As Lane sped out Elm Street in a taxicab he remembered that his last ride in such a conveyance had been with Helen when he took her home from a party. She was then about seventeen years old. And that night she had coaxed him to marry her before he left to go to war. Had her feminine instinct been infallibly right? Would marrying her have saved her from what Blair had so forcibly suggested?
Elm Street was a newly developed part of Middleville, high on one of its hills, and manifestly a restricted section. Lane had found the number of Helen's home in the telephone book. When the chauffeur stopped before a new and imposing pile of red brick, Lane understood an acquaintance's reference to the war rich. It was a mansion, but somehow not a home. It flaunted something indefinable.
Lane instructed the driver to wait a few moments, and, if he did not come out, to go back to town and return in about an hour. The house stood rather far from the street, and as Lane mounted the terrace he observed four motor cars parked in the driveway. Also his sensitive ears caught the sound of a phonograph.
A maid answered his ring. Lane asked for both Mrs. Wrapp and Helen. They were at home, the maid informed him, and ushered Lane into a gray and silver reception room. Lane had no card, but gave his name. As he gazed around the room he tried to fit the delicate decorative scheme to Mrs. Wrapp. He smiled at the idea. But he remembered that she had always liked him in spite of the fact that she did not favor his attention to Helen. Like many mothers of girls, she wanted a rich marriage for her daughter. Manifestly now she had money. But had happiness come with prosperity?
Then Mrs. Wrapp came down. Rising, he turned to see a large woman, elaborately gowned. She had a heavy, rather good-natured face on which was a smile of greeting.
"Daren Lane!" she exclaimed, with fervor, and to his surprise, she kissed him. There was no doubt of her pleasure. Lane's thin armor melted. He had not anticipated such welcome. "Oh, I'm glad to see you, soldier boy. But you're a man now. Daren, you're white and thin. Handsomer, though!... Sit down and talk to me a little."
Her kindness made his task easy.
"I've called to pay my respects to you--and to see Helen," he said.
"Of course. But talk to me first," she returned, with a smile. "You'll find me better company than that crowd upstairs. Tell me about yourself.... Oh, I know soldiers hate to talk about themselves and the war. Never mind the war. Are you well? Did you get hurt? You look so--so frail, Daren."
There was something simple and motherly about her, that became her, and warmed Lane's cold heart. He remembered that she had always preferred boys to girls, and regretted she had not been the mother of boys. So Lane talked to her, glad to find that the most ordinary news of the service and his comrades interested her very much. The instant she espied his Croix de Guerre he seemed lifted higher in her estimation. Yet she had the delicacy not to question him about that. In fact, after ten minutes with her, Lane had to reproach himself for the hostility with which he had come. At length she rose with evident reluctance.
"You want to see Helen. Shall I send her down here or will you go up to her studio?"
"I think I'd like to go up," replied Lane.
"If I were you, I would," advised Mrs. Wrapp. "I'd like your opinion--of, well, what you'll see. Since you left home, Daren, we've been turned topsy-turvy. I'm old-fashioned. I can't get used to these goings-on. These young people 'get my goat,' as Helen expresses it."
"I'm hopelessly behind the times, I've seen that already," rejoined Lane.
"Daren, I respect you for it. There was a time when I objected to your courting Helen. But I couldn't see into the future. I'm sorry now she broke her engagement to you."
"I--thank you, Mrs. Wrapp," said Lane, with agitation. "But of course Helen was right. She was too young.... And even if she had been--been true to me--I would have freed her upon my return."
"Indeed. And why, Daren?"
"Because I'll never be well again," he replied sadly.
"Boy, don't say that!" she appealed, with a hand going to his shoulder.
In the poignancy of the moment Lane lost his reserve and told her the truth of his condition, even going so far as to place her hand so she felt the great bayonet hole in his back. Her silence then was more expressive than any speech. She had the look of a woman in whom conscience was a reality. And Lane divined that she felt she and her daughter, and all other women of this distraught land, owed him and his comrades a debt which could never be paid. For once she expressed dignity and sweetness and genuine sorrow.
"You shock me, Daren. But words are useless. I hope and pray you're wrong. But right or wrong--you're a real American--like our splendid forefathers. Thank God that spirit still survives. It is our only hope."
