Garden City New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1922
Copyright, 1922, by Doubleday, Page & Company
All Rights Reserved, Including That of Translation into Foreign Languages, Including the Scandinavian
Printed in the United States at The Country Life Press, Garden City, N. Y.
AND HER COURAGE
PART I PAGE MARY LOUISE 1
The front gate screaked, a slow, timid, almost furtive sort of screak, and then banged suddenly shut as though it despaired of further concealment. Mary Louise gathered her sewing to her, rose to her feet, and looked out. It was raining. Through the glass upper half of the door that opened from the sitting room upon the side porch she could see the swelling tendrils of the vines that crawled about the trellis, heavy and beady with the gathering moisture. It was one of those cold, drizzly, early April rains that dares you by its seeming futility to come forth and do weaponless battle and then sends you back discomfited and drenched. A woman was coming up the walk bent in a huddle over a bundle which she carried in her arms. Mary Louise gazed searchingly for a moment and then, as the figure would have passed the door, on around to the rear of the house, stepped out on the porch and called:
"Zenie! Zenie! Come in this way. There's nobody around there."
Zenie raised her head in mute surprise and then slowly obeyed. She shuffled across the porch, and at the door, which Mary Louise held open for her, paused and looked about her in indecision. She was a buxom creature, of the type that the Negroes about the station would call a "High Brown," but without the poise and aplomb that conscious membership in that class usually brings.
"Mis' Susie in?" she ventured, after a careful survey of the room had assured her that such was not probable. And her care, relaxed for the moment, allowed the corner of the shawl to fall from the bundle in her arms, which forthwith set up a remote wailing, feeble and muffled, though determined.
Mary Louise raised a skeptic eyebrow at the discredited Zenie.
"Sshh!" dispassionately urged the latter, scorning for once public regard and continuing to gaze about the low-ceilinged room for the absent but much-desired Miss Susie.
Such callous indifference baffled Mary Louise, even while it answered her innermost questionings, and for the moment she was voiceless. "What in the world——!" she said at length and hated herself for the vulgar surprise in her tone.
Zenie turned away from the inspection and, finding herself and appendage the centre of interest, bridled with a timid pleasure, and then poked a ruminative finger into the swaddle of shawl and comforter.
"Yas'm," she began in explanation. "Done brung 'im to show t' Mis' Susie. Didn' know you wuz home." Her manner had all the affable ease of a conscious equal.
Mary Louise rubbed her eyes. Time was bringing changes; Zenie had once been humble. Her voice rang with an accusing hardness. "I thought you'd shut the door on that worthless Zeke of yours."
Zenie did not raise her head but continued the aimless poking in the bundle, which strangely responded to the treatment and was quiet again. "No'm. He comes roun'. Eve' now an' then. Zeke's got a cah!" A momentary gleam from dark eyes lit like coals into a sudden flare, and Mary Louise was conscious of a pride that was fierce and strong, even if new. She felt suddenly strange, foreign, like an intruder.
Their eyes met, and this time it was Mary Louise's that fell. She felt embarrassed at the question that arose in her. Of course Zeke was the father. Such a question to the emancipated Zenie would be paternally insulting. She countered skillfully:
Zenie shifted the bundle in her arms and then reached over with her toe and thoughtfully pushed the stove door.
"Name Nausea," she replied softly, still regarding the door which refused to shut entirely.
Zenie raised her eyes and smiled. It was a sudden unmasking of a battery in a peaceful landscape. "Nausea Zekiel Thompson," Zenie continued, gazing down into the bundle with the simplicity of a great emotion.
For a moment silence descended upon the room. Mary Louise could not trust herself in the customary amenities. She stepped over to Zenie and the younger Thompson and peered into the bundle, conscious as she did so of a slowly opening door beyond them. A tiny weazened face and two beady blinking eyes were all she saw. Zenie was making a curious clucking noise.
"Yas'm," Zenie went on, encouraged into an unwonted garrulity, "Mist' Joe done give 'im that name. Hit's from de Bible, ain't it?"
"Yas'm. Mist' Joe Hoopah." There was a cheery ring to Zenie's voice that had been wont to drag so dispiritedly. "He say hit come so unexpeckedly an' all you kin do is make the bes' of it." Her face was suddenly wreathed in an expansive smile. "Mist' Joe done hoorahin' us—Zeke an' me. Zeke don' min'. Nossuh. He say de baby look lak him." She held the bundle up and looked at it in rapt contemplation.
Mary Louise's lips shut in a tight line. She turned away from the pair in distaste. But just then a light step sounded and her feeling was diverted. Zenie did not hear the advent of another character upon the scene so absorbed was she in holding the centre of the stage. "Think hit's a pritty name, don' you?"
Receiving no answer she raised her eyes and beheld Miss Susie, whose critical gaze enveloped her sternly. Zenie dropped her eyes again.
"So you've finally decided to show up again, Zenie?" Miss Susie clipped her words off short to everyone. She was a wisp of a woman with little hands as dry and yellow as parchment. Her voice had a quavering falsetto break in it and her laugh, when there was occasion, was dry and withery and short-lived like a piece of thistle-down.
Mary Louise was watching with interest. Zenie struggled for a moment and then turned and faced the inevitable. There was a growing decision in her manner.
"H'do, Mis' Susie! Yas'm. I 'cided I'd drop in on you-all. Show him to his white folks." She looked at Miss Susie and smiled a most uncertain smile.
And then for the first time was the import of the visit brought fully to the visitee.
"So," Miss Susie exploded, "that's where you've been. Out of town! Humph! You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Zenie looked as though she would like to defend herself, but it was useless.
Miss Susie went on inexorably, "That worthless Zibbie Tuttle has been tearing all my good linen and lace to pieces for the past three weeks. And now I suppose I'll have to put up with her for a few weeks longer."
"Yas'm," Zenie replied weakly.
"However"—Miss Susie pronounced it as though it were one syllable—"I suppose I can't help it. What is it? Boy or girl?"
"Boy," said Zenie, and with growing decision, "but hit ain' him I come to see you-all about. No'm. Thank you jes' as much. I jes' aim to tell you I ain' take in no mo' wash. No'm. Zeke he don' want me to take in no mo' wash. No'm."
"Zeke!" Miss Susie's snort was very ladylike. "Zeke!—and what has Zeke to do with what you want to do?"
"We'se ma'ied, ain' we, Mis' Susie?"
This was irrefutable, but more so the changing viewpoint. Zenie had tasted emancipation. Miss Susie shrugged her shoulders and left the room with short hurried steps.
Zenie turned to Mary Louise. "I'm tiahed of the ol' tub. 'Tain' no use my weahin' myself out fu nuthin'. 'Sides, this heah boy a heap o' trubbel." She shook her head doubtfully.
Mary Louise disregarded the confidence. "D'you say Mister Joe—Mister Joe Hooper—named your baby? How could he? He's not even home."
"Yas'm. Yas'm, he is. He come in t' see Zeke this mo'nin'. Mist' Joe lookin' mighty fine."
Mary Louise felt a curious sinking feeling of being shoved into a discard. And then Miss Susie came hurrying back into the room. In her hand she carried a small bundle of red flannel cloth freshly cut from the bolt. Zenie eyed her uncertainly.
"Here. Here's something to keep out the cold—next winter. And you oughtn't to bring it out in such rainy weather." She went to the door and held it open in all finality. And Zenie, with much secret and inner scorning for a ritual so antiquated and a gift so obsolete, could do naught but depart. Miss Susie had somehow managed to keep the advantage, and the two white women watched the departing figure shuffle down the walk, out through the sagging, screaky gate. The clouds had broken in the west and a soft golden radiance suffused the row of maples that lined the fence along the street, and the swelling branches gleamed with promise. Over toward the east a patch of blue sky appeared, and then the tip of a sickle moon thrust itself through and floated entire for a moment on a tiny azure lake. A little breeze came round the corner of the porch from the sunset. It was as soft and warm as an unspoken promise, and it flipped back skirt hems and twisted hair tendrils most inoffensively.
"Come, honey!" Miss Susie said at length, wrenching herself loose from the charm. "It's getting late."
Mary Louise stepped slowly off the porch on to the spongy lawn that stretched out to a summerhouse partly covered with the skeleton of last summer's vines. "Just a minute, Aunt Susie," she answered, without looking back. "I want to see how the hydrangea is coming on."
Miss Susie turned and closed the door behind her.
Bloomfield had a quality of unchangeableness. Even in the dead of winter you could tell with half an eye how it would look bedecked in its summer finery. Down the stretch of years, past many an intervening milepost, it always stood clearly envisioned to its sons and daughters both natural and adopted. There was about four hundred yards of macadam street lined with oaks and maples as old as or older than the meeting house of early Post-Revolutionary days which stood at the cross-roads corner diagonally across from the glary white gasolene station. Half-way down the street, in a cluster of elms, stood the remnants of an ancient tavern, whose front wall, flush with the sidewalk, showed occasional bullet scars on the rough red brownstone surface. Green outside shutters lay inertly back from dull leaded panes which reflected metallically the orange glow of the setting sun, and over the door, which was squat and low and level with the pavement, an ancient four-sided lantern, hung from a bracket of rusty black iron, was gathering cobwebs in disuse. All this lay within Mary Louise's field of vision from the summerhouse and yet she saw it not. She was staring abstractedly at a wary robin that had stopped to rest on a fence post, his beak all frowzy with the debris from a recent drilling. The McCallum house—her father's—stood at the other end of the row of maples on the same side of the street as the meeting house and a hundred yards or so distant. There was quite an expanse of greening lawn in front and to the south, whereon stood the summerhouse, and a tangle of rose bushes hid the decaying board fence which marked the southern boundary. Along the brick sidewalk stretched a line of ageing wooden pickets and about midway in their extent hung the wooden gate with the screak. The house was frame, low and wide-stretching, with an inviting verandah about a cavernous front door that was dark and rarely open. People used the side door into the ell sitting room, and the brick walk leading in a curved sweep to this doorway was free from grass. A high wooden lattice separated the front lawn from the backyard and sheds and stables, and about this lattice sprawled in luxuriant freedom rose vines and honeysuckle, just now faintly budding into life.
