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George Randolph Chester.

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man from back home, making a critical and jealous in
spection of the disturbingly commanding rector. His
voice was brisk, staccato, and a trifle high pitched.
Gail had always admired it, not for its musical



62 THE BALL OF FIRE

quality, of course, but for its clean-cut decisiveness.

"When did you arrive?" asked Mrs. Sargent, with
hospitable interest.

" Just this minute," stated Clemmens, exchanging
a glance of pleasure with Gail. " I only stopped at
the hotel long enough to throav in my luggage, and
drove straight on here." He turned to her so ex
pectantly that the rector rose.

" You re not going? " protested Gail, and was
startled to find that the Reverend Smith Boyd s eyes
were no longer blue. They were cold.

" I m afraid that I must," he answered her in the
conventional apologetic tone, which was not at all like
his singing voice. It sounded rather inflexible, and as
if it might not blend very well. " I trust that I shall
have the pleasure of meeting you again, Mr. Clem
mens," and he shook hands with the brisk young man
in a most dignified fashion. He bowed his frigid adieus
to the ladies, and marched into the hall for his
hat.

" Rector ? " guessed Mr. Clemmens, when the outer
door had closed.

" Of Market Square Church," proudly asserted
Aunt Grace. " He is a wonderfully gifted young man.
The rectory is right next door."

" Oh yes," responded Mr. Clemmens perfunctorily,
and he turned slowly to Gail. " Fine looking chap,
isn t he?"

Gail bridled a trifle. She knew that trick of jealous
interrogation quite well. Howard was trying to sur
prise her into some facial expression which would be
tray her attitude toward the Reverend Smith Boyd.

" He s perfectly splendid ! " she beamed. " He has
the richest baritone I ve ever heard."



THE IMPULSIVE YOUNG MAN 63

" It blends so perfectly with Gail s," supplemented
the admiring Aunt Grace. " We must have him over
so you may hear them sing."

" I ll be delighted," lied Mr. Clemmens, shooting an
other glance of displeasure at Gail.

Somehow, Aunt Grace felt that there was an atmos
phere of discomfort in the room, and she thought she
had better go upstairs, to worry about it.

" You ll take dinner with us to-morrow evening, I
hope," she cordially invited.

" You won t have to ask me twice," laughed Mr.
Clemmens, rising because Aunt Grace did. He was al
ways punctilious, and the manner of his courtesies
showed that he was punctilious.

" Well, girl, tell me all about it," heartily began the
young man from home, when Aunty had made her apol
ogies and her departure. He imprisoned her hand in
his, and seated her on the couch, and sat beside her,
crossing his legs comfortably.

" I ve been having a delightful time," replied Gail.
" Suppose we go over to the blue room, Howard. It s
much more pleasant, I think." She wanted to be away
from the piano. It distressed her.

" All right," cheerfully acquiesced Howard, and, still
retaining her hand, he went over with her into the
blue room, and seated her on the couch, and sat beside
her, and crossed his legs. " We made up our monthly
report just before I came. Our rate of increase is
over ten per cent, better than in any previous month
since we began. Three more years, and we ll have the
biggest insurance business in the state ; that is, except
the big outside companies."

" Isn t that splendid ! " and her enthusiasm was fine
to see. She had been kept posted on the progress of



64 THE BALL OF FIRE

the Midwest Mutual Insurance Company since its in
ception, and naturally she was very much interested.
" Then you ll branch out into other states."

" Not for ten years to come," he told her, smiling
at her woman-like over-estimate. " The Midwest won t
do that until we ve covered the home territory so thor
oughly that there ll be no chance of further expansion.
My board of directors brought up that matter at the
last meeting, but I turned it down flat-footed. I m
enterprising enough, but I m thorough. The presi
dent has thrown the entire responsibility on my
shoulders, and I won t take any foolish risks."

Gail turned to him in clear-eyed speculation.

" If I were a man, I m afraid I d be a business gam
bler," she mused.

" I ve no doubt you would," he comfortably laughed.
" However, my method is the safest. Ten years from
now, Gail, I ll have money that I made myself, and,
in twenty, I ll be shamelessly rich. Sounds good,
doesn t it?"

" You have enough money now, if that s all you
want," she reminded him-.

" No, I m ambitious," he insisted. " Not for my
self, though. Gail, you know why I made this trip,"
and he bent closer to her. His staccato voice softened
and his eyes were very earnest. " I couldn t stay
away." He clasped his other hand over hers, and drew
closer.

