asked with lively curiosity.
"Didn't the Captain call it on the porch?"
"Did he? But not my first name. How on earth did you know that?"
"Perhaps I guessed it," Quin said, looking mysterious. And just then a nurse came along and thrust the thermometer back in his mouth, and the conversation was abruptly ended.
Of course the calendar must have been right about the three weeks that followed; there probably were seven days in each week and twenty-four hours in each day. But Quin wasn't sure about it. He knew beyond doubt that there were three Mondays and four Fridays and one wholly gratuitous and never-to-be-forgotten Sunday when Miss Bartlett brought his dinner from town, and insisted upon cutting his chicken for him and feeding him custard with a spoon. The rest of the days were lost in abstract time, during which Quin had his hair cut and his face shaved, and did bead-work.
Until now he had sturdily refused to be inveigled into occupational therapy. Those guys that were done for could learn to knit, he said, and to make silly little mats, and weave things on a loom. If he couldn't do a man's work he'd be darned if he was going to do a woman's. But now all was changed. He announced his intention of making the classiest bead chain that had ever been achieved in 2 C. He insisted upon the instructor getting him the most expensive beads in the market, regardless of size or color.
Now, for Quin, with his big hands and lack of dexterity, to have worked with beads under the most favorable conditions would have been difficult, but to master the art lying flat on his back was a tour de force. He pricked his fingers and broke his thread; he upset the beads on the floor, on the bed, in his tray; he took out and put in with infinite patience, "each bead a thought, each thought a prayer."
"Don't you think you had better give it up?" asked the instructor, in despair, after the fourth lesson.
"You don't know me," said Quin, setting his jaw. "You been trying to get me into this for two weeks—now you've got to see me through."
It did not take long for the other patients to discover Quin's state of mind.
"How about your heart disease, Graham?" they inquired daily; "think it's going to be chronic?"
But Quin had little time for them. The distinction he had enjoyed as the champion poker-player in 2 C. began to wane as his popularity with the new ward visitor increased.
"I like your nerve!—keeping her up there at your bed all the time," complained Michaelis.
"She's an old friend of mine," Quin threw off nonchalantly.
"Aw, what you tryin' to put over on us?" scoffed Mike. "Where'd you ever git to know a girl like that?"
"Well, I know her all right," said Quin.
The little mystery about Miss Bartlett's first name had been a fruitful topic of conversation between a couple whose topics were necessarily limited. She had teased Quin to tell her how he knew, and also how he knew she wanted to go on the stage; and Quin had teased back; and at last it had resolved itself into a pretty contest of wits.
This served to keep her beside him often as long as four minutes. Then he would gain an additional two minutes by showing her what progress he had made with his chain, and consulting her preference for an American flag or a Red Cross worked in the medallion.
When every other means of detaining her had been exhausted, he sometimes resorted to strategy. Constitutionally he was opposed to duplicity; he was built on certain square lines that disqualified him for many a comfortable round hole in life. But under the stress of present circumstances he persuaded himself that the end justified the means. Ignoring the fact that he was as devoid of relations as a tree is of leaves in December, he developed a sudden sense of obligation to an imaginary cousin whom he added, without legal authority, to the population of Peru, Indiana. By means of Miss Bartlett's white hand he frequently informed her that she was not to worry about him, because he was "doing splendid," and that a hospital "wasn't so worse when you get used to it." And while he dictated words of assurance to his "Cousin Sue" his eyes feasted upon a dainty profile with long brown lashes that swept a peach-blow cheek. Once he became so demoralized by this too pleasing prospect that he said "tell him" instead of "tell her," and the lashes lifted in instant inquiry.
"I mean—er—her husband," Quin gasped.
"But you had me direct the other letters to Miss Sue Brown."
"Yes, I know," said Quin, with an embarrassment that might have been attributed to skeletons in family closets; "but, you see—she—er—she took back her own name."
The one cloud that darkened Quin's horizon these days was Captain Phipps. His visits to the ward always coincided with Miss Bartlett's, and he seemed to take a spiteful pleasure in keeping the men at attention while he engaged her in intimate conversation. He was an extremely fastidious, well groomed young man, with an insolent hauteur and a certain lordly air of possession that proclaimed him a conqueror of the sex. Quin regarded him with growing disfavor.
When the three weeks were almost over, Quin was allowed to sit up, and even to walk on the porch. Miss Bartlett found him there one day when she arrived.
"Aha!" she cried, "I've found you out, Sergeant Slim! You are Cass Martel's hero, and that's where you heard about me and found out my first name."
Quin pleaded guilty, and their usual five minutes together lengthened into fifteen while she gave him all the news of the Martel family. Cass had taken his old position at the railroad office, and, dear knows, it was a good thing! And Rose was giving dancing lessons. And what did he think little old Myrna had done? Adopted a baby! Yes, a baby; wasn't it too ridiculous! An Italian one that the washwoman had forsaken. And Papa Claude had given up his lectures at the university in order to write the great American play. Weren't they the funniest and the dearest people he had ever known?
It was amazing how intimate Quin and Miss Bartlett got on the subject of the Martels. He had to tell her in detail just what a brick her cousin Cass was, and she had to tell him what a really wonderful actor Papa Claude used to be.
"Captain Phipps says he knows more about the stage than any man in the country."
"What does the Captain know about it?" asked Quin.
"Captain Phipps? Why, he's a playwright. He means to devote all his time to the stage as soon as he gets out of the army. You may not believe it, but he is an even better dramatist than he is a doctor."
"Oh, yes, I do," said Quin; "that's easy to believe."
The sarcasm was lost upon Miss Bartlett, who was intent upon delivering her message from the Martels. They had sent word that they expected Quin to come straight to them when he got his discharge, and that his room was waiting for him.
"And you?" asked Quin eagerly. "You'll be there every Sunday?"
