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"O Russet Witch"

Merlin Grainger was employed by the Moonlight Quill Bookshop, which
you may have visited, just around the corner from the Ritz-Carlton on
Forty-seventh Street. The Moonlight Quill is, or rather was, a very
romantic little store, considered radical and admitted dark. It was
spotted interiorly with red and orange posters of breathless exotic
intent, and lit no less by the shiny reflecting bindings of special
editions than by the great squat lamp of crimson satin that, lighted
through all the day, swung overhead. It was truly a mellow bookshop.
The words "Moonlight Quill" were worked over the door in a sort of
serpentine embroidery. The windows seemed always full of something
that had passed the literary censors with little to spare; volumes
with covers of deep orange which offer their titles on little white
paper squares. And over all there was the smell of the musk, which the
clever, inscrutable Mr. Moonlight Quill ordered to be sprinkled
about-the smell half of a curiosity shop in Dickens' London and half
of a coffee-house on the warm shores of the Bosphorus.

From nine until five-thirty Merlin Grainger asked bored old ladies in
black and young men with dark circles under their eyes if they "cared
for this fellow" or were interested in first editions. Did they buy
novels with Arabs on the cover, or books which gave Shakespeare's
newest sonnets as dictated psychically to Miss Sutton of South Dakota?
he sniffed. As a matter of fact, his own taste ran to these latter,
but as an employee at the Moonlight Quill he assumed for the working
day the attitude of a disillusioned connoisseur.

After he had crawled over the window display to pull down the front
shade at five-thirty every afternoon, and said good-bye to the
mysterious Mr. Moonlight Quill and the lady clerk, Miss McCracken, and
the lady stenographer, Miss Masters, he went home to the girl,
Caroline. He did not eat supper with Caroline. It is unbelievable that
Caroline would have considered eating off his bureau with the collar
buttons dangerously near the cottage cheese, and the ends of Merlin's
necktie just missing his glass of milk--he had never asked her to eat
with him. He ate alone. He went into Braegdort's delicatessen on Sixth
Avenue and bought a box of crackers, a tube of anchovy paste, and some
oranges, or else a little jar of sausages and some potato salad and a
bottled soft drink, and with these in a brown package he went to his
room at Fifty-something West Fifty-eighth Street and ate his supper
and saw Caroline.

Caroline was a very young and gay person who lived with some older
lady and was possibly nineteen. She was like a ghost in that she never
existed until evening. She sprang into life when the lights went on in
her apartment at about six, and she disappeared, at the latest, about
midnight. Her apartment was a nice one, in a nice building with a
white stone front, opposite the south side of Central Park. The back
of her apartment faced the single window of the single room occupied
by the single Mr. Grainger.

He called her Caroline because there was a picture that looked like
her on the jacket of a book of that name down at the Moonlight Quill.

Now, Merlin Grainger was a thin young man of twenty-five, with dark
hair and no mustache or beard or anything like that, but Caroline was
dazzling and light, with a shimmering morass of russet waves to take
the place of hair, and the sort of features that remind you of
kisses--the sort of features you thought belonged to your first love,
but know, when you come across an old picture, didn't. She dressed in
pink or blue usually, but of late she had sometimes put on a slender
black gown that was evidently her especial pride, for whenever she
wore it she would stand regarding a certain place on the wall, which
Merlin thought most be a mirror. She sat usually in the profile chair
near the window, but sometimes honored the _chaise longue_ by the
lamp, and often she leaned 'way back and smoked a cigarette with
posturings of her arms and hands that Merlin considered very graceful.

At another time she had come to the window and stood in it
magnificently, and looked out because the moon had lost its way and
was dripping the strangest and most transforming brilliance into the
areaway between, turning the motif of ash-cans and clothes-lines into
a vivid impressionism of silver casks and gigantic gossamer cobwebs.
Merlin was sitting in plain sight, eating cottage cheese with sugar
and milk on it; and so quickly did he reach out for the window cord
that he tipped the cottage cheese into his lap with his free hand--and
the milk was cold and the sugar made spots on his trousers, and he was
sure that she had seen him after all.

Sometimes there were callers--men in dinner coats, who stood and
bowed, hat in hand and coat on arm, as they talked to Caroline; then
bowed some more and followed her out of the light, obviously bound for
a play or for a dance. Other young men came and sat and smoked
cigarettes, and seemed trying to tell Caroline something--she sitting
either in the profile chair and watching them with eager intentness or
else in the _chaise longue_ by the lamp, looking very lovely and
youthfully inscrutable indeed.

Merlin enjoyed these calls. Of some of the men he approved. Others won
only his grudging toleration, one or two he loathed--especially the
most frequent caller, a man with black hair and a black goatee and a
pitch-dark soul, who seemed to Merlin vaguely familiar, but whom he
was never quite able to recognize.

Now, Merlin's whole life was not "bound up with this romance he had
constructed"; it was not "the happiest hour of his day." He never
arrived in time to rescue Caroline from "clutches"; nor did he even
marry her. A much stranger thing happened than any of these, and it is
this strange thing that will presently be set down here. It began one
October afternoon when she walked briskly into the mellow interior of
the Moonlight Quill.

It was a dark afternoon, threatening rain and the end of the world,
and done in that particularly gloomy gray in which only New York
afternoons indulge. A breeze was crying down the streets, whisking
along battered newspapers and pieces of things, and little lights were
pricking out all the windows--it was so desolate that one was sorry
for the tops of sky-scrapers lost up there in the dark green and gray
heaven, and felt that now surely the farce was to close, and presently
all the buildings would collapse like card houses, and pile up in a
dusty, sardonic heap upon all the millions who presumed to wind in and
out of them.

At least these were the sort of musings that lay heavily upon the soul
of Merlin Grainger, as he stood by the window putting a dozen books
back in a row after a cyclonic visit by a lady with ermine trimmings.
He looked out of the window full of the most distressing thoughts--of
the early novels of H. G. Wells, of the boot of Genesis, of how Thomas
Edison had said that in thirty years there would be no dwelling-houses
upon the island, but only a vast and turbulent bazaar; and then he set
the last book right side up, turned--and Caroline walked coolly into
the shop.

She was dressed in a jaunty but conventional walking costume--he
remembered this when he thought about it later. Her skirt was plaid,
pleated like a concertina; her jacket was a soft but brisk tan; her
shoes and spats were brown and her hat, small and trim, completed her
like the top of a very expensive and beautifully filled candy box.

Merlin, breathless and startled, advanced nervously toward her.

"Good-afternoon--" he said, and then stopped--why, he did not know,
except that it came to him that something very portentous in his life
was about to occur, and that it would need no furbishing but silence,
and the proper amount of expectant attention. And in that minute
before the thing began to happen he had the sense of a breathless
second hanging suspended in time: he saw through the glass partition
that bounded off the little office the malevolent conical head of his
employer, Mr. Moonlight Quill, bent over his correspondence. He saw
Miss McCracken and Miss Masters as two patches of hair drooping over
piles of paper; he saw the crimson lamp overhead, and noticed with a
touch of pleasure how really pleasant and romantic it made the
book-store seem.

