Several days passed before Lane felt himself equal to the momentous interview with Mel Iden. After his call upon Mel's father and mother he was overcome by one of his sick, weak spells, that happily had been infrequent of late. This one confined him to his room. He had about fought and won it out, when the old injury at the base of his spine reminded him that misfortunes did not come singly. Quite unexpectedly, as he bent over with less than his usual caution, the vertebra slipped out; and Lane found his body twisted like a letter S. And the old pain was no less terrible for its familiarity.
He got back to his bed and called his mother. She sent for Doctor Bronson. He came at once, and though solicitous and kind he lectured Lane for neglecting the osteopathic treatment he had advised. And he sent his chauffeur for an osteopath.
"Lane," said the little physician, peering severely down upon him, "I didn't think you'd last as long as this."
"I'm tough, Doctor--hard to kill," returned Lane, making a wry face. "But I couldn't stand this pain long."
"It'll be easier presently. We can fix that spine. Some good treatments to strengthen ligaments, and a brace to wear--we can fix that.... Lane, you've wonderful vitality."
"A doctor in France told me that."
"Except for your mental condition, you're in better shape now than when you came home." Doctor Bronson peered at Lane from under his shaggy brows, walked to the window, looked out, and returned, evidently deep in thought.
"Boy, what's on your mind?" he queried, suddenly.
"Oh, Lord! listen to him," sighed Lane. Then he laughed. "My dear Doctor, I have nothing on my mind--absolutely nothing.... This world is a beautiful place. Middleville is fine, clean, progressive. People are kind--thoughtful--good. What could I have on my mind?"
"You can't fool me. You think the opposite of what you say.... Lane, your heart is breaking."
"No, Doctor. It broke long ago."
"You believe so, but it didn't. You can't give up.... Lane, I want to tell you something. I'm a prohibitionist myself, and I respect the law. But there are rare cases where whiskey will effect a cure. I say that as a physician. And I am convinced now that your case is one where whiskey might give you a fighting chance."
"Doctor! What're you saying?" ejaculated Lane, wide-eyed with incredulity.
Doctor Bronson enlarged upon and emphasized his statement.
"I might live!" whispered Lane. "My God!... But that is ridiculous. I'm shot to pieces. I'm really tired of living. And I certainly wouldn't become a drunkard to save my life."
At this juncture the osteopath entered, putting an end to that intimate conversation. Doctor Bronson explained the case to his colleague. And fifteen minutes later Lane's body was again straight. Also he was wringing wet with cold sweat and quivering in every muscle.
"Gentlemen--your cure is--worse than--the disease," he panted.
Manifestly Doctor Branson's interest in Lane had advanced beyond the professional. His tone was one of friendship when he said, "Boy, it beats hell what you can stand. I don't know about you. Stop your worry now. Isn't there something you care for?"
"Yes," replied Lane.
"Think of that, or it, or her, then to the exclusion of all else. And give nature a chance."
"Doctor, I can't control my thoughts."
"A fellow like you can do anything," snapped Bronson. "There are such men, now and then. Human nature is strange and manifold. All great men do not have statues erected in their honor. Most of them are unknown, unsung.... Lane, you could do anything--do you hear me?--anything."
Lane felt surprise at the force and passion of the practical little physician. But he was not greatly impressed. And he was glad when the two men went away. He felt the insidious approach of one of his states of depression--the black mood--the hopeless despair--the hell on earth. This spell had not visited him often of late, and now manifestly meant to make up for that forbearance. Lane put forth his intelligence, his courage, his spirit--all in vain. The onslaught of gloom and anguish was irresistible. Then thought of Mel Iden sustained him--held back this madness for the moment.
