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Chapter 19

Middleville was noted for its severe winters, but this year the zero weather held off until late in January. Lane was peculiarly susceptible to the cold and he found himself facing a discomfort he knew he could not long endure. Every day he felt more and more that he should go to a warm and dry climate; and yet he could not determine to leave Middleville. Something held him.

The warmth of bright hotel lobbies and theatres and restaurants uptown was no longer available for Lane. His money had dwindled beyond the possibility of luxury, and besides he shrank now from meeting any one who knew him. His life was empty, dreary and comfortless.

One wintry afternoon Lane did not wander round as long as usual, for the reason that his endurance was lessening. He returned early to his new quarters, and in the dim hallway he passed a slight pale girl who looked at him. She seemed familiar, but Lane could not place her. Evidently she had a room in the building. Lane hated the big barn-like house, and especially the bare cold room where he had to seek rest. Of late he had not eaten any dinner. He usually remained in bed as long as he could, and made a midday meal answer all requirements. Appetite, like many other things, was failing him. This day he sat upon his bed, in the abstraction of the lonely and unhappy, until the cold forced him to get under the covers.

His weary eyelids had just closed when he was awakened. The confused sense of being torn from slumber gave way to a perception of a voice in the room next to his. It was a man's voice, rough with the huskiness Lane recognized as peculiar to drunkards. And the reply to it seemed to be a low-toned appeal from a woman.

"Playin' off sick, eh? You don't want to work. But you'll get me some money, girl, d'ye hear?"

A door slammed, rattling the thin partition between the two rooms, and heavy footsteps dragged in the hall and on the stairway.

Sleep refused to come back to Lane. As he lay there he was surprised at the many sounds he heard. The ramshackle old structure, which he had supposed almost vacant, was busy with life. Stealthy footfalls in the hallways passed and repassed; a piano drummed somewhere; a man's loud voice rang out, and a woman's laugh faint, hollow and far away, like the ghost of laughter, returned in echo. The musical clinking of glasses, the ring of a cash register, the rattling click of pool balls, came up from below.

Presently Lane remembered the nature of the place. It was a house of night. In daylight it was silent; its inmates were asleep. But as the darkness unfolded a cloak over it, all the hidden springs of its obscure humanity began to flow. Lying there with the woman's appeal haunting him and all those sounds in his ears he thought of their meaning. The drunkard with his lust for money; his moaning victim; the discordant piano; the man with the vacant laugh; the lost hope and youth in the woman's that echoed it; the stealing, slipping feet of those who must tread softly--all conveyed to Lane that he had awakened in another world, a world which shunned sunlight.

Toward morning he dozed off into a fitful sleep which lasted until ten o'clock when he arose and dressed. As he was about to go out a knock on the door of the room next to his recalled the incident of the night. He listened. Another knock followed, somewhat louder, but no response came from within.

"Say, you in there," cried a voice Lane recognized as the landlady's. She rattled the door-knob.

A girl's voice answered weakly: "Come in."

Lane heard the door open.

"I wants my room rent. I can't get a dollar out of your drunken father. Will you pay? It's four weeks overdue."

"I have no money."

"Then get out an' leave me the room." The landlady spoke angrily.

"I'm ill. I can't get up." The answer was faint.

Lane opened his door quickly, and confronted the broad person of the landlady.

"How much does the woman owe?" he asked, quietly.

"Ah-huh!" the exclamation was trenchant with meaning. "Twenty dollars, if it's anything to you."

"I'll pay it. I think I heard the woman say she was ill."

"She says she is."

"May I be of any assistance?"

"Ask her."

Lane glanced into the little room, a counterpart of his. But it was so dark he could see nothing distinctly.

"May I come in? Let me raise the blind. There, the sun is fine this morning. Now, may I not---"

He looked down at a curly head and a sweet pretty face that he knew.

"I know you," he said, groping among past associations.

"I am Rose Clymer," she whispered, and a momentary color came into her wan cheeks.

"Rose Clymer! Bessy Bell's friend!"

"Yes, Mr. Lane. I'm not so surprised as you. I recognized you last night."

"Then it was you who passed me in the hall?"

"Yes."

"Well! And you're ill? What is the matter? Ah! Last night--it was your--your father--I heard?"

"Yes," she answered. "I've not been well since--for a long time, and I gave out last night."

"Here I am talking when I might be of some use," said Lane, and he hurried out of the room. The landlady had discreetly retired to the other end of the hall. He thrust some money into her hands.

"She seems pretty sick. Do all you can for her, be kind to her. I'll pay. I'm going for a doctor."

He telephoned for Doctor Bronson.

An hour later Lane, coming upstairs from his meal, met the physician at Rose's door. He looked strangely at Lane and shook his head.

"Daren, how is it I find you here in this place?"

"Beggars can't be choosers," answered Lane, with his old frank smile.

