Guest Blogger Dept.: We've asked Booth Tarkington to step in again as today's wordsmith, with a story that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, August 17, 1912. Tarkington was greatly influential as I learned to write, and is second only to P.G. Wodehouse in his ability to turn a comic descriptive phrase. During his heyday he was one of the country's most popular writers, but despite winning two Pulitzer Prizes (The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams), his work began falling out of fashion as a less-sentimental school of writing emerged in the 1930s.
Henry Millick Chester, scouring cinders and stickiness from his eyes and rouging his ears with honest friction, enriched himself of this too unfamiliar opportunity. He smiled and was warmly interested in the results of his smile in reflection, particularly in some pleasant alterations it effected upon an outline of the cheek usually invisible to the bearer. He smiled graciously, then he smiled sardonically. Other smiles he offered — the tender smile, the forbidding smile, the austere and the seductive, the haughty and the pleading, the mordant and the compassionate, the tolerant but incredulous smile of a man of the world, and the cold, ascetic smile that shows a woman that her shallow soul has been read all too easily — pastimes abandoned only with the purely decorative application of shaving lather to his girlish chin. However, as his unbeetling brow was left unobscured, he was able to pursue his physiognomical researches and to produce for his continued enlightenment a versatile repertory of frowns — the stern, the quizzical, the bitter, the treacherous, the bold, the agonized, the inquisitive, the ducal, and the frown of the husband who says: “I forgive you. Go!”
A few minutes later Mr. Chester, abruptly pausing in the operation of fastening his collar, bent a sudden, passionate interest upon his right forearm, without apparent cause and with the air of never having seen it until that moment. He clenched his fingers tightly, producing a slight stringiness above the wrist, then crooked his elbow with intensity, noting this enormous effect in all the mirrors. Regretfully, he let his shirtsleeves fall and veil the rare but private beauties just discovered, rested his left hand negligently upon his hip, extended his right in a gesture of flawlessly aristocratic grace, and, with a slight inclination of his head, uttered aloud these simple but befitting words: “I thank ye, my good people.” T’ yoong Maister was greeting the loyal tenantry who acclaimed his return to Fielding Manor, a flowered progress thoroughly incomprehensible to the Pullman porter whose transfixed eye — glazed upon an old-gold face intruded through the narrow doorway — Mr. Chester encountered in the glass above the nickeled washbasins. The Libyan withdrew in a cloud of silence, and t’ yoong Maister, flushing somewhat, resumed his toilet with annoyed precision and no more embroidery. He had yesterday completed his sophomore year; the brushes he applied to his now adult locks were those of a junior. And with a man’s age had come a man’s cares and responsibilities. Several long years had rolled away since for the last time he had made himself sick on a train in a club-car orgy of cubebs and sarsaparilla pop.
Zigzagging through shoe-bordered aisles of sleepers in morning disheyelment, he sought the dining car, where the steward escorted him to an end table for two. He would have assumed his seat with that air of negligent hauteur which was his chosen manner for public appearances, had not the train, taking a curve at high speed, heaved him into the undesirable embrace of an elderly man breakfasting across the aisle. “Keep your feet, sonny; keep your feet,” said this barbarian, little witting that he addressed a member of the nineteen-something prom committee. People at the next table laughed genially, and Mr. Chester, muttering a word of hostile apology, catapulted into his assigned place, his cheeks hot with the triple outrage.
He relieved himself a little by the icy repulsion with which he countered the cordial advances of the waiter, who took his order and wished him a good morning, hoped he had slept well, declared the weather delightful and, unanswered, yet preserved his beautiful courtesy unimpaired. When this humble ambassador had departed on his mission to the kitchen Henry Millick Chester, unwarrantably persuaded that all eyes were searching his every inch and angle — an impression not uncharacteristic of his years — gazed out of the window with an indifference which would have been obtrusive if any of the other breakfasters had happened to notice it. The chill exclusiveness of his expression was a rebuke to such prying members of the proletariat as might be striving to read his thoughts, and barred his fellow passengers from every privilege to his consideration. The intensely reserved gentleman was occupied with interests which were the perquisites of only his few existing peers in birth, position, and intelligence, none of whom, patently, was in that car.
