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night, however, were bringing this thing called war very close to
her. It was just beyond that horizon toward which they were heading.
And even then it was brought nearer to her.

Under cover of the dusk the girl she had tried to approach came up
and stood beside her. Edith was very distant with her.

"The nights make me nervous," the girl said. "In the daylight it is
not so bad. But these darkened windows bring it all home to me - the
war, you know."

"I guess it's pretty bad."

"It's bad enough. My brother has been wounded. I am going to him."

Even above the sound of the water Edith caught the thrill in her
voice. It was a new tone to her, the exaltation of sacrifice.

"I'm sorry," she said. And some subconscious memory of Mabel made
her say: "It's fierce!"

The girl looked at her.

"That young officer you're with, he's going, of course. He seems
very young. My brother was older. Thirty."

"He's twenty-two."

"He has such nice eyes," said the girl. "I wish - - "

But he was coming back, and she slipped away.

During tea Cecil caught her eyes on him more than once. He had taken
off his stiff-crowned cap, and the wind blew his dark hair round.

"I wish you were not going to the war," she said unexpectedly. It
had come home to her, all at once, the potentialities of that trim
uniform. It made her a little sick.

"It's nice of you to say that."

There was a new mood on her, of confession, almost of consecration.
He asked her if he might smoke. No one in her brief life had ever
before asked her permission to smoke.

"I'll have to smoke all I can," he said. "The fellows say cigarettes
are scarce in the trenches. I'm taking a lot over."

He knew a girl who smoked cigarettes, he said. She was a nice girl
too. He couldn't understand it. The way he felt about it, maybe
a cigarette for a girl wasn't a crime. But it led to other
things - drinking, you know, and all that.

"The fellows don't respect a girl that smokes," he said. "That's the
plain truth. I've talked to her a lot about it."

"It wasn't your friend in Toronto, was it?"

"Good heavens, no!" He repudiated the idea with horror.

It was the girl who had to readjust her ideas of life that day. She
had been born and raised in that neutral ground between the lines of
right and wrong, and now suddenly her position was attacked and she
must choose sides. She chose.

"I've smoked a cigarette now and then. If you think it is wrong I'll
not do it any more."

He was almost overcome, both at the confession and at her
renunciation. To tell the truth, among the older Canadian officers
he had felt rather a boy. Her promise reinstated him in his own
esteem. He was a man, and a girl was offering to give something up
if he wished it. It helped a lot.

That evening he laid out his entire equipment in his small cabin,
and invited her to see it. He put his mother's picture behind his
brushes, where the other one had been, and when all was ready he
rang for a stewardess.

"I am going to show a young lady some of my stuff," he explained.
"And as she is alone I wish you'd stay round, will you? I want her
to feel perfectly comfortable."

The stewardess agreed, and as she was an elderly woman, with a son
at the front, a boy like Cecil, she went back to her close little
room over the engines and cried a little, very quietly.

It was unfortunate that he did not explain the presence of the
stewardess to the girl. For when it was all over, and she had stood
rather awed before his mother's picture, and rather to his surprise
had smoothed her hair with one of his brushes, she turned to him
outside the door.

"That stewardess has a lot of nerve," she said. "The idea of
standing in the doorway, rubbering!"

"I asked her," he explained. "I thought you'd prefer having some one

She stared at him.


Lethway had won the ship's pool that day. In the evening he played
bridge, and won again. He had been drinking a little. Not much, but
enough to make him reckless.

For the last rubber or two the thought of Edith had obsessed him,
her hand on the rail as he had kissed it, her cool eyes that were at
once so wise and so ignorant, her lithe body in the short skirt and
middy blouse. He found her more alluring, so attired, than she had
been in the scant costume of what to him was always "the show."

He pondered on that during all of a dummy hand, sitting low in his
chair with his feet thrust far under the table. The show business
was going to the bad. Why? Because nobody connected with it knew
anything about human nature. He formulated a plan, compounded of
liquor and real business acumen, of dressing a chorus, of suggesting
the feminine form instead of showing it, of veiling it in chiffons
of soft colours and sending a draft of air from electric fans in the
wings to set the chiffons in motion.

