Author's Note: In a moment of hasty misjudgment a whole
paragraph of description was lifted out of this tale where it
originated, and properly belongs, and applied to quite a
different character in a novel of mine. I have ventured
nonetheless to leave it here, even at the risk of seeming to
serve warmed-over fare.
I was near her, for I had lingered behind in order to get the
short walk with her from the living room to the front door. That
was a lot, for she had flowered suddenly and I, being a man and
only a year older, hadn't flowered at all, had scarcely dared to
come near her in the week we'd been home. Nor was I going to say
anything in that walk of ten feet, or touch her; but I had a
vague hope she'd do something, give a gay little performance of
some sort, personal only in so far as we were alone together.
She had bewitchment suddenly in the twinkle of short hairs on
her neck, in the sure, clear confidence that at about eighteen
begins to deepen and sing in attractive American girls. The lamp
light shopped in the yellow strands of her hair.
Already she was sliding into another world--the world of Joe
Jelke and Jim Cathcart waiting for us now in the car. In another
year she would pass beyond me forever.
As I waited, feeling the others outside in the snowy night,
feeling the excitement of Christmas week and the excitement of
Ellen here, blooming away, filling the room with "sex appeal"--a
wretched phrase to express a quality that isn't like that at
all--a maid came in from the dining room, spoke to Ellen quietly
and handed her a note. Ellen read it and her eyes faded down, as
when the current grows weak on rural circuits, and smouldered off
into space. Then she gave me an odd look--in which I probably
didn't show--and without a word, followed the maid into the
dining room and beyond. I sat turning over the pages of a
magazine for a quarter of an hour.
Joe Jelke came in, red-faced from the cold, his white silk
muffler gleaming at the neck of his fur coat. He was a senior at
New Haven, I was a sophomore. He was prominent, a member of
Scroll and Keys, and, in my eyes, very distinguished and
"Isn't Ellen coming?"
"I don't know," I answered discreetly. "She was all
"Ellen!" he called. "Ellen!"
He had left the front door open behind him and a great cloud
of frosty air rolled in from outside. He went halfway up the
stairs--he was a familiar in the house--and called again, till
Mrs. Baker came to the banister and said that Ellen was below.
Then the maid, a little excited, appeared in the dining-room
"Mr. Jelke," she called in a low voice.
Joe's face fell as he turned toward her, sensing bad news.
"Miss Ellen says for you to go on to the party. She'll come
"What's the matter?"
"She can't come now. She'll come later."
He hesitated, confused. It was the last big dance of vacation,
and he was mad about Ellen. He had tried to give her a ring for
Christmas, and failing that, got her to accept a gold mesh bag
that must have cost two hundred dollars. He wasn't the only
one--there were three or four in the same wild condition, and all
in the ten days she'd been home--but his chance came first, for
he was rich and gracious and at that moment the "desirable" boy
of St. Paul. To me it seemed impossible that she could prefer
another, but the rumor was she'd described Joe as much too
perfect. I suppose he lacked mystery for her, and when a man is
up against that with a young girl who isn't thinking of the
practical side of marriage yet--well--.
"She's in the kitchen," Joe said angrily.
"No, she's not." The maid was defiant and a little scared.
"She went out the back way, Mr. Jelke."
"I'm going to see."
I followed him. The Swedish servants washing dishes looked up
sideways at our approach and an interested crashing of pans
marked our passage through. The storm door, unbolted, was
flapping in the wind and as we walked out into the snowy yard we
saw the tail light of a car turn the corner at the end of the
"I'm going after her," Joe said slowly. "I don't understand
this at all."
I was too awed by the calamity to argue. We hurried to his car
and drove in a fruitless, despairing zigzag all over the
residence section, peering into every machine on the streets. It
was half an hour before the futility of the affair began to dawn
upon him--St. Paul is a city of almost three hundred thousand
people--and Jim Cathcart reminded him that we had another girl to
stop for. Like a wounded animal he sank into a melancholy mass of
fur in the corner, from which position he jerked upright every
few minutes and waved himself backward and forward a little in
protest and despair.