Mary Louise stooped and punched a hole in the soft earth with a little stick, unconsciously uprooting a tender shoot thereby. A black beetle came scurrying out of the decaying baseboard at this disturbance and was summarily filliped off into the greening wastes of lawn. Collecting herself, she next inspected the branches of the plant near by and finding sufficient promise of green, straightened up and flung back an escaping wisp of hair, with a sigh.
There was nothing particularly noticeable about Mary Louise unless it might possibly be a certain fine-drawnness. Her eyes, which were brown, had a sort of set focus on the immediate, and there were some fine lines from the corners of her lips to her nose. She was slim and straight, with small hands and feet, and her arms, which were bare to the elbow, might have been soft and round, were it not for a sinuous tension that showed itself in little corded creases right where a girl's arms should be softest and roundest. And her hair had a way of coming down at all times and in all weathers. It had never been decided whether she were pretty or not. That was something that had never mattered—to her, at least.
As she threw back her head she was conscious of a general escaping of hairpins and a loosening of hair. With a frown she dropped her stick and turned her attention from horticulture to coiffure. A low whistle sounded from somewhere beyond the rose vines, and as she turned, with her fingers in her hair and elbows protruding, she saw a man come swinging along the walk past the boundary fence, his eyes sweeping the house from upstairs windows to side porch.
Mary Louise calmly proceeded with her toilette, making no sign. He caught sight of her, paused a moment, and then vaulted stiffly over the picket fence into the yard.
"'Lo," he said.
She had a hairpin in her mouth and returned the greeting with a slight lifting of eyebrows. As her head was lowered and her chin tucked in, this was a sufficiently effective reply.
"Musta rained pretty hard here," he ventured, as, noticing the damage that the damp grass was doing to his trouser hems, he covered the remaining distance between them in a series of violent haphazard leaps.
The hairpin rendered her response unintelligible.
"How d'you find things?" gaining her side, and a bit more calmly.
Mary Louise deliberately tucked in one last recalcitrant wisp and pinned it down, and then turned to him. "Pretty well." Her gaze was level and critical.
"Aunt Sue better?"
She nodded. Then she turned and slowly walked within the inclosure of the summerhouse and sat down. He followed her and stood framed in the doorway.
"What's the gloom?" he asked directly, after a moment of silence.
"Nothing," she said, a little too brightly.
"Not interrupting anything, am I?"
Disregarding this: "What are you doing in Bloomfield?"
He laughed. "Aren't sorry I came, are you? This is Saturday. Times have changed. Maybe you don't know. Proletariat's riding high."
"They're giving you the whole day now?" in a mildly dubious tone.
He turned away. "No. But Uncle Buzz was in a jam, and—well, I thought I'd better come." He turned on her suddenly. "Keeping tab on me, aren't you? How'd you know?"
"I reckon I'd better, Joe." And then more softly: "Think it's the best way to do? Uncle Buzz's been in deep water before." She rose to her feet and walked slowly to the opposite entrance. "How are things—at the works?"
He was silent a moment. "Same old place. Take more'n a war to change 'em." He came and stood beside her in the doorway. The sun was making a last desperate attempt to lighten the general gray of the sky with broad shafts of orange, and as they watched, it settled slowly and then dipped behind the dim blue of the distant hills. As at a signal, a bird in a thicket somewhere over beyond them began a long throaty warble. Another answered over to the left. Faint, liquid trip-hammerings, they were, upon brittle anvils.
"It's a good thing some things don't change," she said at length, in a low tone.
They watched the glow fade from the sky, the broad bands of orange receding swiftly westward, while the cloud rim above the horizon cooled softly into pink and coral and a sudden soft patter of rain upon the dried vines and leaves above their heads aroused them. Without a word, Mary Louise slipped past him and ran for the house. He followed.
On the side porch she turned and waited for him, and he came and stood before her, hatless, in the rain. "I'd better be getting back before it gets any worse—see you in the morning?"
"Let me get you an umbrella." She turned and was about to enter the house.
"No. Can't use 'em. Get hung up in the trees. What time you want to start out? Nine o'clock? See you at nine."
"That's too early. Make it ten. I'm busy. Besides, it's Sunday."
"Comin' at nine," he called over his shoulder and started for the gate.
She watched his retreating figure as he darted along through the shadow, and then she slowly turned and entered the sitting room. A dim yellow light from a single oil lamp on the table over against the right wall was feebly penetrating the deep shadows in far corners. The low-ceilinged room seemed huge and cavernous, with deep niches and crannies and bulky, shadowy objects. Miss Susie sat by the table with her knitting, her face yellower than ever, her hands feverishly restive. She raised her head as Mary Louise closed the door, and the tiny lines, accentuated by the lamplight, covered her face like markings upon an ancient scroll.
"Why didn't he come in, honey?"
"I don't know, Aunt Susie. He was in a hurry."
"What's he doing in town? Thought he'd gone back to work in Louisville."
"I don't know, Aunt Susie."
Miss McCallum picked up her knitting. She sniffed. "No, I s'pose not."
Mary Louise went over and kissed her aunt lightly upon the forehead, and then disappeared through a shadowy door back into shadowy depths. Directly came a sound of clattering tinware and then the faint echoes of a song, hummed, and slightly nasal. A smile flickered across Miss Susie's lips as she watched her fingers—the needles flitting swiftly in and out.
They drew rein on a hill which sloped gently away to the town a mile or so distant. Over to the right in a cluster of trees gleamed the white fences and buildings of the Bloomfield Fair Grounds like a blob of paint squeezed on a dark palette.
Mary Louise turned in the saddle and took a long thirsty look at the western sky. "I love these days that are unplanned. They bring so much more when there isn't any promise."
Joe took off his hat and wiped his forehead, keeping tight rein in the meantime with his other hand on his roan saddler, who, scenting the home stretch, was restless to be off. "After which original tribute to my day, I hesitate to tell you that it has been a hunch of mine for over a year—ever since that first spring in Texas. Made up my mind if ever I struck God's country alive and in one piece, I'd treat myself to a great bath of this sort of stuff. Unplanned! Humph!"
Mary Louise's tight little mouth relaxed but she did not shift her gaze. "You forget. It was not planned—by me." On rare occasions Mary Louise could slip from her matter-of-fact self into coquetry and back again before one realized. It was like the play of a lightning shuttle, so quick that one rarely caught the flash of the back stroke. Joe had erred before. He was discreetly silent.
"I love it," Mary Louise went on, flinging back her head, "every stick, every stone of it. That half mile of turf down Blue Bottle Lane! I'd give ten years of my life to gallop the rest of it through country like that." And then, as though startled, she bit her lip and was still.
Joe smiled as he watched her narrowly. "A woman's a mess o' contradictions. Whoa! You, too," he called sharply to his mare. "Thought you wanted to eat grass a little. Whoa!" He reined up the tossing head with difficulty. And then to Mary Louise, "You're a sort of self-inflicted exile, aren't you?"
Mary Louise turned from her musing and gave him a look of most effective scorn. "Put your hat on," she said coldly. "You talk better through it." She was backing her mount out from the thicket whence he had thrust his nose and was wheeling him about to point him toward home. "I suppose you'd leave your job in Louisville and come back here to live yourself—just because you loved the scenery!"
"Not such a bad swap at that." But she was off and away. One rearing plunge and he was after her. Down across the grassy sweep of turf they fled, across a shallow ditch, past a stretch of willow thicket, around a jutting knob of rock, into an arching avenue of trees. It was like dropping into a cool, shadowy bowl, the first shoots and sproutings of baby leaves from the branches casting a delicate tracery of shadow on the golden-green shimmer of the grass. Through an open gate they shot, he close behind, out upon a hard metallic roadway of macadam. Here Mary Louise reined in her horse and Joe instantly drew up alongside.
"It's lucky the street came along to help," he breathed. "Twenty yards more——"
Mary Louise reached up a hand to her hair in a futile effort to stem the havoc there. A moment of furious attempt to quiet the racing in her veins, and then, quite calmly, "It's all as it should be. We've got to look out for such things and take advantage of them. There are no ifs and buts about being caught. You didn't—that's all."
Joe opened his mouth to speak, stared at her a moment, and then turned away his eyes. They trotted along in silence, the shadows deepening and lengthening.
Directly: "When does your tea room open?"
"To-morrow. I'll be fine and stiff to start it off." Both question and answer had taken on a fine flavour of impersonality. Quiet again, with only the clatter of hoofs on the roadway. Directly they turned a wide sweeping curve and before them appeared a wooden gateway set at the end of an avenue of elms, at the other end of which showed, dim and forbidding, a house with columns and a green roof. Joe dismounted and, unlatching the gate, turned and stood grinning at her.
"So you're really goin' to try it out?" His voice had the quality of self-questioning.
It broke in on her musings and she seemed a bit impatient. "Of course I'm going to try it out. Only there isn't much 'try' to it. It's bound to make a go."
"Some little difference between a merely commercial proposition and a popular charity like the Red Cross. There's no percentage in just guzzlin' tea for fun unless you're doin' it to keep Americans from starvin' or doughboys from itchin'. You know what I believe?" He turned on her suddenly. "You're just scrapin' up an excuse to—to——" He stammered, hesitated in indecision. "Tea!"
"Don't be maudlin, Joe!" Her tone was very cold. "If you must know, we need the money and——Well, I guess I learned enough about tea and tea rooms in the past ten or eleven months to know whether one will pay or not—if it's properly run. Got awfully hardboiled while you were in the army, didn't you? Come, open the gate."
He was silent. Mary Louise usually could put him in his place. But thus put in his place, Joe could assume all the irritable stick-to-itiveness of a child. "How about Miss Susie?"