Her face, which had been all smiles, underwent a sudden change. She said with something perilously like a pout:
"No, I shan't; I'm to be shipped off to school next week."
"School?" repeated Quin incredulously. "What do you want to be going back to school for?"
"I don't want to. I hate it. It's the price I am paying for that dance I had with you at the Hawaiian Garden—that and other things."
"What do you mean?"
"Some old tabby of a chaperon saw me there and came and told my grandmother."
"But what could she have told? You didn't do anything you oughtn't to."
Miss Bartlett shook her head. It was evidently something she could not explain, for she sat staring gloomily at the wall above the bed, then she said abruptly: "Well, I must be going. Good-by if I don't see you again!"
"But you will," announced Quin fiercely. "You are going to see me next Sunday at the Martels'. I'll be there if I land in the guard-house for it."
"Why, your time's up Saturday, isn't it? Oh! I forgot those three extra days. Captain Phipps has got to let you off. He will if I tell him to."
At this something quite unexpected and elemental surged up in Quin. He forgot the amenities that he had taken such pains to observe in Miss Bartlett's presence, he entirely lost sight of the social gap that lay between them, and blurted out with deadly earnestness:
"Say, are you his girl?"
This had the effect of bringing Miss Bartlett promptly to her feet, and the next instant poor Quin was saying in an agony of regret:
"I'm sorry, Miss Bartlett. I didn't mean to be nervy. Honest, I didn't. Wait a minute—please——"
But she was gone, leaving him to spend the rest of the afternoon searching for a phrase sufficiently odious to express his own opinion of himself.
Eleanor Bartlett, speeding home from the hospital with Captain Phipps beside her, repeated Quin's question to herself more than once. Up to the present her loves, like her friendships, had been entirely episodic. She had gone easily from one affair to another not so much from fickleness as from growth. What she wanted on Monday did not seem in the least desirable on Saturday, and it was a new and disturbing sensation to have the same person dominating her thoughts for so many consecutive days. If her relations with the young officer from Chicago were as platonic as she would have herself and her family believe, why had she allowed the affair to arrive at a stage that precipitated her banishment? Why was she even now flying in the face of authority and risking a serious reprimand by letting him ride in her car?
In fierce justification she told herself it was simply because the family had meddled. If they had not interfered, things would never have reached the danger mark. She had met Captain Phipps three weeks ago at her Uncle Randolph Bartlett's, and had at first not been sure that she liked him. He had seemed then a little superior and condescending, and had evidently considered her too young to be interesting. But the next time they met there Aunt Flo had made her do the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet," and since then all had been different.
Captain Phipps had not only monopolized her at the dances—he had also found time from his not over-arduous military duties to drop in on her frequently in the afternoons. For hours at a time they had sat in the long, dim Bartlett parlor, with only the ghostly bust of old Madam Bartlett for a chaperon, ostensibly absorbed in the study of modern drama, but finding ample time to dwell at length upon Eleanor's qualifications for the stage and the Captain's budding genius as a playwright. And just when Ibsen and Pinero were giving place to Sudermann, and vague personal ambitions were crystallizing into definite plans, the family interfered.
The causes of their condemnation were as varied as they were numerous. He was ten years older than Eleanor; he was too sophisticated a companion for a young girl; he had taken her to a public dance-hall on New Year's eve, where she had been seen dancing with an unknown private; he had been quite insolent to Madam when she had taken him to task for it; and, most heinous of all, he was encouraging her in her ambition to go on the stage. And beneath it all, Eleanor knew quite well, was the nervous flutter of apprehension that seized the entire family whenever a threatening masculine presence loomed on the horizon.
She stole a glance at her handsome companion, and, seeing that he was observing her, quickly lowered her eyes. The Captain had a flattering way of studying her poses, remarking on the lines of her gowns and her hats. He was constantly discovering interesting things about her that she had not known before. But sometimes, as now, she was restive under his too close scrutiny.
"So you are actually going to leave me next week?" he asked, with a note of personal aggrievement.
"To leave you? I like that! If it weren't for you I shouldn't be going."
"Are they really sending you away on my account?"
"Indeed they are. Grandmother says you are encouraging me about the stage, and that poor Papa Claude is demoralizing us both."
"Isn't that absurd?" said the Captain. "Dear old C. M. is about as innocuous as a peacock. Madam Bartlett should have been born in the seventeenth century. What will she say when she sees your name blazing over a Broadway theater?"
"In one of your plays! Oh, Captain, wouldn't that be glorious?"
"Haven't I asked you to drop the 'Captain'? My name is Harold. Say it!"
"No; I can't."
"Yes, you can. Come!"
But she defied him with tightly closed lips and dancing eyes. With feminine instinct she had discovered that the irresistible Captain was piqued and stimulated by the unusual taste of opposition.
"You little minx!" he said, lifting an accusing finger. "Those eyes of yours are going to do a lot of damage before they get through with it."
Eleanor took kindly to the thought that she was dangerous. If she could cause disturbance to an individual by the guarded flutter of her eyelids, what effect might she not produce by giving them full play before a larger audience?
"Do you really think I could act if I got the chance?" she asked dreamily.
"I am absolutely sure. Your grandfather's quite right when he says you were born to the footlights. With your voice and your unusual coloring and your plastic little body——"
"But you can't imagine the opposition," Eleanor broke in. "It isn't as if my mother and father were living. I believe they would understand. But grandfather and the aunties, and even Uncle Ranny, throw a fit at the mere mention of the stage."
"You do not belong to them," said the Captain impatiently. "You do not even belong to yourself. A great talent belongs to the world. All these questions will settle themselves, once you take the definite step."
"And you actually believe that I will get to New York to study?"
"I don't believe—I know. I intend to make it my business to see that you do."
There was a confident ring of masterful assurance in his voice that carried delicious conviction. A person who was so absolutely sure of himself made other people sure of him, too, for the moment.
