Chapter VI. Unsustained Application
 

"Mr. Kendrick, do you understand typewriting?"

Judge Gray's assistant looked up, a slight surprise on his face. "No, sir, I do not," he said.

"I am sorry. These sheets I am sending to the Capitol to be looked over and criticised ought to be typewritten. I could send them downtown, but I want the typist here at my elbow."

He sat frowning a little with perplexity, and presently he reached for the telephone. Then he put it down, his brow clearing. "This is Saturday," he murmured. "If Roberta is at home--"

He left the room. In five minutes he was back, his niece beside him. Richard Kendrick had not set eyes upon her for a fortnight; he rose at her appearance and stood waiting her recognition. She gave it, stopping to offer him her hand as she passed him, smiling. But, this little ceremony over, she became on the instant the business woman. Richard saw it all, though he did his best to settle down to his work again and pursue it with an air of absorption.

Roberta went to a cupboard which opened from under bookshelves, and drew therefrom a small portable typewriter. This she set upon a table beside a window at right angles from Richard and all of twenty feet away from him; she could hardly have put a greater distance between them. The Judge drew up a chair for her; she removed the cover from the compact little machine, and nodded at him. He placed his own chair beside her table and sat down, copy in hand.

"This is going to be a rather difficult business," said he. "There are many points where I wish to indicate slight changes as we go along. I can't attempt to read the copy to you, but should like to have you give me the opening words of each paragraph as you come to it. I think I can recall those which contain the points for revision."

The work began. That is to say, work at the typewriter side of the room began, and in earnest. From the first stroke of the keys it was evident that the Judge had called to his aid a skilled worker. The steady, smooth clicking of the machine was interrupted only at the ends of paragraphs, when the Judge listened to the key words of the succeeding lines. Roberta sat before that "typer" as if she were accustomed to do nothing else for her living, her eyes upon the keys, her profile silhouetted against the window beside her.

As far as the mechanical part of the labour was concerned, Richard had never seen a task get under way more promptly nor proceed with greater or smoother dispatch. As he sat beside his own window he nearly faced the pair at the other window. Try as he would he could not keep his mind upon his work. It was a situation unique in his experience. That he, Richard Kendrick, should be employed in serious work in the same room with the niece of a prosperous and distinguished gentleman, a girl who had not hesitated to learn a trade in which she had become proficient, and that the three of them should spend the morning in this room together, taking no notice of each other beyond that made necessary by the task in hand--it was enough to make him burst out laughing. At the same time he felt a genuine satisfaction in the situation. If he could but work in the same room with her every day, though she should vouchsafe him no word, how far from drudgery would the labour be then removed!

He managed to keep up at least the appearance of being closely engaged, turning the leaves of books, making notes, arising to consult other books upon the shelves. But he could not resist frequent furtive glances at the profile outlined against the window. It was a distracting outline, it must be freely admitted. Even upon the hill, seen against the blue-and-purple haze, it had hardly been more so. What indeed could a young man do but steal a look at it as often as he might? There was no knowing when he should have such another chance.

Things proceeded in this course without interruption until eleven o'clock. The Judge, finding it possible to get ahead so satisfactorily by this new method, decided to send on considerably more material to be passed upon by his critical coadjutor at the Capitol than he had originally intended to do at this time. But as the clock struck the hour a caller's card was sent in to him, and with a word to Roberta he left the room to see his visitor elsewhere.

Roberta finished her paragraph, then sat studying the next one. She did not look up, nor did Richard. The moments passed and the Judge did not return. Roberta rose and threw open the window beside her, letting in a great sweep of December air.

Richard seized his opportunity. "Good for you!" he applauded. "Shall I open mine?"

"Please. It will warm up again very quickly. It began to seem stifling."

"Not much like the place where you want to build a cabin and stay alone in a storm. Or--not alone. You are willing to have a dog with you. What sort of a dog?"

"A Great Dane, I think. I have a friend who owns one. They are inseparable."

By the worst of luck the Judge chose this moment to return, and the windows went down with a rush.

