FICTION

Through the Window

Will Irwin April 1 1911
FICTION

Through the Window

Will Irwin April 1 1911

Through the Window

Will Irwin

Author of “The Confessions of a Con. Man,’’ etc.

JULIA, the nurse said to the few visitors who inqured, was “struggling back to life.” Julia herself, had she tried to formulate it, would hardly have called it that. It was no struggle; it was rather a growth. She had swung close to a certain nadir. At one time life had sunk so low that it was a choice with her—it had lain within her will—whether she should stay or go. She was to remember long afterward that she had made this decision lightly, as a thing of little difference. The horror of death, with its appurtenances of the grave and mould and decay—that had not entered into the calculation. Never again, in fact, was death to appear to her mind in that aspect. While she had sunk low, she had also risen to another plane of consciousness, wherein she knew how little, after all, the flesh mattered.

These reflections were not for now. If she had any emotion, any reflection, it was wonder—wonder when she gathered strength to lift what hand she had left, that it was she lying there, the content of so many little, tiny nerves and red bloodcourses—wonder and a kind of contentment which was neither happiness nor misery.

It might have been morning, it might have been afternoon—at any rate, the sun was shining and the little night lamp was out—when she was aware of a voice. At first it flashed upon her that this was one of those voices, dim, dull, uncertain, which she had heard in the days when the springs of life were very low, when she had been making the decision. Not with dread, but with a certain weariness, she wondered if this were indeed the decision come to be made over again; if she had

to bestir herself to know whether she was to live on, or whether she was to let everything go and rest.

But this voice she perceived after a time, rang as though there were something behind it. It differed from those other voices. They had nothing at all behind them. And the speaker—she perceived this when she had straightened herself out a little and gained the ability to think—was saying things different in substance from the vague chatter of those other voices.

“Hello, little invalid!” said the Voice.

Lanquidly, Julia tried to turn her head. She did succeed in turning her eyes. As far as her range of vision went, she could see nothing. The nurse, she remembered, had gone out a long time ago —or was it just now? At any rate, the nurse was gone. She made an effort to form her mouth for words, as a child sets his feet before taking one of his first, halting steps, and managed at last to speak in kind.

“Hello !” she said.

The Voice was speaking on.

“I’m across that little child-size passage in the next flat house. My window looks nearly into yours. I can’t see you, because your bed is back-on to the window, but I know you’re an invalid, and somehow I know you’re small ; so I say, ‘Hello, little invalid!’ ”

Julia struggled to remember certain things which the nurse had said. She must obey orders. She wanted to obey them, but somehow it was pleasant ^ to hear that cheery male voice with the ring to it, with the attack and resonance of life. So she made the effort again; it

seemed to her, when she was done, that she had delivered an oration of an hour.

“I am not allowed to talk,” she said; then, after a pause: “Are you there? I like to hear you talk.”

The voice came louder and stronger.

“Oh, yes, I am here. I’ve been—watchnig—you know, all this month. I don’t know what you want me to talk about, but if you do want talk, there is where I live. First I’ll tell you what I know about you. You have been sick for five weeks, and very sick, but you are better now. The doctor comes only every other day. Once ho used to come every day ; and one day—the time you went through the crisis—he came twice. I know that it is pneumonia, because I’ve had pneumonia myself, and I know the signs. I remember just how long it is before they let you talk, and I’ve waited until to-day.

“Now, don’t you say a word. I’m doing the talking. Here I am, a young man—I'll say myself over like an advertisement for live stock—five feet eight inches tall, weight about a hundred and sixty, thirty years old, of a kind and docile disposition, and a liking for little sick girls. I’ve been a sick man myself— pneumonia does things to Californians. When you get better, so that you can talk, I’m going to trade symptoms with you.

“This is chapter one. Chapter two will come in the next talk, because you can’t stand yet to hear the story of my life. It is too exciting. And the nurse will be back in a minute. I can always tell when she is entering, because she makes your door creak. Don’t be afraid; I shall watch. Of course I am presuming that you want me to talk to vou for another instalment. If you do. please say ‘ves’ and we’ll stop for to-day.”

To Julia’s reduced mind, it came that the decision she was about to make was as momentous as the old decision whether .■die was to go or to stay. It seemed, indeed, of more moment, But she gathered together the figments and fragments of the Ufe which was creeping in, and answered,

af ay »g her mouth a^ain :

. ^ood-bve to-day, then, mysterioi dow^' She heard the closing of a wi:

Meditating on these things, digesting them, Julia fell asleep. 6ë

When she woke, it was night. She knew because the little lamp was burning, and Miss Tallant, that old, seasoned trained nurse who worked like a machine of low horse-power, was dozing in her chair at the foot of the bed. With Julia’s motion, Miss Tallant roused herself; there followed the almost insupportable business of drinking from a tiny glass, of holding a bulb syringe under her tongue. When the nurse had settled herself back in the chair again, Julia turned her head, arranged her mouth, and asked a question :

“Who lives across the window?” Julia waited a long time for the answer. It did not come. The nurse never even lifted her eyes at the question. Julia, with as much dissappointment as her weakness left her power to feel, perceived it all. She was saying things without saying them, just as she had done away back in ‘her nadir. Her vocal cords, it seemed, set themselves in the right form, her mind said the words over, and her voice ran through her throat; but some connection was lacking ; some string uniting the dynamic power and the machinery of speech was untied. So, while she thought at first that she was speaking, there was no sound in it, and no one paid any attention. The voice across the window—she had made the owner of that voice hear. Why, she wondered? Why . . . Julia slept again.

Now it was day—without pain but also without sleep. It brought weary routine of annoying business with the doctor and bothersome things to drink. Less weary than all the yesterdays since she touched her nadir, it was also more sufferable because she was waiting for something. Each time that the nurse left, she felt in herself a shadow of expectation stronger than any emotion she had thought ever to feel again.

Now the nurse had gone, and expectation was fulfilled.

“Are you awake?”

“Yes.” She could make sound of

speech I

“It is six o’clock. I suspect that the nurse has gone to get her dinner, and I’m just in from—from my work. That is, I call it work. May I talk to you again? You have only to answer ‘yes.’ ”

“Yes—please.”

“Now, don’t you waste strength on

etiquette, though I don’t know any word

I’d sooner have vou waste breath on than tnat ‘please.’ lTirst chapter from the thrilling story of my life. I’m a mining engineer from Nevada and California. That is, I call myself a mining engineer. I’ll let you into my secret. I’m a bluff. I’m really only a miner, selling mines in New York. In the West, you know, we Say that when a man has tried everything else and failed, he goes to selling mines. But it is a little better than that. I really have a mine, and I’ve faith in it—found it myself. It’s a low grade ore, and I need capital to develop it. The details of selling mines in New York won’t interest you, I’m afraid ; but maybe I can interest you by telling how I came to find it.

“I was very blue and discouraged last year when I started out on my last prospecting trip. I was grubstaked. You’re an Eastern woman from your voice, so you won’t know what grubstakes mean. The other man buys your burro—that’s a small and especially virtuous kind of hiking and hunting and losing my beans and coffee. I had only half your claim.

“Well, anyway, it was up to me. I must strike something that fall or go back to the shovel or the yardstick. The rest is three weeks of hiking and hunting and losing my beans and coffee. I had only three more days to go, and I’d camped away up high where there was a little fall of new snow on the ground.

“I was discouraged, and I was mad. I guess the burro caught it. because she behaved fearfully. I have it on my conscience that I beat her, though I’m usually kind—even to burros. I left her to rustle for herself while I cooked the last of the bacon.

“When I turned back to tie her for the night, I found she’d been in a bad temper too. She’d been pawing in the snow, as a burro or a horse always paws to relieve his feelings. It’s the horse way of swearing. After I’d nearly jerked the neck off her to make her behave, I happened to look down and notice where she pawed. Gold quartz— trust a miner to know an outcropping ! If any one will build a smelter up there to work it, we have a mountain of ore. So I’m grubstaked again—prospecting Wall Street, which is a blame sight colder than the Nevada mountains.

“But that won’t interest you. You’ll want to know what became of Magda, the

burro. That’s the' sad part of what I’m going to relate—good-bye.” For the door had creaked to proclaim the entrance of Miss Tallant, the nurse. Julia saw her pass through her range of vision, heard her step over to the window, caught this said under her breadth:

“They make too much noise over there.”

Julia fell asleep hugging her secret.

Now she was counting days and distinguishing time, and wondering what had become of Magda, the burro. The poor little soft-nosed donkey that had a tragedy in her life! It was late afternoon, with the early street lights making shadows and reflections on her wall. The nurse hád gone to the kitchen for her dinner.

“Awake?”

“Yes.”

“In two or three days I’m going to let you talk. We were on the burro. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell tragedies to anyone coming out of pneumonia, but I’m on the subject. Well you see, Magda-”

“That’s a play,” said Julia.

“Sure! But don’t you talk. I named her after the play because she talked just like an actress I heard in it once. I guess I jonahed her. Well, I felt grateful to Magda. She’d always had a hard life, feeding on sage-brush and cactus and thistles. I doubted if she’d ever in her life known the taste of a square meal. And you’ll agree that a lot, a whole lot, was coming to her. All the way back, I pulled bunch grass for her. And when we came into town, I saw the man who had grubstaked me and I arranged to fix Magda proper. I put her in a box stall. I had her fed on hay and oats and bran mash. It was too much for her. She died quite suddenly.”

Julia could feel the tears starting. Had she thought she should ever weep again? But when he spoke once more, she found her unaccustomed muscles drawing themselves into a smile.

“I must say I have a record. I’m the only man, except those I invited to the spectacle, who ever saw a dead burro. We don’t believe in the West that they die at all. They’re such angels, the way they stand for everything and never complain, except by way of digging up mines for a fellow, that they’re translated in clouds of glory, I think.”

Julia, with the wisdom of the resurrected, knew that people and burros and all who have enjoyed the rapture and pain of being alive do not die ; neither are they translated. It is just a change, much more glorious than any translation in trailing clouds of glory, but a change which one forgets when she is past the stage of the new resurrection. She herself would forget it ; already she was beginning to forget. She must try to keep on rememoering, so that she could tell the Voice.

Then he changed from Magda and her tragedy to pleasant things. He told of automobiles that streak across the desert, even Death Valley itself; of the Swede who owned the only spring on the edge of the valley and who came out, when your throat had become like old leather, and sold you a bottle of cooled beer for a dollar.

“And of all the dollars you spend in this here trot through life, you miss this one least.” he said. Of his house he was going to build in Pasadena or Mill Valley —he hadn’t decided which—when the company was formed and he had got rich ; of starlit night above the High Sierra, where everything is very cold and white and clean; of camps in the desert with a hair rope about your bed, because a rattlesnake cannot cross hair.

And the door creaked and the nurse came.

Now, Julia found that her mouth could always be depended upon to make sounds when she tried to speak. The doctor said that she was doing very, ^rv nicely. With this recrudescence of interest and strength, she took to listening for sounds from that dwelling across the screened window; she could hear something moving now and then : it seemed to her that she could distinguish two pairs of heavy, masculine feet. The day when she took to these observations, she was dimly disappointed to find that no voice spoke through the window. even when the nurse was out. But the faith of the new-resurrected was in her. She knew* that it would come again.

The next night her faith was fulfilled

‘I gave you a rest,” he said after be had made sure that she was awake and listening. “because to-night I’m going to let you say twelve words. I’m to' ask questions, and you re to answer. Now, the first_one

word—will be your name. Mine is Frank, and you may call me by it, if you wish, as soon as you can afford breath. When we are sick, we are just little boys and girls again. So please let it be your first name. That wouldn’t be etiquette with a coarse, Western stranger if you were well, but at present it’s all right and proper. Now, playmate, name please.”

“Julia.”

“Eleven words left. What do you do for a living? Wait! I’ll tell you what I know. You work at something, but you can afford a little flat of your own and you don’t live with your people. You may teach, though from the little conversation I’ve had you don’t sound to me like a teacher. Still, you’re no plain salesgirl or stenographer, because you can afford a flat of your own. If you think I’m impudent to want to know about you, just say ‘no,’ but if you want to answer, one to three words will do. This is like cabling at five dollars a syllable.”

Julia considered the question and the answer, which loomed to her momentous.

“Head cloak saleswoman,” she brought out at last.

“Eight words left. I am ralher glad you aren’t a teacher; that doesn’t seem to me like doing anything, somehow. Now, to proceed. Have you any parents?”

“Mother.” Then, thinking of the ingratitude he might impute to her, she added :

“Lives with married sister, Chicago.”

“That shows how much breath people waste in this world. Here I know all about you, or all that has stirred up mv heavy curiosity, and you’ve got two words left to spend as you want.”

Julia needed three words. It seemed that she could not get along with any fewer. With the feeling that he was waiting intently over there, she pondered this.. The suspense, and her inability to condense further, inspired her to take chances with the unlucky thirteen.

“Was Magda brown?” she asked.

No more had she said this than she felt how funny, how childishly funny, the question must be to him. But if he laughed, she should never like him so well again. She wouldn’t like him hot laugh, either. The thing for him to if he were to live up to her ideal of Mm, was to be amused and to control it. She

was bathed in relief when she heard a change in his voice as though he had, in fact, conquered laughter. And he said :

“No, gray, with an especially pettable white nose. Now you’ve said more than enough—I’ll have to subtract one word from your allowance to-morrow—and I won’t take any more risks to-day with that nurse. She sounds like a tough old veteran with gray hair.” He stopped suddenly on this, his tone changed, and “Good night,” he said.

Always something to wonder about! If he could see the head of the bed, why couldn’t he perceive that Miss Tallant, the nurse, had not gray hair, but faded red?

Nevertheless, she felt very much better. Listening to the voice was a stimulant, from which there was no reaction.

It came to be that the nurse stayed a very long time at her dinner, having announced that she might go out for a few minutes after she finished; and the Voice talked for an hour. He allowed her five whole sentences this time. He let her tell him that she had been four years in New York and had worked up from a salesgirl, that she was little and blonde, that she had caught pneumonia by taking too many . chances with a late summer day which had turned out cold and raw ; that she wouldn’t let them take her to the hospital because she wanted to be sick right among her own things.

“That’s a splendid recommendation for you,” he said. She wanted to ask him what he meant, but she had already used up her five sentences. On his part, he spun more yarns of the mines and the plains apd the mountains; all illuminated b'T his pleasant voice and his unexpected turns of expression. She was growing by now to perceive things; and she formulated to herself a certain strange quality in his voice. Under the cheery tone was a sadness—not sadness exactly, either, but rather a dullness. Otherwise, it was a voice which one might, know anywhere. Long afterwards, she was to put into concrete thought her percention of an undeveloped stutter, hesitating burr on the beginning of a sentence.

So it went on. through days in which Julia ceased to drift back to life and began really to struggle—her will was in it. The nurse began to let her talk ; the Voice, following, permitted her, in their dinner-

time conversations, to speak whole sentences, paragraphs, pages. They knew enough about each other, it seemed; for now they had come to another stage of friendly intimacy and were talking, not facts and stories, but opinions and likings and ideals. He liked the same things she did, it appeared; further, he seemed often to understand her tastes before she spoke.

There came the time when Miss Tallant showed her the cards and messages of those who called from the store in the low period. Also, Miss Tallant let her have flowers—a great cluster of pink roses from the girls in her department. In two or three days she might have company ; in a week, if she were good and obeyed orders, she might sit up.

She told all this to the Voice.

“See my flowers!” she added. “I had the nurse put them on the bureau so that you might see.”

“So that I might.—yes, it was good of you!” Why did he speak so low?

“But can you see them?” persisted Julia. “I tried to plan, but I can’t just remember where your window comes.”

“Oh, sure! You placed them all right.” His tone was indifferent. A swift pique came over Julia. He was not taking interest!

“I don’t believe you do. You are only trying to humor me. What color are they?”

“Well, I can see them, you know, but the light is very uncertain here—the glow is in the window and everything looks red. They appear—reddish.”

Julia laughed a little.

“That’s a man’s word for pink—reddish!” But she was not wholly satisfied.

Another dinner-time talk, and, “I am to have visitors to-morrow,” she announced.

He paused a little time before he said:

“That’s bully!”

“Well?” thought Julia. But he made no move in the direction toward which she was pointing.

“I suppose some of your friends from the store will come,” he said instead.

“I suppose so.”

“Fine, after a long sickness,—to see people again!”

Julia pondered. It was certainly bold— but she was an invalid—and she didn’t care.

•■It's only a step from your apartment to mine.”

"Ah, why did you say that?” asked the Voice.

“Just because!” responded Julia, and fell back on her pique. Some time elapsed before the Voice spoke.

“I haven’t told you this, but now I must. I’m going away. I’ve known for some time, and I was getting ready to tell you to-day. I’ve—well, I haven’t sold the

mine, but things make it necessary for me to return to Nevada.

“Julia, little invalid,” he went on, his voice catching, “let’s have this for a fairy tale. I’m just an elf or a goblin or one of those things we used to read about when we were children. If I came to see you, I’d see you only once, and I shouldn’t seem half so fine to you as I’ve been, just spinning yarns through the window. You’re going to stay in New York, and I’m coming back—after a while. Then there’ll be time for you to—get used to me. You see, I’m not what you call an attractive man. I’m homely, and hiking out after mining prospects hasn’t refined or handsomed me any. Shan’t we leave it now for a fairy tale?”

Julia, an unexpected warmth in her cheeks, found breath to answer:

“Yes, if that’s what you want.”

“Then good-bye for now, little invalid. The fairy tale is over. The real world for you.” And then, as the door squeaked to the coming of the nurse, a final

“Good-bye !”

Miss Tallant said next day that Julia wasn't doing nearly so well. She must not fret so; if she did, she shouldn’t have any company. As it was, Miss Tallant (the doctor concurring) postponed that event for two days.

But health and mending went along, as they do in spite of will when the tide of life really begins to run. That decision between going and staying lay with her no more. So in a week the blood was flowing, strength was back; thev were moving her into a chair, teaching^her to walk on feet which seemed rounded at he soles. On the first day out of bed, she looked over to the window across the narrow area. The curtains were drawn; yet she fancied that some one was moving inside. The new tenant, probablv. Still, it all seemed very strange!

She was walking out now in the fine Indian summer weather ; at length, on a specially warm day, she was permitted an excursion to the park, two blocks away. As she sat on a bench, watching the morning panorama, a little color came back into her cheeks and her heart. She found herself chatting with Miss Tallant, making comments on the children, the nurses, the waiting cabmen, the bench loafers.

“A blind man,” said Miss Tallant suddenly.

Julia looked up, interested. He was approaching, that blind man, led by an attendant. His was a case where pity grows from contrast. He was young, wellformed, strong of limb. His shoulders should have been straight ; one felt the incongruity of their half pathetic stoop. His keen hawk face, with its broad, humorous mouth, had scarcely one of the lines graven by patience in action, which belong to blind faces.

A moment Julia studied him ; and then, over mind and soul, came a weakness which had nothing to do with the weakness in her wasted body. It was like that weakness of soul in which she lay when she made the decision ; and, as in that other weakness, she saw things not perceived of the senses. It came to her as a certainty.

This was the voice through the window !

So much the soul of Julia told her before proof came to her mind. He had ' drawn opposite to her now; and he was speaking to his attendant.

“Manson,” said he, “if this is a popular corner of this park, you had better drop me here. I like to know they’re about, if I can’t see them.” It was the Voice; no need of her soul to tell her that. The same dead undertone, now so pathetically comprehensible; the same little half-stutter as he started his sentence.

Manson seated his charge on the. next bench.

Julia rose, so suddenly that Miss Tallant put out a hand to stop her. She rose with a new strength in all her body, and crossed over and sat down beside him and—

“Ah, I’ve found you!” she said. Over his face ran a current of expression—joy first and then, a droop of all the lines in his face, so that it needed not his blue

glasses nor his stick to prove that he was blind.

“I’d been afraid you would !” he answered.

Miss Tallant had the perceptions of her craft.

“I’ll be back in a minute—I want to go over to the drug-store—keep yourself wrapped up,” she said.

“We’ll excuse you for a half an hour, Manson,” chimed in the blind man.

Alone now, she took his hand.

“Dear, brave friend!”

“I don’t know if this is a sign—your finding me in spite of myself. Ah, little invalid, do you mind if I lied?”

“It must have been a good lie, because you told it—but why did you think it necessary to lie to me?” She stopped, afraid of the answer, the only answer that her saying could call for. It came as she expected.

“Because what I felt wasn’t square. I am blind. Perhaps I must always be blind. I didn’t lie so much—it was true about the mine. I went blind afterward— too much snow. Manson told me of the sick girl across the passage—and at first I was just trying to amuse you. Dear girl, might I ask something?”

“Of course.”

“When no one is looking, may I put my hand on your face for a minute?” “Yes. Now!”

“It is a beautiful face. Ah, I am weak. You don’t know what I want to say.” “Say it, Frank.”

“Ah, no.”

“Listen. You called me back. 1 shouldn’t have gone on living. I should have sunk again. Do I not owe you that?” “Owe me what?”

“My life, Frank.”

“Dear love!”

“Dear love!”