THE THREAD OF FLAME

BASIL KING May 1 1920

THE THREAD OF FLAME

BASIL KING May 1 1920

CHAPTER XXII

"AND a mighty good school too for a sport. Do you know it?"

"But Lydia," I began, "what in the name of—?'

“Sh-h! Don’t swear,” was all she said, as taking Boosey’s parcel she opened Vio’s door, softly she closed it behind her.

Once more Boosey’s expression dramatized my situation. That the master of the house in which he exercised his functions—even such a master as I—should be called “kid” by a girl like Lydia created a social topsey-turveydom defying all his principles. For perceptible seconds he stared in an astonishment mingled with disdain, after which he turned on his heel to tell the news in the kitchen.

But I was too much puzzled by Lydia’s reappearance to tear myself away. What had she to do with Vio? How did she get the right to go in and out of Vio’s room with this matter of course authority?

In a corner of the hall, beside the window looking over the Common, was an armchair in which Vio often sat when taking her breakfast upstairs, and glancing over her correspondence. I sank into it now, and waited. Sooner or later Lydia must come out. again.

This she did some twenty minutes later, dainty and nonchalant.

“Lydia,” I cried, springing to my feet, “what in the name of God are you doing here?”

“You see.”

THE parcel she had taken from Boosey was now undone, revealing some three or four pairs of corsets. Laying the bundle on the table Vio used for her breakfast-tray the girl began to roll the corsets neatly.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask that I hardly knew where to begin.

“How long have you been coming to—to see my wife?”

“Oh, not so very long—a month perhaps.”

“Did you know I was here?”

“Why, sure.”

“Is that what brought you?”

She glanced up sidewise from her work, with one of those glances she alone could fling.

“Well, you have got a nerve. Suppose I said yes?”

“Who—who told you where to find me?”

“Who do you think?”

“Miss Averill?”

"No it wasn't Miss Averill. As far as I can make out little old Milly doesn’t give you a second thought now that she knows you’re in the bosom of your family.”

“Is that true?”

“Why of course it’s true. Did you want to think she was pining away?”

“Well, who did tell you?”

“Why should I want anyone to tell me? Ever since I’ve been with Clotilde I’m always on the lookout for new customers. I get a commission on every pair—”

“But it wasn’t for the commission you came to see Mrs. Harrowby?”

“Well, what was it for then?”

“That’s what I want you to tell me.”

“How much did you tell me when you disappeared from the Barcelona over two years ago—”

“I told you as much as I could tell anyone.”

“You didn't tell me your name was Harrowby.”

“I didn't know it.”

SHE swung round from her work with the parcel. “You didn’t—what?”

I tapped my forehead. “Shell shock. I’d—I'd forgotten who I was.”

A flip of her slender hand dismissed this explanation, as she resumed her task.

“Ah, go on!” And yet she veered back again, with a dash of tears in her blue eyes. “Say, kid, I know all about it. You needn’t try to put anything over on me. I know all about it—and I’m sorry for you. That’s what I want to say. Do you remember how I used to tell you I was your friend, and that Harry Drinkwater was your friend too? Well we are even now. There’s something about you we both—we both kind o’ took to. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. It was there when I thought you might be a swell crook; and if I didn’t mind that I don’t mind—this. The only thing I’m thinking is that you’re up against it awful thick; and so I told Dick Stroud that whoever shook you the sad hand of farewell I’d be on the spot as the ministering angel.”

There were so many points here that I could only seize the one lying, as it were, on top.

“So you—you know Dick Stroud?”

She had gone on with her work again.

“Know him? Well, I should say!”

“Have you known him long?”

‘Known him ever since—Say, I’ll tell you when it was.

It was after we all came back on that ship together, and I was still doing the stenog act for Boydie Averill, before I got Harry back on the job again. Well, one day that guy floated in, towed by little Lulu. He sure is her style for fair—or he used to be before he went to France.”

“Did—did Mrs. Averill introduce him to you?”

“He didn’t wait for that. He introduced himself—with a look. I didn’t need a second one before I’d read him like a headline. When I started to go home that evening he was waiting at the corner to take me in a taxi.”

“Did you let him?”

