EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index

 
 
 

The Awakening of George Raymond by Lloyd Osbourne

I

George Raymond's father had been a rich man, rich in those days before the word millionaire had been invented, and when a modest hundred thousand, lent out at an interest varying from ten to fifteen per cent, brought in an income that placed its possessor on the lower steps of affluence. He was the banker of a small New Jersey town, a man of portentous respectability, who proffered two fingers to his poorer clients and spoke about the weather as though it belonged to him. When the school-children read of Croesus in their mythology, it was Jacob Raymond they saw in their mind's eye; such expressions as "rich beyond the dreams of avarice" suggested him as inevitably as pumpkin did pie; they wondered doubtfully about him in church when that unfortunate matter of the camel was brought up with its attendant difficulties for the wealthy. Even Captain Kidd's treasure, in those times so actively sought for along the whole stretch of the New England coast, conjured up a small brick building with "Jacob Raymond, Banker" in gilt letters above the lintel of the door.

But there came a day when that door stayed locked and a hundred white faces gathered about it, blocking the village street and talking in whispers though the noonday sun was shining. Raymond's bank was insolvent, and the banker himself, a fugitive in tarry sea clothes, was hauling ropes on a vessel outward bound for Callao. He might have stayed in Middleborough and braved it out, for he had robbed no man and his personal honour was untarnished, having succumbed without dishonesty to primitive methods and lack of capital. But he chose instead the meaner course of flight. Of all the reproachful faces he left behind him his wife's was the one he felt himself the least able to confront; and thus, abandoning everything, with hardly a dozen dollars in his pocket, he slipped away to sea, never to be seen or heard of again.

Mrs. Raymond was a woman of forty-five, a New Englander to her finger-tips, proud, arrogant, and fiercely honest; a woman who never forgot, never forgave, and who practised her narrow Christianity with the unrelentingness of an Indian. She lived up to an austere standard herself, and woe betide those who fell one whit behind her. She was one of those just persons who would have cast the first stone at the dictates of conscience and with a sort of holy joy in her own fitness to do so. For years she had been the richest woman in Middleborough, the head of everything charitable and religious, the mainstay of ministers, the court of final appeal in the case of sinners and backsliders. Now, in a moment, through no fault of her own, the whole fabric of her life had crumbled. Again had the mighty fallen.

She had not a spark of pity for her husband. To owe what you could not pay was to her the height of dishonour. It was theft, and she had no compunction in giving it the name, however it might be disguised or palliated. She could see no mitigating circumstances in Raymond's disgrace, and the fact that she was innocently involved in his downfall filled her with exasperation. The big old corner house was her own. She had been born in it. It had been her marriage portion from her father. She put it straightway under the hammer; her canal stock with it; her furniture and linen; a row of five little cottages on the outskirts of the town where five poor families had found not only that their bodies, but the welfare of their souls, had been confided to her grim keeping. She stripped herself of everything, and when all had been made over to the creditors there still remained a deficit of seventeen hundred dollars. This debt which was not a debt, for she was under no legal compulsion to pay a penny of it, would willingly have been condoned by men already grateful for her generosity; but she would hear of no such compromise, not even that her notes be free of interest, and she gave them at five per cent, resolute that in time she would redeem them to the uttermost farthing.

Under these sudden changes of fortune it is seldom that the sufferer remains amid the ruins of past prosperity. The human instinct is to fly and hide. The wound heals more readily amongst strangers. The material evils of life are never so intolerable as the public loss of caste. It may be said that it is people, not things, which cause most of the world's unhappiness. Mrs. Raymond came to New York, where she had not a friend except the son she brought with her, there to set herself with an undaunted heart to earn the seventeen hundred dollars she had voluntarily taken on her shoulders to repay.

George Raymond, her son, was then a boy of fifteen. High-strung, high-spirited, with all the seriousness of a youngster who had prematurely learned to think for himself, he had arrived at the age when ineffaceable impressions are made and the tendencies of a lifetime decided. Passionately attached to his father, he had lost him in a way that would have made death seem preferable. He saw his mother, so shortly before the great lady of a little town, working out like a servant in other people's houses. The tragedy of it all ate into his soul and overcame him with a sense of hopelessness and despair. It would not have been so hard could he have helped, even in a small way, towards the recovery of their fortunes; but his mother, faithful even in direst poverty to her New England blood, sent him to school, determined that at any sacrifice he should finish his education. But by degrees Mrs. Raymond drifted into another class of work. She became a nurse, and, in a situation where her conscientiousness was invaluable, slowly established a connection that in time kept her constantly busy. She won the regard of an important physician, and not only won it but kept it, and thus little by little found her way into good houses, where she was highly paid and treated with consideration.

Had it not been for the seventeen hundred dollars and the five per cent interest upon it, she could have earned enough to keep herself and her son very comfortable in the three rooms they occupied on Seventh Street. But this debt, ever present in the minds of both mother and son, hung over them like a cloud and took every penny there was to spare. Those two years from fifteen to seventeen were the most terrible in Raymond's life. At an age when he possessed neither philosophy nor knowledge and yet the fullest capacity to suffer, he had to bear, with what courage he could muster, the crudest buffets of an adverse fate.

Raymond drudged at his books, passed from class to class and returned at night to the empty rooms he called home, where he cooked his own meals and sat solitary beside the candle until it was the hour for bed. His mother was seldom there to greet him. As a nurse she was kept prisoner, for weeks at a time, in the houses where she was engaged. It meant much to the boy to find a note from her lying on the table when he returned at night; more still to wait at street corners in his shabby overcoat for those appointments she often made with him. When she took infectious cases and dared neither write nor speak to him, they had an hour planned beforehand when she would smile at him from an open window and wave her hand.

But she was not invariably busy. There were intervals between her engagements when she remained at home; when those rooms, ordinarily so lonely and still, took on a wonderful brightness with her presence; when Raymond, coming back from school late in the afternoon, ran along the streets singing, as he thought of his mother awaiting him. This stern woman, the harsh daughter of a harsh race, had but a single streak of tenderness in her withered heart. To her son she gave transcendent love, and the whole of her starved nature went out to him in immeasurable devotion. Their poverty, the absence of all friends, the burden of debt, the unacknowledged disgrace, and (harder still to bear) the long and enforced separations from each other, all served to draw the pair into the closest intimacy. Raymond grew towards manhood without ever having met a girl of his own age; without ever having had a chum; without knowing the least thing of youth save much of its green-sickness and longing.

