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The Egyptian Chariot by Joseph Hergesheimer

 

Lemuel Doret walked slowly home from the prayer meeting with his being vibrating to the triumphant beat of the last hymn. It was a good hymn, filled with promised joy for every one who conquered sin. The long twilight of early summer showed the surrounding fields still bright green, but the more distant hills were vague, the sky was remote and faintly blue, and shadows thickened under the heavy maples that covered the single street of Nantbrook. The small frame dwellings of the village were higher than the precarious sidewalk; flights of steps mounted to the narrow porches; and though Lemuel Doret realized that his neighbors were sitting outside he did not look up, and no voices called down arresting his deliberate progress.

An instant bitterness, tightening his thin metallic lips and narrowing a cold fixed gaze, destroyed the harmony of the assured salvation. Lemuel Doret silently cursed the pinched stupidity of the country clods. The slow helpless fools! If instead of muttering in groups one of the men would face him with the local hypocrisy he'd sink a heel in his jaw. The bitterness expanded into a hatred like the gleam on a knife blade; his hands, spare and hard, grew rigid with the desire to choke a thick throat.

Then the rage sank before a swift self-horror, an overwhelming conviction of his relapse into unutterable sin. He stopped and in a spiritual agony, forgetful of his surroundings, half lifted quivering arms to the dim sky: “O Christ, lean down from the throne and hold me steady.”

He stood for a moment while a monotonous chatter on a porch above dropped to a curious stillness. It seemed to him that his whisper was heard and immediately answered; anyhow peace slowly enveloped him once more, the melody of hope was again uppermost in his mind. He went forward, procuring a cigarette from a mended ragged pocket.

His house, reached by a short steep path and sagging steps, was dark; at first he saw no one, then the creak of a rocking-chair in the open doorway indicated Bella, his wife.

“Give me a cigarette,” she demanded, her penetrating voice dissatisfied.

“You know I don't want you to smoke anywhere you can be seen,” he answered. “Since we've come here to live we have to mind the customs. The women'll never take to you smoking cigarettes.”

“Ah, hell, what do I care! We came here, but it ain't living. It makes me sick, and you make me sick I Can't you sing and pray in the city as well as among these hicks?”

“I'm afraid of it,” he said, brief and somber. “And I don't want Flavilla brought up with any of the gang we knew. Where is she?”

“I sent her to bed. She fussed round till she got me nervous.”

“Did she feel good?”

“If she didn't a smack would have cured her.”

He passed Bella, rocking sharply, into the dank interior.

On the right was the bare room where he had his dilapidated barber's chair and shelf with a few mugs, brushes and other scant necessities. There had been no customers to-day nor yesterday; still, it was the middle of the week and what trade there was generally concentrated on Saturday. Beyond he went upstairs to Flavilla's bed. She was awake, twisting about in a fragmentary nightgown, dark against the disordered sheet.

“It's dreadful hot,” she complained shortly; “my head's hot too. The window won't go up.”

Lemuel Doret crossed the narrow bare floor and dragged the sash open; then he moved his daughter while he smoothed the bed and freshened a harsh pillow. She whimpered.

“You're too big to cry without any reason,” he informed her, leaving to fetch a glass of water from the tap in the kitchen.

Usually she responded to his intimations of her increasing age and wisdom, but to-night she was listless. She turned away from him, her arms flung above her head and wispy hair veiling her damp cheek.

“Keep still, can't you?” and he gathered her hair into a clumsy plait.

The darkness about him seeped within, into his hope and courage and resolution; all that he had determined to do seemed impossibly removed. The whole world resembled Nantbrook—a place of universal condemnation, forgiving nothing. He felt a certainty that even the few dollars he had honestly earned would now be stopped.

The air grew clearer and deeper in color, and stars brightened. Lemuel Doret wondered about God. There was no doubt of His power and glory or of the final triumph of heaven established and earth, sin, destroyed.
 His mind was secure in these truths; his comprehension of the paths of wickedness was equally plain; it was the ways of the righteous that bewildered him—the conduct of the righteous and, in the face of his supreme recognition, the extreme difficulty of providing life for Flavilla—and Bella.

He consciously added his wife's name. Somehow his daughter was the sole objective measure of his determination to build up, however late, a home here and in eternity.

It was not unreasonable, in view of the past, to suppose that he had no chance of succeeding. Yet religion was explicit upon that particular; it was founded on the very hopes of sinners, on redemption. But he could do nothing without an opportunity to make the small living they required; if the men of Nantbrook, of the world, wouldn't come to him to be barbered, and if he had no money to go anywhere else to begin again, he was helpless. Everything was conspiring to thrust him back into the city, of which he had confessed his fear, back——

He rose and stood above the child's thin exposed body—suddenly frozen into a deathlike sleep—chilled with a vision, a premonition, the insidious possibility of surrender. He saw, too, that it was a solitary struggle; even his devotion to Flavilla, shut in the single space of his own heart, helped to isolate him in what resembled a surrounding blackness rent with blinding flashes of lightning.

The morning sun showed him spare, with a curious appearance of being both wasted and grimly strong; he moved with an alert, a watchful ease, catlike and silent; and his face was pallid with gray shadows. He stood in trousers and undershirt, suspenders hanging down, before the small dim mirror in the room where he had the barber chair, pasting his hair down with an odorous brilliantine. This was his intention, but he saw with sharp discomfort that bristling strands defied his every effort. The hot edge of anger cut at him, but, singing, he dissipated it:

  “Why should I feel discouraged?
    Why should the shadows fall?
  Why should my heart be lonely,
    And long for heaven
——”

He broke off at the thought of Flavilla, still in bed, her head, if anything, hotter than last night. Lemuel Doret wished again that he had not allowed Bella to call their child by that unsanctified name. Before the birth they had seen a vaudeville, and Bella, fascinated by a golden-and-white creature playing a white accordion that bore her name in ornamental letters, had insisted on calling her daughter, too, Flavilla. In spite of the hymn, dejection fastened on him as he remembered this and a great deal more about his wife.

