Commencing a novel of steel; of the battle of men against metal and of women in love
IT WAS a famous school, and with those who knew no better it had the reputation of being a hard one. The buildings, low and grey, were a few hundred yards fron an arm of the North Sea, and the Pentland Hills lifted not far toward the southeast. Young John Driver was sent there at the age of thirteen, took to the life like a seal to salt water, and finished at eighteen as head of the school and captain of the fifteen. Cricket he considered rather futile, and never took it seriously. At thirleen he was a small edition of the permanent form he assumed later. Of medium height, square. headed, dark-browed, with an obstinate chin, a large mouth, rmly set lips, a short finely-chiselled nose, a
deep powerful chest, and long arms, he was a boy one looked at twice, the sort that invited one to speculate as to his future. His eyes were dark and deeply set, and he had a curious habit of looking at people with a steady, unwinking, undiverted stare that was often exceedingly hard to meet. The eyes bored into one as though demanding to kuow whether he was getting the whole thing-all of it. During his last year he had ruled his subprefects, monitors and the rest of the school with unquestioned authority. He was rather formidable but absolutely fair, so left no opening for appeal from his decisions. He had done no sidestepping, no funking, no slacking himself, and could not abide it in others. In his second year he had fought the then slogger of the school to a standstill, a boy much bigger than himself, and those who were privileged to see the fight carried away
unforgettable visions of a small blood-streaked warrior standing up to severe punishment while the indomitable spirit in him triumphed over the bruised and aching body. And when the two shook hands, John had rather chokily suggested that they try again next term, by which time he reckoned he would be a good deal better with his left. But by then he was so much better that the thing never came off. Now, on the last school day of all, he was in the headmaster's study, staring mutely at the grey-headed man at the big desk and wondering what one should say under the circumstances. His mind had finished with the immediate past, and already was pitched ahead. "Well, Driver, looking back at the last five years, what do you make of them?" "I'm just thinking, sir. Are you satisfied with me?" That was John's way, and the headmaster smiled.
“Yes, very. You’ve held the school together, and we're proud of you. You’ve been a bit hard sometimes, but that did no real harm. You’re apt to think no allowances are necessary, which is wrong, but I admit you never expected any yourself. You’re a Spartan, but the Spartans overdid things occasionally, and I'm inclined to think that later on you’re going to be overhard on yourself.”
“Myself!” blurted John.
“It’s quite possible. There’s such a thing as being contented without enjoying oneself, and one can realize one’s ambition without attaining any great happiness. I don’t know as much about steel as your grandfather does—or possibly as you do yourself—but, offhand, I’d say you were tempered a bit too hard for general purposes.” He smiled again. “There’s such a thing as mild steel, Isn’t there?”
John nodded gravely.
“We make a lot of it.”
“Well, I suggest that you think it over when you have to deal with humanity in the mass—as I take it you will. What are you going to do now?”
“The works,” said John promptly.
“This summer? At once?”
The boy nodded.
“I don’t want to waste time, and I’ll own them later on. And he added:
“There’s iron in my blood. We’ve always been like that.”
A little silence ensued in the study, while sixty years looked at eighteen, forecasting what manner of life lay in front of this imperturbable youth. Effort, ambition, toil, accomplishment—no doubt of that. But how much of happiness, how much gaiety? Little promise of it in that strong square face. And, thinking thus, the man who had directed young John Driver for the past five years could only reflect that he had done his best and one could do no more.
“Well,” he said, “the future is yours, not mine. I fancy we shall hear of you from time to time. God bless you, my boy. I hope you've got out of the school as much as you’ve put into it.”
John stood up, made a jerky bow and put out a hard tough hand. There was a suggestion of iron in his grip. Then he went out, frowning a little as was his wont, and took a solitary walk round the playing fields. Curiously enough, they did not so much suggest the matches in which he had taken part as the number of times the school under his leadership had won. That was what counted; the winning. Then into the gym, where three years previously he had fought Tennant.
Tennant, a big, fair, beefy fellow, was at Oxford now. John was not for Oxford.
Too much lost motion there, to his mind.
Then, regarded with awe by a group of
juniors who were sitting on their packed
trunks, back to his own room, where he
stood for some moments at the window,
staring at the big gates which, probably,
he would never see again. The rest of the
place was already slipping into the background and
becoming hazy, but the gates were real. They led to the
world, the world that awaited him. He set his teeth at
the thought of that.
TN THE train on the way home—home was in the 1 Black Country—John Driver avoided the other boys who were going south, and. finding an empty carriage, sat in the corner, watching the speeding landscape and thinking of it not at all. He did wonder for a moment what it would be like were he going back to a brother or sister or mother and not to an enormous and halfempty house that sat among some wind-whipped trees on a ridge that overlooked the works. But he was used to it, so his mind passed swiftly on to practical things, such as the department he would enter first. The converter building, he thought. He liked that the most, because when the blast was on the furnaces vomited flame and roared with a deep hoarse note that woke some responsive chord in the boy’s very soul.. It took a good man to run that show, and he proposed to run it before long.
His mind turned with a sort of cool deliberation to Meg Burstall. The Burstalls, who lived two miles from John’s grandfather, owned the mines that supplied the Driver works with coal. It had been thus for the last hundred years, with periodic attempts on the part of each family to buy out the holdings of the other. But nothing had ever come of that, because each hung on.
Meg was John’s age. They had played together as small children, but of late had regarded each other rather differently. Crescent man and crescent woman were achieving the sharper vision, and knew perfectly well what their respective families expected. John used to push out his lips when he thought of that, having no intention of plunging into matrimony before he was— well, say, twenty-seven or -eight. This was what he assured himself now. At the same time, he wondered not a little what it would be like to take your girl in
your arms, and shut your eyes, and just feel her loving you. It was queer, but he didn’t think of Meg in this fashion—ever. Perhaps he was too used to her. More like a sister. Meg was not beautiful, but had steady grey eyes and a kind, gentle mouth. Also she was very proud, and, though she smiled a good deal, it was often hard to guess what she really felt about things, and himself in particular.
At the fall of a dark night he reached home, driving through three miles of Black Country in an oldfashioned carriage because Grandfather James Driver did not hold with motor cars. This suited young John perfectly well, gave him more time to note other furnaces and other steel works he passed on the way—all flaming, clanging and roaring—till down in a naked valley he saw the plant that some day would be his, the biggest plant of them all. Then, halfway along the naked ridge that overhung the works, he came to the old Driver house.
Mast boys would have thought it rather like a prison, but not John. Having never really lived in any other house, he was too used to this one. An enormous hall, with enormous rooms opening off. Wide stairs at the end, with a big stained-glass window on the landing.
The window had been designed by an artist who lived near the works about fifty years previously, and all the figures in it had prodigiously developed muscles and short thick legs and broad backs like the men who worked at the open hearth furnaces. John used to admire those muscles and would take a tentative pinch at his own, while Meg thought them horrible. Off the upper hall were more huge rooms; great vaults of bedrooms with high ceilings and deep cupboards and wide fireplaces where selected lumps from the Burstall mines blazed in winter time. The mantels were white marble, ar.d carried bunches of wax flowers under glass domes. The fire irons had been designed by John’s grandfather and made in the works.