When the great debt had been paid off and the last of the notes cancelled there came no corresponding alleviation of their straitened circumstances. Raymond had graduated from the High School and was taking the medical course at Columbia University. Every penny was put by for the unavoidable expenses of his tuition. The mother, shrewd, ambitious, and far-seeing, was staking everything against the future, and was wise enough to sacrifice the present in order to launch her son into a profession. In those days fresh air had not been discovered. Athletics, then in their infancy, were regarded much as we now do prize-fighting. The ideal student was a pale individual who wore out the night with cold towels around his head, and who had a bigger appetite for books than for meat. Docile, unquestioning, knowing no law but his mother's wish; eager to earn her commendation and to repay with usury the immense sacrifices she had made for him, Raymond worked himself to a shadow with study, and at nineteen was a tall, thin, narrow-shouldered young man with sunken cheeks and a preternatural whiteness of complexion.

He was far from being a bad-looking fellow, however. He had beautiful blue eyes, more like a girl's than a man's, and there was something earnest and winning in his face that often got him a shy glance on the street from passing women. His acquaintance in this direction went no further. Many times when a college acquaintance would have included him in some little party, his mother had peremptorily refused to let him go. Her face would darken with jealousy and anger, nor was she backward with a string of reasons for her refusal. It would unsettle him; he had no money to waste on girls; he would be shamed by his shabby clothes and ungloved hands; they would laugh at him behind his back; was he tired, then, of his old mother who had worked so hard to bring him up decently? And so on and so on, until, without knowing exactly why, Raymond would feel himself terribly in the wrong, and was glad enough at last to be forgiven on the understanding that he would never propose such a reprehensible thing again.

In any other young man, brought up in the ordinary way, with the ordinary advantages, such submission would have seemed mean- spirited; but the bond between these two was riveted with memories of penury and privation; any appeal to those black days brought Raymond on his knees; it was intolerable to him that he should ever cause a pang in his dear mother's breast. Thus, at the age when the heart is hungriest for companionship; when for the first time a young man seems to discover the existence of a hitherto unknown and unimportant sex; when an inner voice urges him to take his place in the ranks and keep step with the mighty army of his generation, Raymond was doomed to walk alone, a wistful outcast, regarding his enviable companions from afar.

He was in his second year at college when his studies were broken off by his mother's illness. He was suddenly called home to find her delirious in bed, struck down in the full tide of strength by the disease she had taken from a patient. It was scarlet fever, and when it had run its course the doctor took him to one side and told him that his mother's nursing days were over. During her tedious convalescence, as Raymond would sit beside her bed and read aloud to her, their eyes were constantly meeting in unspoken apprehension. They saw the ground, so solid a month before, now crumbling beneath their feet; their struggles, their makeshifts, their starved and meagre life had all been in vain. Their little savings were gone; the breadwinner, tempting fate once too often, had received what was to her worse than a mortal wound, for the means of livelihood had been taken from her.

"Could I have but died," she repeated to herself. "Oh, could I have but died!"

Raymond laid his head against the coverlet and sobbed. He needed no words to tell him what was in her mind; that her illness had used up the little money there was to spare; that she, so long the support of both, was now a helpless burden on his hands. Pity for her outweighed every other consideration. His own loss seemed but little in comparison to hers. It was the concluding tragedy of those five tragic years. The battle, through no fault of theirs, had gone against them. The dream of a professional career was over.

His mother grew better. The doctor ceased his visits. She was able to get on her feet again. She took over their pinched housekeeping. But her step was heavy; the gaunt, grim straight- backed woman, with her thin grey hair and set mouth, was no more than a spectre of her former self. The doctor was right. There was nothing before her but lifelong invalidism.

Raymond found work; a place in the auditing department of a railroad, with a salary to begin with of sixty dollars a month; in ten years he might hope to get a hundred. But he was one of those whose back bent easily to misfortune. Heaven knew, he had been schooled long enough to take its blows with fortitude. His mother and he could manage comfortably on sixty dollars a month; and when he laid his first earnings in her hand he even smiled with satisfaction. She took the money in silence, her heart too full to ask him whence it came. She had hoped against hope until that moment; and the bills, as she looked at them, seemed to sting her shrivelled hand.

One day, as she was cleaning her son's room, she opened a box that stood in the corner, and was surprised to find it contain a package done up in wrapping paper. She opened it with curiosity and the tears sprang to her eyes as she saw the second-hand medical books George had used at college. Here they were, in neat wrappers, laid by for ever. Too precious to throw away, too articulate of unfulfilled ambitions to stand exposed on shelves, they had been laid away in the grave of her son's hopes. She did them up again with trembling fingers, and that night when George returned to supper, he found his mother in the dark, crying.

II

In the years from nineteen to forty-two most men have fulfilled their destiny; those who have had within them the ability to rise have risen; the weak, the wastrels, the mediocrities have shaken down into their appointed places. Even the bummer has his own particular bit of wall in front of the saloon and his own particular chair within. Those who have something to do are busy doing it, whatever it may be. In the human comedy everyone in time finds his role and must play it to the end, happy indeed if he be cast in a part that at all suits him.

George Raymond at forty-two was still in the auditor's department of the New York Central. Time had wrinkled his cheek, had turned his brown hair to a crisp grey, had bowed his shoulders to the desk he had used for twenty-two years. His eyes alone retained their boyish brightness, and a sort of appealing look as of one who his whole life long had been a dependent on other people. As an automaton, a mere cog in a vast machine, he had won the praise of his superiors by his complete self-effacement. He was never ill, never absent, never had trouble with his subordinates, never talked back, never made complaints, and, in the flattering language of the superintendent, "he knew what he knew!"

