Chapter XV - Nettles
Two men who have been comrades and classmates at the Alma Mater of John Harkless and Tom Meredith; two who have belonged to the same dub and roomed in the same entry; who have pooled their clothes and money in a common stock for either to draw on; who have shared the fortunes of athletic war, triumphing together, sometimes with an intense triumphancy; two men who were once boys getting hazed together, hazing in no unkindly fashion in their turn, always helping each other to stuff brains the night before an examination and to blow away the suffocating statistics like foam the night after; singing, wrestling, dancing, laughing, succeeding together, through the four kindest years of life; two such brave companions, meeting in the after years, are touchingly tender and caressive of each other, but the tenderness takes the shy, United States form of insulting epithets, and the caresses are blows. If John Harkless had been in health, uninjured and prosperous, Tom Meredith could no more have thrown himself on his knees beside him and called him "old friend" than he could have danced on the slack-wire.
One day they thought the patient sleeping; the nurse fanned him softly, and Meredith had stolen in and was sitting by the cot. One of Harkless's eyes had been freed of the bandage, and, when Tom came in, it was closed; but, by and by, Meredith became aware that the unbandaged eye had opened and that it was suffused with a pathetic moisture; yet it twinkled with a comprehending light, and John knew that it was his old Tom Meredith who was sitting beside him, with the air of having sat there very often before. But this bald, middle-aged young man, not without elegance, yet a prosperous burgher for all that--was this the slim, rollicking broth of a boy whose thick auburn hair used to make one streak of flame as he spun around the bases on a home run? Without doubt it was the stupendous fact, wrought by the alchemy of seven years.
For, though seven years be a mere breath in the memories of the old, it is a long transfiguration to him whose first youth is passing, and who finds unsolicited additions accruing to some parts of his being and strange deprivations in others, and upon whom the unhappy realization begins to be borne in, that his is no particular case, and that he of all the world is not to be spared, but, like his forbears, must inevitably wriggle in the disguising crucible of time. And, though men accept it with apparently patient humor, the first realization that people do grow old, and that they do it before they have had time to be young, is apt to come like a shock.
Perhaps not even in the interminable months of Carlow had Harkless realized the length of seven years so keenly as he did when he beheld his old friend at his bedside. How men may be warped apart in seven years, especially in the seven years between twenty-three and thirty! At the latter age you may return to the inseparable of seven years before and speak not the same language; you find no heartiness to carry on with each other after half an hour. Not so these classmates, who had known each other to the bone.
Ah, yes, it was Tom Meredith, the same lad, in spite of his masquerade of flesh; and Helen was right: Tom had not forgotten.
"It's the old horse-thief!" John murmured, tremulously.
"You go plumb to thunder," answered Meredith between gulps.
When he was well enough, they had long talks; and at other times Harkless lay by the window, and breathed deep of the fresh air, while Meredith attended to his correspondence for him, and read the papers to him. But there was one phenomenon of literature the convalescent insisted upon observing for himself, and which he went over again and again, to the detriment of his single unswathed eye, and this was the Carlow "Herald."
The first letter he had read to him was one from Fisbee stating that the crippled forces left in charge had found themselves almost distraught in their efforts to carry on the paper (as their chief might conclude for himself on perusal of the issues of the first fortnight of his absence), and they had made bold to avail themselves of the services of a young relative of the writer's from a distant city--a capable journalist, who had no other employment for the present, and who had accepted the responsibilities of the "Herald" temporarily. There followed a note from Parker, announcing that Mr. Fisbee's relative was a bird, and was the kind to make the "Herald" hum. They hoped Mr. Harkless would approve of their bespeaking the new hand on the sheet; the paper must have suspended otherwise. Harkless, almost overcome by his surprise that Fisbee possessed a relative, dictated a hearty and grateful indorsement of their action, and, soon after, received a typewritten rejoinder, somewhat complicated in the reading, because of the numerous type errors and their corrections. The missive was signed "H. Fisbee," in a strapping masculine hand that suggested six feet of enterprise and muscle spattering ink on its shirt sleeves.
