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George Randolph Chester.

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visiting niece of one of his vestrymen, who lived next
door to the rectory. She was particularly charming in
this outfit of brown, which enhanced so much her rich
tints.

Gail jerked her pretty head impatiently. If the
Reverend Smith Boyd meant to be as sombre as this,
she d rather he d stay at home. He was dreadfully
gloomy at times ; though she was compelled to admit
that he was good-looking, in a manly sort of way, and
had a glorious voice and a stimulating mind. She in
variably recalled him with pleasure, but something about
him aggravated her so. Strange about that quick
withdrawal of his hand. It was almost rude. He had
done the same thing at the toboggan party. He had
fastened her scarf, and then he had jerked away his
hands as if he were annoyed! However, he was the
rector, and her Uncle Jim was a vestryman, and they
lived right next door.

" You just escaped a blowing up, Doctor Boyd,"
observed " Daddy " Manning, joining them, and his
eyes twinkled from one to the other. " Our young
friend from the west is harsh with the venerable Market
Square Church."

"Again?" and the Reverend Smith Boyd was gra-



94 THE BALL OF FIRE

cious enough to smile. " What is the matter with it
this time?"

" It is not only commercial, but criminal," repeated
Manning, with a sly smile at Gail, who now wore a little
red spot in each cheek.

" In what way?" and the rector turned to her se
verely.

" The mere fact that your question needs an answer
is sufficient indication of the callousness of every one
connected with Market Square Church," she promptly
informed him. " That the church should permit a spot
like this to exist, when it has the power to obliterate it,
is unbelievable; but that it should make money from
the condition is infamous ! "

The Reverend Smith Boyd s cold eyes turned green,
as he glared at this daring young person. In offend
ing the dignity of Market Square Church she offended
his own.

" What would you have us do? " he quietly asked.

" Retire from business," she informed him, nettled
by the covert sneer at her youth and inexperience.
She laid aside a new perplexity for future solution. In
moments such as this the rector was far from ministerial,
and he displayed a quickness to anger quite out of
proportion to the apparent cause. " The whole trou
ble with Market Square Church, and of the churches
throughout the world, is that they have no God. The
Creator has been reduced to a formula."

Daddy Manning saved the rector the pain of any
answer.

" You re a religious anarchist," he charged Gail.

Her face softened.

" By no means," she replied. " I am a devoted fol
lower of the Divine Spirit, the Divine Will, the Divine



MINE FOR THE GOLDEN ALTAR 95

Law; but not of the church; for it has forgotten these
things."

" You don t know what you are saying," the rector
told her.

" That isn t all you mean," she retorted. " What
you have in mind is that, being a woman, and young,
I should be silent. You would not permit thought if
you could avoid it, for when people begin to think,
religion lives but the church dies; as it is doing to-
day."

Now the Reverend Smith Boyd could be triumphant.
There was a curl of sarcasm on his lips.

" Are you quite consistent ? " he charged. " You
have just been objecting to the prosperity of the
church."

" Financially," she admitted ; " but it is a spiritual
bankrupt. Your financial prosperity is a direct sign
of your religious decay. Your financial bankruptcy
will come later, as it has done in France, as it is doing
in Italy, as it will do all over the world. Humanity
treats the church with the generosity due a once val
uable servant who has out-lived his usefulness."

" My dear child, humanity can never do without re
ligion," interposed Daddy Manning.

" Agreed," said Gail ; " but it outgrows them. It
outgrew paganism, idolatry, and a score of minor
phases in between. Now it is outgrowing the religion
of creed, in its progress toward morality. What we
need is a new religion."

" You are blaming the church with a fault which
lies in the people," protested the rector, shocked and
disturbed, and yet feeling it his duty to set Gail right.
He was ashamed of himself for having been severe with
her in his mind. She was less frivolous than he had



96 THE BALL OF FIRE

thought, and what she needed was spiritual instruction.
" The people are luke-warm."

" What else could they be with the watery spiritual
gruel which the church provides ? " retorted Gail. " You
feed us discarded bugaboos, outworn tenets, meaning
less forms and ceremonies. All the rest of the world
progresses, but the church stands still. Once in a
decade some sect patches its creed, and thinks it
has been revolutionary, when in fact it has only caught
up with a point which was passed by humanity at large,
in its advancing intelligence, fifty years before."

" I am interested in knowing what your particular
new religion would be like," remarked Daddy Manning,
his twinkling eyes resting affectionately on her.

