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On a certain morning in February, Mrs. Hugh Breckenridge alighted in haste from her limousine in front of a stately apartment house in the best quarter of a great city. She hurried through the entrance hall to the lift and was taken up with smooth speed to the seventh story. In a minute more she was eagerly pressing the button at the door of a familiar suite of rooms into which she had not had occasion to enter for more than a year, for the very good reason that they had been closed and unoccupied in the absence of their tenant.
The returned tenant himself opened the door to her, a tall figure looming in the dusk of an unlighted corridor--a tall figure infinitely dear to Sue Breckenridge.
"O Don!" cried the visitor in an accusing tone. "How could you come back without letting us know?"
"I've been back only an hour," explained Donald Brown, submitting to and warmly returning his sister's embrace. "How in the world did you hear of it so soon? Did Brainard--"
She nodded. "Mrs. Brainard called me up at once, of course. She knew you couldn't be serious in trying to keep people from knowing you were here, least of all your sister!"
"I was intending to come to you before luncheon; I only meant to surprise you. As for the rest--I should be glad if they needn't know; at least until I'm ready to leave."
"To leave! Don! You're not going to persist in going back! It can't be true! You won't give up this apartment--tell me you won't!"
His sister's tone was anguished. Before he answered Brown led her into the library of the suite, the room in which he had been occupied when her ring came, and put her into a big arm-chair, taking from her her wrap and furs. Then he sat down upon the edge of a massive mahogany writing-table near by, crossing his long legs and folding his arms, while she mutely waited for him to speak.
"Sue," he said--and his face had in it a sort of reflection of the pain in hers--"you may be sure I haven't come to this decision without a deal of thought. But I've made it, and I'm going to stick to it because I believe it's the thing for me to do. I assure you that since I came into these rooms they have been beseeching me, as loudly as inanimate things can not to desert them. I'm going to find it the hardest task of my life to take leave of them."
"Don't take leave of them! Lock them up for another year, if you must persist in your experiment, but don't, don't burn your bridges behind you! Oh, how can you think of leaving your splendid church and going off to consign yourself to oblivion, living with poor people the rest of your days? You--you--Don!--I can't believe it of you!"
His face, in his effort at repression, grew stern. His folded arms became tense in the muscles.
"Don't make it harder for me than it is. I can't discuss it with you, because though I argued till I was dumb I could never make you see what I see. Accept my decision, Sue dear, and don't try my soul by pleading with me.... I have a lot to do. I should like your help. See here, would you care to have any of my things? Look about you. This is rather a good rug under your feet. Will you have it--and any others you fancy?"
She looked down at the heavy Eastern rug, exquisite in its softness and richness of colouring.
It was one of which, knowing its value, she had long envied her brother the possession. She put up her hand and brushed away the mist from her eyes.
"Aren't you going to take any comfortable things with you? Are you going to go on living on pine chairs and rag carpets--you, who were brought up on rugs like this?"
He nodded. "For the most part. I've been wondering if I might indulge myself in one big easy chair, just for old times. But I'm afraid it won't do."
"Oh, mercy, Don! Why not?"
"How should I explain its presence, opposite my red-cushioned rocker? Give it a good look, Sue, that chair, and tell me honestly if I can afford to introduce such an incongruous note into my plain bachelor house up there."
She surveyed the chair in question, a luxurious and costly type standing for the last word in masculine comfort and taste. It was one which had been given to Brown by Webb Atchison, and had long been a favourite.
"Oh, I don't know," she said hopelessly, shaking her head. "I can't decide for any monk what he shall take into his cell."
Brown flushed, a peculiar dull red creeping up under his dark skin. He smothered the retort on his lips, however, and when he did speak it was with entire control, though there was, nevertheless, an uncompromising quality in his inflection which for the moment silenced his sister as if he had laid his hand upon her mouth.
"Understand me, once for all, Sue--if you can. I am going into no monastery. To such a man as I naturally am, I am going out of what has been a sheltered life into one in the open. You think of me as retiring from the world. Instead of that, I am just getting into the fight. And to fight well--I must go stripped."
She shook her head again and walked over to the window, struggling with very real emotion. At once he was beside her, and his arm was about her shoulders. He spoke very gently now.
"Don't take it so hard, dear girl. I'm not going to be so far away that I can never come back. You will see me from time to time. I couldn't get on without my one sister--with father and mother gone, and the brothers at the other side of the world. Come, cheer up, and help me decide what disposal to make of my stuff. Will you take the most of it?"