If she could only be brought to see the light their marriage and life might still be crowned with triumph. But Bella, pointing out the resulting poverty of his own conviction and struggle, said freely that she had no confidence in promises; she demanded fulfillment now. She regarded him as more than a little affected in the brain. Yet there had been no deep change in him—from the very first he had felt a growing uneasiness at the spectacle of the world and the flesh. The throb of the Salvation Army drum at the end of an alley, the echo of the fervent exhortations and holy songs, had always filled him with a surging emotion like homesickness.

Two impulses, he recognized, held a relentless warfare within him; he pictured them as Christ and Satan; but the first would overthrow all else. “Glory!” he cried mechanically aloud. He put down the hairbrush and inspected the razors on their shelf. The bright morning light flashed along the rubbed fine blades; they were beautiful, flawless, without a trace of defilement. He felt the satin smoothness of the steel with an actual thrill of pleasure; his eyes narrowed until they were like the glittering points of knives; he held the razor firmly and easily, with a sinewy poised wrist.

Finally, his suspenders in position over a collarless striped shirt, he moved out to the bare sharp descent before his house and poured water onto the roots of a struggling lilac bush. Its leaves were now coated with dust; but the week before it had borne an actual cluster of scented blossom; and he was still in the wonder of the lavender fragrance on the meager starved stem.

The beat of hoofs approached, and he turned, seeing Doctor Frazee in his yellow cart.

“Oh, doctor!” he called instinctively.

The other stopped, a man with a lean face, heavy curved nose and penetrating gaze behind large spectacles. He was in reality a veterinary, but Lemuel Doret, out of a profound caution, had discovered him to be above the narrow scope of local prejudice.

“I wish you'd look at Flavilla,” Doret continued.

The doctor hesitated, and then turned shortly in at the sidewalk. “It will hurt no one if I do that.” Above Flavilla's flushed face, a tentative finger on her wrist, Frazee's expression grew serious. “I'll tell you this,” he asserted; “she's sick. You had better call Markley to-day. And until he comes don't give her any solids. You can see she's in a fever.”

“Can't you tend her? I'd put more on you than any fresh young hospital stiff.”

“Certainly not,” he responded.

When the latter had gone Lemuel Doret found his wife in the kitchen. She wore a pale-blue wrapper with a soiled scrap of coarse lace at her full throat, her hair was gathered into a disorderly knot, and already there was a dab of paint on either cheek. She had been pretty when he married her, pretty and full of an engaging sparkle, a ready wit; but the charm had gone, the wit had hardened into a habit of sarcasm. They had been married twelve years, and in itself, everything considered, that was remarkable and held a great deal in her favor. She had been faithful. It was only lately, in Nantbrook, that her dissatisfaction had materialized in vague restless hints.

“Frazee says Flavilla is sick,” he told her. “He thinks we ought to get Markley.”

She made a gesture of skepticism. “All those doctors send you to each other,” she proclaimed. “Like as not he'll get half for doing it.”

“She don't look right.”

Bella's voice and attitude grew exasperated. “Of course you know all about children; you've been where you could study on them. And of course I have no sense; a woman's not the person to say when her child is sick or well. Have a doctor if you can pay one, and buy a lot of medicine too. There's some calomel upstairs, but that's no good. I'd like to know where you have all the money! God knows I need a little, to put inside me and out.”

“It's right scarce,” he admitted, resolutely ignoring her tone. “Perhaps Flavilla will be better later in the day; I'll wait.”

He spoke without conviction, denying the impulse to have her cared for at once, in an effort to content and still Bella. However, he failed in both of these aims. Her voice swept into a shrill complaint and abuse of Nantbrook—a place, she asserted, of one dead street, without even a passing trolley car to watch. She had no intention of being buried here for the rest of her life. Turning to a cigarette and yesterday's paper she drooped into a sulky shape of fat and slovenly blue wrapper beside the neglected dishes of their insufficient breakfast.

He went through the empty house to the front again, where at least the sun was warm and bright. The air held a faint dry fragrance that came from the haymaking of the deep country in which Nantbrook lay. Lemuel Doret could see the hotel at a crossing on the left, a small gray block of stone with a flat portico, a heavy gilt beer sign and whitewashed sheds beyond. The barkeeper stood at a door, a huge girth circled by a soiled apron; nearer a bundle of brooms and glittering stacked paint cans marked the local store. It was, he was forced to admit, far from gay; but he found a great contentment in the sunny peace, in the limitless space of the unenclosed sky; the air, the fields, the birds in the trees were free.

As he stood frowning in thought he saw the figure of a strange man walking over the road; Lemuel knew that he was strange by the formality of the clothes. He wore a hard straw hat, collar and diamond-pinned tie, and a suit with a waistcoat. At first Doret's interest was perfunctory, but as the other drew nearer his inspection changed to a painful absorption. Suddenly his attitude grew tense; he had the appearance of a man gazing at an enthralling but dangerous spectacle, such—for example—as a wall that might topple over, crushing anything human within its sweep.

The object of this scrutiny had a pale countenance with a carefully clipped mustache, baggy eyes and a blue-shaved heavy jaw. An indefinable suggestion of haste sat on a progress not unduly hurried. But as he caught sight of Lemuel Doret he walked more and more slowly, returning his fixed attention. When the two men were opposite each other, only a few feet apart, he almost stopped. For a moment their sharpened visions met, parried, and then the stranger moved on. He made a few steps, hesitated, then directly returned.