" It would be a return to the simple faith in God,"
Gail told him reverently. " It is still in the hearts of
the people, as it will always be ; but they have nowhere
to gather together and worship."

Daddy Manning laughed as he detected that bit of
sarcasm.

" According to that we are wasting our new ca
thedral."

" Absolutely ! " and it struck the rector with pain
that Gail had never looked more beautiful than now,
with her cheeks flushed and her brown eyes snapping
with indignation. " Your cathedral will be a monu
ment, built out of the profits wrung from squalor, to
the vanity of your congregation. If I were the dic
tator of this wonderful city of achievement, I would
decree that cathedral never to be built, and Vedder
Court to be utterly destroyed ! "

" It is perhaps just as well that you are not the dic
tator of the city." The young Reverend Smith Boyd
gazed down at her from his six feet of serious purpose,



MINE FOR THE GOLDEN ALTAR 97

with all his previous disapproval intensified. * The
history of Market Square Church is rich with instances
of its usefulness in both the spiritual and the material
world, with evidence of its power for good, with justifi
cation for its existence, with reason for its acts. You
make the common mistake of judging an entire body
from one surface indication. Do you suppose there
is no sincerity, no conscience, no consecration in Mar
ket Square Church?" His deep, mellow baritone vi
brated with the defence of his purpose and that of the
institution which he represented. " Why do you sup
pose our vestrymen, whose time is of enormous value,
find a space amid their busy working hours for the af
fairs of Market Square Church? Why do you sup
pose the ladies of our guild, who have agreeable pur
suits for every hour of the day, give their time to com
mittee and charity work? " He paused for a hesitant
moment. " Why do you suppose I am so eager for
the building, on American soil, of the most magnificent
house of worship in the world? "

Gail s pretty upper lip curled.

" Personal ambition ! " she snapped, and, without
waiting to see the pallor which struck his face to stone,
she heeled her way out through the mud to her coupe.



CHAPTER X

THE STORM CENTRE OF MAGNETIC ATTRACTION

"r>ROTHER BONES," said Interlocutor Ted

-i-l Teasdale commandingly, with his knuckles on
his right knee and his elbow at the proper angle.

" Yes, sir, Mr. Interlocutor," replied Willis Cun
ningham, whose " black-face makeup " seemed marvel
lously absurd in connection with his brown Vandyke.

" Brother Bones, when does everybody love a storm? "

" I don t know, Mr. Interlocutor," admitted Brother
Bones Cunningham, touching his kinky wig with the tip
of one forefinger. " When does everybody love a
storm ? "

Interlocutor Ted Teasdale roved his eye over the as
semblage, of fifty or more, in his own ballroom, and
smiled in a superior fashion. The ebony-faced semi
circle of impromptu minstrels, banded together that
morning, leaned forward with anticipatory grins.
They had heard the joke in rehearsal. It was a
corker!

" When it s a Gail," he replied, whereat Gail Sar
gent, at whom everybody looked and laughed, flushed
prettily, and the bones and tambos made a flourish, and
the Interlocutor announced that the Self Help Glee
Club would now sing that entrancing ditty, entitled
" Mary Had a Little Calf."

It was only in the blossom of the evening at Ted
Teasdale s country house, the same being about eleven

98



THE STORM CENTRE 99

o clock, and the dance was still to begin. Lucile Teas-
dale s vivid idea for making her house-party notable
was to induce their guests to amuse themselves; and
their set had depended upon hired entertainers for so
long that the idea had all the charm of distinct novelty.
There had been an amazingly smart operetta written
on the spot by Willis Cunningham, and with musical
settings by Arlene Fosland. Rippingly clever thing!
" The Tea Room Suffragettes ! " Ball afterwards, of
course, until four o clock in the morning. To-night
the minstrel show, and a ball ; to-morrow night tableaux
vivant, and a ball ; fancy dress this time, and all cos
tumes to be devised from the materials at hand by the
wearer s own ingenuity. Fine? No end of it! One
could always be sure of having a lively time around
Lucile and Ted Teasdale and Arly Fosland. Gerald
Fosland was at this party. Fine chap, Gerald, and
beautifully decent in his attentions to Arly. Pity they
were so rotten bored with each other; but there you
were ! Each should have married a blonde.