He looked freezingly upon the abashed landscape, which fled in shame; nor was that wintry stare relaxed when the steward placed someone opposite him at the little table. Nay, our frosty scholar now intensified the bleakness of his isolation, retiring quite to the pole in reproval of this too close intrusion. He resolutely denied the existence of his vis-à-vis, refused consciousness of its humanity, even of its sex, and then inconsistently began to perspire with the horrible impression that it was glaring at him fixedly. It was a dreadful feeling. He felt himself growing red, and coughed vehemently to afford the public an explanation of his change of color. At last, his suffering grown unendurable, he desperately turned his eyes full upon the newcomer. She was not looking at him at all, but down at the edge of the white cloth on her own side of the table; and she was the very prettiest girl he had ever seen in his life.
She was about his own age. Her prettiness was definitely extreme, and its fair delicacy was complete and without any imperfection whatever. She was dressed in pleasant shades of tan and brown. A brown veil misted the rim of her hat, tan gloves were folded back from her wrists; and they, and all she wore, were fresh and trim and ungrimed by the dusty journey. She was charming. Henry Millick Chester’s first gasping appraisal of her was perfectly accurate, for she was a peach — or a rose, or anything that is dewy and fresh and delectable. She was indeed some smooth. She was the smoothest thing in the world, and the world knows it!
She looked up.
Henry Millick Chester was lost.
At the same instant that the gone feeling came over him she dropped her eyes again to the edge of the table. Who can tell if she knew what she had done?
The conversation began with appalling formalities, which preluded the most convenient placing of a sugar bowl and the replenishing of an exhausted salt cellar. Then the weather, spurned as the placative offering of the gentle waiter, fell from the lips of the princess in words of diamonds and rubies and pearls. Our Henry took up the weather where she left it; he put it to its utmost; he went forward with it, prophesying weather; he went backward with it, recalling weather; he spun it out and out, while she agreed to all he said, until this overworked weather got so stringy that each obscurely felt it to be hideous. The thread broke; fragments wandered in the air for a few moments, but disappeared; a desperate propriety descended, and they fell into silence over their eggs.
Frantically Mr. Chester searched his mind for some means to pursue the celestial encounter. According to the rules, something ought to happen that would reveal her as Patricia Beekman, the sister of his roommate, Schuyler Beekman, and tonight he should be handing the imperturbable Dawkins a wire to send: “My dear Schuyler, I married your sister this afternoon.” But it seemed unlikely, because his roommate’s name was Jake Schmulze, and Jake lived in Cedar Rapids; and, besides, this train wasn’t coming from or going to Palm Beach — it was going to St. Louis eventually, and now hustled earnestly across the placid and largely unbutlered plains of Ohio.
Often — as everyone knows — people have been lost to each other forever through the lack of a word, and few have realized this more poignantly than our Henry, as he helplessly suffered the precious minutes to accumulate vacancy. True, he had thought of something to say, yet he abandoned it. Probably he was wiser to wait, as what he thought of saying was: “Will you be my wife?” It might seem premature, he feared.
The strain was relieved by a heavenly accident which saved the life of a romance near perishing at birth. That charming girl, relaxing slightly in her chair, made some small, indefinite, and entirely ladylike movement of restfulness that reached its gentle culmination upon the two feet of Mr. Chester which, obviously mistaken for structural adjuncts of the table, were thereby glorified and became beautiful on the mountains. He was not the man to criticize the remarkable ignorance of dining-car table architecture thus displayed, nor did he in any wise resent being mistaken up to the ankles for metal or wood. No. The light pressure of her small heels hardly indented the stout toes of his brown shoes; the soles of her slippers reposed upon his two insteps, and rapture shook his soul to its foundations, while the ineffable girl gazed lustrously out of the window, the clear serenity of her brilliant eyes making plain her complete unconsciousness of the nature of what added to her new comfort.
A terrific blush sizzled all over him, and to conceal its visible area he bent low to his coffee. She was unaware. He was transported, she — to his eyes — transfigured. Glamor diffused itself about her, sprayed about them both like showers of impalpable gold-dust, and filled the humble dining car — it filled the whole world. Transformed, seraphic waiters passed up and down the aisle in a sort of obscure radiance. A nimbus hovered faintly above the brown veil; a sacred luminosity was exhaled by the very tablecloth, where an angel’s pointed fingers drummed absently.
It would be uncharitable to believe that a spirit of retaliation inspired the elderly and now replete man across the aisle, and yet, when he rose, he fell upon the neck of Henry as Henry had fallen upon his, and the shock of it jarred four shoes from the acute neighborliness of their juxtaposition. The accursed graybeard, giggling in his senility, passed on; but that angel leaped backward in her chair while her beautiful eyes, wide open, stunned, her beautiful mouth, wide open, incredulous, gave proof that horror can look bewitching.
