A STORY OF ADOLESCENCE
MY YOUNG BROTHER
WHO PLAYS THE GAME
"Another new novel?"
"What's it about?"
"A boy and a girl."
"A love story?"
"Well,—it's about a boy and a girl."
"Do they marry?"
"I said it was about a boy and a girl."
"And are they happy?"
"Well,—it's a love story."
"But all love stories aren't happy!"
"Yes they are,—if it's love."
SPRING IN THE WORLD
THE GREAT EMOTION
SPRING IN THE WORLD AND ALL THINGS FOR THE YOUNG
Birds called. Breezes played among branches just bursting into green. Daffodils, proud and erect, stood in clumps about the dazzling lawn. Young, pulsing, eager things elbowed their way through last year's leaves to taste the morning sun; the wide-eyed celandine, yellower than butter; the little violet, hugging the earth for fear of being seen; the sturdy bourgeois daisy; the pale-faced anemone, earliest to wake and earliest to sleep; the blue bird's-eye in small family groups; the blatant dandelion already a head and shoulders taller than any neighbor. Every twig in the old garden bore its new load of buds that were soft as kittens' paws; and up the wrinkled trunks of ancient trees young ivy leaves chased each other like school-boys.
Spring had come again, and its eternal spirit spread the message of new-born hope, stirred the sap of awakening life, warmed the bosom of a wintry earth and put into the hearts of birds the old desire to mate. But the lonely girl turned a deaf ear to the call, and rounded her shoulders over the elderly desk with tears blistering her letter.
"I'm miserable, miserable," she wrote. "There doesn't seem to be anything to live for. I suppose it's selfish and horrid to grumble because Mother has married again, but why did she choose the very moment when she was to take me into life? Oh, Alice, what am I to do? I feel like a rabbit with its foot in a trap, listening to the traffic on the main road—like a newly fledged bird brought down with a broken wing among the dead leaves of Rip Van Winkle's sleeping-place. You'll laugh when you read this, and say that I'm dramatizing my feelings and writing for effect; but if you've got any heart at all, you'd cry if you saw me (me of all girls!) buried alive out here without a single soul to speak to who's as young as I am—hushed if I laugh by mistake, scowled at if I let myself move quickly, catching old age every hour I stay here."
"Why, Alice, just think of it! There's not a person or a thing in and out of this house that's not old. I don't mean old as we thought of it at school, thirty and thirty-five, but really and awfully old. The house is the oldest for miles round. My grandfather is seventy-two, and my grandmother's seventy. The servants are old, the trees are old, the horses are old; and even the dogs lie about with dim eyes waiting for death."
"When Mother was here, it was bearable. We escaped as often as we could, and rode and drove and made secret visits to the city and saw the plays at matinees. There's nothing old about Mother. I suppose that's why she married again. But now that I'm left alone in this house of decay, where everybody and everything belongs to the past, I'm frightened of being so young, and catch looks that make me feel that I ought to be ashamed of myself. It's so long since I quarreled with a girl or flirted with a boy that I can't remember it. I'm forgetting how to laugh. I'm beginning not to care about clothes or whether I look nice."
"One day is exactly like another. I wander about aimlessly with nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to speak to. I've even begun to give up reading novels, because they make me so jealous. It's all wrong, Alice. It's bad and unhealthy. It puts mutinous thoughts into my head. Honestly, the only way in which I can get the sort of thrill that I ought to have now, if ever I am to thrill at all, is in making wild plans of escape, so wild and so naughty that I don't think I'd better write about them, even to you, dear."
"Mother's on her honeymoon. She went away a week ago in a state of self-conscious happiness that left Grandfather and Grandmother snappy and disagreeable. She will be away four months, and every weekly letter that comes from her will make this place more and more unbearable and me more restless and dangerous. I could get myself invited away. Enid would have me and give me a wonderful time. She has four brothers. Fanny has begged me to stay with her in Boston for the whole of the spring and see and do everything, which would be absolutely heaven. And you know everybody in New York and could make life worth living."
"But Grandfather won't let me go. He likes to see me about the house, he says, and I read the papers to him morning and evening. It does me good, he considers, to 'make a sacrifice and pay deference to those whose time is almost up.' So here I am, tied to the shadows, a prisoner till Mother comes back—a woman of eighteen forced to behave like a good little girl treated as if I were still content to amuse myself with dolls and picture books! But the fire is smolderin Alice, and one fine day it will burst into flame."
A shaft of sunlight found its way through the branches of a chestnut tree and danced suddenly upon the envelope into which Joan had sealed up this little portion of her overcharged vitality. Through the open windows of her more than ample room with its Colonial four-post bed, dignified tallboys, stiff chairs and anemic engravings of early-Victorianism, all the stir and murmur of the year's youth came to Joan.
If her eyes had not been turned inward and her ears had not been tuned only to catch her own natural complaints, this chatter of young things would have called her out to laugh and tingle and dance in the haunted wood and cry out little incoherent welcomes to the children of the earth. Something of the joy and emotion of that mother-month must have stirred her imagination and set her blood racing through her young body. She felt the call of youth and the urge to play. She sensed the magnetic pull of the voice of spring, but when, with her long brown lashes wet with impatient tears, she went to the window and looked out at the green spread of lawn and the yellow-headed daffodils, it seemed more than ever to her that she was peering through iron bars into the playground of a school to which she didn't belong. She was Joan-all-alone, she told herself, and added, with that touch of picturesque phrasing inherited from her well-read mother, that she was more like a racing motorboat tied to a crumbling wharf in a deserted harbor than anything else in the world.
There was a knock on her door and the sound of a bronchial cough. "Come in," she said and darted an anxious look at the blond fat face of the clock on the mantelshelf. She had forgotten all about the time.
It was Gleave who opened the door, Gleave the bald-headed manservant who had grown old along with his master with the same resentfulness—the ex-prizefighter, sailor, lumberman and adventurer who had thrown in his lot with Cumberland Ludlow, the sportsman, when both were in the full flush of middle age. His limp, the result of an epoch-making fight in an Australian mining camp, was emphasized by severe rheumatism, and the fretfulness of old age was heightened by his shortness of breath.
He got no further than: "Your grandfather—"
"I know," said Joan. "I'm late again. And there'll be a row, I suppose. Well, that will break the monotony, at any rate." Seizing the moment when Gleave was wrestling with his cough, she slipped her letter into her desk, rubbed her face vigorously with her handkerchief and made a dart at the door. Grandfather Ludlow demanded strict punctuality and made the house shake if it failed him. What he would have said if he could have seen this eager, brown-haired, vivid girl, built on the slim lines of a wood nymph, swing herself on to the banisters and slide the whole way down the wide stairway would have been fit only for the appreciative ears of his faithful man. As it was, Mrs. Nye, the housekeeper, was passing through the hall, and her gasp at this exhibition of unbecoming athletics was the least that could be expected from one who still thought in the terms of the crinoline and had never recovered from the habit of regarding life through the early-Victorian end of the telescope.
Joan slipped into Mr. Cumberland Ludlow's own room, shut the door quickly and picked her way over the great skins that were scattered about the polished floor.
"Good morning, Grandfather," she said, and stood waiting for the storm to break. She knew by heart the indignant remarks about the sloppiness of the younger generation, the dire results of modern anarchy and the universal disrespect that stamped the twentieth century, and set her quick mind to work to frame his opening sentence.
But the old man, whose sense of humor was as keen as ever, saw in the girl's half-rebellious, half-deferential attitude an impatient expectation of his usual irritation, and so he merely pointed a shaking finger at the clock. His silence was far more eloquent and effective than his old-fashioned platitudes. He smiled as he saw her surprise, indicated a chair and gave her the morning paper. "Go ahead, my dear," he said.
Sitting bolt upright, with her back to the shaded light, her charming profile with its little blunt nose and rounded chin thrown up against the dark glistening oak of an old armoire, Joan began to read. Her clear, high voice seemed to startle the dead beasts whose heads hung thickly around the room and bring into their wide, fixed eyes a look of uneasiness.
Several logs were burning sulkily in the great open fireplace, throwing out a pungent, juicy smell. The aggressive tick of an old and pompous clock endeavored to talk down the gay chatter of the birds beyond the closed windows. The wheeze of a veteran Airedale with its chin on the head of a lion came intermittently.
They made a picture, these two, that fitted with peculiar rightness into the mood of Nature at that moment. Youth was king, and with all his followers had clambered over winter and seized the earth. The red remainders of autumn were almost over-powered. Standing with his hands behind him and his back to the fire, the old sportsman listened, with a queer, distrait expression, to the girl's reading. That he was still putting up a hard fight against relentless Time was proved by his clothes, which were those of a country-lover who dressed the part with care. A tweed shooting-coat hung from his broad, gaunt shoulders. Well-cut riding breeches, skin tight below his knees, ran into a pair of brown top-boots that shone like glass. A head and shoulders taller than the average tall man, his back was bent and his chest hollow. His thin hair, white as cotton wool, was touched with brilliantine, and his handsome face, deeply lined and wrinkled, was as closely shaved as an actor's after three o'clock. His sunken eyes, overshadowed by bushy brows, had lost their fire. He could no longer see to read. He too heard the call without, and when he looked at the young, sweet thing upon whom he was dependent for the news, and glanced about the room so full of memories of his own departed youth, he said to himself with more bitterness than usual: "I'm old; I'm very old, and helpless; life has no use for me, and it's an infernal shame."
