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Zona Gale (August 26, 1874 – December 27, 1938) was an American author and playwright. She became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921.
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A Scrap of Paper
St. George and the Lady
The Prince of Far-away
Two Little Men
Dusk, and So on
The Porch of the Morning
The Lady of Kingdoms
The End of the Evening
The Lines Lead up
The Isle of Hearts
Beneath the Surface
A Morning Visit
In the Hall of Kings
Out of the Hall of Kings
As The Aloha rode gently to her buoy among the crafts in the harbour, St. George longed to proclaim in the megaphone’s monstrous parody upon capital letters:
“Cat-boats and house-boats and yawls, look here. You’re bound to observe that this is my steam yacht. I own her — do you see? She belongs to me, St. George, who never before owned so much as a piece of rope.”
Instead — mindful, perhaps, that “a man should not communicate his own glorie”— he stepped sedately down to the trim green skiff and was rowed ashore by a boy who, for aught that either knew, might three months before have jostled him at some ill-favoured lunch counter. For in America, dreams of gold — not, alas, golden dreams — do prevalently come true; and of all the butterfly happenings in this pleasant land of larvæ, few are so spectacular as the process by which, without warning, a man is converted from a toiler and bearer of loads to a taker of his bien. However, to none, one must believe, is the changeling such gazing-stock as to himself.
Although countless times, waking and sleeping, St. George had humoured himself in the outworn pastime of dreaming what he would do if he were to inherit a million dollars, his imagination had never marveled its way to the situation’s less poignant advantages. Chief among his satisfactions had been that with which he had lately seen his mother — an exquisite woman, looking like the old lace and Roman mosaic pins which she had saved from the wreck of her fortune — set off for Europe in the exceptional company of her brother, Bishop Arthur Touchett, gentlest of dignitaries. The bishop, only to look upon whose portrait was a benediction, had at sacrifice of certain of his charities seen St. George through college; and it made the million worth while to his nephew merely to send him to Tübingen to set his soul at rest concerning the date of one of the canonical gospels. Next to the rich delight of planning that voyage, St. George placed the buying of his yacht.
In the dusty, inky office of the New York Evening Sentinel he had been wont three months before to sit at a long green table fitting words about the yachts of others to the dreary music of his typewriter, the while vaguely conscious of a blur of eight telephone bells, and the sound of voices used merely to communicate thought and not to please the ear. In the last three months he had sometimes remembered that black day when from his high window he had looked toward the harbour and glimpsed a trim craft of white and brass slipping to the river’s mouth; whereupon he had been seized by such a passion to work hard and earn a white-and-brass craft of his own that the story which he was hurrying for the first edition was quite ruined.
“Good heavens, St. George,” Chillingworth, the city editor, had gnarled, “we don’t carry wooden type. And nothing else would set up this wooden stuff of yours. Where’s some snap? Your first paragraph reads like a recipe. Now put your soul into it, and you’ve got less than fifteen minutes to do it in.”
St. George recalled that his friend Amory, as “one hackneyed in the ways of life,” had gravely lifted an eyebrow at him, and the new men had turned different colours at the thought of being addressed like that before the staff; and St. George had recast the story and had received for his diligence a New Jersey assignment which had kept him until midnight. Haunting the homes of the club-women and the common council of that little Jersey town, the trim white-and-brass craft slipping down to the river’s mouth had not ceased to lure him. He had found himself estimating the value — in money — of the bric-à-brac of every house, and the self-importance of every alderman, and reflecting that these people, if they liked, might own yachts of white and brass; yet they preferred to crouch among the bric-à-brac and to discourse to him of one another’s violations and interferences. By the time that he had reached home that dripping night and had put captions upon the backs of the unexpectant-looking photographs which were his trophies, he was in that state of comparative anarchy to be effected only by imaginative youth and a disagreeable task.
Next day, suddenly as its sun, had come the news which had transformed him from a discontented grappler with social problems to the owner of stocks and bonds and shares in a busy mine and other things soothing to enumerate. The first thing which he had added unto these, after the departure of his mother and the bishop, had been The Aloha, which only that day had slipped to the river’s mouth in the view from his old window at the Sentinel office. St. George had the grace to be ashamed to remember how smoothly the social ills had adjusted themselves.
Now they were past, those days of feverish work and unexpected triumph and unaccountable failure; and in the dreariest of them St. George, dreaming wildly, had not dreamed all the unobvious joys which his fortune had brought to him. For although he had accurately painted, for example, the delight of a cruise in a sea-going yacht of his own, yet to step into his dory in the sunset, to watch The Aloha’s sides shine in the late light as he was rowed ashore past the lesser crafts in the harbour; to see the man touch his cap and put back to make the yacht trim for the night, and then to turn his own face to his apartment where virtually the entire day-staff of the Evening Sentinel was that night to dine — these were among the pastimes of the lesser angels which his fancy had never compassed.
A glow of firelight greeted St. George as he entered his apartment, and the rooms wore a pleasant air of festivity. A table, with covers for twelve, was spread in the living-room, a fire of cones was tossing on the hearth, the curtains were drawn, and the sideboard was a thing of intimation. Rollo, his man — St. George had easily fallen in all the habits which he had longed to assume — was just closing the little ice-box sunk behind a panel of the wall, and he came forward with dignified deference.
“Everything is ready, Rollo?” St. George asked. “No one has telephoned to beg off?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Rollo, “and no, sir.”
St. George had sometimes told himself that the man looked like an oval grey stone with a face cut upon it.
