His mother divined what he knew. And her embrace was so close, almost fierce in its tenderness, her voice so broken, that Lane could only hide his face over her, and shut his eyes, and shudder in an ecstasy. God alone had omniscience to tell what his soul needed, but something of it was embodied in home and mother.
That first acute moment past, he released her, and she clung to his hands, her face upturned, her eyes full of pain and joy, and woman's searching power, while she broke into almost incoherent speech; and he responded in feeling, though he caught little of the content of her words, and scarcely knew what he was saying.
Then he reeled a little and the kitchen dimmed in his sight. Sinking into a chair and leaning on the table he fought his weakness. He came close to fainting. But he held on to his sense, aware of his mother fluttering over him. Gradually the spell passed.
"Mother--maybe I'm starved," he said, smiling at her.
That practical speech released the strain and inspired his mother to action. She began to bustle round the kitchen, talking all the while. Lane watched her and listened, and spoke occasionally. Once he asked about his sister Lorna, but his mother either did not hear or chose not to reply. All she said was music to his ears, yet not quite what his heart longed for. He began to distrust this strange longing. There was something wrong with his mind. His faculties seemed too sensitive. Every word his mother uttered was news, surprising, unusual, as if it emanated from a home-world that had changed. And presently she dropped into complaint at the hard times and the cost of everything.
"Mother," he interrupted, "I didn't blow my money. I've saved nearly a year's pay. It's yours."
"But, Daren, you'll need money," she protested.
"Not much. And maybe--I'll be strong enough to go to work--presently," he said, hopefully. "Do you think Manton will take me back--half days at first?"
"I have my doubts, Daren," she replied, soberly. "Hattie Wilson has your old job. And I hear they're pleased with her. Few of the boys got their places back."
"Hattie Wilson!" exclaimed Lane. "Why, she was a kid in the eighth grade when I left home."
"Yes, my son. But that was nearly three years ago. And the children have sprung up like weeds. Wild weeds!"
"Well! That tousle-headed Wilson kid!" mused Lane. An uneasy conviction of having been forgotten dawned upon Lane. He remembered Blair Maynard's bitter prophecy, which he had been unable to accept.
"Anyway, Daren, are you able to work?" asked his mother.
"Sure," he replied, lying cheerfully, with a smile on his face. "Not hard work, just yet, but I can do something."
His mother did not share his enthusiasm. She went on preparing the supper.
"How do you manage to get along?" inquired Lane.
"Lord only knows," she replied, sombrely. "It has been very hard. When you left home I had only the interest on your father's life insurance. I sold the farm--"
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Lane, with a rush of boyhood memories.
"I had to," she went on. "I made that money help out for a long time. Then I--I mortgaged this place.... Things cost so terribly. And Lorna had to have so much more.... But she's just left school and gone to work. That helps."
"Lorna left school!" ejaculated Lane, incredulously. "Why, mother, she was only a child. Thirteen years old when I left! She'll miss her education. I'll send her back."
"Well, son, I doubt if you can make Lorna do anything she doesn't want to do," returned his mother. "She wanted to quit school--to earn money. Whatever she was when you left home she's grown up now. You'll not know her."
"Know Lorna! Why, mother dear, I carried Lorna's picture all through the war."
"You won't know her," returned Mrs. Lane, positively. "My boy, these years so short to you have been ages here at home. You will find your sister--different from the little girl you left. You'll find all the girls you knew changed--changed. I have given up trying to understand what's come over the world."
"How--about Helen?" inquired Lane, with strange reluctance and shyness.
"Helen who?" asked his mother.
"Helen Wrapp, of course," replied Lane, quickly in his surprise. "The girl I was engaged to when I left."
"Oh!--I had forgotten," she sighed.
"Hasn't Helen been here to see you?"
"Let me see--well, now you tax me--I think she did come once--right after you left."
"Do you--ever see her?" he asked, with slow heave of breast.
"Yes, now and then, as she rides by in an automobile. But she never sees me.... Daren, I don't know what your--your--that engagement means to you, but I must tell you--Helen Wrapp doesn't conduct herself as if she were engaged. Still, I don't know what's in the heads of girls to-day. I can only compare the present with the past."
Lane did not inquire further and his mother did not offer more comment. At the moment he heard a motor car out in front of the house, a girl's shrill voice in laughter, the slamming of a car-door--then light, quick footsteps on the porch. Lane could look from where he sat to the front door--only a few yards down the short hall. The door opened. A girl entered.
"That's Lorna," said Lane's mother. He grew aware that she bent a curious gaze upon his face.
Lane rose to his feet with his heart pounding, and a strange sense of expectancy. His little sister! Never during the endless months of drudgery, strife and conflict, and agony, had he forgotten Lorna. Not duty, nor patriotism, had forced him to enlist in the army before the draft. It had been an ideal which he imagined he shared with the millions of American boys who entered the service. Too deep ever to be spoken of! The barbarous and simian Hun, with his black record against Belgian, and French women, should never set foot on American soil.
