Are We Downhearted? No! by Mary Roberts Rinehart
There are certain people who will never understand this story, people who live their lives by rule of thumb. Little lives they are, too, measured by the letter and not the spirit. Quite simple too. Right is right and wrong is wrong.
That shadowy No Man's Land between the trenches of virtue and sin, where most of us fight our battles and are wounded, and even die, does not exist for them.
The boy in this story belonged to that class. Even if he reads it he may not recognise it. But he will not read it or have it read to him. He will even be somewhat fretful if it comes his way.
"If that's one of those problem things," he will say, "I don't want to hear it. I don't see why nobody writes adventure any more."
Right is right and wrong is wrong. Seven words for a creed, and all of life to live!
This is not a war story. But it deals, as must anything that represents life in this year of our Lord of Peace, with war. With war in its human relations. Not with guns and trenches, but with men and women, with a boy and a girl.
For only in the mass is war vast. To the man in the trench it reduces itself to the man on his right, the man on his left, the man across, beyond the barbed wire, and a woman.
The boy was a Canadian. He was twenty-two and not very tall. His name in this story is Cecil Hamilton. He had won two medals for life-saving, each in a leather case. He had saved people from drowning. When he went abroad to fight he took the medals along. Not to show. But he felt that the time might come when he would not be sure of himself. A good many men on the way to war have felt that way. The body has a way of turning craven, in spite of high resolves. It would be rather comforting, he felt, to have those medals somewhere about him at that time. He never looked at them without a proud little intake of breath and a certain swelling of the heart.
On the steamer he found that a medal for running had slipped into one of the cases. He rather chuckled over that. He had a sense of humour, in spite of his seven-word creed. And a bit of superstition, for that night, at dusk, he went out on to the darkened deck and flung it overboard.
The steamer had picked him up at Halifax--a cold dawn, with a few pinched faces looking over the rail. Forgive him if he swaggered up the gangway. He was twenty-two, he was a lieutenant, and he was a fighting man.
The girl in the story saw him then. She was up and about, in a short sport suit, with a white tam-o'-shanter on her head and a white woolen scarf tucked round her neck. Under her belted coat she wore a middy blouse, and when she saw Lieutenant Cecil Hamilton, with his eager eyes--not unlike her own, his eyes were young and inquiring--she reached into a pocket of the blouse and dabbed her lips with a small stick of cold cream.
Cold air has a way of drying lips.
He caught her at it, and she smiled. It was all over for him then, poor lad!
Afterward, when he was in the trenches, he wondered about that. He called it "Kismet" to himself. It was really a compound, that first day or two, of homesickness and a little furtive stirring of anxiety and the thrill of new adventure that was in his blood.
On the second afternoon out they had tea together, she in her steamer chair and he calmly settled next to her, in a chair belonging to an irritated English lawyer. Afterward he went down to his cabin, hung round with his new equipment, and put away the photograph of a very nice Toronto girl, which had been propped up back of his hairbrushes.
They got rather well acquainted that first day.
"You know," he said, with his cup in one hand and a rather stale cake in the other, "it's awfully bully of you to be so nice to me."
She let that go. She was looking, as a matter of fact, after a tall man with heavily fringed eyes and English clothes, who had just gone by.
"You know," he confided--he frequently prefaced his speeches with that--"I was horribly lonely when I came up the gangway. Then I saw you, and you were smiling. It did me a lot of good."
"I suppose I really should not have smiled." She came back to him with rather an effort. "But you caught me, you know. It wasn't rouge. It was cold cream. I'll show you."
She unbuttoned her jacket, against his protest, and held out the little stick. He took it and looked at it.
"You don't need even this," he said rather severely. He disapproved of cosmetics. "You have a lovely mouth."
"It's rather large. Don't you think so?"
"It's exactly right."
He was young, and as yet more interested in himself than in anything in the world. So he sat there and told her who he was, and what he hoped to do and, rather to his own astonishment, about the medals.
"How very brave you are!" she said.
That made him anxious. He hoped she did not think he was swanking. It was only that he did not make friends easily, and when he did meet somebody he liked he was apt to forget and talk too much about himself. He was so afraid that he gulped down his tepid tea in a hurry and muttered something about letters to write, and got himself away. The girl stared after him with a pucker between her eyebrows. And the tall man came and took the place he vacated.
Things were worrying the girl--whose name, by the way, was Edith. On programs it was spelled "Edythe," but that was not her fault. Yes, on programs--Edythe O'Hara. The business manager had suggested deHara, but she had refused. Not that it mattered much. She had been in the chorus. She had a little bit of a voice, rather sweet, and she was divinely young and graceful.
In the chorus she would have remained, too, but for one of those queer shifts that alter lives. A girl who did a song and an eccentric dance had wrenched her knee, and Edith had gone on in her place. Something of her tomboy youth remained in her, and for a few minutes, as she frolicked over the stage, she was a youngster, dancing to her shadow.
She had not brought down the house, but a man with heavily fringed eyes, who watched her from the wings, made a note of her name. He was in America for music-hall material for England, and he was shrewd after the manner of his kind. Here was a girl who frolicked on the stage. The English, accustomed to either sensuous or sedate dancing, would fall hard for her, he decided. Either that, or she would go "bla." She was a hit or nothing.
And that, in so many words, he told her that afternoon.
"Feeling all right?" he asked her.
"Better than this morning. The wind's gone down, hasn't it?"
He did not answer her. He sat on the side of the chair and looked her over.
"You want to keep well," he warned her. "The whole key to your doing anything is vitality. That's the word--Life."
She smiled. It seemed so easy. Life? She was full-fed with the joy of it. Even as she sat, her active feet in their high-heeled shoes were aching to be astir.
"Working in the gymnasium?" he demanded.
"Two hours a day, morning and evening. Feel."
She held out her arm to him, and he felt its small, rounded muscle, with a smile. But his heavily fringed eyes were on her face, and he kept his hold until she shook it off.
"Who's the soldier boy?" he asked suddenly.
"Lieutenant Hamilton. He's rather nice. Don't you think so?"
"He'll do to play with on the trip. You'll soon lose him in London."
The winter darkness closed down round them. Stewards were busy closing ports and windows with fitted cardboards. Through the night the ship would travel over the dangerous lanes of the sea with only her small port and starboard lights. A sense of exhilaration possessed Edith. This hurling forward over black water, this sense of danger, visualised by precautions, this going to something new and strange, set every nerve to jumping. She threw back her rug, and getting up went to the rail. Lethway, the manager, followed her.
"Nervous, aren't you?"
"Not frightened, anyhow."
It was then that he told her how he had sized the situation up. She was a hit or nothing.
