Burning Daylight by Jack London
Into Daylight's life came Dede Mason. She came rather imperceptibly. He had accepted her impersonally along with the office furnishing, the office boy, Morrison, the chief, confidential, and only clerk, and all the rest of the accessories of a superman's gambling place of business. Had he been asked any time during the first months she was in his employ, he would have been unable to tell the color of her eyes. From the fact that she was a demiblonde, there resided dimly in his subconsciousness a conception that she was a brunette. Likewise he had an idea that she was not thin, while there was an absence in his mind of any idea that she was fat. As to how she dressed, he had no ideas at all. He had no trained eye in such matters, nor was he interested. He took it for granted, in the lack of any impression to the contrary, that she was dressed some how. He knew her as "Miss Mason," and that was all, though he was aware that as a stenographer she seemed quick and accurate. This impression, however, was quite vague, for he had had no experience with other stenographers, and naturally believed that they were all quick and accurate.
One morning, signing up letters, he came upon an I shall. Glancing quickly over the page for similar constructions, he found a number of I wills. The I shall was alone. It stood out conspicuously. He pressed the call-bell twice, and a moment later Dede Mason entered. "Did I say that, Miss Mason?" he asked, extending the letter to her and pointing out the criminal phrase. A shade of annoyance crossed her face. She stood convicted.
"My mistake," she said. "I am sorry. But it's not a mistake, you know," she added quickly.
"How do you make that out?" challenged Daylight. "It sure don't sound right, in my way of thinking."
She had reached the door by this time, and now turned the offending letter in her hand. "It's right just the same."
"But that would make all those I wills wrong, then," he argued.
"It does," was her audacious answer. "Shall I change them?"
"I shall be over to look that affair up on Monday." Daylight repeated the sentence from the letter aloud. He did it with a grave, serious air, listening intently to the sound of his own voice. He shook his head. "It don't sound right, Miss Mason. It just don't sound right. Why, nobody writes to me that way. They all say I will--educated men, too, some of them. Ain't that so?"
"Yes," she acknowledged, and passed out to her machine to make the correction.
It chanced that day that among the several men with whom he sat at luncheon was a young Englishman, a mining engineer. Had it happened any other time it would have passed unnoticed, but, fresh from the tilt with his stenographer, Daylight was struck immediately by the Englishman's I shall. Several times, in the course of the meal, the phrase was repeated, and Daylight was certain there was no mistake about it.
After luncheon he cornered Macintosh, one of the members whom he knew to have been a college man, because of his football reputation.
"Look here, Bunny," Daylight demanded, "which is right, I shall be over to look that affair up on Monday, or I will be over to look that affair up on Monday?"
The ex-football captain debated painfully for a minute. "Blessed if I know," he confessed. "Which way do I say it?
"Oh, I will, of course."
"Then the other is right, depend upon it. I always was rotten on grammar."
On the way back to the office, Daylight dropped into a bookstore and bought a grammar; and for a solid hour, his feet up on the desk, he toiled through its pages. "Knock off my head with little apples if the girl ain't right," he communed aloud at the end of the session. For the first time it struck him that there was something about his stenographer. He had accepted her up to then, as a female creature and a bit of office furnishing. But now, having demonstrated that she knew more grammar than did business men and college graduates, she became an individual. She seemed to stand out in his consciousness as conspicuously as the I shall had stood out on the typed page, and he began to take notice.
He managed to watch her leaving that afternoon, and he was aware for the first time that she was well-formed, and that her manner of dress was satisfying. He knew none of the details of women's dress, and he saw none of the details of her neat shirt-waist and well-cut tailor suit. He saw only the effect in a general, sketchy way. She looked right. This was in the absence of anything wrong or out of the way.
"She's a trim little good-looker," was his verdict, when the outer office door closed on her.
The next morning, dictating, he concluded that he liked the way she did her hair, though for the life of him he could have given no description of it. The impression was pleasing, that was all.
She sat between him and the window, and he noted that her hair was light brown, with hints of golden bronze. A pale sun, shining in, touched the golden bronze into smouldering fires that were very pleasing to behold. Funny, he thought, that he had never observed this phenomenon before.
In the midst of the letter he came to the construction which had caused the trouble the day before. He remembered his wrestle with the grammar, and dictated.
"I shall meet you halfway this proposition--"
Miss Mason gave a quick look up at him. The action was purely involuntary, and, in fact, had been half a startle of surprise. The next instant her eyes had dropped again, and she sat waiting to go on with the dictation. But in that moment of her glance Daylight had noted that her eyes were gray. He was later to learn that at times there were golden lights in those same gray eyes; but he had seen enough, as it was, to surprise him, for he became suddenly aware that he had always taken her for a brunette with brown eyes, as a matter of course.
"You were right, after all," he confessed, with a sheepish grin that sat incongruously on his stern, Indian-like features.
Again he was rewarded by an upward glance and an acknowledging smile, and this time he verified the fact that her eyes were gray.
"But it don't sound right, just the same," he complained. At this she laughed outright.
"I beg your pardon," she hastened to make amends, and then spoiled it by adding, "but you are so funny."
Daylight began to feel a slight awkwardness, and the sun would persist in setting her hair a-smouldering.
"I didn't mean to be funny," he said.
"That was why I laughed. But it is right, and perfectly good grammar."
"All right," he sighed--"I shall meet you halfway in this proposition--got that?" And the dictation went on. He discovered that in the intervals, when she had nothing to do, she read books and magazines, or worked on some sort of feminine fancy work.
Passing her desk, once, he picked up a volume of Kipling's poems and glanced bepuzzled through the pages. "You like reading, Miss Mason?" he said, laying the book down.
