Far across the continent where they stand in ice cream half the year, Grace Howells was walking slowly from University Avenue on to the Campus of the University of Minnesota. As she walked, she read from a book of red and gold:
"Unless you can think, when the song is done
No other is soft in the rhythm;
Unless you can feel, when left by one,
That all men else go with him;
Unless you can know when unpraised by his breath,
That your beauty itself wants proving;
Unless you can swear 'for life, for death'–
Oh, fear to call it loving!"
Partly closing the book, she left the broad way leading to the main building and crossed the soft green to sit under the majestic oaks. Reopening the book she continued to read:
Unless you can muse in a crowd all day,
On the absent face that fixed you;
Unless you can love as the angels may,
With the breadth of heaven betwixt you;
Unless you can dream that his faith is fast
Through behooving and unbehooving;
Unless you can die when the dream is past–
Oh, never call it loving!"
"Too early, Grace, to sit on Mother Earth's lap – her apron is damp from the spring washing."
"I guess you're right, Tom."
At which reply a strong hand reached down to help her up and they passed on together.
Hours later, when she faced homeward, she again opened the book of red and gold:
"Unless you can feel when left by one,
That all men else go with him"
" Where is he? Will I ever find him!" she whispered.
" Oh, to feel 'That all men else go with him.' How would it feel? I have never felt it, and yet I am not young."
No, not young; she had lived two and twenty years; and how she ached to look upon the One.
For a few weeks, however, she forgot the One To Be for the One Who Had Been – her father. With failing eyes and shriveling lungs, he had clung to his high stool and low pay at the small desk of a little business concern and by sheer bull-dozing had forced his coward heart to stand by the pumps, had ordered the dimming eyes to continue to see, till Grace should have finished her college course and now, with not a drop of yellow in him, those miserable subalterns had delivered him to the foe – and Grace not through school by a whole year!
Grace returned from the cemetery to several things – an empty home; an empty purse; a certainty of having to work; an uncertainty of being able to find work and the definite postponement to an indefinite time of her graduation day.
Her first step was to leave the rooms for two and seek one for one. Her next, to secure employment. In the latter quest she had two surprises – one at the ease with which office work was obtained, and the other at the microscopic salary attached.
She cried herself to sleep the night following the surprises. There was not enough money in the pay to buy clothes. How, then, was she to save enough for another college year?
She was young, which is a synonym for inextinguishable hope. She felt sure that faithful, efficient work would be recognized and rewarded. But for her confidence on the last point it might have been necessary to beg pardon for calling her young, after her own statement to the contrary. Intrepidly she entered her workshop door, but with all that hope and resolution could do for her, the work bored her. It was a repetitious, mechanical grind, which any child could perform if trained. All day long in the mill she guided the logs to the steel teeth.
The people bored her – the girls, who thought advertising rhymes were poetry; the men, who had finished school at a dozen years of age; and most of all, the,manager, who condescended to her in grammar that would have shamed a baboon, she thought.
"Unless you can muse in a crowd all day,
On the absent face that fixed you,"
she repeated day after day, as she shoved the lumber to the saw. If only she had One to muse on, she might shut out the stupid faces about her and the still stupider twaddle.
Then the vision appeared. It rose before her in the elevator; He was handsome as a Greek god, but so had been more than one university athlete who had smiled on Grace Howells. His clothes were faultless; but so was the apparel of many a student who had striven for her favor.
She knew him at once as the One, for in his eyes sat Mastery. The others had begged; when the time came, he would simply walk into possession.
And the man? He felt that he had found a suitable female–a goddess for the god. On her cheeks flushed girlhood's bloom, but out of the eyes looked the woman, hungering for her mate. As he gazed, he desired, and with him desire and determination to possess went ever hand in hand. He sometimes failed of his goal He held her eyes till they dropped surrender. He would not fail this time!
No more did the office rabble annoy.
She could"muse in a crowd all day, on the absent face that fixed" her; but would she have to"love as the angels may, with the breadth of heaven betwixt" them? Where did he live? Had he vanished from her sight forever?
Never fear, Grace Howells! The Greek god knows where you are.
He"happened" to be on the sidewalk when she came down from work that night. The next night it"happened" again. The third night, and all the rest, he waited for her. He requested permission to call on her and he called.