Joan read on patiently, glancing from time to time at the man who seemed to her to be older than the hills, startlingly, terribly old, and stopped only when, having lowered himself into his arm-chair, he seemed to have fallen asleep. Then, as usual, she laid the paper aside, eager to be up and doing, but sat on, fearful of moving. Her grandfather had a way of looking as though he would never wake up again, and of being as ready as a tiger to pounce upon her if she tried to slip away. She would never forget some of the sarcastic things he had said at these times, never! He seemed to take an unexplainable delight in making her feel that she had no right to be so young. He had never confided to her the tragedy of having a young mind and an old body, young desires and winter in his blood. He had never opened the door in his fourth wall and let her see how bitterly he resented having been forced out of life and the great chase, to creep like an old hound the ancient dogs among. He had never let her suspect that the tragedy of old age had hit him hard, filling his long hours with regret for what he might have done or done better. Perhaps he was ashamed to confess these things that were so futile and so foolish. Perhaps he was afraid to earn a young incredulous laugh at the pathetic picture of himself playing Canute with the on-coming tide of years. He was not understood by this girl, because he had never allowed her to get a glimpse into his heart; and so she failed to know that he insisted upon keeping her in his house, even to the point of extreme selfishness, because he lived his youth over again in the constant sight of her. What a long and exquisite string of pearls there could be made of our unspoken words!
The logs glowed red; the hard tick of the pompous clock marked off the precious moments; and outside, spring had come. But Joan sat on with mutinous thoughts, and the man who not so long ago had stalked the beasts whose heads and skins were silent reminders of his strength, lay back in his chair with nodding head.
"He's old," she said to herself, "dreadfully, awfully old, and he's punishing me for being young. Oh! It's wicked, it's wicked. If only I had a father to spoil me and let me live! If only Mother hadn't forgotten all about me in her own happiness! If only I had money of my own and could run away and join the throng!"
She heard a sigh that was almost a groan, turned quickly and saw two slow tears running down her grandfather's face. He had been kicking against the pricks again and had hurt his foot.
With all the elaborate care of a Deerslayer, Joan got up, gave the boards that creaked a wide berth—she knew them all—and tiptoed to the door. The fact that she, at eighteen years of age, a full-grown woman in her own estimation, should be obliged to resort to such methods made her angry and humiliated. She was, however, rejoicing at one thing. Her grandfather had fallen asleep several pages of the paper earlier than usual, and she was to be spared from the utter boredom of wading through the leading articles which dealt with subways and Tammany and foreign politics and other matters for which she had a lofty contempt. She was never required to read the notices of new plays and operas and the doings of society, which alone were interesting to her and made her mouth water.
Just as she had maneuvered her way across the wide, long room and was within reach of the door, it opened and her grandmother hobbled in, leaning on her stick. There was a chuckle from the other end of the room. The blood flew to the girl's face. She knew without turning to look that the old man had been watching her careful escape and was enjoying the sight of her, caught at the moment when freedom was at hand.
Mrs. Ludlow was one of those busy little women who are thorns in the flesh of servants. Her eyes had always been like those of an inspecting general. No detail, however small, went unnoticed and unrectified.
She had been called by an uncountable number of housemaids and footmen "the little Madam"—the most sarcastic term of opprobrium contained in their dictionary. A leader of New York society, she had run charitable institutions and new movements with the same precision and efficiency that she had used in her houses. Every hour of her day had been filled. Not one moment had been wasted or frittered away. Her dinner parties had been famous, and she had had a spoke in the wheels of politics. Her witty sayings had been passed from mouth to mouth. Her little flirtations with prominent men and the ambitious tyros who had been drawn to her salon had given rise to much gossip. Not by any means a beauty, her pretty face and tiptilted nose, her perennial cheerfulness, birdlike vivacity and gift of repartee had made her the center of attraction for years.
But she, like Cumberland Ludlow, had refused to grow old gracefully and with resignation. She had put up an equally determined fight against age, and it was only when the remorseless calendar proved her to be sixty-five that she resigned from the struggle, washed the dye out of her hair and the make-up from her face and retired to that old house. Not even then, however, did she resign from all activity and remain contented to sit with her hands in her lap and prepare herself for the next world. This one still held a certain amount of joy, and she concentrated all the vitality that remained with her to the perfect running of her house. At eleven o'clock every morning the tap of her stick on the polished floors was the signal of her arrival, and if every man and woman of the menage was not actively at work, she knew the reason why. Her tongue was still as sharp as the blade of a razor, and for sloppiness she had no mercy. Careless maids trembled before her tirades, and strong men shook in their shoes under her biting phrases. At seventy, with her snowy hair, little face that had gone into as many lines as a dried pippin, bent, fragile body and tiny hands twisted by rheumatism, she looked like one of the old women in a Grimm's fairy tale who frightened children and scared animals and turned giants into cowards.
She drew up in front of the frustrated girl, stretched out her white hand lined with blue veins and began to tap her on the shoulder—announcing in that irritating manner that she had a complaint to make.
"My dear," she said, "when you write letters to your little friends or your sentimental mother, bear in mind that the place for ink is on the note paper and not on the carpet."
"Try to remember also that if you put your hand behind a candle you can blow it out without scattering hot grease on the wall paper."
"There is one other thing, if I may have your patience. You are not required to be a Columbus to discover that there is a basket for soiled linen in your bedroom. It is a large one and eager to fulfill its function. The floor of your clothes closet is intended for your shoes only. Will you be so good as to make a note of these things?"
Ink, candle grease, wash basket—what did they matter in the scheme of life, with spring tapping at the window? With a huge effort Joan forced back a wild burst of insurrection, and remained standing in what she hoped was the correct attitude of a properly repentant child. "How long can I stand it?" she cried inwardly. "How long before I smash things and make a dash for freedom?"
"Now go back and finish reading to your grand father."
And once more, trembling with anger and mortification, the girl picked her way over the limp and indifferent skins, took up the paper and sat down. Once more her clear, fresh voice, this time with a little quiver in it, fitted in to the regular tick of the querulous clock, the near-by chatter of birds' tongues and the hiss of burning logs.
The prim old lady, who had in her time borne a wonderful resemblance to the girl whom she watched so closely,—even to the chestnut-brown hair and the tip-tilted nose, the full lips, the round chin and the spirit that at any moment might urge her to break away from discipline,—retired to carry on her daily tour of inspection; and the old man stood again with his back to the fire to listen impatiently and with a futile jealousy to the deeds and misdeeds of an ever-young and ever-active world.
Joan was thankful when lunch was over, and murmured "Amen" to grace with a fervor that would have surprised an unimaginative and unobservant person. Like all the meals in that pompous dining-room, it was a form of torture to a young thing bubbling with health and high spirits, who was not supposed to speak unless directly addressed and was obliged to hold herself in check while her grandparents progressed slowly and deliberately through a menu of medically thought-out dishes. Both the old people were on a rigid diet, and mostly the conversation between them consisted of grumbles at having to dally with baby-food and reminiscences of the admirable dinners of the past. An aged butler and a footman in the sere and yellow only added to the general Rip van Winklism, and the presence of two very old dogs, one the grandfather's Airedale and the other Mrs. Ludlow's Irish terrier, with a white nose and rusty gray coat, did nothing to dispel the depression. The six full-length portraits in oils that hung on the walls represented men and women whose years, if added together, would have made a staggering grand total. Even the furniture was Colonial.
But when Joan had put on her hat, sweater and a pair of thick-soled country boots, and having taken care to see that no one was about, slid down the banisters into the hall on her way out for her usual lonely walk, she slipped into the garden with a queer sense of excitement, an odd and unaccountable premonition that something was going to happen. This queer thing had come to her in the middle of lunch and had made her heart suddenly begin to race. If she had been given to self analysis, which she was not, she might have told herself that she had received a wireless message from some one as lonely as herself, who had sent out the S.O.S. call in the hope of its being picked up and answered. As it was, it stirred her blood and made her restless and intensely eager to get into the open, to feel the sun and smell the sweetness in the air and listen to the cheery note of the birds.
It was with something of the excited interest which must have stirred Robinson Crusoe on seeing the foot-prints on the sand of what he had conceived to be a desert island that she ran up the hill, through the awakened woods whose thick carpet of brown leaves was alight with the green heads of young ferns, and out to the clearing from which she had so often gazed wist fully in the direction of the great city away in the distance.
