MIRIAM DECIDES

CHARLES LIDDLE September 1 1920

MIRIAM DECIDES

CHARLES LIDDLE September 1 1920

MIRIAM DECIDES

CHARLES LIDDLE

I SUPPOSE most people would admit without hesitation their delight in any suggestion of romance. Personally, as might be expected of a bachelor of fifty or thereabouts, I revel in it. So do you, I dare say. Our difficulties would commence only when we attempted to reconcile our definitions of romance. For example, these newspaper men can smell a romantic situation in an affair which drives me to Jeyes’ Fluid and a hot bath.

The engagement of my goddaughter Miriam to Alan Cowen was not as bad as that, but I could never persuade myself to regard it as anything but disastrous folly. Miriam is the only girl I can tolerate, and I suppose I am selfish in my attitude towards her. She is necessary to my comfort, and I have never seen any reason to pretend pleasure when I see some young fool monopolizing her attention. Not that I protest; to do so would be foolish and useless. Flirtation is the natural safety-valve for a girl of twenty, and I am not yet mad enough to risk my position of confidant by raving against the breathless excitement of manipulating half-a-dozen jealous adorers. No. My policy has been to pretend an unconcern I do not feel, and to wait with what patience I can for the natural reaction and my opportunity. The scheme worked well until Cowen came along, and he, having neither manners nor patience, introduced a new element into the game and knocked me out in one round.

They met in some ballroom or other, and only a brain full of romantic nonsense could have conceived any possibility of the acquaintance developing into friendship. Miriam Frances Wymondham Vincent is the daughter of a house that can boast—but never does—a descent from Plantagenet founders. Alan Cowen admits—very freely— confound him!—an ascent from the respectable artisan class too recent to be free from impossible connections with all kinds of five-roomed dwellings. Miriam is as dainty a girl as you’ll meet anywhere. Alan is a clumsy, powerful man with a distressing chin and hard, gray eyes. He represents the class which I for one cannot tolerate—the successful fighter. You know the kind. Self-made is,

I believe, their own phrase, and in my experience they never free themselves from the faults of their own handiwork.

\/f IRIAM tells me that her first impression of Alan 1 Cowen was an amazed discomfort. He positively glared at her from across the room, and for the first time in her life she experienced that suspicion, so dreaded by all women, that something about her was conspicuous and wrong. She was being criticized adversely, or she thought she was, which is worse. Her cheerful occupation of keeping three contesting males amused became suddenly impossible and unimportant. The sensation began by annoying and ended by interesting her. She asked Cowen’s name.

As if he had known that, the moment was his, and the fruits thereof, Cowen clinched the impression he had made. Walking heavily across the room, he fixed one of the young men with his domineering gaze—they all detested him, of course—and demanded an introduction. The ceremony accomplished, he showed his gratitude by offering his arm to Miriam and taking her irresistiblyaway.

Miriam repeated his opening sentence to me the next day, and it was typical of the man.

‘ ‘ I do not dance,” he said, “and I never make a fool of myself by trying. Will you sit out with me?”

My jealousy where Miriam is concerned having been admitted, you will understand that I was quick to read the danger in her manner when she talked about Cowen.

His abrupt speech was a new experience for her. She sat on the edge of my table telling me about him, and her eyes positively danced with exeite-

“Wasn’t he just too quaint?” she aid. “It was about half-past twelve.

and he must have known that my programme was full. I don’t look the kind of girl who hides an empty programme, do I? His assurance was not very flattering, and I told him straight away that I was afraid I couldn’t manage it; and what do you think he said? He looked at me in a dictatorial kind of way. ‘You can manage anything if you want to; and if you don’t, I’m wasting my time.’ He did, honestly. Wasting his time? Well, you know, what could I say after that?”

