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Chapter 7

Daren Lane left Riverside Park, and walked in the meadows until he came to a boulder under a huge chestnut tree. Here he sat down. He could not walk far these days. Many a time in the Indian summers long past he had gathered chestnuts there with Dal, with Mel Iden, with Helen. He would never do it again.

The April day had been warm and fresh with the opening of a late spring. The sun was now gold--rimming the low hills in the west; the sky was pale blue; the spring flowers whitened the meadow. Twilight began to deepen; the evening star twinkled out of the sky; the hush of the gloaming hour stole over the land.

"Four weeks home--and nothing done. So little time left!" he muttered.

Two weeks of that period he had been unable to leave his bed. The rest of the time he had dragged himself around, trying to live up to his resolve, to get at the meaning of the present, to turn his sister Lorna from the path of dalliance. And he had failed in all.

His sister presented the problem that most distressed Lane. She had her good qualities, and through them could be reached. But she was thoughtless, vacillating, and wilful. She had made him promises only to break them. Lane had caught her in falsehoods. And upon being called to account she had told him that if he didn't like it he could "lump" it. Of late she had grown away from what affection she had shown at first. She could not bear interference with her pleasures, and seemed uncontrollable. Lane felt baffled. This thing was a Juggernaut impossible to stop.

Lane had scraped acquaintance with Harry Hale, one of Lorna's admirers, a boy of eighteen, who lived with his widowed mother on the edge of the town. He appeared to be an industrious, intelligent, quiet fellow, not much given to the prevailing habits of the young people. In his humble worship of Lorna he was like a dog. Lorna went to the motion pictures with him occasionally, when she had no other opportunity for excitement. Lane gathered that Lorna really liked this boy, and when with him seemed more natural, more what a fifteen-year-old girl used to be. And somehow it was upon this boy that Lane placed a forlorn hope.

No more automobiles honked in front of the home to call Lorna out. She met her friends away from the house, and returning at night she walked the last few blocks. It was this fact that awoke Lane's serious suspicions.

Another problem lay upon Lane's heart; if not so distressing as Lorna's, still one that added to his sorrow and his perplexity. He had gone once to call on Mel Iden. Mel Iden was all soul. Whatever had been the facts of her downfall--and reflection on that hurt Lane so strangely he could not bear it--it had not been on her part a matter of sex. She was far above wantonness.

Through long hours in the dark of night, when Lane's pain kept him sleepless, he had pondered over the mystery of Mel Iden until it cleared. She typified the mother of the race. In all periods of the progress of the race, war had brought out this instinct in women--to give themselves for the future. It was a provision of nature, inscrutable and terrible. How immeasurable the distance between Mel Iden and those women who practised birth control! As the war had brought out hideous greed and baseness, so had it propelled forward and upward the noblest attributes of life. Mel Iden was a builder, not a destroyer. She had been sexless and selfless. Unconsciously during the fever and emotion of the training of American men for service abroad, and the poignancy of their departure, to fight, and perhaps never return, Mel Iden had answered to this mysterious instinct of nature. Then, with the emotion past, and face to face with staggering consequences, she had reacted to conscious instincts. She had proved the purity of her surrender. She was all mother. And Lane began to see her moving in a crystal, beautiful light.

For what seemed a long time Lane remained motionless there in the silence of the meadow. Then at length he arose and retraced his slow steps back to town. Darkness overtook him on the bridge that spanned Middleville River. He leaned over the railing and peered down into the shadows. A soft murmur of rushing water came up. How like strange distant voices calling him to go back or go on, or warning him, or giving mystic portent of something that would happen to him there! A cold chill crept over him and he seemed enveloped in a sombre menace of the future. But he shook it off. He had many battles to fight, not the least of which was with morbid imagination.

When he reached the center of town he entered the lobby of the Bradford Inn. He hoped to meet Blair Maynard there. A company of well-dressed youths and men filled the place, most of whom appeared to be making a merry uproar.

Lane observed two men who evidently were the focus of attention. One was a stranger, very likely a traveling man, and at the moment he presented a picture of mingled consternation and anger. He was brushing off his clothes while glaring at a little, stout, red-faced man who appeared about to be stricken by apoplexy. This latter was a Colonel Pepper, whose acquaintance Lane had recently made. He was fond of cards and sport, and appeared to be a favorite with the young men about town. Moreover he had made himself particularly agreeable to Lane, in fact to the extent of Lane's embarrassment. At this moment the stranger lost his consternation wholly in wrath, and made a threatening movement toward Pepper. Lane stepped between them just in time to save Pepper a blow.

