When HalfGods Go
IT SEEMED to Halsey Bennet that he had never known so extraordinary a thing as youth as manifested by Aliys, his daughter. This sixteen, no longer sweet but biting and acrid, was like nothing he had ever met on sea or land, he told his sister. Being without wife, the latter was his confidante.
“One day she is a child—so like a child that I miss the doll—and the next,” he complained, “she is a sage and has a most amazing viewpoint.” “Oh, nonsense, Halsey,” his sister answered, “she’s like all the rest.” Which, for Halsey Bennet, did not simplify matters. He rubbed his brow after his sister spoke—the lines on it that were being helped to grow by Aliys—and he shook his head.
“She hardly spoke to me last weekend,” he confided wearily. “She wired me for permission to go to a football game with some pup and I wired back, ‘Yes, but wear your heavy underwear.’ She said that was ‘Gross;’ that the whole school saw it and she’d hardly been able to lift her head for days. And yet, just the week before,” he went on energetically yet gropingly, “I heard her talking with young Hetherington about birth control.”
His sister laughed, and Halsey, although feeling far from even the thin edge of mirth, smiled. Agnes Bennet had a pretty laugh. The young man whom Agnes had almost married had called that laugh a scale of bells. Not too original the simile, but true; and still true after the many passing years. How sensible they had been while young ! How different the young now !
“That,” said Agnes, “is quite another thing.”
“Why?” he questioned, again frowning.
“Oh, because,” she assured him, perfectly satisfied that she had made a complete answer.
“Well, I give it up,” he admitted as he rose from the deep chair that stood so pleasantly near his sister’s vestal hearth.
“You might as well,” she answered
Her smile followed his broad, tall figure that swung away from her doorway and grew small as he travelled Pinckney Street. Halsey was in for what the younger set called “jolts,” she realized. If Aliys would only realize that he should be happy! But Aliys had a supreme contempt for happiness. “That Pollyanna feather bed!” she called it viciously. And she had added when she said this, with eyes half closed and voice dramatically muted: “Let me find
“My dear,” her aunt had replied on this occasion, “it’s all around you. It is the most difficult thing in the world to avoid. Every time I meet Mrs. Grant I reap truth. She always says, ‘Agnes, you need a tonic.’ Just why do you want truth? I’m sure I don’t.”
“You don’t understand,” Aliys had answered. “No one understands,” she appended, more in sorrow than in anger, and then she sighed.
Poor Halsey, it was difficult !
HALSEY BENNET walked home. His taking “exercise” without the lure of a small, white, bounding ball and sticks that clicked in their bag, marked his generation. And as he walked he considered Aliys and young Meredith who liked her. He wished—did Halsey Bennet—that when they grew up, something might come of the attachment. He liked young Meredith and the sound inheritance that was his— mental, physical, financial. He liked the set of the youngster’s chin and the way he looked at Allvs. But, of course, there was no counting on Aliys. She was as uncertain as— what was that game?—as a ping-pong ball. A certain touch would land her one place one day, but the next it would take her far in an opposite direction. And when Halsey had complained of this to her, she had replied with heavy question, “But can one standardize emotions?”
“Well, you’d better,” he had answered that day, captiously. “If you don’t, you’re unstable and a squeaking cog. People won’t know where to find you.”
She would not wish to be found by the mob, she assured him, with a smile that told him he was on the outside and that only Aliys and a few others knew what she called, “The meaning of life.”
IN HIS own hall—white woodwork, old rugs, shining mahogany, woodcuts, etchings—Kildaire met him. Kildaire inclined his head and then he took Halsey’s stick, hat and gloves and his coat, and after that he handed Halsey a tray on which was a telegram. Halsey opened it to read it with a drawing together of brows:
“Coming Home Sunday Must See You Aliys.”
He sighed. He hoped the crisis was caused by her wanting to bob her hair instead of wanting to marry as had been the case the last time she had had to see him. Her objects of love were so amazing. The last one had been a young man from Sweden, who was no doubt exemplary but a strange product when viewed against the walls of his sister’s drawing-room. There the young man had sat heavily without any rising. Aliys had called him “Son of the soil,” until he caught a slight cold and took to sniffling. Then she took to bed and wrote him that it had “all been a ghastly mistake,” and she agreed with her father that colleges had no business to import half-backs from obscure farms.
Oh, life was complex !
“Kildaire,” said Halsey Bennet, “Miss Aliys is coming home tonight. Tell Mrs. Hartly, please.”
“Yes, Mr. Bennet.”