He watched the shot. For a moment it had no seeming effect, and then Mary Louise, turning loose all the pent-up outpourings to inner questionings, in a fury of righteous self-justification: "You needn't think I haven't thought about that. You needn't think I'm shirking my duty in any way. If you knew, you wouldn't ask such a question. Before you left we were just on the ragged edge, and now—well, somebody's got to do something to bring the money in. The place don't make it." Her voice quieted down a little. "It hasn't been an easy question to solve. Come, Joe! Open the gate."
He watched her curiously. "But the servants? You've still got the servants, Matty, and Old Landy, and that half-baked gorilla, Omar. Why not——"
"Yes, why not?" She turned on him. "Why not shut down the place, too, as well as dismiss all the servants, and live in one of the old stone quarters? Why not? Why not let your heels run down if they want to? It's much easier."
Quietly he pushed the gate open and stood waiting, holding it for her. Something in his manner struck her, and she reached out her hand from her seat in the saddle and touched him lightly as her horse swerved past. "There, I'm sorry, Joe. But you just hounded me into it somehow. I didn't mean it's that way with you. You know I didn't. You see what I mean? One ought to try. Ought to try everything first, not just give up because everything doesn't seem just right. I have thought about Aunt Susie, and it breaks me all up. But it can't be helped." She waited till he closed the gate and with a quick swing-up into the saddle drew alongside. Slowly they walked their horses up the avenue.
"I s'pose you're right," he said at length. "Only—only it has seemed to me that there's a lot of good time wasted doing useless things. Would you rather run a tea room than do anything else in the world?"
She looked at him but they were passing a bend in the road, and the sun, having dipped behind a jutting hill, no longer lighted up the dusky avenue, and Joe's face was in semi-shadow. "I'd rather hold on to what I've got than lose the tiniest portion of it," was all she said.
Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed. "If they could only see me now!"
"They? Who, they?"
His face sobered, but there was a momentary twinkle about the eyes. "Who? Oh, at the office." And then, as dismissing the thought, "Uncle Buzz know you're openin' the tea room?"
"Then you ought to tell him. Give you a lot of invaluable suggestions as to how to mix up little 'what-for-you's.' Get 'em comin' and goin'. Also, Uncle Buzz's got a mint bed that has parts."
"There's some patronage we will be forced to do without," Mary Louise replied primly. They were nearing the house and as they approached, someone in one of the front rooms struck a light and it could be seen moving, the shadows dancing on the walls.
"Don't overlook Uncle Buzz," said Joe with a chuckle. "Don't overlook any discriminatin' taste. You can't beat those horses of his."
"No," agreed Mary Louise, "nor——" and then checked herself.
The roadway turned sharply to the left and finished off in a circle, one arc of which touched the steps of an open porch. These steps were sagging and decayed, and the porch was swept by the gentle eddyings of leaves of past summers that had sought refuge there and had been undisturbed by the ruthless sweepings of winds or brooms. There was a haunting odour of pine and something else that was damp and old and weary and forgotten, and a shrivelled wisteria vine that clung with withered fingers to a trellis at the house corner began to whisper at their approach. A yellow bar of light shot for a moment across the porch floor to their feet, then disappeared. It was the lamp Mary Louise had seen farther down the driveway, and directly the side door opened and the mellow glow of it sent shadowy rings of light out toward them.
"Joe! Joe!" called out an anxious voice. "Don't make noise. Keep 'way from the back." There was a moment's silence and as Joe made no reply: "Come in this way, why don't you? Better way come in."
And then Mary Louise saw a hand shade the uppermost part of the lamp. Then there was a pause, and then a figure came across the porch, a short figure casting grotesque shadows, a bit stiff, a bit unsteady, like the rings of light that went out in circling waves behind it. It was Uncle Buzz. He came and stood on the topmost rotting step. He bowed. With one hand holding the wavering lamp, the other bravely cupped before his chest, he bowed.
"Pardon," he said. "'N't know there were ladies."
"Miss McCallum, Uncle Buzz," interposed Joe.
"Honoured, 'm sure," Uncle Buzz responded with another bow, lower if anything than the first, so that the tip of his little goatee came within singeing distance of the lamp chimney, and he straightened back with a start, only to stare about him again, vaguely hurt. Collecting himself again, "Knew there was reason shouldn't go 'roun' th' back. Le' Zeke take horses. Zeke! Zeke!" he called in a falsetto quaver. "Come in this way, madam," he added with grave dignity, but curtailing the bow.
For a moment Mary Louise was fascinated. Old Mr. Bushrod Mosby she had known for years—a veritable rustic macaroni, a piece of tinselled flotsam floating on backwater. He had always called her M'Lou; later occasionally Miss M'Lou. Now the rhythm of some ancient rout was stirring old memories, and the obligations of host sat pleasantly heavy upon his befogged consciousness. He bowed again.
"No, thank you," she summoned her resources. "We'll be getting home. But we'll just leave the horses here," she added a bit hurriedly, anxious to be off. Echoes were sounding along a length of hallway and she was not desirous of the prospect of seeing Mrs. Mosby—Aunt Loraine—who was apt to prove a most discordant fly in the ointment of harmonious hospitality. So she turned to go, but turned too late. The door opened again and another figure appeared, a brisk figure, at which the dead leaves of the porch bestirred themselves in vague, uneasy rustlings. Uncle Buzz stepped meekly aside and Mrs. Mosby—Aunt Loraine—joined the group, giving him a momentary withering glance. She was an inexorable woman, an inch taller than Uncle Buzz, who stood five feet three, but she matched him whim for whim in her attire. Her hair looked black in the graying light; in reality it was splotched and streaked with a chestnut red, colour not so ill as misapplied. Her dress rustled as she swept forward and there were numberless faint clickings and clackings of chains and bangles about her. A high boned collar with white ruching helped her hold her head even more proudly straight, and the smile she shot Mary Louise was heavily fraught with a sickly sweet though rigorous propriety.
"You must come in, my dear," she lisped. "Such exhausting exercise! You wouldn't think of going one step further without resting. Here"—she reached out one hand toward Mary Louise, testing the meanwhile the security of the upper step with the tip of a shiny shoe—"the man will attend to the horses."
"Man! Yes," Uncle Buzz recollected with a start. "Zeke! Zeke!" he began to shout again. "Come here, suh!"
"Bushrod! Be still!" hissed Mrs. Mosby.
Almost was Mary Louise tempted to accept and stay, he looked so helpless, in such terrific danger, standing there blinking at them, his eyes vaguely trying to focus, and so mildly blue. His head with the graying hair so closely cropped gave him an odd appearance of boyishness, to which the smart little bow tie added not a little. He was trim, dapper, in spite of the fact that his standing collar was a size or two too large; in spite, too, of the tiny, well-trimmed goatee. He looked like a faun in trouble. With a shadow of distress crossing his face, he gave ground and backed away, the lamp tipping perilously in his grasp. Joe sprang forward and rescued it, setting it on the porch railing.
"We'd better be going, I reckon, Aunt Lorry. Miss Susie's all alone," he explained.
Mary Louise recovered herself with a start. What could she be thinking of, letting Joe make her excuses for her? Somehow she felt a sharp little wave of irritation against him for it. She hastened to add, however, "Oh, no, Mrs. Mosby. Thank you so much. I really must be getting home. Aunt Susie will be worried. It's quite dark."
The little woman murmured something, and then, "And how is your Aunt Susie? I must call. Give her my love, be sure," all in one breath.
"I will. You must," agreed Mary Louise, and turned to go. And as she did so she caught a most lugubrious expression on the face of Uncle Buzz, a gradual lengthening of all the muscles on one side of the face, resolving itself finally into a prodigious wink, deliberate and malign. Fortunately, it passed in the darkness the regard of the partner of his joys and sorrows and roused no answering spark.
They made their adieus and passed on down the shaded avenue on foot. Mary Louise gave an odd little shiver as they walked out into the shadow, past the circle of the lamp on the railing. Uncle Buzz—Mr. Mosby—had seemed always just a piece of background, a harmless bit of scenery, a catalogue of amenities, a husk, a shell—she wondered how many other things. And now he was cropping out with a personality, had desires, problems, secret plottings, all behind the mask—a Machiavelli.
She was aroused by a chuckle from Joe. The chuckle jarred. She turned and frowned at him in the darkness. Their shoes crunched in the small gravel of the roadway and then directly they came to the gate and turned along a wooden walk.
"Uncle Buzz's sure ripe," Joe's voice came out of nowhere. "Been ripe for over two days. Time he was being picked," he continued.
"Oh, don't get shocked. You aren't, you know. It's nothin' new!" He paused a moment as if to consider. "Reckon Aunt Lorry's busy with the pickin' now. She'll hate you," he added as an afterthought.
"What for?" asked Mary Louise.
"For seein' him." Joe chuckled again and relapsed into silence.
They walked the rest of the way without speaking, around one corner past the old meeting house, beneath the low-branched maples, up to the McCallum gate. Mary Louise opened it and held it open, her arm barring the way.
"Well! To-morrow's another day," said Joe, apparently disregarding it.
"It's just as well," replied Mary Louise. "I'm not quite sure the army's helped you much, Joe."
"The army? Helped me?—I don't get you," he tried to see her eyes, puzzled.
"You're flippant—about things that are not trivial."
"Oh!" he laughed. "It doesn't always rain when it clouds. Wait till we get into some real heavy weather. What's the harm, anyway? We should bother."
"That's not the only thing. You were making fun of Zenie's baby—just like it was a little animal. They might find out some day how you quoted from the Bible. Of course, there's no real harm done—but I don't like it."
Joe slid his hand softly along the top bar of the wooden gate till it touched hers. She drew quietly away. "Perhaps!" he said. "The old world runs along pretty well whether we bother or whether we don't. It doesn't make much difference what we do or what we don't. The old fellow's heart's all right, I reckon, and as for the niggers!—just as good a name as Loraine. My Lord!"
