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"Contact!" by Frances Noyes Hart

 

The first time she heard it was in the silk-hung and flower-scented peace of the little drawing-room in Curzon Street. His sister Rosemary had wanted to come up to London to get some clothes—Victory clothes they called them in those first joyous months after the armistice, and decked their bodies in scarlet and silver, even when their poor hearts went in black—and Janet had been urged to leave her own drab boarding-house room to stay with the forlorn small butterfly. They had struggled through dinner somehow, and Janet had finished her coffee and turned the great chair so that she could watch the dancing fire (it was cool for May), her cloudy brown head tilted back against the rose-red cushion, shadowy eyes half closed, idle hands linked across her knees. She looked every one of her thirty years—and mortally tired—and careless of both facts. But she managed an encouraging smile at the sound of Rosemary's shy, friendly voice at her elbow. “Janet, these are yours, aren't they? Mummy found them with some things last week, and I thought that you might like to have them.”

She drew a quick breath at the sight of the shabby packet.

“Why, yes,” she said evenly. “That's good of you, Rosemary. Thanks a lot.”

“That's all right,” murmured Rosemary diffidently. “Wouldn't you like something to read? There's a most frightfully exciting Western novel——”

The smile took on a slightly ironical edge. “Don't bother about me, my dear. You see, I come from that frightfully exciting West, and I know all about the pet rattlesnakes and the wildly Bohemian cowboys. Run along and play with your book—I'll be off to bed in a few minutes.”

Rosemary retired obediently to the deep chair in the corner, and with the smile gone but the irony still hovering, she slipped the cord off the packet. A meager and sorry enough array—words had never been for her the swift, docile servitors that most people found them. But the thin gray sheet in her fingers started out gallantly enough—“Beloved.” Beloved! She leaned far forward, dropping it with deft precision into the glowing pocket of embers. What next? This was more like—it began “Dear Captain Langdon” in the small, contained, even writing that was her pride, and it went on soberly enough, “I shall be glad to have tea with you next Friday—not Thursday, because I must be at the hut then. It was stupid of me to have forgotten you—next time I will try to do better.” Well, she had done better the next time. She had not forgotten him again—never, never again. That had been her first letter; how absurd of Jerry, the magnificently careless, to have treasured it all that time, the miserable, stilted little thing! She touched it with curious fingers. Surely, surely he must have cared, to have cared so much for that!

It seemed incredible that she hadn't remembered him at once when he came into the hut that second time. Of course she had only seen him for a moment and six months had passed—but he was so absurdly vivid, every inch of him, from the top of his shining, dark head to the heels of his shining, dark boots—and there were a great many inches! How could she have forgotten, even for a minute, those eyes dancing like blue fire in the brown young face, the swift, disarming charm of his smile, and, above all, his voice—how, in the name of absurdity could any one who had once heard it ever forget Jeremy Langdon's voice? Even now she had only to close her eyes, and it rang out again, with its clipped, British accent and its caressing magic, as un-English as any Provincial troubadour's! And yet she had forgotten—he had had to speak twice before she had even lifted her head.

“Miss America—oh, I say, she's forgotten me, and I thought that I'd made such an everlasting impression!” The delighted amazement reached even her tired ears, and she had smiled wanly as she pushed the pile of coppers nearer to him.

“Have you been in before? It's stupid of me, but there are such hundreds of thousands of you, and you are gone in a minute, you see. That's your change, I think.”

“Hundreds of thousands of me, hey?” He had leaned across the counter, his face alight with mirth. “I wish to the Lord my angel mother could hear you—it's what I'm forever tellin' her, though just between us, it's stuff and nonsense. I've got a well-founded suspicion that I'm absolutely unique. You wait and see!”

And she had waited—and she had seen! She stirred a little, dropped the note into the flames, and turned to the next, the quiet, mocking mouth suddenly tortured and rebellious.

“No, you must be mad,” it ran, the trim writing strangely shaken. “How often have you seen me—five times? Do you know how old I am. How hard and tired and useless? No—no a thousand times. In a little while we will wake up and find that we were dreaming.”

That had brought him to her swifter than Fate, triumphant mischief in every line of his exultant face. “Just let those damned old cups slip from your palsied fingers, will you? I'm goin' to take your honourable age for a little country air—it may keep you out of the grave for a few days longer. Never can tell! No use your scowlin' like that—the car's outside, and the big chief says to be off with you. Says you have no more colour than a banshee, and not half the life—can't grasp the fact that it's just chronic antiquity. Fasten the collar about your throat—no, higher! Darlin', darlin', think of havin' a whole rippin' day to ourselves. You're glad, too, aren't you, my little stubborn saint?”