Then the thing happened, or rather it began to happen. Caroline picked
up a volume of poems lying loose upon a pile, fingered it absently
with her slender white hand, and suddenly, with an easy gesture,
tossed it upward toward the ceiling where it disappeared in the
crimson lamp and lodged there, seen through the illuminated silk as a
dark, bulging rectangle. This pleased her--she broke into young,
contagious laughter, in which Merlin found himself presently joining.

"It stayed up!" she cried merrily. "It stayed up, didn't it?" To both
of them this seemed the height of brilliant absurdity. Their laughter
mingled, filled the bookshop, and Merlin was glad to find that her
voice was rich and full of sorcery.

"Try another," he found himself suggesting--"try a red one."

At this her laughter increased, and she had to rest her hands upon the
stack to steady herself.

"Try another," she managed to articulate between spasms of mirth. "Oh,
golly, try another!"

"Try two."

"Yes, try two. Oh, I'll choke if I don't stop laughing. Here it goes."

Suiting her action to the word, she picked up a red book and sent it
in a gentle hyperbola toward the ceiling, where it sank into the lamp
beside the first. It was a few minutes before either of them could do
more than rock back and forth in helpless glee; but then by mutual
agreement they took up the sport anew, this time in unison. Merlin
seized a large, specially bound French classic and whirled it upward.
Applauding his own accuracy, he took a best-seller in one hand and a
book on barnacles in the other, and waited breathlessly while she made
her shot. Then the business waxed fast and furious--sometimes they
alternated, and, watching, he found how supple she was in every
movement; sometimes one of them made shot after shot, picking up the
nearest book, sending it off, merely taking time to follow it with a
glance before reaching for another. Within three minutes they had
cleared a little place on the table, and the lamp of crimson satin was
so bulging with books that it was near breaking.

"Silly game, basket-ball," she cried scornfully as a book left her
hand. "High-school girls play it in hideous bloomers."

"Idiotic," he agreed.

She paused in the act of tossing a book, and replaced it suddenly in
its position on the table.

"I think we've got room to sit down now," she said gravely.

They had; they had cleared an ample space for two. With a faint touch
of nervousness Merlin glanced toward Mr. Moonlight Quill's glass
partition, but the three heads were still bent earnestly over their
work, and it was evident that they had not seen what had gone on in
the shop. So when Caroline put her hands on the table and hoisted
herself up Merlin calmly imitated her, and they sat side by side
looking very earnestly at each other.

"I had to see you," she began, with a rather pathetic expression in
her brown eyes.

"I know."

"It was that last time," she continued, her voice trembling a little,
though she tried to keep it steady. "I was frightened. I don't like
you to eat off the dresser. I'm so afraid you'll--you'll swallow a
collar button."

"I did once--almost," he confessed reluctantly, "but it's not so easy,
you know. I mean you can swallow the flat part easy enough or else the
other part--that is, separately--but for a whole collar button you'd
have to have a specially made throat." He was astonishing himself by
the debonnaire appropriateness of his remarks. Words seemed for the
first time in his life to ran at him shrieking to be used, gathering
themselves into carefully arranged squads and platoons, and being
presented to him by punctilious adjutants of paragraphs.

"That's what scared me," she said. "I knew you had to have a specially
made throat--and I knew, at least I felt sure, that you didn't have
one."

He nodded frankly.

"I haven't. It costs money to have one--more money unfortunately than
I possess."

He felt no shame in saying this--rather a delight in making the
admission--he knew that nothing he could say or do would be beyond her
comprehension; least of all his poverty, and the practical
impossibility of ever extricating himself from it.

Caroline looked down at her wrist watch, and with a little cry slid
from the table to her feet.

"It's after five," she cried. "I didn't realize. I have to be at the
Ritz at five-thirty. Let's hurry and get this done. I've got a bet on
it."

With one accord they set to work. Caroline began the matter by seizing
a book on insects and sending it whizzing, and finally crashing
through the glass partition that housed Mr. Moonlight Quill. The
proprietor glanced up with a wild look, brushed a few pieces of glass
from his desk, and went on with his letters. Miss McCracken gave no
sign of having heard--only Miss Masters started and gave a little
frightened scream before she bent to her task again.

But to Merlin and Caroline it didn't matter. In a perfect orgy of
energy they were hurling book after book in all directions until
sometimes three or four were in the air at once, smashing against
shelves, cracking the glass of pictures on the walls, falling in
bruised and torn heaps upon the floor. It was fortunate that no
customers happened to come in, for it is certain they would never have
come in again--the noise was too tremendous, a noise of smashing and
ripping and tearing, mixed now and then with the tinkling of glass,
the quick breathing of the two throwers, and the intermittent
outbursts of laughter to which both of them periodically surrendered.

At five-thirty Caroline tossed a last book at the lamp, and gave the
final impetus to the load it carried. The weakened silk tore and
dropped its cargo in one vast splattering of white and color to the
already littered floor. Then with a sigh of relief she turned to
Merlin and held out her hand.

"Good-by," she said simply.

"Are you going?" He knew she was. His question was simply a lingering
wile to detain her and extract for another moment that dazzling
essence of light he drew from her presence, to continue his enormous
satisfaction in her features, which were like kisses and, he thought,
like the features of a girl he had known back in 1910. For a minute he
pressed the softness of her hand--then she smiled and withdrew it and,
before he could spring to open the door, she had done it herself and
was gone out into the turbid and ominous twilight that brooded
narrowly over Forty-seventh Street.

I would like to tell you how Merlin, having seen how beauty regards
the wisdom of the years, walked into the little partition of Mr.
Moonlight Quill and gave up his job then and there; thence issuing out
into the street a much finer and nobler and increasingly ironic man.
But the truth is much more commonplace. Merlin Grainger stood up and
surveyed the wreck of the bookshop, the ruined volumes, the torn silk
remnants of the once beautiful crimson lamp, the crystalline
sprinkling of broken glass which lay in iridescent dust over the whole
interior--and then he went to a corner where a broom was kept and
began cleaning up and rearranging and, as far as he was able,
restoring the shop to its former condition. He found that, though some
few of the books were uninjured, most of them had suffered in varying
extents. The backs were off some, the pages were torn from others,
still others were just slightly cracked in the front, which, as all
careless book returners know, makes a book unsalable, and therefore
second-hand.

Nevertheless by six o'clock he had done much to repair the damage. He
had returned the books to their original places, swept the floor, and
put new lights in the sockets overhead. The red shade itself was
ruined beyond redemption, and Merlin thought in some trepidation that
the money to replace it might have to come out of his salary. At six,
therefore, having done the best he could, he crawled over the front
window display to pull down the blind. As he was treading delicately
back, he saw Mr. Moonlight Quill rise from his desk, put on his
overcoat and hat, and emerge into the shop. He nodded mysteriously at
Merlin and went toward the door. With his hand on the knob he paused,
turned around, and in a voice curiously compounded of ferocity and
uncertainty, he said:

"If that girl comes in here again, you tell her to behave."

With that he opened the door, drowning Merlin's meek "Yessir" in its
creak, and went out.