In the office, as in every other aggregation of human beings, there were coteries, cliques, friendships and hatreds, jealousies, heart-burnings and vendettas. There was scarcely a man there without friends or foes. Raymond alone had neither. To the others he was a strange, silent, unknown creature whose very address was a matter of conjecture; a man who did not drink, did not smoke, did not talk; who ate four bananas for his lunch and invariably carried a book in the pocket of his shabby coat. It was said of him that once, during a terrible blizzard, he had been the only clerk to reach the office; that he had worked there stark alone until one o'clock, when at the stroke of the hour he had taken out his four bananas and his book! There were other stories about him of the same kind, not all of them true to fate, but essentially true of the man's nature and of his rigid adherence to routine. He had risen, place by place, to a position that gave him a hundred and fifty dollars a month, and one so responsible that his death or absence would have dislocated the office for half a day.

"A first-class man and an authority on pro ratas!"

Such might have been the inscription on George Raymond's tomb!

His mother was still alive. She had never entirely regained her health or her strength, and it took all the little she had of either to do the necessary housekeeping for herself and her son. Thin to emaciation, sharp-tongued, a tyrant to her finger-tips, her indomitable spirit remained as uncowed as ever and she ruled her son with a rod of iron. To her, Georgie, as she always called him, was still a child. As far as she was concerned he had never grown up. She took his month's salary, told him when to buy new shirts, ordered his clothes herself, doled out warningly the few dollars for his necessaries, and saved, saved, continually saved. The old woman dreaded poverty with a horror not to be expressed in words. It had ruined her own life; it had crushed her son under its merciless wheels; in the words of the proverb, she was the coward who died a thousand deaths in the agonies of apprehension. She was one of those not uncommon misers, who hoard, not for love of money, but through fear. She had managed, with penurious thrift and a self-denial almost sublime in its austerity, to set aside eight thousand dollars. Eight thousand dollars from an income that began at sixty and rose to a little under three times that amount! Eight thousand dollars, wrung from their lives at the price of every joy, every alleviation, everything that could make the world barely tolerable.

Every summer Raymond had a two-weeks' holiday, which he spent at Middleborough with some relatives of his father's. He had the pronounced love of the sea that is usual with those born and bred in seaport towns. His earliest memories went back to great deep- water ships, their jib-booms poking into the second-story windows of the city front, their decks hoarsely melodious with the yo- heave-yo of straining seamen. The smell of tar, the sight of enormous anchors impending above the narrow street, the lofty masts piercing the sky in a tangle of ropes and blocks, the exotic cargoes mountains high—all moved him like a poem. He knew no pleasure like that of sailing his cousin's sloop; he loved every plank of her dainty hull; it was to him a privilege to lay his hand to any task appertaining to her, however humble or hard. To calk, to paint, to polish brasswork; to pump out bilge; to set up the rigging; to sit cross-legged and patch sails; and, best of all, to put her lee rail under in a spanking breeze and race her seaward against the mimic fleet—Ah, how swiftly those bright days passed, how bitter was the parting and the return, all too soon, to the dingy offices of the railroad.

It never occurred to him to think his own lot hard, or to contrast himself with other men of his age, who at forty-two were mostly substantial members of society, with interests, obligations, responsibilities, to which he himself was an utter stranger. Under the iron bondage of his mother he had remained a child. To displease her seemed the worst thing that could befall him; to win her commendation filled him with content. But there were times, guiltily remembered and put by with shame, when he longed for something more from life; when the sight of a beautiful woman on the street reminded him of his own loneliness and isolation; when he was overcome with a sudden surging sense that he was an outsider in the midst of these teeming thousands, unloved and old, without friends or hope or future to look forward to. He would reproach himself for such lawless repining, for such disloyalty to his mother. Was not her case worse than his? Did she not lecture him on the duty of cheerfulness, she the invalid, racked with pains, with nerves, who practised so pitifully what she preached? The tears would come to his eyes. No, he would not ask the impossible; he would go his way, brave and uncomplaining, and let the empty years roll over his head without a murmur against fate.

But the years, apparently so void, were screening a strange and undreamed-of part for him to play. The Spaniards, a vague, almost legendary people, as remote from Raymond's life as the Assamese or the cliff-dwellers of New Mexico, began to take on a concrete character, and were suddenly discovered to be the enemies of the human race. Raymond grew accustomed to the sight of Cuban flags, at first so unfamiliar, and then, later, so touching in their significance. Newspaper pictures of Gomez and Garcia were tacked on the homely walls of barber-shops, in railroad shops, in grubby offices and cargo elevators, and with them savage caricatures of a person called Weyler, and referring bitterly to other persons (who seemed in a bad way) called the reconcentrados. Raymond wondered what it was all about; bought books to elucidate the matter; took fire with indignation and resentment. Then came the Maine affair; the suspense of seventy million people eager to avenge their dead; the decision of the court of inquiry; the emergency vote; the preparation for war. Raymond watched it all with a curious detachment. He never realised that it could have anything personally to do with him. The long days in the auditor's department went on undisturbed for all that the country was arming and the State governors were calling out their quotas of men. Two of his associates quitted their desks and changed their black coats for army blue. Raymond admired them; envied them; but it never occurred to him to ask why they should go and he should stay. It was natural for him to stay; it was inevitable; he was as much a part of the office as the office floor.

One afternoon, going home on the Elevated, he overheard two men talking.

"I don't know what we'll do," said one.

"Oh, there are lots of men," said the other.

"Men, yes—but no sailors," said the first.

"That's right," said the other.

"We are at our wits' end to man the new ships," said the first.

"What did you total up to-day?" said the other.

His companion shrugged his shoulders.

"Eighty applicants, and seven taken," he said.

"And those foreigners?"

"All but two!"

"There's danger in that kind of thing!"

"Yes, indeed, but what can you do?"

The words rang in Raymond's head. That night he hardly slept. He was in the throes of making a tremendous resolution, he who, for forty years, had been tied to his mother's apron string. Making it of his own volition, unprompted, at the behest of no one save, perhaps, the man in the car, asserting at last his manhood in defiance of the subjection that had never come home to him until that moment. He rose in the morning, pale and determined. He felt a hypocrite through and through as his mother commented on his looks and grew anxious as he pushed away his untasted breakfast. It came over him afresh how good she was, how tender. He did not love her less because his great purpose had been taken. He knew how she would suffer, and the thought of it racked his heart; he was tempted to take her into his confidence, but dared not, distrusting his own powers of resistance were she to say no. So he kissed her instead, with greater warmth than usual, and left the house with misty eyes.

