In a moment of hasty misjudgement a whole paragraph of description was lifted out of this tale where it originated, and properly belongs, and applied to quite a different character in a novel of mine. I have ventured none the less to leave it here, even at the risk of seeming to serve warmed-over fare.
I was near her, for I had lingered behind in order to get the short walk with her from the living room to the front door. That was a lot, for she had flowered suddenly and I, being a man and only a year older, hadn’t flowered at all, had scarcely dared to come hear her in the week we’d been home. Nor was I going to say anything in that walk of ten feet, or touch her; but I had a vague hope she’d do something, give a gay little performance of some sort, personal only in so far as we were alone together.
She had bewitchment suddenly in the twinkle of short hairs on her neck, in the sure, clear confidence that at about eighteen begins to deepen and sing in attractive American girls. The lamp light shopped in the yellow strands of her hair.
Already she was sliding into another world—the world of Joe Jelke and Jim Cathcart waiting for us now in the car. In another year she would pass beyond me forever.
As I waited, feeling the others outside in the snowy night, feeling the excitement of Christmas week and the excitement of Ellen here, blooming away, filling the room with “sex appeal”—a wretched phrase to express a quality that isn’t like that at all—a maid came in from the dining room, spoke to Ellen quietly and handed her a note. Ellen read it and her eyes faded down, as when the current grows weak on rural circuits, and smouldered off into space. Then she gave me an odd look—in which I probably didn’t show—and without a word, followed the maid into the dining room and beyond. I sat turning over the pages of a magazine for a quarter of an hour.
Joe Jelke came in, red-faced from the cold, his white silk muffler gleaming at the neck of his fur coat. He was a senior at New Haven, I was a sophomore. He was prominent, a member of Scroll and Keys, and, in my eyes, very distinguished and handsome.
“Isn’t Ellen coming?”
“I don’t know,” I answered discreetly. “She was all ready.”
“Ellen!” he called. “Ellen!”
He had left the front door open behind him and a great cloud of frosty air rolled in from outside. He went halfway up the stairs—he was a familiar in the house—and called again, till Mrs. Baker came to the banister and said that Ellen was below. Then the maid, a little excited, appeared in the dining-room door.
“Mr. Jelke,” she called in a low voice.
Joe’s face fell as he turned toward her, sensing bad news.
“Miss Ellen says for you to go on to the party. She’ll come later.”
“What’s the matter?”
“She can’t come now. She’ll come later.”
He hesitated, confused. It was the last big dance of vacation, and he was mad about Ellen. He had tried to give her a ring for Christmas, and failing that, got her to accept a gold mesh bag that must have cost two hundred dollars. He wasn’t the only one—there were three or four in the same wild condition, and all in the ten days she’d been home—but his chance came first, for he was rich and gracious and 1 at that moment the “desirable” boy of St. Paul. To me it seemed impossible that she could prefer another, but the rumor was she’d described Joe as much too perfect. 1 suppose he lacked mystery for her, and when a man is up against that with a young girl who isn’t thinking of the practical side of marriage yet—well——.
“She’s in the kitchen,” Joe said angrily.
“No, she’s not.” The maid was defiant and a little scared.
“She went out the back way, Mr. Jelke.”
“I’m going to see.”
“I followed him.”
The Swedish servants washing dishes looked up sideways at our approach and an interested crashing of pans marked our passage through. The storm door, unbolted, was flapping in the wind and as we walked out into the snowy yard we saw the tail light of a car turn the corner at the end of the back alley.
“I’m going after her,” Joe said slowly. “I don’t understand this at all.”
I was too awed by the calamity to argue. We hurried to his car and drove in a fruitless, despairing zigzag all over the residence section, peering into every machine on the streets. It was half an hour before the futility of the affair began to dawn upon him—St. Paul is a city of almost three hundred thousand people—and Jim Cathcart reminded him that we had another girl to stop for. Like a wounded animal he sank into a melancholy mass of fur in the corner, from which position he jerked upright every few minutes and waved himself backward and forward a little in protest and despair.
Jim’s girl was ready and impatient, but after what had happened her impatience didn’t seem important. She looked lovely though. That’s one thing about Christmas vacation—the excitement of growth and change and adventure in foreign parts transforming the people you’ve known all your life. Joe Jelke was polite to her in a daze—he indulged in one burst of short, loud, harsh laughter by way of conversation—and we drove to the hotel.
The chauffeur approached it on the wrong side—the side on which the line of cars was not putting forth guests—and because of that we came suddenly upon Ellen Baker just getting out of a small coupe. Even before we came to a stop, Joe Jelke had jumped excitedly from the car.
