THE FOOLISH VIRGIN
By Thomas Dixon
TO GERTRUDE ATHERTON WITH GRATITUDE AND ADMIRATION
I. A FRIENDLY WARNING II. TEMPTATION III. FATE IV. DOUBTS AND FEARS V. WINGS OF STEEL VI. BESIDE THE SEA VII. A VAIN APPEAL VIII. JIM'S TRIAL IX. ELLA'S SECRET X. THE WEDDING XI. "UNTIL DEATH" XII. THE LOTOS-EATERS XIII. THE REAL MAN XIV. UNWELCOME GUESTS XV. A LITTLE BLACK BAG XVI. THE AWAKENING XVII. THE SURRENDER XVIII. TO THE NEW GOD XIX. NANCE'S STOREHOUSE XX. TRAPPED XXI. THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE XXII. DELIVERANCE XXIII. THE DOCTOR XXIV. THE CALL DIVINE XXV. THE MOTHER XXVI. A SOUL IS BORN XXVII. THE BABY XXVIII. WHAT IS LOVE? XXIX. THE NEW MAN
LEADING CHARACTERS OF THE STORY
MARY ADAMS, An Old-Fashioned Girl. JIM ANTHONY, A Modern Youth. JANE ANDERSON, An Artist. ELLA, A Scrubwoman. NANCE OWENS, Jim Anthony's Mother. A DOCTOR, Whose Call was Divine. THE BABY, A Mascot.
THE FOOLISH VIRGIN
CHAPTER I. A FRIENDLY WARNING
"Mary Adams, you're a fool!"
The single dimple in a smooth red cheek smiled in answer.
"You're repeating yourself, Jane——"
"You won't give him one hour's time for just three sittings?"
"Not a second for one sitting——"
Mary smiled provokingly, her white teeth gleaming in obstinate good humor.
"He's the most distinguished artist in America——"
"I've heard so."
"It would be a liberal education for a girl of your training to know such a man——"
"I'll omit that course of instruction."
The younger woman was silent a moment, and a flush of anger slowly mounted her temples. The blue eyes were fixed reproachfully on her friend.
"You really thought that I would pose?"
"I hoped so."
"Alone with a man in his studio for hours?"
Jane Anderson lifted her dark brows.
"Why, no, I hardly expected that! I'm sure he would take his easel and palette out into the square in front of the Plaza Hotel and let you sit on the base of the Sherman monument. The crowds would cheer and inspire him—bah! Can't you have a little common-sense? There are a few brutes among artists, as there are in all professions—even among the superintendents of your schools. Gordon's a great creative genius. If you'd try to flirt with him, he'd stop his work and send you home. You'd be as safe in his studio as in your mother's nursery. I've known him for ten years. He's the gentlest, truest man I've ever met. He's doing a canvas on which he has set his whole heart."
"He can get professional models."
"For his usual work, yes—but this is the head of the Madonna. He saw you walking with me in the Park last week and has been to my studio a half-dozen times begging me to take you to see him. Please, Mary dear, do this for my sake. I owe Gordon a debt I can never pay. He gave me the cue to the work that set me on my feet. He was big and generous and helpful when I needed a friend. He asked nothing in return but the privilege of helping me again if I ever needed it. You can do me an enormous favor—please."
Mary Adams rose with a gesture of impatience, walked to her window and gazed on the torrent of humanity pouring through Twenty-third Street from the beehives of industry that have changed this quarter of New York so rapidly in the last five years. She turned suddenly and confronted her friend.
"How could you think that I would stoop to such a thing?"
"Yes," she snapped, "—pose for an artist! I'd as soon think of rushing stark naked through Twenty-third Street at noon!"
The older woman looked at her flushed face, suppressed a sharp answer, broke into a fit of laughter and threw her arms around Mary's neck.
"Honey, you're such a hopeless little fool, you're delicious! You know that I love you—don't you?"
The pretty lips quivered.
"Could I possibly ask you to do a thing that would harm a single brown hair of your head?"
The firm hand of the older girl touched a rebellious lock with tenderness.
"Of course not, from your point of view, Jane dear," the stubborn lips persisted. "But you see it's not my point of view. You're older than I——"
"Hoity toity, Miss! I'm just twenty-eight and you're twenty-four. Age is not measured by calendars these days."
"I didn't mean that," the girl apologized. "But you're an artist. You're established and distinguished. You belong to a different world."
Jane Anderson laid her hand softly on her friend's.
"That's just it, dear. I do belong to a different world—a big new world of whose existence you are not quite conscious. You are living in the old, old world in which women have groped for thousands of years. I don't mind confessing that I undertook this job of getting you to pose for Gordon for a double purpose. I wished to do something to repay the debt I owe him—but I wished far more to be of help to you. You're living in the Dark Ages, and it's a dangerous thing for a pretty girl to live in the Dark Ages and date her letters from New York to-day——"
"I don't understand you in the least."
"And I'm afraid you never will."
She paused suddenly and changed her tone.
"Tell me now, are you happy in your work?"
"I'm earning sixty dollars a month—my position is secure——"
"But are you happy in it?"
"I don't expect to teach school all my life," was the vague answer.
"Exactly. You loathe the sight of a school-room. You do the task they set you because your father's a clergyman and can't support his big family. You're waiting and longing for the day of your deliverance—isn't it so?"
"And that day of deliverance?"
"Will come when I meet my Fate!"
"You'll meet him, too!"
Jane Anderson shook her fine head.
"And may the Lord have mercy on your poor little soul when you do!"
"And why, pray?"
"Because you're the most helpless and defenseless of all the things He created."
"I've managed to take pretty good care of myself so far."
"And you will—until the thunderbolt falls."
"Until you meet your Fate."
"I'll have someone to look after me then."
"We'll hope so anyhow," was the quick retort.
"But can't you see, Jane dear, that we look at life from such utterly different angles. You glory in your work. It's your inspiration—the breath you breathe. I don't believe in women working for money. I don't believe God ever meant us to work when He made us women. He made us women for something more wonderful. I don't see anything good or glorious in the fact that half the torrent of humanity you see down there pouring through the street from those factories and offices is made up of women. They are wage-earners—so much the worse. They are forcing the scale of wages for men lower and lower. They are paying for it in weakened bodies and sickly, hopeless children. We should not shout for joy; we should cry. God never meant for woman to be a wage-earner!"
A sob caught her voice and she paused.
The artist watched her emotion with keen interest.
"Neither do I believe that God means to force woman at last to do the tasks of man. But she's doing them, dear—and it must be so until a brighter day dawns for humanity. The new world that opens before us will never abolish marriage, but it has opened our eyes to know what it means. You refuse to open yours. You refuse to see this new world about you. I've begged you to join one of my clubs. You refuse. I beg you to meet and know such men of genius as Gordon——"
"As an artist's model!"
"It's the only way on earth you can meet him. You stick to your narrow, hide-bound conventional life and dream of the Knight who will suddenly appear some day out of the mists and clouds. You dream of the Fate God has prepared for you in His mysterious Providence. It's funny how that idea persists even today in novels. As a matter of fact we know that the old-fashioned girl met her Fate because her shrewd mother planned the meeting—planned it with cunning and stratagem. You're alone in a great modern city, with all the conditions of the life of the old regime reversed or blotted out. Your mother is not here. And if she were, her schemes to bring about the mysterious meeting of the Fates would be impossible. You outgrew the limits of your village life. Your highly trained mind landed you in New York. You've fought your way to a competent living in five years and kept yourself clean and unspotted from the world. Granted. But how many men have you met who are your equals in culture and character?"
Jane paused and held Mary's gaze with steady persistence.
"None as yet," she confessed.
"But you live in the one fond, imperishable hope! It's the only thing that keeps you alive and going—this idea of your Fate. It's an obsession—this mysterious Knight somewhere in the future riding to meet you——"
"I'll find him, never fear," the girl laughed.
"Of course you will. You'll make him out of whole cloth if it's necessary. Our ideals are really the same when you come to analyze my wider outlook."
The artist paused and laughed softly.
"The same?" the girl asked incredulously.
"Certainly. Mine is based on intelligence, however—yours on blind instinct perverted and twisted by the idiotic fiction you read morning, noon and night."
"I don't see it," Mary answered emphatically. "Your ideal is fame, achievement, the applause of the world—mine just a home and a baby——"
Jane laughed softly.
"And that's all you know about me?"
"Isn't it true?"
"You've been in this room five years, haven't you?" the older girl asked musingly.
"And though you've kept your lamp trimmed and burning, you haven't yet seen a man whom you could recognize as your equal."
"I'm only twenty-four."
"In these five years I've met a hundred men my equal."
"And smashed the conventions of Society whenever you saw fit."
"Without breaking a single law of reason or common-sense. In the meantime I've met two men who have really made love to me. I thought I loved one of them—until I met the other. The second proved himself to be an unprincipled scoundrel. If I had held your views of life and hated my work, I would have married this man and lived to awake in a prison whose only door was Death. But I loved my work. Life meant more than one man who was not worth an hour's tears. I turned to my studio and he slipped back into the gutter where he belonged. I'll meet MY Fate some day, too, dear. I'm waiting and watching—but with clear eyes and unafraid. I'll know mine when he comes, I shall not be blinded by passion or the fear of drudgery. Can't you see this bigger world of realities?"
The dimple flashed again in the smooth red cheek.
