The White Shield
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For his part he was pacing moodily down the street, with his hands in his pockets. Several times he swallowed a persistent lump in his throat. He could understand Helen's ambition, and her revolt against the conventions, but he could not understand her point of view. Even now, he would not admit that she was wholly lost to him. What she had said came back to him with convincing force: "When you dedicate your whole life to a thing, you simply must have it."
"We'll see," he said to himself grimly, "just how true her theory is."
Months passed, and Helen worked hard. She was busy as many trusting souls have been before with "The Great American Novel." She was putting into it all of her brief experience and all of her untried philosophy of life. She was writing of suffering she had never felt, and of love she could not understand.
She saw Frank now and then, at studio teas and semi-Bohemian gatherings, at which the newspaper men were always a welcome feature. There was no trace of the lover in his manner, and she began to doubt his sincerity, as is the way with women.
"So this is Bohemia?" he asked one evening when they met in a studio in the same building as Helen's den.
"Yes, – why not?"
"I was thinking it must be a pretty poor place if this is a fair sample of the inhabitants," he returned easily.
She flushed angrily. "I do not see why you should think so. Here are authors, musicians, poets, painters and playwrights – could one be in better company?"
He paid no attention to her ironical question. "Yes," he continued, "I see the authors. One is a woman – pardon me, a female – who has written a vulgar novel, and gained a little sensational notoriety. The other is a man who paid a fifth-rate publishing house a goodly sum to issue what he calls 'a romance.' The musicians are composers of 'coon songs' even though the African Renaissance has long since waned, and members of theatrical orchestras. The poets have their verses printed in periodicals which 'do not pay for poetry.' The only playwright present has written a vaudeville sketch – and I don't see the painters. Are they painting billboards?"
"Perhaps," said Helen, with exquisite iciness, "since you find us all so far beneath your level, you will have the goodness to withdraw. Your superiority may make us uncomfortable."
Half in amusement, and half in surprise, he left her in a manner which was meant to be coldly formal, and succeeded in being ridiculous.
After a while, Helen went home, dissatisfied with herself, and for the first time dissatisfied with the Bohemia over the threshold of which she had stepped. Always honest, she could not but admit the truth of his criticism. Yet she was wont to judge people by their aspirations rather than by their achievements. "We are all workers," she said to herself, as she brushed her hair. "Every one of those people is aspiring to what is best and highest in art. What if they have failed? Not fame, nor money, but art for art's dear sake.I am proud to be one of them."
In the course of a few weeks the novel was finished, and she subjected it to careful, painstaking revision. She studied each chapter singly, to see if it could not be improved, even in the smallest detail. When the last revision had been made, with infinite patience, she was satisfied. She wanted Frank to read it, but was too proud to make the first overtures towards reconciliation.
The first three publishers returned the manuscript with discouraging promptness. Rejected short stories and verse began to accumulate on her desk. Sunday newspaper specials came home with "return" written in blue pencil across the neatly typed page. Courteous refusal blanks came in almost every mail, and still Helen did not utterly despair. She had put into her work all that was best of her life and strength, and it was inconceivable that she should fail.
Two more publishing houses returned her novel without comment, and with a sort of blind faith, she sent it out again. This time, too, it came back, but with a kindly comment by the reader. "You cannot write until you have lived," was his concluding sentence. Helen sat stiff and still with the letter crumpled in her cold fingers.
Slowly the bitter truth forced itself upon her consciousness. "I have failed," she said aloud, "I have failed – failed – failed." A dry tearless sob almost choked her, and with sudden passionate hatred of herself and her work, she threw her manuscript into the fire. The flames seized it hungrily. Then, someway, the tears came – a blessed rush of relief.
Hilliard found her there when he came at dusk, with a bunch of roses by way of a peace offering. The crumpled letter on the floor and the shrivelled leaves of burned paper in the fireplace afforded him all the explanation he needed. He sat down on the couch beside her and took her trembling hands in his.
The coolness of his touch roused her, and she sighed, burying her tear-stained face in the roses. "I have failed," she said miserably, "I have failed."
He listened without comment to the pitiful little story of hard work and bitter disappointments. "I've given up everything for my art," she said, with a little quiver of the lips, "why shouldn't I succeed in it?"
The temptation to take her in his arms temporarily unmanned him. He left her abruptly and stood upon the hearth rug.
