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   Chapter 7 The Comedian

The Two Vanrevels By Booth Tarkington Characters: 18891

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Not savage Hun, nor "barbarous Vandyke," nor demon Apache, could wish to dwell upon the state of mind of the Chief of the Rouen Volunteer Fire Department; therefore, let the curtain of mercy descend. Without a word, he turned and dragged the nozzle to the eastern eaves, whence, after a warning gesture to those below, he dropped it to the ground. And, out of compassion, it should be little more than hinted that the gesture of warning was very slight.

When the rescued band reached the foot of the last flight of stairs, they beheld the open doorway as a frame for a great press of intent and con-torted faces, every eye still strained to watch the roof; none of the harrowed spectators comprehending the appearance of the girl's figure there, nor able to see whither she had led the five young men, until Tappingham Marsh raised a shout as he leaped out of the door and danced upon the solid earth again.

Then, indeed, there was a mighty uproar; cheer after cheer ascended to the red vault of heaven; women wept, men whooped, and the people rushed for the heroes with wide-open, welcoming arms. Jefferson Bareaud and Frank Chenoweth and General Trumble dashed at Tom Vanrevel with incoherent cries of thanksgiving, shaking his hands and beating him hysterically upon the back. He greeted them with bitter laughter.

"Help get the water into the next warehouse; this one is beyond control, but we can save the other two. Take the lines in through the door!" He brushed the rejoicing friends off abruptly, and went on in a queer, hollow voice: "There are stairs-and I'm so sorry I didn't think of it until a moment ago, because you could have brought the water up that way!"

A remarkable case of desertion had occurred, the previous instant, under his eyes. As the party emerged from the warehouse into the street, Tom heard Crailey say hurriedly to Miss Carewe: "Let me get you away come quickly!" saw him suddenly seize her band, and, eluding the onrushing crowd, run with her round the corner of the building. And somehow, through what inspiration, or through what knowledge of his partner's "temperament," heaven knows, the prophetic soul of the chief was unhappily assured that Crailey would offer himself as escort to her home, and find acceptance. But why not? Was it Crailey who had publicly called his fellow-man fool, idiot, imbecile, at the top of his lungs, only to find himself the proven numskull of the universe! Tom stood for a moment staring after the vanishing pair, while over his face stole the strangest expression that ever man saw there; then, with meekly bowed shoulders, he turned again to his work.

At the corner of the warehouse, Miss Carewe detached her hand from Crailey's, yet still followed him as he made a quick detour round the next building. A minute or two later they found themselves, undetected, upon Main Street in the rear of the crowd. There Crailey paused.

"Forgive me," he said, breathlessly, "for taking your hand. I thought you would like to get away."

She regarded him gravely, so that he found it difficult to read her look, except that it was seriously questioning; but whether the interrogation was addressed to him or to herself he could not determine. After a silence she said:

"I don't know why I followed you. I believe it must have been because you didn't give me time to think."

This, of course, made him even quicker with her than before. "It's all over," he said briskly. "The first warehouse is gone; the second will go, but they'll save the others easily enough, now that you have pointed out that the lines may be utilized otherwise than as adjuncts of performances on the high trapeze!" They were standing by a picket-fence, and he leaned against it, overcome by mirth in which she did not join. Her gravity reacted upon him at once, and his laughter was stopped short. "Will you not accept me as an escort to your home?" he said formally. "I do not know," she returned simply, the sort of honest trouble in her glance that is seen only in very young eyes.

"'What reason in the world!" he returned, with a crafty sharpness of astonishment.

She continued to gaze upon him thoughtfully, while he tried to look into her eyes, but was baffled because the radiant beams from the lady's orbs (as the elder Chenoweth might have said) rested somewhere dangerously near his chin, which worried him, for, though his chin made no retreat and was far from ill-looking, it was, nevertheless, that feature which he most distrusted. "Won't you tell me why not?" he repeated, uneasily.

"Because," she answered at last, speaking hesitatingly, "because it isn't so easy a matter for me as you seem to think. You have not been introduced to me, and I know you never will be, and that what you told me was true."

"Which part of what I told you?" The question escaped from him instantly.

"That the others might come when they liked, but that you could not."

"Oh yes, yes." His expression altered to a sincere dejection; his shoulders drooped, and his voice indicated supreme annoyance. "I might have known someone would tell you! Who was it? Did they say why I-"

"On account of your quarrel with my father."

"My quarrel with your father!" he exclaimed; and his face lit with an elated surprise; his shoulders straightened. He took a step nearer her, and asked, eagerly: "Who told you that?"

"My father himself. He spoke of a Mr. Vanrevel whom he-disliked, and whom I must not meet; and, remembering what you had said, of course I knew that you were he."

"Oh!" Crailey's lips began to form a smile of such appealing and inimitable sweetness that Voltaire would have trusted him; a smile alto-gether rose-leaves. "Then I lose you," he said, "for my only chance to know you was in keeping it hidden from you. And now you understand!"

"No," she answered, gravely, "I don't understand; that is what troubles me. If I did, and believed you had the right of the difference, I could believe it no sin that you should speak to me, should take me home now. I think it is wrong not to act from your own understanding of things."