Oh, that joyous and heart-breaking voice, running on and on—it made all the other voices that she had ever heard seem colourless and unreal—

“Darlin' idiot, what do I care how old you are? Thirty, hey? Almost old enough to be an ancestor! Look at me—no, look at me! Dare you to say that you aren't mad about me!”

Mad about him—mad, mad! She lifted her hands to her ears, but she could no more shut out the exultant voice now than she could on that windy afternoon.

“Other fellow got tired of you, did he? Good luck for us, what? You're a fearfully tiresome person, darlin'. It's goin' to take me nine-tenths of eternity to tell you how tiresome you are. Give a chap a chance, won't you? The tiresomest thing about you is the way you leash up that dimple of yours. No, by George, there it is! Janie, look at me——”

She touched the place where the leashed dimple had hidden with a delicate and wondering finger—of all Jerry's gifts to her the most miraculous had been that small fugitive. Exiled now, forever and forever.

“Are you comin' down to White Orchards next week-end? I'm off for France on the twelfth and you've simply got to meet my people. You'll be insane about 'em—Rosemary's the most beguilin' flibbertigibbet, and I can't wait to see you bein' a kind of an elderly grandmother to her. What a bewitchin' little grandmother you're goin' to be one of these days——”

Oh, Jerry! Oh, Jerry, Jerry! She twisted in her chair, her face suddenly a small mask of incredulous terror. No, no, it wasn't true, it wasn't true—never—never—never! And then, for the first time, she heard it. Far off but clear, a fine and vibrant humming, the distant music of wings! The faint, steady pulsing was drawing nearer and nearer—nearer still—it must be flying quite high. The hateful letters scattered about her as she sprang to the open window—no, it was too high to see, and too dark, though the sky was powdered with stars—but she could hear it clearly, hovering and throbbing like some gigantic bird. It must be almost directly over her head, if she could only see it.

“It sounds—it sounds the way a humming-bird would look through a telescope,” she said half aloud, and Rosemary murmured sleepily but courteously, “What, Janet?”

“Just an airplane—no, gone now. It sounded like a bird. Didn't you hear it?”

“No,” replied Rosemary drowsily. “We get so used to the old things that we don't even notice them any more. Queer time to be flying!”

“It sounded rather—beautiful,” said Janet, her face still turned to the stars. “Far off, but so clear and sure. I wonder—I wonder whether it will be coming back?”

Well, it came back. She went down to White Orchards with Rosemary for the following week-end, and after she had smoothed her hair and given a scornful glance at the pale face in the mirror, with its shadowy eyes and defiant mouth, she slipped out to the lower terrace for a breath of the soft country air. Halfway down the flight of steps she stumbled and caught at the balustrade, and stood shaking for a moment, her face pressed against its rough surface. Once before—once before she had stumbled on those steps, but it was not the balustrade that had saved her. She could feel his arms about her now, holding her up, holding her close and safe. The magical voice was in her ears. “Let you go? I'll never let you go! Poor little feet, stumblin' in the dark, what would you do without Jerry? Time's comin', you cheeky little devils, when you'll come runnin' to him when he whistles! No use tryin' to get away—you belong to him.”

Oh, whistle to them now, Jerry—they would run to you across the stars!

“How'd you like to marry me before I go back to-morrow? No? No accountin' for tastes, Miss Abbott—lots of people would simply jump at it! All right—April, then. Birds and flowers and all that kind o' thing—pretty intoxicatin', what? No, keep still, darlin' goose. What feller taught you to wear a dress that looks like roses and smells like roses and feels like roses? This feller? Lord help us, what a lovely liar!”

And suddenly she found herself weeping helplessly, desperately, like an exhausted child, shaken to the heart at the memory of the rose-coloured dress.

“You like me just a bit, don't you, funny, quiet little thing? But you'd never lift a finger to hold me—that's the wonder of you—that's why I'll never leave you. No, not for heaven. You can't lose me—no use tryin'.”

But she had lost you, Jerry—you had left her, for all your promises, to terrified weeping in the hushed loveliness of the terrace, where your voice had turned her still heart to a dancing star, where your fingers had touched her quiet blood to flowers and flames and butterflies. She had believed you then—what would she ever believe again? And then she caught back the despairing sobs swiftly, for once more she heard, far off, the rushing of wings. Nearer—nearer—humming and singing and hovering in the quiet dusk. Why, it was over the garden! She flung back her head, suddenly eager to see it; it was a friendly and thrilling sound in all that stillness. Oh, it was coming lower—lower still—she could hear the throb of the propellers clearly. Where was it? Behind those trees, perhaps? She raced up the flight of steps, dashing the treacherous tears from her eyes, straining up on impatient tiptoes. Surely she could see it now! But already it was growing fainter—drifting steadily away, the distant hum growing lighter and lighter—lighter still——

“Janet!” called Mrs. Langdon's pretty, patient voice. “Dinner-time, dear! Is there any one with you?”

