Lane's intentions and his spirit were too great for his endurance. It was some time before he got downtown again. And upon entering the inn he was told some one had just called him on the telephone.
"Hello, this is Lane," he answered. "Who called me?"
"It's Blair," came the reply. "How are you, old top?"
"Not so well. I've been down and out."
"Sorry. Suppose that's why you haven't called me up for so long?"
"Well, Buddy, I can't lay it all to that.... And how're you?"
The answer did not come. So Lane repeated his query.
"Well, I'm still hobbling round on one leg," replied Blair.
"That's good. Tell me about Reddie."
Again the reply was long in coming....
"Haven't you heard--about Red?"
"Haven't seen the newspapers lately?"
"I never read the papers, Blair."
"Right-o. But I had to.... Buck up, now, Dare!"
"All right. Shoot it quick," returned Lane, feeling his breast contract and his skin tighten with a chill.
"Red Payson has gone west."
"Blair! You don't mean--dead?" exclaimed Lane.
"Yes, Reddie's gone--and I guess it's just as well, poor devil!"
"Two days ago, according to papers.... He died in Washington, D.C. Fell down in the vestibule of one of the government offices--where he was waiting.... fell with another hemorrhage--and died right there--on the floor--quick."
"My--God!" gasped Lane.
"Yes, it's tough. You see, Dare, I couldn't keep Reddie here. Heaven knows I tried, but he wouldn't stay.... I'm afraid he heard my mother complaining. Say, Dare, suppose I have somebody drive me in town to see you."
"I'd like that, Blair."
"You're on. And say, I've another idea. Tonight's the Junior Prom--did you know that?"
"No, I didn't."
"Well, it is. Suppose we go up? My sister can get me cards.... I tell you, Dare, I'd like to see what's going on in that bunch. I've heard a lot and seen some things."
"Did you hear how I mussed up Fanchon Smith's party?"
"You bet I did. That's one reason I want to see some of this dancing. Will you go?"
"Yes, I can stand it if you can."
"All right, Buddy, I'll meet you at the inn--eight o'clock."
Lane slowly made his way to a secluded corner of the lobby, where he sat down. Red Payson dead! Lane felt that he should not have been surprised or shocked. But he was both. The strange, cold sensation gradually wore away and with it the slight trembling of his limbs. A mournful procession of thoughts and images returned to his mind and he sat and brooded.
At the hour of his appointment with his friend, Lane went to the front of the lobby. Blair was on time. He hobbled in, erect and martial of bearing despite the crutch, and his dark citizen's suit emphasized the whiteness of his face. Being home had softened Blair a little. Yet the pride and tragic bitterness were there. But when Blair espied Lane a warmth burned out of the havoc in his face. Lane's conscience gave him a twinge. It dawned upon him that neither his spells of illness, nor his distress over his sister Lorna, nor his obsession to see and understand what the young people were doing could hold him wholly excusable for having neglected his comrade.
Their hand-clasp was close, almost fierce, and neither spoke at once. But they looked intently into each other's faces. Emotion stormed Lane's heart. He realized that Blair loved him and that he loved Blair--and that between them was a measureless bond, a something only separation could make tangible. But little of what they felt came out in their greetings.
"Dare, why the devil don't you can that uniform," demanded Blair, cheerfully. "People might recognize you've been 'over there.'"
"Well, Blair, I expected you'd have a cork leg by this time," said Lane.
"Nothing doing," returned the other. "I want to be perpetually reminded that I was in the war. This 'forget the war' propaganda we see and hear all over acts kind of queer on a soldier.... Let's find a bench away from these people."
After they were comfortably seated Blair went on: "Do you know, Dare, I don't miss my leg so much when I'm crutching around. But when I try to sit down or get up! By heck, sometimes I forget it's gone. And sometimes I want to scratch my lost foot. Isn't that hell?"
"I'll say so, Buddy," returned Lane, with a laugh.
"Read this," said Blair, taking a paper from his pocket, and indicating a column.
Whereupon Lane read a brief Associated Press dispatch from Washington, D.C., stating that one Payson, disabled soldier of twenty-five, suffering with tuberculosis caused by gassed lungs, had come to Washington to make in person a protest and appeal that had been unanswered in letters. He wanted money from the government to enable him to travel west to a dry climate, where doctors assured him he might get well. He made his statement to several clerks and officials, and waited all day in the vestibule of the department. Suddenly he was seized with a hemorrhage, and, falling on the floor, died before aid could be summoned.