“Is the claret warmed?” St. George demanded, handing his hat. “Did the big glasses come for the liqueur — and the little ones will set inside without tipping? Then take the cigars to the den — you’ll have to get some cigarettes for Mr. Provin. Keep up the fire. Light the candles in ten minutes. I say, how jolly the table looks.”
“Yes, sir,” returned Rollo, “an’ the candles’ll make a great difference, sir. Candles do give out an air, sir.”
One month of service had accustomed St. George to his valet’s gift of the Articulate Simplicity. Rollo’s thoughts were doubtless contrived in the cuticle and knew no deeper operance; but he always uttered his impressions with, under his mask, an air of keen and seasoned personal observation. In his first interview with St. George, Rollo had said: “I always enjoy being kep’ busy, sir. To me, the busy man is a grand sight,” and St. George had at once appreciated his possibilities. Rollo was like the fine print in an almanac.
When the candles were burning and the lights had been turned on in the little ochre den where the billiard-table stood, St. George emerged — a well-made figure, his buoyant, clear-cut face accurately bespeaking both health and cleverness. Of a family represented by the gentle old bishop and his own exquisite mother, himself university-bred and fresh from two years’ hard, hand-to-hand fighting to earn an honourable livelihood, St. George, of sound body and fine intelligence, had that temper of stability within vast range which goes pleasantly into the mind that meets it. A symbol of this was his prodigious popularity with those who had been his fellow-workers — a test beside which old-world traditions of the urban touchstones are of secondary advantage. It was deeply significant that in spite of the gulf which Chance had digged the day-staff of the Sentinel, all save two or three of which were not of his estate, had with flattering alacrity obeyed his summons to dine. But, as he heard in the hall the voice of Chillingworth, the difficulty of his task for the first time swept over him. It was Chillingworth who had advocated to him the need of wooden type to suit his literary style and who had long ordered and bullied him about; and how was he to play the host to Chillingworth, not to speak of the others, with the news between them of that million?
When the bell rang, St. George somewhat gruffly superseded Rollo.
“I’ll go,” he said briefly, “and keep out of sight for a few minutes. Get in the bath-room or somewhere, will you?” he added nervously, and opened the door.
At one stroke Chillingworth settled his own position by dominating the situation as he dominated the city room. He chose the best chair and told a good story and found fault with the way the fire burned, all with immediate ease and abandon. Chillingworth’s men loved to remember that he had once carried copy. They also understood all the legitimate devices by which he persuaded from them their best effort, yet these devices never failed, and the city room agreed that Chillingworth’s fashion of giving an assignment to a new man would force him to write a readable account of his own entertainment in the dark meadows. Largely by personal magnetism he had fought his way upward, and this quality was not less a social gift.
Mr. Toby Amory, who had been on the Eleven with St. George at Harvard, looked along his pipe at his host and smiled, with flattering content, his slow smile. Amory’s father had lately had a conspicuous quarter of an hour in Wall Street, as a result of which Amory, instead of taking St. George to the cemetery at Clusium as he had talked, himself drifted to Park Row; and although he now knew considerably less than he had hoped about certain inscriptions, he was supporting himself and two sisters by really brilliant work, so that the balance of his power was creditably maintained. Surely the inscriptions did not suffer, and what then was Amory that he should object? Presently Holt, the middle-aged marine man, and Harding who, since he had lost a lightweight sparring championship, was sporting editor, solemnly entered together and sat down with the social caution of their class. So did Provin, the “elder giant,” who gathered news as he breathed and could not intelligibly put six words together. Horace, who would listen to four lines over the telephone and therefrom make a half-column of American newspaper humour or American newspaper tears, came in roaring pacifically and marshaling little Bud, that day in the seventh heaven of his first “beat.” Then followed Crass, the feature man, whose interviews were known to the new men as literature, although he was not above publicly admitting that he was not a reporter, but a special writer. Mr. Crass read nothing in the paper that he had not written, and St. George had once prophesied that in old age he would use his scrap-book for a manual of devotions, as Klopstock used his Messiah. With him arrived Carbury, the telegraph editor, and later Benfy, who had a carpet in his office and wrote editorials and who came in evening clothes, thus moving Harding and Holt to instant private conversation. The last to appear was Little Cawthorne who wrote the fiction page and made enchanting limericks about every one on the staff and went about singing one song and behaving, the dramatic man flattered him, like a motif. Little Cawthorne entered backward, wrestling with some wiry matter which, when he had executed a manoeuvre and banged the door, was thrust through the passage in the form of Bennie Todd, the head office boy, affectionately known as Bennietod. Bennietod was in every one’s secret, clipped every one’s space and knew every one’s salary, and he had lately covered a baseball game when the man whose copy he was to carry had, outside the fence, become implicated in allurements. He was greeted with noise, and St. George told him heartily that he was glad he had come.
“He made me,” defensively claimed Bennietod; frowning deferentially at Little Cawthorne.
“Hello, St. George,” said the latter, “come on back to the office. Crass sits in your place and he wears cravats the colour of goblin’s blood. Come back.”
“Not he,” said Chillingworth, smoking; “the Dead-and-Done-with editor is too keen for that; I won’t give him a job. He’s ruined. Egg sandwiches will never stimulate him now.”
St. George joined in the relieved laugh that followed. They were remembering his young Sing Sing convict who had completed his sentence in time to step in a cab and follow his mother to the grave, where his stepfather refused to have her coffin opened. And St. George, fresh from his Alma Mater, had weighted the winged words of his story with allusions to the tears celestial of Thetis, shed for Achilles, and Creon’s grief for Haemon, and the Unnatural Combat of Massinger’s father and son; so that Chillingworth had said things in languages that are not dead (albeit a bit Elizabethan) and the composing room had shaken mailed fists.