The young man set his expression as one indomitably fixed upon the course of honor, cost what it might; and, in the very action, his lurking pleasure in doing it hopped out in the flicker of a twinkle in his eyes, and as instantly sought cover again-the flea in the rose-jar.

"Then you must ask some other," he said, firmly. "A disinterested person should tell you. The difference was political in the beginning, but became personal afterward; and it is now a quarrel which can never be patched up, though, for my part, I wish that it could be. I can say no more, because a party to it should not speak."

She met his level look squarely at last; and no man ever had a more truthful pair of eyes than Crailey Gray, for it was his great accomplishment that he could adjust his emotion, his reason, and something that might be called his faith, to fit any situation in any character.

"You may take me home," she answered. "I may be wrong, and even disloyal; but I do not feel it so, now. You did a very brave thing tonight to save him from loss, and I think that what you have said was just what you should have said."

So they went down the street, the hubbub and confusion of the fire growing more and more indistinct behind them. They walked slowly, and, for a time, neither spoke; yet the silence was of a kind which the adept rejoiced to have produced thus soon-their second meeting. For he believed there were more strange things in heaven and earth than Horatio wot; and one of the strangest was that whenever he was near an attractive woman during a silence such as this, something not to be defined, but as effective as it was indefinite, always went out from him to her. It was like a word of tenderness, a word too gentle, too compelling, too sweet, to be part of any tongue, spoken or written. And more: this ineffable word had an echo, and came back to him from the woman.

As his partner had in dress, so Crailey had with women, some color of the Beau; but it was not in what experience had given him to recognize as a fact: that they were apt to fall in love with him. (That they were apt to remain in love with him-he understood perfectly-was another matter.) And he knew when they were doing it; could have told them accurately, at each step, what they were feeling, thinking, dreaming, during the process, because he was usually exhibiting the same symptoms to himself at the same time.

Thus, his own breast occupied with that dizzy elation which followed its reception of the insane young god's arrows, and his heart warm with the rise of the old emotion that he knew so well, he was nevertheless able to walk with his finger on the pulse of the exquisite moment, counting her heartbeats and his own.

So, to his fancy, as they walked, the little space between them was hung with brilliant strands, like gossamer chains of gold, already linking them together; every second fixing another slender, precious fetter, binding them closer, drawing her nearer. He waited until they passed into the shadows of the deserted Carewe Street before he spoke. There he stopped abruptly; at which she turned, astonished.

"Now that you have saved my life," he said, in a low, tremulous tone, "what are you going to do with it?"

Her eyes opened almost as widely as they had at her first sight of him i

n her garden. There was a long pause before she replied, and when she did, it was to his considerable surprise.

"I have never seen a play, except the funny little ones we acted at the convent," she said, "but isn't that the way they speak on the stage?"

Crailey realized that his judgment of the silence bad been mistaken, and yet it was with a thrill of delight that he recognized her clear reading of him. He had been too florid again.

"Let us go." His voice was soft with restrained forgiveness. "You mocked me once before.

"Mocked you?" she repeated, as they went on.

"Mocked me," he said, firmly. "Mocked me for seeming theatrical, and yet you have learned that what I said was true; as you will again."

She mused upon this; then, as in whimsical indulgence to an importunate child:

"Well, tell me what you mean when you say I saved your life."

"You came alone," he began, hastily, "to stand upon that burning roof-"

"Whence all but him had fled!" Her laughter rang out, interrupting him. "My room was on the fourth floor at St. Mary's, and I didn't mind climbing three flights this evening."

Crailey's good-nature was always perfect. "You mock me and you mock me!" he cried, and made her laughter but part of a gay duet. "I know I have gone too fast, have said things I should have waited to say; but, ah! remember the small chance I have against the others who can see you when they like. Don't flout me because I try to make the most of a rare, stolen moment with you."

"Do!" she exclaimed, grave upon the instant. "Do make the most of it! I have nothing but inexperience. Make the most by treating me seriously. Won't you? I know you can, and I-I-" She faltered to a full stop. She was earnest and quiet, and there had been something in her tone, too-as very often there was-that showed how young she was. "Oh!" she began again, turning to him impulsively, "I have thought about you since that evening in the garden, and I have wished I could know you. I can't be quite clear how it happened, but even those few minutes left a number of strong impressions about you. And the strongest was that you were one with whom I could talk of a great many things, if you would only be real with me. I believe-though I'm not sure why I do-that it is very difficult for you to be real; perhaps because you are so different at different times that you aren't sure, yourself, which the real you is. But the person that you are beginning to be for my benefit must be the most trifling of all your selves, lighter and easier to put on than the little mask you carried the other night. If there were nothing better underneath the mask, I might play, too."

"Did you learn this at the convent?" gasped Crailey.

"There was a world there in miniature," she answered, speaking very quickly. "I think all people are made of the same materials, only in such different proportions. I think a little world might hold as much as the largest, if you thought it all out hard enough, and your experience might be just as broad and deep in a small corner of the earth as anywhere else. But I don't know! I want to understand-I want to understand everything! I read books, and there are people-but no one who tells me what I want-I-"

"Stop." He lifted his hand. "I won't act; I shall never 'play' for you again." He was breathless; the witching silence was nothing to what stirred him now. A singular exaltation rose in him, together with the reckless impulse to speak from the mood her vehement confidence had in-spired. He gave way to it.