“Murder!” she gasped. “Were those your feet?”
And as he could compass no articulate reply, she grew as pink as he, murmured inaudibly, and stared at him in wider and wilder amazement.
“It — it didn’t hurt,” he finally managed to stammer.
At this she covered her blushes with her two hands and began to gurgle and shake with laughter. She laughed and laughed and laughed. It became a paroxysm. He laughed, too, because she laughed. Other passengers looked at them and laughed. Hie waiters laughed; they approved — colored waiters always approve of laughter — and a merry spirit went abroad in the car.
At last she controlled herself long enough to ask:
“But what did you think of me?”
“It — it didn’t hurt,” he repeated idiotically, to his own mortification, for he passionately aspired to say something airy and winsome; but, as he couldn’t think of anything like that, he had to let it go. “Oh, not at all,” he added feebly.
However, “though not so deep as a well,” it served, ’twas enough, for she began to laugh again, and there loomed no further barrier in the way of acquaintance. Therefore it was pleasantly without constraint, and indeed as a matter of course, that he dropped into a chair beside her half an hour later, in the observation car; and something in the way she let the Illustrated London News slide into the vacant chair on the other side of her might have suggested that she expected him.
“I was still wondering what you must have thought of me.”
This gave him an opportunity, because he had thought out a belated reply for the first time she had said it. Hence, quick as a flash, he made the dashing rejoinder:
“It wasn’t so much what I thought of you, but what I thought of myself — I thought I was in heaven!”
She must have known what pretty sounds her laughter made. She laughed a great deal. She even had a way of laughing in the middle of some of her words, and it gave them a kind of ripple. There are girls who naturally laugh like that; others learn to; a few won’t, and some can’t. It isn’t fair to the ones that can’t.
“But you oughtn’t to tell me that,” she said.
It was in the middle of “oughtn’t” that she rippled. A pen cannot express it, neither can a typewriter, and no one has yet invented a way of writing with a flute; but the effect on Henry shows what a wonderful ripple it was. Henry trembled. From this moment she had only to ripple to make Henry tremble. Henry was more in love than he had been at breakfast. Henry was a Goner.
“Why oughtn’t I to?” he demanded with white intensity. “If anything’s true it’s right to tell it, isn’t it? I believe that everybody has a right to tell the truth, don’t you?”
“You take the case of a man that’s in love,” said this rather precipitate gentleman; “isn’t it right for him to —”
“But suppose,” she interrupted, becoming instantly serious with the introduction of the great topic — “Suppose he isn’t really in love. Don’t you think there are very few cases of people truly and deeply caring for each other?”
“There are men,” he said firmly, “who know how to love truly and deeply, and could never in their lives care for anybody but the one woman they have picked out. I don’t say all men feel that way; I don’t think they do. But there are a few that are capable of it.” The seats in an observation car are usually near neighbors, and it happened that the brown cuff of a tan sleeve, extended reposefully on the arm of her chair, just touched the back of his hand, which rested on the arm of his. This ethereally light contact continued. She had no apparent cognizance of it, but a vibrant thrill passed through him, and possibly quite a hearty little fire might have been built under him without his perceiving good cause for moving. He shook, gulped, and added: “I am!”
“But how could you be sure of that,” she said thoughtfully, “until you tried?” And as he seemed about to answer, perhaps too impulsively, she checked him with a smiling, “At your age!”
“You don’t know how old I am. I’m older than you!”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-one next March.”
“That is singular!”
“Because,” she began in a low tone and with full recognition of the solemn import of the revelation — “Because my birthday is only one day after yours. I was twenty years old the eighth of last March.”
“By George!” The exclamation came from him, husky with awe.
There was a fateful silence.
“Yes, I was born on the eighth,” she said slowly.
“And me on the seventh!” At such a time no man is a purist.
“It is strange,” she said.
“Strange! I came into the world just one day before you did!”
They looked at each other curiously, deeply stirred. Coincidence could not account for these birthdays of theirs, nor chance for their meeting on a train “like this.” Henry Millick Chester was breathless. The mysteries were glimpsed. No doubt was possible — he and the wondrous creature at his side were meant for each other, intended from the beginning of eternity.
She dropped her eyes slowly from his, but he was satisfied that she had felt the marvel precisely as he had felt it.