“And remind Mrs. Hartly of Mr. Justins’s coming.” Halsey went toward his library—a man’s red-walled room, with etchings again, prints, the best of his rugs, bookcases, a small smoldering fire and an English hob. It was comfortable, but the comfort was held from him by anxiety. Justins’s coming at six would put off his talk with Aliys, and that meant so many more hours of wonder. If only lier mother had lived ! For a moment the pain that cried across so many years to him, lost its dimness and became shrill. “God, one is never through with needing,” he thought, “in some way or other, what wras once one’s own.”
Then—because the little mechanisms of life are fortunately urgent, he remembered—through the high soprano strike of a pert French clock came the fact that Justins must be met, and he forgot for another time the emptiness.
JUSTINS was dressing when Aliys arrived. Her father met her in the hall. Her beauty always startled him, and it made him awkward. He could not understand why her loveliness should make him so awkward with body and with tongue, as it did.
“So my little girl is home again.” He had not meant to say that. She wanted to stand on his level, he knew. “My little girl” put her away. She slipped from the fur coat that both he and Agnes had known to be too old for her; the coat she had got because she wanted it.
“Quite obviously, yes, old darling,” she answered smartly. (How he hated “Old darling!”)
‘Tm sorry,” he said, “but I have a guest.”
“Oh, curses!” she answered. (He could not get used to her expressions.) “I’ve got to talk with you,” she said in an emotion-charged undertone.
He remembered the aversion to “got” that he had been taught; but new ones talked carelessly and sometimes too easily.
“We’ll manage it,” he promised.
“Who is he?” she questioned, her fine arching brows drawn close.
She slumped to the old Dutch chest that stood under the best tapestry. “Not the Grant Justins?” she whispered, her lovely grey eyes opened wide.
“Yes,” Halsey answered, wondering
“The one who explores? That one?”
“Oh, my dear!” she whispered, an ecstatic smile lifting her lips, her eyes closing.
“You’ve met him?” Halsey questioned.
She drew a deep, unsteady breath and shook her head.
“No,” she answered after a charged moment, “I have not met him. But I know him. I went to one of his lectures; he looked right at me. I can’t explain, but he— oh, he looked right at me . . . That ass of a Defreese girl sat by me, and she said he looked at her. But he didn’t”— again the smile—“oh, he didn’t!”
Halsey rubbed his brow. Aliys fumbled down into the front of her dress. When her hand came out of the obscurity it carried a locket that seemed to have been inspired by the general size of a pie tin.
“Open it,” she ordered, and Halsey opened it. Justins’s picture inside was looking out at him.
“Really,” he said, “this lacks taste; you force me to say it, my dear. One cannot carry a picture unless—the object of the picture knows it. approves.”
“You wish me to put all love from my life?” she questioned.
He rubbed his brow again. “But, it—it isn’t a thing you can do,” he stammered.
“I cannot?” she smiled after her question. She looked at the locket. She could do it, she knew. She had done it.
“Oh, the pitiful cowardice of your generation, my dear !” she said so airily.
Kildaire heard Halsey Bennet’s expletive as Aliys tripped up the broad, winding stair. Something was up, he saw. He went toward the back of the house, planning and decorating the tale he was to hint.
HALSEY was nervous at dinner. Aliys was like a ping-pong ball; he never knew where she would land. And Justins, although close to his age, had the cruelty of the newer generation. Halsey had had an idea that this flat-footedness with truth came from the fact ti*at Justins’s family had been “good but plain.” Aliys, however, had made him change that idea. There were no “ladies” in the young school, she had assured him, as she laughed over the delicious idea. One spoke one’s mind, and that was that! Justins had probably kept in step. That was all.
Aliys might, Halsey realized, tell Justins that his picture was in her tin-pan lockét. And if she did, he might—very probably he would—laugh. It would hurt the child.
Before she came down, the idea of her being hurt was a pain, a mere pain; after she appeared it was agony. She had arrayed herself beyond all the queens of Sheba for her conquest. He had never seen her so lovely . . . Silver that echoed the grey of her eyes on her slender feet; a wisp of grey and coral chiffon, which was her dress; a band of silver leaves around her dark, waving hair. Certainly, no matter what happened, Justins must be merciful to this.
“Well, my dear child,” he heard himself say. And the instant he had said it, he rued it. It set her apart from him, that “child.” It always clouded her face. But tonight she heard it vaguely.
“Has he come down?” she questioned, her voice strained.
“I’ll be in the drawing-room,” she said. “Bring him there, will you, ducky?”
He promised her he would. And she went into the drawing-room while he paused at the door. She arranged herself with frank disregard of her father’s presence. On a small seat near the Adam mantel she settled; to twitch her skirts, to test jx)ses and to disregard them—after glances across the room into a full-length mirror which was conveniently placed for her.
