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" I m glad your conscience smites you," smiled Arly.
"Wasn t it fun?"

" The most glorious in the world ! " and Gail glanced
doubtfully at Tim Gorman, who was right on the spot.

" Come on, girls," heartily invited Tim, who could
catch a hint as fast as any man. " I ll introduce you
to Tom," and, profoundly happy in his gallantry, he
returned to the front of the car with a laughing blonde
on one arm and a laughing brunette on the other.

Allison turned confidently to chat with Gail, but that
young lady, smiling on the Reverend Smith Boyd,
moved back to the observation platform, and the Rev
erend Smith Boyd followed the smile with alacrity.

" I ve been neglecting this view," she observed, gaz
ing out into the rapidly diminishing perspective, then



THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST 141

she glanced up sidewise at the tall young rector, whose
eyes were perfectly blue.

He answered something or other, and the conversa
tion was so obviously a tete-a-tete that Allison re
mained behind. Ted Teasdale had long since found,
in the engineer, a man who knew motor boating in every
phase of its failures ; so that Allison and Tim Gorman
were in sole possession of the parlour compartment,
and Tim looked up at Allison with a complacent grin,
as the latter sat beside him.

" Well, Eddie, I put in a plug for you," stated Tim,
with the air of one looking for approval.

"How s that?" inquired Allison, abstractedly.

" Boosted you to the girl. Say, she s a peach ! "

Allison looked quickly back at the platform, and then
frowned down on his zealous friend Tim.

" What did you tell Miss Sargent about me? "

" Don t you worry, Eddie ; it s all right," laughed
Tim. " I hinted to her, so that she had to get it, that
you re about the most eligible party in New York. I
let her know that no man in this village had ever skinned
you. She wanted to know how you made this big com
bination, and I told her you made em all get off ; pushed
em off the map. Take it from me, Eddie, after I got
through, she knew where to find a happy home."

Allison s brows knitted in quick anger, and then sud
denly he startled the subway with its first loud laugh.
He understood now, or thought he did, Gail s distant
attitude; but, knowing what was the matter, he could
easily straighten it out.

" Thanks, Tim," he chuckled. " Let s talk business
a minute. I had you hold up the Vedder Court con
demnation because I got a new idea last night. Those
buildings are unsafe."



142 THE BALL OF FIRE

" Well, the building commissioners have to make a
living," considered Tim.

" That s what I think," agreed Allison.

Tim Gorman looked up at him shrewdly out of his
puffy slits of eyes, for a moment, and considered.

" I get you," he said, and the business talk being
concluded, Allison went forward.

" McCarthy," he snapped, in a voice which grated ;
" what are all those boxes back in the beginning of the
Y of the West Docks branch? "

" Blasting material," and McCarthy looked uncom
fortable.

" Get it out," ordered Allison, and returned to Tim.

The girls and Ted came back presently, and, with
their arrival, Gail brought the Reverend Smith Boyd
into the crowd, thereupon they resolved themselves into
some appearance of sociability, and Allison, for the
amusement of the company, slyly started old Tim Gor
man into a line of personal reminiscences, so replete in
unconscious humour and so frank in unconscious dis
closure of callous knavery, that the company needed no
other entertainment.

Out into the open, where the sun paled the electric
lights of the car into a sickly yellow, up into the air,
peering into third story tenements and down narrow
alleys, aflutter with countless flapping pieces of laun
dry work, then suddenly into the darkness of the tunnel
again, then out, on the surface of country fields, and
dreary winter landscape, to the terminal. It was more
cosy in the tunnel, and they returned there for lunch,
while the general manager and the general engineer and
the general construction manager of the Municipal
Transportation Company, with occasional crisp visits
from President Allison, soberly discussed the condi-



THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST 143

tion of the line. The Reverend Smith Boyd displayed
an unexpected technical interest in that subject. He
had taken an engineering course in college, and, in fact,
he had once wavered seriously between that occupation
and the Church, and he put two or three questions so
pertinent that he awakened a new respect in Allison.
Allison took the rector to the observation platform to
explain something in the construction of the receding
tunnel, and as they stood there earnestly talking, with
concentrated brows and eyes searching into each other
for quick understanding, Gail Sargent was suddenly
struck by a wonder as to what makes the differences
in men. Allison, slightly stocky, standing with his feet
spread sturdily apart and his hands in his coat pockets,
and his clean-cut profile slightly upturned to the young
rector, was the very epitome of force, of decisive action,
of unconquerable will. He seemed to fairly radiate re
sistless energy, and as she looked, Gail was filled
with the admiration she had often felt for this exponent
of the distinctively American spirit of achievement. She
had never seen the type in so perfect an example, and
again there seemed to wave toward her that indefinable
thrill with which he had so often impressed her. Was
the thrill altogether pleasurable? She could not tell,
but she did know that with it there was mixed a some
thing which she could not quite fathom in herself. Was
it dislike? No, not that. Was it resentment? Was
it fear? She asked herself that last question again.

The young rector was vastly different; taller and
broader-shouldered, and more erect of carriage, and
fully as firm of profile, he did not somehow seem to im
press her with the strength of Allison. He was more
temperamental, and, consequently, more susceptible to
change; therefore weaker. Was that deduction cor-



144 THE BALL OF FIRE

rect? She wondered, for it troubled her. She was not
quite satisfied.

Suddenly there came a dull, muffled report, like the
distant firing of a cannon ; then an interval of silence,
an infinitesimal one, in which the car ran smoothly on,
and, half rising, they looked at each other in startled
questioning. Then, all at once, came a stupendous
roar, as if the world had split asunder, a jolting
and jerking, a headlong stoppage, a clattering, and
slapping and crashing and grinding, deafening in its
volume, and with it all, darkness ; blackness so intense
that it seemed almost palpable to the touch !

There was a single shriek, and a nervous laugh verg
ing on hysteria. The shriek was from Arly, and the
laugh from Lucile. There was a cry from the forward
end of the car, as if some one in pain. A man s yell
of fright; Greggory the general manager. A strong
hand clutched Gail s in the darkness, firm, reassuring.
The rector.

"Don t move!" it was the voice of Allison, crisp,
harsh, commanding.

" Anybody hurt ? " Tim Gorman, the voice of age,
but otherwise steady. One could sense, somehow, that
he sat rigid in his chair, with both hands on his cane.

" It s me," called Tom, the motorman. " Head cut
a little, arm bruised. Nothing bad."

"Gail?" Allison again.

" Yes." Clear voiced, with the courage which has no
sex.

"Mrs. Teasdale? Mrs. Fosland?"

Both all right, one a trifle sharp of voice, the other
nervous.

"Ted? Doctor Boyd?" and so through the list.
Everybody safe.



THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST 145

" It is an accidental blast," said the voice of Alli
son. He had figured that a concise statement of just
what had happened might expedite organisation. " We
are below the Farmount Ridge, over a hundred feet
deep, and the tube has caved in on us. There must be
no waste of exertion. Don t move until I find what
electrical dangers there are."

They obeyed his admonition not to move, even tcr the
extent of silence ; for there was an instinct that Al
lison might need to hear minutely. He made his way
into the front compartment, he called the chief engineer.
There was a clanking of the strange looking implements
on the floor of the car. A match flared up, and showed
the pale face of the engineer bending over.

" No matches," ordered Allison. " We may need the
oxygen."

He and the engineer made their way back into the
parlour compartment. They took up the door of the
motor well in the floor, and in a few minutes they re
placed it. From the sounds they seemed remarkably
clumsy.

" That much is lucky," commented Allison. " The
next thing is to dig."

They were quiet a moment.

" In front or behind? " wondered the engineer.

Again a pause.

" In front," decided Allison. " The explosion came
from that direction, and has probably shaken down more
of the soil there than behind, but it s solid clay in the
rear, and further out."

Gail felt the rector s hand suddenly leave her ov/n.
It had been wonderfully comforting there in the dark;
so firm and warm and steady. He had not talked much
to her, just a few reassuring words, in that low, melodi-



146 THE BALL OF FIRE

ous voice, which thrilled her as did occasionally the
touch of Allison s hand, as did the eyes of Dick Rod-
ley. But she had received more strength from the voice
of Allison. He was big, Allison, a power, a force, a
spirit of command. She began, for the first time, to
comprehend his magnitude.

" What have we to dig with ? " The voice of the
Reverend Smith Boyd, and there was a note of eager
ness in it.

" The benches up in front here," yelled McCarthy,
and there was a ripping sound as he tore the seat from
one of them.

