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THE VISION SPLENDID (22)

2006-08-28 22:51

    But when your arms are full of girl and fluff You hide your nerve behind a yard of grin; You'd spit into a bulldog's face, or bluff A flock of dragons with a safety pin. Life's a slow skate, but love's the dopey glim That puts a brewery horse in racing trim. ——Wallace Irwin.

    CANARIES SING FOR THE HERO

    James Farnum had been back in Verden twenty-four hours. A few little scars still decorated his handsome visage, but he explained them away with the story of a motor car accident. Just now he was walking to the bank, and he had spoken his piece five times in a distance of three blocks. From experience he was getting letter perfect as to the details. Even the idiotic joke about the clutch seemed now a necessary of the recital.

    It was just as he was crossing Powers that a motor car whirled around the corner and down upon a man descending from a street car. The chauffeur honked wildly and rammed the brakes home. Simultaneously James leaped, flinging his weight upon the man standing dazed in the path of the automobile. The two went down together, and for a moment Farnum knew only a crash of the senses.

    He was helped to his feet. Voices, distant and detached, asked whether he was hurt. Blood trickled into his eyes from a cut in the head. It came to him oddly enough that his story about the motor car accident would now be true.

    A slender figure in gray slipped swiftly past him and knelt beside the still shape lying on the asphalt.

    "Bring water, Roberts!"

    James knew that clear, sweet voice. It could belong only to Alice Frome.

    "Are you much hurt, Mr. Farnum?"

    "No, I think not——a cut over my eye and a few bruises."

    "I'm so glad. But this poor old man——I'm afraid he's badly hurt." "Was he run over?"

    "No. You saved him from that. You don't know him, do you?"

    The lawyer looked at the unconscious man and could not repress a start. It was his father. For just an eyebeat he hesitated before he said, "I've seen him before somewhere."

    "We must take him to the hospital. Isn't there a doctor here? Someone run for a doctor." The young woman's glance swept the crowd in appeal.

    "I'll take care of him. Better get away before the crowd is too large, Miss Frome."

    "No. It was our machine did it. Oh, here's a doctor."

    A pair of lean, muscular shoulders pushed through the press after the doctor. "Much hurt, James?" inquired their owner.

    "No. For heaven's sake, get Miss Frome away, Jeff," implored his cousin.

    "Miss Frome!" Jeff stepped forward with an exclamation.

    The young woman looked up. She was kneeling in the street and supporting the head of the wounded man. Her face was almost as bloodless as his.

    "We almost ran him down. Your cousin jumped to save him. He isn't dead, doctor, is he?"

    Jeff turned swiftly to his cousin and spoke in a low voice. "It's your father."

    The lawyer pushed forward with a manner of authority.

    "This won't do, doctor. The crowd's growing and we're delaying the traffic. Let us lift him into the machine and take him to the hospital."

    "Very good, Mr. Farnum."

    "Doctor, will you go with him to the hospital? And Jeff . . . you, too, if you please."

    A minute later the car pushed its way slowly through the crush of people and disappeared. James was left standing on the curb with Alice.

    He spoke brusquely. "Someone call a cab, please……I'll send you home, Miss Frome."

    "No, to the hospital," she corrected. "I couldn't go home now without knowing how he is." "Very well. Anything to get away from here."

    "And you can have your cut attended to there."

    "Oh, that's nothing. A basin of cold water is all I need. Here's the cab, thank heaven."

    The girl's gaze followed the automobile up the hill as she waited for the taxicab to stop. "I do hope he isn't hurt badly," she murmured piteously.

    "Probably he isn't. Just stunned, the doctor seemed to think. Anyhow it was an unavoidable accident."

    The eyes of the young woman kindled. "I'll never forget the way you jumped to save him. It was splendid."

    James flushed with pleasure. "Nonsense. I merely pushed him aside."

    "You merely risked your life for his. A bagatelle——don't mention it," the girl mocked.

    Farnum nodded, the old warmth for her in his eyes. "All right, I'll take all the praise you want to give me. It's been a good while since you have thought I deserved any."

    Alice looked out of the window in a silence that appeared to accuse him.

    "Yet once"——She felt in his fine voice the vibration of feeling—— "once we were friends. We met on the common ground of——of the spirit," he risked.

    Her eyes came round to meet his. "Is it my fault that we are not still friends?"

    "I don't know. Something has come between us. What is it?"

    "If you don't know I can't tell you."