In the lamplight Lane saw this sister throw coat and hat on the banister, come down the hall and enter the kitchen. She seemed tall, but her short skirt counteracted that effect. Her bobbed hair, curly and rebellious, of a rich brown-red color, framed a pretty face Lane surely remembered. But yet not the same! He had carried away memory of a child's face and this was a woman's. It was bright, piquant, with darkly glancing eyes, and vivid cheeks, and carmine lips.
"Oh, hot dog! if it isn't Dare!" she squealed, and with radiant look she ran into his arms.
The moment, or moments, of that meeting between brother and sister passed, leaving Lane conscious of hearty welcome and a sense of unreality. He could not at once adjust his mental faculties to an incomprehensible difference affecting everything.
They sat down to supper, and Lane, sick, dazed, weak, found eating his first meal at home as different as everything else from what he had expected. There had been no lack of warmth or love in Lorna's welcome, but he suffered disappointment. Again for the hundredth time he put it aside and blamed his morbid condition. Nothing must inhibit his gladness.
Lorna gave Lane no chance to question her. She was eager, voluble, curious, and most disconcertingly oblivious of a possible sensitiveness in Lane.
"Dare, you look like a dead one," she said. "Did you get shot, bayoneted, gassed, shell-shocked and all the rest? Did you go over the top? Did you kill any Germans? Gee! did you get to ride in a war-plane? Come across, now, and tell me."
"I guess about--everything happened to me--except going west," returned Lane. "But I don't want to talk about that. I'm too glad to be home."
"What's that on your breast?" she queried, suddenly, pointing at the Croix de Guerre he wore.
"That? Lorna, that's my medal."
"Gee! Let me see." She got up and came round to peer down closely, to finger the decoration. "French! I never saw one before.... Daren, haven't you an American medal too?"
"My dear sister, that's hard to say. Because I didn't deserve it, most likely."
She leaned back to gaze more thoughtfully at him.
"What did you get this for?"
"It's a long story. Some day I'll tell you."
"Are you proud of it?"
For answer he only smiled at her.
"It's so long since the war I've forgotten so many things," she said, wonderingly. Then she smiled sweetly. "Dare, I'm proud of you."
That was a moment in which his former emotion seemed to stir for her. Evidently she had lost track of something once memorable. She was groping back for childish impressions. It was the only indication of softness he had felt in her. How impossible to believe Lorna was only fifteen! He could form no permanent conception of her. But in that moment he sensed something akin to a sister's sympathy, some vague and indefinable thought in her, too big for her to grasp. He never felt it again. The serious sweet mood vanished.
"Hot dog! I've a brother with the Croix de Guerre. I'll swell up over that. I'll crow over some of these Janes."
Thus she talked on while eating her supper. And Lane tried to eat while he watched her. Presently he moved his chair near to the stove. Lorna did not wait upon her mother. It was the mother who did the waiting, as silently she moved from table to stove.
Lorna's waist was cut so low that it showed the swell of her breast. The red color of her cheeks, high up near her temples, was not altogether the rosy line of health and youth. Her eyebrows were only faint, thin, curved lines, oriental in effect. She appeared to be unusually well-developed in body for so young a girl. And the air of sophistication, of experience that seemed a part of her manner completely mystified Lane. If it had not been for the slangy speech, and the false color in her face, he would have been amused at what he might have termed his little sister's posing as a woman of the world. But in the light of these he grew doubtful of his impression. Lastly, he saw that she wore her stockings rolled below her knees and that the edge of her short skirt permitted several inches of her bare legs to be seen. And at that he did not know what to think. He was stunned.
"Daren, you served a while under Captain Thesel in the war," she said.
"Yes, I guess I did," replied Lane, with sombre memory resurging.
"Do you know he lives here?"
"I knew him here in Middleville several years before the war."
"He's danced with me at the Armory. Some swell dancer! He and Dick Swann and Hardy MacLean sometimes drop in at the Armory on Saturday nights. Captain Thesel is chasing Mrs. Clemhorn now. They're always together.... Daren, did he ever have it in for you?"
"He never liked me. We never got along here in Middleville. And naturally in the service when he was a captain and I only a private--we didn't get along any better."
"Well, I've heard Captain Thesel was to blame for--for what was said about you last summer when he came home."
"And what was that, Lorna?" queried Lane, curiously puzzled at her, and darkly conscious of the ill omen that had preceded him home.
"You'll not hear it from me," declared Lorna, spiritedly. "But that Croix de Guerre doesn't agree with it, I'll tell the world."
A little frown puckered her smooth brow and there was a gleam in her eye.