“Come inside,” he said in a slightly hoarse voice.

“It suits me here,” Doret replied.

The other regarded him steadily. “I've made no mistake,” he asserted. “I could almost say how long you were up for, and a few other little things too. I don't know what you're doing in this dump, but here we both are.”

He waited for nothing more, ascending quickly to the hall. The two made their way into the improvised barber shop.

“You've got me wrong,” Doret still insisted.

“Who is it, Lem?” Bella demanded at the door.

As she spoke an expression of geniality overspread her face, daubed with paint and discontent.

“Why, I'll tell you—I'm June Bowman.”

“That don't mean anything to us,” Lemuel continued. “The best thing you can do is keep right on going.”

“Not that Fourth Ward stew?” Bella asked eagerly.

He nodded.

“Lem's kind of died on his feet,” she explained in a palpable excuse of her husband's ignorance; “he don't read the papers nor nothing. But of course I've heard of you, Mr. Bowman. We're glad to see you.”

“Keep right along,” Lemuel Doret repeated. His face was dark and his mouth hardly more than a pinched line.

“Now, who are you?” Bowman inquired.

“I'll tell you,” Bella put in, “since his manners have gone with everything else. This is Snow Doret. If you know the live men that name will be familiar to you.”

“I seem to remember it,” he admitted.

“If Snow went in the city it's Lemuel here,” Doret told him. His anger seethed like a kettle beginning to boil.

“Well, if Snow ever went I guess I'm in right. The truth is I got to lay off for a little, and this seems first-rate. I can explain it in a couple of words: Things went bad——”

“Wasn't it the election?” Bella asked politely.

“In a way,” he answered with a bow. “You're all right. A certain party, you see, was making some funny cracks—a reform dope; and he got in other certain parties' light, see? Word was sent round, and when a friend and me come on him some talk was passed and this public nuisance got something. It was all regular and paid for——”

“I read about it,” Bella interrupted. “He died in the ambulance.”

“Then I was slipped the news that they were going to elect me the pretty boy, and I had to make a break. Only temporary, till things are fixed. Thus you see me scattered with hayseed. I was walking through for a lift to Lancaster, where there are some good fellows; but when I saw Snow here taking the air I knew there was one nearer.”

“Lemuel; and I'm no good fellow.”

“That's the truth,” his wife added thinly. “Here is the only one in this house.” She touched her abundant self.

“Then I can put up?”

“No,” Lemuel Doret told him. “This is a house of God's.”

Bella laughed in a rising hysterical key.

“Listen to him,” she gasped; “listen to Snow Doret. It's no wonder you might have forgotten him,” she proclaimed; “he's been in the pen for ten and a half years with a bunch off for good conduct. But fifteen years ago—say! He went in for knifing a drug store keeper who held out on a 'coke' deal. If this here's a house of God's I'd like to know what he called the one he had then. I couldn't tell you half of what went on, not half, with fixing drinks and frame-ups and skirts. Why, he run a hop joint with the Chinese and took a noseful of snow at every other breath. That was after his gambling room broke up—it got too raw even for the police. It was brandy with him, too, and there ain't a gutter in his district he didn't lay in. The drug store man wasn't the first he cut neither.”

She stopped from sheer lack of breath.

Curiously all that filled Lemuel Doret's mind was the thought of the glory of God. Everything Bella said was true; but in the might of the Savior it was less than nothing. He had descended into the pit and brought him, Snow, up, filling his ears with the sweet hymns of redemption, the promise of Paradise for the thieves and murderers who acknowledged His splendor and fought His fight. This marvelous charity, the cleansing hope for his blackened soul, swept over him in a warm rush of humble praise and unutterable gratitude. Nothing of the Lord's was lost: “His eye is on the sparrow.”

“Certainly, lay off your coat,” Bella was urging; “it's fierce hot. Lem can rush a can of beer from the hotel. Even he wouldn't go to turn out one of the crowd in a hard fix. I'm awful glad you saw him.”

With June Bowman in his house, engaged in verbal agreements with Bella and spreading comfortably on a chair, Lemuel was powerless. AH his instinct pressed him to send the other on, to refuse—in the commonest self-preservation—shelter. But both the laws of his old life and the commands of the new were against this act of simple precaution. Bowman eyed him with a shrewd appraisement.

“A clever fellow,” he said, nodding; “admire you for coming out here for a while. Well, how about the suds?”

He produced a thick roll of yellow-backed currency and detached a small bill. “I'll finance this campaign.”

Lemuel Doret was confused by the rapidity with which the discredited past was re-created by Bowman's mere presence. He was at the point of refusing to fetch the beer when he saw that there was no explanation possible; they would regard him as merely crabbed, and Bella would indulge her habit of shrill abuse. It wasn't the drink itself that disturbed him but the old position of “rushing the can”—a symbol of so much that he had left forever. Forever; he repeated the word with a silent bitter force. The feel of the kettle in his hand, the thin odor of the beer and slopping foam, seemed to him evidences of acute degeneration; he was oppressed by a mounting dejection. God seemed very far away.

His wife was talking while Bowman listened with an air of sympathetic wisdom.

