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Some sinister fascination seems to hover about a bridge at night, especially for unhappy souls who have grappled with fate and think themselves worsted. Perhaps they find a melancholy pleasure in the company of ghosts who have escaped from similar defeats; perhaps they seek to read the riddle of the universe, as they stand, elbows on rail, studying the turbulent waters below.
On the third night after Dan's arrival in Cincinnati, the bridge claimed him. He had deposited his few belongings in a cheap lodging-house on the Kentucky side of the river, and then aimlessly paced the streets, too miserable to eat or sleep, too desperate even to look for work. His one desire was to get away from his tormenting thoughts, to try to forget what had happened to him.
A cold drizzle of rain had brought dusk on an hour before its time. Twilight was closing in on a sodden day. From the big Ohio city to the smaller Kentucky towns, poured a stream of tired humanity. Belated shoppers, business men, workers of all kinds hurried through the murky soot-laden air, each hastening to some invisible goal.
To Dan, watching with somber eyes from his niche above the wharf, it seemed that they were all going home to little lamp-lit cottages where women and children awaited them. A light in the window and somebody waiting! The old dream of his boyhood that only a few days ago had seemed about to come true!
Instead, he had been caught up in a hurricane and swept out to sea. His anchors had been his love, his work, and his religion, and none of them held. The factory, to which he had given the best of his brain and his body, for which he had dreamed and aspired and planned, was a nightmare to him. Mrs. Purdy and the church activities, which had loomed so large in his life, were but fleeting, unsubstantial shadows.
Only one thing in the wide universe mattered now to him, and that was Nance. Over and over he rehearsed his final scene with her, searching for some word of denial or contrition or promise for the future. She had never lied to him, and he knew she never would. But she had stood before him in angry defiance, refusing to defend herself, declining his help, and letting him go out of her life without so much as lifting a finger to stop him.
His heavy eyes, which had been following the shore lights, came back to the bridge, attracted by the movement of a woman leaning over one of the embrasures near him. He had been vaguely aware for the past five minutes of a disturbing sound that came to him from time to time; but it was only now that he noticed the woman was crying. She was standing with her back to him, and he could see her lift her veil every now and then and wipe her eyes.
With a movement of impatience, he moved further on. He had enough troubles of his own to-night without witnessing those of others. He had determined to stop fleeing from his thoughts and to turn and face them. A rich young fellow, like Mac Clarke, didn't go with a girl like Nance for nothing. Why, this thing must have been going on for months, perhaps long before the night he had found Nance at the signal tower. They had been meeting in secret, going out alone together; she had let him make love to her, kiss her.
The blood surged into his head, and doubts blacker than the waters below assailed him, but even as he stood there with his head in his hands and his cap pulled over his eyes, all sorts of shadowy memories came to plead for her. Memories of a little, tow-headed, independent girl coming and going in Calvary Alley, now lugging coal up two flights of stairs, now rushing noisily down again with a Snawdor baby slung over her shoulder, now to snatch her part in the play. Nance, who laughed the loudest, cried the hardest, ran the fastest, whose hand was as quick to help a friend as to strike a foe! He saw her sitting beside him on the mattress, sharing his disgrace on the day of the eviction, saw her standing before the bar of justice passionately pleading his cause. Then later and tenderer memories came to reinforce the earlier ones--memories of her gaily dismissing all other offers at the factory to trudge home night after night with him; of her sitting beside him in Post-Office Square, subdued and tender-eyed, watching the electric lights bloom through the dusk; of her nursing Uncle Jed, forgetting herself and her disappointment in ministering to him and helping him face the future.
A wave of remorse swept over him! What right had he to make her stay on and on in Cemetery Street when he knew how she hated it? Why had he forced her to go back to the factory? She had tried to make him understand, but he had been deaf to her need. He had expected her to buckle down to work just as he did. He had forgotten that she was young and pretty and wanted a good time like other girls. Of course it was wrong for her to go with Mac, but she was good, he knew she was good.
The words reverberated in his brain like a hollow echo, frightening away all the pleading memories. Those were the very words he had used about his mother on that other black night when he had refused to believe the truth. All the bitterness of his childhood's tragedy came now to poison his present mood. If Nance was innocent, why had she kept all this from him, why had she refused in the end to let him defend her good name?
He thought of his own struggle to be good; of his ceaseless efforts to be decent in every thought as well as deed for Nance's sake. Decent! His lip curled at the irony of it! That wasn't what girls wanted? Decency made fellows stupid and dull; it kept them too closely at work; it made them take life too seriously. Girls wanted men like Mac Clarke--men who snapped their fingers at religion and refused responsibilities, and laughed in the face of duty. Laughter! That was what Nance loved above everything! All right, let her have it! What did it matter? He would laugh too.
