Toward the end of June, Lane's long vigil of watchfulness from the vantage-point at Colonel Pepper's apartment resulted in a confirmation of his worst fears.
One afternoon and evening of a warm, close day in early summer he lay and crouched on the attic floor above the club-rooms from three o'clock until one the next morning. From time to time he had changed his position to rest. But at the expiration of that protracted period of spying he was so exhausted from the physical strain and mental shock that he was unable to go home. All the rest of the night he lay upon Colonel Pepper's couch, wide awake, consumed by pain and distress. About daylight he fell into a sleep, fitful and full of nightmares, to be awakened around nine o'clock by Pepper. The old gambler evinced considerable alarm until Lane explained how he happened to be there; and then his feeling changed to solicitude.
"Lane, you look awful," he said.
"If I look the way I feel it's no wonder you're shocked," returned Lane.
"Ahuh! What'd you see?" queried the other, curiously.
"Why, you numskull, while you were peepin' all that time."
Lane sombrely shook his head. "I couldn't tell--what I saw. I want to forget.... Maybe in twenty-four hours I'll believe it was a nightmare."
"Humph! Well, I'm here to tell you what I've seen wasn't any nightmare," returned Pepper, with his shrewd gaze on Lane. "But we needn't discuss that. If it made an old bum like me sick what might not it do to a sensitive high-minded chap like you.... The question is are you going to bust up that club."
"I am," declared Lane, grimly.
"Good! But how--when? What's the sense in lettin' them carry on any longer?"
"I had to fight myself last night to keep from breaking in on them.... But I want to catch this fellow Swann with my sister. She wasn't there."
"Lane, don't wait for that," returned Pepper, nervously. "You might never catch him.... And if you did...."
His little plump well-cared-for hand shook as he extended it.
"I don't know what I'll do.... I don't know," said Lane, darkly, more to himself.
"Lane, this--this worry will knock you out."
"No matter. All I ask is to stand up--long enough--to do what I want to do."
"Go home and get some breakfast--and take care of yourself," replied Pepper, gruffly. "Damn me if I'm not sorry I gave Swann's secret away."
"Oh no, you're not," said Lane, quickly. "But I'd have found it out by this time."
Pepper paced up and down the faded carpet, his hands behind his back, a plodding, burdened figure.
"Have you any--doubts left?" he asked, suddenly.
"Doubts!" echoed Lane, vaguely.
"Yes--doubts. You're like most of these mothers and fathers.... You couldn't believe. You made excuses for the smoke--saying there was no fire."
"No more doubts, alas!... My God! I saw," burst out Lane.
"All right. Buck up now. It's something to be sure.... You've overdone your strength. You look...."
"Pepper, do me a favor," interposed Lane, as he made for the door. "Get me an axe and leave it here in your rooms. In case I want to break in on those fellows some time--quick--I'll have it ready."
"Sure, I'll get you anything. And I want to be around when you butt in on them."
"That's up to you. Good-bye now. I'll run in to-morrow if I'm up to it."
Lane went home, his mind in a tumult. His mother had just discovered that he had not slept in his bed, and was greatly relieved to see him. Breakfast was waiting, and after partaking of it Lane felt somewhat better. His mother appeared more than usually sombre. Worry was killing her.
"Lorna did not sleep at home last night," she said, presently, as if reluctantly forced to impart this information.
"Where was she?" he queried, blankly.
"She said she would stay with a friend."
"Some girl. Oh, it's all right I suppose. She's stayed away before with girl friends.... But what worried me...."
"Well," queried Lane, as she paused.
"Lorna was angry again last night. And she told me if you didn't stop your nagging she'd go away from home and stay. Said she could afford to pay her board."
"She told me that, too," replied Lane, slowly. "And--I'm afraid she meant it."
"Leave her alone, Daren."
"Poor mother! I'm afraid I'm a--a worry to you as well as Lorna," he said, gently, with a hand going to her worn cheek. She said nothing, although her glance rested upon him with sad affection.
