The reaction from that night landed Lane in the hospital, where, during long weeks when he did have a lucid interval, he saw that his life was despaired of and felt that he was glad of it.
But he did not die. As before, the weak places in his lungs healed over and he began to mend, and gradually his periods of rationality increased until he wholly gained his mental poise. It was, however, a long time before he was strong enough to leave the hospital.
During the worst of his illness his mother came often to see him; after he grew better she came but seldom. Blair and Colonel Pepper were the only others who visited Lane. And as soon as his memory returned and interest revived he learned much peculiarly significant to him.
The secret of the club-rooms, so far as girls were concerned, never became fully known to Middleville gossips. Strange and contrary rumors were rife for a long time, but the real truth never leaked out. There was never any warrant sworn for Lane's arrest. What the general public had heard and believed was the story concocted by Thesel and Swann, who claimed that Lane, over a gambling table, had been seized by one of the frenzied fits common to deranged soldiers, and had attacked them. Thesel lost his left eye and Swann carried a hideous red scar from brow to cheek. Neither the club-room scandal nor his disfigurement for life in any wise prevented Mrs. Maynard from announcing the engagement of her daughter Margaret to Richard Swann. The most amazing news was to hear that Helen Wrapp had married a rich young politician named Hartley, who was running for the office of magistrate. According to Blair, Daren Lane had divided Middleville into two dissenting factions, a large one who banned him in disgrace, and a small one who lifted their voices in his behalf. Of all the endless bits of news, little and big, the one that broke happily on Lane's ears was the word of a nurse, who told him that during his severe illness a girl had called on the telephone every day to inquire for him. She never gave her name. But Lane knew it was Mel and the mere thought of her made him quiver.
By the time Lane was strong enough to leave the hospital an early winter had set in. The hospital expenses had reduced his finances so materially that he could not afford the lodgings he had occupied before his illness. He realized fully that he should leave Middleville for a dry warm climate, if he wanted to live a while longer. But he was not greatly concerned about this. There would be time enough to consider the future after he had fulfilled the one hope and ambition he had left.
Rooms were at a premium. Lane was forced to apply in the sordid quarter of Middleville, and the place he eventually found was a small, bare hall bedroom, in a large, ramshackle old house, of questionable repute. But beggars could not be choosers. There was no heat in this room, and Lane decided that what time he spent in it must be in bed. He would not give any one his address.
Once installed here, Lane waited only a few days to assure himself that he was strong enough to carry out the plan upon which he had set his heart.
Late that afternoon he went to the town hall and had a marriage license made out for himself and Mel Iden. Upon returning, he found that snow had begun to fall heavily. Already the streets were white. Suddenly the thought of the nearness of Christmas shocked him. How time sped by!
That night he dressed himself carefully, wearing the service uniform he had so well preserved, and sallied forth to the most fashionable restaurant in Middleville, where in the glare and gayety he had his dinner. Lane recognized many of the dining, dancing throng, but showed no sign of it. He became aware that his presence had excited comment. How remote he seemed to feel himself from that eating, drinking, dancing crowd! So far removed that even the jazz music no longer affronted him. Rather surprised he was to find he really enjoyed his dinner. From the restaurant he engaged a taxi.
The bright lights, the falling snow, the mantle of white on everything, with their promise of the holiday season, pleased Lane with the memory of what great fun he used to have at Christmas-time.
When he arrived at Mel's home the snow was falling thickly in heavy flakes. Through the pall he caught a faint light, which grew brighter as he plodded toward the cottage. He stamped on the porch and flapped his arms to remove the generous covering of snow that had adhered to him. And as he was about to knock, the door opened, and Mel stood in the sudden brightness.
"Hello, Mel, how are you?--some snow, eh?" was his cheery greeting, and he went in and shut the door behind him.
"I--what! Aren't you glad to see me?"
Lane had not prepared himself for anything. He knew he could win now, and all he had allowed himself was gladness. But being face to face with Mel made it different. It had been long since he last saw her. That interval had been generous. To look at her now no one could have guessed her story. Warmth and richness of color had come back to her; and vividly they expressed her joy at sight of him.
"Glad?--I've been living--on my hopes--that you--"
Her faltering speech trailed off here, as Lane took one long stride toward her.
Lane put a firm hand to each of her cheeks, and tilting a suddenly rosy face, he kissed her full on the lips. Then he turned away without looking at her and stepped to the little open grate, where a small red fire glowed. Mel gasped there behind him and then became perfectly still.