“Hi, you!” said Little Cawthorne, who was born in the South, “this is a mellow minute. I could wish they came often. This shall be a weekly occurrence — not so, St. George?”
“Cawthorne,” Chillingworth warned, “mind your manners, or they’ll make you city editor.”
A momentary shadow was cast by the appearance of Rollo, who was manifestly a symbol of the world Philistine about which these guests knew more and in which they played a smaller part than any other class of men. But the tray which Rollo bore was his passport. Thereafter, they all trooped to the table, and Chillingworth sat at the head, and from the foot St. George watched the city editor break bread with the familiar nervous gesture with which he was wont to strip off yards of copy-paper and eat it. There was a tacit assumption that he be the conversational sun of the hour, and in fostering this understanding the host took grateful refuge.
“This is shameful,” Chillingworth began contentedly. “Every one of you ought to be out on the Boris story.”
“What is the Boris story?” asked St. George with interest. But in all talk St. George had a restful, host-like way of playing the rôle of opposite to every one who preferred being heard.
“I’ll wager the boy hasn’t been reading the papers these three months,” Amory opined in his pleasant drawl.
“No,” St. George confessed; “no, I haven’t. They make me homesick.”
“Don’t maunder,” said Chillingworth in polite criticism. “This is Amory’s story, and only about a quarter of the facts yet,” he added in a resentful growl. “It’s up at the Boris, in West Fifty-ninth Street — you know the apartment house? A Miss Holland, an heiress, living there with her aunt, was attacked and nearly murdered by a mulatto woman. The woman followed her to the elevator and came uncomfortably near stabbing her from the back. The elevator boy was too quick for her. And at the station they couldn’t get the woman to say a word; she pretends not to understand or to speak anything they’ve tried. She’s got Amory hypnotized too — he thinks she can’t. And when they searched her,” went on Chillingworth with enjoyment, “they found her dressed in silk and cloth of gold, and loaded down with all sorts of barbarous ornaments, with almost priceless jewels. Miss Holland claims that she never saw or heard of the woman before. Now, what do you make of it?” he demanded, unconcernedly draining his glass.
“Splendid,” cried St. George in unfeigned interest. “I say, splendid. Did you see the woman?” he asked Amory.
“Yes,” he said, “Andy fixed that for me. But she never said a word. I parlez-voused her, and verstehen-Sied her, and she sighed and turned her head.”
“Did you see the heiress?” St. George asked.
“Not I,” mourned Amory, “not to talk with, that is. I happened to be hanging up in the hall there the afternoon it occurred;” he modestly explained.
“What luck,” St. George commented with genuine envy. “It’s a stunning story. Who is Miss Holland?”
“She’s lived there for a year or more with her aunt,” said Chillingworth. “She is a New Yorker and an heiress and a great beauty — oh, all the properties are there, but they’re all we’ve got. What do you make of it?” he repeated.
St. George did not answer, and every one else did.
“Mistaken identity,” said Little Cawthorne. “Do you remember Provin’s story of the woman whose maid shot a masseuse whom she took to be her mistress; and the woman forgave the shooting and seemed to have her arrested chiefly because she had mistaken her for a masseuse?”
“Too easy, Cawthorne,” said Chillingworth.
“The woman is probably an Italian,” said the telegraph editor, “doing one of her Mafia stunts. It’s time they left the politicians alone and threw bombs at the bonds that back them.”
“Hey, Carbury. Stop writing heads,” said Chillingworth.
“Has Miss Holland lived abroad?” asked Crass, the feature man. “Maybe this woman was her nurse or ayah or something who got fond of her charge, and when they took it away years ago, she devoted her life to trying to find it in America. And when she got here she wasn’t able to make herself known to her, and rather than let any one else —”
“No more space-grabbing, Crass,” warned Chillingworth.
“Maybe,” ventured Horace, “the young lady did settlement work and read to the woman’s kid, and the kid died, and the woman thought she’d said a charm over it.”
Chillingworth grinned affectionately.
“Hold up,” he commanded, “or you’ll recall the very words of the charm.”
Bennietod gasped and stared.
“Now, Bennietod?” Amory encouraged him.
“I t’ink,” said the lad, “if she’s a heiress, dis yere dagger-plunger is her mudder dat’s been shut up in a mad-house to a fare-you-well.”
Chillingworth nodded approvingly.
“Your imagination is toning down wonderfully,” he flattered him. “A month ago you would have guessed that the mulatto lady was an Egyptian princess’ messenger sent over here to get the heart from an American heiress as an ingredient for a complexion lotion. You’re coming on famously, Todd.”
“The German poet Wieland,” began Benfy, clearing his throat, “has, in his epic of the Oberon made admirable use of much the same idea, Mr. Chillingworth —”
Yells interrupted him. Mr. Benfy was too “well-read” to be wholly popular with the staff.
“Oh, well, the woman was crazy. That’s about all,” suggested Harding, and blushed to the line of his hair.
“Yes, I guess so,” assented Holt, who lifted and lowered one shoulder as he talked, “or doped.”
Chillingworth sighed and looked at them both with pursed lips.
“You two,” he commented, “would get out a paper that everybody would know to be full of reliable facts, and that nobody would buy. To be born with a riotous imagination and then hardly ever to let it riot is to be a born newspaper man. Provin?”
The elder giant leaned back, his eyes partly closed.