“Sure I let him. It was a ride. When he asked me to dinner at the Blitz I let him do that too. You saw us. Don’t you remember that nut—that’s what you called him afterwards—?”

IT came back to me— that sleek mass of silver, distinguished and sinister at once.

“So that was he!”

“That was Dick—sure thing!"

“You call him Dick?”

“What else would I call him when he wants me to—But that’s giving him away.”

“Giving whom away?”

Vio had come out of her room without our having heard her. In a tea-gown of black and gold she stood before us in an almost terrifying dignity.

That is, it was almost terrifying to me, though Lydia was equal to the situation.

“Oh, madam, I didn’t know you heard. Mr. Harrowby was just kidding me about Colonel Stroud.”

“Indeed!” Moving forward with the air of an astonished queen Vio seated herself in the armchair. “But why should Mr. Harrowby be—what was the word?—kidding you about anything?”

“Oh, we’re old friends. Aint we?” She turned to me for corroboration.

“Very good old friends,” I said, with some warmth.

“Really! And you never told me.”

“Madam never asked me. She never asked me if I knew Colonel Stroud either. How could I tell that she wanted to know?”

“Oh, but I don’t want to know. I’m only interested—” She looked toward me—“that you and—and this young lady should be so—so intimate.”

“I hope madam doesn’t mind.”

“Let me see,” Vio began to calculate. “It’s about four or five weeks since Mrs. Mountney sent you to me—”

“And Mrs. Averill had sent me to her. You see, Madam, I get a commission on every pair—and so—”

“And so it was a good opportunity to—”

“To improve myself—yes, Madam.”

VIO’S brows came together in a frown. “To—what? I don’t understand you.”

“You see, Madam, it’s this way. I’ve only taken this corset job to—to get an insight. I’m not really a sales woman at all. I’m an adventuress.”

It was the only moment at which I ever saw Vio nonplussed.

“Oh, you are!” was all she could find to say.

“Well, not exactly yet; but I’m going to be. Only if you’re an adventuress you've got to be a swell adventuress. There's only one kind—and it’s that. But you see, Madam, I’ve never had enough to do with ladies to be the real thing; and so when Clotilde put me on to this corset stunt I thought it’d give me a chance to study them.”

“To study—ladies?”

“Yes, Madam. An adventuress has got to be that much of a lady that she can put it over on a duchess, or she might just as well stay out of the business. Any boob in the movie line would tell you that.”

“You interest me,” Vio said, almost beneath her breath.

“I generally interest people, Madam, when I get a-going. Colonel Stroud says that if I was to go in for—”

“That’s not what I want to hear. Tell me if—if your studies have taught you what you wanted to know.”

Having completed her package Lydia stood in the attitude of a neat French maid in a play.

“It’s the model, Madam. That’s where the trouble is. An adventuress has got to be—well, just so. Did Madam ever see Agnes Dunham as the Russian Countess in The Scarlet Sin? Well, she’s it—only she’s too old. She must be thirty-five if she’s a day. I don’t know how many times I didn’t go to see her; but I couldn’t be that old—and then she talked with a French accent, so that settled it. Colonel Stroud said that if I was ever going to do the thing there was only one woman in the world—”

“He took a professional interest in you then?”

“Oh, my, yes; professional and every other way. Still does. Awful kind he can be when he likes; but when he doesn’t like—My!”

I was sorry for Vio. With bloodless lips and strained eyes she sat grasping the arms of her chair in the effort to keep her self-mastery. Had I loved her less I could have been glad of this minute, because it was giving me what might be called my revenge. But I loved her too much. It was clear to me too that I loved her more than I ever did. My return had been a shock to her, and she had made a tremendous effort to be game. She was game. She had not fallen short of the most sporting standard, except in matters over which she had no control.

“Stroud is always like that,” I endeavored to smile, “giving everyone a helping hand. He mayn’t be the wisest old dog in the world, but no one can say that he isn’t kind and faithful.”

As it happened I had better have kept quiet. Vio sat upright, all the force of her anger turned upon me.

“Has this girl been anything to you?”

“Yes, Madam; a mother.”

In her endeavor to control herself Vio uttered a hard pant, eyeing the girl up and down.

“Oh? Indeed? You’re young to be—a mother!”