I could think of several very effective things she might have said, but then I am not a young girl carried away by the excitement of a new experience. What Miriam really did say was equivocal—but quite sufficient for a man like Cowen. He took her away and talked to her. Of course he told her all about his struggles and his successes, and I don’t doubt Miriam found it very romantic. The story as I have heard it from other sources is one of ruthless determination and cruel disregard for moral scruple. A man does not emerge from the mob in ten years by wearing kid gloves and dealing gently with rivals; but in a broad outline unpleasant details are lost—one cannot blame Cowen for that. Miriam was more and more impressed. So was Cowen. When Miriam is interested her eyes sparkle and her energetic expression makes her little face a positive miracle of delightful inspiration. She is so eager, so transparent. I know exactly how she must have thrown Cowen’s imagination into a sudden industry of castlebuilding. She was just what he had dreamed about but never believed to exist.

“I told him I thought he was wonderful,” she said. “He is; isn’t he, darling?' A real .man, able to do things. Fancy Reggie Santella thrown into the position Mr. Cowen had to face!”

This was unfair to poor Reggie, who has his points, and is devoted to Miriam. I felt obliged to protest.

“Or me, for that matter,” I said, with just a tinge of bitterness in my voice. Miriam sprang down from the table and kissed me.

“Why, you silly darling, you are not jealous, are you?” she asked. “I shouldn’t like to think of you fighting anybody. It would be too tragic. Mr. Cowen’s life has been very exciting and—and romantic, but you—you are my dear godfather.”

T AM a fool. I swallowed the sugar and asked for more. A The question of Alan Cowen dropped, and we talked of other things more pleasant and soothing. It was not until Miriam was going that she referred to the experience at the dance again. She had said good-bye very prettily, and was at the door when she turned suddenly to me.

“Do you think—?” she 'began, and then stopped. She was blushing and a trifle confused.

“Do I think—?”

“Oh nothing.” She hesitated, half in and half out of the room.

Whatever the question which was troubling her, it was sending waves of red across her face. She closed the door and came back a little way.

“Mr. Cowen is very disturbing,” she whisp e r e d , looking at me with troubled eyes. “He says”— she hesi t a t e d again,

then went on with a rush—“he says he will look-out for me and make me the next important business of his life.” She repeated this astonishing speech—astonishing both on account of the suddenness of the declaration and the peculiar qualification “the next important business”— and then seemed to realize how startling it must sound to me, for before I could reply she was gone.

That was my introduction to Alan Cowen as an aspirant for my goddaughter’s hand. Possibly the affair'' was romantic. It was undoubtedly serious and very distasteful to me. I tried to convince myself that Miriam’s common-sense must show her the difference between a stimulating acquaintance and a prospective husband, but I was not surprised when the news came to me that she was engaged. Cowen, consistent, overpowering, masterful, completed his wooing in three whirlwind attacks. Miriam —my Miriam—was engaged to marry a man who presented in all respects a complete contrast to herself; and I was asked to congratulate her. The first act of the romance was complete, and. the curtain about to rise on—what?

I CALLED on Miriam two or three days after the anA nouncement. It needed that length of time to make me even reasonably sensible. I am not fool enough to encourage a young girl's wilfulness by opposing it, but I was finding it moré than usually difficult to play my part as the indulgent friend. I muttered ray congratulation with as good an imitation of sincerity as I could manage, shook Cowen’s big hand, winced under his ridiculous grip, and then wandered away from the circle of tea-drinkers to join Reggie Santella. I like him, and could almost have forgiven him if he had been the successful lover.

“Well, Reggie,” I said, “and what do you think of our little drama?”

He smiled at me with surprising cheerfulness. “Queer start, isn’t it?” he said. “I feel rather as if I’d missed my cue somewhere, but I’ve seen plays where a lot of the action takes place off.”

I stared at him. I think I’ve known him ever since he was a snub-nosed youngster with lanky legs and a cheeky grin, and I recognised at once that something had been happening to him which I’d missed. I hate missing things.

“What exactly do you mean?” I asked, curious as any old gossip at her back gate.

Reggie was watching Miriam, and had no eyes for me, but I dare say he found it pleasant to have someone to talk to. Anyway, it didn’t need half the brains Reggie stowed away somewhere to guess my sympathies.