“Is she engaged to be married?” he asked. “Is Miss Holland engaged?”
Chillingworth shook his head.
“No,” he said, “not engaged. We knew that by tea-time the same day, Provin. Well, St. George?”
St. George drew a long breath.
“By Jove, I don’t know,” he said, “it’s a stunning story. It’s the best story I ever remember, excepting those two or three that have hung fire for so long. Next to knowing just why old Ennis disinherited his son at his marriage, I would like to ferret out this.”
“Now, tut, St. George,” Amory put in tolerantly, “next to doing exactly what you will be doing all this week you’d rather ferret out this.”
“On my honour, no,” St. George protested eagerly, “I mean quite what I say. I might go on fearfully about it. Lord knows I’m going to see the day when I’ll do it, too, and cut my troubles for the luck of chasing down a bully thing like this.”
If there was anything to forgive, every one forgave him.
“But give up ten minutes on The Aloha,” Amory skeptically put it, adjusting his pince-nez, “for anything less than ten minutes on The Aloha?”
“I’ll do it now — now!” cried St. George. “If Mr. Chillingworth will put me on this story in your place and will give you a week off on The Aloha, you may have her and welcome.”
Little Cawthorne pounded on the table.
“Where do I come in?” he wailed. “But no, all I get is another wad o’ woe.”
“What do you say, Mr. Chillingworth?” St. George asked eagerly.
“I don’t know,” said Chillingworth, meditatively turning his glass. “St. George is rested and fresh, and he feels the story. And Amory — here, touch glasses with me.”
Amory obeyed. His chief’s hand was steady, but the two glasses jingled together until, with a smile, Amory dropped his arm.
“I am about all in, I fancy,” he admitted apologetically.
“A week’s rest on the water,” said Chillingworth, “would set you on your feet for the convention. All right, St. George,” he nodded.
St. George leaped to his feet.
“Hooray!” he shouted like a boy. “Jove, won’t it be good to get back?”
He smiled as he set down his glass, remembering the day at his desk when he had seen the white-and-brass craft slip to the river’s mouth.
Rollo, discreet and without wonder, footed softly about the table, keeping the glasses filled and betraying no other sign of life. For more than four hours he was in attendance, until, last of the guests, Little Cawthorne and Bennietod departed together, trying to remember the dates of the English kings. Finally Chillingworth and Amory, having turned outdoors the dramatic critic who had arrived at midnight and was disposed to stay, stood for a moment by the fire and talked it over.
“Remember, St. George,” Chillingworth said, “I’ll have no monkey-work. You’ll report to me at the old hour, you won’t be late; and you’ll take orders —”
“As usual, sir,” St. George rejoined quietly.
“I beg your pardon,” Chillingworth said quickly, “but you see this is such a deuced unnatural arrangement.”
“I understand,” St. George assented, “and I’ll do my best not to get thrown down. Amory has told me all he knows about it — by the way, where is the mulatto woman now?”
“Why,” said Chillingworth, “some physician got interested in the case, and he’s managed to hurry her up to the Bitley Reformatory in Westchester for the present. She’s there; and that means, we need
not disguise, that nobody can see her. Those Bitley people are like a rabble of wild eagles.”
“Right,” said St. George. “I’ll report at eight o’clock. Amory can board The Aloha when he gets ready and take down whom he likes.”
“On my life, old chap, it’s a private view of Kedar’s tents to me,” said Amory, his eyes shining behind his pince-nez. “I’ll probably win wide disrespect by my inability to tell a mainsail from a cockpit, but I’m a grateful dog, in spite of that.”
When they were gone St. George sat by the fire. He read Amory’s story of the Boris affair in the paper, which somewhere in the apartment Rollo had unearthed, and the man took off his master’s shoes and brought his slippers and made ready his bath. St. George glanced over his shoulder at the attractively-dismantled table, with its dying candles and slanted shades.
“Gad!” he said in sheer enjoyment as he clipped the story and saw Rollo pass with the towels.
It was so absurdly like a city room’s dream of Arcady.
To be awakened by Rollo, to be served in bed with an appetizing breakfast and to catch a hansom to the nearest elevated station were novel preparations for work in the Sentinel office. The impossibility of it all delighted St. George rather more than the reality, for there is no pastime, as all the world knows, quite like that of practising the impossible. The days when, “like a man unfree,” he had fared forth from his unlovely lodgings clandestinely to partake of an evil omelette, seemed enchantingly far away. It was, St. George reflected, the experience of having been released from prison, minus the disgrace.
Yet when he opened the door of the city room the odour of the printers’ ink somehow fused his elation in his liberty with the elation of the return. This was like wearing fetters for bracelets. When he had been obliged to breathe this air he had scoffed at its fascination, but now he understood. “A newspaper office,” so a revered American of letters who had begun his life there had once imparted to St. George, “is a place where a man with the temperament of a savant and a recluse may bring his American vice of commercialism and worship of the uncommon, and let them have it out. Newspapers have no other use — except the one I began on.” When St. George entered the city room, Crass, of the goblin’s blood cravats, had vacated his old place, and Provin was just uncovering his typewriter and banging the tin cover upon everything within reach, and Bennietod was writhing over a rewrite, and Chillingworth was discharging an office boy in a fashion that warmed St. George’s heart.
But Chillingworth, the city editor, was an italicized form of Chillingworth, the guest. He waved both arms at the foreman who ventured to tell him of a head that had one letter too many, and he frowned a greeting at St. George.
