THE THREAD OF FLAME

Concluding Instalment

BASIL KING May 15 1920

THE THREAD OF FLAME

Concluding Instalment

BASIL KING May 15 1920

CHAPTER XXIV

BACK at their work they had no time for further conversation; and in some way, impossible for me to tell you in words, I felt myself eliminated from their fellowship. They would always be friendly; but the knowledge that I was bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, which had once been the outcome of a common need, was no longer theirs nor mine. I could look in on them in this non-committal way as often as I chose: but I should never get any farther.

Something of the sort was manifest when I next met Lydia Blair. Our standing toward each other was different. Little as she had understood me before, she understood me less in this new role than in any other.

“You sure are the queerest guy I ever met," she said, at one time in the course of the evening. “I sometimes wonder if you’re all there."

But that was after I had been foolish enough to try to make her see my point of view toward life, and failed. Before that she had been sympathetic.

Our first conversation had been over the telephone, when I had called up Clotilde’s to ask if Miss Blair had returned from Boston.

"Miss Blair at the phone,” was the reply. “Who’s this?”

Somewhat timidly I said I was Mr. Harrowby, repeating the name twice before she recognized it as mine. Having invited her to dine with me and go to the theatre, I got a quavering, “Sure!” which lacked her usual spontaneity.

“You don’t seem pleased,” I said.

“Oh, I’m pleased enough. I’m only wondering if—if you are.”

“Why shouldn’t I be, when I’ve asked you?”

“Well, I put my foot in it for fair, didn’t I?”

“You mean in Boston? Oh, that was all right! I know you meant to do me a good turn; and perhaps you’ve done it.”

“Oh, I meant to; but I sure did get a lesson. My mother used to tell me to keep my fingers out of other people’s pies; and I’m going to from this time on.”

IN the evening, seated opposite me at the little table at Josephine’s, with the din of a hundred diners giving us a sort of privacy, she told me more about it.

“You see, it was this way. He’d always been talking to me about this rich young Boston widow he’d met at Palm Beach, trying to get my mad up.”

“What did he say of her?”

“Well, the sort of thing he would say. He’s a good judge of a woman, you must admit; and he thought she was about the classiest. It was when I began to tell him what I wanted to be that he sprang that on me, said she was the model for me to study, and that when it came to the dressy vampire Agnes Dunham wasn’t in it.”

"Did he call this—this Boston lady a dressy vampire?”

"Oh, he didn’t mean that. It was only that for anyone who wanted to be a dressy vampire she was a smart style. A vampire mustn’t look a vampire, or she might as well go out of business. The one thing I criticized in Agnes Dunham in The Scarlet Sin was that a woman who advertised herself so much as an adventuress wouldn’t get very far with her adventuring.”

“I see. You’d go in for a finer art.”

“I’d go in for pulling the thing off, whatever it was: but that’s not what I want to tell you. To go back to what he was always saying about this Boston lady—it made me crazy to see her. In the corset business I’d got intimate with a good many society women and most of them were gumps. For one good vampire there were a hundred with the kick of a boiled potato. That made me all the crazier to see.... and I thought about it and thought about it. Then one day Harry called me on the phone to say.... You see, he’s living with the Averills, and when that Mrs. Mountney.... Well, when he told me who you were, and that the lady wasn’t a widow any more than I am—well, I simply laid down and passed away. To think that you—the fellow we’d been putting down as a mystery and a swell crook—”

“What did you put me down for then—when you found out?”

“We didn’t get a line on it all at once. That was later. Mrs. Mountney told Lulu, and Stroud told me; and so—”

“Did you all believe what you heard?”

“It was pretty hard not to, wasn’t it, after the queer things you’d been doing? There was just one person who stuck it out that it wasn’t true; and that was little Milly. She didn’t say much to the family; but to me she declared that if all the armies in France were to swear to it she'd still know there was some mistake. She’s another one I can’t make out.”

“What can’t you make out about her?”

“Whether she’s got a heart in her body, or only a hard-boiled egg.”

“Oh, I fancy she has a heart all right.”

"I used to fancy the same thing, or rather I took it for granted; but ever since—well, she just stumps me.”

SHE reverted to the subject of her errand in Boston and what came of it.

“It wasn’t till I began to hear what was going on there that it seemed to me—” the veil of tears to which her eyes were liable descended like a distant mist—“that it seemed to me a darned shame.”

“What seemed to you a darned shame in particular?”

“Well, first that Dick Stroud should be pulling the wool over any other woman’s eyes—especially a rich one—and then that he should be upsettin’ your apple-cart when you’d had so much trouble already. After that it all came easy.”

“What came easy?”