“Father,” she whispered, and he wanned to the expression, "bring me a book.”
“What book?” he asked.
“Oh, any book. Don’t be stupid. Hurry !”
1 íe hurried. She put it on her knee, and after a glance or two into the long mirror, satisfied herself that she looked lovely reading.
nPHE DINNER was almost successful. A Halsey was almost relieved of worry. But not quite, for Justins, in his remarkably searching way, glanced too directly at Aliys and too frequently. Such looks would, Halsey knew, open her innermost reserve—if she had such—and the thing he considered the horrid truth would be in the open. He mustn’t leave them alone. That was all. She must not be hurt.
After dinner they went to the library, where Kildaire brought the coffee which Aliys poured prettily. Ah, he was proud of her, was Halsey! And then she settled near the fire on a small stool with her coffee, and in a lull she said :
“You know I wired you, father, of something especially important I came home to say?”
He nodded, growing chill.
“Well, I don’t mind saying it before Mr. Justins because I know he will understand. I simply thought I ought to come home to tell you I don’t believe in God any more—I simply can’t.”
And now—now!—Justins was roaring. Allys’s face went blank and then flushed, and back of the flush there was hurt.
When Justins sobered he leaned forward and toward Aliys, hands clasped between his knees.
"You know, I don’t blame you at all,” he said. “I wouldn’t either if I were penned in so utterly silly a place as a girls’ school.” He turned to Halsey. “I lectured to a girls’ school group somewhere near here,” he explained, “and of all the idiocy I ever encountered! It was all eclipsed by those great, bigeyed children who sat gaping.”
“It was my school,” Aliys said, her voice hard.
“Really? And you were there?” “I was there,” she echoed in her best footlight voice.
“I didn’t see you. But I really wasn’t looking for anything but the exit. One felt the greatest rawness. Like no rawness I’ve ever met in the brush, Bennet. It was a rawness made up of a sort of callow sophistication. A queer combination—the queerest !” He sat back, • and, staring up at the ceiling, puffed smoke rings. Aliys stared at him. “As for God,” he said, “certainly you don’t believe. You couldn’t at your age, could you? And anyway, you’ve never been in the real woods where God is most outspoken. I have been in the real old woods so often that of course I do believe in Cod.”
Continued on page 52
When Half-Gods Go
Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12 -
Again he looked at Aliys; again he laughed.
“The worship of Gable and the doubt of Gcd,” he said softly. “This is the new religion, Bennet. I suppose.” he said to Aliys, “you are fond of Mr. Cable’s great dramatic ability.”
She said in a little girl’s faltering, unsteady tene, “I did like him once,” and Halsey saw her eyes fill. Her eyes filling made him clench his hands. How could people be so thick, so cruel, as was Justins?
“And Rudy Vallée, I hear, is quite a favorite too?” No one made answer. “I have some nieces,” Justins went on: “I know your age,” he ended, smiling and nodding at Aliys.
JUSTINS left soon after breakfast and he did not see Aliys, who came down languidly and late. She puttered over her tea and toast, and then she turned toward the house of her aunt. There she had luncheon, and after her luncheon she went to see a few friends, and at four she was again at home and ready for the rite.
Halsey found her at it, before his library fire. 1 íe sat down near her. without making comment on the pile of photographs that she was tossing to the flames. Gable was curling. Below him was the pie-tin locket, now red hot.
“Well,” Aliys said smartly, “you see.”
“I see, my dear,” he said.
“He will always laugh when he remembers me,” she whispered. Tears again filled her eyes. Halsey crabbed his chair nearer to the point where Aliys sat curled up upon the rug. He very much wanted to lay his hand on her shoulder, but he did not dare. She was taking her first step into maturity; she was finding the road rough, and no touch of his could smooth the way.
“And he didn’t see me,” she said.
Halsey said roughly: “He is a fool if he didn’t.”
She smiled and tried to blink away her tears. “No,” she disagreed, “I was the fool.”
Another photograph was cast into the flames: a photograph of some actor, evidently, who played a Shakespearian part.
Allvs whispered: “I thought—almost all the night—they might all laugh.”
Now he did lay his hand on her shoulder. He said, none too steadily: “Dear, if they knew you as T do, they wouldn’t.” And she canted her head until her flushed cheek touched his hand.
The heart-shaped locket in the fire hurt him more deeply than her words. He couldn’t look away from it. It was growing hotter, hotter; it was losing its sure shape; bending: as young hearts and young trees must bend, being twisted and torn, and shaped all over again.