“Get right out on the Boris story,” he said. “I depend on you. The chief is interested in this too — telephoned to know whom I had on it.”
St. George knew perfectly that “the chief” was playing golf at Lenox and no doubt had read no more than the head-lines of the Holland story, for he was a close friend of the bishop’s, and St. George knew his ways; but Chillingworth’s methods always told, and St. George turned away with all the old glow of his first assignment.
St. George, calling up the Bitley Reformatory, knew that the Chances and the Fates were all allied against his seeing the mulatto woman; but he had learned that it is the one unexpected Fate and the one apostate Chance who open great good luck of any sort. So, though the journey to Westchester County was almost certain to result in refusal, he meant to be confronted by that certainty before he assumed it. To the warden on the wire St. George put his inquiry.
“What are your visitors’ days up there, Mr. Jeffrey?”
“Thursdays,” came the reply, and the warden’s voice suggested handcuffs by way of hospitality.
“This is St. George of the Sentinel. I want very much to see one of your people — a mulatto woman. Can you fix it for me?”
“Certainly not,” returned the warden promptly. “The Sentinel knows perfectly that newspaper men can not be admitted here.”
“Ah, well now, of course,” St. George conceded, “but if you have a mysterious boarder who talks Patagonian or something, and we think that perhaps we can talk with her, why then —”
“It doesn’t matter whether you can talk every language in South America,” said the warden bruskly. “I’m very busy now, and —”
“See here, Mr. Jeffrey,” said St. George, “is no one allowed there but relatives of the guests?”
“I beg your pardon, that is literal?”
“Relatives, with a permit,” divulged the warden, who, if he had had a sceptre would have used it at table, he was so fond of his little power, “and the Readers’ Guild.”
“Ah — the Readers’ Guild,” said St. George. “What days, Mr. Jeffrey?”
“To-day and Saturdays, ten o’clock. I’m sorry, Mr. St. George, but I’m a very busy man and now —”
“Good-by,” St. George cried triumphantly.
In half an hour he was at the Grand Central station, boarding a train for the Reformatory town. It was a little after ten o’clock when he rang the bell at the house presided over by Chillingworth’s “rabble of wild eagles.”
The Reformatory, a boastful, brick building set in grounds that seemed freshly starched and ironed, had a discoloured door that would have frowned and threatened of its own accord, even without the printed warnings pasted to its panels stating that no application for admission, with or without permits, would be honoured upon any day save Thursday. This was Tuesday.
Presently, the chains having fallen within after a feudal rattling, an old man who looked born to the business of snapping up a drawbridge in lieu of a taste for any other exclusiveness peered at St. George through absurd smoked glasses, cracked quite across so that his eyes resembled buckles.
“Good morning,” said St. George; “has the Readers’ Guild arrived yet?”
The old man grated out an assent and swung open the door, which creaked in the pitch of his voice. The bare hall was cut by a wall of steel bars whose gate was padlocked, and outside this wall the door to the warden’s office stood open. St. George saw that a meeting was in progress there, and the sight disturbed him. Then the click of a key caught his attention, and he turned to find the old man quietly and surprisingly swinging open the door of steel bars.
“This way, sir,” he said hoarsely, fixing St. George with his buckle eyes, and shambled through the door after him locking it behind them.
If St. George had found awaiting him a gold throne encircled by kneeling elephants he could have been no more amazed. Not a word had been said about the purpose of his visit, and not a word to the warden; there was simply this miraculous opening of the barred door. St. George breathlessly footed across the rotunda and down the dim opposite hall. There was a mistake, that was evident; but for the moment St. George was going to propose no reform. Their steps echoed in the empty corridor that extended the entire length of the great building in an odour of unspeakable soap and superior disinfectants; and it was not until they reached a stair at the far end that the old man halted.
“Top o’ the steps,” he hoarsely volunteered, blinking his little buckle eyes, “first door to the left. My back’s bad. I won’t go up.”
St. George, inhumanely blessing the circumstance, slipped something in the old man’s hand and sprang up the stairs.
The first door at the left stood ajar. St. George looked in and saw a circle of bonnets and white curls clouded around the edge of the room, like witnesses. The Readers’ Guild was about leaving; almost in the same instant, with that soft lift and touch which makes a woman’s gown seem sewed with vowels and sibilants, they all arose and came tapping across the bare floor. At their head marched a woman with such a bright bonnet, and such a tinkle of ornaments on her gown that at first sight she quite looked like a lamp. It was she whom St. George approached.
“I beg your pardon, madame,” he said, “is this the Readers’ Guild?”
There was nothing in St. George’s grave face and deferential stooping of shoulders to betray how his heart was beating or what a bound it gave at her amazing reply.
“Ah,” she said, “how do you do?”— and her manner had that violent absent-mindedness which almost always proves that its possessor has trained a large family of children —“I am so glad that you can be with us today. I am Mrs. Manners — forgive me,” she besought with perfectly self-possessed distractedness, “I’m afraid that I’ve forgotten your name.”
“My name is St. George,” he answered as well as he could for virtual speechlessness.
The other members of the Guild were issuing from the room, and Mrs. Manners turned. She had a fashion of smiling enchantingly, as if to compensate her total lack of attention.
“Ladies,” she said, “this is Mr. St. George, at last.”
Then she went through their names to him, and St. George bowed and caught at the flying end of the name of the woman nearest him, and muttered to them all. The one nearest was a Miss Bella Bliss Utter, a little brown nut of a woman with bead eyes.
“Ah, Mr. St. George,” said Miss Utter rapidly, “it has been a wonderful meeting. I wish you might have been with us. Fortunately for us you are just in time for our third floor council.”