“No one at all, Mrs. Langdon. I was just listening to an airplane.”

“An airplane? Oh, no, dear—they never pass this way any more. The last one was in October, I think——”

The soft, plaintive voice trailed off in the direction of the dining-room and Janet followed it, a small, secure smile touching her lips. The last one had not passed in October. It had passed a few minutes before, over the lower garden.

She quite forgot it by the next week—she was becoming an adept at forgetting. That was all that was left for her to do! Day after day and night after night she had raised the drawbridge between her heart and memory, leaving the lonely thoughts to shiver desolately on the other side of the moat. She was weary to the bone of suffering, and they were enemies, for all their dear and friendly guise; they would tear her to pieces if she ever let them in. No, no, she was done with them. She would forget, as Jerry had forgotten. She would destroy every link between herself and the past—and pack the neat little steamer trunk neatly—and bid these kind and gentle people good-by—and take herself and her bitterness and her dullness back to the class-room in the Western university town—back to the Romance languages. The Romance languages!

She would finish it all that night, and leave as soon as possible. There were some trinkets to destroy, and his letters from France to burn—she would give Rosemary the rose-coloured dress—foolish, lovely little Rosemary, whom he had loved, and who was lying now fast asleep in the next room curled up like a kitten in the middle of the great bed, her honey-coloured hair falling about her in a shining mist. She swept back her own cloud of hair resolutely, frowning at the candle-lit reflection in the mirror. Two desolate pools in the small, pale oval of her face stared back at her—two pools with something drowned in their lonely depths. Well, she would drown it deeper!

The letters first; how lucky that they still used candle-light! It would make the task much simpler—the funeral pyre already lighted. She moved one of the tall candelabra to the desk, sitting for a long time quite still, her chin cupped in her hands, staring down at the bits of paper. She could smell the wall-flowers under the window as though they were in the room—drenched in dew and moonlight, they were reckless of their fragrance. All this peace and cleanliness and orderly beauty—what a ghastly trick for God to have played—to have taught her to adore them, and then to snatch them away! All about her, warm with candle-light, lay the gracious loveliness of the little room with its dark waxed furniture, its bright glazed chintz, its narrow bed with the cool linen sheets smelling of lavender, and its straight, patterned curtains—oh, that hateful, mustard-coloured den at home, with its golden-oak day-bed!

She wrung her hands suddenly in a little hunted gesture. How could he have left her to that, he who had sworn that he would never leave her? In every one of those letters beneath her linked fingers he had sworn it—in every one perjured—false half a hundred times. Pick up any one of them at random—

“Janie, you darling stick, is 'dear Jerry' the best that you can do? You ought to learn French! I took a perfectly ripping French kid out to dinner last night—name's Liane, from the Varietes—and she was calling me 'mon grand cheri' before the salad, and 'mon p'tit amour ' before the green mint. Maybe that'll buck you up! And I'd have you know that she's so pretty that it's ridiculous, with black velvet hair that she wears like a little Oriental turban, and eyes like golden pansies, and a mouth between a kiss and a prayer—and a nice affable nature into the bargain. But I'm a ghastly jackass—I didn't get any fun out of it at all—because I really didn't even see her. Under the pink shaded candles to my blind eyes it seemed that there was seated the coolest, quietest, whitest little thing, with eyes that were as indifferent as my velvety Liane's were kind, and mockery in her smile. Oh, little masquerader! If I could get my arms about you even for a minute—if I could kiss so much as the tips of your lashes—would you be cool and quiet and mocking then? Janie, Janie, rosy-red as flowers on the terrace and sweeter—sweeter—they're about you now—they'll be about you always!”

Burn it fast, candle—faster, faster. Here's another for you.

“So the other fellow cured you of using pretty names, did he—you don't care much for dear and darling any more? Bit hard on me, but fortunately for you, Janie Janet, I'm rather a dab at languages—'specially when it comes to what the late lamented Boche referred to as 'cosy names.' Querida mi alma, douchka, Herzliebchen, carissima; and bien, bien-aimee, I'll not run out of salutations for you this side of heaven—no—nor t'other. I adore the serene grace with which you ignore the ravishing Liane. Haven't you any curiosity at all, my Sphinx? No? Well, then, just to punish you, I'll tell you all about it. She's married to the best fellow in the world—a liaison officer working with our squadron—and she worships the ground that he walks on and the air that he occasionally flies in. So whenever I run up to the City of Light, en permission, I look her up, and take her the latest news—and for an hour, over the candles, we pretend that I am Philippe, and that she is Janie. Only she says that I don't pretend very well—and it's just possible that she's right.

