Robert Chambers.

Quick Action



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TO
PENELOPE SEARS
DEBUTANTE
 
To rhyme your name
With something lovely, fresh and young,
And sing the same
In measures heretofore unsung,
Is far beyond me, I'm afraid;
I'll not attempt it, dearest maid.
 
 
No, not in verse,
Synthetic, stately, classic, chaste,
Shall I rehearse —
Although in perfectly good taste —
A catalogue of every grace
That you inherit from your race.
 
 
Gracious and kind,
The gods your beauty gave to you,
And with a mind
These same kind gods endowed you, too;
That charming union is, I fear,
Somewhat uncommon on this sphere.
 
 
I have no doubt
That scores of poets chant your fame;
No doubt, about
A million suitors press their claim;
And fashion, elegance and wit
Are at your feet inclined to sit.
 
 
Penelope,
The fire-light flickers to and fro:
In you I see
The winsome child I used to know —
My little Maiden of Romance
Still whirling in your Shadow Dance.
 
 
Though woman-grown,
To my unreconciled surprise
I gladly own
The same light lies within your eyes —
The same sweet candour which beguiled
Your rhymster when you were a child.
 
 
And so I come,
With limping verse to you again,
Amid the hum
Of that young world wherein you reign —
Only a moment to appear
And say: "Your rhymster loves you, dear."
 
R. W. C.

PREFACE

Always animated by a desire to contribute in a small way toward scientific investigation, the author offers this humble volume to a more serious audience than he has so far ventured to address.

For all those who have outgrown the superficial amusement of mere fiction this volume, replete with purpose, is written in hopes that it may stimulate students to original research in certain obscure realms of science, the borderlands of which, hitherto, have been scarcely crossed.

There is perhaps no division of science as important, none so little understood, as the science of Crystal Gazing.

A vast field of individual research opens before the earnest, patient, and sober minded investigator who shall study the subject and discover those occult laws which govern the intimate relations between crystals, playing cards, cigarettes, soiled pink wrappers, and the Police.

Amor nihil est celerius!

I

There was a new crescent moon in the west which, with the star above it, made an agreeable oriental combination.

In the haze over bay and river enough rose and purple remained to veil the awakening glitter of the monstrous city sprawling supine between river, sound, and sea. And its incessant monotone pulsated, groaning, dying, ceaseless, interminable in the light-shot depths of its darkening streets.

The sky-drawing-room windows of the Countess Athalie were all wide open, but the only light in the room came from a crystal sphere poised on a tripod.

It had the quality and lustre of moon-light, and we had never been able to find out its source, for no electric wires were visible, and one could move the tripod about the room.

The crystal sphere itself appeared to be luminous, yet it remained perfectly transparent, whatever the source of its silvery phosphorescence.

At any rate, it was the only light in the room except the dulled glimmer of our cigarettes, and its mild, mysterious light enabled us to see one another as through a glass darkly.

There were a number of men there that evening. I don't remember, now, who they all were. Some had dined early; others, during the evening, strolled away into the city to dine somewhere or other, drifting back afterward for coffee and sweetmeats and cigarettes in the sky-drawing-room of the Countess Athalie.

As usual the girl was curled up by the open window among her silken cushions, one smooth little gem-laden hand playing with the green jade god, her still dark eyes, which slanted a little, fixed dreamily upon infinite distance – or so it always seemed to us.

Through the rusty and corrugated arabesques of the iron balcony she could see, if she chose, the yellow flare where Sixth Avenue crossed the shabby street to the eastward. Beyond that, and parallel, a brighter glow marked Broadway. Further east street lamps stretched away into converging perspective, which vanished to a point in the faint nebular radiance above the East River.

All this the Countess Athalie could see if she chose. Perhaps she did see it. We never seemed to know just what she was looking at even when she turned her dark eyes on us or on her crystal sphere cradled upon its slender tripod.

But the sphere seemed to understand, for sometimes, under her still gaze, it clouded magnificently like a black opal – another thing we never understood, and therefore made light of.

"They have placed policemen before several houses on this street," remarked the Countess Athalie.

Stafford, tall and slim in his evening dress, relieved her of her coffee cup.

"Has anybody bothered you?" he asked.

"Not yet."

Young Duane picked up a pack of cards at his elbow and shuffled them, languidly.

"Where is the Ace of Diamonds, Athalie?" he asked.

"Any card you try to draw will be the Ace of Diamonds," replied the girl indifferently.

"Can't I escape drawing it?"

"No."

We all turned and looked at Duane. He quickly spread the pack, fan-shaped, backs up. After a moment's choosing he drew a card, looked at it, held it up for us to see. It was the Ace of Diamonds.