“I’ve been pretty keen on Miriam for a long time,” he said, “but I’ve had a comedy part all the show. Comic relief, that’s been about my ticket. Passing the time until the hero arrived. And here he is, sir; here he is. Strong man stunt, romantic past, everything complete. Ring in his waistcoat pocket. Exit comic relief.”

His words were bitter enough and, on the whole, what one might have expected from a disappointed lover; but Reggie was not speaking bitterly. He seemed to be rather amused, merely acting his part. He turned to me suddenly-

“That is what you think, isn’t it, Sir John? But I see it differently. Alan Cowen may win through with it or he may not. I think he will not. He is up against a

tougher proposition than he imagines, and he is missing his lines wholesale. He does everything wholesale, you know.” This was the only sneer Reggie permitted himself, and I readily excused its bad taste.

“You think, then?” I said tentatively.

■ Reggie stood up. “I think he hasn’t won yet,” he said, looking at me with quiet confidence, “and I know he thinks he has.”

TT E WALKED away from me and joined Miriam at the tea-table. I stayed where I was. The youngster was giving me food for thought. Theoretically a man has no business talking as he had done about another man’s engagement; but after all, Reggie was first on the field, and if he had the backbone for the fight, I for one was ready to give him fair scope; jny trouble began when I tried to calculate his chances.

He had shown no signs of strength or ability up to now.

Would the sudden change hold, or must I see my last hope crumple up into mediocrity again?

The chances were against the boy, I decided reluctantly.

The other visitors departed, one by one, and soon there were only the four of us left: Reggie,

Miriam, Cowen, and I. Reggie was chatting easily, keeping Miriam amused, steadily ignoring Cowen. I tried to engage the older man’sattention.but he was too little concerned even to pretend interest.

He was watching the others, and he cared nothing for my knowledge of the fact. This magnificent disregard for the opinions of outsiders was one of his strongest weapons, as you will know if you have ever tackled a man strong enough to do it naturally. I was an outsider, and I was not long in realizing it and taking my proper place.

“No, Miriam,” Reggie was saying, “not a single brief! My eloquence is still a-mouldering in my breast, and not a criminal believes in my powers.”

“Oh, you poor boy! What a time you have to wait before you sit on the Woolsack or wherever it is.”

I am not surprised at Cowen’s ill-concealed displeasure. The two young people made an attractive picture together Miriam so fair, so eager, so young, and Reggie, straightbacked, cleanly built, obviously in the best of condition, an athlete trained for all kinds of sport, and perfectly modelled for his work. His wavy brown hair and humorous blue eyes removed the hint of weakness which a medium chin and a lazy mouth would have given to his face. In appearance he was a perfect mate for Miriam, and he knew it. So did Cowen. The knowledge undoubtedly lent sting to his sudden interruption.

“No man need wait for work to come to him,” he said roughly. “Men who do things go out after opportunity and find it.”

I was watching Miriam keenly, and she betrayed by a sudden movement of startled surprise that she had temporarily forgotten her fiancé. I glanced at him. He had noticed it too.

“Oh, but, Alan,” said Miriam quickly, “Reggie is a barrister. It isn’t just the same, is it?”

"That depends,” said Cowen, “whether Mr. Santella is a barrister merely as an excuse for doing nothing else. If he needs money and he is out to make an income he needn’t wait for briefs. And I think some of my City friends would be glad to see him earning money.”

This was really terrible for Miriam. The man was possibly reckless, driven to brutality by jealousy; but even that was no excuse.

Reggie didn’t wink at me, but he let his eyes wander in my direction for a moment before they came pleasantly to rest on his attacker, and I began to understand his optimism. Cowen, dogmatic and aggressive, was allowing his irritation to destroy his discretion, and Reggie was out

to encourage him. I looked at Miriam. She was blushing a little, and her eyes were troubled. There were undoubtedly possibilities in the situation.

