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however striking, could under these circumstances, stir Lane's heart.
He was fascinated, puzzled, intensely curious.

"Why wouldn't you dance jazz in front of me?" he inquired, with a
smile.

"Well, for one thing I'm not stuck on it, and for another I'll say you
said a mouthful."

"Is that all?" he asked, as if disappointed.

"No. I'd respect what you said - because of where you've been and what
you've done."

It was a reply that surprised Lane.

"I'm out of date, you know."

She put a finger on the medal on his breast and said: "You could never
be out of date."

The music and the sliding shuffle ceased.

"Now beat it," said Helen. "I want to talk to Daren." She gayly shoved
the young people ahead of her in a mass, and called to Bessy: "Here,
you kid vamp, lay off Daren."

Bessy leaned to whisper in his ear: "Make a date with me, quick!"

"Surely, I'll hunt you up. Good-bye."

She was the only one who made any pretension of saying good-bye to
Lane. They all crowded out before Helen, with Mackay in the rear. From
the hall Lane heard him say to Helen: "Dick'll sure go to the mat with
you for this."

Presently Helen returned to shut the door behind her; and her walk
toward Lane had a suggestion of the oriental dancer. For Lane her face
was a study. This seemed a woman beyond his comprehension. She was the
Helen Wrapp he had known and loved, plus an age of change, a
measureless experience. With that swaying, sinuous, pantherish grace,
with her green eyes narrowed and gleaming, half mocking, half serious,
she glided up to him, close, closer until she pressed against him, and
her face was uplifted under his. Then she waited with her eyes gazing
into his. Slumberous green depths, slowly lighting, they seemed to
Lane. Her presence thus, her brazen challenge, affected him
powerfully, but he had no thrill.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?" she asked.

"Helen, why didn't you write me you had broken our engagement?" he
counter-queried.

The question disconcerted her somewhat. Drawing back from close
contact with him she took hold of his sleeves, and assumed a naive air
of groping in memory. She used her eyes in a way that Lane could not
associate with the past he knew. She was a flirt - not above trying her
arts on the man she had jilted.

"Why, didn't I write you? Of course I did."

"Well, if you did I never got the letter. And if you were on the level
you'd admit you never wrote."

"How'd you find out then?" she inquired curiously.

"I never knew for sure until your mother verified it."

"Are you curious to know why I did break it off?"

"Not in the least."

This reply shot the fire into her face, yet she still persisted in the
expression of her sentimental motive. She began to finger the medal on
his breast.

"So, Mr. Soldier Hero, you didn't care?"

"No - not after I had been here ten minutes," he replied, bluntly.

She whirled from him, swiftly, her body instinct with passion, her
expression one of surprise and fury.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Nothing I care to explain, except I discovered my love for you was
dead - perhaps had been dead for a long time."

"But you never discovered it until you _saw_ me - here - with
Swann - dancing, drinking, smoking?"

"No. To be honest, the shock of that enlightened me."

"Daren Lane, I'm just what _you_ men have made me," she burst out,
passionately.

"You are mistaken. I beg to be excluded from any complicity in the - in
whatever you've been made," he said, bitterly. "I have been true to
you in deed and in thought all this time."

"You must be a queer soldier!" she exclaimed, incredulously.

"I figure there were a couple of million soldiers like me, queer or
not," he retorted.

She gazed at him with something akin to hate in her eyes. Then
putting her hands to her full hips she began that swaying, dancing
walk to and fro before the window. She was deeply hurt. Lane had meant
to get under her skin with a few just words of scorn, and he had
imagined his insinuation as to the change in her had hurt her
feelings. Suddenly he divined it was not that at all - he had only
wounded her vanity.

"Helen, let's not talk of the past," he said. "It's over. Even if you
had been true to me, and I loved you still - I would have been
compelled to break our engagement."

"You would! And why?"

"I am a physical wreck - and a mental one, too, I fear.... Helen, I've
come home to die."

"Daren!" she cried, poignantly.

Then he told her in brief, brutal words of the wounds and ravages war
had dealt him, and what Doctor Bronson's verdict had been. Lane felt
shame in being so little as to want to shock and hurt her, if that
were possible.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she burst out. "Your mother - your sister.... Oh, that
damned horrible war! _What_ has it not done to us?... Daren, you
looked white and weak, but I never thought you were - going to die....
How dreadful!"