Every hour he lived made her dearer, yet farther away. It was the unattainableness of her, the impossibility of a fruition of love that slowly and surely removed her. On the other hand, the image of her sweet face, of her form, of her beauty, of her movements--every recall of these physical things enhanced her charm, and his love. He had cherished a delusion that it was Mel Iden's spirit alone, the wonderful soul of her, that had stormed his heart and won it. But he found to his consternation that however he revered her soul, it was the woman also who now allured him. That moment of revelation to Lane was a catastrophe. Was there no peace on earth for him? What had he done to be so tortured? He had a secret he must hide from Mel Iden. He was human, he was alone, he needed love, but this seemed madness. And at the moment of full realization Doctor Bronson's strange words of possibility returned to haunt and flay him. He might live! A fierce thrill like a flame leaped from his heart, along his veins. And a shudder, cold as ice, followed it. Love would kill his resignation. Love would add to his despair. Mel Iden could never love him. He did not want her love. And yet, to live on and on, with such love as would swell and mount from his agony, with the barrier between them growing more terrible every day, was more than he cared to face. He would rather die.
And so, at length, Lane's black demon of despair overthrew even his thoughts of Mel, and fettered him there, in darkness and strife of soul. He was an atom under the grinding, monstrous wheels of his morbid mood.
Sometime, after endless moments or hours of lying there, with crushed breast, with locked thoughts hideous and forlorn, with slow burn of pang and beat of heart, Lane heard a heavy thump on the porch outside, on the hall inside, on the stairs. Thump--thump, slow and heavy! It roused him. It drove away the drowsy, thick and thunderous atmosphere of mind. It had a familiar sound. Blair's crutch!
Presently there was a knock on the door of his room and Blair entered. Blair, as always, bright of eye, smiling of lip, erect, proud, self-sufficient, inscrutable and sure. Lane's black demon stole away. Lane saw that Blair was whiter, thinner, frailer, a little farther on that road from which there could be no turning.
"Hello, old scout," greeted Blair, as he sat down on the bed beside Lane. "I need you more than any one--but it kills me to see you."
"Same here, Blair," replied Lane, comprehendingly.
"Gosh! we oughtn't be so finicky about each other's looks," exclaimed Blair, with a smile.
But neither Lane nor Blair made further reference to the subject.
Each from the other assimilated some force, from voice and look and presence, something wanting in their contact with others. These two had measured all emotions, spanned in little time the extremes of life, plumbed the depths, and now saw each other on the heights. In the presence of Blair, Lane felt an exaltation. The more Blair seemed to fade away from life, the more luminous and beautiful the light of his countenance. For Lane the crippled and dying Blair was a deed of valor done, a wrong expiated for the sake of others, a magnificent nobility in contrast to the baseness and greed and cowardice of the self-preservation that had doomed him. Lane had only to look at Blair to feel something elevating in himself, to know beyond all doubt that the goodness, the truth, the progress of man in nature, and of God in his soul, must grow on forever.
Mel Iden had been in her home four days when Lane first saw her there.
It was a day late in June when the rich, thick, amber light of afternoon seemed to float in the air. Warm summer lay on the land. The bees were humming in the rose vines over the porch. Mrs. Iden, who evidently heard Lane's step, appeared in the path, and nodding her gladness at sight of him, she pointed to the open door.
Lane halted on the threshold. The golden light of the day seemed to have entered the room and found Mel. It warmed the pallor of her skin and the whiteness of her dress. When he had seen her before she had worn something plain and dark. Could a white gown and the golden glow of June effect such transformation? She came slowly toward him and took his hand.
"Daren, I am home," was all she could say.
Long hours before Lane had braced himself for this ordeal. It was himself he had feared, not Mel. He played the part he had created for her imagination. Behind his composure, his grave, kind earnestness, hid the subdued and scorned and unwelcome love that had come to him. He held it down, surrounded, encompassed, clamped, so that he dared look into her eyes, listen to her voice, watch the sweet and tragic tremulousness of her lips.
"Yes, Mel, where you should be," replied Lane.
"It was you--your offer to marry me--that melted father's heart."
"Mel, all he needed was to be made think," returned Lane. "And that was how I made him do it."
"Oh, Daren, I thank you, for mother's sake, for mine--I can't tell you how much."
"Mel, please don't thank me," he answered. "You understand, and that's enough. Now say you'll marry me, Mel."
Mel did not answer, but in the look of her eyes, dark, humid, with mysterious depths below the veil, Lane saw the truth; he felt it in the clasp of her hands, he divined it in all that so subtly emanated from the womanliness of her. Mel had come to love him.
And all that he had endured seemed to rise and envelop heart and soul in a strange, cold stillness.