"Would you mind trying that again, Athalie?" I asked. And Duane replaced the card and shuffled the pack.

"But it's gone, now," said the girl.

"I replaced it in the pack," explained Duane.

"No, you gave it to me," she said.

We all smiled. Duane searched through the pack in his hands, once, twice; then he laughed. The girl held up one empty hand. Then, somehow or other, there was the Ace of Diamonds between her delicate little thumb and forefinger.

She held it a moment or two for our inspection; then, curving her wrist, sent it scaling out into the darkness. It soared away above the street, tipped up, and describing an aerial ellipse, returned straight to the balcony where she caught it in her fingers.

Twice she did this; but the third time, high in the air, the card burst into violet flame and vanished.

"That," remarked Stafford, "is one thing which I wish to learn how to do."

"Two hundred dollars," said the Countess Athalie, " – in two lessons; also, your word of honour."

"Monday," nodded Stafford, taking out a note-book and making a memorandum, " – at five in the afternoon."

"Monday and Wednesday at five," said the girl, lighting a cigarette and gazing dreamily at nothing.

From somewhere in the room came a voice.

"Did they ever catch that crook, Athalie?"

"Which?"

"The Fifty-ninth Street safe-blower?"

"Yes."

"Did you find him?"

She nodded.

"How? In your crystal?" I asked.

"Yes, he was there."

"It's odd," mused Duane, "that you can never do anything of advantage to yourself by gazing into your crystal."

"It's the invariable limit to clairvoyance," she remarked.

"A sort of penalty for being super-gifted," added Stafford.

"Perhaps… We can't help ourselves."

"It's too bad," I volunteered.

"Oh, I don't care," she said, with a slight shrug of her pretty shoulders.

"Come," said somebody, teasingly, "wouldn't you like to know how soon you are going to fall in love, and with whom?"

She laughed, dropped her cigarette into a silver bowl, stretched her arms above her head, straightened her slender figure, turned her head and looked at us.

"No," she said, "I do not wish to know. Light is swift; Thought is swifter; but Love is the swiftest thing in Life, and if it is now travelling toward me, it will strike me soon enough to suit me."

Stafford leaned forward and arranged the cushions for her; she sank back among them, her dark eyes still on us.

"Hours are slow," she said; "years are slower, but the slowest thing in Life is Love. If it is now travelling toward me, it will reach me soon enough to suit me."

"I," said Duane, "prefer quick action, O Athalie, the Beautiful!"

"Athalie, lovely and incomparable," said Stafford, "I, also, prefer quick action."

"Play Scheherazade for us, Athalie," I said, "else we slay you with our compliments."

A voice or two from distant corners repeated the menace. A match flared and a fresh cigarette glowed faintly.

Somebody brought the tripod with its crystal sphere and set it down in the middle of the room. Its mild rays fell on the marble basin of the tiny fountain, – Duane's offering. The goldfish which I had given her were floating there fast asleep.

When we had placed sweetmeats and cigarettes convenient for her, we all, in turn, with circumstance and ceremony, bent over her left hand where it rested listlessly among the cushions, saluting the emerald on her third finger with our lips.

Then the dim circle closed around her, nearer.

"Of all the visions which have passed before your eyes within the depths of that crystal globe," said Duane, " – of all the histories of men and women which, unsuspected by them, you have witnessed, seated here in this silent, silk-hung place, we desire to hear only those in which Fate has been swiftest, Opportunity a loosened arrow, Destiny a flash of lightning."

"But the victims of quick action must be nameless, except as I choose to mask them," she said, looking dreamily into her crystal.

After a moment's silence Duane said in a low voice:

"Does anybody notice the odour of orange blossoms?"

We all noticed the fragrance.

"I seem to catch a whiff of the sea, also," ventured Stafford. "Am I right?"

"Yes," she nodded, "you will notice the odour of the semi-tropics, even if you miss the point of everything I tell you."

"In other words," said I, "we are but a material bunch, Athalie, and may be addressed and amused only through our physical senses. Very well: transpose from the spiritual for us if you please a little story of quick action which has happened here in the crystal under your matchless eyes!"

II

With her silver tongs she selected a sweetmeat. When it had melted in her sweeter mouth, she lighted a cigarette, saluted us with a gay little gesture and smilingly began:

"Don't ask me how I know what these people said; that is my concern, not yours. Don't ask me how I know what unspoken thoughts animated these people; that is my affair. Nor how I seem to be perfectly acquainted with their past histories; for that is part of my profession."

"And still the wonder grew," commented the novelist tritely, "that one small head could carry all she knew!"