"I know what he's done. I apologize for him," said Lane, to the stranger. "He's made a good many people victims of the same indignity. It's a weakness--a disease. He can't help himself. Pray overlook it."

The stranger appeared impressed with Lane's presence, probably with his uniform, and slowly shook himself and fell back, to glower at Pepper, and curse under his breath, still uncertain of himself.

Lane grasped Colonel Pepper and led him out of the lobby.

"Pepper, you're going to get in an awful mess with that stunt of yours," he declared, severely. "If you can't help it you ought at least pick on your friends, or the town people--not strangers."

"Have--a--drink," sputtered Pepper, with his hand at his hip.

"No, thanks."

"Have--a--cigar."

Lane laughed. He had been informed that Colonel Pepper's failing always took this form of remorse, and certainly he would have tried it upon his latest victim had not Lane interfered.

"Colonel, you're hopeless," said Lane, as they walked out. "I hope somebody will always be around to protect you. I'd carry a body guard.... Say, have you seen Blair Maynard or Holt Dalrymple to-night?"

"Not Blair, but Holt was here early with the boys," replied Pepper. "They've gone to the club rooms to have a little game. I'm going to sit in. Lately I had to put up a holler. If the boys quit cards how'm I to make a living?"

"Had Holt been drinking?"

"Not to-night. But he's been hitting the bottle pretty hard of late."

Suddenly Lane buttonholed the little man and peered down earnestly at him. "Pepper, I've been trying to straighten Holt up. He's going to the bad. But he's a good kid. It's only the company.... The fact is--this's strictly confidential, mind you--Holt's sister begged me to try to stop his drinking and gambling. I think I can do it, too, with a little help. Now, Pepper, I'm asking you to help me."

"Ahuh! Well, let's go in the writing room, where we can talk," said the other, and he took hold of Lane's arm. When they were seated in a secluded corner he lighted a cigar, and faced Lane with shrewd, kindly eyes. "Son, I like you and Blair as well as I hate these slackers Swann and Mackay, and their crowd. I could tell you a heap, and maybe help you, though I think young Holt is not a bad egg.... Is his sister the dark one who steps so straight and holds herself so well?"

"Yes, that sounds like Dorothy," replied Lane.

"She's about the only one I know who doesn't paint her face and I never saw her at--well, never mind where. But the fact I mean makes her stand out in this Middleville crowd like a light in the dark.... Lane, have you got on yet to the speed of the young people of this old burg?"

"I'm getting on, to my sorrow," said Lane.

"Ahuh! You mean you're getting wise to your kid sister?"

"Yes, I'm sorry to say. What do you know, Pepper?"

"Now, son, wait. I'm coming to that, maybe. But I want to know some things first. Is it true--what I hear about your health, bad shape, you know--all cut up in the war? Worse than young Maynard?"

Pepper's hand was close on Lane's. He had forgotten his cigar. His eyes were earnest.

"True?" laughed Lane, grimly. "Yes, it's true.... I won't last long, Pepper, according to Doctor Bronson. That's why I want to make hay while the sun shines."

"Ahuh!" Pepper cleared his throat. "Forgive this, boy.... Is it also true you were engaged to marry that Helen Wrapp--and she threw you down, while you were over there?"

"Yes, that's perfectly true," replied Lane, soberly.

"God, I guess maybe the soldier wasn't up against it!" ejaculated Pepper, with a gesture of mingled awe and wonder and scorn.

"What was the soldier up against, Pepper?" queried Lane. "Frankly, I don't know."

"Lane, the government jollied and forced the boys into the army," replied Pepper. "The country went wild with patriotism. The soldiers were heroes. The women threw themselves away on anything inside a uniform. Make the world safe for democracy--down the Hun--save France and England--ideals, freedom, God's country, and all that! Well, the first few soldiers to return from France got a grand reception, were made heroes of. They were lucky to get back while the sentiment was hot. But that didn't last.... Now, a year and more after the war, where does the soldier get off? Lane, there're over six hundred thousand of you disabled veterans, and for all I can read and find out the government has done next to nothing. New York is full of begging soldiers--on the streets. Think of it! And the poor devils are dying everywhere. My God! think of what's in the mind of one crippled soldier, let alone over half a million. I just have a dim idea of what I'd felt. You must know, or you will know, Lane, for you seem a thoughtful, lofty sort of chap. Just the kind to make a good soldier, because you had ideals and nerve!... Well, a selfish and weak administration could hardly be expected to keep extravagant promises to patriots. But that the American public, as a body, should now be sick of the sight of a crippled soldier--and that his sweetheart should turn him down!--this is the hideous blot, the ineradicable shame, the stinking truth, the damned mystery!"