"Like the Aurora," he said to himself. "Only not so beefy. Ought to
be a hit. Pretty? It will be the real thing!"

The thought of Edith in such a costume, playing like a dryad over
the stage, stayed with him when the dummy hand had been played and
he had been recalled to the game by a thump on the shoulder. Edith
in soft, pastel-coloured chiffons, dancing in bare feet to light
string music. A forest setting, of course. Pan. A goat or two. All
that sort of thing.

On his way down to his cabin he passed her door. He went on,
hesitated, came back and knocked.

Now Edith had not been able to sleep. Her thrifty soul, trained
against waste, had urged her not to fling her cigarettes overboard,
but to smoke them.

"And then never again," she said solemnly.

The result was that she could not get to sleep. Blanketed to the
chin she lay in her bunk, reading. The book had been Mabel's
farewell offering, a thing of perverted ideals, or none, of cheap
sentiment, of erotic thought overlaid with words. The immediate
result of it, when she yawned at last and turned out the light over
her bed, was a new light on the boy.

"Little prig!" she said to herself, and stretched her round arms
luxuriously above her head.

Then Lethway rapped. She sat up and listened. Then, grumbling, she
got out and opened the door an inch or two. The lights were low
outside and her own cabin dark. But she knew him.

"Are we chased?" she demanded. In the back of her mind, fear of
pursuit by a German submarine was dogging her across the Atlantic.

"Sure we are!" he said. "What are you so stingy about the door for?"

She recognised his condition out of a not inconsiderable experience
and did her best to force the door shut, but he put his foot over
the sill and smiled.

"Please go away, Mr. Lethway."

"I'll go if you'll kiss me good night."

She calculated the situation, and surrendered. There was nothing
else to do. But when she upturned her face he slipped past her and
into the room. Just inside the door, swinging open and shut with
every roll of the ship, he took her in his arms and kissed her, not
once but many times.

She did not lose her head. She had an arm free and she rang the
bell. Then she jerked herself loose.

"I have rung for the stewardess," she said furiously. "If you are
here when she comes I'll ask for help."

"You young devil!" was all he said, and went, slamming the door
behind him. His rage grew as he reached his own cabin. Damn the
girl, anyhow! He had not meant anything. Here he was, spending money
he might never get back to give her a chance, and she called the
stewardess because he kissed her!

As for the girl, she went back to bed. For a few moments sheer rage
kept her awake. Then youth and fatigue triumphed and she fell
asleep. Her last thought was of the boy, after all. "He wouldn't do
a thing like that," she reflected. "He's a gentleman. He's the real
thing. He's - - "

Her eyes closed.

Lethway apologised the next day, apologised with an excess of manner
that somehow made the apology as much of an insult as the act. But
she matched him at that game - took her cue from him, even went him
one better as to manner. When he left her he had begun to feel that
she was no unworthy antagonist. The game would be interesting. And
she had the advantage, if she only knew it. Back of his desire to
get back at her, back of his mocking smile and half-closed eyes, he
was just a trifle mad about her since the night before.

That is the way things stood when they reached the Mersey. Cecil was
in love with the girl. Very earnestly in love. He did not sleep at
night for thinking about her. He remembered certain semi-harmless
escapades of his college days, and called himself unworthy and
various other things. He scourged himself by leaving her alone in
her steamer chair and walking by at stated intervals. Once, in a
white sweater over a running shirt, he went to the gymnasium and
found her there. She had on a "gym" suit of baggy bloomers and the
usual blouse. He backed away from the door hastily.

At first he was jealous of Lethway. Then that passed. She confided
to him that she did not like the manager. After that he was sorry
for him. He was sorry for any one she did not like. He bothered
Lethway by walking the deck with him and looking at him with what
Lethway refused to think was compassion.

But because, contrary to the boy's belief, none of us is quite good
or quite evil, he was kind to the boy. The khaki stood for something
which no Englishman could ignore.

"Poor little devil!" he said on the last day in the smoking room,
"he's going to a bad time, all right. I was in Africa for eight
years. Boer war and the rest of it. Got run through the thigh in a
native uprising, and they won't have me now. But Africa was cheery
to this war."