Lane crossed to the window and looked out, slowly conscious of resurging self-control. It was well that he had met Mrs. Wrapp first, for she gave him what he needed. His bleeding vanity, his pride trampled in the dirt, his betrayed faith, his unquenchable spirit of hope for some far-future good--these were not secrets he could hide from every one.
"Daren," said Mrs. Wrapp, as he again turned to her, "if I were in my daughter's place I'd beg you to take me back. And if you would, I'd never leave your side for an hour until you were well or--or gone.... But girls now are possessed of some infernal frenzy.... God only knows how far they go, but I'm one mother who is no fool. I see little sign of real love in Helen or any of her friends.... And the men who lounge around after her! Walk upstairs--back to the end of the long hall--open the door and go in. You'll find Helen and some of her associates. You'll find the men, young, sleek, soft, well-fed--without any of the scars or ravages of war. They didn't go to war!... They live for their bodies. And I hate these slackers. So does Helen's father. And for three years our house has been a rendezvous for them. We've prospered, but that has been bitter fruit."
Strong elemental passions Lane had seen and felt in people during the short twenty-four hours since his return home. All of them had stung and astounded him, flung into his face the hard brutal facts of the materialism of the present. Surely it was an abnormal condition. And yet from the last quarter where he might have expected to find uplift, and the crystallizing of his attitude toward the world, and the sharpening of his intelligence--from the hard, grim mother of the girl who had jilted him, these had come. It was in keeping with all the other mystery.
"On second thought, I'll go up with you," continued Mrs. Wrapp, as he moved in the direction she had indicated. "Come."
The wide hall, the winding stairway with its soft carpet, the narrower hallway above--these made a long journey for Lane. But at the end, when Mrs. Wrapp stopped with hand on the farthest door, Lane felt knit like cold steel.
The discordant music and the soft shuffling of feet ceased. Laughter and murmur of voices began.
"Come, Daren," whispered Mrs. Wrapp, as if thrilled. Certainly her eyes gleamed. Then quickly she threw the door open wide and called out:
"Helen, here's Daren Lane home from the war, wearing the Croix de Guerre."
Mrs. Wrapp pushed Lane forward, and stood there a moment in the sudden silence, then stepping back, she went out and closed the door.
Lane saw a large well-lighted room, with colorful bizarre decorations and a bare shiny floor. The first person his glance encountered was a young girl, strikingly beautiful, facing him with red lips parted. She had violet eyes that seemed to have a startled expression as they met Lane's. Next Lane saw a slim young man standing close to this girl, in the act of withdrawing his arm from around her waist. Apparently with his free hand he had either been lowering a smoking cigarette from her lips or had been raising it there. This hand, too, dropped down. Lane did not recognize the fellow's smooth, smug face, with its tiny curled mustache and its heated swollen lines.
"Look who's here," shouted a gay, vibrant voice. "If it isn't old Dare Lane!"
That voice drew Lane's fixed gaze, and he saw a group in the far corner of the room. One man was standing, another was sitting beside a lounge, upon which lay a young woman amid a pile of pillows. She rose lazily, and as she slid off the lounge Lane saw her skirt come down and cover her bare knees. Her red hair, bobbed and curly, marked her for recognition. It was Helen. But Lane doubted if he would have at once recognized any other feature. The handsome insolence of her face was belied by a singularly eager and curious expression. Her eyes, almost green in line, swept Lane up and down, and came back to his face, while she extended her hands in greeting.
"Helen, how are you?" said Lane, with a cool intent mastery of himself, bowing over her hands. "Surprised to see me?"
"Well, I'll say so! Daren, you've changed," she replied, and the latter part of her speech flashed swiftly.
"Rather," he said, laconically. "What would you expect? So have you changed."
There came a moment's pause. Helen was not embarrassed or agitated, but something about Lane or the situation apparently made her slow or stiff.
"Daren, you--of course you remember Hardy Mackay and Dick Swann," she said.
Lane turned to greet one-time schoolmates and rivals of his. Mackay was tall, homely, with a face that lacked force, light blue eyes and thick sandy hair, brushed high. Swann was slight, elegant, faultlessly groomed and he had a dark, sallow face, heavy lips, heavy eyelids, eyes rather prominent and of a wine-dark hue. To Lane he did not have a clean, virile look.
In their greetings Lane sensed some indefinable quality of surprise or suspense. Swann rather awkwardly put out his hand, but Lane ignored it. The blood stained Swann's sallow face and he drew himself up.