Gail Sargent fairly scintillated with enjoyment. She
had never attended so brilliant a house-party. Her
own set back home had a lot of fun, but this was in
some way different. The people were no more clever,
but there were more clever people among them ; that
was it. There had been a wider range from which to
pick, which was why, in New York, there were so many
circles, and circles within circles.

Gail was sparkling all the time. There was a con
stant flash of wit, not of a very high order, to be sure,
nor exceptionally brilliant, which latter was its chief
charm. Some wit has to be taken so very seriously.
There were dashes into the brisk, exhilarating winter
air, there were lazy breakfasts, where three or four of



ioo THE BALL OF FIRE

the girls grouped in one room, there was endless gaiety
and laughter, and, above all, oceans and oceans of flir
tation. The men whom Lucile and Arly had collected
were an especial joy. They had all the accomplished
outward symbols of fervour without any of its oppres
sive insistence. Gail, as an agreeable duty to her new
found self, experimented with several of them, and found
them most amusing and pleasant, but nothing more dis
turbing.

Dick Rodley was the most persistent, and, in spite of
the fact that he was so flawlessly handsome as to excite
ridicule, Gail found herself, by and by, defending him
against her own iconoclastic sense of humour. He
reached her after the minstrel show, while Houston Van
Ploon and Willis Cunningham were still struggling pro
fanely with their burnt cork, and he stole her from un
der the very eyes of Jack Lariby, while that smitten
youth was exchanging wit, at a tremendous loss, with
caustic Arly Fosland.

" Have you seen the new century plant in the con
servatory ? " Dick asked, beaming down at her, his black
eyes glowing like coals.

Gail s eyelids flashed down for an instant, and the
corners of her lips twitched. Young Lariby had only
been with her five minutes, but she had felt herself age
ing in that time.

" I love them," she avowed, and glancing backward
just once, she tiptoed hastily away with the delighted
Dick. That young man had looked deep into the eyes
of many women, and at last he was weary of being
adored. He led Gail straight to the sequestered corner
behind the date palms, but it was occupied by Bobby
Chalmers and Flo Reynolds. He strolled with Gail to
the seat behind the rose screen, but it was fully engaged,



THE STORM CENTRE 101

and he led the way out toward the geranium alcove.

" I ve missed you so this evening," he earnestly con
fided to her. " I was two hours in the minstrel show.
It was forever, Gail ! " and he bent his glowing eyes
upon her. That was it! His wonderful eyes! They
were magnetic, compelling, and one would be dull who
could not find a response to the thrill of them.

"Where is the century plant?" He was a tremen
dously pleasant fellow. When she walked through a
crowded room with Dick, she knew, from the looks of
admiration, just what people were saying; that they
were an extraordinarily handsome couple.

" There is no century plant," he shamelessly con
fessed.

" I knew it," and she laughed.

" I don t mind admitting that it was a point-blank
lie," he cheerfully told her. " I wanted to get you out
here alone, all to myself," and his voice went down two
tones. He did do it so prettily !

" I ve counted seven couples," she gaily responded.

He tightened his arm where her hand lay in it, and
she left it there.

" You ve clinched Lucile s reputation," he stated.
" She always has been famous for picking good ones ;
but she saved you for the climax."

" My happy, happy childhood days," laughed Gail.
" The boys used to talk that way on the way home from
school."

" I don t doubt it," and Dick smiled appreciatively.
" The dullest sort of a boy would find himself saying
nice things to you ; but I shall stop it."

" Oh, please don t ! " begged Gail. " You are so de
lightful at it."

He pounced on a corner half hidden by a tub of



102 THE BALL OF FIRE

ferns. There was no bench there, but it was at least
semi-isolated, and he leaned gracefully against the
window-ledge, looking down at her earnestly as she
stood, slenderly outlined against the green of the ferns,
in her gown of delicate blue sparkling with opalescent
flakes.

" That s just the trouble," he complained. " I don t
wish you to be aware that I am saying what you call
pretty things. I wish, instead, to be effective," and
there was a roughness in his voice which had come for
the first time. She was a trifle startled by it, and she
lowered her eyes before the steady gaze which he poured
down on her. Why, he was in earnest !

" Then take me to Lucile," she smiled up at him, and
strolled in toward the ballroom.

Willis Cunningham met them at the door.

" You promised me the first dance," he breathlessly
informed Gail. He had been walking rapidly.

" Are they ready ? " she inquired, stepping a pace
away from Dick.

" Well, the musicians are coming in," evaded Cun
ningham, tucking her hand in his arm.