Without a word Lane handed the paper back to his friend.
"Red was a queer duck," said Blair, rather hoarsely. "You remember when I 'phoned you last over two weeks ago?... Well, just after that Red got bad on my hands. He wouldn't accept charity, he said. And he wanted to beat it. He got wise to my mother. He wouldn't give up trying to get money from the government--back money owed him, he swore--and the idea of being turned down at home seemed to obsess him. I talked and cussed myself weak. No good! Red beat it soon after that--beat it from Middleville on a freight train. And I never heard a word from him.... Not a word...."
"Blair, can't you see it Red's way?" queried Lane, sadly.
"Yes, I can," responded Blair, "but hell! he might have gotten well. Doc Bronson said Red had a chance. I could have borrowed enough money to get him out west. Red wouldn't take it."
"And he ran off--exposed himself to cold and starvation--over-exertion and anger," added Lane.
"Exactly. Brought on that hemorrhage and croaked. All for nothing!"
"No, Blair. All for a principle," observed Lane. "Red was fired out of the hospital without a dollar. There was something terribly wrong."
"Wrong?... God Almighty!" burst out Blair, with hard passion. "Let me read you something in this same paper." With shaking hands he unfolded it, searched until he found what he wanted, and began to read:
"'If the actual needs of disabled veterans require the expenditure of much money, then unquestionably a majority of the taxpayers of the country will favor spending it. Despite the insistent demand for economy in Washington that is arising from every part of the country, no member of House or Senate will have occasion to fear that he is running counter to popular opinion when eventually he votes to take generous care of disabled soldiers.'"
Blair's trembling voice ceased, and then twisting the newspaper into a rope, he turned to Lane. "Dare, can you understand that?... Red Payson was a bull-headed boy, not over bright. But you and I have some intelligence, I hope. We can allow for the immense confusion at Washington--the senselessness of red tape--the callosity of politicians. But when we remember the eloquent calls to us boys--the wonderfully worded appeals to our patriotism, love of country and home--the painted posters bearing the picture of a beautiful American girl--or a young mother with a baby--remembering these deep, passionate calls to the best in us, can you understand that sort of talk now?"
"Blair, I think I can," replied Lane. "Then--before and after the draft--the whole country was at a white heat of all that the approach of war rouses. Fear, self-preservation, love of country, hate of the Huns, inspired patriotism, and in most everybody the will to fight and to sacrifice.... The war was a long, hideous, soul-racking, nerve-destroying time. When it ended, and the wild period of joy and relief had its run, then all that pertained to the war sickened and wearied and disgusted the majority of people. It's 'forget the war.' You and Payson and I got home a year too late."
"Then--it's just--monstrous," said Blair, heavily.
"That's all, Blair. Just monstrous. But we can't beat our spirits out against this wall. No one can understand us--how alone we are. Let's forget that--this wall--this thing called government. Shall we spend what time we have to live always in a thunderous atmosphere of mind--hating, pondering, bitter?"
"No. I'll make a compact with you," returned Blair, with flashing eyes. "Never to speak again of that--so long as we live!"
"Never to a living soul," rejoined Lane, with a ring in his voice.
They shook hands much the same as when they had met half an hour earlier.
"So!" exclaimed Blair, with a deep breath. "And now, Dare, tell me how you made out with Helen. You cut me short over the 'phone."
"Blair, that day coming into New York on the ship, you didn't put it half strong enough," replied Lane. Then he told Blair about the call he had made upon Helen, and what had transpired at her studio.
Blair did not voice the scorn that his eyes expressed. And, in fact, most of his talking was confined to asking questions. Lane found it easy enough to unburden himself, though he did not mention his calls on Mel Iden, or Colonel Pepper's disclosures.
"Well, I guess it's high time we were meandering up to the hall," said Blair, consulting his watch. "I'm curious about this Prom. Think we're in for a jolt. It's four years since I went to a Prom. Now, both of us, Dare, have a sister who'll be there, besides all our old friends.... And we're not dancing! But I want to look on. They've got an out-of-town orchestra coming--a jazz orchestra. There'll probably be a hot time in the old town to-night."
"Lorna did not tell me," replied Lane, as they got up to go. "But I suppose she'd rather I didn't know. We've clashed a good deal lately."