"And Daren, here are other friends of mine," said Helen, and she turned him round. "Bessy, this is Daren Lane.... Miss Bessy Bell." As Lane acknowledged the introduction he felt that he was looking at the prettiest girl he had ever seen--the girl whose violet eyes had met his when he entered the room.
"Mr. Daren Lane, I'm very happy to meet some one from 'over there,'" she said, with the ease and self-possession of a woman of the world. But when she smiled a beautiful, wonderful light seemed to shine from eyes and face and lips--a smile of youth.
Helen introduced her companion as Roy Vancey. Then she led Lane to the far corner, to another couple, manifestly disturbed from their rather close and familiar position in a window seat. These also were strangers to Lane. They did not get up, and they were not interested. In fact, Lane was quick to catch an impression from all, possibly excepting Miss Bell, that the courtesy of drawing rooms, such as he had been familiar with as a young man, was wanting in this atmosphere. Lane wondered if it was antagonism toward him. Helen drew Lane back toward her other friends, to the lounge where she seated herself. If the situation had disturbed her equilibrium in the least, the moment had passed. She did not care what Lane thought of her guests or what they thought of him. But she seemed curious about him. Bessy Bell came and sat beside her, watching Lane.
"Daren, do you dance?" queried Helen. "You used to be good. But dancing is not the same. It's all fox-trot, toddle, shimmy nowadays."
"I'm afraid my dancing days are over," replied Lane.
"How so? I see you came back with two legs and arms."
"Yes. But I was shot twice through one leg--it's about all I can do to walk now."
Following his easy laugh, a little silence ensued. Helen's green eyes seemed to narrow and concentrate on Lane. Dick Swann inhaled a deep draught of his cigarette, then let the smoke curl up from his lips to enter his nostrils. Mackay rather uneasily shifted his feet. And Bessy Bell gazed with wonderful violet eyes at Lane.
"Oh! You were shot!" she whispered.
"Yes," replied Lane, and looked directly at her, prompted by her singular tone. A glance was enough to show Lane that this very young girl was an entirely new type to him. She seemed to vibrate with intensity. All the graceful lines of her body seemed strangely instinct with pulsing life. She was bottled lightning. In a flash Lane sensed what made her different from the fifteen-year-olds he remembered before the war. It was what made his sister Lorna different. He felt it in Helen's scrutiny of him, in the speculation of her eyes. Then Bessy Bell leaned toward Lane, and softly, reverently touched the medal upon his breast.
"The Croix de Guerre," she said, in awe. "That's the French badge of honor.... It means you must have done something great.... You must have--killed Germans!"
Bessy sank back upon the lounge, clasping her hands, and her eyes appeared to darken, to turn purple with quickening thought and emotion. Her exclamation brought the third girl of the party over to the lounge. She was all eyes. Her apathy had vanished. She did not see the sulky young fellow who had followed her.
Lane could have laughed aloud. He read the shallow souls of these older girls. They could not help their instincts and he had learned that it was instinctive with women to become emotional over soldiers. Bessy Bell was a child. Hero-worship shone from her speaking eyes. Whatever other young men might be to her, no one of them could compare with a soldier.
The situation had its pathos, its tragedy, and its gratification for Lane. He saw clearly, and felt with the acuteness of a woman. Helen had jilted him for such young men as these. So in the feeling of the moment it cost him nothing to thrill and fascinate these girls with the story of how he had been shot through the leg. It pleased him to see Helen's green eyes dilate, to see Bessy Bell shudder. Presently Lane turned to speak to the supercilious Swann.
"I didn't have the luck to run across you in France!" he queried.
"No. I didn't go," replied Swann.
"How was that? Didn't the draft get you?"
"Yes. But my eyes were bad. And my father needed me at the works. We had a big army contract in steel."
"Oh, I see," returned Lane, with a subtle alteration of manner he could not, did not want to control. But it was unmistakable in its detachment. Next his gaze on Mackay did not require the accompaniment of a query.
"I was under weight. They wouldn't accept me," he explained.
Bessy Bell looked at Mackay disdainfully. "Why didn't you drink a bucketful of water--same as Billy Means did? He got in."
Helen laughed gayly. "What! Mac drink water? He'd be ill.... Come, let's dance. Dick put on that new one. Daren, you can watch us dance."
