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THE VISION SPLENDID (13)

2006-08-28 22:51

    "Must it be? Must we then Render back to God again This, His broken work, this thing For His man that once did sing?" ——Josephine Prestor Peabody.

    "And listen! I declare to you that if all is as you say——and I do not doubt it——you have never ceased to be virtuous in the sight of God!" -Victor Hugo.

    THE REBEL PROVES THAT HE IS LOST TO GOOD FORM AND RESPECTABILITY BY STEPPING BETWEEN A SINNER AND THE WAGES OF SIN, THUS EVIDENCING TO THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY HIS COMPLETE DEGENERATION

    Sam Miller came into Jeff's office one night as he was looking over the editorials. Farnum nodded abstractedly to him.

    "Take a chair, Sam. Be through in a minute."

    Presently Jeff pushed the galley proof to one side and looked at his friend. "Well, Sam?" Almost at once he added: "What's the matter?"

    There were queer white patches on Miller's fat face. He looked like a man in hell. A lump rose in his throat. Two or three times he swallowed hard.

    "It's——it's Nellie."

    "Nellie Anderson?"

    He nodded.

    Jeff felt as if his heart had been drenched in icy water. "What about her?"

    "She's——gone."

    "Gone where?"

    "We don't know. She left Friday. There was a note for her mother. It said to forget her, because she was a disgrace to her name."

    "You mean——" Jeff did not finish his question. He knew what the answer was, and in his soul lay a reflection of the mortal sickness he saw in his friend's face.

    Miller nodded, unable to speak. Presently his words came brokenly. "She's been acting strangely for a long time. Her mother noticed it. . . . So did I. Like as if she wasn't happy. We've been worried. I . . .I . . ." He buried his face in his arm on the table. "My God, I love her, Jeff. I have for years. If I'd only known . . . if she'd only told me."

    Jeff was white as the galley proof that lay before him with the unprinted side up. "Tell me all about it, Sam."

    Miller looked up. "That's all. We don't know where she's gone. She had no money to speak of."

    "And the man?" Jeff almost whispered.

    "We don't know who he is. Might be any one of the clerks at the Verden Dry Goods Company.

    Maybe it's none of them. If I knew I'd cut his heart out."

    The clock on the wall ticked ten times before Jeff spoke. "Did she go alone?"

    "We don't know. None of the clerks are missing from the store where she worked. I checked up with the manager yesterday."

    Another long silence. "They may have rooms in town here."

    "Not likely." Presently Miller added miserably: "She's——going to be a mother soon. We found the doctor she went to see."

    "You're sure she hasn't been married? Of course you've looked over the marriage licenses for the past year."

    "Yes. Her name isn't on the list."

    "Did she have money?"

    "About fifteen dollars, we figure."

    "That wouldn't take her far——unless the man gave her some. Have you been to a detective agency?"

    "Yes."

    "We'll put blind ads in all the papers telling her to come home. We'll rake the city and the state with a fine tooth comb. We're bound to hear of her."

    "She's desperate, Jeff. If she's alone she'll think she has no friends. We've got to find her in time or——" Jeff guessed the alternative. She might take the easy way out, the one which offered an escape from all her earthly troubles. Girls of her type often did. Nellie was made for laughter and for happiness. He had known her innocent as a sunbeam and as glad. Now that she was in the pit, facing disgrace and disillusionment and despair, the horror and the dread of existence to her would be a millstone round her neck.

    The damnable unfairness of it took. Jeff by the throat. Was it her fault that she had inherited a temperament where passions lurked unsuspected like a banked fire? Was she to blame because her mother had brought her up without warning, because she had believed in the love and the honor of a villain? Her very faith and trust had betrayed her. Every honest instinct in him cried out against the world's verdict, that she must pay with salt tears to the end of her life while the scoundrel who had led her into trouble walked gaily to fresh conquests.

    Cogged dice! She had gone forth smiling to play the game of life with them, never dreaming that the cubes were loaded. He remembered how once her every motion sang softly to him like music, with what dear abandon she had given herself to his kisses. Her fondness had been a thing to cherish, her innocence had called for protection. And her chivalrous lover had struck the lightness forever from her soul.

