I DID cruel things to him. Once was after he had been up all night typewriting a paper I had been invited to prepare for a particular issue of a medical journal.
When he brought it to me next morning, I said, “Thank you, Dave,” and was going to let it go at that. However, some sense of justice constrained me to add, “I’ve been glad of your help with this.”
He did not reply, though he lingered, looking down at the book-littered desk, his eyes childishly heavy with fatigue.
As he stood so, my hand, searching out a volume, jostled the manuscript, and part of it slid to the floor.
“Shall I put it in a drawer ?” he asked. “Do.”
Several were crammed. He pulled last at a large top one.
“That’s locked,” I said. Then an idea struck me, and I flung him a key from a vest pocket. “But you can clear it out for me. A few old records are there, — things I once thought of value.”
He drew the drawer out and knelt on the floor, emptying the contents in the seat of a chair close by.
“You might wish to save something,” he explained.
“I think not; but you can look over them.”
As I spoke, he realized the nature of the contents.
“Yes, father,” he said.
He took a few seconds, during which I watched him strip his heart of all that could benumb — of pride — of anger — of indifference. When he looked up, he was visibly defenseless, whatever the hurt.
He lifted some little pictures of a little boy. Beautiful, high-spirited, grave-eyed, he smiled at the men who were so serious over his plaything of Life.
In one his young mother held him, dreamed over him. She had been dead, oh, many years. Had she been living, I think he would presently have crept to her arms and cried.
“ Give that one to me,” I said, pressing his shoulder. He handed me the little picture, and took up others of an older lad, lovable and charming, with firmly closed lips, and perplexed brows, as if he, too, had begun to take his plaything seriously.
“She died that year,” he said involuntarily. Our eyes met with the shock of the thought.
“Go on,” I said.
Rousing himself, he rapidly turned over the rest, — pictures of the boy grown older, more careless : class pictures, boating pictures, ball team pictures, — I looked over his shoulder at them all. There were other things,— college medals, treasured by him for a time, then cast aside with meaning outgrown; college magazines with his first verses and stories; clippings from local papers, good-natured notices of his small triumphs,— all the touching, trivial things women are supposed to secrete for cherishing, but which will oftener be found in a man’s desk or heart. And under all, so that it had lain on top in the drawer, a photograph of a drunken, boyish group, taken in a drunken, boyish freak, out of which his own face laughed fatuously up into mine.
I felt him start.
“Put it all in the fire,” I said, letting go his shoulder and turning to my work.
He obeyed me without a word. Then he carefully arranged the manuscript in the drawer, and replaced it in the desk. But he did not go, as I expected. He stood there looking at me.
I shook my head, without raising my eyes.
“You don’t realize, father,” he said in a voice that shook a very little. “You can’t feel that I really try. But I do, until — Oh,” he cried, “until a madness comes, and I don’t know what I do.”
“I don’t mean to be a brute to you, Davie,” I said at length, “but I’ve got to take you to heart less, else I should soon not have the courage to live and work.” I looked at him: “You can see that ?”
“Yes,” said Dave. His voice broke on the word, and he went away.
We who speak are the Time and the Place. Sometimes the man’s thoughts are confused — the woman will not confess hers. If the story is to go on, we must take it up.
Reed’s veranda was gay with lights when Dave came in sight. It was like a scene staged in the perspective of the oak avenue. Blossoming vines draped the immense white pillars with scenical effect. Two girls occupied the centre of thestage. Men crossed and spoke to the girls, or to one another. Suddenly music started up. Dave had chanced on a birthday fête. One of the girls sprang to her feet, as he paused, halfway up the steps.
“ Why, it’s you! ” she cried luminously.
Slowly a child’s dark head and rosy face bloomed beautifully in Dave’s memory. Their hands clasped happily,
“ It is surely my little cousin Narcissa,” he said, with his most lovable smile. She was almost as little as ever, and even sweeter in face and manner.
After a question as to her return from her convent school, and an answer, which delightedly sketched an immediate future of dances, drives, and devotion, including him most innocently as a matter of course, Dave nodded to the men about him, and crossed the porch to meet his father’s friend. Reed took him to the library as the place where they could best transact their business, though even there a white shadow and a dark one flitted out of an alcove window as they entered.
“My father meant to ride over earlier,” said Dave, producing a Morgan pedigree from an inside pocket, “but a call came, and he sent me with this. He will see you himself in the morning.”