With a reckless resolve, he turned up his coat collar, rammed his hands in his pockets, and started toward the Kentucky shore. The drizzle by this time had turned into a sharp rain, and he realized that he was cold and wet. He remembered a swinging door two squares away.
As he left the bridge, he saw the woman in the blue veil hurry past him, and with a furtive look about her, turn and go down the steep levee toward the water. There was something so nervous and erratic in her movements, that he stopped to watch her.
For a few moments she wandered aimlessly along the bank, apparently indifferent to the pelting rain; then she succeeded, after some difficulty, in climbing out on one of the coal barges that fringed the river bank.
Dan glanced down the long length of the bridge, empty now save for a few pedestrians and a lumbering truck in the distance. In mid-stream the paddle of a river steamer was churning the water into foam, and up-stream, near the dock, negro roustabouts could be heard singing. But under the bridge all was silent, and the levee was deserted in both directions. He strained his eyes to distinguish that vague figure on the barge from the surrounding shadows. He saw her crawling across the shifting coal; then he waited to see no more.
Plunging down the bank at full speed, he scrambled out on the barge and seized her by the arms. The struggle was brief, but fierce. With a cry of despair, she sank face downward on the coal and burst into hysterical weeping.
"Don't call a policeman!" she implored wildly. "Don't let 'em take me to a hospital!"
"I won't. Don't try to talk 'til you get hold of yourself," said Dan.
"But I'm chokin'! I can't breathe! Get the veil off!"
As Dan knelt above her, fumbling with the long veil, he noticed for the first time that she was young, and that her bare neck between the collar and the ripple of her black hair was very white and smooth. He bent down and looked at her with a flash of recognition.
"Birdie!" he cried incredulously, "Birdie Smelts!"
Her heavy white lids fluttered wildly, and she started up in terror.
"Don't be scared!" he urged. "It's Dan Lewis from back home. How did you ever come to be in this state?"
With a moan of despair she covered her face with her hands.
"I was up there on the bridge," Dan went on, almost apologetically. "I saw you there, but I didn't know it was you. Then when you started down to the water, I sorter thought--"
"You oughtn't 'a' stopped me," she wailed. "I been walkin' the streets tryin' to get up my courage all day. I'm sick, I tell you. I want to die."
"But it ain't right to die this way. Don't you know it's wicked?"
"Good and bad's all the same to me. I'm done for. There ain't a soul in this rotten old town that cares whether I live or die!"
Dan flushed painfully. He was much more equal to saving a body than a soul, but he did not flinch from his duty.
"God cares," he said. "Like as not He sent me out on the bridge a-purpose to-night to help you. You let me put you on the train, Birdie, and ship you home to your mother."
"Never! I ain't goin' home, and I ain't goin' to a hospital. Promise me you won't let 'em take me, Dan!"
"All right, all right," he said, with an anxious eye on her shivering form and her blue lips. "Only we got to get under cover somewhere. Do you feel up to walking yet?"
"Where'd I walk to?" she demanded bitterly. "I tell you I've got no money and no place to go. I been on the street since yesterday noon."
"You can't stay out here all night!" said Dan at his wit's end. "I'll have to get you a room somewhere."
"Go ahead and get it. I'll wait here."
But Dan mistrusted the look of cunning that leaped into her eyes and the way she glanced from time to time at the oily, black water that curled around the corner of the barge.
"I got a room a couple of squares over," he said slowly. "You might come over there 'til you get dried out and rested up a bit."
"I don't want to go anywhere. I'm too sick. I don't want to have to see people."
"You won't have to. It's a rooming house. The old woman that looks after things has gone by now."
It took considerable persuasion to get her on her feet and up the bank. Again and again she refused to go on, declaring that she didn't want to live. But Dan's patience was limitless. Added to his compassion for her, was the half-superstitious belief that he had been appointed by Providence to save her.
"It's just around the corner now," he encouraged her. "Can you make it?"
She stumbled on blindly, without answering, clinging to his arm and. breathing heavily.
"Here we are!" said Dan, turning into a dark entrance, "front room on the left. Steady there!"
But even as he opened the door, Birdie swayed forward and would have fallen to the floor, had he not caught her and laid her on the bed.