    "I think I know." He folded his handkerchief again to find a spot unstained. "You wanted me to fit into some ideal of me you had formed. Am I to blame because I can't do it? Isn't the fault with your austerity? I've got to follow my own convictions——not Jeff's, not even yours. Life's a fight, and it's every man for himself. He has to work out his own salvation in his own way. Nobody can do it for him. The final test is his success or failure. I'm going to succeed."

    "Are you?" The compassion of her look he could not understand. "But how shall we define success?"

    "It's getting power and wielding it."

    "But doesn't it depend on how one wields it?"

    "Yes. It must be made to produce big results. Now my idea of a successful man is your uncle, Joe Powers."

    "And my idea of one is your cousin, Jefferson Farnum."

    The young man sat up. "You're not seriously telling me that you think Jeff is successful as compared with Joe Powers?"

    "Yes. In my opinion he is the most successful man I ever met."

    James was annoyed. "I expect you have a monopoly in that opinion, Miss Frome——unless Jeff shares it."

    "He doesn't."

    The lawyer laughed irritably. "No, I shouldn't think he would." He added a moment later: "I don't suppose Jeff is worth a hundred dollars."

    "Probably not."

    "And Joe Powers is worth a hundred millions."

    "That settles it. I must have been wrong." Alice looked at him with a flash of demure daring. "Valencia said something to me the other day I didn't quite understand. Ought I to congratulate you?"

    "What did she say?" he asked eagerly.

    "Oh, I'll not tell you what she said. My question was in first."

    "You may as well, though it's still a secret. Nobody knows it but you and me."

    "And Valencia."

    "I didn't know she knew it yet."

    Alice stared. "Not know that she is going to marry you? Then it isn't really arranged?"

    "It is and it isn't."

    "Oh!"

    "I know it and she suspects it."

    "Is this a riddle?"

    "Riddle is a good word when we speak of your cousin," he admitted judicially.

    "Perhaps I asked a question I ought not to have." "Not at all. I'm trying to answer you as well as I can. Last time I mentioned the subject she laughed at me."

    "So you've asked her?"

    "No, I told her."

    "And she said?"

    "Regretted that other plans would not permit her to fall in with mine."

    "Then I don't quite see how you are so sure."

    "That's just what she says, but I've a notion she is planning the trousseau."

    Alice flashed a sidelong look at him. Was he playing with her? Or did he mean it?

    "You'll let me know when I may safely congratulate you," she retorted ironically.

    "Now is the best time. I may not see you this evening."

    "Oh, it's to be this evening, is it?"

    "To the best of my belief and hope."

    His complacency struck a spark from her. "You needn't be so cock sure. I daresay she won't have you."

    His smile took her into his confidence. "That's what I'm afraid of myself, but I daren't let her see it."

    "That sounds better."

    "I think she wants to eat her cake and have it, too."

    "Meaning, please?"

    "That she likes me, but would rather hold me off a while."

    Alice nodded. "Yes, that would be like Val."

    "Meanwhile I don't know whether I'm to be a happy man or not."

    Her fine eyes looked in their direct fashion right into his. "I must say you appear greatly worried."

    "Yes," he smiled.

    "You must be tremendously in love with her."

    "Ye-es, thank you."

    "Why are you going to marry her then——if she'll let you?"

    "Now I'm having Joe Powers' railroads and his steamboats and his mines thrown at me, am I not?" he asked lightly. "No, I don't think that meanly of you. I know you're a victim of ambition, but I don't suppose it would take you that far."

    He gave her an ironical bow. "Thanks for this testimonial of respect. You're right. It wouldn't. I'm going to marry Joe Power's daughter, _Deo volente_ because she is the most interesting woman I know and the most beautiful one."

    "Oh! That's the reason."

    "These, plus a sentimental one which I can't uncover to the cynical eyes of my young cousin that is to be, are my motives; though, mind you, I'm not fool enough to be impervious to the railroads and the ocean liners and the mines you didn't mention. I hope my reasons satisfy you," he added coolly.

    "If they satisfy Val they do me, but very likely you'll find they won't."

    "The doubt adds a fillip to the situation." Her eyes had gone from time to time out of the window. Now she gave a sigh of relief. "Here we are at the hospital. Oh, I do hope that poor man is all right!"

    "I'm sure he is. He was recovering consciousness when they left.

    James helped her out of the cab and they went together up the steps. In the hall they met Jeff. He had just come down stairs.

    "Everything's all right. His head must have struck the asphalt, but there seems to be no danger."

    Alice noticed that the newspaper man spoke to his cousin and not to her.

    Though Valencia Van Tyle had not made up her mind to get married, James hit the mark when he guessed that she was interesting herself in the accessories that would go with such an event. The position she took in the matter was characteristic. She had gone the length of taking expert counsel with her New York modiste concerning gowns for the occasion, without having at all decided that she would exchange her present independence for another venture into stormy matrimonial seas.