She stood silent, in thought. A faint reddish glow came to them from the curtained glass door of the ell sitting room. "Just a little sermon to start us out right—back to work. It is a serious business, you know, Joe—reconstruction! It's a big task. Let's not fall down on it or be trivial—shirk any of the responsibilities. Good-night," she added suddenly, giving her hand. "It's been a glorious day. I'll see you—in the city."
They parted, and he could hear her scrape her feet at the edge of the porch. The stars were winking through the branches of the maples and somewhere in the darkness a gutter was keeping up a monotonous dripping. He passed the corner and turned back to the road with the overlapping elms, walking with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his eyes watching the road. "Humph!" he said after a while, out loud, and then began to whistle softly to himself, shuffling with his feet on the gravel in time to his whistling as he walked.
Joe Hooper was not a handsome man. He was of that type so often seen in the South, tall, gangly, and very dark, with a sallow complexion and a general air of inertness that always misleads the stranger to the type. Insignificant looking, perhaps, but they will be found, on later acquaintance, to be worming themselves into general regard without effort. The law claims many of them and occasionally the raising of stock and the tilling of soil, though usually as proprietors only, it is true. Sometimes they are swept into strange waters where, if they float about long enough, they manage by some inherent mordant capacity to colour the entire complexion to their own. There are exceptions, of course.
Joe's father had lost his farm through foreclosure. It killed him. This fact and the presence of some alien strain sent Joe to Louisville which had some of the elements of the melting pot and some traditional elements of opportunity. He was twenty-four when he made this change. For two years he had resisted fusion and escaped opportunity. He had fallen into a job with the Bromley Plow Company and risen to the exalted status of stock clerk when the war came. The war, or rather the idea of the war, had proved a great relief to his imagination and he had enlisted at once, as a matter of fact, on the second day. This notion of service had been the one thing stronger than the influence of Mary Louise, which had been, it must be confessed, the main reason for his sticking as long as two years. The Plow Works had seemed a rather tedious road to a Restoration and the Barebones Parliament that sat in the inner office had seemed inexorably determined to make that road as devious and difficult as possible. He had escaped gladly. But the war had come to an end with him still in service on this side and he had at length returned with many things unsatisfied. One of these had been his idea about Mary Louise. She, too, had been swept into the vortex, into a mild eddy of it. The Red Cross had found her useful in the maintenance of a tea room for the enjoyment of the men at Camp Taylor. It had sounded innocent enough, but upon Joe's return he had found that she had in some way been galvanized. She was one of the war's changes; he, unfortunately, not so.
He did not know clearly just what he had expected upon his return, but then he had not expected the kind of return that he had experienced. There had been nothing epochal in it. Even his job was waiting for him; it seemed to him even the same routine details. One file of correspondence that he had found upon his desk that first morning had had a singularly familiar look. It would always stick in his memory. First there had been a moment of high anticipation at the station with the taxi-men calling out the names of the hotels, and stretched across Main Street he remembered seeing a large banner flanked with bunting and with "Welcome Home" inscribed thereon. Then he had watched the familiar landmarks as he rolled southward in the street car with an odd little feeling of "Hello, there you are again"; and the Works, looming up in the distance at the end of the line, with its tall brick stack, was a sort of culmination. Not exactly a culmination, either, for he was conscious of a jarring note. Then the oak-panelled lobby, with the time clock, a sombre monitor, took just another grain of carefree satisfaction from the sum total of his feelings; and finally—his desk, and the worn, thumb-edged file! The first letter therein! "Recent shipments castings EE23, G143, F47, and J29 have come to us unannealed. J29 shows fins and sprues; the hole in EE23 is in most cases completely closed; and G143 and F47 are so rough that they will not fit into their respective sockets without machining. Will return same via local freight to-day." That was all. An Homeric welcome into very deep water! Such had been Joe Hooper's homecoming.
As for Mary Louise:—well, there had been nothing quite so definite. He had met her at the tea room—there had been one final week of closing after his arrival—and he had not quite made up his mind about her before she had left for Bloomfield, beyond a certain stiffening of fibre, an aloofness that was new, and a business-like air that seemed to say "Come across," that he did not exactly like. But then a week is not a very long time to get down to bed-rock with a person, especially when that person is busy ten hours out of the day and thinking the other fourteen about the ten that have just passed.
Four weeks had rolled around. It was the first of May. Joe sat at his desk absently fingering a stack of paper slips. They were reports from the various assembling shops advising him of the number of bolts of certain styles and sizes used in those respective shops that day. He was supposed to post these amounts in a stock ledger against the various sizes and styles and note the approaching shortages wherever they came. There were between fifty and a hundred slips. The window was open opposite his desk and a delightful breeze was curling up the edges of some papers which had been thoughtfully weighted down. Joe gazed, heavy lidded, through the window. An automobile, a long, slouchy black one, went whirling by with the tonneau full of girls. Their veils were streaming and fluttering out behind, many-hued and flimsy. They were all gazing at the office windows as they passed. "One might think it was a reformatory or the county workhouse or something," he thought. He turned dully to the stack of reports and began to count them. He felt stale—flat.
He heard his name called, and turning, saw Mr. Boner standing at the corner of the partition looking at him over his spectacles. Mr. Boner was a tall, heavy man with nervous twitchings and anxious eyes that were eternally shifting about beneath their brows for something disturbing. He was responsible for keeping the warehouse filled, the warehouse whose books Joe kept, and it was his further duty to keep it filled as cheaply as possible. The threat of failure in either was what caused that eternal shifting. It was a sort of high-tension vigilance.
Joe rose to his feet, obeying the monosyllabic summons, and followed Mr. Boner around the partition. Mr. Boner rated a private office, where he could worm information, trade secrets, and occasional concessions from travelling salesmen. There was nothing social about the place. As Joe turned the partition corner and stood in the doorway, the old man had already seated himself at the desk. His fat hips completely filled the chair. He was apparently staring at something on the desk before him, but Joe could catch the occasional shifting glimmer of his eyes at the corners and knew he was looking at him. Suddenly Mr. Boner turned to the inner corner of the desk, started to speak, strangled, and with difficulty recovered himself. His voice, when finally he did recover it, was so loud that it startled even himself, and just as suddenly he lowered it to confidential pitch. Joe had been a witness to this procedure many times before but it never failed to interest him. In fact, Mr. Boner was himself a study. There was an old-fashioned golf cap perched on the top of his graying head and his close-clipped moustache was silvery white, in marked contrast to the pink-and-white mottle of his cheeks, which hung down over his collar in folds, like some dependable old foxhound's. One hand lay fat and puffy on the desk, clutching a pencil in a nervous grip. And the middle of him—he seemed to bulk and fill out the entire chair—so incongruous with his little feet and mincing gait! It was as though as much as possible of his body were seeking to escape that all-devouring tension in relapse. How familiar it all was! Even during those months at camp the picture would recur and Joe would laugh softly to himself. Poor old duffer! He was a product of the plant just as much as ploughs and tillage implements were. How soon would he begin to show the indelible imprint?
The voice rose sharply. Joe realized that Mr. Boner was speaking to him—was speaking with great feeling. He came back to realities with a jerk.
"Out of carriage bolts two one half one quarter," he was saying. It was probably the second time he had said it. He choked with emotion and had to seek refuge again in the receptacle on the floor at the left-hand corner of his desk.
Joe seemed unmoved.
"Book shows been out since April nineteenth." The old man turned to observe the effect of his damnation.
Joe quivered but showed no sign.
"Make out memorandum cut down one thousand five one half by one quarter." He spoke it explosively, keeping a furtive eye on that left-hand corner. "Have a surplus eleven thousand of them."
Joe guiltily felt that the old man knew the stock books better than he himself. A little spot of red appeared in each cheek.
Mr. Boner shoved two sheets of yellow paper across the desk toward him. "I've reordered replacement one thousand five one half, cancellation one thousand two one half." This with an air of satisfaction. There was nothing more to be done, patently. "Waste stock," Mr. Boner muttered.
Joe turned to go.
Mr. Boner exploded again. This was not all, apparently. "Blue annealed sheets," he called, sputtered, gripped the arms of his chair convulsively, recovered, and sat glaring helplessly.
Joe availed himself of the opportunity. "Have a memo for you on the desk." In spite of himself his voice sounded nervous. "Just out of two sizes to-day." He waited.
The old man turned and bent his head over his work. That was over. Joe returned to his desk, got the memo, and entered the little office again. As he slipped the paper across an intervening table, Mr. Boner straightened from a stooping inspection of a lower desk drawer, and Joe saw him furtively wipe a knife blade on the leg of his trousers and then turn upon him a look of mildest blue. There was a bulge in his left cheek as round as an acorn. Neither spoke. A privacy had been violated. Joe felt like a "Peeping Tom."
Noiselessly he slipped around the corner, back to his desk. The breeze was still blowing merrily through the window and two clerks at desks across the aisle were shoving pencils and rulers and like equipment into their proper drawers with a smug sort of satisfaction shining in their drawn faces. He looked at his watch. It lacked a minute of five-thirty. Then he looked at the stack of reports again, paused, and with an air of sudden decision dropped them into an open drawer. Opening another drawer he swept all the movable articles on his desk thereinto, careless of the confusion he caused, seized his hat from a peg behind him, and strode across the office, out through the door, into the oak-panelled lobby. For a moment he stood before the clock. Its hands showed five twenty-nine. He paused, then deliberately punched his number, descended the steps, and went out through the door on to the street. The whistle was blowing as he went down the walk. The street was deserted. He felt eyes somewhere on his back but walked on in apparent unconcern. He was conscious of a peculiar mixture of emotions, a little guilt, a little shame, a little furtiveness, and more than any, a lifting sense of relief, freedom. The air was light, cool, and invigorating. There was a pleasant crunch of dry dusty cinders beneath his feet. And then he saw a venturesome bluebird come darting across the open fields to the west and perch for a moment on the top strand of the barbed-wire fence of the Plow Works, a few yards ahead of him. It sat there swaying and watching him and, as he approached nearer, it took wing and darted across the Plow Company's grounds eastward toward the city. Joe filliped a wire paper clip after it.