Swann did as he was bidden, and as a loud, violent discordance blared out of the machine he threw away his cigarette, and turned to Helen. She seemed to leap at him. She had a pantherish grace. Swann drew her closely to him, with his arm all the way round her, while her arm encircled his neck. They began a fast swaying walk, in which Swann appeared to be forcing the girl over backwards. They swayed, and turned, and glided; they made strange abrupt movements in accordance with the jerky tune; they halted at the end of a walk to make little steps forward and back; then they began to bounce and sway together in a motion that Lane instantly recognized as a toddle. Lane remembered the one-step, the fox-trot and other new dances of an earlier day, when the craze for new dancing had become general, but this sort of gyration was vastly something else. It disgusted Lane. He felt the blood surge to his face. He watched Helen Wrapp in the arms of Swann, and he realized, whatever had been the state of his heart on his return home, he did not love her now. Even if the war had not disrupted his mind in an unaccountable way, even if he had loved Helen Wrapp right up to that moment, such singular abandonment to a distorted strange music, to the close and unmistakably sensual embrace of a man--that spectacle would have killed his love.
Lane turned his gaze away. The young fellow Vancey was pulling at Bessy Bell, and she shook his hand off. "No, Roy, I don't want to dance." Lane heard above the jarring, stringing notes. Mackay was smoking, and looked on as if bored. In a moment more the Victrola rasped out its last note.
Helen's face was flushed and moist. Her bosom heaved. Her gown hung closely to her lissom and rather full form. A singular expression of excitement, of titillation, almost wild, a softer expression almost dreamy, died out of her face. Lane saw Swann lead Helen up to a small table beside the Victrola. Here stood a large pitcher of lemonade, and a number of glasses. Swann filled a glass half full, from the pitcher, and then, deliberately pulling a silver flask from his hip pocket he poured some of its dark red contents into the glass. Helen took it from him, and turned to Lane with a half-mocking glance.
"Daren, I remember you never drank," she said. "Maybe the war made a man of you!... Will you have a sip of lemonade with a shot in it?"
"No, thank you," replied Lane.
"Didn't you drink over there?" she queried.
"Only when I had to," he rejoined, shortly.
All of the four dancers partook of a drink of lemonade, strengthened by something from Swann's flask. Lane was quick to observe that when it was pressed upon Bessy Bell she refused to take it: "I hate booze," she said, with a grimace. His further impression of Bessy Bell, then, was that she had just fallen in with this older crowd, and sophisticated though she was, had not yet been corrupted. The divination of this heightened his interest.
"Well, Daren, you old prune, what'd you think of the toddle?" asked Helen, as she took a cigarette offered by Swann and tipped it between her red lips.
"Is that what you danced?"
"I'll say so. And Dick and I are considered pretty spiffy."
"I don't think much of it, Helen," replied Lane, deliberately. "If you care to--to do that sort of thing I'd imagine you'd rather do it alone."
"Oh Lord, you talk like mother," she exclaimed.
"Lane, you're out of date," said Swann, with a little sneer.
Lane took a long, steady glance at Swann, but did not reply.
"Daren, everybody has been dancing jazz. It's the rage. The old dances were slow. The new ones have pep and snap."
"So I see. They have more than that," returned Lane. "But pray, never mind me. I'm out of date. Go ahead and dance.... If you'd rather, I'll leave and call on you some other time."
"No, you stay," she replied. "I'll chase this bunch pretty soon."
"Well, you won't chase me. I'll go," spoke up Swann, sullenly, with a fling of his cigarette.
"You needn't hurt yourself," returned Helen, sarcastically.
"So long, people," said Swann to the others. But it was perfectly obvious that he did not include Lane. It was also obvious, at least to Lane, that Swann showed something of intolerance and mastery in the dark, sullen glance he bestowed upon Helen. She followed him across the room and out into the hall, from whence her guarded voice sounded unintelligibly. But Lane's keen ear, despite the starting of the Victrola, caught Swann's equally low, yet clearer reply. "You can't kid me. I'm on. You'll vamp Lane if he lets you. Go to it!"
As Helen came back into the room Mackay ran for her, and locking her in the same embrace--even a tighter one than Swann's--he fell into the strange steps that had so shocked Lane. Moreover, he was manifestly a skilful dancer, and showed the thin, lithe, supple body of one trained down by this or some other violent exercise.
Lane did not watch the dancers this time. Again Bessy Bell refused to get up from the lounge. The youth was insistent. He pawed at her. And manifestly she did not like that, for her face flamed, and she snapped: "Stop it--you bonehead! Can't you see I want to sit here by Mr. Lane?"