"Dare, I hear lots of talk," said Blair. "Margaret is chummy with me, and some of her friends are always out at the house. I hear Dick Swann is rushing Lorna. Think he's doing it on the q-t."
"I know he is, Blair, but I can't catch them together," returned Lane. "Lorna is working now. Swann got her the job."
"Looks bad to me," replied Blair, soberly. "Swann is cutting a swath. I hear his old man is sore on him.... I'd take Lorna out of that office quick."
"Maybe you would," declared Lane, grimly. "For all the influence or power I have over Lorna I might as well not exist."
They walked silently along the street for a little while. Lane had to accommodate his step to the slower movement of his crippled friend. Blair's crutch tapped over the stone pavement and clicked over the curbs. They crossed the railroad tracks and turned off the main street to go down a couple of blocks.
"Shades of the past!" exclaimed Blair, as they reached a big brick building, well-lighted in front by a sizzling electric lamp. The night was rather warm and clouds of insects were wheeling round the light. "The moths and the flame!" added Blair, satirically. "Well, Dare, old bunkie, brace up and we'll go over the top. This ought to be fun for us."
"I don't see it," replied Lane. "I'll be about as welcome as a bull in a china shop."
"Oh, I didn't mean any one would throw fits over us," responded Blair. "But we ought to get some fun out of the fact."
"What fact?" queried Lane, puzzled.
"Rather far-fetched, maybe. But I'll get a kick out of looking on--watching these swell slackers with the girls we fought for."
"Wonder why they didn't give the dance at the armory, where they'd not have to climb stairs, and have more room?" queried Lane, as they went in under the big light.
"Dare, you're far back in the past," said Blair, sardonically. "The armory is on the ground floor--one big hall--open, you know. The Assembly Hall is a regular maze for rooms and stairways."
Blair labored up the stairway with Lane's help. At last they reached the floor from which had blared the strains of jazz. Wide doors were open, through which Lane caught the flash of many colors. Blair produced his tickets at the door. There did not appear to be any one to take them.
Lane experienced an indefinable thrill at the scene. The air seemed to reek with a mixed perfume and cigarette smoke--to resound with high-keyed youthful laughter, wild and sweet and vacant above the strange, discordant music. Then the flashing, changing, whirling colors of the dancers struck Lane as oriental, erotic, bizarre--gorgeous golds and greens and reds striped by the conventional black. Suddenly the blare ceased, and the shrill, trilling laughter had dominance. The rapid circling of forms came to a sudden stop, and the dancers streamed in all directions over the floor.
"Dare, they've called time," said Blair. "Let's get inside the ropes so we can see better."
The hall was not large, but it was long, and shaped like a letter L with pillars running down the center. Countless threads of many-colored strings of paper had been stretched from pillars to walls, hanging down almost within reach of the dancers. Flags and gay bunting helped in the riotous effect of decoration. The black-faced orchestra held forth on a raised platform at the point where the hall looked two ways. Recesses, alcoves and open doors to other rooms, which the young couples were piling over each other to reach, gave Lane some inkling of what Blair had hinted.
"Now we're out in the limelight," announced Blair, as he halted. "Let's stand here and run the gauntlet until the next dance--then we can find seats."
Almost at once a stream of gay couples enveloped them in passing. Bright, flashing, vivid faces and bare shoulders, arms and breasts appeared above the short bodices of the girls. Few of them were gowned in white. The colors seemed too garish for anything but musical comedy. But the freshness, the vividness of these girls seemed exhilarating. The murmur, the merriment touched a forgotten chord in Lane's heart. For a moment it seemed sweet to be there, once more in a gathering where pleasure was the pursuit. It breathed of what seemed long ago, in a past that was infinitely more precious to remember because he had no future of hope or of ambition or dream. Something had happened to him that now made the sensations of the moment stingingly bitter-sweet. The freshness and fragrance, the color and excitement, the beauty and gayety were not for him. Youth was dead. He could never enter the lists with these young men, many no younger than he, for the favor and smile of a girl. Resignation had not been so difficult in the spiritual moment of realization and resolve, but to be presented with one concrete and stunning actuality after another, each with its mocking might-have-been, had grown to be a terrible ordeal.