“Only a little younger than you, Madam; and not half so beautiful. Madam knows that any woman worth her salt is mother to any man down on his luck—I don’t care who he is, or who she is.”

“Thank you for the information. I hope Mr. Harrowby has appreciated your maternal care.”

“Well he did and he didn’t, Madam. Just when I thought, he was going to buck up—he cleared out, and I thought he must be dead. Now I find that—"

“That he’s alive. If you had come to me I could have told you that—that clearing out was his specialty. You might say he had a genius for it if you weren’t compelled to call it by another name.”

I took a long stride toward her.

“Vio, do you mean anything by that?”

“What should I mean but—but the fact? You’re a mystery to me, Billy, just as you’ve evidently been to—to this young lady. At the very minute when we hope, as she so picturesquely puts it, that you’re going to buck up you—you clear out. You must have a marvellous eye for your opportunities in that respect. That’s why I say it is like genius. No one who didn’t have a genius for clearing out—still to call it that—could so neatly have seen his chance at Bourg-la-Comtesse—”

“Viol”

I DON’T know what I was about to do, because with my own shout ringing in my ears I became aware that Lydia had caught me by the arm.

‘‘Oh, kid, please don’t!”

“Yes, let him.” Vio’s face was strained upward toward me, but otherwise she hadn’t moved. “Men who run away from other men are always quick to strike women.”

My arm fell. I bent till my face was close to hers.

“When did I ever run away—?”

Her hand was thrown out in the imperious gesture of dismissal I had seen two or three times already.

“Please, Billy! We won’t go into that. You’ll—you’ll spare me.”

“Vio, you believe that!”

She inclined her head slowly.

“That I was a—a coward—a deserter?”

She inclined her head again.

“And that I—” the whole plan spread itself out-before me—“that I pretended to commit suicide in order to cover up my tracks?”

Once more she bowed her head relentlessly.

“You believe that?”

“Billy, I know it. Everyone knows it. I’ve stood by you right up to now. But now—” She rose with a kind of majesty from which I backed away—“now that you’ve brought this woman here—into my house—where I’ve been fighting your battles—Oh, Billy, what kind of a man are you—to have—to have a wife like me?”

I made no attempt to respond to this. I could only stand amazed and speechless. Perhaps a minute had gone by, perhaps two or three, before I found myself able to say:

“All right, Vio. Since it’s—since it’s that way—and with all the other things—”

But I couldn’t go any further. There was another speechless passage of time, during which we could only stare at each other, regardless of the white and wide-eyed spectator of the scene.

Turning abruptly I walked down the long hall toward the door of my own room. As I did so Vlo said nothing, but Lydia uttered a little, broken cry.

“Oh, kid, I don’t believe it. Harry Drinkwater doesn’t believe it either. Nobody will believe it when they’ve had a word with me.”

But I didn’t thank her. I didn’t so much as look back. It was only by degrees that I learnt, too, what the two women said to each other when I left them alone together.

CHAPTER XXIII

I WAS packing in my room when Boosey brought me a letter. As letters had for so long been to me a thing of the past I took it with some curiosity, recognizing at once the hand of my friend Pelly.

“Dear Soames,

I suppose I ought to call you Mr. Harrowby now but it don’t somehow come natural. Soames you were to me and Soames you will be till I get used to the other thing, which I don’t think I shall I write you these few lires to let you know that I am well and going just the same as ever, though I miss our old times together something fierce. Would like to know how you are if you ever get time to write. Expect you are having a swell time with all the gay guys in Boston. Friends say that Boston is some sporty town when you get with the inside gang, which I don’t suppose you have any trouble in getting. Miss Smith has no one yet for your old room, which is all re-papered and fine with a brand-new set of toadstools, real showy ones. Mrs. Leeming is sure seme artist and a nice old girl besides when she doesn't cry. Had a very nice time at Jim’s the other night; just a quart between him and Bridget and me; nothing rough-house but all as a gentle man should. Bridget could come as his wife was away burying an uncle at Bing Hampton. Hope you found your wife going strong as this leaves mine at present. Had a very nice letter from her the other day and answered it on the spot, telling her to be true to me and may God bring her and me together again after this long parting. Now no more

Your friend,

S. PELLY.

Write soon.”

