Lane left his room and went into the shady woods, where he thought the July heat would be less unendurable, where the fever in his blood might abate. But though it was cool and pleasant there he experienced no relief. Wherever he went he carried the burden of his pangs. And his grim giant of unrest trod in his shadow.
He could not stay long in the woods. He betook himself to the hills and meadows. Action was beneficial for him, though he soon exhausted himself. He would have liked to fight out his battle that day. Should he go on spending his days and nights in a slowly increasing torment? The longer he fought the less chance he had of victory. Victory! There could be none. What victory could be won over a strange ineradicable susceptibility to the sweetness, charm, mystery of a woman? He plodded the fragrant fields with bent head, in despair. Loneliness hurt him as much as anything. And a new pang, the fiercest and most insupportable, had been added to his miseries. Jealousy! Thought of the father of Mel Iden's child haunted him, flayed him, made him feel himself ignoble and base. There was no help for that. And this fiend of jealousy added fuel to his love. Only long passionate iteration of his assurance of principle and generosity subdued that frenzy and at length gave him composure. Perhaps this had some semblance to victory.
Lane returned to town weaker in one way than when he had left, yet stronger in another. Upon the outskirts of Middleville he crossed the river road and sat down upon a stone wall. The afternoon was far spent and the sun blazing red. Lane wiped his moist face and fanned himself with his hat. Behind him the shade of a wooded garden or park looked inviting. Back in the foliage he espied the vine-covered roof of an old summer house.
A fresh young voice burst upon his meditations. "Hello, Daren Lane."
Lane turned in surprise to behold a girl in white, standing in the shade of trees beyond the wall. Somewhere he had seen that beautiful golden head, the dark blue, almost purple eyes.
"Good afternoon. You startled me," said Lane.
"I called you twice."
"Indeed? I beg pardon. I didn't hear."
"Don't you remember me?" Her tone was one of pique and doubt.
Then he remembered her. "Oh, of course. Bessy Bell! You must forgive me. I've been ill and upset lately. These bad spells of mine magnify time. It seems long since the Junior Prom."
"Oh, you're ill," she returned, compassionately. "You do look pale and--won't you come in? It's dusty and hot there. Come. I'll take you where it's nice and cool."
"Thank you. I'll be glad to."
She led him to a green, fragrant nook, where a bench with cushions stood half-hidden under heavy foliage. Lane caught a glimpse of a winding flagged path, and in the distance a cottage among the trees.
"Bessy, do you live here?" he asked. "It's pretty."
"Yes, this is my home. It's too damn far from town, I'll say. I'm buried alive," she replied, passionately.
The bald speech struck Lane forcibly. All at once he remembered Bessy Bell and his former interest. She was a type of the heretofore inexplicable modern girl. Lane looked at her, seeing her suddenly with a clearer vision. Bessy Bell had a physical perfection, a loveliness that needed neither spirit nor animation. But life had given this girl so much more than beauty. A softness of light seemed to shine round her golden head; smiles played in secret behind her red lips ready to break forth, and there was a haunting hint of a dimple in her round cheek; on her lay the sweetness of youth subtly dawning into womanhood; the flashing eyes were keen with intellect, with fire, full of promise and mystic charm; and her beautiful, supple body, so plainly visible, seemed quivering with sheer, restless joy of movement and feeling. A trace of artificial color on her face and the indelicacy of her dress but slightly counteracted Lane's first impression.
"You promised to call me up and make a date," she said, and sat down close to him.
"Yes. I meant it too. But Bessy, I was ill, and then I forgot. You didn't miss much."
"Hot dog! Hear the man. Daren, I'd throw the whole bunch down to be with you," she exclaimed.
At the end of that speech she paled slightly and her breath came quickly. She looked bold, provocative, expectant, yet sincere. Child or woman, she had to be taken seriously. Here indeed was the mystery that had baffled Lane. He realized his opportunity, like a flash all his former thought and conjecture about this girl returned to him.
"You would. Well, I'm highly flattered. Why, may I ask?"
"Because I've fallen for you," she replied, leaning close to him. "That's the main reason, I guess.... But another is, I want you to tell me all about yourself--in the war, you know."
"I'd be glad to--if we get to be real friends," he said, thoughtfully. "I don't understand you."