"Mel, will you marry me?" he repeated, almost dully.
Slowly Mel withdrew her hands. The query seemed to make her mistress of herself.
"No, Daren, I cannot," she replied, and turned away to look out of a window with unseeing eyes. "Let us talk of other things.... My father says he will move away--taking me and--and--all of us--as soon as he sells the home."
"No, Mel, if you'll forgive me, we'll not talk of something else," Lane informed her. "We can argue without quarreling. Come over here and sit down."
She came slowly, as if impelled, and she stood before him. To Lane it seemed as if she were both supplicating and inexorable.
"Do you remember the last time we sat together on this couch?" she asked.
"No, Mel, I don't."
"It was four years ago--and more. I was sixteen. You tried to kiss me and were angry because I wouldn't let you."
"Well, wasn't I rude!" he exclaimed, facetiously. Then he grew serious. "Mel, do you remember it was Helen's lying that came between you and me--as boy and girl friends?"
"I never knew. Helen Wrapp! What was it?"
"It's not worth recalling and would hurt you--now," he replied. "But it served to draw me Helen's way. We were engaged when she was seventeen.... Then came the war. And the other night she laughed in my face because I was a wreck.... Mel, it's beyond understanding how things work out. Helen has chosen the fleshpots of Egypt. You have chosen a lonelier and higher path.... And here I am in your little parlor asking you to marry me."
"No, no, no! Daren, don't, I beg of you--don't talk to me this way," she besought him.
"Mel, it's a difference of opinion that makes arguments, wars and other things," he said, with a cruelty in strange antithesis to the pity and tenderness he likewise felt. He could hurt her. He had power over her. What a pang shot through his heart! There would be an irresistible delight in playing on the emotions of this woman. He could no more help it than the shame that surged over him at consciousness of his littleness. He already loved her, she was all he had left to love, he would end in a day or a week or a month by worshipping her. Through her he was going to suffer. Peace would now never abide in his soul.
"Daren, you were never like this--as a boy," she said, in wondering distress.
"You're hard. You used to be so--so gentle and nice."
"Hard! I? Yes, Mel, perhaps I am--hard as war, hard as modern life, hard as my old friends, my little sister----" he broke off.
"Daren, do not mock me," she entreated. "I should not have said hard. But you're strange to me--a something terrible flashes from you. Yet it's only in glimpses.... Forgive me, Daren, I didn't mean hard."
Lane drew her down upon the couch so that she faced him, and he did not release her hand.
"Mel, I'm softer than a jelly-fish," he said. "I've no bone, no fiber, no stamina, no substance. I'm more unstable than water. I'm so soft I'm weak. I can't stand pain. I lie awake in the dead hours of night and I cry like a baby, like a fool. I weep for myself, for my mother, for Lorna, for you...."
"Hush!" She put a soft hand over his lips.
"Very well, I'll not be bitter," he went on, with mounting pulse, with thrill and rush of inexplicable feeling, as if at last had come the person who would not be deaf to his voice. "Mel, I'm still the boy, your schoolmate, who used to pull the bow off your braid.... I am that boy still in heart, with all the war upon my head, with the years between then and now. I'm young and old.... I've lived the whole gamut--the fresh call of war to youth, glorious, but God! as false as stairs of sand--the change of blood, hard, long, brutal, debasing labor of hands, of body, of mind to learn to kill--to survive and kill--and go on to kill.... I've seen the marching of thousands of soldiers--the long strange tramp, tramp, tramp, the beat, beat, beat, the roll of drums, the call of bugles, the boom of cannon in the dark, the lightnings of hell flaring across the midnight skies, the thunder and chaos and torture and death and pestilence and decay--the hell of war. It is not sublime. There is no glory. The sublimity is in man's acceptance of war, not for hate or gain, but love. Love of country, home, family--love of women--I fought for women--for Helen, whom I imagined my ideal, breaking her heart over me on the battlefield. Not that Helen failed me, but failed the ideal for which I fought!... My little sister Lorna! I fought for her, and I fought for a dream that existed only in my heart. Lorna--Alas!... I fought for other women, all women--and you, Mel Iden. And in you, in your sacrifice and your strength to endure, I find something healing to my sore heart. I find my ideal embodied in you. I find hope and faith for the future embodied in you. I find--"
"Oh Daren, you shame me utterly," she protested, freeing her hands in gesture of entreaty. "I am outcast."