Lane clambered wearily up to his little room. It had always been a refuge. He leaned a moment against the wall, and felt in his extremity like an animal in a trap. A thousand pricking, rushing sensations seemed to be on the way to his head. That confusion, that sensation as if his blood vessels would burst, yielded to his will. He sat down on his bed. Only the physical pains and weariness, and the heartsickness abided with him. These had been nothing to daunt his spirit. But to-day was different. The dark, vivid, terrible picture in his mind unrolled like a page. Yesterday was different. To-day he seemed a changed man, confronted by imperious demands. Time was driving onward fast.
As if impelled by a dark and sinister force, he slowly leaned down to pull his bag from under the bed. He opened it, and drew out his Colt's automatic gun. Though the June day was warm this big worn metal weapon had a cold touch. He did not feel that he wanted to handle it, but he did. It seemed heavy, a thing of subtle, latent energy, with singular fascination for him. It brought up a dark flowing tide of memory. Lane shut his eyes, and saw the tide flow by with its conflict and horror. The feel of his gun, and the recall of what it had meant to him in terrible hours, drove away a wavering of will, and a still voice that tried to pierce his consciousness. It fixed his sinister intention. He threw the gun on the bed, and rising began to pace the floor.
"If I told what I saw--no jury on earth would convict me," he soliloquized. "But I'll kill him--and keep my mouth shut."
Plan after plan he had pondered in mind--and talked over with Blair--something to thwart Richard Swann--to give Margaret the chance for happiness and love her heart craved--to put out of Lorna's way the evil influence that had threatened her. Now the solution came to him. Sooner or later he would catch Swann with his sister in an automobile, or at the club rooms, or at some other questionable place. He knew Lorna was meeting Swann. He had tried to find them, all to no avail. What he might have done heretofore was no longer significant; he knew what he meant to do now.
But all at once Lane was confronted with remembrance of another thing he had resolved upon--equally as strong as his determination to save Lorna--and it was his intention to persuade Mel Iden to marry him.
He loved his sister, but not as he loved Mel Iden. Whatever had happened to Lorna or might happen, she would be equal to it. She had the boldness, the cool, calculating selfishness of the general run of modern girls. Her reactions were vastly different front Mel Iden's. Lane had lost hope of saving Lorna's soul. He meant only to remove a baneful power from her path, so that she might lean to the boy who wanted to marry her. When in his sinister intent he divined the passionate hate of the soldier for the slacker he refused to listen to his conscience. The way out in Lorna's case he had discovered. But what relation had this new factor of his dilemma to Mel Iden? He could never marry her after he had killed Swann.
Lane went to bed, and when he rested his spent body, he pondered over every phase of the case. Reason and intelligence had their say. He knew he had become morbid, sick, rancorous, base, obsessed with this iniquity and his passion to stamp on it, as if it were a venomous serpent. He would have liked to do some magnificent and awful deed, that would show this little, narrow, sordid world at home the truth, and burn forever on their memories the spirit of a soldier. He had made a sacrifice that few understood. He had no reward except a consciousness that grew more luminous and glorious in its lonely light as time went on. He had endured the uttermost agonies of hell, a thousand times worse than death, and he had come home with love, with his faith still true. To what had he returned?
No need for reason or intelligence to knock at the gates of his passion! The war had left havoc. The physical, the sensual, the violent, the simian--these instincts, engendering the Day of the Beast, had come to dominate the people he had fought for. Why not go out and deliberately kill a man, a libertine, a slacker? He would still be acting on the same principle that imbued him during the war.
His thoughts drifted to Mel Iden. Strange how he loved her! Why? Because she was a lonely soul like himself--because she was true to her womanhood--because she had fallen for the same principle for which he had sacrificed all--because she had been abandoned by family and friends--because she had become beautiful, strange, mystic, tragic. Because despite the unnamed child, the scarlet letter upon her breast, she seemed to him infinitely purer than the girl who had jilted him.