Here a second couple looked in, and retired with a disappointed air. Reed laughed.
“ I promised Helen this room to-night,” he said, leading the way into a smaller apartment fitted up with a chair, a gun, and three sporting magazines.
Outside, Narcissa looked from one to the other, troubled, a little pale.
“Why shouldn’t I speak cordially to my own cousin ? ” she murmured defiantly. “I’ll kiss him if I choose.” The color flew back to her cheeks. “He was just what my own brother ought to have been to me when I was little.”
Her own brother laughed irritatingly.
“We’ve all grown up since then,” he said. “Hear the truth. Have has grown up to be most abominably dissipated. He has n’t the head for it. It does him up. He has cut loose from us, in a way. When he is n’t on a spree, he is working like a galley slave to live up to his contracts.”
“ He used to be a hundred times sweeter than any of you,” — she included in her glance most of her childish comrades,— “and twice as clever.”
Her girl companion caught her hand.
“And how much better looking?” she laughed softly.
“ What has that to do with it ? ” scornfully cried Narcissa. She surveyed the circle of amused masculine faces. “Though it’s perfectly true,” she admitted sorrowfully.
Her brother shouted. Her other auditors looked downcast.
“Still you’ll have to dance with me, Narcissa,” said Bob Carter. “You’ve already promised. In this instance I find it better to be good than” —
“Hush!” looked the girl.
A silence in the nature of a confession enveloped them, as Dave, passing, smiled toward the group.
“ Come to see me,Cousin David,” cried Narcissa, clearly, sweetly, imperatively.
He paused, including Narcissa and her companions in a glance of quiet comprehension. Then he advanced to the girl, looking only at her.
“You know that I wish to come,” he said, and bowed, and went away, tingling with shame; but too sweet-tempered to be angry with any one else, and too sad to be angry with himself.
“Win,” said Narcissa, as they drove home in the dawn, “is Dave any worse than the rest of you ?”
“Narcissa,” said Winthrop candidly, “he is n’t. He is only more conspicuous, because he writes such jolly good yarns. And it’s just because he can be better than any of us that it’s worse for him to be as bad. He is perfectly honorable, he has more brains than any dozen of us, but he is a fool when he drinks, and he drinks too often. It makes him crazy. He ought n’t to touch the stuff, you see. Some fellows are made so. He seems capable of anything but self - control. He worships his father. He always did, you remember; but he is breaking his heart.”
“Do you think he will come to see us, Win?” asked the girl, at the end of another mile.
“I am certain he will not,” answered Winthrop sleepily. Then he roused to say, “If Dave does n’t pull up for Uncle Dolph, he will not for any one else, — don’t you think it.”
“Oh!” cried the girl, out of a sudden sickness of heart. She had been two weeks from her convent school, and was finding men but poor creatures.
The next time she saw Dave she was riding alone in the wood road along the ridge overlooking the water. Blue, glorious vistas opened to her now and then, framed fairily in leaves of oak and vine. She sat pillion fashion on her dainty black mare, her reins loose on her pommel. A broad ribbon of black velvet tied her plait of dark hair away from her delicate, fresh little face. She was singing happily and absent-mindedly: —
Giles Collins in the West.
There came a lily from Giles Collins
And touched Lady Anna’s breast, breast, breast,
And touched Lady Anna’s breast.
Beyond the road curve Dave smiled. He, too, had been sung to sleep with Lady Anna. He sat his horse bareheaded, and she started as little, as if he had been in her thoughts.
He leaned over and gathered up her bridle reins for her.
“You must n’t be so careless.”
He said it playfully, as to a child.
“She’s a kitten.”
“ I know, — climb a tree if a scrap of paper blows her way.”
”She does n’t. She only jumps across the road.”
“Well, you must not,” said Dave seriously.
“Well, I won’t, to-day. But you have n’t changed much, have you?”
“Did I always meddle?”
“No, — but you always gave good advice.”
“You did n’t always take it.”
“No, I have changed, you see.”
She turned the mare’s head.
“But you are coming with me, are n’t you?”
A wave of color swept him, swept her.
“No,” he said at length.
Her face had a hurt look, like that of a child thrown back on itself.
“Good-by, then,” she said, in a voice like her look. “There’s a visiting girl I must go home to.”
She did not look back as she cantered off.