When Pepper ended his speech, which grew more vehement toward the close, Lane could only stare at him in amaze.

"See here, Lane," added the other hastily, "pardon me for blowing up. I just couldn't help it. I took a shine to you--and to see you like this--brings back the resentment I've had all along. I'm blunt, but it's just as well for you to be put wise quick. You'll find friends, like me, who will stand by you, if you let them. But you'll also find that most of this rotten world has gone back on you...."

Then Pepper made a sharp, passionate gesture that broke his cigar against the arm of his chair, and he cursed low and deep. Presently he addressed Lane again. "Whatever comes of any disclosures I make--whatever you do--you'll not give me away?"

"Certainly not. You can trust me, Pepper," returned Lane.

"Son, I'm a wise old guy. There's not much that goes on in Middleville I don't get on to. And I'll make your hair curl. But I'll confine myself to what comes closest home to you. I get you, Lane. You're game. You're through. You have come back from war to find a hell of a mess. Your own sister--your sweetheart--your friend's brother and your soldier pard's sister--on the primrose path! And you with your last breath trying to turn them back! I'll say it's a damn fine stunt. I'm an old gambler, Lane. I've lived in many towns and mixed in tough crowds of crooked men and rotten women. But I'm here to confess that this after-the-war stuff of Middleville's better class has knocked out about all the faith I had left in human nature.... Then you came along to teach me a lesson."

"Well, Pepper, that's strong talk," returned Lane. "But cut it, and hurry to--to what comes home to me. What's the matter with these Middleville girls?"

"Lane, any intelligent man, who knows things, and who can think for himself, will tell you this--that to judge from the dress, dance, talk, conduct of these young girls--most of them have apparently gone wrong."

"You include our nice girls--from what we used to call Middleville's best families?"

"I don't only include them. I throw the emphasis on them. The girls you know best."

Lane straightened up, to look at his companion. Pepper certainly was not drunk.

"Do you know--anything about Lorna?"

"Nothing specifically to prove anything. She's in the thick of this thing in Middleville. Only a few nights ago I saw her at a roadhouse, out on the State Road, with a crowd of youngsters. They were having a high old time, I'll say. They danced jazz, and I saw Lorna drink lemonade into which liquor had been poured from a hip-pocket flask."

Lane put his head on his hands, as if to rest it, or still the throbbing there.

"Who took Lorna to this place?" he asked, presently, breathing heavily.

"I don't know. But it was Dick Swann who poured the drink out of the flask. Between you and me, Lane, that young millionaire is going a pace hereabouts. Listen," he went on, lowering his voice, and glancing round to see there was no one to overhear him, "there's a gambling club in Middleville. I go there. My rooms are in the same building. I've made a peep-hole through the attic floor next to my room. Do I see more things than cards and bottles? Do I! If the fathers of Middleville could see what I've seen they'd go out to the asylum.... I'm not supposed to know it's more than a place to gamble. And nobody knows I know. Dick Swann and Hardy Mackay are at the head of this club. Swann is the genius and the support of it. He's rich, and a high roller if I ever saw one.... Among themselves these young gentlemen call it the Strong Arm Club. Study over that, Lane. Do you get it? I know you do, and that saves me talking until I see red."

"Pepper, have you seen my sister--there?" queried Lane, tensely.

"Yes."

"With whom?"

"I'll not say, Lane. There's no need for that. I'll give you a key to my rooms, and you can go there--in the afternoons--and paste yourself to my peep-hole, and watch.... Honest to God, I believe it means bloodshed. But I can't help that. Something must be done. I'm not much good, but I can see that."

Colonel Pepper wiped his moist face. He was now quite pale and his hands shook.

"I never had a wife, or a sweetheart," he went on. "But once I had a little sister. Thank Heaven she didn't live her girlhood in times like these."

Lane again bowed his head on his hands, and wrestled with the might of reality.

"I'm going to take you to these club-rooms to-night," went on Pepper. "It'll cause a hell of a row. But once you get in, there'll be no help for them. Swann and his chums will have to stand for it."

"Did you ever take an outsider in?" asked Lane.

