In a neighbor's yard a little girl looked on with the crude curiosity of a child. After the man had tried the house all about, and rightly imagining from all that was said of the Koerners in the neighborhood that the law was about to indulge in some new and sensational ribaldry with them, she called out in a shrill, important voice:
"They're in there, Mister!"
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, honest!" said the officious little girl, drawing her chin in affectedly. "Cross my heart, it's so."
Then the deputy put his shoulder to the door; presently it gave.
In the front room, on the plush lounge, lay the two children, Jakie and Katie, their throats cut from ear to ear. In the dining-room, where there had been a struggle, lay the body of Mrs. Koerner, her throat likewise cut from ear to ear. And from four huge nails driven closely together into the lintel of the kitchen door, hung the body of old man Koerner, with its one long leg just off the floor, and from his long yellow face hung the old man's tongue, as if it were his last impotent effort to express his scorn of the law, whose emissaries he expected to find him there.
The series of dark events that had so curiously interwrought themselves into the life of Elizabeth Ward seemed, as far as the mind of mortals could determine, to find its close in the tragedy which the despairing Koerner contrived in his household. The effects of all these related circumstances on those who, however remotely, were concerned in them, could not, of course, be estimated; but the horror they produced in Elizabeth made the end of that winter a season of depression that left a permanent impress on her life and character. For weeks she was bewildered and afraid, but as the days went by those events began to assume in her retrospective vision their proper relations in a world that speedily forgot them in its contemplation of other events exactly like them, and she tried to pass them in review; the Koerners all were dead, save Gusta, and she was worse than dead; Kouka and Hunter were dead; Dick was still astray; Graves and all that horde of poor and criminal, whose faces for an instant had been turned up in appeal to her, had sunk into the black abyss again. What did it all mean?
She sought an answer to the questions, but could find none. No one could help her; few, indeed, could understand what it was she wished to know. Her father thought the market quotations important; her mother was absorbed in the way in which certain persons dressed, or served their meals, or arranged their entertainments; as for the church, where once she might have gone for help, it was not interested in her question.
The philosophers and the poets that had been her favorites had now for her new meanings, it is true, but they had been writing of the poor and the imprisoned for ages, and yet that very morning in that very city, not far away, there were countless poor and criminal, and as fast as these died or disappeared or were put to prison or to death, others appeared to take their places; the courts ground on, the prisons were promptly filled, the scenes she had witnessed in the slums and at the prisons were daily reenacted with ever-increasing numbers to take the places of those who went down in the process. And men continued to talk learnedly and solemnly of law and justice.
She thought of Marriott's efforts to save Archie; she thought of her own efforts; the Organized Charities squabbling as to whether it would open its meetings with prayer or not, whether it would hold an entertainment in a theater or some other building; she remembered the tedious statistics and the talk about the industrious and the idle, the frugal and the wasteful, the worthy and the unworthy. When, she wondered, had the young curate ever worked? who had declared him worthy? When, indeed, had she herself ever worked? who had declared her worthy?
But this was not all: there were other distinctions; besides the rich and the poor, the worthy and the unworthy, there were the "good" and the "bad." She indeed, herself, had once thought that mankind was thus divided, one class being rich, worthy and good, and the other class poor, unworthy and bad. But now, while she could distinguish between the rich and poor, she could no longer draw a line between the good and the bad, or the worthy and the unworthy, though it did not seem difficult to some people,--Eades, for instance, who, with his little stated formula of life, thought he could make the world good by locking up all the bad people in one place. Surely, she thought, Eades could not do this; he could lock up only the poor people. And a new question troubled Elizabeth: was the one crime, then, in being poor? But gradually these questions resolved themselves into one question that included all the others. "What," she asked herself, "does life mean to me? What attitude am I to adopt toward it? In a word, what am I, a girl, having all my life been carefully sheltered from these things and having led an idle existence, with none but purely artificial duties to perform--what am I to do?"
The first thing, she told herself, was to look at the world in a new light: a light that would reveal, distinctly, all the poor, all the criminal in the great, haggard, cruel city, not as beings of another nature, of another kind or of another class, different from herself, and from whom she must separate herself, but as human beings, no matter how wretched or miserable, exactly like herself, bound to her by ties that nothing could break. They might, indeed, be denied everything else, but they could not be denied this kinship; they claimed it by right of a common humanity and a common divinity. And, beginning to look on them in this new light, she found she was looking on them in a new pity, a new sympathy, yes, a new love. And suddenly she found the peace and the happiness of a new life, like that which came with the great awakening of the spring.