It is impossible to tell you of the glow that warmed and lightened me on reading these friendly lines. They were all the more grateful owing to the fact that if Pelly believed of me what Vio and everyone else believed, as quite possibly he did, it would have made no difference. Of the things taught me in my contact with the less sophisticated walks in life the beauty of a world in which there is comparatively little judging was the most comforting. There were all kinds of jealousies there, bickerings, sulkings, puerilities, and now and then a glorious free fight; but condemnation was rare. The bruised spirit could be at peace in this large charity, and in the spaciousness of its tolerance the humiliated soul could walk with head erect. Its ideals and pleasures might be crude; but they were not pharisaical.

If I had any doubt as to my plans I had none any longer. The instinct that urged me back to the room with the new set of toadstools was like that of the poor bull baited in the ring to take refuge amid the dumb, sympathetic herd of its own kind. I asked only to be hidden there, to live and work, or if necessary die, obscurely.

NOT that I hadn’t had a first impulse to try and clear my name; but the futility of attempting that was soon apparent. I had nothing to offer but my word, and my word had been rejected. In the course of the two or three hours since the scene with Vlo and Lydia—while I had gone to the station to secure a berth on a night train for New York and dined at a hotel—I had come to the conclusion that the effort to explain would be folly. The mere fact that my doings between Bourg-la-Comtesse and the Auvergne were still blurred in my memory would make any tale I told incoherent and open to suspicion. In addition to that Vio knew, Wolf knew, and others knew, that I had not offered my services to the Ambulance Corps of my own free will, while my letters had painted my horror of the sights I witnessed with no thought of reserve. My supposed suicide being ascribed to remorse, the discovery that I was alive and well and in hiding in New York....

No; the evidence against me was too strong. The one witness who might say something in my favor—Dr. Scattlethwaite had himself not believed me. He could say that the claim I was putting forth now I had put forth two years previously: but there would be nothing convincing in that.

Besides, and there was much in the fact, I wanted to get away, to get back among those who trusted me, and to whom I felt I belonged. If the thread of flame had led me to my old life it was only to show me once for all that there was no place for me in it. Knowing that, I could take hold of the new life more whole-heartedly, and probably do better work there. Already new plans were springing to my mind, plans which I could the more easily put into operation because of having some money at my disposal. Mildred Averill would help me in that, and perhaps I could help her. If Vio secured a divorce, and I should put no obstruction in the way of that....

But Vio herself came into my room, with the calm manner and easy movement which in no wise surprised me, as she was subject to such reactions after moments of excitement.

“What are you doing, Billy?”

She seated herself quietly.

A coat being spread before me on the bed I folded the sleeves, and doubled the breasts backward.

“I’m packing.”

“What for?”

“Because I’m going away.”

“When?”

“To-night; in an hour or so.”

“Where to?”

“New York first.”

“And then?”

“I don’t know yet. Possibly nowhere. I may stay in New York, Probably I shall.”

“And not come back here any more?”

“That’s my intention.”

“What are you doing it for?”

Taking the coat I had folded I laid it in my suitcase.

“I should think you’d see.”

“Is it—is it because of—of what was said this afternoon?”

“Partly.”

“Not altogether?”

Pulling another coat from the closet I spread it on the bed.

“No; not altogether.”

“What else is there?”

“Oh, nothing that you’d be interested in. I—I just want to get away.”

“From me?”

“Only in the sense that—that you’re part of the whole.”

“The whole what?”

“The whole life. It’s not a life for me any more.”

SHE did not deny this or protest against it. For a minute or more she said nothing, though as I crossed the room from the bed to the closet for more clothes I saw in the glass that she furtively dashed away a tear. Yesterday I would have been touched by that; but now that I knew what she believed of me, what she had been believing of me during all the weeks since I had come home, my heart was benumbed. Besides, if she was in love with Dick Stroud there was no reason for my feeling pity.

I had begun on collars and neckties when she said:

“What kind of a girl was that who was here this afternoon?"

“You must have seen something of her for yourself. I understood from her that she’d been coming to see you—"

“She’s been here three times. Alice Mountney sent her, and I believe Lulu Averill sent her to her. I had no idea that she had anything in her mind than just to sell this new kind of corset.”

