JOHN VANCE had not a grain of malice in his make-up, and he was almost extravagantly fond of young Pruyn. But when a brilliant man has worked for fifteen years at his chosen profession and has failed of recognition except in a limited circle, it is hard for him to believe in the reality of a success that happens over-night to a boy just out of college. “It’s nothing but youth and animal spirits,” he warned Hudson Pruyn. “The public likes you immensely, just as I do; but youth won’t last, and you must put foundations under your work if you don’t want your house that you built in a day to tumble down about your ears.”
Pruyn only laughed good-naturedly, and went on writing stories that were snapped up by the magazines, and novels for which publishers contended. He had an unbounded admiration for Vance, as a man with more brains and more heart than any other man he knew, and with a style that illuminated every subject he touched; but, considering himself only an ordinary young fellow, who had made a lucky hit by writing just as he felt about things that he liked, he could not quite see how he could combine with his own happy-go-lucky ease the careful art of a man who was, immeasurably, his intellectual superior.
“What I write is n’t art, I know perfectly well,” he assured his friend. “It’s nothing but happen-so. But there’s no harm in it; I like to do it, people like to read it, the publishers like to pay for it; so we’re all happy.”
Vance labored to prove to him that a man’s lifework must be taken seriously. “You have gifts to thank the gods for,” he insisted; “but if you play with them, they will burst like soap-bubbles. You have never had to grind; you follow habitually the line of the least resistance, and your fatal facility” —
“You have the descent to Avernus in your worrying old mind,” Pruyn interrupted. “But you need n’t fear for me. All my tastes lie in the other direction.”
“I don’t fear anything for you but superficiality,” Vance returned gravely. “I want you to be a man, not a trifler. How many gushing notes have you received in the last week ? How many teas and dinners have you attended? How many sentences of real literature or sound sense have you read ? How much hard thinking have you done ? You have galloped over a sufficient number of pages with your fountain pen. You have galloped a sufficient number of miles on horseback to keep you in good condition. You have spent the rest of your time as if Heaven had not blessed you with brains.”
“I have spent a lot of time with you and the other fellows,” Pruyn reminded him. “As much time as you were willing to waste on me. If you were n’t all so confoundedly busy, I’d be with you all the time. Do you think I don’t know the difference between men and triflers ? Do you think I would n’t go in for art if I had it in me ? I believe that you fellows that would starve before you would paint a picture or write a page that does n’t seem to you true are the salvation of this materialistic age. But the trouble with me is that I don’t know whether things are true or not. I don’t know how I write. I do it just as I ride or swim or row or golf. I play the most unscientific game of golf imaginable; but I get there with as few strokes as most fellows, and I get the good out of it.”
“Fatal facility again. Boyish cocksureness. Unbounded nerve. Combine purpose with it, and you would soon find yourself using your brain as well as your spinal cord. But the brain has a way of atrophying if it is not given sufficient exercise.”
Vance’s strictures seemed to glide over the surface of Pruyn’s easy good-humor; but in reality they penetrated much deeper than Vance suspected. Vance and his group of writing and painting friends were little less than heroes to the prosperous young romancer, who would have done anything in his power to make himself one of them. But no way opened, and he continued to write breezy stories of breathless adventure and rapid wooing, in which the ingredients were always the same, but so charmingly varied in proportions that each was hailed by the press as “highly original, like all Mr. Pruyn’s work.”
“He’s such a lovable fellow, confound him!” Vance said to himself fiercely, “ that he can’t help writing lovable books. But one of these days he will be a man, with nothing to take the place of his boyishness.”
Whatever criticisms might be made upon them, Pruyn’s books were a boon to a hard-worked public, grown impatient of problem-novels and depressing realism. Young people liked them because they glorified youth. Middle-aged men and women liked them because they carried them into an impossibly hopeful world. Buoyant optimism radiated from every page; the optimism of buoyant health and bounding spirits. The more Vance saw of him, the more he delighted in his native endowment, and the more he lamented his headlong thoughtlessness. “ You have only one subject, only one style,” he reiterated. “When you have rung all the changes on it, what will you do ? The public is a fickle entity, given to rebounding in exact proportion to the bound. It has jumped at your work, undoubtedly; but the time is almost due for this comment: ‘I don’t know whether I have read this book or not, but it does n’t matter. When you have read one you have read them all.’”