The Judge shivered, smiling at the pair. "You young things, all warmth and vitality! You are never so happy as when the wind is lifting your hair. Now I think I'm pretty vigorous for my years, but I wouldn't sit and talk in a room with two open windows, in December."

"Neither can we--hang it!" thought Richard. "Why couldn't that chap have stayed a few minutes longer--when we'd just got started?"

At luncheon-time Roberta's part in the work was not completed. Her uncle asked for two hours more of her time and she cheerfully promised it. So at two o'clock the stage was again set as a business office, the actors again engaged in their parts. But at three the situation was abruptly changed.

"I believe there are no more revisions to be made," declared Judge Gray with a sigh of weariness. "I have taxed you heavily, my dear, but if you are equal to finishing these eleven sheets for me by yourself I shall be grateful. My eyes have reached the limit of endurance, even with all the help you have given me. I must go to my room."

He paused by Richard's desk on his way out. "Have you finished the abstract of the chapter on Judge Cahill?" he asked. "No? I thought you would perhaps have covered that this morning. But--I do not mean to exact too much. It will be quite satisfactory if you can complete it this afternoon."

"I am sorry," said his assistant, flushing in a quite unaccustomed manner. "I have been working more slowly than I realized. I will finish it as rapidly as I can, sir."

"Don't apologize, Mr. Kendrick. We all have our slow days. I undoubtedly underestimated the amount of time the chapter would require. Good afternoon to you."

Richard sat down and plunged into the task he now saw he had merely played with during the morning. By a tremendous effort he kept his eyes from lifting to the figure at the typewriter, whose steady clicking never ceased but for a moment at a time, putting him to shame. Yet try as he would he could not apply himself with any real concentration; and the task called for concentration, all he could command.

"You are probably not used to working in the same room with a typewriter," said his companion, quite unexpectedly, after a full half hour of silence. She had stopped work to oil a bearing in her machine. There was an odd note in her voice; it sounded to Richard as if she meant: "You are not used to doing anything worth while."

"I don't mind it in the least," he protested.

"I'm sorry not to take my work to another room," Roberta went on, tipping up her machine and manipulating levers with skill as she applied the oil. "But I shall soon be through."

"Please don't hurry. I ought to be able to work under any conditions. And I certainly enjoy having you at work in the same room," he ventured to add. It was odd how he found himself merely venturing to say to this girl things which he would have said without hesitation--putting them much more strongly withal--to any other girl he knew.

"One needs to be able to forget there's anybody in the same room." There was a little curl of scorn about her lips.

"That might be easier to do under some conditions than others." He did not mean to be trampled upon.

But Roberta finished her oiling in silence and again applied herself to her typing with redoubled energy.

He went at his abstract, suddenly furious with himself. He would show her that he could work as persistently as she. He could not pretend to himself that she was not absorbed. Only entire absorption could enable her to reel off those pages without more than an infrequent stop for the correction of an error.

Turning a page in the big volume of records of speeches in the State Legislature, which he was consulting, Richard came upon a sheet of paper on which was written something in verse. His eye went to the bottom of the sheet to see there the source of the quotation--Browning--with reference to title and page. No harm to read a quoted poem, certainly; his eyes sought it eagerly as a relief from the sonorous phrasing of the speech he was attempting to read. He had never seen the words before; the first line--and he must read to the end. What a thing to find in a dusty volume of forgotten speeches of a date long past!

Such a starved bank of moss
  Till, that May-morn,
Blue ran the flash across:
  Violets were born!

Sky--what a scowl of cloud
  Till, near and far,
Ray on ray split the shroud:
  Splendid, a star!

World--how it walled about
  Life with disgrace
Till God's own smile came out:
  That was thy face!

Speeches were forgotten; he devoured the words over and over again. They seemed to him to have been made expressly for him. A starved bank of moss--that was exactly what he had been, only he had not known it, but had fancied himself a garden of rich resource. He knew better now, starved he was, and starved he would remain--unless he could make the violets his own. No doubt but he had found them!

He followed an impulse. Rising, the sheet of yellowed paper in his hand, he walked over to the typewriter. Without apology he laid the sheet upon the pile of typed ones at her side.

"See what I've found in an old volume of state speeches."