She was surprised to find that she was alone as usual, bitterly disappointed to see no other sign of life than her friends the rabbits and the squirrels—the latter of which ambled toward her in the expectation of peanuts. She had no sort of concrete idea of what she had expected to find: nor had she any kind of explanation of the wave of sympathy that had come to her as clearly as though it had been sent over an electric wire. All she knew was that she was out of breath for no apparent reason, and on the verge of tears at seeing no one there to meet her. Once before, on her sixth birth day, the same call had been sent to her when she was playing alone with her dolls in the semitropical garden of a hired house in Florida, and she had started up and toddled round to the front and found a large-eyed little girl peering through the gate. It was the beginning of a close and blessed friendship.
This time, it seemed, the call had been meant for some other lonely soul, and so she stood and looked with blurred eyes over the wide valley that lay unrolled at her feet and, asked herself what she had ever done to deserve to be left out of all the joy of life. From somewhere near by the baying of hounds came, and from a farm to her left the crowing of a cock; and then a twig snapped behind her, and she turned eagerly.
"Oh, hello," said the boy.
"Oh, hello," she said.
He was not the hero of her dreams, by a long way. His hair didn't curl; his nose was not particularly straight; nor were his eyes large and magnetic. He was not something over six feet two; nor was he dressed in wonderful clothes into which he might have been poured in liquid form. He was a cheery, square-shouldered, good-natured looking fellow with laughter in his gray eyes and a little quizzical smile playing round a good firm mouth. He looked like a man who ought to have been in the navy and who, instead, gave the impression of having been born among horses. His small, dark head was bare; his skin had already caught the sun, and as he stood in his brown sweater with his hands thrust into the pockets of his riding breeches, he seemed to her to be just exactly like the brother that she ought to have had if she had had any luck at all, and she held out a friendly hand with a comfortable feeling of absolute security.
With some self-consciousness he took it and bowed with a nice touch of deference. He tried to hide the catch in his breath and the admiration in his eyes. "I'm glad it's spring," he said, not knowing quite what he was saying.
"So am I," said Joan. "Just look at those violets and the way the leaves are bursting."
"I know. Great, isn't it? Are you going anywhere?"
"No. I've nowhere to go."
"Same here. Let's go together."
And they both laughed, and the squirrel that had come to meet Joan darted off with a sour look. He had anticipated a fat meal of peanuts. He was out of it now, he saw, and muttered whatever was the squirrel equivalent for a swear-word.
The boy and girl took the path that ran round the outskirts of the wood, swung into step and chimed into the cantata of spring with talk and laughter.
There had been rather a long silence.
Joan was sitting with her back against the trunk of a fallen tree, with her hands clasped round her knees. She had tossed her hat aside, and the sunlight made her thick brown hair gleam like copper. They had come out at another aerie on the hill, from which a great stretch of open country could be seen. Her eyes were turned as usual in the direction of New York, but there was an expression of contentment in them that would have startled all the old people and things at home.
Martin Gray was lying full stretch on the turf with his elbows up and his chin on his left fist. He had eyes for nothing but the vivid girl whom he had found so unexpectedly and who was the most alive thing that he had ever seen.
During this walk their chatter had been of everything under the sun except themselves. Both were so frankly and unaffectedly glad to be able to talk at all that they broke into each other's laughing and childish comments on obvious things and forgot themselves in the pleasure of meeting. But now the time had come for mutual confidences, and both, in the inevitable young way, felt the desire to paint the picture of their own particular grievance against life which should make them out to be the two genuine martyrs of the century. It was now a question of which of them got the first look-in. The silence was deliberate and came out of the fine sense of sportsmanship that belonged to each. Although bursting to pour out her troubles, Joan wanted to be fair and give Martin the first turn, and Martin, equally keen to prove himself the champion of badly treated men, held himself in, in order that Joan, being a woman, should step into the limelight. It was, of course, the male member of the duet who began. A man's ego is naturally more aggressive than a woman's.
"Do you know," said Martin, arranging himself in a more comfortable attitude, "that it's over two months since I spoke to any one of about my own age?"
Joan settled herself to listen. With the uncanny intuition that makes women so disconcerting, she realized that she had missed her chance and must let the boy have his head.
Not until he had unburdened his soul would she be able, she knew, to focus his complete attention upon herself.
"Tell me about it," she said.
He gave her a grateful look. "You know the house with the kennels over there—the hounds don't let you miss it. I've been wandering about the place without seeing anybody since Father died."
"Oh, then, you're Martin Gray!"
"I was awfully sorry about your father."
"Thanks." The boy's mouth trembled a little, and he worked his thumb into the soft earth. "He was one of the very best, and it was not right. He was too young and too much missed. I don't understand it. He had twenty-five years to his credit, and I wanted to show him what I was going to do. It's all a puzzle to me. There's something frightfully wrong about it all, and it's been worrying me awfully."
Joan couldn't find anything to say. Years before, when she was four years old, Death had come to her house and taken her own father away, and she had a dim remembrance of dark rooms and of her mother crying as though she had been very badly hurt. It was a vague figure now, and the boy's queer way of talking about it so personally made the conventional expressions that she had heard seem out of place. It was the little shake in his voice that touched her.
"He had just bought a couple of new hunters and was going to run the hunt this fall. I wanted him to live forever. He died in New York, and I came here to try and get used to being without him. I thought I should stay all alone for the rest of my life, but—this morning when I was moping about, everything looked so young and busy that I got a sort of longing to be young and busy again myself. I don't know how to explain it, but everything shouted at me to get up and shake myself together, and on the almanac in Father's room I read a thing that seemed to be a sort of message from him."
"Did you? What was it?"
"'We count it death to falter, not to die.' It was under to-day's date, and it was the first thing I saw when I went to the desk where Father used to sit, and it was his voice that read it to me. It was very wonderful and queer. It sort of made me ashamed of the way I was taking it, and I went out to begin again,—that's how it seemed to me,—and I woke everybody up and set things going and saw that the horses were all right, and then I climbed over the wall, and as I walked away, out again for the first time after all those bad weeks, I wanted to find some one young to talk to. I don't know how it was, but I went straight up the hill and wasn't a bit surprised when I saw you standing there."
"That's funny," said Joan.
"I don't know. But if you hadn't found me after the feeling that came to me at lunch—"
"Well, I'm sure I should have turned bitter and never believed any more in fairies and all that. I don't think I mean fairies, and I can't explain what 'all that' stands for, but I know I should have been warped if I hadn't turned round and seen you."
And she laughed and set him laughing, and the reason of their having met was waved aside. The fact remained that there they were—youth with youth, and that was good enough.
There was a touch of idealism hidden away somewhere in Martin's character. A more than usually keen-eyed boy had once called him "the poet" at school. In order that this dubious nickname should be strangled at birth, there had been an epoch-making fight. Both lads came out of it in a more or less unrecognizable condition, but Martin reestablished his reputation and presently entered Yale free from the suspicion of being anything but a first-rate sportsman and an indisputable man.
There Martin had played football with all the desired bullishness. He had hammered ragtime on the piano like the best ordinary man in the University. With his father he rode to hounds hell for leather, and he wrote comic stuff in a Yale magazine which made him admiringly regarded as a sort of junior George Ade. It was only in secret, and then with a sneaking sense of shame, that he allowed his idealistic side to feed on Browning and Ruskin, Maeterlinck and Barrie, and only when alone on vacation that he bathed in the beauty of French cathedrals, sat thrilled and stirred by the waves of melody of the great composers, drew up curiously touched and awed at the sight of the places in the famous cities of Europe that echoed with the footsteps of history.
If the ideality of that boy had been seized upon and developed by a sympathetic hand, if his lively imagination and passion for the beautiful had been put through a proper educational course, he might have used the latent creative power with which nature had endowed him and taken a high place among artists, writers or composers. As it was, his machinelike, matter-of-fact training and his own self-conscious anxiety not to be different from the average good sportsman had made him conform admirably to type. He was a fine specimen of the eager, naive, quick-witted, clean-minded young American, free from "side," devoid of mannerisms, determined to make the utmost of life and its possibilities.
It is true that when death seized upon the man who was brother and pal as well as father to Martin, all the stucco beneath which he had so carefully hidden his spiritual and imaginative side cracked and broke. Under the indescribable shock of what seemed to him to be wanton and meaningless cruelty, the boy gave way to a grief that was angry and agonized by turns. He had left a fit, high-spirited father to drive to a golf shop to buy a new mashie, returned to take him out to Sleepy Hollow for a couple of rounds—and found him stretched out on the floor of the library, dead. Was it any wonder that he tortured himself with unanswerable questions, sat for hours in the dark trying with the most pitiful futility to fathom the riddle of life, or that he wandered aimlessly about the place, which was stamped with his father's fine and kindly personality,—like a stick suddenly swept out of the current of the main stream into a tideless backwater, untouched by the sun? And when finally, still deaf to the call of spring, his father's message of courage, "We count it death to falter, not to die," rang out and straightened him up and set him on the rails of action once again, it was not quite the same Martin Gray who uttered the silent cry for companionship that found an answer in Joan's lonely and rebellious heart. Sorrow had strengthened him. Out of the silent manliness of grief he went out again on the great main road with a wistful desire to love and be loved, to find some one with whom to link an arm in an empty world all crowded with strangers—and there stood Joan.