"You had better turn around and go back where you came from," he called after it softly.
He proceeded homeward.
As he climbed the boarding-house stairs to his room he felt listless. For four weeks he had climbed those listless stairs. There had been one brief respite—the two days of Bloomfield with its easy relaxation. What lay at the end of the road? Whither was he tending? Mr. Boner's shoes? His desk was the step next below the little private office. He laughed shortly to himself as he opened a bureau drawer and selected a clean white shirt. The touch of the clean linen encouraged him a little. He began to whistle. He had a "date on" with Mary Louise. He had asked her to go to the vaudeville. Two or three hours of pleasant forgetfulness, anyway. Mary Louise—the thought of her brought a vague feeling of unrest. For over two weeks he had tried to get her over the 'phone. She had either been out when he had called or had pleaded some other engagement. Finally he had got the engagement for to-night three days ahead. And she had as good as promised to see him right off, immediately after that week-end in Bloomfield. Stranger! Stranger in the city! That did not sound very much as if she were a stranger. He wondered what she could have been doing. She had met a good many people while she was doing Red Cross, probably, people in the army—men—officers, now in civilian life. Why not? And yet he had felt the least bit irritated and a little bit lonely. For his friends had scattered, it seemed. And then they had not mattered much. And he had rather looked forward to the coming summer with Mary Louise in town. Now he didn't so much. It was foolish, too. There wasn't any reason for it. A man shouldn't pin his resources down to one spot.
He washed, dressed, and then went to dinner at a dairy lunch around the corner. The boarding place furnished breakfasts only. Then there was an hour and a half to kill before he could go for her. She had a room in a down-town apartment, not over three blocks away, and that would take but a very short time. He wandered over to the public square. Some old men were sitting on a row of iron benches lining the sidewalk, facing the street. They surveyed him critically as he passed by. He walked up and idly inspected the kiosk where the weather-bureau reports were posted. He noticed it predicted continued fair. Then he turned and walked in the street for about a block, gazing in shop windows. There was nothing in any of them that he particularly wanted. He stopped at a street corner and looked up and down both streets. A few desultory pedestrians went walking hither and yon, leisurely, with no apparent purpose. It was the lull of supper hour and there was an orange glow that penetrated even down to the streets which were mere canyons between sombre, artificial cliffs of masonry. To the west a small patch of open sky glowed sulphurously through a smoke pall. A city was a poor place to spend time in—really live in, he thought. And Mary Louise—he wondered if she thought so, too, she who had been raised in the greenest of all green country, in the widest and cleanest of spaces. Probably not. At least, it didn't look like it. A city was a good place to work in. One could work anywhere—if the work was all right. She had seemed keen about her work. She probably had had a lot to do, getting things started. She'd probably not had much time. He might have missed her during her leisure hours. It was possible she was as desirous of some outdoors, of some clean air, some blue sky, as he was.
Almost with the force of a decision he turned and walked back to the square and sat down. He looked at the clock. It said five minutes after seven. There was still an hour.
He sat and deliberately waited.
The time eventually passed, and before he had really gathered together his thoughts into orderly array she was meeting him at the door of her apartment, a little flushed, a little hurried, quite brisk and apparently eager to be at the business at hand. There was also an air of preoccupation as if she were revolving over in her mind some previous matters of which the threads still remained untangled. In this respect there was change. The old Mary Louise had been as open as a wild rose, as freshly and sweetly receptive to whatever wind came along. She had gathered complexity, was more serious, laughed less, frowned more.
They walked along the street in the gathering darkness soberly, he returning monosyllabic answers to the perfunctory questions which she fired at him, brightly crisp. Like the questionnaire of a superior officer he felt. Then for nearly a block they said nothing. Glancing sidewise at her he caught the straight, almost grim line of her mouth and the little pucker between her brows. As if realizing she was being observed she suddenly asked:
"What are you doing out at the Works?"
Joe paused a moment before replying. "When I was in Texas," he began, "out in the sticks, we had a flood, and the road from headquarters was in danger of being washed away. Culverts too small. Had one nigger standing on the bank of one stream by the head of a culvert catching the sticks and brush and dragging them up on the bank so they wouldn't clog up the hole." He spoke in a quietly reminiscent tone.
She turned and looked at him curiously. "But I said, 'What are you doing now at the Works?'"
"I know," he continued, in the same tone. "That's what I'm doing at the Plow Factory. Keeping the water running."
She smiled, just a flash of a smile. "Doesn't sound so bad, even if you are secretive about it. How did the nigger take care of his job?"
Joe looked up quickly. "Oh—he? He fell asleep. And then he fell in the creek."
Mary Louise was watching him, waiting for him to finish. At last he seemed to have got her entire attention. "And then?"
"Then he got pneumonia—and died."
They crossed the street. Up ahead the lights of the theatre gleamed dazzling white. The crowd was getting almost too thick to permit conversation.
"You don't like your job then?"
He flared into sudden unexpected defense of it. "Well, I haven't gone to sleep on it yet."
They said no more, for the task of passing the ticket chopper and then of getting settled in their seats was all absorbing. And then directly the curtain rose and Joe found himself slipping into a delightfully relaxed forgetfulness. He was being amused. His good humour was returning. He got an occasional glance at Mary Louise, sometimes during contagious gales of laughter that would sweep the audience, and saw her smiling slightly, mostly with her eyes; and was puzzled, for the humour was not that sort. Had he stopped to think, or had he been more experienced, he would not have been thus puzzled, for he would have realized that the sudden putting on of sophistication is always a puzzling thing.
But he banished the question and gave himself up entirely to enjoyment. And when the final curtain fell he rose to his feet with a faint inner sigh of regret. It was with high good humour that he gained his companion's side outside the theatre.
"We'll get a bite to eat down in the Rathskeller," he suggested gaily.
"No, Joe, let's not. This is enough for one evening." She turned as if to start southward, toward home, but he seized her arm, laughing:
"Maybe it's enough for you, but it's not enough for me. Come on. Be a sport. You've been dodging me long enough."
"Dodging you?" She was all hurt surprise as he hurried her along.
Joe's method was improving. "Well, come along, then—if you don't want me to think so."
Mary Louise let it go at that. She came.
A revolving door that swept outward musty and yet alluring odours swept them inward. They descended a flight of winding steps to a subterranean anteroom of stone. Dim lights winked at them from stone niches and from a cleft in the rock to one side a prim little maid in a ruched white cap took Joe's hat. There should have been a troglodyte attendant, instead. On the other side of swinging glass doors was much clatter and laughter and the indistinct voice of a woman above a rhythmic strumming and the bleat of a saxophone. The transition to this other side was sudden and bewildering. The glimmer burst into a glare, the dim echo swelled into a roar as the door opened, and Joe stood blinking, asking for a table for two. As he threaded his way between tables, past careening waiters swinging aloft perilous trays, a girl in a crimson evening frock came wandering carelessly through the aisle toward him, her hands clasped behind her back, her eyes searching the crowd sitting about her. Her figure was short and pudgy and so violently compressed into her crimson gown that she seemed to be oozing out of a scanty chalice. She was singing a most provocative song and, catching sight of Joe as he struggled along, face uptilted, and, looking into his eyes most impudently, let him have the full import of her words.
Joe gave her a deliberate, knowing wink. With a careless shrug she moved away in search of more promising and sensitive material.
He passed, the toxine of gaiety mounting to his head, to a small table tucked into a remote corner, where the waiter was holding out a chair for him.
"Won't do, George," he said, refusing the proffered chair. "We can't be buried way back here. We aren't dead ones, you know."
The waiter raised a deprecating shoulder but Mary Louise broke in, "Oh, don't bother! This is all right, Joe." She had already seated herself and was drawing off her gloves. Her face looked hot and weary, and long wisps of hair were clinging damply to her temples.
"Wish we could have had a table over there," indicating two or three vacant ones near the orchestra and the base of the jongleur's operations. "We're out of it here. Well, at any rate, what are you going to have?"
She turned from a weary inspection of adjoining tables. "Oh, anything. Some lemonade, I suppose."
"Don't want to celebrate? This is our first party." His eyes and smile were eager.
"No. Of course not, Joe. You know better than that."
"Two lemonades," he said to the waiter regretfully. Somehow it seemed like a waste of atmosphere, a waste of fuel, pulling a rowboat with a turbine—to be drinking lemonade in a place like this. Many bitter similes occurred to him, but he banished them.
"The old girl looks like a rash, doesn't she?" he said, indicating the singer who was wandering about amongst the tables in another part of the room.
Mary Louise looked at him suspiciously. "How's that?"
"She's a-breakin' out."
Neither paid any further attention to this atrocity; she, because she willed otherwise; he, because he was blissfully unaware.
But her apathy was noticeable. He made one or two violent efforts to spur her flagging spirits and then, becoming touched by the contagion of her reserve, lapsed himself into silence. They sat and sipped their lemonades, thoughtfully inspecting their straws, dolefully ruminative. Their little table was like a blot on a snow-white expanse of joy.
Joe came to the bottom of his glass and made a vicious noise in the residue of cracked ice. He looked up to see how she might be taking it and saw a gleam of pleasure pass across her face. It quickly subsided and gave way to a look of preoccupation. He was watching her intently now. And then she smiled and looked beyond him, stretching her hand out in recognition. Someone touched the back of his chair. He looked over his shoulder, saw a man's figure standing there, and then he rose to his feet.
Dimly he heard Mary Louise's introduction. It was a Mr. Claybrook or something like that.
"Won't you pull your chair up?" Joe invited.
Mr. Claybrook decided he would. He was a big man, a grave man, a man of considerable poise, and possessed of whimsical crow's-feet in the corners of his eyes. Mary Louise's apathy seemed to retire a little at his approach.