Merlin stood there for a moment, deciding wisely not to worry about
what was for the present only a possible futurity, and then he went
into the back of the shop and invited Miss Masters to have supper with
him at Pulpat's French Restaurant, where one could still obtain red
wine at dinner, despite the Great Federal Government. Miss Masters
accepted.

"Wine makes me feel all tingly," she said.

Merlin laughed inwardly as he compared her to Caroline, or rather as
he didn't compare her. There was no comparison.


II

Mr. Moonlight Quill, mysterious, exotic, and oriental in temperament
was, nevertheless, a man of decision. And it was with decision that he
approached the problem of his wrecked shop. Unless he should make an
outlay equal to the original cost of his entire stock--a step which
for certain private reasons he did not wish to take--it would be
impossible for him to continue in business with the Moonlight Quill as
before. There was but one thing to do. He promptly turned his
establishment from an up-to-the-minute book-store into a second-hand
bookshop. The damaged books were marked down from twenty-five to fifty
per cent, the name over the door whose serpentine embroidery had once
shone so insolently bright, was allowed to grow dim and take on the
indescribably vague color of old paint, and, having a strong penchant
for ceremonial, the proprietor even went so far as to buy two
skull-caps of shoddy red felt, one for himself and one for his clerk,
Merlin Grainger. Moreover, he let his goatee grow until it resembled
the tail-feathers of an ancient sparrow and substituted for a once
dapper business suit a reverence-inspiring affair of shiny alpaca.

In fact, within a year after Caroline's catastrophic visit to the
bookshop the only thing in it that preserved any semblance of being up
to date was Miss Masters. Miss McCracken had followed in the footsteps
of Mr. Moonlight Quill and become an intolerable dowd.

For Merlin too, from a feeling compounded of loyalty and listlessness,
had let his exterior take on the semblance of a deserted garden. He
accepted the red felt skull-cap as a symbol of his decay. Always a
young man known, as a "pusher," he had been, since the day of his
graduation from the manual training department of a New York High
School, an inveterate brusher of clothes, hair, teeth, and even
eyebrows, and had learned the value of laying all his clean socks toe
upon toe and heel upon heel in a certain drawer of his bureau, which
would be known as the sock drawer.

These things, he felt, had won him his place in the greatest splendor
of the Moonlight Quill. It was due to them that he was not still
making "chests useful for keeping things," as he was taught with
breathless practicality in High School, and selling them to whoever
had use of such chests--possibly undertakers. Nevertheless when the
progressive Moonlight Quill became the retrogressive Moonlight Quill
he preferred to sink with it, and so took to letting his suits gather
undisturbed the wispy burdens of the air and to throwing his socks
indiscriminately into the shirt drawer, the underwear drawer, and even
into no drawer at all. It was not uncommon in his new carelessness to
let many of his clean clothes go directly back to the laundry without
having ever been worn, a common eccentricity of impoverished
bachelors. And this in the face of his favorite magazines, which at
that time were fairly staggering with articles by successful authors
against the frightful impudence of the condemned poor, such as the
buying of wearable shirts and nice cuts of meat, and the fact that
they preferred good investments in personal jewelry to respectable
ones in four per cent saving-banks.

It was indeed a strange state of affairs and a sorry one for many
worthy and God-fearing men. For the first time in the history of the
Republic almost any negro north of Georgia could change a one-dollar
bill. But as at that time the cent was rapidly approaching the
purchasing power of the Chinese ubu and was only a thing you got back
occasionally after paying for a soft drink, and could use merely in
getting your correct weight, this was perhaps not so strange a
phenomenon as it at first seems. It was too curious a state of things,
however, for Merlin Grainger to take the step that he did take--the
hazardous, almost involuntary step of proposing to Miss Masters.
Stranger still that she accepted him,

It was at Pulpat's on Saturday night and over a $1.75 bottle of water
diluted with _vin ordinaire_ that the proposal occurred.

"Wine makes me feel all tingly, doesn't it you?" chattered Miss
Masters gaily.

"Yes," answered Merlin absently; and then, after a long and pregnant
pause: "Miss Masters--Olive--I want to say something to you if you'll
listen to me."

The tingliness of Miss Masters (who knew what was coming) increased
until it seemed that she would shortly be electrocuted by her own
nervous reactions. But her "Yes, Merlin," came without a sign or
flicker of interior disturbance. Merlin swallowed a stray bit of air
that he found in his mouth.

"I have no fortune," he said with the manner of making an
announcement. "I have no fortune at all."

Their eyes met, locked, became wistful, and dreamy and beautiful.

"Olive," he told her, "I love you."

"I love you too, Merlin," she answered simply. "Shall we have another
bottle of wine?"

"Yes," he cried, his heart beating at a great rate. "Do you mean--"

"To drink to our engagement," she interrupted bravely. "May it be a
short one!"

"No!" he almost shouted, bringing his fist fiercely down upon the
table. "May it last forever!"

"What?"

"I mean--oh, I see what you mean. You're right. May it be a short
one." He laughed and added, "My error."

After the wine arrived they discussed the matter thoroughly.

"We'll have to take a small apartment at first," he said, "and I
believe, yes, by golly, I know there's a small one in the house where
I live, a big room and a sort of a dressing-room-kitchenette and the
use of a bath on the same floor."

She clapped her hands happily, and he thought how pretty she was
really, that is, the upper part of her face--from the bridge of the
nose down she was somewhat out of true. She continued enthusiastically:

"And as soon as we can afford it we'll take a real swell apartment,
with an elevator and a telephone girl."

"And after that a place in the country--and a car."

"I can't imagine nothing more fun. Can you?"

Merlin fell silent a moment. He was thinking that he would have to
give up his room, the fourth floor rear. Yet it mattered very little
now. During the past year and a half--in fact, from the very date of
Caroline's visit to the Moonlight Quill--he had never seen her. For a
week after that visit her lights had failed to go on--darkness brooded
out into the areaway, seemed to grope blindly in at his expectant,
uncurtained window. Then the lights had appeared at last, and instead
of Caroline and her callers they stowed a stodgy family--a little man
with a bristly mustache and a full-bosomed woman who spent her
evenings patting her hips and rearranging bric-à-brac. After two days
of them Merlin had callously pulled down his shade.

No, Merlin could think of nothing more fun than rising in the world
with Olive. There would be a cottage in a suburb, a cottage painted
blue, just one class below the sort of cottages that are of white
stucco with a green roof. In the grass around the cottage would be
rusty trowels and a broken green bench and a baby-carriage with a
wicker body that sagged to the left. And around the grass and the
baby-carriage and the cottage itself, around his whole world there
would be the arms of Olive, a little stouter, the arms of her
neo-Olivian period, when, as she walked, her cheeks would tremble up
and down ever so slightly from too much face-massaging. He could hear
her voice now, two spoons' length away:

"I knew you were going to say this to-night, Merlin. I could see--"

She could see. Ah--suddenly he wondered how much she could see. Could
she see that the girl who had come in with a party of three men and
sat down at the next table was Caroline? Ah, could she see that? Could
she see that the men brought with them liquor far more potent than
Pulpat's red ink condensed threefold?...