It was natural that he should believe, under those circumstances, that he and she did not meet by mere accident, that they had been brought together by design—all the more natural when he listened to her story of mental and physical imprisonment and came to see, during their daily stolen meetings, that he was as necessary to her as she was to him. Every time he left her and watched her run back to that old house of old people, it was borne in upon him more definitely that he was appointed in the cosmic scheme to rescue Joan from her peculiar cage and help her to try her wings. All about that young fresh, eager creature whose eyes were always turned so ardently toward the city, his imagination and superstition built a bower of love.
He had never met a girl in any way like her—one who wanted so much and would give so little in return for it, who had an eel-like way of dodging hard-and-fast facts and who had made up her mind with all the zest and thoughtlessness of youth to mold life, when finally she could prove how much alive she was, into no other shape than the one which most appealed to her. She surprised and delighted him with her quick mental turns and twists, and although she sometimes made him catch his breath at her astoundingly frank expression of individualism, he told himself that she was still in the chrysalis stage and could only get a true and normal hang of things after rubbing shoulders with what she called life with a capital L.
Two weeks slipped away more quickly than these two young things had ever known them to go, and the daily meetings, utterly guileless and free from flirtation, were the best part of the day; but there was a new note in Joan's laugh as she swung out of the wood and went toward Martin one afternoon.
He caught it and looked anxiously at her. "Is anything wrong?"
"There will be," she said. "I just caught sight of Gleave among the trees. He was spying!"
"Why do you think so?"
"Oh, he never walks a yard unless he has to. I thought I saw him eying me rather queerly at lunch. I've been looking happy lately, and that's made him suspicious."
"But what can he do?"
"What can't he do! Grandmother's one of the old-fashioned sort who thinks that a girl must never speak to a man without a chaperon. They must have been a lively lot of young women in her time! Gleave will tell her that I've been coming here to meet you, and then there'll be a pretty considerable row."
Martin was incredulous. He was in America in the twentieth century. Young people did as they liked, and parents hardly ventured to remonstrate. He showed his teeth in the silent laugh that was characteristic of him. "Oh, no! I'll be all right. Your grandfather knew my father."
"That won't make any difference. I believe that in a sort of way he's jealous of my having a good time. Queer, isn't it? Are all old people like that? And as to Grandmother, this will give her one of the finest chances to let herself go that she's had since I set a curtain on fire with a candle; and when she does that, well, things fly, I assure you."
"Are you worried about it?"
Joan gave a gesture of the most eloquent impatience. "I have to be," she said. "You can't understand it, but I'm treated just as if I were a little girl in short frocks. It's simply appalling. Everything I say and do and look is criticized from the point of view of 1850. Can't you imagine what will be thought of my sneaking out every afternoon to talk to a dangerous young man who has only just left Yale and lives among horses?"
That was too much for Martin. His laugh echoed among the trees.
But Joan didn't make it a duet. "It wouldn't be so funny to you if you stood in my shoes, Martin," she said. "If I had gone to Grandmother and asked her if I might meet you,—and just think of my having to do that,—she would have been utterly scandalized. Now, having done this perfectly dreadful thing without permission, I shall be hauled up on two charges,—deceit and unbecoming behavior,—and I shall be punished."
The boy wheeled around in amazement. "You don't mean that?"
"Of course I mean it. Haven't I told you over and over again that these two dear but irritating old people look down at me from their awful pile of years and only see me as a child?"
"But what will they do to you?"
Joan shrugged her shoulders. "Anything they like. I'm completely at their mercy. For Mother's sake I try to be patient and put up with it all. It's the only home I've got, and when you're dependent and haven't a cent to bless yourself with, you can't pack up and telephone for a cab and get out, can you? But it can't go on forever. Some day I shall answer back, and sparks will fly, and I shall borrow money from the coachman, who's my only friend, and go to Alice Palgrave and ask her to put me up until Mother comes back. I'm a queer case, Martin—that's the truth of it. In a book the other day I came across an exact description of myself. I could have laughed if it hadn't hit me so hard. It said: 'She was a super-modern in an early-Victorian frame, a pint of champagne in a little old cut-glass bottle, a gnome engine attached to a coach and pair.'" She picked up a stone and flung it down the hill.
One eager wild thought rushed through Martin's brain. It had made his blood race several times before, but he had thrown it aside because, during all their talks and walks, Joan had never once looked at him with anything but the eyes of a sister. As his wife he could free her, lift her out of her anomalous atmosphere and take her to the city to which her face was always turned. But he lacked the courage to speak and continued to hope that some day, by some miracle, she might become less superlatively neutral, less almost boyish in her way of treating him. He threw it aside again, tempted as he was to take advantage of a chance to bribe her into becoming his wife with an offer of life. Then too, she was only eighteen, and although he was twenty-four and in the habit of thinking of himself as a man of ripe years, he had to confess that the mere idea of marriage made him feel awfully young and scared. And so he said nothing and went on hoping.
Joan broke the silence. "Everything will be different when Mother comes back," she said. "I shall live with her then, and I give you my word I'll make up for lost time. So who cares? There are three good hours before I face Grandmother. Let's enjoy ourselves."
Martin couldn't settle down after his solitary dinner that night. Several times he had jumped out of his father's reading chair and stood listening at the window. It seemed to him that some one had called his name. But the only sounds that broke the exquisite quietude of the night were the distant barking of a dog, the whirl of an automobile on the road or the pompous crowing of a master of a barnyard, taken up and answered by others near and far.
Each time the boy had stood at the open window and peered out eagerly and wistfully, but nothing had moved across the moon-bathed lawn or disturbed the sleeping flowers. Under the cold light of the stars the earth appeared to be more than usually peaceful and drowsy. All was well.
But the boy's blood tingled, and he was filled with an unexplainable sense of excitement. Some one needed him, and he wanted urgently to be needed. He turned from the window and ran his eyes over the long, wide, low-ceilinged masculine room, every single thing in which spelled Father to him; then he went back to the chair the right to sit in which had been given to him by death, persuaded that over the unseen wires that stretch from heart to heart a signal had been sent, certain that he was to hold himself in readiness to do something for Joan.
He had written out the words, "We count it death to falter, not to die" on a long strip of card in big bold letters. They faced him as he sat and read over and over again what he regarded as his father's message. It was a call to service, an inspiration to activity, and it had already filled him with the determination to fall into step with the movement of the world, to put the money of which he was now the most reluctant owner to some use as soon as the necessary legal steps of proving his father's Will had been taken. He had made up his mind to leave the countryside at the end of the week and meet his father's lawyers and take advice as to how he could hitch himself to some vigorous and operative pursuit. He was going, please God, to build up a workmanlike monument to the memory of his father.
Ten o'clock struck, and uninterested in his book, he would have gone to bed but for the growing feeling that he was not his own master, that he might be required at any moment. The feeling became so strong that finally he got up and went into the hall. He couldn't wait any longer. He must go out, slip into the garden of the Ludlow house and search the windows for a sight of Joan.
He unbolted the front door, gave a little gasp and found himself face to face with the girl who was in his thoughts.
There was a ripple of excited laughter; a bag was thrust into his hand, and like a bird escaped from a cage, Joan darted past him into the hall.
"I've done it," she cried, "I've done it!" And she broke into a dance.
Martin shut the door, put the bulging suit-case on a chair and watched the girl as she whirled about the hall, as graceful as a water sprite, with eyes alight with mischief and animation. The sight of her was so bewitching, the fact that she had come to him for help so good, that his curiosity to know what it was that she had done fell away.
Suddenly she came to a breathless stop and caught hold of his arm. "Bolt the door, Marty," she said, "quickly, quickly! They may send after me when they find I've got away. I'll never go back, never, never!"
All the spirit of romance in the boy's nature flamed. This was a great adventure. He had become a knight errant, the rescuer of a damsel in distress. He shot the bolts back, turned out the lights, took Joan's hand and led her into his father's room.
"Turn these lights out too," she said. "Make it look as if everybody had gone to bed."
He did so, with a sort of solemn sense of responsibility; and it was in a room lighted only by a shaft of pale moonlight that fell in a pool upon the polished floor that these two utterly inexperienced children sat knee to knee, the one to pour out her story, the other to listen and hold his breath.
"I was right about Gleave. He was spying. It turns out that he's been watching us for two or three days. When I went back this afternoon, I got a look from Mrs. Nye that told me there was a row in the air. I was later than usual and rushed up to my room to change for dinner. The whole house seemed awfully quiet and ominous, like the air before a thunderstorm. I expected to be sent for at once to stand like a criminal before Grandfather and Grandmother—but nothing happened. All through dinner, while Gleave tottered about, they sat facing each other at the long table, conducting,—that's the only word to describe it,—a polite conversation. Neither of them took any notice of me or even once looked my way. Even Gleave put things in front of me as though he didn't see me, and when I caught the watery eyes of the old dogs, they both seemed to make faces and go 'Yah!'"