"Why," asked Stafford, "do you refuse to reveal your secret? Do you no longer trust us, Athalie?"

She answered: "Comment pr?tendons-nous qu'un autre garde notre secret, si nous n'avons pas pu le garder nous-m?me?"

Nobody replied.

"Now," she said, laughingly, "I will tell you all that I know about the Orange Puppy."

Plans for her first debut began before her birth. When it became reasonably certain that she was destined to decorate the earth, she was entered on the waiting lists of two schools – The Dinglenook School for Boys, and The Idlebrook Institute for Young Ladies – her parents taking no chances, but playing both ends coming and going.

When ultimately she made her first earthly appearance, and it was apparent that she was destined to embellish the planet in the guise of a girl, the process of grooming her for her second debut, some eighteen years in the future, began. She lived in sanitary and sterilized seclusion, eating by the ounce, sleeping through accurately measured minutes, every atom of her anatomy inspected daily, every pore of her skin explored, every garment she wore weighed, every respiration, pulse beat, and fluctuation of bodily temperature carefully noted and discussed.

When she appeared her hair was black. After she shed this, it came in red; when she was eight her hair was coppery, lashes black, eyes blue, and her skin snow and wild-strawberry tints in agreeably delicate nuances. Several millions were set aside to grow up with her and for her. Also, the list of foreign and aristocratic babyhood was scanned and several dozen possibilities checked off – the list running from the progeny of down-and-out monarchs with a sporting chance for a crown, to the more solid infant aristocracy of Britain.

At the age of nine, the only symptom of intellect that had yet appeared in her was a superbly developed temper. That year she eluded a governess and two trained nurses in the park, and was discovered playing with some unsterilized children near the duck-pond, both hands full of slime and pollywogs.

It was the only crack in the routine through which she ever crawled. Lessons daily in riding, driving, dancing, fencing, gymnastics, squash, tennis, skating, plugged every avenue of escape between morning school and evening sleep, after a mental bath in sterilized literature. Once, out of the window she saw a fire. This event, with several runaways on the bridle-path, included the sensations of her life up to her release from special instructors, and her entry into Idlebrook Institute.

Here she did all she could to misbehave in a blind and instinctive fashion, but opportunities were pitiably few; and by the time she had graduated, honest deviltry seemed to have been starved out of her; and a half year's finishing abroad apparently eliminated it, leaving only a half-confused desire to be let alone. But solitude was the luxury always denied her.

Unlike the usual debutante, who is a social veteran two years before her presentation, and who at eighteen lacks no experience except intellectual, Miss Cassillis had become neither a judge of champagne nor an expert in the various cabaret steps popular at country houses and the more exclusive dives.

"Mother," she said calmly, on her eighteenth birthday, "do you know that I am known among my associates as a dead one?" At which that fat and hard-eyed matron laughed, surveying her symmetrical daughter with grim content.

"Let me tell you something," she said. "America, socially, is only one vast cabaret, mostly consisting of performers. The spectators are few. You're one. Conditions are reversed across the water; the audience is in the majority… How do you like young Willowmere?"

The girl replied that she liked Lord Willowmere. She might have added that she was prepared to like anything in trousers that would give her a few hours off.

"Do you think," said her mother, "you can be trusted to play in the social cabaret all next winter, and then marry Willowmere?"

Said Cecil: "I am perfectly ready to marry anybody before luncheon, if you will let me."

"I do not wish you to feel that way."

"Mother, I do! All I want is to be let alone long enough to learn something for myself."

"What do you not know? What have you not learned? What accomplishment do you lack, little daughter? What is it you wish?"

The girl glanced out of the window. A young and extremely well-built man went striding down the avenue about his business. He looked a little like a man she had seen playing ball on the Harvard team a year ago. She sighed unconsciously.

"I've learned about everything there is to learn, I suppose… Except – where do men go when they walk so busily about their business?"

"Down town," said her mother, laughing.

"What do they do there?"

"A million things concerning millions."

"But I don't see how there's anything left for them to do after their education is completed. What is there left for me to do, except to marry and have a few children?"

"What do you want to do?"

"Nothing… I'd like to have something to do which would make me look busy and make me walk rather fast – like that young man who was hurrying down town all by himself. Then I'd like to be let alone while I'm busy with my own affairs."

"When you marry Willowmere you'll be busy enough." She might have added: "And lonely enough."

"I'll be occupied in telling others how to busy themselves with my affairs. But there won't be anything for me to do, will there?"

"Yes, dear child; it will be one steady fight to better a good position. It will afford you constant exercise."