Between the boy and the old man there was a sort of ritual of manner. No nonsense and no sentiment. Life was a serious matter, bounded primarily by iron, steel and coal. John never thought this unnatural, but here again he was used to it. He had not been kissed since he was six years old, not even by Meg. He supposed that that would come in due course. He had been told a thing or two at school that made him wonder a good deal, and turn red, then he put it on one side as being soft and not in his line. More important matters to be attended to first.
When old James Driver came up from the works, which he did every night at the six o’clock change-shift whistle, it was his habit to go directly to his room and sit in solitude and silence for half an hour, then put on black trousers, white shirt, black tie and an antiquated frock coat, in which garb he descended to the dining room while the gong was still sounding, looking something like a dissenting cleric of extremely rigid doctrinal views; and it was the understood thing that the two should always meet at table when John came back from school. Tonight the boy heard the old man come upstairs, heard his door close, waited three-quarters of an hour, heard the door open and the firm tread on the landing. Then he too went down.
“How are you, John?”
“Well, sir, thank you. And you?”
“As you find me.”
His face was rather chalky in color and deeply lined. He had a great mop of snow-white hair. The upper part of his head was very wide, narrowing from the cheekbones to a firm and delicate chin. His thin lips expressed nothing but decision. His eyes, quick and restless were symptomatic of an energetic and sometimes overbearing spirit. The framework of his body was big, but the flesh had shrunken over it and the skin become a bit slack like a loose envelope. His large white hands were scarred and bony, and the fingertips wide and flattened.
Everything about him suggested that he had used himself unsparingly, brain and body. And John could not see that he had changed a fraction in the last ten years.
“You look exactly the same, sir,” he said.
“Ah — well — perhaps. Finished with school, eh?
I’m glad to see you back.”
“Glad to be back, sir.”
'“PHERE was no immediate answer to that, and John took a look around. No change here, and he did not expect to find any. A big room, the biggest of all, he thought, where vanished Drivers had eaten for a hundred
years past and probably conversed but little because their thoughts were down in the valley. Pictures of them on the walls; big, full-length portraits, most of them in the same kind of coat that old James wore tonight, and most of them with the same kind of expression about the lips and chin. A big bay window at one end of the room, from which one could see the works. A prodigious sideboard at the other, loaded with presentation plate, the tribute of vanished sweat to vanished brains. John, who had stared at it all his life, thought it exceedingly ugly though very expensive, and wondered wliat the men would give him when he came of age.
“Well, my boy, what next? Take your time. I don’t want to push you.”
John smiled a little. It was so like his grandfather. Once a thing was done, it was finished for all time, so why waste any more thought about it? There were to be no questions about school, or what one’s impressions of school might be, or had he enjoyed himself there. School was already a matter of the past. Old James knew that young John had been at the head of a hundred and fifty boys for the last year, and John knew that he knew; so why discuss it?
“I haven’t changed my mind,” said the lad calmly.
“No hankering after a university?”
John shook his dark head.
“I know what my job is. I’m ready for it.”
The old man, twisting his wine glass, reflected for a moment. The boy might know, probably did know, part of it. But it was impossible that he should know it all. The grind, the burden, the weight; the grim days when each mechanical monster seemed to breed a titan spirit of revolt; the back-breaking responsibility when the market for steel was poor—the boy could guess nothing of that yet. But it was bound to come when the load was transferred to these strong young shoulders.
“We’ll talk it over tomorrow,” he said presently. “By the way, Meg and her mother were here yesterday. I said you’d probably drop in tonight. They’d like to see you.”
“Growing up, like yourself. She’ll make a fine woman.”
He added this last with a sly look at the boy, there being more behind the remark than John at the present could possibly realize. A week ago old James Driver had paid one of his rare visits to Mrs. Burstall, now a ten-year widow, and it was then that between them they had hatched the great idea. Coal and iron might be profitably brought at last under one management, and if Meg married John the fat seams of the Burstall mines would go with her. The two had talked this back and forth, and the longer they talked the more desirable it looked. But the youngsters were to get not a whisper of it. Old James came home, chuckling, rubbing his dry palms together. And he knew John well enough
to perceive that the slightest pressure from outside was sufficient to rouse instant opposition. Youth to youth. Let nature do her own work in her own wray. That was the line to take.
“Meg’s all right; I think I will walk over,” said John quietly. “Anything you want to ask me about?”
There was a lot that the old man would have liked to say, but he was too shrewd to show his hand, so he switched to something quite remote from what was uppermost in his mind. The lad knew his job and was ready for it. One could not ask more to begin with, and he gave a contented little grunt.
“Those shares—you remember?”
John remembered perfectly. If he finished up as head of the school, he was to have five thousand Driver shares in his own name. That was the promise five years ago. He had stuck it in the back of his head, did not dwell on it but never forgot it, and had not spoken of it once. And they were good, sound shares. Nothing better in the country.
“Well, I’m transferring them to you tomorrow. They’ll bring you in seven hundred and fifty a year, free of tax. What will you do with the money?”
“Buy more shares, if you’ll let me have them,” said John promptly. He had decided that long ago.
“I thought so, and I’d do the same myself.” The old man was immensely pleased to see the boy starting on these lines. “Now if you’re for the Burstalls, you’d better go. Sure you want to walk?”
“I’d much sooner, sir. It’s a fine night.”
He went out, leaving James Driver still with his dry old hand fingering the stem of his wine glass. He glanced at the big portraits—none of them great paintings from the point of view of art, but all of a certain unadorned type, portraying seven generations of Drivers with strong chins, broad brows and level undaunted eyes. The original Driver blood showed in them all, and the iron in the blood. Out of the ground they had built their fortunes, and the fortunes endured. And today there was good promise for the future. Meg Burstall! Good blood there too. Ay, t’would be a sturdy breed !
This in the dining room, with the light from tall candlesticks softening the decisive lines in the grim old face; while young John walked thoughtfully along the bleak ridge road toward the Burstall place. They were cool thoughts. Going to see Meg was like going to visit a member of one’s own family who lived in another house. He knew exactly how she would look, and pretty much what she would say.
A/fRS. BURSTALL, a woman of fifty, with a -*-*1 small compact body and large sympathetic nature, glanced at the clock, then at her daughter, who was reading. They had always been good companions, those two, especially since the death
of Meg’s father some ten years previously, and had it not been for the nearness and friendship of young John Driver, Mrs. Burstall would ere this have moved to some locality where the girl could find more youthful associations.
It had been wiser, she thought, not to discuss that point with Meg. The girl seemed too contented with the rather small circle she had established within a radius of some twenty miles. In winter they went to the Continent, and she had never protested against the return to the Black Country when the first faint flush of green struggled for life in the smoky air. That was at Easter time, and Mrs. Burstall put it down to the fact that John Driver would be home for his holidays. But now John had come back for good, and she wondered how soon and in what fashion her plan would be achieved. Tonight she confessed to being a shade discouraged at the girl’s complete calm.