" Pardon me." It was the voice of the rector, up
in front.

" The balance of you sit down, and keep rested,"
ordered Allison, now also up in front. " McCarthy,
Boyd and I go first."

The long struggle began. The girls grouped to
gether in the back of the car, moving but very little,
for there was much broken glass about. Up in front
the three men could be heard making an opening into
the debris through the forward windows. They talked
a great deal, at first, strong, capable voices. They
were interfering with each other, then helping, com
bining their strength to move heavy stones and the like,
then they were silent, working independently, or in ef
fective unison.

Tim Gorman was the possessor of a phosphorescent-
faced watch, with twenty-two jewels on the inside and
a ruby on the winding stem, and he constituted him
self timekeeper.

" Thirty minutes," he called out. " It s our shift."

" You d better save yourself, Tim," suggested Greg-
gory, in a kindly tone.



THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST 147

" I ll do as much as any of you ! " growled old Tim,
with the will, if not the quality, of youth in his voice.
" Will one of you girls take care of my rings ? " and
stripping them from his fingers, he laid them carefully
in the outstretched hands of Arly. There was a good
handful of them.

The men crawled in from outside, but they stayed in
the front compartment. The air was growing a trifle
close, and they breathed heavily.

" Good-bye Girl," called the gaily funereal voice of
Ted Teasdale. " Husband is going to work."

" Put on your gloves," Lucile reminded him.

" Greggory," called Allison.

" Here," responded the careless fat man. " How did
you find it ? "

" Loose," reported Allison, and there was a sound
suspiciously like grunting, as Greggory crawled through
the narrow opening.

Another interminable wait, while the air grew more
stifling. There was no further levity after Lincoln and
the motorman and McCarthy had come back; for the
condition was becoming serious. Some air must un
doubtedly be finding its way to the car through the
loose debris, but the carbonic acid gas exhaled from a
dozen pairs of lungs was beginning to pocket, and the
opening ahead, though steadily pushing forward, dis
played no signs of lessening solidity.

They established shorter shifts now; a quarter of
an hour. The men came silently in and out, and as si
lently worked, and as silently rested, while the girls
carried that heavy burden of women s hardest labour;
waiting !

Greggory was the first to give out, then the injured
motorman. When their turns came, they had not the



148 THE BALL OF FIRE

strength nor the air in their lungs. Strong McCarthy
was the next to join them.

The shifts had reduced to two, of two men each by
now ; Ted and old Tim, and Allison and the rector ;
and these latter two worked double time. Their lips
and their tongues were parched and cracking, and in
their periods of rest they sat motionlessly facing each
other, with a wheeze in the drawing of their breath.
Their stentorian breathing could be heard from the for
ward end of their little tunnel clear back into the car,
where the three girls were battling to preserve their
senses against the poisonous gases which were now all
that they had to breathe. Acting on the rector s ad
vice, they had stood up in the car to escape the gradu
ally rising level of the carbonic gas, stood, as the time
progressed, with their mouths agape and their breasts
heaving and sharp pains in their lungs at every breath.
Arly dropped, silently crumpling to the floor; then, a
few minutes later, Lucile, and, panic-stricken by the
thought that they had gone under, Gail felt her own
senses reeling, when suddenly, looking ahead through
eyes which were staring, she saw a crack of blessed
light!

There was a hoarse cry from ahead! The crack of
light widened. Another one appeared, some four feet
to the right of it, and Gail already fancied that she
could feel a freshening of the air she breathed with
such tearing pain. Against the light of the openings,
two figures, the only two which were left to work, strove,
at first with the slow, limp motions of exhaustion, and
then with the renewed vigour of approaching triumph.
She could distinguish them clearly now, by the light
which streamed in, the stocky, strong figure of Allison
and the tall, sinewy figure of the rector. They were



THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST 149

working frantically, Allison with his coat off, and the
rector with his coat and vest both removed, and one
sleeve torn almost entirely from his shirt, revealing his
swelling biceps, and a long, red scratch. Gail s senses
were numbed, so that they were reduced to almost
merely optical consciousness, so that she saw things
photographically; but, even in her numbness, she real
ised that what she had thought a trace of weakness in
the rector, was only the grace which had rounded his
strength.