"Seems to me I heard some of the kids talking last summer," she mused, ponderingly. "Vane Thesel was stuck on Mel Iden and Dot Dalrymple both before the war. Dot handed him a lemon. He's still trying to rush Dot, and the gossip is he'd go after Mel even now on the sly, if she'd stand for it."
"Why on the sly?" inquired Lane. "Before I left home Mel Iden was about the prettiest and most popular girl in Middleville. Her people were poor, and ordinary, perhaps, but she was the equal of any one."
"Thesel couldn't rush Mel now and get away with it, unless on the q-t," replied Lorna. "Haven't you heard about Mel?"
"No, you see the fact is, my few correspondents rather neglected to send me news," said Lane.
The significance of this was lost upon his sister. She giggled. "Hot dog! You've got some kicks coming, I'll say!"
"Is that so," returned Lane, with irritation. "A few more or less won't matter.... Lorna, do you know Helen Wrapp?"
"That red-headed dame!" burst out Lorna, with heat. "I should smile I do. She's one who doesn't shake a shimmy on tea, believe me."
Lane was somewhat at a loss to understand his sister's intimation, but as it was vulgarly inimical, and seemed to hold some subtle personal scorn or jealousy, he shrank from questioning her. This talk with his sister was the most unreal happening he had ever experienced. He could not adjust himself to its verity.
"Helen Wrapp is nutty about Dick Swann," went on Lorna. "She drives down to the office after----"
"Lorna, do you know Helen and I are engaged?" interrupted Lane.
"Hot dog!" was that young lady's exposition of utter amaze. She stared at her brother.
"We were engaged," continued Lane. "She wore my ring. When I enlisted she wanted me to marry her before I left. But I wouldn't do that."
Lorna promptly recovered from her amaze. "Well, it's a damn lucky thing you didn't take her up on that marriage stuff."
There was a glint of dark youthful passion in Lorna's face. Lane felt rise in him a desire to bid her sharply to omit slang and profanity from the conversation. But the desire faded before his bewilderment. All had suffered change. What had he come home to? There was no clear answer. But whatever it was, he felt it to be enormous and staggering. And he meant to find out. Weary as was his mind, it grasped peculiar significances and deep portents.
"Lorna, where do you work?" he began, shifting his interest.
"At Swann's," she replied.
"In the office--at the foundry?" he asked.
"No. Mr. Swann's at the head of the leather works."
"What do you do?"
"I type letters," she answered, and rose to make him a little bow that held the movement and the suggestion of a dancer.
"You've learned stenography?" he asked, in surprise.
"I'm learning shorthand," replied Lorna. "You see I had only a few weeks in business school before Dick got me the job."
"Dick Swann? Do you work for him?"
"No. For the superintendent, Mr. Fryer. But I go to Dick's office to do letters for him some of the time."
She appeared frank and nonchalant, evidently a little proud of her important position. She posed before Lane and pirouetted with fancy little steps.
"Say, Dare, won't you teach me a new dance--right from Paris?" she interposed. "Something that will put the shimmy and toddle out of biz?"
"Lorna, I don't know what the shimmy and toddle are. I've only heard of them."
"Buried alive, I'll say," she retorted.
Lane bit his tongue to keep back a hot reprimand. He looked at his mother, who was clearing off the supper table. She looked sad. The light had left her worn face. Lane did not feel sure of his ground here. So he controlled his feelings and directed his interest toward more news.
"Of course Dick Swann was in the service?" he asked.
"No. He didn't go," replied Lorna.
The information struck Lane singularly. Dick Swann had always been a prominent figure in the Middleville battery, in those seemingly long past years since before the war.
"Why didn't Dick go into the service? Why didn't the draft get him?"
"He had poor eyesight, and his father needed him at the iron works."
"Poor eyesight!" ejaculated Lane. "He was the best shot in the battery--the best hunter among the boys. Well, that's funny."
"Daren, there are people who called Dick Swann a slacker," returned Lorna, as if forced to give this information. "But I never saw that it hurt him. He's rich now. His uncle left him a million, and his father will leave him another. And I'll say it's the money people want these days."
The materialism so pregnant in Lorna's half bitter reply checked Lane's further questioning. He edged closer to the stove, feeling a little cold. A shadow drifted across the warmth and glow of his mind. At home now he was to be confronted with a monstrous and insupportable truth--the craven cowardice of the man who had been eligible to service in army or navy, and who had evaded it. In camp and trench and dug-out he had heard of the army of slackers. And of all the vile and stark profanity which the war gave birth to on the lips of miserable and maimed soldiers, that flung on the slackers was the worst.
"I've got a date to go to the movies," said Lorna, and she bounced out of the kitchen into the hall singing:
"Oh by heck You never saw a wreck Like the wreck she made of me."
