The White Shield
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"Why, Mother," the old man cried, "he's won! Our Jack's won the race! Do you hear?"
Mother's eyes were fixed on the black and orange sweater, for Jack was once again in regulation bicycle attire, and her heart was too full to trust itself for speech.
"Three cheers for Gardner! 'Rah for the South Shore Club!" and the great field swelled and swelled again with bursts of applause. And then – the crowd parted some way and Jack saw those pathetic faces upturned to him.
It is said that when a man is drowning, in the flash of a second his whole previous life passes in review. Something like this came to him at the crowning moment of his twenty-three years.
At that minute he knew, as never before, how those hands had toiled for him, how those lips had prayed for him, and how those honest hearts had loved him ever since he was born. A sudden lump came into his throat, for he seemingly had withheld the only reward they wanted for it all.
"Let me down, fellows," he cried, "there's my folks."
Almost before they knew what had happened, he had rushed up to them with hands outstretched. "Why, Father! Mother!" he exclaimed; "why didn't you let me know you wanted to come?"
Just a minute the old people doubted the wisdom of their course, then the gladness in Jack's face set all at rest. The men from the South Shore Club gathered around and were presented, one by one. They shook hands with the old gentleman and told them how proud they were of Jack, and doffed their caps to Mrs. Gardner, "just z's if I was a fine lady," she said afterward.
Then Jack said everybody was going down to the club for lunch and his father and mother must come too.
"No, no!" gasped Mrs. Gardner in affright; "no! no!"
"Well, indeed you are coming," said Jack, with a charming air of proprietorship. "I guess when a fellow wins the race of the year that his father and mother will go to lunch with him." Then he squeezed her thin wrinkled hand and whispered tenderly: "Dear little mother! To think you wanted to come, and I didn't know!"
The hero of the day turned to those who were with him: "Will some of you fellows get a carriage? I don't think I want any more bicycle riding to-day and I'll go down with my father and mother if one of you boys will lead my wheel."
It was an enchanted journey for the old people to roll down the broad smooth boulevard in a real carriage, with Jack sitting in front of them telling them all about the race. The President of the South Shore Club, the son of a man known and honoured throughout Chicago, had asked to be presented, and said he hoped Jack's father would be willing to be his guest for the day.
"I told him father would be pleased," concluded Jack, "and he wanted mother too, but I said I guessed not, that I was going to have my little mother for my own guest."
At last, when the carriage stopped before an imposing brown stone house, Jack helped them out, and entered the club with the shabby little brown figure on his arm."Just wait here a few minutes," he said, "until I make myself presentable."
He stationed them on a luxurious sofa, and ran off to the dressing-rooms.
The old man looked after him fondly. "I didn't think Jack would be ashamed of us, Mother," he said.
"No, Father, and he ain't."
"My, ain't this a grand place?"
Half awed, they gazed at the rich furnishings in silence. "Seems like heaven don't it?" he murmured.
"Makes me think more of the chapter in Solomon," she replied.
"How's that, Mother?"
The little old lady looked up at him, her face shining with ineffable happiness, and repeated softly:
"'He led me into his banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.'"
The House Beautiful
Four years at College had given Jack Hardy high ambitions, but two years in society had perceptibly lowered them. Jack had inherited enough money to make him a prize in the matrimonial lottery and he was not slow to see that the reason of it lay in his bank account. With a singular lack of conceit, he did not admit, even to himself, his personal charms.
Walking home one evening from a large reception, his indignation rapidly developed into a moving force, and in a sudden flash of insight he saw two paths which lay straight before him.
One was smooth, leading to gardens of pleasure; the other rough, toilsome, and strewn with failures, but at the end of it was a goal well worth working for. His inheritance was all he needed to enter one; but on the other hand, hard, unfaltering work lay before him and was the only way to success.
His strong young face was set in lines of unwonted determination. "Farewell to an idle society life," he said aloud, "here's to hard work, self-respect, and perhaps an honourable name."
There was not a little comment in his set when it became known that Hardy had left town without assigning any reasons, length of stay, or even leaving an address.
He retired to an obscure hamlet on the Jersey coast and secured a room in a rambling old house which faced the sea. Here he could work; he could study hard, or write, and become, perhaps, a strong man intellectually, instead of being a fastidious ornament in a drawing-room where he felt his financial value was the key-note to his popularity.
