THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR
Author of "The Wings of Youth," "May Iverson—Her Book," "Lovers' Knots," etc.
Illustrated by Paul Meylan
New York The Century Co. 1919
Copyright, 1919, by The Century Co.
Copyright, 1919, by Today's Housewife
Published, October, 1919
MRS. HENRY FERRE CUTLER
WITH HAPPY MEMORIES OF FLORENCE
I BARBARA'S WEDDING 3
II RODNEY LOSES A BATTLE 26
III LAURIE MEETS MISS MAYO 47
IV A PAIR OF GRAY EYES 66
V MR. HERBERT RANSOME SHAW 90
VI LAURIE SOLVES A PROBLEM 99
VII GRIGGS GETS AN ORDER 112
VIII SAMUEL PLAYS A NEW GAME 124
IX AN INVITATION 138
X THE LAIR OF SHAW 151
XI A BIT OF BRIGHT RIBBON 162
XII DORIS TAKES A JOURNEY 180
XIII THE HOUSE IN THE CEDARS 196
XIV LAURIE CHECKS A REVELATION 216
XV MR. SHAW DECIDES TO TALK 240
XVI BURKE MAKES A PROMISE 258
XVII LAURIE MAKES A CONFESSION 270
XVIII A LITTLE LOOK FORWARD 285
XIX "WHAT ABOUT LAURIE?" 296
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Well, Princess," he said at last, still trying to speak lightly Frontispiece
"You see, what we were going to do isn't done much nowadays" 64
"There is someone outside that door!" she whispered 116
"What you been doin' to yerself?" he gasped 264
THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR
THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR
The little city of Devondale, Ohio, had shaken off for one night at least the air of aristocratic calm that normally distinguished it from the busy mill towns on its right and left. Elm Avenue, its leading residence street, usually presented at this hour only an effect of watchful trees, dark shrubbery, shaded lamps, and remote domestic peace. Now, however, it had blossomed into a brilliant thoroughfare, full of light, color, and movement, on all of which the December stars winked down as if in intimate understanding.
Automobiles poured through the wide gates of its various homes and joined a ceaseless procession of vehicles. Pedestrians, representing every class of the city's social life, jostled one another on the sidewalks as they hurried onward, following this vanguard. Overwrought policemen barked instructions at chauffeurs and sternly reprimanded daring souls who attempted to move in a direction opposite to that the crowd was following. For the time, indeed, there seemed to be but one destination which a self-respecting citizen of Devondale might properly have in mind; and already many of the elect had reached this objective and had comfortably passed through its wide doors, down its aisles, and into its cushioned pews.
The Episcopal church of St. Giles was the largest as well as the most fashionable of Devondale's houses of God, but it had its limitations. It could not hold the entire population of the town and surrounding counties. The chosen minority, having presented cards of admission at the entrance, accepted with sedate satisfaction the comfortable seats assigned to it. The uninvited but cheerful majority lingered out in the frosty street, forming a crowd that increasingly blocked the avenue and the church entrance, besides wrecking the nervous systems of traffic men.
It was an interested, good-humored, and highly observant crowd, pressing forward as each automobile approached, to watch with unashamed curiosity the guests who alighted and made their way along the strip of carpet stretching from curbstone to church. Devondale's leading citizens were here, and the spectators knew them all, from those high personages who were presidents of local banks down to little Jimmy Harrigan, who was Barbara Devon's favorite caddie at the Country Club.
Unlike most of his fellow guests, Jimmy arrived on foot; but the crowd saw his unostentatious advent and greeted him with envious badinage.
"Hi, dere, Chimmie, where's yer evenin' soot?" one acquaintance desired to know. And a second remarked solicitously, "De c'rect ting, Chimmie, is t' hold yer hat to yer heart as y' goes in!"
Jimmy made no reply to these pleasantries. The occasion was too big and too novel for that. He merely grinned, presented his card of admission in a paw washed clean only in spots, and accepted with equal equanimity the piercing gaze of the usher and the rear seat to which that outraged youth austerely conducted him.
There, round-eyed, Jimmy stared about him. He had never been inside of St. Giles's before. It was quite possible that he would never find himself inside of it again. He took in the beauty of the great church; its blaze of lights; its masses of flowers; its whispering, waiting throng; the broad white ribbon that set apart certain front pews for the bride's special friends, including a party from New York. Jimmy knew all about those friends and all about this wedding. His grimy little ears were ceaselessly open to the talk of the town, and for weeks past the town had talked of nothing but the Devons and Barbara Devon's approaching wedding. Even now the townspeople were still talking of the Devons, during the brief interval before the bridal party appeared.
In the pew just in front of Jimmy, Mrs. Arthur Lytton, a lady he recognized as a ubiquitous member of the Country Club, was giving a few intimate details of Miss Devon's life to her companion, who evidently was a new-comer to the city.
"You see," Mrs. Lytton was murmuring, "this is really the most important wedding we've ever had here. Barbara Devon owns most of Devondale, and her home, Devon House, is one of the show places of the state. She hasn't a living relative except her brother Laurie, and I fancy she has been lonely, notwithstanding her hosts of friends. We all love her, so we're glad to know she has found the right man to marry, especially as we are not to lose her ourselves. She intends to live in Devon House every summer."
The new-comer—a Mrs. Renway who had social aspirations—was politely attentive.
"I met Laurence Devon at the Country Club yesterday," she said. "He's the handsomest creature I've ever seen, I think. He's really too good-looking; and they say there's some romantic story about him. Do you know what it is?"
Her friend nodded.
"Mercy, yes! Every one does."
Observing the other's growing attention, she went on expansively:
"You see, Laurie was the black sheep of the family; so the Devons left all their great fortune to Barbara and put Laurie in her care. That infuriated him, of course, for he is a high-spirited youngster. He promptly took on an extra shade of blackness. He was expelled from college, and sowed whole crops of wild oats. He gambled, was always in debt, and Barbara had to pay. For a long time she wasn't able to handle the situation. They're both young, you know. She's about twenty-four, and Laurie is a year younger. But last year she suddenly put her mind on it and pulled him up in a rather spectacular way."
Mrs. Renway's eyes glittered with interest.
"Tell me how!" she begged.
The raconteur settled back into her pew, with the complacent expression of one who is sure of her hearer's complete absorption in her words.
"Why," she said, "she made Laurie a sporting-proposition, and he accepted it. He and she were to go to New York and earn their living for one year, under assumed names and without revealing their identity to anybody. They were to start with fifty dollars each, and to be wholly dependent upon themselves after that was gone. Laurie was to give up all his bad habits and buckle down to the job of self-support. For every dollar he earned more than Barbara earned, she promised him five dollars at the end of the year. And if he kept his pledges he was to have ten thousand dollars when the experiment was over, whether he succeeded or failed. He and Barbara were to live in different parts of the city, to be ignorant of each other's addresses, and to see each other only twice."
She stopped for breath. Her friend drove an urgent elbow into her side.
"Go on!" she pleaded. "What happened?"
"Something very unexpected," chuckled Mrs. Lytton. (For some reason, Barbara's friends always chuckled at this point in the story.) "Barbara, who is so clever," she went on, "almost starved to death. And Laurie, the black sheep, after various struggles and failures fell in with some theatrical people and finally collaborated with a successful playwright in writing a play. Perhaps it was partly luck. But the play made a tremendous hit, Laurie kept his pledges, and Barbara has had to pay him a small fortune to meet her bargain!"
The hearer smiled sympathetically.
"That's splendid," she said, "for Laurie! But is the cure permanent, do you think? The boy's so young, and so awfully good-looking—"
"I know," Mrs. Lytton looked ominous. "He is straight as a string so far, and absorbed in his new work. But of course his future is on the knees of the gods, for Barbara is going to Japan on her honeymoon, and Laurie will be alone in New York the rest of the winter. Barbara found her husband in New York," she added. "He's a broker there, Robert Warren. That's what she got out of the experiment! She met him while she was working in the mailing-department of some business house, for seven dollars a week—" Mrs. Lytton stopped speaking and craned her head backward. "They're coming!" she whispered excitedly. "Oh, dear, I hope I sha'n't cry! I always do cry at weddings, and I never know why."
From the crowd outside there rose a cheer, evidently at the bride's appearance. The echoes of it accompanied her progress into the church.
"The mill people adore Barbara," whispered Mrs. Lytton. "She built a big club-house for them two years ago, and she's the president of most of their clubs."
In his seat behind her, Jimmy Harrigan, who had given his attention to the conversation, sniffed contemptuously. If the dame in front was goin' to talk about Miss Devon, why didn't she tell somethin' worth while? Why didn't she tell, fer ins'ance, that Miss Devon played the best golf of any woman in the club, and had beaten Mrs. Lytton to a frazzle in a match last month? An' why didn't she say somethin' about how generous Miss Devon was to caddies in the matter of skates and boxing-gloves and clothes? And why didn't she say what a prince Laurie Devon was, instead of all dat stale stuff what everybody knew?