Jim's girl was ready and impatient, but after what had
happened her impatience didn't seem important. She looked lovely
though. That's one thing about Christmas vacation--the excitement
of growth and change and adventure in foreign parts transforming
the people you've known all your life. Joe Jelke was polite to
her in a daze--he indulged in one burst of short, loud, harsh
laughter by way of conversation--and we drove to the hotel.
The chauffeur approached it on the wrong side--the side on
which the line of cars was not putting forth guests--and because
of that we came suddenly upon Ellen Baker just getting out of a
small coupé. Even before we came to a stop, Joe Jelke had
jumped excitedly from the car.
Ellen turned toward us, a faintly distracted look--perhaps of
surprise, but certainly not of alarm--in her face; in fact, she
didn't seem very aware of us. Joe approached her with a stern,
dignified, injured and, I thought, just exactly correct reproof
in his expression. I followed.
Seated in the coupé--he had not dismounted to help
Ellen out--was a hard thin-faced man of about thirty-five with an
air of being scarred, and a slight sinister smile. His eyes were
a sort of taunt to the whole human family--they were the eyes of
an animal, sleepy and quiescent in the presence of another
species. They were helpless yet brutal, unhopeful yet confident.
It was as if they felt themselves powerless to originate
activity, but infinitely capable of profiting by a single gesture
of weakness in another.
Vaguely I placed him as one of the sort of men whom I had been
conscious of from my earliest youth as "hanging around"--leaning
with one elbow on the counters of tobacco stores, watching,
through heaven knows what small chink of the mind, the people who
hurried in and out. Intimate to garages, where he had vague
business conducted in undertones, to barber shops and to the
lobbies of theatres--in such places, anyhow, I placed the type,
if type it was, that he reminded me of. Sometimes his face bobbed
up in one of Tad's more savage cartoons, and I had always from
earliest boyhood thrown a nervous glance toward the dim
borderland where he stood, and seen him watching me and despising
me. Once, in a dream, he had taken a few steps toward me, jerking
his head back and muttering: "Say, kid" in what was intended to
be a reassuring voice, and I had broken for the door in terror.
This was that sort of man.
Joe and Ellen faced each other silently; she seemed, as I have
said, to be in a daze. It was cold, but she didn't notice that
her coat had blown open; Joe reached out and pulled it together,
and automatically she clutched it with her hand.
Suddenly the man in the coupé, who had been watching
them silently, laughed. It was a bare laugh, done with the
breath--just a noisy jerk of the head--but it was an insult if I
had ever heard one; definite and not to be passed over. I wasn't
surprised when Joe, who was quick tempered, turned to him angrily
"What's your trouble?"
The man waited a moment, his eyes shifting and yet staring,
and always seeing. Then he laughed again in the same way. Ellen
"Who is this--this--" Joe's voice trembled with annoyance.
"Look out now," said the man slowly.
Joe turned to me.
"Eddie, take Ellen and Catherine in, will you?" he said
quickly. . . . "Ellen, go with Eddie."
"Look out now," the man repeated.
Ellen made a little sound with her tongue and teeth, but she
didn't resist when I took her arm and moved her toward the side
door of the hotel. It struck me as odd that she should be so
helpless, even to the point of acquiescing by her silence in this
"Let it go, Joe!" I called back over my shoulder. "Come
Ellen, pulling against my arm, hurried us on. As we were
caught up into the swinging doors I had the impression that the
man was getting out of his coupé.
Ten minutes later, as I waited for the girls outside the
women's dressing-room, Joe Jelke and Jim Cathcart stepped out of
the elevator. Joe was very white, his eyes were heavy and glazed,
there was a trickle of dark blood on his forehead and on his
white muffler. Jim had both their hats in his hand.
"He hit Joe with brass knuckles," Jim said in a low voice.
"Joe was out cold for a minute or so. I wish you'd send a bell
boy for some witch-hazel and court-plaster."