“It wasn't so bad then,” she said; “I was kind of glad to get away, and Lem was certain everything would open right out. But he's awful hard to do with; he wouldn't take a dollar from parties who had every right to stake him good, and borrowed five from no more than a stranger to buy that secondhand barber chair. What he needed was chloroform to separate these farmers from their dimes and whiskers.” Bowman laughed loudly, and a corresponding color invaded Bella. “Of course no one knew Lem had done time, then. They wouldn't have either, but for the Law and Order. Oh, dear me, no, your child ain't none of your own; they lend it to you like and then sneak up whenever the idea takes them, to see if it's getting a Turkish bath. I guess the people on the street wondered who was our swell automobile friend till they found out.”

“I suppose,” Bowman put in, “they all came round and offered you the helping hand, wanted to see you happy and successful.”

She laughed. “Them?” she demanded. “Them? The man that owns this house said that if he'd known, Lem would never had it; they don't want convicts in this town. This is a moral burg. That's more than the women said to me though—the starved buzzards; if they've spoke a word to me since I never heard it.” Her voice rose in sharp mimicry: “You, Katie, come right up on the porch, child! Don't you know—! See, I'm going by.”

“I could have warned you of all that,” June Bowman asserted; “for the reason they're narrow, don't know anything about living or affairs; hypocritical too; long on churchgoing——”

Doret regarded him solemnly. How blind he was, a mound of corruptible flesh! He put the beer down and turned abruptly away, going up to Flavilla. She seemed better; her face was white but most of the fever had gone. He listened to her harsh breathing with the conviction that she had caught a cold; and immediately after he was back from the store with a bottle of cherry pectoral. She liked the sweet taste of the thick bright-pink sirup and was soon quiet. Lemuel sniffed the mouth of the bottle suspiciously. It was doped, he finally decided, but not enough to hurt her; tasting it, a momentary desire for stinging liquor ran like fire through his nerves. He laughed at it, crushing and throwing aside the longing with a sense of contempt and triumph.

He could hear occasionally Bowman's smooth periods and his wife's eager enjoyment of the discourse. His sense of worldly loneliness deepened; Flavilla seemed far away. All life was inexplicable—yes, and profitless, ending in weariness and death. The hunger for perfection, for God, that had been a constant part of his existence, the longing for peace and security, were almost unbearable. He had had a long struggle; the devil was deeply rooted in him. He could laugh at the broken tyranny of drugs and drink, but the passion for fine steel cutting edges was different, and twisted into every fiber. The rage that even yet threatened to flood him, sweeping away his painfully erected integrity, was different too. These things had made him a murderer.

“... not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

He had a sudden muddled vision of another world, a world where sturdy men gave him their hands and in reality fulfilled June Bowman's mocking words. There the houses, the streets of his youth would have been impossible. Ah, he was thinking of another kind of heaven; it was a hop dream.

There was a stir below and he heard the clatter of plates. Dinner was in preparation. “Lem!” his wife called. “Mr. Bowman wants you to go to the butcher's.”

“Call me June,” he put in; adding: “Sure, Lem; the butcher's; we want a tenderloin, cut thick. You can't get any pep on greens; we ain't cattle.”

Doret felt that he would have been infinitely happier with his own thin fare. In a manner he got comfort from a pinch of hunger; somehow the physical deprivation gave him a sense of purification. The other man, purple with the meat and beer, shook out a cigarette from a paper pack.

“Always smoke caporal halves,” he proclaimed.

The blue vapor from the three burning cigarettes rose and mingled. Bella was quiet, reflective; Bowman sat with half-shut speculative eyes; Lemuel Doret was again lost in visions.

“How long are you taking the milk cure?” Bowman asked.

Lemuel made no reply, but his wife smiled bitterly.

“I had an idea,” the other continued; “but it's a little soon to spring anything. And I don't know but you might prefer it here.”

“Try me,” Bella proclaimed; “that's all I want!”

Doret still said nothing of his determination to conquer life in Nantbrook. A swift impulse seized him to take June Bowman by the collar and fling him into the street.

“Just try me!” Bella repeated.

He would be helpless in his, Doret's, hands. It was hard enough to be upright without an insinuating crook in the place. There was a heavy movement of feet in the front of the house, and he went out to meet a customer.

Sliding the sensitive razor blade over a young tanned cheek he pondered moodily on the undesirable fact of June Bowman.

Returning from this exercise of his trade he saw Bella descending the stair with a plate.

“With all your going on over Flavilla,” she told him, “it never came to you that she'd like a piece of steak.”

“But Doctor Frazee told us nothing solid. I took her up two eggs in the morning.”

“Yes, and you'd had two dollars to pay as well if I hadn't showed you different. Flavilla's probably as well as any of us. I wish you would fix yourself a little, Lem. I'm tired of having you about the house in your suspenders.”

He viewed her silently. Bella had on a dress he had never seen before, thin red-spotted yellow silk drawn tightly over a pronounced figure, a red girdle, and high-heeled patent-leather slippers.

“If you're going to look like this,” he admitted, “I'll have to get a move on.”

When they were first in Nantbrook she had worn a denim apron, and that, too, with all the other differences had seemed to express their new life; but now in yellow silk she was back in the old. Lemuel Doret studied his wife with secret doubt; more than the dress had changed. She seemed younger; rather she was adopting a younger manner. In the presence of June Bowman it intensified.

“That idea I spoke about,” the latter advanced: “I've been sizing you up, the both of you, and you look good. Well, I've got hold of a concession on the Atlantic Boardwalk and the necessary cash is in sight.” He turned to Lemuel. “How would you like to run a bowling game? It's on the square and would give you a lead into something bigger. You're wise; why, you might turn into a shore magnate, with Bella here dressed up in stones.”

Doret shook his head. “Treasure on earth,” he thought; “moth and rust.” But it would be hopeless to attempt any explanation. “No,” he said; “we'll play it out here.”