He asked the boy into the smoking room, which he had hitherto
avoided. He had some queer idea that he did not care to take his
uniform in there. Absurd, of course. It made him rather lonely in
the hours Edith spent in her cabin, preparing variations of costume
for the evening out of her small trunk. But he was all man, and he
liked the society of men; so he went at last, with Lethway, and
ordered vichy!

He had not allowed himself to think much beyond the end of the
voyage. As the ship advanced, war seemed to slip beyond the edge of
his horizon. Even at night, as he lay and tossed, his thoughts were
either of the next day, when he would see Edith again, or of that
indefinite future when he would return, covered with honors, and go
to her, wherever she was.

He never doubted the honors now. He had something to fight for. The
medals in their cases looked paltry to him, compared with what was
coming. In his sleep he dreamed of the V.C., dreams he was too
modest to put into thoughts in waking hours.

Then they reached the Mersey. On the last evening of the voyage he
and Edith stood on the upper deck. It was a zone of danger. From
each side of the narrowing river flashlights skimmed the surface of
the water, playing round but never on the darkened ship. Red and
green lights blinked signals. Their progress was a devious one
through the mine-strewn channel. There was a heavy sea even there,
and the small lights on the mast on the pilot boat, as it came to a
stop, described great arcs that seemed, first to starboard, then to
port, to touch the very tips of the waves.

"I'm not crazy about this," the girl said, as the wind tugged at her
skirts. "It frightens me. Brings the war pretty close, doesn't it?"

Emotion swelled his heart and made him husky - love and patriotism,
pride and hope, and a hot burst of courage.

"What if we strike a mine?" she asked.

"I wouldn't care so much. It would give me a chance to save you."

Overhead they were signalling the shore with a white light. Along
with the new emotions that were choking him came an unaccustomed
impulse of boastfulness.

"I can read that," he said when she ignored his offer to save her.
"Of course it's code, but I can spell it out."

He made a move to step forward and watch the signaler, but she put
her hand on his arm.

"Don't go. I'm nervous, Cecil," she said.

She had called him by his first name. It shook him profoundly, that
and the touch of her hand on his arm.

"Oh, I love you, love you!" he said hoarsely. But he did not try to
take her in his arms, or attempt to caress the hand that still clung
to him. He stood very erect, looking at the shadowy outline of her.
Then, her long scarf blowing toward him, he took the end of it and
kissed that very gravely.

"I would die for you," he said.

Then Lethway joined them.


London was not kind to him. He had felt, like many Canadians, that
in going to England he was going home. But England was cold.

Not the people on the streets. They liked the Canadians and they
cheered them when their own regiments went by unhailed. It appealed
to their rampant patriotism that these men had come from across the
sea to join hands with them against common foe. But in the clubs,
where his letters admitted the boy, there was a different
atmosphere. Young British officers were either cool or, much worse,
patronising. They were inclined to suspect that his quiet confidence
was swanking. One day at luncheon he drank a glass of wine, not
because he wanted it but because he did not like to refuse. The
result was unfortunate. It loosened his tongue a bit, and he
mentioned the medals.

Not noisily, of course. In an offhand manner, to his next neighbor.
It went round the table, and a sort of icy silence, after that,
greeted his small sallies. He never knew what the trouble was, but
his heart was heavy in him.

And it rained.

It was always raining. He had very little money beyond his pay, and
the constant hiring of taxicabs worried him. Now and then he saw
some one he knew, down from Salisbury for a holiday, but they had
been over long enough to know their way about. They had engagements,
things to buy. He fairly ate his heart out in sheer loneliness.

There were two hours in the day that redeemed the others. One was
the hour late in the afternoon when, rehearsal over, he took Edith
O'Hara to tea. The other was just before he went to bed, when he
wrote her the small note that reached her every morning with her

In the seven days before he joined his regiment at Salisbury he
wrote her seven notes. They were candid, boyish scrawls, not love
letters at all. This was one of them:

_Dear Edith_: I have put in a rotten evening and am just
going to bed. I am rather worried because you looked so
tired to-day. Please don't work too hard.

I am only writing to say how I look forward each night to
seeing you the next day. I am sending with this a small
bunch of lilies of the valley. They remind me of you.