The tall young girl bit her lip and shook her pretty head in silence. She felt instinctively that she knew how to do that. But that was not the exercise she wanted. She looked out into the February sunshine and saw the blue shadows on the snow and the sidewalks dark and wet, and the little gutter arabs throwing snow-balls, and a yellow pup barking blissfully. And, apropos of nothing at all, she suddenly remembered how she had run away when she was nine; and a rush of blind desire surged within her. What it meant she did not know, did not trouble to consider, but it stirred her until the soft fire burned in her cheeks, and left her twisting her white fingers, lips parted, staring across the wintry park into the blue tracery of trees. To Miss Cassillis adolescence came late.

They sang Le Donne Curiose at the opera that evening; she sat in her father's box; numbers of youthful, sleek-headed, white-shirted young men came between the acts. She talked to all with the ardor of the young and unsatisfied; and, mentally and spiritually still unsatisfied, buried in fur, she was whirled back through snowy streets to the great grey mansion of her nativity, and the silence of her white-hung chamber.

All through February the preparatory r?gime continued, with preliminary canters at theatre and opera, informal party practice, and trial dinners. Always she gave herself completely to every moment with a wistful and unquenched faith, eager novice in her quest of what was lacking in her life; ardent enthusiast in her restless searching for the remedy. And, unsatisfied, lingering mentally by the door of Chance, lest she miss somewhere the magic that satisfies and quiets – lest the gates of Opportunity swing open after she had turned away – reluctantly she returned to the companionship of her own solitary mind and undeveloped soul, and sat down to starve with them in spirit, wondering wherein might lie the reason for this new hunger that assailed her, mind and body.

She ran up her private flag the next winter, amid a thousand other gay and flaunting colours breaking out all over town. The newspapers roared a salute to the wealthiest debutante; and an enthusiastic press, not yet housebroken but agile with much exercise in leaping and fawning, leaped now about the debutante's slippers, grinning, slavering and panting. Later, led by instinct and its Celebrated Nose, it bounded toward young Lord Willowmere, jumped and fawned about him, slightly soiling him, until in midwinter the engagement it had announced was corroborated, and a million shop-girls and old women were in a furor.

He was a ruddy-faced young man who wore his bowler hat toward the back of his head, a small, pointed moustache, and who walked always as though he were shod in riding boots.

He would have made a healthy studgroom for any gentleman's stable. Person and intellect were always thoroughly scrubbed as with saddle-soap. Had he been able to afford it, his stables would have been second to none in England.

Soon he would be able to afford it.

To his intimates, including his fianc?e, he was known as "Stirrups." All day long he was in the saddle or on the box, every evening at the Cataract Club or at a cabaret. Between times he called upon Miss Cassillis – usually finding her out. When he found her not at home, he called elsewhere, very casually.

Two continents were deeply stirred over the impending alliance.

III

Young Jones, in wildest Florida, had never heard of it or of her, or of her income. His own fortune amounted to six hundred dollars, and he had been born in Brooklyn, and what his salary might be only he and the Smithsonian Institution knew.

He was an industrious young man, no better than you or I, accepting thankfully every opportunity for mischief which the Dead Lake region afforded. No opportunities of that kind ever presenting themselves in that region, he went once a month to Miami in the Orange Puppy, and drank too many swizzles and so forth, et cetera.

Having accomplished this, he returned to the wharf, put the Orange Puppy into commission, hoisted sail, and squared away for Matanzas Inlet, finding himself too weak-minded to go home by a more direct route.

He had been on his monthly pilgrimage to Miami, and was homeward bound noisily, using his auxiliary power so that silence should not descend upon him too abruptly. He had been, for half an hour now, immersed in a species of solitaire known as The Idiot's Delight, when he caught himself cheating himself, and indignantly scattered the pack to the four winds – three of which, however, were not blowing. One card, the deuce of hearts, fluttered seaward like a white butterfly. Beyond it he caught sight of another white speck, shining like a gull's breast.

It was a big yacht steaming in from the open sea; and her bill of lading included Miss Cassillis and Willowmere. But Jones could not know that. So he merely blinked at the distant Chihuahua, yawned, flipped the last card overboard, and swung the Orange Puppy into the inlet, which brimmed rather peacefully, the tide being nearly at flood.

Far away on the deck of the Chihuahua the quick-fire racket of Jones's auxiliary was amazingly audible. Miss Cassillis, from her deck-chair, could see the Orange Puppy, a fleck of glimmering white across a sapphire sea. How was she to divine that one Delancy Jones was aboard of her? All she saw when the two boats came near each other was a noisy little craft progressing toward the lagoon, emitting an earsplitting racket; and a tall, lank young man clad in flannels lounging at the tiller and smoking a cigarette.



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