“Getting to know Mrs. Harrowby—and all the rest of it. The first once or twice I didn’t see how to bring in Dick Stroud’s name without seeming to do it on purpose; but after I met you in the upstairs hall, why, it was just natural. Say, you copped a peach when you got married; do you know it?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve got eyes in my head; and say, she’s the one I saw you with that time I told you about—ever so long ago—and it must have been in New York. I suppose some guy had taken me to a swell restaurant to blow me in for a dinner—but anyhow she was the one. The minute I saw her back I knew there were not two such speaking backs in the world. As for me modelling myself on her, well, an old hourglass pair of stays might as well try to be Clotilde’s Number Three Cora Pearl. And say, she’s some sport, isn’t she? When I told her more about Dick Stroud and me, after you’d gone away that afternoon, she never turned a hair. Mrs. Mountney says she was going to marry him if you hadn’t turned up, and even now he’s hoping to marry her; but when I let her have the whole bunch of truth she took it like a rag-doll will take a pinprick. Never moved a muscle, or showed that it wasn’t just my story, and not a bit her own. Of course I took my cue from that—it was my line all along—and was just the poor working girl telling her life-history to a sympathetic lady just as they hand it out in books; but she carried the thing off something swell. In fact she made me more than half think—”

“What?” I questioned, when she held her idea suspended there.

“I don’t believe I’ll tell you. There are things a man had better find out for himself: do you know it?”

“I shan’t find out anything for myself,” I said, “because—because I’ve given up the fight.”

She stared at me with eyes wide-open in incredulous horror.

“You’ve given up the fight—for a peach like that! Well, of all the poor boobs!” Leaning back in her chair she scanned my appearance. “I thought there was something wrong when I saw you got up like that. You can beat Walter Haines, the quick-change man, when it comes to clothes, believe me. What have you got on now?”

I explained that it had been my Sunday suit during the time I had been working at Creed and Creed’s.

“Then for Gawd’s sake go and take it off, before we start for the theatre. I’ll wait for you here. You can go and come in a taxi. I’ve been looking at you all along, and thinking it must be the latest wrinkle from Boston. Boston has funny ways, now hasn’t it? and so—”

IT was here that I ventured on the exposition of my new scheme of life, getting no appreciation beyond the question as to my sanity quoted above. Later in the evening, as, after the theatre, I drove her back to Miss Flowerdew’s in a taxi, she summed up the situation thus:

“Look-a-here! I never did take stock in that bum story of your being a quitter on the battlefield; but now I sure will if you walk out and hand the show over to Dick Stroud. Why, he’s worth two of you! Look how he sticks! He’ll get me one of these days, just by his sticking—if I’m not careful; and when it comes to a woman life that—Why, I’m ashamed to go round with such a guy. And say, the next time you ask me to dinner, you'll not be got up like the bogie-man dressed for his wife’s funeral. You’ll look like you did the other day in Boston, or the first time I saw you—or it will be nix on little Lydia.”

Drinkwater’s tone was similar and yet different. It was different in that while his premises as to “sticking” coincided with Lydia’s his conclusions were not the same.

Perhaps he was not the same Drinkwater. More than two years having passed since I had seen him I found in him more than two years of development. A crude boy when last we had met, association with a man like Averill, combined with his own instinct for growth, had made him something of a man of the world not the less sympathetic for his honest pug-face and his blindness. The fact that he asked me to dine with him at his university club was an indication of progress in itself.

He gave me his confidences before I offered mine, sketching a career in which stenography figured as no more than the handmaid to a passion for biological research. From many of the details of research he was, of course, precluded by his blindness; but his methodical habits, his memory, and his faculty for induction had more than once put Averill on the track of one thing when looking for another. It was thus that they had discovered the ophida parotidea while experimenting for the germ of the Spanish influenza. Incidentally, his salary had been creeping upwards in proportion as he made himself more useful.

“And Lydia’s been a wonder,” he declared, his face shining. “Talk about sticking! The way that girl’s stuck to me in every kind of tight place—! Always thinking of other people, and how to pull them out of the holes they get into—! In the Middle Ages she’d have been a saint. Now she’s just an up-to-date New York girl....”

By the time he had finished this rhapsody I was ready to tell him a part of my own life-tale, on which I found him more responsive than anyone I had met. As to my mental misfortunes in France he accepted the narrative without questioning. When I came to what I painted as domestic conditions outlived on both sides he passed the topic over with the lightness born of tact. You see, it was an altogether older and more serious Drinkwater with whom I had to deal; and yet with one not less enthusiastic.

I discovered this when, with much misgiving, I hinted at the task to which I wished to dedicate anything left in my life.

“You’ve got it, old boy,” he half shouted, slapping his leg. “There are three or four big jobs through which we white Americans have got to save our country, and among them the free play of class-contribution is almost the first. Say, these fellows that go jazzing about class-warfare get my goat. Class co-operation is what we want; and it’s what classes come into existence to give. You can’t suppress classes, not yet awhile at any rate, in a country full of inequalities; but what we can do is to get the classes that form themselves spontaneously to take their gifts and pass ’em on to each other. Each works out something that another doesn’t, and so can benefit the bunch all round. Say, Jasper, you’ll hit the nail of one of our biggest national weaknesses right on the head—as soon as you’ve learnt how to do it.”

“Yes, but the learning how to do it is just where the hitch seems to come in. I’ve been in New York three weeks, and I’m just where I was when I came.”

“Say, I’ll give you a line on that. Do you know how a young fellow in a country town—I don’t know anything about swell places like New York—becomes a barber?”