John groaned and fretted over the writhings of the "Herald's" headless fortnight, but, perusing the issues produced under the domination of H. Fisbee, he started now and then, and chuckled at some shrewd felicities of management, or stared, puzzled, over an oddity, but came to a feeling of vast relief; and, when the question of H. Fisbee's salary was settled and the tenancy assured, he sank into a repose of mind. H. Fisbee might be an eccentric fellow, but he knew his business, and, apparently, he knew something of other business as well, for he wrote at length concerning the Carlow oil fields, urging Harkless to take shares in Mr. Watts's company while the stock was very low, two wells having been sunk without satisfactory results. H. Fisbee explained with exceeding technicality his reasons for believing that the third well would strike oil.
But with his ease of mind regarding the "Herald," Harkless found himself possessed by apathy. He fretted no longer to get back to Plattville. With the prospect of return it seemed an emptiness glared at him from hollow sockets, and the thought of the dreary routine he must follow when he went back gave him the same faint nausea he had felt the evening after the circus. And, though it was partly the long sweat of anguish which had benumbed him, his apathy was pierced, at times, by a bodily horror of the scene of his struggle. At night he faced the grotesque masks of the CrossRoads men and the brutal odds again; over and over he felt the blows, and clapped his hand to where the close fire of Bob Skillett's pistol burned his body.
And, except for the release from pain, he rejoiced less and less in his recovery. He remembered a tedious sickness of his childhood and how beautiful he had thought the world, when he began to get well, how electric the open air blowing in at the window, how green the smile of earth, and how glorious to live and see the open day again. He had none of that feeling now. No pretty vision came again near his bed, and he beheld his convalescence as a mistake. He had come to a jumping-off place in his life--why had they not let him jump? What was there left but the weary plod, plod, and dust of years?
He could have gone back to Carlow in better spirit if it had not been for the few dazzling hours of companionship which had transformed it to a paradise, but, gone, left a desert. She, by the sight of her, had made him wish to live, and now, that he saw her no more, she made him wish to die. How little she had cared for him, since she told him she did not care, when he had not meant to ask her. He was weary, and at last he longed to find the line of least resistance and follow it; he had done hard things for a long time, but now he wanted to do something easy. Under the new genius--who was already urging that the paper should be made a daily--the "Herald" could get along without him; and the "White-Caps" would bother Carlow no longer; and he thought that Kedge Halloway, an honest man, if a dull one, was sure to be renominated for Congress at the district convention which was to meet at Plattville in September--these were his responsibilities, and they did not fret him. Everything was all right. There was only one thought which thrilled him: his impression that she had come to the hospital to see him was not a delusion; she had really been there--as a humane, Christian person, he said to himself. One day he told Meredith of his vision, and Tom explained that it was no conjuration of fever.
"But I thought she'd gone abroad," said Harkless, staring.
"They had planned to," answered his friend. "They gave it up for some reason. Uncle Henry decided that he wasn't strong enough for the trip, or something."
"Then--is she--is she here?"
"No; Helen is never here in summer. When she came back from Plattville, she went north, somewhere, to join people she had promised, I think." Meredith had as yet no inkling or suspicion that his adopted cousin had returned to Plattville. What he told Harkless was what his aunt had told him, and he accepted it as the truth.
Mrs. Sherwood (for she was both Mr. and Mrs. Sherwood) had always considered Fisbee an enigmatic rascal, and she regarded Helen's defection to him in the light of a family scandal to be hushed up, as well as a scalding pain to be borne. Some day the unkind girl-errant would "return to her wisdom and her duty"; meanwhile, the less known about it the better.
Meredith talked very little to Harkless of his cousin, beyond lightly commenting on the pleasure and oddity of their meeting, and telling him of her friendly anxiety about his recovery; he said she had perfect confidence from the first that he would recover. Harkless had said a word or two in his delirium and a word or two out of it, and these, with once a sudden brow of suffering, and a difference Meredith felt in Helen's manner when they stood together by the sick man's bedside, had given the young man a strong impression, partly intuitive, that in spite of the short time the two had known each other, something had happened between them at Plattville, and he ventured a guess which was not far from the truth. Altogether, the thing was fairly plain--a sad lover is not so hard to read--and Meredith was sorry, for they were the two people he liked best on earth.