"And I'll say I don't just get you," she retorted. "What do you want? Have you forgotten the silver platter?"
She turned away with a restless quivering. She had shown no shyness. She was bold, intense, absolutely without fear; and however stimulating or attractive the situation evidently was, it was neither new nor novel to her. Some strange leaven worked deep in her. Lane could put no other interpretation on her words and actions than that she expected him to kiss her.
"Bessy Bell, look at me," said Lane, earnestly. "You've said a mouthful, as the slang word goes. I'm sort of surprised, you remember. Bessy, you're not a girl whose head is full of excelsior. You've got brains. You can think.... Now, if you really like me--and I believe you--try to understand this. I've been away so long. All is changed. I don't know how to take girls. I'm ill--and unhappy. But if I could be your friend and could help you a little--please you--why it'd be good for me."
"Daren, they tell me you're going to die," she returned, breathlessly. Her glance was brooding, dark, pregnant with purple fire.
"Bessy, don't believe all you hear. I'm not--not so far gone yet."
"They say you're game, too."
"I hope so, Bessy."
"Oh, you make me think. You must believe me a pill. I wanted you to--to fall for me hard.... That bunch of sapheads have spoiled me, I'll say. Daren, I'm sick of them. All they want to do is mush. I like tennis, riding, golf. I want to do things. But it's too hot, or this, or that. Yet they'll break their necks to carry a girl off to some roadhouse, and dance--dance till you're melted. Then they stop along the river to go bathing. I've been twice. You see, I have to sneak away, or lie to mother and say I've gone to Gail's or somewhere."
"Bathing, at night?" queried Lane, curiously.
"Sure thing. It's spiffy, in the dark."
"Of course you took your bathing suits?"
"Hot dog! That would be telling."
Lane dropped his head and studied the dust at his feet. His heart beat thick and heavy. Through this girl the truth was going to be revealed to him. It seemed on the moment that he could not look into her eyes. She scattered his wits. He tried to erase from his mind every impression of her, so that he might begin anew to understand her. And the very first, succeeding this erasure, was a singular idea that she was the opposite of romantic.
"Bessy, can you understand that it is hard for a soldier to talk of what has happened to him?"
"I'll say I can," she replied.
"You're sorry for me?" he went on, gently.
"Sorry!... Give me a chance to prove what I am, Daren Lane."
"Very well, then. I will. We'll make a fifty-fifty bargain. Do you regard a promise sacred?"
"I think I do. Some of the girls quarrel with me because I get sore, and swear they're not square, as I try to be. I hate a liar and a quitter."
"Come then--shake hands on our bargain."
She seemed thrilled, excited. The clasp of her little hand showed force of character. She looked wonderingly up at him. Her appeal then was one of exquisite youth and beauty. Something of the baffling suggestion of an amorous expectation and response left her. This child would give what she received.
"First, then, it's for me to know a lot about you," went on Lane. "Will you tell me?"
"Sure. I'd trust you with anything," she replied, impulsively.
"How long have you been going with boys?"
"Oh, for two years, I guess. I had a passionate love affair when I was thirteen," she replied, with the nonchalance and sophistication of experience.
It was impossible for Lane to take this latter remark for anything but the glib boldness of an erotic child. But he was not making any assurances to himself that he was right. Bessy Bell was fifteen years old, according to time. But she had the physical development of eighteen, and a mental range beyond his ken. The lawlessness unleashed by the war seemed embodied in this girl.
"With an older boy?" queried Lane.
"No. He was a kid of my own age. I guess I outgrew Ted," she replied, dreamily. "But he still tries to rush me."
"With whom do you go to the secret club-rooms--above White's ice cream parlor?" asked Lane, abruptly.
Bessy never flicked an eyelash. "Hot dog! So you're wise to that? I thought it was a secret. I told Rose Clymer those fellows weren't on the level. Who told you I was there? Your sister Lorna?"
"No. No one told me. Never mind that. Who took you there? You needn't be afraid to trust me. I'm going to entrust my secrets to you by and bye."
"I went with Roy Vancey, the boy who was with me at Helen's the day I met you."
"Bessy, how often have you been to those club-rooms?"
"Were you ever there alone without any girls?"