“Do you honestly think that I can’t write a story that you would not recognize?” Pruyn asked, suddenly.
“I honestly do. But I should be glad to have you prove me wrong. If you can write a story that will be accepted under an assumed name by a reputable magazine, and that I shall fail to pick out from a pile of a dozen magazines, you will make me happier than you have ever done yet in your amiable life.”
“Reduce your pile of magazines to three, and I’ll still make you happy,” Pruyn said confidently.
Vance smiled at what he called “the youngster’s bluff,” and forgot the promise.
The Christmas magazines vied with one another in number and variety of stories. Pruyn whirled in upon Vance one evening with three uncut magazines in his hand. “Now, old man,” he said, “it’s a tug of war between your sagacity and my originality. You have the reputation of being the most unerring judge of style in New York city. One of the stories in these three magazines is mine. About half of them are by well-known writers.
I defy you to pick mine out of the other ten. I’m sorry to take your time, but I want to make you happy.”
“It won’t take long,” Vance responded cheerfully. “You cut the other two while I look through this one. It’s only a matter of a glance at each.”
He ran through the magazines rapidly. There were all varieties of stories, one or two on Pruyn’s subject, but none in his style. “See here, young man!” Vance said at last. “You thought you could bluff me into saying that one of these ‘unknown-writer’ stories is yours, but you can’t do it! There’s nothing of yours here.”
“Honestly, there is,” Pruyn assured him. “I have the editor’s affidavit in my pocket. I knew you would n’t believe me. I don’t mind telling you just which magazine it’s in. It’s that one. Now pick mine out from those four new writers, and even after giving you all those odds I’ll acknowledge myself beaten.”
Yance read the four stories carefully. “There’s not one of them,” he decided, “that sounds like you. If you really wrote one, of course I’m beaten. This story has something of your spirit, — I suppose it must be yours, — but the style is incredibly different. They are all passable stories, as stories go. The only really remarkable one is this autobiographical affair by Eleanor Field, whoever she may be. It takes a woman to do a thing like that. There’s a touch of genius in it. It may be only a spontaneous confession, as it purports to be; but if it is really a bit of creative work we must expect something of that young woman, — of course she’s young. I shall keep my eye on her. Did you do this heroic rescue ? ”
“Then it lies between this Oriental story and the South African one, and I can’t imagine how you got the local color for either. The ‘ Eleanor story ’ is out of the question. You couldn’t have done that feminine thing.”
“I did it,” Pruyn said calmly.
“What!” Vance cried, springing to his feet. “On your honor?”
“Here’s Hadley’s note,” Pruyn answered. “When the story was accepted, I went to Hadley, and told him all the circumstances, and proved property, and asked for this note. He was as surprised as you are.”
“Hudson Pruyn,” Vance said solemnly, shaking the young fellow in his excitement, “you’re a genius! If you can do things like that,do them! I don’t mean do feminine things, but use the insight that God has given you. Put thought into your work, — not merely good digestion and good temper. Study situations different from your own. Study people. Work on your stories as you have worked on this! ”
Pruyn laughed. “I didn’t work on it. It was as easy as rolling down hill.”
“I give it up,” Vance answered. “You’re beyond me. But at any rate, aim at variety, and study life.”
Letters written in an unfamiliar feminine hand and forwarded by his publishers were no novelty to Pruyn ; but the first letter addressed to “ Miss Eleanor Field” gave him a distinct sensation. It came from far-away Illinois, and he read it in a sort of helpless daze.
“My dear Miss Field” (the letter began): —
“ I have read your story over and over again, hardly able to believe that I was not dreaming. It seems incredible that you should know what no one else has understood. I cannot tell you what a load has been taken off my mind. The displeasure of my family, the wonder of my friends, the bitterness of his friends, have seemed to set me in a cold isolation, as if I were a thing apart from the human race. Of course, that is exaggeration. No one has really treated me badly. But to be wondered at for a whole year makes one feel as if one must be abnormal. The magic of your story is that, though the girl did exactly what I did, no one who reads it can help feeling that she was right, though her friends thought, like mine, that she was wrong. It is a horribly lonely thing to follow your own instincts and go your own way, when it leads away from what everybody expects of you.