The youth slouched away fuming to himself.
Whereupon Lane got up, and seated himself beside Bessy so that he need not shout to be heard.
"That was nice of you, Miss Bell--but rather hard on the youngster," said Lane.
"He makes me sick. All he wants to do is lolly-gag.... Besides, after what you said to Helen about the jazz I wouldn't dance in front of you on a bet."
She was forceful, frank, naive. She was impressed by his nearness; but Lane saw that it was the fact of his being a soldier with a record, not his mere physical propinquity that affected her. She seemed both bold and shy. But she did not show any modesty. Her short skirt came above her bare knees, and she did not try to hide them from Lane's sight. At fifteen, like his sister Lorna, this girl had the development of a young woman. She breathed health, and something elusive that Lane could not catch. If it had not been for her apparent lack of shame, and her rouged lips and cheeks, and her plucked eyebrows, she would have been exceedingly alluring. But no beauty, however striking, could under these circumstances, stir Lane's heart. He was fascinated, puzzled, intensely curious.
"Why wouldn't you dance jazz in front of me?" he inquired, with a smile.
"Well, for one thing I'm not stuck on it, and for another I'll say you said a mouthful."
"Is that all?" he asked, as if disappointed.
"No. I'd respect what you said--because of where you've been and what you've done."
It was a reply that surprised Lane.
"I'm out of date, you know."
She put a finger on the medal on his breast and said: "You could never be out of date."
The music and the sliding shuffle ceased.
"Now beat it," said Helen. "I want to talk to Daren." She gayly shoved the young people ahead of her in a mass, and called to Bessy: "Here, you kid vamp, lay off Daren."
Bessy leaned to whisper in his ear: "Make a date with me, quick!"
"Surely, I'll hunt you up. Good-bye."
She was the only one who made any pretension of saying good-bye to Lane. They all crowded out before Helen, with Mackay in the rear. From the hall Lane heard him say to Helen: "Dick'll sure go to the mat with you for this."
Presently Helen returned to shut the door behind her; and her walk toward Lane had a suggestion of the oriental dancer. For Lane her face was a study. This seemed a woman beyond his comprehension. She was the Helen Wrapp he had known and loved, plus an age of change, a measureless experience. With that swaying, sinuous, pantherish grace, with her green eyes narrowed and gleaming, half mocking, half serious, she glided up to him, close, closer until she pressed against him, and her face was uplifted under his. Then she waited with her eyes gazing into his. Slumberous green depths, slowly lighting, they seemed to Lane. Her presence thus, her brazen challenge, affected him powerfully, but he had no thrill.
"Aren't you going to kiss me?" she asked.
"Helen, why didn't you write me you had broken our engagement?" he counter-queried.
The question disconcerted her somewhat. Drawing back from close contact with him she took hold of his sleeves, and assumed a naive air of groping in memory. She used her eyes in a way that Lane could not associate with the past he knew. She was a flirt--not above trying her arts on the man she had jilted.
"Why, didn't I write you? Of course I did."
"Well, if you did I never got the letter. And if you were on the level you'd admit you never wrote."
"How'd you find out then?" she inquired curiously.
"I never knew for sure until your mother verified it."
"Are you curious to know why I did break it off?"
"Not in the least."
This reply shot the fire into her face, yet she still persisted in the expression of her sentimental motive. She began to finger the medal on his breast.
"So, Mr. Soldier Hero, you didn't care?"
"No--not after I had been here ten minutes," he replied, bluntly.
She whirled from him, swiftly, her body instinct with passion, her expression one of surprise and fury.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Nothing I care to explain, except I discovered my love for you was dead--perhaps had been dead for a long time."
"But you never discovered it until you saw me--here--with Swann--dancing, drinking, smoking?"
"No. To be honest, the shock of that enlightened me."
"Daren Lane, I'm just what you men have made me," she burst out, passionately.
"You are mistaken. I beg to be excluded from any complicity in the--in whatever you've been made," he said, bitterly. "I have been true to you in deed and in thought all this time."
"You must be a queer soldier!" she exclaimed, incredulously.
"I figure there were a couple of million soldiers like me, queer or not," he retorted.