Lane looked for faces he knew. On each side of the pillar where he and Blair stood the stream of color and gayety flowed. Helen and Margaret Maynard went by on the far edge of that stream. Across the hall he caught a glimpse of the flashing golden beauty of Bessy Bell. Then near at hand he recognized Fanchon Smith, a petite, smug-faced little brunette, with naked shoulders bulging out of a piebald gown. She espied Lane and her face froze. Then there were familiar faces near and far, to which Lane could not attach names.
All at once he became aware that other of his senses besides sight were being stimulated. He had been hearing without distinguishing what he heard. And curiously he listened, still with that strange knock of memory at his heart. Everybody was talking, some low, some high, all in the spirit of the hour. And in one moment he had heard that which killed the false enchantment.
"Not a chance!..."
"Hot dog--she's some Jane!"
"Now to the clinch--"
"What'll we do till the next spiel--"
"Have a shot?----"
"Boys, it's only the shank of the evening. Leave something peppy for the finish."
"Mame, you look like a million dollars in that rag."
"She shakes a mean shimmy, believe me...."
"That egg! Not on your life!"
"Cut the next with Ned. We'll sneak down and take a ride in my car...."
Lane's acutely strained attention was diverted by Blair's voice.
"Look who's with my sister Margie."
Lane turned to look through an open space in the dispersing stream. Blair's sister was passing with Dick Swann. Elegantly and fastidiously attired, the young millionaire appeared to be attentive to his partner. Margaret stood out rather strikingly from the other girls near her by reason of the simplicity and modesty of her dress. She did not look so much bored as discontented. Lane saw her eyes rove to and fro from the entrance of the hall. When she espied Lane she nodded and spoke with a smile and made an evident move toward him, but was restrained by Swann. He led her past Lane and Blair without so much as glancing in their direction. Lane heard Blair swear.
"Dare, if my mother throws Marg at that--slacker, I'll block the deal if it's the last thing I ever do," he declared, violently.
"And I'll help you," replied Lane, instantly.
"I know Margie hates him."
"Blair, your sister is in love with Holt Dalrymple."
"No! Not really? Thought that was only a boy-and-girl affair.... Aha! the nigger music again! Let's find a seat, Dare."
Saxophone, trombone, piccolo, snare-drum and other barbaric instruments opened with a brazen defiance of music, and a vibrant assurance of quick, raw, strong sounds. Lane himself felt the stirring effect upon his nerves. He had difficulty in keeping still. From the lines of chairs along the walls and from doors and alcoves rushed the gay-colored throng to leap, to close, to step, to rock and sway, until the floor was full of a moving mass of life.
The first half-dozen couples Lane studied all danced more or less as Helen and Swann had, that day in Helen's studio. Then, by way of a remarkable contrast, there passed two young people who danced decently. Lane descried his sister Lorna in the throng, and when she and her partner came round in the giddy circle, Lane saw that she wiggled and toddled like the others. Lane, as she passed him, caught a glance of her eyes, flashing, reproachful, furious, directed at some one across her partner's shoulder. Lane followed that glance and saw Swann. Apparently he did not notice Lorna, and was absorbed in the dance with his own partner, Helen Wrapp. This byplay further excited Lane's curiosity. On the whole, it was an ungraceful, violent mob, almost totally lacking in restraint, whirling, kicking, swaying, clasping, instinctively physical, crude, vulgar and wild. Down the line of chairs from his position, Lane saw the chaperones of the Prom, no doubt mothers of some of these girls. Lane wondered at them with sincere and persistent amaze. If they were respectable, and had even a slight degree of intelligence, how could they look on at this dance with complacence? Perhaps after all the young people were not wholly to blame for an abnormal expression of instinctive action.
That dance had its several encores and finally ended.
Margaret and Holt made their way up to Lane and Blair. The girl was now radiant. It took no second glance for Lane to see how matters stood with her at that moment.
"Say, beat it, you two," suddenly spoke up Blair. "There comes Swann. He's looking for you. Chase yourselves, now, Marg--Holt. Leave that slacker to us!"
Margaret gave a start, a gasp. She looked hard at her brother. Blair wore a cool smile, underneath which there was sterner hidden meaning. Then Margaret looked at Lane with slow, deep blush, making her really beautiful.
"Margie, we're for you two, strong," said Lane, with a smile. "Go hide from Swann."
"But I--I came with him," she faltered.
"Then let him find you--in other words, let him get you.... 'All's fair in love and war.'"