“And had she?”

“Didn’t she tell you?”

“She didn’t tell me. If she’s said anything to you I don’t know what it can be.”

“She’s not—she’s not crazy, is she?”

“I shouldn’t think so. Why do you ask?”

“Then she’s extremely peculiar.”

“We’re all that in our different ways, aren’t we?”

“I don’t know now whether to take her seriously or not.”

“What about?”

“About—about—Dick.”

I went on with my packing without answering.

“What do you think?" she asked, at last.

“Oh, I don’t think anything. Why should I?"

"But I suppose you have an opinion."

“On what point ?"

"The point she brought up as to her knowing him so well.”

“I've no opinion about that. I know she knows him very well indeed. At least I take it for granted.”

“What makes you do that?”

“Oh, just having seen them together.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why should I have done that? Men don’t—don't give each other away."

“Then in his knowing her there was something to—to give away.”

“Evidently.’’

“Then what about your knowing her yourself?”

"That was different.’’

"Different how?”

Since she was pressing the question I decided not to spare her.

"I didn’t wait for her at a street corner as a form of introduction.”

EXPECTING the question, “And did he?” I was surprised that she should make it, “And would it be indiscreet to inquire what your form of introduction was?”

“I was presented to her in all propriety by a blind boy named Drinkwater you heard her mention him who was my cabin-mate on the Auvergne. He and Miss Blair and I, with some other people, happened to sit at the same table.”

"And have you no interest in her besides that?”

“Yes; she’s been a very good friend to me. I haven’t seen her for two years and more; but that was my fault.”

“So I understand.”

“What do you mean by that?”

"That if you had no interest in her she had an interest in you, strong enough to—to impel her to make my acquaintance.”

“With some good end in view—presumably.”

“With the end in view of giving me the information that—that she knew Dick."

“And you call that taking an interest in me?”

"What do you think yourself?”

ONCE more I declined to give my impressions. Where Stroud was concerned I had nothing to say. Now that Vio knew something of the truth concerning him I wished not to influence her in any way. The matter seemed oddly far away from me. The tie between Vio and myself being broken in fact, as it soon would be in law I preferred to leave the subject of my successor where it was.

“Why do you say," she began after a brief pause, “that, this is not a life for you any more?”

“Because it isn’t.”

“But why isn’t it?”

“For one reason because I don’t like it.”

"Oh!” She was not expecting this reply, and it displeased her. “What’s the matter with it?”

“For me—everything. But it’s nothing that you would understand.”

"I suppose I could understand if you explained to me.”

"No, you couldn’t. Or, rather, I couldn't. The language isn t coined that would give me the words to tell you. It’s not the facts of the life I dislike; it’s the spirit of it."

“Is there anything wrong with the spirit of it?”

"I'm not saying so. I merely dislike it—for myself. For me it’s not a real life any more. I belong to—to simpler people with less complex ideas.”

“Less complex ideas about what?”

About honor for one thing." In my goings and comings round the room I paused in front of her. “Among my friends—my real friends—you can be a coward or a deserter, just as you could be a murderer or a thief and no one would pass judgment upon you.”

“And is that—a virtue?”

“I don’t know anything about its being a virtue; but it is a consolation.”

As I stood looking down on her she said, softly;

“Have I passed judgment upon you?”

“You’ve been a brick, Vio; you've been a heroine. The only difference I should note between you and the people to whom I’m going back is that you've suppressed your condemnation, and they didn’t feel it.”

“Did they—know?”

“I can’t tell you what they knew, for the reason that it wouldn’t have mattered. They knew there was something wrong with me, that I was hiding something, that I was probably an outcast of good family; but they gave me a great big affection to live in, and thought no more about it. You've given me—”

THERE was an extraordinary brilliant flash of her dark eyes as she lifted them to mine.

"What?" she interjected. “Have you any idea of what I've given you?”

“You’ve given me,” I repeated, “the great big affection to live in, but with something in it that poisoned the air. I'm grateful to you, Vio, more grateful than I can begin to tell you—especially as I know now what you’ve been thinking all the time—but you can easily understand that I prefer not to live in an atmosphere laden with—”

"If we purified that—the atmosphere? What then?”