Hastily lighting the lamp on the deal table by the window, he went back to the bed and loosened the neck of her dripping coat and then looked down at her helplessly. Her face, startlingly white in its frame of black hair, showed dark circles under the eyes, and her full lips had lost not only their color, but the innocent curves of childhood as well.
Presently she opened her eyes wearily and looked about her.
"I'm cold," she said with a shiver, "and hungry. God! I didn't know anybody could be so hungry!"
"I'll make a fire in the stove," cried Dan; "then I'll go out and get you something hot to drink. You'll feel better soon."
"Don't be long, Dan," she whispered faintly. "I'm scared to stay by myself."
Ten minutes later Dan hurried out of the eating-house at the corner, balancing a bowl of steaming soup in one hand and a plate of food in the other. He was soaked to the skin, and the rain trickled from his hair into his eyes. As he crossed the street a gust of wind caught his cap and hurled it away into the wet night. But he gave no thought to himself or to the weather, for the miracle had happened. That dancing gleam in the gutter came from a lighted lamp in a window behind which some one was waiting for him.
He found Birdie shaking with a violent chill, and it was only after he had got off her wet coat and wrapped her in a blanket, and persuaded her to drink the soup that she began to revive.
"What time of night is it?" she asked weakly.
"After eleven. You're going to stay where you are, and I'm going out and find me a room somewhere. I'll come back in the morning."
All of Birdie's alarms returned.
"I ain't going to stay here by myself, Dan. I'll go crazy, I tell you! I don't want to live and I am afraid to die. What sort of a God is He to let a person suffer like this?"
And poor old Dan, at death-grips with his own life problem, wrestled in vain with hers; arguing, reassuring, affirming, trying with an almost fanatic zeal to conquer his own doubts in conquering hers.
Then Birdie, bent on keeping him with her, talked of herself, pouring out an incoherent story of misfortune: how she had fainted on the stage one night and incurred the ill-will of the director; how the company went on and left her without friends and without money; how matters had gone from bad to worse until she couldn't stand it any longer. She painted a picture of wronged innocence that would have wrung a sterner heart than Dan's.
"I know," he said sympathetically. "I've seen what girls are up against at Clarke's."
Birdie's feverish eyes fastened upon him.
"Have you just come from Clarke's?"
"Is Mac there?"
Dan's face hardened.
"I don't know anything about him."
"No; and you don't want to! If there's one person in this world I hate, it's Mac Clarke."
"Same here," said Dan, drawn to her by the attraction of a common antipathy.
"Thinks he can do what he pleases," went on Birdie, bitterly, "with his good looks and easy ways. He'll have a lot to answer for!"
Dan sat with his fists locked, staring at the floor. A dozen questions burned on his lips, but he could not bring himself to ask them.
A fierce gust of wind rattled the window, and Birdie cried out in terror.
"You stop being afraid and go to sleep," urged Dan, but she shook her head.
"I don't dare to! You'd go away, and I'd wake up and go crazy with fear. I always was like that even when I was a kid, back home. I used to pretty near die of nights when pa would come in drunk and get to breaking up things. There was a man like that down where I been staying. He'd fall against my door 'most every night. Sometimes I'd meet him out in the street, and he'd follow me for squares."
Dan drew the blanket about her shoulders.
"Go to sleep," he said. "I won't leave you."
"Yes; but to-morrow night, and next night! Oh, God! I'm smothering. Lift me up!"
He sat on the side of the bed and lifted her until she rested against his shoulder. A deathly pallor had spread over her features, and she clung to him weakly.
Through the long hours of the stormy night he sat there, soothing and comforting her, as he would have soothed a terror-stricken child. By and by her clinging hands grew passive in his, her rigid, jerking limbs relaxed, and she fell into a feverish sleep broken by fitful sobs and smothered outcries. As Dan sat there, with her helpless weight against him, and gently stroked the wet black hair from her brow, something fierce and protective stirred in him, the quick instinct of the chivalrous strong to defend the weak. Here was somebody more wretched, more desolate, more utterly lonely than himself--a soft, fearful, feminine somebody, ill-fitted to fight the world with those frail, white hands.
Hitherto he had blindly worshiped at one shrine, and now the image was shattered, the shrine was empty--so appallingly empty that he was ready to fill it at any cost. For the first time in three days he ceased to think of Nance Molloy or of Mac Clarke, whose burden he was all unconsciously bearing. He ceased, also, to think of the soul he had been trying so earnestly to save. He thought instead of the tender weight against his shoulder, of the heavy lashes that lay on the tear-stained cheeks so close to his, of the soft, white brow under his rough, brown fingers. Something older than love or religion was making its claim on Dan.
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