"Nice fire, Mel," he spoke out, naturally, as if nothing unusual had happened. But the thin hands he extended to the warmth of the coals trembled like aspen leaves in the wind. How silent she was! It thrilled him. What strange sweet revel in the moment.
When he turned it seemed he saw her eyes, her lips, her whole face luminous. The next instant she came out of her spell; and Lane divined if he let her wholly recover, he would have a woman to deal with.
"Daren, what's wrong with you?" she inquired.
"Why, Mel!" he ejaculated, in feigned reproach.
"You don't look irrational, but you act so," she said, studying him more closely. The hand that had been pressed to her breast dropped down.
"Had my last crazy spell two weeks ago," he replied.
"You mean my kissing you? Well, I refuse to apologize. You see I was not prepared to find you so improved. Why, Mel, you're changed. You're just--just lovely."
Again the rich color stained her cheeks.
"Thank you, Daren," she said. "I have changed. You did it.... I've gotten well, and--almost happy.... But let's not talk of myself. You--there's so much--"
"Mel, I don't want to talk about myself, either," he declared. "When a man's got only a day or so longer--"
"Hush!--Or--Or--," she threatened, with a slight distension of nostrils and a paling of cheek.
"Or what?" demanded Lane.
"Or I'll do to you what you did to me."
"Oh, you'd kiss me to shut my lips?"
"Yes, I would."
"Fine, Mel. Come on. But you'd have to keep steadily busy all evening. For I've come to talk." Mel came closer to him, with a catch in her breathing, a loving radiance in her eyes. "Daren, you're strange--not like your old self. You're too gay--too happy. Oh, I'd be glad if you were sincere. But you have something on your mind."
Lane knew when to unmask a battery.
"No, it's in my pocket," he flashed, and with a quick motion he tore out the marriage license and thrust it upon her. As her dark eyes took in the meaning of the paper, and her expression changed, Lane gazed down upon her with a commingling of emotions.
"Oh, Daren--No--No!" she cried, in a wildness of amaze and pain.
Then Lane clasped her close, with a force too sudden to be gentle, and with his free hand he lifted her face.
"Look here. Look at me," he said sternly. "Every time you say no or shake your head--I'll do this."
And he kissed her twice, as he had upon his entrance.
Mel raised her head and gazed up at him, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, as if both appalled and enthralled.
"Daren. I--I don't understand you," she said, unsteadily. "You frighten me. Let me go--please, Daren. This is--so--so unlike you. You insult me."
"Mel, I can't see it that way," he replied. "I'm only asking you to come out and marry me to-night."
That galvanized her, and she tried to slip from his embrace.
"I told you no--no--no," she cried desperately.
"That's three," said Lane, and he took them mercilessly. "You will marry me," he said sternly.
"Oh, Daren, I can't--I dare not.... Ah!--"
"You will go right now--marry me to-night."
"Please be kind, Daren.... I don't know how you--"
"Mel, where're your coat, and hat, and overshoes?" he questioned, urgently.
"I told you--no!" she flashed, passionately.
Lane made good his threat, and this last onslaught left her spent and white.
"You must like my kisses, Mel Iden," he said.
"I implore you--Daren"
"I implore you to marry me."
"Dear friend, listen to reason," she begged. "You don't love me. You've just a chivalrous notion you can help me--and my boy--by giving us your name. It's noble, Daren, thank you. But--"
"Take care," warned Lane, bending low over her. "I can make good my word all night."
"Boy, you've gone crazy," she whispered, sadly.
"Well, now you may be talking sense," he laughed. "But that's neither here nor there.... Mel, I may die any day now!"
"Oh, my God!--don't say that," she cried, as if pierced by a blade.
"Yes. Mel, make me happy just for that little while."
"Happy?" she whispered.
"Yes. I've failed here in every way. I've lost all. And this thing would make the bitterness endurable."
"I'd die for you," she returned. "But marry you!--Daren--dearest--it will make you the laughing-stock of Middleville."
"Whatever it makes me, I shall be proud."
"Oh, I cannot, I dare not," she burst out.
"You seem to forget the penalty for these unflattering negatives of yours," he returned, coolly, bending to her lips.
This time she did not writhe or quiver or breathe. Lane felt surrender in her, and when he lifted his face from hers he was sure. Despite the fact that he had inflexibly clamped his will to one purpose, holding his emotion in abeyance, that brief instant seemed to be the fullest of his life.
"Mel, put your arm round my neck," he commanded.
"Now the other."
Again she complied.