Roberta's busy hand stopped. Her eyes scanned the yellow page upon which the stiff, fine handwriting, clearly that of a man, stood out legibly as print. Business woman she might be, but she could not so far abstract herself as not to be touched by the hint of romance involved in finding such words in such a place.

"How strange!" she owned. "And they've been there a long time, by the look of the paper and ink. I never saw the handwriting before. Perhaps Uncle Calvin lent the book to somebody long ago and the 'somebody' left this in it."

"Shall I put it back, or show it to Judge Gray?"

He remained beside her though she had handed back the paper.

"Put it back, don't you think? If you wrote out such words and left them in a book, you would want them to stay there, not to be looked at curiously by other eyes fifty years after."

"That's somebody's heart there on that sheet of old paper," said he. Apparently he was looking at the paper; in reality he was stealing a glance past it at her down-bent face.

"Not necessarily. Somebody may merely have been attracted by the music of the lines. Put it back, Mr. Secretary, and concern yourself with Judge Cahill. It's to be hoped that you won't find any more distracting verse between his pages."

"Why not? Oughtn't one to get all the poetry one can out of life?"

"Not in business hours."

He laughed in spite of himself at the failure of his effort to make her self-conscious by any reading of such lines in his presence. Clearly she meant to allow no personal relation to arise between them while they were thrown together by Judge Gray's need of them. She fell to typing again with even more energy than before, if that were possible, while he--it must be confessed that before he laid the verses away between the pages for another fifty years' sleep he had made note of their identity, that he might look them up again in a seldom opened copy of the English poet on his shelves at home. They belonged to him now!

In half an hour more Roberta's machine stopped clicking. Swiftly she covered it, set it away in the book-cupboard, and put her table in order. She laid the typewritten sheets together upon Judge Gray's desk in a straight-edged pile, a paperweight on top. In her simple dress of dark blue, trim as any office woman's attire, she might have been a hired stenographer--of a very high class--putting her affairs in order for the day.

Richard waited till she approached his desk, which she had to pass on her way out. Then he rose to his feet.

"Allow me to congratulate you," said he, "on having accomplished a long task in the minimum length of time possible. I am lost in wonder that a hand which can play the 'cello with such art can play the typewriter with such skill."

"Thank you." There was a flash of mirth in her eyes. "There's music in both if you have ears to hear."

"I have recognized that to-day."

"You never heard it before? Music in the hammer on the anvil, in the throb of the engine, in the hum of the dynamo."

"And in the scratch of the pen, the pounding of the boiler shop, and the--the--slide and grind of the trolley-car, I suppose?"

"Indeed, yes--even in those. And there'll surely be melody in the closing of the door which shuts you in to solitude after this distracting day. Listen to it! Good-bye."

He long remembered the peculiar parting look she gave him, satiric, mischievous, yet charmingly provocative. She was keen of mind, she was brilliant of wit, but she was all woman--no doubt of that. He was suddenly sure that she had known well enough all day the effect that she had had upon him, and that it had amused her. His cheek reddened at the thought. He wondered why on earth he should care to pursue an attempt at acquaintance with one whose manner with him was frequently so disturbing to his self-conceit. Well, at least he must forget her now, and redeem himself with an hour's solid effort.

But, strange to say, although he had found it difficult to work in her presence, in her absence he found it impossible to work at all. He stuck doggedly to his desk for the appointed hour, then gave over the attempt and departed. The moral of all this, which he discovered he could not escape, was that though he had taken his university degree, and had supplemented the academic education with the broader one of travel and observation, he had not at his command that first requisite for efficient labour: the power of sustained application. In a way he had been dimly suspicious of this since the day he had begun this pretence of work for his grandfather's old friend. To-day, at sight of a girl's steady concentration upon a wearisome task in spite of his own supposably diverting presence, it had been brought home to him with force that he was unquestionably reaping that inevitable product of protracted idleness: the loss of the power to work.

As he drove away it suddenly occurred to him that on the morrow, instead of coming to the house in his car, he would leave it in the garage and walk. Between the discovery of his inefficiency and his resolution to dispense with a hitherto accustomed luxury there may have been a subtler connection than appears to the eye.