"No. I had my chance. Dick Swann tried his damnedest to get me to go. But I've no use for him."
"I just don't like him, Daren," she replied, evasively. "I love to have fun. But I haven't yet been so hard up I had to go out with some one I didn't like."
"Has Swann had my sister Lorna at the club?"
Her replies had been prompt and frank. At this sudden query she seemed checked. Lane read in Bessy Bell then more of the truth of her than he had yet divined. Falsehood was naturally abhorrent to her. To lie to her parents or teachers savored of fun, and was part of the game. She did not want to lie to Lane, but in her code she could not betray another girl, especially to that girl's brother.
"Daren, I promised I'd tell you all about myself," she said.
"I shouldn't have asked you to give away one of your friends," he returned. "Some other time I'll talk to you about Lorna. Tell you what I know, and ask you to help me save her----"
"Save her! What do you mean, Daren?" she interrupted, with surprise.
"Bessy, I've paid you the compliment of believing you have intelligence. Hasn't it occurred to you that Lorna--or other of her friends or yours--might be going straight to ruin?"
"Ruin! No, that hadn't occurred to me. I heard Doctor Wallace make a crack like yours. Mother hauled me to church the Sunday after you broke up Fanchon Smith's dance. Doctor Wallace didn't impress me. These old people make me sick anyhow. They don't understand.... But Daren, I think I get your drift. So snow some more."
All in a moment, it seemed to Lane, this girl passed from surprise to gravity, then to contempt, and finally to humor. She was fascinating.
"To go back to the club," resumed Lane. "Bessy, what did you do there?"
"Oh, we toddled and shimmied. Cut up! Had an immense time, I'll say."
"What do you mean by cut up?"
"Why, we just ran wild, you know. Fool stunts!... Once Roy was sore because I kicked cigarettes out of Bob's mouth. But the boob was tickled stiff when I kicked for him. Jealous! It's all right with any one of the boys what you do for him. But if you do the same for another boy--good night!"
Bessy had no divination of the fact that her words for Lane had a clarifying significance.
"I suppose you played what we used to call kissing games?" queried Lane.
A sweet, high trill of laughter escaped Bessy's red lips.
"Daren, you are funny. Those games are as dead as Caesar.... This bunch of boys and girls paired off by themselves to spoon.... As for myself, I don't mind spooning if I like the fellow--and he hasn't been drinking. But otherwise I hate it. All the same I got what was coming to me from some of the boys of the Strong Arm Club."
"Why do they give it that name?" asked Lane, remembering Colonel Pepper's remarks.
"Why, if a girl doesn't come across she gets the strong arm.... I had to fight like the devil that last afternoon I went there."
"Did you fight, Bessy?"
"I'll say I did.... Roy Vancey is sore as a pup. He hasn't been near me or called me up since."
"Bessy, will you promise to stay away from that place--and not to go joy-riding with any of those boys--day or night--if I meet you, and tell you all about my experience in the war? I'll do my best to keep the time you spend with me from being tedious."
"It's another bargain," she returned deliberately, "if you just don't spend enough time with me to make me stuck on you--then throw me down. On the level, now, Daren?"
"I'll meet you as often as you want. And I'll be your friend as long as you prove to me I can be of any help, or pleasure, or good to you."
"Hot dog, but you're taking some job, Daren. Won't it be just spiffy? We'll meet here, afternoons, and evenings when mother's out. She's nutty on bridge. She makes me promise I won't leave the yard. So I'll not have to lie to meet you.... Daren, that day at Helen's, the minute I saw you I knew you were going to have something to do with my future."
"Bessy, a little while ago I made sure you had no romance in you," replied Lane, with a smile. "Now as we've gotten serious, let's think hard about the future. What do you want most? Do you care for study, for books? Have you any gift for music? Do you ever think of fitting yourself for useful work?... Or is your mind full of this jazz stuff? Do you just want to go from day to day, like a butterfly from flower to flower? Just this boy and that one--not caring much which--all this frivolity you hinted of, and worse, living this precious time of your youth all for excitement? What is it you want most?"
She responded with a thoughtfulness that inspired Lane's hope for her. This girl could be reached. She was like Lorna in many ways, but different in mentality. Bessy watched the gyrations of her shapely little foot. She could not keep still even in abstraction.