Merlin stared breathlessly, half-hearing through an auditory ether
Olive's low, soft monologue, as like a persistent honey-bee she sucked
sweetness from her memorable hour. Merlin was listening to the
clinking of ice and the fine laughter of all four at some
pleasantry--and that laughter of Caroline's that he knew so well
stirred him, lifted him, called his heart imperiously over to her
table, whither it obediently went. He could see her quite plainly, and
he fancied that in the last year and a half she had changed, if ever
so slightly. Was it the light or were her cheeks a little thinner and
her eyes less fresh, if more liquid, than of old? Yet the shadows were
still purple in her russet hair; her mouth hinted yet of kisses, as
did the profile that came sometimes between his eyes and a row of
books, when it was twilight in the bookshop where the crimson lamp
presided no more.

And she had been drinking. The threefold flush in her cheeks was
compounded of youth and wine and fine cosmetic--that he could tell.
She was making great amusement for the young man on her left and the
portly person on her right, and even for the old fellow opposite her,
for the latter from time to time uttered the shocked and mildly
reproachful cackles of another generation. Merlin caught the words of
a song she was intermittently singing--


"Just snap your fingers at care,
Don't cross the bridge 'til you're there--"

The portly person filled her glass with chill amber. A waiter after
several trips about the table, and many helpless glances at Caroline,
who was maintaining a cheerful, futile questionnaire as to the
succulence of this dish or that, managed to obtain the semblance of an
order and hurried away....

Olive was speaking to Merlin--

"When, then?" she asked, her voice faintly shaded with disappointment.
He realized that he had just answered no to some question she had
asked him.

"Oh, sometime."

"Don't you--care?"

A rather pathetic poignancy in her question brought his eyes back to
her.

"As soon as possible, dear," he replied with surprising tenderness.
"In two months--in June."

"So soon?" Her delightful excitement quite took her breath away.

"Oh, yes, I think we'd better say June. No use waiting."

Olive began to pretend that two months was really too short a time for
her to make preparations. Wasn't he a bad boy! Wasn't he impatient,
though! Well, she'd show him he mustn't be too quick with _her_.
Indeed he was so sudden she didn't exactly know whether she ought to
marry him at all.

"June," he repeated sternly.

Olive sighed and smiled and drank her coffee, her little finger lifted
high above the others in true refined fashion. A stray thought came to
Merlin that he would like to buy five rings and throw at it.

"By gosh!" he exclaimed aloud. Soon he _would_ be putting rings
on one of her fingers.

His eyes swung sharply to the right. The party of four had become so
riotous that the head-waiter had approached and spoken to them.
Caroline was arguing with this head-waiter in a raised voice, a voice
so clear and young that it seemed as though the whole restaurant would
listen--the whole restaurant except Olive Masters, self-absorbed in
her new secret.

"How do you do?" Caroline was saying. "Probably the handsomest
head-waiter in captivity. Too much noise? Very unfortunate.
Something'll have to be done about it. Gerald"--she addressed the man
on her right--"the head-waiter says there's too much noise. Appeals to
us to have it stopped. What'll I say?"

"Sh!" remonstrated Gerald, with laughter. "Sh!" and Merlin heard him
add in an undertone: "All the bourgeoisie will be aroused. This is
where the floorwalkers learn French."

Caroline sat up straight in sudden alertness.

"Where's a floorwalker?" she cried. "Show me a floorwalker." This
seemed to amuse the party, for they all, including Caroline, burst
into renewed laughter. The head-waiter, after a last conscientious but
despairing admonition, became Gallic with his shoulders and retired
into the background.

Pulpat's, as every one knows, has the unvarying respectability of the
table d'hôte. It is not a gay place in the conventional sense. One
comes, drinks the red wine, talks perhaps a little more and a little
louder than usual under the low, smoky ceilings, and then goes home.
It closes up at nine-thirty, tight as a drum; the policeman is paid
off and given an extra bottle of wine for the missis, the coat-room
girl hands her tips to the collector, and then darkness crushes the
little round tables out of sight and life. But excitement was prepared
for Pulpat's this evening--excitement of no mean variety. A girl with
russet, purple-shadowed hair mounted to her table-top and began to
dance thereon.

"_Sacré nom de Dieu!_ Come down off there!" cried the
head-waiter. "Stop that music!"

But the musicians were already playing so loud that they could pretend
not to hear his order; having once been young, they played louder and
gayer than ever, and Caroline danced with grace and vivacity, her
pink, filmy dress swirling about her, her agile arms playing in
supple, tenuous gestures along the smoky air.

A group of Frenchmen at a table near by broke into cries of applause,
in which other parties joined--in a moment the room was full of
clapping and shouting; half the diners were on their feet, crowding
up, and on the outskirts the hastily summoned proprietor was giving
indistinct vocal evidences of his desire to put an end to this thing
as quickly as possible.

"... Merlin!" cried Olive, awake, aroused at last; "she's such a
wicked girl! Let's get out--now!"

The fascinated Merlin protested feebly that the check was not paid.

"It's all right. Lay five dollars on the table. I despise that girl. I
can't _bear_ to look at her." She was on her feet now, tagging at
Merlin's arm.

Helplessly, listlessly, and then with what amounted to downright
unwillingness, Merlin rose, followed Olive dumbly as she picked her
way through the delirious clamor, now approaching its height and
threatening to become a wild and memorable riot. Submissively he took
his coat and stumbled up half a dozen steps into the moist April air
outside, his ears still ringing with the sound of light feet on the
table and of laughter all about and over the little world of the cafe.
In silence they walked along toward Fifth Avenue and a bus,

It was not until next day that she told him about the wedding--how she
had moved the date forward: it was much better that they should be
married on the first of May.


III

And married they were, in a somewhat stuffy manner, under the
chandelier of the flat where Olive lived with her mother. After
marriage came elation, and then, gradually, the growth of weariness.
Responsibility descended upon Merlin, the responsibility of making his
thirty dollars a week and her twenty suffice to keep them respectably
fat and to hide with decent garments the evidence that they were.

It was decided after several weeks of disastrous and well-nigh
humiliating experiments with restaurants that they would join the
great army of the delicatessen-fed, so he took up his old way of life
again, in that he stopped every evening at Braegdort's delicatessen
and bought potatoes in salad, ham in slices, and sometimes even
stuffed tomatoes in bursts of extravagance.

Then he would trudge homeward, enter the dark hallway, and climb three
rickety flights of stairs covered by an ancient carpet of long
obliterated design. The hall had an ancient smell--of the vegetables
of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when "Adam-and Eve" Bryan
ran against William McKinley, of portieres an ounce heavier with dust,
from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into
patch-work quilts. This smell would pursue him up the stairs,
revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of
contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing
into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.

Eventually would occur the door of his room, which slipped open with
indecent willingness and closed with almost a sniff upon his "Hello,
dear! Got a treat for you to-night."