But sometimes he did cruel things to me. One evening we met at the crossroads. I had not seen him for two weeks. His horse looked fagged, his face haggard, and his shoulders were drooping, until he saw me. Then he sat straight, and met my eyes with a courage I always wondered at. I ignored his absence. I met him with some careless comment on his horse, and he rode on by me in silence. At length, glancing around, I found him regarding me attentively.
“Yes?” I asked.
“What had you in mind just then?”
“Why, David,” I said truthfully, “ I was wishing you at least ten years younger.”
Again I flicked the whip I carried, just a very little.
He colored violently.
“Well,you can.” Then he smiled: “If you can.”
I was too exasperated not to carry the thing farther, — too exasperated to see that he was making me carry it farther.
“Shall I show you ?” I said. “Unless it is a jest ? ”
“No,” he answered, after a moment’s deceptive deliberation, “it is n’t.”
“Then tie the horses, and come with me.”
We dismounted, and he led them aside into the shadow of the wood, and bent boughs to fasten the reins to. Then he turned to me, his hand on his horse’s neck.
“I know a place,” he said.
I followed him into a sun-spangled hollow sunk in a cedar wood. Here he stopped and pulled off his coat and looked at me.
It was a dare.
“Get down,” I said.
He knelt at once, his hands together above him against an old cedar trunk. The late sun struck through on his bare head and his obstinate shoulders. Suddenly I understood that he had brought me to one of those temples created by youth from the beauty of nature and the sadness of life. What piteous yieldings, what hard self-appraisements, had my boy not endured in this quiet place. Touched, softened, I crossed to him quickly and put my hand over his.
“Get up,” I said. “You know I can’t.”
He did not move. I heard his heart beating in the silence as I stooped and put my arm around him.
At that he stirred, his eyes lifted to mine, and I comprehended with a shock, what I had not known before, that Youth could sometimes crave pain, as Hunger craves bread.
I stood thinking. “David,” I said, at last, “this — this is not a man’s penalty. You have no right to give me the right. And — dear, dear fellow, you have not thought, have you, that it is cowardly to run to brute pain to escape the punishment of your own thoughts?”
A flame of shame wrapped him.
“Father!” he cried out to me.
He flung himself away from me to the ground, and I plunged, stumbling, from the sound that pursued me. It was very low, it was cruelly controlled, but I heard it a long time.
It was dark when he came home. I did not expect him before. I had known that he could not bear the sunlight of that day again.
With the sound of his feet running up the stairs that other sound receded and died.
Within the hour he came down, fresh from a bath, his hands filled with proofs to be corrected for the morning’s mail, and sat on the steps at my knees under the red porch lantern. When he had worked a while, he turned to me.
“Why, father,” he said. The look, wholly loving, wholly beautiful, deepened in his eyes. He caught my hands in a nervous, cramping grip.
“You can’t get hurt all by yourself, Davie,” I explained.
His look changed to an entreaty.
“But I can’t promise,” he said desperately. “I might lie to you.”
I do not know what he read in my eyes of bitter helplessness, and hopelessness, and tormented pride, and wounded love, but he turned white under the red light, and dropped his head in his arms on my knee.
After a long time I slid a hand in his.
“I ask nothing, Davie,” I said.
Other times she met him. Perhaps she planned to meet him. She will never tell. But this is the truth, that he never planned to meet her. This chronicles that morning she went trespassing in his father’s chestnut wood, and found him filling the pockets of his hunting-coat with the first fallen nuts. He emptied them in her little ridingcap. She was blushing, laughing, protesting. A wavy, brown braid of hair swung to her bending waist. She looked about fourteen, perched on her little English saddle.
“The fence was down,” she explained.
“The gates are open,” he answered, orientally polite.
“Ours are, too, but” — She waved a hand of negation.
He looked at her stubbornly.
“I’ve been reading your new book,” she said, with a smiling retreat from the impasse.
“What did you read in it, Narcissa?”
“The only you that makes any difference, Davie,” she said.
Then, quite suddenly, with strange unexpectedness to them both, the tears sprang to her brown, laughing eyes, her lips trembled, she hid her face in her little brown gauntlets, and the cap tilted so that her nuts ran pattering to the carpet of dead leaves. Then she blushed. All that he could see of her sweet face and throat turned to scarlet, agonizing and intense. She was shrinking.
“Girl,” he said, “I worship you.”