Eleanor, sitting low in the car, with her absent eyes fixed on the road ahead, lapsed into a daydream. From an absorbed contemplation of herself and her dramatic career, her mind veered in gratitude to the one who most believed in its possibility. What a friend he had been! Just when she had been ready to give up in despair, he had fanned her dying hope into a glorious blaze that illuminated every waking hour. And it was not only his sympathetic interest in her thwarted ambition that touched her: it was also the fact that he had rescued her from the daily boredom of sitting with elderly ladies making interminable surgical dressings, and by an adroit bit of diplomacy outwitted the family and introduced her as a ward visitor at the camp hospital.
The mere thought of the hospital sent her mind flying off at a tangent. Even the stage gave way for the moment to this new and all-absorbing occupation. Never in her life had she done anything so interesting. The escape from home, the personal contact with all those nice, jolly boys, the excitement of being of service for the first time in her butterfly existence, was intoxicating. She smiled now as she thought of the way Graham's eager head always popped up the moment she entered the door, and of how his face shone when she talked to him. After all, she told herself, there was something thrilling in having hands that had captured a machine-gun laboriously threading tiny beads for her, in having a soldier who had been decorated for courage stammer and blush in her presence.
"Well," said the Captain, who had been lazily observing her, "aren't you about through with your mental monologue?"
Eleanor roused herself with a start.
"Oh, I am sorry! I was thinking about my boys at the hospital. You can't imagine how I hate to leave them!"
The answer was evidently not what the Captain had expected. As long as his company of feminine admirers marched in adoring unison he was indifferent to their existence; but let one miss step and he was instantly on the alert.
"I haven't noticed any tears being shed over leaving me," he said, and the aggrieved note in his voice promptly stirred her humor.
"Why should I mind leaving you? You don't need me."
"How do you know?"
She looked at him scoffingly.
"You don't need anything or anybody. You've got all you want in yourself."
"I'll show you what I want!" he said, and, quickly bending toward her, he kissed her on the cheek.
It was the merest brush of his lips, but it brought the color flaming into her face and the lightning into her eyes. She had never been so angry in her life, and it seemed to her an age that she sat there rigid and indignant, suffocated by his nearness but powerless to move away. Then she got the car stopped, and announced with great dignity that she was nearly home and that she would have to ask him to get out.
Captain Phipps lazily descended from the car, then stood with elbows on the ledge of the door and rolled a cigarette with great deliberation. Eleanor, in spite of her wrath, could not help admiring the graceful, conscious movement of his slender hands with their highly polished nails. It was not until he had struck his match that he looked at her and smiled quizzically.
"What a dear little goose you are! Do you suppose that stage lovers are going to stand in the wings and throw kisses to you?"
"No," said Eleanor hotly; "but that will be different."
"It certainly will," he agreed amiably. "You will not only have to be kissed, but you will have to kiss back. You have a lot of little puritanical prejudices to get over, my dear, before you can ever hope to act. You don't want to be a thin-blooded little old maid, do you?"
The shot was well aimed, for Eleanor had no desire to follow in the arid footsteps of her two spinster aunts. She looked at Captain Phipps unsteadily and shook her head.
"Of course you don't," he encouraged her. "You aren't built for it. Besides, it's an actress's business to cultivate her emotions rather than repress them, isn't it?"
"Yes, I suppose it is."
"Then, for heaven's sake, obey your impulses and let other people obey theirs. From now on you are to be identified with a profession that transcends the petty conventions of society. Confess! Aren't you already a little ashamed of getting angry with me just now?"
She was not ashamed, not in the least; but her ardent desire to prove her fitness for that coveted profession, together with the compelling insistence of that persuasive voice, prompted her to hold out a reluctant hand and to smile.
"You are a darling child!" said Captain Phipps, with a level glance of approval. "I shall see you to-morrow. When? Where?"
But she would make no engagement. She was in a flutter to be gone. It was her first experience at dancing on a precipice, and, while she liked it, she could not deny, even to herself, that at times it made her uncomfortably hot and dizzy.
Eleanor's thoughts were still in a turmoil as she slowed her car to a within-the-law limit of speed and brought it to a dignified halt before an imposing edifice on Third Avenue. The precaution was well taken, for a long, pale face that had been pressed to a front window promptly transferred itself to the front door, and an anxious voice called out:
"Oh, Nellie, why did you stay out so late? Didn't you know it was your duty to be in before five?"
"It's not late, Aunt Isobel," said Eleanor impatiently. "It gets dark early, that's all."
"And you must be frozen," persisted Miss Isobel, "with those thin pumps and silk stockings, and nothing but that veil on your head."
"But I'm hot!" declared Eleanor, throwing open her coat. "The house is stifling. Can't we have a window open?"
Miss Isobel sighed. Like the rest of the family, she never knew what to expect from this troublesome, adorable, disturbing mystery called Eleanor. She worshiped her with the solicitous, over-anxious care that saw fever in the healthy flush of youth, regarded a sneeze as premonitory of consumption, and waited with dark certitude for the "something dreadful" that instinct told her was ever about to happen to her darling.
"I am afraid your grandmother is terribly upset about your staying out so late," she said, with a note of warning in her voice.
"What made you tell her?" demanded Eleanor.
"Because she asked me, and of course I could not deceive her. I don't believe you know how hard it is to keep things from her."
"Don't I!" said Eleanor, with the tolerant smile of a professional for an amateur. "Well, a few minutes more won't make any difference. I'll go and change my dress."
"No, dear; you must go to her first. She's been sending Hannah down every few minutes to see if you were here."
"Oh, dear! I suppose I'm in for it!" sighed Eleanor, flinging her coat across the banister. Then, in answer to a plaintive voice from the library, "Yes, Aunt Enid?"