Ellen turned toward us, a faintly distracted look—perhaps of surprise, but certainly not of alarm—in her face; in fact, she didn’t seem very aware of us. Joe approached her with a stern, dignified, injured and, I thought, just exactly correct reproof in his expression. I followed.
Seated in the coupe—he had not dismounted to help Ellen out—was a hard thin-faced man of about thirty-five with an air of being scarred, and a slight sinister smile. His eyes were a sort of taunt to the whole human family—they were the eyes of an animal, sleepy and quiescent in the presence of another species. They were helpless yet brutal, unhopeful yet confident. It was as if they felt themselves powerless to originate activity, but infinitely capable of profiting by a single gesture of weakness in another.
Vaguely I placed him as one of the sort of men whom I had been conscious of from my earliest youth as “hanging around”—leaning with one elbow on the counters of tobacco stores, watching, through heaven knows what small chink of the mind, the people who hurried in and out. Intimate to garages, where he had vague business conducted in undertones, to barber shops and to the lobbies of theatres—in such places, anyhow, I placed the type, if type it was, that he reminded me of. Sometimes his face bobbed up in one of Tad’s more savage cartoons, and I had always from earliest boyhood thrown a nervous glance toward the dim borderland where he stood, and seen him watching me and despising me. Once, in a dream, he had taken a few steps toward me, jerking his head back and muttering; “Say, kid” in what was intended to be a reassuring voice, and I had broken for the door in terror. This was that sort of man.
Joe and Ellen faced each other silently; she seemed, as I have said, to be in a daze. It was cold, but she didn’t notice that her coat had blown open; Joe reached out and pulled it together, and automatically she clutched it with her hand.
Suddenly the man in the coupe, who had been watching them silently, laughed. It was a bare laugh, done with the breath—just a noisy jerk of the head—but it was an insult if I had ever heard one; definite and not to be passed over. I wasn’t surprised when Joe, who was quick tempered, turned to him angrily and said:
“What’s your trouble?”
The man waited a moment, his eyes shifting and yet staring, and always seeing. Then he laughed again in the same way. Ellen stirred uneasily.
“Who is this—this—” Joe’s voice trembled with annoyance.
“Look out now,” said the man slowly.
Joe turned to me.
“Eddie, take Ellen and Catherine in, will you?” he said quickly… “Ellen, go with Eddie.”
“Look out now,” the man repeated.
Ellen made a little sound with her tongue and teeth, but she didn’t resist when I took her arm and moved her toward the side door of the hotel. It struck me as odd that she should be so helpless, even to the point of acquiescing by her silence in this imminent trouble.
“Let it go, Joe!” I called back over my shoulder. “Come inside!”
Ellen, pulling against my arm, hurried us on. As we were caught up into the swinging doors I had the impression that the man was getting out of his coupe.
Ten minutes later, as I waited for the girls outside the women’s dressing-room, Joe Jelke and Jim Cathcart stepped out of the elevator. Joe was very white, his eyes were heavy and glazed, there was a trickle of dark blood on his forehead and on his white muffler. Jim had both their hats in his hand.
“He hit Joe with brass knuckles,” Jim said in a low voice. “Joe was out cold for a minute or so. I wish you’d send a bell boy for some witch-hazel and court-plaster.”
It was late and the hall was deserted; brassy fragments of the dance below reached us as if heavy curtains were being blown aside and dropping back into place. When Ellen came out I took her directly downstairs. We avoided the receiving line and went into a dim room set with scraggly hotel palms where couples sometimes sat out during the dance; there I told her what had happened.
“It was Joe’s own fault,” she said, surprisingly. “I told him not to interfere.”
This wasn’t true. She had said nothing, only uttered one curious little click of impatience.
“You ran out the back door and disappeared for almost an hour,” I protested. “Then you turned up with a hard-looking customer who laughed in Joe’s face.”
“A hard-looking customer,” she repeated, as if tasting the sound of the words.
“Well, wasn’t he? Where on earth did you get hold of him, Ellen?”
“On the train,” she answered. Immediately she seemed to regret this admission. “You’d better stay out of things that aren’t your business, Eddie. You see what happened to Joe.”
Literally I gasped. To watch her, seated beside me, immaculately glowing, her body giving off wave after wave of freshness and delicacy—and to hear her talk like that.
“But that man’s a thug!” I cried. “No girl could be safe with him. He used brass knuckles on Joe—brass knuckles!”
“Is that pretty bad?”
She asked this as she might have asked such a question a few years ago. She looked at me at last and really wanted an answer; for a moment it was as if she were trying to recapture an attitude that had almost departed; then she hardened again. I say “hardened,” for I began to notice that when she was concerned with this man her eyelids fell a little, shutting other things—everything else—out of view.