"A girl must have a good time," she replied presently. "I've done things I hated because I couldn't bear to be left out of the fun.... But I like most to read and dream. Music makes me strange inside, and to want to do great things. Only there are no great things to do. I've never been nutty about a career, like Helen is. And I always hated work.... I guess--to tell on the level--what I want most is to be loved."
With that she raised her eyes to Lane's. He tried to read her mind, and realized that if he failed it was not because she was not baring it. Dropping his own gaze, he pondered. The girl's response to his earnestness was intensely thought-provoking. No matter how immodestly she was dressed, or what she had confessed to, or whether she had really expected and desired dalliance on his part--here was the truth as to her hidden yearning. The seething and terrible Renaissance of the modern girl seemed remarkably exemplified in Bessy Bell, yet underneath it all hid the fundamental instinct of all women of all ages. Bessy wanted most to be loved. Was that the secret of her departure from the old-fashioned canons of modesty and reserve?
"Bessy," went on Lane, presently. "I've heard my sister speak of Rose Clymer. Is she a friend of yours, too?"
"You bet. And she's the square kid."
"Lorna told me she'd been expelled from school."
"Yes. She refused to tattle."
"I wrote some verses which one of the girls copied. Miss Hill found them and raised the roof. She kept us all in after school. She let some of the girls off. But she expelled Rose and sent me home. Then she called on mama. I don't know what she said, but mama didn't let me go back. I've had a hateful old tutor for a month. In the fall I'm going to private school."
"Rose went to work. She had a hard time. I never heard from her for weeks. But she's a telephone operator at the Exchange now. She called me up one day lately and told me. I hope to see her soon."
"About those verses, Bessy. How did Miss Hill find out who wrote them?"
"I told her. Then she sent me home."
"Have you any more verses you wrote?"
"Yes, a lot of them. If you lend me your pencil, I'll write out the verse that gave Miss Hill heart disease."
Bessy took up a book that had been lying on the seat, and tearing out the fly-leaf, she began to write. Her slim, shapely hand flew. It fascinated Lane.
"There!" she said, ending with a flourish and a smile.
But Lane, foreshadowing the import of the verse, took the page with reluctance. Then he read it. Verses of this significance were new to him. Relief came to Lane in the divination that Bessy could not have had experience of what she had written. There was worldliness in the verse, but innocence in her eyes.
"Well, Bessy, my heart isn't much stronger than Miss Hill's," he said, finally.
Her merry laughter rang out.
"Bessy, what will you do for me?"
"Bring me every scrap of verse you have, every note you've got from boys and girls."
"Shall I get them now?"
"Yes, if it's safe. Of course, you've hidden them."
"Mama's out. I won't be a minute."
Away she flew under the trees, out through the rose bushes, a white, graceful, flitting figure. She vanished. Presently she came bounding into sight again and handed Lane a bundle of notes.
"Did you keep back any?" he asked, as he tried to find pockets enough for the collection.
"I'll go home and read them all. Then I'll meet you here to-night at eight o'clock."
"But--I've a date. I'll break it, though."
"Gail and a couple of boys--kids."
"Does your mother know?"
"I'd tell her about Gail, but that's all. We go for ice cream--then meet the boys and take a walk."
"Bessy, you're not going to do that sort of thing any more."
Lane bent over her, took her hands. She instinctively rebelled, then slowly yielded.
"That's part of our bargain?" she asked.
"Yes, it certainly is."
"Then I won't ever again."
"Bessy, I trust you. Do you understand me?"
"I--I think so."
"Daren, will you care for me--if I'm--if I do as you want me to?"
"I do now," he replied. "And I'll care a thousand times more when you prove you're really above these things.... Bessy, I'll care for you as a friend--as a brother--as a man who has almost lost his faith and who sees in you some hope to keep his spirit alive. I'm unhappy, Bessy. Perhaps you can help me--make me a little happier.... Anyway, I trust you. Good-bye now. To-night, at eight o'clock."
Lane went home to his room and earnestly gave himself up to the perusal of the writings Bessy Bell had given him. He experienced shocks of pain and wonder, between which he had to laugh. All the fiendish wit of youthful ingenuity flashed forth from this verse. There was a parody on Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break," featuring Colonel Pepper's famous and deplorable habit. Miss Hill came in for a great share of opprobrium. One verse, if it had ever come under the eyes of the good schoolteacher, would have broken her heart.