"It was weird, and would have been frightfully funny if I hadn't known that sooner or later I should have to stand up and take my dose. Phew, it was a ghastly meal. I'm certain I shall dream it all over again every time I eat something that doesn't agree with me! It was a great relief when at last Grandmother turned at the door and looking at my feet as though they were curiosities, said: 'Joan, you will follow us to the drawing-room.' Her voice was cold enough to freeze the sea."
"Then she went out, her stick rapping the floor, Grandfather after her with his shoulders bent and a piece of bread on the back of his dinner jacket. The two dogs followed, and I made up the tail of that queer procession. I hate that stiff, cheerless drawing room anyhow, with all its shiny cases of china and a collection of all the uncomfortable chairs ever designed since Adam. I wanted to laugh and cry, and when I saw myself in the glass, I couldn't believe that I wasn't a little shivering girl with a ribbon in my hair and white socks."
Some one whistled outside. The girl seized the boy's arm in a sudden panic of fright.
"It's all right," he said. "It's only the gardener going to his cottage."
Joan laughed, and her grip relaxed. "I'm jumpy," she said. "My nerves are all over the place. Do you wonder?"
"No, tell me the rest."
Joan's voice took on a little deeper note like that of a child who has come to the really creepy bit of his story. "Marty," she went on, "I wish you could have heard the way in which Grandmother let herself go! She held me by the scruff of my neck and hit me right and left with the sort of sarcasm that made me crinkle. According to her, I was on the downward path. I had done something quite hopeless and unforgivable. She didn't know how she could bring herself to report the affair—think of calling it an affair, Marty!—to my poor mother. Mother, who'd never say a word to me, whatever I did! She might have out-of-date views, she said, of how young girls should behave, but they were the right views, and so long as I was under her roof and in her care, she would see that I conformed to them. She went on making a mountain out of our little molehill, till even Grandfather broke in with a word; and then she snapped at him, got into her second wind and went off again. I didn't listen half the time. I just stood and watched her as you'd watch one of those weird old women in one of Dickens' books come to life. What I remember of it all is that I am deceitful and fast, ungrateful, irresponsible, with no sense of decency, and when at last she pronounced sentence, what do you think it was? Confinement to the house for a week and if after that, I ever meet you again, to be packed off to a finishing-school in Massachusetts. She rapped her stick on the floor by way of a full stop, and waved her hand toward the door. I never said a word, not a single one. What was the use? I gave her a little bow and went. Just as I was going to rush upstairs and think over what I could do, Grandfather came out and told me to go to his room to read something to him. And there, for the first time, he let me see what a fine old fellow he really is. He agreed with Grandmother that I ought not to have met you on the sly. It was dangerous, he said, though perfectly natural. He was afraid I found it very trying to live among a lot of old grouches with their best feet in the grave, but he begged me to put up with it because he would miss me so. He liked having me about, not only to read to him but to look at. I reminded him of Grandmother when she was young, and life was worth living.
"I cried then. I couldn't help it—more for his sake than mine. He spoke with such a funny sort of sadness. 'Be patient, my dear,' he said. 'Treat us both with a little kindness. You're top dog. You have all your life before you. Make allowances for two old people entering second childhood. You'll be old some day, you know.' And he said this with such a twisted sort of smile that I felt awfully sorry for him, and he saw it and opened out and told me how appalling it was to become feeble when the heart is as young as ever. I had no idea he felt like that."
"When I left him I tried hard to be as patient as he asked me to be and wait till Mother comes back and make the allowances he spoke about and give up seeing you and all that. But when I got up to my room with the echo of Grandmother's rasping voice in my ears, the thought of being shut up in the house for a week and treated like a lunatic was too much for me. What had I done that every other healthy girl doesn't do every day without a question? How COULD I go on living there, watched and suspected? How could I put up any longer with the tyranny of an old lady who made me feel artificial and foolish and humiliated—a kind of doll stuffed with saw dust?
"Marty, I couldn't do it. I simply couldn't. Something went snap, and I just flung a few things into a suit-case, dropped it out the window, climbed down the creeper and made a dash for freedom. Nothing on earth will ever take me back to that house again, nothing, nothing!"
All this had been said with a mixture of humor and emotion that carried the boy before it. He saw and heard everything as she described it. His own relations with his father, which had been so free and friendly, made Joan's with those two old people seem fantastic and impossible. All his sympathy went out to her. To help her to get away appealed to him as being as humane as releasing a squirrel from a trap. No thought of the fact that she was a girl who had rushed impulsively into a most awkward position struck him. Into his healthy mind no sex question thrust itself. She was his friend, and as such, her claim upon him was overwhelming and unarguable.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked. "Have you thought of anything?"
"Of course I have. In the morning, early, before they find out that I've bolted, you must drive me to New York and take me to Alice Palgrave. She'll put me up, and I can telegraph to Mother for money to buy clothes with. Does it occur to you, Marty, that you're the cause of all this? If I hadn't turned and found you that afternoon, I should still be eating my soul away and having my young life crushed. As it is, you've forced my hand. So you're going to take me to the magic city, and if you want to see how a country cousin makes up for lost time and sets things humming, watch me!"
So they talked and talked, sitting in that room which was made the very sanctum of romance by young blood and moonlight. Eleven o'clock slipped by, and twelve and one; and while the earth slept, watched by a million glistening eyes, and nature moved imperceptibly one step nearer to maturity, this boy and girl made plans for the discovery of a world out of which so many similar explorers have crept with wounds and bitterness.
They were wonderful and memorable hours, not ever to be lived again. They were the hours that all youth enjoys and delights in once—when, like gold-diggers arrived in sight of El Dorado, they halt and peer at the chimera that lies at their feet—
"I'm going to make my mark," Martin said. "I'm going to make something that will last. My father's name was Martin Gray, and I'll make it MEAN some thing out there for his sake."
"And I," said Joan, springing to her feet and throwing up her chin, "will go joy-riding in the huge round-about. I've seen what it is to be old and useless, and so I shall make the most of every day and hour while I'm young. I can live only once, and so I shall make life spin whatever way I want it to go. If I can get anybody to pay my whack, good. If not, I'll pay it myself—whatever it costs. My motto's going to be a good time as long as I can get it, and who cares for the price?"
The boy followed her to the window, and the moonlight fell upon them both. "Yes," he said, "you'll get a bill, all right. How did you know that?"
"I haven't lived with all those old people so long for nothing," she answered. "But you won't catch me grumbling if I get half as much as I'm going out for. Listen to my creed, Martin, and take notes, if you want to keep up with me."
"Go ahead," he said, watching the sparkle in her eyes.
She squared her shoulders and folded her arms in a half-defiant way. "I shall open the door of every known Blue Room—hurrying out again if there are ugly things inside, staying to enjoy them if they're good to look at. I shall taste a little of every known bottle, feel everything there is to feel except the thing that hurts, laugh with any one whose laugh is catching, do everything there is to do, go into every booth in the big Bazaar; and when I'm tired out and there's nothing left, I shall slip out of the endless procession with a thousand things stored away in my memory. Isn't that the way to live?"
From the superior height of twenty-four, Martin looked down on Joan indulgently. He didn't take her frank and unblushing individualism seriously. She was just a kid, he told himself. She was a girl who had been caged up and held in. It was natural for her to say all those wild things. She would alter her point of view as soon as the first surprise of being free had worn off—and then he would speak; then he would ask her to throw in her lot with his and walk in step with him along the street of adventure.
"I sha'n't see the sun rise on this great day," she said, letting a yawn have full play. "I'm sleepy, Marty. I must lie down this very instant, even if the floor's the only place you can offer me. Quick! What else is there?" Before he could answer, she had caught sight of a low, long, enticing divan, and onto this, with a gurgle of pleasure, she made a dive, placed two cushions for her head, put one little hand under her face, snuggled into an attitude of perfect comfort and deliberately went to sleep. It was masterly.
Martin, not believing that she could turn off so suddenly at a complete tangent, spoke to her once or twice but got no other answer than a long, contented sigh. He stood for a little while trying to make out her outline in the dim corner of the room. Then he tiptoed out to the hall, possessed himself of a warm motor-rug, returned with it and laid it gently and tenderly over the unconscious girl.
He didn't intend to let sleep rob him of the first sight of a day that was to mean so much to him, and he went over to the open window, caught the scent of lilac and listened, with all his imagination and sense of beauty stirred, to the deep breathing of the night.... Yes, he had cut through the bars which had kept this girl from taking her place among the crowd. He was responsible for the fact that she was about to play her part in the comedy of life. He was glad to be responsible. He had passionately desired a cause to which to attach himself; and was there, in all the world, a better than Joan?