That was a moment I might have said something, I suppose, but in spite of everything, I couldn’t light into her. I was too much under the spell of her beauty and its success. I even began to find excuses for her—perhaps that man wasn’t what he appeared to be; or perhaps—more romantically—she was involved with him against her will to shield some one else. At this point people began to drift into the room and come up to speak to us. We couldn’t talk any more, so we went in and bowed to the chaperones. Then I gave her up to the bright restless sea of the dance, where she moved in an eddy of her own among the pleasant islands of colored favors set out on tables and the south winds from the brasses moaning across the hall. After a while I saw Joe Jelke sitting in a corner with a strip of court-plaster on his forehead watching Ellen as if she herself had struck him down, but I didn’t go up to him. I felt queer myself—like I feel when I wake up after sleeping through an afternoon, strange and portentous, as if something had gone on in the interval that changed the values of everything and that I didn’t see.
The night slipped on through successive phases of cardboard horns, amateur tableaux and flashlights for the morning papers. Then was the grand march and supper, and about two o’clock some of the committee dressed up as revenue agents pinched the party, and a facetious newspaper was distributed burlesquing the events of the evening. And all the time out of the corner of my eye I watched the shining orchid on Ellen’s shoulder as it moved like Smart’s plume about the room. I watched it with a definite foreboding until the last sleepy groups had crowded into the elevators, and then, bundled to the eyes in great shapeless fur coats, drifted out into the clear dry Minnesota night.
There is a sloping mid-section of our city which lies between the residence quarter on the hill and the business district on the level of the river. It is a vague part of town, broken by its climb into triangles and odd shapes—there are names like Seven Corners—and I don’t believe a dozen people could draw an accurate map of it, though every one traversed it by trolley, auto or shoe leather twice a day. And though it was a busy section, it would be hard for me to name the business that comprised its activity. There were always long lines of trolley cars waiting to start somewhere; there was a big movie theatre and many small ones with posters of Hoot Gibson and Wonder Dogs and Wonder Horses outside; there were small stores with “Old King Brady” and “The Liberty Boys of ’76” in the windows, and marbles, cigarettes and candy inside; and—one definite place at least—a fancy costumer whom we all visited at least once a year. Some time during boyhood I became aware that one side of a certain obscure street there were bawdy houses, and all through the district were pawnshops, cheap jewellers, small athletic clubs and gymnasiums and somewhat too blatantly run-down saloons.
The morning after the Cotillion Club party, I woke up late and lazy, with the happy feeling that for a day or two more there was no chapel, no classes—nothing to do but wait for another party tonight It was crisp and bright—one of those days when you forget how cold it is until your cheek freezes—and the events of the evening before seemed dim and far-away. After luncheon I started downtown on foot through a light, pleasant snow of small flakes that would probably fall all afternoon, and I was about half through that halfway section of town—so far as I know, there’s no inclusive name for it—when suddenly whatever idle thought was in my head blew away like a hat and I began thinking hard of Ellen Baker. I began worrying about her as I’d never worried about anything outside myself before. I began to loiter, with an instinct to go up on the hill again and find her and talk to her; then I remembered that she was at a tea, and I went on again, but still thinking of her, and harder than ever. Right then the affair opened up again.
It was snowing, I said, and it was four o’clock on a December afternoon, when there is a promise of darkness in the air and the street lamps are just going on. I passed a combination pool parlor and restaurant, with a stove loaded with hot-dogs in the window, and a few loungers hanging around the door. The lights were on inside—not bright lights but just a few pale yellow high up on the ceiling—and the glow they threw out into the frosty dusk wasn’t bright enough to tempt you to stare inside. As I went past, thinking hard of Ellen all this time, I took in the quartet of loafers out of the corner of my eye. I hadn’t gone half a dozen steps down the street when one of them called to me, not by name but in a way clearly intended for my ear. I thought it was a tribute to my raccoon coat and paid no attention, but a moment later whoever it was called to me again in a peremptory voice. I was annoyed and turned around. There, standing in the group not ten feet away and looking at me with the half-sneer on his face with which he’d looked at Joe Jelke, was the scarred, thin-faced man of the night before.
He had on a black fancy-cut coat, buttoned up to his neck as if he were cold. His hands were deep in his pockets and he wore a derby and high button shoes. I was startled, and for a moment I hesitated, but I was most of all angry, and knowing that I was quicker with my hands than Joe Jelke, I took a tentative step back toward him. The other men weren’t looking at me—I don’t think they saw me at all—but I knew that this one recognized me; there was nothing casual about his look, no mistake.
“Here I am. What are you going to do about it?” his eyes seemed to say.