Something of her girlishness returned to her in this moment of
sincerity. The past was not wholly dead. Memories lingered. She looked
at Lane, wide-eyed, in distress, caught between strange long-forgotten
emotions.

"Helen, it's not dreadful to have to die," replied Lane. "_That_ is
not the dreadful part in coming home."

"What _is_ dreadful, then?" she asked, very low.

Lane felt a great heave of his breast - the irrepressible reaction of a
profound and terrible emotion, always held in abeyance until now. And
a fierce pang, that was physical as well as emotional, tore through
him. His throat constricted and ached to a familiar sensation - the
welling up of blood from his lungs. The handkerchief he put to his
lips came away stained red. Helen saw it, and with dilated eyes, moved
instinctively as if to touch him, hold him in her pity.

"Never mind, Helen," he said, huskily. "That's nothing.... Well, I was
about to tell you what is so dreadful - for me.... It's to reach home
grateful to God I was spared to get home - resigned to the ruin of my
life - content to die for whom I fought - my mother, my sister, _you_,
and all our women (for I fought for nothing else) - and find my mother
aged and bewildered and sad, my sister a painted little hussy - and
_you_ - a strange creature I despise.... And all, everybody, everything
changed - changed in some horrible way which proves my sacrifice in
vain.... It is not death that is dreadful, but the uselessness, the
hopelessness of the ideal I cherished."

Helen fell on the couch, and burying her face in the pillows she began
to sob. Lane looked down at her, at her glistening auburn hair, and
slender, white, ringed hand clutching the cushions, at her lissom
shaking form, at the shapely legs in the rolled-down silk
stockings - and he felt a melancholy happiness in the proof that he had
reached her shallow heart, and in the fact that this was the moment of
loss.

"Good-bye - Helen," he said.

"Daren - don't - go," she begged.

But he had to go, for other reasons beside the one that this was the
end of all intimate relation between him and Helen. He had overtaxed
his strength, and the burning pang in his breast was one he must heed.
On the hall stairway a dizzy spell came over him. He held on to the
banister until the weakness passed. Fortunately there was no one to
observe him. Somehow the sumptuous spacious hall seemed drearily
empty. Was this a home for that twenty-year-old girl upstairs? Lane
opened the door and went out. He was relieved to find the taxi
waiting. To the driver he gave the address of his home and said: "Go
slow and don't give me a jar!"

But Lane reached home, and got into the house, where he sat at the
table with his mother and Lorna, making a pretense of eating, and went
upstairs and into his bed without any recurrence of the symptoms that
had alarmed him. In the darkness of his room he gradually relaxed to
rest. And rest was the only medicine for him. It had put off hour by
hour and day by day the inevitable.

"If it comes - all right - I'm ready," he whispered to himself. "But in
spite of all I've been through - and have come home to - I don't _want_
to die."

There was no use in trying to sleep. But in this hour he did not want
oblivion. He wanted endless time to think. And slowly, with infinite
care and infallible memory, he went over every detail of what he had
seen and heard since his arrival home. In the headlong stream of
consciousness of the past hours he met with circumstances that he
lingered over, and tried to understand, to no avail. Yet when all lay
clearly before his mental gaze he felt a sad and tremendous
fascination in the spectacle.

For many weeks he had lived on the fancy of getting home, of being
honored and loved, of being given some little meed of praise and
gratitude in the short while he had to live. Alas! this fancy had been
a dream of his egotism. His old world was gone. There was nothing
left. The day of the soldier had passed - until some future need of him
stirred the emotions of a selfish people. This new world moved on
unmindful, through its travail and incalculable change, to unknown
ends. He, Daren Lane, had been left alone on the vast and naked shores
of Lethe.

Lane made not one passionate protest at the injustice of his fate.
Labor, agony, war had taught him wisdom and vision. He began to
realize that no greater change could there be than this of his mind,
his soul. But in the darkness there an irresistible grief assailed
him. He wept as never before in all his life. And he tasted the bitter
salt of his own tears. He wept for his mother, aged and bowed by
trouble, bewildered, ready to give up the struggle - his little sister
now forced into erotic girlhood, blind, wilful, bold, on the wrong
path, doomed beyond his power or any earthly power - the men he had
met, warped by the war, materialistic, lost in the maze of
self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, dead to chivalry and the
honor of women - Mel Iden, strangest and saddest of mysteries - a girl
who had been noble, aloof, proud, with a heart of golden fire, now
disgraced, ruined, the mother of a war-baby, and yet, strangest of
all, not vile, not bad, not lost, but groping like he was down those
vast and naked shores of life. He wept for the hard-faced Mrs. Wrapp,
whose ideal had been wealth and who had found prosperity bitter ashes
at her lips, yet who preserved in this modern maelstrom some sense of
its falseness, its baseness. He wept for Helen, playmate of the years
never to return, sweetheart of his youth, betrayer of his manhood, the
young woman of the present, blase, unsexed, seeking, provocative, all
perhaps, as she had said, that men had made her - a travesty on
splendid girlhood. He wept for her friends, embodying in them all of
their class - for little Bessy Bell, with her exquisite golden beauty,
her wonderful smile that was a light of joy - a child of fifteen with
character and mind, not yet sullied, not yet wholly victim to the
unstable spirit of the day.