It would have amazed her to discover what that calm concealed. Meg had not read a word for an hour. She was perfectly aware of successive and curious glances from her mother; equally aware of what moved in her mother’s mind; and would have died rather than betray what she really felt. Quiet, steadygoing, a shade unemotional—she was supposed to be like that! It would have made her laugh had it not hurt so much. At times she looked at her mother, and marvelled that the conclusions of a parent should be so far from the real truth.
The truth was that she adored John, would have died for him, and lived a sort of secret life with him in which he was sun, moon, stars and all the planets combined. John didn’t know that. He must never know. There was such a thing as pride, and Meg was full of it. He didn’t know that she thrilled when he touched her, that she remembered every single thing he said, and kept a diary in which she put down everything—how he looked, how he played football and cricket for the last three years, because it was just three years ago, when she was sixteen, that she discovered that she loved him. And in the whole of that book there was no mention of herself, not once. It was all John.
“Here he is now,” said her mother.
John came in, feeling rather a man of the world, though Meg knew far more of it than he. All very natural and homelike. He rather liked this house. There were chintz-covered chairs and magazines lying about and flowers, and things looked as though they were used for comfort. It made one go a bit slack. Meg looked very natural, too. Not changed a bit. Quiet
and comfortable, but nothing exciting about her. He was glad of that. His head being full of important matters, he didn't want to be excited, so it seemed that the three took up conversation at the point it had reached last Easter before he went back to school. Presently Mrs. Burstall found something to do elsewhere and left the two alone.
“Nothing new, I suppose?” said John. “Have a good time at Cannes?”
Meg nodded, her throat feeling a little dry. She had been watching him. He looked older, more determined if that was possible, a little remote. And he would not have come unless her mother had suggested it. She knew that.
"Cannes was very nice; the sun and flowers. We went to the perfume factory at Grasse. That was interesting.”
“How do they make perfume?” asked the practical John.
She found herself involved in technicalities she couldn’t exactly remember. John asked a lot of questions she was unable to answer. Rather desperately she asked about his school, and he talked with the air of one who regarded schooldays as already growing dim.
“It was all right,” he said, “and I’m glad I went there. Had a queer sort of talk with the head when I came away.
He seemed to think I might not get much enjoyment out of life later on; then said that he expected to hear of me, more or less, as I got older. I suppose he hands that out to everyone.
It doesn’t mean anything, really.”
It was odd, thought Meg, that an experienced man she had never seen should have intuitions so like her own.
She looked at John steadily, wondering if the other part of him, the part that wasn’t all work and ambition, would ever wake up. Would she ever wake it?
Or some one else? She shrank from the thought of that. And how was it that, without the least effort on his part, he made her feel as she did?
“You’ve done awfully well at school,” she ventured. “I’d be very proud if it were I. I suppose you’ll have a long holiday now?”
John said that he didn’t feel proud.
The thing wasn’t so difficult. His grandfather had expected something of the sort, and he had made up his own mind to it from the first.
“It’s like that,” he went on evenly.
“Make up your own mind that there’s nothing else for it, and nine times out of ten it will happen. Grandfather’s a bit pleased, of course. He’s giving me five thousand of our shares tomorrow.”
Meg’s eyes opened wide.
“John, how splendid. What a lot at your age!”
“It's not so bad. Of course, I won’t spend the dividends, and they’ll soon mount up. When I’m twenty-one I come into father’s shares; that’s quite a lot.”
“And be rich and independent for the rest of your life!” She said this with an effort to sound gay, but feeling a drab disillusionment. Had he nothing else to talk about, and wasn’t he glad to see her?
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I suppose so, but—well—it’s pretty hard to see ahead.”
“Have you never thought what you’ll do with your life?” Her lips trembled a little.
“I’m thinking of it all the time. There are the works; they’ll keep me busy. Grandfather says I’ve got to master them before I own them. That will take years and years. It’ll be a bit of a job, but I’m ready for it. And, of course, I won’t marry for ever so long. Awful mistake for a chap to marry too young when he has a heap of other things to think about. Don’t you agree?”
“It depends so much on the chap, doesn’t it?”
John thought there might be something in that in the case of a chap who needed stiffening up, the sort of stiffening one could get by being responsible for someone else, and knowing that if one didn't succeed they would both be down and out. Personally, he didn’t feel that way, and wanted to be free to devote himself entirely to his job till he had it running like clockwork. And he was lucky in that the money side of it was all right.
He said this, and a good deal more along the same line, not dreaming that every word of it went straight through the girl’s heart like an arrow. She was trying to stop loving him—and couldn’t. He sat there, announcing his doctrine with all the short-sighted confidence of youth, infinitely sure of himself, oddly attrac-
tive for all his ingenuous ignorance, shattering vision after vision, completely unaware that he was bombarding something infinitely more beautiful and precious than his own ambitions. And it was her punishment that she kept on loving him.
“It all sounds very grand and big and Spartan,” she said, trying to speak lightly.
“That’s funny, because the head told me he thought I might be too much of a Spartan. Do you?”
“If things are so finally settled, I don’t believe it would matter much what I thought.”
“Not offended, Meg, are you? I didn’t mean that. We've been such tremendous friends for so long that I thought I could say anything here.”
rT'HAT was it! He could say anything! In other words, he wasn’t in love with her, so they could be direct and impersonal and no nonsense about it. Perhaps the time would come when he would want to talk to her about some other girl whom he loved and proposed to marry if he could.
“Of course, you can. Why shouldn’t you? You know, John, while you were talking I had a sort of glimpse into the future.”
She quivered a little. If he had said “ours” she would have been full of quiet joy; but young John, with his obstinate brows and stubborn chin, was too wrapped up in himself for that.
“Yes, yours. It seemed you were very rich, very important—and very lonely.”
SOME natures are so constituted that difficulties do but inspire them, and each successive test breeds in some mysterious fashion the courage and spirit with which to face it. Thus it was with young John Driver. A month passed, then a year, then more years. He Continued on page 26
“That’s funny. Was I married?”
“I think so; I couldn’t tell. You lived for the works, and they were twice as big as now.”
“Was that what made me lonely?” he asked, frowning a little.
“They had something to do with it—but I didn’t know how much.”
“Then I must have married the wrong girl,” he ruminated. “By Jove, doesn’t that rather bear out what I said just now—if you move too quickly you’re likely to make a mistake. What about you? I suppose I’ll hear of your engagement soon?”
“Isn’t it natural? You’re not going to stick here indefinitely. There’s nothing to keep you—unless it’s something I haven’t heard of.”
“When anything happens, you’ll hear of it,” she said with a brave little smile.
John gave a contented nod. That was what he liked. He wanted to feel free to come over here and talk about things, all sorts of things, with the girl he knew best. It would rest him.
“And after you marry—of course you will before very long—we’ll still be friends as we are now, with no secrets. I won’t have any. It will be mostly about the works, if that doesn’t bore you.”
“Nothing you’re doing will ever bore me, John.”
He grinned at her, much pleased.
“I suppose some men are bound to be a bit lonely at times,” he went on, rather fancying this picture of himself, “but it’s better than being slushy about a girl. Don’t you think so?”