The two figures bent inward toward each other.
There was a moment of mighty straining, and then the
whole centre between the two cracks rolled away. A
huge boulder had barred the path, and its removal let
down a rush of pure, fresh air from the ground above,
let down, too, a flood of dazzling light ; and in the curv
ing, under-rim of the opening, stood the two stalwart
men who were the survival of the fittest! The mere
instinct of self-preservation drove Gail forward, with
a cry, toward the source of that life-giving air, and she
scrambled through the window and ran toward the two
men. They came hurriedly down to meet her, and each
gave her a hand.



CHAPTER XIV

THE FREE AND ENTIRELY UNCURBED

GAIL SARGENT became suddenly and acutely
aware of an entirely new and ethnological subdi
vision of the human race. She had known of Cau
casians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, and the others, but
now she was to meet the representatives of the gay,
carefree, and entirely uncurbed metropolitan press !
They figuratively swarmed from the ground, dropped
from the eaves, and wriggled from under the rugs!

Immediately after Gail had reached home from the
accident in the subway, and had been put to bed and
given tea, and had repeatedly assured the doctor there
was nothing the matter with her, they brought, at her
urgent request, copies of the " extras," which were al
ready being yelled from every street corner and down
every quiet residence block.

The accounts were, in the main, more or less accurate,
barring the fact that they started with the assumption
that there had been one hundred in Allison s party, all
killed. Later issues, however, regretfully reduced the
number of dead to forty, six, and finally none, at which
point they became more or less coherent, and gave an
exact list of the people who were there, the cause of the
accident, and a most appreciatively accentuated history
of the heroic work of the men. Although she regretted
that her picture had by this time crept into the public
prints, grouped with the murders and defalcations of
the day, she was able to overlook this personal discom
fort as one of the minor penalties which civilisation has



FREE AND ENTIRELY UNCURBED 151

paid for its progress ; like electric light bugs and elec
tric fan neuralgia, and the smell of gasolene.

Long before this period, however, the reporters had
tracked her to her lair ; so long before, in fact, that there
had been three of them waiting on the doorstep when
she was brought into the house, eager young men, with
a high spirit of reverence and delicacy, which was con
centrated entirely on their jobs. They would have held
her on the doorstep until she fainted or dropped dead,
if, by so doing, they could have secured one statement,
or hint of a statement, upon which they could have fas
tened something derogatory to her reputation, or the
reputation of any of her family or friends ; for that was
great stuff, and what the public wanted ; and they would
have photographed her gleefully in the process of ex
piring. Aunt Helen Davies, being a woman of experi
ence, snatched Gail into the house before they had taken
more than eight or nine photographs of her, but, from
that instant, the doorbell became a nuisance and the
telephone bell a torture! Both were finally discon
nected, but, at as late an hour as one A. M., the house
was occasionally assaulted.

By that time Gail had telegrams of frantic inquiry
from all her friends back home, including the impulsive
Clemmens, and particularly including a telegram from
her mother, stating that that highly agitated lady could
not secure a reservation on the first train on account of
its being Saturday night, but that she would start on
the fast eleven-thirty the next morning, whereat Gail
kissed the telegram, and cried a little, and gave way to
the moist joy of homesickness.

In the meantime, the representatives of the gay and
carefree and absolutely uncurbed metropolitan press,
were by no means discouraged by the fact that the^



152 THE BALL OF FIRE

had not been able to secure much, except hectic imag
inings from the exterior of the Sargent house. They
were busy in every other possible direction, with the
same commendable persistence which we observe in an
ant trying to drag a grasshopper up and down a corn
stalk on the way home. They secured a straight story
from Allison, a modest one from the rector, and vari
ously viewed experiences from other male members of
the party, and collected huge piles of photographs,
among them the charming pictures of Gail, which had
previously been printed on the innocent pages of ar
rivals at Palm Beach and the Riviera and other fash
ionable winter resorts, the whole spread being headed
" What Society Is Doing."

So far the explosion editors of the various papers
had seen nothing to particularly commend in the work
of their fevered emissaries, and even the heavy-jawed
genius who gathered, from silent cogitation over four
cigarettes and a quart of beer, the purple fiction that
the explosion had cracked the walls of every subway in
the city, which were likely to cave in at any time, only
received the compliment of a grateful grunt.