The young man carried his gay presence daily to the hospital, where Harkless now lay in a pleasant room of his own, and he tried to keep his friend cheery, which was an easy matter on the surface, for the journalist turned ever a mask of jokes upon him; but it was not hard for one who liked him as Meredith did to see through to the melancholy underneath. After his one reference to Helen, John was entirely silent of her, and Meredith came to feel that both would be embarrassed if occasion should rise and even her name again be mentioned between them.
He did not speak of his family connection with Mr. Fisbee to the invalid, for, although the connection was distant, the old man was, in a way, the family skeleton, and Meredith had a strong sense of the decency of reserve in such a matter. There was one thing Fisbee's shame had made the old man unable not to suppress when he told Parker his story; the wraith of a torrid palate had pursued him from his youth, and the days of drink and despair from which Harkless had saved him were not the first in his life. Meredith wondered as much as did Harkless where Fisbee had picked up the journalistic "young relative" who signed his extremely business-like missives in such a thundering hand. It was evident that the old man was grateful to his patron, but it did not occur to Meredith that Fisbee's daughter might have an even stronger sense of gratitude, one so strong that she could give all her young strength to work for the man who had been good to her father.
There came a day in August when Meredith took the convalescent from the hospital in a victoria, and installed him in his own home. Harkless's clothes hung on his big frame limply; however, there was a drift of light in his eyes as they drove slowly through the pretty streets of Rouen. The bandages and splints and drugs and swathings were all gone now, and his sole task was to gather strength. The thin face was sallow no longer; it was the color of evening shadows; indeed he lay among the cushions seemingly no more than a gaunt shadow of the late afternoon, looking old and gray and weary. They rolled along abusing each other, John sometimes gratefully threatening his friend with violence.
The victoria passed a stone house with wide lawns and an inhospitable air of wealth and importunate rank; over the sward two peacocks swung, ambulating like caravals in a green sea; and one expected a fine lady to come smiling and glittering from the door. Oddly enough, though he had never seen the place before, it struck Harkless with a sense of familiarity. "Who lives there?" he asked abruptly.
"Who lives there? On the left? Why that--that is the Sherwood place," Meredith answered, in a tone which sounded as if he were not quite sure of it, but inclined to think his information correct. Harkless relapsed into silence.
Meredith's home was a few blocks further up the same street; a capacious house in the Western fashion of the Seventies. In front, on the lawn, there was a fountain with a leaping play of water; maples and shrubbery were everywhere; and here and there stood a stiff sentinel of Lombardy poplar. It was all cool and incongruous and comfortable; and, on the porch, sheltered from publicity by a multitude of palms and flowering plants, a white-jacketed negro appeared with a noble smile and a more important tray, whereon tinkled bedewed glasses and a crystal pitcher, against whose sides the ice clinked sweetly. There was a complement of straws.
When they had helped him to an easy chair on the porch, Harkless whistled luxuriously. "Ah, my bachelor!" he exclaimed, as he selected a straw.
"'Who would fardels bear?'" rejoined Mr. Meredith. Then came to the other a recollection of an auburn-haired ball player on whom the third strike had once been called while his eyes wandered tenderly to the grandstand, where the prettiest girl of that commencement week was sitting.
"Have you forgot the 'Indian Princess'?" he asked.
"You're a dull old person," Tom laughed. "Haven't you discovered that 'tis they who forget us? And why shouldn't they? Do we remember well?-- anybody except just us two, I mean, of course."
"I've a notion we do, sometimes."
The other set his glass on the tray, and lit his cigarette. "Yes; when we're unsuccessful. Then I think we do."
"That may be true."
"Of course it is. If a lady wishes to make an impression on me that is worth making, let her let me make none on her."
"You think it is always our vanity?"
"Analyze it as your revered Thomas does and you shall reach the same conclusion. Let a girl reject you and--" Meredith broke off, cursing himself inwardly, and, rising, cried gaily: "What profiteth it a man if he gain the whole wisdom in regard to women and loseth not his own heart? And neither of us is lacking a heart--though it may be; one can't tell, one's self; one has to find out about that from some girl. At least, I'm rather sure of mine; it's difficult to give a tobacco-heart away; it's drugged on the market. I'm going to bring out the dogs; I'm spending the summer at home just to give them daily exercise."