“It still wouldn’t be everything. When I say I don’t like the life it isn’t just because it’s cast me out; it’s because for me—mind you, I’m not speaking of anyone else—it’s become vapid and—and foolish—and—and a throwing away of time.”

“And what do you find among the people you—you call your friends that’s more worth while?”

"That's what it’s hard to tell you. I find the simple and elemental—something basic and foundational that the new crisis in existence is telling us to discover and—and rectify. You remember what I said a month or more ago to Stroud, that our building was collapsing—”

“Yes; and I hoped you were, as people say, talking through your hat.”

“Well, I wasn’t. The building is coming down—right to the foundations. Only the foundations will remain.”

“They’re awfully crude foundations, aren’t they?”

“Exactly. That’s just where the trouble is. The bases of our life are ugly and unclean, and so we’ve turned away and refused to look at them. I’m going back, Vio, to see what I can do to make them less ugly, less unclean, and more secure to build on. How can we erect a society on foundations that already have the element of decay in them before we’ve added the first layer of our superstructure?”

Rising she went to a window, leaning against it as if tired, and looking out into the darkness.

“But what can you do—all by yourself?”

“Very little; but a little is something. It isn’t altogether the success or the failure that I’m thinking about; it’s the principle.”

“Oh, if you’re going to live by principles—”

“We’ve got to live by something. When the world is coming down about our heads—”

“If it’s doing that one man can’t hold it up.”

“No; but a good many men may. I’m not the only one who’s trying.”

“I never heard of anyone trying it like that—by going back to the foundational, as you call it.”

“Oh, I think you have. The Man who more than any other has helped the human race did just that thing. You’re strict about going to church on Sunday—”

She was slightly shocked. “I presume you’re not going to try to be like Him.”

“Perhaps not. I may not aim so high. I’m only pointing out the fact that going back to the foundational and beginning there again was His method. Others have followed it—a good many. All the work connected with what we call Settlements—”

“I never could bear them.”

“Possibly; but that isn’t the point. I’m only saying that in their way Settlement-workers have been feeling out the special weakness of our civilization, and doing their best to meet it. I suppose our politicians and clergymen and economists have been doing the same. The trouble with them is that they so generally nip the symptom while leaving the root of the disease that they don’t accomplish much.”

“Did you accomplish much yourself when you were—?”

“I didn’t try. I didn’t see what I was there for. It’s only since coming back here that I’ve begun to understand why I was led the way I was—”

Turning round she said over her shoulder:

“Do you call that being led?”

I replied with a distinctness which I tried to make significant:

“Yes, Vio; I call it being led. I didn’t see it till I got back here; and even here I didn’t see it till—till this afternoon. And now—now I’ve done with all this. I’ve done with the easy gentlemanly life of spending money and being waited on. I’m not saying it isn’t all right; it’s only not all right for me. I’ve got something else to do. There was a time—you know it as well as I do—when a poor man was an offence to me, and an uncultivated person an abhorrence. I was a snob from every point of view, and I was proud of being one. And now—”

Pulling down the shade, and turning completely round, she stood with her back to the window.

“Yes, Billy? And now—?”

“It’s no use. I can’t tell you. I couldn’t explain if I used up all the words in the dictionary. It’s just a tugging in my heart to get back where—” I had a sudden inspiration. “Read that,” I said, taking Pelly’s letter from my pocket.

SHE stood under the central bunch of electrics while I closed the suitcase and fastened the straps. Having finished the letter she handed it back to me.

“Well?” I asked,

“It’s just—just a common person’s letter as far as I see, and rather coarse. Boosey might have written it, or Miles the chauffeur.”

“And that’s all you see in it?”

“What more is there to see?”

“That’s just it. That’s just where the inexplicable thing lies. I see, or rather I feel, a tenderness in it that probably no one could detect but myself. Even the reference to drinking—”

“The quart.”

“Yes; the quart. You’ve got to remember how small the margin for pleasure is in a life like Sam’s, and how innocently he and Bridget and Jim can do what they had much better let alone. They’re not vicious; they’re only—how shall I say?— they’re only undeveloped. We’re not such saints ourselves, even with our development; and when all civilization has bent its efforts, Church and State together, to keep their minds as primitive as possible so that they’ll do the most primitive kinds of work, you can’t blame them if they take their pleasures and everything else primitively. We’ve got to have another educational system—”

“But they say our educational system is very good as it is.”