    For long he never thought of her without an icy sinking of the heart.

    Weeks passed. Sam Miller gave his whole time to the search for the missing girl. Jeff supplied the means; in every way he could he encouraged him and the broken mother. For a thousand miles south and east the police had her description and her photograph. But no trace of her could be found. False clews there were aplenty. A dozen haggard streetwalkers were arrested in mistake for her. Patiently Sam ran down every story, followed every possibility to its hopeless end.

    The weeks ran into months. Mrs. Anderson still hoped drearily. Every night the light in the hall burned now till daybreak. And every night she wept herself to sleep for that her one ewe lamb was lost in a ravenous world. Tears were for the night. Wan smiles for the day, when she and Sam, drawn close by a common grief, met to understand each other with few words. He was back again at his work as curator of the museum at the State House, a place Jeff had secured for him after the election.

    Outside of Nellie's mother the one friend to whom Sam turned now was Jeff. He came for comfort, to sit long hours in the office while Farnum did his night work. Sometimes he would read; more often sit brooding with his chin in his hands. When the midnight rush was past and Jeff was free they would go together to a restaurant.

    Afterwards they would separate at the door of the block where Jeff had his rooms.

    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 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.

    As Jeff helped her from the cab in front of the block where he lived a limousine flashed past. It caught his glance for an instant, long enough for him to recognize his Cousin James, Mrs. Van Tyle and Alice Frome. The arm which supported Nellie did not loosen from her waist, though he knew they had seen him and would probably draw conclusions.

    The young woman was trembling violently.

    "My rooms are in the second story. Can you walk? Or shall I carry you?" Farnum asked.

    "I can walk," she told him almost in a whisper.

    He got her upstairs and into the big armchair in front of the gas log. Now that she had slipped out of his rain coat he saw that she was wet to the skin. From his bedroom he brought a bathrobe, pajamas, woolen slippers, anything he could find that was warm and soft. In front of her he dumped them all.

    "I'm going down to the drug store to get you something that will warm you, Nellie. While I'm away change your clothes and get into these things," he told her.

    She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "You're good."

    A lump rose in his heart. He thought of those evenings before the grate alone with her and of the desperate fight he had had with his passions. Good! He accused himself bitterly for the harm that he had done her. But before her his smile was bright and cheerful.

    "We're all going to be so good to you that you'll not know us. Haven't we been waiting two months for a chance to spoil you?"

    "Do you . . . know?" she whispered, color for an instant in her wan face.

    "I know things aren't half so bad as they seem to you. Dear girl, we are your friends. We've not done right by you. Even your mother has been careless and let you get hurt. But we're going to make it up to you now."

    A man on the other side of the street watched Jeff come down and cross to the drug store. Billie Gray, ballot box stuffer, detective, and general handy man for Big Tim O'Brien, had been lurking in that entry when Jeff came home. He had sneaked up the stairs after them and had seen the editor disappear into his rooms with one whom he took to be a woman of the street. Already a second plain clothes man was doing sentry duty. The policeman whose beat it was sat in the drug store and kept an eye open from that quarter.

    To the officer Jeff nodded casually. "Bad weather to be out all night in, Nolan."

    "Right you are, Mr. Farnum."

    The editor ordered a bottle of whiskey and while it was being put up passed into the telephone booth and closed the door behind him. He called up Olive I.

    Central rang again and again. "Can't get your party," she told him at last.

    "You'll waken him presently. Keep at it, please. It's very important."

    At last Sam Miller's voice answered. "Hello! Hello! What is it?"

    "I've found Nellie. . . . Just in time. thank God. . .She's at my rooms. . . . Have Mrs. Anderson bring an entire change of clothing for her. . . . Yes, she's very much exhausted. I'll tell you all about it later…… Come quietly. She may be asleep when you get here."

    Jeff hung up the receiver, paid for the whiskey, and returned to his rooms. He did not know that he had left three good and competent witnesses who were ready to take oath that he had brought to his rooms at midnight a woman of the half world and that he had later bought liquor and returned with it to his apartment.