And traveling in this army that seemed to march before Lane's eyes
were the slackers, like Mackay and Swann, representative of that horde
of cowards who in one way or another had avoided the service - the
young men who put comfort, ease, safety, pleasure before all else - who
had no ideal of womanhood - who could not have protected women - who
would not fight to save women from the apish Huns - who remained behind
to fall in the wreck of the war's degeneration, and to dance, to
drink, to smoke, to ride the women to their debasement.

And for the first and the last time Lane wept for himself, pitifully
as a child lost and helpless, as a strong man facing irreparable loss,
as a boy who had dreamed beautiful dreams, who had loved and given
and trusted, who had suffered insupportable agonies of body and soul,
who had fought like a lion for what he represented to himself, who had
killed and killed - and whose reward was change, indifference, betrayal
and death.

That dark hour passed. Lane lay spent in the blackness of his room.
His heart had broken. But his spirit was as unquenchable as the fire
of the sun. If he had a year, a month, a week, a day longer to live he
could never live it untrue to himself. Life had marked him to be a
sufferer, a victim. But nothing could kill his soul. And his soul was
his faith - something he understood as faith in God or nature or
life - in the reason for his being - in his vision of the future.

How then to spend this last remnant of his life! No one would guess
what passed through his lonely soul. No one would care. But out of the
suffering that now seemed to give him spirit and wisdom and charity
there dawned a longing to help, to save. He would return good for
evil. All had failed him, but he would fail no one.

Then he had a strange intense desire to understand the present. Only a
day home - and what colossal enigma! The war had been chaos. Was this
its aftermath? Had people been rocked on their foundations? What were
they doing - how living - how changing? He would see, and be grateful
for a little time to prove his faith. He knew he would find the same
thing in others that existed in himself.

He would help his mother, and cheer her, and try to revive something
of hope in her. He would bend a keen and patient eye upon Lorna, and
take the place of her father, and be kind, loving, yet blunt to her,
and show her the inevitable end of this dancing, dallying road.
Perhaps he could influence Helen. He would see the little
soldier-worshipping Bessy Bell, and if by talking hours and hours, by
telling the whole of his awful experience of war, he could take up
some of the time so fraught with peril for her, he would welcome the
ordeal of memory. And Mel Iden - how thought of her seemed tinged with
strange regret! Once she and he had been dear friends, and because of
a falsehood told by Helen that friendship had not been what it might
have been. Suppose Mel, instead of Helen, had loved him and been
engaged to him! Would he have been jilted and would Mel have been
lost? No! It was a subtle thing - that answer of his spirit. It did not
agree with Mel Iden's frank confession.

It might be difficult, he reflected, to approach Mel. But he would
find a way. He would rest a few days - then find where she lived and go
to see her. Could he help her? And he had an infinite exaltation in
his power to help any one who had suffered. Lane recalled Mel's pale
sweet face, the shadowed eyes, the sad tremulous lips. And this image
of her seemed the most lasting of the impressions of the day.




CHAPTER V


The arbiters of social fate in Middleville assembled at Mrs. Maynard's
on a Monday afternoon, presumably to partake of tea. Seldom, however,
did they meet without adding zest to the occasion by a pricking down
of names.

Mrs. Wrapp was the leading spirit of this self-appointed tribunal - a
circumstance of expanding, resentment to Mrs. Maynard, who had once
held the reins with aristocratic hands. Mrs. Kingsley, the third
member of the great triangle, claimed an ancestor on the Mayflower,
which was in her estimation a guerdon of blue blood. Her elaborate and
exclusive entertainments could never be rivalled by those of Mrs.
Wrapp. She was a widow with one child, the daughter Elinor, a girl of
nineteen.

