Who Cares? - Part 38
“Well, my little spring girl?”
“Come and sit here, where I can see you.”
“You have only to tell me what I’m to do,” he said and obeyed at once.
How different from the old affected Gilbert–this quiet man with the burning eyes who sat with his elbows on his knees and his back bent towards her and the light of one of the lanterns on his handsome face.
She had played with a soul as well as with a heart, and also, it appeared, with a brain. How fatal had been her effect upon men–Martin out of armor and Gilbert on the wrong side of the thin dividing line.
Men’s love–it was too big and good a thing to have played with, if she had only stopped to think, or some one had been wise and kind enough to tell her. Who cares? These two men cared and so did she, bitterly, terribly, everlastingly.
Would Martin hear–oh, would he hear? Martin, Martin!
There was a long, strange silence.
“Well, my little Joan?”
He picked up her hand and put his lips to it. “Still thinking?” he asked, with a curious catch in his voice.
“Yes, Gilbert, give me time.”
He gave back her hand. “The night is ours,” he said, but there was pain in his eyes.
And there they sat, these two, within an arm’s reach, on the edge of the abyss. And for a little while there was silence–broken only by the crickets and the frogs and the turning of many leaves by the puffs of a sudden breeze.
Was she never going to hear the breaking of twigs and the light tread outside the window? Martin, Martin.
And then Gilbert began to speak. “I can see a long way to-night, Joan,”
he said, in a low voice. “I can see all the way back to the days when I was a small boy–years away. It’s a long stretch.”
“Yes, Gilbert,” said Joan. (Martin, Martin, did you hear?)
“It’s not good for a boy to have no father, my sweet. No discipline, no strong hand, no man to imitate, no inspiration, no one to try and keep step with. I see that now. I suffered from all that.”
“Did you, Gilbert?” Oh, when would the twigs break and the light step come? Martin, Martin.
“A spoilt boy, a mother’s darling, unthrashed, unled. What a cub at school with too much money! What a conceited a.s.s at college, buying deference and friends. I see myself with amazement taking to life with an air of having done it all, phrase-making and paying deference to nothing but my excellent profile. G.o.d, to have those years over again!
We’d both do things differently given another chance, eh, Joan?”
“Yes, Gilbert.” He wasn’t coming. He wasn’t coming. Martin, Martin.
She strained her ears to catch the sound of breaking twigs. The crickets and the frogs had the silence to themselves. She got up and went to the window, with Gilbert at her elbow. She felt that he was instantly on his feet. Martin’s face was not pressed against the screen. He had heard. She knew that he had heard, because she was always able to make him hear. But he didn’t care. When he had come before it was for nothing. She had lost him. She was un-Martined. She was utterly without help. She must give up. What was the good of making a fight for it now that Martin cared so little as to turn a deaf ear to her call? He had even forgotten that he had loved her once. Death was welcome then. Yes, welcome. But there was one way to make some sort of retribution–just one. She would remain true to Martin.
Gilbert touched her on the arm. “Come, Joan,” he said. “The night’s running away. Is it so hard to decide?”
But against her will Nature, to whom life is so precious, put words into her mouth. “I want you to try and understand something more about me,” she said eagerly.
“The time has gone for arguing,” he replied, stiffening a little.
“I’m not going to argue,” she went on quickly, surprised at herself, deserted as she was. “I only want you to think a little more deeply about all this.”
He drew his hand across his forehead. “Think? I’ve thought until my brain’s hot, like an overheated engine.”
She leaned forward. Spring was fighting her battle. “I’m not worth a love like yours,” she said. “I’m too young, too unserious. I’m not half the woman that Alice is.”
“You came to me in spirit that night in Paris. I placed yuu in my heart. I’ve waited all these years.”
“Yes, but there’s Alice–no, don’t turn away. Let me say what’s in my mind. This is a matter of life or death, you said.”
He nodded. “Yes, life or death, together.”
“Alice doesn’t disappoint,” she went on, the words put upon her lips.
“I may, I shall. I already have, remember. This is your night, Gilbert, not mine, and whichever step we decide to take matters more to you than to me. Let it be the right one. Let it be the best for you.”
But he made a wild sweeping gesture. His patience was running out.
“Nothing is best for me if you’re not in it. I tell you you’ve got me, whatever you are. You have your choice. Make it, make it. The night won’t last for ever.”
Once more she listened for the breaking twig and the light step. There was nothing but the sound of the crickets and the frogs. Martin had forgotten. He had heard, she was sure of that, but he didn’t care.
Nature had its hand upon her arm, but she pushed it away. Her choice was easy, because she wouldn’t forget. She would be true to Martin.
“I’ve made my choice,” she said.
“Joan, Joan–what is it?”
“I don’t love you.”
He went up to her, with his old note of supplication. “But I can teach you, Joan, I can teach you, my dear.”
“No. Never. I love Martin. I always have and always shall.”
“Oh, my G.o.d,” he said.
“That’s the truth…. Please be quick. I’m very tired!” She drew herself up like a young lily.
For a moment he stood irresolute, swaying. Everything seemed to be running past him. He was spinning like a top. He had hoped against hope, during her silence and her argument. But now to be told not only that she would never love him but that she loved another man….
He staggered across the room to the sideboard, opened the drawer, and the thing glistened in his hand.
Joan was as cold as ice. “I will be true,” she whispered to herself. “I will be true. Martin, oh, Martin.”
With a superhuman effort Gilbert caught hold of himself. The cold thing in his hand helped him to this. His mouth became firm again and his face gentle and tender. And he stood up with renewed dignity and the old strange look of exaltation. “I claim you then,” he said. “I claim you, Joan. Here, on this earth, we have both made mistakes. I with Alice. You with Martin Gray. In the next life, whatever it may be, we will begin again together. I will teach you from the beginning. Death and the Great Emotion. It will be very beautiful. Shut your eyes, my sweet, and we will take the little step together.” The thing glistened in his grasp.
And Joan shut her eyes with her hands to her breast. “I love you, Martin,” she whispered. “I love you. I will wait until you come.”
And Gilbert cried out, in a loud ringing voice, “Eternity, oh, G.o.d!”
and raised his hand.
There was a crash, a ripping of window screen. Coatless, hatless, his shirt gaping at the neck, his deep chest heaving, Martin swept into the room like a storm, flung himself in front of Joan, staggered as the bullet hit him, cried out her name, crumpled into a heap at her feet.