Mon petit coeur et grand tresor, I wish that I could take you flying with me this evening. You'd be daft about it! Lots of it's a rotten bore, of course, but there's something in me that doesn't live at all when I'm on this too, too solid earth. Something that lies there, crouched and dormant, waiting until I've climbed up into the seat, and buckled the strap about me and laid my hands on the 'stick.' It's waiting—waiting for a word—and so am I. And I lean far forward, watching the figure toiling out beyond till the call comes back to me, clear and confident, 'Contact, sir?' And I shout back, as restless and exultant as the first time that I answered it—'Contact!'

“And I'm off—and I'm alive—and I'm free! Ho, Janie! That's simpler than Abracadabra or Open Sesame, isn't it? But it opens doors more magical than ever they swung wide, and something in me bounds through, more swift and eager than any Aladdin. Free! I'm a crazy sort of a beggar, my little love—that same thing in me hungers and thirsts and aches for freedom. I go half mad when people or events try to hold me—you, wise beyond wisdom, never will. Somehow, between us, we've struck the spark that turns a mere piece of machinery into a wonder with wings—somehow, you are forever setting me free. It is your voice—your voice of silver and peace—that's eternally whispering 'Contact!' to me—and I am released, heart, soul, and body! And because you speed me on my way, Janie, I'll never fly so far, I'll never fly so long, I'll never fly so high that I'll not return to you. You hold me fast, forever and forever.”

You had flown high and far indeed, Jerry—and you had not returned. Forever and forever! Burn faster, flame!

“My blessed child, who's been frightening you? Airplanes are by all odds safer than taxis—and no end safer than the infernal duffer who's been chaffing you would be if I could once get my hands on him. Damn fool! Don't care if you do hate swearing—damn fools are damn fools, and there's an end to it. All those statistics are sheer melodramatic rot—the chap who fired 'em at you probably has all his money invested in submarines, and is fairly delirious with jealousy. Peg (did I ever formally introduce you to Pegasus, the best pursuit-plane in the R.F.C.—or out of it?)—Peg's about as likely to let me down as you are! We'd do a good deal for each other, she and I—nobody else can really fly her, the darling! But she'd go to the stars for me—and farther still. Never you fear—we have charmed lives, Peg and I—we belong to Janie.

“I think that people make an idiotic row about dying, anyway. It's probably jolly good fun—and I can't see what difference a few years here would make if you're going to have all eternity to play with. Of course you're a ghastly little heathen, and I can see you wagging a mournful head over this already—but every time that I remember what a shocking sell the After Life (exquisite phrase!) is going to be for you, darling, I do a bit of head-wagging myself—and it's not precisely mournful! I can't wait to see your blank consternation—and you needn't expect any sympathy from me. My very first words will be, 'I told you so!' Maybe I'll rap them out to you with a table-leg!

“What do you think of all this Ouija Planchette rumpus, anyway? I can't for the life of me see why any one with a whole new world to explore should hang around chattering with this one. I know that I'd be half mad with excitement to get at the new job, and that I'd find re-assuring the loved ones (exquisite phrase number two) a hideous bore. Still, I can see that it would be nice from their selfish point of view! Well, I'm no ghost yet, thank God—nor yet are you—but if ever I am one, I'll show you what devotion really is. I'll come all the way back from heaven to play with foolish Janie, who doesn't believe that there is one to come from. To foolish, foolish Janie, who still will be dearer than the prettiest angel of them all, no matter how alluringly her halo may be tilted or her wings ruffled. To Janie who, Heaven forgive him, will be all that one poor ghost has ever loved!”

Had there come to him, the radiant and the confident, a moment of terrible and shattering surprise—a moment when he realized that there were no pretty angels with shining wings waiting to greet him—a moment when he saw before him only the overwhelming darkness, blacker and deeper than the night would be, when she blew out the little hungry flame that was eating up the sheet that held his laughter? Oh, gladly would she have died a thousand deaths to have spared him that moment!