But now Mrs. Lytton was exclaiming over the beauty of the bride, and here Jimmy whole-heartedly agreed with her.
"How lovely she looks!" she breathed. "She's like Laurie, so stunning she rather takes one's breath away! Oh, dear, I'm going to cry, I know I am! And crying makes my nose actually purple!"
The excitement in the street had communicated itself to the dignified assemblage in the church. The occupants of the pews were turning in their seats. The first notes of the great pipe-organ rolled forth. Friends who had known and loved Barbara Devon since she was a little girl, and many who had known her father and mother before her, looked now at the radiant figure she presented as she walked slowly up the aisle on her brother's arm, and saw that figure through an unexpected mist.
"What a pair!" whispered Mrs. Renway, who had a pagan love of beauty. "They ought to be put in one of their own parks and kept there as a permanent exhibit for the delight of the public. It's almost criminal negligence to leave that young man at large," she darkly predicted. "Something will happen if they do!"
Mrs. Lytton absently agreed.
"The bridegroom is very handsome, too," she murmured. "That stunning, insolent creature who is acting as matron of honor, and looking bored to death by it, is his sister, Mrs. Ordway, of New York. The first bridesmaid is another New York friend, a Russian girl named Sonya Orleneff, that Barbara met in some lodging-house. And will you look at the Infant Samuel!"
An expression of acute strain settled over the features of Mrs. Renway. She hurriedly adjusted her eye-glasses.
"The what?" she whispered, excitedly. "Where? I don't see any infant!"
Mrs. Lytton laughed.
"Of course you don't! It's too small and too near the floor. It's a thirty-months-old youngster Barbara picked up in a New York tenement. She calls him the Infant Samuel, and she has brought him here with his mother, to live on her estate. They say she intends to educate him. He's carrying her train and he's dressed as a page, in tiny white satin breeches and lace ruffles. Oh, don't miss him!"
A little ripple stirred the assemblage. Three figures in the long advancing line of the bridal party held the attention of observers. Two were the bride and her brother. The third, stalking behind her, with her train grasped in his tiny fists, his round brown eyes staring straight ahead, and his fluffy brown hair flying out as if swept backward by an eternal breeze, was obviously the Infant Samuel Mrs. Lytton had mentioned.
From a rear pew the Infant's mother watched her offspring with pride and shuddering apprehension. It was quite on the cards that he might suddenly decide to leave the procession and undertake a brief side excursion into the pews. But Samuel had been assured that he was "taking a walk," and as taking a walk happened to be his favorite pastime he kept manfully to this new form of diversion, even though it had features that did not strongly appeal to him. His short legs wabbled, and his tiny arms ached under the light weight of the bridal train, but Something would happen if he let that train drop. He did not know quite what this Something would be, but he abysmally inferred that it would be extremely unpleasant. He held grimly to his burden.
Suddenly he forgot it. The air was full of wonderful sounds such as he had never heard before. His eyes grew larger. His mouth formed the "O" that expressed his deepest wonder. He longed to stop and find out where the sounds came from, but the train drew him on and on. With an unconscious sigh he accompanied the train; bad as things were, they might have been worse, for he knew that somewhere in advance of him, lost in a mass of white stuff, was the "Babs" he adored.
When the train stopped, he stopped. In response to an urgent suggestion from some one behind him, he dropped it. In obedience to an equally urgent inner prompting, he sat down on it and gazed around. The walk had been rather a long one. Now the big house he was in was very still, save for one voice, saying something to Babs. It was all strange and unfamiliar, and Babs seemed far away. Nothing and nobody looked natural. Samuel became increasingly doubtful about the pleasure of this walk. The corners of his mouth went down.
A flower fell into his lap, and looking up he saw Sonya Orleneff smiling at him. Even Sonya was a new Sonya, emerging from what Samuel dimly felt to be pink clouds. But the eyes were hers, and the smile was hers, and it was plain that she expected him to play with the pink flower. He pulled it to pieces, slowly and absorbedly. The task took some time. From it he passed to a close contemplation of a pink slippered foot which also proved to be Sonya's, and then to a careful study of a black pump and black silk sock that proved to be Lawwie's. Lawwie was smiling down at Samuel, too, and Wobert was standing beside Babs, saying something in a voice that wabbled.
Samuel sighed again. Perhaps by and by Lawwie would take him out for a real walk in the snow. All this pink-and-white display around him might be pretty, but there was nothing in it for a small boy. He gazed appealingly at Sonya, who promptly hoisted him to his fat legs. The man at the railing had stopped talking to Babs and the walk was resumed, this time toward the door. Again that especially precious part of the white stuff was in Samuel's keeping.
The sounds that now filled the air were more wonderful than ever. They excited Samuel. His fat arms waved, and the light train waved with them. A compelling hand, Sonya's, quieted them and it. There was absolutely nothing a little boy could do in this queer walk. Gloomily but sedately the Infant Samuel continued his promenade.
"Here he is," murmured Mrs. Lytton to her friend. "You can see him now, can't you?"
Mrs. Renway gurgled happily. She could.
"Rodney Bangs, the playwright who collaborated with Laurie, is sitting in the front pew," continued her informant, "and the fat little bald man next to him is Jacob Epstein, the New York manager who put on their play."
At the same moment Epstein was whispering to his companion, as the two watched Barbara and her husband start down the aisle in the first little journey of their married life.
"Say, Bangs, if ve could put this vedding into a play, just like they done it here, ve could vake up Broadvay a little—ain't it?"
Bangs nodded, vaguely. His brown eyes were alternately on the bride and on his chum and partner, her brother. He was conscious of an odd depression, of an emotion, new and poignant, that made him understand the tears of Barbara's women friends. Under the influence of this, he spoke oracularly:
"Weddings are beastly depressing things. What the public wants to see is something cheerful!"
Epstein nodded in his turn. His thoughts, too, were busy. Like many of those around him, he was mentally reducing the spectacle he was watching to terms that he could understand. A wedding conducted on this scale, he estimated, probably represented a total cost of about ten thousand dollars. But what was that to a bride with thirty or forty millions? It was strange her family had left them all to her and none to the boy, even if the boy had been a little wild. But the boy was all right now. He'd make his own fortune if life and women and the devil would let him alone. He had made a good start already. A few more successes like "The Man Above" would make Epstein forget several failures he had already and unwisely produced this season. If he could get Bangs and Devon to start work at once, on another good play—
Epstein closed his eyes, lent his Jewish soul to the spell of the music, and dreamed on, of Art and Dollars, of Dollars and Art.
A little later, in the automobile that whirled him and Epstein out to the wedding-reception at Devon House, Rodney Bangs briefly developed the wedding theme.
"I suppose the reason why women cry at weddings and men feel glum is that they know what the bride's in for," he remarked, gloomily.
Epstein grunted. "You an' me is bachelors," he reminded the momentarily cynical youth. "Ve should vorry!"
"What I'm worrying about is Laurie," Bangs admitted.
Epstein turned to him with awakened interest.
"Vell," he demanded, "what about Laurie? He's all right, ain't he?"
"His sister has always kept a collar and leash on Laurie," Bangs reminded him, "and Laurie has needed them both. Now she's off for Japan on a four-months' honeymoon. The leash and collar are off, too. It's going to be mighty interesting and rather anxious business for us to see what a chap like Laurie does with his new freedom. His nature hasn't changed in a year, you see, though his circumstances have," he added, slowly. "And all his promises to Barbara are off. His year of probation is over."
Epstein grunted again. He was fond of saying that he loved Bangs and Laurie as if they were the sons he had never had; but he was not given to analysis of himself or others, and he had little patience with it. His reply showed a tolerance unusual in him.
"Vell, ve keep an eye on him, don't ve?" he predicted.
"We'll have to do it mighty carefully," he muttered. "If Devon catches us at it, he won't leave us an eye to keep on anything!"
Epstein grunted again.
"Ve keep him busy," he suggested, eagerly. "Start him right avay on another play. Eh? That's the idea!"
Bangs shook his head.
"That's it," he conceded. "But Laurie has decided that he won't work again, just yet. He says he's tired and wants a few months' rest. Besides, he thinks America will declare war before the winter's over. He's going to volunteer as soon as it does, and he doesn't want any loose ends dragging here, any half-finished plays, for example."
Epstein looked worried. This was serious news. Without allowing him time to recover from it, Bangs administered a second jolt.
"And of course, in that case," he added simply, "I'd volunteer, too."
Under the double blow Epstein's head and shoulders went down. He knew in that moment what even he himself had sometimes doubted, that his boasted love for the boys was deep and sincere. Few fathers could have experienced a more poignant combination of pride and pain than that which shook him now. But he remained, as always, inarticulate.
"Oh, vell," he said vaguely, "I guess ve meet all that if it comes, eh? Ve needn't go to it to-day."