"If you go all right," he said, "you can have the town. London's for you or against you, especially if you're an American. If you go flat----"
She had not thought of that. What would she do then? Her salary was not to begin until the performances started. Her fare and expenses across were paid, but how about getting back? Even at the best her salary was small. That had been one of her attractions to Lethway.
"I'll have to go home, of course," she said. "If they don't like me, and decide in a hurry, I--I may have to borrow money from you to get back."
"Don't worry about that." He put a hand over hers as it lay on the rail, and when she made no effort to release it he bent down and kissed her warm fingers. "Don't you worry about that," he repeated.
She did worry, however. Down in her cabin, not so tidy as the boy's--littered with her curiously anomalous belongings, a great bunch of violets in the wash bowl, a cheap toilet set, elaborate high-heeled shoes, and a plain muslin nightgown hanging to the door--down there she opened her trunk and got out her contract. There was nothing in it about getting back home.
For a few minutes she was panicky. Her hands shook as she put the document away. She knew life with all the lack of illusion of two years in the chorus. Even Lethway--not that she minded his casual caress on the deck. She had seen a lot of that. It meant nothing. Stage directors either bawled you out or petted you. That was part of the business.
But to-night, all day indeed, there had been something in Lethway's face that worried her. And there were other things.
The women on the boat replied coldly to her friendly advances. She had spoken to a nice girl, her own age or thereabouts, and the girl's mother or aunt or chaperon, whoever it was, had taken her away. It had puzzled her at the time. Now she knew. The crowd that had seen her off, from the Pretty Coquette Company--that had queered her, she decided. That and Lethway.
None of the girls had thought it odd that she should cross the ocean with Lethway. They had been envious, as a matter of fact. They had brought her gifts, the queer little sachets and fruit and boxes of candy that littered the room. In that half hour before sailing they had chattered about her, chorus unmistakably, from their smart, cheap little hats to their short skirts and fancy shoes. Her roommate, Mabel, had been the only one she had hated to leave. And Mabel had queered her, too, with her short-bobbed yellow hair.
She did a reckless thing that night, out of pure defiance. It was a winter voyage in wartime. The night before the women had gone down, sedately dressed, to dinner. The girl she had tried to speak to had worn a sweater. So Edith dressed for dinner.
She whitened her neck and arms with liquid powder, and slicked up her brown hair daringly smooth and flat. Then she put on her one evening dress, a black net, and pinned on her violets. She rouged her lips a bit too.
The boy, meeting her on the companionway, gasped.
That night he asked permission to move over to her table, and after that the three of them ate together, Lethway watching and saying little, the other two chattering. They were very gay. They gambled to the extent of a quarter each, on the number of fronds, or whatever they are, in the top of a pineapple that Cecil ordered in, and she won. It was delightful to gamble, she declared, and put the fifty cents into a smoking-room pool.
The boy was clearly infatuated. She looked like a debutante, and, knowing it, acted the part. It was not acting really. Life had only touched her so far, and had left no mark. When Lethway lounged away to an evening's bridge Cecil fetched his military cape and they went on deck.
"I'm afraid it's rather lonely for you," he said. "It's always like this the first day or two. Then the women warm up and get friendly."
"I don't want to know them. They are a stupid-looking lot. Did you ever see such clothes?"
"You are the only person who looks like a lady to-night," he observed. "You look lovely. I hope you don't mind my saying it?"
She was a downright young person, after all. And there was something about the boy that compelled candour. So, although she gathered after a time that he did not approve of chorus girls, was even rather skeptical about them and believed that the stage should be an uplifting influence, she told him about herself that night.
It was a blow. He rallied gallantly, but she could see him straggling to gain this new point of view.
"Anyhow," he said at last, "you're not like the others." Then hastily: "I don't mean to offend you when I say that, you know. Only one can tell, to look at you, that you are different." He thought that sounded rather boyish, and remembered that he was going to the war, and was, or would soon be, a fighting man. "I've known a lot of girls," he added rather loftily. "All sorts of girls."
It was the next night that Lethway kissed her. He had left her alone most of the day, and by sheer gravitation of loneliness she and the boy drifted together. All day long they ranged the ship, watched a boxing match in the steerage, fed bread to the hovering gulls from the stern. They told each other many things. There had been a man in the company who had wanted to marry her, but she intended to have a career. Anyhow, she would not marry unless she loved a person very much.
He eyed her wistfully when she said that.
At dusk he told her about the girl in Toronto.
"It wasn't an engagement, you understand. But we've been awfully good friends. She came to see me off. It was rather awful. She cried. She had some sort of silly idea that I'll get hurt."
It was her turn to look wistful. Oh, they were getting on! When he went to ask the steward to bring tea to the corner they had found, she looked after him. She had been so busy with her own worries that she had not thought much of the significance of his neatly belted khaki. Suddenly it hurt her. He was going to war.
She knew little about the war, except from the pictures in illustrated magazines. Once or twice she had tried to talk about it with Mabel, but Mabel had only said, "It's fierce!" and changed the subject.
The uniforms scattered over the ship and the precautions taken at night, however, were bringing this thing called war very close to her. It was just beyond that horizon toward which they were heading. And even then it was brought nearer to her.
Under cover of the dusk the girl she had tried to approach came up and stood beside her. Edith was very distant with her.
"The nights make me nervous," the girl said. "In the daylight it is not so bad. But these darkened windows bring it all home to me--the war, you know."
"I guess it's pretty bad."
"It's bad enough. My brother has been wounded. I am going to him."
Even above the sound of the water Edith caught the thrill in her voice. It was a new tone to her, the exaltation of sacrifice.
"I'm sorry," she said. And some subconscious memory of Mabel made her say: "It's fierce!"
The girl looked at her.
"That young officer you're with, he's going, of course. He seems very young. My brother was older. Thirty."
"He has such nice eyes," said the girl. "I wish----"
But he was coming back, and she slipped away.
During tea Cecil caught her eyes on him more than once. He had taken off his stiff-crowned cap, and the wind blew his dark hair round.
"I wish you were not going to the war," she said unexpectedly. It had come home to her, all at once, the potentialities of that trim uniform. It made her a little sick.
"It's nice of you to say that."
There was a new mood on her, of confession, almost of consecration. He asked her if he might smoke. No one in her brief life had ever before asked her permission to smoke.
"I'll have to smoke all I can," he said. "The fellows say cigarettes are scarce in the trenches. I'm taking a lot over."
He knew a girl who smoked cigarettes, he said. She was a nice girl too. He couldn't understand it. The way he felt about it, maybe a cigarette for a girl wasn't a crime. But it led to other things--drinking, you know, and all that.