    Billie Gray thumped his fist into his open palm. "We've got him. We've got him right. He can't get away from it. By Gad, we've got him at last!"

    Jeff found Nellie wrapped in his bathrobe in the big chair before the gas log. Her own wet clothes were out of sight behind a screen.

    "You locked the door when you went out," she charged.

    "Some of my friends might have dropped in to see me," he explained with his disarming smile.

    But he could see in her eyes the unreasoning fear of a child that has been badly hurt. He had locked the door on the outside. She was going to be dragged home whether she wanted to go or not. Dread of that hour was heavy on her soul. Jeff knew the choice must be hers, not his. He spoke quietly.

    "You're not a prisoner, of course. You may go whenever you like. I would have no right to keep you. But you will hurt me very much if you go before morning."

    "Where will you stay?" she asked.

    "I'll sleep on the lounge in this room," he answered in his most matter of fact voice.

    While he busied himself preparing a toddy for her she began to tell brokenly, by snatches, the story of her wanderings. She had gone to Portland and had found work in a department store at the notion counter. After three weeks she had lost her place. Days of tramping the streets looking for a job brought her at last to an overall factory where she found employment. The foreman had discharged her at the end of the third day. Once she had been engaged at an agency as a servant by a man, but as soon as his wife saw her Nellie was told she would not do. Bitter humiliating experiences had befallen her. Twice she had been turned out of rooming houses. Jeff read between the lines that as her time drew near some overmastering impulse had drawn her back to Verden. Already she was harboring the thought of death, but she could not die in a strange place so far from home. Only that morning she had reached town.

    After she had retired to the bedroom Jeff sat down in the chair she had vacated. He heard her moving about for a short time. Presently came silence.

    It must have been an hour and a half later that Sam and Mrs. Anderson knocked gently on the door.

    "Cars stopped running. Had to 'phone for a taxi," Miller whispered.

    The agitation of the mother was affecting. Her fingers twitched with nervousness. Her eyes strayed twenty times in five minutes toward the door behind which her daughter slept. Every little while she would tip-toe to it and listen breathlessly. In whispers Jeff told them the story, answering a hundred eager trembling questions.

    Slowly the clock ticked out the seconds of the endless night. Gray day began to sift into the room. Mrs. Anderson's excursions to the bedroom door grew more frequent. Sometimes she opened it an inch or two. On one of these occasions she went in quickly and shut the door behind her.

    "Good enough. They don't need us here, Sam. We'll go out and have some breakfast," Jeff proposed.

    On the street they met Billie Gray. He greeted the editor with a knowing grin. "Good morning, Mr. Farnum. How's everything? Fine and dandy, eh?"

    Jeff looked at him sharply. "What the mischief is he doing here?" he asked Miller by way of comment.

    All through breakfast that sinister little figure shadowed his thoughts. Gray was like a stormy petrel. He was surely there for no good, barring the chance of its being an accident. Both of them kept their eyes open on their way back, but they met nobody except a policeman swinging his club as

    he leaned against a lamp post and

    whistled the Merry Widow waltz.

    But Farnum was not satisfied. He cautioned both Sam and Mrs. Anderson to say nothing, above all to give no names or explanation to anybody. A whisper of the truth would bring reporters down on them in shoals.

    "You had better stay here quietly to-day," their host advised. "I'll see you're not disturbed by the help. Sam will bring your meals in from a restaurant. I'd say stay here as long as you like, but it can't be done without arousing curiosity, the one thing we don't want."

    "No, better leave late to-night in a taxi," Sam proposed.

    "Better still, I'll bring around Captain Chunn's car and Sam can drive you home. We can't be too careful."

    So it was arranged. Mrs. Anderson left it to them and went back into the bedroom where her wounded lamb lay.

    About midnight Jeff stopped a car in front of the stairway. The two veiled women emerged, accompanied by Sam. They were helped into the tonneau and Miller took the driver's seat. Just as the machine began to move a little man ran across the street toward them.