"Why on earth are you so late, sweetheart? Didn't you know your grandmother would be fretted?"
The possessor of the plaintive voice emerged from the library, trailing an Oriental scarf as she came. Like her elder sister, she was tall and thin, but she did not wear Miss Isobel's look of martyred resignation. On the contrary, she had the starved look of one who is constantly trying to pick up the crumbs of interest that other people let fall.
Enid Bartlett might have passed for a pretty woman had her appearance not been permanently affected by an artist once telling her she looked like a Botticelli. Since that time she had done queer things to her hair, pursed her lips, and cultivated an expression of chronic yearning.
"I haven't seen you since breakfast, Nellie," she said gently. "Haven't you a kiss for me?"
Eleanor presented a perfunctory cheek over the banisters, taking care that it was not the one that had been kissed a few minutes before.
"Remember your promise," Aunt Enid whispered; "don't forget that your grandmother is an old lady and you must not excite her."
"But she excites me," said Eleanor doggedly. "She makes me want to smash windows and scream."
"Why, Nellie!" Miss Enid's mournful eyes filled with tears. Instantly Eleanor was all contrition.
"I'm sorry!" she said, with a real kiss this time. "I'll behave. Give you my word I will!" And, with an affectionate squeeze of the hand that clasped hers, she ran up the steps.
The upper hall, like the rest of the house, was pervaded by an air of gloomy grandeur. Everything was dreary, formal, fixed. Not an ornament or a picture had been changed since Eleanor could remember. She was the only young thing about the place, and it always seemed to her as if the house and its occupants were conspiring to make her old and staid and stupid, like themselves.
At the door of her grandmother's room she paused. As far back as she could remember, her quarrels with her grandmother had been the most terrifying events of her life. Repetition never robbed them of their horror, and no amount of spoiling between times could make up to her for the violence of the moment. It took all the courage she had to turn the knob of the door and enter.
A brigadier-general planning an important campaign would have presented no more commanding presence than did the formidable old lady who sat at a flat-top desk, issuing orders in a loud, decisive tone to a small meek-looking man who stood before her. The most arresting feature about Madam Bartlett was a towering white pompadour that began where most pompadours end, and soared to a surprising height above her large, handsome, masculine face. The fact that her hair line had gradually receded from her forehead to the top of her head affected no change whatever in the arrangement of her coiffure. Neither in regard to her hair nor to her figure had she yielded one iota to the whims of Nature. Her body was still confined in the stiffest of stays, and in spite of her seventy years was as straight as an arrow. At Eleanor's entrance she motioned her peremptorily to a chair and proceeded with the business in hand.
"You go back and tell Mr. Bangs," she was saying to the meek-looking person, "that I want him to send somebody up here who knows more than you do. Do you understand?"
The meek one evidently understood, for he reached nervously for his cap.
"Wait!" commanded Madam peremptorily. "Don't start off like that, while I am talking to you! Tell Mr. Bangs this is the third time I've asked him to send me the report of Bartlett & Bangs' export business for the past year. I want it immediately. I am not in my dotage yet. I still have some say-so in the firm. Well, what are you waiting for?"
"I was waiting to know if there was anything more, ma'am."
"If there had been I would have said so. Tell Hannah to come in as you go out."
Eleanor looked at her grandmother expectantly, but there was no answering glance. The old lady was evidently in one of her truculent moods that brooked no interference.
"Has the plumber come?" she demanded of the elderly colored maid who appeared at the door.
"No, ma'am. He can't get here till to-morrow."
"Tell him I won't wait. If he can't come within an hour he needn't come at all. Where is Tom?"
Hannah's eyes shifted uneasily. "Tom? Why, Tom, he thought you discharged him."
"So I did. But he's not to go until I get another butler. Send him up here at once."
"But he ain't here," persisted Hannah fearfully, "He's went for good this time."
Eleanor, sitting demurely by the door, had a moment of unholy exultation. Old black Tom, the butler, had been Madam's chief domestic prop for a quarter of a century. He had been the patient buffer between her and the other servants, taking her domineering with unfailing meekness, and even venturing her defense when mutiny threatened below stairs. "You-all don't understand old Miss," he would say loyally. "She's all right, only she's jes' nachully mean, dat's all."
In the turning of this humble worm, Eleanor felt in some vague way a justification of her own rebellion.
His departure, however, did not tend to clear the domestic atmosphere. By the time Madam had settled the plumbing question and expressed her opinion of Tom and all his race, she was in no mood to deal leniently with the shortcomings of a headstrong young granddaughter.
"Well," she said, addressing her at last, "why didn't you make it midnight?"
"It's only a little after five." Eleanor knew she was putting up a feeble defense, and her hands grew cold.
"It is nearly six, and it is dark. Couldn't you have withdrawn the sunshine of your presence from the hospital half an hour sooner?"
Under her sharp glance there was a curious protective tenderness, the savage concern of a lioness for her whelp; but Eleanor saw only the scoffing expression in the keen eyes, and heard the note of irony in all she said.
"Your going out to the hospital is all foolishness, anyhow," the old lady continued, sorting her papers with efficiency. "Contagious diseases, germs, and what not. But some women would be willing to go to Hades if they could tie a becoming rag around their heads. Why didn't you dress yourself properly before you came in here?"
"I wanted to, but Aunt——"
"Aunt Enid, I suppose! If it was left to her she'd have you trailing around in a Greek tunic and sandals, with a laurel wreath on your head."
There was an ominous pause, during which Madam's wrinkled, bony hands, flashing with diamonds, searched rapidly among the papers.
"You are all ready to start on Monday? Your clothes are in good condition, I presume?"
Eleanor brought her gaze from a detached contemplation of the ceiling to a critical inspection of her finger-nails.
"I suppose Aunt Isobel has attended to them," she said indifferently.