“My little Greatheart, did you think that I did not know how brave you are? You are the truest soldier of us all, and I, who am not much given to worship, am on my knees before that shy gallantry of yours, which makes what courage we poor duffers have seem a vain and boastful thing. When I see you as I saw you last, small and white and clear and brave, I can't think of anything but the first crocuses at White Orchards, shining out, demure and valiant, fearless of wind and storm and cold—fearless of Fear itself. You see, you're so very, very brave that you make me ashamed to be afraid of poetry and sentiment and pretty words—things of which I have a good, thumping Anglo-Saxon terror, I can tell you! It's because I know what a heavenly brick you are that I could have killed that statistical jackass for bothering you; but I'll forgive him, since you say that it's all right. And so ghosts are the only things in the world that frighten you—even though you know that there aren't any. You and Madame de Stael, hey? 'I do not believe in ghosts, but I fear them!' It's pretty painful to learn that the mere sight of one would turn you into a gibbering lunatic. Nice sell for an enthusiastic spirit who'd romped clear back from heaven to give you a pleasant surprise—I don't think! Well, no fear, young Janie—I'll find some way if I'm put to it—some nice, safe, pretty way that wouldn't scare a neurasthenic baby, let alone the dauntless Miss Abbott. I'll find—”

Oh, no more of that—no more! She crushed the sheet in her hands fiercely, crumpling it into a little ball—the candle-flame was too slow. No, she couldn't stand it—she couldn't—she couldn't, and there was an end to it. She would go raving mad—she would kill herself—she would—She lifted her head, wrenched suddenly back from that chaos of despair, alert and intent. There it was again, coming swiftly nearer and nearer from some immeasurable distance—down—down—nearer still—the very room was humming and throbbing with it—she could almost hear the singing in the wires. She swung far out over the window edge, searching the moon-drenched garden with eager eyes—surely, surely it would never fly so low unless it were about to land! Engine trouble, perhaps—though she could detect no break in the huge, rhythmic pulsing that was shaking the night. Still—

“Rosemary!” she called urgently. “Rosemary—listen—is there a place where it can land?”

“Where what can land?” asked a drowsy voice.

“An airplane. It's flying so low that it must be in some kind of trouble—do come and see!”

Rosemary came pattering obediently toward her, a small, docile figure, dark eyes misted with dreams, wide with amazement.

“I must be nine-tenths asleep,” she murmured gently. “Because I don't hear a single thing, Janet. Perhaps—”

“Hush—listen!” begged Janet, raising an imperative hand—and then her own eyes widened. “Why—it's gone!” There was a note of flat incredulity in her voice. “Heavens, how those things must eat up space! Not a minute, ago it was fairly shaking this room, and now—”

Rosemary stifled a small pink yawn and smiled ingratiatingly.

“Perhaps you were asleep too,” she suggested humbly. “I don't believe that airplanes ever fly this way any more. Or it might have been that fat Hodges boy on his motorcycle—he does make the most dreadful racket. Oh, Janet, what a perfectly ripping night—do see!”

They leaned together on the window-sill, silenced by the white and shining beauty that had turned the pleasant garden into a place of magic and enchantment. The corners of Janet's mouth lifted suddenly. How absurd people were! The fat Hodges boy and his motorcycle! Did they all regard her as an amiable lunatic—even little, lovely, friendly Rosemary, wavering sleepily at her side? It really was maddening. But she felt, amazingly enough, suddenly quiet and joyous and indifferent—and passionately glad that the wanderer from the skies had won safely through and was speeding home. Home! Oh, it was a crying pity that it need ever land—anything so fleet and strong and sure should fly forever! But if they must rest, those beating wings—the old R.F.C. toast went singing through her head and she flung it out into the moonlight, smiling—“Happy landings! Happy landings, you!”

The next day was the one that brought to White Orchards what was to be known for many moons as “the Big Storm.” It had been gathering all afternoon, and by evening the heat had grown appalling and incredible, even to Janet's American and exigent standards. The smouldering copper sky looked as though it had caught fire from the world and would burn forever; there was not so much as a whisper of air to break the stillness—it seemed as though the whole tortured earth were holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Every one had struggled through the day assuring one another that when evening came it would be all right—dangling the alluring thought of the cool darkness before each other's hot and weary eyes; but the night proved even more outrageous than the day. To the little group seated on the terrace, dispiritedly playing with their coffee, it seemed almost a personal affront. The darkness closed in on them, smothering, heavy, intolerable; they could feel its weight, as though it were some hateful and tangible thing.

“Like—like black cotton wool,” explained Rosemary, stirred to unwonted resentment. She had spent the day curled up in the largest Indian chair on the terrace, round-eyed with fatigue and incredulity.