Lane now surrendered to the enchantment of emotion embodied in the very name of Mel Iden. He had long resisted a sweet, melancholy current. He had driven Mel from his mind by bitter reflection on the conduct of the people who had ostracized her. Thought of her now, of what he meant to do, of the mounting love he had so strangely come to feel for her, was his only source of happiness. She would never know his secret love; he could never tell her that. But it was something to hold to his heart, besides that unquenchable faith in himself, in some unseen genius for far-off good.
The next day Lane, having ascertained where Joshua Iden was employed, betook himself that way just at the noon hour. Iden, like so many other Middleville citizens, gained a livelihood by working for the rich Swann. In his best days he had been a master mechanic of the railroad shops; at sixty he was foreman of one of the steel mills.
As it chanced, Iden had finished his noonday meal and was resting in the shade, apart from other laborers there. Lane remembered him, in spite of the fact that the three years had aged and bowed him, and lined his face.
"Mr. Iden, do you remember me?" asked Lane. He caught the slight averting of Iden's eyes from his uniform, and divined how the father of Mel Iden hated soldiers. But nothing could daunt Lane.
"Yes, Lane, I remember you," returned Iden. He returned Lane's hand-clasp, but not cordially.
Lane had mapped out in his mind this little interview. Taking off his hat, he carefully lowered himself until his back was propped against the tree, and looked frankly at Iden.
"It's warm. And I tire so easily. The damned Huns cut me to pieces.... Not much like I was when I used to call on Mel!"
Iden lowered his shadowed face. After a moment he said: "No, you're changed, Lane.... I heard you were gassed, too."
"Oh, everything came my way, Mr. Iden.... And the finish isn't far off."
Iden shifted his legs uneasily, then sat more erect, and for the first time really looked at Lane. It was the glance of a man who had strong aversion to the class Lane represented, but who was fair-minded and just, and not without sympathy.
"That's too bad, Lane. You're a young man.... The war hit us all, I guess," he said, and at the last, sighed heavily.
"It's been a long pull--Blair Maynard and I were the first to enlist, and we left Middleville almost immediately," went on Lane.
He desired to plant in Iden's mind the fact that he had left Middleville long before the wild era of soldier-and-girl attraction which had created such havoc. Acutely sensitive as Lane was, he could not be sure of an alteration in Iden's aloofness, yet there was some slight change. Then he talked frankly about specific phases of the war. Finally, when he saw that he had won interest and sympathy from Iden he abruptly launched his purpose.
"Mr. Iden, I came to ask if you will give your consent to my marrying Mel."
The older man shrank back as if he had been struck. He stared. His lower jaw dropped. A dark flush reddened his cheek.
"What!... Lane, you must be drunk," he ejaculated, thickly.
"No. I never was more earnest in my life. I want to marry Mel Iden."
"Why?" rasped out the father, hoarsely.
"I understand Mel," replied Lane, and swiftly he told his convictions as to the meaning and cause of her sacrifice. "Mel is good. She never was bad. These rotten people who see dishonor and disgrace in her have no minds, no hearts. Mel is far above these painted, bare-kneed girls who scorn her.... And I want to show them what I think of her. I want to give her boy a name--so he'll have a chance in the world. I'll not live long. This is just a little thing I can do to make it easier for Mel."
"Lane, you can't be the father of her child," burst out Iden.
"No. I wish I were. I was never anything to Mel but a friend. She was only a girl--seventeen when I left home."
"So help me God!" muttered Iden, and he covered his face with his hands.
"Say yes, Mr. Iden, and I'll go to Mel this afternoon."
"No, let me think.... Lane, if you're not drunk, you're crazy."
"Not at all. Why, Mr. Iden, I'm perfectly rational. Why, I'd glory in making that splendid girl a little happier, if it's possible."
