Children seemed to spring up from the sidewalk and descend from the roofs as his cab, after a long trip through crowded streets with which three months before he would have been totally unfamiliar, stopped at the number Ann had given. All the way over he had been seeing children: dirty children, pale-faced children, children munching at things and children looking as though they had never had anything to munch at—children playing and children crying—it seemed the children's part of town. The men and women of tomorrow were growing up in a part of the city too loathsome for the civilized man and woman of today to set foot in. He was too filled with thought of Ann—the horror of its being where she lived—to let the bigger thought of it brush him more than fleetingly, but it did occur to him that there was still a frontier—and that the men who could bring about smokeless cities—and odorless ones—would be greater public servants than the men who had achieved smokeless powder. Riding through that part of town it would scarcely suggest itself to any one that what the country needed was more battleships.
The children still waited as he rang an inhospitable doorbell, as interested in life as if life had been treating them well.
He had to ring again before a woman came to the door with a cup in her hand which she was wiping on a greasy towel.
She looked very much as the bell had sounded.
She let him in to a place which it seemed might not be a bad field for some of the army's boasted experts on sanitation. It was a place to make one define civilization as a thing that reduces smell.
Several heads were stuck out of opening doors and with each opening door a wave stole out from an unlovely life. Captain Wayneworth Jones, U. S. Army, dressed for dining at a place where lives are better protected against lives, was a strange center for those waves from lives of struggle.
"She the girl that's sick?" the woman demanded in response to his inquiry for Miss Forrest.
He replied that he feared she was ill and was told to go to the third floor and turn to the right. It was the second door.
He hesitated, coloring.
"Would you be so kind as to tell her I am here? I think perhaps she may prefer to see me—down here."
The woman stared, then laughed. She looked like an evil woman as she laughed, but perhaps a laughing saint would look evil with two front teeth gone.
"Well we ain't got no parlor for the young ladies to see their young men in," she said mockingly. "And if you climbed as many stairs as I did—"
"I beg your pardon," said he, and started up the stairway.
On the second floor were more waves from lives of struggle. The matter would be solemnly taken up in Congress if it were soldiers who were housed in the ill-smelling place. Evidently Congress did not take women and children and disabled civilians under the protecting wing of its indignation.
Wet clothes were hanging down from the third floor. They fanned back and forth the fumes of cabbage and grease. He grew sick, not at the thing itself, but at thought of its being where he was to find Ann.
Though the fact that he was to find her made all the rest of it—the fact that people lived that way—even the fact of her living that way—things that mattered but dimly.
As he looked at the woman in greasy wrapper who was shaking out the wet clothes he had a sudden mocking picture of Ann as she had been that night at the dance.
The woman's manner in staring at him as he knocked at Ann's door infuriated him.
But when the door was opened—by Ann—he instantly forgot all outside.
He closed the door and stood leaning against it, looking at her. For the moment that was all that mattered. And in that moment he knew how much it mattered—had mattered all along. Even how Ann looked was for the moment of small consequence in comparison with the fact that Ann was there.
But he saw that she was indeed ill—worn—feverish.
"You are not well," were his first words, gently spoken.
She shook her head, her eyes brimming over.
He looked about the room. It was evident she had been lying on the bed.
"I want you to lie down," he said, his voice gentle as a woman's to a child. "You know you don't mind me. I come as one of the family."
He helped her back to the bed; smoothed her pillow; covered her with the miserable spread.
Ann hid her face in the pillow, sobbing.
He pulled up the one chair the room afforded, laid his hand upon her hair, and waited. His face was white, his lips trembling.
"It's all over now," he murmured at last. "It's all over now."
She shook her head and sobbed afresh.
His heart grew cold. What did she mean? A fear more awful than any which had ever presented itself shot through him. But she raised her head and as she looked at him he knew that whatever she meant it was not that.
"What is it about Katie?" she whispered.
"Why, Ann, can't you guess what it is about Katie? Didn't you know what
Katie must suffer in your leaving like that?"
"I left so she wouldn't have to suffer."
"Well you were all wrong, Ann. You have caused us—" But as, looking into her face, he saw what she had suffered, he was silenced.
She was feverish; her eyes were large and deep and perilously bright, her temples and cheeks cruelly thin. But what hurt him most were not the marks of illness and weakness. It was the harassed look. Fear.
Fear—that thing so invaluable in building character.
Thought of the needlessness of it wrung from him: "Ann—how could you!"
"Why I thought I was doing right," she murmured. "I thought I was being kind."
He smiled faintly, sadly, at the irony and the bitter pity of that.
"But how could you think that?" he pressed. "Not that it matters now—but
I don't see how you could."
She looked at him strangely. "Do you—know?"
"Then don't you see? I left to make it easy for Katie."
He thought of Katie's summer. "Well your success in that direction was not brilliant," he said with his old dryness.
Her eyes looked so hurt that he stroked her hand reassuringly, as he would have stroked Worth's had he hurt him. And as he touched her—it was a hot hand he touched—it struck him as absurd to be quibbling about why she had gone. She was there. He had found her. That was all that mattered.
He became more and more conscious of how much it mattered. He wanted to draw her to him and tell her how much it mattered. But he did not—dared not.
"And how did you happen to be so unkind as to call me up, Ann?" he asked with a faint smile.
"I wanted—I wanted to hear about Katie. And I wanted"—her eyes had filled, her chin was trembling—"I was lonesome. I wanted to hear your voice."
His heart leaped. For the moment he was not able to keep the tenderness from his look.
"And I knew you were there because I saw it in the paper. A woman brought back some false hair to be exchanged—I sell false hair," said Ann, with a wan little smile and unconsciously touching her own hair—"and what she wanted exchanged—though we don't exchange it—was wrapped up in a newspaper, and as I looked down at it I happened to see your name. Wasn't that funny?"
"Very humorous," he replied, almost curtly.
"I had been sick all day—oh, for lots of days. But I was trying to keep on. I had lost two other places by staying away for being sick—and I didn't dare—just didn't dare—lose this one. You don't know how afraid you get—how frightened you are—when you're afraid you're going to be sick."
The fear—sick fear that fear of sickness can bring—that was in her eyes as she talked of it suddenly infuriated him. He did not know what or whom he I was furious at—but it was on Ann it broke.
He rose, overturning his unsteady chair as he did so, and, seeking command, looked from the window which looked down into a squalid court. The wretchedness of the court whipped his rage. "Well for God's sake," he burst forth, "what did you do it for! Of all the unheard of—outrageous—unpardonable—What did you mean"—turning savagely upon her—"by selling false hair?"
"Why I sold false hair," said Ann, a little sullenly, "so I could live."
"Well, didn't you know," he demanded passionately, "that you could live with us?"
She shook her head. "I didn't think I had any right to—after—what happened."
He came back to her. "Ann," he asked gently, "haven't you a 'right to'—if we want you to?"
She looked at him again in that strange way. "Are you sure—you know?"
"Very sure," he answered briefly.
"And do you mean to say you would want me—anyhow?" she whispered.
He turned away that she might not see how badly and in what sense he wanted her. His whole sense of fitness—his training—was against her seeing it then.
The pause, the way she was looking at him when he turned back to her, made restraint more and more difficult. But suddenly she changed, her face darkening as she said, smolderingly: "No—I'm not that weak. If I can't live—I'll die. Other people make a living! Other girls get along! Katie would. Katie could do it."
She sat up; he could see the blood throbbing in her neck and at her temples. She was gripping her hands. She looked so frail—so helpless.
"But Katie is strong, Ann," he said soothingly.
"Yes—in every way. And I'm not." She turned away, her face twitching. "Why I seem to be just the kind of a person that has to be taken care of!"
He did not deny it, filled with the longing to do it.
He would at one time have supposed that it would be, should be; would have held to the idea that every man and woman ought be able to make a living, that there was something wrong with them if they couldn't. But not after the things he had seen that summer. The something wrong was somewhere else.
"And yet you don't know," Ann was saying brokenly, "how hard it is. You don't know—how many things there are."
She turned to him impetuously. "I want to tell you! Then maybe it will go. I couldn't tell Katie. But I don't know—I don't know why—but I could tell you anything."
He nodded, not clear-eyed, and took one of her hands and stroked it.
Her cheeks grew more red; her eyes glitteringly bright. "You see—it's men—things like—that's what makes it hard for girls."
He pressed her hand more firmly, though his own was shaking.
"Katie told you—Katie must have told you about—the first of it—" She faltered. He drew in his breath sharply and held it for an instant. "And after that—" She turned upon him passionately. "Do they know? Does it make a difference?"
He did not get her meaning for an instant and when he did it brought the color to his face; he had always been a man of great reserve. But Ann seemed unconscious. This was the reality that realities make.
He shook his head. "No. You only imagine."
"No, I don't imagine. They pretend. Pretend they know."
He gritted his teeth. So those were the things she had had to meet!
"They lie," he said briefly. "Bluff." And for an instant he covered his eyes with her hand.
"You see after—after that," she went on, "I couldn't go back to the telephone office. I don't know that I can explain why—but it seemed the one thing I couldn't do, so—oh I did several things—was in a store—and then a girl got me on the stage—in the chorus of 'Daisey-Maisey.' I thought perhaps I could be an actress, and that being in the chorus would give me a chance."
She laughed bitterly. "There are lots of silly people in the world, aren't there?" was her one comment on her mistake.
"That night—the last night—" she told it in convulsive little jerks—"the manager said something to me. He pretended. And when he saw how frightened I was—and how I loathed him—it made him furious—and he said things—vowed things—and he kissed me—and oh he was so terrible—his face—his lips—"
She hid her face, rocking back and forth. He sat on the bed beside her, put his arm around her as he would around Katie or Worth, holding her tenderly, protectingly, soothingly, his own face white, biting his lips.
"He vowed things—he claimed—I knew I couldn't stay with the company. I was even afraid to stay until it was over that night. I had a chance to run away—Oh I was so frightened." She kept repeating—"I was so frightened.
"I can't explain it—you'd have to see him—his lips—his thick, loose awful lips!"
"Ann," he whispered. "Please, dear—don't talk about it—don't think about it!"
"But I want it to go away! I don't want to be alone with it. I want somebody to know. I want you to know."
"All right," he murmured. "All right. I want to hear." His whole body was set for pain he knew must come.
Ann's eyes were full of terror, that terror that lives after terror, the anguish of terror remembered. "It's awful to be alone with awful thoughts," she whispered. "To be shut in with something you're afraid of."
"I know—I know," he soothed her. "But you're going to tell me. Tell me. And then you'll never be alone with it again."
"I've been afraid so much," she went on sobbingly. "Alone so much—with things that frightened me. That night I was alone. All alone. And afraid. You see I went and went and went. Just to be getting away. And at last I was out in the country. And then I was afraid of that. I went in something that seemed to be a barn. Hid in some hay—"
He gripped her arm as if it were more than he could stand. His face was colorless.
"I almost went crazy. Why I think I did go crazy—with fear. Being alone. Being afraid."
He looked away from her. It seemed unfair to her to let himself see her like that—her face distorted—unlovely—in the memory of it.
"When it came daylight I went to sleep. And when I woke up—when I woke up—" She was laughing and sobbing together and it was some time before he could quiet her. "When I woke up another man was bending over me—an old man—so old—so—
"Oh, I suppose it was just that he was surprised at finding me there. But
I thought—I hadn't got over the night before—
"So again I went. Just went. Just to get away. And that was when I saw it was life I'd have to get away from. That there wasn't any place in it for me. That it meant being alone. Afraid. That it was just that—those thick awful lips—that old man's eyes—Oh no—no—not that!"
She was fighting it with her hands—trying to push it away. It took both tenderness and sternness to quiet her.
"So I hurried on,"—she told it in hurried, desperate way, as if fearful she would not get it all told and would be left alone with it. "To find a way. A place. I just wanted to find the way—the place—before anything else could happen. I thought all the people who looked at me knew. I thought there was nothing else for me—I thought there was something wrong with me—and when I remembered what I had wanted—I hated—hated them.
"I saw water—a bridge. On the bridge I looked down. I was going to—but I couldn't, because a man was looking up at me. I hated him, too." She paused. "Though I've thought of it since. It was a queer look. I believe that man knew. And wanted to help me.
"But I didn't want to be helped. Nothing could help. I just wanted to get away—have it over. So I hurried on—across your Island—though I didn't know—just looking for a place—a way. Just to have it all over."
She changed on that, relaxed. Her eyes closed. "To have it all over," she repeated in a whisper. She opened her eyes and looked up at him. "Doesn't that ever seem to you a beautiful thing?"
His eyes were wet. "Not any more," he whispered. "Not now."
"Then again I saw water—the other side of the Island." She went back to it with an effort, exhausted. "I ran. I wanted to get there. Have it all over—before anything else could happen. I couldn't look—but I kept saying to myself it would only be a minute—only a minute—then it would be all over—not so bad as having things happen—being alone—afraid—"
She shuddered—drew back—living it—realizing it. Her visioning—realizing—had gone on beyond her words, beyond the events. She was shuddering as if the water were actually closing over her. But again she was called back by Katie's voice and that look he felt he should not be seeing went as a faint smile formed on her lips. "Then Katie. Katie calling to me. Dear Katie—pretending.
"I didn't want to go. I thought it was just something else. And oh how I
wanted to get it all over!" She sobbed. "But I saw it was a girl. Sick. I
wasn't able to help going—and then—Well, you know. Katie. How she
fooled me. And saved me."
She looked up at him, again the suggestion of a smile on her colorless lips. "Was there ever anybody in the world so wonderful—so funny—as Katie?
"But at first I couldn't believe in her. I thought it must be just something else." She stopped, looking at him. "Why I think it wasn't till after I met you I felt sure it couldn't be—"
His arm about her tightened. He drew her closer to him. He was shaken by a deep sob.
And so she rested, lax, murmuring about things that had happened, sometimes smiling faintly as she recalled them. The terror had gone, as if, as she had known, telling it to him had freed her. That twisted, unlovely look which he had tried not to see, loving her too well to wish to see it, had gone. She was worn, but lovely. She was resting. At peace.
And so many minutes passed when she would not speak—resting, rescued. And then she would whisper of little things that had happened and smile a little and seem to drift the farther into the harbor of security into which she had come.
He saw that—exhausted, protected, comforted—she was going to fall asleep. His heart was all tenderness for her as he held her, adoring her, sorrowing over her, guarding her. "I haven't really slept all summer," she murmured at last, and after a few minutes her breathing told that sleep had come.
But when, in trying to unfasten her collar—he longed to be doing some little thing for her comfort—he took his hand from hers, she started up in alarm and he had to put it back, reassuring her, telling her that she was not alone, that nothing could ever harm her again.
An hour passed. And in that hour things which he would have believed fixed loosened and fell. It was all shaken—the whole of his thinking. It could never be the same again. Old things must go. New things come.
Watching Ann, yearning over her, sorrowing, adoring, he saw life as what life had done to her. Saw it as the thing she had found.
He watched the curve of her mouth. Her beautiful bosom rising and falling as she slept. The lovely line of her throat, the blood throbbing in her throat, her long lashes upon her cheek, that loveliness—beauty—that sweetness and tenderness—and what it had met. She, so exquisitely fashioned for love—needful of it—so perfect—so infinitely to be desired and cherished—and what she had found. He writhed under a picture of that old man bending over her—of that other man—bully, brute—thick awful lips snatching at her as a dog at meat. And then still another man. That first man. Darrett. His friend. His sort. The man who could so skillfully use the lure of love to rob life—
As he thought of him—his charm, cleverness—how that, too, had been pitted against her—starved, then offered what she would have no way of judging—close to her loveliness, conscious of her warmth, her breath, the superb curves of her lovely body—thinking of what Darrett had found—taken—what he had left her to—there were several minutes when his brain was unpiloted, a creaking ship churning a screaming sea.
And now? Had it killed it in her? Taken it? If he were to kiss her in the way he hungered to kiss her would it wake nothing more than that sick terror in her wonderful eyes? That thought became as a band of hot steel round his throat. Was it gone? How could she be sleeping that way with her hand in his—his face so close to her—if there remained any of that life-longing that had been there for Darrett to find?
Life grew too cold, too gray and misshapen in that thought to see it as life. It could not be. It was only that she was exhausted. And her trust in him.
At least there was that. Then he would make her care for him by caring for her—caring for her protectingly, tenderly, surrounding her with that sea of tenderness that was in his heart for her. Life would come back. He would woo it back. And no matter how the flame in his own heart might rage he would wait upon the day when he could bring the love light to her eyes without even the shadow of remembering of fear.
So he yearned over her—sorrowing, hoping. And life was to him two things. What life had done to Ann. What life would be with Ann. He wanted to let himself touch his lips lightly to her temple—so close to him. But he would not—fearing to wake the fear in her, vowing to wait till love could come through a trust that must cast fear forever from the heart.
Passion melted to tenderness; the tenderness flooding him in thought of the love he would give her.
That same night he had her taken to a hospital. It was the only way he could think of for caring for her, and she was far enough from well to permit it. He left her there, again asleep, and cared for. Then returned to his hotel and telephoned Katie. It was past daylight before sleep came to him.