"The fellows don't respect a girl that smokes," he said. "That's the plain truth. I've talked to her a lot about it."
"It wasn't your friend in Toronto, was it?"
"Good heavens, no!" He repudiated the idea with horror.
It was the girl who had to readjust her ideas of life that day. She had been born and raised in that neutral ground between the lines of right and wrong, and now suddenly her position was attacked and she must choose sides. She chose.
"I've smoked a cigarette now and then. If you think it is wrong I'll not do it any more."
He was almost overcome, both at the confession and at her renunciation. To tell the truth, among the older Canadian officers he had felt rather a boy. Her promise reinstated him in his own esteem. He was a man, and a girl was offering to give something up if he wished it. It helped a lot.
That evening he laid out his entire equipment in his small cabin, and invited her to see it. He put his mother's picture behind his brushes, where the other one had been, and when all was ready he rang for a stewardess.
"I am going to show a young lady some of my stuff," he explained. "And as she is alone I wish you'd stay round, will you? I want her to feel perfectly comfortable."
The stewardess agreed, and as she was an elderly woman, with a son at the front, a boy like Cecil, she went back to her close little room over the engines and cried a little, very quietly.
It was unfortunate that he did not explain the presence of the stewardess to the girl. For when it was all over, and she had stood rather awed before his mother's picture, and rather to his surprise had smoothed her hair with one of his brushes, she turned to him outside the door.
"That stewardess has a lot of nerve," she said. "The idea of standing in the doorway, rubbering!"
"I asked her," he explained. "I thought you'd prefer having some one there."
She stared at him.
Lethway had won the ship's pool that day. In the evening he played bridge, and won again. He had been drinking a little. Not much, but enough to make him reckless.
For the last rubber or two the thought of Edith had obsessed him, her hand on the rail as he had kissed it, her cool eyes that were at once so wise and so ignorant, her lithe body in the short skirt and middy blouse. He found her more alluring, so attired, than she had been in the scant costume of what to him was always "the show."
He pondered on that during all of a dummy hand, sitting low in his chair with his feet thrust far under the table. The show business was going to the bad. Why? Because nobody connected with it knew anything about human nature. He formulated a plan, compounded of liquor and real business acumen, of dressing a chorus, of suggesting the feminine form instead of showing it, of veiling it in chiffons of soft colours and sending a draft of air from electric fans in the wings to set the chiffons in motion.
"Like the Aurora," he said to himself. "Only not so beefy. Ought to be a hit. Pretty? It will be the real thing!"
The thought of Edith in such a costume, playing like a dryad over the stage, stayed with him when the dummy hand had been played and he had been recalled to the game by a thump on the shoulder. Edith in soft, pastel-coloured chiffons, dancing in bare feet to light string music. A forest setting, of course. Pan. A goat or two. All that sort of thing.
On his way down to his cabin he passed her door. He went on, hesitated, came back and knocked.
Now Edith had not been able to sleep. Her thrifty soul, trained against waste, had urged her not to fling her cigarettes overboard, but to smoke them.
"And then never again," she said solemnly.
The result was that she could not get to sleep. Blanketed to the chin she lay in her bunk, reading. The book had been Mabel's farewell offering, a thing of perverted ideals, or none, of cheap sentiment, of erotic thought overlaid with words. The immediate result of it, when she yawned at last and turned out the light over her bed, was a new light on the boy.
"Little prig!" she said to herself, and stretched her round arms luxuriously above her head.
Then Lethway rapped. She sat up and listened. Then, grumbling, she got out and opened the door an inch or two. The lights were low outside and her own cabin dark. But she knew him.
"Are we chased?" she demanded. In the back of her mind, fear of pursuit by a German submarine was dogging her across the Atlantic.
"Sure we are!" he said. "What are you so stingy about the door for?"
She recognised his condition out of a not inconsiderable experience and did her best to force the door shut, but he put his foot over the sill and smiled.
"Please go away, Mr. Lethway."
"I'll go if you'll kiss me good night."
She calculated the situation, and surrendered. There was nothing else to do. But when she upturned her face he slipped past her and into the room. Just inside the door, swinging open and shut with every roll of the ship, he took her in his arms and kissed her, not once but many times.
She did not lose her head. She had an arm free and she rang the bell. Then she jerked herself loose.
"I have rung for the stewardess," she said furiously. "If you are here when she comes I'll ask for help."
"You young devil!" was all he said, and went, slamming the door behind him. His rage grew as he reached his own cabin. Damn the girl, anyhow! He had not meant anything. Here he was, spending money he might never get back to give her a chance, and she called the stewardess because he kissed her!
As for the girl, she went back to bed. For a few moments sheer rage kept her awake. Then youth and fatigue triumphed and she fell asleep. Her last thought was of the boy, after all. "He wouldn't do a thing like that," she reflected. "He's a gentleman. He's the real thing. He's----"
Her eyes closed.
Lethway apologised the next day, apologised with an excess of manner that somehow made the apology as much of an insult as the act. But she matched him at that game--took her cue from him, even went him one better as to manner. When he left her he had begun to feel that she was no unworthy antagonist. The game would be interesting. And she had the advantage, if she only knew it. Back of his desire to get back at her, back of his mocking smile and half-closed eyes, he was just a trifle mad about her since the night before.
That is the way things stood when they reached the Mersey. Cecil was in love with the girl. Very earnestly in love. He did not sleep at night for thinking about her. He remembered certain semi-harmless escapades of his college days, and called himself unworthy and various other things. He scourged himself by leaving her alone in her steamer chair and walking by at stated intervals. Once, in a white sweater over a running shirt, he went to the gymnasium and found her there. She had on a "gym" suit of baggy bloomers and the usual blouse. He backed away from the door hastily.
At first he was jealous of Lethway. Then that passed. She confided to him that she did not like the manager. After that he was sorry for him. He was sorry for any one she did not like. He bothered Lethway by walking the deck with him and looking at him with what Lethway refused to think was compassion.
But because, contrary to the boy's belief, none of us is quite good or quite evil, he was kind to the boy. The khaki stood for something which no Englishman could ignore.
"Poor little devil!" he said on the last day in the smoking room, "he's going to a bad time, all right. I was in Africa for eight years. Boer war and the rest of it. Got run through the thigh in a native uprising, and they won't have me now. But Africa was cheery to this war."
He asked the boy into the smoking room, which he had hitherto avoided. He had some queer idea that he did not care to take his uniform in there. Absurd, of course. It made him rather lonely in the hours Edith spent in her cabin, preparing variations of costume for the evening out of her small trunk. But he was all man, and he liked the society of men; so he went at last, with Lethway, and ordered vichy!