“Don’t you think,” she said gently, “that a girl has seen more of the world at twenty than a man?”
Mr. Chester well wished to linger upon the subject of birthdays; however, the line of original research suggested by her question was alluring also. “Yes — and no,” he answered with admirable impartiality. “In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. For instance, you take the case of a man that’s in love —”
“Well,” interrupted the lady, “I think, for instance, that a girl understands men better at twenty than men do women.”
“It may be,” he admitted, nodding. “I like to think about the deeper things like this sometimes.”
“So do I. I think they’re interesting,” she said with that perfect sympathy of understanding which he believed she was destined to extend to him always and in all things. “Life itself is interesting. Don’t you think so?”
“I think it’s the most interesting subject there can be. Real life, that is, though — not just on the surface. Now, for instance, you take the case of a man that’s in —”
“Do you go in much for reading?” she asked.
“Sure. But as I was saying, you take —”
“I think reading gives us so many ideas, don’t you?”
“Yes. I get a lot out of it. I—”
“I do, too. I try to read only the best things,” she said. “I don’t believe in reading everything, and there’s so much to read nowadays that isn’t really good.”
“Who do you think,” he inquired with deference, “is the best author now?”
It was not a question to be settled quite offhand; she delayed her answer slightly, then, with a gravity appropriate to the literary occasion, temporized: “Well, since Victor Hugo is dead, it’s hard to say just who is the best.”
“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “We get that in the English course in college. There aren’t any great authors any more. I expect probably Swinburne’s the best.”
She hesitated. “Perhaps; but more as a poet.”
He assented. “Yes, that’s so. I expect he would be classed more as a poet. Come to think of it, I believe he’s dead, too. I’m not sure, though; maybe it was Beerbohm Tree — somebody like that. I’ve forgotten; but, anyway, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t mean poetry; I meant who do you think writes the best books? Mrs. Humphry Ward?”
“Yes, she’s good, and so’s Henry James.”
“I’ve never read anything by Henry James. I guess I’ll read some of his this summer. What’s the best one to begin on?”
The exquisite pink of her cheeks extended its area almost imperceptibly. “Oh, any one. They’re all pretty good. Do you care for Nature?”
“Sure thing,” he returned quickly. “Do you?”
“I love it!”
“So do I. I can’t do much for mathematics, though.”
“Br-r!” She shivered prettily. “I hate it —”
“So do I. I can’t give astronomy a whole lot, either.”
She turned a softly reproachful inquiry upon him. “Oh, don’t you love to look at the stars?”
In horror lest the entrancing being think him a brute, he responded with breathless haste: “Oh, rath-er-r! To look at ’em, sure thing! I meant astronomy in college; that’s mostly math, you know — just figures. But stars to look at — of course that’s different. Why, I look up at ’em for hours sometimes!” He believed what he was saying. “I look up at ’em, and think and think and think —”
“So do I.” Her voice was low and hushed; there was something almost holy in the sound of it, and a delicate glow suffused her lovely, upraised face — like that picture of Saint Cecilia, he thought. “Oh, I love the stars! And music — and flowers —”
“And birds,” he added automatically in a tone that, could it by some miracle have been heard at home, would have laid his nine-year-old brother flat on the floor in a might-be mortal swoon.
A sweet warmth centered in the upper part of his diaphragm and softly filtered throughout him. The delicious future held no doubts or shadows for him. It was assured. He and this perfect woman had absolutely identical tastes; their abhorrances and their enthusiasms marched together; they would never know a difference in all their lives to come. Destiny unrolled before him a shining pathway which they two would walk hand-in-hand through the summer days to a calm and serene autumn, respected and admired by the world, but finding ever their greatest and most sacred joy in the light of each other’s eyes — that light none other than the other could evoke.
Could it be possible, he wondered, that he was the same callow boy who but yesterday pranced and exulted in the “pee-rade” of the new juniors! How absurd and purposeless that old life seemed; how far away, how futile, and how childish! Well, it was over, finished. By this time tomorrow he would have begun his business career.