“As you know so much about my affairs, I may as well admit,” said Reggie, “that my private income barely pays the interest on my debts. But I don’t see what I can do, you know. There is such a thing as professional etiquette.”

/'''OWEN rose and walked over to Miriam’s side. He was 'J now very close to Reggie, and as he stood, firmly planted on his feet, strong, dominant, supremely self-

confident, he might have stood for an allegorical figure of success. Incredible as it seems, he was blind to the impression he was making on Miriam.

■ “I have only one recommendation for men in your position,” he said. “Take your coat off, take your gloves off, forget your miserable profession, and start at the bottom. If you are any good, you’ll come up; if you are not, you’ll stay down. But at least you will be facing your own problems and not shuffling them on to someone else.”

I waited for Reggie’s reply. None came. I looked at Miriam. She was uncomfortably watching the two men. Now, surely was Reggie’s chance to make a smashing attack on the ridiculous speech his rival had made. The silence was becoming noticeable.

“Really, Mr. Cowen,” I said, unable to remain silent, “don’t you think that sort of thing—”

“No, I don’t,” he said, interrupting me ruthlessly. (I hate interruptions. They leave me suspended in midutterance, and are so unnecessary. Like every other middle-aged bachelor, I value my own opinions, and men like Cowen have no sense of fair-play.) “I hold that every young man should stand on his own feet,” he continued, looking at me, but talking at Reggie. “Every pound owed is a pound stolen.”

I sat up, positively bewildered. This brutal method of conducting a discussion surpassed my worst expectations. Stolen!

“Oh, Alan, dear,” said Miriam. “I don’t think—”

“I’m sorry if I have hurt anyone’s feelings,” said Cowen, without showing any very marked signs of penitence; "but I am speaking generally on a subject which affects me strongly. I intend no personal implication.”

Reggie shook his head with a characteristic movement like a frolicsome dog shaking the water from its ears after a

“Don’t apologize,” he said cheerfully. “I’m a careless beggar about money, but I started the discussion and it’s my funeral. You rather took my breath away. I’m not quite used to your methods. Very likely you are right, though.” He looked for his hat and stick.

I rose to my feet, too. The bracing atmosphere was affecting my mental lungs. I’m not used to it.

When we were out in the street Reggie exhaled a deep breath. “Heavens! what a man!” he said

angrily. “I don’t know how I resisted the temptation to go out after him with his own weapons.”

I was feeling pretty sick myself. Reggie had not played up as I had hoped. “Yes,” I said gloomily, “you gave him full permission to walk on you. Why ever didn’t you stand up like a man and let Miriam see that you can hold your corner?”

Reggie said nothing for several minutes, and then he laughed suddenly.“You are not so clever as I thought you,” he said. “Fancy allowing a youngster like me to give you points.”

I was annoyed. The afternoon had provided several unpleasant incidents, and now I was being patronized by a youngster of twenty-six. “What do you mean?” I asked irritably..

Reggie stopped. “I am going in here,” he said. “Think it over, Sir John; think it over; and see if you don’t agree with me that Miriam finds the masterful brute less romantic when he tramples on her friends.”

He left me, and I walked on thoughts ful and more impressed than ever with the remarkable change in Reggie. The cheerful, empty-headed youngster was developing rapidly into a perfect Machiavelli; and as I let my imagination run on Miriam’s impressions of that ridiculous discussion my spirits rose rapidly towards optimism. The boy might pull it off, after all!

THERE was an interval of three weeks between the afternoon of Miriam’s At Home and the final struggle for victory between the very dis-similar rivals. During those weeks I waited impatiently for some definite movement, but so far as I could follow the game from my very badly placed position nothing happened at all. I met Miriam occasionally and noted the puzzled uncertainty in her eyes.