He had not allowed himself to think much beyond the end of the voyage. As the ship advanced, war seemed to slip beyond the edge of his horizon. Even at night, as he lay and tossed, his thoughts were either of the next day, when he would see Edith again, or of that indefinite future when he would return, covered with honors, and go to her, wherever she was.
He never doubted the honors now. He had something to fight for. The medals in their cases looked paltry to him, compared with what was coming. In his sleep he dreamed of the V.C., dreams he was too modest to put into thoughts in waking hours.
Then they reached the Mersey. On the last evening of the voyage he and Edith stood on the upper deck. It was a zone of danger. From each side of the narrowing river flashlights skimmed the surface of the water, playing round but never on the darkened ship. Red and green lights blinked signals. Their progress was a devious one through the mine-strewn channel. There was a heavy sea even there, and the small lights on the mast on the pilot boat, as it came to a stop, described great arcs that seemed, first to starboard, then to port, to touch the very tips of the waves.
"I'm not crazy about this," the girl said, as the wind tugged at her skirts. "It frightens me. Brings the war pretty close, doesn't it?"
Emotion swelled his heart and made him husky--love and patriotism, pride and hope, and a hot burst of courage.
"What if we strike a mine?" she asked.
"I wouldn't care so much. It would give me a chance to save you."
Overhead they were signalling the shore with a white light. Along with the new emotions that were choking him came an unaccustomed impulse of boastfulness.
"I can read that," he said when she ignored his offer to save her. "Of course it's code, but I can spell it out."
He made a move to step forward and watch the signaler, but she put her hand on his arm.
"Don't go. I'm nervous, Cecil," she said.
She had called him by his first name. It shook him profoundly, that and the touch of her hand on his arm.
"Oh, I love you, love you!" he said hoarsely. But he did not try to take her in his arms, or attempt to caress the hand that still clung to him. He stood very erect, looking at the shadowy outline of her. Then, her long scarf blowing toward him, he took the end of it and kissed that very gravely.
"I would die for you," he said.
Then Lethway joined them.
London was not kind to him. He had felt, like many Canadians, that in going to England he was going home. But England was cold.
Not the people on the streets. They liked the Canadians and they cheered them when their own regiments went by unhailed. It appealed to their rampant patriotism that these men had come from across the sea to join hands with them against common foe. But in the clubs, where his letters admitted the boy, there was a different atmosphere. Young British officers were either cool or, much worse, patronising. They were inclined to suspect that his quiet confidence was swanking. One day at luncheon he drank a glass of wine, not because he wanted it but because he did not like to refuse. The result was unfortunate. It loosened his tongue a bit, and he mentioned the medals.
Not noisily, of course. In an offhand manner, to his next neighbor. It went round the table, and a sort of icy silence, after that, greeted his small sallies. He never knew what the trouble was, but his heart was heavy in him.
And it rained.
It was always raining. He had very little money beyond his pay, and the constant hiring of taxicabs worried him. Now and then he saw some one he knew, down from Salisbury for a holiday, but they had been over long enough to know their way about. They had engagements, things to buy. He fairly ate his heart out in sheer loneliness.
There were two hours in the day that redeemed the others. One was the hour late in the afternoon when, rehearsal over, he took Edith O'Hara to tea. The other was just before he went to bed, when he wrote her the small note that reached her every morning with her breakfast.
In the seven days before he joined his regiment at Salisbury he wrote her seven notes. They were candid, boyish scrawls, not love letters at all. This was one of them:
Dear Edith: I have put in a rotten evening and am just going to bed. I am rather worried because you looked so tired to-day. Please don't work too hard.
I am only writing to say how I look forward each night to seeing you the next day. I am sending with this a small bunch of lilies of the valley. They remind me of you. CECIL.
The girl saved those letters. She was not in love with him, but he gave her something no one else had ever offered: a chivalrous respect that pleased as well as puzzled her.
Once in a tea shop he voiced his creed, as it pertained to her, over a plate of muffins.
"When we are both back home, Edith," he said, "I am going to ask you something."
"Why not now?"
"Because it wouldn't be quite fair to you. I--I may be killed, or something. That's one thing. Then, it's because of your people."
That rather stunned her. She had no people. She was going to tell him that, but she decided not to. She felt quite sure that he considered "people" essential, and though she felt that, for any long period of time, these queer ideas and scruples of his would be difficult to live up to, she intended to do it for that one week.
"Oh, all right," she said, meekly enough.
She felt very tender toward him after that, and her new gentleness made it all hard for him. She caught him looking at her wistfully at times, and it seemed to her that he was not looking well. His eyes were hollow, his face thin. She put her hand over his as it lay on the table.
"Look here," she said, "you look half sick, or worried, or something. Stop telling me to take care of myself, and look after yourself a little better."
"I'm all right," he replied. Then soon after: "Everything's strange. That's the trouble," he confessed. "It's only in little things that don't matter, but a fellow feels such a duffer."
On the last night he took her to dinner--a small French restaurant in a back street in Soho. He had heard about it somewhere. Edith classed it as soon as she entered. It was too retiring, too demure. Its very location was clandestine.
But he never knew. He was divided that night between joy at getting to his regiment and grief at leaving her. Rather self-engrossed, she thought.
They had a table by an open grate fire, with a screen "to shut off the draft," the waiter said. It gave the modest meal a delightfully homey air, their isolation and the bright coal fire. For the first time they learned the joys of mussels boiled in milk, of French souffle and other things.
At the end of the evening he took her back to her cheap hotel in a taxicab. She expected him to kiss her. Her experience of taxicabs had been like that. But he did not. He said very little on the way home, but sat well back and eyed her wistful eyes. She chattered to cover his silence--of rehearsals, of--with reservations--of Lethway, of the anticipated London opening. She felt very sad herself. He had been a tie to America, and he had been much more than that. Though she did not realise it, he had had a profound effect on her. In trying to seem what he thought her she was becoming what he thought her. Her old reckless attitude toward life was gone, or was going.
The day before she had refused an invitation to a night club, and called herself a fool for doing it. But she had refused.
Not that he had performed miracles with her. She was still frankly a dweller on the neutral ground. But to that instinct that had kept her up to that time what she would have called "straight" had been added a new refinement. She was no longer the reckless and romping girl whose abandon had caught Lethway's eye.
She had gained a soul, perhaps, and lost a livelihood.
When they reached the hotel he got out and went in with her. The hall porter was watching and she held out her hand. But he shook his head.
"If I touched your hand," he said, "I would have to take you in my arms. Good-bye, dear."