"You are trying to force the issue," he said quietly. "You ar'n't content to be a happy, normal woman, and let art take care of itself. You should touch life at first hand, and you are not living. You are simply associating with a lot of hysterical failures who call themselves 'Bohemians.' Art, if it is art, will develop in whatever circumstances it is placed. Why shouldn't you just be happy and let the work take care of itself? Write the little things that come to you from day to day, and if a great utterance is reserved for you, you cannot but speak it, when the time comes for it to be given to the world."
Helen stared at him for a moment, and then the inner tension snapped. "You are right," she said, sadly, instinctively drawing toward him. "I am forcing the issue."
They stood looking into each other's eyes. Helen saw the strong, self-reliant man who seemed to have fully learned the finest art of all – that of life. She felt that it might be possible to love him, if she could bring herself to yield the dazzling vista of her career. All unknowingly, he had been the dearest thing in the world to her for some little time. Bohemia's glittering gold suddenly became tinsel. There came a great longing to "touch life at first hand."
He saw only the woman he loved, grieved, pained, and troubled; tortured by aspirations she could not as yet attain, and stung by a self-knowledge that came too late. A softer glow came into Helen's face and the lover's blind instinct impelled him toward her with all his soul in his eyes.
"Sweetheart," he said huskily.
Helen stopped him. "No," she said humbly, "I must say it all myself. You are right, and I am wrong. I must live before I am a woman and I must be a woman before I can be an artist. I have cared for you for a long time, but I have been continually fighting against it – I see it all now. I will be content to be a happy woman and let the work take care of itself. Faulty, erring and selfish, I see myself, now, but will you take me just as I am?"
The last smouldering spark of fire had died out and left the room in darkness. Helen's face showing whitely in the shadow was half pleading, and wholly sweet.
Speechless with happiness, he could not move. A thousand things struggled for utterance, but the words would not come. She waited a moment, and then spoke again.
"Have I not humbled myself enough? Is there anything more I can say? I should not blame you if you went away, I know I deserve it all." The old tide of longing surged into the man's pulses again, and broke the spell which lay upon him. With a little cry, he caught her in his arms. She gave her lips to his in that kiss of full surrender which a woman gives but once in her life, then, swinging on silent hinges, the doors of her Bohemia closed forever.
A Minor Chord
One afternoon before Christmas, a man with bowed head and aimless step walked the crowded streets of a city. The air was clear and cold, the blue sky was dazzlingly beautiful, the sun shone brightly upon his way, yet in his face was unspeakable pain.
His thoughts were with the baby daughter whom he had seen lowered into the snow, only a few hours before. He saw it all, – the folds of the pretty gown, the pink rose in the tiny hands, and the happy smile which the Angel of the Shadow had been powerless to take away.
"You will forget," a friend had said to him.
"Forget," he said to himself again and again. "You can't forget your heart," he had answered, "and mine is out there under the snow."
Through force of habit, he turned down the street on which stood the great church where he played the organ on Sundays and festival days. He hesitated a moment before the massive doorway, then felt in his pocket for the key, unlocked the door and went in. The sun shone through the stained glass windows and filled the old church with glory, but his troubled eyes saw not. He sat down before the instrument he loved so well and touched the keys with trembling fingers. At once, the music came, and to the great heart of the organ which swelled with pity and tenderness, he told his story. Wild and stormy with resentment at first, anger, love, passion, and pain blended together in the outburst which shook the very walls of the church.
"God gives us hearts – and breaks them," he thought and his face grew white with bitterness.
Beside himself with passion, he played on, and on, till the sun sank behind the trees and the afternoon shaded into twilight.
As the shadows filled the church, he accidentally struck a minor chord, plaintive, sweet, almost sad.
He stopped. With that sound a flood of memories came over him – an autumn day in the woods, the trees dropping leaves of crimson and gold, the river flowing at his feet, with the purple asters and goldenrod on its banks, and beside him the fair sweet girl who had made his life a happy one; – and insensibly he drifted into the melody, dreaming, on the saddest day of his life, of the day which had been his happiest.
He remembered the look in her eyes when he had first kissed her. Beautiful eyes they were, brown, soft, and tender, with that inward radiance which comes to a woman only when she looks into the face of the man she loves.