It was late and the hall was deserted; brassy fragments of the
dance below reached us as if heavy curtains were being blown
aside and dropping back into place. When Ellen came out I took
her directly downstairs. We avoided the receiving line and went
into a dim room set with scraggly hotel palms where couples
sometimes sat out during the dance; there I told her what had
"It was Joe's own fault," she said, surprisingly. "I told him
not to interfere."
This wasn't true. She had said nothing, only uttered one
curious little click of impatience.
"You ran out the back door and disappeared for almost an
hour," I protested. "Then you turned up with a hard-looking
customer who laughed in Joe's face."
"A hard-looking customer," she repeated, as if tasting the
sound of the words.
"Well, wasn't he? Where on earth did you get hold of him,
"On the train," she answered. Immediately she seemed to regret
this admission. "You'd better stay out of things that aren't your
business, Eddie. You see what happened to Joe."
Literally I gasped. To watch her, seated beside me,
immaculately glowing, her body giving off wave after wave of
freshness and delicacy--and to hear her talk like that.
"But that man's a thug!" I cried. "No girl could be safe with
him. He used brass knuckles on Joe--brass knuckles!"
"Is that pretty bad?"
She asked this as she might have asked such a question a few
years ago. She looked at me at last and really wanted an answer;
for a moment it was as if she were trying to recapture an
attitude that had almost departed; then she hardened again. I say
"hardened," for I began to notice that when she was concerned
with this man her eyelids fell a little, shutting other
things--everything else--out of view.
That was a moment I might have said something, I suppose, but
in spite of everything, I couldn't light into her. I was too much
under the spell of her beauty and its success. I even began to
find excuses for her--perhaps that man wasn't what he appeared to
be; or perhaps--more romantically--she was involved with him
against her will to shield some one else. At this point people
began to drift into the room and come up to speak to us. We
couldn't talk any more, so we went in and bowed to the
chaperones. Then I gave her up to the bright restless sea of the
dance, where she moved in an eddy of her own among the pleasant
islands of colored favors set out on tables and the south winds
from the brasses moaning across the hall. After a while I saw Joe
Jelke sitting in a corner with a strip of court-plaster on his
forehead watching Ellen as if she herself had struck him down,
but I didn't go up to him. I felt queer myself--like I feel when
I wake up after sleeping through an afternoon, strange and
portentous, as if something had gone on in the interval that
changed the values of everything and that I didn't see.
The night slipped on through successive phases of cardboard
horns, amateur tableaux and flashlights for the morning papers.
Then was the grand march and supper, and about two o'clock some
of the committee dressed up as revenue agents pinched the party,
and a facetious newspaper was distributed, burlesquing the events
of the evening. And all the time out of the corner of my eye I
watched the shining orchid on Ellen's shoulder as it moved like
Stuart's plume about the room. I watched it with a definite
foreboding until the last sleepy groups had crowded into the
elevators, and then, bundled to the eyes in great shapeless fur
coats, drifted out into the clear dry Minnesota night.
There is a sloping mid-section of our city which lies between
the residence quarter on the hill and the business district on
the level of the river. It is a vague part of town, broken by its
climb into triangles and odd shapes--there are names like Seven
Corners--and I don't believe a dozen people could draw an
accurate map of it, though every one traversed it by trolley,
auto or shoe leather twice a day. And though it was a busy
section, it would be hard for me to name the business that
comprised its activity. There were always long lines of trolley
cars waiting to start somewhere; there was a big movie theatre
and many small ones with posters of Hoot Gibson and Wonder Dogs
and Wonder Horses outside; there were small stores with "Old King
Brady" and "The Liberty Boys of '76" in the windows, and marbles,
cigarettes and candy inside; and--one definite place at least--a
fancy costumer whom we all visited at least once a year. Some
time during boyhood I became aware that one side of a certain
obscure street there were bawdy houses, and all through the
district were pawnshops, cheap jewellers, small athletic clubs
and gymnasiums and somewhat too blatantly run-down saloons.