I made excuses for talking to Cowen in his club and found him irritable and more than usually disinclined for courtesy and gossip; and, lastly, I questioned Reggie as to his campaign, without much success. I was driven steadily back on the unpalatable conclusion that no one of the principals was interested in my curiosity, and, unflattering though their attitude was, it convinced me that each one of them recognised a coming crisis and had no time to worry about an amiable nobody. I say amiable in selfdefence. Probably their description was less flattering. Certainly I should find it difficult to excuse the shameless eavesdropping which enabled me to witness the closing scenes of the little drama. Difficult, do I say? Impossible would be truer. Having admitted so much, I will abandon the attempt and merely confess the truth. I was far too deeply interested to consider for a moment an honest withdrawal.

We were all at the Brillingford place for the week-end. It was what the newspaper men call a brilliant and select party of beautiful ladies and distinguished men, and, like all other week-end parties, it was very mixed, very boisterous, and very crowded. In such an atmosphere Reggie Santella is at home, and he organises with devastating energy all kinds of high-spirited games, from hunt-theslipper to amateur theatricals. Miriam, as might be expected of a girl of twenty, finds this kind of thing highly exciting, and is not yet grown-up enough to prefer bridge to dancing. I don’t know that I need elaborate the situation. On the one hand you have youth, high spirits, thoughtless gaiety, and Reggie and Miriam; on the other you have Alan Cowen and the hovering menace of his engagement-ring. So much was on the table: the only question remaining to be settled was, which of the two sides could count on love as an ally? I didn’t know: 1 question whether Miriam did. Reggie felt sure he did, and Alan Cowen was beginning to realize that his own

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definite assumptions were questionable. And there we all were.

On the Sunday evening I was sitting in the summer-house at the edge of the lawn thinking about engagement-rings and broken promises, when two young people crossed the lawn and sat down on the seat which Providence had placed just within hearing. We will not enter again on the question of my excuses. I stayed where I was, and watched. Reggie was whispering, and from where I sat it was impossible to distinguish words; but neither was it necessary. I understood perfectly what was happening. After two days of brilliant demonstration, Reggie was punctuating his experiment by an impassioned appeal and the old argument. Moreover, Miriam was listening. When a girl as honest as Miriam condescends to listen to such an appeal it is safe to assume a halfsurrender. The first intoxication of romantic devotion to strength as shown by a self-made man was proving unequal to the steady disappointments of ordinary social exchanges. In place of the capable, dominating personality which had captured her emotion, Miriam was directing her attention to the very different spectacle presented by a stolid, imperfectly civilized outsider staggering round in the mazes of a world he is never likely to understand, Reggie Santella, always hovering near her in a kind of animated demonstration of what a man can do to make life easy and exciting, underlining by a hundred little courtesies and attentions all the blunders of the other. . . .

MIRIAM leaned nearer to Reggie.

The two figures blended into one in the half light, and a coming kiss cast its shadow before. Another moment, and Cowen’s fate would have been sealed. Another moment: but the man arrived.

“Miriam,” he said harshly. “You forgot to bring a wrap.”

The two young people sprang to their feet, betraying, as young people do, their guilty feeling. Miriam shivered a little and accepted without protest the attentions of her fiancé as he adjusted her cloak. Reggie stood by in angry discomfort. It was an embarrassing situation for him, undoubtedly. Another moment. . .but a miss is sometimes better than a mile. It would have been so simple to explain to Cowen that Miriam desired her freedom, but she had not yet definitely admitted the desire, and Santella’s hands were tied.

“If you will excuse me,” he said, “I’ll find someone who’ll play billiards. A grand night, isn’t it, Cowen?” He turned

“$ne moment, Mr. Santella,” said Cowen. Reggie came back willingly. His rival’s tone was menacing, and I know what delight the prospect of a quarrel must have given Reggie in his disappointment. “I am not a patient man,” continued Cowen grimly, “and I have had enough of this comedy. More than enough. Miriam has got to decide here and now which of us is to have the right to claim her.”

Reggie laughed lightly. “Really, Cowen,” he said, “your methods are delightfully direct and, considering the engagement-ring Miriam wears, rather ridiculous. You—”

“Don’t be a liar as well as a fool,” said Cowen roughly.