"I know, I know," he said huskily. "I understand all you mean, all you feel, all you wish. It is all echoing here, and here, and here!" He touched his breast, his eyes, and his forehead with the fingers of his long and slender hand. "We sigh and strain our eyes and stretch out our arms in the dark, groping always for the strange blessing that is just beyond our grasp, seeking for the precious unknown that lies just over the horizon! It's what they meant by the pot of gold where the rainbow ends-only, it may be there, after all!"

They stopped unconsciously, and remained standing at the lower end of the Carewe hedge. The western glow had faded, and she was gazing at him through the darkness, leaning forward, never dreaming that her tight grasp had broken the sticks of the little pink fan.

"Yes," she whispered, eagerly. "You are right: you understand!"

He went on, the words coming faster and faster: "We are haunted-you and I-by the wish to know all things, and by the question that lies under every thought we have: the agonizing Whither? Isn't it like that? It is really death that makes us think. You are a good Catholic: you go to mass; but you wish to know. Does God reign, or did it all happen? Sometimes it seems so deadly probable that the universe just was, no God to plan it, nothing but things; that we die as sparrows die, and the brain is all the soul we have, a thing that becomes clogged and stops some day. And is that all?"

She shivered slightly, but her steadfast eyes did not shift from him. He threw back his head, and his face, uplifted to the jewelled sky of the moonless night, was beatific in its peacefulness, as he continued in an altered tone, gentle and low:

"I think all questions are answered there. The stars tell it all. When you look at them you know! They have put them on our flag. There are times when this seems but a poor nation: boastful, corrupt, violent, and preparing, as it is now, to steal another country by fraud and war; yet the stars on the flag always make me happy and confident. Do you see the constellations swinging above us, such unimaginable vastnesses, not roving or crashing through the illimitable at haphazard, but moving in more excellent measure, and to a finer rhythm, than the most delicate clockwork man ever made? The great ocean-lines mark our seas with their paths through the water; the fine brains of the earth are behind the ships that sail from port to port, yet how awry the system goes! When does a ship come to her harbor at an hour determined when she sailed? What is a ship beside the smallest moon of the smallest world? But, there above us, moons, worlds, suns, all the infinite cluster of colossi, move into place to the exactness of a hair at the precise instant. That instant has been planned, you see; it is part of a system-and can a system exist that no mind made? Think of the Mind that made this one! Do you believe so inconceivably majestic an Intelligence as that could be anything but good? Ah, when you wonder, look above you; look above you in the night, I say," he cried, his hand upraised like his transfigured face. "Look above you and you will never fear that a sparrow's fall could go unmarked!"

It was not to the stars that she looked, but to the orator, as long as he held that pose, which lasted until a hard-ridden horse came galloping down the street. As it dashed by, though the rider looked neither to right nor left, Miss Betty unconsciously made a feverish clutch at her companion's sleeve, drawing him closer to the hedge.

"It is my father," she said hurriedly in a low voice. "He must not see you. You must never come here. Perhaps-" She paused, then quickly whispered: "You have been very kind to me. Good-night."

He looked at her keenly, and through the dimness saw that her face was shining with excitement. He did not speak again, but, taking a step back-ward, smiled faintly, bent his head in humble acquiescence, and made a slight gesture of his hand for her to leave him. She set her eyes upon his once more, then turned swiftly and almost ran along the hedge to the gate; but there she stopped and looked back. He was standing where she had left him, his face again uplifted to the sky.

She waved him an uncertain farewell, and ran into the garden, both palms against her burning cheeks.

Night is the great necromancer, and strange are the fabrics he weaves; he lays queer spells; breathes so eerie an intoxication through the dusk; he can cast such glamours about a voice! He is the very king of fairyland.

Miss Betty began to walk rapidly up and down the garden paths, her head bent and her bands still pressed to her cheeks; now and then an unconscious exclamation burst from her, incoherent, more like a gasp than a word. A long time she paced the vigil with her stirring heart, her skirts sweeping the dew from the leaning flowers. Her lips moved often, but only the confused, vehement "Oh, oh!" came from them, until at last she paused in the middle of the garden, away from the trees, where all was open to the sparkling firmament, and extended her arms over her head.

"O, strange teacher," she said aloud, "I take your beautiful stars! I shall know how to learn from them!"

She gazed steadily upward, enrapt, her eyes resplendent with their own starlight.

"Oh, stars, stars, stars!" she whispered.

In the teeth of all wizardry, Night's spells do pass at sunrise; marvellous poems sink to doggerel, mighty dreams to blown ashes and solids regain weight. Miss Betty, waking at daybreak, saw the motes dancing in the sun at her window, and watched them with a placid, unremembering eye. She began to stare at them in a puzzled way, while a look of wonder slowly spread over her face. Suddenly she sat upright, as though something had startled her. Her fingers clenched tightly.

"Ah, if that was playing!"

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