It had been said of St. George that when he was writing on space and was in need, buildings fell down before him to give him two columns on the first page; but any architectural manoeuvre could not have amazed him as did this. And too, though there had been occasions when silence or an evasion would have meant bread to him, the temptation to both was never so strong as at that moment. It cost St. George an effort, which he was afterward glad to remember having made, to turn to Mrs. Manners, who had that air of appointing committees and announcing the programme by which we always recognize a leader, and try to explain.
“I am afraid,” St. George said as they reached the stairs, “that you have mistaken me, Mrs. Manners. I am not —”
“Pray, pray do not mention it,” cried Mrs. Manners, shaking her little lamp-shade of a hat at him, “we make every allowance, and I am sure that none will be necessary.”
“But I am with the Evening Sentinel,” St. George persisted, “I am afraid that —”
“As if one’s profession made any difference!” cried Mrs. Manners warmly. “No, indeed, I perfectly understand. We all understand,” she assured him, going over some papers in one hand and preparing to mount the stairs. “Indeed, we appreciate it,” she murmured, “do we not, Miss Utter?”
The little brown nut seemed to crack in a capacious smile.
“Indeed, indeed!” she said fervently, accenting her emphasis by briefly-closed eyes.
“Hymn books. Now, have we hymn books enough?” plaintively broke in Mrs. Manners. “I declare, those new hymn books don’t seem to have the spirit of the old ones, no matter what any one says,” she informed St. George earnestly as they reached an open door. In the next moment he stood aside and the Readers’ Guild filed past him. He followed them. This was pleasantly like magic.
They entered a large chamber carpeted and walled in the garish flowers which many boards of directors suppose will joy the cheerless breast. There were present a dozen women inmates — sullen, weary-looking beings who seemed to have made abject resignation their latest vice. They turned their lustreless eyes upon the visitors, and a portly woman in a red waist with a little American flag in a buttonhole issued to them a nasal command to rise. They got to their feet with a starched noise, like dead leaves blowing, and St. George eagerly scanned their faces. There were women of several nationalities, though they all looked raceless in the ugly uniforms which those same boards of directors consider de rigueur for the soul that is to be won back to the normal. A little negress, with a spirit that soared free of boards of directors, had tried to tie her closely-clipped wool with bits of coloured string; an Italian woman had a geranium over her ear; and at the end of the last row of chairs, towering above the others, was a creature of a kind of challenging, unforgetable beauty whom, with a thrill of certainty, St. George realized to be her whom he had come to see. So strong was his conviction that, as he afterward recalled, he even asked no question concerning her. She looked as manifestly not one of the canaille of incorrigibles as, in her place, Lucrezia Borgia would have looked.
The woman was powerfully built with astonishing breadth of shoulder and length of limb, but perfectly proportioned. She was young, hardly more than twenty, St. George fancied, and of the peculiar litheness which needs no motion to be manifest. Her clear skin was of wonderful brown; and her eyes, large and dark, with something of the oriental watchfulness, were like opaque gems and not more penetrable. Her look was immovably fixed upon St. George as if she divined that in some way his coming affected her.
“We will have our hymn first.” Mrs. Manners’ words were buzzing and pecking in the air. “What can I have done with that list of numbers? We have to select our pieces most carefully,” she confided to St. George, “so to be sure that Soul’s Prison or Hands Red as Crimson, or, Do You See the Hebrew Captive Kneeling? or anything personal like that doesn’t occur. Now what can I have done with that list?”
Her words reached St. George but vaguely. He was in a fever of anticipation and enthusiasm. He turned quickly to Mrs. Manners.
“During the hymn,” he said simply, “I would like to speak with one of the women. Have I your permission?”
Mrs. Manners looked momentarily perplexed; but her eyes at that instant chancing upon her lost list of hymns, she let fall an abstracted assent and hurried to the waiting organist. Immediately St. George stepped quietly down among the women already fluttering the leaves of their hymn books, and sat beside the mulatto woman.
Her eyes met his in eager questioning, but she had that temper of unsurprise of many of the eastern peoples and of some animals. Yet she was under some strong excitement, for her hands, large but faultlessly modeled, were pressed tensely together. And St. George saw that she was by no means a mulatto, or of any race that he was able to name. Her features were classic and of exceeding fineness, and her face was sensitive and highly-bred and filled with repose, like the surprising repose of breathing arrested in marble. There was that about her, however, which would have made one, constituted to perceive only the arbitrary balance of things, feel almost afraid; while one of high organization would inevitably have been smitten by some sense of the incalculably higher organization of her nature, a nature which breathed forth an influence, laid a spell — did something indefinable. Sometimes one stands too closely to a statue and is frightened by the nearness, as by the nearness of one of an alien region. St. George felt this directly he spoke to her. He shook off the impression and set himself practically to the matter in hand. He had never had greater need of his faculty for directness. His low tone was quite matter-of-fact, his manner deferentially reassuring.
“I think,” he said softly and without preface, “that I can help you. Will you let me help you? Will you tell me quickly your name?”
The woman’s beautiful eyes were filled with distress, but she shook her head.
“Your name — name — name?” St. George repeated earnestly, but she had only the same answer. “Can you not tell me where you live?” St. George persisted, and she made no other sign.
“New York?” went on St. George patiently. “New York? Do you live in New York?”
There was a sudden gleam in the woman’s eyes. She extended her hands quickly in unmistakable appeal. Then swiftly she caught up a hymn book, tore at its fly-leaf, and made the movement of writing. In an instant St. George had thrust a pencil in her hand and she was tracing something.