The morning after the Cotillion Club party, I woke up late and
lazy, with the happy feeling that for a day or two more there was
no chapel, no classes--nothing to do but wait for another party
tonight. It was crisp and bright--one of those days when you
forget how cold it is until your cheek freezes--and the events of
the evening before seemed dim and far away. After luncheon I
started downtown on foot through a light, pleasant snow of small
flakes that would probably fall all afternoon, and I was about
half through that halfway section of town--so far as I know,
there's no inclusive name for it--when suddenly whatever idle
thought was in my head blew away like a hat and I began thinking
hard of Ellen Baker. I began worrying about her as I'd never
worried about anything outside myself before. I began to loiter,
with an instinct to go up on the hill again and find her and talk
to her; then I remembered that she was at a tea, and I went on
again, but still thinking of her, and harder than ever. Right
then the affair opened up again.
It was snowing, I said, and it was four o'clock on a December
afternoon, when there is a promise of darkness in the air and the
street lamps are just going on. I passed a combination pool
parlor and restaurant, with a stove loaded with hot-dogs in the
window, and a few loungers hanging around the door. The lights
were on inside--not bright lights but just a few pale yellow high
up on the ceiling--and the glow they threw out into the frosty
dusk wasn't bright enough to tempt you to stare inside. As I went
past, thinking hard of Ellen all this time, I took in the quartet
of loafers out of the corner of my eye. I hadn't gone half a
dozen steps down the street when one of them called to me, not by
name but in a way clearly intended for my ear. I thought it was a
tribute to my raccoon coat and paid no attention, but a moment
later whoever it was called to me again in a peremptory voice. I
was annoyed and turned around. There, standing in the group not
ten feet away and looking at me with the half-sneer on his face
with which he'd looked at Joe Jelke, was the scarred, thin-faced
man of the night before.
He had on a black fancy-cut coat, buttoned up to his neck as
if he were cold. His hands were deep in his pockets and he wore a
derby and high button shoes. I was startled, and for a moment I
hesitated, but I was most of all angry, and knowing that I was
quicker with my hands than Joe Jelke, I took a tentative step
back toward him. The other men weren't looking at me--I don't
think they saw me at all--but I knew that this one recognized me;
there was nothing casual about his look, no mistake.
"Here I am. What are you going to do about it?" his eyes
seemed to say.
I took another step toward him and he laughed soundlessly, but
with active contempt, and drew back into the group. I followed. I
was going to speak to him--I wasn't sure what I was going to
say--but when I came up he had either changed his mind and backed
off, or else he wanted me to follow him inside, for he had
slipped off and the three men watched my intent approach without
curiosity. They were the same kind--sporty, but, unlike him,
smooth rather than truculent; I didn't find any personal malice
in their collective glance.
"Did he go inside?" I asked.
They looked at one another in that cagy way; a wink passed
between them, and after a perceptible pause, one said:
"Who go inside?"
"I don't know his name."
There was another wink. Annoyed and determined, I walked past
them and into the pool room. There were a few people at a lunch
counter along one side and a few more playing billiards, but he
was not among them.
Again I hesitated. If his idea was to lead me into any blind
part of the establishment--there were some half-open doors
farther back--I wanted more support. I went up to the man at the
"What became of the fellow who just walked in here?"
Was he on his guard immediately, or was that my
"Thin face--derby hat."
"How long ago?"
He shook his head again. "Didn't see him," he said.
I waited. The three men from outside had come in and were
lined up beside me at the counter. I felt that all of them were
looking at me in a peculiar way. Feeling helpless and
increasingly uneasy, I turned suddenly and went out. A little way
down the street I turned again and took a good look at the place,
so I'd know it and could find it again. On the next corner I
broke impulsively into a run, found a taxicab in front of the
hotel and drove back up the hill.