"I drove my--my girl from her mother--her home," said Iden, slowly.
"Yes, and it was a hard, cruel act," replied Lane, sharply. "You were wrong. You--"
The mill whistle cut short Lane's further speech. When its shrill clarion ended, Iden got up, and shook himself as if to reestablish himself in the present.
"Lane, you come to my house to-night," he said. "I've got to go back to work.... But I'll think--and we can talk it over. I still live where you used to come as a boy.... How strange life is!... Good day, Lane."
Lane felt more than satisfied with the result of that interview. Joshua Iden would go home and tell Mel's mother, and that would surely make the victory easier. She would be touched in her mother's heart; she would understand Mel now, and divine Lane's mission; and she would plead with her husband to consent, and to bring Mel back home. Lane was counting on that. He must never even hint such a hope, but nevertheless he had it, he believed in it. Joshua Iden would have the scales torn from his eyes. He would never have it said that a dying soldier, who owed neither him nor his daughter anything, had shown more charity than he.
Therefore, Lane went early to the Iden homestead, a picturesque cottage across the river from Riverside Park. The only change Lane noted was a larger growth of trees and a fuller foliage. It was warm twilight. The frogs had begun to trill, sweet and melodious sound to Lane, striking melancholy chords of memory. Joshua Iden was walking on his lawn, his coat off, his gray head uncovered. Mrs. Iden sat on the low-roofed porch. Lane expected to see a sad change in her, something the same as he had found in his own mother. But he was hardly prepared for the frail, white-haired woman unlike the image he carried in his mind.
"Daren Lane! You should have come to see me long ago," was her greeting, and in her voice, so like Mel's, Lane recognized her. Some fitting reply came to him, and presently the moment seemed easier for all. She asked about his mother and Lorna, and then about Blair Maynard. But she did not speak of his own health or condition. And presently Lane thought it best to come to the issue at hand.
"Mr. Iden, have you made up your mind to--to give me what I want?"
"Yes, I have, Lane," replied Iden, simply. "You've made me see what Mel's mother always believed, though she couldn't make it clear to me.... I have much to forgive that girl. Yet, if you, who owe her nothing--who have wasted your life in vain sacrifice--if you can ask her to be your wife, I can ask her to come back home."
That was a splendid, all-satisfying moment for Lane. By his own grief he measured his reward. What had counted with Joshua Iden had been his faith in Mel's innate goodness. Then Lane turned to the mother. In the dusk he could see the working of her sad face.
"God bless you, my boy!" she said. "You feel with a woman's heart. I thank you.... Joshua has already sent word for Mel to come home. She will be back to-morrow.... You must come here to see her. But, Daren, she will never marry you."
"She will," replied Lane.
"You do not know Mel. Even if you had only a day to live she would not let you wrong yourself."
"But when she learns how much it means to me? The army ruined Mel, as it ruined hundreds of thousands of other girls. She will let one soldier make it up to her. She will let me go to my death with less bitterness."
"Oh, my poor boy, I don't know--I can't tell," she replied, brokenly. "By God's goodness you have brought about one miracle. Who knows? You might change Mel. For you have brought something great back from the war."
"Mrs. Iden, I will persuade her to marry me," said Lane. "And then, Mr. Iden, we must see what is best for her and the boy--in the future."
"Aye, son. One lesson learned makes other lessons easy. I will take Mel and her mother far away from Middleville--where no one ever heard of us."
"Good! You can all touch happiness again.... And now, if you and Mrs. Iden will excuse me--I will go."
Lane bade the couple good night, and slowly, as might have a lame man, he made his way through the gloaming, out to the road, and down to the bridge, where as always he lingered to catch the mystic whispers of the river waters, meant only for his ear. Stronger to-night! He was closer to that nameless thing. The shadows of dusk, the dark murmuring river, held an account with him, sometime to be paid. How blessed to fall, to float down to that merciful oblivion.