This explanation of his continued presence in Rouen struck John as quite as plausible as Meredith's more seriously alleged reasons for not joining his mother and sister, at Winter Harbor. (He possessed a mother, and, as he explained, he had also sisters to satiety, in point of numbers.) Harkless knew that Tom had stayed to look after him; and he thought there never was so poor a peg as himself whereon to hang the warm mantle of such a friendship. He knew that other mantles of affection and kindliness hung on that self-same peg, for he had been moved by the letters and visits from Carlow people, and he had heard the story of their descent upon the hospital, and of the march on the Cross-Roads. Many a good fellow, too, had come to see him during his better days--from Judge Briscoe, openly tender and solicitous, to the embarrassed William Todd, who fiddled at his hat and explained that, being as he was in town on business (a palpable fiction) he thought he'd look in to see if "they was any word would wish to be sent down to our city." The good will the sick man had from every one touched him, and made him feel unworthy, and he could see nothing he had done to deserve it. Mr. Meredith could (and would not-- openly, at least) have explained to him that it made not a great deal of difference what he did; it was what people thought he was.
His host helped him upstairs after dinner, and showed him the room prepared for his occupancy. Harkless sank, sighing with weakness, into a deep chair, and Meredith went to a window-seat and stretched himself out for a smoke and chat.
"Doesn't it beat your time," he said, cheerily, "to think of what's become of all the old boys? They turn up so differently from what we expected, when they turn up at all. We sized them up all right so far as character goes, I fancy, but we couldn't size up the chances of life. Take poor old Pickle Haines: who'd have dreamed Pickle would shoot himself over a bankruptcy? I dare say that wasn't all of it--might have been cherchez la femme, don't you think? What do you make of Pickle's case, John?"
There was no answer. Harkless's chair was directly in front of the mantelpiece, and upon the carved wooden shelf, amongst tobacco-jars and little curios, cotillion favors and the like, there were scattered a number of photographs. One of these was that of a girl who looked straight out at you from a filigree frame; there was hardly a corner of the room where you could have stood without her clear, serious eyes seeming to rest upon yours.
"Cherchez la femme?" repeated Tom, puffing unconsciously. "Pickle was a good fellow, but he had the deuce of an eye for a girl. Do you remember--" He stopped short, and saw the man and the photograph looking at each other. Too late, he unhappily remembered that he had meant, and forgotten, to take that photograph out of the room before he brought Harkless in. Now he would have to leave it; and Helen Sherwood was not the sort of girl, even in a flat presentment, to be continually thrown in the face of a man who had lost her. And it always went hard, Tom reflected, with men who stretched vain hands to Helen, only to lose her. But there was one, he thought, whose outstretched hands might not prove so vain. Why couldn't she have cared for John Harkless? Deuce take the girl, did she want to marry an emperor? He looked at Harkless, and pitied him with an almost tearful compassion. A feverish color dwelt in the convalescent's cheek; the apathy that had dulled his eyes was there no longer; instead, they burned with a steady fire. The image returned his unwavering gaze with inscrutable kindness.
"You heard that Pickle shot himself, didn't you?" Meredith asked. There was no answer; John did not hear him.
"Do you know that poor Jeny Haines killed himself, last March?" Tom said sharply.
There was only silence in the room. Meredith got up and rattled some tongs in the empty fireplace, but the other did not move or notice him in any way.
Meredith set the tongs down, and went quietly out of the room, leaving his friend to that mysterious interview.
When he came back, after a remorseful cigarette in the yard, Harkless was still sitting, motionless, looking up at the photograph above the mantelpiece.
They drove abroad every day, at first in the victoria, and, as Harkless's strength began to come back, in a knock-about cart of Tom's, a light trail of blue smoke floating back wherever the two friends passed. And though the country editor grew stronger in the pleasant, open city, Meredith felt that his apathy and listlessness only deepened, and he suspected that, in Harkless's own room, where the photograph reigned, the languor departed for the time, making way for a destructive fire. Judge Briscoe, paying a second visit to Rouen, told Tom, in an aside, that their friend did not seem to be the same man. He was altered and aged beyond belief, the old gentleman whispered sadly.