Lane had his reward in the sweet amaze and confusion of her face, as she turned away. Holt rushed her off amid the straggling couples.
"Dare, you're a wiz," declared Blair. "Margie's strong for Holt--I'm glad. If we could only put Swann out of the running."
"It's a cinch," returned Lane, with sudden heat.
"Pard, you don't know my mother. If she has picked out Swann for Margie--all I've got to say is--good night!"
"Even if we prove Swann----"
"No matter what we prove," interrupted Blair. "No matter what, so long as he's out of jail. My mother is money mad. She'd sell Margie to the devil himself for gold, position--the means to queen it over these other mothers of girls."
"Blair, you're--you're a little off your nut, aren't you?"
"Not on your life. That talk four years ago might have been irrational. But now--not on your life.... The world has come to an end.... Oh, Lord, look who's coming! Lane, did you ever in your life see such a peach as that?"
Bessy Bell had appeared, coming toward them with a callow youth near her own age. Her dress was some soft, pale blue material that was neither gaudy nor fantastical. But it was far from modest. Lane had to echo Blair's eulogy of this young specimen of the new America. She simply verified and stabilized the assertion that physically the newer generations of girls were markedly more beautiful than those of any generation before.
Bessy either forgot to introduce her escort or did not care to. She nodded a dismissal to him, spoke sweetly to Blair, and then took the empty chair next to Lane.
"You're having a rotten time," she said, leaning close to him. She seemed all fragrance and airy grace and impelling life.
Lane had to smile. "How do you know?"
"I can tell by your face. Now aren't you?"
"Well, to be honest, Miss Bessy"
"For tripe's sake, don't be so formal," she interrupted. "Call me Bessy."
"Oh, very well, Bessy. There's no use to lie to you. I'm not very happy at what I see here."
"What's the matter with it--with us?" she queried, quickly. "Everybody's doing it."
"That is no excuse. Besides, that's not so. Everybody is not--not----"
"Well, not what?"
"Not doing it, whatever you meant by that," returned Lane, with a laugh.
"Tell me straight out what you think of us," she shot at Lane, with a purple flash of her eyes.
She irritated Lane. Stirred him somehow, yet she seemed wholesome, full of quick response. She was daring, sophisticated, provocative. Therefore Lane retorted in brief, blunt speech what he thought of the majority of the girls present.
Bessy Bell did not look insulted. She did not blush. She did not show shame. Her eyes darkened. Her rosy mouth lost something of its soft curves.
"Daren Lane, we're not all rotten," she said.
"I did not say or imply you all were," he replied.
She gazed up at him thoughtfully, earnestly, with an unconscious frank interest, curiosity, and reverence.
"You strike me funny," she mused. "I never met a soldier like you."
"Bessy, how many soldiers have you met who have come back from France?"
"Not many, only Blair and you, and Captain Thesel, though I really didn't meet him. He came up to me at the armory and spoke to me. And to-night he cut in on Roy's dance. Roy was sore."
"Three. Well, that's not many," replied Lane. "Not enough to get a line on two million, is it?"
"Captain Thesel is just like all the other fellows.... But you're not a bit like them."
"Is that a compliment or otherwise?"
"I'll say it's a compliment," she replied, with arch eyes on his.
"Well, you don't deserve it.... You promised to make a date with me. Why haven't you?"
"Why child, I--I don't know what to say," returned Lane, utterly disconcerted. Yet he liked this amazing girl. "I suppose I forgot. But I've been ill, for one reason."
"I'm sorry," she said, giving his arm a squeeze. "I heard you were badly hurt. Won't you tell me about your--your hurts?"
"Some day, if opportunity affords. I can't here, that's certain."
"Opportunity! What do you want? Haven't I handed myself out on a silver platter?"
Lane could find no ready retort for this query. He gazed at her, marveling at the apparently measureless distance between her exquisite physical beauty and the spiritual beauty that should have been harmonious with it. Still he felt baffled by this young girl. She seemed to resemble Lorna, yet was different in a way he could not grasp. Lorna had coarsened in fibre. This girl was fine, despite her coarse speech. She did not repel.
"Mr. Lane, will you dance with me?" she asked, almost wistfully. She liked him, and was not ashamed of it. But she seemed pondering over what to make of him--how far to go.
"Bessy, I dare not exert myself to that extent," he replied, gently. "You forget I am a disabled soldier."