Mrs. Maynard was tall, pale, and worldly. Traces of lost beauty
flashed in her rare smiles. When Frank Maynard had failed in business
she had shrouded her soul in bitterness; and she saw the slow cruel
years whiten his head and bend his shoulders with the cold eye of a
woman who had no forgiveness for failure. After Mr. Maynard's reverse,
all that kept the pair together were the son Blair, and the sweet,
fair-haired, delicate Margaret, a girl of eighteen, whom the father
loved, and for whom the mother had large ambitions. They still
managed, in ways mysterious to the curious, to keep their fine
residence in the River Park suburb of Middleville.

On this April afternoon the tea was neglected in the cups, and there
was nothing of the usual mild gossip. The discussion involved Daren
Lane, and when two of those social arbiters settled back in their
chairs the open sesame of Middleville's select affairs had been denied
to him.

"Why did he do it?" asked Mrs. Kingsley.

"He must have been under the influence of liquor," replied Mrs.
Maynard, who had her own reasons for being relieved at the disgrace of
Daren Lane.

"No, Jane, you're wrong," spoke up Mrs. Wrapp, who, whatever else she
might be, was blunt and fair-minded. "Lane wasn't drunk. He never
drank before the war. I knew him well. He and Helen had a puppy-love
affair - they were engaged before Lane went to war. Well, the day after
his return he called on us. And if I never liked him before I liked
him then. He's come back to die! He was ill for two weeks - and then he
crawled out of bed again. I met him down town one day. He really
looked better, and told me with a sad smile that he had 'his ups and
downs'.... No, Lane wasn't drunk at Fanchon Smith's dance the other
night. I was there, and I was with Mrs. Smith when Lane came up to us.
If ever I saw a cool, smooth, handsome devil it was Lane.... Well, he
said what he said. I thought Mrs. Smith would faint. It is my idea
Lane had a deep motive back of his remark about Fanchon's dress and
her dancing. The fact is Lane was _sick_ at what he saw - sick and
angry. And he wanted Fanchon's mother and me to know what he
thought."

"It was an insult," declared Mrs. Maynard, vehemently.

"It made Mrs. Smith ill," added Mrs. Kingsley. "She told me Fanchon
tormented the life out of her, trying to learn what Lane said. Mrs.
Smith would not tell. But Fanchon came to me and _I_ told her. Such a
perfectly furious girl! She'll not wear _that_ dress or dance _that_
dance very soon again. The story is all over town."

"Friends, there are two sides to every question," interposed the
forceful Mrs. Wrapp. "If Lane cared to be popular he would have used
more tact. But I don't think his remark was an insult. It was pretty
raw, I admit. But the dress was indecent and the dance was rotten.
Helen told me Fanchon was half shot. So how could she be insulted?"

Mrs. Maynard and Mrs. Kingsley, as usual, received Mrs. Wrapp's
caustic and rather crude opinions with as good grace as they could
muster. Plain it was that they felt themselves a shade removed from
this younger and newer member of society. But they could not show
direct antagonism to her influence any more than they could understand
the common sense and justice of her arguments.

"No one will ever invite him again," declared Mrs. Maynard.

"He's done in Middleville," echoed Mrs. Kingsley. And that perhaps was
a gauntlet thrown.

"Rot!" exclaimed Mrs. Wrapp, with more force than elegance. "I'll
invite Daren Lane to my house.... You women don't get the point.
Daren Lane is a soldier come home to die. He gave himself. And he
returns to find all - all this sickening - oh, what shall I call it?
What does he care whether or not we invite him? Can't you see that?"

"There's a good deal in what you say," returned Mrs. Kingsley,
influenced by the stronger spirit. "Maybe Lane hated the new styles. I
don't blame him much. There's something wrong with our young people.
The girls are crazy. The boys are wild. Few of them are marrying - or
even getting engaged. They'll do _anything_. The times are different.
And we mothers don't know our daughters."

"Well, I know _mine_" returned Mrs. Maynard, loftily. "What you say
may be true generally, but there are exceptions. My daughter has been
too well brought up."

"Yes, Margie is well-bred," retorted Mrs. Wrapp. "We'll admit she
hasn't gone to extremes, as most of our girls have. But I want to
observe to you that she has been a wall-flower for a year."