"Good-bye," she said. There were tears in her eyes. It was through a mist that she saw him, as the elevator went up, standing at salute, his eyes following her until she disappeared from sight.
Things were going wrong with Lethway. The management was ragging him, for one thing.
"Give the girl time," he said almost viciously, at the end of a particularly bad rehearsal. "She's had a long voyage and she's tired. Besides," he added, "these acts never do go at rehearsal. Give me a good house at the opening and she'll show you what she can do."
But in his soul he was worried. There was a change in Edith O'Hara. Even her voice had altered. It was not only her manner to him. That was marked enough, but he only shrugged his shoulders over it. Time enough for that when the production was on.
He had engaged a hoyden, and she was by way of becoming a lady. During the first week or so he had hoped that it was only the strangeness of her surroundings. He had been shrewd enough to lay some of it, however, to Cecil's influence.
"When your soldier boy gets out of the way," he sneered one day in the wings, "perhaps you'll get down to earth and put some life in your work."
But to his dismay she grew steadily worse. Her dancing was delicate, accurate, even graceful, but the thing the British public likes to think typically American, a sort of breezy swagger, was gone. To bill her in her present state as the Madcap American would be sheer folly.
Ten days before the opening he cabled for another girl to take her place.
He did not tell her. Better to let her work on, he decided. A German submarine might sink the ship on which the other girl was coming, and then where would they be?
Up to the last, however, he had hopes of Edith. Not that he cared to save her. But he hated to acknowledge a failure. He disliked to disavow his own judgment.
He made a final effort with her, took her one day to luncheon at Simpson's, and in one of the pewlike compartments, over mutton and caper sauce, he tried to "talk a little life into her."
"What the devil has come over you?" he demanded savagely. "You were larky enough over in New York. There are any number of girls in London who can do what you are doing now, and do it better."
"I'm doing just what I did in New York."
"The hell you are! I could do what you're doing with a jointed doll and some wires. Now see here, Edith," he said, "either you put some go into the thing, or you go. That's flat."
Her eyes filled.
"I--maybe I'm worried," she said. "Ever since I found out that I've signed up, with no arrangement about sending me back, it's been on my mind."
"Don't you worry about that."
"But if they put some one on in my place?"
"You needn't worry about that either. I'll look after you. You know that. If I hadn't been crazy about you I'd have let you go a week ago. You know that too."
She knew the tone, knew instantly where she stood. Knew, too, that she would not play the first night in London. She went rather white, but she faced him coolly.
"Don't look like that," he said. "I'm only telling you that if you need a friend I'll be there."
It was two days before the opening, however, when the blow fell. She had not been sleeping, partly from anxiety about herself, partly about the boy. Every paper she picked up was full of the horrors of war. There were columns filled with the names of those who had fallen. Somehow even his uniform had never closely connected the boy with death in her mind. He seemed so young.
She had had a feeling that his very youth would keep him from danger. War to her was a faintly conceived struggle between men, and he was a boy.
But here were boys who had died, boys at nineteen. And the lists of missing startled her. One morning she read in the personal column a query, asking if any one could give the details of the death of a young subaltern. She cried over that. In all her care-free life never before had she wept over the griefs of others.
Cecil had sent her his photograph taken in his uniform. Because he had had it taken to give her he had gazed directly into the eye of the camera. When she looked at it it returned her glance. She took to looking at it a great deal.
Two days before the opening she turned from a dispirited rehearsal to see Mabel standing in the wings. Then she knew. The end had come.
Mabel was jaunty, but rather uneasy.
"You poor dear!" she said, when Edith went to her. "What on earth's happened? The cable only said--honest, dearie, I feel like a dog!"
"They don't like me. That's all," she replied wearily, and picked up her hat and jacket from a chair. But Mabel was curious. Uncomfortable, too, as she had said. She slipped an arm round Edith's waist.
"Say the word and I'll throw them down," she cried. "It looks like dirty work to me. And you're thin. Honest, dearie, I mean it."
Her loyalty soothed the girl's sore spirit.
"I don't know what's come over me," she said. "I've tried hard enough. But I'm always tired. I--I think it's being so close to the war."
Mabel stared at her. There was a war. She knew that. The theatrical news was being crowded to a back page to make space for disagreeable diagrams and strange, throaty names.
"I know. It's fierce, isn't it?" she said.
Edith took her home, and they talked far into the night. She had slipped Cecil's picture into the wardrobe before she turned on the light. Then she explained the situation.
"It's pep they want, is it?" said Mabel at last. "Well, believe me, honey, I'll give it to them. And as long as I've got a cent it's yours."
They slept together in Edith's narrow bed, two slim young figures delicately flushed with sleep. As pathetic, had they known it, as those other sleepers in their untidy billets across the channel. Almost as hopeless too. Dwellers in the neutral ground.
Now war, after all, is to each fighting man an affair of small numbers, an affair of the men to his right and his left, of the A.M.S.C. in the rear and of a handful of men across. On his days of rest the horizon is somewhat expanded. It becomes then a thing of crowded and muddy village streets, of food and drink and tobacco and a place to sleep.
Always, of course, it is a thing of noises.
This is not a narrative of war. It matters very little, for instance, how Cecil's regiment left Salisbury and went to Soissons, in France. What really matters is that at last the Canadian-made motor lorries moved up their equipment, and that, after digging practice trenches in the yellow clay of old battlefields, they were moved up to the front.
Once there, there seemed to be a great deal of time. It was the lull before Neuve Chapelle. Cecil's spirit grew heavy with waiting. Once, back on rest at his billet, he took a long walk over the half-frozen side roads and came without warning on a main artery. Three traction engines were taking to the front the first of the great British guns, so long awaited. He took the news back to his mess. The general verdict was that there would be something doing now.
Cecil wrote a letter to Edith that day. He had written before, of course, but this was different. He wrote first to his mother, just in case anything happened, a long, boyish letter with a misspelled word here and there. He said he was very happy and very comfortable, and that if he did get his he wanted her to know that it was all perfectly cheerful and not anything like the war correspondents said it was. He'd had a bully time all his life, thanks to her. He hadn't let her know often enough how he felt about her, and she knew he was a dub at writing. There were a great many things worse than "going out" in a good fight. "It isn't at all as if you could see the blooming thing coming," he wrote. "You never know it's after you until you've got it, and then you don't."
The letter was not to be sent unless he was killed. So he put in a few anecdotes to let her know exactly how happy and contented he was. Then he dropped the whole thing in the ten inches of mud and water he was standing in, and had to copy it all over.