“We will?” Bella echoed him. “Indeed! We will?” Now the emphasis was sharply on the first word. “What's going to keep me?”

“You're my wife,” he replied simply; “we have a child.”

“Times have changed, Snow,” Bowman interrupted. “You ought to read the papers. This is ladies' day. The old harem stuff don't go no longer. They are emancipated.”

“Lemuel,” Doret insisted, a narrowed hard gaze on the other man; “Lemuel Doret.”

“He thinks nobody'll remember,” his wife explained. “Lem's redeemed.”

“Your name's what you say,” Bowman agreed, “but remember this—you can't throw any scare into me. I'm no Fauntleroy, neither. Behave.”

The anger seethed again beneath Lemuel's restraint. It began to be particular, personal, focused on Bowman; and joined to it was a petty dislike for the details of the man's appearance, the jaunty bearing and conspicuous necktie, the gloss of youth over the unmistakable signs of degeneration, the fatty pouches of his eyes and loose throat.

“I wouldn't bother with scaring you,” he told him. “Why should I? You've got no kick. I took you in, didn't I? And all I said was my name. Snow Doret's dead; he died in prison; and this Lemuel's all different——”

“I've heard about that too,” Bowman returned; “but somehow I don't take stock in these miracles.”

“If you ever see me looking like I might be Snow, go quiet,” Lemuel advised. “That's all.”

With clenched hands he abruptly departed. The cords of his neck were swollen and rigid; there was a haze before his eyes. He went up to the refuge of his daughter's room. She was lying still, breathing thickly, with a finger print of scarlet on each cheek.

She was so thin, so wasted, the bed and room so stripped of every comfort, that he dropped forward on his knees, his arms outflung across her body in an inarticulate prayer for faith, for strength and patience.

It was not much he wanted—only food for one child and help for a woman, and a grip on the devil tearing at him in the form of hatred.

He got only a temporary relief, for when he went down Bella and June Bowman were whispering together; he passed the door with his silent tread and saw their heads close. Bella was actually pretty.

An astonishing possibility occurred to him—perhaps Bella would go away with Bowman. An unbidden deep relief at such a prospect invaded him; how happy he could be with Flavilla. They would get a smaller house, which Flavilla would soon learn to keep for him; they would go to church and prayer meeting together, her soprano voice and his bass joined in the praise of the Lord, of the Almighty who raised the dead and his Son, who took the thief to glory.

This speculation was overcome by a troubled mind; both his innate pride in his wife as an institution of his honor, the feeling that he would uphold it at any cost, and his Christianity interrupted the vision of release. He must not let her stumble, and he would see that June Bowman didn't interfere in his home. More beer made its appearance, and the other man grew louder, boastful. He exhibited the roll of money—that was nothing, four times that much could be had from the same source. He was a spender, too, and treated all his friends liberally. Lemuel was to see if there was any wine in the damned jumping-off place; and when would they all go to Atlantic?

“Never,” Doret repeated.

Bowman laughed skeptically.

The rage stirred and increased, blinding Lemuel Doret's heart, stinging his eyes. Bella, watching him, became quieter, and she gave June—she called him June—a warning pressure of her fingers. Her husband saw it with indifference; everything small was lost in the hot tide enveloping him. His hands twitched, but there was no other outward sign of his tumult. He smoked his cigarettes with extreme deliberation.

It was evening again, and they were sitting on the narrow porch. The west was a serene lake of fading light against which the trees made dark blots of foliage. Nantbrook seemed unreal, a place of thin shadow, the future unsubstantial as well; only the past was actual in Lemuel Doret's mind—the gray cold prison, the city at night, locked rooms filled with smoke and lurid lights, avaricious voices in the mechanical sentences of gambling, agonized tones begging for a shot, just a shot, of an addicted drug, a girl crying.

He tried to sing a measure of praise beneath his breath but the tune and words evaded him. He glanced furtively at Bowman's complacent bulk, the flushed face turned fatuously to Bella. Under the other's left arm his coat was drawn smoothly on a cushion of fat.

Later Lemuel stopped at Flavilla's bed, and though she was composed he was vaguely alarmed at what seemed to him an unreal rigidity. She was not asleep, but sunk in a stupor with a glimmer of vision and an elusive pulse. He should not have listened to Bella but had a doctor as Frazee had advised. It appeared now that—with all Flavilla held for him—he had been strangely neglectful. At the same time he was conscious of the steady increase of his hatred for Bowman. This was natural, he told himself; Bowman in a way was the past—all that he, Doret, had put out of his life. At least he had believed that accomplished, yet here it was back again, alive and threatening; drinking beer in his rooms, whispering to his wife, putting the thought of Flavilla from his head.

In the morning even Bella admitted that Flavilla might be sick and a doctor necessary. He took one look at his daughter's burning face, heard the shrill labor of her breathing, and hurried downstairs with a set face. He was standing with Bella in the hall when June Bowman descended.

“Flavilla ain't right,” she told him.

The latter promptly exhibited the wad of money. “Whatever you need,” he said.

“Put it away,” Lemuel replied shortly. “I don't want any of that for Flavilla.”

Bowman studied him. Doret made no effort to mask his bitterness, and the other whistled faintly. Bella laughed, turning from her husband.

“He's cracked,” she declared; “you'll get no decency off him. A body would think I had been in jail and him looking out for her all those ten years and more. I can say thank you, though; we'll need your help, and glad.”

“Put it away,” Lemuel Doret repeated. He was more than ever catlike, alert, bent slightly forward with tense fingers.

Bowman was unperturbed. “I told you about this flash stuff,” he observed. “Nobody's forcing money on you. Get the bend out of you and give me a shave. That'll start you on the pills.”