" I told you you mustn t, Howard," she gently chided
him, though she made no attempt to withdraw her hand.
" I m not ready yet to decide about things."

He was a poor psychologist.

" All right," he cheerfully assented, dropping the
earnestness from his voice and from his eyes, but re-



THE IMPULSIVE YOUNG MAN 65

taining her hand. His clasp was warm and strong and
wholesome. " Mrs. King s ball was rather a tame af
fair this year, though I may have been prejudiced be
cause you weren t there."

He drifted easily into chat of home people and af
fairs, and she felt more and more contented every min
ute. After all, he was of her own people, linked to
them and to her. It was comfortable to be with some
one whom one thoroughly understood. There was no
recess of his mind with which she was not intimately
acquainted. She could foretell his mental processes as
easily as she could read the time on her watch. It was
tremendously restful, after her contact with the
stronger personalities which she had found here. She
had been wondering in what indefinable manner Howard
had changed, but now she began to see that it was she
who had shifted her viewpoint. The men she had met
here, with the exception of such as Van Ploon and Cun
ningham and Ted Teasdale, were far more complex than
Howard, a quality which at times might be more in
teresting than agreeable.

A rush of noise filled the hall. Lucile and Ted Teas-
dale, handsome Dick Rodley and Arly Fosland and
Houston Van Ploon, had come clattering in as an es
cort for Mrs. Davies, whose pet fad was to have as
many young people as possible bring her home from
any place.

The young man from back home took his plunge into
that vortex with becoming steadiness. Gail had looked
to see him a trifle bewildered, and would have had small
criticism for him if he had, but he greeted them all on
a friendly basis, and, sitting down again beside her,
crossed his legs, while Mrs. Davies calmly lorgnetted
him.



66 THE BALL OF FIRE

"Where s the baby?" demanded handsome Dick
Rodley, heading for the stairs.

" Silly, you mustn t ! " cried Lucile, and started after
him. " Flakes should be asleep at this hour."

" I came in for the sole purpose of teaching Flakes
the turkey trot," declared handsome Dick, and ran
away, followed by Lucile.

" Lucile s becoming passe," criticised Ted. " She s
flirting with Rodley for the second time."

" Can you blame her? " defended Arly, stealing a
surreptitious glance at the young man from back home,
then the devil of mischief seized her and she leaned for
ward. "Do you flirt, Mr. Clemmens? "

For once the easy assurance of Howard left him, and
he blushed. The stiff, but kindly disposed Van Ploon
came to his rescue.

" Perhaps Mr. Clemmens is not yet married," he
suggested.

To save him, Clemmens, used, under any circum
stances, to the easy sang froid of the insurance busi
ness, could not keep himself from turning to Gail with
accusing horror in his eyes. Was this the sort of com
pany she kept? He glanced over at Arly Fosland.
She was sitting in the deep corner of her favourite
couch, nursing a slender ankle, and even her shining
black hair, to say nothing of her shining black eyes,
seemed to be snapping with wicked delight. It was
so unusual to find a young man one could shock.

Lucile and handsome Dick came struggling down the
stairway with Flakes between them, and Gail sprang
instantly to take the bewildered puppy from them both.
Little blonde Lucile gave up her interest to the prior
right, but Rodley pretended to be obstinate about it.
His deep eyes burned down into Gail s, as he stoorj



THE IMPULSIVE YOUNG MAN 67

bending above her, and his smile, to Howard s concen
trated gaze, had in it that dangerous fascination which
few women could resist ! Gail was positively smiling
up into his eyes !

" Tableau ! " called Ted. " All ready for the next
reel."

" Hold it a while," begged Arly, and even the young
man from home was forced to admit that the picture
was handsome enough to be retained. The Adonis-
like Dick, with his black hair and black eyes, his curly
black moustache and his black goatee, his pink cheeks
and his white teeth ; Gail, gracefully erect, her head
thrown back, her brown hair waving and her eyes danc
ing; the Adonis bending over her and the fluffy white
Flakes between them; it was painfully beautiful; and
Mr. Clemmens suddenly regretted his square-toed shoes
and his business suit.

" Children, go home," suddenly commanded Mrs.
Davies. " Dick, put the dog back where you found
it."

" I suppose we ll have to go home," drawled Ted.
" Dick, put back that dog."

" Put away the dog, Dick," ordered the heavier voice
of young Van Ploon. " Come along, Gail, I ll put him
away."