Lane read all Bessy's verses, and then the packet of notes written by Bessy's girl friends. The truth was unbelievable. Yet here were the proofs. Over Bessy and her friends Lane saw the dim dark shape of a ghastly phantom, reaching out, enfolding, clutching. He went downstairs to the kitchen and here he burned the writings.
"It ought to be told," he muttered. "But who's going to tell it? Who'd believe me? The truth would not be comprehended by the mothers of Middleville.... And who's to blame?"
It would not do, Lane reflected, to place the blame wholly upon blind fathers and mothers, though indeed they were culpable. And in consideration of the subject, Lane excluded all except the better class of Middleville. It was no difficult task to understand lack of moral sense in children who were poor and unfortunate, who had to work, and get what pleasures they had in the streets. But how about the best families, where there were luxurious homes, books, education, amusement, kindness, love--all the supposed stimuli needed for the proper guidance of changeful vagrant minds? These good influences had failed. There was a greater moral abandonment than would ever be known.
Before the war Bessy Bell would have presented the perfect type of the beautiful, highly sensitive, delicately organized girl so peculiarly and distinctively American. She would have ripened before her time. Perhaps she would not have been greatly different in feeling from the old-fashioned girl: only different in that she had restraint, no deceit.
But after the war--now--what was Bessy Bell? What actuated her? What was the secret spring of her abnormal tendencies? Were they abnormal? Bessy was wild to abandon herself to she knew not what. Some glint of intelligence, some force of character as exceptional in her as it was wanting in Lorna, some heritage of innate sacredness of person, had kept Bessy from the abyss. She had absorbed in mind all the impurities of the day, but had miraculously escaped them in body. If her parents could have known Bessy as Lane now realized her they would have been horrified. But Lane's horror was fading. Bessy was illuminating the darkness of his mind.
To understand more clearly what the war had done to Bessy Bell, and to the millions of American girls like her, it was necessary for Lane to understand what the war had done to soldiers, to men, and to the world.
Lane could grasp some infinitesimal truth of the sublime and horrible change war had wrought in the souls of soldiers. That change was too great for any mind but the omniscient to grasp in its entirety. War had killed in some soldiers a belief in Christ: in others it had created one. War had unleashed the old hidden primitive instincts of manhood: likewise it had fired hearts to hate of hate and love of love, to the supreme ideal consciousness could conceive. War had brought out the monstrous in men and as well the godlike. Some soldiers had become cowards; others, heroes. There were thousands of soldiers who became lions to fight, hyenas to snarl, beasts to debase, hogs to wallow. There were equally as many who were forced to fight, who could not kill, whose gentleness augmented under the brutal orders of their officers. There were those who ran toward the front, heads up, singing at the top of their lungs. There were those who slunk back. Soldiers became cold, hard, materialistic, bitter, rancorous: and qualities antithetic to these developed in their comrades.
Lane exhausted his resources of memory and searched in his notes for a clipping he had torn from a magazine. He reread it, in the light of his crystallizing knowledge:
"Had I not been afraid of the scorn of my brother officers and the scoffs of my men, I would have fled to the rear," confesses a Wisconsin officer, writing of a battle.
"I see war as a horrible, grasping octopus with hundreds of poisonous, death-dealing tentacle that squeeze out the culture and refinement of a man," writes a veteran.
A regimental sergeant-major: "I considered myself hardboiled, and acted the part with everybody, including my wife. I scoffed at religion as unworthy of a real man and a mark of the sissy and weakling." Before going over the top for the first time he tried to pray, but had even forgotten the Lord's Prayer.
"If I get out of this, I will never be unhappy again," reflected one of the contestants under shell-fire in the Argonne Forest. To-day he is "not afraid of dead men any more and is not in the least afraid to die."
"I went into the army a conscientious objector, a radical, and a recluse.... I came out of it with the knowledge of men and the philosophy of beauty," says another.
"My moral fiber has been coarsened. The war has blunted my sensitiveness to human suffering. In 1914 I wept tears of distress over a rabbit which I had shot. I could go out now at the command of my government in cold-blooded fashion and commit all the barbarisms of twentieth-century legalized murder," writes a Chicago man.
