Chapter XLIX
 

For months Rudolph Klein had been living in a little Mexican town on the border. There were really two towns, but they were built together with only a strip of a hundred feet between. Along this strip ran the border itself, with a tent pitched on the American side, and patrols of soldiers guarding it. The American side was bright and clean, orderly and self-respecting, but only a hundred feet away, unkempt, dusty, with adobe buildings and a notorious gambling-hell in plain view, was Mexico itself - leisurely, improvident, not overscrupulous Mexico.

At first Rudolph was fairly contented. It amused him. He liked the idleness of it. He liked kicking the innumerable Mexican dogs out of his way. He liked baiting the croupiers in the "Owl." He liked wandering into that notorious resort and shoving Hindus, Chinamen, and Mexicans out of the way, while he flung down a silver dollar and watched the dealers with cunning, avaricious eyes.

He liked his own situation, too. It amused him to think that here he was safe, while only a hundred feet away he was a criminal, fugitive from the law. He liked to go to the very border itself, and jeer at the men on guard there.

"If I was on that side," he would say, "you'd have me in one of those rotten uniforms, wouldn't you? Come on over, fellows. The liquor's fine."

Then, one day, a Chinaman he had insulted gave him an unexpected shove, and he had managed to save himself by a foot from the clutch of a quiet-faced man in plain clothes who spent a certain amount of time lounging on the other side of the border.

That had sobered him. He kept away from the border itself after that, although the temptation of it drew him. After a few weeks, when the novelty had worn off, he began to hunger for the clean little American town across the line. He wanted to talk to some one. He wanted to boast, to be candid. These Mexicans only laughed when he bragged to them. But he dared not cross.

There was a high-fenced enclosure behind the "Owl," the segregated district of the town. There, in tiny one-roomed houses built in rows like barracks were the girls and women who had drifted to this jumping-off place of the world. In the daytime they slept or sat on the narrow, ramshackle porches, untidy, noisy, unspeakably wretched. At night, however, they blossomed forth in tawdry finery, in the dancing-space behind the gambling-tables. Some of them were fixtures. They had drifted there from New Orleans, perhaps, or southern California, and they lacked the initiative or the money to get away. But most of them came in, stayed a month or two, found the place a nightmare, with its shootings and stabbings, and then disappeared.

At first Rudolph was popular in this hell of the underworld. He spent money easily, he danced well, he had audacity and a sort of sardonic humor. They asked no questions, those poor wretches who ad themselves slid over the edge of life. They took what came, grateful for little pleasures, glad even to talk their own tongue.

And then, one broiling August day, late in the afternoon, when the compound was usually seething with the first fetid life of the day, Rudolph found it suddenly silent when he entered it, and hostile, contemptuous eyes on him.

A girl with Anna Klein's eyes, a girl he had begun to fancy, suddenly said,

"Draft-dodlger!"

There was a ripple of laughter around the compound. They commenced to bait him, those women he would not have wiped his feet on at home. They literally laughed him out of the compound.

He went home to his stifling, windowless adobe room, with its sagging narrow bed, its candle, its broken crockery, and he stood in the center of the room and chewed his nails with fury. After a time he sat down and considered what to do next. He would have to move on some time. As well now as ever. He was sick of the place.

He began preparations to move on, gathering up the accumulation of months of careless living for destruction. He picked up some newspapers preparatory to throwing them away, and a name caught his attention. Standing there, inside his doorway in the Mexican dusk, he read of Graham's recent wounding, his mending, and the fact that he had won the Croix de Guerre. Supreme bitterness was Rudolph's then.

"Stage stuff!" he muttered. But in the depths of his warped soul there was bitter envy. He knew well with what frightened yet adoring eyes Anna Klein had devoured that news of Graham Spencer. While for him there was the girl in the compound back of the "Owl," with Anna Klein's eyes, filled when she looked at him with that bitterest scorn of all, the contempt of the wholly contemptible.

That night he went to the Owl. He had shaved and had his hair cut and he wore his only remaining decent suit of clothes. He passed through the swinging gate in the railing which separated the dancing-floor from the tables and went up to the line of girls, sitting in that saddest waiting of all the world, along the wall. There was an ominous silence at his approach. He planted himself in front of the girl with eyes like Anna Klein.

"Are you going to dance?"

"Not with you," she replied, evenly. And again the ripple of laughter spread.

"Why not?"

"Because you're a coward," she said. "I'd rather dance with a Chinaman."

"If you think I'm here because I'm afraid to fight you can think again. Not that I care what you think."