She turned about, presently, dried her eyes determinedly, and surveyed the room. It was a beautiful room, the sombre hues of its book-lined walls relieved by the rich and mellow tones of its rugs and draperies, the distinguished furnishings of the writing-table, and the subdued gleam of a wonderful reading-lamp of wrought copper which had been given to Brown by Sue herself.
"If you will let me," she said, "I'll give up one room to your things and put all these into it. Aren't you even going to take your books?"
"I must--a couple of hundred, at least. I can't give up such old friends as these."
"A couple of hundred--out of a couple of thousand!"
"There are five thousand in this room," said Brown cheerfully. "But two hundred will give me a very good selection of favourites, and I can change them from time to time. I have sixty or seventy already with me.... Hello! Who can that be? Has Brainard been giving me away right and left?"
He answered the ring, and admitted Webb Atchison, rosy of cheek and rather lordly of appearance, as always. The bachelor came in, frowning even as he smiled, and bringing to Donald Brown a vivid suggestion of old days.
"Caught!" he cried, shaking hands. "Thought you could sneak in and out of town like a thief in the night, did you? It can't be done, old man."
He was in a hurry and could stay but ten minutes. Five of those he devoted to telling Brown what he thought of the news he had heard, by which he understood that St. Timothy's was to lose permanently the man whom it had expected soon to have back. Brown listened with head a little down-bent, arms folded again, lips set in lines of determination. He had been fully prepared for the onslaughts of his friends, but that fact hardly seemed to make it easier to meet them. When Atchison had delivered himself uninterrupted, Brown lifted his head with a smile.
"Through, Webb?" he asked.
"No, I'm not through, by a long shot, but it's all I have time for now, for I came on a different matter. Since I heard you were here I've been telephoning around, and I've got together a little dinner-party for to-night that you won't evade if you have a particle of real affection for me. I'm not going to be cheated out of it. It'll be a hastily arranged affair, but there may be something decent to eat and drink. Brainard tells me you're not going to linger in town an hour after your business is done, so I thought best to lose no time. You'll come, of course? The way you're looking just now I don't know but you're equal to refusing me even such a small favour as this one!"
Brown crossed the room, to lay his hands on Atchison's shoulders. His eyes were dark with suppressed feeling.
"My dear old friend," said he affectionately, "I wish you wouldn't take the thing this way. I'm not dealing blows at those I love; if I'm dealing them at anybody it's at myself. I can't possibly tell you what it means to me--this crisis. I can only ask you not to think hardly of me. As for the dinner, if it will please you to have me agree to it I will, only--I should a little rather have you stand me up against a wall and take a shot at me!"
"For a deserter?"
Atchison spoke out of his grief and anger, not from belief in the motive he imputed. When he saw Donald Brown turn white and clench the hands he dropped from his friend's shoulders, Atchison realized what he had done. He winced under the sting of the quick and imperious command which answered him:
"Take that back, Webb!"
"I do--and apologize," said the other man instantly, and tears smarted under his eyelids. "You know I didn't mean it, Don. But--hang it all!--I'm bitterly disappointed and I can't help showing it."
"Disappointed in me--or in my act?" Brown was still stern.
"In your act, of course. I'm bound to acknowledge that it must take a brave man to cut cables the way you're doing--a mighty brave man."
"I don't care about being considered brave, but I won't be called a coward."
"I thought," said Atchison, trying to smile, "there was something in your Bible about turning the other cheek."
"There is," said Brown steadily. "And I do it when I come to your dinner. But between now and then I'll knock you down if you insult the course I've laid out for myself."
The two men gazed at each other, the one the thorough man of the world with every sign of its prospering touch upon him, the other looking somehow more like a lean and hardened young soldier of the army than a student of theology. Both pairs of eyes softened. But it was Atchison's which gave way first.
"Confound you, Don--it's because of that splendidly human streak in you that we love you here. You've always seemed to have enough personal acquaintance with the Devil and his works to make you understand the rest of us, and refrain from being too hard on us."
At which Sue Breckenridge--who had been listening with tense-strung nerves to the interview taking place in her presence--laughed, with an hysterical little sob shaking her. Both men looked at her.
"Poor Sue," said Brown. "She doesn't like to have you quarrel with me, yet it's all she can do to keep from quarrelling with me herself! Between you, if you don't undermine my purpose, it will be only because I've been preparing my defenses for a good while and have strong patrols out at the weak points."