"To a false and rotten society, yes--you are," he returned. "But Mel, that society is a mass of maggots. It is such women as you, such men as Blair, who carry the spirit onward.... So much for that. I have spoken to try to show you where I hold you. I do not call your--your trouble a blunder, or downfall, or dishonor. I call it a misfortune because--because--"
"Because there was not love," she supplemented, as he halted at fault. "Yes, that is where I wronged myself, my soul. I obeyed nature and nature is strong, raw, inevitable. She seeks only her end, which is concerned with the species. For nature the individual perishes. Nature cannot be God. For God has created a soul in woman. And through the ages woman has advanced to hold her womanhood sacred. But ever the primitive lurks in the blood, and the primitive is nature. Soul and nature are not compatible. A woman's soul sanctions only love. That is the only progress there ever was in life. Nature and war made me traitor to my soul."
"Yes, yes, Mel, it's true--and cruel, what you say," returned Lane. "All the more reason why you should do what I ask. I am home after the war. All that was vain is vain. I forget it when I can. I have--not a great while left. There are a few things even I can do before that time. One of them--the biggest to me--concerns you. You are in trouble. You have a boy who can be spared much unhappiness in life. If you were married--if the boy had my name--how different the future! Perhaps there can be some measure of happiness for you. For him there is every hope. You will leave Middleville. You will go far away somewhere. You are young. You have a good education. You can teach school, or help your parents while the boy is growing up. Time is kind. You will forget.... Marry me, Mel, for his sake."
She had both hands pressed to her breast as if to stay an uncontrollable feeling. Her eyes, dilated and wide, expressed a blending of emotions.
"No, no, no!" she cried.
Lane went on just the same with other words, in other vein, reiterating the same importunity. It was a tragic game, in which he divined he must lose. But the playing of it had inexplicably bitter-sweet pain. He knew now that Mel loved him. No greater proof needed he than the perception of her reaction to one word on his lips--wife. She quivered to that like a tautly strung lyre touched by a skilful hand. It fascinated her. But the temptation to accept his offer for the sake of her boy's future was counteracted by the very strength of her feeling for Lane. She would not marry him, because she loved him.
Lane read this truth, and it wrung a deeper reverence from him. And he saw, too, the one way in which he could break her spirit, make her surrender, if he could stoop to it. If he could take her in his arms, and hold her tight, and kiss her dumb and blind, and make her understand his own love for her, his need of her, she would accede with the wondrous generosity of a woman's heart. But he could not do it.
In the end, out of sheer pity that overcame the strange delight he had in torturing her, he desisted in his appeals and demands and subtle arguments. The long strain left him spent. And with the sudden let-down of his energy, the surrender to her stronger will, he fell prey at once to the sadness that more and more was encompassing him. He felt an old and broken man.
To this sudden change in Lane Mel responded with mute anxiety and fear. The alteration of his spirit stunned her. As he bade her good-bye she clung to him.
"Daren, forgive me," she implored. "You don't understand.... Oh, it's hard."
"Never mind, Mel. I guess it was just one of my dreams. Don't cry.... Good-bye."
"But you'll come again?" she entreated, almost wildly.
Lane shook his head. He did not trust himself to look at her then.
"Daren, you can't mean that," she cried. "It's too late for me. I--I--Oh! You.... To uplift me--then to cast me down! Daren, come back."
In his heart he did not deny that cry of hers. He knew he would come back, knew it with stinging shame, but he could not tell her. It had all turned out so differently from what he had dreamed. If he had not loved her he would not have felt defeat. To have made her his wife would have been to protect her, to possess her even after he was dead.
At the last she let him go. He felt her watching him, and he carried her lingering clasp away with him, to burn and to thrill and to haunt, and yet to comfort him in lonely hours.
But the next day the old spirit resurged anew, and unreconciled to defeat, he turned to what was left him. Foolish and futile hopes! To bank on the single grain of good in his wayward sister's heart! To trust the might of his spirit--to beat down the influence of an intolerant and depraved young millionaire--verily he was mad. Yet he believed. And as a final resort he held death in his hand. Richard Swann swaggered by Lane that night in the billiard room of the Bradford Inn and stared sneeringly at him.