The white-haired mistress of the mansion, however, had a confession to make which did not agree at all with his inclinations.
"I've got another boarder," she said, "but she's a quiet, nice-appearing girl and I guess she won't disturb you any."
"Girl!" Hardy scowled, then recovered himself. "Please, don't take any more boarders," he said smilingly, "I'll make it worth your while."
When he said "please" women instinctively obeyed him. Mrs. Kitson readily promised to abstain from further extension of the hilarious pastime of taking boarders, which she had hitherto found to be necessary to her pocket-book, if not to her inclinations.
He spent the afternoon in getting his traps settled in his new location. The quiet was broken only by the boom of the breakers on the shore below, and the room was guiltless of sofa pillows and photograph frames with which women are wont to burden a helpless bachelor. He felt a certain sense of emancipation.
It was rather awkward having a girl around, and he contemplated the propriety of bribing Mrs. Kitson to invent some excuse for dispensing with her presence. Some country damsel, he reflected, perhaps a seamstress, or a teacher who "boarded round." He determined to treat her with cool politeness while he might be forced to endure her proximity.
Going down to supper he encountered the other boarder in the sitting-room. His hostess, rather uncertain as to the proper form of introduction, mumbled something he did not quite understand. He did not wish to appear at all concerned anyway, and bowed distantly.
Miss Wheeler's dark eyes flashed and the colour came into her face. He noted the signs of resentment and wondered what he had done; not that he cared, particularly, only one should always be polite.
The supper was delicious. Everything was well cooked and well served. The china was dainty and the linen spotless.
Under the kindly influence of food which proverbially melts the masculine heart, Hardy began to look occasionally, and with some curiosity at the girl opposite him. She was tall, and well formed, her head well poised, and her voice, when she spoke, was agreeably modulated. She must be the teacher who "boarded round."
She was apparently unconscious of his presence. She drew Mrs. Kitson into volumes of personal reminiscence which prevented any awkward silence, and when they had finished, went with the hostess into the kitchen and helped her wash the dishes.
Hardy stood aloof for a moment, and then went up-stairs. He was accustomed to having girls all smiles and attention when he graciously consented to appear. This one, however, could not have been more politely unconcerned if he had been a door-mat!
"She doesn't know," he began unconsciously, as the dull red flooded his face. "No, and she never shall!"
With that desire for achievement which pique inspires, he went to work. He had a dim notion of writing a story, such as he used to do for a college paper, but it eventually became a short sketch, half humorous and half cynical in tone.
When it was finished, he went out to send it off. He knew the street number of only one publication – a thing he had bought on the way down to appease the business instincts of the energetic and persistent train boy.
When he returned, he glanced through the window of the sitting-room as he stepped upon the broad, old-fashioned veranda. There was no light except the driftwood fire in the big fireplace, and Miss Wheeler sat in a low chair watching it. It was an earnest womanly face full of purpose and aspiration. The repressed energy, which he had first noticed in her manner, was gone. She was off her guard, and her eyes were those of a wistful child, softened and made tender by her dreaming.
When he went down to breakfast the next morning, he learned that Miss Wheeler had taken her bicycle and gone off to spend the day. With a little tact, he diverted Mrs. Kitson's conversation to herself. He did not wish to take an unfair advantage, and besides he was not at all interested.
It was a long day, for he did not feel like work, so he tramped through the fields, sat on the sea shore, read a little, envied the consolation other men seemed to find in smoking, and was conscious of a new interest in life, when, just at dusk, Miss Wheeler rode up and dismounted at the gate.
Mrs. Kitson's penetrating voice rang out clearly, and rose to his room. "How fur did you ride?"
Miss Wheeler was bending over her cyclometer, but her reply was inaudible.
"Twenty-three miles." Her young voice was clear and strong this time.
At supper he watched her closely for symptoms of weariness, but she was fresh and rosy, and unaffectedly hungry. She still wore her bicycle suit, and talked pleasantly with Mrs. Kitson. She answered Hardy's questions, to be sure, but it was in monosyllables.
"She must have the strength of an Amazon," he mused, as he sat by the fire while she was helping Mrs. Kitson with the dishes, and laughing occasionally in a happy childlike way.
A ten-mile ride would utterly exhaust any girl he knew, and she apparently considered twice that distance merely a pleasant outing!
She came in after a while and sat on the other side of the hearth. Mrs. Kitson with many apologies, had gone "visitin'."