“You’ll never be slushy. I don’t believe any of the Drivers were that way. Or the Burstalls either,” she added, setting her teeth, and for the first time in her life wishing he would go. He laughed.
“You’re a good old trump, Meg, and the best of the lot. Play tennis tomorrow?”
“If you like. Will you come for lunch?”
“Can’t we make it a four—much better fun. Twosomes are apt to be slow, don’t you think?”
Meg, her heart heavy, promised to try, then he gave her a friendly nod of good-by and went off. She heard him whistling as he passed down the drive, and sat, pressing her hands against her cheeks, strangely breathless and with a lump in her throat. Didn't he see? Couldn’t he tell? Was there no feeling in him except for iron and steel? What did a sensible girl do in such a case? She had never thought of loving anyone else in the same way, and she did not believe it possible. She wanted to give him herself—everything—for all her life. But perhaps—and this came to her with sudden bitterness—she wasn’t the sort of girl men wanted. That thought made her numb. She had not stirred when her mother came in a few moments later. “He looks awfully well, Meg, with very definite suggestions of the man he will ultimately be. Did you notice that?”
“Yes, mother, I did.”
“He’s changed a good deal in the last few months. I suppose that’s the result of being head of his school.” “Perhaps it has made the difference, but he didn’t talk much about school. It was mostly what he meant to do; the works, you know. He’s awfully ambitious.” She got this out in a tone that was a shade strained. “Tired, Meg?”
“A little. John’s coming over for lunch tomorrow, and we’ll have some tennis. He wants a four.”
Mrs. Burstall looked at her thoughtfully. She did seem tired, and the steady eyes rather heavy.
“Then why not go to bed and get really rested? I’ll see you when I come up.”
Meg went slowly upstairs. Strange how hard it was to breathe deeply. She managed to seem more natural when her mother came in to kiss her, but when she was alone again she lay for hours, not moving a muscle, and staring, staring into the dark.
Continued on page 26
Continued from page 6
grew bigger, stronger, harder. He lived for the works. Everything in him responded to their gigantic mechanical creations. In their naked massiveness he found beauty, and inspiration in their titanic power. His chin became a bit more dominant, his lips more firmly set.
Of the other part of himself, the human and mortal though immortal man, he was only faintly aware. It asserted itself, sometimes but not often, when he went over to see Meg. She was a girl, his oldest friend. She understood him, did not ask silly questions, was restful. That was all. He never wanted to put his arms around her. He would talk, mostly about the works, while she sat, very quiet and intelligent, a good, sensible pal who, considering her sex, was beginning to know quite a lot about iron and steel. He never spoke to her of any other girl, because there wasn’t any. Nor she to him of any other man. Then he would come away feeling all the better for his visit, and plunge into business next morning with renewed ardor. He supposed she would get married some day.
Between himself and his grandfather matters ran very smoothly. At twentyone he had come into the shares of his own father, so that he was rich. But the money went back into the works, where he could watch it earn still more. In this he was not avaricious or grasping, it being only the application of the principle that neither man nor money stood for much unless he or it was earning something. Thus, month after month; while old James, well content except for one thing, watched the young shoulders assume more and more of their destined burden.
Except for one thing! Of that he thought a good deal, but had not said a word. Before he died he wanted to see the Burstall mines amalgamated with the Driver works, and there was no sign of the necessary move on John’s part. There had been confidential chats with Mrs. Burstall, who, it seemed, felt equally anxious about Meg. The two youngsters were as great friends as ever but that was all. Something unnatural about that, thought old Driver. She agreed, but hoped that the time was not distant when young John would wake up, and added that it was impossible to know how the girl really felt about it. Perhaps she wasn't the marrying kind. Some girls were afraid of marriage and what it involved. Old James thought this all rubbish, and the young fools would probably come to their senses very suddenly. Mrs. Burstall didn't quite like his way of putting it—he seemed to be thinking more of iron and coal than of his own flesh and blood -but she kept that to herself. So he came away from these talks more and more dissatisfied, and with a growing conviction that something would have to be done.
The only attempt he made met with scant success. It was one evening, at the end of dinner. John, now more than twenty-three, had taken charge of the converters, those vast cauldrons in w'hich impurities are blown out of molten iron by roaring blasts of hot air, and the product of pure steel is tipped out in a flaming river of incandescent metal. John loved his converters, spent eleven hours of every day in bossing those bellowing giants, and always wore grimy blue jeans like the rest of the men. Even after he had bathed and scrubbed one could trace on his wrists and hands those black and threadlike lines that tell their own particular tale of work. All the Drivers had had them.
For the past year or so, the old man, though he hated to admit it, had been feeling his age, and found himself getting back to the house a bit earlier. His bones had begun to creak. Another thing was that John had visited Germany and
the United States inspecting steel works, and come back with a lot of newfangled ideas and plans about which he was very keen. The old-fashioned methods, with which manpower had too much to do, were, he argued, out of date, and he brought figures to prove it. Old James hated to admit this, but found himself up against facts he could not dispute. So, in one direction and another, he had begun to relinquish his grip on things, and youth was gradually getting its way. Which made the matter of the Burstall mines more important than ever.
John had been rather silent through the meal, but toward the end of it looked across the table with a grin.
“Got some interesting news for you.”
“Well?” said old James, suddenly hopeful.
“That new convertermaking fifteen tons a charge. We got five out of the old one.”
“Good business.” His grandfather had to smile in spite of himself. “But,” he added, “don’t kill yourself over it. There’s a limit.”
John shrugged his shoulders.
“Haven’t reached mine yet by a long chalk.”
“Then it’s a good time to take a month off. Why don’t you?”
“What would I do with it? I’ve seen all I can swallow outside.”
“I didn’t mean that. Do nothing.” The old man, knowing that he was violating every former precept, got this out with an effort. But it was his way of leading up to his point.
“Bit of a turnover for you, sir, isn’t it?” said John, blinking at him.
“Perhaps—I don’t know—but it’s been in my mind of late. When do you think you’ll marry? I don’t want the Driver line to die out.”
John, fondling his square chin, looked distinctly amused.
“Time enough, isn’t there? I’m only twenty-three.”
“I married at twenty-one, and never was sorry. Don’t get old, lad, till you can’t help it. The Black Country will claim us all, and soon enough at that.”
“Any particular reason for bringing the matter up now?” asked John quietly.
His grandfather recognized that tone and it made him wary. He sidestepped.
“Just that I’d like to see you settled. You’ll do a lot for yourself, no doubt of that, but there are some things you can’t do. They need a woman. That’s nature, my lad, nature.”
“Well,” said John, lifting his dark head, “nature hasn’t troubled me yet.
My brain is full of other things, big things. I’ve got a plan for using all that gas we’re wasting, and if I did go off for a month it would go with me. Just now I haven’t time for anything but work. Perhaps later on I’ll find the girl that nature meant for me—I certainly haven’t found her yet. When that happens I’ll have her, no matter who’s against it.”
He said this, sticking out his jaw, his eyas half-closed. Old James recognized that symptom also, and it made him feel a little weak. How could he, with but a few, probably a very few, years left, combat such formidable youth?
“You’ll be careful, lad; promise me that. Women aren’t like iron. You can’t run a sample lot for the testing machine. When it’s done, it’s done— make or break.”