"I will go to her," he whispered, "but not yet, not yet!" And still he played on in that vein of sadness, the sweet influence stealing into his heart till the pain was hushed in peace. Conscious only of a strange sense of uplifting, the music grew stronger as the thought of the future was before him. He was young, talented, he had a wife to live for, and a child – no, not a child – and the tears stole over his cheeks as he again touched the minor chord.
The crescendo came again. The child was safe in the white arms of the snow, and she was hidden away from the sorrows of the earth in the only place where we are ever safe from these – in its heart.
The moon had risen over the hill-tops, and the church was as light as if touched on every side with silver. The organ sounded a strain of exultation in which the minor chord was in some way mingled with the theme. He could face the world now. Any one can die but it takes a hero to live. Something he had read came back to him: "Once to every human being, God gives suffering – the anguish that cuts, burns and stings. The terrible 'one day' always comes and after it our hearts are sometimes cruel and selfish – or sometimes tender as He wishes them to be."
And the strong soul rose above its bitterness, for his "one day" was over, and it could never come again. His strength asserted itself anew as he came down from the organ loft and went toward the door. A little bundle in one of the pews attracted his attention, and he stooped to see what it was. A pale, pinched baby face looked up at him wonderingly, the golden hair shining with celestial glory in the moonlight. The hair, the eyes, the position of the head were much like those of the child he had lost.
Back came the rush of infinite pain – he was not so strong as he had thought – but only for an instant. Hark! was it an echo or his own soul playing upon his quivering heartstrings the minor chord? Again the new strength reasserted itself and into his consciousness rose the higher duty to the living over the love and faith for the lost.
"Was it you played the music?" said the sweet child voice. "I heard it and I comed in!"
"Dear," he said, "where is your home? Are you all alone?"
"Home," she said wonderingly. "Home?"
Without another word, he took the child in his arms and hurried out of the doorway. Along the brilliantly lighted avenue he hastened, till he reached the little cottage in a side street. It was dark within except for the fitful glancings of the moonlight, and he deposited his burden in a big arm-chair while he went in search of his wife.
"Sweetheart," he called, "where are you?"
The sweet face came into the shadow before him, and she laid her hand upon his arm without speaking. He led her to the little waif saying simply: "I have brought you a Christmas gift, dear."
She put out her empty arms and gathered the desolate baby to her breast. The eternal instinct of motherhood swelled up again and for a moment, in the touch of the soft flesh against her own, the tiny grave in the snow seemed only a dream.
"Theodora – Gift of God," he said reverently. Then as the clouds parted, and the moonlight filled every nook and corner of the little room: "Dearest, we cannot forget, but we can be brave, and our Gift of God, shall keep us; shall it be so?"
The Madonna of the Tambourine
With a discordant rumble of drums, and the metallic clang of a dozen tambourines, the Salvation Army procession passed down the street. When the leader paused at a busy corner and began to sing, a little knot of people quickly gathered to listen. Some quavering uncertain voices joined in the hymn as the audience increased, then mindful of his opportunity, a tall young man in red and blue uniform began an impassioned exhortation.
George Arnold and his friend Clayton lingered with half humorous tolerance upon the outskirts of the crowd. They were about to turn away when Arnold spoke in a low tone:
"Look at that girl over there."
The sudden flare of the torch-light revealed the only face in the group which could have attracted Arnold's attention. It was that of a girl but little past twenty, who stood by the leader holding a tambourine. She was not beautiful in the accepted sense of the word, but her eyes were deep and lustrous, her mouth sensitive and womanly, and the ugly bonnet could not wholly conceal a wealth of raven hair. Her skin had a delicate pearly clearness, and upon her face was a look of exaltation and purity as though she stood on some distant elevation, far above the pain and tumult of the world.
After a little, the Salvationists made ready to depart, and Arnold and Clayton turned away.
"I suppose," said Clayton, speaking tentatively, and gazing at the girl, "that we have no right to criticise any belief which puts a look like that upon a woman's face."
"We have no right to say a word," returned Arnold, "until we have the grace to do some of the things which they do."
Clayton soon forgot, but the glorified, childish face haunted Arnold. In the hope of seeing her again, he frequented the curbstones where the meetings were held. Often, he wondered at the holy peace in the eyes of so young a woman. He had seen the same expression before, but the face it illumined had always been battle-scarred and weary.