There was a silence which lasted a very long time after this insulting speech. Reggie could not resent it, for Miriam knew it to be based on truth. He had ignored the engagement-ring when they were alone, and his diplomatic speech was pretence.

“You are a brutal hitter, Cowen,” he said at last. “I should like to save Miriam all I can, but if you will have it I cannot object. I love her, and I believe she loves me. You can never make her happy. I can. What have you to say about it?” Cowen turned to Miriam. “Give me the ring,” hesaid;then added impatiently, as Miriam hesitated, “Give it to me.” He held it in his hand for a moment and then threw it from him. No one moved until the last sounds of its fall were lost in silence. “It is gone,” he said. “You are free, Miriam. I want no unwilling wife. If you love Santella, go to him.”

In my secure retreat I moved restlessly.

What a man! His every action was a mistake, and apparently he was too blind to see.

Miriam, already doubtful between two conflicting appeals, was having the worst side of her first choice thrust roughly under her notice. Unyielding, obstinate, brutally disregarding the natural need of a young girl for sympathetic understanding, Cowen was forcing her away from him. I began to feel sorry for him, standing there in his disastrous independence, disdainful of just the weapons he should have used. I have never liked the man, but I longed to shout a warning to him. If he continued as he had begun, he had not a dog’s chance.

“Miriam, darling,” said Reggie in an eager voice which was not quite under control, “I am waiting. Will you come to me? I—I love you.”

I WAITED, eyes straining against the darkness, to catch the first movement on Miriam’s part; but none came. She stood perfectly still, waiting for something more, something which only a woman could understand. The silence became unbearable. I felt it, aven I, and I knew what it must be to those others. Strangely enough, it was Cowen who gave the first cry of distress.

“Choose, girl!” he said harshly. “I cannot bear much more. Don’t you see how hard it is for me to keep hands off him? Choose quickly, before I shake the life out of the impudent young devil!”

Reggie cried out angrily, and sprang forward, but Miriam moved at last.

“Be quiet, Reggie,” she said, and then ignored him—“Alan, if you care for me so much, why don’t you try to make things easier forme?”

I can understand Reggie’s disappointment and his anger at Cowen’s insolent contempt, but I cannot excuse his next speech. It was a mistake, and he should have recognised that mistakes at such a time are fatal.

“Don’t ask him, Miriam,” he said. “Don’t you% realise the fellow hasn’t a notion that’ anybody else exists besides himself? He never had!”

The unconcern of the other two was a crushing comment on this speech. They ignored it.

“I have tried, Miriam,” said Cowen, “and I have failed. That is why I give yQu your freedom. Your happiness is my only concern, and I thought that my love would show me how to make you happy. I was wrong, perhaps. I am not equal to the task; but at least I am strong enough to get out of the way.”

WHEN I heard that speech I recognised that the crucial period was past and the climax reached. When a dogmatic man of masterful disposition attains to deep humility before the girl he loves his battle is ended. So long as Alan Cowen held on to the truth he was grasping he would hold the key to Miriam’s heart. Trouble there might be in store for them, and difficulty; but for the first time in my experience of him Cowen was demonstrating a willingness to realise that the method which conquers the world is powerless against a woman’s heart; and with such a man to understand is to conquer.

“Reggie,” said Miriam, turning to the boy who had in a brief quarter of an hour

fjassed from conquest to defeat, “please eave us.”

He went without a word. There was no appeal against so gentle a verdict. I made cautious preparations for departure, too. My curiosity is strong, but my moral code is not lax enough to allow me to disregard the rule which brings the curtain down on the stage at this point in a play. As I edged away in the shadows I heard just a part of Miriam’s confession.

“I have not been very fair to you, dear,” she said; “but I am going to change all that. You’ll try to find my ring to-morrow, won’t you? And I'll try.”

I made my escape and heard no more. It was quite a long time before Miriam and her lover returned to the house, so I am glad I managed to get away in time.

Perhaps, after all, romance is personal and not subject to definition.