Spring had come again, and all things were young, and the call to mate rang in his ears and set his heart beating and his thoughts racing ahead. He loved her, this girl that he had come upon standing out in all her freshness against a blue sky. He would serve her as the great lovers had served, and please God, she would some day return his love. They would build up a home and bring up a family and go together up the inevitable hill.
And as he stood sentinel, in a waking dream, waiting for the finger of dawn to rub the night away, sleep tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned and went to the divan and sat down with his back to it, touched one of Joan's placid hands with his lips and drifted into further dreams with a smile around his mouth.
It was ten o'clock in the morning when Martin brought his car to a stop and looked up at the heavy Gothic decorations of a pompous house in East Fifty-fifth Street. "Is this it?"
"Yes," said Joan, getting out of the leather-lined coat that he had wrapped her in. "It really is a house, isn't it; and luckily, all the gargoyles are on the outside." She held out her hand and gave Martin the sort of smile for which any genuine man would sell his soul. "Marty," she added, "you've been far more than a brother to me. You've been a cousin. I shall never be able to thank you. And I adored the drive with our noses turned to the city. I shan't be able to be seen on the streets until I've got some frocks, so please come and see me every day. As soon as Alice has got over her shock at the sight of me, I'm going to compose an historical letter to Grandmother."
"Let her down lightly," said Martin, climbing out with the suit-case. "You've won."
"Yes, that's true; but I shouldn't be a woman if I didn't get in the last word."
"You're not a woman," said Martin. "You're a kid, and you're in New York, and you're light-headed; so look out."
Joan laughed at his sudden gravity and ran up the wide steps and put her finger on the bell. "I've written down your telephone number," she said, "and memorized your address. I'll call you up at three o'clock this afternoon, and if you've nothing else to do, you may take me for a walk in the Park."
"I sha'n't have anything else to do."
The door was opened. The footman was obviously English, with the art of footmanism in his blood.
"Is Mrs. Gilbert Palgrave at home?" asked Joan as if the question were entirely superfluous.
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure, miss. Mrs. Palgrave left for Boston yesterday on account of hillness in the family, miss."
There was an awkward and appalled silence. Little did the man suspect the kind of blow that his statement contained.
Joan darted an agonized look at Martin.
"But Mr. Palgrave is at 'ome, miss."
And that galvanized the boy into action. He had met Gilbert Palgrave out hunting. He had seen the impertinent, cocksure way in which he ran his eyes over women. He clutched the handle of the case and said: "That's all right, thanks. Miss Ludlow will write to Mrs. Palgrave." Then he turned and went down the steps to the car.
Trying to look unconcerned, Joan followed.
"Get in, quick," said Martin. "We'll talk as we go."
"But why? If I don't stay here, where am I to stay?"
"I don't know. Please get in."
Joan stood firm. The color had come back to her face, and a look of something like anger had taken the place of fright. "I didn't tell you to march off like that. Gilbert's here."
"That's why we're going," Said Martin.
"I don't understand." Her eyes were blazing.
"I know you don't. You can't stay in that house. It isn't done."
"I can do it, and I must do it. Do you suppose I'm going back with my tail between my legs?"
"If we argue here, we shall collect a crowd." He got into the car and held out his hand.
Joan ignored it but followed him in. She was angry, puzzled, disappointed, nonplussed. Alice had no right to be away on such an occasion. Everything had looked so easy and smooth-sailing. Even Martin had changed into a different man, and was ordering her about. If he thought he could drive her back to that prison again, he was considerably wrong. She would never go back, never.
The car was running slowly. "Have you any other friends in town?" asked Martin, who seemed to be trying to hide an odd kind of excitement.
"No," said Joan. "Alice is my only friend here. Drive to some place where I can call up Gilbert Palgrave and explain the whole thing. What does it matter about my being alone? If I don't mind, who should? Please do as I say. There's no other place for me to go to, and wild horses sha'n't drag me back."
"You sha'n't go back," said Martin. He turned the car up Madison Avenue and drove without another word to East Sixty-seventh Street and stopped in front of a small house that was sandwiched between a mansion and a twelve-story apartment-house. "This is mine," he said simply. "Will you come in?"
A smile of huge relief came into Joan's eyes. "Why worry?" she said. "How foolish of us not to have thought of this before!"
But there was no smile on Martin's face. His eyes were amazingly bright and his mouth set firmly. His chin looked squarer than ever. Once more he carried out the suit-case, put a latchkey into the lock and threw back the door. Joan went in and stood looking about the cheery hall with its old oak, and sporting prints, white wood and red carpet. "Oh, but this is perfectly charming, Marty," she cried out. "Why did we bother our heads about Alice when there is this haven of refuge?"
Martin marched up to her and stood eye to eye. "Because I'm alone," he said, "and you're a girl. That's why."
Joan made a face. "I see. The conventions again. Isn't there any sort of woman here?"
"Yes, the cook."
She laughed. There was a comic side to this tragedy, after all, it seemed. "Well, perhaps she'll give us some scrambled eggs and coffee. I could eat a horse."
Martin opened the door of the sitting room. Like the one in which she had slept so soundly the previous night, it was stamped with the character and personality of the other Martin Gray. Books, warm and friendly, lined the walls. Mounted on wood, fish of different sizes and breeds hung above the cases, and over the fireplace there was a full-length oil painting of a man in a red coat and riding breeches. His kind eyes greeted Joan.
For several minutes she stood beneath it, smiling back. Then she turned and put her hand involuntarily on the boy's shoulder. "Oh, Marty!" she said. "I AM sorry."
The boy gave one quick upward glance, and cleared his throat. "I told you that this house is mine. It isn't. It's yours. It's the only way, if you're to remain in the city. Is it good enough? Do you want to stay as much as all that?"
The puzzled look came back. For a moment Joan was silent, worrying out the meaning of Martin's abrupt and rather cryptic words. There seemed to be a tremendous amount of fuss because she happened to be a girl.
Martin spoke again before she had emerged from the thicket of inward questions. She was only eighteen, after all.
"I mean, you can marry me if you like." he said, "and then no one can take you back." He was amazed at his courage and hideously afraid that she would laugh at him. He had never dared to say how much he loved her.
She did laugh, but with a ring of so much pleasure and relief that the blood flew to his head. "Why, Marty, what a brain! What organization! Of course I'll marry you. Why ever didn't we think of that last night?"
But before he could pull himself together a man-servant entered with an air of extreme surprise. "I didn't know you'd come home, sir," he said, "until I saw the suit-case." He saw Joan, and his eyes rounded.
"I was just going to ring," said Martin. "We want some breakfast. Will you see to it, please?" Alone again, Martin held out his hand to Joan, in an odd, boyish way. And she took it, boyishly too. "Thank you, Marty, dear," she said. "You've found the magic carpet. My troubles are over; and oh, what a pretty little bomb I shall have for Grandmamma! And now let's explore my house. If it's all like this, I shall simply love it!" And away she darted into the hall.
"And now," said Joan, "being duly married,—and you certainly do make things move when you start, Marty,—to send a telegram to Grandmother! Lead me to the nearest place."
Certain that every person in that crowded street saw in them a newly married couple, Martin tried to hide his joy under a mask of extreme callousness and universal indifference. With the challenging antagonism of an English husband,—whose national habit it is invariably to stalk ahead of his women-kind while they scramble along at his heels,—he led the way well in advance of his unblushing bride. But his eyes were black with emotion. He saw rainbows all over the sky, and rings of bright light round the square heads of all the buildings which competed in an endeavor to touch the clouds; and there was a song in his heart.
They sat down side by side in a Western Union office, dallied for a moment or two with the tied pencils the points of which are always blunt, and to the incessant longs and shorts of a dozen telegraph instruments they put their epoch-making news on the neat blanks. Martin did not intend to be left out of it. His best pal was off the map, and so he chose a second-best friend and wrote triumphantly: "Have been married to-day. Staying in New York for honeymoon. How are you?" He was sorry that he couldn't remember the addresses of a hundred other men. He felt in the mood to pelt the earth with such telegrams as that.
"Listen," said Joan, her eyes dancing with mischief. "I think this is a pretty good effort: 'Blessings and congratulations on her marriage to-day may be sent to Mrs. Martin Gray, at 26 East Sixty-seventh Street, New York.—Joan.' How's that?"
It was the first time the boy had seen that name, and he blinked and smiled and got very red. "Terse and literary," he said, dying to put his arms round her and kiss her before all mankind. "They'll have something to talk about at dinner to-night. A nice whack in the eye for Gleave."
He managed to achieve a supremely blase air while the words were being counted, but it crumbled instantly when the telegraphist shot a quick look at Joan and gave Martin a grin of cordial congratulation.
As soon as he saw a taxi, Martin hailed it and told the chauffeur to drive to the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. "We'll walk from there," he said to Joan, "—if you'd like to, that is."
"I would like to. I want to peer into the shop windows and look at hats and dresses. I've got absolutely nothing to wear. Marty, tell me, are we well off?"