The simile appealed to John and he nodded, smiling.
“Well, sir, before I take the final plunge I’ll bring her here for inspection. How’ll that do?”
The old man sighed a little, and the thick seams of the Burstall mines receded into the background. No hope of that unless a miracle happened. He wished now that he had not allowed John to become so captivated by the works while he was still a boy; had made him go abroad for his holidays, and meet more people, and enjoy himself with others of his own age. But James Driver had made gods of iron and steel, so it seemed only natural that young John should worship early at the same shrine. Had his mother lived it would have been different.
“And if we differ about her?” he hazarded.
John laughed at him.
“Would you put your nature against mine?”
That shot got home, and his grandfather winced. Nature! What was nature after all? It often made men do strange things, mad, blind things, while perfectly convinced that they were doing the right thing. The Drivers had been sane about their marriages so far, choosing sound, deep-bosomed women of judgment and courage, women who understood and stayed beside them through thick and thin. But perhaps in John’s case nature had turned up another lane. And he was stubborn enough for anything. In this uncertainty, the old man took a chance.
“Bring me a girl like Meg, and I’ll be satisfied,” he said.
John gave his chin a characteristic little tilt.
“There wouldn’t be much romance about that, would there?”
BUT, Meg, the country doesn’t look black at all.”
This from Auriol Burt, stretched in a big chair on the south terrace of the Burstall place. The terrace commanded a view of a league of empty moorland, still unspoiled.
“With the wind where it is, we don’t get much smoke,” said Meg cheerfully. “But on a winter afternoon with an east wind it’s rather different. Why so silent, Tony?”
The big fair man, lying slack in another chair, waved a benignant hand.
“I wasn’t thinking about the country but you. What keeps the Burstall menage in this—well—proletarian district? Why don’t you get up and out? Sounds a bit thick from a guest, but really ...” “We’ve always lived here. Mother’s oldest friends are within a few miles, and —well, there you are. I’m perfectly happy.”
Auriol’s blue eyes began to twinkle. “From what I understand, your oldest boy friend is also within a few miles. Why don’t you marry him, Meg, and get it over?”
“I thought it was customary to be asked first. How often has Tony asked you?”
“My dear, I’ve lost count and so has he. It’s about time now for him to ask again. But, Tony, please wait till the end of the week. That’s a dear.”
Tennant, better known as Tony, heaved himself up, yawned, and promised to restrain his ardor for another three days. He had been exceedingly fond of Auriol for years, and proposed on every occasion possible. But he never seemed to get any farther. Auriol, a small and quite lovely creature of pink and white, had been at school with Meg. She had dainty little mannerisms, the kind that large strong men with a protective instinct are apt to find irresistible. She dressed perfectly on a very limited allowance, and had Tennant’s private income been two thousand a year more she might have considered him seriously.
“Y’know,” Tennant said reminiscently, “it’s just coming over me that I’ve met Mr. John Driver before. Middle-sized chap with dark eyes and a heavy jaw, isn’t he?”
“Where was it?”
“At school in the North. He finished up as head boy, I think. Anyway, in his second year we had a fight in which I didn’t cover myself with glory. I was bigger than he, but he put up no end of a show and asked for more at the end. Personally, I’d had enough. I can see him now, savage as they make ’em and his bulldog face a bit smeary.”
“He never mentioned it to me,” said Meg, rather startled.
“N-no, I don’t fancy he’s the sort that would. Are we going to meet him?” “He’s coming to dinner tomorrow. He hardly ever goes out now; too busy, he says.”
Auriol, who had been listening silently, took a sharp look at her friend, and came somewhere near the truth. Being of an exploratory if not predatory nature, she had been interested in what she heard of this boy of twenty-three who already ruled two thousand men. What had Meg been about that he should remain still unappropriated? Did he consider himself immune against women? She pondered over this, at first amused, then definitely intrigued. Finally she had an idea.
“Can one go over the place?”
Meg looked up.
“The mills, or foundry, or whatever it’s called. I’ve never been in such a works.”
“Yes, anyone can see them. Why?” Continued on page 30
Continued on page 30
Continued from page 26 “I’d rather like to go. It's too windy for tennis, fjo why not?”
“You wouldn't like them, Auriol. It’s frightfully noisy and dirty, and rather forbidding. And we wouldn’t see John. He’ll be far too busy to talk.”
The girl smiled a little, because never yet had she found a man too busy to talk to her when she wished it. Also she had an odd desire to see the theatre of this young man’s labors before meeting the man himself. Under those circumstances she didn’t mind dirt.
“Well, since I'm such a flippant little thing, it would probably be good for my soul to see something real, something earnest. How about it, Tony? You won’t fight again if we meet him, will you?” “What are you up to now?" he demanded.
“Just trying to improve myself. Any objections?”
“No, except that you’ll most likely step in a puddle of hot iron, which will serve you right.”
“Affectionate creature, isn’t he, Meg? Why will it serve me right?”
“Because you know perfectly well, and I know, but Meg doesn’t know, that you’re about as much interested in iron as you are in fried fish. Why don’t you tell your hostess the truth, which is that you want to have a look at the man who runs the works? Neither of us would blame you, since you can’t help it. She’s a public menace, Meg. She’d steal a bridegroom from the altar. And she won’t marry me.”
Auriol gave a musical little laugh.
“The reason I’m afraid to marry you is that you think you know so much about me.”
Meg, saying nothing, found herself wondering whether there was not a certain amount of truth in that remark. Might it not explain John’s attitude, or lack of attitude, toward herself? Had he decided that she was unattractive because he knew too much about her? Had the companionship of so many years thwarted the birth of love? It was not so with her. There had been not a single entry in that secret diary since the day he returned from school, but only because the sight of this record hurt too much. She had gone on loving, more deeply, more silently than ever. There was no other girl—she was sure of that—but somehow this brought her no comfort.
Then, all in a flash, she thought of Auriol. What if—? Auriol might be vain, but she was amazingly pretty. She might be rather shallow, but she drew men as a candle flame draws moths. She had pretty little ways that upset men’s judgment and prudence. She could look very serious and sincere when she wished to. Things that hurt other people did not hurt her. And, because her heart had never really suffered, she could on any and every occasion adopt the manner and mood that she thought would be most effective. To men she was a sort of faunlike peril, while most of her girl acquaintances considered her something of a menace. Auriol, they argued, didn’t play fair. And Meg had been under the impression that she was engaged to Tennant. “You really want to go, Auriol?”
“Of course I do. It’ll be an entirely new sensation.”
“You can’t go like that.”
“Those clothes. It’s fearfully grimy.” “What should one wear; a diving suit?” Meg laughed at her.
“I’ll lend you something.”
“No thanks. If it’s too awful I’ll clear out. Let’s go now.”
The road to the works took them past and a little above the Driver house, and, staring at it, Auriol’s brows went up.
“Looks like a prison, doesn’t it? Who else is there?”
“Just John’s grandfather. His parents died years ago.”
“He lives there alone with an old man? Meg, it isn’t natural.”