At Devon House they found the congestion characteristic of wedding-receptions. A certain line had been drawn at the church. Seemingly no line at all had been drawn in the matter of guests at the reception. All Barbara Devon's proteges were there, and they were many; all the young folks in her clubs; all the old and new friends of her crowded life. Each of the great and beautiful rooms on the main floor of Devon House held a human frieze as a background for the throng of new-comers that grew rather than lessened as the hours passed.
As Bangs and Epstein entered the main hall Laurie Devon saw them over the heads of the crowd and hurried to meet them, throwing an arm across the shoulder of each. He was in a mood both men loved and feared, a mood of high and reckless exhilaration. He liked and approved of his new brother-in-law. The memory of his own New York triumph was still fresh enough to give him a thrill. He was devoted to his partners, and proud of his association with them and their work. But most of all, and this he himself would loyally have denied, deep in his heart he was exulting fiercely over his coming freedom.
Laurie loved his sister, but he was weary of leading-strings. Henceforth he could live his own life. It should be a life worth while, on that he had decided, and it should continue free from the vices of gambling and drinking, of which he was sure he had cured himself in the past year. He had come into a full realization of the folly of these and of the glory of the work one loves. He hadn't the least notion what he was going to do with his independence, but a boundless delight filled him in the prospect of it. Whatever life held he was convinced would be good. Looking down from his slender height on the plump Epstein and the stocky Bangs, he smiled into the sober face of each, and under the influence of that smile their momentary solemnity fell from them like dropped veils.
"Come and see Barbara," Laurie buoyantly suggested. "She wants to say good-by to you, and to tell you how to tuck me into my crib every night. She's going to slip away pretty soon, you know. Bob and I have got her off in an alcove to get a few minutes' rest."
He led them to this haven, of which only fifty or sixty other guests seemed aware, for the room was but comfortably filled. They found Barbara sitting in a high-backed Spanish chair, against which, in her bridal array and her extraordinary beauty, she made a picture that unaccountably deepened the new depression in Rodney's soul. On her train by the side of the chair, the Infant Samuel slumbered in peace, like an exhausted puppy.
Warren, hovering near his wife, shook hands with the new-comers and responded to their congratulations. Then, slipping his arm through Laurie's, he drew him across the room to where his sister, Mrs. Ordway, was languidly talking to several of the bride's old friends. He knew that Barbara wanted a final and serious word with her brother's partners. Laurie knew it, too, and winked at the pair like an impish child as he permitted himself to be led away.
Young Mrs. Warren, whose title was still so new that she looked startled when they addressed her by it, greeted them warmly and indicated the sleeping Samuel with an apologetic smile.
"His mother is lost somewhere in the crowd," she explained. "He has had two glasses of milk, four fat cakes, and three plates of ice-cream; and he's either asleep or unconscious, I'm not sure which." Her manner sobered. "I'm so glad to have a moment with you two," she said gently. "You know what I want to talk about."
"We can guess it." Bangs smiled at her with the odd wistfulness his smile always took on when he spoke to Barbara. To Bangs, Barbara had become a temple at whose portal he removed his earth-stained shoes. "You want us to look after Laurie," he added, quietly. "Well, you bet we're going to do it."
She smiled again, this time the rare smile that warmed her face like a light from within.
"Then I shall go away happy," she told them. "And there's nothing more to be said; for of course you both understand that I don't distrust Laurie. How could I, after he has been so wonderful all this year? It's only—" she hesitated—"I suppose it's life I'm afraid of," she confessed. "I never used to be. But—well, I learned in New York how helpless we are, sometimes."
Rodney's nod was understanding.
"I know," he robustly agreed. "But it's going to be absolutely all right. Be sure of that."
Epstein added his well-meaning but none too happily chosen bit.
"Laurie can't get into no scrape ve can't get him out of," he earnestly assured Laurie's sister.
Barbara laughed. A circle of new-comers was forming around them.
"We'll let it go at that," she said, and extended a hand to each man. "Good-by. I won't try to thank you. But—God bless you both!"
Under the influence of this final benediction, Epstein waddled over to the corner where Warren, very pale, and Louise Ordway, very much bored, stood surrounded by a group that included Sonya Orleneff. Firmly detaching the bridegroom from this congenial assemblage, Epstein led him to one side.
"Varren," he said solemnly, "I got to congratulate you all over again. You got von voman in a million—No, you got von voman in eighty million!"
Warren laughed, rather shakily. Over the heads of the crowd his eyes caught his wife's and held them for an instant.
"Make it a million million," he suggested joyously, and led Epstein to the supper room.
Laurie was there with Bangs and a group of friends, who, having patronized young Devon a year ago, were endeavoring to wipe out the memory of this indiscretion by an excess of friendly attention. Laurie's brilliant eyes, filled with the excited glitter they had taken on to-night, saw through the attempt and the situation. Both amused him. In his clubs, or anywhere but here, he might have indulged himself to the extent of having a little fun with these people. But not in his own home, while he was acting as host at his sister's wedding. Here his manner was perfect, though colored by the exhilaration of his mood.
"No," Warren and Epstein heard him say to Mrs. Lytton and Mrs. Renway, "there's nothing I'd like better than to come, thank you. But I'm going back to New York to-morrow. You see," he added, "this business of marrying off a sister, and attending to all the details and seeing that she conducts herself properly as long as she's in my care, is a bit of a strain. I've got to get back to town and recuperate."
"I suppose you will rest your mind by writing another play?" gushed Mrs. Renway.
Laurie shook his black head.
"Not a bit of it!" he asserted. "Don't even suggest such a thing before Epstein, there. It sounds abhorrently like work."
Mrs. Renway's curiosity had a brief and losing struggle with her good breeding.
"Then what are you going to do?" she demanded coquettishly.
The young man pondered, as if considering the question for the first time.
"Well," he said at last, "between you and me, I'm going in for adventure. I intend to devote the next four months to discovering how much excitement a worthy youth can crowd into his life if he makes a business of going after the gay bird of adventure, and finding it, and putting salt on its tail!"
The puzzled countenance of Mrs. Renway cleared.
"Oh, I see," she said brightly, "you're joking."
Laurie smiled and turned to greet a late guest who had come up behind him. In the little group that had overheard him, three pairs of eyes met in startled glances.
"Humph!" said Warren. "Hear that?"
"Nice prospect for us!" muttered Rodney Bangs.
Jacob Epstein looked harassed. A little later he joined the throng in the main hall, and watched the showers of rice fall harmlessly from the polished sides of Barbara's limousine as the bride and groom were whirled away from the brilliant entrance of Devon House.
"She's gone," he said to Bangs as the two men turned and reentered the still crowded yet suddenly empty house. And he added solemnly, "Believe me, Bangs, on that job she left us you an' me 've got our hands full!"
RODNEY LOSES A BATTLE
Rodney Bangs, author of "The Black Pearl" and co-author of "The Man Above," was annoyed. When Mr. Bangs was annoyed he usually betrayed the fact, for his was an open nature.
He was betraying it now. His clear, red-brown eyes were clouded. The healthy pink of his youthful cheeks had deepened to an unbecoming flush. His wide, engaging grin, the grin of a friendly bulldog, was lacking, and his lips were set tight. Even his burnished red pomadour added to the general pugnaciousness of his appearance. Standing up at its most aggressive angle, it seemed to challenge the world.
Sitting on a low chair in the dressing-room of the bachelor apartment he and Laurence Devon occupied together, Rodney drew on a shoe and stamped his foot down into it with an emphasis that shook the floor. Devon, fastening his tie before the full-length mirror set in the door leading to their common bath-room, started at the sound, like a high-strung prima donna. This was one of Laurie's temperamental mornings.
"What the devil's the matter with you, Bangs?" he demanded, but without ill humor. "Can't you get on a shoe without imitating the recoil of a seventy-five centimeter gun?"
Bangs grunted, drew on the other shoe, and drove his foot into it with increased energy. Laurie looked at him, and this time there was a spark in his black eyes. Very quietly he turned, crossed the small room, and, planting himself in front of his chum, resentfully stared down at the dynamic youth.
"What's the idea?" he demanded. "Are you deliberately trying to be annoying?"
Rodney did not raise his head. His fingers were busy with a complicated knot.
"Oh, shut up!" he muttered.
Laurie, his hands in his pockets, remained where he was. Under his continued inspection, the fingers of Bangs grew clumsy. He fumbled with the knot, and, having unfastened it, prolonged to the utmost the process of lacing his shoes. He knew what must come as soon as he settled back in his chair. It had been coming for days. He was in for an unpleasant ten minutes. But the situation was one he had deliberately created as the only possible way of bringing about a serious talk with his friend. Now that it was here, he was anxious to make the most of it. With head bent and thoughts busy he played for time.