He had meant to boast a little, to intimate that he had pulled off a big thing, but he saw that he was ridiculous. The situation infuriated him. Suddenly he burst into foul-mouthed invective, until one of the girls said, wearily,

"Oh, cut that out, you slacker."

And he knew that no single word he had used against them, out of a vocabulary both extensive and horrible, was to them so degraded as that single one applied to him.

Late that night he received a tip from a dealer at one of vingt-et-un tables. There were inquiries being made for him across the border. That very evening he, the dealer, had gone across for a sack of flour, and he had heard about it.

"You'd better get out," said the dealer.

"I'm as safe here as I'd be in Mexico City."

"Don't be too sure, son. You're not any too popular here. There's such a thing as being held up and carried over the border. It's been done before now."

"I'm sick of this hole, anyhow," Rudolph muttered, and moved away in the crowd. The mechanical piano was banging in the dance-hall as he slipped out into the darkness, under the clear starlight of the Mexican night, and the gate of the compound stood open. He passed it with an oath.

Long before, he had provided for such a contingency. By the same agency which had got him to the border, he could now be sent further on. At something after midnight, clad in old clothes and carrying on his back a rough outfit of a blanket and his remaining wardrobe, he knocked at the door of a small adobe house on the border of the town. An elderly German with a candle admitted him.

"Well, I'm off," Rudolph said roughly.

"And time enough, too," said the German, gruffly.

Rudolph was sullenly silent. He was in this man's power, and he knew it. But the German was ready enough to do his part. For months he had been doing this very thing, starting through the desert toward the south slackers and fugitives of all descriptions. He gathered together the equipment, a map with water-holes marked, a canteen covered with a dirty plaid-cloth casing, a small supply of condensed foods, in tins mostly, and a letter to certain Germans in Mexico City who would receive hospitably any American fugitives and ask no questions.

"How about money?" Rudolph inquired.

The German shrugged his shoulders.

"You will not need money in the desert," he said. "And you haf spent much money here, on the women. You should have safed it."

"I was told you would give me money."

But the German shook his head.

"You viii find money in Mexico City, if you get there," he said, cryptically. And Rudolph found neither threats nor entreaties of any avail.

He started out of the town, turning toward the south and west. Before him there stretched days of lonely traveling through the sand and cactus of the desert, of blistering sun and cold nights, of anxious searches for water-holes. It was because of the water-holes that he headed southwest, for such as they were they lay in tiny hidden oases in the canyons. Almost as soon as he left the town he was in the desert; a detached ranch, a suggestion of a road, a fenced-in cotton-field or two, an irigation ditch, and then - sand.

He was soft from months of inaction, from the cactus whisky of Mexico, too, that ate into a man like a corrosive acid. But he went on steadily, putting behind him as rapidly as possible the border, and the girls who had laughed at him. He traveled by a pointed mountain which cut off the stars at the horizon, and as the miles behind him increased, in spite of his growing fatigue his spirits rose. Before him lay the fulness of life again. Mexico City was a stake worth gambling for. He was gambling, he knew. He had put up his life, and his opponent was thirst. He knew that, well enough, too, and the figure rather amused him.

"Playing against that, all right," he muttered. He paused and turned around. The sun had lifted over the rim of the desert, a red disc which turned the gleaming white alkali patches to rose. "By God," he said, "that's the ante, is it - A red chip!"

A caravan of mules was coming up from the head of the Gulf of California. It moved in a cloud of alkali dust and sand, its ore-sacks coated white. The animals straggled along, wandering out of the line incessantly and thrust back into place by muleteers who cracked long whips and addressed them vilely.

At a place where a small rock placed on another marked a side trail to water, the caravan turned and moved toward the mountains. Close as they appeared, the outfit was three hours getting to the foot hills. There was a low meadow now, covered with pale green grass. Quail scurried away under the mesquite bushes, stealthily whistling, and here and there the two stones still marked the way.

With the instinct of desert creatures the mules hurried their pace. Pack-saddles creaked, spurs jingled. Life, insistent, thirsty life, quickened the dead plain.

A man rode ahead. He dug his spurs into his horse and cantered, elbows flapping, broad-brimmed hat drawn over his eyes. For hours he had been fighting the demon of thirst. His tongue was dry, his lips cracking. The trail continued to be marked with its double stones, but it did not enter the cool canyon ahead. It turned and skirted the base of the bare mountain slope. The man's eyes sharpened. He knew very definitely what he was looking for, and at last he saw it, a circle of flat stones, some twenty feet across, the desert sign for a buried spring.

But there was something inside the circle, something which lay still. The man put his horse to the gallop again. There was a canteen lying in the trail, a canteen covered with a dirty plaid casing. The horse's hoof struck it, and it gave out a dry, metallic sound.