"She hasn't suffered yet," he said grimly, "and that is the thing that tells."
Months passed and summer shaded imperceptibly into autumn. Then, with little sharp flurries of cold, winter took its place. Arnold was hard at work in that merciless slavery which is found only at the newspaper desk.
"You're just a cog in the machine," he said to Clayton one day. "Some day the thing goes wrong, and they find out it's your particular cog, and they get a new one. That's all there is to it."
Clayton laughed at his friend's cynicism, as he could well afford to do, for he had just been called to a distant city to fill an important position upon the staff of a larger and more influential journal.
For some time, Arnold's particular cog did yeoman service. He ground out more "copy" than any man on the staff. He had the keenest nose for news – the most delicate way of handling a good story.
Sometimes as he wrote at his desk, the face of the young Salvationist intruded itself between him and his work. He smiled at his foolish fancy, but dramatic incidents began to take shape about the image of that girl. He planned "The Great American Novel" – there is no newspaper man who could not write it, if he only had the time – and she was to be the central figure.
All the possibilities of womanhood lay in that sweet Madonna-like face. Thinking along the lines of art the new century seemed to have laid down, he struck the key-note of his theme – the development of the individual. His Madonna might suffer or not, but she must grow into her highest and best. He turned the story over in his mind, studying it from every standpoint. It was not yet ready for paper and pen.
A year went by, and various kinds of trouble came to Arnold. Something eventually became wrong with the newspaper machine, for he worked only by fits and starts, and at last he was asked for his resignation. His face was white and determined when he handed it in, but he felt that he was facing failure.
He had a little money laid by for an emergency; at all events, it was enough to supply his wants until he could write his book. He went at it feverishly, but the work soon began to drag. The far-off, elusive phantom of his ideal mocked at him behind its expression. Then he went more slowly still, and, by almost imperceptible degrees, he went steadily down the pitiful ladder which leads from bad to worse. Ambition faded, hope died, and at last he found himself on a level with humanity at its worst – an outcast of the slums. Strong drink had done its work.
He never knew how he happened to lose the remnant of his self-respect and get into a quarrel with a man distinctly his inferior, nor how he managed to slip on the icy sidewalk and fall heavily against the curbstone. Merciful unconsciousness blinded him for a time, and when he came to his senses he was in a tiny room, scantily furnished, but exquisitely neat and clean. He was staring at the unfamiliar surroundings when a soft foot-fall sounded beside the bed. He looked up – to meet the clear eyes of the Madonna.
He was about to speak, but she stopped him by a gesture. "Hush," she said, in a voice of mellow sweetness which soothed him inexpressibly, "you must not talk now."
The touch of her cool fingers on his throbbing temples seemed to ease the pain. He was quite willing to obey her and keep quiet. It was not until the day following that he knew how badly he had been hurt, and that it would be at least two months before he could walk again. "Compound fracture," the doctor said, and Arnold shuddered, for he had heard of such things before.
As the days went by, the gentle ministry of the Madonna did not for a moment fail. "I say," he said huskily, one morning, "what makes you so good to me?"
The high color mounted to her temples. "I want you to get well, that's all."
She had a library card and brought books which he suggested. Her room was near his and often in the night when he was restless with pain, she came in silently, and, holding his hot hand in her cool fingers, read until he went to sleep. He remembered her afterwards as she sat in the lamplight, her hair falling around her shoulders and over the loose black gown which she wore about the house.
Her voice soothed and charmed him. It was full of lights and, little caressing notes and a haunting sweetness which, someway, he could not forget. There had been but one woman in his life, and he knew there would be no other.
The broken bones knit slowly, but the doctor was encouraging, and he tried hard to be patient. He was ashamed to give way to petulance in the presence of this gentle, sweet-voiced woman, whose name he knew, but whom he preferred to call "Madonna."
"It means 'my lady'," he said to her one day, "and that is what you are to me."
Through the whole of one painful night she read to him from Mrs. Browning, only resting at short intervals when from very weariness he fell into a short and troubled slumber.
Her education had been sadly neglected, he discovered, but her eager facile mind was quick to comprehend. She had too, that inner sense of beauty which makes all art its own.
Her voice suited itself to the exquisite melody of the words as she read "A Denial." When it was finished she sat quite still, with a dreamy, far-away look in her eyes.
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