Olive, who always rode home on the bus to "get a morsel of air," would
be making the bed and hanging up things. At his call she would come up
to him and give him a quick kiss with wide-open eyes, while be held
her upright like a ladder, his hands on her two arms, as though she
were a thing without equilibrium, and would, once he relinquished
hold, fall stiffly backward to the floor. This is the kiss that comes
in with the second year of marriage, succeeding the bridegroom kiss
(which is rather stagey at best, say those who know about such things,
and apt to be copied from passionate movies).

Then came supper, and after that they went out for a walk, up two
blocks and through Central Park, or sometimes to a moving picture,
which taught them patiently that they were the sort of people for whom
life was ordered, and that something very grand and brave and
beautiful would soon happen to them if they were docile and obedient
to their rightful superiors and kept away from pleasure.

Such was their day for three years. Then change came into their lives:
Olive had a baby, and as a result Merlin had a new influx of material
resources. In the third week of Olive's confinement, after an hour of
nervous rehearsing, he went into the office of Mr. Moonlight Quill and
demanded an enormous increase in salary.

"I've been here ten years," he said; "since I was nineteen. I've
always tried to do my best in the interests of the business."

Mr. Moonlight Quill said that he would think it over. Next morning he
announced, to Merlin's great delight, that he was going to put into
effect a project long premeditated--he was going to retire from active
work in the bookshop, confining himself to periodic visits and leaving
Merlin as manager with a salary of fifty dollars a week and a
one-tenth interest in the business. When the old man finished,
Merlin's cheeks were glowing and his eyes full of tears. He seized his
employer's hand and shook it violently, saying over and over again:

"It's very nice of you, sir. It's very white of you. It's very, very
nice of you."

So after ten years of faithful work in the store he had won out at
last. Looking back, he saw his own progress toward this hill of
elation no longer as a sometimes sordid and always gray decade of
worry and failing enthusiasm and failing dreams, years when the
moonlight had grown duller in the areaway and the youth had faded out
of Olive's face, but as a glorious and triumphant climb over obstacles
which he had determinedly surmounted by unconquerable will-power. The
optimistic self-delusion that had kept him from misery was seen now in
the golden garments of stern resolution. Half a dozen times he had
taken steps to leave the Moonlight Quill and soar upward, but through
sheer faintheartedness he had stayed on. Strangely enough he now
thought that those were times when he had exerted tremendous
persistence and had "determined" to fight it out where he was.

At any rate, let us not for this moment begrudge Merlin his new and
magnificent view of himself. He had arrived. At thirty he had reached
a post of importance. He left the shop that evening fairly radiant,
invested every penny in his pocket in the most tremendous feast that
Braegdort's delicatessen offered, and staggered homeward with the
great news and four gigantic paper bags. The fact that Olive was too
sick to eat, that he made himself faintly but unmistakably ill by a
struggle with four stuffed tomatoes, and that most of the food
deteriorated rapidly in an iceless ice-box: all next day did not mar
the occasion. For the first time since the week of his marriage Merlin
Grainger lived under a sky of unclouded tranquillity.

The baby boy was christened Arthur, and life became dignified,
significant, and, at length, centered. Merlin and Olive resigned
themselves to a somewhat secondary place in their own cosmos; but what
they lost in personality they regained in a sort of primordial pride.
The country house did not come, but a month in an Asbury Park
boarding-house each summer filled the gap; and during Merlin's two
weeks' holiday this excursion assumed the air of a really merry
jaunt--especially when, with the baby asleep in a wide room opening
technically on the sea, Merlin strolled with Olive along the thronged
board-walk puffing at his cigar and trying to look like twenty
thousand a year.

With some alarm at the slowing up of the days and the accelerating of
the years, Merlin became thirty-one, thirty-two--then almost with a
rush arrived at that age which, with all its washing and panning, can
only muster a bare handful of the precious stuff of youth: he became
thirty-five. And one day on Fifth Avenue he saw Caroline.

It was Sunday, a radiant, flowerful Easter morning and the avenue was
a pageant of lilies and cutaways and happy April-colored bonnets.
Twelve o'clock: the great churches were letting out their people--St.
Simon's, St. Hilda's, the Church of the Epistles, opened their doors
like wide mouths until the people pouring forth surely resembled happy
laughter as they met and strolled and chattered, or else waved white
bouquets at waiting chauffeurs.

In front of the Church of the Epistles stood its twelve vestrymen,
carrying out the time-honored custom of giving away Easter eggs full
of face-powder to the church-going debutantes of the year. Around them
delightedly danced the two thousand miraculously groomed children of
the very rich, correctly cute and curled, shining like sparkling
little jewels upon their mothers' fingers. Speaks the sentimentalist
for the children of the poor? Ah, but the children of the rich,
laundered, sweet-smelling, complexioned of the country, and, above
all, with soft, in-door voices.

Little Arthur was five, child of the middle class. Undistinguished,
unnoticed, with a nose that forever marred what Grecian yearnings his
features might have had, he held tightly to his mother's warm, sticky
hand, and, with Merlin on his other side, moved, upon the home-coming
throng. At Fifty-third Street, where there were two churches, the
congestion was at its thickest, its richest. Their progress was of
necessity retarded to such an extent that even little Arthur had not
the slightest difficulty in keeping up. Then it was that Merlin
perceived an open landaulet of deepest crimson, with handsome nickel
trimmings, glide slowly up to the curb and come to a stop. In it sat
Caroline.

She was dressed in black, a tight-fitting gown trimmed with lavender,
flowered at the waist with a corsage of orchids. Merlin started and
then gazed at her fearfully. For the first time in the eight years
since his marriage he was encountering the girl again. But a girl no
longer. Her figure was slim as ever--or perhaps not quite, for a
certain boyish swagger, a sort of insolent adolescence, had gone the
way of the first blooming of her cheeks. But she was beautiful;
dignity was there now, and the charming lines of a fortuitous
nine-and-twenty; and she sat in the car with such perfect
appropriateness and self-possession that it made him breathless to
watch her.

Suddenly she smiled--the smile of old, bright as that very Easter and
its flowers, mellower than ever--yet somehow with not quite the
radiance and infinite promise of that first smile back there in the
bookshop nine years before. It was a steelier smile, disillusioned and
sad.

But it was soft enough and smile enough to make a pair of young men in
cutaway coats hurry over, to pull their high hats off their wetted,
iridescent hair; to bring them, flustered and bowing, to the edge of
her landaulet, where her lavender gloves gently touched their gray
ones. And these two were presently joined by another, and then two
more, until there was a rapidly swelling crowd around the landaulet.
Merlin would hear a young man beside him say to his perhaps
well-favored companion:

"If you'll just pardon me a moment, there's some one I _have_ to
speak to. Walk right ahead. I'll catch up."

Within three minutes every inch of the landaulet, front, back, and
side, was occupied by a man--a man trying to construct a sentence
clever enough to find its way to Caroline through the stream of
conversation. Luckily for Merlin a portion of little Arthur's clothing
had chosen the opportunity to threaten a collapse, and Olive had
hurriedly rushed him over against a building for some extemporaneous
repair work, so Merlin was able to watch, unhindered, the salon in the
street.