"It certainly _is_ a problem," sighed Mrs. Kingsley. "I feel
helpless - out of it. Elinor does precisely what she wants to do. She
wears outlandish clothes. She smokes and - I'm afraid drinks. And
dances - _dreadfully._ Just like the other girls - no better, no worse.
But with all that I think she's good. I feel the same as Jane feels
about that. In spite of this - this modern stuff I believe all the
girls are fundamentally the same as ten years ago."

"Well, that's where you mothers get in wrong," declared Mrs. Wrapp
with her vigorous bluntness. "It's your pride. Just because they're
_your_ daughters they are above reproach.... What have you to say
about the war babies in town? Did you ever hear of _that_ ten years
ago? You bet you didn't. These girls are a speedy set. Some of them
are just wild for the sake of wildness. Most of them _have_ to stand
for things, or be left out altogether."

"What in the world can we do?" queried Mrs. Maynard, divided between
distress and chagrin.

"The good Lord only knows," responded Mrs. Wrapp, herein losing her
assurance. "Marriage would save most of them. But Helen doesn't want
to marry. She wants to paint pictures and be free."

"Perhaps marriage is a solution," rejoined Mrs. Maynard thoughtfully.

"Whom on earth can we marry them to?" asked Mrs. Kingsley. "Most of
the older men, the bachelors who're eligible haven't any use for these
girls except to _play_ with them. True, these young boys only think of
little but dances, car-rides, and sneaking off alone to spoon - they
get engaged to this girl and that one. But nothing comes of it."

"You're wrong. Never in my time have I seen girls find lovers and
husbands as easily as now," declared Mrs. Wrapp. "Nor get rid of them
so quickly.... Jane, you can marry Margaret. She's pretty and sweet
even if you have spoiled her. The years are slipping by. Margaret
ought to marry. She's not strong enough to work. Marriage for her
would make things so much easier for you."

With that parting dig Mrs. Wrapp rose to go. Whereupon she and Mrs.
Kingsley, with gracious words of invitation and farewell, took
themselves off leaving Mrs. Maynard contending with an outraged
spirit. Certain terse remarks of the crude and practical Mrs. Wrapp
had forced to her mind a question that of late had assumed cardinal
importance, and now had been brought to an issue by a proposal for
Margaret's hand. Her daughter was a great expense, really more than
could longer be borne in these times of enormous prices and shrunken
income. A husband had been found for Margaret, and the matter could be
adjusted easily enough, if the girl did not meet it with the
incomprehensible obstinacy peculiar to her of late.

Mrs. Maynard found the fair object of her hopes seated in the middle
of her room with the bright contents of numerous boxes and drawers
strewn in glittering heaps around her.

"Margaret, what on earth are you doing there?" she demanded.

"I'm looking for a little picture Holt Dalrymple gave me when we went
to school together," responded Margaret.

"Aren't you ever going to grow up? You'll be hunting for your dolls
next."

"I will if I like," said the daughter, in a tone that did not manifest
a seraphic mood.

"Don't you feel well?" inquired the mother, solicitously. Margaret was
frail and subject to headaches that made her violent.

"Oh, I'm well enough."

"My dear," rejoined Mrs. Maynard, changing the topic. "I'm sorry to
tell you Daren Lane has lost his standing in Middleville."

The hum and the honk of a motor-car sounded in the street.

"Poor Daren! What's he done?... Any old day he'll care!"

Mrs. Maynard was looking out of the window. "Here comes a crowd of
girls.... Helen Wrapp has a new suit. Well, I'll go down. And after
they leave I want a serious talk with you."

"Not if I see you first!" muttered Margaret, under her breath, as her
mother walked out.

Presently, following gay talk and laughter down stairs, a bevy of
Margaret's friends entered her boudoir.

"Hello, old socks!" was Helen's greeting. "You look punk."

"Marg, where's the doll? Your mother tipped us off," was Elinor's
greeting.

"Where's the eats?" was Flossie Dickerson's greeting. She was a
bright-eyed girl, with freckles on her smiling face, and the
expression of a daring, vivacious and happy spirit - and acknowledged
to be the best dancer and most popular girl in Middleville. Her dress,
while not to be compared with her friends' costumes in costliness, yet
was extreme in the prevailing style.

"Glad to see you, old dear," was dark-eyed, dark-haired Dorothy
Dalrymple's greeting. Her rich color bore no hint of the artificial.
She sank down on her knees beside Margaret.

The other girls draped themselves comfortably round the room; and
Flossie with a 'Yum Yum' began to dig into a box of candy on
Margaret's couch. They all talked at once. "Hear the latest, Marg?"



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