"Glad to see you survived last night," he said to her with a faint smile.
She flushed, and Joe felt a little roughness under his collar.
"How's the tea room coming? Roused out any hard drinkers yet?"
"Oh, we're not looking for that. We hope to make a few steady friends, but we're depending on the ebb and flow." Her colour was mounting, and had not Joe been so uncomfortable he would have seen how pretty she was. But he sank deeper and deeper into a sullen and unreasoning discomfort. The two had evidently had considerable in common before. He felt awkward—knew of nothing to say. Claybrook, on the other hand, was enjoying himself.
And apparently sensing the tension in Joe's mind, and seeking to lighten it a bit, she volunteered:
"Captain Claybrook is going to help us put the tea room across. He was one of our best little patrons in Camp Taylor."
Claybrook looked self-conscious; Joe even more embarrassed. And suddenly a strange look crossed her face and she broke off her explanation. Joe turned and looked in the direction toward which she was staring wide-eyed.
And across the room, weaving through the labyrinth of tables and bearing straight down upon them, came a strange apparition. With unsteady gait, his hand stretched out in caution before him and a watery smile upon his lips, came Uncle Buzz. An incongruously picturesque figure amidst smartness and glitter. His head was as sleek as ever and he had waxed the tips of his moustaches so that they stuck out jauntily as did the tips of his black bow tie. But his jacket was short and rusty and in need of pressing, of which fact he seemed blissfully unaware. For, having sighted them, he was coming on steadfastly, past pitfalls that yawned, with a smile upon his face.
Joe felt a peculiar exulting glow pass over him, whether at the sight of a familiar, friendly face or for some less creditable reason. Distress was plainly written on the face of Mary Louise. Claybrook talked on, unconscious of what was coming.
And then Mr. Mosby drew up alongside and favoured them with an elaborate bow from the centre of the aisle. A hurrying waiter, being thus perilously presented with an unexpected hazard, made a desperate swerve in mid-flight and menaced an adjoining table with the contents of his tray. A glass crashed, a woman shrieked, and Uncle Buzz serenely proceeded.
"Don't get up. Pray, don't get up," he said to Joe and Claybrook. "Saw you from the door and merely came to pay my respects. Miss Mary Louise, we miss you in the old town." He turned to her gracefully, and Joe could catch the faint aroma of Bourbon, thus immediately accounting to his own satisfaction for the easy poise and manner. Mary Louise was lost. She watched Claybrook, who seemed amused, and Uncle Buzz went on, turning his attention to Joe. "And by the way, Joseph, if you can arrange to, your Aunt Loraine and I would like for you to spend Saturday and Sunday with us."
Joe knew how much his Aunt Loraine would subscribe to this courtesy. It meant work to do, that was all. But he was amused, felt singularly light-hearted instead of embarrassed. Who can say he was depraved? His voice was kind and cajoling as he replied:
"What are you doing in town, Uncle Buzz? Isn't the store open to-day? Mr. Claybrook! Mr. Mosby!"
Uncle Buzz acknowledged the honour and then he turned on Joe a dignified but hurt surprise. "I come to town quite frequently," he said, clipping his words. "A Mr. Forbes of Boston wrote me to meet him here about some saddle horses." This was said quietly but with proper emphasis. Joe wondered how far it strayed from the truth. There were only two saddlers left, he knew. Uncle Buzz was swaying slightly to and fro and the little table was rapidly becoming the cynosure of all eyes. Mary Louise looked about her desperately. Uncle Buzz, smiling sweetly in the aisle, and threatening at any moment to shatter the illusion by falling prostrate, was entirely ignorant of her distress. The tables were reversed. Claybrook was silent; Joe held the centre of the conversational stage.
Suddenly Mary Louise arose. "We must be going," she said. She paused, gave them all an uncertain smile, and then she started rapidly for the door. Old Mr. Mosby looked mildly surprised, then accepted the situation as one too complex for his muddled brain. And Joe, after a first flare of anger, followed her in silence, leaving Claybrook and Uncle Buzz to contest the honours after him.
They parted in the lobby; Mary Louise with a bright spot on either cheek and her lips set in their tightest line; Claybrook suave and genial; Uncle Buzz bewildered and in some way wistfully regretful. His watery blue eyes held in them an unanswered question that seemed too ponderous for utterance. Joe was silent.
He took her home, along the deserted streets as quickly as possible. For a long time neither spoke. Then it was some trivial amenity that she uttered to which he made even shorter reply. Up in the elevator they went, silently watching the floor. At the door of her apartment he inclined his head. "Good-night," he said, without offering to shake hands.
"What's the matter, Joe?" she asked, suddenly coming to herself and realizing the oversight.
"Not a thing," he said. "It's perfectly all right with me." He turned to go.
"Oh!" The exclamation was almost involuntary. She shrank back a little into the shadow. "It was a nice party."
He made no reply but acknowledged this with another slight inclination of the head. And then he started down the hall.
For a moment she stood and listened to the muffled sound of his footsteps upon the thick hall carpet, and then she softly closed the door.
Joe had been right. There was a difference between an enterprise backed by popular sentiment and practically the same elements with the backing removed. In the first place, the patronage of the new tea room was not so brisk and what there was was more skeptically critical. There was not that carefree acceptance of things that overlooked deficiencies in the light of the cause they existed under. In fact, the helpful pressure that had held it all cemented had loosened. At the end of the first week the two cooks suggested a raise in pay amounting to ten dollars a month apiece. They did this in accord. And then, contrary to what might be expected now that the war was over, there was an insidious rising in the cost of everything, from table napkins to canned asparagus. Mary Louise began to feel that profits might not be so easy to estimate, after all.
Her coordinate, too, was constitutionally apathetic. She was a bovine creature who positively refused to get ruffled over obstacles, criticisms, or fate. Her name was Maida Jones. Two large pans of buns had burned. Mary Louise, seeking to fix the responsibility, had failed in doing so and was wracked at the prospect of frequently recurring waste. Responsibility to be effective must be undivided. Maida had only laughed. And Mary Louise removed herself from the scene of her defeat and stood in the doorway of the tea room proper and stared bleakly across a vista of deserted tables at a languid and heat-ridden thoroughfare. It was going to be a "hit-or-miss" proposition, a careless, slipshod affair—this tea room—unless she did something to prevent it—and it was too hot. That was what was the matter. It was too hot. She brushed back the hair from her face and slumped. Behind her came the clatter of dishes. And then someone laughed, a coarse, raucous laugh. Mary Louise shuddered. The post-office clock boomed six and she suddenly realized that the day was over. There would be no belated custom, for the service stopped at six and the room was empty. Irritation gave way to discouragement. The day's receipts had been slim indeed. Just then she noticed an automobile roll up to the curb outside, and a man got out. She saw him start for the door, and for a moment she pondered whether she would accomodate him or turn him away. He opened the door. It was Claybrook.
"Hullo," he said, catching sight of her. "Afraid I'd be too late. Come take a ride."
That was exactly what she wanted to do. "I can't," she said. "I have to wait till they get through back there," indicating with a jerk of the head those uncertain regions which had become suddenly quiet.
"Oh, let them take care of themselves. What is help for if you have to watch it every minute? Come on. It's too hot to work any longer, anyway."
She yielded. First she spent a moment or two before a mirror, tidying herself up, feeling as she did so a little thrill of anticipation. And then she stuck her head through the kitchen door and announced that she was leaving. "Don't burn the whole place up, Maida," she cautioned with a laugh as she caught sight of her sitting, humped forward in a kitchen chair, fat elbows resting on a table, placidly viewing a vast clutter of dishes that had not yet been put away.
Mary Louise escaped and clambered into the waiting car, into the vacant seat beside the driver.
They whirled away, turned a corner sharply, and soon were leaving the narrow, restricted streets of the down-town district which had been pulsing and glowering with heat all day. She caught a look at Claybrook in the seat beside her. He was as fresh and cool as though he had not been exposed to the weather at all. Instinctively she reached a restraining hand to her hair. It was blowing in wild disarray. A sudden stretch of stately old houses sitting well back on either side of the street, partly hidden by double rows of trees, caused her fresh doubts as to the fitness of her attire. In her shirtwaist and skirt she felt like an intruder.
A man from the sidewalk bowed to them. So busy was she with her hat that she could not see who it was.
"There goes Wilkes," said Claybrook. "You remember Wilkes out at Camp? Had charge of the Post Exchange."
She hoped she had escaped recognition. As if for protection she slipped farther down in the seat and was less troubled by the wind. The neighbourhood through which they were passing was becoming even more fashionable, and aristocratic nurse-maids with their aristocratic charges, alike in white, starchy, frilly things, were dotting the sidewalks on either side of the street, supplying a live motif to a prospect that might otherwise seem too orderly and remote. The lawns were beautiful, close cropped and freshly green, and frequent fountains sent a delightful mist across the pavement even to the street. It was all very cool and refreshing. She began to see where certain phases of city life might prove to be quite pleasant. The modern fleshpots may seem alluring not alone in retrospect.
At length they passed from the asphalt paving on to a roadway of yellow-red gravel, and up ahead, Mary Louise could see a stretch of open country and beyond, a ridge of misty blue hills. There was a double line of young maples on either side of the boulevard and the fresh young leaves were rustling vigorously in the evening breeze as they passed. Claybrook settled down in his seat us they gained the boundary between paving and roadway with what seemed almost like a sigh of relief. He turned upon his companion a satisfied smile, meanwhile cutting down their speed appreciably.
"This is something like it," he said. "Pretty hot down your way to-day?"
"Terrible," admitted Mary Louise. "I don't believe those walls will get cool again before Christmas."
He smiled without answering, being occupied at the moment with a little difficulty in the traffic. Directly he was free.
"Rare old boy—the other night," he said, still watching the road.
For a moment she did not catch the reference.
"Down in the Rathskeller," he added.