MEG had little to say to that, not thinking it natural herself. The house did seem rather prisonlike, except for the huge plate-glass windows that necessity caused to be polished every day. The grounds, even in summer time, never looked very green, though the foliage put up an unending fight for life in the smokeladen atmosphere. The air had an odd taste of sharpness, faint but quite noticeable, and the old house overhung the valley with a sort of massive and undisturbed domination. It had no little touches, no additions. Like its tenants, it did not compromise, and in a somewhat forbidding fashion it suggested substantial and unshakeable wealth.
“It needs modernizing badly,” said Auriol, shaking her flaxen head. “Meg, why don't you sail in?”
“From what I remember of young Driver, you’d have to start by modernizing him,” drawled Tennant; “which would be some contract. Gad ! I wonder what he is like now?”
The car, dipping into the valley, halted for a moment at a wide gate in a high brick wall. The watchman, recognizing Meg, saluted.
“Shall I telephone the office, Miss?” “No thanks; I know my way about. Have you seen Mr. John?”
“Not since seven o’clock, Miss. He’s generally in the converter house about now.”
Meg nodded, and they passed on into a different world. The air was acrid, and could be tasted. From a nest of low, iron-roofed buildings came a muffled vibrating roar, and tongues of flame leaped from short squat stacks. Near this were what looked like six enormous boilers up-ended vertically, with inclined tracks leading to their summits. Up these tracks crawled loaded cars that dumped their loads into the tops of the furnaces, and returned for the next burden. They moved automatically, with no attendants visible. One heard the grunt of a crusher, the panting of a high-speed engine, the clang of iron on iron.
Tennant stared about, genuinely interested. The place made him feel a bit small and unnecessary. It spoke of another breed of men, with which he had nothing in common, who wore stained blue dungarees and heavy boots with thick, nail-studded soles. These men moved about with a sort of formidable deliberation, taking not the slightest notice of the visitors, like mechanicallyoperated robots, servants to the god of metal, and the fact that John Driver was their master gave that young man an added significance. The whole place seemed to tremble with effort and work.
“Those big flaming things are the cupolas where the iron is smelted,” said Meg, “and the coke they use is made from our coal. I think we’ll go straight to the converter house. That’s the most dramatic bit of all.”
She knew her way, leading them past great iron structures where red-hot metal was being tossed about as a farmer tosses hay, to one so big that the men in it were reduced to pigmies. There were naked floors, one above the other, supported by steel columns, and the few men on the top one looked like ants. The girl hurried on, Tennant beside her. More and more interested, he was asking questions. So great was the noise that they shouted at each other. Auriol began to lag. The place frightened her. She stepped on things that hurt her feet, and stumbled a little. Her breath came faster. A hot particle of metal stung her hand. Her companions turned a corner without waiting or missing her, and when she reached the point where they disappeared she could not see them.
She stood there, not a little terrified, yet seized with a growing fascination. This place surpassed her imagination, or, rather, defied it. Great monsters, things as big as houses, moved automatically. She saw chains and hooks descend in mid-air and pick up cauldrons of seething metal. They travelled forward and backward, with a deep rumble from above, where an iron bridge, spanning the whole building, had come to life. Just below the bridge, and travelling with it, was the tiny figure of a man in a steel cage. She was staring at him when a huge mass of metal nearby set up a prodigious roar, vomiting a cascade of scintillating sparks, a violent eruption of tiny meteors that leaped across the building toward the opposing high steel wall. The noise deafened her and she shrank back, too frightened to run, cowering against a column. She could feel the grime of it through the thin sleeve of her frock. A blast of burning air hit her in the face, and she covered her eyes.
“Come this way a little. It’s quite all right.”
She looked up. One of the workmen, very dirty as to his dungarees, was beside her. He wore goggles and a cloth cap. She could not see his eyes, and his face was streaked with black. She clutched his arm.
“It’s perfectly awful! Please get me out of this.”
He grinned, showing very white teeth.
“You’re safe enough, Miss. Stand you back here in the corner and watch. Yon converter’s going to pour in a minute.”
She was afraid to leave him, afraid not to obey. Presumably she was out of danger while with him. She noted his straight figure and deep chest. He was staring at her. What was going on behind the smoked goggles she could not tell, but assumed it to be something she was quite used to. Funny, she thought, to have it from a workman. She saw his lips compress a little. Then he pointed, arm raised.
“Watch yon—the biggest converter in the country!”
Actuated by unseen force, it did move, slowly, inflexibly. She could have screamed. At the same moment she saw, directly in front of it a sort of gigantic tray with huge steel basins ranged around its rim. The converter tilted the more, still belching a myriad of tiny comets, but not with their former velocity. Then from its gaping throat trickled a stream of molten steel into the nearest basin. This filled, another swam around. There was a wreathing of flame of terrific heat, but, curiously, very little noise, and a clockwork accuracy about this prodigious transaction. Machine fed machine. Solids, made liquid, ran like quicksilver. Weight was annihilated by the stupendous forces that handled weight. Tons became ounces. Metal bowed down to man, ductile, obedient. Presently all the basins were filled, the converter upreared its great maw as though hungry for another charge, the moving bridge picked up the brimming basins as though they were toys and swung them away, and the man in the stained dungarees made an odd little sound.
“Well, Miss, what do you think of it?” “I—I don’t know what to think. I thank you so much. I’m glad I saw it. Could you find my friends?”
He pointed, and at the end of a steel vista she made out Meg and Tennant. Meg beckoned. Auriol glanced at her guide, hesitated a moment, and took out her purse.
“I’m ever so much obliged, and please take this. I suppose you’re allowed to?” He started, then grinned at her, and opened a grimy palm. .Putting half a crown into it, she gave him a most friendly nod.
“Have you worked here long?”
“Since I was a big boy, Miss.”
“I thought so. You seem to know so much about it. And I’m sure you’ll get on awfully well. Thanks ever so much, and—er—good-by.’ ’
He stood, perfectly still, gazing after her.
JOHN DRIVER went home that night, walking as in a dream. The most amazing thing in the world had happened. It dislocated everything else. There actually existed the kind of girl he had not believed could exist. He had talked to her. He was going to meet her again but in a different way. The half crown would be in his pocket. He pinched the coin. It was real. He was not dreaming.
He did not know what had struck him, only that it had upset a lot of things he regarded as settled for a long time to come, and this brought him a sort of masterful joy. She was a fairy. She was frightened. He liked that. She didn’t know anything about steel. Splendid! She was completely dainty; nothing like the shrouded female figures he occasionally saw being guided through the works. Her eyes were the bluest things he had ever seen. A man could work for a girl like that!
At the top of the hill he halted, and looked down at the consummation of the labors of a host of long dead Drivers. The plant flamed triumphantly. It meant more now, since he had found her there. Meg brought her. He must thank Meg for that later on. What would his grandfather say? Old James would have the laugh on him now; be very pleased. How wonderful to come back to a girl like that after a long shift in the works! Other thoughts, delirious, intoxicating, swam into his head and made him a little giddy. Pinching the half crown, he walked on. Not a word to his grandfather—yet.