He got an extension of the noon hour and hurried down to the naval recruiting office. It was doing a brisk business in turning away applicants, and from the bottom of the line Raymond was not kept waiting long before he attained the top; and from thence in his turn was led into an inner office. He was briefly examined as to his sea experience. Could he box the compass? He could. Could he make a long splice? He could. What was meant by the monkey-gaff of a full-rigged ship? He told them. What was his reason in wanting to join the Navy? Because he thought he'd like to do something for his country. Very good; turn him over to the doctor; next! Then the doctor weighed him, looked at his teeth, hit him in the chest, listened to his heart, thumped and questioned him, and then passed him on to a third person to be enrolled.

When George Raymond emerged into the open air it was as a full A B in the service of the United States

This announcement at the office made an extraordinary sensation. Men he hardly knew shook hands with him and clapped him on the back. He was taken upstairs to be impressively informed that his position would be held open for him. On every side he saw kindling faces, smiling glances of approbation, the quick passing of the news in whispers. He had suddenly risen from obscurity to become part of the War; the heir of a wonderful and possibly tragic future; a patriot; a hero! It was a bewildering experience and not without its charm. He was surprised to find himself still the same man.

The scene at home was less enthusiastic. It was even mortifying, and Georgie, as his mother invariably called him, had to endure a storm of sarcasm and reproaches. The old woman's ardent patriotism stopped short at giving up her son. It was the duty of others to fight, Georgie's to stay at home with his mother. He let her talk herself out, saying little, but regarding her with a grave, kind obstinacy. Then she broke down, weeping and clinging to him. Somehow, though he could hardly explain it to himself, the relation between the two underwent a change. He left that house the unquestioned master of himself, the acknowledged head of that tiny household; he had won, and his victory instead of abating by a hair's-breadth his mother's love for him had drawn the pair closer to each other than ever before. Though she had no articulate conception of it Georgie had risen enormously in his mother's respect. The woman had given way to the man, and the eternal fitness of things had been vindicated.

Her tenderness and devotion were redoubled. Never had there been such a son in the history of the world. She relaxed her economies in order to buy him little delicacies, such as sardines and pickles; and when soon after his enlistment his uniform came home she spread it on her bed and cried, and then sank on her knees, passionately kissing the coarse serge. In the limitation of her horizon she could see but a single figure. It was Georgie's country, Georgie's President, Georgie's fleet, Georgie's righteous quarrel in the cause of stifled freedom. To her, it was Georgie's war with Spain.

He was drafted aboard the Dixie, where, within a week of his joining, he was promoted to be one of the four quartermasters. So much older than the majority of his comrades, quick, alert, obedient, and responsible, he was naturally amongst the first chosen for what are called leading seamen. Never was a man more in his element than George Raymond. He shook down into naval life like one born to it. The sea was in his blood, and his translation from the auditor's department to the deck of a fighting ship seemed to him like one of those happy dreams when one pinches himself to try and confirm the impossible. Metaphorically speaking, he was always pinching himself and contrasting the monotonous past with the glorious and animated present. The change told in his manner, in the tilt of his head, in his fearless eyes and straighter back. It comes natural to heroes to protrude their chests and walk upon air; and it is pardonable, indeed, in war time, when each feels himself responsible for a fraction of his country's honour.

"Georgie, you are positively becoming handsome," said his mother.

Amongst Raymond's comrades on the Dixie was a youngster of twenty- one, named Howard Quintan. Something attracted him in the boy, and he went out of his way to make things smooth for him aboard. The liking was no less cordially returned, and the two became fast friends. One day, when they were both given liberty together, Howard insisted on taking him to his own home.

"The folks want to know you," he said. "They naturally think a heap of you because I do, and I've told them how good you've been and all that."

"Oh, rubbish!" said Raymond, though he was inwardly pleased. At the time they were walking up Fifth Avenue, both in uniform, with their caps on one side, sailor fashion, and their wide trousers flapping about their ankles. People looked at them kindly as they passed, for the shadow of the war lay on everyone and all hearts went out to the men who were to uphold the flag. Raymond was flattered and yet somewhat overcome by the attention his companion and he excited.

"Let's get out of this, Quint," he said. "I can't walk straight when people look at me like that. Don't you feel kind of givey- givey at the knees with all those pretty girls loving us in advance?"

"Oh, that's what I like!" said Quintan. "I never got a glance when I used to sport a silk hat. Besides, here we are at the old stand!"

Raymond regarded him with blank surprise as they turned aside and up the steps of one of the houses.

"Land's sake!" he exclaimed; "you don't mean to say you live in a place like this? Here?" he added, with an intonation that caused Howard to burst out laughing.

The young fellow pushed by the footman that admitted them and ran up the stairs three steps at a time. Raymond followed more slowly, dazed by the splendour he saw about him, and feeling horribly embarrassed and deserted. He halted on the stairs as he saw Quintan throw his arms about a tall, stately, magnificently dressed woman and kiss her boisterously; and he was in two minds whether or not to slink down again and disappear, when his companion called out to him to hurry up.

"Mother, this is Mr. Raymond," he said. "He's the best friend I have on the Dixie, and you're to be awfully good to him!"

Mrs. Quintan graciously gave him her hand and said something about his kindness to her boy. Raymond was too stricken to speak and was thankful for the semi-darkness that hid his face. Mrs. Quintan continued softly, in the same sweet and overpowering manner, to purr her gratitude and try to put him at his ease. Raymond would have been a happy man could he have sunk though the parquetry floor. He trembled as he was led into the drawing-room, where another gracious and overpowering creature rose to receive them.

"My aunt, Miss Christine Latimer," said Howard.

She was younger than Mrs. Quintan; a tall, fair woman of middle age, with a fine figure, hair streaked with grey, and the remains of what had once been extreme beauty. Her voice was the sweetest Raymond had ever listened to, and his shyness and agitation wore off as she began to speak to him. He was left a long while alone with her, for Howard and his mother withdrew, excusing themselves on the score of private matters. Christine Latimer was touched by the forlorn quartermaster, who, in his nervousness, gripped his chair with clenched hands and started when he was asked a question. She soon got him past this stage of their acquaintance, and, leading him on by gentle gradations to talk about himself, even learned his whole story, and that in so unobtrusive a fashion that he was hardly aware of his having told it to her.