“When I read your story I felt like my old self again, back in the sunshine of fellow feeling. ‘How did she know?’ I keep asking myself, and at last I have mustered up courage to ask you. It means so much to me that I am sure you will forgive my presumption. It seems impossible that you should understand if you have not lived through it. On the other hand, if you have been through it, it seems just as impossible that you could write about it. I have never been able even to try to explain. Perhaps I should not wonder that people misunderstood. But I thought my friends ought to know me well enough to believe that there must be some good reason. It was just as you said in your story, I felt what I could not prove. I know I am taking a great liberty with a stranger, but I cannot feel that you are a stranger. Please tell me how you understood. Did it happen to you ? Then you, too, are perplexed and lonely. I cannot help thanking you for what you have done for me.
“ Sincerely yours,
Pruyn threw down the letter, and took a turn about the room in irrepressible excitement. He had had no thought but of writing a story that should convince Vance. He had put out a bold, unthinking hand, and had touched life. How had he done it? He had heard girls talk,and in the story he had talked like one of them; no one in particular that he knew, but a girl who seemed to rise before him as real as life. He had known men, handsome, brilliant, attractive, social favorites, but unworthy to enter the presence of a girl like that. He had written, critics said, a marvelous story, an unconscious revelation of the innocent heart of a girl. The story was told in the girl’s words, but the reader saw both her and the man from whom she slipped away with eyes of widening incredulity. “ Who is Eleanor Field ? ” had been asked on all sides; but the editor and Vance had loyally kept the secret. And now the question had come from a human heart, and must be answered.
Pruyn was not accustomed to hesitation. He wrote with headlong haste, in his line literary hand: “No, it did not happen to me, but I seemed to understand. I have never been engaged, I have never even been really in love; but I have a habit of writing stories, and sometimes my pen tells me things that I did not know before. I have a friend who thinks I ought to study harder and work harder. I am sure he is right. Writing is too easy for me. I sat down one day and thought about the girls I knew, and this girl came to me, and her story, and I wrote it out in a straightforward way. She is different from any girl I know, different from me, yet I feel that she is real. Some of my friends talk a lot about never writing anything but what they feel to be true. I never knew what they meant. I wrote for the sake of the story, and I never knew whether it was true or not. But when I wrote this story I knew that it was true, and I’m going to try to see if I can’t have that feeling again. If the girl I wrote about is really vou — I wish I could see you.”
He hesitated for a moment, and then signed himself “Eleanor Field.” “There’s no help for it,” he said. “ How would she feel if she knew she had been opening her heart to a brute of a man ? ”
Of course he did not expect an answer; but he caught himself watching for the mail with an eagerness he had not known since the early days of his success. The answer came promptly: —
“ I think you are wonderful. It seems so easy to you, — you do not understand how you do it; but it is because you are just made of sympathy. And genius, — you must have that, too. Perhaps genius is nothing more than perfect sympathy. Some writer says that. I have been reading a great deal since I have felt so out of touch with other people, and I have found many things that have helped me. I know we ought not to crave sympathy,—I know that such a feeling is weakening, — but I have not known before how I have longed for it. I don’t mean pity. I mean understanding. I have thought so many times how easy life would be, no matter how hard it was, if only those we care the most for understood.
“I am ashamed to say these things. Nobody ever had a better father than I have, — so tender, so considerate. My mother has always taken the best of care of me in other ways, looking after my clothes and my education and my social advantages. She has sacrificed herself for me, and for us all. She cares for my happiness, but she thought she knew better than I what would make me happy. My brother and sister are devoted to me, but they are ambitious. Of course they would n’t have wanted me to marry any one objectionable; but they could n’t understand how a man with so many advantages could be objectionable. It was very slowly that I came to feel it, — I was dazzled at first. But I know now that whether people have money and position and beautiful things does n’t matter. The only thing in the world that really matters is what people are. I feel now that I shall never marry. Wliat a man is would mean too much to me. I should not expect him to be faultless, but he must be the kind that you cannot help trusting, and I must know that he feels as I do, that the one thing that counts is what people are. I don’t expect ever to meet a man like that.