Martin laughed. She reminded him of a youngster going for a picnic and pooling pocket money. "Yes," he said, "—quite."
She sat back with her hands crossed in her lap. "I'm so glad. It simplifies everything to have plenty to spend." But for her exquisite slightness and freshness, no one would have imagined that she was an only just-fledged bird, flying for the first time. Her equability and poise were those of a completely sophisticated woman. Nothing seemed to surprise her. Whatever happened was all part and parcel of the great adventure. Yesterday she was an overwatched girl, looking yearningly at a city that appeared to be unattainable. To-day she was a married woman who, a moment ago, had been standing before a minister, binding herself for good or ill to a man who was delightfully a boy and of whom she knew next to nothing. What did it matter—what did anything matter—so long as she achieved her long-dreamed-of ambition to live and see life?
"Then I can go ahead," she added, "and dress as becomes the wife of a man of one of our best families. I've never been able to dress before. Trust me to make an excellent beginning." There was a twinkle of humor in her eyes as she said these things, and excitement too. "Tell me this, Marty: is it as easy to get unmarried as it is to get married?"
"You're not thinking about that already, surely!"
"Oh, no. But information is always useful, isn't it?"
Just for a moment the boy's heart went down into his boots. She didn't love him yet; he knew that He intended to earn her love as an honest man earns his living. What hurt was the note of flippancy in her voice in talking of an event that was to him so momentous and wonderful. It seemed to mean no more to her to have entered into a lifelong tie than the buying of a mere hat—not so much, not nearly so much, as to have found a way of not going back to those two old people in the country. She was young, awfully young, he told himself again. Presently her feet would touch the earth, and she would understand.
As they walked up Fifth Avenue and with little gurgles of enthusiasm Joan halted at every other shop to look at hats that appealed to Martin as absurdly, willfully freakish, and evening dresses which seemed deliberately to have been handed over to a cat to be torn to ribbons, it came back to him that one just such soft spring evening, the year before, he had walked home from the Grand Central Station and been seized suddenly with an almost painful longing to be asked by some precious person who belonged wholly to him to share her delight in all the things which then stood for nothing in his life. Then and there he fulfilled an ambition long cherished and hidden away; he touched Joan on the arm and opened the elaborate door of a famous jeweler. He was known to the shop from the fact that he and his father had always dealt there for wedding and Christmas presents. He was welcomed by a man in the clothes of a concert singer and with the bedside manner of a family doctor.
He was desperately self-conscious, and his collar felt two sizes too small, but he managed to get into his voice a tone that was sufficiently matter-of-fact to blunt the edge of the man's rather roguish smile. "Let me see your latest gold-mesh bags," he said as ordinary, everyday people ask to see collar studs.
"Marty!" whispered Joan. "What are you going to do?"
"Oh, that's all right," said Martin. "You can't get along without a bag, you see."
Half a dozen yellow, insinuating things were laid out on the shining glass, and with a wonderful smile that was worth all the gold the earth contained to Martin, Joan made a choice—but not hastily, and not before she had inspected every other gold bag in the shop. Even at eighteen she was woman enough to want to be quite certain that she possessed herself of the very best thing of its kind and would never have, in future, to feel jealous of one that might lie alluringly in the window.
"This one," she said finally. "I'm quite sure."
Martin didn't ask the price. It was for his bride. He picked it up and hung it over her wrist, said "The old address," nodded to the man,—who was just about to call attention to a tray of diamond brooches,—and led the way out, feeling at least six feet two.
And as Joan regained the street, she passed another milestone in her life. To be the proprietor of precisely just such a gold bag had been one of her steady dreams.
"Marty," she said, "what a darling you are!"
The boy's eyes filled with tears.
It was an evening Martin would never forget.
His suggestion that they should dine at Delmonico's and go to the Empire to see Ethel Barrymore, accepted with avidity, had stirred Joan to immediate action. She had hailed a taxi, said, "You'll see me in an hour, Marty," and disappeared with a quick injunction to have whatever she bought sent home C.O.D.
It was actually two hours before he saw her again. He thanked his stars that he had enough money in the bank to meet the checks that he was required to make out in quick succession. Joan had not wasted time, and as she got into the car to drive away from that sandwich house of excited servants, two other milestones had been left behind. She was in a real evening frock, and all the other things she had bought were silk.
They drove straight home from the theater. Joan was tired. The day had been long and filled with amazements. She was out in the world at last. Realization had exceeded expectation for the first time in history.
The sand-man had been busy with Martin's eyes too, but he led the way into the dining room with shoulders square and chin high and spring in his blood. This was home indeed.
"What a tempting little supper!" said Joan. "And just look at all these flowers."
They were everywhere, lilacs and narcissi, daffodils, violets and hothouse roses. Hours ago he had sent out the almost unbelieving footman for them. Joan and flowers—they were synonymous.
She put her pretty face into a great bowl of violets. "You remembered all my little friends, Marty," she said.
They sat opposite each other at the long table. Martin's father looked down at Martin's wife, and his mother at the boy from whom she had been taken when his eager eyes came up to the level of her pillow. And there was much tenderness on both their faces.
Martin caught the manservant's eyes. "Don't wait," he said. "We'll look after ourselves."
Presently Joan gave a little laugh. "Please have something yourself. You're better than a footman. You're a butler."
His smile as he took his place would have lighted up a tunnel.
"I like Delmonico's," said Joan. "We'll often dine there. And the play was perfectly splendid. What a lot of others there are to see! I don't think we'll let the grass grow under our feet, Marty. And presently we'll have some very proper little dinner parties in this room, won't we? Interesting, vital people, who must all be good-looking and young. It will be a long time before I shall want to see anyone old again. Think what Alice Palgrave will say when she comes back! She'll underline every word if she can find any words. She wasn't married till she was twenty."
And presently, having pecked at an admirable fruit salad, just sipped a glass of wine and made close-fitting plans that covered at least a month, Joan rose. "I shall go up now, Marty," she said. "It's twelve o'clock."
He watched her go upstairs with his heart in his throat. Surely this was all a dream, and in a moment he would find himself rudely and coldly awake, standing in the middle of a crowded, lonely world? But she stopped on the landing, turned, smiled at him and waved her hand. He drew in a deep breath, went back into the dining room, put his lips to the violets that had been touched by her face, and switched off the lights. The scent of spring was in the air.
"Come in," she said, when presently, after a long pause, he knocked at her door.
She was sitting at a gleaming dressing table in something white and clinging, doing her hair that was so soft and brown and electrical.
He dared not trust himself to speak. He sat down on the edge of a sofa at the foot of the bed and watched her.
She went on brushing but with her unoccupied hand gathered her gown about her. "What is it, Marty?" she asked quietly.
"Nothing," he said, finding something that sounded curiously unlike his voice.
She could see his young, eager face and broad shoulders in the looking-glass. His hands were clasped tightly round one knee.
"I've been listening to the sound of traffic," she said. "That's the sort of music that appeals to me. It seems a year since I did my hair in that great, prim room and heard the owls cry and watched myself grow old. Just think! It's really only a few hours ago that I dropped my suit-case out of a window and climbed down the creeper. We said we'd make things move, didn't we?"
"I shall write to your grandfather in the morning," said Martin, with almost comical gravity and an unconscious touch of patronage. How childlike the old are to the very young!
"That will be nice of you," answered Joan. "We'll be very kind to him, won't we? There'll be no one to read the papers to him now."
"He was a great chap once," said Martin. "My father liked him awfully."
She swung her hair free and turned her chair a little. "You must tell me what he said about him, in the morning. Heigh-ho, I'm so sleepy."
Martin got up and went to see if the windows were all open. "They'll call us at eight," he said, "unless you'd like it to be later."
Joan went to the door and opened it and held out her hand. "Eight's good," she said. "Good night, Marty."
The boy looked at the little open hand with its long fingers, and at his wife, who seemed so cool and sweet and friendly. What did she mean?
He asked her, with an odd catch in his voice.
And she gave him the smile of a tired child. "Just that, old boy. Good night."
"But—but we're married," he said with a little stammer.
"Do you think I can forget that, in this room, with that sound in the street?"
"Well, then, why say good night to me like this?"
"How else, Marty dear?"
An icy chill ran over Martin and struck at his heart. Was it really true that she could stand there and hold out her hand and with the beginning of impatience expect him to leave a room the right to which had been made over to him by law and agreement?
He asked her that, as well as he could, in steadier, kinder words than he need have used.
And she dropped her hand and sighed a little. "Don't spoil everything by arguing with me, Marty. I really am only a kid, you know. Be good and run along now. Look—it's almost one."
The blood rushed to his head, and he held out his hands to her. "But I love you. I love you, Joany. You can't—you CAN'T tell me to go." It was a boy's cry, a boy profoundly, terribly hurt and puzzled.
"Well, if we've got to go into all this now I may as well sit down," she said, and did. "That air's rather chilly, too." She folded her arms over her breast.