The crowd swelled. A row formed in back of the first,
two more behind that. In the midst, an orchid rising from a black
bouquet, sat Caroline enthroned in her obliterated car, nodding and
crying salutations and smiling with such true happiness that, of a
sudden, a new relay of gentlemen had left their wives and consorts and
were striding toward her.

The crowd, now phalanx deep, began to be augmented by the merely
curious; men of all ages who could not possibly have known Caroline
jostled over and melted into the circle of ever-increasing diameter,
until the lady in lavender was the centre of a vast impromptu
auditorium.

All about her were faces--clean-shaven, bewhiskered, old, young,
ageless, and now, here and there, a woman. The mass was rapidly
spreading to the opposite curb, and, as St. Anthony's around the
corner let out its box-holders, it overflowed to the sidewalk and
crushed up against the iron picket-fence of a millionaire across the
street. The motors speeding along the avenue were compelled to stop,
and in a jiffy were piled three, five, and six deep at the edge of the
crowd; auto-busses, top-heavy turtles of traffic, plunged into the
jam, their passengers crowding to the edges of the roofs in wild
excitement and peering down into the centre of the mass, which
presently could hardly be seen from the mass's edge.

The crush had become terrific. No fashionable audience at a
Yale-Princeton football game, no damp mob at a world's series, could
be compared with the panoply that talked, stared, laughed, and honked
about the lady in black and lavender. It was stupendous; it was
terrible. A quarter mile down the block a half-frantic policeman
called his precinct; on the same corner a frightened civilian crashed
in the glass of a fire-alarm and sent in a wild paean for all the
fire-engines of the city; up in an apartment high in one of the tall
buildings a hysterical old maid telephoned in turn for the prohibition
enforcement agent; the special deputies on Bolshevism, and the
maternity ward of Bellevue Hospital.

The noise increased. The first fire-engine arrived, filling the Sunday
air with smoke, clanging and crying a brazen, metallic message down
the high, resounding walls. In the notion that some terrible calamity
had overtaken the city, two excited deacons ordered special services
immediately and set tolling the great bells of St. Hilda's and St.
Anthony's, presently joined by the jealous gongs of St. Simon's and
the Church of the Epistles. Even far off in the Hudson and the East
River the sounds of the commotion were heard, and the ferry-boats and
tugs and ocean liners set up sirens and whistles that sailed in
melancholy cadence, now varied, now reiterated, across the whole
diagonal width of the city from Riverside Drive to the gray
water-fronts of the lower East Side....

In the centre of her landaulet sat the lady in black and lavender,
chatting pleasantly first with one, then with another of that
fortunate few in cutaways who had found their way to speaking distance
in the first rush. After a while she glanced around her and beside her
with a look of growing annoyance.

She yawned and asked the man nearest her if he couldn't run in
somewhere and get her a glass of water. The man apologized in some
embarrassment. He could not have moved hand or foot. He could not have
scratched his own ear....

As the first blast of the river sirens keened along the air, Olive
fastened the last safety-pin in little Arthur's rompers and looked up.
Merlin saw her start, stiffen slowly like hardening stucco, and then
give a little gasp of surprise and disapproval.

"That woman," she cried suddenly. "Oh!"

She flashed a glance at Merlin that mingled reproach and pain, and
without another word gathered up little Arthur with one hand, grasped
her husband by the other, and darted amazingly in a winding, bumping
canter through the crowd. Somehow people gave way before her; somehow
she managed to-retain her grasp on her son and husband; somehow she
managed to emerge two blocks up, battered and dishevelled, into an
open space, and, without slowing up her pace, darted down a
side-street. Then at last, when uproar had died away into a dim and
distant clamor, did she come to a walk and set little Arthur upon his
feet.

"And on Sunday, too! Hasn't she disgraced herself enough?" This was
her only comment. She said it to Arthur, as she seemed to address her
remarks to Arthur throughout the remainder of the day. For some
curious and esoteric reason she had never once looked at her husband
during the entire retreat.


IV

The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the
passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they
are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted
first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing
and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds
of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the
certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. For most men and
women these thirty years are taken up with a gradual withdrawal from
life, a retreat first from a front with many shelters, those myriad
amusements and curiosities of youth, to a line with less, when we peel
down our ambitions to one ambition, our recreations to one recreation,
our friends to a few to whom we are anaesthetic; ending up at last in
a solitary, desolate strong point that is not strong, where the shells
now whistle abominably, now are but half-heard as, by turns frightened
and tired, we sit waiting for death.

At forty, then, Merlin was no different from himself at thirty-five; a
larger paunch, a gray twinkling near his ears, a more certain lack of
vivacity in his walk. His forty-five differed from his forty by a like
margin, unless one mention a slight deafness in his left ear. But at
fifty-five the process had become a chemical change of immense
rapidity. Yearly he was more and more an "old man" to his
family--senile almost, so far as his wife was concerned. He was by
this time complete owner of the bookshop. The mysterious Mr. Moonlight
Quill, dead some five years and not survived by his wife, had deeded
the whole stock and store to him, and there he still spent his days,
conversant now by name with almost all that man has recorded for three
thousand years, a human catalogue, an authority upon tooling and
binding, upon folios and first editions, an accurate inventory of a
thousand authors whom he could never have understood and had certainly
never read.

At sixty-five he distinctly doddered. He had assumed the melancholy
habits of the aged so often portrayed by the second old man in
standard Victorian comedies. He consumed vast warehouses of time
searching for mislaid spectacles. He "nagged" his wife and was nagged
in turn. He told the same jokes three or four times a year at the
family table, and gave his son weird, impossible directions as to his
conduct in life. Mentally and materially he was so entirely different
from the Merlin Grainger of twenty-five that it seemed incongruous
that he should bear the same name.

He worked still In the bookshop with the assistance of a youth, whom,
of course, he considered very idle, indeed, and a new young woman,
Miss Gaffney. Miss McCracken, ancient and unvenerable as himself,
still kept the accounts. Young Arthur was gone into Wall Street to
sell bonds, as all the young men seemed to be doing in that day. This,
of course, was as it should be. Let old Merlin get what magic he could
from his books--the place of young King Arthur was in the
counting-house.

One afternoon at four when he had slipped noiselessly up to the front
of the store on his soft-soled slippers, led by a newly formed habit,
of which, to be fair, he was rather ashamed, of spying upon the young
man clerk, he looked casually out of the front window, straining his
faded eyesight to reach the street. A limousine, large, portentous,
impressive, had drawn to the curb, and the chauffeur, after
dismounting and holding some sort of conversation with persons in the
interior of the car, turned about and advanced in a bewildered fashion
toward the entrance of the Moonlight Quill. He opened the door,
shuffled in, and, glancing uncertainly at the old man in the
skull-cap, addressed him in a thick, murky voice, as though his words
came through a fog.

"Do you--do you sell additions?"

Merlin nodded.

"The arithmetic books are in the back of the store."

The chauffeur took off his cap and scratched a close-cropped, fuzzy
head.

"Oh, naw. This I want's a detecatif story." He jerked a thumb back
toward the limousine. "She seen it in the paper. Firs' addition."