For spring had come again. All that morning a warm rain had fallen and the green sward eagerly soaked it up. The young leaves of the trees were glistening wet, the raindrops clung in little rows, like strings of jewels, to the slender, shining twigs; they danced on the swimming pavement, and in the gutters there poured along a yellow stream with great white bubbles floating gaily on its surface. The day was still; now and then she could hear the hoof-beats of the horses that trotted nervously over the slippery asphalt. It rained softly, patiently, as if it had always rained, as if it always would rain; the day was gray, but in the yard a robin chirped.
Yes, thought Elizabeth, as she faced life in her new attitude, the Koerners' tragedies are not the only ones. For all about her she saw people who, though they moved and ate and talked and bustled to and fro, were yet dead; the very souls within them were atrophied and dead; that is, dead to all that is real and vital in existence. They who could so complacently deny life to others were at the same time denying life to themselves. The tragedy had not been Koerner's alone; it had been Ford's as well; Eades could not punish Archie without punishing himself; Modderwell, in excluding Gusta, must exclude himself; and Dick might cause others to suffer, but he must suffer more. He paid the penalty just as all those in her narrow little world paid the penalty and kept on paying the penalty until they were bankrupts in soul and spirit. The things they considered important and counted on to give them happiness, gave them no happiness; they were the most unhappy of all, and far more desperate because they did not realize why they were unhappy. The poor were not more poor, more unhappy, more hungry, or more squalid. There was no hunger so gnawing as that infinite hunger of the soul, no poverty so squalid as the poverty of mere possession. And there were crimes that printed statutes did not define, and laws that were not accidents, but harmoniously acting and reacting in the moral world, revisited this cruelty, this savagery, this brutality with increasing force upon those who had inflicted it on others. And as she thought of all the evil deeds of that host of mankind known as criminals, and of that other host that punished them, she saw that both crime and punishment emanated from the same ignorant spirit of cruelty and fear. Would they ever learn of the great equity and tolerance, the simple love in nature? They had but to look at the falling rain, or at the sun when it shone again, to read the simple and sufficient lesson. No, she would not disown these people, any of them. She must live among them, she must feast or starve, laugh or cry, despair or triumph with them; she must bear their burdens or lay her own upon them, and so be brought close to them in the great bond of human sympathy and love, for only by love, she saw, shall the world be redeemed.
Meanwhile, everything went on as before. The peculiar spiritual experience through which Elizabeth was passing she kept largely to herself: she could not discuss it with any one; somehow, she would have found it impossible, because she realized that all those about her, except perhaps Marriott, would consider it all ridiculous and look at her in a queer, disconcerting way. She saw few persons outside of her own family; people spoke of her as having settled down, and began to forget her. But she saw much of Marriott; their old friendly relations, resumed at the time the trouble of Gusta and Archie and Dick had brought them together, had grown more intimate. Of Eades she saw nothing at all, and perhaps because both she and Marriott were conscious of a certain restraint with respect to him, his name was never mentioned between them. But at last an event occurred that broke even this restraint: it was announced that Eades was to be married. He was to marry an eastern girl who had visited in the city the winter before and now had come back again. She had been the object of much social attention, partly because she was considered beautiful, but more, perhaps, because she was in her own right very wealthy. She had, in truth, a pretty, though vain and selfish little face; she dressed exquisitely, and she had magnificent auburn, that is, red hair. People were divided as to what color it really was, though all spoke of it as "artistic." And now it was announced that she had been won by John Eades; the wedding was to occur in the autumn. The news had interested Marriott, of course, and he could not keep from imparting it to Elizabeth; indeed, he could not avoid a certain tone of triumph when he told her. He had seen Eades that very morning in the court-house; he seemed to Marriott to have grown heavier, which may have been the effect of a new coat he wore, or of the prosperousness and success that were surely coming to him. He was one of those men whom the whole community would admire; he would always do the thing appropriate to the occasion; it would, somehow, be considered in bad form to criticize him.
The newspapers had the habit of praising him; he was popular--precisely that, for while he had few friends and no intimates, everybody in the city approved him. He was just then being mentioned for Congress, and even for the governorship.
Yes, thought Marriott, Eades is a man plainly marked for success; everything will come his way. Eades had stopped long enough--and just long enough--to take Marriott's hand, to smile, to ask him the proper questions, to tell him he was looking well, that he must drop in and see him, and then he had hastened away. Marriott had felt a new quality in Eades's manner, but he could not isolate or specify it. Was Eades changing? He was changing physically, to be sure, he was growing stouter, but he was at the age for that; the youthful lines were being erased from his figure, just as the lines of maturity were being drawn in his face. Marriott thought it over, a question in his mind. Was success spoiling Eades?