He heard: “I know now why—older
people have—have so much affection for happiness. It is nice. I know it now.”
Dear, dear child !
He said, his voice a little thickened: “I’ve never grown past the acute missing of—your mother. You see—that makes me want hope more than what you call ‘truth.’ ”
She looked at him searchingly. She had never thought of his missing her mother. “I suppose you do miss her,” she said.
“Sometimes-absurdly,” he admitted.
“Yes. I’m old enough to make a compromise with facts, to accept them. But sometimes I can’t. That’s all.”
1 le watched the heart. How long it was since anyone’s laughing at him had hurt him. The only thing that hurt now was the feeling that truth was turning to a far, dim dream.
“Sometimes I can’t see your mother’s face—as it really looked—for days,” he said. “It’s then I miss her most. One gets fearful, going on, of losing what one has—has had — and so has.”
SHE LOOKED at the twisted heart. Good heavens, how one grew up ! In a minute. What a child she had been! Thinking her life was ruined because “the light of a life” had laughed at her, because she did not believe in God. She tossed the rest of the photographs to the fire without the lingering and emotionally satisfying good-by look at them which she had given to other indiscreetly worshipped stars . . . She had not thought so “very much” of her father . . . She turned swiftly.
“I remember her,” she said, “one day especially at the nursery door when she was going somewhere. She had on a long grey coat and grey furs and a big muff. She laughed as I ran toward her, and she held out her arms with the muff on one, like this—and she picked me up . . . ”
“She was so strong; one never thought...” “Oh, you poor, poor dear!” she thought. She turned to grip his hands; then she moved, on her knees, to him. She couldn’t stand seeing his fare quirk. She buried her head against his shoulder. She heard his hard swallowing and she felt his hand patting her back. She cried then—hard; she who wanted to comfort him. And so she ve comfort.
“Oh, father!” she whispered.
He answered with an unsteady, “My dear—my little girl—” And for the first time it drew her closer.
AN HOUR later he salvaged the heart from the flames with his favorite bent poker and put it on an ash tray to cool. When it was cool, he would put it away among some small things that would be useless and meaningless to anyone but him. Ilow the thing had bent in the flame!
Kildaire came in to say that Mr. Meredith had called. Halsey said a quick, hearty: “Show him in.”
Meredith came—the man Halsey would choose for his daughter’s father-in-law. Ruddy, sane and loudly cordial.
“Burning some stuff?” he questioned in his bluff way.
“My daughter was—”
“Oh. 1 see . . . My boy was, too, and today. Odd how the swallows all turn south at one moment. He burned”—Meredith stopped to chuckle—“a great many photographs such as I remember having collected during those silly and divine years before sense comes. Actresses and so on. You know. 1 asked why, and he said he was ‘Through.’ Very dramatic, youth, and pitiful—but it makes you hungry.”
“Yes, it makes you hungry,” Halsey agreed.
“I remember my own burnt offerings,” said Meredith, chuckling.
“Come to think cf it, so do I,” Halsey said slowly. His offerings had been made shortly after he met Allys’s mother. “And when the half-gods go, the gods draw near,” he murmured.
“Urn,” grunted Meredith.
ALLYS HURRIED out of the house.
Young Meredith was waiting for her in his car.
“I want to go to see Aunt Agnes for a moment,” she said without further greeting to the boy, who had lost color and then flushed beautifully upon the heels of pallor. “There’s something I’ve got to tell her that I forgot to tell her when 1 saw her today —or rather I didn’t know it then. 1 don’t think she realizes it, but father needs cheering up and being made happy ...”
Young Meredith crawled into the motor car beside her and slammed the door.
After her talk subsided, there was a silence. He was stupid, she realized, but he was kind, and in spite of what the advanced spirits at school said of truth, kindness was sometimes more—well, merciful. He would never laugh as Mr. Justins had, she knew. He wouldn’t know how. Nor would her father.
She felt her face against her father’s shoulder once again, his hand on her back; and as she felt the contact with his rough tweed coat and the patting, she saw her mother at the nursery door, smiling, arms outstretched. And as she felt and saw, she forgot the fabric of the dream, the smoke of the half-gods and of youth, wreathing from the hearth . . . She only knew that something fresh and unexperienced hitherto was creeping into her heavier heart, to kill that horror that may grip from being laughed at, and to make mercy and a self-effacing love.
“My father is so wonderful,” she said. “I want to make him happy.”
Ah, the look in young Meredith’s eyes ! In it, the hint of compensation for the loss of youth, and the promise of something preserved from youth so long as the look shall last !