Back in the old life, he had expected to go through a law school after graduating from college, subsequently to enter his father’s office. That meant five years before even beginning to practice, an idea merely laughable now. There was a men’s furnishing store on a popular corner at home; it was an establishment which had always attracted him, and what pleasanter way to plow the road to success than through acres of variously woven fabrics, richly colored silks, delicate linens, silver mountings and odorous leathers, in congenial association with neckties, walking-sticks, hosiery, and stickpins? He would be at home a few hours hence, and he would not delay. After lunch he would go boldly to his father and say: “Father, I have reached man’s estate and I have put away childish things. I have made up my mind upon a certain matter and you will only waste time by any effort to alter this, my firm determination. Father, I here and now relinquish all legal ambitions, for the reason that a mercantile career is more suited to my inclinations and my abilities. Father, I have met the one and only woman I can ever care for, and I intend to make her my wife. Father, you have always dealt squarely with me; I will deal squarely with you. I ask you the simple question: Will you or will you not advance me the funds to purchase an interest in Paul H. Hoy & Company’s Men’s Outfitting Establishment? If you will not, then I shall seek help elsewhere.”
Waking dreams are as swift, sometimes, as the other kind — which, we hear, thread mazes so labyrinthine “between the opening and the closing of a door”; and a twenty-year-old fancy, fermenting in the inclosure of a six-and-seven-eighth plaid cap, effervesces with a power of sizzling and sparkling and popping.
“I believe I love music best of all,” said the girl dreamily.
“Do you play?” he asked, and his tone and look were those of one who watches at the sick-bed of a valued child.
“Yes, a little.”
“I love the piano.” He was untroubled by any remorse for what he and some of his gang had done only two days since to a previously fine instrument in his dormitory entry. He had forgotten the dead past in his present vision, which was of a luxurious room in a spacious mansion, and a tired man of affairs coming quietly into that room — from a conference at which he had consolidated the haberdashery trade of the world — and sinking noiselessly upon a rich divan, while a beautiful woman in a dress of brown and tan, her hair slightly silvered, played to him through the twilight upon a grand piano, the only other sound in the great house being the softly murmurous voices of perfectly trained children being put to bed in a distant nursery upstairs.
“I like the stage, too,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“You know! Did you see The Tinkle-Dingle Girl?”
“Yes. I liked it.”
“It’s a peach of a show.” He spoke with warranted authority. During the university term just finished he had gone eight times to New York, and had enriched his critical perceptions of music and the drama by ten visits to The Tinkle-Dingle Girl, two of his excursions having fallen on matinee days. “Those big birds that played the comedy parts were funny birds, weren’t they?”
“The tramp and the brewer? Yes. Awfully funny.”
“We’ll go lots to the theatre!” He spoke eagerly and with superb simplicity, quite without consciousness that he was skipping much that would usually be thought necessarily intermediate. An enchanting vision engrossed his mind’s eye. He saw himself night after night at The Tinkle-Dingle Girl, his lovely wife beside him — growing matronly, perhaps, but slenderly matronly — with a grace of years that only added to her beauty, and always wearing tan gloves and a brown veil.
The bewilderment of her expression was perhaps justified.
At this he realized the import of what he had said and what, in a measure, it did assume. He became pinkish, then pink, then more pink; and so did she. Paralyzed, the blushing pair looked at each other throughout this duet in color, something like a glint of alarm beginning to show through the wide astonishment in her eyes; and with the perception of this he was assailed by an acute perturbation. He had spoken thoughtlessly, even hastily, he feared; he should have given her more time. Would she rise now with chilling dignity and leave him, it might be forever? Was he to lose her just when he had found her? He shuddered at the ghastly abyss of loneliness disclosed by the possibility. But this was only the darkest moment before a radiance that shot heavenward like the flaming javelins of an equatorial sunrise.
Her eyes lowered slowly till the long, brown lashes shadowed the rose-colored cheek and the fall of her glance came to rest upon the arms of their two chairs, where the edge of her coat sleeve just touched the knuckle of his little finger. Two people were passing in front of them; there was no one who could see; and with a lightning-swift impulse she turned her wrist and for a half second, while his heart stopped beating, touched all his fingers with her own, then as quickly withdrew her hand and turned as far away from him as the position of her chair permitted.
It was a caress of incredible brevity, and so fleeting, so airy, that it was little more than a touch of light itself, like the faint quick light from a flying star one might just glimpse on one’s hand as it passed. But in our pleasant world important things have resulted from touches as evanescent as that. Nature has its uses for the ineffable.
Blazing with glory, dumb with rapture, Henry Millick Chester felt his heart rebound to its work, while his withheld breath upheaved in a gulp that half suffocated him. Thus, blinded by the revelation of the stupefying beauty of life, he sat through a heaven-stricken interval, and time was of no moment. Gradually he began to perceive, in the midst of the effulgence which surrounded the next chair like a bright mist, the adorable contour of a shoulder in a tan coat and the ravishing outline of a rosy cheek that belonged to this divine girl who was his.