Thus young John of the firm chin and dogged nature. All in a breath he surrendered to a pair of blue eyes, a small, round and very white neck, and a Chelsea porcelain figure. These undid him. At dinner he spoke hardly at all, and old James, who was anxious to know about the performance of the new converter, had to drag out the information in sections. This did not disturb him. The
responsibility had been largely John’s, and at his age there would follow a certain reaction. The old man had felt much the same when, years ago, his own first open-hearth plant went into action. Too full a mind made one quiet. And John, very clean and wearing a dinner jacket, played with his food, thankful to be let alone. How would she like this house—if . . .?
He had not attempted to follow the fairy. Too good a joke to be given away yet, and it would come out when he dined at the Burstalls. So, for the first time in his life, he had seen Meg without wanting to talk to her. The tall man would be Tennant, of whom Meg had told him. He had also been told about Auriol, but Meg had merely said she was an old school friend. Nothing else. Tennant, he remembered vividly. Well, there had been no bad blood after the fight, and Tennant, who was a senior prefect, had said nice things about John’s football work. Queer to meet him again. Was it possible that he meant anything to Miss Burt? John hated that idea and thrust it away.
During dinner he shot curious glances at his grandfather, noting the sternness of the lined face, wondering if the grim old man had ever experienced anything of this sort himself, this choky, breathless, disturbing hunger. It did not seem possible. James Driver merely stated that he didn’t want the breed to die out. Understandable that—but not a vestige of romance in it. Followed a night of restless, chaotic dreams, with the girl a sort of goddess in a great temple where spouting converters swayed and bowed before her in a vast, flaming, rhythmic dance.
He got through the day, walking on air, and turned up at the Burstalls sharp on time. Mrs. Burstall and Meg looked, he thought, as they always did; and Tennant, very big of bone, fair and goodnatured, was only a later edition of the boy he remembered very distinctly.
But Auriol, in some filmy, low-necked thing that gave one glimpses of an alluringly creamy skin, was beyond all his imagining. Any man less blindly ardent would have looked longer at Meg, with her neutral sweetness of expression, her honest level eyes, and been conscious of an atmosphere rare, generous and unseeking. But John, too used to this to distinguish its real worth, was on his spiritual knees before the new divinity. He found it difficult to talk and was glad when Tennant began about their old school. When they went in to dinner he was beside Auriol.
“I suppose,” she said lightly, “I ought to treat you with great respect, but I’m not going to.”
“Well, Meg has told me a lot about you, and Tony says he was thankful when the gym instructor would not. let you fight him any more, and we all went to your works yesterday, where I was frightened to death. Isn’t that enough?”
“What did you think of the works?” he asked, smiling.
“I was almost too scared to think. Then a nice young man in goggles and perfectly awful clothes rescued me, and I felt better.”
“I’m glad he was nice,” murmured John. “Were you lost?”
“Not lost, but gone astray. Do you really run that enormous place?” she added with an intoxicating look.
"To a certain extent. Of course, there are a lot of heads of departments who’ve been with us a long time, and they’ve been very good to me. But my grandfather doesn’t do much now.”
“I think that’s perfectly amazing—at your age.”
“I’m nearly twenty-four,” said John with a certain dignity.
“What an antique! The mere thought of it makes me weak.”
John laughed. He was beginning to enjoy himself exceedingly. Meg had never
talked like this, nor Mrs. Burstall, nor, most emphatically, had old James Driver. He moved up in his own estimation. It was a big order for one of his age, and this lovely creature of pink and white had been the first to tell him so. He took a long breath of satisfaction.
AURIOL had been thinking too.
*■ Contrasted with Tennant’s large, easy-going amiability, this young man was tremendously forceful; the sort one would pick out in a group and enquire about. He was also good-looking in a dynamic way. One didn’t see many faces like his. It meant something. He would be, in fact he already was, very rich. Meg apparently didn’t want him, so it wouldn’t be a matter of poaching. All this, and a lot more, had flashed through her mind within a few seconds after John came into the drawing-room. She was aware that Tennant was watching her with an eye sharpened by past experience. But that didn’t matter. Tony had better marry Meg. She thrilled with the suddenness of that idea, and felt very pleased with herself. It would be nice to do something for Meg.
“People like you make people like me feel rather useless in life,” she confided with very effective humility.
John flouted that suggestion, but could not put what he felt into the right words. Too many visions hurtling through his brain. He had found a new significance in life. Auriol! In the works. Auriol! In wealth. Auriol! What were men thinking about that they had let this girl escape them? He looked at Tennant with rising friendliness, and got a smile and a nod. Good chap, that. Why was it they had fought? He looked at Meg, and got the strangest glance in return; friendly too, but also a bit odd and wistful. There had never been anything like that before. Perhaps she was tired. Then Auriol got him to talk about his work.
There was a wonderful response in the blue eyes that hardly ever left his own. At the end she gave a satisfied little sigh and said it was the most vivid and interesting thing she had ever heard in her life.
When he was alone with Tennant John wanted to ask a lot of questions about Auriol, but he didn’t like to. Better ask Meg. So they talked about their old school, Tennant not having seemed to have done anything definite since then except enjoy himself, and being very hazy on the subject of iron and steel. Not nearly as intelligent, thought John, as Auriol. He had no idea that behind Tennant’s pleasantry was the sharp recognition that here was the most threatening rival he had yet encountered. Then back to the drawing-room, where Auriol made a faint gesture at the chair next her own. Meg was at the piano. She paused as John came in, glanced at him, and went on singing in her low contralto. He knew the song well. It had never meant anything special before, but tonight it meant a lot. He settled down beside Auriol, smiling.
“What’s amusing you?” she asked in a low voice, almost a whisper.
“You’ll never guess.”
“Wait till Meg’s finished, then tell me.”
He nodded. The dark eyes met the blue ones, and held them in a long long stare. Something began to flutter in Auriol’s breast. It was a masterful look, very intense, because John’s whole soul, awakened for the first time, was in it. Mrs. Burstall could not see them, but Tennant did, and, realizing what this might mean to him, swore under his breath. Meg, glancing up from her music, saw it too, and her heart went dead. She managed to finish the verse, ; then stopped.
“There’s more, isn’t there, dear?” said her mother.
“I—I don’t feel like singing tonight.” Continued on page 89
Continued on page 39
Continued from page 31
“It was lovely, Meg. Do go on.” This from Auriol.
Meg shook her head. No more songs for that night.
“I’m going to play billiards with Tony. What about you two?”
No difficulty there. She went off, smiling at Tennant, and doing it so well that not even her mother guessed the - truth. Then John got Auriol out on the terrace. His pulse was jumping, and in the half light he thought he had never seen anything so lovely as this girl. It was she who spoke first.
“Now tell me what was amusing you?” “Yesterday. You never guessed?” “Guessed what?”
He held out two bits of silver, halves of a coin, a small hole drilled in the corners.
“I’m allowed to take tips, and I think I’ll get on well in the works.”
She stared at him, blue eyes rounding, then rippled into a laugh.
“You; it was you!”
“Afraid I wasn’t very tidy, but no worse than the rest.” He went on with a queer feeling at the sound of his own voice, “I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”
“Will you take one bit? I’ll keep the other—always. You’ll find the date on it. Do you mind? Is it awfully cheeky of me?”