Ellen wasn't home. Mrs. Baker came downstairs and talked to
me. She seemed entirely cheerful and proud of Ellen's beauty, and
ignorant of anything being amiss or of anything unusual having
taken place the night before. She was glad that vacation was
almost over--it was a strain and Ellen wasn't very strong. Then
she said something that relieved my mind enormously. She was glad
that I had come in, for of course Ellen would want to see me, and
the time was so short. She was going back at half-past eight
"Tonight!" I exclaimed. "I thought it was the day after
"She's going to visit the Brokaws in Chicago," Mrs. Baker
said. "They want her for some party. We just decided it today.
She's leaving with the Ingersoll girls tonight."
I was so glad I could barely restrain myself from shaking her
hand. Ellen was safe. It had been nothing all along but a moment
of the most casual adventure. I felt like an idiot, but I
realized how much I cared about Ellen and how little I could
endure anything terrible happening to her.
"She'll be in soon?"
"Any minute now. She just phoned from the University
I said I'd be over later--I lived almost next door and I
wanted to be alone. Outside I remembered I didn't have a key, so
I started up the Bakers' driveway to take the old cut we used in
childhood through the intervening yard. It was still snowing, but
the flakes were bigger now against the darkness, and trying to
locate the buried walk I noticed that the Bakers' back door was
I scarcely know why I turned and walked into that kitchen.
There was a time when I would have known the Bakers' servants by
name. That wasn't true now, but they knew me, and I was aware of
a sudden suspension as I came in--not only a suspension of talk
but of some mood or expectation that had filled them. They began
to go to work too quickly; they made unnecessary movements and
clamor--those three. The parlor maid looked at me in a frightened
way and I suddenly guessed she was waiting to deliver another
message. I beckoned her into the pantry.
"I know all about this," I said. "It's a very serious
business. Shall I go to Mrs. Baker now, or will you shut and lock
that back door?"
"Don't tell Mrs. Baker, Mr. Stinson!"
"Then I don't want Miss Ellen disturbed. If she is--and if she
is I'll know of it--" I delivered some outrageous threat about
going to all the employment agencies and seeing she never got
another job in the city. She was thoroughly intimidated when I
went out; it wasn't a minute before the back door was locked and
bolted behind me.
Simultaneously I heard a big car drive up in front, chains
crunching on the soft snow; it was bringing Ellen home, and I
went in to say good-by.
Joe Jelke and two other boys were along, and none of the three
could manage to take their eyes off her, even to say hello to me.
She had one of those exquisite rose skins frequent in our part of
the country, and beautiful until the little veins begin to break
at about forty; now, flushed with the cold, it was a riot of
lovely delicate pinks like many carnations. She and Joe had
reached some sort of reconciliation, or at least he was too far
gone in love to remember last night; but I saw that though she
laughed a lot she wasn't really paying any attention to him or
any of them. She wanted them to go, so that there'd be a message
from the kitchen, but I knew that the message wasn't coming--that
she was safe. There was talk of the Pump and Slipper dance at New
Haven and of the Princeton Prom, and then, in various moods, we
four left and separated quickly outside. I walked home with a
certain depression of spirit and lay for an hour in a hot bath
thinking that vacation was all over for me now that she was gone;
feeling, even more deeply than I had yesterday, that she was out
of my life.
And something eluded me, some one more thing to do, something
that I had lost amid the events of the afternoon, promising
myself to go back and pick it up, only to find that it had
escaped me. I associated it vaguely with Mrs. Baker, and now I
seemed to recall that it had poked up its head somewhere in the
stream of conversation with her. In my relief about Ellen I had
forgotten to ask her a question regarding something she had
The Brokaws--that was it--where Ellen was to visit. I knew
Bill Brokaw well; he was in my class at Yale. Then I remembered
and sat bolt upright in the tub--the Brokaws weren't in Chicago
this Christmas; they were at Palm Beach!