“I honestly think that we must be dreaming,” she murmured to her feverish audience; “I do, honestly. Why, it's only May, and we never, never—there was that day in August about five years ago that was almost as bad, though. D'you remember, Mummy?”

“It's hardly the kind of thing that one is likely to forget, love. Do you think that it is necessary for us to talk? I feel somehow that I could bear it much more easily if we kept quite quiet.”

Janet stirred a little, uneasily. She hated silence—that terrible, empty space waiting to be filled up with your thoughts—why, the idlest chatter spared you that. She hated the terrace, too—she closed her eyes to shut out the ugly darkness that was pressing against her; behind the shelter of her lids it was cooler and stiller, but open-eyed or closed, she could not shut out memory. The very touch of the bricks beneath her feet brought back that late October day. She had been sitting curled up on the steps in the warm sunlight, with the keen, sweet air stirring her hair and sending the beech-leaves dancing down the flagged path—there had been a heavenly smell of burning from the far meadow, and she was sniffing it luxuriously, feeling warm and joyous and protected in Jerry's great tweed coat—watching the tall figure swinging across from the lodge gate with idle, happy eyes—not even curious. It was not until he had almost reached the steps that she had noticed that he was wearing a foreign uniform—and even then she had promptly placed him as one of Rosemary's innumerable conquests, bestowing on him a friendly and inquiring smile.

“Were you looking for Miss Langdon?” Even now she could see the courteous, grave young face soften as he turned quickly toward her, baring his dark head with that swift foreign grace that turns our perfunctory habits into something like a ritual.

“But no,” he had said gently, “I was looking for you, Miss Abbott.”

“Now will you please tell me how in the world you knew that I was Miss Abbott?”

And he had smiled—with his lips, not his eyes.

“I should be dull indeed if that I did not know. I am Philippe Laurent, Miss Abbott.”

And “Oh,” she had cried joyously, “Liane's Philippe!”

“But yes—Liane's Philippe. They are not here, the others? Madame Langdon, the little Miss Rosemary?”

“No, they've gone to some parish fair, and I've been wicked and stayed home. Won't you sit down and talk to me? Please!”

“Miss Abbott, it is not to you that I must talk. What I have to say is indeed most difficult, and it is to Jeremy's Janie that I would say it. May I, then?”

It had seemed to Jeremy's Janie that the voice in which she answered him came from a great distance, but she never took her eyes from the grave and vivid face.

“Yes. And quickly, please.”

So he had told her—quickly—in his exquisitely careful English, and she had listened as attentively and politely, huddled up on the brick steps in the sunlight, as though he were running over the details of the last drive, instead of tearing her life to pieces with every word. She remembered now that it hadn't seemed real at all—if it had been to Jerry that these horrors had happened could she have sat there so quietly, feeling the colour bright in her cheeks, and the wind stirring in her hair, and the sunlight warm on her hands? Why, for less than this people screamed, and fainted, and went raving mad!

“You say—that his back is broken?”

“But yes, my dear,” Liane's Philippe had told her, and she had seen the tears shining in his gray eyes.

“And he is badly burned?”

“My brave Janie, these questions are not good to ask—not good, not good to answer. This I will tell you. He lives, our Jerry—and so dearly does he love you that he will drag back that poor body from hell itself—because it is yours, not his. This he has sent me to tell you, most lucky lady ever loved.”

“You mean—that he isn't going to die?”

“I tell you that into those small hands of yours he has given his life. Hold it fast.”

“Will he—will he get well?” “He will not walk again; but have you not swift feet to run for him?”

And there had come to her, sitting on the terrace in the sunshine, an overwhelming flood of joy, reckless and cruel and triumphant. Now he was hers forever, the restless wanderer—delivered to her bound and helpless, never to stray again. Hers to worship and serve and slave for, his troth to Freedom broken—hers at last!

“I'm coming,” she had told the tall young Frenchman breathlessly. “Take me to him—please let's hurry.”

Ma pauvre petite, this is war. One does not come and go at will. God knows by what miracle enough red tape unwound to let me through to you, to bring my message and to take one back.”

“What message, Philippe?”

“That is for you to say, little Janie. He told me, 'Say to her that she has my heart—if she needs my body, I will live. Say to her that it is an ugly, broken, and useless thing; still, hers. She must use it as she sees fit. Say to her—no, say nothing more. She is my Janie, and has no need of words. Tell her to send me only one, and I will be content.' For that one word, Janie, I have come many miles. What shall it be?”