It was the unimprisoned star to the man set free. It was the rain to the lilies of the drouth. It was the rippling of freed waters after the half circle of Arctic night. Whatever is most beautiful, whatever the soul would die without — it was this. And it was what he had to do. It makes no difference that he yearned to do it. He never would have done it, if she had not blushed. But he, too, had known an engulfing shame,—had known it helplessly, — had not borne it without crying out. How, then, could he bear this for her ? All the chivalry in his heart sprang to her rescue, and turned that blush to a glory. But he did not move, and his hands were shut tight behind him.
When hers fell slowly, she met a gaze so long, so deep, so humble, that her shame and her shyness fled. She straightened up like a young princess who had found it needful for her soul’s content to confer a favor.
“Come here, Davie,” she said.
When he stood at her stirrup she swung toward him a little, and put her arm around his neck, and for just a second he felt her soft cheek pressed against his head. His hands slowly unclenched, and lifted, and closed over hers.
“I think I am going to behave myself, Narcissa,” he said.
She did not answer. He looked up and caught her eyes, already condoning, forgiving, loving, no matter what he did. Already the mother love, curled full flowered in every woman’s heart, had shot up to the sun, — that dear, demoralizing divineness of affection never tobe wearied.
Most men impose on it; but to a creature of Dave’s temperament it was the one thing that shamed him most perfectly. He had been too young when she died ever to have realized it in his mother; but when mothers die, fathers are sometimes given that love, and once he had surprised it in his own father’s eyes. “I ask nothing, Davie,” he had said with that look. And now she was bending it on him.
He kissed her little hands in the silence that fell. What words were fit to break it?
When he looked up again she had reddened sweetly.
“Now I am going,” she said, “but you must stay.”
Before he could reply she was vanishing between the trees, and he was standing alone among the scattered nuts. Smiling a little, he stooped and gathered them back to his pockets. He would give them to her nest time.
I met papa at the gap. This is not astonishing, as I had left the house with him. Only, when he went to drive a stray colt from the pasture I ran away to Dave’s chestnut wood. Of course I know it is really Uncle Dolph’s wood.
Papa was angry. He was even as angry as he ever gets with me.
“ Where have you been ? ” he demanded, without a trace of that courtesy which the sisters say is just as much due your own daughter as a perfect stranger.
“I have been with Davie, papa.”
“Does he ask you to meet him in this way ?” said papa. He turned Ashcake’s head into the gap.
“No,” I said. “It’s entirely accidental — to Davie — As for me, I did n’t know he was there. I only hoped so.”
“Then,” said papa in an outrageously insulting way, — I was glad the sisters could n’t hear him, for they admire him greatly, — “I am to infer that you love a man who does not love you?”
“He adores me,” I cried, coloring furiously.
The tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Oh, he has proposed, then?”
“I made him do it. He never would have.”
Papa began swearing.
“Papa,” I said, “don’t you know Davie is a gentleman?”
He would n’t answer me.
“ And don’t you suppose the sisters did their duty by me for ten years ? ”
“I hope so,” he said grimly.
“ Then listen to me the right way, and I will tell you everything. It’s not much.”
He cooled down, and began to look more worried than angry.
“Papa,” I said, “we loved each other when we were little, and when we met in May we knew at once that the love had been growing up with us, though we had hardly seen each other for so long. And then Davie would not come to see me, and sometimes I met him when I rode in the morning, and once he happened to come to cousin Aline’s when I was there. This morning only makes seven times that I have seen my Davie all summer. He never, never tried to see me. He thought he ought not to. This morning was my fault, but it all came so unexpectedly. He had to tell me. I would have died if he had not. He is the only man in the world who can make me miserable, and he is the only man in the world who can make me happy, and I do not believe he will ever make me miserable.”
“Poor little fool!” said papa.
But I did not mind. Old people always call young ones that, I notice, when they get beyond them in any way, and at least he was not angry any longer. I was glad of that, for just then Davie strolled toward the gap. He set his lips a little when he saw us, but came straight forward, and stood just within his side of the fence by Ashcake’s neck.
“ Were you coming over, Uncle Miles ? ” he asked.