"Oh, yes," was her answer; "very much."
Another time it was a book of Wells', The Wheels of Change. "What's it all about?" Daylight asked.
"Oh, it's just a novel, a love-story." She stopped, but he still stood waiting, and she felt it incumbent to go on.
"It's about a little Cockney draper's assistant, who takes a vacation on his bicycle, and falls in with a young girl very much above him. Her mother is a popular writer and all that. And the situation is very curious, and sad, too, and tragic. Would you care to read it?"
"Does he get her?" Daylight demanded.
"No; that's the point of it. He wasn't--"
"And he doesn't get her, and you've read all them pages, hundreds of them, to find that out?" Daylight muttered in amazement.
Miss Mason was nettled as well as amused.
"But you read the mining and financial news by the hour," she retorted.
"But I sure get something out of that. It's business, and it's different. I get money out of it. What do you get out of books?"
"Points of view, new ideas, life."
"Not worth a cent cash."
"But life's worth more than cash," she argued.
"Oh, well," he said, with easy masculine tolerance, "so long as you enjoy it. That's what counts, I suppose; and there's no accounting for taste."
Despite his own superior point of view, he had an idea that she knew a lot, and he experienced a fleeting feeling like that of a barbarian face to face with the evidence of some tremendous culture. To Daylight culture was a worthless thing, and yet, somehow, he was vaguely troubled by a sense that there was more in culture than he imagined.
Again, on her desk, in passing, he noticed a book with which he was familiar. This time he did not stop, for he had recognized the cover. It was a magazine correspondent's book on the Klondike, and he knew that he and his photograph figured in it and he knew, also, of a certain sensational chapter concerned with a woman's suicide, and with one "Too much Daylight."
After that he did not talk with her again about books. He imagined what erroneous conclusions she had drawn from that particular chapter, and it stung him the more in that they were undeserved. Of all unlikely things, to have the reputation of being a lady-killer,--he, Burning Daylight,--and to have a woman kill herself out of love for him. He felt that he was a most unfortunate man and wondered by what luck that one book of all the thousands of books should have fallen into his stenographer's hands. For some days afterward he had an uncomfortable sensation of guiltiness whenever he was in Miss Mason's presence; and once he was positive that he caught her looking at him with a curious, intent gaze, as if studying what manner of man he was.
He pumped Morrison, the clerk, who had first to vent his personal grievance against Miss Mason before he could tell what little he knew of her.
"She comes from Siskiyou County. She's very nice to work with in the office, of course, but she's rather stuck on herself-- exclusive, you know."
"How do you make that out?" Daylight queried.
"Well, she thinks too much of herself to associate with those she works with, in the office here, for instance. She won't have anything to do with a fellow, you see. I've asked her out repeatedly, to the theatre and the chutes and such things. But nothing doing. Says she likes plenty of sleep, and can't stay up late, and has to go all the way to Berkeley--that's where she lives."
This phase of the report gave Daylight a distinct satisfaction. She was a bit above the ordinary, and no doubt about it. But Morrison's next words carried a hurt.
"But that's all hot air. She's running with the University boys, that's what she's doing. She needs lots of sleep and can't go to the theatre with me, but she can dance all hours with them. I've heard it pretty straight that she goes to all their hops and such things. Rather stylish and high-toned for a stenographer, I'd say. And she keeps a horse, too. She rides astride all over those hills out there. I saw her one Sunday myself. Oh, she's a high-flyer, and I wonder how she does it. Sixty-five a month don't go far. Then she has a sick brother, too."
"Live with her people?" Daylight asked.
"No; hasn't got any. They were well to do, I've heard. They must have been, or that brother of hers couldn't have gone to the University of California. Her father had a big cattle-ranch, but he got to fooling with mines or something, and went broke before he died. Her mother died long before that. Her brother must cost a lot of money. He was a husky once, played football, was great on hunting and being out in the mountains and such things. He got his accident breaking horses, and then rheumatism or something got into him. One leg is shorter than the other and withered up some. He has to walk on crutches. I saw her out with him once--crossing the ferry. The doctors have been experimenting on him for years, and he's in the French Hospital now, I think."
All of which side-lights on Miss Mason went to increase Daylight's interest in her. Yet, much as he desired, he failed to get acquainted with her. He had thoughts of asking her to luncheon, but his was the innate chivalry of the frontiersman, and the thoughts never came to anything. He knew a self-respecting, square-dealing man was not supposed to take his stenographer to luncheon. Such things did happen, he knew, for he heard the chaffing gossip of the club; but he did not think much of such men and felt sorry for the girls. He had a strange notion that a man had less rights over those he employed than over mere acquaintances or strangers. Thus, had Miss Mason not been his employee, he was confident that he would have had her to luncheon or the theatre in no time. But he felt that it was an imposition for an employer, because he bought the time of an employee in working hours, to presume in any way upon any of the rest of that employee's time. To do so was to act like a bully. The situation was unfair. It was taking advantage of the fact that the employee was dependent on one for a livelihood. The employee might permit the imposition through fear of angering the employer and not through any personal inclination at all.
In his own case he felt that such an imposition would be peculiarly obnoxious, for had she not read that cursed Klondike correspondent's book? A pretty idea she must have of him, a girl that was too high-toned to have anything to do with a good-looking, gentlemanly fellow like Morrison. Also, and down under all his other reasons, Daylight was timid. The only thing he had ever been afraid of in his life was woman, and he had been afraid all his life. Nor was that timidity to be put easily to flight now that he felt the first glimmering need and desire for woman. The specter of the apron-string still haunted him, and helped him to find excuses for getting on no forwarder with Dede Mason.