“Of course with you it is different. You must know a great many men who care for the things that are really worth while; and I’m sure they can’t help admiring you. But I am not specially goodlooking, not specially bright, only, for some reason, ‘over-particular,’ as people say. But everything seems different, now that I know that you are in the world, and that you understand. I am going to try to be like you. Other people have their troubles, and I can sympathize with them instead of feeling lonely and misunderstood. What else have you written ? I have looked through the back numbers of all the magazines at the library, and I cannot find anything else of yours. I know you must be too busy to write to me, but you are so good that somehow I feel that you will write again. I should love to know all about you, — how you look, and how you live, and what you do. If I did not live so far away I should hope to see you. Do you ever come West ? ”
There seemed to be no help for it. “Eleanor Field” explained that she had never written anything else but trash, — “pot-boilers,”— but that, now that the start had been made, other true things would be written.
“Who is Eleanor Field?” became a common question among students of current literature. The first impression of girlish sweetness and beauty was deepened as the new writer gained in force without losing fineness. Vance watched Pruyn with growing wonder. Had he, after all, that inexplicable something called genius which must make its own laws ? Pruyn was now working strenuously, resisting the temptation to be a ladies’ lion. “What has happened to the boy?” Vance’s friends asked. “His stories now are more than entertaining. They are getting to be the real thing.”
Vance made noncommittal answers, but he puzzled in silence over the question. Something was evidently worrying Pruyn. “It’s a woman, of course!” Vance growled to himself. “He must learn by experience, like the rest of us. It’s only what I wanted for him, — that he should grow up, — and now that it has come I complain! I wanted him to learn without having to suffer; but I suppose that is n’t nature’s way.”
He tried to talk to Pruyn about his work; but the expansive young fellow had grown curiously reserved. He expressed dissatisfaction with everything he had done. The first of June he was going out to the coast, possibly to Alaska,— anywhere to forget that he had ever written a line. In the fall, perhaps, he would be ready to begin a novel with something in it.
The chief interest — and torment — of Pruyn’s life was his correspondence with Margaret Warner. He had started on it unthinkingly, almost inevitably, telling himself that every letter would be the last. But one thing had led to another. He could not disappoint the girl’s faith in her unknown friend; he could not cut himself off from the most vital relation he had ever known. A dozen times he had taken up his pen to explain; a dozen times he had laid it down in self-disgust. How could he tell her that he had abused her confidence ? For himself, no self-inculpating confession, no condemnation, could be too severe; but why must she suffer for his thoughtlessness ? He could divine the place this friendship had taken in the girl’s life. He knew her as he had never known any other human being; a fine-fibred, reserved girl, keeping to herself her feelings, her thoughts, her perplexities, until his curious divination of her story had opened the flood-gates of her confidence. She trusted her unknown friend with a faith that he had accounted among the fables of poetry and romance. Life had become to him unspeakably sacred since he had looked into the clear depths of that girl’s heart. His own trifling interests and ambitions had shriveled into nothingness before the steady flame of her desire to live a worthy life.
Yet all this beautiful confidence had been built upon a lie. He had kept as strictly to the truth as the initial deception had allowed. She complained of her friend’s indefiniteness about her personal appearance, her tastes, her every-day life. “You speak of walking along Twentythird Street, looking into the shop-windows; but you never tell me what you see that you like, or what you wear yourself. I have told you everything I have done in the last three months. But of course you have much more important things to think about. You tell me about your work and your ambitions, and nothing could interest me more. To be able to write as you do, in a wTay that makes people stronger for every-day life, that makes them see the beauty in little things, that makes them feel the sweetness of the sunshine and the open air, that makes them feel most of all the beauty of simply being as true and kind and brave as one knows how to be, — to be able to do all that, is the divinest thing in the world, and I am proud to feel that you are my friend, and that you think my interest helps you. But I cannot call up any picture of you in my mind. I only know that you understand everything, and that you can always be trusted to do the true and kind and noble thing.”
Letters like that made him writhe; but he answered with heartfelt promises to do everything possible to deserve her faith in Eleanor Field’s ability and trustworthiness. He made many desperate plans for dropping out of her life. “ Eleanor Field ” might die, leaving a last letter for Margaret Warner, which he could get Vance to send her with an explanatory note. But Vance hated lies as much as Pruyn himself, and Pruyn was unwilling to escape from the consequence of one deception by another. He might frankly confess his treachery, and accept her contempt as his fitting punishment; but he could not bear to hurt and mortify her. His concern for her overwhelmed all sense of what it would mean to live the rest of his life without a word from her. He honestly believed that if he could save her from disappointment his own feelings would not count.