Lemuel Doret mechanically followed him into the rude barber shop; he was fascinated by the idea of laying the razor across Bowman's throat. The latter extended himself in the chair and Doret slowly, thoroughly, covered his lower face with lather, through which the blade drew with a clean smooth rip. A fever burned in the standing man's brain, he fought constantly against a stiffening of his employed fingers—a swift turn, a cutting twist. Subconsciously he called noiselessly upon the God that had sustained him and, divided between apprehension and the increasing lust to kill, his lips held the form in which they had pronounced that impressive name. He had the sensation of battling against a terrific wind, a remorseless force beating him to submission. His body ached from the violence of the struggle to keep his hand steadily, evenly, busied, following in a delicate sweep the cords of June Bowman's neck, the jugulars.

The other looked up at him and grinned confidently. “Little children,” he said, “love one another.”

Lemuel stopped, the razor suspended in air; there was a din in his ears, his vision blurred, his grip tightened on the bone handle. A sweat started out on his brow and he found himself dabbing June Bowman's face with a wet cold towel.

“Witch hazel?” he asked mechanically.

Suddenly he was so tired that his legs seemed incapable of support. He wiped the razor blade and put it away with a lax nerveless hand. He realized that he had been again at the point of murder. He had been saved by the narrowest margin in the world. For a moment the fact that he had been saved absorbed him, and then the imminent danger of his position, his weakness, filled him with the sense of failure, a heavy feeling of hopelessness. His prayers and singing, his plans for redemption, for a godly life, had threatened to end at the first assault of evil.

He temporarily overcame his dejection at the memory of Flavilla. Doctor Markley lived in a larger town than Nantbrook, a dozen miles beyond the fields and green hills, and he must get him by telephone. Then there was the problem of payment. The doctor, he knew, would expect his fee, two dollars, immediately from such an applicant as himself; and he had less than a dollar. He explained something of this over the wire, adding that if Markley would see Flavilla at the end of the day the money would be forthcoming. That, the crisp, disembodied tone replied, was impossible; he must call in the middle of the morning, but no difficulty would be made about his bill; Doret could send the amount to him promptly.

He hurried back to the house with this information, and found Bella seated in the kitchen, the inevitable cigarette throwing up its ribbon of smoke from her fingers, and June Bowman at her shoulder. Lemuel ignored the latter.

“The doctor'll be here at about eleven,” he announced. “Mind you listen to all he says and get Flavilla into a clean nightgown and sheets.”

“What's the matter with your tending to her?” Bella demanded.

“I won't be here; not till night. I'm going to put up hay with one of the farmers. I hear they're in a hurry and offering good money.”

Bella's expression was strange. She laughed in a forced way.

“We got to hand it to you,” Bowman admitted genially; “you're there. I guess I'd starve before ever it would come to me to fork hay.”

Lemuel's wife added nothing; her lips twisted into a fixed smile at once defiant and almost tremulous. Well, he was late now; he couldn't linger to inquire into Bella's moods. Yet at the door he hesitated again to impress on her the importance of attending the doctor's every word.

It seemed to him an hour later that he was burning up in a dry intolerable haze of sun and hay. He awkwardly balanced heavy ragged forkfuls, heaving them onto the mounting stack of the wagon in a paste of sweat and dust. His eyes were filmed and his throat dry. He struggled on in the soft unaccustomed tyranny of the grass, the glare of sun, with his mind set on the close of day. He thought of cool shadows, of city streets wet at night, and a swift plunge into a river where it swept about the thrust of a wharf. He wondered what Doctor Markley would say about Flavilla; probably the child wasn't seriously sick.

The day drew apparently into a tormenting eternity; the physical effort he welcomed; it seemed to exhaust that devil in him which had so nearly betrayed and ruined him forever in the morning; but the shifting slippery hay, the fiery dust, the incandescent blaze created an inferno in the midst of which his mind whirled with monotonous giddy images and half-meaningless phrases spoken and re-spoken. Yet the sun was not, as he had begun to suppose, still in the sky; it sank toward the horizon, the violet shadows slipped out from the western hills, and Lemuel finished his toil in a swimming gold mist. It was two miles to Nantbrook, and disregarding his aching muscles he hurried over the gray undulating road. The people of the village were gathered on their commanding porches, the barkeeper at the hotel bulked in his doorway. The lower part of Lemuel's own house was closed; no one appeared as he mounted the insecure steps.

“Bella!” he cried in an overwhelming anxiety before he reached the hall.

There was no reply. He paused inside and called again. His voice echoed about the bare walls; he heard a dripping from the kitchen sink; nothing more.

“I'd better go up,” he said aloud with a curious tightening of his throat. He progressed evenly up the stairs; suddenly a great weight seemed to bow his shoulders; the illusion was so vivid that he actually staggered; he was incapable of breaking from his measured progress. He turned directly into Flavilla's room. She was there—he saw her at once. But Bella hadn't put a fresh nightgown on her, and the sheets were disordered and unchanged.

Lemuel took a step forward; then he stopped. “The fever's gone,” he vainly told the dread freezing about his heart at a stilled white face.

“Yes,” he repeated with numb lips; “it's gone.”

He approached the bed and standing over it and the meager body he cursed softly and wonderingly. The light was failing and it veiled the sharp lines of the dead child's countenance. For a moment his gaze strayed about the room and he felt a swift sorrow at its ugliness. He had wanted pretty things, pictures and a bright carpet and ribbons, for Flavilla. Then he was conscious of a tearing rage, but now he was unmindful of it, impervious to its assault in the fixed necessity of the present.