At his approach, Dick placed the puppy, with great
care, in Gail s charge, and took her arm. Van Ploon
took her other arm, and together the trio, laughing,
went away to return Flakes to his bed. They clung
to her most affectionately, bending over her on either
side; and they called her Gail!

The others were ready to go when they returned
from the collie nursery, and the three young men stood
for a moment in a row near the door. Gail Jooked



68 THE BALL OF FIRE

them over with a puzzled expression. What was there
about them which was so attractive? Was it poise,
sureness, polish, breeding, experience, insolence, groom
ing what? Even the stiff Van Ploon seemed smooth
of bearing to-night !

" Come home, Gail," begged Clemmens, when the
noisy party had laughed its way out of the door and
Aunt Helen Davies had gone upstairs.

She knew what was in his mind, but compassion over
came her resentment, because there was suffering in his
voice and in his eyes. She smiled on him forgivingly,
and did not withdraw the hand he took again.

" New York s an evil place," he urged. " Who are
these friends of yours?" and he looked at her accus
ingly-

" Why, they are tremendously nice people,
Howard," she told him, forgiving him again because he
did not understand. " Lucile is the pretty cousin
about whom I wrote you, Ted is her husband, and the
others are their friends."

" I don t like them," he rather sternly said. " They
are not fit company for you. They see no sacredness
in marriage, with their open flirting."

" Why, Howard, that s only a joke. Ted and Lucile
are exceptionally devoted to each other." She turned
and studied him seriously. Was he smaller of stature
than he had seemed back home, or what was it?

They still were standing in the hall, and the front
door opened.

" Brought you a prodigal," hailed Uncle Jim, slip
ping his latchkey in his pocket as he held the door open
for the prodigal in question. " Hello, Clemmens.
When did you blow in ? " and he advanced to shake
hands.



THE IMPULSIVE YOUNG MAN 69

Gail was watching the doorway. Some one outside
was vigorously stamping his feet. The prodigal came
in, and proved to be Allison, buoyant of step, sparkling
of eye, firm of jaw, and ruddy from the night wind.
Smiling with the sureness of welcome, he came eagerly
up to Gail, and took her hand, retaining it until she
felt compelled to withdraw it, recognising again that
thrill. The barest trace of a flush came into her cheeks,
and paled again.

" Allison, meet one of Chubsy s friends from home,"
called Uncle Jim. " Mr. Allison, Mr. Clemmens."

As the two shook hands, Gail turned again to the
young man from back home. Yes, he had grown
smaller.



CHAPTER VII

THEY HAD ALREADY SPOILED HER !

GAIL faltered when, after bidding good-night to
her uncle and to Allison, she turned and met the
look in Howard Clemmens eyes. She knew that the
inevitable moment had arrived. He Avalked straight up
to her, and there was a new dignity in him, a new
strength, a new resolve. For a moment, as he ad
vanced, she thought that he was about to put his arms
around her, but he did not. Instead, he took her hand,
in his old characteristic way, and led her into the li
brary, and seated her on the couch, and sat beside her.

" Gail, come home with me," he said, authoritative
but kind. He had been her recognised suitor from
childhood. He had shut out all the other boys.

She withdrew her hand, but without deliberate intent.
She had felt the instinctive and imperative need of touch
ing her two hands together in her lap.

" You re asking something impossible, Howard," she
returned, quietly. Her voice was low, and her beauti
ful brown eyes, half veiled by their long lashes, were
watching the play of light in a ruby on one of her fin
gers. She was deep in abstracted thought, struggling
vaguely with problems which he could not know, and
of which she herself was as yet but dimly conscious.

" Come home, and marry me." Perfectly patient,
perfectly confident, perfectly gentle. He reached for
her hand again, and took them both, still clasped, in his

70



THEY HAD SPOILED HER! 71

own. " Gail, we ve waited quite long enough. It s not
doing either one of us any good for you to be here. The
best thing is for us to be married right now."

For the first time she turned her eyes full upon him.

" You are taking a great deal for granted, Howard,"
and she wore a calm decision which he had not before
seen in her. " There has never been any agreement be
tween us."

" There has been an understanding," he retorted, re
leasing her unresponsive hands and looking her squarely
in the eyes, with a slight frown on his brow.

" Never," she incisively reminded him, and her pi
quant chin pointed upwards. " I ve always told you
that I could make no promises."