Dripping I sprang out of the tub, threw an insufficient union
suit around my shoulders and sprang for the phone in my room. I
got the connection quick, but Miss Ellen had already started for
Luckily our car was in, and while I squirmed, still damp, into
my clothes, the chauffeur brought it around to the door. The
night was cold and dry, and we made good time to the station
through the hard, crusty snow. I felt queer and insecure starting
out this way, but somehow more confident as the station loomed up
bright and new against the dark, cold air. For fifty years my
family had owned the land on which it was built and that made my
temerity seem all right somehow. There was always a possibility
that I was rushing in where angels feared to tread, but that
sense of having a solid foothold in the past made me willing to
make a fool of myself. This business was all wrong--terribly
wrong. Any idea I had entertained that it was harmless dropped
away now; between Ellen and some vague overwhelming catastrophe
there stood me, or else the police and a scandal. I'm no
moralist--there was another element here, dark and frightening,
and I didn't want Ellen to go through it alone.
There are three competing trains from St. Paul to Chicago that
all leave within a few minutes of half-past eight. Hers was the
Burlington, and as I ran across the station I saw the grating
being pulled over and the light above it go out. I knew, though,
that she had a drawing-room with the Ingersoll girls, because her
mother had mentioned buying the ticket, so she was, literally
speaking, tucked in until tomorrow.
The C., M. & St. P. gate was down at the other end and I
raced for it and made it. I had forgotten one thing, though, and
that was enough to keep me awake and worried half the night. This
train got into Chicago ten minutes after the other. Ellen had
that much time to disappear into one of the largest cities in the
I gave the porter a wire to my family to send from Milwaukee,
and at eight o'clock next morning I pushed violently by a whole
line of passengers, clamoring over their bags parked in the
vestibule, and shot out of the door with a sort of scramble over
the porter's back. For a moment the confusion of a great station,
the voluminous sounds and echoes and cross-currents of bells and
smoke struck me helpless. Then I dashed for the exit and toward
the only chance I knew of finding her.
I had guessed right. She was standing at the telegraph
counter, sending off heaven knows what black lie to her mother,
and her expression when she saw me had a sort of terror mixed up
with its surprise. There was cunning in it too. She was thinking
quickly--she would have liked to walk away from me as if I
weren't there, and go about her own business, but she couldn't. I
was too matter-of-fact a thing in her life. So we stood silently
watching each other and each thinking hard.
"The Brokaws are in Florida," I said after a minute.
"It was nice of you to take such a long trip to tell me
"Since you've found it out, don't you think you'd better go on
"Please let me alone, Eddie," she said.
"I'll go as far as New York with you. I've decided to go back
"You'd better let me alone." Her lovely eyes narrowed and her
face took on a look of dumb-animal-like resistance. She made a
visible effort, the cunning flickered back into it, then both
were gone, and in their stead was a cheerful reassuring smile
that all but convinced me.
"Eddie, you silly child, don't you think I'm old enough to
take care of myself?" I didn't answer. "I'm going to meet a man,
you understand. I just want to see him today. I've got my ticket
East on the five o'clock train. If you don't believe it, here it
is in my bag."
"I believe you."
"The man isn't anybody that you know and--frankly, I think
you're being awfully fresh and impossible."
"I know who the man is."
Again she lost control of her face. That terrible expression
came back into it and she spoke with almost a snarl:
"You'd better let me alone."
I took the blank out of her hand and wrote out an explanatory
telegram to her mother. Then I turned to Ellen and said a little
"We'll take the five o'clock train East together. Meanwhile
you're going to spend the day with me."
The mere sound of my own voice saying this so emphatically
encouraged me, and I think it impressed her too; at any rate, she
submitted--at least temporarily--and came along without protest
while I bought my ticket.
When I start to piece together the fragments of that day a
sort of confusion begins, as if my memory didn't want to yield up
any of it, or my consciousness let any of it pass through. There
was a bright, fierce morning during which we rode about in a
taxicab and went to a department store where Ellen said she
wanted to buy something and then tried to slip away from me by a
back way. I had the feeling, for an hour, that someone was
following us along Lake Shore Drive in a taxicab, and I would try
to catch them by turning quickly or looking suddenly into the
chauffeur's mirror; but I could find no one, and when I turned
back I could see that Ellen's face was contorted with mirthless,
All morning there was a raw, bleak wind off the lake, but when
we went to the Blackstone for lunch a light snow came down past
the windows and we talked almost naturally about our friends, and
about casual things. Suddenly her tone changed; she grew serious
and looked me in the eye, straight and sincere.