The girl saved those letters. She was not in love with him, but he
gave her something no one else had ever offered: a chivalrous
respect that pleased as well as puzzled her.

Once in a tea shop he voiced his creed, as it pertained to her, over
a plate of muffins.

"When we are both back home, Edith," he said, "I am going to ask you

"Why not now?"

"Because it wouldn't be quite fair to you. I - I may be killed, or
something. That's one thing. Then, it's because of your people."

That rather stunned her. She had no people. She was going to tell
him that, but she decided not to. She felt quite sure that he
considered "people" essential, and though she felt that, for any
long period of time, these queer ideas and scruples of his would be
difficult to live up to, she intended to do it for that one week.

"Oh, all right," she said, meekly enough.

She felt very tender toward him after that, and her new gentleness
made it all hard for him. She caught him looking at her wistfully at
times, and it seemed to her that he was not looking well. His eyes
were hollow, his face thin. She put her hand over his as it lay on
the table.

"Look here," she said, "you look half sick, or worried, or
something. Stop telling me to take care of myself, and look after
yourself a little better."

"I'm all right," he replied. Then soon after: "Everything's strange.
That's the trouble," he confessed. "It's only in little things that
don't matter, but a fellow feels such a duffer."

On the last night he took her to dinner - a small French restaurant
in a back street in Soho. He had heard about it somewhere. Edith
classed it as soon as she entered. It was too retiring, too demure.
Its very location was clandestine.

But he never knew. He was divided that night between joy at getting
to his regiment and grief at leaving her. Rather self-engrossed, she

They had a table by an open grate fire, with a screen "to shut off
the draft," the waiter said. It gave the modest meal a delightfully
homey air, their isolation and the bright coal fire. For the first
time they learned the joys of mussels boiled in milk, of French
_soufflé_ and other things.

At the end of the evening he took her back to her cheap hotel in a
taxicab. She expected him to kiss her. Her experience of taxicabs
had been like that. But he did not. He said very little on the way
home, but sat well back and eyed her wistful eyes. She chattered to
cover his silence - of rehearsals, of - with reservations - of Lethway,
of the anticipated London opening. She felt very sad herself. He had
been a tie to America, and he had been much more than that. Though
she did not realise it, he had had a profound effect on her. In
trying to seem what he thought her she was becoming what he thought
her. Her old reckless attitude toward life was gone, or was going.

The day before she had refused an invitation to a night club, and
called herself a fool for doing it. But she had refused.

Not that he had performed miracles with her. She was still frankly a
dweller on the neutral ground. But to that instinct that had kept
her up to that time what she would have called "straight" had been
added a new refinement. She was no longer the reckless and romping
girl whose abandon had caught Lethway's eye.

She had gained a soul, perhaps, and lost a livelihood.

When they reached the hotel he got out and went in with her. The
hall porter was watching and she held out her hand. But he shook his

"If I touched your hand," he said, "I would have to take you in my
arms. Good-bye, dear."

"Good-bye," she said. There were tears in her eyes. It was through a
mist that she saw him, as the elevator went up, standing at salute,
his eyes following her until she disappeared from sight.


Things were going wrong with Lethway. The management was ragging
him, for one thing.

"Give the girl time," he said almost viciously, at the end of a
particularly bad rehearsal. "She's had a long voyage and she's
tired. Besides," he added, "these acts never do go at rehearsal.
Give me a good house at the opening and she'll show you what she can

But in his soul he was worried. There was a change in Edith O'Hara.
Even her voice had altered. It was not only her manner to him. That
was marked enough, but he only shrugged his shoulders over it. Time
enough for that when the production was on.

He had engaged a hoyden, and she was by way of becoming a lady.
During the first week or so he had hoped that it was only the
strangeness of her surroundings. He had been shrewd enough to lay
some of it, however, to Cecil's influence.

"When your soldier boy gets out of the way," he sneered one day in
the wings, "perhaps you'll get down to earth and put some life in
your work."