She went upstairs, while Lane sat there trying to adapt himself to a new and unintelligible environment. His mother began washing the dishes. Lane felt her gaze upon his face, and he struggled against all the weaknesses that beset him.
"Mother, doesn't Lorna help you with the house work?" he asked.
"She used to. But not any more."
"Do you let her go out at night to the movies--dances, and all that?"
Mrs. Lane made a gesture of helplessness. "Lorna goes out all the time. She's never here. She stays out until midnight--one o'clock--later. She's popular with the boys. I couldn't stop her even if I wanted to. Girls can't be stopped these days. I do all I can for her--make her dresses--slave for her--hoping she'll find a good husband. But the young men are not marrying."
"Good Heavens, are you already looking for a husband for Lorna?" broke out Lane.
"You don't understand, Dare. You've been away so long. Wait till you've seen what girls--are nowadays. Then you'll not wonder that I'd like to see Lorna settled."
"Mother, you're right," he said, gravely. "I've been away so--long. But I'm back home now. I'll soon get on to things. And I'll help you. I'll take Lorna in hand. I'll relieve you of a whole lot."
"You were always a good boy, Daren, to me and Lorna," murmured Mrs. Lane, almost in tears. "It's cheered me to get you home, yet.... Oh, if you were well and strong!"
"Never mind, mother. I'll get better," he replied, rising to take up his bag. "I guess now I'd better go to bed. I'm just about all in.... Wonder how Blair and Red are."
His mother followed him up the narrow stairway, talking, trying to pretend she did not see his dragging steps, his clutch on the banisters.
"Your room's just as you left it," she said, opening the door. Then on the threshold she kissed him. "My son, I thank God you have come home alive. You give me hope in--in spite of all.... If you need me, call. Good night."
Lane was alone in the little room that had lived in waking and dreaming thought. Except to appear strangely smaller, it had not changed. His bed and desk--the old bureau--the few pictures--the bookcase he had built himself--these were identical with images in his memory.
A sweet and wonderful emotion of peace pervaded his soul--fulfilment at last of the soldier's endless longing for home, bed, quiet, rest.
"If I have to die--I can do it now without hate of all around me," he whispered, in the passion of his spirit.
But as he sat upon his bed, trying with shaking and clumsy hands to undress himself, that exalted mood flashed by. Some of the dearest memories of his life were associated with this little room. Here he had dreamed; here he had read and studied; here he had fought out some of the poignant battles of youth. So much of life seemed behind him. At last he got undressed, and extinguishing the light, he crawled into bed.
The darkness was welcome, and the quiet was exquisitely soothing. He lay there, staring into the blackness, feeling his body sink slowly as if weighted. How cool and soft the touch of sheets! Then, the river of throbbing fire that was his blood, seemed to move again. And the dull ache, deep in the bones, possessed his nerves. In his breast there began a vibrating, as if thousands of tiny bubbles were being pricked to bursting in his lungs. And the itch to cough came back to his throat. And all his flesh seemed in contention with a slowly ebbing force. Sleep might come perhaps after pain had lulled. His heart beat unsteadily and weakly, sometimes with a strange little flutter. How many weary interminable hours had he endured! But to-night he was too far spent, too far gone for long wakefulness. He drifted away and sank as if into black oblivion where there sounded the dreadful roll of drums, and images moved under gray clouds, and men were running like phantoms. He awoke from nightmares, wet with cold sweat, and lay staring again at the blackness, once more alive to recurrent pain. Pain that was an old, old story, yet ever acute and insistent and merciless.
The night wore on, hour by hour. The courthouse clock rang out one single deep mellow clang. One o'clock! Lane thrilled to the sound. It brought back the school days, the vacation days, the Indian summer days when the hills were golden and the purple haze hung over the land--the days that were to be no more for Daren Lane.
In the distance somewhere a motor-car hummed, and came closer, louder down the street, to slow its sound with sliding creak and jar outside in front of the house. Lane heard laughter and voices of a party of young people. Footsteps, heavy and light, came up the walk, and on to the porch. Lorna was returning rather late from the motion-picture, thought Lane, and he raised his head from the pillow, to lean toward the open window, listening.
"Come across, kiddo," said a boy's voice, husky and low.
Lane heard a kiss--then another.
"Cheese it, you boob!"
"Gee, your gettin' snippy. Say, will you ride out to Flesher's to-morrow night?"
"Nothing doing, I've got a date. Good night."
The hall door below opened and shut. Footsteps thumped off the porch and out to the street. Lane heard the giggle of girls, the snap of a car-door, the creaking of wheels, and then a low hum, dying away.
Lorna came slowly up stairs to enter her room, moving quietly. And Lane lay on his bed, wide-eyed, staring into the blackness. "My little sister," he whispered to himself. And the words that had meant so much seemed a mockery.