Good Sports/From Mars
WHEN Mrs. Hollister told Vincent that she had invited in a few friends for dinner the following Tuesday his reply was not enthusiastic. "I'd give fifty dollars if you hadn't, mother," he said with a frown.
It was the doctor's fault. Mrs. Hollister lived these days simply to please and gratify Vincent, but the doctor had told her that he thought it would be a good thing for her son, if he saw more of people, and played with them a little.
She had been very careful whom she had invited—a relative or two, and a few intimate friends only, to whom she felt free to whisper a word or two of warning beforehand. There were certain questions and remarks especially unwelcome to Vincent since he had come home from the war. It would be wise, Mrs. Hollister concluded, to acquaint the two women between whom she placed him at the table, with a list of important "don'ts." She had written them out. They read something like this:
Don't ask him how it feels to be a hero.
Don't ask him to show you his war-cross.
Don't ask him if he brought back the helmet of the German, whom the papers say he killed in the shell-hole.
Don't ask him to describe a man's emotions the night before an attack is to be made.
Don't ask him how many Germans he's killed.
Don't ask him if he felt hatred for the enemy.
Don't ask him why he doesn't wear his war-cross.
Don't ask him why he doesn't wear his uniform.
Mrs. Hollister wished with all her heart that Vincent would make it possible for her to omit the last "don't." She was unable not to include among her guests men in uniform—the war was still in full swing—and Vincent's black and white, under the circumstances, would be conspicuous. She ventured to suggest to him that it would please her very much if he felt like appearing in his military regalia for the dinner-party.
His reply had been, "Shall I streak my face with blood too, mother, and put my arm back in a sling?"
Mrs. Hollister wished Vincent wouldn't talk like that. His answer was discouragingly characteristic of him since he had come home. She couldn't understand some of his peculiar attitudes and disinclinations. For instance his very first morning at home, he had removed from various mantels, tables, and book-case tops throughout the house all her treasured photographs of him, taken in his uniform before he sailed for France, and had deposited them in the attic. The little service-pin she had worn with such sentiment for him, for a whole year, he had frowned upon, and asked her to take off. The sacred symbol to her of his heroism—the French war-cross, which she had tremblingly asked to see and hold for an exalted moment in the palm of her own hand, she was dismayed to discover he produced from a corner of his suit-case. He had tossed it to her carelessly as if it was so much common metal, and asked her not to make a fuss over it.
His attitude about his uniform was incomprehensible. He had explained briefly that he had obtained some sort of special permission to wear citizen's clothes, if he preferred to, and evidently he did prefer to. On his second morning at home he had appeared at the breakfast-table, in an old golf-suit, and a shabby flannel shirt; that evening in a blue serge, smelling of camphor-balls; and thereafter Mrs. Hollister saw no more trace of Vincent's uniform than as if he had never worn one.
The Hollisters' living-room unlike their neighbors', the Sherrills' and the Tillinghasts', whose sons had returned also, did not become littered with gas-masks and helmets off dead soldiers, and posters, and bits of shell and shrapnel, and the like. Vincent hadn't brought back a single relic to help make the war real for his family. The other young men had many a thrilling story to tell. Vincent had none. It was disappointing—it was more than disappointing. The slow realization that Vincent didn't want to share with his mother and father and Barbara, his sister—the three nearest people to him in the world—the details of his life in France had made it necessary for Mrs. Hollister to smother many a sigh. At the end of Vincent's first week at home she confessed to herself with chagrin that she, his own mother, knew little more of the story of his war-cross than had been printed in the newspapers for the public a month ago. He had answered all her eager questions with a brevity and curtness that left no doubt as to how unwelcome they were to him.
"It was bad enough," Barbara, the frank, complained, "the non-committal letters he used to write us, but then he had the Censor for excuse, and being busy, and now he has nothing—nothing but queerness. After all the anxiety we've felt on his account, it isn't fair to us, it seems to me, for him to act as if he hadn't been near the war at all, and we'd all been making a lot over nothing."
He had spent most of his time since his return playing golf alone. Every morning after breakfast he started for the golf club, "to learn to play the game over again with a game arm," he explained. Every afternoon he toured the country—alone also—in his old roadster.
"Jack Sherrill is spending all his spare time," Barbara bluntly informed her mother and father, "speaking to various gatherings about town to enrouse enthusiasm for the next Loan."
Vincent had been good at public speaking when he was in college. Moreover, of all the men so far returned in the small city, he was the only one to have been decorated for valor. He was distinctly the hero of them all. There had been encomiums and tributes of high praise to him in all the newspapers for weeks before he returned. Yet he refused to address a single organization—to sit at a dinner-table even, at his father's club, and answer questions informally. Odd! He used to be the most sociable of men. He used, too, to be kind and considerate. Since his return some of his replies to the well-meaning questions asked him by friends who had dropped into the house to grasp his hand—shake it, wring it, learn his story, had brought the color more than once to Mrs. Hollister's cheeks.
She tried always now to hover near Vincent whenever he became entangled in a group of people, so as to ward off annoying questions and remarks. Especially she tried to protect and guard him from over-zealous women. Nothing seemed to rub Vincent the wrong way as much as a woman, young or old, who got him alone in a corner, and asked to see his war-cross, gazed worshipfully upon the jagged white scar upon his forehead and made eloquent remarks about "our splendid men." Vincent told his mother that if he drew one of that sort at her dinner-party, he wouldn't be responsible for the results.
Mrs. Hollister was well aware that it was impossible for twelve or fourteen people to sit together for more than ten minutes at a time and not talk about the war, but by placing herself at one end of the table and Mr. Hollister at the other, and Barbara half-way down one side, she calculated that, between the three of them they could control the conversation in their vicinity. She impressed upon her aides the importance of keeping up as many tête-à-têtes as possible—for, under cover of the busy hum of many voices, Vincent's reluctance to discuss the war would not become conspicuous. Everything ought to go off smoothly, she said, as Vincent dressed in conventional evening clothes entered the drawing-room just before the guests began to arrive.
Everything did go off smoothly, she congratulated herself later, when finally she rose and led the way into the dining-room. From her switch-board at the foot of the table she had caught a perfect medley of war-discussions, of course, of one kind and another, over her various wires—but not once had there occurred one of those dreadful dead silences, which she had so feared might be broken by a direct reference to Vincent, and his part in the war. He appeared to have no more connection with the world hostilities than the successful young broker he was two years ago.
It was after dinner, five or ten minutes after the men had come into the drawing-room, when Mrs. Hollister glanced about to make sure that the interchange of partners had been happy, that she discovered with consternation that Vincent was seated at the far end of the room, in the window-seat beyond the piano, with the only guest of the evening to whom she hadn't given personal instruction. There hadn't been a chance to give it. Mrs. Hollister hadn't known that she was coming till six o'clock that night. Alice Farnum had telephoned to Barbara that a friend, whom she hadn't expected till the following day, was arriving that evening. Would it be convenient to bring her along to the dinner? All Mrs. Hollister knew about the girl was her last name—Miss Oliver. She had tucked her in at the table as far away as possible from Vincent, for she was afraid that there might not be an opportunity to caution her. And now the unfortunate coincident of Vincent's entering the drawing-room from the library, instead of through the hall, had caught him with this unknown young person, who chanced to be seated alone in the window-seat by the library door.
Vincent had hesitated before speaking to the young lady. He didn't even know her name, hadn't caught it when Alice Farnum blew in with her at the last moment. Young ladies alone in corners he avoided, these days, whenever possible. He recalled his threat to his mother. However he was making an effort for her sake to be civil to-night (though she was quite unaware of it) and it would not have been civil to have passed on without a word to the stranger.
So he said, "You're very exclusive." The other women were grouped together in the middle of the room by the fireplace.
"Yes," she agreed briefly, looking up from a pile of music she held in her lap—Barbara's music. Then abruptly, "Did you ever see Julia Sanderson in this?"
Vincent took the proffered sheet.
"See it? Rather!" he said.
"Wasn't it simply great?" she exclaimed, with as much enthusiasm, as Mrs. Thaxter, his dinner-partner had expressed herself to him, a half-an-hour ago, in regard to a late allied success. He believed they had used the very same words.
He sat down beside the stranger. "Great!" he agreed eagerly.
"Ever fox-trot to this?" asked the girl, shoving across to him another sheet of music from Barbara's pile, collected in before-war days when frequent trips to New York were not taboo, and a girl went to as many matinees as her allowance permitted.
"I should say I had!" Vincent ejaculated. He had been a dance-enthusiast once—ages ago—in his former existence. "Did you ever dance to it?"
"Have I!" she apostrophized, with an eloquence that matched his.
"You like to dance?" he asked.
"I love it!" she exclaimed, and she couldn't have spoken more ardently if he had been referring to the flag. "I'd rather dance than do anything else in the world almost," she confided. That is what at least three girls had said to him in the last fortnight about going to France. He laughed, pleased.
"Wish we could roll up the rugs and try it!"
"I wish we could too," the stranger agreed, and glanced at him, not a bit worshipfully.
The quality of the glance brought the color to Vincent's face. He was horribly rusty! Too bad! She was a pretty girl—blond—a fragile, destructible-looking creature in a fragile, destructible-looking gown, all feminine lace and spangles. Vincent compared the gown to Barbara's hard, sensible black satin, selected, she had told him with pride, as a patriotic economy.
"But," the girl went on, after her effective pause and glance, "seeing there isn't any dancing, come on down Broadway instead. All the high-spots, in all the best shows in the last ten years are here." She indicated the music in her lap. "Remember this?" she inquired, and passed Vincent a popular sextette which he had encored until his hands tingled, three years ago.
Regardless of time and place, the stranger in the window-seat conducted Vincent through the sparkling thorough-fares of New York, dropping in not only at the various comic-operas, here and there, represented in Barbara's pile, but sampling other pleasures as well, joining in enthusiasm with Vincent over a certain Belasco success of four seasons ago, going on afterwards, in imagination to the Follies, or for supper and to dance at the Biltmore. "Oh, I love to be frivolous!" she tucked in. All the way down Fifth Avenue from the Plaza for tea, to Sherry's for dinner, or Rector's if one is traveling in a suit-case and likes a cabaret, she suggested—they reminisced, compared, and exchanged opinions. Not once, Vincent observed, did the stranger allow the conversation to wander outside the great American playground.
He was aware of his mother's tactics. This young person had evidently been warned. However her performance was none the less remarkable and it was with sincere admiration that he exclaimed at last, "You're a marvel! Do you realize that you've been talking to me for over an hour and haven't mentioned the war?"
She surveyed him blankly.
"The war!" she exclaimed. "What war?"
Really she was too good to be true!
"I was referring," he replied lightly, "to that little scrap over on the other side of the pond."
"Oh, that! Humph!" she shrugged her pretty shoulders. "That's a long way off. That's nothing to me."
He looked at her, puzzled.
"You're shocked," she laughed. "Well, I'll shock you some more," she said; "I'm sick of uniforms!" She announced fiercely. "These days," she went on, looking away from Vincent, "a man in spick-and-span black evening clothes, and crisp linen, pearl studs and things, and white ties, and snowy waistcoats—you know the sort of rig." (Vincent knew how carefully she had observed his own combination.) "A man dressed like that is a beautiful sight to me!" she brought out. "A young man, I mean," she went on boldly, giving Vincent another of her significant glances—flirting with him quite frankly, of course. He was aware of it—"a young man—who is neither lame, nor halt nor blind." Vincent's scar was on the side away from her.
"I'm glad," he laughed diffidently, "that there's some one who approves. My mother thought it a tragedy that I wouldn't wear my uniform to-night."
"Your uniform!" the girl's face fell. "Have you a uniform? I didn't think you had. I thought you were just a nice man from South America,—or some such place, to whom the war was just thunder and lightning a long way off. I'm disappointed," she pouted. "Run along. Run along. I can't have any fun with you. Eyes off men in the service you know."
"Oh," he accused her. "You can't pretend you don't know who I am. You couldn't have been so clever if you weren't very well aware of my peculiarities."
"Who are you? Was I clever? And have you peculiarities?" she exclaimed all in one breath. "The Farnums' chauffeur snatched me up at the station at six-thirty to-night," she explained. "I haven't had five minutes alone with Alice yet. I don't even know your name. I don't even know the name of our hostess."
Her voice rang convincingly true but Vincent shook his head unpersuaded. He didn't enter into a dispute with her, however.
"How long are you going to be visiting Alice Farnum?" he asked.
"I've no idea. It's an experiment. A day or two—a week. Possibly two weeks—as long as I can stand the strenuous war-activities of a small town like this."
"Alice spends all her time at the Red Cross Headquarters," said Vincent. "Won't you be working with her?"
"Not if I know it!" shuddered this extraordinary young person. "I've brought half a tray full of novels—light novels," she specified almost savagely, "and a bag of golf clubs to while away the hours while hectic Alice is cutting and folding."
"Will you while away a few with me on the golf links?" asked Vincent.
The girl surveyed him, head on one side.
"Alas!" she sighed, "I don't even know your name."
"Hollister, V. W. Hollister." It conveyed little of interest to her evidently. She was an excellent actress. "From the planet Mars," Vincent added.
She rewarded him for that with a smile and a long look.
"My name is Oliver," she replied; "E. Oliver from Mars also."
The next morning Vincent spent two hours and a half on the golf course with Miss E. Oliver (she could play a very good game for a girl) and the evening of the following day he spent three hours with her at the theater, and the next afternoon after another two hours of golf, he whisked her away in his roadster to a pretty spot he knew about beside a rocky-bedded brook, and while she read out-loud to him from one of the light novels, he got out his knife and whittled. On the fourth day they climbed a hill which used to be a mountain when he was a boy, and for a long quiet hour, sunned themselves at the summit. Eighteen hours he had spent with her in all (he counted them up at the end of the fourth day) and not once during all that time had she shown the least curiosity as to his scar or disabled arm. She hadn't asked a single question about his uniform, nor wondered why he had discarded it. She hadn't even remotely referred to the war. Even when their conversation had veered near it—as it had often, of course,—she had swerved it away with a dexterous twist and turn.
"What's the disagreeable affair to us?" was her determined attitude. "The Planet Mars, in spite of the warlike god whose name it bears, is not involved. Why should we concern ourselves?" Whatever the small community offered in way of entertainment she was always ready for—eager for—at Vincent's slightest suggestion. The pursuit of pleasure was her chief interest in life, apparently, and she offered no excuse for it either.
Vincent asked her on the summit of the hill, as she sat perched upon a rock beside him, if all young women from Mars were so delightfully irresponsible as she.
"Yes, disgraceful young pagans, all of us," she smiled at him from beneath the soft brim of a round felt hat which made her look more like a child than a woman, "who just like to play and have some fun. Purposeless, soulless creatures," she giggled, sprite-like, "but harmless," she added.
Vincent wasn't sure that she was so harmless. He hadn't supposed a girl existed who could make him ignore for whole hours at a time indelible spots and blotches splurged all over his memory. He hadn't supposed such an ephemeral thing as a smile, a look, a silvery laugh could wipe out awfulness and horror. But they could—they could! They were more effective in making Vincent forget, for a little while, certain details he was trying very hard to forget, than had been all his persistent efforts in removing from his sight everything that recalled or suggested them. He must take care. For two nights, now, he had gone to bed, and had actually fallen to sleep, without once feeling his bayonet slip straight and smoothly, as if it had been rubbed in grease, into the thing that wasn't a dummy.
He was aware that Miss Oliver's smiles and glances were but a part of the rôle she had assumed. He didn't accept them at their face value. But he couldn't attribute her play-acting (as play-acting of course it was) to any other motive except a generous impulse on her part to help and relieve him. That this stranger cared to exert herself in his behalf, filled Vincent with gratitude. And as is so likely to happen between a man and a girl, the gratitude slipped swiftly and quietly into a more involving sentiment. Vincent, to his surprise, found himself wishing to abandon the play-acting. By the fourth day he had become as anxious to tear down the artificial structure between himself and Elizabeth Oliver, (by then he had found out what the E stood for) as a week ago he had been determined to build up walls and barriers, and shut himself away from human-beings. He wanted to lay bare his soul to this girl! And the decision to do so culminated suddenly, abruptly, on the hill-top, not five minutes after she had been expounding upon the volatile characteristics of girls from Mars.
"I want to talk to you," he said. He was standing a little behind Elizabeth, who was still seated upon the rock. She looked up at him over her shoulder. His gaze, she discovered, was fixed on far-away hills, and his jaw had a set, determined expression.
"Oh, no, you don't," she replied. "Men don't talk to soulless young pagans. They just prattle to them." She laughed elfishly.
Vincent went straight on as if she hadn't spoken. "Alice Farnum, of course, has told you," he said, "what an impossible boor I've been since I've come home from France—unaccommodating, disagreeable. It's true, too—all she says—and more. I want to talk to you about it—explain it, if I can."
"Oh, don't," she interrupted. "Don't bother."
"You see," Vincent went on, "I had an idea if I could once get home, back among normal human-beings again, back into old habits, old ruts, old clothes, I could forget about things over there. The doctors thought I might too. Fools!" he shrugged. "There are no old habits, old ruts left! There are no sane and normal people—not here! I discovered by the third day I was at home there was no such thing as escape. I'm thin-skinned, I suppose, super-sensitive. Some fellows don't mind talking about the thing—making entertaining stories out of its details. But I can't! To me the whole affair is horrible—horrible." He shuddered. "I got to hate it. It got to be hell to me," he confided in a low voice to Elizabeth Oliver.
In answer she tossed a pine cone at a distant target. "See if you can hit that big gray stone beyond that tree," she said lightly.
Instead of taking the cone which Elizabeth offered him, Vincent took her hand.
"You've been the only one who has understood," he said. "You've been the only one who has known how to help. Others, even the well-meaning, say things—ask things that are like alcohol on an open wound. But you—I want to thank you. I want to tell you how I appreciate what you've done for me."
Elizabeth jerked her hand away.
"Oh, nonsense," she said. "Come on, let's have another chapter of our novel."
She would still spare him, Vincent thought.
"Not now—not now," he replied. "I didn't think when I left France," he went on, "I should ever want to tell anybody about the croix de guerre. But I do. I want to tell you!"
"I don't want to hear about your old croix de guerre," she flung back airily.
"There was no heroism connected with it," Vincent persisted. "That's why it turns me almost sick when people say soft, idiotic things about it's being a sign of courage. Courage! Not in my case. Desperation, pure and simple. I was ready to run any sort of risk, to put any sort of end to my existence, living as I was—in filth, covered with vermin, seeing my comrades die, one by one, wondering when my turn would come. When I had the chance to crawl forward to a small shell-hole, and try to put out of commission a machine-gun nest, hidden there, I jumped at it, as a man imprisoned for life might jump at a loaded revolver. Gallant, wasn't it?"
Vincent made a little noise in his throat like a laugh. He glanced down at Elizabeth Oliver. All he could see beneath the round hat was the curve of her cheek and pointed chin. He went on talking in a voice that shook a little.
"If I only could have shot the man in the shell-hole—put an end to him quickly, I don't think I would have minded it so. I tried to kill a mouse once when I was a kid by sticking a hat-pin into it. An older fellow dared me to. I never forgot it. I killed the young German the same way—with my bayonet. He died slow, too—like the mouse. It was awful—awful! Yet I'm expected to chat about it at dinner-tables here at home. I'm odd—eccentric because I didn't cut off some of his buttons and bring them back to pass around as souvenirs!" Vincent stopped a moment. Miss Oliver remained as silent as the rock she sat upon. How easy it was to talk to such a girl! "The young German was a father," he went on. "He had three little children—he told me so in good English. The blood came up in his throat, and choked him right in the midst—"
"Stop—stop," suddenly interrupted Elizabeth Oliver. "I don't want to hear your horrid story!"
"But I want to tell you!"
"And you shan't—you shan't tell me!"
"It's good for me to talk to you!"
"I don't care whether it is good for you or not!" she flung back, and got to her feet.
"I tell you that I don't want to hear unpleasant stories. I thought you understood I didn't. You've been clumsy," she accused, "awkward and clumsy! You've spoiled everything, and we were getting on beautifully!"
Her eyes were flaming, and Vincent thought he saw her chin wabble just a little as Barbara's used to when she tried to conquer tears. She controlled the chin however.
"I'm going," she announced flatly, and turned her back on Vincent.
"Please," he began, "just a minute—"
She literally ran away from him. Vincent was too surprised to move at first. He just stood and stared at her. She reminded him of some frightened mountain-animal in retreat as she bobbed over the uneven ground in her downward flight, and disappeared abruptly around the corner of a clump of cedars.
Amazing for her to act thus, in the midst of his trembling confession! Incomprehensible! Vincent wasn't sure that he liked it. By the time he had reached the road in pursuit of Miss Oliver, and found no trace of her either to left or right, he was sure he didn't like it. He was obliged to get into his automobile and ride back to the city alone! It was only two miles, easy walking-distance, if Miss Oliver preferred to walk. Vincent hoped he might overtake her. He didn't like leaving a thing unfinished in this sort of manner! But there were several routes back to town, and he didn't choose the right one.
He called up the Farnums' house an hour later. It was reported that Miss Oliver had returned, but she couldn't come to the telephone. She was lying down, with a headache.
Vincent was distinctly annoyed. Elizabeth Oliver had seemed so understanding—so sympathetic, but at the crisis, at the great moment she had failed utterly in fine appreciation. And she continued to fail utterly. She wouldn't see Vincent when he called the next day. Sent down another flimsy excuse about a headache. And the following morning, without a word of explanation, she broke a golf date, which had been made before the expedition to the hill-top. Her manner implied a quarrel. Vincent had thought her the best sort of sportsman in the world. Taking offense when no offense was intended was not sportsmanlike.
Vincent had made up his mind when he enlisted in the army, to form no attachment for any girl, until the war was over. Therefore he tried to persuade himself that he was glad that Miss Oliver had proved disappointing. He tried to persuade himself too, that he was thankful for Barbara's disillusioning remarks about her. Barbara had relieved herself of an accumulation of facts and opinions in regard to Elizabeth Oliver, at the luncheon table, on the very day after the hill-top episode.
"We girls don't think much of this friend of Alice Farnum's," Barbara had said plainly, Barbara-like, "and Alice herself acts ashamed of her. Refuses to tell us who and what she is. Just says as briefly as possible that she's an old boarding-school friend here on a visit. Whoever she may be, she's the most flippant creature I've met for a long while—brazenly flippant too. She seems to delight to flaunt her disregard of duty before the rest of her sex who are doing their utmost to be of service. When one of us asked her to come down and help at the Red Cross rooms, she said, 'No, thanks, she couldn't.' 'Let somebody else do it,' was her motto just now. Pretty motto, isn't it, for war-times? Perhaps she meant it for humor, but she didn't turn up for any work anyhow! I doubt if she's got such a thing as a conscience. She told me she wasn't going to see the official war-pictures to-night because she had a previous engagement with a downy couch, a splendid love-story, and a good fat box of candy. Candy! When the rest of us aren't taking sugar in our tea! Depraved, I call her."
Inwardly Vincent winced—not at Barbara's testimony itself (he had heard Elizabeth Oliver talk often in similar strain) but at the discovery that the rôle which he had believed she had assumed for him alone, was played indiscriminately, for everybody's amusement. He had thought Elizabeth Oliver had shut her eyes to stern realities to spare him pain. Fool! Barbara shattered the image of any such angel of mercy, which he had been molding out of Elizabeth Oliver's sparkling smiles and glances, rippling peals of laughter, pretty expressions of enthusiasm over all things gay and merry, playful pouts and frowns, and disapproving shrugs, over all things grave and serious.
But though the image was broken the parts of which it had been made were indestructible. Vincent could not forget Elizabeth Oliver's smiles and glances, and the hundred and one little atoms that went to make up her manner and personality. He tried to forget them. For three weeks he tried to forget them.
He had taken a long walk by himself after Barbara's information at the luncheon-table. At the end of that walk he had concluded not to try to see Miss Oliver again. He had known her but a scant ten days. It would be easy to blot her out now. The more he thought about it, the more reasonable Barbara's interpretation of the stranger seemed to him. Elizabeth Oliver was just a gay butterfly sort of girl, whom the war hadn't touched, and who fluttered away from horror as spontaneously as a bird from a squalid alley in a city. How else explain the trembling chin, which she had obviously tried but failed to hide?
Strange, it occurred to Vincent a week later, that the charms of such a girl had taken so strong a hold upon him. Alarming, he called it, after another seven days had worn themselves by, and still the sound of her voice, the tilt of her chin, the slant of her sideways glances, persisted in haunting him. It troubled Vincent—became a source of new anxiety. Had he become absolutely incapable of controlling his thoughts? Elizabeth Oliver flitted in and out through his brain as obstinately almost as the young German in the shell-hole.
Queer about that German. Not once since he had spoken about him to Elizabeth Oliver on the hill-top, had the night-mare about the bayonet and the hat-pin clutched and held Vincent till he woke up gasping and struggling for sufficient strength to withdraw his slippery shaft of steel. To his surprise he had been able to mention the German twice to his father over their after-dinner cigars; and once he had actually considered telling the inquisitive old governor all about the affair. Unfortunate, concluded Vincent, that he no sooner got rid of the night-mare, than another sort of phantom burden took its place. The night-mare usually had visited Vincent during the first half hour of sleep, somewhere between eleven-thirty and twelve. Now, between eleven-thirty and twelve, he was kept awake wondering against his will, against his judgment, what it would have been like that day on the hilltop, when Elizabeth Oliver had turned on him all aflame and afire, if he had put his arms around her, and kissed her, and told her that he loved her.
Oh, if she only had proved to be the girl he had thought lay hidden beneath the flippant exterior, he would go to her now. He wouldn't wait for wars to end. He was going back into the fight just as soon as his arm was stronger (the golf was helping it wonderfully, just as the doctor said it might) but even so, he would go to her.
Elizabeth Oliver had not continued her visit at Alice Farnum's long after her last meeting with Vincent. Barbara reported that she had moved on to Atlantic city in her pursuit of pleasure. Vincent had been careful to guard from Barbara's suspicious observation, and his mother's, any word or look that might betray how any reference to Elizabeth Oliver prodded him, hurt him, as time went on, sent a sharp twinge of actual pain through him. He was glad that he had his war-experiences still to hide behind, when the fits of vague longing and depression took possession of him.
One day during one of these fits of depression, some three weeks after the pretty bubble which he and Elizabeth Oliver blew with childish joy, had burst upon the hill-top, Vincent found himself pulling the Farnums' front door-bell. He hadn't called on Alice Farnum since prep-school days. Of course she would tell Barbara. Of course in short time every one would know that the purpose of that call was to talk about Elizabeth Oliver. Vincent had little hope that Alice could help him—could erase from Miss Oliver's name the stigma of slacker, of butterfly, of flirt. All these terms Vincent had heard applied to Elizabeth by Barbara.
Vincent awaited Alice's entrance into the living-room, with the sudden realization that he hadn't decided what to say first. Just how was he going to explain his presence? After all, just why had he come? To steady himself, he rose from the chair he occupied and crossed the room to a desk by the window, and stood staring blankly before him at an array of photographs in silver frames upon its top.
Five minutes later when Alice came into the room she found Vincent Hollister gazing at one of the photographs with an expression that was anything but blank. He had picked it up, frame and all, and held it before him, in a hand which had become as cold as his face had hot.
"Hello, Vincent," Alice said.
He didn't stir. The truth was he didn't dare to raise his tell-tale eyes.
"Oh," she went on, approaching him, "you've found Elizabeth's picture. I put it there just this morning. I had to hide it, as I had to hide everything else about her when she was here, per the doctor's orders. Isn't it good for a post-card enlargement?"
"What does it mean?" Vincent managed to ask at last.
In the picture Elizabeth Oliver appeared the absolute antithesis of the fragile creature Vincent had met in the fragile evening gown, and played with afterward, dressed in her smart, well-cut golf-suit. In the picture she wore a boxey, shapeless, multipocketed affair, which disregarded all her lovely lines. Her hair was tucked entirely out of sight, beneath the brim of a service hat. On the sleeve of her left arm Vincent saw insignia of some sort.
"It means," Alice replied, "that for the last two years and more, Elizabeth has been serving in France—near the front, under fire some of the time—with a hospital unit. She broke down last Spring, went to pieces terribly, had to come home. Shell-shock perhaps you'd call it. The doctors told her that she had got to let somebody else fight the war for awhile—ignore it—shut her eyes to it absolutely. It was impossible for her to do that where she was known. Everybody expected her to talk about the horrors she'd seen, and she couldn't even hear others talk about horrors without breaking down, once she was alone. So she has to go to places where she isn't known. That's why she came here."
"Where does Elizabeth Oliver live?" asked Vincent in a voice that for the life of him he couldn't keep steady.
"That I shan't tell you, Vincent," said Alice, "for it was you—at least it was after a trip with you, that Elizabeth told me that the demon had got her again, and she'd got to run away to a new place."
"I won't talk to her about the war," said Vincent. "I promise."
"I shan't tell you where she lives anyhow. You see, Elizabeth wants to go back to France. She's bound to go back! And the doctors tell her the quickest way to get there is to play, and to amuse herself with as much determination as she worked and gave herself a year ago. So she's obeying their orders. Oh, she's putting up an awfully plucky fight, and she's sure to win it, in time, too. But I don't think wounded soldiers will help her much even if they do promise not to talk about the war. No, Vincent, I shan't tell you where she lives."
It was a whole month later, when Vincent ran down the scent, which finally brought him to the quiet mountain retreat where he found Elizabeth Oliver, at last, seated, as it happened, upon a hilltop, overlooking a valley walled in by quiet mountains.
From the inn, where she and a protecting aunt were stopping, an innocent desk-clerk had directed Vincent to Miss Oliver's favorite haunt. Vincent caught a glimpse of her before she was aware that he was approaching. When he finally came in full view of her, she glanced up from a book in her lap with a startled expression. Vincent stopped stock-still when she saw him, as he might had she been a startled deer which he had surprised.
"Where did you drop from?" she asked, with the dear smile he had been treasuring so long.
He pointed skyward. "From Mars, of course," he replied, smiling back.
Elizabeth's smile rippled into a well-remembered laugh. "Do they wear that sort of clothes in Mars now?" she inquired, shaking her head at him accusingly.
He had forgotten, for a moment, that he was in uniform. He was sailing back to France in a fortnight.
"Sorry," he apologized, "but I'm not the only inhabitant from that planet who has got mixed up in this scrap," meaning herself of course. "You know that well enough. But," he added, "don't be afraid. I haven't come to talk to you about the war."
Instantly she dropped all playfulness.
"I was sorry about the way I left you that day," she said. "I've wanted to explain about it lots of times. I think I can do so now, with safety. So you see," she smiled, "that I'm glad the spot you dropped from in Mars happened to be right over this little hill of mine."
("Was there ever such a girl as this?" thought Vincent, "as full of sweet play as a lovely child, and underneath possessed of all the fine and admirable qualities that exist.")
"You don't need to explain a thing!" he exclaimed, eyes worshiping.
"But, I want to."
"And you shan't"—he said, as once she had said to him.
"Never mind. I know. I understand," he silenced her. "There's nothing to explain to me." He was ever so tender.
Elizabeth glanced at him. He did know! He did understand! Of course, Alice had told him!
"But it's all right for me to talk now," she said. "I confess I was pretty bad for a while. Couldn't bear the least reference to things. But, now, I'm better." Strange she found it so easy to discuss with this man a subject she usually shuddered to mention to any one but her doctor. "These dear hills and valleys," she confided, "have made me almost well."
Vincent wanted to reply, "And your dear smiles and glances have made me almost well." But instead he said, "Let's go on where we left off on that other hill-top. You'd just suggested, I remember, that we go on reading from our novel. I see you have a book. It'll do. Go ahead. Read, please." And he flung himself down upon the ground.
Elizabeth hesitated a second. Then, "All right," she acquiesced, eyes a-dance again, "let's read. I'd like to! I'll start right in where I left off." She was sitting with her feet tucked under her, turkish fashion, as Vincent had often recalled her in his long day-dreams. "'It shall be prima facie evidence,'" she began, "'of a rate of speed greater than is reasonable and proper, as aforesaid, if a motor vehicle is operated in any way outside of the thickly settled or business part of a city, or a town, at a rate of speed exceeding,' etc., etc."
Vincent didn't care what she read just so he could look and listen. He let her read on and on, for ten, fifteen minutes, for half an hour. They both burst into a peal of merriment when at last she stopped.
"What's it all mean?" he asked.
"That I'm better, as I told you I was," she replied. "That I'm going back to France—with a chauffeur's license, this time, if I read this book thoroughly enough. Oh, you needn't think you're the only one who has conquered!"
"Then you did know that I had something to conquer?" he asked.
"I guessed it, after a while. That is why I thought you were a safe companion for me."
"I'm not—I'm not afraid," he murmured to the sky. He was lying flat on his back, with his hands under his head for a pillow. "When a man is in a foreign country," he said, "surrounded on all sides by strangers and he suddenly runs across somebody from home, he doesn't feel a bit safe, and reliable, especially if he's as far away from home as the earth is from old Mars up there. You must know what it's like to hear your own language spoken, with your own peculiar accent too, after being tortured for weeks and weeks by the babble of crowds of strangers who don't understand even your signs and motions. That's what it was like to me when I first met you." He paused a second or two. "I've a notion," he went on, still staring up into the sky, "that there aren't many of us here from Mars. Ever since I saw you last, that notion—that fear has been growing. 'Perhaps,' I thought, 'I'll never meet any one else from my particular homeland,' so I made up my mind I wouldn't let you slip through my fingers. That's why I'm here. That's why I'm going to stay here for a week."
He sat up and faced Elizabeth. "Look here," he said. "Listen." And she looked and listened as he bade her. "You and I have climbed up the same hills, descended into the same valleys, come through the same fires to arrive at this particular spot;" he tapped the ground beneath his hand. "No wonder we understand each other intuitively."
Elizabeth had become aware now that Vincent was in earnest—very much in earnest. She tried, by turning away, to conceal the slow faint color that spread over her face.
"You're surprised," he murmured. "I'm sorry. I'd thought—I'd hoped that you too had recognized—had felt the kinship—which I—I— Time is so limited," he broke off, with an obvious effort to steady his now wavering voice, "with a man under military orders that he's forced to hurry all sorts of things that ought to be accomplished gradually."
Elizabeth made no direct reply to Vincent—not just then. Instead she commented upon the peculiar call of a bird in the nearby woods.
It was later when they were walking back together to the hotel in the valley, that she said casually, "I made a vow to myself when this war began that I'd never drift into caring for any man, whom I might have to lose in it."
"Another proof," remarked Vincent quietly, "that we hail from the same little spot in the great wide firmament—for I made a similar vow."
Six days later Elizabeth and Vincent stood alone under the dark starless sky that hid them even from the silent gaze of the surrounding mountains.
"I don't want to care for anybody," Elizabeth was saying tearfully, fearfully. "I don't want to."
"I know—I know you don't," Vincent was replying. "I didn't want to, either."
"I can work—I can serve better, if I don't care for anybody," she murmured against his shoulder.
"I know—that's what I said, too."
"Oh, I don't want to love you. I don't want to!" she whispered, and clung to him a little closer.