"It's not for me, Jane. I'm just a modest little home body. I'll bide my time——"
"And eat your foolish heart out here between the narrow walls of this cell you've built for yourself. I should think you'd die living here alone."
The girl flushed.
"I'm not lonely——"
"Don't fib! I know better. Your birds and kitten occupy daily about thirty minutes of the time that's your own. What do you do with the rest of it?"
"Sit by my window, watch the crowds stream through the streets below, read and dream and think——"
"Yes—read love stories and dream about your Knight."
"It's morbid and unhealthy. You've hedged yourself about with the old conventions and imagine you're safe—and you are—until you meet HIM!"
"I'll know how to behave—never fear."
"You mean you'll know how instantly to blindfold, halter and lead him to the Little Church Around the Corner?"
Mary moved uneasily.
"And what else should I do with him?"
"Compare him with other men. Weigh him in the balances of a remorseless common-sense. Study him under a microscope and keep your reason clear. The girl who rushes into marriage in a great city under the conditions in which you and I live is a fool. More girls are ruined in New York by marriage than by any other process. The thunderbolt out of the blue hasn't struck you yet, but when it does——"
"I'll tell you, Jane."
"Will you, honestly?"
The question was asked with wistful tenderness.
"I promise. And you mustn't think I don't appreciate this visit and the chance you've given again to enter the 'big world' you're always telling me about. I just can't do it, dear. It's not my world."
"All right, my little foolish virgin, have it your own way. When you're lonely, run up to my studio to see me. I won't ask you to pose or meet any of the dangerous men of my circle. We'll lock the doors and have a snug time all by ourselves."
The clock in the Metropolitan Tower chimed the hour of five, and Jane Anderson rose with a quick, business-like movement.
"Don't hurry," Mary protested. "I know I've been stubborn, but I've been so happy in your coming. I do get lonely—frightfully lonely, sometimes—don't think I'm ungrateful——"
"You're dangerously beautiful, child," the artist said, with enthusiasm. "And remember that I love you—no matter how silly you are—good-by."
"You won't stay for a cup of tea? I meant to ask you an hour ago."
"No, I've an engagement with a dreadful man whom I've no idea of ever marrying. I'm going to dinner with him—just to study the animal at dose range."
With a jolly laugh and quick, firm step she was gone.
Mary snatched the kitten from his snug bed between the pillows of the window-seat and pressed his fuzzy head under her chin.
"She tempted us terribly, Kitty darling, but we didn't let her find out—did we? You know deep down in your cat's soul that I was just dying to meet the distinguished Gordon—but such high honors are not for home bodies like you and me——"
She dropped on the seat and closed her eyes for a long time. The kitten watched her wonderingly sure of a sudden outbreak with each passing moment. Two soft paws at last touched her cheeks and two bright eyes sought in vain for hers. The little nose pressed closer and kissed the drooping eyelids until they opened. He curled himself on her bosom and began to sing a gentle lullaby. For a long while she lay and listened to the music of love with which her pet sought to soothe the ache within.
The clock in the tower chimed six.
She lifted her body and placed her head on a pillow beside the window. The human torrent below was now at its flood. Two streams of humanity flowed eastward along each broad sidewalk. Hundreds were pouring in endless procession across Madison Square. The cars in Broadway north and South were jammed. Every day she watched this crowd hurrying, hurrying away into the twilight—and among all its hundreds of thousands not an eye was ever lifted to hers—not one man or woman among them cared whether she lived or died.
It was horrible, this loneliness of the desert in an ocean of humanity! For the past year it had become an increasing horror to look into the silent faces of this crowd of men and women and never feel the touch of a friendly hand or hear the sound of a human voice in greeting.
And yet this endless procession held for her a supreme fascination. Somewhere among its myriads of tramping feet, walked the one man created for her. She no more doubted this than she doubted God Himself. It was His law. He had ordained it so. She had grown so used to the throngs below her window and so loved the little park with its splashing fountain that she had refused to follow her landlady uptown when the brownstone boarding-house facing the Square had been turned into a studio building.
Instead of moving she had wheedled the landlord into allowing her to cut off a small space from her room for a private bath and kitchenette, built a box couch across the window large enough for a three-quarter mattress and covered it with velour. For five dollars a week she had thus secured a little home in which was combined a sitting-room, bed-room, bath and kitchenette.
It had its drawbacks, of course. The Professor downstairs who taught music sometimes gave a special lesson at night, and the Italian sculptor who worked on the top floor used a hammer at the most impossible hours. But on the whole she liked it better than the tiresome routine of boarding. She was not afraid at night. The stamp-and-coin man who occupied the first floor, lived with his wife and baby in the rear. The janitress had a room on the floor above hers. Two elderly women workers of ability in the mechanical arts occupied the rear of her floor, and a dear little fat woman of fifty who drew designs for the New England weavers of cotton goods lived in the room adjoining hers.
She had never spoken to any of these people, but Ella, the janitress, who cleaned up her place every morning, had told her their history. Ella was a sociable soul, her face an eternal study and an inscrutable mystery. She spoke both German and English and yet never a word of her own life's history passed her lips. She had loved Mary from the moment she cocked her queer drawn face to one side and looked at her with the one good eye she possessed. She was always doing little things for her comfort—and never asked tips for it. If Mary offered to pay she smiled quietly and spoke in the softest drawl: "Oh, that's nothing, child—Ach, Gott im Himmel—nein!"
This one-eyed, homely woman who cleaned up her room for three dollars a month, and Jane Anderson, were the only friends she had among the six million people whose lives centered on Manhattan Island.
Man had yet to darken her door. The little room had been carefully fitted, however, to receive her Knight when the great event of his coming should be at hand.
The box couch was built of hard wood paneling and was covered with pillows of soft leather and silk. The bed-clothes were carefully stored in the locker beneath the mattress cushion. No one would ever suspect its use as a bed. The bathroom was fitted with a bureau and no signs of a sleeping apartment disfigured the effect of her one library, parlor, and reception-room. A desk and bookcase stood at either end of the box couch. The bookcase was filled with fiction—love stories exclusively.
A large birdcage swung from a staple in the window and two canaries peered cautiously from their perches at the kitten in her lap. She had trained him to ignore this cage.
The crowds below were thinning down. A light snow was falling. The girl lifted her pet and kissed his cold nose.
"We must get our own dinner tonight, Mr. Thomascat—it's snowing outside. And did you hear what she said, Kitty dear—'More girls are ruined by marriage in New York than by any other process!' A good joke, Kitty!—You and I know better than that if we do live in our own tiny world! We'll risk it some day, anyhow, won't we?"
The kitten purred his assent and Mary bustled over the little gas stove humming an old love song her mother had taught her in a far-off village in Kentucky.
CHAPTER II. TEMPTATION
Her kitchenette was a model of order and cleanliness. The carpenter who built its neat cupboard and fitted the drawers beneath the tiny gas range, had outdone himself in its construction. He had given the wood-work four coats of immaculate white paint without extra charge. Mary had insisted on paying for it, but he waved the proffered money aside with a gesture that spoke louder than words:
"Pooh! That's nothing to what I'd like to do for you."
She was not surprised when he called the following Saturday and stood at her door awkwardly fumbling his hat, trying to ask her to spend the afternoon and evening at Coney Island with him. There was no mistaking the manner in which he made this request.
She had refused him as gently as possible—a big, awkward, good-natured, ignorant boy he was, with the eyes of a St. Bernard dog. He apologized for his presumption and never repeated the offense.
Somehow her conquests had all been in this class.
The tall, blushing German youth from the butcher's around the corner had been slipping extra cuts into her bundle and making awkward advances until she caught him red-handed with a pound of lamb chops which he failed to explain. She read him a lecture on honesty that discouraged him. It was not so much what she said, as the way she said it, that wounded his sensitive nature.
The ice man she had not yet entirely subdued. Tony Bonelli had the advantage of pretending not to understand her orders of dismissal. He merely smiled in his sad Italian way and continued to pack her ice-box so full the lid would never close.
She was reminded at every turn tonight of these futile conquests of the impossible. They all smelled of the back stairs and the kitchen. Her people had been slaveholders in the old regime of southern Kentucky. A kindly tolerant contempt for the pretensions of a servant class was bred in the bone of her being.
And yet their tribute to her beauty had its compensations. It was the promise of triumph when he for whom she waited should step from the throng and lift his hat. Just how he was going to do this without a breach of the proprieties of life, she couldn't see. It would come. It must come. It was Fate.
In twenty minutes her coffee-pot was boiling, the lamb chops broiled to perfection and she was seated before the dainty, snow-white table, the kitten softly begging at her feet. Half an hour later, every dish and pot and pan was back in its place in perfect order. She prided herself on her mastery of the details of cooking and the most economical administration of every dollar devoted to housekeeping. She studied cooking in the best schools the city afforded. She meant to show her Knight a thing or two in this line when the time came. His wife would not be an ignorant slattern, the victim of incompetent servants. No servant could fool her. She would know the business of the house down to its minutest detail.
Not that she loved dish-washing and pot-polishing and scrubbing. It was simply a part of the Game of Life she must play in the ideal home she would build. There was no drudgery in it for this reason. She was a soldier on the drill grounds preparing for the battle on the successful issue of which hung her happiness and the happiness of the one of whom she dreamed. She might miss some of the dangerous fun which Jane Anderson could enjoy without a scratch, but she would make sure of the fundamental things which Jane would never stop to consider.