Merlin's interest quickened. Here was possibly a big sale.

"Oh, editions. Yes, we've advertised some firsts, but-detective
stories, I-don't-believe-What was the title?"

"I forget. About a crime."

"About a crime. I have-well, I have 'The Crimes of the Borgias'-full
morocco, London 1769, beautifully--"

"Naw," interrupted the chauffeur, "this was one fella did this crime.
She seen you had it for sale in the paper." He rejected several
possible titles with the air of connoisseur.

"'Silver Bones,'" he announced suddenly out of a slight pause.

"What?" demanded Merlin, suspecting that the stiffness of his sinews
were being commented on.

"Silver Bones. That was the guy that done the crime."

"Silver Bones?"

"Silver Bones. Indian, maybe."

Merlin, stroked his grizzly cheeks. "Gees, Mister," went on the
prospective purchaser, "if you wanna save me an awful bawln' out jes'
try an' think. The old lady goes wile if everything don't run smooth."

But Merlin's musings on the subject of Silver Bones were as futile as
his obliging search through the shelves, and five minutes later a very
dejected charioteer wound his way back to his mistress. Through the
glass Merlin could see the visible symbols of a tremendous uproar
going on in the interior of the limousine. The chauffeur made wild,
appealing gestures of his innocence, evidently to no avail, for when
he turned around and climbed back into the driver's seat his
expression was not a little dejected.

Then the door of the limousine opened and gave forth a pale and
slender young man of about twenty, dressed in the attenuation of
fashion and carrying a wisp of a cane. He entered the shop, walked
past Merlin, and proceeded to take out a cigarette and light it.
Merlin approached him.

"Anything I can do for you, sir?"

"Old boy," said the youth coolly, "there are seveereal things; You can
first let me smoke my ciggy in here out of sight of that old lady in
the limousine, who happens to be my grandmother. Her knowledge as to
whether I smoke it or not before my majority happens to be a matter of
five thousand dollars to me. The second thing is that you should look
up your first edition of the 'Crime of Sylvester Bonnard' that you
advertised in last Sunday's _Times_. My grandmother there happens
to want to take it off your hands."

Detecatif story! Crime of somebody! Silver Bones! All was explained.
With a faint deprecatory chuckle, as if to say that he would have
enjoyed this had life put him in the habit of enjoying anything,
Merlin doddered away to the back of his shop where his treasures were
kept, to get this latest investment which he had picked up rather
cheaply at the sale of a big collection.

When he returned with it the young man was drawing on his cigarette
and blowing out quantities of smoke with immense satisfaction.

"My God!" he said, "She keeps me so close to her the entire day
running idiotic errands that this happens to be my first puff in six
hours. What's the world coming to, I ask you, when a feeble old lady
in the milk-toast era can dictate to a man as to his personal vices. I
happen to be unwilling to be so dictated to. Let's see the book."

Merlin passed it to him tenderly and the young man, after opening it
with a carelessness that gave a momentary jump to the book-dealer's
heart, ran through the pages with his thumb.

"No illustrations, eh?" he commented. "Well, old boy, what's it worth?
Speak up! We're willing to give you a fair price, though why I don't
know."

"One hundred dollars," said Merlin with a frown.

The young man gave a startled whistle.

"Whew! Come on. You're not dealing with somebody from the cornbelt. I
happen to be a city-bred man and my grandmother happens to be a
city-bred woman, though I'll admit it'd take a special tax
appropriation to keep her in repair. We'll give you twenty-five
dollars, and let me tell you that's liberal. We've got books in our
attic, up in our attic with my old play-things, that were written
before the old boy that wrote this was born."

Merlin stiffened, expressing a rigid and meticulous horror.

"Did your grandmother give you twenty-five dollars to buy this with?"

"She did not. She gave me fifty, but she expects change. I know that
old lady."

"You tell her," said Merlin with dignity, "that she has missed a very
great bargain."

"Give you forty," urged the young man. "Come on now--be reasonable and
don't try to hold us up----"

Merlin had wheeled around with the precious volume under his arm and
was about to return it to its special drawer in his office when there
was a sudden interruption. With unheard-of magnificence the front door
burst rather than swung open, and admitted in the dark interior a
regal apparition in black silk and fur which bore rapidly down upon
him. The cigarette leaped from the fingers of the urban young man and
he gave breath to an inadvertent "Damn!"--but it was upon Merlin that
the entrance seemed to have the most remarkable and incongruous
effect--so strong an effect that the greatest treasure of his shop
slipped from his hand and joined the cigarette on the floor. Before
him stood Caroline.

She was an old woman, an old woman remarkably preserved, unusually
handsome, unusually erect, but still an old woman. Her hair was a
soft, beautiful white, elaborately dressed and jewelled; her face,
faintly rouged à la grande dame, showed webs of wrinkles at the edges
of her eyes and two deeper lines in the form of stanchions connected
her nose with the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were dim, ill
natured, and querulous.

But it was Caroline without a doubt: Caroline's features though in
decay; Caroline's figure, if brittle and stiff in movement; Caroline's
manner, unmistakably compounded of a delightful insolence and an
enviable self assurance; and, most of all, Caroline's voice, broken
and shaky, yet with a ring in it that still could and did make
chauffeurs want to drive laundry wagons and cause cigarettes to fall
from the fingers of urban grandsons.

She stood and sniffed. Her eyes found the cigarette upon the floor.

"What's that?" she cried. The words were not a question--they were an
entire litany of suspicion, accusation, confirmation, and decision.
She tarried over them scarcely an instant. "Stand up!" she said to her
grandson, "stand up and blow that nicotine out of your lungs!"

The young man looked at her in trepidation.

"Blow!" she commanded.

He pursed his lips feebly and blew into the air.

"Blow!" she repeated, more peremptorily than before.

He blew again, helplessly, ridiculously.

"Do you realize," she went on briskly, "that you've forfeited five
thousand dollars in five minutes?"

Merlin momentarily expected the young man to fall pleading upon his
knees, but such is the nobility of human nature that he remained
standing--even blew again into the air, partly from nervousness,
partly, no doubt, with some vague hope of reingratiating himself.

"Young ass!" cried Caroline. "Once more, just once more and you leave
college and go to work."

This threat had such an overwhelming effect upon the young man that he
took on an even paler pallor than was natural to him. But Caroline was
not through.

"Do you think I don't know what you and your brothers, yes, and your
asinine father too, think of me? Well, I do. You think I'm senile. You
think I'm soft. I'm not!" She struck herself with her-fist as though
to prove that she was a mass of muscle and sinew. "And I'll have more
brains left when you've got me laid out in the drawing-room some sunny
day than you and the rest of them were born with."

"But Grandmother----"

"Be quiet. You, a thin little stick of a boy, who if it weren't for my
money might have risen to be a journeyman barber out in the Bronx--Let
me see your hands. Ugh! The hands of a barber--_you_ presume to
be smart with _me_, who once had three counts and a bona-fide
duke, not to mention half a dozen papal titles pursue me from the city
of Rome to the city of New York." She paused, took breath. "Stand up!
Blow'!"