Meredith decided that his guest needed enlivening--something to take him out of himself; he must be stirred up to rub against people once more. And therefore, one night he made a little company for him: two or three apparently betrothed very young couples, for whom it was rather dull, after they had looked their fill of Harkless (it appeared that every one was curious to see him); and three or four married young couples, for whom the entertainment seemed rather diverting in an absent-minded way (they had the air of remembering that they had forgotten the baby); and three or four bachelors, who seemed contented in any place where they were allowed to smoke; and one widower, whose manner indicated that any occasion whatever was gay enough for him; and four or five young women, who (Meredith explained to John) were of their host's age, and had been "left over" out of the set he grew up with; and for these the modest party took on a hilarious and chipper character. "It is these girls that have let the men go by because they didn't see any good enough; they're the jolly souls!" the one widower remarked, confidentially. "They've been at it a long while, and they know how, and they're light-hearted as robins. They have more fun than people who have responsibilities."
All of these lively demoiselles fluttered about Harkless with commiserative pleasantries, and, in spite of his protestations, made him recline in the biggest and deepest chair on the porch, where they surfeited him with kindness and grouped about him with extra cushions and tenderness for a man who had been injured. No one mentioned the fact that he had been hurt; it was not spoken of, though they wished mightily he would tell them the story they had read luridly in the public prints. They were very good to him. One of them, in particular, a handsome, dark, kindeyed girl, constituted herself at once his cicerone in Rouen gossip and his waiting-maid. She sat by him, and saw that his needs (and his notneeds, too) were supplied and oversupplied; she could not let him move, and anticipated his least wish, though he was now amply able to help himself; and she fanned him as if he were a dying consumptive.
They sat on Meredith's big porch in the late twilight and ate a substantial refection, and when this was finished, a buzz of nonsense rose from all quarters, except the remote corners where the youthful affianced ones had defensively stationed themselves behind a rampart of plants. They, having eaten, had naught to do, and were only waiting a decent hour for departure. Laughing voices passed up and down the street, and mingled with the rhythmic plashing of Meredith's fountain, and, beyond the shrubberies and fence, one caught glimpses of the light dresses of women moving to and fro, and of people sitting bareheaded on neighboring lawns to enjoy the twilight. Now and then would pass, with pipe and dog, the beflanneled figure of an undergraduate, home for vacation, or a trio of youths in knickerbockers, or a band of young girls, or both trio and band together; and from a cross street, near by, came the calls and laughter of romping children and the pulsating whirr of a lawn-mower: This sound Harkless remarked as a ceaseless accompaniment to life in Rouen; even in the middle of the night there was always some unfortunate, cutting grass.
When the daylight was all gone, and the stars had crept out, strolling negroes patrolled the sidewalks, thrumming mandolins and guitars, and others came and went, singing, making the night Venetian. The untrained, joyous voices, chording eerily in their sweet, racial minors, came on the air, sometimes from far away. But there swung out a chorus from fresh, Aryan throats, in the house south of Meredith's:
"Doesn't that thrill you, boy?" said Meredith, joining the group about Harkless's chair. "Those fellows are Sophomores, class of heaven knows what. Aren't you feeling a fossil. Father Abraham?"
A banjo chattered on the lawn to the north, and soon a mixed chorus of girls and boys sang from there:
Then a piano across the street sounded the dearthful harmonies of Chopin's Funeral March.
"You may take your choice," remarked Meredith, flicking a spark over the rail in the ash of his cigar, "Chopping or Chevalier."
"Chopin, my friend," said the lady who had attached herself to Harkless. She tapped Tom's shoulder with her fan and smiled, graciously corrective.
"Thank you, Miss Hinsdale," he answered, gratefully. "And as I, perhaps, had better say, since otherwise there might be a pause and I am the host, we have a wide selection. In addition to what is provided at present, I predict that within the next ten minutes a talented girl who lives two doors south will favor us with the Pilgrims' Chorus, piano arrangement, break down in the middle, and drift, into 'Rastus on Parade,' while a double quartette of middle-aged colored gentlemen under our Jim will make choral offering in our own back yard."
"My dear Tom," exclaimed Miss Hinsdale, "you forget Wetherford Swift!"
"I could stand it all," put forth the widower, "if it were not for Wetherford Swift."