To Edith he wrote a different sort of letter. He told her that he loved her. "It's almost more adoration than love," he wrote, while two men next to him were roaring over a filthy story. "I mean by that, that I feel every hour of every day how far above me you are. It's like one of these fusees the Germans are always throwing up over us at night. It's perfectly dark, and then something bright and clear and like a star, only nearer, is overhead. Everything looks different while it floats there. And so, my dear, my dear, everything has been different to me since I knew you."
Rather boyish, all of it, but terribly earnest. He said he had wanted to ask her to marry him, but that the way he felt about it, a fellow had no right to ask a girl such a thing when he was going to a war. If he came back he would ask her. And he would love her all his life.
The next day, at dawn, he went out with eighty men to an outpost that had been an abandoned farm. It was rather a forlorn hope. They had one machine gun. At nine o'clock the enemy opened fire on them and followed it by an attack. The major in charge went down early. At two Cecil was standing in the loft of the farmhouse, firing with a revolver on men who beneath him, outside, were placing dynamite under a corner of the building.
To add to the general hopelessness, their own artillery, believing them all dead, opened fire on the building. They moved their wounded to the cellar and kept on fighting.
At eight o'clock that night Cecil's right arm was hanging helpless, and the building was burning merrily. There were five of them left. They fixed bayonets and charged the open door.
* * * * *
When the boy opened his eyes he was lying in six inches of manure in a box car. One of his men was standing over him, keeping him from being trampled on. There was no air and no water. The ammonia fumes from the manure were stifling.
The car lurched and jolted along. Cecil opened his eyes now and then, and at first he begged for water. When he found there was none he lay still. The men hammered on the door and called for air. They made frantic, useless rushes at the closed and barred door. Except Cecil, all were standing. They were herded like cattle, and there was no room to lie or sit.
He lay there, drugged by weakness. He felt quite sure that he was dying, and death was not so bad. He voiced this feebly to the man who stood over him.
"It's not so bad," he said.
"The hell it's not!" said the man.
For the time Edith was effaced from his mind. He remembered the wounded men left in the cellar with the building burning over them. That, and days at home, long before the war.
Once he said "Mother." The soldier who was now standing astride of him, the better to keep off the crowding men, thought he was asking for water again.
Thirty hours of that, and then air and a little water. Not enough water. Not all the water in all the cool streams of the earth would have slaked the thirst of his wound.
The boy was impassive. He was living in the past. One day he recited at great length the story of his medals. No one listened.
And all the time his right arm lay or hung, as he was prone or erect, a strange right arm that did not belong to him. It did not even swell. When he touched it the fingers were cold and bluish. It felt like a dead hand.
Then, at the end of it all, was a bed, and a woman's voice, and quiet.
The woman was large and elderly, and her eyes were very kind. She stirred something in the boy that had been dead of pain.
"Edith!" he said.
Mabel had made a hit. Unconscious imitator that she was, she stole Edith's former recklessness, and added to it something of her own dash and verve. Lethway, standing in the wings, knew she was not and never would be Edith. She was not fine enough. Edith at her best had frolicked. Mabel romped, was almost wanton. He cut out the string music at the final rehearsal. It did not fit.
On the opening night the brass notes of the orchestra blared and shrieked. Mabel's bare feet flew, her loose hair, cut to her ears and held only by a band over her forehead, kept time in ecstatic little jerks. When at last she pulled off the fillet and bowed to the applause, her thick short hair fell over her face as she jerked her head forward. They liked that. It savoured of the abandoned. She shook it back, and danced the encore without the fillet. With her scant chiffons whirling about her knees, her loose hair, her girlish body, she was the embodiment of young love, of its passion, its fire.
Edith had been spring, palpitant with gladness.
Lethway, looking with tired eyes from the wings, knew that he had made a commercial success. But back of his sordid methods there was something of the soul of an artist. And this rebelled.
But he made a note to try flame-coloured chiffon for Mabel. Edith was to have danced in the pale greens of a water nymph.
On the night of her triumph Mabel returned late to Edith's room, where she was still quartered. She was moving the next day to a small apartment. With the generosity of her class she had urged Edith to join her, and Edith had perforce consented.
"How did it go?" Edith asked from the bed.
"Pretty well," said Mabel. "Nothing unusual."
She turned up the light, and from her radiant reflection in the mirror Edith got the truth. She lay back with a dull, sickening weight round her heart. Not that Mabel had won, but that she herself had failed.
"You're awfully late."
"I went to supper. Wish you'd been along, dearie. Terribly swell club of some sort." Then her good resolution forgotten: "I made them sit up and take notice, all right. Two invitations for supper to-morrow night and more on the way. And when I saw I'd got the house going to-night, and remembered what I was being paid for it, it made me sick."
"It's better than nothing."
"Why don't you ask Lethway to take you on in the chorus? It would do until you get something else."
"I have asked him. He won't do it."
Mabel was still standing in front of the mirror. She threw her head forward so her short hair covered her face, and watched the effect carefully. Then she came over and sat on the bed.
"He's a dirty dog," she said.
The two girls looked at each other. They knew every move in the game of life, and Lethway's methods were familiar ones.
"What are you going to do about it?" Mabel demanded at last. "Believe me, old dear, he's got a bad eye. Now listen here," she said with impulsive generosity. "I've got a scheme. I'll draw enough ahead to send you back. I'll do it to-morrow, while the drawing's good."
"And queer yourself at the start?" said Edith scornfully. "Talk sense, Mabel, I'm up against it, but don't you worry. I'll get something."
But she did not get anything. She was reduced in the next week to entire dependence on the other girl. And, even with such miracles of management as they had both learned, it was increasingly difficult to get along.
There was a new element too. Edith was incredulous at first, but at last she faced it. There was a change in Mabel. She was not less hospitable nor less generous. It was a matter of a point of view. Success was going to her head. Her indignation at certain phases of life was changing to tolerance. She found Edith's rampant virtue a trifle wearing. She took to staying out very late, and coming in ready to meet Edith's protest with defiant gaiety. She bought clothes too.
"You'll have to pay for them sometime," Edith reminded her.
"I should worry. I've got to look like something if I'm going to go out at all."
Edith, who had never thought things out before, had long hours to think now. And the one thing that seemed clear and undeniable was that she must not drive Mabel into debt. Debt was the curse of most of the girls she knew. As long as they were on their own they could manage. It was the burden of unpaid bills, lightly contracted, that drove so many of them wrong.
That night, while Mabel was asleep, she got up and cautiously lighted the gas. Then she took the boy's photograph out of its hiding place and propped it on top of her trunk. For a long time she sat there, her chin in her hands, and looked at it.
It was the next day that she saw his name among the missing.