I took another step toward him and he laughed soundlessly, but with active contempt, and drew back into the group. I followed. I was going to speak to him—I wasn’t sure what I was going to say—but when I came up he had either changed his mind and backed off, or else he wanted me to follow him inside, for he had slipped off and the three men watched my intent approach without curiosity. They were the same kind—sporty, but, unlike him, smooth rather than truculent; I didn’t find any personal malice in their collective glance.
“Did he go inside?” I asked.
They looked at one another in that cagy way; a wink passed between them, and after a perceptible pause, one said:
“Who go inside?”
“I don’t know his name.”
There was another wink. Annoyed and determined, I walked past them and into the pool room. There were a few people at a lunch counter along one side and a few more playing billiards, but he was not among them.
Again I hesitated. If his idea was to lead me into any blind part of the establishment—there were some half-open doors farther back—I wanted more support. I went up to the man at the desk.
“What became of the fellow who just walked in here?”
Was he on his guard immediately, or was that my imagination?
“Thin face—derby hat.”
“How long ago?”
He shook his head again. “Didn’t see him,” he said.
I waited. The three men from outside had come in and were lined up beside me at the counter. I felt that all of them were looking at me in a peculiar way. Feeling helpless and increasingly uneasy, I turned suddenly and went out. A little way down the street I turned again and took a good look at the place, so I’d know it and could find it again. On the next corner I broke impulsively into a run, found a taxicab in front of the hotel and drove back up the hill.
Ellen wasn’t home. Mrs. Baker came downstairs and talked to me. She seemed entirely cheerful and proud of Ellen’s beauty, and ignorant of anything being amiss or of anything unusual having taken place the night before. She was glad that vacation was almost over—it was a strain and Ellen wasn’t very strong. Then she said something that relieved my mind enormously. She was glad that I had come in, for of course Ellen would want to see me, and the rime was so short. She was going back at half-past eight tonight.
“Tonight!” I exclaimed. “I thought it was the day after tomorrow.”
“She’s going to visit the Brokaws in Chicago,” Mrs. Baker said. “They want her for some party. We just decided it today. She’s leaving with the Ingersoll girls tonight.”
I was so glad I could barely restrain myself from shaking her hand. Ellen was safe. It had been nothing all along but a moment of the most casual adventure. I felt like an idiot, but I realized how much I cared about Ellen and how little I could endure anything terrible happening to her.
“She’ll be in soon?”
“Any minute now. She just phoned from the University Club.”
I said I’d be over later—I lived almost next door and I wanted to be alone. Outside I remembered I didn’t have a key, so I started up the Bakers’ driveway to take the old cut we used in childhood through the intervening; yard. It was still snowing, but the flakes were bigger now against the darkness, and trying to locate the buried walk I noticed that the Bakers’ back door was ajar.
I scarcely know why I turned and walked into that kitchen. There was a time when I would have known the Bakers’ servants by name. That wasn’t true now, but they knew me, and I was aware of a sudden suspension as I came in—not only a suspension of talk but of some mood or expectation that had filled them. They began to go to work too quickly; they made unnecessary movements and clamor—those three. The parlor maid looked at me in a frightened way and I—suddenly guessed she was waiting to deliver another message. I beckoned her into the pantry.
“I know all about this,” I said. “It’s a very serious business. Shall I go to Mrs. Baker now, or will you shut and lock that back door?”
“Don’t tell Mrs. Baker, Mr. Stinson!”
“Then I don’t want Miss Ellen disturbed. If she is—and if she is I’ll know of it—” I delivered some outrageous threat about going to all the employment agencies and seeing she never got another job in the city. She was thoroughly intimidated when I went out; it wasn’t a minute before the back door was locked and bolted behind me.
Simultaneously I heard a big car drive up in front, chains crunching on the soft snow; it was bringing Ellen home, and I went in to say good-by.
Joe Jelke and two other boys were along, and none of the three could manage to take their eyes off her, even to say hello to me. She had one of those exquisite rose skins frequent in our part of the country, and beautiful until the little veins begin to break at about forty; now, flushed with the cold, it was a riot of lovely delicate pinks like many carnations. She and Joe had reached some sort of reconciliation, or at least he was too far gone in love to remember last night; but I saw that though she laughed a lot she wasn’t really paying any attention to him or any of them. She wanted them to go, so that there’d be a message from the kitchen, but I knew that—the message wasn’t coming—that she was safe. There was talk of the Pump and Slipper dance at New Haven and of the Princeton Prom, and then, in various moods, we four left and separated quickly outside. I walked home with a certain depression of spirit and lay for an hour in a hot bath thinking that vacation was all over for me now that she was gone; feeling, even more deeply than I had yesterday, that she was out of my life.