Grace's room, like all rooms of all of girls, who are artistic, intellectual and poor, was a charming little parlor when a friend came, a dining-room when she set out her canned food, and a bedroom when the folding bed unfolded.
On his first call, the charming little parlor was made more charming by fresh flowers and the canned goods were obliterated by new curtains over their shelves. Rose-colored shades made sunset of the gas; the folded bed was a chiffonier, holding photos and college souvenirs. The kitchen table cowered out of sight, under a silken spread and load of books.
She learned his name – Merritt Jordan; his business, junior manager for an insurance company. His work took him out of Minneapolis a part of each month. Every evening, when in town, he spent in Grace's small room. Always, before he left, she spread a dainty luncheon.
At first they conversed or read to each other. Later, one evening, as he sat fingering the pages of a volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poems, a brilliant scheme unfolded before his exulting eyes. He would court by proxy. From those throbbing sonnets he would read to Grace, and she should reply in the impassioned words of the most impassioned of women lovers. With the same book of poems between them, he would read:
" Love me, sweet, with all thou art,
Feeling, thinking, seeing;
Love me in the lightest part,
Love me in full being."
"The face of all the world is changed I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul."
"Love me with thy open youth
In its frank surrender;
With the vowing of thy mouth
With its silence tender."
"What can I give thee back, oh, liberal
And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
And purple of thine heart unstained, untold,
And laid them on the outside of the wall
For such as I?"
Periodically, Grace Howells framed her heart in crepe– for the days she could not see him, hear him, feel him; when all her occupation was to" muse in a crowd all day on the absent face that fixed" her, when all sensation was summed up in feeling that,"When left by One, all men else go with him."
For their mutual enjoyment he brought a piano into her room. He sang, but could not play; she played, but did not sing. Leaning against the Piano till he faced her playing his accompaniment, and holding her eyes with the mastery of his own, he would lift his well-trained baritone in:" Love Me and the World is Mine."
"Oh wert thou in the cold blast, on yonder lea, an yonder
My plaidie to the angry airt, I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter
He was a dramatic singer–an arm answered for the plaidie.
Then again came those days of blackness when he came not, to be succeeded by the flood tide radiance of his presence.
Two must needs sit very close to read out of the same book. Shoulders often touched, and Sometimes, even heads. Sitting thus he would read:
"Red grows the cheek and warm the hand,
The part is in the whole;
Nor hands nor cheeks keep separate,
When soul is joined to soul."
He put it to the test.
"I should not love withal unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
And love called love."
Then both to the piano:" Give me your hand, say you understand, My Dearie, My Dearie."
Did ever lover before woo wholly in quotation? Grace wondered.
" But the king may fashion his own path," she loyally declared.
When the fact that he never spent an evening with her outside of her own room, caused her to ponder a moment, the very next she exonerated him and accused her own heart of selfishness.
In her prettiest house dress, she sat waiting, waiting after several days of having been"left by One." Of a surety, days in which all men else went with him. All men? Oh, all existence!
With the blood sprung threefold into the pink cheeks she waited. Waited, the saint with adoring eyes. On its knees knelt her spirit in renunciation life-consuming; waiting, watching for the softest sign of the Presence. She heard, she saw, she felt. A tap outside, lips to lips, two forms close seated – and the book.
"Love me with thy azure eyes
Made for earnest granting;
Love me with their lids that fall
Snow-like at first meeting."
My own, my own who camest to me when the world was
gone And I who looked for only God, found thee."
"Love me with thy hand stretched out freely;
Love me with thy voice that turns
Sudden faint above me;
Love me with thy blush that burns
When I murmur, 'love me'!"
"Thou comest! All is said without a word.
I sit beneath thy looks as children do
In the noon sun, with souls that tremble thru
Their happy eyelids from an unaverred
Yet prodigal joy."
"Love me with thy thoughts that roll
On through living, dying,
Love me in thy gorgeous airs
When the world has crowned thee;
Love me gaily, fast and true
As a winsome lady;
Love me for the house and grave–"
He closed the book.
"Oh, you left out the last verse," she laughed.
"That's a libel on my sex," he retorted." Why did Elizabeth fling that slur at men and then lie down at Robert's feet'"
Grace's mouth spoke never a word, but she lifted his hand to her lips.