"Poor devil!" muttered the rider.

He dismounted and turned the figure over.

"God!" he said. "And water under him all the time!"

Then he dragged the quiet figure outside the ring of stones, and getting a spade from his saddle, fell to digging in the center. A foot below the surface water began to appear, clear, cold water. He lay down, flat and drank out of the pool.

Clayton Spencer was alone in his house. In the months since Natalie had gone, he had not been there a great deal. He had been working very hard. He had not been able to shoulder arms, but he had, nevertheless, fought a good fight.

He was very tired. During the day, a sort of fierce energy upheld him. Because in certain things he had failed he was the more determined to succeed in others. Not for himself; ambition of that sort had died of the higher desire to serve his country. But because the sense of failure in his private life haunted him.

The house was very quiet. Buckham came in to mend the fire, issuing from the shadows like a lean old ghost and eyeing him with tender, faded old eyes.

"Is there anything else, sir?"

"Thanks, no. Buckham."

"Yes, Mr. Spencer."

"I have not spoken about it, but I think you have understood. Mrs. Spencer is - not coming back."

"Yes, Mr. Spencer."

"I had meant to close the house, but certain things - Captain Spencer's wife expects a child. I would rather like to have her come here, for the birth. After that, if the war is over, I shall turn the house over to them. You would stay on, I hope, Buckham."

"I'll stay, sir. I - " His face worked nervously. "I feel toward the Captain as I would to my own son, sir. I have already thought that perhaps - the old nursery has been cleaned and aired for weeks, Mr. Spencer."

Clayton felt a thrill of understanding for the old man through all the years he had watched and served them. He had reflected their joys and their sorrows. He had suffered the family destiny without having shaped it. He had lived, vicariously, their good hours and their bad. And now, in his old age, he was waiting again for the vicarious joy of Graham's child.

"But you'll not be leaving the house, sir?"

"I don't know. I shall keep my rooms. But I shall probably live at the club. The young people ought to be alone, for a while. There are readjustments - You never married, Buckham?"

"No, Mr. Spencer. I intended to, at one time. I came to this country to make a home, and as I was rather a long time about it, she married some one else."

Clayton caught the echo of an old pain in Buckham's repressed voice. Buckham, too! Was there in the life of every man some woman tragedy? Buckham, sitting alone in his west window and looking toward the sunset, Buckham had his memories.

"She lost her only son at Neuve Chapelle," Buckham was saying quietly. "In a way, it was as tho I had lost a boy. She never cared for the man she married. He was a fine boy, sir. I - you may remember the night I was taken ill in the pantry."

"Is her husband still living?"

"No, Mr. Spencer."

"Do you ever think of going back and finding her?"

"I have, sir. But I don't know. I like to remember her as she used to be. I have some beautiful memories. And I think sometimes it is better to live on memories. They are more real than - well, than reality, sir."

Long after Buckham had withdrawn, Clayton paced the floor of the library. Was Buckham right? Was the real life of a man his mental life? Was any love so great as a man's dream of love? Peace was on the way. Soon this nightmare of war would be over, and in the great awakening love would again take the place of hate. Love of man for man, of nation for nation. Peace and the things of peace. Time to live. Time to hope, with the death-cloud gone. Time to work and time to play. Time to love a woman and cherish her for the rest of life, if only -

His failure with Natalie had lost him something. She had cost him his belief in himself. Her last words had crystallized his own sense of failure.

"I admit all your good qualities, Clay. Heaven knows they are evident enough. But you are the sort people admire. They don't love you. They never will."

Yet that night he had had a curious sense that old Buckham loved him. Maybe he was the sort men loved and women admired.

He sat down and leaned back in his chair, watching the fire-logs. He felt very tired. What was that Buckham had said about memories? But Buckham was old. He was young, young and strong. There would be many years, and even his most poignant memories would grow dim.

Audrey! Audrey!

From the wall over the mantel Natalie's portrait still surveyed the room with its delicate complacence. He looked up at it. Yes, Natalie had been right, he was not the sort to make a woman happy. There were plenty of men, young men, men still plastic, men who had not known shipwreck, and some such man Audrey would marry. Perhaps already, in France -

He got up. His desk was covered with papers, neatly endorsed by his secretary. He turned out all the lights but his desk lamp. Natalie's gleaming flesh-tones died into the shadows, and he stood for a moment, looking up at it, a dead thing, remote, flat, without significance. Then he sat down at his desk and took up a bundle of government papers.

There was still work. Thank God for work.