"Aunt Isobel, indeed!" snarled Madam. "You'd lean on a broken reed if you depended on Isobel. And Enid is no better. I attended to your clothes. I got you everything you need, even down to a new set of furs."
"Silver fox?" asked Eleanor, brightening visibly.
"No, mink. I can't abide fox. Ah! here's what I am looking for. Your ticket and berth reservation. Train leaves at ten-thirty Monday morning."
"Grandmother," ventured Eleanor, summing up courage to lead a forlorn hope, "you are just wasting money sending me back to Baltimore."
"It's my money," said the old lady grimly.
"It's your money, but it is my life," Eleanor urged, with a quiver in her voice. "If you are going to send me away, why not send me to New York and let me do the one thing in the world I want to do?"
That Madam should be willing to furnish unlimited funds for finishing schools, music lessons, painting lessons, and every "extra" that the curriculum offered, and yet refuse to cultivate her one real talent, seemed to Eleanor the most unreasonable autocracy. She had no way of knowing that Madam's indomitable pride, still quivering with the memory of her oldest son's marriage to an unknown young actress, recoiled instinctively from the theatrical rock on which so many of her old hopes had been wrecked.
Eleanor's persistence in recurring to this most distasteful of subjects roused her to fury. A purple flush suffused her face, and her cheeks puffed in and out as she breathed.
"I suppose Claude Martel has it all mapped out," she said. "He and that fool Harold Phipps have stirred you up to a pretty pitch. What do you see in that silly coxcomb, anyhow?"
"If you mean Captain Phipps," Eleanor said with dignity, "I see a great deal. He is one of the most cultivated men I ever met."
"Fiddlesticks! He smells like a soap-counter! When I see an affected man I see a fool. He has airs enough to fill a music-box. But that's neither here nor there. You understand definitely that I do not wish you to see him again?"
Eleanor's silence did not satisfy Madam. She insisted upon a verbal assurance, which Eleanor was loath to give.
"I tell you once for all, young lady," said Madam, by this time roused to fury, "that you have got to do what I say for another year. After that you will be twenty-one, and you can go to the devil, if you want to."
"Grandmother!" cried Eleanor, shrinking as if from a physical blow. Then, remembering her promise to her Aunt Enid, she bit her lip and struggled to keep back the tears. As she started to leave the room, Madam called her back.
"Here, take this," she said gruffly, thrusting a small morocco box into her hand. "Isobel and Enid never had decent necks to hang 'em on. See that you don't lose them." And without more ado she thrust Eleanor out of the room and shut the door in her face.
Eleanor fled down the hall to her own room, and after locking the door flung herself on the bed. It was always like that, she told herself passionately; they nagged at her and tormented her and wore her out with their care and anxiety, and then suffocated her with their affection. She did not want their presents. She wanted freedom, the right to live her own life, think her own thoughts, make her own decisions. She did not mean to be ungrateful, but she couldn't please them all! The family expectations of her were too high, too different from what she wanted. Other girls with half her talents for the stage had succeeded, and just because she was a Bartlett——
She clenched her fists and wished for the hundredth time that she had never been born. She had been a bone of contention all her life, and, even when the two families were not fighting over her, the Bartlett blood was warring with the Martel blood within her. Her standards were hopelessly confused; she did not know what she wanted except that she wanted passionately to be let alone.
"Nellie!" called a gentle voice on the other side of the door. "Are you ready for dinner?"
"Don't want any dinner," she mumbled from the depths of a pillow.
The door-handle turned softly and the voice persisted:
"You must unlock the door, dearie; I want to speak to you."
Eleanor flung herself off the bed and opened the door. "I tell you, I don't want any dinner, Aunt Enid," she declared petulantly.
Miss Enid drew her down on the bed beside her and regarded her with pensive persuasion. "I know, Nelchen; I often feel like that. But you must come down and make a pretense of eating. It upsets your grandmother to have any one of us absent from meals."
"Everything I do upsets her!" cried Eleanor with tragic insistence. "I can't please her—there's no use trying. Why does she treat me the way she does? Why does she sometimes almost seem to hate me?"
Miss Enid's eyes involuntarily glanced at the picture of Eleanor's mother over the desk, taken in the doublet and hose of Rosalind.
"Hush, child; you mustn't say such awful things," she said, drawing the girl close and stroking her hair. "Mother adores you. Think of all she has done for you ever since you were a tiny baby. What other girl of your acquaintance has her own car, all the pretty clothes she can wear, and as much pin-money as she can spend?"
"But that's not what I want!" cried Eleanor tragically. "I want to be something and to do something. I feel like I am in prison here. I'm not good and resigned like you and Aunt Isobel, and I simply refuse to go through life standing grandmother's tyranny."
Poor Eleanor, so intolerably sensitive to contacts, so hopelessly confused in her bearings, sitting red-eyed and miserable, kicking her feet against the side of the bed, looked much more like a naughty child than like the radiant Lady Bountiful who had dispensed favors and received homage in the hospital a few hours before.
So swift was the sympathetic action of her nerves that any change in her physical condition affected her whole nature, making her an enigma to herself as well as to others. Even as she sat there rebellious and defiant, her eyes fell upon the small morocco box on her pillow, and she picked it up and opened it.
"Oh, Aunt Enid!" she cried in instant remorse. "Just look what she's given me! Her string of pearls! The ones she wore in the portrait! And just think of what I've been saying about her. I'm a beast, a regular little beast!"
And with characteristic impetuosity she flung herself on Miss Enid's neck and burst into tears.
The sun was getting ready to set on Sunday afternoon when a tall, trim-looking figure turned the corner of the street leading to the Martels' and broke into a run. In one hand he carried a large suit-case, and in the other he held a bead chain wrapped in tissue-paper. In the breast pocket of his uniform was a paper stating that Quinby Graham was thereby honorably discharged from the U.S.A.