With the mastery she loved he drew her to the piano and with the lilt of a nesting thrush, sang:
" Oh, that we two were Maying
Down the stream of the soft spring breeze;
Like children with violets playing
In the shade of the whispering trees."
Pink apple blossoms showered the earth as she listened.
"Oh, that we two sat dreaming
On the sward of some sheep trimmed down
Watching the white mist steaming
Over river and mead and towt,"
Two, just two, in all the world sitting on the sward of some sheep trimmed down!
" Oh! that we two lay sleeping
In our nest in the church yard sod,
With our limbs at rest on the quiet earth's breast,
And our souls at home with God!"
Grace Howells' soul looked out of her eyes. What need then, to beg:
'Tell me that you love me,
For that's the sweetest story ever told."
Still, he was not getting on as well as he had a right to expect after three months of rehearsing. In fact, he had not arrived anywhere. There was a slight barrier–he knew what it was. He sometimes failed of his goal–not often.
After the usual tempting lunch he drew her into his arms and with the requisite dramatic action, softly sang:
"When I know that thou art near me, in my heart are joy and rest;
I to slumber soft confide me, close my eyes, supremely blest."
He felt her tremble against him. He knew that she would lie awake long hours after he left, gazing at a picture in which there was no" Good night." His own desire was strong upon him, but it must wait.
" I see papa! I see papa!" shrieked delightedly a boy of seven years, standing at the window of a cottage in the city of sand dunes. The boy's next move was a flying one; out the front door and down the walk to the gate.
"I tummin, too!" yelled number two, aged three.
With a child hanging to either arm papa entered the house, where he was met by a woman who kissed him."Don't hang onto papa so, he's tired," said the woman. Then to him:" Supper is all ready Merritt; come right out;" and they all gathered around the table.
" Did you get me a pony, down in Minneapolis?" asked the boy.
"No, son, not this time, but I'm keeping my eye open for one."
"Did oo det me a dollie?"
" Yes, I did, Miss Susana, and you'll find it in my overcoat pocket."
Whereupon Miss Susana upset her cup of milk and clambered down to search the pocket.
" How was business?" asked the woman.
" Good; first class! but I'll tell you what I've a notion to do, Ida; I met a good friend of mine who is just back from a business trip to California and he says the opportunities in real estate deals are ten there to one here, and I really would like to exchange snow banks for orange groves, and if I can settle up business here without a loss, I'd like to make my home in the land of sunshine and flowers. What do you say?"
"I know, Merritt, that Duluth is only a sand hill," replied the woman, without enthusiasm," but father and mother live here, besides nearly all the friends I have ever known, and the most genial climate cannot warm a lonely heart."
The gentleman was not discouraged; he sometimes failed of his goal – not often.
" There's a Charity Fair at Symphony Hall to-night; shall we go or are you too tired?" asked the woman.
"I suppose we'd better go, though to tell the truth I'd rather crawl into bed. It pays any business man to make himself popular and it is particularly profitable to the dealer in real estate. What will you do with the children?"
"We can take Frank with us and leave Susie with mother, as we go by."
When they arrived at the hall, a chorus went up:" Oh, here is Mr. Thompson!"
"How is Wright, Black and Thompson?" greeted the ticket taker.
"Flourishing," laughed Mr. Thompson,"real estate is booming."
"We'll get him to sing at the Library Fund Concert, next week," whispered a plump, white-haired lady to an acquaintance, next her, and together they crossed over to him.
Mr. Thompson assured them that he would be more than happy to sing at the Library Fund Concert.
" Has Thompson and Company cornered the earth?" asked the banker.
"Business is good," replied Mr. Thompson,"but Mr. Wright is in Europe, and Black in Florida, ill, so I have to hustle, with St. Paul and Minneapolis territory, as well as my home market to look after."
The preacher approached him animatedly,"Oh, come, let us sing unto the Lord," he quoted as he shook hands warmly;"the choir misses you sadly, when you are out of town."
" And I miss not only the choir, but an excellent sermon, when I am out of town," returned Mr. Thompson.
Ten days later, Mr. Thompson sat in his St. Paul office signing type-written letters. One hundred times he had written,"M. J. Thompson," and one hundred times more he must set that seal before he could board an inter-urban car. Scratch, scratch, scratch was all the sound in the room. In another room were only soft little sighs. The room was ten miles distant.