“It’s charming,” she said with an upward, low-lidded glance that went straight through him. “And I’d much sooner we discovered each other like that than in any ordinary way.”
Discovered each other! John felt amazingly happy. A thousand things rushed to his lips, but he only made a queer sound. Auriol was fingering the bit of silver and looking rather grave.
“I’ve felt differently ever since I saw you,” he went on after a choky pause, “and the world seems to look different. I can’t very well explain without, perhaps, saying too much. It would take a long time to tell you—that is, if you were interested.”
“John Driver,” she said softly, “you’re rather a dear. You’re different too.”
TT SEEMED to John that he had been born over again into another universe, or perhaps this one had been mysteriously remodelled. He certainly breathed a new air. It had a divine taste that went to his head. The stiff-backed, resolute, Driver part of him dissolved. The works and all that pertained thereto became amorphous. He was filled with a vast wonder that at once, and without any shade of doubt, he had been able to find exactly the right girl. That was extraordinary and gave him a sense of something like awe.
“Do you think you could care?” he whispered.
“I think I do care.”
This reached him in a very low voice. He could hardly believe it. This lovely, living, breathing creature, so much more rare than anything he had known before, did care. His blood took a leap, and he put out his arms.
Auriol drew back a little. Oddly, for her, she felt rather frightened. He was so terrifically in earnest. She had waked something, hitherto asleep, that shone through his eyes. There had been other affairs, but none just like this; affairs in which the man, knowing as much of the game as herself, had exercised a certain art of approach. But this one, devoid of art, had no tactics. Just one absolute purpose that radiated from him so that she felt his force. He was like one of his own engines. She had hoped for this moment and brought it about, and now it disturbed her. There was a queer element about it, a sort of sharp definite fixity,
and she wanted time to think. What kind of man was it who owned those vast works, yet went about them in dungarees? Was he hard, inflexible and dominant, like his own machinery?
“Please, please, no!” She sent him a tremulous little smile, looking very fragile and defenseless. “I—I shouldn’t
have said that.”
“Don’t you care?” he blurted, standing transfixed.
“Yes, but I’ve only known you for thirty hours. No, really about three.”
John shook his dark head.
“What matter? I’ve been waiting for you. I knew, the minute I saw you. It isn’t just accident; it was meant.”
“We don’t know anything about each other,” she said, looking more desirable than ever.
“I know enough for me. As to me, will you talk to Mrs. Burstall or Meg?”
“Meg?” she repeated, wanting to be very clear on that point.
“We’ve grown up together, we’re old friends, and she’s a friend of yours. I don’t mean anything to her in that way. And, look, will you do something else— you four come to dine with us tomorrow? I want my grandfather to see you. He’s never met anyone like you either.”
Auriol promised, then insisted that they join the others in the billiard room, where she talked rather rapidly with little gestures and a light tinkling laugh.
Tennant and Meg recognized the symptoms at once. Just like Auriol. John, for his part, said very little. He had a stupendous secret, and felt like a
conqueror, and could not keep his eyes off his girl. Meg, growing breathless and sick at heart, missed shot after shot. Presently she put away her cue.
“I’m dreadfully off tonight, Tony. Shall we play bridge, or dance, or what?”
“Dance,” said Auriol, looking at John.
John was afraid—afraid of what might happen if he put his arms around her in front of the others.
“Sorry, but really I’ve got to go now. You’re all coming to dine with us tomorrow, and I’ll be at work before you’ve waked up. Thanks ever so much, Meg. It’s been a great evening.”
He shook hands rather formally, flushing when he came to Auriol, said good night to Mrs. Burstall, and went off. Tennant, thinking very hard, put the billiard balls into their case.
“Auriol, what have you been doing to the young man?”
“Nothing,” she said coolly. “He did it.”
“Past history suggests that it’s generally you. This one looks absolutely fatuous. Rotten form on the part of a visitor, I call it.”
“Can I help it if men like me?” laughed Auriol.
“Meg, we’ll have to take her in hand. She’s too kittenish and destructive. She met that unfortunate chap just four hours ago. She ought to be chained up.”
“I met him yesterday afternoon. Did you see that workman talking to me just after a sort of explosion took place in something?”
“Well, I gave him a tip, and got half
of it back tonight. Look!” She held out the segment of the coin. “It didn’t strike me as a romantic place, but it was. Please go away, Tony. I want to talk to Meg.” He whistled, gave her a long hard stare, and went off. Meg waited silently. There were no words for some things. Auriol, distinctly pleased with herself, stood by the mantel, playing with the bit of silver. The situation appealed to her enormously, and she could afford to be candid.
“Meg,” she began, “something has happened, and so quickly that I only half realize it. But it’s real this time and I’m going to be honest. Do you mind?”
“Go on,” said Meg huskily.
“It came all in a flash; no warning at all. We just—well—discovered each other. I thought about you being his oldest friend, and spoke of that at once. Naturally I wasn’t quite comfortable. And when he said there had been nothing of that kind between you ever, it made all the difference. I’d feel dreadfully if it were otherwise.”
“One would,” said Meg with a brave little smile.
“I hadn’t the faintest idea who I was talking to yesterday, and he says it began with him then—at first sight. Tonight he told me about himself and his work, and let himself go far more than he knew, as though up till now he had been all locked up in himself. He’s different from ordinary men. You see that, don’t you?” Meg nodded, fighting lest she reveal the truth. “Nothing of that kind between them,” he had said. That cleared the coast for Auriol. She wasn’t poaching. She emanated something to which John automatically responded. He might be different from ordinary men, but in that respect was no different. Meg herself did not emanate it. No other explanation. She looked at Auriol’s filigree daintiness, the small, rosebud mouth, the large blue eyes that could be pleading and seductive, mocking und inviting, all ut once, the smooth, transparent skin, the rich weight of yellow hair, the ductile yielding curves of the supple young body. She looked at all that and realized poignantly what it was that roused the possessive ambition in men and made them blind to all else. The consciousness of it made her weak. And yesterday, in the works, John had seen and not spoken to her. What a blinded fool she had been all these years! “What else, Auriol?”
There wasn’t a great deal else, thought Auriol, for tonight. She just wanted Meg to know that the thing liad been electric, and, as John had said, must have been meant. Also that she felt it was definite, although so sudden. Tennant, she explained, was only a sort of standby who liked to think himself in love with her. It occurred to Auriol at this point that Tony would be just the man for Meg, but something in Meg’s face made her put that aside. And of course it all meant that she and Meg would see a good deal more of each other.
But that was more than the other girl could stand, so she kissed Auriol rather quickly, murmured something about “happiness” and asked if the matter was a secret.
“Yes, please, just for the present. Perhaps John’s grandfather won’t approve of me. What is he like?”
“A little formidable sometimes. But we are great friends,” said Meg, silently convinced that he would not approve.
“A bit different, like John?”
“Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter since John’s quite independent. I say, you do look tired, so I’m off to bed. It’s been a wonderful evening, Meg, though I suppose I needn’t tell you that. Wasn’t it funny about that half crown?”
To be Continued