"When is Miss Sherwood coming home?" asked one of the ladies. "Why does she stay away and leave him to his sufferings?"
"Us to his sufferings," substituted a bachelor. "He is just beginning; listen."
Through all the other sounds of music, there penetrated from an unseen source, a sawish, scraped, vibration of catgut, pathetic, insistent, painstaking, and painful beyond belief.
"He is in a terrible way to-night," said the widower.
Miss Hinsdale laughed. "Worse every night. The violinist is young Wetherford Swift," she explained to Harkless. "He is very much in love, and it doesn't agree with him. He used to be such a pleasant boy, but last winter he went quite mad over Helen Sherwood, Mr. Meredith's cousin, our beauty, you know--I am so sorry she isn't here; you'd be interested in meeting her, I'm sure--and he took up the violin."
"It is said that his family took up chloroform at the same time," said the widower.
"His music is a barometer," continued the lady, "and by it the neighborhood nightly observes whether Miss Sherwood has been nice to him or not."
"It is always exceedingly plaintive," explained another.
"Except once," rejoined Miss Hinsdale. "He played jigs when she came home from somewhere or other, in June."
"It was Tosti's 'Let Me Die,' the very next evening," remarked the widower.
"Ah," said one of the bachelors, "but his joy was sadder for us than his misery. Hear him now."
"I think he means it for 'What's this dull town to me,'" observed another, with some rancor. "I would willingly make the town sufficiently exciting for him--"
"If there were not an ordinance against the hurling of missiles," finished the widower.
The piano executing the funeral march ceased to execute, discomfited by the persistent and overpowering violin; the banjo and the coster-songs were given over; even the collegians' music was defeated; and the neighborhood was forced to listen to the dauntless fiddle, but not without protest, for there came an indignant, spoken chorus from the quarter whence the college songs had issued: "Ya-a-ay! Wetherford, put it away! She'll come back!" The violin played on.
"We all know each other here, you see, Mr. Harkless," Miss Hinsdale smiled benignantly.
"They didn't bother Mr. Wetherford Swift," said the widower. "Not that time. Do you hear him?--'Could ye come back to me, Douglas'?"
"Oh, but it isn't absence that is killing him and his friends," cried one of the young women. "It is Brainard Macauley."
"That is a mistake," said Tom Meredith, as easily as he could. "There goes Jim's double quartette. Listen, and you will hear them try to----"
But the lady who had mentioned Brainard Macauley cried indignantly: "You try to change the subject the moment it threatens to be interesting. They were together everywhere until the day she went away; they danced and 'sat out' together through the whole of one country-club party; they drove every afternoon; they took long walks, and he was at the Sherwoods' every evening of her last week in town. 'That is a mistake!'"
"I'm afraid it looks rather bleak for Wetherford," said the widower. "I went up to the 'Journal' office on business, one day, and there sat Miss Sherwood in Macauley's inner temple, chatting with a reporter, while Brainard finished some work."
"Helen is eccentric," said the former speaker, "but she's not quite that eccentric, unless they were engaged. It is well understood that they will announce it in the fall."
Miss Hinsdale kindly explained to Harkless that Brainard Macauley was the editor of the "Rouen Morning Journal"--"a very distinguished young man, not over twenty-eight, and perfectly wonderful." Already a power to be accounted with in national politics, he was "really a tremendous success," and sure to go far; "one of those delicate-looking men, who are yet so strong you know they won't let the lightning hurt you." It really looked as if Helen Sherwood (whom Harkless really ought to meet) had actually been caught in the toils at tet, those toils wherein so many luckless youths had lain enmeshed for her sake. He must meet Mr. Macauley, too, the most interesting man in Rouen. After her little portrait of him, didn't Mr. Harkless agree that it looked really pretty dull for Miss Sherwood's other lovers?
Mr. Harkless smiled, and agreed that it did indeed. She felt a thrill of compassion for him, and her subsequent description of the pathos of his smile was luminous. She said it was natural that a man who had been through so much suffering from those horrible "White-Cappers" should have a smile that struck into your heart like a knife.