"Lift your face--look at me."
She essayed to do this also, but failed. Her head sank on his breast. He had won. Lane held her a moment closely. And then a great and overwhelming pity and tenderness, his first emotions, flooded his soul. He closed his eyes. Dimly, vaguely, they seemed to create vision of long future time; and he divined that good and happiness would come to Mel Iden some day through the pain he had given her.
"Where did you say your things are?" he asked. "It's a bad night."
"They're in--the hall," came in muffled tones from his shoulder. "I'll get them."
But she made no effort to remove her arms from round his neck or to lift her head from his breast. Lane had lost now that singular exaltation of will, and power to hold down his emotions. Her nearness stormed his heart. His test came then, when he denied utterance to the love that answered hers.
"No--Mel--you stay here," he said, freeing himself. "I'll get them."
Opening the hall door he saw the hat-rack where as a boy he had hung his cap. It now held garments over which Lane fumbled. Mel came into the hall.
"Daren, you'll not know which are mine," she said.
Lane watched her. How the shapely hands trembled. Her face shone white against her dark furs. Lane helped her put on the overshoes.
"Now--just a word to mother," she said.
Lane caught her hand and held it, following her to the end of the hall, where she opened a door and peeped into the sitting-room.
"Mother, is dad home?" she asked.
"No--he's out, and such a bad night! Who's with you, Mel?"
"Oh, is he up again? I'm glad. Bring him in.... Why, Mel, you've your hat and coat on!"
"Yes, mother dear. We're going out for a while."
"On such a night! What for?"
"Daren and I are going to--to be married.... Good-bye. No more till we come back."
As one in a dream, Lane led Mel out in the whirling white pall of snow. It seemed to envelop them. It was mysterious and friendly, and silent.
They crossed the bridge, and Lane again listened for the river voices that always haunted here. Were they only murmurings of swift waters? Beyond the bridge lay the railroad station. A few dim lights shone through the white gloom. Lane found a taxi.
They were silent during the ride through the lonely streets. When the taxi stopped at the address given the driver, Lane whispered a word to Mel, jumped out and ran up the steps of a house and rang the bell.
"Is Doctor McCullen at home?" he inquired of the maid who answered the ring. He was informed the minister had just gone to his room.
"Will you ask him to come down upon a matter of importance?"
The maid invited him inside. In a few moments a tall, severe-looking man wearing a long dressing-coat entered the parlor.
"Doctor McCullen, I regret disturbing you, but my business is urgent. I want to be married at once. The lady is outside in a car. May I bring her in?"
"Ah! I seem to remember you. Isn't your name Lane?"
"Who is the woman you want to marry?"
"Miss Iden! You mean Joshua Iden's daughter?"
The minister showed a grave surprise. "Aren't you rather late in making amends? No, I will not marry you until I investigate the matter," he replied, coldly.
"You need not trouble yourself," replied Lane curtly, and went out.
The instant opposition stimulated Lane, and he asked the driver, "John, do you know where we can find a preacher?" "Yis, sor. Mr. Peters of the Methodist Church lives round the corner," answered the man.
"Drive on, then."
Lane got inside the taxi and slammed the door. "Mel, he refused to marry us."
Mel was silent, but the pressure of her hand answered him.
"Daren, the car has stopped," said Mel, presently.
Lane got out, walked up the steps, and pulled the bell. He was admitted. He had no better luck here. Lane felt that his lips shut tight, and his face set. Mel said nothing and sat by him, very quiet. The taxi rolled on and stopped again, and Lane had audience with another minister. He was repulsed here also.
"We're trying a magistrate," said Lane, when the car stopped again.
"But, Daren. This is where Gerald Hartley lives. Not him, Daren. Surely you wouldn't go to him?"
"Why not?" inquired Lane.
"It hasn't been two months since he married Helen Wrapp. Hadn't you heard?"
"I'd forgotten," said Lane.
"Besides, Daren, he--he once asked me to marry him--before the war."
Lane hesitated. Yes, he now remembered that in the days before the war the young lawyer had been Mel's persistent admirer. But a reckless mood had begun to manifest itself in Lane during the last hour, and it must have communicated its spirit to Mel, for she made no further protest. The world was against them. They were driving to the home of the man she had refused to marry, who had eventually married a girl who had jilted Lane. In an ordinary moment they would never have attempted such a thing. The mansion before which the car stopped was well lighted; music and laughter came faintly through the bright windows.