But when Marriott told Elizabeth the news, she did not appear to be surprised; she did not even appear to be interested. The summer had come early that year; within a week it had burst upon them suddenly.
The night was so warm that they had gone out on the veranda. Marriott watched Elizabeth narrowly, there in the soft darkness, to note the effect. But apparently there was no effect. She sat quite still and said nothing. The noise of the city had died away into a harmony, and the air throbbed with the shrill, tiny sounds of hidden infinitesimal life. There came to them the fragrance of the lilacs, just blooming in the big yard of the Wards, and the fragrance of the lilacs brought to them memories. To Marriott, the fragrance brought memories of that night at Hazel Ford's wedding; he thought of it a long time, wondering.
After a while they left the veranda and strolled into the yard under the trees.
"Do you know," said Marriott, "I thought you would be surprised to hear of John Eades's engagement."
"Why?" she asked.
"Well, I don't know; no one had noticed that he was paying her any attention--" Suddenly he became embarrassed. He was still thinking of the evening at Hazel Ford's wedding, and he was wondering if Elizabeth were thinking of it, too, and this confused him.
"Oh," Elizabeth said, as if she had not noticed his hesitation, "I'm very glad--it's an appropriate match."
Then she was silent; she seemed to be thinking; and Marriott wondered what significance there was in the remark she had just made; did it have a tribute for Eades, or for the girl, or exactly the reverse?
"I was thinking," she began, as if in answer to his thought, and then suddenly she stopped and gave a little laugh. "Gordon," she went on, "can't you see them? Can't you see just what a life they will live--how correct, and proper, and successful--and empty, and hollow, and deadly it will be--going on year after year, year after year? Can't you see them with their conception of life, or rather, their lack of conception of it?" She had begun her sentence with a laugh, but she ended it in deep seriousness. And for some reason they stopped where they were; and suddenly, they knew that, at last, the moment had come. Just why they knew this they could not have told, either of them, but they knew that the moment had come, the moment toward which they had been moving for a long time. They felt it, that was all. And neither was surprised.
Words, indeed, were unnecessary. They had been talking, for the first time in months, of Eades, yet neither was thinking at all of the life Eades and his fashionable wife would lead, nor caring in the least about it. Marriott knew that in another instant he would tell Elizabeth what long had been in his heart, what he should have told her months ago, what he had come there that very night to tell her; he knew that everything he had said that night had been intended, in some way, to lead up to it; he was certain of it, and he thought quite calmly, and yet when he spoke and heard his own voice, its tone, though low, showed his excitement; and he heard himself saying:
"I am thinking--do you know of what? Well, of that night--"
And then, suddenly, he took her hands and poured out the unnecessary words.
"Elizabeth, do you know--I've always felt--well, that little incident that night at Hazel Ford's wedding; do you remember? I was so stupid, so bungling, so inept. I thought that Eades--that there was--something; I thought so for a long time. I wish I could explain--it was only because--I loved you!"
He could see her eyes glow in the darkness; he heard her catch her breath, and then he took her in his arms.
"Oh, Elizabeth, dearest, how I loved you! I had loved you for a long, long time, but that night for the first time I fully realized, and I thought then, in that moment, that I was too late, that there never had been--"
He drew her close to him, and bent his head and kissed her lips, her eyes, her hair.
"Oh, Gordon!" she whispered, lifting her face from his shoulder. "How very blind you were that night!"
Long after Marriott had gone, Elizabeth sat by her window and looked out into the night; above the trees the stars glowed in a purple sky. She was too happy for sleep, too happy for words. She sat there and dreamed of this love that had come to her, and tears filled her eyes. Because of this love, this love of Gordon Marriott, this love of all things, she need ask no more questions for a while. Love, that was the great law of life, would one day, in the end, explain and make all things clear. Not to her, necessarily, but to some one, to humanity, when, perhaps, through long ages of joy and sorrow, of conflict and sin, and in hope and faith, it had purified and perfected itself. And now by this love and by the new light within her, at last she was to live, to enter into life--life like that which had awakened in the world this brooding tropical night, with its soft glowing stars, its moist air, laden with the odor of lilacs and of the first blossoms of the fruit trees, and with the smell of the warm, rich, fecund earth.