I said that I didn’t, that I had never given a thought to the subject.

“Well, he doesn’t learn, and nobody ever teaches him. He just sits round in the barber shop, brushing hats and hanging up overcoats, and wishing to the Lord he was a barber—and all of a sudden he is one. He’s watches the shaves and hair-clips, hardly knowing he’s been doing it—but wishing like blazes all the while—and at last it comes to him like song to a young bird. Now you’ve just got to sit round. Sit tight and sit round. Wish and watch and watch and wish, and the divine urge that turns a youngster into a barber because that’s what he’s got his heart on will steer you into the right way. This isn’t going to be anything you can learn, as you’d learn to drive a motor or dissect a dead body. It won’t be a profession, it’ll be a life, that’ll show you the trick. Don’t try to hurry things, Jasper; and don’t expect that three weeks or three months or three years are going to make this mum old world fork you out its secrets. Just stick—and if you don’t do the thing you’re aiming at you’ll do another just as useful. Why, the doctor was going to chuck all his experiments on the influenza bug when I persuaded him to keep at it; and so he discovered the thing that scientists have been after ever since Dockendorff thought he’d tracked it down as long ago as eighteen-ninety-three. All sticking!”

CHAPTER XXV

I CONFESS that I was comforted by these hearty words and braced in a determination that was beginning to splutter out. Drinkwater’s divine urge was not unlike my own thread of flame and Denis’s Holy Mother who was a light even to the feet of Protestants. It was the same principle—that of a guide, an impulse, an illumination, which our own powers could generate when lifted up to, and associated with, the universal beneficence. I decided to take his formula, “Wish and watch, and watch and wish,” as the device of my knight-errantry. As a matter of fact by the sheer process of wishing I secured a secondary position for myself in the Textile Department of the Metropolitan Museum, while by that of watching I found that one of Bridget’s boys and two of the Finn’s had aptitude highly worth developing right along this line. It wasn’t much; but it was a beginning in the way in which I hoped to go, and might lead to something more.

In all this time, as you can imagine, Vio was my ruling thought, and guessing her intentions my daily occupation. Since she presumably wanted a divorce there were doubtless grounds on which she could secure one by going the right way to work; but as to whether she was doing this or not nothing had yet been said to me. Nothing was said to me of any kind. I had not written to her, nor had she to me; and my other communication with Boston was only through my bankers. Even that was growing more irregular since I had changed my business address to Meeting House Green.

What I was chiefly seeking was forgetfulness. Lydia had reproached me with being a “poor boob” in giving up the struggle for Vio’s love; but Lydia hadn’t known the wound Vio had inflicted. The more I thought of that the more I felt it due to the dignity of love to attempt neither explanation nor defence. On mere circumstantial evidence Vio had believed me guilty of the crime she would probably have rated as the blackest in the calendar. I couldn’t forgive that. I had no intention of forgiving it. The more I loved her the less I could forget that she had returned my love in this way. The most chivalrous thing I could do, the most merciful toward her, and the most tender, was what I was doing. I could leave her without a contradiction, so justifying tacitly whatever she may have thought, and putting no restraint on her future liberty of action.

I SAID so to Mildred Averill when we talked it over about the middle of March. I had not intended to renew this connection unless a sign was made from the other side; but it was given in the form of a line from Miss Averill begging me to come and see her in the apartment she had taken for herself in Park Avenue, where at last she had a little home. Knowing that my duties kept me at the Museum on week-days she had fixed the time for a Sunday afternoon.

It will be remembered that we had met in the previous December, so that I found little change in her now. As I had noticed then she had grown more spiritual, with an expression of restfulness and peace.

“That’s because I don’t struggle so much,” she explained, in answer to my remark on this change; “I don’t fight so much. I’m not nearly the rebel I used to be.”

“Does that mean that you’ve made up your mind to let things go?”

“No; to let things come. That’s what I wouldn’t do before. I wanted to hurry them, to force them, to drag them along. I began to see that life has its own current upwards, and that we succeed best by getting into it and letting it carry us onward.”

“But doesn’t that theory tend to take away one’s own initiative?”

“I don’t know that initiative is any good if it’s directed the wrong way. Did you ever watch a leaf being carried down stream? As long as it’s in the current it goes swiftly and safely. Then something catches it and throws it into some little side-pool or backwater where it goes fretting and swirling and tearing itself to pieces and never getting anywhere. Well, it’s something like that. I was in a side-pool, lashing round and round and churning my spirit, such as it is, into nervous irritations of every kind, making myself the more furious because my efforts were to no purpose.

“How did you get into the current again?”

“By wishing, in the first place. It began to seem to me such a foolish thing that being given all the advantages in the world I could do nothing but frustrate them. I was like a person with a pack of cards in his hand, not knowing how to play any game. I longed to learn one, even the simplest; and I think it was the idea of the simplest that saved me.”

“I’m not sure that I get that—the simplest.”