The young man obediently blew. Simultaneously the door opened and an
excited gentleman of middle age who wore a coat and hat trimmed with
fur, and seemed, moreover, to be trimmed with the same sort of fur
himself on upper lip and chin, rushed into the store and up to
Caroline.

"Found you at last," he cried. "Been looking for you all over town.
Tried your house on the 'phone and your secretary told me he thought
you'd gone to a bookshop called the Moonlight--"

Caroline turned to him irritably.

"Do I employ you for your reminiscences?" she snapped. "Are you my
tutor or my broker?"

"Your broker," confessed the fur-trimmed man, taken somewhat aback. "I
beg your pardon. I came about that phonograph stock. I can sell for a
hundred and five."

"Then do it"

"Very well. I thought I'd better--"

"Go sell it. I'm talking to my grandson."

"Very well. I--"

"Good-by."

"Good-by, Madame." The fur-trimmed man made a slight bow and hurried
in some confusion from the shop.

"As for you," said Caroline, turning to her grandson, "you stay just
where you are and be quiet."

She turned to Merlin and included his entire length in a not
unfriendly survey. Then she smiled and he found himself smiling too.
In an instant they had both broken into a cracked but none the less
spontaneous chuckle. She seized his arm and hurried him to the other
side of the store. There they stopped, faced each other, and gave vent
to another long fit of senile glee.

"It's the only way," she gasped in a sort of triumphant malignity.
"The only thing that keeps old folks like me happy is the sense that
they can make other people step around. To be old and rich and have
poor descendants is almost as much fun as to be young and beautiful
and have ugly sisters."

"Oh, yes," chuckled Merlin. "I know. I envy you."

She nodded, blinking.

"The last time I was in here, forty years ago," she said, "you were a
young man very anxious to kick up your heels."

"I was," he confessed.

"My visit must have meant a good deal to you."

"You have all along," he exclaimed. "I thought--I used to think at
first that you were a real person--human, I mean."

She laughed.

"Many men have thought me inhuman."

"But now," continued Merlin excitedly, "I understand. Understanding is
allowed to us old people--after nothing much matters. I see now that
on a certain night when you danced upon a table-top you were nothing
but my romantic yearning for a beautiful and perverse woman."

Her old eyes were far away, her voice no more than the echo of a
forgotten dream.

"How I danced that night! I remember."

"You were making an attempt at me. Olive's arms were closing about me
and you warned me to be free and keep my measure of youth and
irresponsibility. But it seemed like an effect gotten up at the last
moment. It came too late."

"You are very old," she said inscrutably. "I did not realize."

"Also I have not forgotten what you did to me when I was thirty-five.
You shook me with that traffic tie-up. It was a magnificent effort.
The beauty and power you radiated! You became personified even to my
wife, and she feared you. For weeks I wanted to slip out of the house
at dark and forget the stuffiness of life with music and cocktails and
a girl to make me young. But then--I no longer knew how."

"And now you are so very old."

With a sort of awe she moved back and away from him.

"Yes, leave me!" he cried. "You are old also; the spirit withers with
the skin. Have you come here only to tell me something I had best
forget: that to be old and poor is perhaps more wretched than to be
old and rich; to remind me that _my_ son hurls my gray failure in
my face?"

"Give me my book," she commanded harshly. "Be quick, old man!"

Merlin looked at her once more and then patiently obeyed. He picked up
the book and handed it to her, shaking his head when she offered him a
bill.

"Why go through the farce of paying me? Once you made me wreck these
very premises."

"I did," she said in anger, "and I'm glad. Perhaps there had been
enough done to ruin _me_."

She gave him a glance, half disdain, half ill-concealed uneasiness,
and with a brisk word to her urban grandson moved toward the door.

Then she was gone--out of his shop--out of his life. The door clicked.
With a sigh he turned and walked brokenly back toward the glass
partition that enclosed the yellowed accounts of many years as well as
the mellowed, wrinkled Miss McCracken.

Merlin regarded her parched, cobwebbed face with an odd sort of pity.
She, at any rate, had had less from life than he. No rebellious,
romantic spirit popping out unbidden had, in its memorable moments,
given her life a zest and a glory.

Then Miss McGracken looked up and spoke to him:

"Still a spunky old piece, isn't she?"

Merlin started.

"Who?"

"Old Alicia Dare. Mrs. Thomas Allerdyce she is now, of course; has
been, these thirty years."

"What? I don't understand you." Merlin sat down suddenly in his swivel
chair; his eyes were wide.

"Why, surely, Mr. Grainger, you can't tell me that you've forgotten
her, when for ten years she was the most notorious character in New
York. Why, one time when she was the correspondent in the Throckmorton
divorce case she attracted so much attention on Fifth Avenue that
there was a traffic tie-up. Didn't you read about it in the papers."

"I never used to read the papers." His ancient brain was whirring.

"Well, you can't have forgotten the time she came in here and ruined
the business. Let me tell you I came near asking Mr. Moonlight Quill
for my salary, and clearing out."

"Do you mean, that--that you _saw_ her?"

"Saw. her! How could I help, it with the racket that went on. Heaven
knows Mr. Moonlight Quill didn't like it either but of course _he_
didn't say anything. He was daffy about her and she could twist him
around her little finger. The second he opposed one of her whims she'd
threaten to tell his wife on him. Served him right. The idea of that
man falling for a pretty adventuress! Of course he was never rich
enough for _her_ even though the shop paid well in those days."

"But when I saw her." stammered Merlin, "that is, when I
_thought_ saw her, she lived with her mother."

"Mother, trash!". said Miss McCracken indignantly. "She had a woman
there she called 'Aunty', who was no more related to her than I am.
Oh, she was a bad one--but clever. Right after the Throckmorton
divorce case she married Thomas Allerdyce, and made herself secure for
life."

"Who was she?" cried Merlin. "For God's sake what was she--a witch?"

"Why, she was Alicia Dare, the dancer, of course. In those days you
couldn't pick up a paper without finding her picture."

Merlin sat very quiet, his brain suddenly fatigued and stilled. He was
an old man now indeed, so old that it was impossible for him to dream
of ever having been young, so old that the glamour was gone out of the
world, passing not into the faces of children and into the persistent
comforts of warmth and life, but passing out of the range of sight and
feeling. He was never to smile again or to sit in a long reverie when
spring evenings wafted the cries of children in at his window until
gradually they became the friends of his boyhood out there, urging him
to come and play before the last dark came down. He was too old now
even for memories.

That night he sat at supper with his wife and son, who had used him
for their blind purposes. Olive said:

"Don't sit there like a death's-head. Say something."

"Let him sit quiet," growled Arthur. "If you encourage him he'll tell
us a story we've heard a hundred times before."

Merlin went up-stairs very quietly at nine o'clock. When he was in his
room and had closed the door tight he stood by it for a moment, his
thin limbs trembling. He knew now that he had always been a fool.

"O Russet Witch!"

But it was too late. He had angered Providence by resisting too many
temptations. There was nothing left but heaven, where he would meet
only those who, like him, had wasted earth.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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