A maid opened the door to Lane and showed him into a drawing-room. In a library beyond he saw women and men playing cards, laughing and talking. Several old ladies were sitting close together, whispering and nodding their heads. A young fair-haired girl was playing the piano. Lane saw the maid advance and speak to a sharp-featured man whom he recognized as Hartley. Lane wanted to run out of the house. But he clenched his teeth and swore he would go through with it.
"Mr. Hartley," began Lane, as the magistrate came through the curtained doorway, "I hope you'll pardon my intrusion. My errand is important. I've come to ask you to marry me to a lady who is waiting outside."
When Hartley recognized his visitor he started back in astonishment. Then he laughed and looked more closely at Lane. It was a look that made Lane wince, for he understood it to relate to his mental condition.
"Lane! Well, by Jove!" he exclaimed. "Going to get married! You honor me. The regular fee, which in my official capacity I must charge, is one dollar. If you can pay that I will marry you."
"I can pay," replied Lane, quietly, and his level steady gaze disconcerted Hartley.
"Where's the woman?"
"She's outside in a taxi."
"Is she over eighteen?"
Lane expected the question as to who the woman was. It was singular that the magistrate neglected to ask this, the first query offered by every minister Lane has visited.
"Fetch her in," he said.
Lane went outside and hesitated at the car door, for he had an intuitive flash which made him doubtful. But what if Hartley did make a show of this marriage? The marriage itself was the vital thing. Lane helped Mel out of the car and led her up the icy steps. The maid again opened the door.
"Mr. Lane, walk right in," said Hartley. "Of course, it's natural for the lady to be a little shy, but then if she wants to be married at this hour she must not mind my family and guests. They can be witnesses."
He spoke in a voice in which Lane's ears detected insincerity. "Be seated, and wait until I get my book," he continued, and left the room.
Hartley had hardly glanced at Mel, and her veil had hidden her features. He had gone toward his study rubbing his hands in a peculiar manner which Lane remembered and which recalled the man as he had looked many a time in the Bradford billiard room when a good joke was going the rounds. Lane saw him hurry from his study with pleasant words of invitation to his guests, a mysterious air about him, a light upon his face. The ladies and gentlemen rose from their tables and advanced from the library to the door of the drawing-room. A girl of striking figure seized Hartley's arm and gesticulated almost wildly. It was Helen Wrapp. Her husband laughed at her and waved a hand toward the drawing-room and his guests. Turning swiftly with tigerish grace, she bent upon Lane great green eyes whose strange expression he could not fathom. What passionately curious eyes did she now fasten on his prospective bride!
Lane gripped Mel's hand. He felt the horror of what might be coming. What a blunder he had made!
"Will the lady kindly remove her veil?" Hartley's voice sounded queer. His smile had vanished.
As Mel untied and thrust back the veil her fingers trembled. The action disclosed a lovely face as white as snow.
"Mel Iden!" burst from the magistrate. For a moment there was an intense silence. Then, "I'll not marry you," cried Hartley vindictively.
"Why not? You said you would," demanded Lane.
"Not to save your worthless lives," Hartley returned, facing them with a dark meaning in his eyes.
Lane turned to Mel and led her from the house and down to the curb without speaking once.
Once more they went out into the blinding snow-storm. Lane threw back his head and breathed the cold air. What a relief to get out of that stifling room!
"Mel, I'm afraid it's no use," he said, finally.
"We are finding what the world thinks of us," replied Mel. "Tell the man to drive to 204 Locust Street."
Once more the driver headed his humming car into the white storm.
Once more Lane sat silent, with his heart raging. Once more Mel peered out into the white turmoil of gloom.
"Daren, we're going to Dr. Wallace, my old minister. He'll marry us," she said, presently.
"Why didn't I think of him?"
"I did," answered Mel, in a low voice. "I know he would marry us. He baptized me; he has known and loved me all my life. I used to sing in his choir and taught his Sunday School for years."
"Yet you let me go to those others. Why?"
"Because I shrank from going to him."
Once more the car lurched into the gutter, and this time they both got out and mounted the high steps. Lane knocked. They waited what appeared a long time before they heard some one fumbling with the lock. Just then the bell in the church tower nearby began chiming the midnight hour. The door opened, and Doctor Wallace himself admitted them.
"Well! Who's this?... Why, if it's not Mel Iden! What a night to be out in!" he exclaimed. He led them into a room, evidently his study, where a cheerful wood fire blazed. There he took both her hands and looked from her to Lane. "You look so white and distressed. This late hour--this young man whom I know. What has happened? Why do you come to me--the first time in so many months?"