Later——

He was sitting again on his porch, after the momentary morbid stir of curiosity and small funeral, when the unrestrained sweep of his own emotion overcame him. His appearance had not changed; it was impossible for his expression to become bleaker; but there was a tremendous change within. Yet it was not strange; rather he had the sensation of returning to an old familiar condition. There he was at ease; he moved swiftly, surely forward in the realization of what lay ahead.

Bella and June Bowman had left the house almost directly after him, and Markley, finding it empty, with no response to his repeated knocking, had turned away, being as usual both impatient and hurried. Yes, Bella had gone and left Flavilla without even a glass of water. But Bella didn't matter. He couldn't understand this—except where he saw at last that she never had mattered; yet it was so. June Bowman was different.

There was no rush about the latter—to-morrow, next week would do equally. There was no doubt either. Lemuel Doret gave a passing thought, like a half-contemptuous gesture of final dismissal, to so much that had lately occupied him. The shadow of a smile disfigured his metallic lips.

The following noon he shut the door of his house with a sharp impact and made his way over the single street of Nantbrook toward the city. His fear of it had vanished; and when he reached the steel-bound towering masonry, the pouring crowds, he moved directly to a theater from which an audience composed entirely of men was passing out by the posters of a hectic burlesque.

“Clegett?” he asked at the grille of the box office.

A small man with a tilted black derby came from the darkened auditorium.

“Where have you been?” he demanded as he caught sight of Lemuel Doret. “I asked two or three but you might have been dead for all of them.”

“That's just about what I have,” Doret answered. “Mr. Clegett, I'd like a little money.”

“How little?”

“A hundred would be plenty.”

The other without hesitation produced a fold of currency, from which he transferred an amount to Lemuel Doret. It went into his pocket without a glance. He hesitated a moment, then added: “This will be all.”

Clegett nodded. “It might, and it might not,” he asserted; “but you can't jam me. You're welcome to that, anyhow. It was coming to you. I wondered when you'd be round.”

It was not far from the theater to a glittering hardware store, a place that specialized in sporting goods. There were cases of fishing reels, brilliant tied flies and varnished, gayly wrapped cane rods, gaffs and coiled wire leaders, and an impressive assortment of modern pistols, rifles and shotguns.

“Something small and neat,” Doret told the man in charge of the weapons.

He examined a compact automatic pistol, a blunted shape no larger than his palm. It was a beautiful mechanism, and as with his silken razors, merely to hold it, to test the smooth action, gave him a sense of pleasure.

Later, seated in a quiet cafe, an adjunct of the saloon below, he could not resist the temptation of taking the pistol in its rubber holster from his pocket, merely to finger the delicate trigger. There was no hurry. He knew his world thoroughly: it was a small land in which the inhabitants had constant knowledge of each other. A question in the right place would bring all the information he needed. Lemuel was absolutely composed, actually he was a little sleepy; longing and inner strife, dreams, were at an end; only an old familiar state, a thoroughly comprehensible purpose remained.

A girl—she could have been no more than fourteen—was hurriedly slipping a paper of white crystalline powder into a glass of sarsaparilla. She smiled at him as she saw his indifferent interrogation.

“It's better rolled with a pencil first,” he said, and then returned to the contemplation of his own affair.

The result of this was that, soon after, he was seated in the smoking car of an electric train that, hurtling across a sedgy green expanse of salt meadow, deposited him in a colorful thronging city built on sand and the rim of the sea. It was best to avoid if possible even a casual inquiry, and Bowman had spoken of Atlantic City. The afternoon was hot and bright, the beach was still dotted with groups of bathers; and Lemuel Doret found an inconspicuous place in a row of swing chairs protected by an awning ... where he waited for evening. Below him a young woman lay contentedly with her head in a youth's lap; a child in a red scrap of bathing suit dug sturdily with an ineffectual tin spade.

The day declined, the water darkened and the groups vanished from the beach. An attendant was stacking the swing chairs, and Lemuel Doret left his place. The boardwalk, elevated above him, was filled with a gay multitude, subdued by the early twilight and the brightening lemon-yellow radiance of the strung globes. Drifting, with only his gaze alert, in the scented mob, he stopped at an unremarkable lunch room for coffee, and afterward turned down a side avenue to where some automobiles waited at the curb. A driver moved from his seat as Lemuel approached, but after a closer inspection the former's interest died.

Doret lighted a cigarette. “How are they hitting you?” he asked negligently.

“Bad; but the season ain't opened up right yet. It'll have to soon, though, if they want me; gas has gone to where it's like shoving champagne into your car.”

“The cafes doing anything?”

“None except the Torquay; but the cabaret they got takes all the profits. That's on the front. Then there's the World, back of the town. It's colored, but white go. Quite a place—I saw a sailor come out last night hashed with a knife.”

He found the Torquay, a place of brilliant illumination and color, packed with tables about a dancing floor, and small insistent orchestra. He sat against the wall by the entrance, apparently sunk in apathy, but his vision searched the crowd like the cutting bar of light thrown on the intermittent singers. He renewed his order. Toward midnight a fresh influx of people swept in; his search was unsatisfied.

The cigarette girl, pinkly pretty with an exaggerated figure, carrying a wooden tray with her wares, stopped at his gesture.

“Why don't you hang that about your neck with something?” he inquired.

“And get round shouldered!” she demanded. Her manner became confidential. “I do get fierce tired,” she admitted; “nine till two-thirty.”

He asked for a particular brand of cigarette.

“We haven't got them.” She studied him with a memorizing frown. “They are hardly ever asked for; and now—yes, there was a man, last night, I think——”

“He must have made an impression.”