That came as a shock and a surprise. It could not
be possible that she did not care for him !

" Why, Gail dear, I love you ! " he suddenly told her,
with more fervour than she had ever heard in his tone.
He slipped from the edge of the couch to his knee on
the floor, where he could look up into her downcast eyes.
He put his arm around her, and drew her closer. He
clasped her hands in his own strong palm. " Listen,
Gail dear ; we grew up together." He was tender now,
tender and pleading, and his voice had in it ranges of
modulation which it had never developed before this
night. " You were my very first sweetheart ; and the
only one. Even as a boy in school, when you were only
a little kiddie, I made up my mind to marry you, and
I ve never given up that dream. All my life I ve loved
you, stronger and deeper as the years went on, until
now the love that is in me sways every thought, every
action, every emotion. I love you, Gail dear! All my
heart and all my soul is in it."

She had not drawn away from his embrace, she had



72 THE BALL OF FIRE

not removed her hands from his clasp ; instead, she had
yielded somewhat towards this old friend.

" I can t do without you any longer, Gail ! " he im
petuously went on, detecting that yielding in her.
" You must marry me ! Tell me that you will ! "

She disengaged herself from him very gently.

" I can t, Howard." Her voice was so low that he
could scarcely catch the words, and her face was filled
with sorrow.

He held tense and rigid where she had left him.

" You can t," he repeated, numbly.

" It is impossible," and her face cleared of all its per
plexity. She was grave, and serious, and saddened;
but still sure. " For the first time I know my own mind
clearly, and I know that I do not now, and never can,
care for you in the way you wish."

He rose abruptly and stood before her. His brows
were knotted, and there was a hard look on his face.

" I came too late ! " he bitterly charged. " They ve
already spoiled you ! "

Gail sprang from the couch, and a round red spot
flashed into each cheek. She had never looked so beau
tiful as when she stood before him, her tiny fists clenched
and her eyes blazing. She almost replied to him, then
she rang the bell for the butler, and hurried upstairs.
Wild as was her tumult, she stood with her hand on the
knob of her dressing-room until she heard the front door
open and close ; then she ran in and threw herself down
ward on the chintz-covered divan, and cried!

She sat up presently, and remembered that the dove-
coloured gown was her pet. With a quite characteris
tic ability of self-segregation, she put out of her mind,
except for the dull ache of it, the tangled vortex of dis
tress until she had changed her garments and let down



THEY HAD SPOILED HER! 73

her waving hair, and, disdaining the help of her maid,
performed all the little nightly duties, to the putting
away of her clothing. Then, in a perfectly neat and
orderly boudoir, she sat down to take herself seriously
in hand.

First of all, there was Howard. She must cleanse
her conscience of him for all time to come. In just
how far had she encouraged him; in how far was he
justified in assuming there to be an "understanding"
between them? It was true that they had grown up
together. It was true that, from the first moment she
had begun to be entertained by young men, she had per
mitted him to be her most frequent escort. She had
liked him better than all the others ; had trusted him,
relied on him, commanded him. Perhaps she had been
selfish in that ; but no, she had given at least as much
pleasure as she had received in that companionship.
More; for as her beauty had ripened with her years,
Howard had been more and more exacting in his jeal
ousy, in his claims upon her for the rights and the re
wards of past service. Had she been guilty in sub
mitting to this mild form of dictatorship, and, by per
mitting it, had she vested in him the right to expect it?
Possibly. She set that weakness to one side, as a mark
against her.

Then had come the age of ardour, when a more seri
ous note crept into their relation. It was the natural
end and aim of all girls to become married, and, as she
blossomed into the full flower of her young womanhood,
this end and aim had been constantly borne in on her
by all her friends and relatives, by her parents, her girl
chums, and by Howard. They had convinced her that
this was the case, and, in consequence, the logical candi
date was the young man who had expended all his time



74 THE BALL OF FIRE

and energy in trying to please her. How much of a
debt was that? Well, it was an obligation, she gravely
considered, with her dimpled chin in her hand. An ob
ligation which should be repaid with grateful friend
ship.

She was compelled to admit, being an honest and a
just young person, that at various times she had her
self considered Howard Clemmens the logical candi
date. She must be married some time, and Howard was
the most congenial young man of all her acquaintance.
He was of an excellent family, had proved his right to
exist by the fact that he had gone into business when
he had plenty of money to live in idleness, was well-
mannered, cheerful, good-natured, self-sacrificing, and
an adorer whose admiration was consistent and unfal
tering. Even she confessed this to herself with self-
resentment for having confessed it even at the time
she had left for New York, she had been fairly well set
tled in her mind that she would come back, and invite
all her hosts of friends to see her marry Howard, and
they would build a new house just the way she wanted
it, and entertain, and some day she would be a promi
nent member of the Browning Circle.