He waited feverishly. The organ had droned through the hymn and the women broke into song, with loose lips and without restraint, as street boys sing. He saw them casting curious, sullen glances, and the Readers’ Guild whispering among themselves. Miss Bella Bliss Utter, looking as distressed as a nut can look, nodded, and Mrs. Manners shook her head and they meant the same thing. Then St. George saw the attendant in the red waist descend from the platform and make her way toward him, the little American flag rising and falling on her breast. He unhesitatingly stepped in the aisle to meet her, determined to prevent, if possible, her suspicion of the message. “Is it the barbarism of a gentleman,” Amory had once propounded, “or is it the gentleman-like manners of a barbarian which makes both enjoy over-stepping a prohibition?”
“I compliment you,” St. George said gravely, with his deferential stooping of the shoulders. “The women are perfectly trained. This, of course, is due to you.”
The hard face of the woman softened, but St. George thought that one might call her very facial expression nasal; she smiled with evident pleasure, though her purpose remained unshaken.
“They do pretty good,” she admitted, “but visitors ain’t best for ’em. I’ll have to request you”— St. George vaguely wished that she would say “ask”—“not to talk to any of ’em.”
St. George bowed.
“It is a great privilege,” he said warmly if a bit incoherently, and held her in talk about an institution of the sort in Canada where the women inmates wore white, the managers claiming that the effect upon their conduct was perceptible, that they were far more self-respecting, and so on in a labyrinth of defensive detail. “What do you think of the idea?” he concluded anxiously, manfully holding his ground in the aisle.
“I think it’s mostly nonsense,” returned the woman tartly, “a big expense and a sight of work for nothing. And now permit me to say —”
St. George vaguely wished that she would say “let.”
“I agree with you,” he said earnestly, “nothing could be simpler and neater than these calico gowns.”
The attendant looked curiously at him.
“They are gingham,” she rejoined, “and you’ll excuse me, I hope, but visitors ain’t supposed to converse with the inmates.”
St. George was vanquished by “converse.”
“I beg your pardon,” he said, “pray forgive me. I will say good-by to my friend.”
He turned swiftly and extended his hand to the strange woman behind him. With the cunning upon which he had counted she gave her own hand, slipping in his the folded paper. Her eyes, with their haunting watchfulness, held his for a moment as she mutely bent forward when he left her.
The hymn was done and the women were seating themselves, as St. George with beating heart took his way up the aisle. What the paper contained he could not even conjecture; but there was a paper and it did contain something which he had a pleasant premonition would be invaluable to him. Yet he was still utterly at loss to account for his own presence there, and this he coolly meant to do.
He was spared the necessity. On the platform Mrs. Manners had risen to make an announcement; and St. George fancied that she must preside at her tea-urn and try on her bonnets with just that same formal little “announcement” air.
“My friends,” she said, “I have now an unexpected pleasure for you and for us all. We have with us today Mr. St. George, of New York. Mr. St. George is going to sing for us.”
St. George stood still for a moment, looking into the expectant faces of Mrs. Manners and the other women of the Readers’ Guild, a spark of understanding kindling the mirth in his eyes. This then accounted both for his admittance to the home and for his welcome by the women upon their errand of mercy. He had simply been very naturally mistaken for a stranger from New York who had not arrived. But since he had accomplished something, though he did not know what, inasmuch as the slip of paper lay crushed in his hand unread, he must, he decided, pay for it. Without ado he stepped to the platform.
“I have explained to Mrs. Manners and to these ladies,” he said gravely, “that I am not the gentleman who was to sing for you. However, since he is detained, I will do what I can.”
This, mistaken for a merely perfunctory speech of self-depreciation, was received in polite, contradicting silence by the Guild. St. George, who had a rich, true barytone, quickly ran over his little list of possible songs, none of which he had ever sung to an audience that a canoe would not hold, or to other accompaniment than that of a mandolin. Partly in memory of those old canoe-evenings St. George broke into a low, crooning plantation melody. The song, like much of the Southern music, had in it a semi-barbaric chord that the college men had loved, something — or so one might have said who took the canoe-music seriously — of the wildness and fierceness of old tribal loves and plaints and unremembered wooings with a desert background: a gallop of hoof-beats, a quiver of noon light above saffron sand — these had been, more or less, in the music when St. George had been wont to lie in a boat and pick at the strings while Amory paddled; and these he must have reëchoed before the crowd of curious and sullen and commonplace, lighted by that one wild, strange face. When he had finished the dark woman sat with bowed head, and St. George himself was more moved by his own effort than was strictly professional.
“Dear Mr. St. George,” said Mrs. Manners, going distractedly through her hand-bag for something unknown, “our secretary will thank you formally. It was she who sent you our request, was it not? She will so regret being absent today.”
“She did not send me a request, Mrs. Manners,” persisted St. George pleasantly, “but I’ve been uncommonly glad to do what I could. I am here simply on a mission for the Evening Sentinel.”
Mrs. Manners drew something indefinite from her bag and put it back again, and looked vaguely at St. George.
“Your voice reminds me so much of my brother, younger,” she observed, her eyes already straying to the literature for distribution.
With soft exclamatory twitters the Readers’ Guild thanked St. George, and Miss Bella Bliss Utter, who was of womankind who clasp their hands when they praise, stood thus beside him until he took his leave. The woman in the red waist summoned an attendant to show him back down the long corridor.