"I am speaking to you as though I had known you all my life," he said in an artless compliment. "I hope it is not very forward of me. It is your fault for being so kind and good."

He was ecstatic when he left the house with Quintan.

"I didn't know there were such women in the world," he said. "So noble, so winning and high-bred. It makes you understand history to meet people like that. Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and all those, you know—they must have been like that. I—I could understand a man dying for Miss Latimer!"

"Oh, she's all right, my aunt!" said Quintan. "She was a tremendous beauty once, and even now she's what I'd call a devilish handsome woman. And the grand manner, it isn't everybody that likes it, but I do. It's a little old-fashioned nowadays, but, by Jove, it still tells."

"I wonder that such a splendid woman should have remained unmarried," said Raymond. He stuck an instant on the word unmarried. It seemed almost common to apply to such a princess.

"She had an early love affair that turned out badly," said Quintan. "I don't know what went wrong, but anyway it didn't work. Then, when my father died, she came to live with us and help bring us up—you see there are two more of us in the family—and I am told she refused some good matches just on account of us kids. It makes me feel guilty sometimes to think of it."

"Why guilty?" asked Raymond.

"Because none of us were worth it, old chap," said Quintan.

"I'm sure she never thought so," observed Raymond.

"My aunt's rather an unusual woman," said Quintan. "She has voluntarily played second fiddle all her life; and, between you and me, you know, my mother's a bit of a tyrant, and not always easy to get along with—so it wasn't so simple a game as it looks."

Raymond was shocked at this way of putting the matter.

"You mean she sacrificed the best years of her life for you," he said stiffly.

"Women are like that—good women," said Quintan. "Catch a man being such a fool—looking at it generally, you know—me apart. She had a tidy little fortune from her father, and might have had a yard of her own to play in, but our little baby hands held her tight."

Raymond regarded his companion's hands. They were large and red, and rough with the hard work on board the Dixie; regarded them respectfully, almost with awe, for had they not restrained that glorious being in the full tide of her youth and beauty!

"Now it's too late," said Quintan.

"What do you mean by too late?" asked the quartermaster.

"Well, she's passed forty," said Quintan. "The babies have grown up, and the selfish beasts are striking out for themselves. Her occupation's gone, and she's left plante la. Worse than that, my mother, who never bothered two cents about us then, now loves us to distraction. And, when all's said, you know, it's natural to like your mother best!"

"Too bad!" ejaculated Raymond.

"I call it deuced hard luck," said Quintan. "My mother really neglected us shamefully, and it was Aunt Christine who brought us up and blew our noses and rubbed us with goose-grease when we had croup, and all that kind of thing. Then, when we grew up, my mother suddenly discovered her long-lost children and began to think a heap of us—after having scamped the whole business for fifteen years—and my aunt, who was the real nigger in the hedge, got kind of let out, you see."

Raymond did not see, and he was indignant, besides, at the coarseness of his companion's expressions. So he walked along and said nothing.

"And, as I said before, it's now too late," said Quintan.

"Too late for what?" demanded Raymond, who was deeply interested.

"For her to take up with anybody else," said Quintan. "To marry, you know. She sacrificed all her opportunities for us; and now, in the inevitable course of things, we are kind of abandoning her when she is old and faded and lonely."

"I consider your aunt one of the most beautiful women in the world," protested Raymond.

"But you can't put back the clock, old fellow," said Quintan. "What has the world to offer to an old maid of forty-two? There she is in the empty nest, and not her own nest at that, with all her little nestlings flying over the hills and far away, and the genuine mother-bird varying the monotony by occasionally pecking her eyes out."

Raymond did not know what to answer. He could not be so rude as to make any reflection on Mrs. Quintan, though he was stirred with resentment against her. This noble, angelic, saintly woman, who in every gesture reminded him of dead queens and historic personages! It went to his heart to think of her, bereft and lonely, in that splendid house he had so lately quitted. He recognised, in the unmistakable accord between him and her, the fellowship of a pair who, in different ways and in different stations, had yet fought and suffered and endured for what they judged their duty. Forty- two years old! Singular coincidence, in itself almost a bond between them, that he, too, was of an identical age. Forty-two! Why, it was called the prime of life. He inhaled a deep breath of air; it was the prime of life; until then no one had really begun to live!

"Why don't you say something?" said Quintan.

"I was just thinking how mistaken you were," returned Raymond. "There must be hundreds of men who would be proud to win her slightest regard; who, instead of considering her faded or old, would choose her out of a thousand of younger women and would be happy for ever if she would take—" He was going to say them, but that sounded improper, and he changed it, at the cost of grammar, to "him."

Quintan laughed at his companion's vehemence, and the subject passed and gave way to another about shrapnel. But he did not fail, later on, to carry a humorous report of the conversation to his aunt.

"What have you been doing to my old quartermaster?" he said. "Hasn't the poor fellow enough troubles as it is, without falling in love with you! He can't talk of anything else, and blushes like a girl when he mentions your name. He told me yesterday he was willing to die for a woman like you."

"I think he's a dear, nice fellow," said Miss Latimer, "and if he wants to love me he can. It will keep him out of mischief!"

Raymond saw a great deal of Miss Latimer in the month before they sailed south. Quintan took him constantly to the house, where, in his capacity of humble and devoted comrade, the tall quartermaster was always welcome and made much of. Mrs. Quintan was alive to the value of this attached follower, who might be trusted to guard her son in the perils that lay before him. She treated him as a sort of combination of valet, nurse, and poor relation, asking him all sorts of intimate questions about Howard's socks and underclothing, and holding him altogether responsible for the boy's welfare. Her tone was one of anxious patronage, touching at times on a deeper emotion when she often broke down and cried. The quartermaster was greatly moved by her trust in him. The tears would come to his own eyes, and he would try in his clumsy way to comfort her, promising that, so far as it lay with him, Howard should return safe and sound. In his self-abnegation it never occurred to him that his own life was as valuable as Howard Quintan's. He acquiesced in the understanding that it was his business to get Howard through the war unscratched, at whatever risk or jeopardy to himself.