Little Miss Piper, of the Morning Planet, however,
was possessed of a better thought. She was a some
what withered and puckered little woman, who had sense
enough to dress so as to excite nothing but pity, and
she quietly slipped on her ugly little bonnet with the
funny ribbon bow in the back, and hurried out to the
magnificent residence of Mrs. Phyllis Worthmore, who
loathed publicity and had photographs taken once a
month for the purpose.

Mrs. Phyllis Worthmore was invariably sweet and
gracious to working women, for, after all, they were
her sisters, you know; and she excused herself from a



FREE AND ENTIRELY UNCURBED 153

caller in order to meet little Miss Piper in Mr. Worth-
more s deserted den. Mrs. Worthmore was highly agi
tated over the news of the explosion, and she required
no particular urging to jabber on and on about her
dear friends who had been in that terrible catastrophe,
and she was ultra enthusiastic when the name of Gail
was mentioned.

" Oh, Miss Sargent is quite the sensation of the sea
son ! " she gushed. " Her people are fairly well to do,
I believe; but her beauty makes up for the absence of
any extravagant fortune. It is commonly conceded
that none of the eligibles in our set are available until
Miss Sargent has made her choice. Positively all of
them are at her feet ! " and, at puckered little Miss
Piper s later request, she lightly enumerated a few of
the eligibles in their set; after which Miss Piper took
to furtive glances at her watch, and to feeling the ex
cessively modulated voice of Mrs. Phyllis Worthmore
pounding into her brain like the clatter of a watch
man s rattle.

The result of that light-hearted and light-headed in
terview, in which Mrs. Phyllis Worthmore, by special
request, was not quoted, suddenly sprang on the star
tled eyes of Gail, when she leaped through the Sunday
Morning Planet at eight o clock next morning. An
entire page, embellished in the centre with a beautifully
printed photograph, was devoted to the sensational
beauty from the middle west! Around her were
grouped nine smaller photographs; Allison, Dick Rod-
ley, Willis Cunningham, Houston Van Ploon, the Rev
erend Smith Boyd, a callow youth who had danced with
her three times, a Count who had said " How do you
do?" and sailed for Europe, and two men whom she
had never met. All these crack eligibles were classi-



154 THE BALL OF FIRE

fied under the general head of " Slaves to Her Witch
ing Smilej" and a big, boxed-in list was given, in ex
tremely black-faced type, stating, in dollars and cents,
the exact value in the matrimonial market of each slave ;
and the lively genius who had put together this sym
posium, by a toweringly happy thought conceived in
the very height of the rush hours, totalled the whole, and
gave it as the commercial worth of Gail s beauty and
charm. It ran into thirteen figures, including the dol
lar mark and the two ciphers for cents.

Nor was this all! A lightning fingered artist had
depicted, at the bottom of the group, outline sketches
of the nine suitors, on their knees in a row, holding up,
towards the beautiful picture of Gail in the centre, their
hearts in one hand and their bags of money in the
other; and, even though overworked, the artist had not
forgotten to put the Cross of the Legion of Honour
on the breast of the Count, nor the sparse Van Dyke
on Willis Cunningham. Flowing with further facile
fancy, he had embellished the upper right-hand corner
of the group with an extremely lithe and slim-waisted
drawing of the streaming haired Gail, as a siren fishing
in the sea; and the sea, represented by many frothing
curls, was, in the upper left-hand corner, densely pop
ulated by foolish little gold fish, rushing eagerly to the
dangling bait of the siren. Any one of the parties
mentioned could have sued the Planet for libel ; but they
would not, and they would have been made highly ridic
ulous if they had, which was the joke of the whole mat
ter, and left the metropolitan press more and more
highly uncurbed ; which was a right sturdily to be main
tained in a land of free speech!

When Lucile Teasdale and Arly Fosland arrived at
Jim Sargent s house at ten o clock, and had been let in



FREE AND ENTIRELY UNCURBED 155

at the side entrance, they found Gail dabbing her eyes
with a powder puff, taken from a little black travelling
bag which stood open at her side. Arlene was a sec
ond later than Lucile in clasping Gail in her arms, be
cause she had to lift a travelling veil. The two girls
expressed their condolence and their horror of the out
rage, and volubly poured out more sympathy; then
they sat down and shrieked with laughter.

" It s too awful for words ! " gasped Lucile. " But
it is funny, too."

Gail s chin quivered.

" There should be a law against such things," she


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Online LibraryGeorge Randolph ChesterThe ball of fire → online text (page 10 of 24)