She threw herself on the couch in her favorite position against the pillows, drew the kitten into her arms and hugged him violently.
"It's all right, Mr. Thomascat; we'll show them," she purred softly. "We'll see who wins at last, the eagle who soars or the little wren in the hedge close beside the garden wall—we'll see, Kitty—we'll see!"
The room was still, the noise of the street-cars below muffled with the first soft blanket of snow. The street lamps flickered in the wind with a pale subdued light that scarcely brought out the furnishings of her nest. She was in the habit of dreaming in this window for hours with only the light from the lamps on the street.
The Square, deserted by its tramp lovers, lay white and still and cold. The old battle with the Blue Devils was on again within. The fight with Jane had been easy. She had always found it easy to face temptation in the concrete. The moment Satan appeared in human shape she was up in arms and ready for the fray. It was this silent hour she dreaded when the defenses of the soul were down.
There was no use to lie to herself. She was utterly lonely and heartsick.
She had guarded the portals of life with religious care—with a care altogether unnecessary as events had proved. There had been no crush of rude men to assault her. Only an awkward carpenter, a butcher's boy and the ice man! It was incredible. Of all the men whose restless feet pressed the pavements of New York, not one, save these three, had apparently cared whether she lived or died.
The men whom she met in her duties in the schoolroom she had found utterly devoid of imagination and beneath contempt. They had each been obviously on guard against the machinations of the female of the species. They had, each of them, shown plainly their fear and hatred of women teachers. The feeling was mutual. God knows she had no desire to encroach on their domain any longer than absolutely necessary.
Perhaps she was making a mistake. The thought was strangling. Only the girl who waived conventions in the rushing tide of the modern city's life seemed to live at all. The others merely existed. Jane Anderson lived! There could be no mistake about that. She had mastered the ugly mob. Its cruel loneliness was to her a thing unknown. But Jane was an exception—the one woman in a thousand who could defy conventions and yet keep her soul and body clean.
The offer she had made had proved a terrible temptation. The artist who had asked with such eagerness to use her head for his portrait of the Madonna on the canvas he was executing for the new cathedral, had long appealed to her vivid imagination. Two prints of his famous work hung on her walls. She had always wished to know him. He had married a Southern girl.
That was just the point—he WAS married!
No girl could afford to be shut up alone in a studio with a fascinating married man for three hours—or half an hour. What if she should fall in love with him at first sight! Such things had happened. They could happen again. Only tragedy could be the end of such an event. It was too dangerous to consider for a moment.
She would have consented had it been possible for Jane to chaperon her. That would have been obviously ridiculous. No artist with any self-respect would tolerate such a reflection on his honesty. No girl could afford to confess her fears in this brazen fashion.
The necessity for her refusal had depressed her beyond any experience she had passed through in the dreary desert of the past five years.
She lifted the sleeping kitten and whispered passionately:
"Am I a silly fool, Kitty? Am I?"
The tears came at last. She lay back on the pillows and let them pour down her cheeks without protest or effort at self-control. Every nerve of her strong, healthy body ached for the love and companionship of men which she had denied herself with an iron will. At nineteen it had been easy. The sheer animal joy in life had been enough. With the growth of each year the ache within had become more and more insistent. With each ripening season of body and mind, the hunger of love had grown more and more maddening. How long could she keep up this battle with every instinct of her being?
She rose at last, determined to go to Jane, confess that she had been a fool, and step out into the new world, New York's world, and begin to live.
She seized her hat and furs and put them on with feverish haste.
"God knows it's time I began—I'll be an old maid in another year and dry up—ugh!"
She looked in the quaint oval mirror that hung beside her door and lifted her head with a touch of pride.
She had reached the street and started for the Broadway car before she suddenly remembered that Jane was "dining with a dangerous man."
She couldn't turn back to that little room tonight without new courage. Her decision was instantaneous. She couldn't surrender to the flesh and the devil by yielding to Jane.
She would go to prayer-meeting!
Religion had always been a very real thing in her life. Her father was a Methodist presiding elder. She would have gone to the meeting tonight in the first place but for the snow. Dr. Craddock, the new sensational pastor of the Temple, was giving a series of Wednesday-night talks that had aroused wide interest and drawn immense crowds.
His theme tonight was one that promised all sorts of sensations—"The Woman of the Future." The only trouble with the Doctor was that the substance of his discourses sometimes failed to make good the startling suggestions of his titles. No matter—she would go. She felt a sense of righteous pride infighting her way to the church through the first storm of the winter.
In spite of the snow the church was crowded. The subject announced had evidently touched a vital spot in modern life. More people were thinking about "The Woman of the Future" than she had suspected. The crowd sat with eager, upturned faces.
The first half-hour's prayer and song service had just begun. Mary joined in the singing of the stirring evangelistic hymns with enthusiasm. Something in their battle-cry melody caught her spirit instantly tonight and her whole being responded. In ten minutes she was a good shouting Methodist and supremely happy without knowing why. She never paused to ask. Her nature was profoundly religious and she had been born and bred in the atmosphere of revivals. Her father was an aggressive evangelist both in his character and methods of work, and she was his own daughter—a child of emotion.
The individuals in the eager crowd which packed the popular church meant nothing to her personally. They had passed before her unseeing eyes Sunday after Sunday the past five years as mere shadows of an unknown world which swallowed them up the moment they reached the street. She had never seen the inside of one of their homes. Not one of them had drawn close enough to her to venture an invitation.
Two of the stewards she knew personally—one a bricklayer, the other a baker on Eighth Avenue. The preacher she had met in a purely formal way as the bishop of the flock. She liked Dr. Craddock. He was known in the ministry as a live wire. He was a man of vigorous physique—just turning fifty, magnetic, eloquent and popular with the masses.
Mary was curious tonight as to what the preacher would say on "The Woman of the Future." The Methodist Church had been a pioneer in the modern Feminist movement, having long ago admitted women to the full ordination of the ministry. Craddock, however, had been known for his conservatism in the woman movement. He abhorred the idea of woman's suffrage as a dangerous revolution and the fact that he consented to treat the topic at all was a reluctant confession of its menacing importance.
With keen interest, the girl saw him rise at last. A breathless hush fell on the crowd. He walked deliberately to the edge of the platform and gazed into the faces of the people.
"I have often been asked," he slowly began, "where I get my sermons." He paused and laughed. "I'll be perfectly honest with you. Sometimes I get them from the Bible—sometimes from the book of life. The genesis of this talk tonight is very definite. I found it in the liquid depths of a little girl's eyes. She asked a simple question that set me thinking—not only about the subject of her query but on the vaster issues that grew out of it. She looked up into my face the other night after my call for volunteers for the new mission we are beginning in the slums of the East Side, and asked me if the girls were not going to be given the chance to do something worth while in this church's work.
"I couldn't honestly answer her off-hand and in my groping I forgot the child and her question. I saw a vision—a vision of that broader, nobler future toward which human civilization is now swiftly moving.
"I say deliberately that it is swiftly moving, because the progress of the world during the last fifty years has been greater than in any five hundred years of the past.
"The older I grow the stronger becomes my conviction that the problems of the age in which we now live cannot be solved by masculine brain and brawn alone. The problems of the city and the nation and the great fundamental social questions that involve the foundations of modern life will find no solution until the heart and brain of woman are poured into the crucible of our test.
"They talk about a woman's sphere As though it had a limit: There's not a place in earth or heaven, There's not a task to mankind given, There's not a blessing or a woe, There's not a whisper yes or no, There's not a life, or death, or birth That has a feather's weight of worth Without a woman in it!
"The difference between a man and a woman is one that makes them the complementary parts of a perfect unit. God made man in His own image—male and female. The person of God therefore combines these two elements unseparated. The mind of God is both male and female. In man we have the strength which lifts and tugs and fights the elements. This is the aspect turned primarily toward matter. In woman we have the finer qualities of the Spirit turned toward the source of all spirit in God. The idea of a masculine deity is a false assumption of the Dark Ages. God is both male and female.
"I used to wonder why Jesus Christ was a man, until I realized that the Incarnation expressed the depth of human need. God stooped lower in assuming the form of man. The form of the divine revelation through Jesus Christ was determined solely by this depth of human need——"
For half an hour in impetuous eloquence, in telling incidents wet with tears and winged with hope, he held his listeners in a spell. It was not until the burst of applause which greeted his closing sentence had died away that Mary Adams realized that another landmark had toppled before the onrushing flood of modern Feminism. The conservatism of Doctor Craddock had yielded at last to the inevitable. He, too, had joined the ranks of the prophets who preach of a Woman's Day of Emancipation.
And yet it never occurred to her that this fact had the slightest bearing on her personal outlook on life. On the contrary she felt in the spiritual elation of the triumphant eloquence of her favorite preacher a renewal of her simple religious faith. At the bottom of that religion lay the foundation of life itself—her conception of marriage as the supreme and only expression of woman's power in the world.
She walked back to her home on the Square, in a glow of ecstatic emotion.
Surely God had miraculously saved her this night from the wiles of the Devil! No matter what this eloquent discourse had meant to others, it had renewed her faith in the old-fashioned woman and the old-fashioned ways of the old-fashioned home. Her vision was once more clear. She was glad Jane Anderson had come to put her to the test. She had been tried in the fires of hell and came forth unscorched.
She stood beside her window dreaming again of the home she would build when her Knight should stand before her revealed in beauty no words could describe. The moon was shining now in solemn glory on the white-shrouded Square. Temptation had only strengthened the fiber of her soul. She knelt in the moonlight beside her couch and prayed that God should ever keep her faith serene. She rose with a sense of peace and joy. God would hear and answer the cry of her heart. The City might be the Desert—it was still God's world and not a sparrow that twittered in those bare trees or chattered on her window-ledge in the morning could fall to the ground without His knowledge. God had put this deathless passion in her heart; He could not deny it expression. She could bide His time. If the day of her deliverance were near, it was good. If God should choose to try her faith in loneliness and tears, it was His way to make the revelation of glory the more dazzling when it came.
She drew the covering about her warm young body with the firm faith that her hour was close at hand, and fell asleep to dream of her Knight.
CHAPTER III. FATE
Mary waked next morning with the delicious sense of impending happiness. A wonderful dream had come to thrill her half-conscious moments, repeating itself in increasing vividness and beauty with each awakening. The vision had been interrupted by the unusual noise of the snow machines on the car tracks, and yet she had fallen asleep after each break and picked up the rapturous scene at the exact moment of its interruption.
She was married and madly in love with her husband. His face she could never see quite clearly. His business kept him away from home on long trips. But his baby was always there—a laughing, wonderful boy whose chubby hands persisted in pulling her hair down into her face each time she bent over his cradle to kiss him.
Ella was chattering in German to someone on the stairs. She wondered again for the hundredth time how this poor, slovenly, one-eyed, ill-kempt creature, scrub-woman and janitress, could speak two languages with such ease. Her English, except in excitement, seemed equally fluent with her German. How did such a woman fall so low? She was industrious and untiring in her work. She never touched liquor or drugs. She was kind and thoughtful and watched over her tenants with a motherly care for which no landlord could pay in dollars and cents. She was on her knees on the stairs now, scrubbing down the steps to be crowded again with muddy feet from the street below.
Mary lay for half an hour snuggling under the warm blankets, weaving a romance about Ella's life. A great love for some heroic man who died and left her in poverty could alone explain the mystery that hung about her. She never spoke of her life or people. Mary had ventured once to ask her. A wan smile flitted across the haggard face for a moment, and she answered in low tones that closed the subject.
"I haven't any people, dear," she said slowly. "They are dead long ago."
The girl wondered if it were really true. In her joy this morning she felt her heart go out to the pathetic, drooping figure on the stairs. She wished that every living creature might share the secret joy that filled her soul.
She drew the kitten from his nest beside her pillow and rubbed her cheek against his little cold nose. He always waked her with a kiss on her eyelids and then coiled himself back for a tiny cat-nap until she could make up her mind to rise.
She sprang from the couch with sudden energy and stretched her dainty figure with a prodigious yawn.
"Gracious, Kitty, we must hurry!" she cried, thrusting her bare feet into a pair of embroidered slippers and throwing her blue flannel kimono on over her night-dress.
The coffee-pot was boiling busily when she had bathed and dressed. Each detail of her domestic schedule was given an extra care this morning. The stove was carefully polished, each pot and pan placed in its rack with a precision that spoke an unusual joy within the heart of the housewife.
And through it all she hummed a lullaby that haunted her from the memories of a happy childhood.
Breakfast over, the kitten fed, the birds given their bath, their sand and seed, she couldn't stop until the whole place had been thoroughly cleaned and dusted. Exactly why she had done this on Thursday morning it was impossible to say. Some hidden force within had impelled her.
Then back into the dream world her mind flew on joyous wings. It was a sign from God in answer to prayer. Why not? The Bible was full of such revelations in ancient times. God was not dead because the world was modern and we had steam and electricity. The routine of school was no longer dull. Around each commonplace child hung a halo of romance. They were love-children today. She wove a dream of tenderness, of chivalry, and heroic deeds about them all. She searched each face for some line of beauty caught in the vision of her own baby who had looked into her heart from the mists of eternity.
Three days passed in a sort of trance. Never had she felt surer of life and the full fruition of every hope and faith. Just how this marvelous blossoming would come, she could not guess. Her chances of meeting her Fate were no better than at any moment of the past years of drab disillusionment, and yet, for some reason, her foolish heart kept singing.
There could be but one answer. The event was impending. Such things could be felt—not reasoned out.
She applied herself to her teaching with a new energy and thoroughness. She must do this work well and carry into the real life that must soon begin the consciousness of every duty faithfully performed.
A boy asked her a question about a little flower which grew in a warm crevice of the stone wall on which the iron fence of the school yard rested. She blushed at her failure to enlighten him and promised to tell him on Monday.
Botany was not one of her tasks but she felt the tribute to her personality in his question, and she would take pains to make her answer full and interesting.
Saturday afternoon she hurried to the Public Library, on Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, to look up every reference to this flower.
The boulevard of the Metropolis was thronged with eager thousands. Handsome men and beautifully dressed women passed each other in endless procession on its crowded pavements. The cabs and automobiles, two abreast on either side, moved at a snail's pace, so dense were the throngs at each crossing. Her fancy was busy weaving about each throbbing tonneau and limousine a story of love. Not a wheel was turning in all that long line of shining vehicles that didn't carry a woman or was hurrying to do a woman's bidding.
Her hero was coming, too, somewhere in the crowd with his gloved hand on one of those wheels. She could feel his breath on her cheek as he handed her into the seat by his side and then the sudden leap of the car into space and away on the wings of lightning into the future!
She ascended the broad steps of the majestic building with quick, springing strength. She loved this glorious library, with its lofty, arched ceilings. The sense of eternity that brooded over it and filled the stately rooms rested and inspired her.
Besides, she forgot her poverty in this temple of all time. Within its walls she belonged to the great aristocracy of brains and culture of which this palace was the supreme expression. And it was hers. Andrew Carnegie had given the millions to build it and the city of New York granted the site on land that was worth many millions more. But it was all built for her convenience, her comfort and inspiration. Every volume of its vast and priceless collection was hers—hers to hold in her hands, read and ponder and enjoy. Every officer and manager in its inclosure was her servant—to come at her beck and call and do her bidding. The little room on Twenty-third Street was the symbol of the future. This magnificent building was the realization of the present.
She smiled pleasantly to the polite assistant who received her order slip, and took her seat on the waiting line until her books were delivered.
This magnificent room with its lofty ceilings of golden panels and drifting clouds had always brought to her a peculiar sense of restful power. The consciousness of its ownership had from the first been most intimate. No man can own what he cannot appreciate. He may possess it by legal documents, but he cannot own it unless he has eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel its charm. This appreciation Mary Adams possessed by inheritance from her student father who devoured books with an insatiate hunger. Nowhere in all New York's labyrinth did she feel as perfectly at home as in this reading-room. The quiet which reigned without apparent sign or warning seemed to belong to the atmosphere of the place. It was unthinkable that any man or woman should be rude or thoughtless enough to break it by a loud word.
This room was hers day or night, winter or summer, always heated and lighted, and a hundred swift, silent servants at hand to do her bidding. Around the room on serried shelves, dressed in leather aprons, stood twenty-five thousand more servants of the centuries of the past ready to answer any question her heart or brain might ask of the world's life since the dawn of Time.
In the stack-room below, on sixty-three miles of shelves, stood a million others ready to come at her slightest nod. She loved to dream here of the future, in the moments she must wait for these messengers she had summoned. In this magic room the past ceased to be. These myriads of volumes made the past a myth. It was all the living, throbbing present—with only the golden future to be explored.
Her number flashed in red letters on the electric blackboard.
She rose and carried her books to the seat number assigned her near the center of the southern division of the room on the extreme left beside the bookcases containing the dictionaries of all languages.
Her seat was on the aisle which skirted the shelves. She found the full description of the flower in which she was interested, made her notes and closed the volume with a lazy movement of her slender, graceful hand.
She lifted her eyes and they rested on a remarkable-looking young man about her own age who stood gazing in an embarrassed, helpless sort of way at the row of ponderous volumes marked "The Century Dictionary."
He was evidently a newcomer. By his embarrassment she could easily tell that it was the first time he had ever ventured into this room.
He looked at the books, apparently puzzled by their number. He raised his hand and ran his fingers nervously through the short, thick, red hair which covered his well-shaped head.
The girl's attention was first fixed by the strange contrast between his massive jaw and short neck which spoke the physical strength of an ox, and the slender gracefully tapering fingers of his small hand. The wrist was small, the fingers almost feminine in their lines.
He caught her look of curious interest and to her horror, smiled and walked straight to her seat.
There was no mistaking his determination to speak. It was useless to drop her eyes or turn aside. He would certainly follow.
She blushed and gazed at him in a timid, helpless fashion while he bent over her seat and whispered awkwardly:
"You look kind and obliging, miss—could you help me a little?"
His tone was so genuine in its appeal, so distressed and hesitating, it was impossible to resent his question.
"If I can—yes," was the prompt answer.
"You won't mind?" he asked, fumbling his hat.
"No—what is it?"
Mary had recovered her composure as his distress had increased and looked steadily into his steel blue eyes inquiringly.
"You see," he went on, in low hurried tones, "I'm all worked up about the mountains of North Carolina—thinkin' o' goin' down there to Asheville in a car, an' I want to look the bloomin' place up and kind o' get my bearin's before I start. A lawyer friend o' mine told me to come here and I'd find all the maps in the Century Dictionary. The man at the desk out there told me to come in this room and look in the shelves on the left and take it right out. Gee, the place is so big, I get all rattled. I found the Century Dictionary on that shelf——"
He paused and smiled helplessly.
"I thought a dictionary was one book—there's a dozen of 'em marked alike. I'm afraid to pull 'em all down an' I don't know where to begin—COULD you help me—please?"
"Certainly, with pleasure," she answered, quickly rising and leading the way back to the shelf at which he had been gazing.
"You want the atlas volume," she explained, drawing the book from the shelf and returning to the seat.
He followed promptly and bent over her shoulder while she pointed out the map of North Carolina, the position of Asheville and the probable route he must follow to get there.
"Thanks!" he exclaimed gratefully.
"Not at all," she replied simply. "I'm only too glad to be of service to you."
Her answer emboldened him to ask another question.
"You don't happen to know anything about that country down there, do you?"
"Why, yes. I know a great deal about it——"
"I've been through Asheville many times and spent a summer there once."
His tones implied that he plainly regarded her as a prodigy of knowledge. His whole attitude suggested at once the mind of an alert, interested boy asking his teacher for information on a subject near to his heart. It was impossible to resist his appeal.
"Why, yes," Mary went on in low, rapid tones. "My people live in the Kentucky mountains."
He bent low and gently touched her arm.
"Say, we can't talk in here—I'm afraid. Would it be asking too much of you to come out in the park, sit down on a bench and tell me about it? I'll never know how to thank you, if you will?"
It was absurd, of course, such a request, and yet his interest was so keen, his deference to her superior knowledge so humble and appealing, to refuse seemed ungracious. She hesitated and rose abruptly.
"Just a moment—I'll return my books and then we'll go. You can replace this volume on the shelf where we got it."
"Thank yoo, miss," he responded gratefully. "You're awfully kind."
"Don't mention it," she laughed.
In a moment she was walking by his side down the smooth marble stairs and out through the grand entrance into Fifth Avenue. The strange part about it was, she was not in the least excited over a very unconventional situation. She had allowed a handsomely groomed, young, red-haired adventurer to pick her up without the formality of an introduction, in the Public Library. She hadn't the remotest idea of his name—nor had he of hers—yet there was something about him that seemed oddly familiar. They must have known one another somewhere in childhood and forgotten each other's faces.
The sun was shining in clear, steady brilliancy in a cloudless sky. The snow had quickly melted and it was unusually warm for early December. They turned into the throng of Fifth Avenue and at the corner of Forty-second Street he paused and hesitated and looked at her timidly:
"Say," he began haltingly, "there's an awful crowd of bums on those seats in the Square behind the building—you know Central Park, don't you?"
"Quite well—I've spent many happy hours in its quiet walks."
"You know that place the other side of the Mall—that ragged hill covered with rocks and trees and mountain laurel?"
"I've been there often."
"Would you mind going there where it's quiet—I've such a lot o' things I want to ask you—you won't mind the walk, will you?"
"Certainly not—we'll go there," Mary responded in even, business-like tones.
"Because, if you don't want to walk I'll call a cab, if you'll let me——"
"Not at all," was the quick answer. "I love to walk."
It was impossible for the girl to repress a smile at her ridiculous situation! If any human being had told her yesterday that she, Mary Adams, an old-fashioned girl with old-fashioned ideas of the proprieties of life, would have allowed herself to be picked up by an utter stranger in this unceremonious way, she would have resented the assertion as a personal insult—yet the preposterous and impossible thing had happened and she was growing each moment more and more deeply interested in the study of the remarkable youth by her side.
He was not handsome in the conventional sense. His features were too strong for that. An enemy might have called them coarse. Their first impression was of enormous strength and exhaustless vitality. He walked with a quick, military precision and planted his small feet on the pavement with a soft, sure tread that suggested the strength of a young tiger.
The one feature that puzzled her was the size of his hands and feet. They were remarkably small and remarkable for their slender, graceful lines.
His eyes were another interesting feature. The lids drooped with a careless Oriental languor, as though he would shut out the glare of the full daylight, and yet the pupils flashed with a cold steel-blue fire. One look into his eyes and there could be no doubt that the man behind them was an interesting personality.
She wondered what his business could be. Not a lawyer or doctor or teacher certainly. His timidity in handling books was clear proof on that point. He was well groomed. His clothes were made by a first-class tailor.
Her heart thumped with a sudden fear. Perhaps he was some sort of criminal. His questions may have been a trick to lure her away....
They had just crossed the broad plaza at Fifty-ninth Street and entered the walkway that leads to the Mall.
She stopped suddenly.
"It's too far to the hill beyond the Mall," she began hesitatingly. "We'll find a seat in one of the little rustic houses along the Fifty-ninth Street side——"
"Sure, if you say so," he agreed.
He accepted the suggestion so simply, she regretted her suspicions, instantly changed her mind and said, smiling:
"No, we'll go on where we started. The long walk will do me good."
"All right," he laughed; "whatever you say's the law. I'm the little boy that does just what his teacher says."
She blushed and shot him a surprised look.
"Who told you that I was a teacher?" she asked, with a smile.
"Lord, nobody! I had no idea of such a thing. It never popped into my head that you do anything at all. You know, I was awful scared when I spoke to you?"
"Were you?" she laughed.
"Surest thing you know! I'd 'a' never screwed up my courage to do it if you hadn't 'a' looked so kind and gentle and sweet. I just knew you couldn't turn me down——"
There was no mistaking the genuineness of the apology for his presumption. She smiled a gracious answer, and threw the last ugly suspicion to the winds.
He broke into a laugh and lifted his hand in the sudden gesture of a traffic policeman commanding a halt.
"What is it?" she asked.
"You know I was so excited I clean forgot to introduce myself! What do you think o' that? You'll excuse me, won't you? My name's Jim Anthony. I'm sorry I can't give you any references to my folks. I haven't any—I'm a lost sheep in New York—no father or mother. That's why I'm so excited about this trip I'm plannin' down South. I hear I've got some people down there."
He stopped suddenly as if absorbed in the thought. Her heart went out to him in sympathy for this confession of his orphaned life.
"I'm Mary Adams," she smiled in answer. "I'm a teacher in the public schools."
"Gee—that accounts for it! I thought you looked like you knew everything in those books. And you've been to Asheville, too?"
"Suppose it's not as big a burg as New York?"
"Hardly—it's just a hustling mountain town of about twenty-five thousand people."
"Lot o' swells from around New York live down there, they tell me."
"Yes, the Vanderbilts have a beautiful castle just outside."
"Some mountains near Asheville?"
"Hundreds of square miles."
"Mountains in every direction?"
"As far as the eye can reach, one blue range piled above another until they're lost in the dim skies on the horizon."
"Gee, it may be pretty hard to find your folks if they just live in the mountains near Asheville?"
"Unless your directions are more explicit—I should think so."
"You know, I thought the mountains near Asheville was a bunch o' hills off one side like the Palisades, that you couldn't miss if you tried. I've never been outside of New York—since I can remember. I'd love to see real mountains."
The last sentence was spoken in a wistful pathos that touched Mary with its irresistible appeal. Her mother instincts responded to it in quick sympathy.
"You've missed a lot," she answered gravely.
"I'll bet I have. It's a rotten old town, this New York——"
He paused, and a queer light flashed from his steel eyes.
"Until you get your hand on its throat," he added, bringing his square jaws together.
Mary lifted her face with keen interest.
"And you've got it by the throat?"
"That's just what—little girl!" he cried, with a ring of pride. "You see, I'm an inventor and I won a little pile on my first trick. I've got a machine-shop in a room eight-by-ten over on the East Side."
"A machine-shop all your own?"
"I'd like to see it some day."
He shook his head emphatically.
"It's too dirty. I couldn't let a pretty girl like you in such a place." He paused and resumed the tone of his narrative where she interrupted him. "You see, I've just put a new crimp in a carburetor for the automobile folks. They're tickled to death over it and I've got automobiles to burn. Will you go to ride with me tomorrow?"
The teacher broke into a joyous laugh.
"Why do you laugh?" he asked awkwardly.
"Well, in the language of New York, that would be going some, wouldn't it?"
"And why not, I'd like to know?" he cried with scorn. "Who's to tell us we can't? You've no kids to bother you tomorrow. I'm my own boss. You've seen Asheville, but you've never seen New York until you sit down beside me in a big six-cylinder racing car I'm handlin' next week. Let me show it to you. I'll swing her around to your door at eight o'clock. In twenty-five minutes we'll clear the Bronx and shoot into New Rochelle. There'll be no cops out to bother us, and not a wheel in sight. It'll do you good. Let me take you! I owe you that much for bein' so nice to me today. Will you go with me?"
"I'll think it over and let you know."
"Got a telephone?"
"Then you'll have to tell me before I go—won't you?"
"I suppose so," she answered demurely.
They passed the big fountain beyond the Mall and skirted the lake to the bridge, crossed, walked along the water's edge to the laurel-covered crags and found a seat alone in the summer house that hides among the trees on its highest point.
The roar of the city was dim and far away. The only sounds to break the stillness were the laughter of lovers along the walks below and the distant cry of steamers in the harbor and rivers.
"You'd almost think you're in the mountains up here, now wouldn't you?" he asked, after a moment's silence.
"Yes. I call this park my country estate. It costs me nothing to keep it in perfect order. The city pays for it all. But I own it. Every tree and shrub and flower and blade of grass, every statue and bird and animal in it is mine. I couldn't get more joy out of them if I had them inclosed behind an iron fence, and the deed to the land in my pocket—not half as much, for I'd be lonely and miserable without someone to see and enjoy it all with me."
"Gee, that's so, ain't it? I never looked at it like that before."
He gazed at her a long time in silent admiration, and then spoke briskly.
"Now tell me about this North Carolina and all those miles and square miles of mountains."
"You've a piece of paper and pencil?"
He lifted his hand school-boy fashion:
"Johnny on the spot, teacher!"
A blank-book and pencil he threw in her lap and leaned close.
"Tear the leaves out, if you like."
"No, I'll just draw the maps on the pages and leave them for you to study."
With deft touch she outlined in rough on the first page, the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina, tracing his possible route by Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Dover, Norfolk and Raleigh, or by Washington, Richmond, and Danville to Greensboro.
"Either route you see," she said softly, "leads to Salisbury, where you strike the foothills of the mountains. It's about two hundred miles from there to Asheville and 'The Land of the Sky.'"
For two hours she answered his eager, boyish questions about the country and its people, his eyes wide with admiration at her knowledge.
The sun was sinking in a sea of scarlet and purple clouds behind the tall buildings beside the Park before she realized that they had been talking for more than two hours.
She sprang to her feet, blushing and confused.
"Mercy, I had no idea it was so late."
"Why—is it late?" he asked incredulously.
"We must hurry——"
She brushed the stray ringlets of hair from her forehead, laughed and hurried down the pathway.
They crossed the Park and took the Madison Avenue line to Twenty-third Street. They were silent in the car. The roar of the traffic was deafening after the quiet of the summer house among the trees.
"I can see you home?" he inquired appealingly.
"We get off at Twenty-third Street."
They stood on the steps at her door beside the Square and there was a moment's awkward silence.
He lifted his hat with a little chivalrous bow.
"Tomorrow morning at eight o'clock in my car?"
She smiled and hesitated.
"You'll have a bully time!"
"It's Sunday," she stammered.
"Sure, that's why I asked you."
"I don't like to miss my church."
"You go to church every Sunday?" he asked in amazement.
"Well, just this once then. It'll do you good. And I'll drive as careful as a farmer."
"All right," she said in low tones, and extended her hand:
"Good night, teacher!" he responded with a boyish wave of his slender hand and quickly disappeared in the crowd.
She rushed up the stairs, her cheeks aflame, her heart beating a tattoo of foolish joy.
She snatched the kitten from sleep and whispered in his tiny ear:
"Oh, Kitty dear, I've had such an adventure! I've spent the happiest, silliest afternoon of my life! I'm going to have a more wonderful day tomorrow. I just feel it. In a big racing automobile if you please, Mr. Thomascat! Sorry I can't take you but the dust would blind you, Kitty dear. I'm sorry to tell you that you'll have to stay at home all day alone and keep house. It's too bad. But I'll fix your milk and bread before I go and you must promise me on your sacred Persian cat's honor not to look at my birds!"
She hugged him violently and he purred his soft answer in song.
"Oh, Kitty, I'm so happy—so foolishly happy!"
CHAPTER IV. DOUBTS AND FEARS
Mary attempted no analysis of her emotions. It was all too sudden, too stunning. She was content to feel and enjoy the first overwhelming experience of life. Hour after hour she lay among the pillows of her couch in the dim light of the street lamps and lazily watched the passing Saturday evening crowds. The world was beautiful.
She undressed at last and went to bed, only to toss wide-eyed for hours.
A hundred times she reenacted the scene in the Library and recalled her first impression of Jim's personality. What could such an utterly unforeseen and extraordinary meeting mean except that it was her Fate? Certainly he could not have planned it. Certainly she had not foreseen such an event. It had never occurred to her in the wildest flights of fancy that she could meet and speak to a man under such conditions, to say nothing of the walk in the Park and the hours she spent in the little summer house.
And the strangest part of it all was that she could see nothing wrong in it from beginning to end. It had happened in the simplest and most natural way imaginable. By the standards of conventional propriety her act was the maddest folly; and yet she was still happy over it.
There was one disquieting trait about him that made her a little uneasy. He used the catch-words of the street gamins of New York without any consciousness of incongruity. She thought at first that he did this as the Southern boy of culture and refinement unconsciously drops into the tones and dialect of the negro, by daily association. His constant use of the expressive and characteristic "Gee" was startling, to say the least. And yet it came from his lips in such a boyish way she felt sure that it was due to his embarrassment in the unusual position in which he had found himself with her.
His helplessness with the dictionary was proof, of course, that he was no scholar. And yet a boy might have a fair education in the schools of today and be unfamiliar with this ponderous and dignified encyclopedia of words. It was impossible to believe that he was illiterate. His clothes, his carriage, even his manners made such an idea preposterous.
Besides, no inventor could be really illiterate. He may have been forced to work and only attended night schools. But if he were a mechanic, capable of making a successful improvement on one of the most delicate and important parts of an automobile, he must have studied the principles involved in his inventions.
His choice of a profession appealed to her imagination, too. It showed independence and initiative. It opened boundless possibilities. He might be an obscure and poorly educated boy today. In five years he could be a millionaire and the head of some huge business whose interests circled the world.
The tired brain wore itself out at last in eager speculations, and she fell into a fitful stupor. The roar of the street-cars waked her at daylight, and further sleep was out of the question. She rose, dressed quickly and got her breakfast in a quiver of nervous excitement over the adventure of the coming automobile.
As the hour of eight drew nearer, her doubts of the propriety of going became more acute.
"What on earth has come over me in the past twenty-four hours?" she asked of herself. "I've known this man but a day. I don't KNOW him at all, and yet I'm going to put my life in his hands in that racing machine. Have I gone crazy?"
She was not in the least afraid of him. His face and voice and personality all seemed familiar. Her brain and common-sense told her that such a trip with an utter stranger was dangerous and foolish beyond words. In his automobile, unaccompanied by a human soul and unacquainted with the roads over which they would travel, she would be absolutely in his power.
She set her teeth firmly at last, her mind made up.
"It's too mad a risk. I was crazy to promise. I won't go!"
She had scarcely spoken her resolution when the soft call of the auto-horn echoed below. She stood irresolute for a moment, and the call was repeated in plaintive, appealing notes.
She tried to hold fast to her resolutions, but the impulse to open the window and look out was resistless. She turned the old-fashioned brass knob, swung her windows wide on their hinges and leaned out.
His keen eyes were watching. He lifted his cap and waved. She answered with the flutter of her handkerchief—and all resolutions were off.
"Of course, I'll go," she cried, with a laugh. "It's a glorious day—I may never have such a chance again."
CHAPTER V. WINGS OF STEEL
She threw on her furs and hurried downstairs. Her surrender was too sudden to realize that she was being driven by a power that obscured reason and crushed her will.
Reason made one more vain cry as she paused at the door below to draw on her gloves.
"You have refused every invitation to see or know the unconventional world into which thousands of women in New York, clear-eyed and unafraid, enter daily. You'd sooner die than pose an hour in Gordon's studio, and on a Sabbath morning you cut your church and go on a day's wild ride with a man you have known but fifteen hours!"
And the voice inside quickly answered:
"But that's different! Gordon's a married man. My chevalier is not! I have the right to go, and he has the right."
It was settled anyhow before this little controversy arose at the street door, but the ready answer she gave eased her conscience and cleared the way for a happy, exciting trip.
He leaped from the big, ugly racer to help her in, stopped and looked at her light clothing.
"That's your heaviest coat?"
"Yes. It isn't cold."
"I've one for you."
He drew an enormous fur coat from the car and held it up for her arms.
"You think I'll need that?" she asked.
His white teeth gleamed in a friendly smile.
"Take it from me, Kiddo, you certainly will!"
She winced just a little at the common expression, but he said it with such a quick, boyish enthusiasm, she wondered whether he were quoting the expression from the Bowery boy's vocabulary or using it in a facetious personal way.
"I knew you'd need it. So I brought it for you," he added genially.
"Thanks," she murmured, lifting her arms and drawing the coat about her trim figure.
He helped her into the car and drew from his pocket a light pair of goggles.
"Now these, and you're all hunky-dory!"
"Will I need these, too?" she asked incredulously.
"Will you!" he cried. "You wouldn't ask that question if you knew the horse we've got hitched to this benzine buggy today. He's got wings—believe me! It's all I can do to hold him on the ground sometimes."
"You'll drive carefully?" she faltered.
He lifted his hand.
"With you settin' beside me, my first name's 'Caution.'"
She fumbled the goggles in a vain effort to lift her arms over her head to fasten them on. He sprang into the seat by her side and promptly seized them.
"Let me fix 'em."
His slender, skillful fingers adjusted the band and brushed a stray ringlet of hair back under the furs. The thrill of his touch swept her with a sudden dizzy sense of excitement. She blushed and drew her head down into the collar of the shaggy coat.
He touched the wheel, and the gray monster leaped from the curb and shot down the street. The single impulse carried them to the crossing. He had shut off the power as the machine gracefully swung into Fourth Avenue. The turn made, another leap and the car swept up the Avenue and swung through Twenty-sixth Street into Fifth Avenue. Again the power was off as he made the turn into Fifth Avenue at a snail's pace.
"Can't let her out yet," he whispered apologetically. "Had to make these turns. There's no room for her inside of town."
Mary had no time to answer. He touched the wheel, and the car shot up the deserted Avenue. She gasped for breath and braced her feet, her whole being tingling with the first exhilarating consciousness that she too was possessed of the devil of speed madness. It was glorious! For the first time in her life, space and distance lost their meaning. She was free as the birds in the heavens. She was flying on the wings of this gray, steel monster through space. The palaces on the Avenue whirled by in dim ghost-like flashes. They flew through Central Park into Seventy-second Street and out into the Drive. The waters of the river, broad and cool, flashing in the morning sun, rested her eyes a moment and then faded in a twinkling. They had leaped the chasm beyond Grant's Tomb, plunged into Broadway and before she could get her bearings, swept up the hill at One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Street, slipped gracefully across the iron bridge and in a jiffy were lost in a gray cloud of dust on the Boston Turnpike.
When the first intoxicating joy of speed had spent itself, she found herself shuddering at the daring turns he made, missing a curb by a hair's breadth—grazing a trolley by half an inch. Her fears were soon forgotten.
The hand on the wheel was made of steel, too.
The throbbing demon encased within the hood obeyed his slightest whim. She glanced at the square, massive jaw with furtive admiration.
Without turning his head he laughed.
"You like it, teacher?"
"I'm in Heaven!"
"You won't worry about church then, will you?"
They stopped at a road-house, and he put in more gasoline, lifted the casing from the engine, touched each vital part, examined his tires, and made sure that his machine was at its best.
She watched him with a growing sense of his strength of character, his poise and executive ability. He was an awkward, stammering boy in the Library yesterday. Today with this machine in his hand he was the master of Time and Space.
She yielded herself completely to the delicious sense of his protection. The extraordinary care he was giving the machine was a plain avowal of his deep regard for her comfort and happiness. She had been in one or two moderately moving cars driven by careful chauffeurs through Central Park. She had always felt on those trips with Jane Anderson like a poor relation from the country imposing on a rich friend.
This trip was all her own. The car and its master were there solely for her happiness. Her slightest whim was law for both. It was sweet, this sense of power. She began to lift her body with a touch of pride.
She laughed now at fears. What nonsense! No Knight of the Age of Chivalry could treat her with more deference. He had tried already to get her to stop for a bite of lunch.
"Don't you want a thing to eat?" he persisted.
"Not a thing. I've just had my breakfast. It's only nine o'clock——"
"I know, but we've come thirty miles and the air makes you hungry. We ought to eat about six good meals a day."
She shook her head.
"No—not yet. I'm too happy with these new wings. I want to fly some more—come on——"
He lifted his hand in his favorite gesture of obedience.
"'Nuff said—we'll streak it back now by another road, hump it through town and jump over the Brooklyn Bridge. I'll show you Coney Island and then I know you'll want a hot dog anyhow."
He crossed the country and darted into Broadway. Before she could realize it, the last tree and field were lost behind in a cloud of dust, and they were again in the crowded streets of the city. The deep growl of his horn rang its warnings for each crossing and Mary watched the timid women scramble to the sidewalks five and six blocks ahead.
It was delicious. She had always been the one to scramble before. Her heart went out in a wave of tenderness to the man by her side, strong, daring, masterful, her chevalier, her protector and admirer.
Yes, her admirer! There was no doubt on that point. The moment he relaxed the tension of his hand on the wheel, his deep, mysterious eyes beneath the drooping lids were fixed on hers in open, shameless admiration. Their cold fire burned into her heart and thrilled to her finger-tips.
In spite of his deference and his obedience to her whim, she felt the iron grip of his personality on her imagination. Whatever his education, his origin or his environment, he was a power to be reckoned with.
No other type of man had ever appealed to her. Her conception of a real man had always been one who did his own thinking and commanded rather than asked the respect of others.
She had thrown the spell of her beauty over this headstrong, masterful man. He was wax in her hands. A delicious sense of power filled her. She had never known what happiness meant before. She floated through space. The spinning lines of towering buildings on Broadway passed as mists in a dream.
As the velvet feet of the car touched the great bridge she lazily opened her eyes for a moment and gazed through the lace-work of steel at the broad sweep of the magnificent harbor. The dark blue hills of Staten Island framed the picture.
He was right. She had never seen New York before. Never before had its immense panorama been swept within two hours. Never before had she realized its dimensions. She had always felt stunned and crushed in the effort to conceive it. Today she had wings. The city lay at her feet, conquered. She was mistress of Time and Space.
Again her sidelong glance swept the lines of Jim Anthony's massive jaw. She laughed softly.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Nothing. I'm just happy."
She blushed and wondered if he had read her thoughts by some subtle power of clairvoyance. She was speculating on the effects of love at first sight on such a man. Would he hesitate, back and fill and hang on for months trying in vain to gain the courage to speak? Or would he spring with the leap of a young tiger the moment he realized what he wanted?
Her own attitude was purely one of joyous expectancy. It would, of course, be a long time before her feelings could take any definite attitude toward a man. For the moment she was supremely happy. It was enough. She made no effort to probe her feelings. She might return to earth tomorrow. Today she was in Heaven. She would make the most of it.
They skimmed the wooded cliffs of Bay Ridge, her heart beating in ecstasy at the revelation of beauty of whose existence she had not dreamed.
"I bet you never saw this drive before, now did you?" he asked with boyish enthusiasm.
"You know when I make my pile, I'd like a palace of white marble perched on this cliff with the windows on the south looking out over Sandy Hook, and the windows on the west looking over that fort on the top of Staten Island with its black eyes gazing over the sea. How would you like that?"
She turned away to mask the smile she couldn't repress.
"That would be splendid, wouldn't it?"
"I like the water, don't you?"
"I love it."
"Water and hills both right together! I reckon my father must 'a' been a sea-captain and my mother from the mountains——"
He said this with a pathos that found the girl's heart. What a pitiful, lonely life, a boy's without even the memory of a mother or father! The mother instinct rose in a resistless flood of pity. Her eyes grew suddenly dim.
"Well," he said briskly, "now for the dainty job! I've got to jump my way through that Coney Island bunch. You see my low speed's a racing pace for an everyday car. All I can do in a crowd is to jump from one crossing to the next and cut her power off every time. You can bet I'll make a guy or two jump with me——"
"You won't hurt anyone?" she pleaded.
"Lord, no! I wouldn't dare to put her through that mob in the afternoon. I'd kill a regiment of 'em. But it's early—just the shank of the morning. There's nobody down here yet."
The car suddenly leaped into the Avenue that runs through the heart of Coney Island, the deep-throated horn screaming its warning. The crowd scattered like sheep before a lion.
The girl laughed in spite of her effort at self-control.
"Watch 'em hump!" Jim grunted.
"It's funny, isn't it?"
"When you're in the car—yes. It don't seem so funny when you're on foot. Well, some people were made to walk and some to ride. I had to hoof it at first. I like riding better—don't you?"
"To be perfectly honest—yes!"
The car leaped forward again, the horn screaming. The wheel passed within a foot of a fat woman's skirt. With a cry of terror she fled to the sidewalk and shook her fist at Jim, her face purple with anger.
He waved his hand back at her:
"Never touched you, dearie! Never touched you!"
Mary lost all fear of accident and watched him handle the machine with the skill of a master. She could understand now the spirit of deviltry in a chauffeur who knows his business. It seemed a wicked, cruel thing from the ground—this swift plunge of a car as if bent on murder. But now that she felt the sure, velvet grip of the brake in a master's hand, she saw that the danger was largely a myth.
It was fun to see people jump at the approach of an avalanche of steel that always stopped just short of harm. Of course, it took a steady nerve and muscle to do the trick. The man by her side had both. He was always smiling. Nothing rattled him.
Her trust was now implicit. She relaxed the tension of the first two hours of doubt and fear, and yielded to the spell of his strength. It seemed inseparable from the throbbing will of the giant machine. He was its incarnate spirit. She was being swept through space now on the wings of omnipotent power—but power always obedient to her whim.
With steady, even pulse they glided down the long, broad Avenue to Prospect Park, swung through its winding lanes, on through the streets of Brooklyn and once more into the open road.
"Now for Long Beach and a good lunch!" he cried. "I'll show you something—but you'll have to shut your eyes to see it."
With a sudden bound, the car leaped into the air, and shot through the sky with the hiss and shriek of a demon.
The girl caught her breath and instinctively gripped his arm.
"Look out, Kiddo!" he shouted. "Don't touch me—or we'll both land in Kingdom Come. I ain't ready for a harp just yet. I'd rather fool with this toy for a while down here."
She braced her feet and gripped the sides of the car, gasping for breath, steadied herself at last and crouched low among the furs to guard her throat from the icy daggers of the wind.
The landscape whirled in a circle of trees and sky, while above the dark line of hills hung the boiling cauldron of cloud-banked heavens.
"Are you game?" he called above the roar.
"Yes," she gasped. "Don't stop——"
Her soul had risen at last to the ecstasy of the mania for speed that fired the man's spirit and nerved his hand. It was inconceivable until experienced—this awful joy! Her spirit sank with childish disappointment as he slowly lowered the power.
"Got to take a sharp curve down there," he explained. "We turn to the right for the meadows and the Beach—how was that?"