"Several times. Traveling men I met here. Good fellows that liked a game of cards. Swann made no kick at that. He's keen to gamble. And when he's drinking the sky's the limit."

"Wouldn't it be wiser just to show me these rooms, and let me watch from your place--until I find my sister there?" queried Lane.

"I don't know," replied Pepper, thoughtfully. "I think if I were you I'd butt in to-night with me. You can drag young Dalrymple home before he gets drunk."

"Pepper, I'll break up this--this club," declared Lane.

"I'll say you will. And I'm for you strong. If it was only the booze and cards I'd not have squealed. That's my living. But by God, I can't stand for the--the other stuff any longer!... Come on now. And I'll put you on to a slick stunt that'll take your breath away."

He led the way out of the hotel, in his excitement walking rather fast.

"Go slow, Pepper," said Lane. "We're not going over the top."

Pepper gave him a quick, comprehending look.

"Good Lord, Lane, you're not as--as bad as all that!"

Lane nodded. Then at slower pace they went out and down the bright Main Street for two blocks, and then to the right on West Street, which was quite comparable to the other thoroughfare as a business district. At the end of the street the buildings were the oldest in Middleville, and entirely familiar to Lane.

"Give White's the once over," said Pepper, indicating a brightly lighted store across the street. "That place is new to you, isn't it?"

"Yes, I don't remember White, or that there was a confectionery den along here."

"Den is right. It's some den, believe me.... White's a newcomer--a young sport, thick with Swann. For all I know Swann is backing him. Anyway he has a swell joint and a good trade. People kick about his high prices. Ice cream, candy, soda, soft drinks, and all that rot. But if he knows who you are you can get a shot. It'll strike you funny later to see he waits on the customers himself. But when you get wise it'll not be so funny. He's got a tea parlor upstairs--and they say it's some swell place, with a rest room or ladies' dressing room back. Now from this back room the girls can get into the club-rooms of the boys, and go out on the other side of the block. In one way and out the other--at night. Not necessary in the afternoon.... Come on now, well go round the block."

A short walk round the block brought them into a shaded, wide street with one of Middleville's parks on the left. A row of luxuriant elm trees helped the effect of gloom. The nearest electric light was across on the far corner, with trees obscuring it to some extent. At the corner where Pepper halted there was an outside stairway running up the old-fashioned building. The ground floor shops bore the signs of a florist and a milliner; above was a photograph gallery; and the two upper stories were apparently unoccupied. To the left of the two stores another stairway led up into the center of the building. Pepper led Lane up this stairway, a long, dark climb of three stories that taxed Lane's endurance.

"Sure is a junk heap, this old block," observed Pepper, as he fumbled in the dim light with his keys. At length he opened a door, turned on a light and led Lane into his apartment. "I have three rooms here, and the back one opens into a kind of areaway from which I get into an abandoned storeroom, or I guess it's an attic. To-morrow afternoon about three you meet me here and I'll take you in there and let you have a look through the peep-hole I made. It's no use to-night, because there'll be only boys at the club, and I'm going to take you right in."

He switched off the light, drew Lane out and locked the door. "I'm the only person who lives on this floor. There're three holes to this burrow and one of them is at the end of this hall. The exit where the girls slip out is on the floor below, through a hallway to that outside stairs. Oh, I'll say it's a Coney Island maze, this building! But just what these young rakes want.... Come on, and be careful. It'll be dark and the stairs are steep."

At the end of the short hall Pepper opened a door, and led Lane down steep steps in thick darkness, to another hall, dimly lighted by a window opening upon the street.

"You'll have to make a bluff at playing poker, unless my butting in with you causes a row," said Pepper, as he walked along. Presently he came to a door upon which he knocked several times. But before it was opened footsteps and voices sounded down the hall in the opposite direction from which Pepper had escorted Lane.

"Guess they're just coming. Hard luck," said Pepper. "'Fraid you'll not get in now."

Lane counted five dark forms against the background of dim light. He saw the red glow of a cigarette. Then the door upon which Pepper had knocked opened to let out a flare. Pepper gave Lane a shove across the threshold and followed him. Lane did not recognize the young man who had opened the door. The room was large, with old walls and high ceiling, a round table with chairs and a sideboard. It had no windows. The door on the other side was closed.

"Pepper, who's this you're ringin' in on me?" demanded the young fellow.

"A pard of mine. Now don't be peeved, Sammy," replied Pepper. "If there's any kick I'll take the blame. What's got into you that you can gamble and drink' with slackers?"

