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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter13,part3)

2006-08-28 23:39

    PART 3

    Yet when Jeff found her it was not Sam who was with him, but Marchant. They had been to see Sobieski about a place Captain Chunn had secured for him as a night watchman of the shipbuilding plant of which Clinton Rogers was part owner. The Pole had mounted his hobby and it had been late when they got away from his cabin under the viaduct.

    Just before they turned into lower Powers Avenue from the deadline below Yarnell Way, Marchant clutched at the sleeve of his friend.

    "See that woman's face?" he asked sharply.

    "No."

    Jeff was interested at once. For during the past months he had fallen into a habit of scanning the countenance of any woman who might be the one they sought.

    "She knew you. I could see fear jump to her eyes."

    "We'll go back," Jeff decided instantly.

    "She's in deep water. Death is written on her face."

    Already Jeff was swinging back, almost on the run. But she had gone swallowed up in the darkness of the night. They listened, but could hear only the steady splashing of the rain. While they stood hesitating the figure of a woman showed at the other end of the alley and was lost at once down Pacific Avenue.

    Jeff ran toward the lights of the other avenue, but before he reached it

    she had again disappeared. Marchant joined him a few moments later. The little socialist leaned against the wall to steady himself against the fit of coughing that racked him.

    "Nuisance . . . this . . . being a lunger. . . What's it all . . . about, Jeff?"

    "I know her. We'll cover the waterfront. Take from Coffee Street up. Don't miss a wharf or a boathouse. And if you find the girl don't let her get away."

    The editor crossed to the Pacific & Alaska dock, his glance sweeping every dark nook and cranny that might conceal a huddled form. Out of a sodden sky rain pelted in a black night.

    He was turning away when an empty banana crate behind him crashed down from a pyramid of them. Jeff whirled, was upon her in an instant before she could escape.

    She was shrinking against the wall of the warehouse, her face a tragic mask in its haggard pallor, a white outline clenched hard against the driving rain. One hand was at her heart, the other beat against the air to hold him back.

    "Nellie!" he cried.

    "What do you want? Let me alone! Let me alone!" She was panting like a spent deer, and in her wild eyes he saw the hunted look of a forest creature at bay.

    "We've looked everywhere for you. I've come to take you home."

    "Home!" Her strange laughter mocked the word. "There's no home for folks like me in this world."

    "Your mother is breaking her heart for you. She thinks of nothing else. All night she keeps a light burning to let you know."

    She broke into a sob. "I've seen it. To-night I saw it——for the last time."

    "It is pitiful how she waits and waits," he went on quietly. "She takes out your dresses and airs them. All the playthings you used when you were a little girl she keeps near her. She——"

    "Don't! Don't!" she begged.

    "Your place is set at the table every day, so that when you come in it may be ready."

    At that she leaned against the crates and broke down utterly. Jeff knew

    that for the moment the battle was won. He slipped out of his rain coat and made her put it on, coaxing her gently while the sobs shook her. He led her by the hand back to Pacific Avenue, talking cheerfully as if it were a matter of course.

    Here Marchant met them.

    "I want a cab, Oscar," Jeff told him.

    While he was gone they waited in the entrance to a store that sheltered them from the rain.

    Suddenly the girl turned to Jeff. "I——I was going to do it to- night," she whispered.

    He nodded. "That's all past now. Don't think of it. There are good days ahead——happy days. It will be new life to your mother to see you. We've all been frightfully anxious."

    She shivered, beginning to sob once more. Not for an instant had he withdrawn the hand to which she clung so desperately.

    "It's all right, Nellie. . .All right at last. You're going home to those that love you."

    "Not to-night——not while I'm looking like this. Don't take me home tonight," she begged. "I can't stand it yet. Give me to-night, please. I . . ."

    She trembled like an aspen. Jeff could see she was exhausted, in deadly fear, ready to give way to any wild impulse that might seize her. To reason with her would do no good and might do much harm. He must humor her fancy about not going home at once. But he could not take her to a rooming house and leave her alone while her mind was in this condition. She must be watched, protected against herself. Otherwise in the morning she might be gone.

    "All right. You may have my rooms. Here's the cab."

    Jeff helped her in, thanked Marchant with a word, got in himself, and shut the door. They were driven through streets shining with rain beneath the light clusters. Nellie crouched in a corner and wept. As they swung down Powers Avenue they passed motor car after motor car filled with gay parties returning from the theaters. He glimpsed young women in furs, wrapped from the cruelty of life by the caste system in which wealth had incased them. Once a ripple of merry laughter floated to him across the

    gulf that separated this girl from them.

    A year ago her laughter had been light as theirs. Life had been a thing beautiful, full of color. She had come to it eagerly, like a lover, glad because it was so good.

    But it had not been good to her. By the cluster lights he could see how fearfully it had mauled her, how cruelly its irony had kissed hollows in her young cheeks. All the bloom of her was gone, all the brave pride and joy of youth——gone beyond hope of resurrection. Why must such things be? Why so much to the few, so little to the many? And why should that little be taken away? He saw as in a vision the infinite procession of her hopeless sisters who had traveled the same road, saw them first as sweet and carefree children bubbling with joy, and again, after the _World_ had misused them for its pleasure, haggard, tawdry, with dragging steps trailing toward the oblivion that awaited them. Good God, how long must life be so terribly wasted? How long a bruised and broken thing instead of the fine, brave adventure for which it was meant?

    Across his mind flashed Realf's words:

    "Amen!" I have cried in battle-time, When my beautiful heroes perished; The earth of the Lord shall bloom sublime By the blood of his martyrs nourished. "Amen!" I have said, when limbs were hewn And our wounds were blue and ghastly The flesh of a man may fail and swoon But God shall conquer lastly.

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