Despite all that Meredith could do, and after his notorious effort to shift the subject he could do very little, the light prattle ran on about Helen Sherwood and Brainard Macauley. Tom abused himself for his wild notion of cheering his visitor with these people who had no talk, and who, if they drifted out of commonplace froth, had no medium to float them unless they sailed the currents, of local personality, and he mentally upbraided them for a set of gossiping ninnies. They conducted a conversation (if it could be dignified by a name) of which no stranger could possibly partake, and which, by a hideous coincidence, was making his friend writhe, figuratively speaking, for Harkless sat like a fixed shadow. He uttered scarcely a word the whole evening, though Meredith knew that his guests would talk about him enthusiastically, the next day, none the less. The journalist's silence was enforced by the topics; but what expression and manner the light allowed them to see was friendly and receptive, as though he listened to brilliant suggestions. He had a nice courtesy, and Miss Hinsdale felt continually that she was cleverer than usual this evening, and no one took his silence to be churlish, though they all innocently wondered why he did not talk more; however, it was probable that a man who had been so interestingly and terribly shot would be rather silent for a time afterward.
That night, when Harkless had gone to bed Meredith sat late by his own window calling himself names. He became aware of a rhomboidal patch of yellow light on a wall of foliage without, and saw that it came from his friend's window. After dubious consideration, he knocked softly on the door.
He went in. Harkless was in bed, and laughed faintly as Meredith entered. "I--I'm fearing you'll have to let me settle your gas bill, Tom. I'm not like I used to be, quite. I find--since--since that business, I can't sleep without a light. I rather get the--the horrors in the dark."
Incoherently, Meredith made a compassionate exclamation and turned to go, and, as he left the room, his eye fell upon the mantel-piece. The position of the photographs had been altered, and the picture of the girl who looked straight out at you was gone. The mere rim of it was visible behind the image of an old gentleman with a sardonic mouth.
An hour later, Tom came back, and spoke through the closed door. "Boy, don't you think you can get to sleep now?"
"Yes, Tom. It's all right. You get to bed. Nothing troubles me."
Meredith spent the next day in great tribulation and perplexity; he felt that something had to be done, but what to do he did not know. He still believed that a "stirring-up" was what Harkless needed--not the species of "stirring-up" that had taken place last night, but a diversion which would divert. As they sat at dinner, a suggestion came to him and he determined to follow it. He was called to the telephone, and a voice strange to his ear murmured in a tone of polite deference: "A lady wishes to know if Mr. Meredith and his visitor intend being present at the country-club this evening."
He had received the same inquiry from Miss Hinsdale on her departure the previous evening, and had answered vaguely; hence he now rejoined:
"You are quite an expert ventriloquist, but you do not deceive me."
"I beg your pardon, sir," creaked the small articulation.
"This is Miss Hinsdale, isn't it?"
"No, sir. The lady wishes to know if you will kindly answer her question."
"Tell her, yes." He hung up the receiver, and returned to the table. "Some of Clara Hinsdale's play," he explained. "You made a devastating impression on her, boy; you were wise enough not to talk any, and she foolishly thought you were as interesting as you looked. We're going out to a country-club dance. It's given for the devotees who stay here all summer and swear Rouen is always cool; and nobody dances but me and the very young ones. It won't be so bad; you can smoke anywhere, and there are little tables. We'll go."
"Thank you, Tom, you're so good to think of it, but----"
"Would you mind going alone? I find it very pleasant sitting on your veranda, or I'll get a book."
"Very well, if you don't want to go, I don't. I haven't had a dance for three months and I'm still addicted to it. But of course----"
"I think I'd like to go." Harkless acquiesced at once, with a cheerful voice and a lifeless eye, and the good Tom felt unaccountably mean in persisting.
They drove out into the country through mists like lakes, and found themselves part of a procession of twinkling carriage-lights, and cigar sparks shining above open vehicles, winding along the levels like a canoe fete on the water. In the entrance hall of the club-house they encountered Miss Hinsdale, very handsome, large, and dark, elaborately beaming and bending toward them warmly.
"Who do you think is here?" she said.
"Gomez?" ventured Meredith.
"Helen Sherwood!" she cried. "Go and present Mr. Harkless before Brainard Macauley takes her away to some corner."
'Where, oh where, are the grave old Seniors?
Safe, now, in the wide, wide world!"
"O, 'Arriet, I'm waiting, waiting alone out 'ere."