She did not cry, not at first. The time came when it seemed to her she did nothing else. But at first she only stared. She was too young and too strong to faint, but things went gray for her.
And gray they remained--through long spring days and eternal nights--days when Mabel slept all morning, rehearsed or played in the afternoons, was away all evening and far into the night. She did not eat or sleep. She spent money that was meant for food on papers and journals and searched for news. She made a frantic but ineffectual effort to get into the War Office.
She had received his letter two days after she had seen his name among the missing. She had hardly dared to open it, but having read it, for days she went round with a strange air of consecration that left Mabel uneasy.
"I wish you wouldn't look like that!" she said one morning. "You get on my nerves."
But as time went on the feeling that he was dead overcame everything else. She despaired, rather than grieved. And following despair came recklessness. He was dead. Nothing else mattered. Lethway, meeting her one day in Oxford Circus, almost passed her before he knew her. He stopped her then.
"Haven't been sick, have you?"
"There's something wrong."
She did not deny it and he fell into step beside her.
"Doing anything?" he asked.
She shook her head. With all the power that was in her she was hating his tall figure, his heavy-lashed eyes, even the familiar ulster he wore.
"I wish you were a sensible young person," he said. But something in the glance she gave him forbade his going on. It was not an ugly glance. Rather it was cold, appraising--even, if he had known it, despairing.
Lethway had been busy. She had been in the back of his mind rather often, but other things had crowded her out. This new glimpse of her fired him again, however. And she had a new quality that thrilled even through the callus of his soul. The very thing that had foredoomed her to failure in the theatre appealed to him strongly--a refinement, a something he did not analyse.
When she was about to leave him he detained her with a hand on her arm.
"You know you can always count on me, don't you?" he said.
"I know I can't," she flashed back at him with a return of her old spirit.
"I'm crazy about you."
"Old stuff!" she said coolly, and walked off. But there was a tug of fear at her heart. She told Mabel, but it was typical of the change that Mabel only shrugged her shoulders.
It was Lethway's shrewdness that led to his next move. He had tried bullying, and failed. He had tried fear, with the same lack of effect. Now he tried kindness.
She distrusted him at first, but her starved heart was crying out for the very thing he offered her. As the weeks went on, with no news of Cecil, she accepted his death stoically at last. Something of her had died. But in a curious way the boy had put his mark on her. And as she grew more like the thing he had thought her to be the gulf between Mabel and herself widened. They had, at last, only in common their room, their struggle, the contacts of their daily life.
And Lethway was now always in the background. He took her for quiet meals and brought her home early. He promised her that sometime he would see that she got back home.
"But not just yet," he added as her colour rose. "I'm selfish, Edith. Give me a little time to be happy."
That was a new angle. It had been a part of the boy's quiet creed to make others happy.
"Why don't you give me something to do, since you're so crazy to have me hanging about?"
"Can't do it. I'm not the management. And they're sore at you. They think you threw them down." He liked to air his American slang.
Edith cupped her chin in her hand and looked at him. There was no mystery about the situation, no shyness in the eyes with which she appraised him. She was beginning to like him too.
That night when she got back to Mabel's apartment her mood was reckless. She went to the window and stood looking at the crooked and chimney-potted skyline that was London.
"Oh, what's the use?" she said savagely, and gave up the fight.
When Mabel came home she told her.
"I'm going to get out," she said without preamble.
She caught the relief in Mabel's face, followed by a purely conventional protest.
"Although," she hedged cautiously, "I don't know, dearie. People look at things sensibly these days. You've got to live, haven't you? They're mighty quick to jail a girl who tries to jump in the river when she's desperate."
"I'll probably end there. And I don't much care."
Mabel gave her a good talking to about that. Her early training had been in a church which regarded self-destruction as a cardinal sin. Then business acumen asserted itself:
"He'll probably put you on somewhere. He's crazy about you, Ede."
But Edith was not listening. She was standing in front of her opened trunk tearing into small pieces something that had been lying in the tray.
Now the boy had tried very hard to die, and failed. The thing that had happened to him was an unbelievable thing. When he began to use his tired faculties again, when the ward became not a shadow land but a room, and the nurse not a presence but a woman, he tried feebly to move his right arm.
But it was gone.
At first he refused to believe it. He could feel it lying there beside him. It ached and throbbed. The fingers were cramped. But when he looked it was not there.
There was not one shock of discovery, but many. For each time he roused from sleep he had forgotten, and must learn the thing again.
The elderly German woman stayed close. She was wise, and war had taught her many things. So when he opened his eyes she was always there. She talked to him very often of his mother, and he listened with his eyes on her face--eyes like those of a sick child.
In that manner they got by the first few days.
"It won't make any difference to her," he said once. "She'd take me back if I was only a fragment." Then bitterly: "That's all I am--a fragment! A part of a man!"
After a time she knew that there was a some one else, some one he was definitely relinquishing. She dared not speak to him about it. His young dignity was militant. But one night, as she dozed beside him in the chair, he reached the limit of his repression and told her.
"An actress!" she cried, sitting bolt upright. "Du lieber--an actress!"
"Not an actress," he corrected her gravely. "A--a dancer. But good. She's a very good girl. Even when I was--was whole"--raging bitterness there--"I was not good enough for her."
"No actress is good. And dancers!"
"You don't know what you are talking about," he said roughly, and turned his back to her. It was almost insulting to have her assist him to his attitude of contempt, and to prop him in it with pillows behind his back. Lying there he tried hard to remember that this woman belonged to his hereditary foes. He was succeeding in hating her when he felt her heavy hand on his head.
"Poor boy! Poor little one!" she said. And her voice was husky.
When at last he was moved from the hospital to the prison camp she pinned the sleeve of his ragged uniform across his chest and kissed him, to his great discomfiture. Then she went to the curtained corner that was her quarters and wept long and silently.
The prison camp was overcrowded. Early morning and late evening prisoners were lined up to be counted. There was a medley of languages--French, English, Arabic, Russian. The barracks were built round a muddy inclosure in which the men took what exercise they could.
One night a boy with a beautiful tenor voice sang Auld Lang Syne under the boy's window. He stood with his hand on the cuff of his empty sleeves and listened. And suddenly a great shame filled him, that with so many gone forever, with men dying every minute of every hour, back at the lines, he had been so obsessed with himself. He was still bitter, but the bitterness was that he could not go back again and fight.
When he had been in the camp a month he helped two British officers to escape. One of them had snubbed him in London months before. He apologised before he left.
"You're a man, Hamilton," he said. "All you Canadians are men. I've some things to tell when I get home."