    "Perhaps I shatn't have to make up my mind at all," she found amusement in chuckling to herself. "What a saving of trouble it would be if he would abduct me in his car. I could always blame him then if it did not turn out well." Something of this she expressed to James the evening of the day of the accident, watching him through half-shuttered eyes to see how he would take her first concession that she was considering him.

    He took without external disturbance her gay, embarrassed suggestion, the manner of which might mean either shyness or the highest expression of her art.

    "I'd kidnap you fast enough except that I don't want to rob you of the fun of getting ready. How long will it take you? Would my birthday be too soon? It's on the fourth of June."

    "Too soon for what?" she asked innocently.

    "For my birthday present——Valencia Powers."

    She liked it that he used her maiden surname instead of her married one. It seemed to imply that he loved her in the swift, ardent way of youth.

    "Are you sure you want it?"

    The lawyer appreciated her soft, warm allurement, the appeal of sex with which she was so prodigally endowed. His breath came a little faster.

    "He won't be happy till he gets it."

    Her faint laughter rippled out. "That's just the point, my friend. Will he be happy then? And, which is more important to her, will she?"

    "That's what I'm here to see. I'm going to make you happy."

    She laced her fingers behind her tawny head, not quite unaware perhaps that the attitude set off the perfect modeling of her soft, supple body.

    "I don't doubt your good intentions, but it takes more than that to make marriage happy when the contracting parties are not Heaven-sent."

    "But we are——we are."

    Valencia shook her head. "Oh, no! There will be no rapturous song of birds for us, none of that fine wantonness that doesn't stop to count the cost. If we marry no doubt we'll have good reasons, but not the very best one——that we can't help it."

    He would not consent to that. "You're not speaking for me. The birds sing, Valencia."

    "Canaries in a cage," she mocked. "You've forgotten two things."

    "Yes?"

    "That you are the most beautiful woman on earth, and that I'm a man, with red blood in my veins."

    Under lowered lids she studied him. This very confident, alert American, modern from head to heel, attracted her more than any other man. There was a dynamic quality in him that stirred her blood. He was efficient, selfish enough to win, and yet considerate in the small things that go to make up the sum of existence. Why not then? She must marry some time and she was as nearly in love as she would ever be.

    "What ARE your reasons for wanting me?"

    "We smoke the same Egyptians," he mocked.

    "That's a good reason, so far as it goes."

    "And you're such a charming puzzle that I would like to domesticate it and study the eternal mystery at my leisure."

    "Then it's as a diversion that you want me."

    "A thing of beauty and a joy forever, the poet puts it. But diversion if you like. What greater test of charming versatility for a woman than that she remain a diversion to her husband, unstaled by custom and undulled by familiarity?"

    After all her father would be pleased to have her marry an American business man. The Powers' millions could easily buy for her a fine old dukedom if she wanted one. At present there was more than one available title-holder on her horizon. But Valencia did not care to take up the responsibilities that go with such a position. She was too indolent to adapt her life to the standards of others——and perhaps too proud. Moreover, it happened that she had had enough of the club man type in the late lamented Van Tyle. This man was a worker. He would not annoy her or interfere with her careless pleasures. Again she asked herself, Why not?

    "I suppose you really do like me." Her face was tilted in gay little appeal.

    "I'm not going to tell you how much. It wouldn't be good for discipline in the house."

    Her soft little laugh bubbled over. "We seem to have quite settled it. And I hadn't the slightest notion of agreeing to anything so ridiculous when I ventured that indiscreet remark about an abduction." She looked up at him with smiling insolence. "You're only an adventurer, you know. I daresay you haven't even paid for the car in which you were going to kidnap me."

    "No," he admitted cheerfully.

    "I wonder what Dad will think of it,"

    "He'll thank Heaven you didn't present him with a French or Italian count to support."

    "I believe he will. His objection to Gus was that he looked like a foreigner and never had done a day's work in his life. Poor Gus! He didn't measure up to Dad's idea of a man. Now I suppose you could earn a living for us."

    "I'm not expecting you to take in sewing."

    "Are you going to do the independent if Dad cuts up rough?" she asked saucily.

    "Independent is the word." He smiled with a sudden appreciation of the situation. "And I take it he means to cut up rough. I wired him to-day I was going to ask you to marry me."

    "You didn't."

    "Yes."

    "But wasn't that a little premature? Perhaps it wouldn't have been necessary. Or did you take me for granted"

    "There was always the car for a kidnapping in case of necessity," he joked.

    "Why did you do it?"

    "I wanted to be above board about it even if I am an adventurer."

    "What did he say? How could you put it in a telegram?"

    "Red consoles marooned sweet post delayed."

    "Dear me! What gibberish is that?"

    "It's from our private code. It means, 'Going to marry your daughter if she is willing. With your consent, I hope.'"

    "And he answered? I'll take the English version, please."

    "'Consent refused. No fortune hunters need apply.' That is not a direct quotation, but it conveys his meaning accurately enough."

    "So I'm to be cut off with a shilling." Her eyes bubbled with delight.

    "I reckon so. Of course I had to come back at him."

    "How, may I ask?" She was vastly amused at this novel correspondence.

    "Oh, I merely said in substance that I was glad to hear it because you couldn't think now I wanted to marry you for your money. I added that if things came my way we would send him cards later. One doesn't like to slang one's wife's father, so I drew it mild."

    "I don't believe a word of it. You wouldn't dare."

    That she admired and at the same time distrusted was so apparent that he drew a yellow envelope from his pocket and handed it to her.

    "This is his latest contribution to the literature of frankness. You see his feelings overflowed so promptly he had to turn loose in good American talk right off the bat. Couldn't wait for the code."

    She read aloud. "Your resignation as General Counsel Transcontinental will be accepted immediately. Turn over papers to Walker and go to the devil." It was signed "Powers."

    "That's all, is it? No further exchange of compliments," she wanted to know.

    "That's all, except that he is reading my resignation by this time. I sent it two hours ago. In it I tried to convey to him my sense of regret at being obliged to sever business relations owing to the fact that I was about to contract family ties with him. I hoped that he would command me in any way he saw fit and was sorry we couldn't come to an agreement in the present instance."

    "I don't believe you're a bit sorry. Don't you realize what an expensive luxury you're getting in me and how serious a thing it is to cast off heaven knows how many millions?"

    "Oh, I realize it!"

    "But you expect him to come round when he has had time to think it over?"

    "It's hard for me to conceive of anybody not wanting me for a son-inlaw," he admitted cheerfully. Valencia nodded. "He'll like you all the better for standing up to him. He's fond of Alice because she's impudent to him."

    "I didn't mean to be impudent, but I couldn't lie down and let him prove me what he called me."

    "If you're that kind of a man I'm almost glad you're going to make me marry you," she confided.

    He leaned over her chair, his eyes shining. "I'll make you more than almost glad, Valencia. You're going to learn what it is to—— oh, damn it!"

    He was impersonally admiring her Whistler when the maid brushed aside the portieres. She had come to bring Mrs. Van Tyle a telegram.

    "No answer, Pratt."

    After the maid had retired her mistress called James to her side. Over her shoulder he read it.

    "Glad he is an American and not living on his father. Didn't think you had so much sense. Tell that young man I want to see him in New York immediately."

    The message was signed with the name of her father.

    "What do you suppose he wants with you in New York?"

    James was radiant. He kissed the perfect lips turned toward him before he answered. "Oh, to make me president of the Transcontinental maybe. How should I know? It's an olive branch. Isn't that enough?"

    "When shall you go?"

    He looked at his watch. "The limited leaves at nine-thirty. That gives me nearly an hour."

    "You're not going to-night?"

    "I'm going to-night. I must, dear. Those are the orders and I've got to obey them."

    "But suppose I give you different orders. Surely I have some rights, tonight of all nights. Why, we haven't been engaged ten minutes. Business doesn't always come first."

    James hesitated. "It's the last thing I want to do, but when Joe Powers says 'Come!' I know enough to jump."

    "But when I say stay?" she pleaded.

    "Then I stop the prettiest mouth in the world with kisses and run away before I hear the order." Gaily he suited the action to the word.

    But, for once swift, she reached the door before him.

    "Wait. Don't go, dear."

    The last word came faintly, unexpectedly. The enticement of the appeal went to his head. He had shaken her out of the indifference that was her pride. One arm slipped round her waist. His other hand tilted back her head until he could look into the eyes in which a new fire had been kindled.

    "What about that almost glad? If I stay will you forget all qualifying words and be just glad?"

    She nodded quickly, laughing ever so softly. "Yes, I'll help you listen to the birds sing. Do you know I can almost hear them?"

    James drew a deep breath and caught her swiftly to him. "New York will have to wait till to-morrow. The birds will sing to-night and we will not count the cost."

    "Yes, my lord," she answered demurely.

    For to-night she wanted to forget that their birds were only caged canaries.

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