After an awkward silence he laughed outright – the boyish hearty laugh that won him friends everywhere.
"Are you going to keep it all to yourself?" she asked smiling.
"I was thinking," he returned, "of what the Autocrat said when some one asked him to define happiness."
She dimpled prettily.
"Yes, I know. 'Four feet on a fender.'"
Hers were not so far away but that the contrast in size was evident.
The ice was broken. "And are you happy?" he inquired tentatively.
"Why shouldn't I be?" she answered. "I've got a sound body, a clear brain, an honest name and a clean heart. Isn't that enough?" She looked up smiling.
He hesitated, for her point of view was new to him. "Most people would include money in the list, I've got all the things you say make you happy, and yet – "
"You haven't the money." She had finished his sentence for him.
"You don't look as if it bothered you a great deal," she added shyly.
He was silent. For once he had been separated from his birthright and considered apart from his inheritance. The sensation was distinctly novel. "Do you ever think," she went on, "of the house you would build if you had all the money you wanted?"
"I used to, when I was a very little boy," he answered with an effort.
"I do even now, it's one of my daydreams and I call it my House Beautiful," she said.
He asked a timid question and something of the expression he had seen on her face in the firelight the evening before, returned to it. Had she been dreaming of her "House Beautiful" then?
The mellow tones of her voice sounded full and soft in his ears. She was telling of a house of grey stone with wide porches and massive columns. She spoke of the reception hall, the stately stairway, and the tiger skin rug in the drawing-room.
A tower room with windows facing both the sunset and the sea, beautiful things in costly woods, and fabrics in white and gold.
He was interested, in spite of himself, and began to help her plan it. There was no difference of opinion, even in the smallest detail, and room by room, and floor by floor, they furnished their imaginary castle. On the very top of the tower, the Stars and Stripes would always flutter – "because it's the most beautiful flag in the world," with a little choke in her voice, "and it means the most."
Only a week before he had attended that offensive reception, and he was thinking of the contrast now. The men that night had spoken with an affected English drawl, and the girls were all "going abroad for the summer."
And to-night he had forgotten his bank and mining stocks, and was sitting by a driftwood fire with a girl who had childish dreams of building a house, and choked when she spoke of the flag.
"And the doors should open forever, and ever, to all who had done anything noble in the world, or had tried to do it."
With a little lingering sigh, she stretched her white hands towards the flames. The House Beautiful was finished, but she was still dreaming.
He repeated her thought mentally: "The doors should be open forever, and ever, to all who had done anything noble in the world, or had tried to do it." Would that bar him out? He turned uneasily in his chair.
Mrs. Kitson returned, and he felt that he must say something: "You should have gone to college," he ventured, in a tone which was meant to be both fatherly and cheerful.
She rose smilingly and bade him good night. "I am a graduate of Vassar," she said simply.
A day or two later his heart fluttered gladly when the mail brought him a check for his sketch, and a request to submit further manuscript.
He shut himself up in his room for a whole day and tried to work, but a far-away clack-clack grated on his nerves and made him irritable. He went off for a tramp and on his return found Miss Wheeler sitting on the porch.
"Did you hear that constant clatter this afternoon?" he asked.
"Yes, it was my typewriter," she answered demurely. She was evidently a stenographer.
"I'm sorry," said Hardy awkwardly, "but it disturbs me." Then with more innocent joy than foolish pride, he continued:
"I – ah – write, you know."
Miss Wheeler gathered up her books. "I regret that it annoys you," she said frigidly, "but I cannot help it." Then with an exact imitation of his tone and manner, she added: "I – ah – write, you know." And then she left him alone.
Hardy had business in town of such a pressing nature that he could not even stop to tell Mrs. Kitson that he was going. He sent her a telegram from the station, saying he did not know when he would be able to return.
The gay streets of the city, brilliantly lighted, even in the early evening, were full of allurement, as they always are, to one who has been away. But a higher impulse within him was striving with the one that demanded pleasure. He would go back. So he bought some magazines, and sat down to wait for the outgoing train, the very next day.
He cut the leaves mechanically, and dipped here and there into the pages. Then the title of a story caught his attention, and he read it to the finish. It was a simple tale, told with no striving after effect, but the lines were broadly human, and it rang true. The signature was "Constance Wheeler."
The consciousness of his own caddishness came home to him like a blow.