A hot rush of confusion struck her and she made no reply, but he went on:
"I've often wondered what these people were like fifty years ago—living on top of the world, best farm land anywhere, fine old homes, lots of servants—nothing to do but enjoy life. Let it slip away from them, didn't they? Must not have known what they had." He had relaxed and was driving comfortably. And as though wrapped in a mist of his own musing he continued, his eyes fixed on the road before him, "I've often thought that if I ever got to the point where I could afford it I would get me one of those old places—lot of land—stock it up well, fix up the house. I'd like to leave something like that to my family." He chuckled. "They might not appreciate it as much as I do, however."
"They might," she replied. "They might have just as hard a time trying to keep it as—as we have. Conditions might change again in the next fifty years."
He turned and smiled at her. "Hadn't thought of that." The crow's feet were thick about his eyes. "Who was the boy?—the one you were with the other night."
Mary Louise flushed in spite of herself. "Joe—Joe Hooper. You've heard me speak of him."
"Oh, yes. Lives in Bloomfield, doesn't he?"
"He did. Works here in town now—out at Bromley's."
He made no further reply, but somehow she felt an unuttered conviction, on the part of the man there beside her, of Joe's loss of heritage. And yet a certain compunction prevented her from making any explanation—that it was not Joe's fault. There was a sort of sacred inviolability about it. A hot little wave of feeling swept over her. She had treated Joe miserably. She had yielded to her feelings like a child. She ought to have been good sport enough to hide what she had felt. But she hadn't. She was a snob. She had hoped to conceal that she was not their sort—Joe and Mr. Mosby. In a sense, she had been going back on her own people. As if she were trying to pass them—trying to keep up with the procession. And yet that was exactly what she was doing. But to show it!
The straight level path of the boulevard came abruptly to an end and the road diverged to the left and mounted swiftly, skirting the incline of a white, chalky hill densely covered with a tangle of scrub oak, buckeye, cedar, and much underbrush. The slanting rays of the sun were shut off abruptly as by a shutter and they rolled between stretches of shade that were mistily fragrant and cool. Even the upper air currents in the spaces above the road, up toward the sky, seemed shadowy and unharried by the fierceness of the passing sunlight. The motor settled down to the business of climbing, and once Claybrook turned to her with a look of appreciation.
"Some park, this."
She hardly heard him, so intent was she on watching the road and the occasional glimpses, through the tangle, of declivitous stretches strewn with trunks of fallen trees and rank vegetation, down which the wind went wandering with vague whisperings. They had been suddenly transported out of the world of people into the world of hopes. The city had been left leagues behind.
They made a quick, sharp turn to the right, the road almost doubling back upon itself, and there was a steep grade for a short distance, during which time Mary Louise caught herself leaning forward and holding her breath in an instinctive impulse to help the labouring car. And then they gained the top. Before them lay a tableland of many acres thickly covered with trees. The grass, in the open spaces between, was sparse, and there was much moss and lichen and drifts of withered leaves, dried by the sun of more than one summer; and here and there in the northern shadow of some gnarled trunk and in dipping hollows the leaves were packed close in a damp and moulding compress. Great streamers of wild grape-vine hung precariously from weary limbs and swayed to and fro gently in the wind that came mounting up the slope from the west and went dipping away to the eastward, leaving a soft, shuddering wake. It was as if a mellower spirit hovered about the old giant knob resting there, watching with its head all venerably gray, though the sunlight ere it faded was elfishly splashing the shadow with golden green, and little flecks of crimson and orange came flashing through the tangle of branches as they passed, making light mockery. And then the trees suddenly opened and they came out upon a flat bare knoll, where the road, making a loop, signified that its journey was over. Around the outside edge was a wall of loose stones from which the hill sloped steeply in all directions, and before them, stretching away for miles, lay the country through which they had passed, till soft and green and gray in the distance. A huge smoke pall, its feathery top drifting slowly eastward, hung over a cup-shaped depression, and below it stretched a darker line, from which occasionally emerged a solitary stack, or above which a church spire, caught by an errant ray from the setting sun, would flash a momentary beacon. Slowly the mantle seemed to fade and mingle with the twilight, and even as they watched, a light flashed out, a single pin-prick of a light, and then another and another, as night, gathering in its intensity, swept over the valley, until it was met by an ever-increasing challenge. It was like a myriad host of fairy fire-flies, each diamond pointed, flickering, blinking, never still. And there settled on the under side of the smoke pall a lurid glow as of banked fires, waiting for the work of another day.
Mary Louise breathed a soft little sigh.
"It does get next to one, some way, doesn't it?" he said.
Rather to her thoughts she replied aloud: "To think of all those people living there, almost in the grasp of the hand. Think of them moving, scurrying about among those lights. It makes one feel it would be so easy to do things for them, move them about at one's will—from here. And yet——" She was silent a moment, thinking. "And yet even to be able to raise one's head above it all, to see—and be seen! Well——"
"That's what I mean to do." He spoke almost as if she were not there, and his voice, which was as though disembodied, and jarring a bit with its resonance, brought her back to the present.
"It's a hard thing to do and I've come to think it takes sometimes a lifetime, but—it can be done." He had turned and she could feel his warm breath in her ear. There was a note of assurance in his words and, as she watched, a change came over the scene before her and it all seemed like a huge graying blanket punched full of tiny, bright flat holes. Something had receded, escaped back into the darkness behind it all.
She made no reply.
"I wanted to tell you and it's about as good a time as any. You may be needing some help. It's not all so easy down there. And—well, if you need any help—make the way any easier for you—why, don't hesitate to call on me."
"That's good of you," she replied, and wondered at the lack of warmth in her own voice. "Perhaps I shall." But she could not help feeling that in some way she had seen what she had seen—alone.
They sat a little longer in silence, and then Mary Louise straightened in her seat and called to him briskly:
"We must be going. Why, it must be eight o'clock. What have I been thinking of?"
"That's what I'd like to know," he laughed.
"Come, take me home, man. Maida will think—all sorts of things."
"You don't have to answer to her, do you?"
"No. But let's go."
He stooped over and switched on the lights and immediately two long, ghostly streamers went searching out across the wall and rested lightly in the tops of some ragged trees on the slopes, bringing them grotesquely into focus, while myriads of tiny motes danced down the twin circular paths off into space. Directly there was a roar of the engine, with an occasional sputtering cough—for the night air was cool—and then Claybrook's voice again:
"There really isn't any great hurry. We can stop at the Gardens at the foot of the hill and get a bite to eat."
"No, not to-night. Thank you ever so much."
"But why not? We needn't hurry then. It's a pretty good place." He seemed insistent, waiting, stooped there over the steering wheel.
"No," she said again. "I must get home. Maida will be waiting for me and I've some work to do. And besides, I don't want to go anywhere looking like this. I'm a fright, I know."
He muttered something to himself as he threw the car into gear, and they went whirling around the circle of the road in reckless disregard for the menace of the rock wall. It was pitch dark as they made their way across the level top of the knob, with occasional shadows of spectral limbs projecting their silhouettes against the sky, and once the jagged edge of a trailing creeper swished close to her head as they whirled along. Above the noise of the motor there was not a sound. Claybrook suddenly laughed:
"Some of the niggers down at the mill say this old hill is haunted."
She clung to the hand-grip of her seat, her mind filled with a tangle of impressions, with a shrinking from the sepulchral depths below them, and an effort to recall in detail that vision of the city.
"I have to shake it off before I can be any more good. It's like being moon-struck." He took another sharp curve at reckless speed, the tires grinding on the gravel, the brakes screeching.
Mary Louise held her breath for a moment and waited. And then she touched him lightly on the elbow. "Oh, please!"
He laughed and for a short time was more careful, slowing down at the curves which came every hundred yards or so. "Feels like they're coming after me. Like to get down to the level road again." He made a quick swerve to avoid a pointed rock. "Must have been great, driving to the top of this with a horse and buggy. Not for me."
And they were off again as swiftly as before. Twice they grazed the projecting roots of trees on the outside edge of the road by the scantiest of margins and once a board in a culvert snapped ominously as they swept across it, and Claybrook laughed aloud. And Mary Louise, wide-eyed, sat in a frenzy of preparedness, her gaze glued to the winding, ever-dipping road in fascination.
Suddenly a shadow seemed to leap out upon them, out of the darkness—the shadow of a man. There was a moment's hideous clamour of the brakes, a sickening swerve of the machine, a man's shout, a sudden instant's flash of gleaming trunks brought sharply into focus, and then a slow, gradual letting down of her side of the car, inch by inch. She grasped the arm beside her to keep from falling, and then all was still.
A moment later she could see that they were balanced on the edge of a culvert; to her right was the darkness; up ahead, the lights were glaring impotently off into space. And then she realized that an arm was encircling her waist in an iron grip and that the motor was still thrumming and that someone was running around in front of the car and then peering off down the slope where they tipped so perilously. These things came to her in just that order. And directly she was on the road, trembling just a little and feeling very helpless, and Claybrook's voice somewhere over in the darkness was giving directions, sharp, irritated. To her knowledge he had not uttered a word during it all. She could hear them somewhere over there crashing about in the underbrush, an occasional word, an occasional suppressed shout. Very unreal it was, with the stars shining faintly overhead, the black shadows all around, and those two shafts of light poking out into nowhere. She walked back to the inside edge of the road and sat down, and bye-and-bye she felt quieter. It had been such a childishly foolish thing to do and so useless. The minutes passed and she began to wonder what time it was getting to be. And then she felt a growing irritation and suddenly she was hungry. All she could hear was the threshing about of the brush and the sound of heavy dragging. Once she went around the rear of the car and peered down. She could dimly see that the rear wheel had passed completely over the brink, and below it lay a pile of sticks and brush. A little more and they might have rolled over, down into the darkness. She returned to her seat by the side of the road.