“Oh. it's nothing abstruse or original. I suppose it's no more than the accepted principle of doing the duty that's nearest. Hitherto I'd felt that nothing was a real duty but what was far away. Then I began to see that right under our own roof.... You see, Boyd and Lulu weren’t very happy, and I’d been leaving them to shift for themselves while I tried to do things for people like Lydia Blair and Harry Drinkwater and a lot of others who were perfectly well able to take care of themselves. So I began to wonder if I couldn’t.... and to wish.... And it’s so curious; the minute I did that the things I could do were right there—just as if they’d been staring me in the face for years and I hadn’t had the eyes to see them.”

“What sort of things?”

“Oh, hardly worth naming when it comes to words. Not big things; little things. If Lulu wanted something she couldn’t find in New York—a particular sort of scarf or chain or piece of music, no matter what—I’d tell Boyd and he’d send for it—and of course you see! Or if Lulu said anything nice about Boyd—which she did now and then—I’d make it a point of telling him.... That’s the sort of thing; nothing when you come to talk about it, and yet in practice.... That’s what I mean by the simplest—the easiest and most natural; and so I formed a kind of principle.”

“Do you mind telling me what it is?”

“Only that, whoever you are, your work is given you; you don’t have to go into the highways and hedges to look for it. That queer boy, Harry Drinkwater, gave me the secret of it first. I asked him one day how it was that in spite of all his handicaps he managed to get on so well. He said he had only one recipe for success, which was wishing and watching and watching and wishing. He said there was no door that wouldn’t open to you of its own accord if you stood before it long enough with that Sesame in your heart. I, remember his saying, too, that in the matter of work, desire—desire that’s not wrong of course—was our first point of contact with the divine, since the thing that we urgently wish to do is the thing by which we re-express the God who has first expressed Himself in us. The most important duty then is to find out what we really want, and then to wish and watch. Most of us don’t know what we want—or if we do we’re not clear enough about it—and so we get lost in confusion like travellers in a swamp. Of course he said it all much more I quaintly than I’m doing it; but that was the gist, and it helped to put me into the line of thought in which I’ve—I’ve found content.”

“That is, you analyzed first what it was you really wanted to do.”

“Exactly; and I discovered two things; first, that I didn’t want anything half so much as to help—I’ve told you that before—unless it was the happiness of the people to whom I was nearest. I found I too that if I began at the beginning and followed the line of least resistance I’d get farther in the end. Up to that time I’d begun in the middle, and so could get neither backwards nor forwards, as I used to complain to you.”

Having thought this over I said:

“You're fortunate in having the people to whom you’re nearest close enough to you for—for daily intercourse and influence.” There was distinct significance in her response.

“Perhaps I’m fortunate in never having turned my back on them as long as they were in need of me. Do you remember how I used to want a home of my own? Well, something kept me at least from that. Whenever I came face to face with doing what I’ve felt free to do at last there was always a second thought that held me back. If Boyd and Lulu had had children it would have been different. But Lulu didn’t want any—till—till lately—and so I felt that something was needed to ease the grinding of the wheels between them. I did recognize that. But now that they’ve got the little boy—”

“Got a little boy?” I said, in astonishment.

"Why, yes. Didn’t anyone tell you? Two weeks old to-day, and such a darling! One day he looks like Lulu, and the next like Boyd, and they’re both as happy as two children. That’s why I‘ve felt free to be my own mistress—to this extent—at last. Things do work out, you know, if you’ll only give them half a chance—and stop fretting. That’s another thing,” she smiled. “It came to me one day in church when they were reading the Psalms, though I’d often heard the words before without paying them attention. ‘Fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil.’ I suppose people worried three thousand years ago just as we do to-day; and had to be told not to. Well, I've tried not to fret myself, and I’ve got on, oh, so much better.”

SHE was so serene, that, as I passed my cup for more tea, I ventured on something from which otherwise I should have shrunk.

“I’m a little surprised that in your analysis of the things you really wanted you’ve forgotten the one most people crave for first.”

She took this with her customary simple directness.

“Oh, no, I haven’t. It’s only that something seems to have been left out of me—that I don’t demand it as much as many other women; and then—it’s hard to put into words—the conviction has come to me that—that whenever I’m ready for it I shall get it. I’m not ready for it—yet.” Her amber eyes rested on me with the utmost truthfulness. “It’s odd; but I’m not. The very fact that I don’t demand it—yet—some women, you know, are like that—and I suppose some men—but that very fact shows that it’s wiser not to congest one’s life by tackling too many things at a time. The one thing I’m growing certain of is that it all depends on oneself as to whether or not the windows of heaven are open to pour us out blessings, and that whatever I want, within reason, I shall get in the long run.”

It was partly this theory of life, and partly a sense of assurance and relief, that led me on to talk of my personal situation. As Drinkwater had done she dismissed my mental misfortunes as incidental, interesting pathologically, but not morally decisive. As to my return to New York after having actually found my way home I felt obliged to give her some explanation. It was while I was doing this that she asked as if casually:

“Do you like Colonel Stroud?”

“No,” I said, bluntly. “Do you?”

“I can see that he has a sort of fascination—for other women.” She added, more thoughtfully: “I don’t trust him.”