They had a long talk the next day, and he told her what he was trying to do. "But you discourage me," he said. "I never can do it as you do."
They were sitting by the sea, watching the sunset as the rich colours came over from the west, and touched the waves with tints of opal. "I've been doing it three or four years," she said, "and you are just beginning." Then with unknowing comprehension she went on. "Besides, what one accomplishes, doesn't matter in the least. It's the work that makes men and women of us."
The light which was reflected back from the surf made her face tender then, and leaning forward, with a simple reverence which she could not misunderstand, he kissed her hand.
The summer promised to be all too short. They studied and read together and criticised each other's work.
Hardy was fond of rowing, so they spent many hours together on the water. Constance sat on a cushion in the stern and read aloud, while Jack pulled vigorously or let the boat drift idly, as best suited his mood.
One day the book was absorbingly interesting, and one of the oars slipped into the softly-lapping water, and set out for lands unknown. Constance saw it first and her face changed. His eyes followed hers, but he sat quite still for a moment.
They were but a mile from shore and the tide was going in.
"We'll go in with it," she said bravely.
With the remaining oar Hardy turned the boat so as to catch the full force of the shoreward impulse, but in a very few minutes they saw the tide would not do as they wished.
A sudden cloud obscured the sun. The wind shifted and grew cold. Quick to act in an emergency, Jack took off his coat and shoes and tied the anchor rope under his arms. In an instant she saw what he was going to do.
"No – no, Jack," she pleaded.
It was the first time she had ever called him Jack. The sky was threatening and the wind was growing stronger.
"Constance, dearest," he said tenderly, "there is no other way."
He sprang into the water and struck out with long powerful strokes for the shore.
As if conscious of its precious burden, the boat followed slowly and steadily, then more slowly, then in fitful jerks. They were half-way to the shore but Jack's strength was failing fast.
The sky grew darker, and there was a sullen roar of thunder. Constance knelt in the stern, took off her dress and shoes, and took down her hair. She slipped into the water just as the storm broke, and Jack was gasping when she swam up beside him.
"It's a cramp," he said weakly.
"I know. Can you slip the rope over your head?" She held him up while he obeyed. The sea was rising and she felt her strength to the full.
The boat drifted away and still holding him up she put the braids of her hair into his hands. As a drowning man will catch at a straw, he clutched it, then sank almost into unconsciousness, but still held with spasmodic grasp to the only hope within his hands.
It was too dark now to see the shore, but Constance struggled on, keeping his head above the water as best she could. She rested from time to time by floating and spending only strength enough to keep them from being carried out to sea, but she was rapidly becoming exhausted.
At last, when she was too weak to swim another stroke, she sank despairingly, and found the firm ground under her feet. It was easy then, and she half dragged him ashore.
When she awoke out of what seemed a horrible dream, she was in her own room, and Mrs. Kitson was bustling about her with motherly solicitude. Jack was kneeling beside her, and when she opened her eyes, his were shining with the "light that was never on land or sea," as he took her hand.
An answering glow crept into her face and he stooped, unafraid, to her lips. There was no need of words between them – love went to meet love with open arms.
As soon as she was able to sit up, they made plans for their future. "Just our two pens, Jack," she said happily, "to buy everything we want. But we won't want much else, if we have each other." A lump rose in his throat, but it was not yet time to tell her.
He went to the city every day now, "on business," as he said, and as the summer faded, and the leaves turned crimson and gold, Constance began her wedding gown. She put so many hopes and fancies into it with the tiny careful stitches she took that had the white not been senseless, it must have turned to rose under her hands.
They were married in a little church on a glorious autumn day.
"I think it's the last day," she said; "the summer only just waited for us."
He would not tell her where the wedding journey was to be, and she showed little curiosity.
"I don't care where we go," she said as they left the house for the last time, "only you mustn't be extravagant."
It was not until the train stopped at a little town by the sea, and very near the city, that he gave her any hint of his plans. They had taken a carriage and driven down a beautiful winding road. He waved his hand towards a distant hill.
"That is where we are going," he said. "It's rather a pretty place," indifferently. "I think you'll like it."
She saw a stately mansion of grey stone, with wide porches and massive tower, and where he knew the reception hall and the stately stairway were just as she would wish her own house to be – even the tiger skin rug in the drawing-room, and the beautiful things in costly woods, and fabrics of white and gold. He could stand it no longer and leaned towards her, thrilling with an unspeakable tenderness.
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