"Forget that? Not a chance," she flashed. "But I hoped you might dance with me once--just a little."
"No. I might keel over."
She shivered and her eyes dilated. "You mean it as a joke. But it's no joke.... I read about your comrade--that poor Red Payson!" ... Then both devil of humor and woman of fire shone in her glance. "Daren, if you did keel over--you'd die in my arms--not on the floor!"
Then another partner came up to claim her. As the orchestra blurted forth and Bessy leaned to the dancer's clasp she shouted audaciously at Lane: "Don't forget that silver platter!"
Lane turned to Blair to find that worthy shaking his handsome head.
"Did you hear what she said?" asked Lane, close to Blair's ear.
"Every word," replied Blair. "Some kid!... She's like the girl in the motion-pictures. She comes along. She meets the fellow. She looks at him--she says 'good day'--then Wham, into his arms.... My God!... Lane, is that kid good or bad?"
"Good!" exclaimed Lane, instantly.
"Good--still," returned Lane. "But alas! She is brazen, unconscious of it. But she's no fool, that kid. Lorna is an absolute silly bull-headed fool. I wish Bessy Bell was my sister--or I mean that Lorna was like her."
"Here comes Swann without Margie. Looks sore as a pup. The----"
"Shut up, Blair. I want to listen to this jazz."
Lane shut his eyes during the next number and listened without the disconcerting spectacle in his sight. He put all the intensity of which he was capable into his attention. His knowledge of music was not extensive, but on the other hand it was enough to enable him to analyze this jazz. Neither music nor ragtime, it seemed utterly barbarian in character. It appealed only to primitive, physical, sensual instincts. It could not be danced to sanely and gracefully. When he opened his eyes again, to see once more the disorder of dancers in spirit and action, he seemed to have his analysis absolutely verified.
These dances were short, the encores very brief, and the intermissions long. Perhaps the dancers needed to get their breath and rearrange their apparel.
After this number, Lane left Blair talking to friends, and made his way across the hall to where he espied Lorna. She did not see him. She looked ashamed, hurt, almost sullen. Her young friend, Harry, was bending over talking earnestly. Lane caught the words: "Lorna dear, that Swann's only stringing you--rushing you on the sly. He won't dance with you here--not while he's with that swell crowd."
"It's a lie," burst out Lorna. She was almost in tears.
Lane took her arm, making her start.
"Well, kids, you're having some time, aren't you," he said, cheerfully.
"Sure--are," gulped Harry.
Lorna repressed her grief, but not her sullen resentment.
Lane pretended not to notice anything unusual, and after a few casual remarks and queries he left them. Strolling from place to place, mingling with the gay groups, in the more secluded alcoves and recesses where couples appeared, oblivious to eyes, in the check room where a sign read: "check your corsets," out in the wide landing where the stairway came up, Lane passed, missing little that might have been seen or heard. He did not mind that two of the chaperones stared at him in supercilious curiosity, as if speculating on a possible faux pas of his at this dance. Both boys and girls he had met since his return to Middleville, and some he had known before, encountered him face to face, and cut him dead. He heard sarcastic remarks. He was an outsider, a "dead one," a "has been" and a "lemon." But Margaret was gracious to him, and Flossie Dickerson made no bones of her regard. Dorothy, he was relieved and glad to see, was not present.
Lane had no particular object in mind. He just wanted to rub elbows with this throng of young people. This was the joy of life he had imagined he had missed while in France. How much vain longing! He had missed nothing. He had boundlessly gained.
Out on this floor a railing ran round the curve of the stairway. Girls were sitting on it, smoking cigarettes, and kicking their slipper-shod feet. Their partners were lounging close. Lane passed by, and walking to a window in the shadow he stood there. Presently one of the boys threw away his cigarette and said: "Come on, Ironsides. I gotta dance. You're a rotten dancer, but I love you."
They ran back into the hall. The young fellow who was left indolently attempted to kiss his partner, who blew smoke in his face. Then at a louder blast of jazz they bounced away. The next moment a third couple appeared, probably from another door down the hall. They did not observe Lane. The girl was slim, dainty, gorgeously arrayed, and her keen, fair face bore traces of paint wet by perspiration. Her companion was Captain Vane Thesel, in citizen's garb, well-built, ruddy-faced, with tiny curled moustache.
"Hurry, kid," he said, breathlessly, as he pulled at her. "We'll run down and take a spin."