By and by he became dreamily aware of other objects beyond that cheek and that shoulder, of a fat man and his fat wife on the opposite side of the car near the end. Unmistakably they were man and wife, but it seemed to Henry that they had no reason to be — such people had no right to be married. They had no obvious right to exist at all; certainly they had no right whatever to exist in that car. Their relation to each other had become a sickening commonplace, the bleakness of it as hideously evident as their overfed convexity. It was visible that they looked upon each other as inevitable nuisances which had to be tolerated. They were horrible. Had Love ever known these people? It was unthinkable! For lips such as theirs to have pronounced the name of the god would have been blasphemy; for those fat hands ever to have touched, desecration! Henry hated the despicable pair.
All at once his emotion changed: he did not hate them, he pitied them. From an immense height he looked down with compassion upon their wretched condition. He pitied everybody except himself and the roseate being beside him; they floated together upon a tiny golden cloud, alone in the vast sky at an immeasurable altitude above the squalid universe. A wave of pity for the rest of mankind flooded over him, but most of all he pitied that miserable, sodden, befleshed old married couple.
He was dimly aware of a change that came over these fat people, a strangeness; but he never did realize that at this crisis his eyes, fixed intently upon them and aided by his plastic countenance, had expressed his feelings and sentiments regarding them in the most lively and vivid way. For at the moment when the stout gentleman laid his paper down, preparatory to infuriated inquiry, both he and his wife were expunged from Henry’s consciousness forever and were seen of him thenceforth no more than if they had been ether and not solid flesh. The exquisite girl had been pretending to pick a thread out of her left sleeve with her right hand — but now at last she leaned back in her chair and again turned her face partly toward Henry. Her under lip was caught in slightly beneath her upper teeth, as if she had been doing something that possibly she oughtn’t to be doing, and though the pause in the conversation had been protracted — it is impossible to calculate how long — her charming features were still becomingly overspread with rose. She looked toward her rapt companion, not at him, and her eyes were preoccupied, tender, and faintly embarrassed.
The pause continued.
He leaned a little closer to her. And he looked at her and looked at her and looked at her. At intervals his lips moved as if he were speaking, and yet he was thinking wordlessly. Leaning thus toward her, his gaze and attitude had all the intensity of one who watches a ninth-inning tie in the deciding game of a championship series. And as he looked and looked and looked, the fat man and his wife, quite unaware of their impalpability, also looked and looked and looked in grateful fascination.
“Did you —” Henry Millick Chester finally spoke these words in a voice he had borrowed, evidently from a stranger, for it did not fit his throat and was so deep that it disappeared — it seemed to fall down a coal-hole and ended in a dusty choke. “Did you —” he began again, two octaves higher, and immediately squeaked out. He said “Did you” five times before he subjugated the other two words.
“Did you— mean that?”
“What?” Her own voice was so low that he divined rather than heard what she said. He leaned even a little closer — and the fat man nudged his wife, who elbowed his thumb out of her side morbidly: she wasn’t missing anything.
“Did you — did you mean that?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“When you — when you — oh, you know!”
“No, I don’t.”
“When you — when you took my hand.”
With sudden, complete self-possession she turned quickly to face him, giving him a look of half-shocked, half-amused astonishment.
“When I took your hand?” she repeated incredulously. “What are you saying?”
“You — you know,” he stammered. “A while ago when — when — you — you —”
“I didn’t do anything of the kind!” Impending indignation began to cloud the delicate face ominously. “Why in the world should I?”
“But you —”
“I didn’t!” She cut him off sharply. “I couldn’t. Why, it wouldn’t have been nice! What made you dream I would do a thing like that? How dare you imagine such things!”
At first dumfounded, then appalled, he took the long, swift, sickening descent from his golden cloud with his mouth open, but it snapped tight at the bump with which he struck the earth. He lay prone, dismayed, abject. The lovely witch could have made him believe anything; at least it is the fact that for a moment she made him believe he had imagined that angelic little caress; and perhaps it was the sight of his utter subjection that melted her. For she flashed upon him suddenly with a dazing smile, and then, blushing again but more deeply than before, her whole attitude admitting and yielding, she offered full and amazing confession, her delicious laugh rippling tremulously throughout every word of it.
