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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 managed2 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 meagre 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 pocket3 of embers. What next? This was more like; it began: “Dear Captain Langdon” in the small, contained 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 she4 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 Proven?al 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 for ever 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—five5 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 damn 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 out6 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, for ever and for ever.
“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 fine7 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 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 breath8 of the soft country air. Half way 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 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.
9 “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, patient10 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 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-bye, and take herself and her bitterness and her dulness back to the classroom in the Western university11 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; lucky that they still used candlelight! 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 ordered beauty—what a ghastly trick for God to have played—to have taught her to adore them, and then to snatch them12 away! All about her, warm with candlelight, 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 Varietiés—and she was calling me ‘mon grand chéri’ 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 the13 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 ‘cozy names.’ Querida mi alma, douchka, Herzliebchen, carissima, and bien, bien-aimée, 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 that14 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 Maurice, 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 c?ur et grand trésor, 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 mad15 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 for ever 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, for ever and for ever.”
You had flown high and far indeed, Jerry—and you had not returned. For ever and for ever! 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; nobody16 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 reassuring 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 if17 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 will still 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,............
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