A Denver man entered the war, lost himself and God, and found manhood. "I played poker in the box-car which carried me to the front and read the Testament in the hospital train which took me to the rear," he tells us.
"To disclose it all would take the genius and the understanding of a god. I learned to talk from the side of my mouth and drink and curse with the rest of our 'noble crusaders.' Authority infuriated me and the first suspicion of an order made me sullen and dangerous.... Each man in his crudeness and lewdness nauseated me," writes a service man.
"When our boy came back," complains a mother, "we could hardly recognize for our strong, impulsive, loving son whom we had loaned to Uncle Sam this irritable, restless, nervous man with defective hearing from shells exploding all about him, and limbs aching and twitching from strain and exposure, and with that inevitable companion of all returned oversea boys, the coffin-nail, between his teeth."
"In the army I found that hard drinkers and fast livers and profane-tongued men often proved to be the kindest-hearted, squarest friends one could ever have," one mother reports.
So then the war brought to the souls of soldiers an extremity of debasement and uplift, a transformation incomprehensible to the mind of man.
Upon men outside the service the war pressed its materialism. The spiritual progress of a thousand years seemed in a day to have been destroyed. Self-preservation was the first law of nature. And all the standards of life were abased. Following the terrible fever of patriotism and sacrifice and fear came the inevitable selfishness and greed and frenzy. The primitive in man stalked forth. The world became a place of strife.
What then, reflected Lane, could have been the effect of war upon women? The mothers of the race, of men! The creatures whom emotions governed! The beings who had the sex of tigresses! "The female of the species!" What had the war done to the generation of its period--to Helen, to Mel Iden, to Lorna, to Bessy Bell? Had it made them what men wanted?
At eight o'clock that night Lane kept his tryst with Bessy. The serene, mellow light of the moon shone down upon the garden. The shade appeared spotted with patches of moonlight; the summer breeze rustled the leaves; the insects murmured their night song. Romance and beauty still lived. No war could kill them. Bessy came gliding under the trees, white and graceful like a nymph, fearless, full of her dream, ripe to be made what a man would make of her.
Lane talked to Bessy of the war. Words came like magic to his lips. He told her of the thunder and fire and blood and heroism, of fight and agony and death. He told her of himself--of his service in the hours that tried his soul. Bessy passed from fascinated intensity to rapture and terror. She clung to Lane. She kissed him. She wept.
He told her how his ideal had been to fight for Helen, for Lorna, for her, and all American girls. And then he talked about what he had come home to--of the shock--the realization--the disappointment and grief. He spoke of his sister Lorna--how he had tried so hard to make her see, and had failed. He importuned Bessy to help him as only a girl could. And lastly, he brought the conversation back to her and told her bluntly what he thought of the vile verses, how she dragged her girlhood pride in the filth and made of herself a byword for vicious boys. He told her the truth of what real men thought and felt of women. Every man had a mother. No war, no unrest, no style, no fad, no let-down of morals could change the truth. From the dark ages women had climbed on the slow realization of freedom, honor, chastity. As the future of nations depended upon women, so did their salvation. Women could never again be barbarians. All this modern license was a parody of love. It must inevitably end in the degradation and unhappiness of those of the generation who persisted on that downward path. Hard indeed it would be to encounter the ridicule of girls and the indifference of boys. But only through the intelligence and courage of one could there ever be any hope for the many.
Lane sat there under the moonlit maples and talked until he was hoarse. He could not rouse a sense of shame in Bessy, because that had been atrophied, but as he closely watched her, he realized that his victory would come through the emotion he was able to arouse in her, and the ultimate appeal to the clear logic of her mind.
When the time came for him to go she stood before him in the clear moonlight.
"I've never been so excited, so scared and sick, so miserable and thoughtful in all my life before," she said. "Daren, I know now what a soldier is. What you've seen--what you've done. Oh! it was grand!... And you're going to be my--my friend.... Daren, I thought it was great to be bad. I thought men liked a girl to be bad. The girls nicknamed me Angel Bell, but not because I was an angel, I'll tell the world.... Now I'm going to try to be the girl you want me to be."