One solution of the difficulty had come to him, and for the last six weeks he had been preparing for it. He had been writing of Eleanor Field’s friend, Hudson Pruyn, the novelist, “a young man who has been doing rather superficial work, but is beginning to write things that are really worth while.” Soon Eleanor Field would write of Pruyn’s coming departure for the coast, of his plan to stop in Illinois, of his desire to meet her friend Miss Warner. A little later Hudson Pruyn would arrive in Midland with a letter of introduction in his pocket. In his own person he would win her confidence. When the time was ripe he would explain; he would leave the rest to Heaven and Margaret Warner.
An innocent-looking letter shattered his hopes, and brought him face to face with himself and his predicament.
“The most wonderful thing has happened,” Margaret wrote. “My aunt in New York has written me to come and spend the month of May with her, and perhaps go to the country afterward. This is the first time she has invited me for five years, and I never expected her to ask me to visit her again. She is not very fond of young people; she is used to having everything just so. But I shall not be troublesome, and I shall be so happy to have this chance of seeing you. I know how busy you are, but perhaps you ’ll let me go with you when you go out for your walks, and I ’ll promise never to bother you when you want to write. I wonder if you will be as glad as I am. Your apartments are only a few blocks from my aunt’s house. She will be delighted to find that I know some one who will take me off her hands sometimes.”
Pruyn went up the steps of Mrs. Warner’s house, looking and feeling as if he were going to the execution of a criminal. In his easy, popular life he had never been embarrassed; but now he was paying with interest for his past immunity. With his card he sent up a note to Miss Warner from “Eleanor Field.” As he waited he caught sight of his pale face in a mirror. Even in his panic he was forced to smile at his absurdly evident discomfort.
At the first glimpse of Margaret Warner his heart, if possible, sank lower. She was no delicate, clinging creature, but a self-reliant young woman, with the beauty and ease of perfect health and poise; as different as possible from the inexperienced girl of the middle West to whose relief a chivalrous instinct had impelled his very Eastern and sophisticated young manhood.
“My aunt regrets that she cannot see you,” she added to her greeting. “She has not yet recovered from the excitement of my arrival this morning; she is not very strong, and she is accustomed to exact routine. I am so disappointed not to see Miss Field. I cannot help speaking of it. She said she had not time to explain, and that you could tell me nothing more than that she had suddenly been called out of town. Did she give you the note herself?”
“She — left it for me,” he explained. “With a — note asking me to bring it to you this afternoon. She had promised to bring me to call, and — I suppose she thought possibly you might prefer a personally delivered note to one sent by mail.”
“It was ever so good of you to come,” she said; “and I appreciate it much more than you might judge from my evident disappointment over Miss Field. Ever since she wrote me that you were a friend of hers I have hoped to meet you some time, for of course everybody knows your books. I should have recognized you anywhere. You look exactly like your pictures. Most of the girls in Midland are making collections of them.”
Pruyn stirred impatiently. “Really, you know,” he said, “I’m not at all that sort of fellow!”
Margaret Warner laughed. “I know you are not. Miss Field told me so. But anyway I should have known. I wish I knew what had happened. I hope it is n’t illness or trouble of any kind. She said I should hear from her within a week, but it’s hard to wait. Tell me about her. She says she has always known you.”
“ It’s hard to say anything about people you have always known,” he answered reluctantly. “I hardly know how she looks. I’ve never particularly noticed.”
“Then she isn’t attractive-looking?”
“Not a bit!”
A puzzled look came into Miss Warner’s eyes. “You said that as if you didn’t like her,” she suggested. “I thought you were very good friends.”
“Of course we are,” he said, with nervous haste. “ But, you see, — I know she writes better than I do, and it makes it hard for me to be fair to her.”
“That seems a strange way of looking at it,”she answered. “I should think you would admire her for that very reason. Besides, though I like her things better than yours, most people prefer yours. And you have written so much, and are so famous! I don’t know any one who had ever heard of her until last December.”
“All the best judges consider her things better than mine,” he said gloomily.
She looked at him as if he were a spoiled child. “I have always heard that writers were very sensitive,” she remarked; “but I supposed it was merely exaggerated newspaper talk. Miss Field always speaks beautifully of you.”