She gazed at him with something akin to hate in her eyes. Then putting her hands to her full hips she began that swaying, dancing walk to and fro before the window. She was deeply hurt. Lane had meant to get under her skin with a few just words of scorn, and he had imagined his insinuation as to the change in her had hurt her feelings. Suddenly he divined it was not that at all--he had only wounded her vanity.
"Helen, let's not talk of the past," he said. "It's over. Even if you had been true to me, and I loved you still--I would have been compelled to break our engagement."
"You would! And why?"
"I am a physical wreck--and a mental one, too, I fear.... Helen, I've come home to die."
"Daren!" she cried, poignantly.
Then he told her in brief, brutal words of the wounds and ravages war had dealt him, and what Doctor Bronson's verdict had been. Lane felt shame in being so little as to want to shock and hurt her, if that were possible.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she burst out. "Your mother--your sister.... Oh, that damned horrible war! What has it not done to us?... Daren, you looked white and weak, but I never thought you were--going to die.... How dreadful!"
Something of her girlishness returned to her in this moment of sincerity. The past was not wholly dead. Memories lingered. She looked at Lane, wide-eyed, in distress, caught between strange long-forgotten emotions.
"Helen, it's not dreadful to have to die," replied Lane. "That is not the dreadful part in coming home."
"What is dreadful, then?" she asked, very low.
Lane felt a great heave of his breast--the irrepressible reaction of a profound and terrible emotion, always held in abeyance until now. And a fierce pang, that was physical as well as emotional, tore through him. His throat constricted and ached to a familiar sensation--the welling up of blood from his lungs. The handkerchief he put to his lips came away stained red. Helen saw it, and with dilated eyes, moved instinctively as if to touch him, hold him in her pity.
"Never mind, Helen," he said, huskily. "That's nothing.... Well, I was about to tell you what is so dreadful--for me.... It's to reach home grateful to God I was spared to get home--resigned to the ruin of my life--content to die for whom I fought--my mother, my sister, you, and all our women (for I fought for nothing else)--and find my mother aged and bewildered and sad, my sister a painted little hussy--and you--a strange creature I despise.... And all, everybody, everything changed--changed in some horrible way which proves my sacrifice in vain.... It is not death that is dreadful, but the uselessness, the hopelessness of the ideal I cherished."
Helen fell on the couch, and burying her face in the pillows she began to sob. Lane looked down at her, at her glistening auburn hair, and slender, white, ringed hand clutching the cushions, at her lissom shaking form, at the shapely legs in the rolled-down silk stockings--and he felt a melancholy happiness in the proof that he had reached her shallow heart, and in the fact that this was the moment of loss.
"Good-bye--Helen," he said.
"Daren--don't--go," she begged.
But he had to go, for other reasons beside the one that this was the end of all intimate relation between him and Helen. He had overtaxed his strength, and the burning pang in his breast was one he must heed. On the hall stairway a dizzy spell came over him. He held on to the banister until the weakness passed. Fortunately there was no one to observe him. Somehow the sumptuous spacious hall seemed drearily empty. Was this a home for that twenty-year-old girl upstairs? Lane opened the door and went out. He was relieved to find the taxi waiting. To the driver he gave the address of his home and said: "Go slow and don't give me a jar!"
But Lane reached home, and got into the house, where he sat at the table with his mother and Lorna, making a pretense of eating, and went upstairs and into his bed without any recurrence of the symptoms that had alarmed him. In the darkness of his room he gradually relaxed to rest. And rest was the only medicine for him. It had put off hour by hour and day by day the inevitable.
"If it comes--all right--I'm ready," he whispered to himself. "But in spite of all I've been through--and have come home to--I don't want to die."
There was no use in trying to sleep. But in this hour he did not want oblivion. He wanted endless time to think. And slowly, with infinite care and infallible memory, he went over every detail of what he had seen and heard since his arrival home. In the headlong stream of consciousness of the past hours he met with circumstances that he lingered over, and tried to understand, to no avail. Yet when all lay clearly before his mental gaze he felt a sad and tremendous fascination in the spectacle.
For many weeks he had lived on the fancy of getting home, of being honored and loved, of being given some little meed of praise and gratitude in the short while he had to live. Alas! this fancy had been a dream of his egotism. His old world was gone. There was nothing left. The day of the soldier had passed--until some future need of him stirred the emotions of a selfish people. This new world moved on unmindful, through its travail and incalculable change, to unknown ends. He, Daren Lane, had been left alone on the vast and naked shores of Lethe.