And she had cried out exultantly, “Why, tell him that I say—” But the word had died in her throat. Her treacherous lips had mutinied, and she had sat there, feeling the blood drain back out of her face—out of her heart—feeling her eyes turn back with sheer terror, while she fought with those stiffened rebels. Such a little word “Live!”—surely they could say that. Was it not what he was waiting for, lying far away and still—schooled at last to patience, the reckless and the restless! Oh, Jerry, Jerry, live! Even now she could feel her mind, like some frantic little wild thing, racing, racing to escape Memory. What had he said to her? “You, wise beyond wisdom, will never hold me—you will never hold me—you will never—”

And suddenly she had dropped her twisted hands in her lap and lifted her eyes to Jerry's ambassador.

“Will you please tell him—will you please tell him that I say—'Contact'?”

“Contact?” He had stood smiling down at her, ironical and tender. “Ah, what a race! That is the prettiest word that you can find for Jerry? But then it means to come very close, to touch, that poor harsh word—there he must find what comfort he can. We, too, in aviation use that word—it is the signal that says—'Now, you can fly!' You do not know our vocabulary, perhaps?”

“I know very little.”

“That is all then? No other message? He will understand, our Jerry?”

And Janie had smiled—rather a terrible small smile.

“Oh, yes,” she told him. “He will understand. It is the word that he is waiting for, you see.”

“I see.” But there had been a grave wonder in his voice.

“Would it——” she had framed the words as carefully as though it were a strange tongue that she was speaking—“would it be possible to buy his machine? He wouldn't want any one else to fly it.”

“Little Janie, never fear. The man does not live who shall fly poor Peg again. Smashed to kindling-wood and burned to ashes, she has taken her last flight to the heaven for good and brave birds of war. Not enough was left of her to hold in your two hands.”

“I'm glad. Then that's all—isn't it? And thank you for coming.”

“It is I who thank you. What was hard as death you have made easy. I had thought the lady to whom Jeremy Langdon gave his heart the luckiest creature ever born—now I think him that luckiest one.” The grave grace with which he had bent to kiss her hand made of the formal salutation an accolade—“My homage to you, Jerry's Janie!” A quick salute, and he had turned on his heel, swinging off down the flagged path with that swift, easy stride—past the sun-dial—past the lily-pond—past the beech-trees—gone! For hours and hours after he had passed out of sight she had sat staring after him, her hands lying quite still in her lap—staring, staring—they had found her there when they came back, sitting where Rosemary was seated now. Why, there, on those same steps, a bare six months ago—Something snapped in her head, and she stumbled to her feet, clinging to the arm of her chair.

“I can't stand it!” she gasped. “No, no, it's no use—I can't, I tell you. I—”

Rosemary's arm was about her—Mrs. Langdon's soft voice in her ears—a deeper note from Rosemary's engineer.

“Oh, I say, poor girl! What is it, dear child—what's the matter? Is it the heat, Janie?”

“The heat!” She could hear herself laughing—frantic, hateful, jangling laughter that wouldn't stop. “Oh, Jerry! Oh-h, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!”

“It's this ghastly day. Let me get her some water, Mrs. Langdon. Don't cry so, Janie—please, please don't, darling.”

“I c-can't help it—I c-can't——” She paused, listening intently, her hand closing sharply over Rosemary's wrist. “Oh, listen, listen—there it comes again—I told you so!”

“Thank Heaven,” murmured Mrs. Langdon devoutly, “I thought that it never was going to rise this evening. It's from the south, too, so I suppose that it means rain.”

“Rain?” repeated Janet vaguely. “Why in the world should it mean rain?” Her small, pale face looked suddenly brilliant and enchanted, tilted up to meet the thunderous music that was swinging nearer and nearer. “Oh, do listen, you people! This time it's surely going to land!”

Rosemary stared at her blankly. “Land? What are you talking about, Janie?”

“My airplane—the one that you said was the fat Hodges boy on a motorcycle! Is there any place near here that it can make a landing?”

“Darling child—” Mrs. Langdon's gentle voice was gentler than ever— “darling child, it's this wretched heat. There isn't any airplane, dear—it's just the wind rising in the beeches.”

“The wind?” Janet laughed aloud—they really were too absurd. “Why, Mrs. Langdon, you can hear the engines, if you'll only listen! You can hear them, can't you, Mr. Bain?”

The young engineer shook his head. “No plane would risk flying with this storm coming, Miss Abbott. There's been thunder for the last hour or so, and it's getting nearer, too. It's only the wind, I think.”

“Oh, you're laughing at me—of course, of course you hear it. Why, it's as clear as—as clear as—” Her voice trailed off into silence. Quite suddenly, without any transition or warning, she knew. She could feel her heart stand perfectly still for a minute, and then plunge forward in mad flight, racing, racing—oh, it knew, too, that eager heart! She took her hand from the arm of the chair, releasing Rosemary's wrist very gently.