And something eluded me, some one more thing to do, something that I had lost amid the events of the afternoon, promising myself to go back and pick it up, only to find that it had escaped me. I associated it vaguely with Mrs. Baker, and now I seemed to recall that it had poked up its head somewhere in the stream of conversation with her. In my relief about Ellen I had forgotten to ask her a question regarding something she had said.
The Brokaws—that was it—where Ellen was to visit. I knew Bill Brokaw well; he was in my class at Yale. Then I remembered and sat bolt upright in the tub—the Brokaws weren’t in Chicago this Christmas; they were at Palm Beach!
Dripping I sprang out of the tub, threw an insufficient union suit around my shoulders and spang for the phone in my room. I got the connection quick, but Miss Ellen had already started for the train.
Luckily our car was in, and while I squirmed, still damp, into my clothes, the chauffeur brought it around to the door. The night was cold and dry, and we made good time to the station through the hard, crusty snow. I felt queer and insecure starting out this way, but somehow more confident as the station loomed up bright and new against the dark, cold air. For fifty years my family had owned the land on which it was built and that made my temerity seem all right somehow. There was always a possibility that I was rushing in where angels feared to tread, but that sense of having a solid foothold in the past made me willing to make a fool of myself. This business was all wrong—terribly wrong. Any idea I had entertained that it was harmless dropped away now; between Ellen and some vague overwhelming catastrophe there stood me, or else the police and a scandal. I’m no moralist—there was another element here, dark and frightening, and I didn’t want Ellen to go through it alone.
There are three competing trains from St. Paul to Chicago that all leave within a few minutes of half-past eight. Hers was the Burlington, and as I ran across the station I saw the grating being pulled over and the light above it go out. I knew, though, that she had a drawing-room with the Ingersoll girls, because her mother had mentioned buying the ticket, so she was, literally speaking, tucked in until tomorrow.
The C., M. & St. P. gate was down at the other end and I raced for it and made it. I had forgotten one thing, though, and that was enough to keep me awake and worried half the night. This train got into Chicago ten minutes after the other. Ellen had that much time to disappear into one of the largest cities in the world.
I gave the porter a wire to my family to send from Milwaukee, and at eight o’clock next morning I pushed violently by a whole line of passengers, clamoring over their bags parked in the vestibule, and shot out of the door with a sort of scramble over the porter’s back. For a moment the confusion of a great station, the voluminous sounds and echoes and cross-currents of bells and smoke struck me helpless. Then I dashed for the exit and toward the only chance I knew of finding her.
I had guessed right. She was standing at the telegraph counter, sending off heaven knows what black lie to her mother, and her expression when she saw me had a sort of terror mixed up with its surprise. There was cunning in it too. She was thinking quickly—she would have liked to walk away from me as if I weren’t there, and go about her own business, but she couldn’t. I was too matter-of-fact a thing in her life. So we stood silently watching each other and each thinking hard.
“The Brokaws are in Florida,” I said after a minute.
“It was nice of you to take such a long trip to tell me that.”
“Since you’ve found it out, don’t you think you’d better go on to school?”
“Please let me alone, Eddie,” she said.
“I’ll go as far as New York with you. I’ve decided to go back early myself.”
“You’d better let me alone.” Her lovely eyes narrowed and her face took on a look of dumb-animal-like resistance. She made a visible effort, the cunning flickered back into it, then both were gone, and in their stead was a cheerful reassuring smile that all but convinced me.
“Eddie, you silly child, don’t you think I’m old enough to take care of myself?” I didn’t answer. “I’m going to meet a man, you understand. I just want to see him today. I’ve got my ticket East on the five o’clock train. If you don’t believe it, here it is in my bag.”
“I believe you.”
“The man isn’t anybody that you know and—frankly, I think you’re being awfully fresh and impossible.”
“I know who the man is.”
Again she lost control of her face. That terrible expression came back into it and she spoke with almost a snarl:
“You’d better let me alone.”
I took the blank out of her hand and wrote out an explanatory telegram to her mother. Then I turned to Ellen and said a little roughly:
“We’ll take the five o’clock train East together. Meanwhile you’re going to spend the day with me.”
The mere sound of my own voice saying this so emphatically encouraged me, and I think it impressed her too; at any rate, she submitted—at least temporarily—and came along without protest while I bought my ticket.
When I start to piece together the fragments of that day a sort of confusion begins, as if my memory didn’t want to yield up any of it, or my consciousness let any of it pass through. There was a bright, fierce morning during which we rode about in a taxicab and went to a department store where Ellen said she wanted to buy something and then tried to slip away from me by a back way. I had the feeling, for an hour, that someone was following us along Lake Shore Drive in a taxi-cab, and I would try to catch them by turning quickly or looking suddenly into the chauffeur’s mirror; but I could find no one, and when I turned back I could see that Ellen’s face was contorted with mirthless, unnatural laughter.