However, she had never, by any single syllable,
hinted to Howard, or any one else, that this might be
the case, and her only fault could lie in thinking it.
Now, just how far could Howard divine this mental at
titude, and just how far might that mental attitude in
fluence her actions and general bearing toward Howard,
so that he might be justified in feeling that there was
an actual understanding between them?

She did not know. She was only sure that she was
perfectly miserable. She had yielded to a fit of im
petuous anger, and had sent away her lifelong friend



THEY HAD SPOILED HER! 75

without a word of good-bye, and he had been a dear,
good fellow who had been ready to bark, or fetch and
carry, or lie down and roll over, at the word of com
mand ; and they had been together so much, and he had
always been so kind and considerate and generous, and
he was from back home, and he did really and truly love
her very much, and she was homesick; and she cried
again.

She sat upright with a jerk, and dabbed her eyes with
a handkerchief, which was composed of one square inch
of linen entirely surrounded by embroidered holes. She
had been perfectly right in sending Howard away with
out a good-bye. He had insulted her friends and her,
most grossly ; he had been nasty and unreasonable ; he
had been presumptuous and insolent ; his voice was harsh
and he had crossed his legs in a fashion which showed
his square-toed shoe at an ugly angle. She had never
seen anybody cross his legs in just that way. " They
had spoiled her already ! " Indeed ! Why had she not
waited long enough to assert herself? Why had she
not told him what a conceited creature he was? Why
had she not said all the hot, bitter, stinging things which
had popped into her mind at the time? There were
half a dozen better and more scornful ways in which
she could have sent him away than by merely calling
the butler and running upstairs. She might even have
stretched out her hand imperiously and said " Go ! "
upon which thought she laughed at herself, and dabbed
her eyes with that absurdity which she called a hand
kerchief.

There was knock at the door and, on invitation, the
tall and stately Mrs. Helen Davies came in, frilled and
ruffled for the night. She found the dainty, little guest
boudoir in green tinted dimness. Gail had turned



76 THE BALL OF FIRE

down all the lights in the room except the green lamps
under the canopy, and she sat on the divan, with her
brown hair rippling about her shoulders, her knees
clasped in her arms, and her dainty little boudoir slip
pers peeping from her flowing pink negligee, while the
dim green light, suited to her present sombre reflec
tions, only enhanced the clear pink of her complexion.
Mrs. Davies sat down in front of her.

" Mr. Clemmens proposed to you to-night," she
charged, gleaning that fact from experienced observa
tion.

Gail nodded her head.

" I hope you did not accept him."

The brown ripples shook sidewise.

" I was quite certain that you would not," and the
older woman s tone was one of distinct relief. " In
fact, I did not see how you could. The young man is
in no degree a match for you."

There was a contemptuous disapproval in her tone
which brought Gail s head up.

" You don t know Howard ! " she flared. " He is one
of the nicest young men at home. He is perfectly good
and kind and dear, and I was hateful to him ! " and
Gail s chin quivered.

Aunt Helen rendered first aid to the injured in the
tenderest of manners. She moved over to the other side
of Gail where she could surround her, and laid the brown
head on her shoulder.

" I know just how you feel," she soothingly said.
" You ve had to refuse to marry a good friend, and you
are reproaching yourself because you were compelled to
hurt him. Of course you are unfair to yourself, and
you feel perfectly miserable, and you will for a while;
but the main point is that you refused him."



THEY HAD SPOILED HER! 77

Gail, whose quick intelligence no intonation escaped,
lay comfortably on Aunt Helen s shoulder, and a clear
little laugh rippled up. She could not see the smile
of satisfaction and relief with which Aunt Helen Davies
received that laugh.

" My dear, I am quite well pleased with you," went
on the older woman. " If you handle all your affairs
so sensibly, you have a brilliant future before you."

Gail s eyelids closed ; the long, brown lashes curved
down on her cheeks, revealing just a sparkle of bright
ness, while the mischievous little smile twitched at the
corners of her lips.



Online LibraryGeorge Randolph ChesterThe ball of fire → online text (page 5 of 24)