At the grated door within the entrance St. George found the warden in stormy conference with a pale blond youth in spectacles.
“Impossible,” the warden was saying bluntly, “I know you. I know your voice. You called me up this morning from the New York Sentinel office, and I told you then —”
“But, my dear sir,” expostulated the pale blond youth, waving a music roll, “I do assure you —”
“What he says is quite true, Warden,” St. George interposed courteously, “I will vouch for him. I have just been singing for the Readers’ Guild myself.”
The warden dropped back with a grudging apology and brows of tardy suspicion, and the old man blinked his buckle eyes.
“Gentlemen,” said St. George, “good morning.”
Outside the door, with its panels decorated in positive prohibitions, he eagerly unfolded the precious paper. It bore a single name and address: Tabnit, 19 McDougle Street, New York.
St. George lunched leisurely at his hotel. Upon his return from Westchester he had gone directly to McDougle Street to be assured that there was a house numbered 19. Without difficulty he had found the place; it was in the row of old iron-balconied apartment houses a few blocks south of Washington Square, and No. 19 differed in no way from its neighbours even to the noisy children, without toys, tumbling about the sunken steps and dark basement door. St. George contented himself with walking past the house, for the mere assurance that the place existed dictated his next step.
This was to write a note to Mrs. Medora Hastings, Miss Holland’s aunt. The note set forth that for reasons which he would, if he might, explain later, he was interested in the woman who had recently made an attempt upon her niece’s life; that he had seen the woman and had obtained an address which he was confident would lead to further information about her. This address, he added, he preferred not to disclose to the police, but to Mrs. Hastings or Miss Holland herself, and he begged leave to call upon them if possible that day. He despatched the note by Rollo, whom he instructed to deliver it, not at the desk, but at the door of Mrs. Hastings’ apartment, and to wait for an answer. He watched with pleasure Rollo’s soft departure, recalling the days when he had sent a messenger boy to some inaccessible threshold, himself stamping up and down in the cold a block or so away to await the boy’s return.
Rollo was back almost immediately. Mrs. Hastings and Miss Holland were not at home. St. George eyed his servant severely.
“Rollo,” he said, “did you go to the door of their apartment?”
“No, sir,” said Rollo stiffly, “the elevator boy told me they was out, sir.”
“Showing,” thought St. George, “that a valet and a gentleman is a very poor newspaper man.”
“Now go back,” he said pleasantly, “go up in the elevator to their door. If they are not in, wait in the lower hallway until they return. Do you get that? Until they return.”
“You’ll want me back by tea-time, sir?” ventured Rollo.
“Wait,” St. George repeated, “until they return. At three. Or six. Or nine o’clock. Or midnight.”
“Very good, sir,” said Rollo impassively, “it ain’t always wise, sir, for a man to trust to his own judgment, sir, asking your pardon. His judgment,” he added, “may be a bit of the ape left in him, sir.”
St. George smiled at this evolutionary pearl and settled himself comfortably by the open fire to await Rollo’s return. It was after three o’clock when he reappeared. He brought a note and St. George feverishly tore it open.
“Whom did you see? Were they civil to you?” he demanded.
“I saw a old lady, sir,” said Rollo irreverently. “She didn’t say a word to me, sir, but what she didn’t say was civiler than many people’s language. There’s a great deal in manner, sir,” declaimed Rollo, brushing his hat with his sleeve, and his sleeve with his handkerchief, and shaking the handkerchief meditatively over the coals.
St. George read the note at a glance and with unspeakable relief. They would see him. A refusal would have delayed and annoyed him just then, in the flood-tide of his hope.
“My Dear Mr. St. George,” the note ran. “My niece is not at home, and I can not tell how your suggestion will be received by her, though it is most kind. I may, however, answer for myself that I shall be glad to see you at four o’clock this afternoon.
“Very truly yours,
Grateful for her evident intention to waste no time, St. George dressed and drove to the Boris, punctually sending up his card at four o’clock. At once he was ushered to Mrs. Hastings’ apartment.
St. George entered her drawing-room incuriously. Three years of entering drawing-rooms which he never thereafter was to see had robbed him of that sensation of indefinable charm which for many a strange room never ceases to yield. He had found far too many tables upholding nothing which one could remember, far too many pictures that returned his look, and rugs that seemed to have been selected arbitrarily and because there was none in stock that the owner really liked. He was therefore pleasantly surprised and puzzled by the room which welcomed him. The floor was tiled in curious blocks, strangely hieroglyphed, as if they had been taken from old tombs. Over the fireplace was set a panel of the same stone, which, by the thickness of the tiles, formed a low shelf. On this shelf and on tables and in a high window was the strangest array of objects that St. George had ever seen. There were small busts of soft rose stone, like blocks of coral. There was a statue or two of some indefinable white material, glistening like marble and yet so soft that it had been indented in several places by accidental pressure. There were fans of strangely-woven silk, with sticks of carven rock-crystal, and hand mirrors of polished copper set in frames of gems that he did not recognize. Upon the wall were mended bits of purple tapestry, embroidered or painted or woven in singular patterns of flora and birds that St. George could not name. There were rolls of parchment, and vases of rock-crystal, and a little apparatus, most delicately poised, for weighing unknown, delicate things; and jars and cups without handles, all baked of a soft pottery having a nap like the down of a peach. Over the windows hung curtains of lace, woven by hands which St. George could not guess, in patterns of such freedom and beauty as western looms never may know. On the floor and on the divans were spread strange skins, some marked like peacocks, some patterned like feathers and like seaweed, all in a soft fur that was like silk.
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