"To ask you to marry us," answered Mel.
"To marry you?... Is this the soldier who wronged you?"
"No. This is Daren Lane.... He wants to marry me to give my boy a name.... Somehow he finally made me consent."
"Well, well, here is a story. Come, take off this snowy cloak and get nearer the fire. Your hands are like ice." His voice was very calm and kind. It soothed Lane's strained nerves. With what eagerness did he scrutinize the old minister's face. He knew the penetrating eye, the lofty brow and white hair, the serious lined face, sad in a noble austerity. But the lips were kind with that softness and sweetness which comes from gentle words and frequent smiles. Lane's aroused antagonism vanished in the old man's presence.
"Doctor Wallace," went on Mel. "We have been to several ministers, and to Mr. Hartley, the magistrate. All refused to marry us. So I came to my old friend. You've known me all my life. Daren has at last convinced me--broke down my resistance. So--I ask--will you marry us?"
Doctor Wallace was silent for many moments while he gazed into the fire and stroked her hand. Suddenly a smile broke over his fine face.
"You say you asked Hartley to marry you?"
"Yes, we went to him. It was a reckless thing to do. I'm sorry."
"To say the least, it was original." The old minister seemed to have difficulty in restraining a laugh. Then for a moment he pondered.
"My friends, I am very old," he said at length, "but you have taught me something. I will marry you."
It was a strange marriage. Behind Mel and Daren stood the red-faced, grinning driver, his coarse long coat covered with snow, and the simpering housemaid, respectful, yet glorifying in her share in this midnight romance. The old minister with his striking face and white hair, gravely turned the leaves of his book. No bridegroom ever wore such a stern, haggard countenance. The bride's face might have been a happier one, but it could not have been more beautiful.
Doctor Wallace's voice was low and grave; it quavered here and there in passages. Lane's was hardly audible. Mel's rang deep and full.
The witnesses signed their names; husband and wife wrote theirs; the minister filled out the license, and the ceremony was over.
Then Doctor Wallace took a hand of each.
"Mel and Daren," he said. "No human can read the secret ways of God. But it seems there is divinity in you both. You have been sacrificed to the war. You are builders, not destroyers. You are Christians, not pagans. You have a vision limned against the mystery of the future. Mammon seems now to rule. Civilization rocks on its foundations. But the world will go on growing better. Peace on earth, good will to men! That is the ultimate. It was Christ's teaching.... You two give me greater faith.... Go now and face the world with heads erect--whatever you do, Mel--and however long you live, Daren. Who can tell what will happen? But time proves all things, and the blindness of people does not last forever.... You both belong to the Kingdom of God."
But few words were spoken by Lane or Mel on the ride home. Mel seemed lost in a trance. She had one hand slipped under Lane's arm, the other clasped over it. As for Lane, he had overestimated his strength. A deadly numbness attacked his nerves, and he had almost lost the sense of touch. When they arrived at Mel's home the snow-storm had abated somewhat, and the lighted windows of the cottage shone brightly.
Lane helped Mel wade through the deep snow, or he pretended to help her, for in reality he needed her support more than she needed his. They entered the warm little parlor. Some one had replenished the fire. The clock pointed to the hour of one. Lane laid the marriage certificate on the open book Mel had been reading. Mel threw off hat, coat, overshoes and gloves. Her hair was wet with melted snow.
"Now, Daren Lane," she said softly. "Now that you have made me your wife--!"
Up until then Lane had been master of the situation. He had thought no farther than this moment. And now he weakened. Was this beautiful woman, with head uplifted and eyes full of fire, the Mel Iden of his school days? Now that he had made her his wife--.
"Mel, there's no now for me," he replied, with a sad finality. "From this moment, I'll live in the past. I have no future.... Thank God, you let me do what I could. I'll try to come again soon. But I must go now. I'm afraid--I overtaxed my strength."
"Oh, you look so--so," she faltered. "Stay, Daren--and let me nurse you.... We have a little spare room, warm, cozy. I'll wait on you, Daren. Oh, it would mean so much to me--now I am your wife."
The look of her, the tones of her voice, made him weak. Then he thought of his cold, sordid lodgings, and he realized that one more moment here alone with Mel Iden would make him a coward in his own eyes. He thanked her, and told her how impossible it was for him to stay, and bidding her good night he reeled out into the white gloom. At the gate he was already tired; at the bridge he needed rest. Once more, then, he heard the imagined voices of the waters calling to him.