“If she has said anything nice about me, it was for reasons of her own!” he retorted vindictively. He could not help it; but he recognized the insanity of the remark.
“ Miss Field would never say anything that she did not mean,” she assured him, with dignified confidence. “ I have never known any one more absolutely trustworthy.”
“ Do you think you know her better than I do ? ” was on the tip of his tongue, but he checked himself in time. What a duffer he was to come here hoping to -win her confidence, and then to act like a sulky, petulant child! His friendship with Eleanor Field was his only claim to this girl’s acquaintance; but he longed to tell her that he hated Eleanor Field and all her works, even to the very sound of her name. If Margaret Warner had been clinging and dependent, he might have felt for her sake an affectionate tolerance for Eleanor Field; but he could not imagine this clear-eyed, level-headed girl wasting any tears and regrets over a woman who had never existed. On the other hand, he could imagine her, very vividly, expending infinite scorn on a man who had deceived her; and that man, in his wrath and his disgust, he now named “Eleanor Field,” the embodiment of his idiotic thoughtlessness and sentimentality during the past four months. If only he could tell her exactly what he thought of Eleanor Field, and then fade away into the oblivion that he deserved! He felt an uncontrollable longing never to say another word to Margaret Warner that was not absolutely true.
“I’m afraid I’m in rather a bad humor to-day,” he said. “I hope you will pardon me, and believe that I am not often so disagreeable. Something happened — some personal matter — that has upset me. Won’t you go with me to-morrow morning for a walk in the Park ? I will promise to be very good, and to tell you the whole story of my acquaintance with Eleanor Field.”
She looked at his frank face, and immediately forgot his unaccountable irritability. Pie was once more her friend’s loyal friend.
He strode away, drawing deep breaths of relief. He had forsworn every variety of lie and prevarication. She might hate him, despise him, break her heart over a vanished illusion; that would be his punishment. But nothing mattered in comparison with the sacredness of the truth between him and her. It would have been so easy to answer her first letter with a. frank explanation. Then all this snarl of deception would have been avoided, and whatever they had been to each other since, little or much, would have been honest. His thoughtless romanticism had made him as untrue in life as Vance had said he was in his work.
As they strolled toward the Park the next morning, Margaret cast curious glances at the genial young man who had been so transformed since her first sight of him. The light in his eyes, the glow on his face, his self-reliant carriage, gave him the aspect of a conquering hero. She could not know that he was the leader of a forlorn hope, going into battle with colors flying and drums beating and a heart for any fate except dishonor. In times of danger Pruyn usually found himself strangely exhilarated, and now he talked and laughed as if he had never known worry in all his light-hearted life. Margaret caught the contagion of his youthful spirits.
“How strange this seems!” she said, as they entered the spring glamour of the Park. “I feel as if I were walking in a dream. I have thought so often of coming here with Miss Field, — I know she comes here nearly every day, — and now I am here with you, and I don’t know where she is. Of course you’ll laugh at me, but I’ve had the queerest feeling ever since I saw you yesterday that there is n’t any Eleanor Field. Is n’t that absurd ?”
“ What makes you feel that way?”
“ How can I tell ? I felt so sure of her, — she has been so real to me, — yet you, who have known her always, seemed to have such a different idea. It really gave me a shock. But of course I understand. People who have known us longest don’t necessarily know us best. It’s so unusual to think so much of a person one has never seen that I suppose it is n’t strange that she should seem unreal, now that I am here and she is gone, — the very day I arrived!”
“Would you feel very badly if you should never hear from her again ?”
“Of course I should! You know what good friends we are! Why should you ask such an absurd question ? ”
The brightness had faded from his face. It was one thing to fling himself whole-heartedly into the tumult of battle; it was another to trample under foot the feelings of this adorable girl. Though he might, with all the ardor of an Arnold von Winkelried, gather to his own breast the fatal spear-thrusts of her scorn, he could not save her from disappointment. and humiliation. “ My only hope,” lie thought miserably, “is that she w’ill hate and despise me so intensely that she won’t have time to be disappointed until she has had time to get used to the idea.”
Margaret was waiting for his answer with wide eyes of wonder fixed on his face. “Why did I ask that question?” he stammered. “Because of what you said, I suppose, and because — my idea of Eleanor Field is very different from yours. Won’t you sit down there, and let me tell you the whole story ? ”
He had found a seat in just the right place, free from observation, but not far enough from the sound of children’s voices to give him the feeling of being alone in an awful solitude with an avenging spirit. He was no conquering hero now, but a very miserable and remorseful young man.