“As far as it goes; but we still have one system for the rich and another for the poor, and we shall never get equality of mind till we have equality of educational opportunity. But that’s only a detail. It all hangs together. As far as I’m concerned it sums itself up in the urging that takes me back among simple people because, because I love them, Vio—that’s the only word for it—and in their way they’ve loved me.”

She crossed the room aimlessly.

“Other—other people have—have loved you, as you call it, who—who mayn’t have been simple.”

“Y-yes. But—but in the cup they handed to me there were bitter ingredients. In the cup I’m talking of there was only—love. It was a blind, stumbling, awkward, mannish love, if you like; but it was—love. It was the pure, unadulterated thing, as unconscious of itself as the air is. The girl who was here this afternoon is an example of it. For anything I know she was an idiot to have come; but she came, poor soul, because she thought—"

“Well, what did she think?”

“That if Dick Stroud were out of the way I should have a better chance with you.”

SHE was still moving aimlessly about the room, picking up small objects and putting them down again.

“She said—she said he’d been tagging round after her—it’s her expression—for nearly three years.”

“To my practically certain knowledge that is so.”

“She said, too, that she could marry him if she liked, but that she didn’t want to.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“If she went with him at all, she said, it would probably be—without marriage, as she didn’t wish to be bound to him.”

I looked up in curiosity.

“And did she say there was any possibility of her going with him at all?”

“I think she did. That’s what made me think her touched in her mind or crazy. She said she hadn’t decided, or something like that; but as she was going to be an adventuress she had to begin some time, and perhaps it might as well be with him as with anyone else. She spoke as if it rested entirely with her to take him or throw him away.”

Again I decided to be cruel.

“It very likely does.”

She was standing now by my dressing table, and as if my words had meant nothing to her she said:

“Aren’t you going to take your hairbrush?”

“Oh, I was forgetting to put it in. Thanks.”

When I went for it she was holding it in her hand.

“What a queer, cheap-looking thing! Where on earth did you get it?”

“I suppose it was at Tours, with the other things, when—”

“Oh, yes! I remember.” She moved toward the door. “Your other brushes—the ebony ones with the silver initials—that I gave you before—before we were married—are here. They were with the things found on the bank of that.... they forwarded them to me. Shouldn’t you—shouldn’t you—like them?”

“Thanks, no. This sort of common thing suits me better.”

I was doing the last things about the room, She was standing with her hand on the knob of the door which was half open.

“And when you’re back in New York, Billy, doing that kind of thing you talk bout, shall you be—all alone?”

A second’s reflection convinced me that was best to be clear about everything.

“At first.”

“And later?”

I pulled open a drawer from which I knew I had taken all the contents.

“You mean when we’re both—free?”

“Suppose I put it—when you’re free?”

“Oh, then there may be—someone else.”

“Someone—I know?”

I delved into another drawer, hiding my face. “Someone you may have heard of; but I don’t—I don’t think you know her."

When I had pushed in the drawer I raised myself; but I was alone in the room, Ten minutes later I had left the house without a goodbye on either side.

On the doorstep, in my working man’s costume, and with the everlasting bag and suitcase in my hands, I looked up at a starry, windy sky, with the trees of the Common tossing beneath it.

“My God, what an end!” I cried, inwardly.

But as far as my knowledge or purpose went an end it was.

CHAPTER XXIV

NOBLE intentions being easier to conceive than to carry out it is hardly surprising that on settling again in New York I found myself “let down.” The sense of adventure was out of it, while that of the mission had crept in. The old friends were still the old friends; but my intercourse with them was not less spontaneous it was certainly more self-conscious. Back in my squint-eyed room, with the new paper and the more showy set of fungi, the knowledge that I was there because I chose to be there and not because I couldn’t help it marked all my goings and comings with a point of interrogation.

In some measure too it was a point of disapproval. That is to say, those who welcomed me back took me somewhat in the spirit of a “returned empty.”