The boy could not go with them. There would be canals to swim across, and there was his empty sleeve and weakness. He would never swim again, he thought. That night, as he looked at the empty beds of the men who had gone, he remembered his medals and smiled grimly.
He was learning to use his left hand. He wrote letters home with it for soldiers who could not write. He went into the prison hospital and wrote letters for those who would never go home. But he did not write to the girl.
* * * * *
He went back at last, when the hopelessly wounded were exchanged. To be branded "hopelessly wounded" was to him a stain, a stigma. It put him among the clutterers of the earth. It stranded him on the shore of life. Hopelessly wounded!
For, except what would never be whole, he was well again. True, confinement and poor food had kept him weak and white. His legs had a way of going shaky at nightfall. But once he knocked down an insolent Russian with his left hand, and began to feel his own man again. That the Russian was weak from starvation did not matter. The point to the boy was that he had made the attempt.
Providence has a curious way of letting two lives run along, each apparently independent of the other. Parallel lines they seem, hopeless of meeting. Converging lines really, destined, through long ages, by every deed that has been done to meet at a certain point and there fuse.
Edith had left Mabel, but not to go to Lethway. When nothing else remained that way was open. She no longer felt any horror--only a great distaste. But two weeks found her at her limit. She, who had rarely had more than just enough, now had nothing.
And no glory of sacrifice upheld her. She no longer believed that by removing the burden of her support she could save Mabel. It was clear that Mabel would not be saved. To go back and live on her, under the circumstances, was but a degree removed from the other thing that confronted her.
There is just a chance that, had she not known the boy, she would have killed herself. But again the curious change he had worked in her manifested itself. He thought suicide a wicked thing.
"I take it like this," he had said in his eager way: "life's a thing that's given us for some purpose. Maybe the purpose gets clouded--I'm afraid I'm an awful duffer at saying what I mean. But we've got to work it out, do you see? Or--or the whole scheme is upset."
It had seemed very clear then.
Then, on a day when the rare sun made even the rusty silk hats of clerks on tops of omnibuses to gleam, when the traffic glittered on the streets and the windows of silversmiths' shops shone painful to the eye, she met Lethway again.
The sun had made her reckless. Since the boy was gone life was wretchedness, but she clung to it. She had given up all hope of Cecil's return, and what she became mattered to no one else.
Perhaps, more than anything else, she craved companionship. In all her crowded young life she had never before been alone. Companionship and kindness. She would have followed to heel, like a dog, for a kind word.
Then she met Lethway. They walked through the park. When he left her her once clear, careless glance had a suggestion of furtiveness in it.
That afternoon she packed her trunk and sent it to an address he had given her. In her packing she came across the stick of cold cream, still in the pocket of the middy blouse. She flung it, as hard as she could, across the room.
She paid her bill with money Lethway had given her. She had exactly a sixpence of her own. She found herself in Trafalgar Square late in the afternoon. The great enlisting posters there caught her eye, filled her with bitterness.
"Your king and your country need you," she read. She had needed the boy, too, but this vast and impersonal thing, his mother country, had taken him from her--taken him and lost him. She wanted to stand by the poster and cry to the passing women to hold their men back. As she now knew she hated Lethway, she hated England.
She wandered on. Near Charing Cross she spent the sixpence for a bunch of lilies of the valley, because he had said once that she was like them. Then she was for throwing them in the street, remembering the thing she would soon be.
"For the wounded soldiers," said the flower girl. When she comprehended that, she made her way into the station. There was a great crowd, but something in her face made the crowd draw back and let her through. They nudged each other as she passed.
"Looking for some one, poor child!" said a girl and, following her, thrust the flowers she too carried into Edith's hand. She put them with the others, rather dazed.
* * * * *
To Cecil the journey had been a series of tragedies. Not his own. There were two hundred of them, officers and men, on the boat across the Channel. Blind, maimed, paralysed, in motley garments, they were hilariously happy. Every throb of the turbine engines was a thrust toward home. They sang, they cheered.
Now and then some one would shout: "Are we downhearted?" And crutches and canes would come down on the deck to the unanimous shout: "No!"
Folkestone had been trying, with its parade of cheerfulness, with kindly women on the platform serving tea and buns. In the railway coach to London, where the officers sat, a talking machine played steadily, and there were masses of flowers, violets and lilies of the valley. At Charing Cross was a great mass of people, and as they slowly disembarked he saw that many were crying. He was rather surprised. He had known London as a cold and unemotional place. It had treated him as an alien, had snubbed and ignored him.
He had been prepared to ask nothing of London, and it lay at his feet in tears.
Then he saw Edith.
Perhaps, when in the fullness of years the boy goes over to the life he so firmly believes awaits him, the one thing he will carry with him through the open door will be the look in her eyes when she saw him. Too precious a thing to lose, surely, even then. Such things make heaven.
"What did I tell you?" cried the girl who had given Edith her flowers. "She has found him. See, he has lost his arm. Look out--catch him!"
But he did not faint. He went even whiter, and looking at Edith he touched his empty sleeve.
"As if that would make any difference to her!" said the girl, who was in black. "Look at her face! She's got him."
Neither Edith nor the boy could speak. He was afraid of unmanly tears. His dignity was very dear to him. And the tragedy of his empty sleeve had her by the throat. So they went out together and the crowd opened to let them by.
* * * * *
At nine o'clock that night Lethway stormed through the stage entrance of the theatre and knocked viciously at the door of Mabel's dressing room. Receiving no attention, he opened the door and went in.
The room was full of flowers, and Mabel, ready to go on, was having her pink toes rouged for her barefoot dance.
"You've got a nerve!" she said coolly.
"I don't know and I don't care. She ran away, when I was stinting myself to keep her. I'm done. Now you go out and close that door, and when you want to enter a lady's dressing room, knock."
He looked at her with blazing hatred.
"Right-o!" was all he said. And he turned and left her to her flowers.
At exactly the same time Edith was entering the elevator of a small, very respectable hotel in Kensington. The boy, smiling, watched her in.
He did not kiss her, greatly to the disappointment of the hall porter. As the elevator rose the boy stood at salute, the fingers of his left hand to the brim of his shabby cap. In his eyes, as they followed her, was all that there is of love--love and a new understanding.
She had told him, and now he knew. His creed was still the same. Right was right and wrong was wrong. But he had learned of that shadowy No Man's Land between the lines, where many there were who fought their battles and were wounded, and even died.
As he turned and went out two men on crutches were passing along the quiet street. They recognised him in the light of the doorway, and stopped in front of him. Their voices rang out in cheerful unison:
"Are we downhearted? No!"
Their crutches struck the pavement with a resounding thump.