All morning there was a raw, bleak wind off the lake, but when we went to the Blackstone for lunch a light snow came down past the windows and we talked almost naturally about our friends, and about casual things. Suddenly her tone changed; she grew serious and looked me in the eye, straight and sincere.
“Eddie, you’re the oldest friend I have,” she said, “and you oughtn’t to find it too hard to trust me. If I promise you faithfully on my word of honor to catch that five o’clock train, will you let me alone a few hours this afternoon?”
“Well”—she hesitated and hung her head a little—“I guess everybody has a right to say—good-by.”
“You want to say good-by to that——”
“Yes, yes,” she said hastily; “just a few hours, Eddie, and I promise faithfully that I’ll be on that train.”
“Well, I suppose no great harm could be done in two hours. If you really want to say good-by——”
I looked up suddenly, and surprised a look of such tense cunning in her face that I winced before it. Her lip was curled up and her eyes were slits again; there wasn’t the faintest touch of fairness and sincerity in her whole face.
We argued. The argument was vague on her part and somewhat hard and reticent on mine. I wasn’t going to be cajoled again into any weakness or be infected with any—and there was a contagion of evil in the air. She kept trying to imply, without any convincing evidence to bring forward, that everything was all right. Yet she was too full of the thing itself—whatever it was—to build up a real story, and she wanted to catch at any credulous and acquiescent train of thought that might start in my head, and work that for all it was worth. After every reassuring suggestion she threw out, she stared at me eagerly, as if she hoped I’d launch into a comfortable moral lecture with the customary sweet at the end—which in this case would be her liberty. But I was wearing her away a little. Two or three times it needed just a touch of pressure to bring her to the point of tears—which, of course, was what I wanted—but I couldn’t seem to manage it. Almost I had her—almost possessed her interior attention—then she would slip away.
I bullied her remorselessly into a taxi about four o’clock and started for the station. The wind was raw again, with a sting of snow in it, and the people in the streets, waiting for busses and street cars too small to take them all in, looked cold and disturbed and unhappy. I tried to think how lucky we were to be comfortably off and taken care of, but all the warm, respectable world I had been part of yesterday had dropped away from me. There was something we carried with us now that was the enemy and the opposite of all that; it was in the cabs beside us, the streets we passed through. With a touch of panic, I wondered if I wasn’t slipping almost imperceptibly into Ellen’s attitude of mind. The column of passengers waiting to go aboard the train were as remote from me as people from another world, but it was I that was drifting away and leaving them behind.
My lower was in the same car with her compartment. It was an old-fashioned car, its lights somewhat dim, its carpets and upholstery full of the dust of another generation. There were half a dozen other travellers, but they made no special impression on me, except that they shared the unreality that I was beginning to feel everywhere around me. We went into Ellen’s compartment, shut the door and sat down.
Suddenly I put my arms around her and drew her over to me, just as tenderly as I knew how—as if she were a little girl—as she was. She resisted a little, but after a moment she submitted and lay tense and rigid in my arms.
“Ellen,” I said helplessly, “you asked me to trust you. You have much more reason to trust me. Wouldn’t it help to get rid of all this, if you told me a little?”
“I can’t,” she said, very low—“I mean, there’s nothing to tell.”
“You met this man on the train coming home and you fell in love with him, isn’t that true?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me, Ellen. You fell in love with him?”
“I don’t know. Please let me alone.”
“Call it anything you want,” I went on, “he has some sort of hold over you. He’s trying to use you; he’s trying to get something from you. He’s not in love with you.”
“What does that matter?” she said in a weak voice.
“It does matter. Instead of trying to fight this—this thing—you’re trying to fight me. And I love you, Ellen. Do you hear ? I’m telling you all of a sudden, but it isn’t new with me. I love you.”
She looked at me with a sneer on her gentle face; it was an expression I had seen on men who were tight and didn’t want to be taken home. But it was human. I was reaching her, faintly and from far away, but more than before.
“Ellen, I want you to answer me one question. Is he going to be on this train?”
She hesitated; then, an instant too late, she shook her head.
“Be careful, Ellen. Now I’m going to ask you one thing more, and I wish you’d try very hard to answer. Coming West, when did this man get on the train?”
“I don’t know,” she said with an effort.
Just at that moment I became aware, with the unquestionable knowledge reserved for facts, that he was just outside the door. She knew it, too; the blood left her face and that expression of low-animal perspicacity came creeping back. I lowered my face into my hands and tried to think.