“Why, yes, of course—if you want it,” was Miss Smith’s reply to my request to have my old room back again; but her intonation was not wholly that of pleasure. "We thought, my sister and I, that your social duties in Boston would restrict your movements for the future.”

I had pricked their little bubble of romance, and they were disappointed. That one who had been their lodger was now with the Olympian gods was a tale to be told as long as they had a room to let, and to everyone who rented one. I saw it at once that I couldn’t ask them to believe that I had come back of my own free will. The very magnitude of my hopes compelled me to be silent with regard to them.

“Punk,” was Pelly’s comment, when I braced myself to tell him that I had found home life disillusioning.

That was across the table of the familiar eating-house, as we took our first meal together. I was obliged to explain myself for the reason that in the back of his mind also I read the conviction that I hadn’t "made good.” Compelled to be more primitive than I should have liked, I had to base my dissatisfaction on the grounds of physical restriction rather than on those of divine discontent.

“Some of them Boston women will put the lid on a man and lock it down,” he observed, further. “Punk, I call it. Well, now that you’ve broke loose, and with your wad, I suppose you’ll be givin’ yourself a little run.”

I allowed him to make this assumption, thankful that he should understand me from any point of view; but it was not the point of view of our former connection. That a man should be down on his luck was one thing; but that having got on his feet he should deliberately become a waster was another. In any light but that of a reversion to low tastes I could never have made Sam see my return to the house in Meeting House Green. For low tastes he had the same toleration as for misdemeanors; but he did not disguise the fact that for a man who had got his chance he considered them low tastes.

At Creed and Creed’s I received a similar tempered welcome.

“Sure here’s Brogan,” Bridget called out to the other men, on seeing me enter the cavern where four of them were at the accustomed work of sweeping a consignment that had just been unpacked. Burlap and sheepskins were still strewn about the floor, so that I had to restrain the impulse to pick things up and stack them.

Perhaps I can best compare my return to that of a spirit which has passed to a higher sphere and chooses to be for a short time re-embodied. Denis, the Finn, and a small wiry man a stranger to me, all drew near to stare solemnly. My visit could only be taken as a condescension; not as a renewed incorporation into the old life. From that I had been projected forever by the sheer fact of not having to earn a living in this humble way.

“Aw, but it’s well you’re lookin’,” Gallivan said, awesomely.

“And why shouldn’t he be lookin’ well,” Bridget demanded, “and him with more butter than he’s got bread to spread it on?”

“It’s different with us,” the Finn said, bitterly, “with no butter and not enough bread, and more mouths to feed than can ever be filled. I’ll bet you Brogan doesn’t think of them, now that he’s got his own belly full.”

It seemed to me an opening.

“Well, suppose I did? Suppose I’d come back to hand down some of the butter—?”

“Aw, cut it out, Brogan,” the Finn laughed, joylessly. “I was only kiddin’ you. We don’t pass the buck, none of us don’t. What you got, keep; and if you don’t, then the more fool you.”

IN Denis’s yearning eyes were the only signs of remote comprehension in the company.

“Sure ye don’t have to pass the buck just because y’ ask the saints to pray for ye, do ye? Pray for us, Brogan. Ye’ve got nothing else to do.”

It was another opening.

“I wish I had, Denis. I’ve found that I don’t know how to loaf. If you hear of anything—”

He nodded, with beatified aspiration in his leathery old face.

“Aw, then, if it’s that way you feel the Holy Mother’ll find ye something, Protestant though y’are—just as sure as she showed ould Biddy Murphy—and her a Protestant too—that me mother knew in Ireland—where there was two-and-sixpence lyin’ in the mud, and she with the rent cornin’ due the next mornin’. This is the new Brogan,” he continued, with a wave of his hand toward the dark wiry man, who responded with a grin. “He can’t talk our talk hardly not at all, not no more than the monkey I used to tell you about. A Pole he calls hisself; but I niver heard of no such nation as that till I come to this country. We niver had them in Ireland at all at all. There was Ulster men, and Munster men, and men from the County of Monaghan; but I niver heard tell of no Poles. Do you think they’d have sowls like us? or would they be like Chinees and Japansey men?”

“For Gawd’s sake, here’s the Floater,” Bridget warned, softly, and every man got back to his work.

To be Continued