“No,” said papa, just so. He sat and looked at Davie, and Davie looked at him, and I could have screamed, they made me so nervous. I did n’t notice papa’s face, but Davie’s had two looks in it that fascinated me. He looked heartbreakingly humble, and wickedly proud, and he lifted his dear eyes and let papa probe into them as if he had the right. Once he blushed so that it must have hurt him, and once he got white, but he would not look away until papa was through with him,— my boy, my own boy.
“ No,” said papa at last, holding out his hand, “but I want you to come home with us, Dave.”
Now, I wish the sisters could have heard that.
“Hello, Miles,” I called. But he was coming toward me, so I stopped.
“Well,” he said, with a foot on my wheel. “The children have settled it.”
“You don’t mean—Dave?”
“But I do.”
“You can’t want it, Miles,” I said. “I couldn’t bear for my boy to make your girl unhappy. And no matter what he does or is, I shan’t change to him.”
“I don’t know that I should, myself, Dolph,” said Miles with a vexed air. “I love the fellow.”
“But you can’t want it?”
“No, I do not want it — but what can I do ? Could n’t we trust him ?”
“Frankly, I think that what Dave does not do for me he cannot do for any one.”
“He is doing it for you now, is n’t he?”
“How long will it last?” Then I said bitterly, “He has lied to me about this.”
“Then you knew?”
“Yes. He had taken some little photographs of her as a child — some Lucy used to have — to put on his desk. One day when I was upstairs I noticed them, and he told me he cared — but he did not mean to tell her. He did not hesitate to promise me not to, — under existing conditions, at least.”
Miles looked away. I could have sworn he was embarrassed.
“What did you say to them ?”
“I told him that if he stayed sober the rest of the year he could have her. She shall go stay with Mona till then. She was going anyway, before this thing came up. If he can’t do it, why, she may as well be miserable without him as with him, and it won’t last so long.”
I looked up at the old red house, lonely in its grove of oak. I wanted Dave’s life to be completed, and I loved the little Narcissa, and I knew that two men and a housekeeper do not make a home; but already a vague jealousy tormented me. And then, — I am ashamed that such a thought could ever have given me comfort for the hundredth part of a second,— then it came to me that it was not likely Dave could do it, and I felt better.
Miles took himself off with that last speech, and I was free to drive on with my thoughts. When I left the trap at the stable they were still busy with the fact that Dave had broken his word to me. I frowned involuntarily when I saw him making toward me.
“Make haste,” he called, “and we can get a look at the white caps before the rain catches us.”
Then I noticed that the day had turned dark, and a storm was blowing in from the water. He caught my shoulder and hurried me along to the shelving bank overhanging the beach.
“Is n’t it fine ?” he shouted in my ear.
I looked and saw a million white feathers of foam scudding across a sheet of steel forty miles wide. The wind was rocking us on our feet. Dave clutched my arm, and I echoed his thrill of excitement. His brown hair tossed wildly, his eyes were sparkling, his lips curled in a smile of pleasure. He was so absolutely unconscious and happy that my grievance came back to me, and glancing around he surprised it in my face.
He looked a question and I nodded.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a lull of the wind, “I meant to tell you, myself.”
His look coaxed me. “ It is so perfectly different,” he said at last.
At that the white wall of rain moving over the water fell on us, and we turned and ran.
Ten minutes later he came in to me, half dressed, and pulled me down by him on the side of my bed.
“Father,” he said, “don’t think that I shan’t always love you better than any one in the world.”
For the first time in many years I saw his eyes fill with tears.
“No, you must love her best, Davie,” I said, ashamed of myself at last.
“I worship my girl,” he cried with an irradiating glow. “I must, to have lied to you for her.” But he did not look ashamed. “ Only, my love for you is quite different. It means all my life to me. It means the love I would have given my mother if she had not died. It means,” he said, with his slow flush, “that you have forgiven me a thousand times.”
A week later Narcissa took away my last hurt.
She had ridden over to say good-by.
“Davie wanted to bring me with him yesterday,” she said, “but I meant to see you alone, Uncle Dolph, — to explain something.”
She looked at me timidly. I took her hand, and made her sit down on the porch bench by me.
“Papa told me that you were hurt because Davie broke his word to you — about me. I came to tell you that — I made him. I did n’t mean to; but I knew he loved me, and he could n’t help seeing that I was miserable because he would n’t tell me so. He had to do it,” she whispered, blushing piteously.
“And a good thing he did,” I said, though I did n’t know yet whether it was or not. Then I kissed her, and she grew confiding, and put me to confusion by begging for some photographs of Dave when he was a little boy.