Just like a little boy he was, she thought—reckless, irresponsible, "full of the fullness of living." And his tone, when she had spoken of the dead-level of life in the city below them and the problem of raising one's head—"That's what I mean to do"—had seemed so like the confident tones of a child on the threshold of life. Were we all like that, after all—lifted up for a moment so that we could see; blundering forward the next, blindly, into pitfalls of our own making? His very offer of help, there on the hilltop, had been naive, and yet she was troubled by it. Why was he thrusting his stick into the still waters of her life? And yet she had felt very much alone and in need of the realization of another presence.
And then suddenly she realized why and how it was she liked him. She liked to think of him as standing by, liked the realization of his strength, his confidence. He was big, he was good-looking, and there was a tonic freshness about him. He was good as a friend. And he needed watching over, needed guiding, himself. That made it all the better. And then she felt hungry again. But she was no longer irritated.
The roar of the motor roused her from her musings. There was a ripping, grinding noise and she could see the outline of the car move, sink back, and then lurch forward again. There was another whirring and grinding and then Claybrook's triumphant shout. She rose to her feet and walked over to him. They had succeeded. The car was standing, all four wheels on the hard, level surface, the engine racing like mad.
"Hop in," Claybrook called to her a bit shortly.
She complied and he reached forward to throw in the gear, when the man walked around in front of the car and held up a restraining hand. She saw then, for the first time, that he was a park policeman.
"Let's have your name before you go, friend," he said.
"But what for? There's no harm done. I thought I made it all right with you?"
"You did—with me. But then you're pretty dangerous on these roads and I'll have to turn you in so that they can be looking out for you."
Claybrook sullenly complied. And then, throwing the car into gear, they slipped quickly out of sight. After they had rounded the curve, he turned suddenly to Mary Louise. "That's a new one on me. I tipped him for helping me get the car out, and then he turns and takes my name. You can't count on anybody these days—ever since the war."
"I think he has a sense of humour," she replied, laughing softly.
As they passed the road-house he suggested once again that they stop for a bite to eat, but upon her refusal he made no comment. The night was no longer clear; gathering clouds on the western horizon were gradually spreading across the sky, and as they crossed the line on to the asphalt paving again, it began to rain, a few scattering drops. At which she teased him about his altered driving. He laughed but made no answer.
But the shower did not come and directly they drew up at the curb outside her apartment.
"Don't stop," she said. "Don't bother. You must get in before the rain." She felt singularly good humoured.
"I'm sorry I made such a mess of things," he began clumsily, "and—and—you were pretty decent about it." It was a concession, but she could see he was rankled about something.
"I hope they won't fine you too much," she called after him as he started off. And then she walked thoughtfully into the hallway and stepped into the elevator and was carried swiftly upward.
"You've got to make allowances for them all," she decided mentally. "Yes," she added force to that decision, half aloud.
"What d'you say, Miss Mac?" inquired the elevator boy.
"I said, 'Seventh,'" she smiled at him.
She was met at the door by Maida with her hair in curl papers and a most prodigious yawning and rubbing of eyes. The ideal night life for Maida was that spent comfortably in bed.
"Thought you'd eloped," she ventured sleepily and then turned and shuffled off to the inner room. At the door she called over her shoulder, "There's a note someone left for you—about two hours ago."
Mary Louise looked on the table and, lying on a pile of magazines and newspaper supplements, was a plain, thin, white envelope. She picked it up and looked at it curiously, wondering from whom it could be. There was no address. She tore it open and read, and as she read she reached over one hand and steadied herself against the table. The note was from Joe, and laconic:
"They phoned me this evening your Aunt Susie had had another stroke. They said you had better come."
That was all it said. There was no expression of regret. There was no offer of help. She had a sudden rush of anxiety. But behind the anxious feeling was one of wonder and a tiny one of hurt. She laid the letter down upon the table and slowly and thoughtfully took off her hat.
Things had changed for Joe. It was as though he had been told that he had not amounted to much, that what he had come from had not amounted to much, and that in all probability he would never amount to much. Just how much had actually been suggested to him, and how much he had supplied out of the whole cloth of his imagination it is doubtful if even he could have said.
It was not the weather certainly. For the morning of the second day of May opened wide with promise. There was a lightness about the air and a clarity as Joe emerged from his lodging house from the ready-made breakfast which they doled out as though breakfasts were just like linen and towels and soap. The day would have made countless insinuations to a normal man. To some, it said golf; to others, a motor trip out to where a plethora of such bounties as it suggested might be available; and to others less fortunate—why, there was the "Ferry" just opening to hesitant crowds, with its band stand, its scenic railway, its forty-five minutes of vaudeville that was anything but mentally exhausting. It was an eloquent morning. But Joe turned a deaf ear.
His walk to the factory lay for a short distance along a pretty little park where, when the weather was proper, squirrels and babies and numerous other smaller, crawly things were wont to mingle together in democratic unconcern. But to him, this morning, it was just so much pavement.
He punched the time clock viciously as he passed through the office lobby and barely escaped collision with Mr. Boner as he turned the corner of the partition en route to his desk. Mr. Boner merely grunted. He bore in his hand a sheaf of orders for the mailing desk. He believed in getting an early start.
Joe sat down before his desk and gazed listlessly out of the window. The day arose before him in prospect, drab, desolate, and dreary. High up overhead, through the dingy panes, he could see the little fleecy clouds floating about in peaceful unconcern. May was a slack month. And at its end came June—June, with its four weeks' inventory period wherein each stick and stone of the entire plant, each ten-penny nail, each carriage bolt, would have to be listed, valued, and carried into an imposing total. It meant working late into the night under a pitiless glare with handkerchief tied about one's neck like a washer. It meant cramped fingers, and hot dry eyes, and a back that ached when it didn't feel crawly with infinitesimal bugs, and bugs that bumped and buzzed and then fell sprawling across one's paper. Each item had to be entered upon the sheet. Each item had to be valued. Discounts had to be figured, extensions had to be made, figures had to be checked meticulously, and the whole thing eventually bound up in six or eight huge volumes which were then allowed to languish in the Company safe. He had been through it before. And the thought of it was intolerable. This was June. June and inventory and Mr. Boner seemed to him to be cut from the same piece. For neither did Mr. Boner escape. Instead, he came earlier, stayed later, and worked with more furious rapidity than ever. And he was Mr. Boner's successor—that is, if he hit the ball and worked hard enough to deserve it. The thought of the little boy whose mother gave him a nickle every time he took his castor oil manfully came to his mind as he sat and gazed out the window. When asked what he did with the nickles, the Spartan youth had replied: "Buy more castor oil with it." Joe wearily dragged one of his stock ledgers from the rack and opened it.
All that day, as he made his entries and checked his totals, came the thought, "Why am I doing this? What is it all for?" He was feeling the double edge of scorn no less keenly because only implied. Why wasn't he doing a man's work? Why was he humbly taking his turn in a servile and remote succession, where death's was the only hand that moved the pawns? Why had he come back to it? He dared not confess the reason. The best he could do was admit to himself he had been mistaken. The rose tints had vanished from his sky and the path he had chosen was disclosed in all its drab ugliness. He had chosen it fatuously. The rose tints had been of his own making. He viciously snapped his mind shut on the thought. For a while he would feverishly clamp his attention to his work, while outside the sky continued serenely blue, and the breeze that drifted through his window was languorous and soft. But the work was too light. There was not enough of it, nor was it of the nature that demanded his absorbed concentration. He thought of Mr. Mosby, the unwitting cause of it all. And yet he did not blame Uncle Buzz in the least. Rather he sided with him. They were both inferior animals—not to be mentioned in the same breath with progress, thrift, success.
Uncle Buzz had his troubles, too. He was bookkeeper of the general store in Bloomfield, but he had never got to the point where he was absolutely sure of his trial balances. Nor had Aunt Loraine ever got to the point where she was absolutely sure of him, and he had had only the slightest hand in the management of what was left of the farm. The farm was Aunt Loraine's. But she always took what was necessary from what Uncle Buzz got from the store to make both ends meet on the farm, and that was, of late, becoming an ever-increasing distance. Uncle Buzz felt a proprietor's interest. He liked to speak about it as "his farm." Uncle Buzz would have loved to raise horses, thoroughbreds and saddlers, but for obvious reasons that had been impossible. But he went his jaunty way, waxing his moustaches, squandering his money on fancy neckties, taking his surreptitious nip with all the gay bravado of thirty years before, and getting seedier and seedier. He was a dandelion withering on the stalk. He had long since given up hope of being anything else but bookkeeper in the "Golden Rule," and indeed it was only the stock which he held in that institution that insured him the place such as it was. For Uncle Buzz was with age becoming more unreliable. His mind would play queer tricks on him. The figures would occasionally assume a demonic elusiveness and he could no longer carry his liquor with his former assurance. While outwardly he was the same suave, debonair old beau, he was beginning to have inner doubtings and despairs. And Joe, who had, as it were, taken up the pen when he had cast aside the sword, became for him a potential straw adrift on the downward current.
Uncle Buzz's message in the Rathskeller the night before had been cryptic to the others but plain enough to Joe. Uncle Buzz was in trouble again. Trial balance, maybe. There was no telling. As Joe finished footing up a long column of figures he smiled. It meant another trip to Bloomfield on Saturday. And Saturday was the day after to-morrow. Thus the day wore on.
On Saturday, which was a day of the same pattern as its predecessors, at eleven o'clock Joe quietly rose from his desk, took his hat, and unostentatiously walked out of the office. He punched the time clock gently so that it would attract the attention of only the most observant of clerks, and hurried away, feeling that this repeated dereliction was bound to bring him some notice, even if the first offense had not. But for some reason he felt singularly indifferent.
An hour later he had forgotten it all. The dumpy accommodation train was bumping itself along at a great rate, puffing stertorously up the long grade past "Sassafras Hill," and then swinging itself around the curves that followed the river so desperately that passengers and freight alike—for it was a combination train as well as accommodation—were like to be flung from it, hurled into space as useless encumbrances to its desperate need of getting there. It would rush along madly for a mile or two, then give a wild shriek and stop, and after a great puffing and snorting, start up again.