Dalrymple jammed his hat on and stepped toward the door. "Dare, you said a lot. I'll beat it with you--and I'll never come back."

"You bet your sweet life you won't," shouted Swann.

"Hold on there, Dalrymple," interposed Mackay, stepping out. "Come across with that eighty-six bucks you owe me."

"I--I haven't got it, Mackay," rejoined the boy, flushing deeply.

Lane ripped open his coat and jerked out his pocket-book and tore bills out of it. "There, Hardy Mackay," he said, with deliberate scorn, throwing the money on the table. "There are your eighty-six dollars--earned in France.... I should think it'd burn your fingers."

He drew Holt out into the hall, where Pepper waited. Some one slammed the door and began to curse.

"That ends that," said Colonel Pepper, as the three moved down the dim hall.

"It ends us, Pepper, but you couldn't stop those guys with a crowbar," retorted Dalrymple.

Lane linked arms with the boy and changed the conversation while they walked back to the inn. Here Colonel Pepper left them, and Lane talked to Holt for an hour. The more he questioned Holt the better he liked him, and yet the more surprised was he at the sordid fact of the boy's inclination toward loose living. There was something perhaps that Holt would not confess. His health had been impaired in the rich coloring, but his face wore a shade of sullen depression. The other two young men Lane had seen in Middleville, but they were unknown to him.

"Pepper, you beat it with your new pard," snarled Swann. "And you'll not get in here again, take that from me."

The mandate nettled Pepper, who evidently felt more deeply over this situation than had appeared on the surface.

"Sure, I'll beat it," returned he, resentfully. "But see here, Swann. Be careful how you shoot off your dirty mouth. It's not beyond me to hand a little tip to my friend Chief of Police Bell."

"You damned squealer!" shouted Swann. "Go ahead--do your worst. You'll find I pull a stroke.... Now get out of here."

With a violent action he shoved the little man out into the hall. Then turning to Lane he pointed with shaking hand to the door.

"Lane, you couldn't be a guest of mine."

"Swann, I certainly wouldn't be," retorted Lane, in tones that rang. "Pepper didn't tell me you were the proprietor of this--this joint."

"Get out of here or I'll throw you out!" yelled Swann, now beside himself with rage. And he made a threatening move toward Lane.

"Don't lay a hand on me," replied Lane. "I don't want my uniform soiled."

With that Lane turned to Dalrymple, and said quietly: "Holt, I came here to find you, not to play cards. That was a stall. Come away with me. You were not cut out for a card sharp or a booze fighter. What's got into you that you can gamble and drink' with slackers?"

Dalrymple jammed his hat on and stepped toward the door. "Dare, you said a lot. I'll beat it with you--and I'll never come back."

"You bet your sweet life you won't," shouted Swann.

"Hold on there, Dalrymple," interposed Mackay, stepping out. "Come across with that eighty-six bucks you owe me."

"I--I haven't got it, Mackay," rejoined the boy, flushing deeply.

Lane ripped open his coat and jerked out his pocket-book and tore bills out of it. "There, Hardy Mackay," he said, with deliberate scorn, throwing the money on the table. "There are your eighty-six dollars--earned in France.... I should think it'd burn your fingers."

He drew Holt out into the hall, where Pepper waited. Some one slammed the door and began to curse.

"That ends that," said Colonel Pepper, as the three moved down the dim hall.

"It ends us, Pepper, but you couldn't stop those guys with a crowbar," retorted Dalrymple.

Lane linked arms with the boy and changed the conversation while they walked back to the inn. Here Colonel Pepper left them, and Lane talked to Holt for an hour. The more he questioned Holt the better he liked him, and yet the more surprised was he at the sordid fact of the boy's inclination toward loose living. There was something perhaps that Holt would not confess. His health had been impaired in the service, but not seriously. He was getting stronger all the time. His old job was waiting for him. His mother and sister had enough to live on, but if he had been working he could have helped them in a way to afford him great satisfaction.

"Holt, listen," finally said Lane, with more earnestness. "We're friends--all boys of the service are friends. We might even become great pards, if we had time."

"What's time got to do with it?" queried the younger man. "I'm sure I'd like it--and know it'd help me."

"I'm shot to pieces, Holt.... I won't last long...."

"Aw, Lane, don't say that!"

"It's true. And if I'm to help you at all it must be now.... You haven't told me everything, boy--now have you?"

Holt dropped his head.