“You have n’t any ?” she said incredulously. “ Why, I’ve seen them myself” —
“They were burned — accidentally,” I explained quickly, with a half truth to offset the half lie.
“Oh, and I’ve been thinking about them all week! He has mine,on his desk.”
Then she rose to go.
“I wish I did n’t have to go away,” she said wistfully. “Do you think I must?”
“Yes,” I said, blushing for my own. “It’s best.”
“You know how sweet he is,” she said, as I lifted her to her saddle, “ I could n’t help loving him, could I?”
Just then Dave rode around the corner of the lawn, and we started guiltily.
He stopped beside Narcissa, and handed her her neglected reins with the air of performing an established ceremony.
“I was just on my way to you. You said nine.”
“But I meant eight,” she declared gravely. She looked at me smilingly.
“Oh, if it’s a secret,” said Dave.
“Yes, it is,” said Narcissa. She leaned down, kissed me, and they rode off together.
Coming in, I found Dave lying on the floor under the fireplace window, scribbling on his eternal little square tablet with a stubby fountain pen.
I dropped in a chair. “Perhaps I ’ll get an evening at home,” I said. “I hope so — I’ve some cases to look up. Well, Dave — any flattering things this week ? ”
He indicated a medley of letters and reviews on my desk, — I drew the letters over to me. Some I read with a smile of pleasure, others with a busy man’s irony. Two were from rather silly women who wrote, one from a much older writer of stories, the others from editors, enclosing checks, or asking contributions.
Presently I pushed them away, and contemplated Dave with a luxurious sense of wonder. That a fellow of twenty-six should get famous, almost rich, in two years, by doing what he would have been miserable not to do, while all around him men worked like dogs, and died poor and unsatisfied, was too much of a fairy tale to fit in with life as I had found it for fifty years.
“Pretty good,” I said, tapping a letter from a big editor.
“But I like this best.”
“Yes,” I assented without enthusiasm.
I had, in truth, somewhat resented the paternal tone adopted by its middle-aged author. I began on my own letters, and Dave went back to his pad.
The autumn fire had been replenished, and the lamps lighted, and no call had come.
“This is the real thing,” I said, getting up to pull over my books. “I wish I had more such evenings. Dave, stop ruining your eyes. Go to the light.”
He stood up, stretching his cramped arms.
“ Can’t I read something to you — take notes or something ? You said you had cases to look up.”
“Can’t collaborate — I wish I could. No, go back to your stuff.”
“That’s a disrespectful way to speak of epoch-making fiction,” he observed, with a sparkle in his eye.
I laughed. “Dave,” I said, “it can never be anything but absurd to me. It’s perfectly true about the prophets, old fellow, and you ’re on your own hearthrug.”
Dave laughed this time.
“What a fraud you are, dad,” he said, falling to work. “ What becomes of my reviews ? Answer me that.”
I smiled, and came back to him.
“I suppose you hoard them up,” I said barefacedly.
It was midnight when I pushed my chair back and thought of bed. Dave was moving restlessly about the room, taking out a book here and there, or drumming on the doors of the cases. After watching him a minute, I called, “Don’t fidget. You worry me.”
“I beg your pardon, father,” he said with a start. He came over and lay on the rug in the shadow of the desk, with an arm thrown above his head, his hand holding to the rung of my old hickory arm chair.
“Again, Dave?” I asked downheartedly; “but why?”
He hesitated a little. “I sound like a baby,” he said at last. “Well, my horse came down with me Saturday in a posthole some fool had left. I was stunned for the moment, and old Bob Carter got scared, and emptied a brandy flask down my throat.”
“ Well, he was another fool. Don’t you be a third.” Then I said presently, in the interests of science, “Why is it so hard for you not to be ? ”
“Father,” said Dave, carefully selecting a figure of speech, “when it gets so you are one, it’s like being without water in an alkali desert.”
I had no other question to ask. After a silent half hour, I rose, and stood looking down on him.
“ Well, I ’ll get some sleep. See that the fire is safe when you come up.”
“I’ll go now.”
At the door of my room he hesitated, after he had said good-night.
“You can come in,” I said, smiling in spite of myself.
Two hours later I woke with a start, and reached out my hand. It touched his poor, clenched fist. I rose to my elbow and lit the lamp on the table. He lay flat on his back, staring up with unseeing eyes.