Those were wonderful days for him. To be an intimate of that splendid household, to drive behind spanking bays with Miss Latimer by his side, to take tea at the Waldorf with her and other semi-divine beings—what a dazzling experience for the ex-clerk, whose lines so recently had lain in such different places. Innately a gentleman, he bore himself with dignity in this new position, with a fine simplicity and self-effacement that was not lost on some of his friends. His respect for them all was unbounded. For the mother, so majestic, so awe-inspiring; for Howard, that handsome boy whose exuberant Americanism was untouched by any feeling of caste; for Melton and Hubert Henry, his brothers, those lordly striplings of a lordly race; for Miss Latimer, who in his heart of hearts he dared not call Christine, and who to him was the embodiment of everything adorable in women. Yes, he loved her; confessed to himself that he loved her; humbly and without hope, with no anticipation of anything more between them, overcome indeed that his presumption should go thus far.

He did not attempt to hide his feelings for her, and though too shy for any expression of it, and withheld besides by the utter impossibility of such a suit, he betrayed himself to her in a thousand artless ways. He asked for no higher happiness than to sit by her side, looking into her face and listening to her mellow voice. He was thrice happy were he privileged to touch her hand in passing a teacup. Her gentleness and courtesy, her evident consideration, the little peeps she gave him into a nature gracious and refined beyond anything he had ever known, all transported him with unreasoning delight. She, on her part, so accustomed to play a minor role herself in her sister's household, was yet too much a woman not to like an admirer of her own. She took more pains with her dress, looked at herself more often in the glass than she had done in years. It was laughable; it was absurd; and she joined as readily as anyone in the mirth that Raymond's devotion excited in the family, but, deep down within her, she was pleased. At the least it showed she had not grown too old to make men love her; it was the vindication of the mounting years; the time, then, had not yet come when she had ceased altogether to count. She had lost her nephews, who were growing to be men; the love she put by so readily when it was in her reach seemed now more precious as she beheld her faded and diminished beauty, the crow's-feet about her eyes, her hair turning from brown to grey. A smothered voice within her said: "Why not?"

She analysed Raymond narrowly in the long tete-a-tetes they had together. She drew him out, encouraging and pressing him to tell her everything about himself. She was always apprehending a jarring note, the inevitable sign of the man's coarser clay, of his commoner upbringing, the clash of his caste on hers. But she was struck instead by his inherent refinement, by his unformulated instincts of well-doing and honour. He was hazy about the use of oyster-forks, had never seen a finger-bowl, committed to her eyes a dozen little solecisms which he hastened to correct by frankly asking her assistance; but in the true essentials she never had to feel any shame for him. Clumsy, grotesquely ignorant of the social amenities, he was yet a gentleman.

The night before they were to sail, he came to say good-bye. The war had at last begun in earnest; men were falling, and the Spaniards were expected to make a desperate and bloody resistance. It was a sobering moment for everyone, and, in all voices, however hard they tried to make them brave and gay, there ran an undercurrent of solemnity. Howard and Raymond were to be actors in that terrible drama not yet played; stripped and powder-blackened at their guns, they were perhaps doomed to go down with their ship and find their graves in the Caribbean. Before them lay untold possibilities of wounds and mutilation, of disease, suffering, and horror. What woman that knew them could look on unmoved at the sight of these men, so grave and earnest, so quietly resolute, so deprecatory of anything like braggadocio or over-confidence? It filled Christine Latimer with a fierce pride in herself and them; in a race that could breed men so gentle and so brave; in a country that was founded so surely on the devoted hearts of its citizens.

She was crying as Raymond came to her later on the same evening, and found her sitting in the far end of the drawing-room with the lights turned low. They were alone together, for the quartermaster had left Howard with his mother and his brothers gathered in a farewell group about the library fire. Miss Latimer took both of Raymond's hands, and, with no attempt to disguise her sorrow, drew him close beside her on the divan. She was overflowing with pity for this poor fellow, whose life had been so hard, in which until now there had neither been love nor friends, whose only human tie was to his mother and to her. Had he known it, he might have put his arms about her and kissed her tear-swollen eyes and drawn her head against his breast. She was filled with a pent-up tenderness for him; a word, and she would have discovered what was until then inarticulate in her bosom. But the tall quartermaster was withheld from such incredible presumption. Her beautiful gown against his common serge typified, as it were, the gulf between them. Her distress, her agitation, were in his mind due to her concern for Howard Quintan; and he told her again and again, with manly sincerity, that he would take good care of her boy.

She knew he loved her. It had been plain to her for weeks past. She knew every thought in his head as he sat there beside her, thrilled with the touch of her hands, and in the throes of a respectful rapture. Again and again the avowal was on his lips; he longed to tell her how dear she was to him; it would be hard to die with that unsaid, were he to be amongst those who never returned. It never occurred to him that she might return his love. A woman like her! A queen!

She could easily have helped him out. More than once she was on the point of doing so. But the woman in her rebelled at the thought of taking what was the man's place. She had something of the exaggerated delicacy of an old maid. It was for him to ask, for her to answer; and the precious moments slipped away. At last, greatly daring, he managed to blurt out the fact that he wanted to ask a favour.

"A favour?" she said.

"Won't you give me something," he said timidly, "some little thing to take with me to remember you by?"

She replied she would with pleasure. She wanted him to remember her. What was it that he would like?

"There is nothing I could refuse you," she said, smiling.

Raymond was overcome with embarrassment. She saw him looking at her hair; her hair which was her greatest beauty, and which when undone was luxuriant enough to reach below her waist. He had often expressed his admiration for it.

"What would you like?" she asked again.

"Oh, anything," he faltered. "A—a book!"

She could not restrain her laughter. A book! She laughed and laughed. She seemed carried away by an extraordinary merriment. Raymond thought he had never heard a woman laugh like that before. It made him feel very badly. He wondered what it was that had made his request so ridiculous. He thanked his stars that he had held his tongue about the other thing. Ah, what a fool he had been! He could not have borne it, had the other been received with the same derision.

"I shall give you my prayer-book," she said at last, wiping her eyes and looking less amused than he had expected. "I've had it many years and value it dearly. It is prettily bound in Russia, and if you carry it on the proper place romance will see that it stops a bullet—though a Bible, I believe, is the more correct."