"I'll say--I haven't," he replied, haltingly. "Lane--the trouble is--I'm clean gone on Margie Maynard. But her mother hates the sight of me. She won't stand for me."

"Oho! So that's it?" ejaculated Lane, a light breaking in upon him. "Well, I'll be darned. It is serious, Holt.... Does Margie love you?"

"Sure she does. We've always cared. Don't you remember how Margie and I and Dal and you used to go to school together? And come home together? And play on Saturdays?... Ever since then!... But lately Margie and I are--we got--pretty badly mixed up."

"Yes, I remember those days," replied Lane, dreamily, and suddenly he recalled Dal's dark eyes, somehow haunting. He had to make an effort to get back to the issue at hand.

"If Margie loves you--why it's all right. Go back to work and marry her."

"Lane, it can't be all right. Mrs. Maynard has handed me the mitt," replied Holt, bitterly. "And Margie hasn't the courage to run off with me.... Her mother is throwing Margie at Swann--because he's rich."

"Oh Lord, no--Holt--you can't mean it!" exclaimed Lane, aghast.

"I'll say I do mean it. I know it," returned Holt, moodily. "So I let go--fell into the dumps--didn't care a d---- what became of me."

Lane was genuinely shocked. What a tangle he had fallen upon! Once again there seemed to confront him a colossal Juggernaut, a moving, crushing, intangible thing, beyond his power to cope with.

"Now, what can I do?" queried Holt, in sudden hope his friend might see a way out.

Despairingly, Lane racked his brain for some word of advice or assurance, if not of solution. But he found none. Then his spirit mounted, and with it passion.

"Holt, don't be a miserable coward," he began, in fierce scorn. "You're a soldier, man, and you've got your life to live!... The sun will rise--the days will be long and pleasant--you can work--do something. You can fish the streams in summer and climb the hills in autumn. You can enjoy. Bah! don't tell me one shallow girl means the world. If Margie hasn't courage enough to run off and marry you--let her go! But you can never tell. Maybe Margie will stick to you. I'll help you. Margie and I have always been friends and I'll try to influence her. Then think of your mother and sister. Work for them. Forget yourself--your little, miserable, selfish desires.... My God, boy, but it's a strange life the war's left us to face. I hate it. So do you hate it. Swann and Mackay giving nothing and getting all!... So it looks.... But it's false--false. God did not intend men to live solely for their bodies. A balance must be struck. They have got to pay. Their time will come.... As for you, the harder this job is the fiercer you should be. I've got to die, Holt. But if I could live I'd show these slackers, these fickle wild girls, what they're doing.... You can do it, Holt. It's the greatest part any man could be called upon to play. It will prove the difference between you and them...."

Holt Dalrymple crushed Lane's hand in both his own. On his face was a glow--his dark eyes flashed: "Lane--that'll be about all," he burst out with a kind of breathlessness. Then his head high, he stalked out.

The next day was bad. Lane suffered from both over-exertion and intensity of emotion. He remained at home all day, in bed most of the time. At supper time he went downstairs to find Lorna pirouetting in a new dress, more abbreviated at top and bottom than any costume he had seen her wear. The effect struck him at an inopportune time. He told her flatly that she looked like a French grisette of the music halls, and ought to be ashamed to be seen in such attire.

"Daren, I don't think you're a good judge of clothes these days," she observed, complacently. "The boys will say I look spiffy in this."

So many times Lorna's trenchant remarks silenced Lane. She hit the nail on the head. Practical, logical, inevitable were some of her speeches. She knew what men wanted. That was the pith of her meaning. What else mattered?

"But Lorna, suppose you don't look nice?" he questioned.

"I do look nice," she retorted.

"You don't look anything of the kind."

"What's nice? It's only a word. It doesn't mean much in my young life."

"Where are you going to-night?" he asked, sitting down to the table.

"To the armory--basketball game--and dance afterward."

"With whom?"

"With Harry. I suppose that pleases you, big brother?"

"Yes, it does. I like him. I wish he'd take you out oftener."

"Take me! Hot dog! He'd kill himself to take me all the time. But Harry's slow. He bores me. Then he hasn't got a car."

"Lorna, you may as well know now that I'm going to stop your car rides," said Lane, losing his patience.

"You are not," she retorted, and in the glint of the eyes meeting his, Lane saw his defeat. His patience was exhausted, his fear almost verified. He did not mince words. With his mother standing open-mouthed and shocked, Lane gave his sister to understand what he thought of automobile rides, and that as far as she was concerned they had to be stopped. If she would not stop them out of respect to her mother and to him, then he would resort to other measures. Lorna bounced up in a fury, and in the sharp quarrel that followed, Lane realized he was dealing with flint full of fire. Lorna left without finishing her supper.