Lane made not one passionate protest at the injustice of his fate. Labor, agony, war had taught him wisdom and vision. He began to realize that no greater change could there be than this of his mind, his soul. But in the darkness there an irresistible grief assailed him. He wept as never before in all his life. And he tasted the bitter salt of his own tears. He wept for his mother, aged and bowed by trouble, bewildered, ready to give up the struggle--his little sister now forced into erotic girlhood, blind, wilful, bold, on the wrong path, doomed beyond his power or any earthly power--the men he had met, warped by the war, materialistic, lost in the maze of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, dead to chivalry and the honor of women--Mel Iden, strangest and saddest of mysteries--a girl who had been noble, aloof, proud, with a heart of golden fire, now disgraced, ruined, the mother of a war-baby, and yet, strangest of all, not vile, not bad, not lost, but groping like he was down those vast and naked shores of life. He wept for the hard-faced Mrs. Wrapp, whose ideal had been wealth and who had found prosperity bitter ashes at her lips, yet who preserved in this modern maelstrom some sense of its falseness, its baseness. He wept for Helen, playmate of the years never to return, sweetheart of his youth, betrayer of his manhood, the young woman of the present, blase, unsexed, seeking, provocative, all perhaps, as she had said, that men had made her--a travesty on splendid girlhood. He wept for her friends, embodying in them all of their class--for little Bessy Bell, with her exquisite golden beauty, her wonderful smile that was a light of joy--a child of fifteen with character and mind, not yet sullied, not yet wholly victim to the unstable spirit of the day.
And traveling in this army that seemed to march before Lane's eyes were the slackers, like Mackay and Swann, representative of that horde of cowards who in one way or another had avoided the service--the young men who put comfort, ease, safety, pleasure before all else--who had no ideal of womanhood--who could not have protected women--who would not fight to save women from the apish Huns--who remained behind to fall in the wreck of the war's degeneration, and to dance, to drink, to smoke, to ride the women to their debasement.
And for the first and the last time Lane wept for himself, pitifully as a child lost and helpless, as a strong man facing irreparable loss, as a boy who had dreamed beautiful dreams, who had loved and given and trusted, who had suffered insupportable agonies of body and soul, who had fought like a lion for what he represented to himself, who had killed and killed--and whose reward was change, indifference, betrayal and death.
That dark hour passed. Lane lay spent in the blackness of his room. His heart had broken. But his spirit was as unquenchable as the fire of the sun. If he had a year, a month, a week, a day longer to live he could never live it untrue to himself. Life had marked him to be a sufferer, a victim. But nothing could kill his soul. And his soul was his faith--something he understood as faith in God or nature or life--in the reason for his being--in his vision of the future.
How then to spend this last remnant of his life! No one would guess what passed through his lonely soul. No one would care. But out of the suffering that now seemed to give him spirit and wisdom and charity there dawned a longing to help, to save. He would return good for evil. All had failed him, but he would fail no one.
Then he had a strange intense desire to understand the present. Only a day home--and what colossal enigma! The war had been chaos. Was this its aftermath? Had people been rocked on their foundations? What were they doing--how living--how changing? He would see, and be grateful for a little time to prove his faith. He knew he would find the same thing in others that existed in himself.
He would help his mother, and cheer her, and try to revive something of hope in her. He would bend a keen and patient eye upon Lorna, and take the place of her father, and be kind, loving, yet blunt to her, and show her the inevitable end of this dancing, dallying road. Perhaps he could influence Helen. He would see the little soldier-worshipping Bessy Bell, and if by talking hours and hours, by telling the whole of his awful experience of war, he could take up some of the time so fraught with peril for her, he would welcome the ordeal of memory. And Mel Iden--how thought of her seemed tinged with strange regret! Once she and he had been dear friends, and because of a falsehood told by Helen that friendship had not been what it might have been. Suppose Mel, instead of Helen, had loved him and been engaged to him! Would he have been jilted and would Mel have been lost? No! It was a subtle thing--that answer of his spirit. It did not agree with Mel Iden's frank confession.
It might be difficult, he reflected, to approach Mel. But he would find a way. He would rest a few days--then find where she lived and go to see her. Could he help her? And he had an infinite exaltation in his power to help any one who had suffered. Lane recalled Mel's pale sweet face, the shadowed eyes, the sad tremulous lips. And this image of her seemed the most lasting of the impressions of the day.