Whether it was his enforced rest, or his state of mind, or a combination of the two, it is impossible to say; but at least ten pounds had been added to his figure, the hollows had about gone from his eyes, and a natural color had returned to his face. But the old cough remained, as was evident when he presented himself breathless at the Martels' door and demanded of Cass:
"Has she gone?"
"I believe she's fixing to go now. What's it to you?"
"Oh, I just want to say good-by," Quin threw off with a great show of indifference. "She was awful good to me out at the hospital."
"Oh, I see." Then Cass dismissed the subject for one of far more importance. "Are you out for keeps? Have you come to stay?"
"You bet I have. How long has she been here?"
"Miss Bartlett, I tell you."
"Oh! I don't know. All day, I reckon. I got to take her home now in a minute, but I'll be back soon. Don't you go anywhere till I come back."
Quin seized his arm: "Cass, I'll take her home for you. I don't mind a bit, honest I don't. I need some exercise."
"Old lady'd throw a fit," objected Cass. "Old grandmother, I mean. Regular Tartar. Old aunts are just as bad. They devil the life out of Nell, except when she's deviling the life out of them."
"How do you mean?" Quin encouraged him.
"I mean Nell's a handful all right. She kicks over the traces every time she gets a chance. I don't blame her. They're a rotten bunch of snobs, and she knows it."
"Well, I could leave her at the door," Quin urged. "I wouldn't let her in for anything for the world. But I got to talk to her, I tell you; I got to thank her——"
Meanwhile, in the room above the young lady under discussion was leisurely adjusting a new and most becoming hat before a cracked mirror while she discussed a subject of perennial interest to the eternal feminine.
"Rose," she was asking, "what's the first thing you notice about a man?"
Rose, sitting on the side of the bed nursing little Bino, the latest addition to the family, answered promptly:
"His mouth, of course. I wouldn't marry a man who showed his gums when he laughed, not if every hair of his head was strung with diamonds!"
The visualization of this unpleasant picture threw Eleanor into peals of laughter which upset the carefully acquired angle of the new hat, to say nothing of the nerves of the young gentleman just arrived in the hall below.
"I wasn't thinking of his looks only," she said; "I mean everything about him."
"Why, I guess it's whether he notices me," said Rose after deliberation.
"Exactly," agreed Eleanor. "Not only you or me, but girls. Take Cass, for instance; girls might just as well be broomsticks to Cass, all except Fan Loomis. Now, when Captain Phipps looks at you——"
"He never would," said Rose; "he'd look straight over my head. I'll tell you who is a better example—Mr. Graham."
Eleanor smiled reminiscently. "Oh, Sergeant Slim? he's thrilled, all right! Always looks as if he couldn't wait a minute to hear what you are going to say next."
"He's not as susceptible as he looks," Rose pronounced from her vantage-point of seniority. "He's just got a way with him that fools people. Cass says girls are always crazy about him, and that he never cares for any of them more than a week."
"Much Cass knows about it!" said Cass's cousin, pulling on her long gloves. Then she dismissed the subject abruptly: "Rose, if I tell you something will you swear not to tell?"
"Never breathe it."
"Captain Phipps is coming up to Baltimore for the Easter vacation."
"Does your grandmother know?"
"I should say not. She's written Miss Hammond that I'm not to receive callers without permission, and that all suspicious mail is to be opened."
"How outrageous! You tell Captain Phipps to send his letters to me; I'll get them to you. They'll never suspect my fine Italian hand, with my name and address on the envelope."
Eleanor looked at her older cousin dubiously. "I hate to do underhand things like that!" she said crossly.
"You wouldn't have to if they treated you decently. Opening your letters! The idea! I wouldn't stand for it. I'd show them a thing or two."
Eleanor stood listlessly buttoning her glove, pondering what Rose was saying.
"I wonder if I could get word to the Captain to-night?" she said. "Shall I really tell him to send the letters to you?"
"No; tell him to bring them. I'm crazy to see what his nibs looks like."
"He looks like that picture of Richard Mansfield downstairs—the one taken as Beau Brummel. He's the most fastidious man you ever saw, and too subtle for words."
"He's terribly rich, isn't he?"
"I don't know," said Eleanor indifferently. "His father is a Chicago manufacturer of some kind. Does Papa Claude think he is very talented?"
"Talented! He says he's one of the most gifted young men he ever met. They are hatching out some marvelous schemes to write a play together. Papa Claude is treading on air."
"Bless his heart! Wouldn't it be too wonderful, Rose, if Captain Phipps should produce one of his plays? He's crazy about him."
"You mean he's crazy about you."
"Who said so?"
"I don't have to be told. How about you, Nell? Are you in love with him?"
Eleanor, taking a farewell look in the mirror, saw a tiny frown gather between her eyebrows. It was the second time that week she had been asked the question, and, as before, she avoided it.
"Listen!" she said. "Who is that talking so loud downstairs?"
Investigation proved that it was Cass and Quin in hot dispute, as usual. On seeing her descend the stair the latter promptly stepped forward.
"Cass is going to let me take you home, Miss Bartlett."
"I never said I would," Cass contradicted him. "I'm not going to get her into trouble the night before she goes away."
"That's for her to decide," said Quin. "If she says I can go I'm going."
The very novelty of being called upon to decide anything for herself, augmented perhaps by the ardent desire in his eyes, caused Eleanor to tip the scales in his favor.
"I don't mind his taking me home," she said somewhat condescendingly. "They'll think it's Cass."
"All buck privates look alike to them," added Rose, laughing.
"My private days are over," said Quin grandly. "This time next week I'll be out of my uniform."
"You won't be half so good-looking," said Eleanor, surveying him with such evident approval that he had a wild idea of reenlisting at once.