It was enough. All the chivalry in Martin came up and choked his anger and bitterness and untranslatable disappointment. He went out and shut the door and stumbled downstairs into the dark sitting room and stood there for a long time all among chaos and ruin. He loved her to adoration, and the spring was in his blood; and if she was young, she was not so young as all that; and where was her side of the bargain? And at last, through the riot and jumble of his thoughts, her creed of life came back to him, word for word: she took all she could get and gave nothing in return; and "Who cares?" was her motto.
And after that he stood like a man balanced on the edge of a precipice. In cold blood he could go back and like a brute demand his price. And if he went forward and let her off because he loved her so and was a gentleman, down he must go, like a stone.
He was very white, and his lips were set when he went up to his room. With curious deliberation he got back into his clothes and saw that he had money, returned to the hall, put on his coat and hat, shut the door behind him and walked out under the stars.
"All right, then, who cares?" he said, facing toward the "Great White Way." "Who the devil cares?"
And up in her room, with her hand under her cheek like a child, Joan had left the world with sleep.
Alice Palgrave's partner had dealt, and having gone three in "no trumps" and found seven to the ace, king, queen in hearts lying before her in dummy, she wore a smile of beatific satisfaction. So also did Alice—for two reasons. The deal obviously spelled money, and Vere Millet could be trusted to get every trick out of it. There were four bridge tables fully occupied in the charming drawing-room, and as she caught the hostess' eye and smiled, she felt just a little bit like a fairy godmother in having surrounded Joan with so many of the smartest members of the younger set barely three weeks after her astonishing arrival in a city in which she had only one friend.
Alice didn't blind herself to the fact that in order to gamble, most of the girls in the room would go, without the smallest discrimination, to anybody's house; but there were others,—notably Mrs. Alan Hosack, Mrs. Cooper Jekyll and Enid Ouchterlony,—whose pride it was to draw a hard, relentless line between themselves and every one, however wealthy, who did not belong to families of the same, or almost the same, unquestionable standing as their own. Their presence in the little house in East Sixty-seventh Street gave it, they were well aware, a most enviable cachet and placed Joan safely within the inner circle of New York society—the democratic royal inclosure. It was something to have achieved so soon—little as Joan appeared, in her astonishing coolness, to appreciate it. The Ludlows, as Joan had told Alice with one of her frequent laughs, might have come over in the only staterooms on the ship which towed the heavily laden Mayflower, but that didn't alter the fact that the Hosacks, the Jekylls and the Ouchterlonys were the three most consistently exclusive and difficult families in the country, to know whom all social climbers would joyously mortgage their chances of eternity. Alice placed a feather in her cap accordingly.
Joan's table was the first to break up. She was a loser to the tune of seventy dollars, and while she wrote her check to Marie Littlejohn, a tiny blond exotic not much older than herself,—who laid down the law with the ripe authority of a Cabinet Minister and kept to a daily time-table with the unalterable effrontery of a fashionable doctor,—talked over her shoulder to Christine Hurley.
"Alice tells me that your brother has gone to France with the Canadian Flying Corps. Aren't you proud of him?"
"I suppose so, but it isn't our war, and they're awfully annoyed about it at Piping Rock. He was the crack man of the polo team, you know. I don't see that there was any need of his butting into this European fracas."
"I quite agree with you," said Miss Littlejohn, with her eyes on the clock. "I broke my engagement to Metcalfe Hussey because he insisted on going over to join the English regiment his grandfather used to belong to. I've no patience with sentimentality." She took the check and screwed it into a small gold case. "I'm dining with my bandage-rolling aunt and going on to the opera. Thank goodness, the music will drown her war talk. Good-by." She nodded here and there and left, to be driven home with her adipose chow in a Rolls-Royce.
Christine Hurley touched a photograph that stood on Joan's desk. "Who's this good-looking person?" she asked.
"My husband," said Joan.
"Oh, really! When are we to see something of him?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Joan. "He's about somewhere."
Miss Hurley laughed. "It's like that already, is it? Haven't you only just been married?"
"Yes," said Joan lightly, "but we've begun where most people leave off. It's a great saving of time and temper!"
The sophisticated Christine, no longer in the first flush of giddy youth, still unmarried after four enterprising years, was surprised into looking with very real interest at the girl who had been until that moment merely a hostess. Her extreme finish, her unself-conscious confidence and intrepidity, her unassumed lightness of temper were not often found in one so young and apparently virginal. She dismissed as unbelievable the story that this girl had been brought up in the country in an atmosphere of early Victorianism. She had obviously just come from one of those elaborate finishing schools in which the daughters of rich people are turned into hothouse plants by sycophants and parasites and sent out into the world the most perfect specimens of superautocracy, to patronize their parents, scoff at discipline, ignore duty and demand the sort of luxury that brought Rome to its fall. With admiration and amusement she watched her say good-by to one woman after another as the various tables broke up. It really gave her quite a moment to see the way in which Joan gave as careless and unawed a hand to Mrs. Alan Hosack and Mrs. Cooper Jekyll as to the Countess Palotta, who had nothing but pride to rattle in her little bag; and when finally she too drove away, it was with the uneasy sense of dissatisfaction that goes with the dramatic critic from a production in which he has honestly to confess that there is something new—and arresting.
Alice Palgrave stayed behind. She felt a natural proprietary interest in the success of the afternoon. "My dear," she said emotionally, "you're perfectly wonderful!"
"I am? Why?"
"To any other just-married girl this would have been an ordeal, a nerve-wrecking event. But you've been as cool as a fish—I've been watching you. You might have been brought up in a vice-regal lodge and hobnobbed all your life with ambassadors. How do you do it?"
Joan laughed and threw out her arms. "Oh, I don't know," she said, with her eyes dancing and her nostrils extended. "I don't stop to think how to do things. I just do them. These people are young and alive, and it's good to be among them. I work off some of my own vitality on them and get recharged at the sound of their chatter. People, people—give me people and the clash of tongues and the sense of movement. I don't much care who they are. I shall pick up all the little snobbish stuff sooner or later, of course, and talk about the right set and all that, as you do. I'm bound to. At present everything's new and exciting, and I'm whipping it up. You wait a little. I'll cut out some of the dull and pompous when I've got things going, and limit myself to red-blooded speed-breakers. Give me time, Alice."
She sat down at the piano and crashed out a fox-trot that was all over town. No one would have imagined from her freshness and vivacity that she had been dancing until daylight every night that week.
"Well," said Alice when she could be heard, "I see you making history, my dear; there's no doubt about that."
"None whatever," answered Joan. "I'm outside the walls at last, and I'll go the pace until the ambulance comes."
"With or without Martin Gray?"
"With, if he's quick enough—without, if not."
"Be careful," said Alice.
"Not I, my dear. I left care away back in the country with my little old frocks."
Alice held out her hand. "You bewilder me a little," she said. "You make me feel as if I were in a high wind. You did when we were at school, I remember. Well, don't bother to thank me for having got up this party." She added this a little dryly.
With a most winning smile Joan kissed her. "You're a good pal, Alice," she said, "and I'm very grateful."
Alice was compensated, although her shrewd knowledge of character told her how easily her friend won her points. "And I hope you're duly grateful to Martin Gray?"
"To dear old Marty? Rather! He and I are great pals."
But that was all Alice got. Her burning curiosity to know precisely how this young couple stood must go unsatisfied for the time being. She had only caught a few fleeting glimpses of the man who had given Joan the key to life, and every time had wondered, from something in his eyes, whether he found things wholly good. She was just a little suspicious of romances. Her own had worn thin so quickly. "Good-by, my dear," she said. "Don't forget you're dining with me to-morrow."
"What are you doing to-night?"
"Going to bed at nine o'clock to sleep the clock round. I'm awfully tired."
She stood quite still for many minutes after Alice had gone, and shut her eyes. In a quick series of moving pictures she saw thousands of little lights and swaying people and clashing colors, and caught snatches of lilting music and laughter. She was tired, and something that seemed like a hand pressed her forehead tightly, but the near-by sound of incessant traffic sent her blood spinning, and she opened her eyes and gave a little laugh and went out.
Martin was on his way downstairs. He drew up abruptly. "Oh, hello!" he said.
"Oh, hello!" said Joan.
He was in evening clothes. His face had lost its tan and his eyes their clear country early-to-bed look. "You've had a tea-fight, I see. I peered into the drawing-room an hour ago and backed out, quick."
"Why? They were all consumed with curiosity about you. Alice has advertised our romantic story, you see." She clasped her hands together and adopted a pose in caricature of the play heroine in an ecstasy of egomania.
But Martin's laugh was short and hollow. He wasn't amused. "How did you get on?" he asked.
"Lost seventy dollars—that's all. Three-handed bridge with Grandfather and Grandmother was not a good apprenticeship. I must have a few lessons. D'you like my frock? Come up. You can't see it from there."
And he came up and looked at her as she turned this way and that. How slim she was, and alluring! The fire in him flamed up, and his eyes flickered. "Awful nice!" he said.