Somehow her tone sounded less cordial. She had withdrawn her hands, and her humour, at such a moment, jarred on him. In spite of his good resolutions he had managed to put his foot into it after all. Perhaps she had begun to suspect his secret and was displeased. He departed feeling utterly wretched and out of heart, and got very scant comfort from his book, for it only reminded him of how seriously he had compromised himself. He was in two minds whether or not to send it back, but decided not to do so in fear lest he might give fresh offence. The next day at dawn the Dixie sailed for the scene of war.

III

Then followed the historic days of the blockade; the first landing on Cuba; the suspense and triumph attending Cervera's capture; El Caney; San Juan Hill; Santiago; and the end of the war. Howard Quintan fell ill with fever and was early invalided home; but Raymond stayed to the finish, an obscure spectator, often an obscure actor, in that world-drama of fleets and armies. Tried in the fire, his character underwent some noted changes. He developed unexpected aptitudes, became a marksman of big guns, showed resource and skill in boat-work, earned the repeated commendations of his superiors. He put his resolutions to the test, and emerged, surprised, thankful, and satisfied, to find that he was a brave man. He rose in his own esteem; it was borne in on him that he had qualities that others often lacked; it was inspiriting to win a reputation for daring, fearlessness, and responsibility.

He wrote when he could to his mother and Miss Latimer, and at rare intervals was sometimes fortunate enough to hear in turn from them. His mother was ill; the strain of his absence and danger was telling on her enfeebled constitution; she said she could not have got along at all had it not been for Miss Latimer's great kindness. It seemed that the old maid was her constant visitor, bringing her flowers, taking her drives, comforting her in the dark hours when her courage was nigh spent. "A good and noble woman," wrote the old lady, "and very much in love with my boy."

That line rang in Raymond's head long afterwards. He read it again and again, bewildered, tempted and yet afraid to believe it true, moved to the depths of his nature, at once happy and unhappy in the gamut of his doubts. It could not be possible. No, it could not be possible. Standing at the breech of his gun, his eyes on a Spanish gunboat they had driven under the shelter of a fort, he found himself repeating: "And very much in love with my boy. And very much in love with my boy." And then, suddenly becoming intent again on the matter in hand, he slammed the breech-mechanism shut and gave the enemy a six-inch shell.

Then there came the news of his mother's death. As much a victim of the war as any stricken soldier or sailor at the front, she was numbered on the roll of the fallen. The war had killed her as certainly, as surely, as any Mauser bullet sped from a tropic thicket. Raymond had only the consolation of knowing that Miss Latimer had been with her at the last and that she had followed his mother to the grave. Her letter, tender and pitiful, filled him with an inexpressible emotion. His little world now held but her.

This was the last letter he was destined to receive from her. The others, if there were others, all went astray in the chaotic confusion attendant on active service. The poor quartermaster, when the ship was so lucky as to take a mail aboard, grew accustomed to be told that there was nothing for him. He lost heart and stopped writing himself. What was the use, he asked himself? Had she not abandoned him? The critical days of the war were over; peace was assured; the victory won, the country was already growing forgetful of the victors. Such were his moody reflections as he paced the deck, hungry for the word that never came. Yes, he was forgotten. There could be no other explanation of that long silence. He was forgotten!

He returned in due course to New York and was paid off and mustered out of the service. It was dusk when he boarded an uptown car and stood holding to a strap, jostled and pushed about by the unheeding crowd. Already jealous of his uniform, he felt a little bitterness to see it regarded with such scant respect. He looked out of the windows at the lighted streets and wondered whether any of those hurrying thousands cared a jot for the men that had fought and died for them. The air, so sharp and chill after the tropics, served still further to dispirit him and add the concluding note of depression to his home-coming. He got off the car and walked down to Fifth Avenue, holding his breath as he drew near the Quintans' house. He rang the bell: waited and rang again. Then at last the door was unlocked and opened by an old woman.

"Is Miss—Mrs. Quintan at home?" he asked.

"Gone to Europe," said the old woman.

"But Miss Latimer?" he persisted.

"Gone to Europe," said the old woman.

"Mr. Howard Quintan?"

"Gone to Europe!"

He walked slowly down the steps, not even waiting to ask for their address abroad nor when they might be expected to return. They had faded into the immeasurable distance. What more was there to be said or hoped, and his dejected heart gave back the answer: nothing. He slept that night in a cheap hotel. The next day he bought a suit of civilian clothes and sought the office of the auditor's department. Here he received something more like a welcome. Many of the clerks, with whom he had scarcely been on nodding terms, now came up and shook him warmly by the hand. The superintendent sent for him and told him that his place had been held open, hinting, in the exuberance of the moment, at a slight increase of salary. The assistant superintendent made much of him and invited him out to lunch. The old darkey door-keeper greeted him like a long-lost parent. Raymond went back to his desk, and resumed with a sort of melancholy satisfaction the interrupted routine of twenty years. In a week he could hardly believe he had ever quitted his desk. He would shut his eyes and wonder whether the war had not been all a dream. He looked at his hands and asked himself whether they indeed had pulled the lanyards of cannon, lifted loaded projectiles, had held the spokes of the leaping wheel. His eyes, now intent on figures, had they in truth ever searched the manned decks of the enemy or trained the sights that had blown Spanish blockhouses to the four winds of heaven? Had it been he or his ghost who had stood behind the Nordenfeldt shields with the bullets pattering against the steel and stinging the air overhead? He or his ghost, barefoot in the sand that sopped the blood of fallen comrades, the ship shaking with the detonation of her guns, the hoarse cheering of her crew re-echoing in his half- deafened ears? A dream, yes; tragic and wonderful in the retrospect, filled with wild, bright pictures; incredible, yet true!

He was restless and lonely. He dreaded his evenings, which he knew not how to spend; dreaded the recurring Sunday, interminable in duration, whose leaden hours seemed never to reach their end. His only solace was in his work, which took him out of himself and prevented him from thinking. He made a weekly pilgrimage past the Quintans' house. The blinds were always drawn. It was as dead as one of those Cuban mills, standing in the desolation of burned fields. Once, greatly daring, and impelled by a sudden impulse, he went to the door and requested the address of his vanished friends:

"Grand Hotel, Vevey, Switzerland." He repeated the words to himself as he went back to his boarding-house, repeated them again and again like a child going on an errand, "Grand Hotel, Vevey, Switzerland," in a sort of panic lest he might forget them. He tossed that night in his bed in a torment of indecision. Ought he to write? Ought he to take the risk of a reply, courteous and cold, that he felt himself without the courage to endure? Or was it not better to put an end to it altogether and accept like a man the inevitable "no" of her decision.