“Yes, of course, it's the heat,” she said quietly. She must be careful not to frighten them, these kind ones. “If you don't mind, Mrs. Langdon, I think that I'll go down to the gate to watch the storm burst. No, please, don't any of you come—I'll promise to change everything if I get caught—yes, everything! I won't be long; don't wait for me.”

She walked sedately enough until she came to the turn in the path, but after that she ran, only pausing for a minute to listen breathlessly. Oh, yes—following, following, that gigantic music! How he must be laughing at her now—blind, deaf, incredulous little fool that she had been, to doubt that Jerry would find a way! But where could he land? Not in the garden—not at the gates—oh, now she had it—the far meadow. She turned sharply; it was dark, but the path must be here. Yes, this was the wicket gate; her groping fingers were quite steady—they found the latch—released it—the gate swung to behind her flying footsteps. “Oh, Jerry, Jerry!” sang her heart. Why hadn't she worn the rose-coloured frock? It was she who would be a ghost in that trailing white thing. To the right here—yes, there was the hawthorn hedge—only a few steps more—oh, now! She stood as still as a small statue, not moving, not breathing, her hands at her heart, her face turned to the black and torn sky. Nearer, nearer, circling and darting and swooping—the gigantic humming grew louder—louder still—it swept about her thunderously, so close that she clapped her hands over her ears, but she stood her ground, exultant and undaunted. Oh, louder still—and then suddenly the storm broke. All the winds and the rains of the world were unleashed, and fell howling and shrieking upon her, she staggered under their onslaught, drenched to the bone, her dress whipping frantically about her, blinded and deafened by that tumultuous clamour. She had only one weapon against it—laughter—and she laughed now—straight into its teeth. And as though hell itself must yield to mirth, the fury wavered—failed—sank to muttering. But Janie, beaten to her knees and laughing, never even heard it die.

“Jerry?” she whispered into the darkness, “Jerry?”

Oh, more wonderful than wonder, he was there! She could feel him stir, even if she could not hear him—so close, so close was he that if she even reached out her hand, she could touch him. She stretched it out eagerly, but there was nothing there—only a small, remote sound of withdrawal, as though some one had moved a little.

“You're afraid that I'll be frightened, aren't you?” she asked wistfully. “I wouldn't be—I wouldn't—please come back'“

He was laughing at her, she knew, tender and mocking and caressing; she smiled back, tremulously.

“You're thinking, 'I told you so!' Have you come far to say it to me?”

Only that little stir—the wind was rising again.

“Jerry, come close—come closer still. What are you waiting for, dear and dearest?”

This time there was not even a stir to answer her; she felt suddenly cold to the heart. What had he always waited for?

“You aren't waiting—you aren't waiting to go?” She fought to keep the terror out of her voice, but it had her by the throat. “Oh, no, no—you can't—not again! Jerry, Jerry, don't go away and leave me—truly and truly I can't stand it—truly!”

She wrung her hands together desperately; she was on her knees to him—did he wish her to go lower still? Oh, she had never learned to beg!

“I can't send you away again—I can't. When I sent you to France I killed my heart—when I let you go to death, I crucified my soul. I haven't anything left but my pride—you can have that, too. I can't send you back to your heaven. Stay with me—stay with me, Jerry!”

Not a sound—not a stir—but well she knew that he was standing there, waiting. She rose slowly to her feet.

“Very well—you've won,” she said hardly. “Go back to your saints and seraphs and angels; I'm beaten. I was mad to think that you ever cared—go back!” She turned, stumbling, the sobs tearing at her throat; he had gone several steps before she realized that he was following her—and all the hardness and bitterness and despair fell from her like a cloak.

“Oh, Jerry,” she whispered, “Jerry, darling, I'm so sorry. And you've come so far—just to find this! What is it that you want; can't you tell me?”

She stood tense and still, straining eyes and ears for her answer—but it was not to eyes or ears that it came.

“Oh, of course!” she cried clearly. “Of course, my wanderer! Ready?”

She stood poised for a second, head thrown back, arms flung wide—a small figure of Victory, caught in the flying wind.

And, “Contact, Jerry!” she called joyously into the darkness. “Contact!”

There was a mighty whirring, a thunder and a roaring above the storm. She stood listening breathlessly to it rise and swell—and then grow fainter—fainter still—dying, dying—dying—

But Janie, her small white face turned to the storm-swept sky behind which shone the stars, was smiling radiantly. For she had sped her wanderer on his way—she had not failed him!