" I ve the second one, remember, Grail," Dick re
minded her, as he glanced around the ballroom for his
own partner, but Gail distinctly felt his eyes following
her as she walked away with Cunningham.

" I know now of what your profile reminds me,"
Cunningham told her ; " the Charmeaux Praying
Nymph. It is the most spiritually beautiful of all the
pictures in the Louvre."

" I wonder which is the stronger emotion in me just
now," she returned ; " gratified vanity or curiosity."

" I hope it s the latter," smiled Cunningham. " I



THE STORM CENTRE 103

recall now a gallery in which there is a very good copy
of the Charmeaux canvas, and I d be delighted to take
you. *

" I ll go with pleasure," promised Gail, and Cun
ningham turned to her with a grateful smile.

" I would prefer to show you the original," he ven
tured.

" Oh, look at them tuning their drums," cried Gail,
and he thought that she had entirely missed his hint,
that the keenest delight in his life would be to lead her
through the Louvre, and from thence to a perspective
of picture galleries, dazzling with all the hues of the
spectrum, and as long as life!

He had other things which he wanted to say, but he
calculatingly reserved them for the day of the picture
viewing, when he would have her exclusive attention ;
so, through the dance, he talked of trifles faf from his
heart. He was a nice chap, too.

Dick Rodley was on hand with the last stroke of the
music, to claim her for his dance. By one of those
waves of unspoken agreement, Gail was being " rushed."
It was her night, and she enjoyed it to the full. Per
haps the new awakening in Gail, the crystallisation of
which she had been forced to become conscious, had
something to do with this. Her cheeks, while no more
beautiful in their delicacy of colouring, had a certain
quality of translucence, which gave her the indefinable
effect of glowing from within ; her eyes, while no
brighter, had changed the manner of their brightness.
They had lost something of their sparkle, which had
been replaced by a peculiarly enticing half-veiled scin
tillation, much as if they were smouldering, only to cast
off streams of brilliant sparks at the slightest disturb-



104 THE BALL OF FIRE

ance ; while all about her was the vague intangible aura
of magnetic attraction which seemed to flutter and to
soothe and to call, all in one.

Dick Rodley was the first to know this vague change
in her ; perhaps because Dick, with all his experience in
the social diversion of love-making, was, after all, more
spiritual in his physical perceptions. At any rate he
hovered near her at every opportunity throughout the
evening, and his own eyes, which had the natural trick
of glowing, now almost blazed when they met those of
Gail. She liked him, and she did not. She was thrown
into a flutter of pleasure when he came near her, she
enjoyed a clash of wit, and of will, and of snappy
mutual attraction ; then suddenly she wanted him away
from her, only to welcome him eagerly when he came
back.

Van Ploon danced with her, danced conscientiously,
keeping perfect time to the music, avoiding, with prac
tised adroitness, every possible pocketing, or even hem
contacts with surrounding couples, and acquitting him
self of lightly turned observations at the expiration of
about every seventy seconds. He was aware that Gail
was exceptionally pretty to-night, but, if he stopped to
analyse it at all, he probably ascribed it to her delicate
blue dancing frock with its opalescent flakes, or her
coiffure, or something of the sort. He quite approved
of her; extraordinarily so. He had never met a girl
who approached so near the thousand per cent, grade
of perfection by all the blue ribbon points.

It was while she was enjoying her second restful
dance with Van Ploon that Gail, swinging with him near
the south windows, heard the honk of an auto horn, and
a repetition close after, and, by the acceleration of
tone, she discerned that the machine was coming up the



THE STORM CENTRE 105

drive at break-neck speed. Moreover, her delicately
attuned musical ear recognised something familiar in
the sound of the horn ; perhaps tone, perhaps duration,
perhaps inflection, more likely a combination of all
three. Consequently, she was not at all surprised
when, near the conclusion of the dance, she saw Allison
standing in the doorway of the ballroom, with his hands
in his pockets, watching her with a smile. Her eyes
lighted with pleasure, and she nodded gaily to him over
Van Ploon s tall shoulder. When the dance stopped
she was on the far side of the room, and was instantly
the centre of a buzzing little knot of dancers, from out
of which carefree laughter radiated like visible flashes
of musical sound. She emerged from the group with
the arms of two bright-eyed girls around her waist, and
met Allison sturdily breasting the currents which had
set towards the conservatory, the drawing rooms, or the
buffet.

" Nobody has saved me a dance," he complained.