But to his dismay she grew steadily worse. Her dancing was delicate,
accurate, even graceful, but the thing the British public likes to
think typically American, a sort of breezy swagger, was gone. To
bill her in her present state as the Madcap American would be sheer

Ten days before the opening he cabled for another girl to take her

He did not tell her. Better to let her work on, he decided. A German
submarine might sink the ship on which the other girl was coming,
and then where would they be?

Up to the last, however, he had hopes of Edith. Not that he cared to
save her. But he hated to acknowledge a failure. He disliked to
disavow his own judgment.

He made a final effort with her, took her one day to luncheon at
Simpson's, and in one of the pewlike compartments, over mutton and
caper sauce, he tried to "talk a little life into her."

"What the devil has come over you?" he demanded savagely. "You were
larky enough over in New York. There are any number of girls in
London who can do what you are doing now, and do it better."

"I'm doing just what I did in New York."

"The hell you are! I could do what you're doing with a jointed doll
and some wires. Now see here, Edith," he said, "either you put some
go into the thing, or you go. That's flat."

Her eyes filled.

"I - maybe I'm worried," she said. "Ever since I found out that I've
signed up, with no arrangement about sending me back, it's been on
my mind."

"Don't you worry about that."

"But if they put some one on in my place?"

"You needn't worry about that either. I'll look after you. You know
that. If I hadn't been crazy about you I'd have let you go a week
ago. You know that too."

She knew the tone, knew instantly where she stood. Knew, too, that
she would not play the first night in London. She went rather white,
but she faced him coolly.

"Don't look like that," he said. "I'm only telling you that if you
need a friend I'll be there."

It was two days before the opening, however, when the blow fell. She
had not been sleeping, partly from anxiety about herself, partly
about the boy. Every paper she picked up was full of the horrors of
war. There were columns filled with the names of those who had
fallen. Somehow even his uniform had never closely connected the boy
with death in her mind. He seemed so young.

She had had a feeling that his very youth would keep him from
danger. War to her was a faintly conceived struggle between men, and
he was a boy.

But here were boys who had died, boys at nineteen. And the lists of
missing startled her. One morning she read in the personal column a
query, asking if any one could give the details of the death of a
young subaltern. She cried over that. In all her care-free life
never before had she wept over the griefs of others.

Cecil had sent her his photograph taken in his uniform. Because he
had had it taken to give her he had gazed directly into the eye of
the camera. When she looked at it it returned her glance. She took
to looking at it a great deal.

Two days before the opening she turned from a dispirited rehearsal
to see Mabel standing in the wings. Then she knew. The end had come.

Mabel was jaunty, but rather uneasy.

"You poor dear!" she said, when Edith went to her. "What on earth's
happened? The cable only said - honest, dearie, I feel like a dog!"

"They don't like me. That's all," she replied wearily, and picked
up her hat and jacket from a chair. But Mabel was curious.
Uncomfortable, too, as she had said. She slipped an arm round
Edith's waist.

"Say the word and I'll throw them down," she cried. "It looks like
dirty work to me. And you're thin. Honest, dearie, I mean it."

Her loyalty soothed the girl's sore spirit.

"I don't know what's come over me," she said. "I've tried hard
enough. But I'm always tired. I - I think it's being so close to the

Mabel stared at her. There was a war. She knew that. The theatrical
news was being crowded to a back page to make space for disagreeable
diagrams and strange, throaty names.

"I know. It's fierce, isn't it?" she said.

Edith took her home, and they talked far into the night. She had
slipped Cecil's picture into the wardrobe before she turned on the
light. Then she explained the situation.

"It's pep they want, is it?" said Mabel at last. "Well, believe me,
honey, I'll give it to them. And as long as I've got a cent it's

They slept together in Edith's narrow bed, two slim young figures
delicately flushed with sleep. As pathetic, had they known it, as
those other sleepers in their untidy billets across the channel.
Almost as hopeless too. Dwellers in the neutral ground.


Now war, after all, is to each fighting man an affair of small
numbers, an affair of the men to his right and his left, of the
A.M.S.C. in the rear and of a handful of men across. On his days of
rest the horizon is somewhat expanded. It becomes then a thing of
crowded and muddy village streets, of food and drink and tobacco and
a place to sleep.

Always, of course, it is a thing of noises.

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Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 13 of 17)