The sweat of the battle drenched him. His hands were clenched, and his teeth were clenched, and he drew breath dumbly.
“Don’t you sleep, Davie?” I asked, sick at heart. He shook his head.
“This is three nights,” he said, speaking softly. “Don’t bother, father, I’ll go to my own room now.”
“No, stay.” I left him a moment. When I came back, I took his hand and began rolling up his sleeve. “You must n’t get this way, you know,” I said, in my most professional tone.
He looked at me, and drew his arm away.
The movement was so absolute in its negation that I dared not dispute it.
“Oh, I know I should n’t,” I said, putting up the needle, “but it might tide you over. Then I can do nothing?”
“You’ve done everything,” he said, “only it’s up to me, now. I must know what I’m about, must n’t I ?”
“Yes, dear fellow,” I said, as I had said it before.
He turned over and covered his face with his arm, and I lowered the light.
As I did so, the office ’phone clanged startlingly through the house.
When I returned from answering it, he was sitting up.
“ Yes, I ’ll have to go,” I said. “ It’s an accident. Dress quickly, — I ’ll need you. ”
Not until we were driving rapidly across the country did he ask, “ What is it ?”
“A washout. Number 3 rolled down a bank into a creek. People are killed.”
He began to speak, then stopped, took the reins, and we went faster than before.
There is not much difference in bad night wrecks. Darkness, pain, and death, and a bewilderment of horror among the living, all in one black confusion, lit here and there by a train lantern.
Twenty were dead, half a hundred injured. I was glad to have Dave along, for he had sense enough to do the best thing without being told. Nothing of the sort had ever come his way before, and I saw that he looked pretty white over it, but he did not fail me, and I soon forgot about him.
After we had worked among the ruins some hours, but before all had been rescued, I felt a touch on my arm.
“Is Davie here?” whispered a little ghost in a gray kimono.
“Good God!” I exclaimed, “where did you come from, child?”
“Iwas coming home for Thanksgiving. I think I have been fainting in the sleeper. I can’t remember.”
“Did Dave know you were coming?”
“Of course. Where is he?”
“He is helping somewhere,” I answered, peering around in the confusing dawn light.
At length I saw him stooping over a man who had been carried up on a nearby bank. As I looked, he placed his hat over the man’s face, and turned away.
“Dave,” I called.
He came to me quickly, looking like a ghost himself.
“We can spare you now,” I said. “I see the nurses and doctors from town are overthere. You must getNarcissa home.”
He took her in his arms as she stood trembling.
“I thought you were dead,” he said.
She clung to him in a dazed silence, and he lifted her into the trap.
“But you?” he asked.
“Come back for me. Don’t wait. The child’s sick with it all.”
He sprang up by her, and put his coat around her shoulders.
At that she looked questioningly at her queer silk robe and half-bare arms.
“I am cold,” she said, “but it is n’t really cold, is it?”
“No, dear,” said Dave.
“Then I’ll keep your coat, Davie.”
She sat quite silent a moment, then she looked at us.
“When I came to you, Uncle Dolph, I passed some women holding a little girl. She was screaming — she was dying. She was calling her mother. And her mother lay dead in her dead husband’s arms ten feet away. I —I don’t hear her now,” she said.
She hid her face in her hands. “The children, Davie,” she sobbed aloud, “the poor little children !”
Dave looked at me blindly. Then he put his free arm around her, and the horse started off.
He was back long before I could leave. Night had fallen again as we drove home, having done our best. The past night seemed so remote when my mind reverted to it that it was difficult to think of it as affecting the present, yet I said, —
“You’ll sleep to-night, Dave.”
“Yes,” he answered absently. Then he turned to me in the darkness.
“Father,” he said, with a backward gesture, “when you see that for the first time — women like those you love — men like yourself — children even ” — he stopped short that he might not cry out, like Narcissa. “ When you’ve been in the glare of death for fourteen hours, if it does n’t make you blind, why, you don’t grope any longer. Your way of life lies plain without any coward’s alternative,— the way you’ve got to go.” He paused. “Even love has n’t been illuminating enough,” he said slowly. “It took death to make me understand that I must not hurt love — that I must not. ... I could die of shame.”
I found his hand in the dark, and it clung to mine.
“I may want to,” he said, “I want to now — but I shan’t. Don’t you ever waste a thought on it again, father.”