" Nobody expected you until to-morrow," Gail smil
ingly returned, introducing him to the girls. " I ll beg
you one of my dances from Ted or somebody."

She was so obviously slated to entertain Allison dur
ing this little intermission, that Van Ploon, following
the trio in duty bound, took one of the girls and went
away, and her partner led the other one to the music
room.

" I ll have Lucile piece you out a card," offered Gail,
as they strolled naturally across to the little glass en
closed balcony. " I don t think I can secure you one
of Arly s dances. She s scandalously popular to
night."

" One will be enough for me, unless you can steal me
some more of your own," he told her, glancing down at



io6 THE BALL OF FIRE

her, from coiffure to blue pointed slippers, with calm
appreciation. " You are looking great to-night," and
his gaze came back to rest in her glowing eyes. Her
fresh colour had been heightened by the excitement of
the evening, but now an added flush swept lightly over
her cheeks, and passed.

" I ll see what I can do," she speculated, looking at
her dance card. " The next three are with total
strangers, and of course I can t touch those," she
laughed. " The fourth one is with Willis Cunning
ham, and after that is a brief wilderness again. I think
one is all you get."

" I m lucky even to have that," declared Allison in
content. " The fourth dance down. That will just
give me time to punish the buffet. I m hungry as a
bear. I started out here without my dinner."

They stood at the balcony windows looking out into
the wintry night. There was not much to see, not even
the lacing of the bare trees against the clouded sky.
The snow had gone, and where the light from the win
dows cut squarely on the ground were bare walks, and
cold marble, and dead lawn ; all else was blackness ; but it
was a sufficient landscape for people so intensely con
centrated upon themselves.

Her next partner came in search of her presently, and
the music struck up, and Allison, nodding to his many
acquaintances jovially, for he was in excellent humour
in these days of building, and planning, and clearing
ground for an entirely new superstructure of life, cir
cled around to the dining room, where he performed
savage feats at the buffet. Soon he was out again,
standing quietly at the edge of things, and watching
Gail with keen pleasure, both when she danced and
when, in the intermissions, the gallants of the party



THE STORM CENTRE 107

gravitated to her like needles to a magnet. Her pop
ularity pleased him, and flattered him. Suddenly he
caught sight of Bldridge Babbitt, a middle-aged man
who was watching a young woman with the same pleas
ure Allison was experiencing in the contemplation of
Gail.

" Just the man I wanted to see," announced Allison,
making his way to Babbitt. " I have a new freightage
proposition for the National Dairy Products Consoli
dation."

Babbitt brightened visibly. He had been missing
something keenly these past two days, and now all at
once he realised what it was ; business.

" I can t see any possible new angle," returned Bab
bitt cautiously, and with a backward glance at the
dashing young Mrs. Babbitt. He headed instinctively
for the library.

Laughingly Gail finished her third dance down. She
had enjoyed several sparkling encounters in passing
with Dick Rodley, and she was buoyantly exhilarated as
she started to stroll from the floor with her partner.
She had wanted to find cherub-cheeked Marion Kenneth,
and together they walked through the conservatory, and
the dining room, and the deserted billiard room, with
its bright light on the green cloth and all the rest of
the room in dimness. There was a narrow space at
one point between the chairs and the table, and it un
expectedly wedged them into close contact. With a
sharp intake of his breath, the fellow, a ruddy-faced,
thick-necked, full-lipped young man who had followed
her with his eyes all evening, suddenly turned, and
caught her in his embrace, and, holding back her head in
the hollow of his arm, kissed her ; a new kiss to her, and
horrible !



io8 THE BALL OF FIRE

Suddenly he released her, and stepped back abruptly,
filled with remorse.

" Forgive me, Miss Sargent," he begged.

Gail nodded her numb acceptance of the apology,
and turning, hurried out of the side door to the veranda.
Her knees were trembling, but the fresh, cold air
steadied her, and she walked the full length of the wide
porch, trying instinctively to forget the sickening hu
miliation. As she came to the corner of the house, the
sharp winter wind tore at her, smote her throat, clutched
at her bare shoulders, and stopped her with a sharp
physical command. She drew her gauzy little dancing
scarf around her, and held it tightly knotted at her
throat, and edged closer to the house. She was near
a window, and, advancing a step, she looked in. It was
the library, and Allison sat there, so clean and whole



Online LibraryGeorge Randolph ChesterThe ball of fire → online text (page 7 of 24)