He rose at dawn, and, lighting the gas, went back to bed with what paper he could lay his hands on. He had no pen, no ink, only the stub of a pencil he carried in his pocket. How it flew over the ragged sheets under the fierce spell of his determination! All the misery and longing of months went out in that letter. Inarticulate no longer, he found the expression of a passionate and despairing eloquence. He could not live without her; he loved her; he had always loved her; before he had been daunted by the inequality between them, but now he must speak or die. At the end he asked her, in set old-fashioned terms, whether or not she would marry him.

He mailed it as it was, in odd sheets and under the cover of an official envelope of the railroad company. He dropped it into the box and walked away, wondering whether he wasn't the biggest fool on earth and the most audacious, and yet stirred and trembling with a strange satisfaction. After all he was a man; he had lived as a man should, honorably and straightforwardly; he had the right to ask such a question of any woman and the right to an honest and considerate answer. Be it yes or no, he could reproach himself no longer with perhaps having let his happiness slip past him. The matter would be put beyond a doubt for ever, and if it went against him, as in the bottom of his heart he felt assured it would, he would try to bear it with what fortitude he might. She would know that he loved her. There was always that to comfort him. She would know that he loved her.

He got a postal guide and studied out the mails. He learned the names of the various steamers, the date of their sailing and arriving, the distance of Vevey from the sea. Were she to write on the same day she received his letter, he might hear from her by the Touraine. Were she to wait a day, her answer would be delayed for the Normandie. All this, if the schedule was followed to the letter and bad weather or accident did not intervene. The shipping page of the New York Herald became the only part of it he read. He scanned it daily with anxiety. Did it not tell him of his letter speeding over seas? For him no news was good news, telling him that all was well. He kept himself informed of the temperature of Paris, the temperature of Nice, and worried over the floods in Belgium. From the gloomy offices of the railroad he held all Europe under the closest scrutiny.

Then came the time when his letter was calculated to arrive. In his mind's eye he saw the Grand Hotel at Vevey, a Waldorf-Astoria set in snowy mountains with attendant Swiss yodelling on inaccessible summits, or getting marvels of melody out of little hand-bells, or making cuckoo clocks in top-swollen chalets. The letter would be brought to her on a silver salver, exciting perhaps the stately curiosity of Mrs. Quintan and questions embarrassing to answer. It was a pity he used that railroad envelope! Or would it lie beside her plate at breakfast, as clumsy and unrefined as himself, amid a heap of scented notes from members of the nobility? Ah, if he could but see her face and read his fate in her blue eyes!

When he returned home that night there was a singular-looking telegram awaiting him on the hall table. His hands shook as he took it up for it suddenly came over him that it was a cable. It had never occurred to him that she might do that; that there was anything more expeditious than the mail.

"Sailing by Touraine arriving sixth Christine Latimer."

He read and re-read it until the type grew blurred. What did it mean? He asked himself that a thousand times. What did it mean? He sought his room and locked the door, striding up and down with agitation, the cablegram clenched in his hand. He was beside himself, triumphant and yet in a fever of misgiving. Was it not perhaps a coincidence—not an answer to his own letter, but one of those extraordinary instances of what is called telepathy? Her words would bear either interpretation. Possibly the whole family was returning with her. Possibly she had never seen his letter at all. Possibly it was following her back to America, unopened and undelivered.

"Sailing by Touraine arriving sixth." Was that an answer? Perhaps indeed it was. Perhaps it was a woman's way of saying "yes"; it might even be, in her surpassing kindness, that she was coming to break her refusal as gently as she might, too considerate of his feelings to write it baldly on paper. At least, amid all these doubts, it assured him of one thing, her regard; that he was not forgotten; that he had been mistaken in thinking himself ignored.

He spent the next eight days in a cruel and heart-breaking suspense. He could hardly eat or sleep. He grew thin and started at a sound. He paid a dollar to have the Touraine's arrival telegraphed to the office; another dollar to have it telegraphed to the boarding-house; he was fearful that one or the other might miscarry, and repeatedly warned the landlady of a possible message for him in the middle of the night.

"It means a great deal to me," he said. "It means everything to me. I don't know what I'd do if I missed the Touraine!"

Of course he did not miss the Touraine. He was on the wharf hours before her coming. He exasperated everyone with his questions. He was turned out of all kinds of barriers; he earned the distrust of the detectives; he became a marked man. He was certainly there for no good, that tall guy in the slouch hat, his lean hands fidgeting for a surreptitious pearl-necklace or an innocent-looking umbrella full of diamonds—one who, in their language, was a guy that would bear watching.

The steamer came alongside, and Raymond gazed up at the tier upon tier of faces. At length, with a catch in his heart, he caught sight of Miss Latimer, who smiled and waved her hand to him. He scanned her narrowly for an answer to his doubts; and these increased the more he gazed at her. It seemed a bad sign to see her so calm, so composed; worse still to see her occasionally in animated conversation with some of her fellow-passengers. He thought her smiles had even a perfunctory friendliness, and he had to share them besides with others. It was plain she had never received his letter. No woman could bear herself like that who had received such a letter. Then too she appeared so handsome, so high-bred, so charming and noticeable a figure in the little company about her that Raymond felt a peremptory sense of his own humbleness and of the impassable void between them. How had he ever dared aspire to this beautiful woman, and the thought of his effrontery took him by the throat.

He stood by the gangway as the passengers came off, an interminable throng, slow moving, teetering on the slats, a gush of funnelled humanity, hampered with bags, hat-boxes, rolls of rugs, dressing-cases, golf-sticks, and children. At last Miss Latimer was carried into the eddy, her maid behind her carrying her things, lost to view save by the bright feather in her travelling bonnet. The seconds were like hours as Raymond waited. He had a peep of her, smiling and patient, talking over her shoulder to a big Englishman behind her. Then, as the slow stream brought her down, she stepped lightly on the wharf, turned to Raymond, and, before he could so much as stammer out a word, flung her arms round his neck and kissed him.

"Did you really want me?" she said; and then, "You gave me but two hours to catch the old Touraine!"

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index