We must have sat there, with scarcely a word, for well over an hour. I was conscious that the lights of Chicago, then of Englewood and of endless suburbs, were moving by, and then there were no more lights and we were out on the dark flatness of Illinois. The train seemed to draw in upon itself; it took on an air of being alone. The porter knocked at the door and asked if he could make up the berth, but I said no and he went away.
After a while I convinced myself that the struggle inevitably coming wasn’t beyond what remained of my sanity, my faith in the essential all-rightness of things and people. That this person’s purpose was what we call “criminal,” I took for granted, but there was no need of ascribing to him an intelligence that belonged to a higher plane of human, or inhuman, endeavor. It was still as a man that I considered him, and tried to get at his essence, his self-interest—what took the place in him of a comprehensible heart—but I suppose I more than half knew what I would find when I opened the door.
When I stood up Ellen didn’t seem to see me at all. She was hunched into the corner staring straight ahead with a sort of film over her eyes, as if she were in a state of suspended animation of body and mind. I lifted her and put two pillows under her head and threw my fur coat over her knees. Then I knelt beside her and kissed her two hands, opened the door and went out into the hall.
I closed the door behind me and stood with my back against it for a minute. The car was dark save for the corridor lights at each end. There was no sound except the groaning of the couplers, the even click-a-click of the rails and someone’s loud sleeping breath farther down the car. I became aware after a moment that the figure of a man was standing by the water cooler just outside the men’s smoking room, his derby hat on his head, his coat collar turned up around his neck as if he were cold, his hands in his coat pockets. When I saw him, he turned and went into the smoking room, and I followed. He was sitting in the far corner of the long leather bench; I took the single armchair beside the door.
As I went in I nodded to him and he acknowledged my presence with one of those terrible soundless laughs of his. But this time it was prolonged, it seemed to go on forever, and mostly to cut it short, I asked: “Where are you from?” in a voice I tried to make casual.
He stopped laughing and looked at me narrowly, wondering what my game was. When he decided to answer, his voice was muffled as though he were speaking through a silk scarf, and it seemed to come from a long way off.
“I’m from St. Paul, Jack.”
“Been making a trip home?”
He nodded. Then he took a long breath and spoke in a hard, menacing voice:
“You better get off at Fort Wayne, Jack.”
He was dead. He was dead as hell—he had been dead all along, but what force had flowed through him, like blood in his veins, out to St. Paul and back, was leaving him now. A new outline—the outline of him dead—was coming through the palpable figure that had knocked down Joe Jelke.
He spoke again, with a sort of jerking effort:
“You get off at Fort Wayne, Jack, or I’m going to wipe you out.” He moved his hand in his coat pocket and showed me the outline of a revolver.
I shook my head. “You can’t touch me,” I answered. “You see, I know.” His terrible eyes shifted over me quickly, trying to determine whether or not I did know. Then he gave a snarl and made as though he were going to jump to his feet.
“You climb off here or else I’m going to get you, Jack!” he cried hoarsely. The train was slowing up for Fort Wayne and his voice rang loud in the comparative quiet, but he didn’t move from his chair—he was too weak, I think—and we sat staring at each other while workmen passed up and down outside the window banging the brakes and wheels, and the engine gave out loud mournful pants up ahead. No one got into our car. After a while the porter closed the vestibule door and passed back along the corridor, and we slid out of the murky yellow station light and into the long darkness.
What I remember next must have extended over a space of five or six hours, though it comes back to me as something without any existence in time—something that might have taken five minutes or a year. There began a slow, calculated assault on me, wordless and terrible, I felt what I can only call a strangeness stealing over me—akin to the strangeness I had felt all afternoon, but deeper and more intensified. It was like nothing so much as the sensation of drifting away, and I gripped the arms of the chair convulsively, as if to hang onto a piece in the living world. Sometimes I felt myself going out with a rush. There would be almost a warm relief about it, a sense of not caring; then, with a violent wrench of the will, I’d pull myself back into the room.
Suddenly I realized that from a while back I had stopped hating him, stopped feeling violently alien to him, and with the realization, I went cold and sweat broke out all over my head. He was getting around my abhorrence, as he had got around Ellen coming West on the train; and it was just that strength he drew from preying on people that had brought him up to the point of concrete violence in St. Paul, and that, fading and flickering out, still kept him fighting now.
He must have seen that faltering in my heart, for he spoke at once, in a low, even, almost gentle voice: “You better go now.”
“Oh, I’m not going,” I forced myself to say.
“Suit yourself, Jack.”
He was my friend, he implied. He knew how it was with me and he wanted to help. He pitied me. I’d better go away before it was too late. The rhythm of his attack was soothing as a song: I’d better go away—and let him get at Ellen. With a little cry I sat bolt upright.