He began at the beginning, with his absurd success, his happy - go - lucky thoughtlessness, Vance’s warnings, his own determination to show Vance that he could do something different without half trying. He told how her letter had come and he had answered it, meaning to sign his own name, but hesitating when he remembered that she might not like to know that the letter had reached a different person from the one it had been meant for. He told of his misery as the situation became more involved, of all his empty plans to find a way out of it. He spoke of the “Eleanor Field” stories he had written for her; of the other stories he had written for her. “Everything I have done since your first letter came has been for you,” he said hopelessly. “Every thought I have had has been for you. If only I had learned to think before I got things into this wretched tangle! The only extenuating circumstance — I ask you to believe tills — is that never for one moment have I thought of anything but what would be easiest for you.”
“ You never thought of it as — being the least bit — funny?” Her voice was tremulous. He ventured to look at her. Her face was white; her eyes were turned away.
“Never!” he answered honestly. “ From the first it has been sacred. Suddenly it began to seem almost — tragic. You were placing all your confidence in an ideal that never existed except in your own mind.”
She turned her head slowly, and her clear eyes looked straight into his. He gave a sudden start as he realized that she was looking through and through the very mixed material he was made of; but in a moment he had forgotten everything except that he wanted her to know him just as he was, without a shadow of deception between them.
The color returned to her face, and she rose quickly. “It is time for me to go back,” she said. “My aunt will wonder what has become of me.”
“ You have not told me whether you can ever forgive me,” he said humbly. “You will not let me see how you feel.”
“I feel — stunned,” she said, “and — uncertain of everything. When I take a step I am not sure that I shall find any ground under my feet.”
His hand went out to her involuntarily, but lie caught it back. His eyes smarted unaccountably. “After all,” he said gently, “you — said I — understood. That was I that understood, — not somebody else.”
“If you had understood,” she returned hotly, “you would know that nothing could hurt me more than deception! — And then to let me go on — week after week — thinking that I was writing to a — person with feelings and a conscience and a sense of honor!”
“I know!” he groaned. “You can’t say anything worse about me than I think about myself. I meant well! That is the only — idiotic — excuse I can give for my idiotic conduct!”
As he tramped along unseeingly, Margaret’s fixed gaze relaxed. Her eyes wandered toward his utterly abject face and form. “Penitent” was written on the very lines of his irreproachable spring suit. The anger died out of her face. The shadow of a smile crept from her eyes to her mouth. In the spring sunshine life seemed just beginning, full of hope and joy and an overflowing sympathy. Why should people be hard and unforgiving when heaven’s blue arched over the tender green of the elms ? She had lost her friend—who had understood; — but why should she make an enemy in her place ?
“After all,” she said, “it was n’t entirely your fault. I ought to have known better than to write so freely to a stranger. ”
“But I wasn’t a stranger,” he answered eagerly. “Don’t you see? We have never been strangers!”
“I’m afraid that is nonsense,” she said softly.
But as they walked toward the Park entrance some marvelous process of adjustment was going on, which is possible only in youth and springtime. The clear, sweet air was like a solvent of misunderstanding. The Gordian knot was miraculously transformed into a tangled gossamer web, which floated away on the breeze. A load that had been accumulating for four months was lifted from Pruyn’s heart. In his relief he almost whistled, but he caught himself in time; it behooved him to walk circumspectly.
“There’s Vance!” he said suddenly. “Dear old Vance, the best man in New York! May I present him? You’ll like him. Vance! wait a minute!”
A tall man turned and came toward them. As his eyes met Margaret’s she found herself wondering how one pair of eyes could look at the same time so honest, so shrewd, so kind, and so infinitely humorous.
“I want to present you to my friend . Miss Warner,” Pruyn began. “At least, I am her friend, but I can’t get her to say that she is mine. She knows of something shabby that I did, and she won’t promise to forgive me. Speak a good word for me, won’t you ? ”
Margaret saw the look on Vance’s face as he laid his hand on Pruyn’s shoulder, and suddenly she felt herself included in a bond of undying fidelity. “Pruyn is all right!” Vance said, in his offhand way.