"Spiffy! But let's wait till after the next," she replied. "It's Harold's and I came with him."
"Tell him it was up to him to find you."
"But he might get wise to a car ride."
"He'd do the same. Come on," returned Thesel, who all the time was leading her down the stairway step by step.
They disappeared. From the open window Lane saw them go down the street and get into a car and ride away. He glanced at his watch, muttering. "This is a new stunt for dances. I just wonder." He watched, broodingly and sombrely. It was not his sister, but it might just as well have been. Two dances and a long intermission ended before Lane saw the big auto return. He watched the couple get out, and hurry up, to disappear at the entrance. Then Lane changed his position, and stood directly at the head of the stairway under the light. He had no interest in Captain Vane Thesel. He just wanted to get a close look at the girl.
Presently he heard steps, heavy and light, and a man's deep voice, a girl's low thrill of laughter. They turned the curve in the stairway and did not see Lane until they had mounted to the top.
With cool steady gaze Lane studied the girl. Her clear eyes met his. If there was anything unmistakable in Lane's look at her, it was not from any deception on his part. He tried to look into her soul. Her smile--a strange indolent little smile, remnant of excitement--faded from her face. She stared, and she put an instinctive hand up to her somewhat dishevelled hair. Then she passed on with her companion.
"Of all the nerve!" she exclaimed. "Who's that soldier boob?"
Lane could not catch the low reply. He lingered there a while longer, and then returned to the hall, much surprised to find it so dark he could scarcely distinguish the dancers. The lights had been lowered. If the dance had been violent and strange before this procedure, it was now a riot. In the semi-darkness the dancers cut loose. The paper strings had been loosened and had fallen down to become tangled with the flying feet and legs. Confetti swarmed like dark snowdrops in the hot air. Lane actually smelled the heat of bodies--a strangely stirring and yet noxious sensation. A rushing, murmuring, shrill sound--voices, laughter, cries, and the sliding of feet and brushing of gowns--filled the hall--ominous to Lane's over-sensitive faculties, swelling unnaturally, the expression of unrestrained physical abandon. Lane walked along the edge of this circling, wrestling melee, down to the corner where the orchestra held forth. They seemed actuated by the same frenzy which possessed the dancers. The piccolo player lay on his back on top of the piano, piping his shrill notes at the ceiling. And Lane made sure this player was drunk. On the moment then the jazz came to an end with a crash. The lights flashed up. The dancers clapped and stamped their pleasure.
Lane wound his way back to Blair.
"I've had enough, Blair," he said. "I'm all in. Let's go."
"Right-o," replied Blair, with evident relief. He reached a hand to Lane to raise himself, an action he rarely resorted to, and awkwardly got his crutch in place. They started out, with Lane accommodating his pace to his crippled comrade. Thus it happened that the two ran a gauntlet with watching young people on each side, out to the open part of the hall. There directly in front they encountered Captain Vane Thesel, with Helen Wrapp on his arm. Her red hair, her green eyes, and carmined lips, the white of her voluptuous neck and arms, united in a singular effect of allurement that Lane felt with scorn and melancholy.
Helen nodded to Blair and Lane, and evidently dragged at her escort's arm to hold him from passing on.
"Look who's here! Daren, old boy--and Blair," she called, and she held the officer back. The malice in her green glance did not escape Lane, as he bowed to her. She gloried in that situation. Captain Thesel had to face them.
It was Blair's hand that stiffened Lane. They halted, erect, like statues, with eyes that failed to see Thesel. He did not exist for them. With a flush of annoyance he spoke, and breaking from Helen, passed on. A sudden silence in the groups nearby gave evidence that the incident had been observed. Then whispers rose.
"Boys, aren't you dancing?" asked Helen, with a mocking sweetness. "Let me teach you the new steps."
"Thanks, Helen," replied Lane, in sudden weariness. "But I couldn't go it."
"Why did you come? To blow us up again? Lose your nerve?"
"Yes, I lost it to-night--and something more."
"Blair, you shouldn't have left one of your legs in France," she said, turning to Blair. She had always hated Blair, a fact omnipresent now in her green eyes.
Blair had left courtesy and endurance in France, as was evinced by the way he bent closer to Helen, to speak low, with terrible passion.
"If I had it to do over again--I'd see you and your kind--your dirt-cheap crowd of painted hussies where you belong--in the clutch of the Huns!"