In it sat Grace Howells, facing a door she did not see. She was looking through it, far and away.
A light tap, outside! A silken rustle, within. The vine reached up to the oak and was caught fast in its branches.
" Are you glad to have me back?" he whispered, lips to lips.
"And wilt thou have me fashion into words, the love I bear thee?" she quoted.
That night he sang:
"Farewell, farewell my own true love,
A thousand times farewell;"
and the plaintive sadness in his voice echoed and reechoed long after he was gone, and stole all too many hours of her sleep.
Again the following evening, he chose not a joyous strain. With every word drawing blood, he sang into her enthralled eyes:
"A hundred months have passed, Lorena,
Since last I held your hand in mine,
And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena,
Tho mine beat faster far than thine."
Then, with the thrill of a meadow lark, he finished :
"There is a future! Oh, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part.
'Tis dust to dust, beneath the sod,
But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart!"
"Oh, don't!" was all that came to his ears, but her pounding heart was crying," A hundred months apart? Oh, better to fall dead here and now."
Another evening from the book.
"I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
And looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet."
"Why so sad your words," she questioned, caressing his hair.
He replied from the book:
"Accuse me not that I wear
Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
For we two look two ways and cannot shine
With the same sunlight on our brews and hair."
From the book she answered him:
"My own sweet love, if thou in the grave,
The darksome grave wilt be;
When will I go down by thy side and crave,
Love, room for me and thee."
Then another period of death when he came not; another resurrection at the dear familiar tap outside the door, and the heart's nectar of kiss and embrace. But the cloud of a smothered pain bedimmed his eyes and the halt of an aching thought entangled his tongue–so love interpreted; and Love cannot be blind for his arrow wingeth sure. Often that evening, Merritt Jordan's head rested in his hands; often faint sighs escaped him. He sang a song, but his voice broke in the singing.
"What is it?" she pleaded, when she could no longer endure it.
He, without the book,"Could you forgive me if I had done a wicked, wicked thing?""You wouldn't commit a wicked act, Merritt."
He, without the book,"I have done a great wrong. I have won your love, have I not?"
She gave a relieved laugh and drew his face down to hers.
" That was cruel, Merritt, to frighten me so."
" But Grace, you do love me, don't you? Tell me plainly."
" Merritt," she said, all gravity,"I wonder I keep my office position – I am in a daze all the days through dreaming of the evenings when I shall see you. Over everything is written, 'Merritt'– on the walls, on the floors, and even on the faces of those about me. The lightest room is dark if you are not in it; the darkest place is dazzling, if out of it looks your face. The street is empty when you are not by my side," she lowered her voice," there would be no world if you were dead."
"That is the wrong I have done–I have won your love," he said and sighed.
" Please stop joking, Merritt."
"I am not joking!" He buried his face in his hands.
"What do you mean, Merritt dear? Don't speak in riddles."
He lifted his head a little." I could not help loving you, Grace. You were a blushing rose, a stately lily and a luscious fruit all in one that first time I saw you. I can't help loving you now, for you are the same lovely flower, while the fruit is riper and sweeter. But this spirit of fragrance and color must be put without the range of my vision–this aroma which I have breathed must be placed beyond my power of inhalation. This heart food, whose delicious flavor I have longed, oh, how I have longed, to taste, must be gently set aside – far aside where the temptation to appropriate it may not lure me on to its spoliation. Grace, dear Grace, sweetest of women, I must leave you forever – for your sake."
" Merritt!" It was a cry.
" Grace," he spoke, encircling her with his arms," how much could you forgive the man you love?"
She leaned exhaustedly, contentedly against him and closed her eyes. Without opening them she told him how much she could forgive the man she loved.
"I could forgive him murder, theft, forgery, arson and perjury–are there ally more crimes?"
" A few more," he answered.
Well, I forgive him all the others, without knowing what they are," was her absolution.
"Suppose," and he bent his head down over her eyes," suppose a married man won the love of a girl–"
She pulled away as by a spasm. She looked at him until he felt cut into halves.
"Good-bye, Grace," and he moved as if to rise.
She looked at him. he rose hesitatingly to his feet. She only looked at him. He walked slowly toward the door.
He was going! She could never find him if he went! The room would never be light again! The street would always be empty! There would be no world! She tried to speak loudly; she accomplished a whisper," Stay, Merritt."