At last, the shoes laced and his campaign mapped out, he sat up and met Laurie's eyes. Their expression of antagonism, temporary though he knew it to be, hurt him. Devon, when he had his own way, and he usually had it, was a singularly sweet-tempered chap. Never before, throughout their year of close association, had he looked at Bangs like that. Rodney knew that he deserved the look. For days past he had deliberately subjected his companion to a series of annoyances, small but intensely irritating.
"Well?" demanded Laurie. "What's the answer?"
"What answer?" Rodney was in the position of a small boy challenged to combat in cold blood. He was experiencing some difficulty in working himself up to the necessary heat for an engagement. But Laurie's next words helped him out.
"You've been making a damned nuisance of yourself for the last week," he said deliberately. "I want to know why."
Bangs squared his stocky shoulders and rose to his feet. His brown eyes were below the level of his chum's black ones, but the two glances met sharply and a flash passed between them. Under the force of his rising excitement the voice of Rodney shook.
"The reason I've been a damned nuisance," he said curtly, "is because you've been acting like an infernal fool, and I'm sick of it."
Laurie's lips tightened, but the other rushed on without giving him a chance to reply. The moment was his. He must crowd into it all he had not dared to say before and might not be given a chance to say again.
"Oh, I know what you'll say!" he cried. "It's none of my business, and you're your own master, and all that sort of rot. And I know you're not drinking, and God knows I'm not ass enough to take on any high moral tone and try to preach to you, whatever you do. What gets my goat, Devon, and the only thing I'm worrying about, is this damnable waste of your time and mine."
Laurie grinned, and the grin infuriated Bangs. He whirled away from it. A footstool impeded his progress, and he kicked it out of his way with large abandon. It was his habit to rush about a room when he was talking excitedly. He rushed about now; and Laurie lit a cigarette and watched him, at first angrily, then with a growing tolerance born of memories of scenes in their plays which Bangs had threshed out in much this same manner. The world could never be wholly uninteresting while Rodney pranced about in it, cutting the air with gestures like that.
"Here I am," snapped Rodney, "ready with my play, the best plot I've had yet. You won't let me even mention it to you. Here's the new season. Here's Epstein, sitting on our door-mat with a check-book in each hand, waiting to put on anything we give him. You know he's lost a small fortune this fall. You know it's up to us to give him a play that will pull him out of the hole he's in. Here's Haxon, the best director in town, marking time and holding off other managers in the hope that you and I will get down to business. And here you are, the fellow we're all counting on—" He stopped for breath and adjectives.
"Yes," Laurie politely prompted him. "Here I am. What about it? What am I doing?"
"You know damned well what you're doing. You're loafing!" Bangs fired the word at him as if it were a shell from a Big Bertha. "You're loafing till it makes us all sick to look at you. We thought a week or two of it would be enough, when you realized the conditions; but it's gone on for a month; and, instead of getting tired, you're getting more and more into the loafing habit. You abuse time till it shrieks in agony."
"Good sentence," applauded Laurie. "But don't waste it on me. Put it into a play."
Bangs seemed not to hear him. He was standing by the room's one window, now, staring unseeingly out of it, his hands deep in his pockets, taking in the knowledge of the failure of his appeal. Under the realization of this he tossed a final taunt at his partner over his shoulder.
"I can forgive the big blunders a man makes in his life," he muttered; "but, by God, I haven't much patience with a chap that lies around and shirks at a time like this!"
Laurie removed the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth, and not finding an ash tray within reach, carefully crushed out its burning end against the polished top of the dressing-case. He had grown rather pale.
"That will be about all, Bangs," he said quietly. "What you and Epstein and Haxon don't seem to remember is just one thing. If you don't like matters as they are, it's mighty easy to change them. It doesn't take half a minute to agree to dissolve a partnership."
"I know." Bangs returned to his chair, and, dropping limply into it, his hands still in his pockets, stared despondently at his outstretched legs. "That's all it means to you," he went on, morosely. "Our partnership is one in a thousand. It's based on friendship as well as on financial interest. If I do say it, it represents a combination of brains, ability, backing, and prospects that comes only once in a lifetime, if it comes at all. Yet in one year you're sick of it, and tired of work. You're ready to throw it all over, and to throw over at the same time the men whose interests are bound up with yours. You're dawdling in cabarets and roadhouses and restaurants, when you might be doing Work—" Bangs's voice capitalized the word—"real work," he added fiercely, "work other fellows would give their souls to be able to do."
He ended on a flat note, oddly unlike his usual buoyant tones, and sat still as if everything had been said.
Laurie lit a fresh cigarette, drew in a mouthful of smoke, and exhaled it in a series of pretty rings. In his brief college experience he had devoted some time to acquiring this art. Admiringly watching the little rings pass through the big rings, he spoke with studied carelessness.
"It was a pretty good scene, Bangs," he said, "and it showed careful rehearsing. But it would be a lot more effective if you had a real situation to base it on. As it is, you're making a devil of a row about nothing. I worked like a horse all last year, and you know it. Now I'm resting, or loafing, if you prefer to call it that, and"—he bit off the words and fairly threw them at his friend—"it will save you and Epstein and Haxon a lot of mental wear and tear if you will mind your own business and let me alone."
Bangs raised his eyes and dropped them again.
"You are our business," he somberly reminded his partner. "I've got so I can't work without you," he added, with a humility new to him. "You know that. And you know I've got the plot. It's ready—great Scott, it's boiling in me! I'm crazy to get it out. And here I've got to sit around watching you kill time, while you know and I know that you'd be a damn sight happier if you were on the job. Good Lord, Laurie, work's the biggest thing there is in life! Doesn't it mean anything at all to you?"
"Not just now." Laurie spoke with maddening nonchalance.
"Then there's something rotten in you."
Laurie winced, but made no answer. He hoped Bangs would go on talking and thus destroy the echo of his last words, with which the silent room seemed filled. But nothing came. Rodney's opportunity had passed, and he was lost in depressed realization of its failure. Laurie strolled back to the mirror, his forgotten tie dangling in his hand.
"We'll let it go at that," he said then. "Think things over, and make up your mind what you want to do about the contract."
Bangs replied in the same flat notes he had used a moment before, and without changing his position; but the two words gave Laurie a shock. He did not believe that either Rodney or Epstein would contemplate a dissolution of their existing partnership; but an hour ago he would not have believed that Rodney Bangs could say to him the things he had said just now.
He was beginning to realize that he had tried his partners sorely in the month that had passed since his return to town; and all for what? He himself had brought out of the foolish experience nothing save a tired nervous system, a sense of boredom such as he had not known for a year, and, especially when he looked at Bangs, an acute mental discomfort which introspective persons would probably have diagnosed as the pangs of conscience. Laurie did not take the trouble to diagnose it. He merely resented it as a grievance added to the supreme grievance based on the fact that he had not yet even started on the high adventure he had promised himself.
He was gloomily considering both grievances, and tying his tie with his usual care, when something in the mirror caught and held his attention. He looked at it, at first casually, then with growing interest. In the glass, directly facing him, was a wide studio window. It was open, notwithstanding the cold January weather, and a comfortable, middle-aged, plump woman, evidently a superior type of caretaker, was sitting on the sill, polishing an inner pane. The scene was as vivid as a mirage, and it was like the mirage in that it was projected from some point which itself remained unseen.
Laurie turned to the one window the dressing-room afforded—a double French window, at his right, but a little behind him, and reaching to the floor. Through this he could see across a court the opposite side of his own building, but no such window or commonplace vision as had just come to him. In his absorption in the phenomenon he called to Bangs, who rose slowly, and, coming to his side, regarded the scene without much interest.
"It's a cross projection from a house diagonally opposite us," he said, after studying the picture a moment. "It must be that old red studio building on the southwest corner of the square. If we had a room back of this and looking toward the west, we could see the real window."
"As it is," said Laurie, "we've got a reserved seat for an intimate study of any one who lives there. I wonder who has that studio?"
Bangs had no idea. He was grateful to the little episode, however, for spreading over the yielding ground beneath his feet the solid strip on which he had crossed back to his chum. He threw an arm across Laurie's shoulders and looked into his face, with something in his expression that reminded young Devon of a favorite collie he had loved and lost in boyhood.
"All right now?" the look asked, just as the dog's look had asked it of the little chap of ten, when something had gone wrong. Rodney's creed of life was held together by a few primitive laws, the first of which was loyalty. Already he was reproaching himself for what he had said and done. Laurie carefully completed the tying of his tie, and turned to him with his gayest smile.
"Hurry up and finish dressing," he cheerfully suggested, "and we'll go out to breakfast. Since you insist on waiting 'round for me like Mary's little lamb, I suppose I've got to feed you."
Rodney's wide grin responded, for the first time in many days. He bustled about, completing his toilet, and ten minutes later the two young men started out together with a lightness of spirit which each enjoyed and neither wholly understood. Both had a healthy horror of "sentimental stuff" and a gay, normal disregard of each other's feelings in ordinary intercourse. But in the past half-hour, for the first time in their association, they had come close to a serious break, and the soul of each had been chilled by a premonitory loneliness as definite as the touch of an icy finger. In the quick reaction they experienced now their spirits soared exultantly. They breakfasted in a fellowship such as they had not known since Barbara's marriage, the month before.
If Bangs had indulged in any dream of a change of life in Laurie, however, following this reconciliation, the next few days destroyed the tender shoots of that hope. Laurie's manner retained its pleasant camaraderie, but work and he met as strangers and passed each other by. The routine of his days remained what they had been during the past five weeks. He gadded about, apparently harmlessly, came home at shocking hours, and spent most of the bracing January days wrapped in a healthful slumber that infuriated Bangs, who wandered in and out of their apartment like an unhappy ghost. On the rare occasions when he and Rodney lunched or dined together, Laurie was entirely good-humored and when Epstein was with them seemed wholly impervious to any hints thrown out, none too subtly, by his producing partner.
"Listen, Laurie," said that disgusted individual, almost a month after the new year had been ushered in, "the new year's here. That's a good time for a young fella to get busy again on somethin' vorth while. Ain't I right?"
Laurie suppressed a yawn and carefully struck off with his little finger the firm ash of an excellent cigarette. He was consuming thirty or forty cigarettes a day, and his nerves were beginning to show the effect of this indulgence.
"I believe it is," he courteously agreed. "It has been earnestly recommended to the young as a good time to start something."
"Vell," Epstein's voice took on the guttural notes of his temperamental moments, "don't that mean nothin' to you?"
Laurie grinned. He had caught the quick look of warning Bangs shot at the producer and it amused him.
"Not yet," he said. "Not till I've had my adventure."
"The greatest adventure in life," he stated dogmatically, "is to make a lot of money. I tell you vy. Because then you got all the other adventures you can handle, trying to hold on to it!"
Bangs, who was developing a new and hitherto unsuspected vein of tact, encouraged Epstein to enlarge on this congenial theme. He now fully realized that Devon would go his own gait until he wearied of it, and that no argument or persuasion could enter his armor-clad mind. The position of Bangs was a difficult one, for while he was accepting and assimilating this unpleasant fact, Epstein and Haxon—impatient men by temperament and without much training in self-control—were getting wholly out of patience and therefore out of hand. Haxon, indeed, was for the time entirely out of hand, for he had finally started the rehearsals of a new play which, he grimly informed Bangs, would make "The Man Above" look like a canceled postage-stamp.
Bangs repeated the comment to his chum the next morning, during the late dressing-hour which now gave them almost their only opportunity for a few words together. He had hoped it would make an impression, and he listened with pleasure to a sharp exclamation from Laurie, who chanced to be standing before the door mirror in the dressing-room, brushing his hair. The next instant Bangs realized that it was not his news which had evoked the tribute of that exclamation.
"Come here!" called Laurie, urgently. "Here's something new; and, by Jove, isn't she a beauty!"
Bangs interrupted his toilet to lounge across the room. Looking over Laurie's shoulder, his eyes found the cynosure that held the gaze of his friend. The wide-open studio window was again reflected in the mirror, but with another occupant.
This was a girl, young and lovely. She appeared in the window like a half-length photograph in a frame. Her body showed only from above the waist. Her elbows were on the sill. Her chin rested in the hollows of her cupped hands. Her wavy hair, parted on one side and drawn softly over the ears in the fashion of the season, was reddish-gold. Her eyes were brown, and very thoughtful. Down-dropped, they seemed to stare at something on the street below, but the girl's expression was not that of one who was looking at an object with interest. Instead, she seemed lost in a deep and melancholy abstraction.
Laurie, a hair-brush in each hand, stared hard at the picture.
"Isn't she charming!" he cried again.
Bangs's reply revealed a severely practical side of his nature.
"She'll have a beastly cold in the head if she doesn't shut that window," he grumpily suggested. But his interest, too, was aroused. He stared at the girl in the mirror with an attention almost equal to Laurie's.
As they looked, she suddenly stirred and moved backward, as if occultly warned of their survey. They saw her close the window, and, drawing a chair close to it, sit down and stare out through the pane, still with that intent, impersonal expression. Bangs strolled back to the dressing-case and resumed his interrupted toilet. Laurie, fumbling vaguely with his brushes, kept his eyes on the girl in the mirror.
"Do you suppose we could see her if we went out on the street?" he asked, suddenly.
"Her? Oh, you mean that girl?" With difficulty Bangs recalled his thoughts from Haxon's new play. "No, I don't think so," he decided. "You see, we're up on the tenth floor, so she must be fairly high up, too."
"She's a wonder." Laurie was still gazing into the mirror. "Prettiest girl I've ever seen, I think," he reflected aloud.
"She's probably a peroxide," he said. "Even if she isn't, she can't hold a candle to your sister."
"Oh, Barbara—" Laurie considered the question of Barbara's beauty as if it were new to him. "Babs is good-looking," he handsomely conceded. "But there's something about this girl that's unusual. Perhaps it's her expression. She doesn't look happy."
Bangs sighed with ostentation.
"If you want to study some one that isn't happy, look at me," he invited warmly. "If that play of mine isn't out of me pretty soon, I'll have to have an operation!"
Laurie made no reply to this pathetic prediction, and Bangs sadly shook his head and concluded his toilet, meditating gloomily the while on the unpleasant idiosyncrasies of every one he knew. To see Devon turn suddenly into a loafer upset all his theories as well as all his plans.
Laurie, for some reason, dawdled more than usual that morning. It was after eleven before he went to breakfast. An hour earlier Bangs departed alone for their pet restaurant.
The girl in the mirror remained at her window for a long time, and Laurie watched her in growing fascination. It was not until she rose and disappeared that he felt moved to consider so sordid a question as that of food.
He joined Bangs just as that youth was finishing his after-breakfast cigar. Even under its soothing influence, he was in the mood of combined exasperation and depression with which his friends were becoming familiar.
"If we had begun work as soon as we got back to town after your sister's wedding," he told Laurie, "we'd have had two acts ready by now, in the rough."
"No reason why you shouldn't have four acts ready, so far as I can see," murmured Laurie, cheerfully attacking his grape-fruit. "All you've got to do is to write 'em."
Bangs's lips set.
"Not till I've talked 'em over with you and got your ideas," he declared, positively. "If you'd just let me give you an outline—"
Laurie set down his cup.
"Do I get my breakfast in peace, or don't I?" he demanded, coldly.
"You do, confound you!"
Bangs bit off the end of a fresh cigar and smoked it in stolid silence. He was a person of one idea. If he couldn't talk about the play, he couldn't talk at all. He meditated, considering his characters, his situations, his partner's and his own position, in a mental jumble that had lately become habitual and which was seriously affecting his nerves. Laurie, as he ate, chatted cheerfully and at random, apparently avoiding with care any subject that might interest his partner. Bangs rose abruptly.
"Well, I'm off," he said. "See you at dinner time, I suppose."
But Laurie, it appeared, had engagements. He was taking a party of friends out to Gedney Farms that evening, in his new car, and they might decide to stay there for a day or two. Also, though he did not confide this fact to Bangs, he had an engagement for the afternoon, at a place where the card rooms were quiet and elegant and the stakes high.
He had been there half a dozen times, and had played each time. He had been able to keep himself in hand. In fact, a great part of the fascination of the game now lay in the study of its effect on himself and its test of his new-born will power. Thus far, he had played exactly as much as he had planned to play, and had secretly exulted in the fact. What he intended, he told himself, was to learn to do things in moderation; neither to fear them nor to let them master him.
The attraction of these diversions filled his mind. He quite forgot the girl in the mirror, and it was no thought of her that drew him back to New York that night. The plans of his guests had changed, that was all. The change brought him home at eleven o'clock. Bangs was in his own room, finding in sleep a wall of unconsciouness that separated him from his troubles. Laurie decided upon the novel pleasure of a long night of slumber for himself.
He fell asleep with surprising ease, and immediately, as it seemed, he saw the girl in the mirror. She was walking toward him, through what appeared to be a heavy fog. Her hands were outstretched to him, and he hurried to meet her; but even as he did so the fog closed down and he lost her, though he seemed to hear her voice, calling him from somewhere far away.
He awoke late in the morning with every detail of the dream vivid in his mind, so vivid, indeed, that when he approached the mirror after his morning plunge, it seemed almost a continuation of the dream to find the girl there.
He stopped short with a chuckle. The curtains of his French window were drawn apart, and in the mirror he saw the reflection of the girl as she stood in profile near her own uncurtained window and slowly dressed her hair.
It was wonderful hair, much more wonderful down than up. Laurie, who had a sophisticated notion that most of the hair on the heads of girls he knew had been purchased as removable curls and "transformations," stared with pleasure at the red-gold mass that fell down over the girl's white garment. Then, with a little shock, he realized that the white garment was a nightdress. It was evident that, high in her lonely room, the girl thought herself safe from observation and was quietly making her toilet for the morning.
Well, she should be safe. With a quick jerk, Laurie drew together the heavy curtains that hung at the sides of the long window. Then, smiling a little, he slowly dressed. His thoughts dwelt on the girl. It was odd that she should be literally projected into his life in that unusual fashion. He had never had any such experience before, nor had he heard of one just like it. It was unique and pleasant. It was especially pleasant to have her so young and so charming to look at. She might have been a disheveled art student, given to weird color effects, or an austere schoolma'am, or some plump and matter-of-fact person who set milk bottles on the sill and spread wet handkerchiefs to dry on the window-panes. As it was, all that disturbed him was her expression. He wished he knew her name and something more about her. His thoughts were full of her.
Before he left the room he parted the curtains again to open the window wide, following his usual program. As he did so he glanced into his mirror. He saw her open window, but it was lifeless. Only his own disappointed face confronted him.
LAURIE MEETS MISS MAYO
Laurie thought much that day about the girl in the mirror, and he was again home at eleven that night, to the wonder of Mr. Bangs, who freely expressed his surprise.
"Something pleasant been coming your way?" he tactfully asked.
Laurie evaded the question, but he felt that something definitely pleasant had come his way. This something was a new interest, and he had needed a new interest very much. He hoped he would dream of the girl that night, but as he and Bangs unwisely consumed a Welsh rabbit before they went to bed, he dreamed instead of something highly unpleasant, and was glad to be awakened by the clear sunlight of a brilliant January day.
After breakfast he strolled across the square into the somber hall of the studio building on its southwest corner. The hall was empty, but he found and rang a bell at the entrance of a dingy elevator shaft. The elevator descended without haste. When it had reached the floor, the colored youth in charge of it inhospitably filled its doorway and regarded the visitor with indifference. This young man was easy to look at, but he was no one he knew.
Laurie handed him a dollar and the youth's expression changed, first to one of surprise, then to the tolerance of a man who is wise and is willing to share his wisdom. The visitor went at once to the point of his visit.
"A young lady lives here," he began. "She is very pretty, and she has reddish hair and brown eyes. She has a studio in one of the upper floors, at the front of the house. What's her name?"
The boy's face showed that he had instantly recognized the description, but he pondered dramatically.
"Dat young lady?" he then said. "Dat young lady mus' be Miss Mayo, in Twenty-nine, on de top flo'. She jes' moved in here las' Tuesday."
"Where does she come from, and what does she do?"
The boy hesitated. What did all this mean? And was he giving up too much for a dollar? Laurie grinned at him understandingly.
"I don't know her," he admitted, "and I don't expect to. I'd like to know something about her—that's all."
The youth nodded. He had the air of accepting an apology.
"I reckon she come fum some fur'n place. But I dunno what she do," he reluctantly admitted. "Mebbe she ain't doin' nothin' yit. She's home mos' de time. She don' go out hardly 'tall. Seems like she don' know many folks."
He seemed about to say more, but stopped. For a moment he obviously hesitated, then blurted out what he had in mind.
"One t'ing got me guessin'," he muttered doubtfully. "Dat young lady, she don' seem t' eat nothin'!"
"What do you mean?" Laurie stared at him.
The boy shuffled his feet. He was on uncertain ground.
"Why, jes' what I said," he muttered, defensively. "Folkses here either eats in or dey eats out. Ef dey eats in, dey has stuff sent in—rolls an' eggs an' milk and' stuff like dat. Ef dey eats out, dey goes out, reg'lar, to meals. But Miss Mayo she don' seem to eat in or out. Nothin' comes in, an' she don' go out 'nough to eat reg'lar. I bin studyin' 'bout it consider'ble," he ended; and he looked unmistakably relieved, as if he had passed on to another a burden that was too heavy to carry alone.
Laurie hesitated. The situation was presenting a new angle and a wholly unexpected one. It began to look as if he had come on a sentimental errand and had stumbled on a tragedy. Certainly he had blundered into the private affairs of a lady, and was even discussing these affairs with an employee in the building where she lived. That thought was unpleasant. Yet the boy's interest was clearly friendly, and the visitor himself had invited revelations about the new lodger. Still, not such revelations as these! He frankly did not know what to make of them or how to act.
There was a chance that the boy might be all wrong in his inferences, although this chance, Laurie mentally admitted, was slight. He knew the shrewdness of this youth's type, the precocious knowledge of human nature that often accompanies such training and environment as he had had. Probably he suspected even more than he had revealed. Something must be done.
Laurie drew a bill from his pocket
"How soon can you leave the elevator?" he asked.
"'Bout one o'clock."
"All right. Now here's what I want you to do. Take this money, go over to the Clarence restaurant, and buy a good lunch for that lady. Get some hot chicken or chops, buttered rolls, vegetables, and a bottle of milk. Have it packed nicely in a box. Have them put in some fresh eggs and extra rolls and butter for her breakfast. Deliver the box at her door as if it came from some one outside. Do that and keep the change. Understand?"
"Yaas, sah!" The boy's eyes and teeth were shining.
"All right. Go to it. I'll drop in later this afternoon for your report."
Laurie turned and walked away. Even yet the experience did not seem real. It was probably all based on some foolish notion of the youth's; and yet he dared not assume that it was a foolish notion. He had the dramatist's distaste for drama anywhere except in its legitimate place, on the stage; but he admitted that sometimes it did occur in life. This might be one of those rare occasions.
Whatever it was, it haunted him. He lunched with Bangs that day, and was so silent that Bangs was moved to comment.
"If you were any one else," he remarked, "I'd almost think you were thinking!"
Laurie disclaimed the charge, but his abstraction did not lift. By this time his imagination was hard at work. He pictured the girl in the mirror as stretched on her virginal cot in the final exhaustion of starvation; and the successful effort to keep away from the studio building till four o'clock called for all his will power. Suppose the boy blundered, or wasn't in time. Suppose the girl really had not eaten anything since last Tuesday! These thoughts, and similar ones, obsessed him.
At four he strolled into the studio hall, wearing what he hoped was a detached and casual air. To his annoyance, the elevator and its operator were lost in the dimness of the upper stories, and before they descended several objectionable persons had joined Laurie, evidently expecting to be taken to upper floors themselves. This meant a delay in his tete-a-tete with the boy, and Laurie turned upon the person nearest him, an inoffensive spinster, a look of such intense resentment that it haunted that lady for several days.
When the elevator finally appeared, he entered it with the others who were waiting. He looked aloofly past the elevator boy as he did so, and that young person showed himself equal to the situation by presenting to this new-comer a stolid ebony profile. But when the lift had reached the top floor and discharged its passengers, the two conspirators lent themselves to the drama of their roles.
"Well?" asked Laurie eagerly. "Did you get it?"
The boy stopped his descending car midway between two floors. He had no intention of having his scene spoiled. He bulged visibly under the news he had to impart. "I got de stuff you said, and I lef' it at dat young lady's do'," he began impressively.
"When I looked de nex' time, it was gone."
"Good! She had taken it in." Laurie drew a breath of relief.
"No, sah. Dat ain't all." The boy's tone dripped evil tidings. "She brung it back!"
"What!" His passenger was staring at him in concern.
"Yaas, sah. De bell rung fum her flo', an' when I got up de young lady was standin' dere wid dat basket in her hand."
He paused to give Laurie the effect of the tableau, and saw by his visitor's expression that he had got it fully.
"Yes? Go on!"
"She look at me mighty sharp. She got brown eyes dat look right thoo you," he interpolated briskly. "Den she say, 'Sam, who done lef' dat basket at my do'?' I say, 'I done it, miss. It was lef' in de hall, an' de ca'd got yo' name on it. Ain't you order it?' I say.
"'No,' she say, 'dis yere basket ain't fo' me. Take it, an' ef you cain't find out who belong to it, eat dis yere lunch yo'self.'"
He paused. Laurie's stunned silence was a sufficient tribute to his eloquence, but Sam had not yet reached his climax. He introduced it now, with fine effect.
"Bimeby," he went on unctuously, "I took dat basket back to her. I say, 'Miss Mayo,' I say, 'I done foun' out 'bout dat basket. 'T was lef' by a lady artis' here what got a tergram an' went away sudden. She want dat food et, so she sent it to you.'"
Laurie regarded him with admiration.
"That was pretty good for extemporaneous lying," he commented. "I suppose you can do even better when you take more time to it. What did the lady say?"
Sam shook a mournful head.
"She jes' look at me, an' she kinda smile, an' den she say, 'Sam, dis yere basket 'noys me. Ef de lady wants it et, Sam, you eat it yo'self." He paused. "I et it," he ended, solemnly.
Laurie's lips twitched under conflicting emotions, but he closed the interview with a fair imitation of indifference.
"Oh, well," he said carelessly, "you must have been mistaken about the whole thing. Evidently Miss Mayo, if that's her name, wasn't as hungry as you were."
The boy nodded and started the car on its downward journey. As his passenger got off on the ground floor, he gave him a new thought to carry away with him.
"She'd bin cryin', dough," he muttered. "Her eyes was all red."
Laurie stopped and regarded him resentfully.
"Confound you!" he said, "What did you tell me that for? I can't do anything about it!"
The boy agreed, hurriedly. "No, sah," he assured him. "You cain't. I cain't, neither. None of us cain't," he added as an afterthought.
Laurie slowly walked away. His thoughts scampered around and around, like squirrels in a cage. The return of the basket, of course, might mean either of two conditions—that the girl was too proud to accept help, or that she was really in no need of it. Laurie had met a few art students. He knew that, hungry or not, almost any one of them would cheerfully have taken in that basket and consumed its contents. He had built on that knowledge in providing it. If the girl had taken it in, the fact would have proved nothing. Her refusal to touch it was suspicious. It swung the weight of evidence toward the elevator boy's starvation theory.
Laurie's thoughts returned to that imaginative youth. He saw him consuming the girl's luncheon, and a new suspicion crossed his mind. Perhaps the whole business was a bit of graft. But his intelligence rejected that suggestion. If this had been the explanation, the boy would not have concluded the episode so briskly. He had got the strange young man where he might have "kept him going" for days and made a good income in the process. As it was, there seemed nothing more to do. And yet—and yet—how the deuce could one let the thing drop like that? If the girl was really in straits—
Thus the subconscious argument went on and on. It worried Laurie. He was not used to such violent mental exercise. Least of all was he in the habit of disturbing himself about the affairs of others. But this affair was different. The girl was so pretty! Also, he had recurrent visions of his sister Barbara in the position of his mysterious neighbor. Barbara might easily have gone through such an experience during last year's test in New York. In that same experiment Laurie himself had learned how slender is the plank that separates one from the abyss that lies beneath the world's workers.
He dined alone that night and it was well he did so. His lack of appetite would certainly have attracted the attention of Bangs or any other fellow diner, and Bangs would as certainly have commented upon it. Also, he passed a restless night, troubled by vaguely depressing dreams. The girl was in them, but everything was as hopelessly confused as his daytime mental processes had been.
The next morning he deliberately kept away from the mirror until he was fully dressed, but he dressed with a feeling of tenseness and urgency he would have found it difficult to explain. He only knew that to-day he meant to do something definite, something that would settle once for all the question that filled his mind. But what could he do? That little point was still unsettled. Knock at the girl's door, pretend that it was a blunder, and trust to inspiration to discover in the brief encounter if anything was wrong? Or put money in an envelop and push it under her door? If he did that, she would probably give the money to Sam, as she had given him the food.
What to do? Laurie proceeded with his toilet, using the dressing-case and carefully avoiding the long mirror. He experienced an odd unwillingness to look into that mirror this morning, based partly on delicacy—he remembered the nightdress—but more on the fear of disappointment. If he saw her, it would be an immense relief. If he didn't, he'd fancy all sorts of things, for now his imagination was running away with him.
When he was fully dressed he crossed the room in three strides and stopped before the mirror with a suddenness that checked him half-way in the fourth.
Miss Mayo's window was open. He could see that. He could see more than that, and what he saw sent him rushing through the study and out into the hall of the big apartment building, where he furiously rang the elevator bell. He had not stopped for his hat and coat, but he had caught a vision of Bangs's astonished face and half of his startled exclamation, "What the dev—"
The elevator came and Laurie leaped into it.
"Down," he said briefly.
The operator was on his way up to the twelfth floor, but something in the expression of his passenger made him change his plans. Also it accelerated his movements. The car descended briskly to the ground floor, from which point the operator was privileged to watch the progress of the temperamental Mr. Devon, who had plunged through the main entrance of the building and across the square without a word to the hall attendants, or a backward glance.
As he reached the studio building Laurie recalled himself to a memory of the conventions. He entered without undue haste, and sought the door of the waiting lift. It was noon, and an operator he had not seen before was on duty.
"Top floor," directed Laurie, and stepped into the car. The operator hesitated. He did not remember this tenant, but he must belong to the house, as he wore no hat or coat. Probably he was a new-comer, and had run down-stairs to mail an important letter, as the old building held no mail-chute. While these reflections passed slowly through his mind, his car rose as slowly. To the mentally fuming young man at his side its progress was intolerably deliberate. He held himself in, however, and even went through the pantomime of pausing in the top-floor hall to search a pocket as if for a latch-key.
Satisfied, the attendant started the elevator on its descent, and as it sank from sight Laurie looked around him for Number Twenty-nine. He discovered it in an eye-flash, on the door at the right. The next instant he had reached this door and was softly turning the knob.
The door did not yield. He had not expected it to give, and he knew exactly what he meant to do. He stepped back a few feet, then with a rush hurled his shoulder against the wood with the full force of his foot-ball training in the effort. The lock yielded, and under the force of his own momentum the visitor shot into the room. Then, recovering his equilibrium, he pushed the door into place and stood with his back against it, breathing heavily and feeling rather foolish.
He was staring at the girl before him, who had risen at his entrance. Her expression was so full of astonished resentment, and so lacking in any other emotion, that for a sickening moment he believed he had made an idiot of himself, that he had not really seen what he thought he had seen in the glass. A small table separated him from the girl. Still staring at her, in the long seconds that elapsed before either spoke, he saw that she had swept her right hand behind her back, in a swift, instinctive effort to hide what it held. His self-possession returned. He had not been mistaken. He smiled at her apologetically.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I'm afraid I frightened you."
"You did." She spoke tensely, the effect of overstrained nerves revealing itself in her low voice. "What do you mean by it? What are you doing here?"
Laurie's brilliant eyes were on hers as she spoke, and held them steadily. Under his expression, one that few had seen on his face, her look of antagonism softened a little. He advanced slowly to the table between them.
"It will take a few minutes to explain," he said. Then, as she waited, he suddenly formed his plan, and followed the good old Devon principle of going straight to the point.
"I live diagonally across the square," he said quietly, "and I can see into your window from one of mine. So it happened that just now I—I saw what you were going to do."
For an instant she stood very still, looking at him, as if not quite taking in the meaning of his words. In the next her face and even her neck crimsoned darkly as if under the rush of a wave of angry humiliation. When she spoke her voice shook.
"You forget," she said, "that you have no right either to look into my room or to interfere with what you see there."
"I know," he told her, humbly, "and I beg your pardon again. The looking in was an accident, the merest chance, which I will explain to you later. The interference—well, I won't apologize for that. Surely you realize that it's—friendly."
For the first time her eyes left his. She looked around the room as if uncertain what to do or say.
"Perhaps you mean it so," she muttered at last. "But I consider it—impertinent."
A change was taking place in her. The fire that had flamed up at his entrance was dying out, leaving her with the look of one who is cowed and almost beaten. Even her last words lacked assurance. Watching her in puzzled sympathy, Laurie for the first time wished himself older and wiser than he was. How could he handle a situation like this? Neither then nor later did he ask himself how he would have handled it on the stage.
For a moment the two young things gazed at each other, in helplessness and irresolution on his side, in resentful questioning on hers. Even in the high tension of the moment Laurie subconsciously took in the picture she made as she stood there, defying him, with her back to the wall of life.
She was very lovely, more lovely than in the mirror; for now he was getting the full effect of her splendid coloring, set off by the gown she wore, a thing of rich but somber shades, lit up by a semi-barbaric necklace of amber and gold, that hung almost to her knees.
Yes, the girl was a picture against the unforgetable background of that tragic situation. But what he admired most of all was the dignity that shone through her panic and her despair. She was up in arms against him. And yet, if he had not come, if that vision had not flashed into his mirror five minutes ago, she might now have been lying a huddled, lifeless thing on the very spot where she stood so proudly. At the thought his heart shook. The right words came to him at last.
"I've had—impulses—like yours," he said. "I've had them twice. Fortunately, both times there was some one around to talk me out of them." He had caught her attention. She showed that by the way she looked at him. "The argument that impressed me most," he went on, "was that it's quitting the game. You don't look as if you were a quitter," he ended, thoughtfully.
The girl's eyes blazed. He had aroused her once more, and he was glad of it. He didn't know at all what to do or say, but he dimly felt that almost any emotion in her would be better than the lethargy she had just revealed.
"I'm not a quitter!" she cried. "But I've got dignity enough to leave a place where I'm not wanted, even if that place happens to be the world. Go away!" she added fiercely. "Go away and leave me alone!"
Resting one hand on the table between them, he held out the other.
"Come, let me have that," he suggested, imperturbably. "Then we'll talk things over. I'll try to make you realize what I was made to realize myself—that we were both on the wrong track. I'll tell you what others think who are wiser than we are."
As she did not move, he added, more lightly: "You see, what we were going to do isn't done much nowadays. It's all out of date. Come," he repeated, gently, "let me have it."
With a movement of irritation the girl swept her hand forward and tossed on the table between them the small revolver she had been holding.
"Take it," she said, almost indifferently. And she added, "Another time will do as well."
He picked up the little weapon and put it into his pocket.
"There isn't going to be any other time," he predicted buoyantly. "Now, slip into a coat while I run across the street and get my hat and coat and order a taxicab. We're going out to luncheon, and to tell each other the stories of our lives, with all the grim and gory details."
"I don't know you," muttered the girl. She had dropped into a chair beside the table, and was sitting with her chin in her hand, in what seemed a characteristic attitude, watching him with an expression he could not analyze.
Laurie seemed surprised. "Why, so you don't!" he agreed. "But you're going to now. We're going to know each other awfully well before we get through. In the meantime, you can see by the merest glance at me how young and harmless I am. Where's the coat?"
He turned and began a vague, masculine search for it. The girl wavered. His rising spirits were contagious, and it was clear that she dreaded being left alone.
"I warn you," she said at last, "that if you have anything to do with me you will be sorry for it."
Laurie stopped his search, and, turning, gave her one of his straight looks.
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because I'm in a net," she said. "And every one who tries to help me gets caught in it, too. Oh, don't smile! You won't smile afterward."
He picked up a coat he discovered in a corner, and held it for her to slip into.
"I like nets," he remarked lightly, "especially if they're bright-colored, large, roomy, comfortable nets. We'll have some great times in ours. Come along."
She shrugged her shoulders, and in the gesture slipped into the garment.
"I'll go," she said, in a low voice. "But don't forget that I warned you!"
A PAIR OF GRAY EYES
On their way to the restaurant Laurie had selected he chatted to his companion in his buoyant, irresponsible fashion, but he had put through the details of the episode with tact and delicacy. He knew that in front of a club two doors away from the studio building a short line of taxicabs was always waiting, with the vast patience of their kind. A gesture brought one of these to the door, and when it had squawked its way around the corner, the girl remained in its shelter until Laurie had briefly reentered his own building and emerged again, wearing his coat and hat.
To the selection of the restaurant he gave careful thought. They drove to a quiet place where the food and service were excellent, while the prices were an effective barrier against a crowd. When he and his companion were seated on opposite sides of a table in an isolated corner, Laurie confided his order to the waiter, urged that willing individual to special haste, and smiled apologetically at the lady.
"I'm hungry," he said briskly. "I haven't had any breakfast this morning. Don't be surprised if I seem to absorb most of the nourishment in the place."
He studied her as he spoke. It was easy to do so, for she seemed almost to have forgotten him and her surroundings. She sat drooping forward a little in her pet attitude, with her elbows on the table, and her chin in her hand, staring through the window with the look he had seen in the mirror. The lethargy he dreaded again enveloped her like a garment.
His heart sank. Here was something more than the victim of a mad but temporary impulse. Here was a victim of a sick soul, or of a burden greater than she could bear, or perhaps of both. He decided that whatever her trouble might be, it was no new or passing thing. Every curve in her despondent figure, every line in her worn, lovely face, suggested a vast weariness of flesh and spirit. He had not seen those lines in the mirror, and he looked at them now with understanding and solemn eyes, as he had looked at the new lines in his sister's face when Barbara had been passing through the worst of her ordeal last year.
In this moment of realization he almost forgot the girl's beauty, though, indeed, it was not easy to forget. It seemed enhanced rather than dimmed by the haze of melancholy that hung over it, and certainly there was nothing dim in the superb red-gold coloring of her hair. Her eyes seemed red-gold, too, for they were reddish-brown with flecks of yellow light in them, quite wonderful eyes. He told himself that he had never seen any just like them. Certainly he had rarely seen anything to equal the somber misery of their expression. There was a remoteness in them which repelled sympathy, and which was intensified by the haughty curve of the girl's short upper lip. She was proud, proud as the devil, Laurie told himself. Again, and very humbly, he wondered how he was to handle a situation and a personality so outside his own experience. In truth, he was afraid. Though he did not know it, and perhaps would have vigorously denied it, Laurie still looked at women through stained-glass windows.
When the food came, her expression changed. She shot a quick look at him, a glance at once furtive and suspicious, which he saw but ignored. He had dismissed the waiter and was serving her himself. In the simple boyish friendliness of his manner she evidently found reassurance, for she suddenly sat up and began her breakfast.
Laurie exhaled the breath he had been holding. Up till the last moment he had feared that she might see through his subterfuge in taking her there, and even now refuse the food he offered. But if in that fleeting instant she felt doubt, it had died as it was born. She drank her coffee slowly and ate her eggs and toast as deliberately, but her characteristic air of intense preoccupation had departed. She looked at her companion as if she really saw him. Also, she apparently felt the stirring of some sense of obligation and need of response to this friendly stranger. She was answering him now, and once at least she almost smiled.
Watching the little twitch of her proud and perfect upper lip, Laurie felt his heart-beats quicken. She was a wonder, this girl; and with his delight in her beauty and her pride came another feeling, almost as new as his humility—an overwhelming sympathy for and a desire to help another.
These sentiments served as needed balance to his spirits, which, as always, mounted dangerously when he was interested. He held himself down with difficulty.
This was no time for the nonsense that he loved to talk. One doesn't rescue a lady from suicide and then try to divert her mind with innocent prattle. One gives her a decent time to pull herself together, and then, with tact and sympathy, one gets to the roots of her trouble, if one can, and helps to destroy them. Despite his limited experience with drama off the stage, Laurie knew this. Because he was very young and very much in earnest, and was talking to a young thing like himself, though in that hour she seemed so much older, he instinctively found the right way to approach the roots.
They had finished breakfast, and he had asked and received permission to smoke. When he had lighted his cigarette and exhaled his first satisfying puff of smoke, not in rings this time, he took the cigarette from his mouth, and with his eyes on its blazing end expressed his thought with stark simplicity.
"When we were over in your studio," he said, "I admitted that twice in my life I had tried to—make away with myself. Only two other persons in the world know that, but I'd like to tell you about it, if you don't mind."
She looked at him. There were strange things in the look, things that thrilled him, and other things he subconsciously resented, without understanding why. When she spoke there was a more personal note in her voice than it had yet held.
"You?" she asked; and she added almost lightly, "That seems absurd."
Laurie spoke with the new humility he had found only to-day.
"You think that because I'm so young I couldn't have been desperate enough for that. But—you're young, too."
He was looking straight at her as he spoke. Her eyes, a little hard and challenging, softened, then dropped.
"That's different," she muttered.
"I know the causes were different enough," he agreed. "But the feeling back of them, that pushes one up against such a proposition, must be pretty much the same sort of thing. Anyway, it makes me understand; and I consider that it gives me a claim on you, and the privilege of trying to help you."
Her eyes were still cast down, and suddenly she flushed, a strange, dark flush that looked out of place on the pure whiteness of her skin. She had the exaggerated but wholesome pallor of skin that often goes with reddish hair and red-brown eyes. It does not lend itself becomingly to flushes, and this deep flush lingered, an unwelcome visitor, throughout her muttered, almost ungracious words.
"Oh, please don't talk about it," she said, brusquely. "It's no use. I know you mean to be kind, but you can't do anything."
"Oh, but that's just where you're wrong." Laurie spoke with a cheerful assurance he did not feel. "If I hadn't been there myself, I'd talk all sorts of twaddle to you, and do more harm than good; and I'd probably let you go on thinking you were facing a trouble that no one could help. Instead of that, you and I are going to hold your bugaboo up to the light, and see just what it is and how small it is. And then—" he smiled at her—"we're going to get rid of it together."
She echoed his words, vaguely, as if not knowing quite what to say.
"Get rid of it?"
"Yes. Tell me what it is, and I'll show you how it can be downed."
She pushed back her chair, as if anxious to put a greater distance between them.
"No," she exclaimed, nervously, "it's impossible; I can't talk about it." Then, in an obvious effort to side-track the issue, "You said you wanted to tell me about your—experience."
"I do, but it isn't a nice story. Fortunately, it won't take long." He spoke reluctantly. It was not easy to hook two such memories out of the darkest pool of his life and hold them up to a stranger.
"Oh, I was a young idiot," he rushed on, "and I suppose I hadn't the proper start-off. At least I like to think there's some excuse for me. My father and mother died when I was in knickerbockers, and I grew up doing very much as I pleased. I—made a bad job of it. Before I was twenty-one I was expelled from college and I had worked up a pretty black reputation. Then I gambled and lost a lot of money I didn't have, and it began to look as if about the only safe place for me was the family vault.
"I made two efforts to get there. The first time a wise old doctor stopped me and never told any one about it. The second time one of my chums took a hand in the game. I don't know why they did it. I don't suppose either my pal or the doctor thought I was worth saving. But they talked to me like Dutch uncles, and my chum kept at it till I gave him my word that I'd never attempt anything of the sort again."