"Tell Papa Claude I couldn't wait for him any longer," Eleanor then said. "Kiss him good-by for me, Rose, and tell him I'll write the minute I get to Baltimore."
Then Cass kissed her, and Rose and the baby kissed her, and Myrna came downstairs to kiss her, and Edwin was called up from the basement to kiss her. It seemed the easiest and most natural thing in the world for everybody to kiss her but Quin, who would have given all he had for the privilege.
At last he found himself alone with her in the street, trying to catch step and wondering whether or not it was proper to take hold of a young lady's elbow. With commendable self-restraint he compromised on street crossings and muddy places. It was not quite dark yet, but it was going to be very soon, and a big pale moon was hiding behind a tall chimney, waiting for a chance to pounce out on unwary young couples who might be venturing abroad.
As they started across Central Park, an open square in the heart of the city, Eleanor stopped short, and with eyes fixed on the sky began incanting:
"Star light, star bright Very first star I see to-night Wish I may, wish I might— May these three wishes come true before to-morrow night."
"I haven't got three wishes," said Quin solemnly; "I've only got one."
"Mercy, I have dozens! Shall I lend you some?"
"No! mine's bigger than all yours put together."
She flashed a look at him from under her tilted hat-brim:
"What on earth's the matter with you? You look so solemn. I don't believe you wanted to bring me home, after all."
Quin didn't know what was the matter with him. Heretofore he had fallen in love as a pebble falls into a pond. There had been a delicious splash, and subsequent encircling ripples, each one further away than the last. But this time the pebble had fallen into a whirlpool, and was being turned and tossed and played with in a manner wholly bewildering.
"Oh, I wanted to come, all right," he said slowly. "I had to come. Say, I wish you weren't going away to-morrow."
"So do I. I'd give anything not to."
"But why do you go, then?"
"Because I am always made to do what I don't want to do."
Quin, who had decided views on individual freedom and the consent of the governed, promptly espoused her cause.
"They've got no right to force you. You ought to decide things for yourself."
"Do you really think that? Do you think a girl has the right to go ahead and do as she likes, regardless of her family?"
"That depends on whether she wants to do the right thing. Which way do we turn?"
"This way, if we go home," said Eleanor. Then she stopped abruptly. "What time is it?"
Quin consulted his watch and his conscience at the same time.
"It's only five-thirty," he said eagerly.
"I wonder if you'd do something for me?"
"You bet I will."
"I want to go out to the hospital. I can get out there and back in my machine in thirty minutes. Would you be willing to go with me?"
Would he be willing? Two hours before he had sworn that no power on earth could induce him to return to those prison walls, and now he felt that nothing could keep him away. Forty minutes of bliss in that snug little runabout with Miss Bartlett, and the destination might be Hades for all he cared.
It took but a few minutes to get to the garage and into the machine, and then they were speeding out the avenue at a pace that would surely have landed them in the police station had the traffic officer been on his job.
Quin, doubled up like a jack-knife beside her, was drunk with ecstasy. His expression when he looked at her resembled that of a particularly maudlin Airedale. Having her all to himself, with nobody to interfere, was an almost overwhelming joy. He longed to pour out his soul in gratitude for all that she had done for him at the hospital; he burned to tell her that she was the most beautiful and holy thing that had ever come into his life; but instead he only got his foot tangled in the steering gear, and muttered something about her "not driving a car bad for a girl"!
But Eleanor was not concerned with her companion or his silent transports. She evidently had something of importance on her mind.
"What time is the officers' mess?" she asked.
"About six. Why?"
"I want to catch Captain Phipps before he leaves the hospital."
Quin's glowing bubble burst at the word. She was Captain Phipps' girl, after all! She had simply pressed him into service in order to get a last interview with the one officer in the battalion for whom he had no respect.
The guard challenged them as they swung into the hospital area, but, seeing Quin's uniform, allowed them to enter. Past the long line of contagious wards, past the bleak two-story convalescent barracks, and up to the officers' quarters they swept.
"You are not going in yourself?" Quin protested, as she started to get out of the car.
"Why not? Haven't I been coming out here all the time?"
"Not at night—not like this."
"Nonsense. What's the harm? I'll only be a minute?"
But Quin had already got out, and was holding the door with a large, firm hand.
"No," he said humbly but positively; "I'll go and bring him out here."
The unexpected note of authority in his voice nettled her instantly.
"I shall go myself," she insisted petulantly. "Let me out."
For a moment their eyes clashed in frank combat, hers angry and defiant, his adoring but determined.
"Listen here, Miss Bartlett," he urged. "The men wouldn't understand your coming out like this, at night, without your uniform. I told Cass I'd take care of you, and I'm going to do it."
"You mean that you will dare to stop me from getting out of my own car? Take your hand off that door instantly!"
She actually seized his big, strong fingers with her small gloved ones and tried to pull them away from the door. But Quin began to laugh, and in spite of herself she laughed back; and, while the two were childishly struggling for the possession of the door-handle, Captain Phipps all unnoticed passed out of the mess-hall, gave a few instructions to his waiting orderly, and disappeared in the darkness.
By the time they were on their way home, the moon, no longer dodging behind chimneys, had swaggered into the open. It was a hardened old highwayman of a moon, red in the face and very full, and it declared with every flashing beam that it was no respecter of persons, and that it intended doing all the mischief possible down there in the little world of men.
Miss Eleanor Bartlett was its first victim. In the white twilight she forgot the social gap that lay between her and the youth beside her. She ceased to observe the size and roughness of his hands, but noted instead the fine breadth of his shoulders. She concerned herself no longer with his verbal lapses, but responded instead to his glowing confidence that everybody was as sincere and well intentioned as himself. She discovered what the more sophisticated Rose had perceived at once—that Quinby Graham "had a way with him," a beguiling, sympathetic way that made one tell him things that one really didn't mean to tell any one. Of course, it was partly due to the fact that he asked such outrageously direct questions, questions that no one in her most intimate circle of friends would dare to ask. And the queer part of it was that she was answering them.