"Humph!" exclaimed the doctor, gruffly.

"How about the girl?" asked Lane.

"She's in bad shape," replied Bronson.... "Lane, are you aware of her condition?"

"Why, she's ill--that's all I know," replied Lane, slowly. "Rose didn't tell me what ailed her. I just found out she was here."

Doctor Bronson looked at Lane. "Too bad you didn't find out sooner. I'll call again to-day and see her.... And say, Daren, you look all in yourself."

"Never mind me, Doctor. It's mighty good of you to look after Rose. I know you've more patients than you can take care of. Rose has nothing and her father's a poor devil. But I'll pay you."

"Never mind about money," rejoined Bronson, turning to go.

Lane could learn little from Rose. Questions seemed to make her shrink, so Lane refrained from them and tried to cheer her. The landlady had taken a sudden liking to Lane which evinced itself in her change of attitude toward Rose, and she was communicative. She informed Lane that the girl had been there about two months; that her father had made her work till she dropped. Old Clymer had often brought men to the hotel to drink and gamble, and to the girl's credit she had avoided them.

For several days Doctor Bronson came twice daily to see Rose. He made little comment upon her condition, except to state that she had developed peritonitis, and he was not hopeful. Soon Rose took a turn for the worse. The doctor came to Lane's room and told him the girl would not have the strength to go through with her ordeal. Lane was so shocked he could not speak. Dr. Bronson's shoulders sagged a little, an unusual thing for him. "I'm sorry, Daren," he said. "I know you wanted to help the poor girl out of this. But too late. I can ease her pain, and that's all."

Strangely shaken and frightened Lane lay down in the dark. The partition between his room and Rose's might as well have been paper for all the sound it deadened. He could have escaped that, but he wanted to be near her.... And he listened to Rose's moans in the darkness. Lane shuddered there, helpless, suffering, realizing. Then the foreboding silence became more dreadful than any sound.... It was terrible for Lane. That strange cold knot in his breast, that coil of panic, seemed to spring and tear, quivering through all his body. What had he known of torture, of sacrifice, of divine selflessness? He understood now how the loved and guarded woman went down into the Valley of the Shadow for the sake of a man. Likewise, he knew the infinite tragedy of a ruined girl who lay in agony, gripped by relentless nature.

Lane was called into the hall by Mrs. O'Brien. She was weeping. Bronson met him at the door.

"She's dying," he whispered. "You'd better come in. I've 'phoned to Doctor Wallace."

Lane went in, almost blinded. The light seemed dim. Yet he saw Rose with a luminous glow radiating from her white face.

"I feel--so light," she said, with a wan smile.

Lane sat by the bed, but he could not speak. The moments dragged. He had a feeling of their slow but remorseless certainty.

Then there were soft steps outside--Mrs. O'Brien opened the door--and Doctor Wallace entered the room.

"My child," he gravely began, bending over her.

Rose's big eyes with their strained questioning gaze sought his face and Doctor Bronson's and Lane's.

"Rose--are you--in pain?"

"The burning's gone," she said.

"My child," began Doctor Wallace, again. "Your pain is almost over. Will you not pray with me?"

"No. I never was two-faced," replied Rose, with a weary shake of the tangled curls. "I won't show yellow now."

Lane turned away blindly. It was terrible to think of her dying bitter, unrepentant.

"Oh! if I could hope!" murmured Rose. "To see my mother!"

Then there were shuffling steps outside and voices. The door was opened by Mrs. O'Brien. Old Clymer crossed the threshold. He was sober, haggard, grieved. He had been told. No one spoke as he approached Rose's bedside.

"Lass--lass--" he began, brokenly.

Then he sought from the men confirmation of a fear borne by a glance into Rose's white still face. And silence answered him.

"Lass, if you're goin'--tell me--who was to blame?"

"No one--but myself--father," she replied.

"Tell me, who was to blame?" demanded Clymer, harshly.

Her pale lips curled a little bitterly, and suddenly, as a change seemed to come over her, they set that way. She looked up at Lane with a different light in her eyes. Then she turned her face to the wall.

Lane left the room, to pace up and down the hall outside. His thoughts seemed deadlocked. By and bye, Doctor Bronson came out with Doctor Wallace, who was evidently leaving.

"She is unconscious and dying," said Doctor Bronson to Lane, and then bade the minister good-bye and returned to the room.

"How strangely bitter she was!" exclaimed Doctor Wallace to Lane. "Yet she seemed such a frank honest girl. Her attitude was an acknowledgment of sin. But she did not believe it herself. She seemed to have a terrible resentment. Not against one man, or many persons, but perhaps life itself! She was beyond me. A modern girl--a pagan! But such a brave, loyal, generous little soul. What a pity! I find my religion at fault because it can accomplish nothing these days."


Zane Grey

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