“What do you want of this girl?” I said, my voice shaking. “To make a sort of walking hell of her.”
His glance held a quality of dumb surprise, as if I were punishing an animal for a fault of which he was not conscious. For an instant I faltered; then I went on blindly:
“You’ve lost her; she’s put her trust in me.”
His countenance went suddenly black with evil, and he cried: “You’re a liar!” in a voice that was like cold hands.
“She trusts me,” I said. “Yon can’t touch her. She’s safe!”
He controlled himself. His face grew bland, and I felt that curious weakness and indifference begin again inside me. What was the use of all this? What was the use?
“You haven’t got much time left,” I forced myself to say, and then, in a flash of intuition, I jumped at the truth. “You died, or you were killed, not far from here!”—Then I saw what I had not seen before—that his forehead was drilled with a small round hole like a larger picture nail leaves when it’s pulled from a plaster wall. “And now you’re sinking. You’ve only got a few hours. The trip home is over!”
His face contorted, lost all semblance of humanity, living or dead. Simultaneously the room was full of cold air and with a noise that was something between a paroxysm of coughing and a burst of horrible laughter, he was on his feet, reeking of shame and blasphemy.
“Come and look!” he cried. “I’ll show you——”
He took a step toward me, then another and it was exactly as if a door stood open behind him, a door yawning out to an inconceivable abyss of darkness and corruption. There was a scream of mortal agony, from him or from somewhere behind, and abruptly the strength went out of him in a long husky sigh and he wilted to the floor…
How long I sat there, dazed with terror and exhaustion, I don’t know. The next thing I rememer is the sleepy porter shining shoes across the room from me, and outside the window the steel fires of Pittsburgh breaking the flat perspective also something too faint for a man, too heavy for a shadow. of the night. There was something extended on the bench Even as I perceived it it faded off and away.
Some minutes later I opened the door of Ellen’s compartment. She was asleep where I had left her. Her lovely cheeks were white and wan, but she lay naturally—her hands relaxed and her breathing regular and clear. What had possessed her had gone out of her, leaving her exhausted but her own dear self again.
I made her a little more comfortable, tucked a blanket around her, extinguished the light and went out.
When I came home for Easter vacation, almost my first act was to go down to the billiard parlor near Seven Corners. The man at the cash register quite naturally didn’t remember my hurried visit of three months before.
“I’m trying to locate a certain party who, I think, came here a lot some time ago.”
I described the man rather accurately, and when I had finished, the cashier called to a little jockeylike fellow who was sitting near with an air of having something very important to do that he couldn’t quite remember.
“Hey, Shorty, talk to this guy, will you? I think he’s looking for Joe Varland.”
The little man gave me a tribal look of suspicion. I went and sat near him.
“Joe Varland’s dead, fella,” he said grudgingly. “He died last winter.”
I described him again—his overcoat, his laugh, the habitual expression of his eyes.
“That’s Joe Varland you’re looking for all right, but he’s dead.”
“I want to find out something about him.”
“What you want to find out?”
“What did he do, for instance?”
“How should I know?”
“Look here! I’m not a policeman. I just want some kind of information about his habits. He’s dead now and it can’t hurt him. And it won’t go beyond me.”
“Well”—he hesitated, looking me over—“he was a great one for travelling. He got in a row in the station in Pittsburgh and a dick got him.”
I nodded. Broken pieces of the puzzle began to assemble in my head.
“Why was he a lot on trains?”
“How should I know, fella?”
“If you can use ten dollars, I’d like to know anything you may have heard on the subject.”
“Well,” said Shorty reluctantly, “all I know is they used to say he worked the trains.”
“Worked the trains?”
“He had some racket of his own he’d never loosen up about. He used to work the girls travelling alone on the trains. Nobody ever knew much about it—he was a pretty smooth guy—but sometimes he’d turn up here with a lot of dough and he let ’em know it was the janes he got it off of.”
I thanked him and gave him the ten dollars and went out, very thoughtful, without mentioning that part of Joe Varland had made a last trip home.
Ellen wasn’t West for Easter, and even if she had been I wouldn’t have gone to her with the information, either—at—at least I’ve seen her almost every day this summer and we’ve managed to talk about everything else. Sometimes, though, she gets silent about nothing and wants to be very close to me, and I know what’s in her mind.
Of course she’s coming out this fall, and I have two more years at New Haven; still, things don’t look so impossible as they did a few months ago. She belongs to me in a way—even if I lose her she belongs to me. Who knows? Anyhow, I’ll always be there.
Published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine (17 December 1927).
Illustrations by Grant Reynard.