"Wonderful," she cried, with dancing eyes. "Let her go again if you want to—I'm game—now."
"A little rattled at first?"
"Well, we can't let her out on this road. It's too narrow—have to take a ditch sometimes to pass. That wouldn't do for an eighty-mile clip, you know—now would it?"
"I might risk it alone—but my first name's 'Old Man Caution' today—you get me?"
Mary nodded and turned her head away again.
"I got you the first time, sir," she answered playfully taking his tone.
He ran the car into the garage at the Beach, sprang out and lifted Mary to the ground with quick, firm hand. They threw off their heavy coats and left them.
"Look out for this junk now, sonny," he cried to the attendant, tossing him a half dollar.
"Fill her up to the chin by the time we get back."
Quickly they walked to the hotel and in five minutes were seated beside a window in the dining-room, watching the lazy roll of the sea sweep in on the sands at low tide.
"I'm hungry as a wolf!" he whispered.
"So am I——"
"We'll eat everything in sight—start at the top and come down."
He handed her the menu card and watched her from the depths beneath the drooping eyelids.
Conscious of his gaze and rejoicing in its frank admiration, she ordered the dinner with instinctive good taste. No effort at conversation was made by either. They were both too hungry. As Jim lighted his cigarette when the coffee was served, he leaned back in his chair and watched the breakers in silence.
"That's the best dinner I ever had in my life," he said slowly.
"It was good. We were hungry."
"I've been hungry before, many a time. It was something else, too." He paused and rose abruptly. "Let's walk up the Beach."
"I'd love to," she answered, slowly rising.
CHAPTER VI. BESIDE THE SEA
They strolled leisurely along the board-walk, found the sand, walked in the firm, dry line of the high-water mark for a mile to the east, and sat down on a clump of sea-grass on the top of a sand dune.
"I like this!" she cried joyously.
"So do I," he answered soberly, and lapsed into silence.
The sun was warm and genial. The wind had died, and the waves of the rising tide were creeping up the long, sloping stretches of the sand with a lazy, soothing rush. A winter gull poised above their heads and soared seaward. The smoke of an ocean liner streaked the horizon as she swept toward the channel off Sandy Hook.
Jim looked at the girl by his side and tried to speak. She caught the strained expression in his strong face and lowered her eyes.
He began to trace letters in the sand.
She knew with unerring instinct that he had made his first desperate effort to speak his love and failed. Would he give it up and wait for weeks and possibly months—or would he storm the citadel in one mad rush at the beginning?
He found his voice at last. He had recovered from the panic of his first impulse.
"Well, how do you like my idea of a good day as far as you've gone?" he asked lightly.
She met his gaze with perfect frankness. "The happiest day I ever spent in my life," she confessed.
"Oh, shucks—what's the use!" he cried, with sudden fierce resolution. "You've got me, Kiddo, you've got me! I've been eatin' out of your hand since the minute I laid my eyes on you in that big room. I'm all yours. You can do anything you want with me. For God's sake, tell me that you like me a little."
The blood slowly mounted to her cheeks in red waves of tremulous emotion.
"I like you very much," she said in low tones.
He seized her hand and held it in a desperate grip.
"I love you, Kiddo," he went on passionately. "You don't mind me calling you Kiddo? You're so dainty and pretty and sweet, and that dimple keeps coming in your cheek, it just seems like that's the word—you don't mind?"
"You don't know how I've been starvin' all my life for the love of a pure girl like you. You're the first one I ever spoke to. I was scared to death yesterday when I saw you. But I'd 'a' spoke to you if it killed me in my tracks. I couldn't help it. It just looked like an angel had dropped right down out of the gold clouds from that ceilin'. I was afraid I'd lose you in the crowd and never see you again. It didn't seem you were a stranger anyhow—I didn't seem strange to you, did I?"
Her lips quivered, and she was silent.
"Didn't you feel like you'd known me somewhere before?" he pleaded.
"I just felt you did, and that's what give me courage. Oh, Kiddo, you've got to love me a little—I've never been loved by a human soul in all my life. The first thing I remember was hidin' under a stoop from a brute who beat me every night. I ran away and slept in barrels and crawled into coal shutes till I was big enough to earn a livin' sellin' papers. For years I never knew what it meant to have enough to eat. I just scratched and fought my way through the streets like a little hungry wolf till I got in a blacksmith's shop down on South Street and learned to handle tools. I was quick and smart, and the old man liked me and let me sleep in the shop. I had enough to eat then and got strong as an ox. I went to the night schools and learned to read and write. I don't know anything, but I'm quick and you can teach me—you will, won't you?"
"I'll try," was the low answer.
"You do like me, Kiddo? Say it again!"
She rose to her feet and looked out over the sea, her face scarlet.
"Yes, I do," she said at last.
With a sudden resistless sweep he clasped her in his arms and kissed her lips.
Her heart leaped in mad response to the first kiss a lover had ever given. Her body quivered and relaxed in his embrace. It was sweet—it was wonderful beyond words.
He kissed her again, and she clung to him, lifting her eyes to his at last in a long, wondering gaze and then pressed her own lips to his.
"Oh, my God, Kiddo, you love me! It beats the world, don't it? Love at first sight for both of us! I've heard about it, but I didn't think it would ever happen to me like this—did you?"
She shook her head and bit her lips as the tears slowly dimmed her eyes.
"It takes my breath," she murmured. "I can't realize what it all means. It seems too wonderful to be true."
"And you won't turn me down because I don't know who my father and mother was?"
"No—my heart goes out to you in a great pity for your lonely, wretched boyhood."
"I couldn't help that—now could I?"
"Of course not. It's wonderful that you've made your way alone and won the fight of life."
He gripped her hands and held her at arms' length, devouring her with his deep, slumbering eyes.
"Gee, but you're a brick, little girl! I thought you were an angel when I first saw you. Now I know it. Just watch me work for you! I'll show you a thing or two. You'll marry me right away, won't you?"
He bent close, his breath on her lips.
Her eyes drooped under his passionate gaze, and the tears slowly stole down her cheeks. Her hour of life had struck! So suddenly, so utterly unexpectedly, it rang a thunderbolt from the clear sky.
"You will, won't you?" he pleaded.
She smiled at him through her tears and slowly said:
"I can't say yes today."
"You've swept me off my feet—I—I can't think."
"I don't want you to think—I want you to marry me right now."
"I must have a little time."
His face fell in despair.
"Say, little girl, don't turn me down—you'll kill me."
"I'm not turning you down," she protested tenderly. "I only want time to see that I'm not crazy. I have to pinch myself to see if I'm awake. It all seems a dream"—she paused and lifted her radiant face to his—"a beautiful dream—the most wonderful my soul has ever seen. I must be sure it's real!"
He drew her into his arms, and her body again relaxed in surrender as his lips touched hers.
"Isn't that the real thing?" he laughed.
She lay very still, her eyes closed, her face a scarlet flame. She was frightened at the swift realization of its overwhelming reality. The touch of his hand thrilled to the last fiber and nerve of her body. Her own trembling fingers clung to him with desperate longing tenderness. She roused herself with an effort and drew away.
"That's enough now. I must have a little common-sense. Let's go——"
He clung to her hand.
"You'll let me come to see you, tomorrow night?"
"And the next night—and every night this week—what's the difference? There's nobody to say no, is there?"
"You'll let me?"
"Tomorrow sure. Maybe you won't want to come the next night."
"Maybe I won't! Just wait and see!"
He seized both hands again and held her at arms' length.
"Don't go yet—just let me look at you a minute more! The only girl I ever had in my life—and she's the prettiest thing God ever made on this earth. Ain't I the lucky boy?"
"We must go now," she cried, blushing again under his burning eyes.
He dropped her hands suddenly and saluted military fashion.
"All right, teacher! I'm the little boy that does exactly what he's told."
They strolled leisurely along the shining sands in silence. Now and then his slender hand caught hers and crushed it. The moment he touched her a living flame flashed through her body—and through every moment of contact her nerves throbbed and quivered as if a musician were sweeping the strings of a harp. If this were not love, what could it be?
Her whole being, body and soul, responded to his. Her body moved instinctively toward his, drawn by some hidden, resistless power. Her hands went out to meet his; her lips leaped to his.
She must test it with time, of course. And yet she knew by a deep inner sense that time could only fan the flame that had been kindled into consuming fire that must melt every barrier between them.
She had asked him nothing of himself, his business or his future, and knew nothing except what he had told her in the first impetuous rush of his confession of love. No matter. The big thing today was the fact of love and the new radiance with which it was beginning to light the world. The effect was stunning. Their conversation had been the simplest of commonplace questions and answers—and yet the day was the one miracle of her life—her happiness something unthinkable until realized.
She had not asked time in order to know him better. She had only asked time to see herself more clearly in the new experience. Not for a moment did she raise the question of the worthiness of the man she loved. It was inconceivable that she should love a man not worthy of her. The only questions asked were soul-searching ones put to herself.
Through the sweet, cool drive homeward, a hundred times she asked within:
"Is this love?"
And each time the answer came from the depths:
"Yes—yes—a thousand times yes. It's the voice of God. I feel it and I know it."
He throttled the racer down to the lowest speed and took the longest road home.
Again and again he slipped his left hand from the wheel and pressed hers.
"You won't let anybody knock me behind my back, now will you, little girl?"