Before she realized it she was launched on a full recital of her woes, her thwarted ambition to go on the stage, her grandmother's tyranny, the indignity of being sent back to a school from which she had run away six months before. She flattered herself that she was stating her case for the sole purpose of getting an unprejudiced outsider's unbiased opinion; but from the inflection of her voice and the expressive play of eyes and lips it was evident that she was deriving some pleasure from the mere act of thus dramatizing her woes before that wholly sympathetic audience of one.
It was not until they reached the Eastern Parkway and were speeding toward the twinkling lights of the city that their little bubble of intimacy, blown in the moonlight, was shattered by a word.
"Say, Miss Eleanor," Quin blurted out unexpectedly, "do you like me?"
The question, together with the fact that he had dared used her first name, brought her up with a start.
"Like you?" she repeated in her most conventional tone, "Why, of course. Whatever made you think I didn't?"
"I didn't think that. But—do you like me enough to let me come to see you when you come back?"
Now, a romantically wounded hero receiving favors in a hospital is one thing, and an unknown discharged soldier asking them is quite another. The very thought of Quinby Graham presenting himself as a caller, and the comments that would follow made Eleanor shy away from the subject in alarm.
"Oh, you'll be on the other side of the world by the time I get back," she said lightly.
"Not me. Not if there's a chance of seeing you again."
A momentary diversion followed, during which Eleanor fancied there was something wrong with the radiator and expatiated at length on her preference for air-cooled cars.
Quin listened patiently. A gentleman more versed in social subtleties would have accepted the hint and said no more. But he was still laboring under the error that language was invented to reveal rather than to conceal thought.
"You didn't answer my question," he said, when Eleanor paused for breath.
"About my coming to see you."
She took shelter in a subterfuge.
"I told you that the family was horrid to everybody that came to see me. To tell you the truth, I don't think you would be comfortable."
"I'm not afraid of 'em," Quin insisted fatuously. "I'd butt in anywhere to get to see you."
Eleanor's eyes dropped under his gaze.
"You don't know my grandmother," she said; "and, what is much more important, she doesn't know you."
"No, but she might like to," urged Quin, with one of his most engaging smiles. "Old ladies and cats always cotton to me."
Eleanor laughed. It was impossible to be dignified and superior with a person who didn't know the first rules of the game.
"She might," she admitted; "you never can tell about grandmother. She really is a wonderful person in many ways, and just as generous and kind when you are in trouble! But she says the most dreadful things; she's always hurting people's feelings."
"She couldn't hurt mine, unless I let her," said Quin.
"Oh, yes, she could—you don't know her. But even if she happened to be nice to you, there's Aunt Isobel."
"What is she like?"
"Horribly good and conscientious, and shocked to death at everything people do and say. I don't mean that she isn't awfully kind. She'll do anything for you if you are sick. But Uncle Ranny says her sense of duty amounts to a vice. Whatever she's doing, she thinks she ought to be doing something else. And she expects you to be just as good as she is. If she knew I was out here with a strange man to whom I'd never been introduced——"
Eleanor was appalled at the effect upon her aunt of such indiscretion.
"Oh, I could handle her all right," said Quin boastfully. "I'd talk foreign missions to her. Any others?"
"Heaps. There's Aunt Flo and Uncle Ranny. He's a dear, only he's the black sheep of the family. He says I am a promising gray lamb, which makes grandmother furious. They all let her twist them round her finger but me. I won't twist. I never intend to."
"Is that all the family?"
"No; there's Aunt Enid. She is the nicest of them all."
"What is her line?"
"Oh, she's awfully good, too. But she's different from Aunt Isobel. She was engaged to be married once, and grandmother broke it off because the man was poor. I don't think she'll ever get over it."
"Do you think she would like me?" Quin anxiously inquired.
"Yes," admitted Eleanor, "I believe she would. She simply adores to mold people. She doesn't care how many faults they have, if they will just let her influence them to be better. And she does help loads of people. I am her one failure. She wouldn't acknowledge it for the world, but I know that I am the disappointment of Aunt Enid's life."
She gazed gloomily down the long moonlit road and lapsed into one of her sudden abstractions. A belated compunction seized her for not going straight home from the Martels', for being late for dinner on her last night, for going on with her affair with Captain Phipps, when she had been forbidden to see him.
"Miss Nell," said the persistent voice beside her, "do you know what I intend to do while you are away?"
"I'm going to start in to-morrow morning and make love to your whole darn family!"
Now, if there is one thing Destiny admires in a man, it is his courage to defy her. She relentlessly crushes the supine spirit who acquiesces, but to him who snaps his fingers in her face she often extends a helping hand. In this case she did not make Quin wait until the morrow to begin his colossal undertaking. By means of a humble tack that lay in the way of the speeding automobile, she at once set in motion the series of events that were to determine his future life.
By the time the puncture was repaired and they were again on their way, it was half-past seven and all hope of a timely arrival was abandoned. As they slowed up at the Bartlett house, their uneasiness was increased by the fact that lights were streaming from every window and the front door was standing open.
"Is that the doctor?" an excited voice called to them from the porch.
"No," called back Eleanor, scrambling out of the car. "What is the matter?"
No answer being received, she clutched Quin's sleeve nervously.
"Something has happened! Look, the front hall is full of people. Oh, I'm afraid to go in! I——"
"Steady on!" said Quin, with a firm grip on her elbow as he marched her up the steps and into the hall.
Everything was in confusion. People were hurrying to and fro, doors were slamming, excited voices were asking questions and not waiting for answers. "What's Dr. Snowden's telephone number?" "Can't they get another doctor?" "Has somebody sent for Randolph?" "Are they going to try to move her?" everybody demanded of everybody else.