"Daren, that's not the way," said his mother, shaking her head.

"What is the way, mother?" he asked, throwing up his hands.

"I don't know, unless it's to see her way," responded the mother. "Sometimes I feel so--so old-fashioned and ignorant before Lorna. Maybe she is right. How can we tell? What makes all the young girls like that?"

What indeed, wondered Lane! The question had been hammering at his mind for over a month. He went back to bed, weary and dejected, suffering spasms of pain, like blades, through his lungs, and grateful for the darkness. Almost he wished it was all over--this ordeal. How puny his efforts! Relentlessly life marched on. At midnight he was still fighting his pangs, still unconquered. In the night his dark room was not empty. There were faces, shadows, moving images and pictures, scenes of the war limned against the blackness. At last he rested, grew as free from pain as he ever grew, and slept. In the morning it was another day, and the past was as if it were not.

May the first dawned ideally springlike, warm, fresh, fragrant, with birds singing, sky a clear blue, and trees budding green and white.

Lane yielded to an impulse that had grown stronger of late. His steps drew him to the little drab house where Mel Iden lived with her aunt. On the way, which led past a hedge, Lane gathered a bunch of violets.

"'In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,'" he mused. "It's good, even for me, to be alive this morning.... These violets, the birds, the fresh smells, the bursting green! Oh, well, regrets are idle. But just to think--I had to go through all I've known--right down to this moment--to realize how stingingly sweet life is...."

Mel answered his knock, and sight of her face seemed to lift his heart with an unwonted throb. Had he unconsciously needed that? The thought made his greeting, and the tender of the violets, awkward for him.

"Violets! Oh, and spring! Daren, it was good of you to gather them for me. I remember.... But I told you not to come again."

"Yes, I know you did," he replied. "But I've disobeyed you. I wanted to see you, Mel.... I didn't know how badly until I got here."

"You should not want to see me at all. People will talk."

"So you care what people say of you?" he questioned, feigning surprise.

"Of me? No. I was thinking of you."

"You fear the poison tongues for me? Well, they cannot harm me. I'm beyond tongues or minds like those."

She regarded him earnestly, with serious gravity and slowly dawning apprehension; then, turning to arrange the violets in a tiny vase, she shook her head.

"Daren, you're beyond me, too. I feel a--a change in you. Have you had another sick spell?"

"Only for a day off and on. I'm really pretty well to-day. But I have changed. I feel that, yet I don't know how."

Lane could talk to her. She stirred him, drew him out of himself. He felt a strange desire for her sympathy, and a keen curiosity concerning her opinions.

"I thought maybe you'd been ill again or perhaps upset by the consequences of your--your action at Fanchon Smith's party."

"Who told you of that?" he asked in surprise.

"Dal. She was here yesterday. She will come in spite of me."

"So will I," interposed Lane.

She shook her head. "No, it's different for a man.... I've missed the girls. No one but Dal ever comes. I thought Margie would be true to me--no matter what had befallen.... Dal comes, and oh, Daren, she is good. She helps me so.... She told me what you did at Fanchon's party."

"She did! Well, what's your verdict?" he queried, grimly. "That break queered me in Middleville."

"I agree with what Doctor Wallace said to his congregation," returned Mel.

As Lane met the blue fire of her eyes he experienced another singularly deep and profound thrill, as if the very depths of him had been stirred. He seemed to have suddenly discovered Mel Iden.

"Doctor Wallace did back me up," said Lane, with a smile. "But no one else did."

"Don't be so sure of that. Harsh conditions require harsh measures. Dal said you killed the camel-walk dance in Middleville."

"It surely was a disgusting sight," returned Lane, with a grimace. "Mel, I just saw red that night."

"Daren," she asked wistfully, following her own train of thought, "do you know that most of the girls consider me an outcast? Fanchon rides past me with her head up in the air. Helen Wrapp cuts me. Margie looks to see if her mother is watching when she bows to me. Isn't it strange, Daren, how things turn out? Maybe my old friends are right. But I don't feel that I am what they think I am.... I would do what I did--over and over."

Her eyes darkened under his gaze, and a slow crimson tide stained her white face.

"I understand you, Mel," he said, swiftly. "You must forgive me that I didn't understand at once.... And I think you are infinitely better, finer, purer than these selfsame girls who scorn you."