“It must have been an accident — partly!”
“I love you!” he shouted.
The translucent fat man and his wife groped for each other feverishly, and a colored porter touched Henry Millick Chester on the shoulder.
“Be in Richmon’ less’n fi’ minutes now,” said the porter. He tapped the youth’s shoulder twice more; it is his office to awaken the rapt dreamer. “Richmon’ In’iana, less’n fi’ minutes now,” he repeated more slowly.
Henry gave him a stunned and dishevelled “What?”
“You get off Richmon’, don’t you?”
“What of it? We haven’t passed Dayton yet.”
“Yessuh, long ’go. Pass’ Dayton eight-fifty. Be in Richmon’ mighty quick now.”
The porter appeared to be a malicious liar. Henry appealed pitifully to the girl.
“But we haven’t passed Dayton?”
“Yes, just after you sat down by me. We stopped several minutes.”
“Yessuh. Train don’t stop no minutes in Richmon’ though,” said the porter with a hard laugh, waving his little broom at some outlying freight cars they were passing. “Gittin’ in now. I got you’ bag on platfawm.”
“I don’t want to be brushed,” Henry said, almost sobbing. “For heaven’s sake, get out!”
Porters expect anything. This one went away solemnly without even lifting his eyebrows.
The brakes were going on.
One class of railway tragedies is never recorded, though it is the most numerous of all and fills the longest list of heartbreaks; the statics ignore it, yet no train ever leaves its shed, or moves, that is not party to it. It is time and overtime that the safety-device inventors should turn their best attention to it, so that the happy day may come at last when we shall see our common carriers equipped with something to prevent these lovers’ partings.
The train began to slow down.
Henry Millick Chester got waveringly to his feet; she rose at the same time and stood beside him.
“I am no boy,” he began, hardly knowing what he said, but automatically quoting a fragment from his forthcoming address to his father. “I have reached man’s estate and I have met the only —”
He stopped short with an exclamation of horror. “You — you haven’t even told me your name!”
“My name?” the girl said, a little startled.
“Yes! And your address!”
“I’m not on my way home now,” she said. “I’ve been visiting in New York and I’m going to St. Louis to make another visit.”
“But your name!”
She gave him an odd glance of mockery, a little troubled.
“You mightn’t like my name!”
“Oh, please, please!”
“Besides, do you think it’s quite proper for me to —”
“Oh, please! To talk of that now! Please!” The train had stopped.
The glint of a sudden decision shone in the lovely eyes. “I’ll write it for you so you won’t forget.”
She went quickly to the writing desk at the end of the compartment, he with her, the eyes of the fat man and his wife following them like two pairs of searchlights swung by the same mechanism.
“And where you live,” urged Henry. “I shall write to you every day.” He drew a long, deep breath and threw back his head. “Till the day — the day when I come for you.”
“Don’t look over my shoulder.” She laughed shyly, wrote hurriedly upon a loose sheet, placed it in an envelope, sealed the envelope, and then, as he reached to take it, withheld it tantalizingly. “No. It’s my name and where I live, but you can’t have it. Not till you’ve promised not to open it until the train is clear out of the station.”
Outside the window sounded the twice-repeated “Awl aboh-oh,” and far ahead a fatal bell was clanging.
“I promise,” he gulped.
“Then take it!”
With a strange, new-born masterfulness he made a sudden impetuous gesture and lifted both the precious envelope and the fingers that inclosed it to his lips. Then he turned and dashed to the forward end of the car where a porter remained untipped as Henry leaped from the already rapidly moving steps of the car to the ground. Instantly the wonderful girl was drawn past him, leaning and waving from the railed rear platform whither she had run for this farewell. And in the swift last look that they exchanged there was in her still-flushing, lovely face a light of tenderness and of laughter, of kindness and of something like a fleeting regret.
The train gained momentum, skimming onward and away, the end of the observation car dwindling and condensing into itself like a magician’s disappearing card, while a white handkerchief, waving from the platform, quickly became an infinitesimal shred of white — and then there was nothing. The girl was gone.
Probably Henry Millick Chester owes his life to the fact that there are no gates between the station building and the tracks at Richmond. For gates and a ticket-clipping official might have delayed Henry’s father in the barely successful dash he made to drag from the path of a backing local a boy wholly lost to the outward world in a state of helpless puzzlement, which already threatened to become permanent as he stared and stared at a sheet of railway notepaper whereon was written in a charming hand: