The Idealist (Portor)
BY LAURA SPENCER PORTOR
CRAYTON stirred his coffee and read his paper. The Belgian situation was unpleasant, certainly, but not alarming. Of course the newspapers would continue to make the most of it; and of course thousands of headlong, harebrained people would continue to form headlong opinions as to what might happen. But Crayton did not concern himself with these. He turned soon to the financial section and began scanning the copper quotations, as was his wont.
Josef put fresh toast beside him and withdrew.
It was unfortunate, certainly, that Crayton's wife and his daughter Madeleine should have been in Belgium when war was declared. But his wife was not, thank Heaven, the average feminine type. Despite her extreme delicacy, she was a woman of exceptional poise and judgment. Moreover, there was Dulaney, one of the firm's trusted men, already, as it happened, in France for his holiday. Dulaney could be cabled to go home by way of Belgium, should the situation become alarming. But Crayton felt certain it would not. He would write to his wife, telling her where Dulaney could be found at certain dates, merely in case she thought best to communicate with him. But that was a precaution, say rather a concession, that Crayton allowed himself like a luxury. Certainly it was not a necessity. He believed the war would be a mere flash in the pan. Matters would be patched up somehow.
Crayton prided himself on a just estimate of humanity. He had watched human progress too closely, studied it too long, believed in it too entirely, to have his fifty-five years of world experience overthrown by the altogether-out-of-the-ordinary, hot-headed happenings of a few days or weeks. He could afford to wait. For Crayton was not alone a man of strong beliefs and ideals, but of proven ones. He was not the man merely to express opinions; he lived them. That popular and vicious belief, for instance, that to make a success of life a man must compromise with his own soul and must lower his ideals, Crayton did not combat with mere words—he refuted it by the evidence of his own career. Never in all the years had he changed or lowered his ideals one iota, yet his success was there large, enviable, for any one to behold.
Not that he would have you think it was easy to be an idealist. To be an idealist necessitates at times the setting aside of facts which the timorous and compromising would have your believe are unalterable; it means stubborn tenacity in the face of the disbelief, often the scornful disbelief, of disbelievers. Crayton had a coarse old uncle in his youth who had gone wild with impatience of him and his ideals one day, and had flung out at him a sentence he had never forgotten: "You'll find out some damned day you're wrong!" His uncle could hardly have done him a greater service. It put him early on his mettle, while he was still in his twenties. Forewarned was forearmed. Crayton knew now that some day he would prove himself right. He who plants and tends and tires not of the tending is destined one day to taste the fruit.
Crayton believed in the underlying soundness and brotherhood of humanity. The outbreak of the war, which had been such a blow to the average man of ideals, overturning his shallow theories, flinging him rudely toward doubt and pessimism, had not really moved Crayton. War was as unthinkable, as hateful to him as to the fondest. He did not believe it would continue; but, even if it should—Crayton could afford to wait. And if you would wait with him you should see humanity triumphing. That was the promise of his gray eyes as he made his few brief, almost abrupt, statements concerning the war and dismissed the subject. Yes, Crayton could afford to wait; could afford to be calm, almost severely calm, while men of the doubting type carried ill news, spread distrust, prophesied villainies, and, responsive to every scare-line, and with a morbid taste for scandal, mistrusted whole nations at a time.
Crayton was just turning his paper to look at "Outside Securities" when Josef stood beside him, holding the little serving-salver with a telegram on it. Crayton finished folding his paper, and put it in position before he took up the telegram with very deliberate fingers, opened it, and read:
Crayton read it twice, narrowing his eyes. From the telegram it might be supposed that Frazier also was of the scare-headline type, a young fellow—like so many others—whose first impulse was to distrust humanity. Then, too, fancy Crayton calling Frazier in from Deadlocket, more than three-fourths across the country and away from the important work he was doing there for the firm, to start him off on a wild-goose chase to Belgium. For by the time Frazier got over to Belgium Crayton's wife and daughter might be already well on their way home, or the war over and disposed of. But, reading the telegram again, Crayton's lips smiled. He thought he knew better reasons why Frazier had sent this message. Morbid fears, headlong conclusions had not prompted it. It testified to entirely other things, and, as it happened, to things very pleasing to Crayton.
For a little more than two years now Crayton had been observing Frazier with a careful and keen eye. During that time he had contrived to put him to many unsuspected tests, and had repeatedly weighed his traits and abilities and behaviors in invisible scales of a very great nicety and exactness. The result of all this was that he found Frazier to be the one young man of his acquaintance eligible to the high honor of being his son-in-law.
But there was one thing which still remained uncertain, unproved. On one subject Crayton was not absolutely sure of Frazier's views; and that, too, a subject of the utmost importance. It was a conversation he had overheard between Frazier and a young divinity student which had left him in doubt. It was at a reception when Crayton, seated at one side of a screen of palms, heard Frazier at the other side speaking with his customary enthusiasm, flinging his sentences down boldly and no doubt with that fine lift of the head which was to Crayton, in itself, a very considerable testimonial.
"I tell you life modifies your opinions and beliefs, or ought to, all the time," gave out Frazier. "I can't conceive of clinging to one idea, one form of belief, year in and year out, once life has begun to teach you better. I've found life to be so infinitely larger than creed. I had a deeply religious mother whom I loved. Religious pressure was brought to bear on me. I was twelve when I joined the church."
Behind the palms Crayton was flicking his cigar with an exceedingly careful little finger, and his mobile lips pressed forward a little, his head the least bit on one side; he was listening acutely. Meantime Frazier was sweeping on again, free and broad like dawn upon the hills, and as little to be stayed:
"You notice they don't try that sort of thing on grown-ups. It's when you are young and haven't anything with which to defend yourself that they pour their dogmas into your ears. I was twelve years old, mind you, and they talked 'predestination' to me, and 'infant damnation,' and 'original sin,' and 'foreordination,' and 'eternal punishment'; then they'd mix it all in with a hymn that stirred you like a spoon. I can remember singing with positive passion, 'Wash Me in the Blood of the Lamb'; and I'd have died for my own salvation in those days. That is what they did to me. Maybe it was all right, but I don't think so. But that's the way they taught me. Oh, they made of me what they wanted, all right. But 1 couldn't believe all those things now, sir. Life wouldn't let me."
Crayton smiled and sent Frazier a wireless of approval. Not that Crayton disapproved so much of religion in childhood, as he suspected and distrusted it in young manhood. The religious child may be the future great man; but the avowedly religious young man he had found to be, as a rule, either of a distinctly neurotic or an inferior type. He put his cigar back comfortably now between his lips, as though a danger-point were passed.
Meantime Frazier was striding on, shedding light on all sides, and rejoicing, evidently, like a strong man to run his race:
"You see, I was brought up a regular blue-stocking as to other things, too. My mother, for instance, had a horror as one might have of leprosy, of a man who had not lived up to a certain code of purity. She impressed the same horror on me early. But there, too, I found life larger than what was taught me. I found men who, though they were not pure, had qualities I could love and honor. I saw one of them, a college mate of mine, give his life away like that—to save a stevedore from drowning. Yet my mother would not have allowed him in her home. Life is larger than all our prejudice, deeper than our firmest belief. It is Stevenson who says, 'The man who cannot forgive any mortal thing is a green hand at life.' "
Crayton's eyebrows lifted the least bit. He was finding out a good deal! The refreshing independence of Frazier's mind which Crayton so much admired— Was it just possible Frazier's independence might go so far as that! For this question of a man's moral code was one of those subjects on which Crayton had long been inflexible. His belief in this matter was no mere theory, you understand. Like all his ideals, this was a thing proven. He believed uncompromisingly in purity in a man, and in proof he had his own clean life to show. Although his daughter epitomized for him all that was precious in the world, he would rather take his last look at her—yes, would rather see her in her coffin, with the miserable, heavy-scented flowers over her—than give the exquisite purity of her to any man less pure than herself.
It was soon after that Crayton took occasion to touch on this subject indirectly, but strongly, in a general conversation between himself and Frazier and two young men of the firm as they all sat smoking after dinner one evening at Crayton's home. He spoke just a few sentences—enough to make his position clear, unmistakable, and then dropped the subject.
It was very shortly after this, too, that Frazier was promoted—given the responsibility of looking after the firm's interests out there in the Arizona mining town. But promotion though it looked to be and was, yet it was far more than this, too; it was probation. For this new move on Crayton's part was to be not only a test of Frazier's business ability, but secretly a test of powers of far more importance to a man's soul. Deadlocket was notoriously corrupt, even among corrupt mining towns. On the army of young men who had gone there to win fortune there followed the usual camp-followers. For reasons single to itself the place was full of peculiarly insidious temptations. The young man who came back whole from a town like Deadlocket might reasonably be accounted secure for the remainder of his life.
And if it might seem to the onlooker that Crayton, in planning this trial and proof, exceeded the rights of his powers, no such misgiving disturbed Crayton. He was the master of his own fate, and by divine appointment, and not without personal worthiness, the master of his daughter's fate. He had certain ideals to maintain for her as for himself.
It was, then, all these things which were linked with Frazier's telegram. Crayton thought he knew what had actuated Frazier in offering his services. Frazier had merely seized this opportunity to define his position. The telegram was to Crayton very nearly as good as a proposal of marriage for his daughter's hand. Frazier knew Crayton's strict requirements. Had Frazier not been able to meet these he would hardly have sent this message.
Clayton bade Josef bring him a telegraph blank. He had, of course, no intention of letting Frazier come back now. Time enough in the fall. Then, too, there were several moves, as to Madeleine herself, that must be carefully thought out, as in a game of chess. Crayton was fond of chess. Indeed, it was the only game he played. He liked the planning and determining, the forecasting and foreseeing, and the establishing of his own position invulnerable at the last. He felt a like but larger pleasure now in foreseeing and disposing of possibilities of so much greater importance. The white knight was to be brought to the side of the white queen, but by moves carefully thought out, cautiously planned. He wrote in a neat, firm hand the telegram to Frazier:
Thank you very much. Unnecessary.
When Josef had taken charge of the message and made off with it, Crayton sat screwing the top on his fountain-pen, his eyes fixed far away, on Deadlocket very probably. There was a look of quiet, shrewd satisfaction in his face.
Crayton had figured very exactly just when, by what boat and mail, a letter from his wife would in all likelihood reach him, and it came precisely as he supposed it would.
Josef, it seems, had a letter also by the same mail with news of his own people. He managed to get it open noiselessly, and, while his master read, he was reading also in the shadow of the portiere, with his eager, near-sighted eyes, his whole head following the lines from edge to edge of the letter, over and back, over and back. Once he stowed it away noiselessly and came forward, quiet, capable, at a mere hesitation of his master's hand.
"Yes, sir, the cream, sir. It is right beside you, sir." He touched the cream-pitcher delicately, with an almost affectionate middle finger.
Crayton folded his letter at last and slipped it in his pocket.
"I have heard from Mrs. Crayton, Josef. On account of the war, she and Miss Madeleine will return as soon as it is practicable. You will have everything in readiness."
"Yes, sir." Josef flushed up to the roots of his hair with pleasure. "I am very thankful, sir."
Crayton selected a cigar from those Josef held beside him, carefully cut its tip, and got it lighted. Then he took his wife's letter and went into the library. It was there, away from all his other interests, that he always preferred to write to her, for she and his daughter were of a wholly other world than that to which all his other interests appertained. Treasure and wealth a man may have—precious metals, gold and silver; priceless cloths and scones, gems and jewels; but there will be that he treasures above all these, and for which he will hold all these cheap; some dominating, prepossessing passion of his heart which nothing else touches; something inalienable which remains and abides, supremely a man's own, to which all these, precious or beautiful or desirable as they may be, are but Hagar and Ishmael, their faces even from the beginning turned toward possible dismissal.
The passion which wholly dominated Crayton was for his wife and daughter. These were his own. And it was in this particular room that he seemed, in their absence, most to be with them. In this room more than in any other in the house his wife's personality was regnant. It was as though in coming here he came into her presence. There was something of herself in the air of the room. Something of her influence pervaded the mere folds of the curtains. The little Tanagra figure on the table had in it a remote and intangible loveliness, something delicate and removed, like the remoteness and loveliness of her womanhood; and on the desk the little photograph of Crayton, framed and placed there by her hand—a photograph of Crayton as a child of six in baggy trousers and a little pea-jacket, leaning lovingly against his mother's knee—suggested in those surroundings just that rare and lovely hint of delicate intimacy which you came upon unexpectedly in her also from time to time. Moreover, added to all these more subtle reminders were the portraits of herself and Madeleine which looked out on the stillness. Here, then, as in some feasting-chamber of his heart, Crayton tasted that best vintage the years had distilled for him; here, as in some safe and inner treasury, he could gaze undisturbed, and newly possess these, the dearest of all his possessions.
The portrait of his wife on the west wall was of a figure seated, and clothed in some clinging neutral fabric. Across the shoulders, and well away at either side, a crimson cloak fell shimmering. Above this, the loveliness of the face triumphed delicately. In a part song, even while aware of the richness of the other voices, have you not noted how the higher voice soars, though with softer notes, carrying and maintaining the entire melody? The gaze of the eyes, too, was direct and beautiful, like one clear note softly sustained amid resolving harmonies.
The face of the younger portrait was of a most twilight delicacy, turned just a little above the luminous shoulder. The whole gave the impression of something transient as youth itself, delicately pausing, passing irrevocably. The figure was clad in some filminess of pale green, a tone found only in rare and unlikely places. It exists at certain seasons in the remote twilight, above dark and tapestried moors, there where the evening star hangs wet and gold, or, at the moment when the young Cinderella moon puts her silver slipper upon the stairway of the west, departing at the given signal, before all the glory of the stars is come.
Beautiful as was the portrait of Crayton's wife, that of his daughter was perhaps even more appealing, with that wistfulness and promise with which the young moon triumphs over that of later days. You have seen the shining, slender crescent hold in its arms the shadow of the full moon? It was so in looking at the portrait of this young girl that one saw, besides the shining, frail loveliness, the foreshadowing of that fuller perfection from which her own delicate beauty was sprung and to which it was destined in time more fully, more brilliantly to attain. How could one say, looking from this portrait to that of the older woman in her lovely prime, which was the more desirable? Can one choose between Persephone with the dark, pomegranate of the eternal and fruitful years clasped thoughtful against her young breast, and Artemis, the white-footed, the sun of purpose, mistress of the heavens? Can one choose between the young spring's slender crescent shedding on the unblossomed trees the delicate, ethereal promise of what may be in days to come, and the full-quivered moon of later months, of a more abundant shining, treading the resplendent, unbowed fields of ripening harvest?
Crayton drew paper toward him on the desk, and began writing, for, though his wife and daughter might already have started for home, yet he would write, urging certain measures just in case his letter might still find them there.
The room was very quiet as he wrote. By and by a slight breeze began to stir delicately the leaves of a little walnut-tree in the green area on which that window of the library near his desk looked. He turned his face fully toward it in subtle, half-conscious recognition. He and his daughter Madeleine had planted that tree ten years ago on her birthday (it was his own idea), when she was a little girl of eight—for the poet who is reputed to die young in each of us had not died in Crayton; he had merely departed to distant countries, and now and again would return across certain mountain ranges to visit him. It was upon one of these visits that the little tree had been planted.
It might have seemed strange to others, but not to Crayton or the poet, therefore, that the breeze coming among the leaves of its green branches should seem now to Crayton no breeze at all, but the very spirit of the tree, rather, which by some subtle transubstantiation became even the very presence of his daughter. For he had a way of transfusing the thought of her into everything that was either delicate or lovely and peculiarly his own.
This tree was a beautiful and green thing, which seemed always offering a lovely companionship. It leaned a little toward his window when the wind stirred it. Some of its delicately articulate leaves even drifted sometimes within the open casement; or, whenever the breeze gave it the least excuse, it tapped with gentle, remindful fingers on the pane, as though to call coveted attention to itself. The light from the desk lamp fell now across the green tips of its branches. Crayton wrote on and on, not looking at it now, yet absorbedly aware of it. She could hardly have been more with him had she been there. And, as he felt her presence beside him, he looked across the intervening miles—testing delicately both his joy and his loss—to Frazier, into whose keeping from his own Crayton meant one day ere long to relinquish her. And Frazier, as it happened—by no very surprising coincidence—was even then writing to him, interrupting himself from time to time to put his face in his hands, the better to shut the world out, the better to visualize Madeleine Crayton, and in some inner sanctuary, with a longing that swept and overwhelmed him, to bow all his young manhood down before her.
When Frazier's letter came it was but an elaboration of his telegram. He felt sure he could leave Deadlocket without detriment to the business. He knew Crayton must be anxious until he had heard definitely that his wife and daughter had sailed. If Crayton had not heard, would he not reconsider and allow Frazier to go?
Crayton replied that he had not heard, but was not anxious. He thanked Frazier, nevertheless, for his offer; and, as a little personal touch better than any thanks, he added that he would find it a pleasure to inform Frazier as soon as he did hear.
Meantime, during the first week, Crayton wrote Dulaney to hold himself in readiness in case Mrs. Crayton sent for him.
But all that was long ago now. Two weeks and several days had passed with no news. Crayton told himself his wife had not written because she was coming; or, if there was further delay, there was good reason for it, which would be explained when she arrived. To those at his office or elsewhere who made inquiry Crayton disavowed anxiety. His wife and daughter would, no doubt, meet some of the discomforts inevitable at such a time, but they would meet also with that kindness and consideration which are called out in every serious emergency, called out the more readily, too, by that feminine delicacy and charm which appeal so strongly to all that is best and most chivalrous in human nature. Crayton treasured in his memory many instances of this kind. He knew well that the priceless and precious things of humanity he hid in even the roughest places. From those very cliffs and scarred places that others mistrusted, Crayton could have shown you in time emerald and amethyst, tourmaline and chrysoprase.
Once, when Josef took the uncommon liberty of saying, "There is no word, yet, sir, from madam?" Crayton explained, a little severely, that the first boats were to be put at the service not of the wealthy, but at the service of professors and teachers and the self-supporting who needed them more. He found pleasure in citing this. It was a case in point, irrefutable evidence of human kindliness.
The dignity and severity of Crayton's attitude were consistent with the strong, determined face, the uncompromising mouth and eyes. When petty alarmists, and the shallow and the headlong and those who love scandal, are positively eager, it seems, to take humanity at a low estimate, it is then, precisely, that men of ripened experience and strong ideals are needed to uphold their ideals and to assert strongly what they know. What, indeed, should we do without this older reserve when the young, the weak, the impetuous, so soon lose the armor of their faith. For one man who holds humanity in inviolable esteem there will be ten ready to believe the worst of it. So much the greater need, then, of the one man. It was a little as though Crayton himself had been called to arms to do battle for a high cause.
One day Reddington, Crayton's assistant accountant, opined the Allies would soon be in need of copper and ready to pay top prices—"There will be fortunes made now, sir." Reddington had even gone so far as to figure at just what advance the output of the firm could be sold. And Crayton had compressed his fine lips, and narrowed his eyes, and spoken once more in defense of all that he knew and believed concerning human nature.
"Honorable men do not make fortunes in that manner," was his reply to Reddington.
From then on Reddington offered Crayton no further suggestions as to the foreign need of copper, and Josef made no remark now when he put the unsatisfactory mail beside his master's plate. Without analyzing it, Crayton perhaps even enjoyed this sense of growing isolation. Yet there were times, too, when it irked him; times when he was impatient to have his wife and daughter once more in the quiet rooms; times when, without changing his plans or resolves in the least, he quite longed to have Frazier there also, lighting up the place with his strong young presence.
The big house seemed curiously lonely and brooding, a way that empty houses have. The very curtains hung in folds of remembrance, and the chairs with their hands on their knees sat staring ahead of them, waiting for some one who did not come. There was a covert understanding between all the furnishings. Everything waited. Then, too, Crayton's pulses came to leap at the postman's whistle, and he found he had sometimes a tendency to start when Josef appeared noiselessly out of nowhere beside him with the mail.
One morning at the end of the third week the poet revisited him suddenly, almost in panic, his heart flying. What! had no word come even yet? Why, in Heaven's name, had not Crayton gone to Belgium on the first boat himself, like a lover, or at least allowed Frazier to go? But Crayton made clear to him, even a little sternly, that such was the unthinking behavior of the young—of Frazier, for instance. There were the morbid, too, who delighted to rush to wild conclusions. Were not the newspapers already publishing distorted reports, iniquitous hearsay—nothing authentic, mind you! Had they not already gone so far as to make blazing predictions of the ruin that would fall on our own country if we did not rush into military preparedness? Had not the lovers of horror, the scandal-mongers, already pictured our own land a prey to brutal conquerors, who, having stamped out the young manhood of the country, would outrage its women and lead its children into bondage? Were not tongues of flame and the smoke of prejudice and hate already curling to blacken those fair human attainments—justice, peace, order, brotherhood—reared with so much toil and painstaking through generations? These could be blackened, yes; but, God be thanked, they were of too solid a material to be destroyed. Was this a time to add to the doubt—or to the faith of the world? Did not the poet know all this? And the poet did know it, of course, when he thought of it. And he knew, as Crayton did, that war is too hideous a thing to last, and justice and brotherhood, however threatened, too solid to be destroyed.
Nevertheless, the days dragged. It was not the poet now, but something alien, strange to himself, which kept suggesting to Crayton vague doubts; not doubts of humanity at large—never that; there he was firm—but of human beings in particular. He began wondering why he had not heard again from Frazier. Not that Crayton's last letter called for an answer, but if Frazier had been really free to offer himself as an aspirant for the hand of Crayton's daughter, would he not have written declaring himself at this time? Had Frazier's offer to go to Belgium in the first place been but the offer of the ambitious young business man eager to serve his employer instead of that of the hot-blooded young lover? Or, might it be, after all, that Frazier, knowing Crayton's uncompromising requirements, was not free to write? That was the more likely, for, who, having set eyes upon so dear a prize as Crayton's daughter Madeleine, but would yearn to possess that prize? But who, knowing how she was guarded about by her father's unflinching resolves, would dare—save with the fullest right—so much as stretch a hand toward her? The thought that he might have been mistaken in Frazier pricked Crayton like a thorn, for, if Frazier were not the man Crayton had taken him to be, then all Crayton had foreseen and planned so carefully would come to naught. Then, this was so painful a thought, so like doubt of himself, that he would dismiss it, as one dismisses a thing intolerable.
In the fourth week, while he was under a tension he was not willing, perhaps not able, to admit, there came a cable from Dulaney, marked "Delayed," saying he was leaving for Belgium. So! Crayton's wife must have thought it best to send for Dulaney, after all. Crayton experienced a sense of almost physical relief. This was almost as good as direct news of his wife and daughter. He figured rapidly to determine on just how soon, even allowing for delays, he would receive a second cable from Dulaney saying he had found them and when they would sail. He started to planning, too, as to Frazier, once more. That night he got out the chessmen and began playing a kind of solitaire chess. It was a game invented by himself in which, allowing for certain handicaps, he planned moves for both sides.
To Josef, who had been anxious concerning what he supposed was his master's intense, even though unspoken, anxiety, all this was the equivalent of good news. He came at ten o'clock to look after the lights and stood unsuspected in the doorway, looking on at the game. The portraits were looking on, too, through the dim upper shadows of the room. Crayton was unaware of all three. He bent over the chess-table, absorbed in the next move. The fingers of one hand were grouped intently, consideringly, on one of the pieces. One would have said his hand thought.
Josef went back noiselessly to his butler's sitting-room and to the letters he was writing. His three brothers had joined the colors and his fierce old mother in Augsburg expected him to return to fight for the Fatherland. Of course he had not the slightest idea of returning! Not he! He liked America and meant to stay in it. He began spreading the point of his pen on his broad thumb nail—spread it softly and lifted it, spread it and lifted it, testing its flexibility and thinking, thinking all the while, his thoughts far away. Of course he meant to stay here; but there was, without doubt, a fascination, too, about joining the colors—that resolute coming together of armed men, and the steady march of them away, away from the villages and the neat towns and across the bridges. Oh, there was no denying it, these were stirring times.
Then, too, the taking of war-brides the very night before the departure! That—that stirred his imagination. What a man he was, the Kaiser, to have thought of it. That was something practical if you like.
He dipped the point of his pen in the ink and studied it a long while, thoughtfully. What women had they taken, he wondered. Especially Emil—Emil, whom Josef knew had already ruined two women and had the air of liking himself the better for that—Emil, who, if he was a little drunk, would use his fist to take the bread out of God's mouth if he happened to want it. He remembered that day at the picnic when Emil had bent Madl back to get at her lips until Josef thought he would have broken her, and Friedl and Franz had banged their steins on the rustic table, roaring. Whom had Emil taken? And whom Friedl and Franz? Yes, Josef would have liked to be there. Not that he meant to go, mind you, but, say what you will, there is a pleasant side to war.
He wrote, and paused, and wrote again, giving his mother plausible excuses. And all the while, as he wrote, he thought of Emil and Friedl and Franz and the women. And once he put his head back and laughed a long, noiseless laugh. By and by he wiped his lips with his hand and bent over his writing again.
When he went back to the library at eleven, his master was gone. A large wind was moving through the house here and there, to give warning of a storm. The heavy curtains swelled and swung ominously at the announcement. The green walnut-tree moved suddenly, bent back, and tossed its boughs tumultuously in the wind. Josef pulled down one window after another quickly, softly. As he pulled down the one by the desk the little tree threw itself against the closed pane with a sudden, desperate, leafy lurch of its branches, and tap-tapped wildly with its delicate fingers. At the same moment the wind flung handfuls of rain fiercely against the window.
Josef congratulated himself he had been in time, else the curtains might have got a wetting; for Josef took a pride in his efficiency. He put out the desk light. Before putting out that on the center-table he took another look to make sure everything was safe and to take a survey, as he often did, of the comfort and beauty of the room. He liked beautiful and refined things, did Josef. At his mother's home in Augsburg everything was well scrubbed and clean, but coarse, very coarse. Here what a difference! How his old mother would stare and wipe her lips. Maybe his brothers would stay in America, too, if they were here. He raised his eyes to the portraits. What would Emil and Friedl say to women like that, eh?
Then the chessmen caught his eye. His master had left them on the chess-table. He gathered them with a slow, sweeping movement of one heavy hand into the other, and put them away, helter-skelter, in the chess-table drawer. Then he peered around again, glanced at the portraits once more through the shadows, and, gazing at the older, which he thought the more beautiful, he slowly, almost unwillingly, put out the light.
In three days—exactly as Crayton had figured—only, they were interminable days—he had not reckoned on their being so long—Josef brought him Dulaney's second cablegram:
Believe sailed Thursday. Dulaney.
Josef, watching Crayton out of the corner of his eye, noted the sudden ashiness of his master's face, then the slow return of color, and was already informed.
From this message it was immediately clear to Crayton that his wife had not sent for Dulaney, after all. If she had, Dulaney would either have found her or she would have left some exact message for him. But they had sailed! Clayton closed his hand on the full comfort of that, then gave his displeased attention to Dulaney. Yes, evidently Dulaney had gone to Belgium entirely on his own responsibility. Crayton's face hardened. Was Dulaney playing for his employer's favor, too? Or had he rushed to Belgium when he received Crayton's letter from mere lack of poise and judgment, as an alarmist would? There was a shrewd displeasure in Crayton's gray eyes. Then he decided suddenly to dismiss the matter temporarily. There would be time enough to go over all that with Dulaney when Dulaney came back. Meantime he gave himself to the thought of the return of his own. He figured carefully, just when the Bullenhead, the Thursday ship would arrive. Then, as suddenly, he turned to thoughts of Frazier. For no reason he could assign, all doubts of him were swept away. He thought of writing him immediately, but decided to wait and telegraph him the very day they arrived, since that would seem to bestow a more intimate courtesy upon him. He decided, too, that instead of waiting until the autumn, he would have Frazier return shortly. The proper moves could be made soon, then; the whole plan got under way quickly.
The week was got through with at last. The night before his wife's and daughter's arrival, he telephoned to know when the Bullenhead would dock.
Crayton had never had time nor occasion before that to meet an incoming ship. There were a few others besides himself. The waiting seemed interminable. Crayton had hot realized his anxiety as to his wife's and daughter's absence until now, when they were coming back to him. Although he stood, a figure of such dignity and severe reserve, scanning the slowly nearing faces along the ship's side, the poet who was there with him had a painfully flying heart, and a throat tightened with tense emotion as he searched so passionately those eager faces. Surely there—there they were! It was like trying to read very fine print; but there, next to the woman waving the yellow scarf— Were not those the two figures waited for and beloved? Yes, yes! For the poet had abnormally keen vision. He saw before other men did. Then the great ship moved slowly nearer, nearer. The line of faces came into larger, more readable print. No! The poet, so over-eager, had made a mistake. These were not they! Something in Crayton seemed to snap and then recover. Perhaps—elsewhere in the line!
It was not until Crayton had watched the last passenger cross the gang-plank that Crayton realized how much a folly and a weakness had been this trip of his to the dock. If his wife and daughter had been coming in the Bullenhead they would of course have sent him a wireless from the ship. Stern lines came into his face. It was as though the poet had played some trick upon him.
That night he wrote Frazier, merely stating the few facts—he had expected them, but they had not come. He added that he expected a letter very shortly now from Mrs. Crayton or her return.
By the next boat, four days later, there came, as Crayton felt sure there would, an explanatory letter from Dulaney. It was as Crayton had suspected, Dulaney had had no word from Mrs. Crayton. She had not asked him to go to Belgium. He had gone entirely on his own responsibility. It had seemed to him the only thing to do under the circumstances. The present time was certainly not one in which to sentimentalize about human nature. For himself, he never took any chances with it.
He had found the pension at which Mrs. Crayton and Miss Crayton had stayed, but it was deserted. There was, of course, a great deal of confusion and unending red-tape; but by persistent inquiry he had traced the fact that they had started on their way to the sea-coast. When he inquired he found there was a boat leaving on Thursday. He himself would have liked to secure passage on it, but could not get through the lines. But there must have been ample time, he thought, for Mrs. Crayton and Miss Crayton to get it. Of course there was a bare possibility they might be detained in one of the Belgian towns taken over by the Germans; but, from what he could gather of the general exodus, he thought it hardly likely. If he had luck he hoped to get away the following week. Then there followed a few remarks about the prevailing conditions. The letter ended with a personal note of pessimism. He had always believed the nations of Europe were only waiting what they thought was a good chance to spring at one another's throat. The chance had come. They would all be lapping up blood soon now, and justifying themselves in the name of patriotism! That is human nature for you!
Crayton's disappointment as to his wife and daughter was dulled—even that—by the sharpness of his disapproval, very nearly his disgust, of Dulaney. He had always looked upon Dulaney as a promising young man—uncompromising and perhaps a trifle domineering, a little hard, but a man sound at heart. Now he saw him revealing himself even a little arrogantly as on the worse side; not among the believers in humanity, but the disbelievers. What could be hoped if the young range themselves on the side of pessimism and the darker powers! This was to poison the wells at the source. In his youth—he could not have told you when or where—Crayton had dedicated himself to what he believed to be the constructive, not the destructive, forces of the world—had pledged his strength to faith, not to doubt; and he came nearer bitterness now than he had ever done when he found young men—Dulaney was only twenty-eight—lending their strength to the destructive power of pessimism. He was aware, with a pride that was half indignation, that he had preserved in himself an ideal and a faith better than all the youth of to-day had to show. Let them take their cheap knowledge, their easy pessimism—they who had proved nothing—away from him!
At last he dismissed the matter almost angrily, and began reckoning once more. If his wife and daughter had left for the coast, they must arrive presently; or, should they not be able to secure passage themselves at once, there would be a letter. He resorted again that evening to his chess solitaire. But it could be seen from time to time he was gazing glazedly, and once without making a move in a quarter of an hour. It occurred to him again that it was strange he had not heard from Frazier. He played chess again on the following night. On the third, when he sat in the midst of his game, playing absently and thinking of Frazier and Dulaney (still no word from Frazier, you see!), Josef brought him a letter addressed in a fine French hand. It was from the son of an old French gentleman who, once happening to be in financial straits, had taught his daughter Madeleine. Young De Lorbe stated briefly that he was in America on official business, to buy war supplies for the French Government. Remembering what his father had told him of Crayton's business interests, he dared hope for an interview which might, he believed, lead to mutual concessions and benefits.
"0n official business!" That meant he came to buy war supplies. It was Reddington's proposal in a new light and deserved as sharp an answer. Crayton got out his pen, but before he had it screwed together he had changed his mind. He would not write his opinion. He would see this young man and speak with him. He looked forward to the opportunity with a kind of grim pleasure. It was as though, suddenly, power which had threatened to leave him had come back to him with assurance stronger than ever. He had a sense, too, of his own mission. Let young men with low estimates of humanity learn from one older and more informed a better reckoning.
He wrote a brief note. He was pleased to make the acquaintance of the son of Caspar de Lorbe. He would be glad if he would come to dine with him on the following evening. After giving the letter to Josef, he went back to his chess and played a well-thought-out game.
De Lorbe spoke English practically without accent. He had the unimpeachable manners of the best modern university type. The young gray eyes, keen as an eagle's, had a way of veiling themselves from time to time gently, as in concession to his smile, which was a thing delightful to see, but the next moment were again looking out at you grayly, soberly, from purposes irrevocably taken. There was about the slenderness and delicacy of face and body an eagerness as of the devotee, as though somewhere in the deserts of the spirits he had eaten of locusts and wild honey.
He slipped quickly and easily into his plea. It was in the cause of civilization and humanity that he spoke. Then, at the last, the supreme appeal came upon his voice like the sound of martial music in the air—something at once appealing and triumphing:
"All humanity is threatened, sir! France is in need!"
And for the moment all humanity and all France looked out of his eyes.
Crayton sat through all this with firm, closed lips. At that plea, "France is in need!" his eyes narrowed, his fingers tapped coldly on the table.
"So, I believe, are all countries in need," he replied. "You say it is for humanity that all this incredible inhumanity is to be furthered, and you ask me to help you carry it on. For a price I am to lend my hand also to the horrors of war. The Germans, I believe, use precisely your argument, as to Germany."
"You mean you are in sympathy with Germany?" said De Lorbe, surprised, yet with great courtesy, as though this also, however incredible, must be considered.
Crayton moved a book, a paper-cutter away from him on the table, leaned forward a little, and put his arm where these had been. He meant once for all to get the matter clear. It was as though in this young man he saw the long-looked-for opportunity to state consummately all that his whole life stood for.
"I believe profoundly in humanity," he said, making his solemn confession, "and whoever believes in humanity is of necessity against war."
De Lorbe leaned back a little. There was a moment's pause. Then he spoke:
"So am I against war under ordinary conditions, sir. So, I believe, are all sane men."
"Precisely." Crayton withdrew his hand from the table and leaned back. There was nothing further to discuss. It was at this moment that Josef appeared in the doorway. His face showed a certain permissible eagerness, as of one who carries pleasant news:
"Excuse me, sir, but Mr. Frazier has just telephoned, sir. He is just back from the West. I told him you were engaged. He would not let me disturb you, sir. He asked me to say he is taking the liberty of coming right up."
Dead silence. Crayton gazed at Josef with a dazed look. The eagerness in Josef's face changed to something half blank, half speculative. He glanced at De Lorbe. Who was this young Frenchman, and what had he said to affect his master, so that his master sat there with no show of pleasure at this that Josef knew must be pleasurable news.
"It was right, sir, for me to say Mr. Frazier might come?" Josef spoke a trifle anxiously.
Josef withdrew, wondering.
Crayton stared ahead of him a moment. So! Frazier had taken things in his own hands; he also! He must have had just time to receive Crayton's letter. He had probably taken the first train. It was as though Crayton found himself suddenly badgered on all sides. Frazier had outdone Dulaney, even. He had taken upon himself the "responsibility," he also. He had appointed himself a wiser man, more experienced, more informed, than his betters. He would come full of war hatreds and opinions, he, too. He had thrown over the important work in the West without "by your leave," to join the headlong, the impulsive. Here the poet offered a quick plea. Was this not Frazier, the anxious lover? Was not that point clear, at least? And Crayton conceded that it was. Perhaps, after all, he was even glad of this happening. He was aware of his old strength again and the need of his hand at the helm. This was the season for men of tried and proven faith. His old fondness for Frazier came over him but mingled with blame, a blame that should be spoken. He turned to De Lorbe:
"You young men have need of the better balance of older men of larger knowledge. It seems to you that civilization has broken down, that the world is going to pieces, that brute force threatens to triumph over humanity." He spoke very quietly, out of his soul. "But none of these things are true. I am older than you. I know life."
The younger eyes met his, melancholy, without flinching, gray, uncompromising.
"But there are facts," De Lorbe said, quietly, "and facts are things we cannot ignore. They must be reckoned with. You have seen mentioned the German atrocities."
"I do not believe in any such atrocities," Crayton said. "It is to the advantage of the press and partisans to spread such reports. It is not that I am especially sympathetic with the Germans. It is simply that I believe better of humanity."
De Lorbe leaned forward eagerly. "My brother, who has seen, who is the very calmest, the very kindest of men, writes me: 'You know of old how calm I am; how nothing disturbs me. Yet after what I have seen, knowing what I know, the world is changed for me. When in battle I see one of the enemy coming toward me, I could put my teeth in his neck.' "
It was a point well made, but it was to Crayton's advantage, not De Lorbe's.
"And that is the kind of savage hatred you would have me help to prolong?" Crayton narrowed his eyes and waited. Then he leaned back again, stern, but at his soul's ease, vindicated. He shook his head slowly. "Not under any possible circumstances."
The room was very still. There was silence between the two men. The two portraits looked on stilly. It was not for them to speak. The little walnut-tree moved not a finger. These knew Crayton too well to hope to change him, but De Lorbe leaned toward Crayton a little more, and his hand went forward a trifle along the table, tentatively.
"There have been women violated, sir," he said, with great quietness. "The Germans believe these things justifiable."
The room was dusky. A small electric fan on the desk whirred softly and turned its head, paused with a sort of amazement and turned it back again. It had never heard such things discussed. Then suddenly, in the half-light, Josef entered, efficient, cat-footed, to turn on the lights.
Crayton held up a staying hand, and turned to De Lorbe: "Mr. De Lorbe, my manservant here is a German. He has three brothers in the war. Josef, this gentleman says hard things of your countrymen. He has just been saying—" Crayton looked to De Lorbe for a repetition.
De Lorbe's gray eyes fixed themselves on Josef. "I was saying that your countrymen have violated many Belgian women."
It was Josef's manner rather than his tongue which seemed to stutter, as though he could not say quickly enough nor clearly enough what was to be said.
"The Belgians were given a choice, but they offered resistance, sir. My people are forced to be severe with them. There is no such army in the world as the German Army. Everyone knows that. What they do is necessary"
De Lorbe waited, only bending forward a trifle more through the dusk. Josef continued:
"What is an army of strong men to do in a foreign land? Can officers and a few men control a thing like that? My mother in Augsburg writes me. She knows. She is old. She is wise. She has known for years all that was going to happen. She has written me twice of our brave men already lost. But she says: 'There will be a rich harvest in the Fatherland this year, and in Belgium, please God.' I think there will be."
Crayton sat staring ashily at Josef as a man stares at some apparition. Crayton had never looked upon this man before.
Then suddenly there was a sense of reality once more—a sense of dark, unreal things being dragged away like dark scenery from a stage which is lighted suddenly, brilliantly. All in a moment Crayton was in his own world once more. The little, rosy-cheeked maid—the one Josef had engaged not because she was efficient, but because she was so pretty—appeared at that instant in the doorway, fresh, delicate, reassuring, like a branch of peach-blossom against the ominous dusk. In her hand was Josef's little silver tray, and on it was a letter.
She gave a quick, frightened glance at Josef, then stepped across the little space of twilight and held the tray before Crayton, and on it what she knew was the letter, hoped for, expected.
"The postman has just brought it, sir."
Crayton knew that he was saved suddenly out of blackness. He took the envelope from the tray with fingers that stumbled. Something had moved on the face of dark waters; a voice from somewhere had summoned light, and there was light; and there was a firmament in the midst of the waters; and in place of chaos there was order, such order as he knew and believed in. He was in his own world once more. There was still his old belief to maintain, and he was right, after all. He rose.
Josef, having recognized the handwriting and postage on the envelope, was following the pink-cheeked maid now. It had been her place to summon him and not to take the liberty of crossing the library herself. She must be scolded for this.
Crayton turned to De Lorbe. "If you will excuse me, I shall leave you for a few moments to yourself. I have a letter here from my wife. It is a letter I have been expecting. I will read it and then return to you. Then we will have dinner."
As Crayton passed on, De Lorbe seemed to realize that the argument was closed finally. It was as though the coming of this letter put an end to everything. He had acutely the sense that his mission was dismissed. Crayton was not the man whose words or opinions would change, not even in these times when Life was sweeping on, overturning ruthlessly with a terrible hand the beliefs of the firmest. Crayton had some happiness, some security of his own; some tower of strength to which he could retire, shutting the world out.
When Crayton was gone, De Lorbe went to the mantel and stood, one hand upon it, looking up at the portrait of Crayton's daughter. This was doubtless she of whom he had heard his old father speak. He gazed reverently at her beauty. Then the thought came quick upon him, "If she were here, perhaps she could persuade him!"
The girlish eyes looked out through the gathering dark, and all the while outside the window the little walnut-tree stood as still and as exquisite.
A moment later De Lorbe turned sharply at Josef's voice, and saw Josef's white face in the doorway.
"Will you come, sir, if you please, sir. He has fallen. He has struck his forehead. Right here, sir." Josef touched his temple with his middle finger. "Yes, sir. Like lightning, sir. The anxiety must have been killing him, sir. It was the joy of hearing after waiting so long. Shall I get the doctor? Yes. Right next door. Yes, sir; at once."
He hurried away, a swift white shadow, noiseless, frightened.
De Lorbe opened the door of the smoking-room. On the floor of it Crayton lay prone and perfectly quiet. He seemed to have fallen starkly, as though by some swift stroke. He was unconscious, but breathing softly. From his forehead the blood was flowing very slightly from a flesh wound. In his hand was the open letter.
De Lorbe knelt down and laid a hand over Crayton's heart. Had joy brought him to this? Had he been so anxious as that, this man who a moment ago had seemed such a tower of strength? De Lorbe's hand went anxiously, even tenderly, down Crayton's arm, found his hand, and paused there to see if it was warm. His fingers touched the letter. Then he loosed it very gently, smoothed it, where Crayton's grip had partly crumpled it, held it in his two hands well slanted toward the window, which gave him only a very faint and pearly light. And as he read, stooping, he bent closer line after line, closer still, as though the writing or the meaning were growing either illegible or unbelievable.
Suddenly he was aware of steps along the hall. He half hid the letter. Not Josef so soon! He turned and looked up. In the doorway, and then with a quick stride or two beside him, was a tall, well-built young man of about his own age—a clean, high-headed type, with frank eyes peering strangely at him through the dusk.
"I have just come. Josef has told me that Mr. Crayton— What has happened? Can you tell me?" Frazier was down on his knees also now. His hand, too, was feeling for Crayton's heart. Across the still form these two young men peered at each other, their young eyes asking questions. "You can trust me. I am Frazier; I am closer to him, I believe, than anybody."
De Lorbe's voice with its strange, insistent accents, and with a covert alarm, sounded like a bell swung across darkness:
"His wife and daughter are not coming back. She did not write at first because she thought it would be kinder not to. Then she thought the suspense would be more cruel—" He broke off" helplessly, and began again: "His wife and daughter are not coming back—"
"What do you mean?"
"They are not coming back. They were caught in a little Belgian town in the path of the oncoming German army. They are not coming back! 'We shall never look upon your face again.' " De Lorbe's lips formed the words of the letter as better than his own. "She writes that—'We shall never look upon your face again' "—he looked at Crayton—"Good God!" He covered his face as though to shut out something he dared not see.
"In God's name," said Frazier, thrusting his face forward savagely, "what has happened?"
"The worst that can happen!"
They looked at each other from vast spaces. De Lorbe handed Frazier the letter slowly across Crayton's body with dim fingers that shook.
Frazier bent over it in the deep dusk to make it out, holding it between his two hands, and the paper in their trembling shook and chattered like a live thing.
Across endless time, out of a sense of sick horror and nausea, Frazier was aware at last of a heavy professional step in the hallway, and Josef's voice explaining:
"Yes, sir, like lightning. Yes, sir. After waiting so long! You see he wouldn't admit, sir—"
Frazier sprang to his feet, the letter crumpled so that it was wholly hid in his hand, and faced them all with a kind of terrible defiance in his white face and his eyes—as it might have been facing those of Life itself, in the dusk—quivered an instant only, before taking on their look of full unflinching resolve.
- "'The Idealist" is in the main a true story. Names and lesser circumstances have been altered, but the chief happening remains true to fact.