“Neither do l.”

“I thought not. That’s what makes me wonder—”

She hesitated so long that I was compelled to say:

“Wonder—what?”

“Perhaps I had better not go on.”

“Please do.”

“I only will on condition that you authorize me—”

“I authorize you to say anything you choose.”

“Well, then, since you don’t trust him, I wonder how you could expose any woman to—to his influence.”

“Oh, but I don’t. The—the events all took place while I was away—and I’ve no control over them.”

“No control perhaps; but there are other things in life besides control.”

“I know that; but what things, for instance, do you mean?”

“Oh, lots of things.” She looked about the room as if not attaching much importance to her words. “Love, for one.”

“But in this case love has to be counted out."

“Can you ever count out love? I thought that was the one permanent factor in existence, though the skies were to fall.”

“It may be a permanent factor, and yet have to remain in abeyance.”

She laughed.

“Nonsense! Who ever heard of love remaining in abeyance? You might as, well talk of fire remaining in abeyance when it’s raging, or water when it’s bursting a dam, or any other element in active operation. If I loved anyone, no matter how little, I should want to save them from a man like Colonel Stroud.”

“In spite of the fact that you’d been considered guilty of—’’

“Oh, what does it matter what anyone thinks of so poor a thing as oneself? I mean that oneself to oneself is so very unimportant.”

“Oh, do you think so?”

"Of course I know that there are other points of view, and that from some of them oneself to oneself is the most vital of all considerations. But in the detail of what other people think of one—”

“Even when the other people are those of whom you think most in all the world—?”

“Let us think most of them then. Don’t let us think most about ourselves.”

“Do you suppose I’m thinking most about myself now? I assure you I’m not.”

“She laughed again, not lightly, but rather pitifully.

“I must leave you to judge of that.”

XXVI

I DID judge of it, all through that spring, coming more and more to the conclusion that I was right. It was not the only occasion on which Mildred Averil! and I talked the matter over; but it became at last a subject on which agreeing to differ seemed our only course. The time came when I remembered with an inward blush that I had once feared that this clear-eyed, well-poised girl, who had really found herself, might be in love with me. What her exact sentiment toward me was I have never been able to name further than to put it under the head of a “deep interest.” Had circumstances been in our favor that interest might at one time have ripened into something more; but from that she was saved by the instinct which told her that in spite of my assertions—as to which she nevertheless didn’t charge me with untruth—I was a married man.

One more detail I must add concerning her.

On a Saturday afternoon in early May I had gone to her to talk over the great news of the day, that the peace terms had been handed to the enemy at Versailles. It must be remembered that she was the one person, outside my colleagues in the Museum, with whom I could discuss the topics nearest to my heart. With Pelly, Bridget, the Finn, and even with Miss Smith, I had friendly arguments as to the League of Nations and similar matters of public concern; but they rarely went beyond the catch-words of the newspapers.

“My dear father,” Miss Smith would say gently, “who was an eminent oculist in his time—Dr. Smith—you may have heard of him—used to say that his policy was to keep this country out of entangling alliances. That was his expression—entangling alliances. I always think of it when I see foreigners.”

“From awl I hear,” Bridget informed me, “this here League o’ Nations they make so much talk about is on’y to help the English to oppress Ireland.”

“Will it bring down prices?” the Finn demanded, if ever I spoke of it with him, and when I confessed that I couldn’t be sure that it would he dismissed the theme with, “Then that’s all I want to know.”

“Punk, I call it,” was Pelly’s verdict, “unless Lloyd George is for it; and whatever he says goes with me.”

THIS being the scope of my conversations on the subject it became a special pleasure to air my opinions with one who, while not always agreeing with me, took in such matters the same kind of interest as myself.

We were, therefore, in what is called the thick of it when a shuffling and laughing were heard from the hall. Suspending our remarks to look up in curiosity, we saw Lydia come in leading Drinkwater. From the festive note in their costumes Miss Averill leaped to a conclusion.

“ No!” she cried, as the two stood giggling sheepishly before her tea-table. "You haven’t!”

“We have.”

The statement was his.

“I talked him into it,” Lydia declared, laughingly. “He didn't want to, but I was afraid that if I didn’t tie him by the leg he’d fly the coop.”

“But,” I asked, "what about your great career?”

“Oh, well, I’ve put that off a bit. I can always take it up again. Anyhow, you never heard of an adventuress who wasn’t married. She doesn’t have to stay married but a single woman who’s an adventuress gets nowhere. The Russian countess in The Scarlet Sin had been married twice—first to a professor—that’d be Harry—and then to a count. I can begin looking ! forward to the count right now, because i Harry is what you may call a thing of the past.”

When they had giggled themselves out again, to go and give the news to someone I else, Miss Averill said, whole-heartedly:

“Well, I’m glad.”

Thinking of Vio and Stroud I asked why.

“Because Lydia is safe for a while anyhow."

“Didn’t you think she was safe already?”

“Not wholly. There was someone.”

“Someone she liked?”

“No, someone she didn’t like. That was the funny part of it. But about four or five months ago she came to me with so incoherent a tale that I couldn’t make anything out of it. There was a man—a gentleman she said he was—who wanted her to go off with him; and to save someone else she began to think she ought to do it. I really can’t tell you what it was, because I couldn’t get it straight; only there was a wild, foolish, lovely idea of self-sacrifice in it, and now it’s over. He won’t get her; and if ever anyone deserved an exquisite thing like her it’s Harry Drinkwater. He can’t see how pretty she is, of course; but he gets the essence of a beauty that is more than physical.”

WE DROPPED the terms of Peace and the League of Nations and frankly discussed love. I had already told her that for me, notwithstanding all the conditions, there was no woman in the world but Vio.

“And for me,” she laughed, “there’s— there’s Lohengrin.” My expression must have betrayed my curiosity because she went on: “Haven’t I told you that it’s all a matter for ourselves whether the blessings of existence are ours or not; and what blessing is greater than a good husband when one wants one? When Elsa was in need of a defender she went down on her knees—a method of expressing her point of view—and he came right out of the clouds. There’s always a Lohengrin for every woman born—and there’s always an Elsa for every man—and whether or not they find each other largely rests on their understanding of the source from which Elsas and Lohengrins come.”

“And you’re sure of your own Lohengrin?”

She answered with a laughing air of challenge:

“Perfectly. Whenever I give the right call I know he’ll be on the way.”

But this optimism didn’t weigh with me. Knowing all I did of love and life the simple performance of simple tasks began to seem to me that most satisfying food for men. From nearly all of those whom I have quoted I made the synthetic gleaning of bees in a garden of flowers, building my own little cell for my soul and storing it. I needed such a cell. As May passed and June came in there was much in the trend of public life to make those who had yearned and hoped and looked forward cynical. The splendid spiritual freedom for which people had given their efforts and their sons was plainly not to be achieved. If the human race had moved higher it was not directly apparent at Versailles or anywhere else in the world, while in America, the home of the ideal, the land in which so many of the heart-stirring watchwords had been coined, passion, selfishness, distortion, extortion, and contortion were the chief signs of the new times. North of us Canada, hitherto so tranquilly industrious, was threatened with internal convulsion; south of us Mexico, which some of us had hoped was pacified, was a prey to new distress. For me, to keep my sanity amid all this conflict of forces, a little secret temple of my own became a necessity, and to it I retired.

It wasn’t much. Having built my shrine with what I had harvested from Drinkwater, Lydia, Mildred Averill, and the rest, I hid myself there with some half-dozen disciples. They were Bridget’s boy, the Finn’s two sons, and three or four of their chums whom they had brought in. Not only did their young affection give me something I sorely needed in my inner life, but I had the hope that building on them I was doing something for the future. Grown men and women were beyond my endeavors. These fresh souls, with their nearness to God, understood my faltering speech which fell so far short of the ideas I was trying to interpret.

They were simple ideas, connected with practical beauty. That is, with the Museum as what we called our clubhouse all man’s treasures of material creative art were ours. These we were taking in their order, beginning with my own specialty of all things woven, from the crudest specimens of ancient linens up to the splendors of the tapestries, and going on to kindred and allied crafts. Not only art was involved in this, but history, biography, travel, romance, and everything else that adds drama to human accomplishment. To me, with the big void in my life, it was the most nearly satisfying thing I knew to reveal to these eager little minds something of the wonders with which the world was full; to them, with their ugly homes, cramped outlooks, and misshapen hopes, it was, I fancy, much what the marvels of the next world will be to those accustomed to the dwarfed conceptions of this.

Saturday afternoons were the days of our reunions and we came to the last in June. It was a fatal date—the 28th—marking the fifth anniversary of the tragedy through which the new world began to dissociate itself forever from the old. As contemporary history was a large part of our interest, with the development of man’s efforts stage by stage, the occasion naturally came in for comment.

ON THAT particular day we were in the great room, which as far as I know has no rival in any other museum in the world, where the whole history of ceramic art is visually unfolded in order, from the crude, strong products of the Han, Tang, and Sung dynasties in China, up through the manifold efflorescence of European art to such American work as that of Bennington, Cincinnati, and Dedham, which may be the forerunner of a new departure.

We had come to that section of the room where were displayed the first representative pieces brought back from the East by merchants and ambassadors, and so voyages of discovery were in order. Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, and the Dutch, English, and Portuguese explorers had been discussed, and I was in the act of giving to my boys the story of the origin of Delft-ware as an attempt to reproduce in abundance what the Oriental traders brought over only in small quantities. The specimens of Delft being on shelves but little above the floor I was crouched in a half-sitting position, with the lads hanging over my shoulders. Not till I had finished this part of my exposition did I rise, to find on turning that a lady was looking on.

Recognition on my part lagged behind amazement. Tall, slender, distinguished, dressed in black, and somewhat thickly veiled for a day in June. It was the sort of apparition to make a man doubt the accuracy of his senses. Before my lips could frame a word she held out something toward me, saying simply:

“Billy, I came to bring you this.”

The boys fell back, knowing by instinct that the moment was one of dramatic significance to me, and looking on over-awed.

What I had in my hand I saw at once to be nothing but a copy of one of the New York papers that appears in the afternoon. That it contained some announcement affecting me went without saying, and a half-dozen terrors crowded into my mind at once. Without my knowing it she might have got a divorce; she might have got a divorce and re-married; she might have lost her money; I might have lost mine; someone near to us might be dead.

I held the paper stupidly, staring at her through the veil, and opening the journal without seeing it. When my eyes fell on the first page it was entirely a white blankness, except for a single word in enormous letters:

“PEACE!”

MY EYES lifted themselves to hers; fell to that one word again; lifted themselves to hers once more. She stood impassive, motionless, waiting.

“So—so they’ve signed it,” was all I could find to stammer out.

“Yes; they’ve signed it. I—I thought you might like to know.”

“Of course.” Further than this superficial fact I was too dazed to go; but I knew I must get rid of the boys. Turning to Patsy Bridget I said: “Patsy, could you take the other boys home, and see them safely to their doors?”

“Sure!” Patsy answered, with the confidence of fifteen.

“Aw, we don’t want no one to take us home,” the elder of the Finn’s boys protested indignantly. “I’m twelve, goin’ on thirteen. Me and me kid bruwer goes all over N’York. Don’t we, Broncho?”

Another lad spoke up.

“I come from me aunt’s house in Harlem right down to East Thirty-Fourth Street, all by meself and me little sister.”

It was Vio who arranged the matter to everyone’s satisfaction. With her right hand on one boy’s shoulder and her left on another’s she said, in a tone of quiet authority:

“You see, this is the way it is. The war is over at last. They’ve just signed the peace treaty, and I’ve come to tell Mr. Harrowby. But now that we’ve got peace we’ve got to go on fighting—only fighting in a better way and for better things. Now, you’re a little army, with Mr. Harrowby as your Commander-in-Chief, like Marshal Foch. But under him you’re all officers, according to your ages. Patsy is the general, and you’re the colonel—” she continued to the elder Finn boy.

“Aw, no, he’s not, Miss,” one of the other lads declared, tearfully. “I’m older’n him. He’s only twelve goin’ on thirteen, and I’m thirteen goin’ on fourteen.”

This too was adjusted, and with a dollar from Vio for ice-cream sodas, the general tramped out, followed by colonel, major, captain, and lieutenants, each keeping to his rank by marching in Indian file. I had never before seen Vio in this light, and something new and human that had not entered into our previous relations suddenly was there.

LEFT alone with her I was in too great a tumult of excitement to find words for the opportunity.

“How did you know where to find me?” was the question I asked, stupidly.

“Miss Averill told me. She said you’d be here with your boys, and she thought you’d told her you’d be doing this particular subject. I went through some of the other rooms first—”

“I didn’t know you knew her.”

“I didn’t till—till lately. I was interested in making her acquaintance because of things Alice Mountney said—and you said—”

“What did I say?”

“Oh, nothing of much importance, except for showing me that—that she was the one.”

“What one?”

“The one you spoke of—the—the last evening. That’s—that’s what’s made me come to New York, Billy—to see if I could do anything—to—to help out."

“To help out—how?”

“Oh, Billy, don’t make yourself dull. You know that nothing can be done unless I—or you—or one of us—should take the first step—”

I asked, with a casual intonation:

"How’s Stroud?”

Fire flashed right through the thickness of the veil, but she answered in the tone I had taken.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since—since that girl—”

“She’s married.”

“Oh, is she? I hope it’s to someone—”

“It’s to someone as true-blue as she.”

“She is true-blue, Billy. I see that now. She—she must be—to have wanted to do—what she did—for—a woman like me, who—"

She took a step or two toward one of the cases, where she pretended to examine the lustre of a great Moorish plaque.

“She's an erratic little thing,” I said, finding it easier to talk of a third person rather than of ourselves, “all pluck, and high spirit and good heart—harum-scarum—and yet a great deal wiser than you’d think.”

She turned round from the plaque, without coming nearer to me.

“I just want to say that the things she told me—the things she pretended to betray—were things I knew more or less already. I’d been coming to the same conclusions for myself, only I hadn’t quite reached them.... And then you came back—and everything was so strange—after I’d been in mourning for you—and given those prints as a memorial in your name.... I wish—” I detected something like a sob—“I wish you could make some allowances for me, Billy.”

The minute was a hard one for me, but I stood my ground.

“I make all allowances, Vio; I’ve no hard feelings whatever.”

She advanced toward me by a pace.

“Then will you do this for me? If I can find a way to—to give you your liberty will you—will you marry Mildred Averill—and—and be happy?”

THOUGH my heart was going wild I know my eyes must have been cold, as I said:

“I can’t promise you that, Vio, for a double reason. First, I’m not in love with her; and then she’s not in love with me.”

“Oh, but I thought she was. Everybody says so.”

“Who’s everybody?”

“Well—well, Alice Mountney.”

“I can see how Alice Mountney might make that mistake; but it is a mistake, Vio, and please let my saying so convince you. I’ll be quite frank with you and say that I thought so once myself. I’ll even go so far as to say that at one time—if everything had been different—it might have happened. But—but everything was as it was—and so.... Well, the long and short of it is that there’s nothing in it; and I must beg you to take that as decisive.”

“Then—then—who is it?”

“No one. I’ve found my work—a very humble work, as you’ve just seen—”

“A very fine and useful work.”

“I hope so; and I’m not—not unhappy—specially.”

She moved along the line of cases, as if carelessly examining the contents.

“What’s that?” she asked, coming to a pause.

Obliged to go close to her, I was careful not to touch so much as the surface of her clothes.

“It’s just a cup and saucer—Ludwigsburg—an old Rhine valley factory now extinct. They liked those little fancy scenes.”

“It seems to be a woman pleading with a man, doesn’t it?”

“It. looks like that. It probably means nothing beyond a bit of decoration.”

“And he seems so implacable, while she’s down on her knees, poor thing!” She looked round at me. “Are you busy here still?”

“Oh, there are always things to do. Why?”

“I thought you might walk back to—to the hotel with me.”

I took out my watch, though unable to read the time even when I looked at it. "I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid—”

“Oh, no, you’re not.” There was a repetition of the catch in the tone that suggested a sob. “Billy, aren’t we—aren’t we going to be friends?”

I couldn’t soften toward her. I felt no springs of forgiveness.

“Why should you want to be friends with me?”

“Because I can’t help it for one thing,” she cried; “and for another—” Turning away wearily she began to move toward the door. “Of course if you don’t want to I can’t urge it, and so must learn to get along by myselif.”

Something in the last phrase prompted me to say:

“Is there anything specially wrong?”

“No; only everything specially wrong. If you had come back to the hotel with me I could have told you.”

“Can’t you tell me now? Is it about—about Stroud?”

“Oh, no, Billy. Can’t you forget about that? I have. He’s dropped out of my existence. That was all a mistake—like the other things.”

“What other things?”

“All the other things.” She pointed to the big word PEACE staring at us from a chair to which I had thrown the newspaper. “Look at that. Doesn’t it make all the last five years seem unreal—like a nightmare after you’ve got up? Well, that’s the way I feel now—about—about—"

“About me?”

“Of course.”

"Do you mean that—?”

She nodded, without waiting for me to finish the question. "I never, never should have thought it at all only that Wolf and Dick Stroud and even the military authorities—”

“But I want it very plainly, Vio—”

“I’ll tell you as plainly as you like, Billy, but—but not now. I’m too worried—"

“But what about? Is it—?”

“Oh, everything,” she burst out desperately,—“money for one. Didn't you see how shabby the house was—and run down?—and—” the sobs began to come freely now, and without restraint—"and—and Lulu Averill has a little boy—a perfect darling—and our little Bobby—”

“I’ll go back with you to the hotel,” I said quietly, “only don’t—don't cry here, with people coming in and out—”

SHE dried her eyes, drew down her veil, and took her sunshade from a corner. Picking up the paper she had brought, I folded it, and slipped it into my pocket. I began to wonder if it might not prove a souvenir.

On the way to the main exit we passed though a corridor lined with cases of old silver.

“Do you think your boys would like a day with those things?” she asked, with the slight convulsion of her throat that a child has after tears.

“I’m sure they would.”

“I could—I could take them—some day—when you didn’t want to go—if you’d let me. It’s one of the few things I know something about.”

“I’m afraid it would bore you.”

She paused for just an instant. “Bore me? Billy, nothing will ever bore me again so long as you—you let me—’

As she could say no more we resumed our walk.

Out in the open a boy rushed up to us, a Slavic creature with huge questioning eyes.

“Peace, Mister! Peace, Miss! Buy one! Great historic ’casion!”

They were like doves, all up and down the avenue—white, fluttering, bearing the one blessed, magical word. They were in motor-cars, carriages, and on the tops of omnibuses—all white, all fluttering, all blessed, and all magical. Up and down and everywhere the cry burst from hundreds of raucous little throats:

“Peace! Peace! PEACE!”

“It’s like coming out into a new world, isn’t it?” I said.

“It is a new world—for me. Do you remember saying that day when you first came home, that the new world made the war? Now it’s made something else, in which it seems to me there’ll be just as much struggle called for, only with a difference. Then the hard things were done to break us down; now they may be just as hard, only they’ll be to build us up. The east isn’t farther from the west, is it? than these two motives. I’ve never wanted to build up anything in my life; but now I feel as if—”

Once more we walked silently among the doves, listening to that throaty, lusty cry that was sheer music:

“Peace! Peace! PEACE!”

We had come to that avenue in the park sacred to little boys and girls, when she said:

“He’s a darling—Lulu Averill’s baby; and they—they quite understand each other—now.”

This second reference prompted me to give her a long sidewise look, but she did not return it.

“Perhaps—” I ventured.

“Oh, Billy!”

It was barely a sigh, but for the minute it was enough for me, as she pressed forward, with veiled profile set, like one gazing into the future.

THE END