"I give you fair warning, I'll undermine it yet if I can," and Atchison gripped Brown's hand with fervor before he went away, charging Sue Breckenridge with the responsibility of bringing her brother to the dinner to be given that evening.
"Now, what"--said Brown, turning to his writing-table when Atchison had gone, and absently picking up a bronze paper-weight which lay there--"put it into his head to fire a dinner at me the moment he knew I was here?"
"We all have a suspicion," said Sue, watching him as she spoke, "that he and Helena are ready to announce their engagement. It may have popped into his head that with you here it was just the time to do it. Of course," she went on hurriedly, in answer to something she thought she saw leap into her brother's face, "we don't absolutely know that they're engaged. He's been devoted for a good while, and since he's never been much that sort with women it looks as if it meant something."
"It looks it on his part," said Brown, opening a drawer in the table and appearing to search therein. "Does it look it on hers?"
"Not markedly so. But Helena's getting on--she must be twenty-six or seven--and she always seems happy with him. Of course that's no evidence, for she has such a charmingly clever way with men you never can tell when she's bored--and certainly they can't. It's just that it seems such a splendidly fitting match we're confident there's ground for our expectations."
"I see. Altogether, that dinner promises well for sensations--of one sort or another. Meanwhile, shall we pitch into business?"
Together they went through Brown's apartment, which was a large one, and comprised everything which he had once considered necessary to the comfort of a bachelor establishment. As he looked over that portion of the place pertaining to the cooking and serving of food he smiled rather grimly at the contrast it inevitably brought to his mind. Standing before the well-filled shelves in the butler's pantry he eyed a certain cherished set of Sèvres china, thinking of the cheap blue-and-white ware which now filled all his needs, and recalling with a sense of amusement the days, not so long past, when he would have considered himself ill served had his breakfast appeared in such dishes.
"It's all in the way you look at it, Sue," he exclaimed, opening the doors of leaded glass and taking down a particularly choice example of the ceramic art in the shape of a large Satsuma plate. "Look at that, now! Why should a chop taste any better off that plate than off the one I ate from this morning at daybreak? It tastes no better--I vow it doesn't taste as good. I've a keener appetite now than last year, when Sing Lee, my Chinese cook, was cudgelling his Asiatic brains to tempt me."
"That's not the way I look at it," Sue answered mournfully. "To me it makes all the difference in the world how food is served, not to mention how it is cooked. Do you ever have anything but bacon and eggs at that dreadful place of yours?"
"Bless your heart, yes! I don't deny myself good food, child--get that out of your mind. Why, just night before last Jennings and I had an oyster roast, on the half-shell, over the coals in my fireplace. My word, but they were good! If Webb can give us anything better than that to-night he'll surprise me."
"Who is Jennings? A laundryman or a policeman?"
"Neither. Jennings is a clerk in the office of a great wholesale hardware house. He was down on his luck, a while back, but he's pulled out of his trouble. When his wife's called out of town, as she often is by the old people back home, he keeps me company. He's particularly fond of roasted oysters, is Jennings, since a certain night when I introduced them to his unaccustomed palate. It's great fun to see him devour them."
Sue shook her head again. She could seem to do little else these days, being in a perpetual state of wonder and regret over that which she could not understand--quite as her brother had said. He sent her away an hour before luncheon time, telling her that he would follow when he had attended to certain matters in which she could not help. Having put her into her car, he waved a cheery hand at her as she drove away, and returned to his apartment. He lingered a little at the lift to ask after the welfare of the young man who operated it, whom he had known in past days; but presently he was in his library again with the door locked behind him. And here for a brief space business was suspended.
Before the big leather chair he fell upon his knees, burying his head in his arms.
"Oh, good Father,'" said Brown, just above his breath, "only Thou canst help me through this thing. It's even harder than I thought it would be. I want the old life, I want the old love--my heart is weak within me at the thought of giving them up.... I know the temptation comes not from without but from within. It's my own weak self that is my enemy, not the lure of the life I'm giving up.... Give me strength--fighting strength.... Help me--'not to give in while I can stand and see.'"
Presently he rose to his feet. He was pale, but in his face showed the renewed strength of purpose he had asked for. He set about the task of packing the few things he meant to take with him, working with a certain unhurried efficiency which accomplished no small amount in that hour before luncheon. Then he descended to find his sister's car waiting for him, and was whirled away.
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