“Another move and I'd slapped him if I lost my job. They got to be some fresh when they disturb me, too.”

“Alone, then?”

“That's right. Wanted me to meet him, and showed me a roll of money. Me!” her contempt sharpened.

“He was young?”

“Young nothing, with gray in his shoebrush mustache.”

By such small things, Lemuel Doret reflected, the freshness that had fixed June Bowman in the girl's memory, men were marked and followed.

“I told him,” she volunteered further, “he didn't belong on the boardwalk but in the rough joints past the avenue.”

Paying for his drink Doret left the Torquay; and following the slight pressure of two suggestions and a faint possibility he found himself in a sodden dark district where a red-glass electric sign proclaimed the entrance to the World. An automobile stopped and a chattering group of young colored girls in sheer white with vivid ribbons, accompanied by sultry silent negroes, preceded him into the cafe. He was met by a brassy racket and a curiously musty heavy air.

The room was long and narrow, and on one wall a narrow long platform was built above the floor for the cabaret. There was a ledge about the other walls the width of one table, and below that the space was crowded by a singular assembly. There were women faintly bisque in shade, with beautiful regular features, and absolute blacks with flattened noses and glistening eyes in burning red and green muslins. Among them were white girls with untidy bright-gold hair, veiled gaze and sullen painted lips; white men sat scattered through the darker throng, men like Lemuel Doret, quiet and watchful, others laughing carelessly, belligerent, and still more sunk in a stupor of drink.

Perhaps ten performers occupied the stage, and at one end was the hysterical scraping on strings, the muffled hammered drums, that furnished the rhythm for a slow intense waltz.

Yet in no detail was the place so marked as by an indefinable oppressive atmosphere. The strong musk and edged perfumes, the races, distinct and subtly antagonistic or mingled and spoiled, the rasping instruments, combined in an unnatural irritating pressure; they produced an actual sensation of cold and staleness like that from the air of a vault.

Doret ordered beer in a bottle, and watched the negro waitress snap off the cap. He had never seen a cafe such as this before, and he was engaged, slightly; its character he expressed comprehensively in the word “bad.”

A wonderfully agile dancer caught the attention of the room. The musicians added their voices to the jangle, and the minor half-inarticulate wail, the dull regular thudding of the bass drum were savage. The song fluctuated and died; the dancer dropped exhausted into her chair.

Then Lemuel saw June Bowman. He was only a short distance away, and— without Bella—seated alone but talking to the occupants of the next table. Lemuel Doret was composed. In his pocket he removed the automatic pistol from its rubber case. Still there was no hurry—Bowman was half turned from him, absolutely at his command. The other twisted about, his glance swept the room, and he recognized Doret. He half rose from his chair, made a gesture of acknowledgment that died before Lemuel's stony face, and sank back into his place. Lemuel saw Bowman's hand slip under his coat, but it came out immediately; the fingers drummed on the table.

The careless fool—he was unarmed.

There was no hurry; he could make one, two steps at Bowman's slightest movement.... Lemuel thought of Flavilla deserted, dying alone with a parched mouth, of all that had gone to wreck in the evil that had overtaken him—the past that could not, it appeared, be killed. Yet where Bowman was the past, it was nearly over. He'd finish the beer before him, that would leave some in the bottle, and then end it. With the glass poised in his hand he heard an absurd unexpected sound. Looking up he saw that it came from the platform, from a black woman in pale-blue silk, a short ruffled skirt and silver-paper ornaments in her tightly crinkled hair. She was singing, barely audibly:

  “Oh, children ... lost in Egypt
  See that chariot....
  ... good tidings!”

Even from his table across the room he realized that she was sunk in an abstraction; her eyes were shut and her body rocking in beat to the line.

“Good tidings,” she sang.

A negro close beside Doret looked up suddenly, and his voice joined in a humming undertone, “See that chariot, oh, good tidings ... that Egyptian chariot.”

A vague emotion stirred within Lemuel Doret, the singing annoyed him, troubled him with memories of perishing things. Another joined, and the spiritual swelled slightly, haltingly above the clatter of glasses and laughter. The woman who had begun it was swept to her feet; she stood with her tinsel gayety of apparel making her tragic ebony face infinitely grotesque and tormented while her tone rose in a clear emotional soprano:

  “Children of Israel, unhappy slaves,
  Good tidings, good tidings,
  For that chariot's coming,
  God's chariot's coming, ... coming,
  ........... chariot out of Egypt.”

The magic of her feeling swept like a flame over the room; shrill mirth, mocking calls, curses were bound in a louder and louder volume of hope and praise. The negroes were on their feet, swaying in the hysterical contagion of melody, the unutterable longing of their alien isolation.

“God's chariot's coming.” The song filled the roof, hung with bright strips of paper, it boomed through the windows and doors. Sobbing cries cut through it, profound invocations, beautiful shadowy voices chimed above the weight of sound.

It beat like a hammer on Lemuel Doret's brain and heart. Suddenly he couldn't breathe, and he rose with a gasp, facing the miracle that had overtaken the place he called bad. God's chariot—was there! He heard God's very tone directed at him. Borne upward on the flood of exaltation he seemed to leave the earth far, far away. Something hard, frozen, in him burst, and tears ran over his face; he was torn by fear and terrible joy. His Lord....

He fell forward on his knees, an arm overturning the bottle of beer; and, his sleeve dabbled in it, he pressed his head against the cold edge of the table, praying wordlessly for faith, incoherently ravished by the marvel of salvation, the knowledge of God here, everywhere.

The harmony wavered and sank, and out of the shuddering silence that followed Lemuel Doret turned again from the city.

 
 
 

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