"I've got a date," he gayly said to his sycophantic friends, in a tone that would reach Lane's ears.
The summer night came when Lane drove a hired car out the river road, keeping ever in sight a red light in front of him. He broke the law and endangered his life by traveling with darkened lamps.
There was a crescent moon, clear and exquisitely delicate in the darkening blue sky. The gleaming river shone winding away under the dusky wooded hills. The white road stretched ahead, dimming in the distance. A night for romance and love--for a maiden at a stile and a lover who hung rapt and humble upon her whispers! But that red eye before him held no romance. It leered as the luxurious sedan swayed from side to side, a diabolical thing with speed.
Lane was driving out the state highway, mile after mile. He calculated that in less than ten minutes Swann had taken a girl from a bustling corner of Middleville out into the open country. In pleasant weather, when the roads were good, cars like Swann's swerved off into the bypaths, into the edge of woods. In bad weather they parked along the highway, darkened their lights and pulled their blinds. For this, great factories turned out automobiles. And there might have pealed out to a nation, and to God, the dolorous cry of a hundred thousand ruined girls! But who would hear? And on the lips of girls of the present there was only the wild cry for excitement, for the nameless and unknown! There was a girl in Swann's car and Lane believed it was his sister. Night after night he had watched. Once he had actually seen Lorna ride off with Swann. And to-night from a vantage point under the maples, when he had a car ready to follow, he had made sure he had seen them again.
The red eye squared off at right angles to the highway, and disappeared. Lane came to a byroad, a lane lined with trees. He stopped his car and got out. It did not appear that he would have to walk far. And he was right, for presently a black object loomed against the gray obscurity. It was an automobile, without lights, in the shadow of trees.
Lane halted. He carried a flash-light in his left hand, his gun in his right. For a moment he deliberated. This being abroad in the dark on an errand fraught with peril for some one had a familiar and deadly tang. He was at home in this atmosphere. Hell itself had yawned at his feet many and many a time. He was a different man here. He deliberated because it was wise to forestall events. He did not want to kill Swann then, unless in self-defense. He waited until that peculiarly quick and tight and cold settling of his nerves told of brain control over heart. Yet he was conscious of subdued hate, of a righteous and terrible wrath held in abeyance for the sake of his sister's name. And he regretted that he had imperiously demanded of himself this assurance of Lorna's wantonness.
Then he stole forward, closer and closer. He heard a low voice of dalliance, a titter, high-pitched and sweet--sweet and wild. That was not Lorna's laugh. The car was not Swann's.
Lane swerved to the left, and in the gloom of trees, passed by noiselessly. Soon he encountered another car--an open car with shields up--as silent as if empty. But the very silence of it was potent of life. It cried out to the night and to Lane. But it was not the car he had followed.
Again he slipped by, stealthily, yet scornful of his caution. Who cared? He might have shouted his mission to the heavens. Lane passed on. All he caught from the second car was a faint fragrance of smoke, wafted on the gentle summer breeze.
Another black object loomed up--a larger car--the sedan Lane recognized. He did not bolt or hurry. His footsteps made no sound. Crouching a little he slipped round the car to one side. At the instant he reached for the handle of the door, a pang shook him. Alas, that he should be compelled to spy on Lorna! His little sister! He saw her as a curly-headed child, adoring him. Perhaps it might not be Lorna after all. But it was for her sake that he was doing this. The softer moment passed and the soldier intervened.
With one swift turn and jerk he opened the door--then flashed his light. A scream rent the air. In the glaring circle of light Lane saw red hair--green eyes transfixed in fear--white shoulders--white arms--white ringed hands suddenly flung upward. Helen! The blood left his heart in a rush. Swann blinked in the light, bewildered and startled.
"Swann, you'll have to excuse me," said Lane, coolly. "I thought you had my sister with you. I've spotted her twice with you in this car.... It may not interest you or your--your guest, but I'll add that you're damned lucky not to have Lorna here to-night."
Then he snapped off his flash-light, and slamming the car door, he wheeled away.