    Jeff's forearm went up suddenly and caught him under the chin. Billie Gray's head went back and his heels came up. Farnum was on him in an instant, ostensibly to help him up, but really to see he did not get up too quickly. As soon as the automobile swung round the corner Jeff lifted him to his feet.

    "Sorry. Hope I didn't hurt you," he smiled.

    "Smart trick, wasn't it?" snarled the detective. "Never mind, Mr. Farnum. We've got your goat right."

    "Again?" Jeff asked with pleasant impudence.

    "Got you dead to rights this trip." Gray fired another shot as he turned away. "And we'll find out yet who your lady friends are. Don't you forget it."

    But Billie had overlooked a bet. He had been in the back of the drug store getting a drink when Sam and Mrs. Anderson arrived. The policeman on guard had not connected the coming of these with Jeff. None of the watchers knew that Jeff had not been alone with the girl all night.

    Sam called on Jeff two days later.

    "I want you to come round to-night at seven-fifteen. We're going to be married," he explained.

    The newspaper man's eye met his in a swift surprise. "You and Nellie?"

    "Yes." Miller's jaw set. "Why not? YOU'RE not going to spring that damned cant about——"

    "I thought you knew me better," his friend interrupted.

    Miller's face worked. "I'll ask your pardon for that, Jeff. You've been the best friend she has. Well, we've thrashed it all out. She fought her mother and me two days; didn't think it right to let me give my name to her, even though she admits she has come to care for me. You can see how she would be torn two ways. It's the only road out for her and the baby that is on the way, but she couldn't bring herself to sacrifice me, as she calls it. I've hammered and hammered at her that it's no sacrifice. She can't see it; just cries and cries."

    "Of course she would be unusually sensitive; Her nerves must be all bare so that she shrinks as one does when a wound is touched."

    "That's it. She keeps speaking of herself as if she were a lost soul. At last we fairly wore her out. After we are married her mother and she will take the eight o'clock for Kenton. Nobody there knows them, and she'll have a chance to forget."

    "You're a white man, Sam," Jeff nodded lightly. But his eyes were shining.

    "I'm the man that loves her. I couldn't do less, could I?"

    "Some men would do a good deal less."

    "Not if they looked at it the way I do. She's the same Nellie I've always known. What difference does it make to me that she stumbled in the dark and hurt herself——except that my heart is so much more tender to her it aches?" "If you hold to that belief she'll live to see the day when she is a happy woman again," the journalist prophesied.

    "I'm going to teach her to think of it all as only a bad nightmare she's been through." His jaw clinched again so that the muscles stood out on his cheeks. "Do you know she won't say a word——not even to her mother-about who the villain is that betrayed her? I'd wring his coward neck off for him," he finished with a savage oath.

    "Better the way it is, Sam. Let her keep her secret…… The least said and thought about it the better."

    Miller looked at his watch. "Perhaps you're right. I've got to go to work. Remember, seven-fifteen sharp. We need you as a witness. Just your business suit, you understand. No present, of course."

    The wedding took place in the room where Jeff had been used to drinking chocolate with his little friend only a year before. It was the first time he had been here since that night when the danger signal had flashed so suddenly before his eyes. The whole thing came back to him poignantly.

    It was a pitiful little wedding, with the bride and her mother in tears from the start. The ceremony was performed by their friend Mifflin, the young clergyman who had a mission for sailors on the waterfront. Nobody else was present except Marchant, the second witness.

    As soon as the ceremony was finished Sam put Nellie and her mother into a cab to take them to their train. The other three walked back down town.

    As Jeff sat before his desk four hours later, busy with a tax levy story, Miller came in and took a seat. Jeff waved a hand at him and promptly forgot he was on earth until he rose and put on his coat an hour later.

    "Well! Did they get off all right?" he asked.

    Miller nodded absently. Ten minutes later he let out what he was thinking about.

    "I wish to God I knew the man," he exploded.

    Jeff looked at him quietly. "I'm glad you don't. Adding murder to it wouldn't help the situation one little bit, my friend."

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