"Daren! You--understand?" she faltered.

And just as swiftly he told her the revelation that thinking had brought to him.

When he had finished she looked at him for a long while. "Yes, Daren," she finally said, "you understand, and you have made me understand. I always felt"--and her hand went to her heart--"but my mind did not grasp.... Oh, Daren, how I thank you!" and she held her hands out to him.

Lane grasped the outstretched hands, and loosed the leaping thought her words and action created.

"Mel, let me give your boy a father--a name."

No blow could have made her shrink so palpably. It passed--that shame. Her lips parted, and other emotions claimed her.

"Daren--you would--marry me?" she gasped.

"I am asking you to be my wife for your child's sake," he replied.

Her head bowed. She sank against him, trembling. Her hands clung tightly to his. Lane divined something of her agitation from the feel of her slender form. And then again that deep and profound thrill ran over him. It was followed by an instinct to wrap her in his arms, to hold her, to share her trouble and to protect her.

Strong reserve force suddenly came to Mel. She drew away from Lane, still quivering, but composed.

"Daren, all my life I'll thank you and bless you for that offer," she said, very low. "But, of course it is impossible."

She disengaged her hands, and, turning away, looked out of the window. Lane rather weakly sat down. What had come over him? His blood seemed bursting in his veins. Then he gazed round the dingy little parlor and at this girl of twenty, whose beauty did not harmonize with her surroundings. Fair-haired, white-faced, violet-eyed, she emanated tragedy. He watched her profile, clear cut as a cameo, fine brow, straight nose, sensitive lips, strong chin. She was biting those tremulous lips. And when she turned again to him they were red. The short-bowed upper lip, full and sweet, the lower, with its sensitive droop at the corner, eloquent of sorrow--all at once Lane realized he wanted to kiss that mouth more than he had ever wanted anything. The moment was sudden and terrible, for it meant love--love such as he had never known.

"Daren," she said, turning, "tell me how you got the Croix de Guerre."

By the look of her and the hand that moved toward his breast, Lane felt his power over her. He began his story and it was as if he heard some one else talking. When he had finished, she asked, "The French Army honored you, why not the American?"

"It was never reported."

"How strange! Who was your officer?"

"You'll laugh when you hear," he replied, without hint of laugh himself. "Heavens, how things come about! My officer was from Middleville."

"Daren! Who?" she asked, quickly, her eyes darkening with thought.

"Captain Vane Thesel."

How singular to Lane the fact she did not laugh! She only stared. Then it seemed part of her warmth and glow, her subtle response to his emotion, slowly receded. He felt what he could not see.

"Oh! He. Vane Thesel," she said, without wonder or surprise or displeasure, or any expression Lane anticipated.

Her strange detachment stirred a hideous thought--could Thesel have been.... But Lane killed the culmination of that thought. Not, however, before dark, fiery jealousy touched him with fangs new to his endurance.

To drive it away, Lane launched into more narrative of the war. And as he talked he gradually forgot himself. It might be hateful to rake up the burning threads of memory for the curious and the soulless, but to tell Mel Iden it was a keen, strange delight. He watched the changes of her expression. He learned to bring out the horror, sadness, glory that abided in her heart. And at last he cut himself off abruptly: "But I must save something for another day."

That broke the spell.

"No, you must never come back."

He picked up his hat and his stick.

"Mel, would you shut the door in my face?"

"No, Daren--but I'll not open it," she replied resolutely.

"Why?"

"You must not come."

"For my sake--or yours?"

"Both our sakes."

He backed out on the little porch, and looked at her as she stood there. Beyond him, indeed, were his emotions then. Sad as she seemed, he wanted to make her suffer more--an inexplicable and shameful desire.

"Mel, you and I are alike," he said.

"Oh, no, Daren; you are noble and I am...."

"Mel, in my dreams I see myself standing--plodding along the dark shores of a river--that river of tears which runs down the vast naked stretch of our inner lives.... I see you now, on the opposite shore. Let us reach our hands across--for the baby's sake."

"Daren, it is a beautiful thought, but it--it can't be," she whispered.

"Then let me come to see you when I need--when I'm down," he begged.

"No."

"Mel, what harm can it do--just to let me come?"

"No--don't ask me. Daren, I am no stone."

"You'll be sorry when I'm out there in--Woodlawn.... That won't be long."

That broke her courage and her restraint.

"Come, then," she whispered, in tears.


Zane Grey

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