"Eddie, you're the oldest friend I have," she said, "and you
oughtn't to find it too hard to trust me. If I promise you
faithfully on my word of honor to catch that five o'clock train,
will you let me alone a few hours this afternoon?"
"Well"--she hesitated and hung her head a little--"I guess
everybody has a right to say--good-by."
"You want to say good-by to that--"
"Yes, yes," she said hastily; "just a few hours, Eddie, and I
promise faithfully that I'll be on that train."
"Well, I suppose no great harm could be done in two hours. If
you really want to say good-by--"
I looked up suddenly, and surprised a look of such tense
cunning in her face that I winced before it. Her lip was curled
up and her eyes were slits again; there wasn't the faintest touch
of fairness and sincerity in her whole face.
We argued. The argument was vague on her part and somewhat
hard and reticent on mine. I wasn't going to be cajoled again
into any weakness or be infected with any--and there was a
contagion of evil in the air. She kept trying to imply, without
any convincing evidence to bring forward, that everything was all
right. Yet she was too full of the thing itself--whatever it
was--to build up a real story, and she wanted to catch at any
credulous and acquiescent train of thought that might start in my
head, and work that for all it was worth. After every reassuring
suggestion she threw out, she stared at me eagerly, as if she
hoped I'd launch into a comfortable moral lecture with the
customary sweet at the end--which in this case would be her
liberty. But I was wearing her away a little. Two or three times
it needed just a touch of pressure to bring her to the point of
tears--which, of course, was what I wanted--but I couldn't seem
to manage it. Almost I had her--almost possessed her interior
attention--then she would slip away.
I bullied her remorselessly into a taxi about four o'clock and
started for the station. The wind was raw again, with a sting of
snow in it, and the people in the streets, waiting for busses and
street cars too small to take them all in, looked cold and
disturbed and unhappy. I tried to think how lucky we were to be
comfortably off and taken care of, but all the warm, respectable
world I had been part of yesterday had dropped away from me.
There was something we carried with us now that was the enemy and
the opposite of all that; it was in the cabs beside us, the
streets we passed through. With a touch of panic, I wondered if I
wasn't slipping almost imperceptibly into Ellen's attitude of
mind. The column of passengers waiting to go aboard the train
were as remote from me as people from another world, but it was I
that was drifting away and leaving them behind.
My lower was in the same car with her compartment. It was an
old-fashioned car, its lights somewhat dim, its carpets and
upholstery full of the dust of another generation. There were
half a dozen other travellers, but they made no special
impression on me, except that they shared the unreality that I
was beginning to feel everywhere around me. We went into Ellen's
compartment, shut the door and sat down.
Suddenly I put my arms around her and drew her over to me,
just as tenderly as I knew how--as if she were a little girl--as
she was. She resisted a little, but after a moment she submitted
and lay tense and rigid in my arms.
"Ellen," I said helplessly, "you asked me to trust you. You
have much more reason to trust me. Wouldn't it help to get rid of
all this, if you told me a little?"
"I can't," she said, very low--"I mean, there's nothing to
"You met this man on the train coming home and you fell in
love with him, isn't that true?"
"I don't know."
"Tell me, Ellen. You fell in love with him?"
"I don't know. Please let me alone."
"Call it anything you want," I went on, "he has some sort of
hold over you. He's trying to use you; he's trying to get
something from you. He's not in love with you."
"What does that matter?" she said in a weak voice.
"It does matter. Instead of trying to fight this--this
thing--you're trying to fight me. And I love you, Ellen. Do you
hear? I'm telling you all of a sudden, but it isn't new with me.
I love you."
She looked at me with a sneer on her gentle face; it was an
expression I had seen on men who were tight and didn't want to be
taken home. But it was human. I was reaching her, faintly and
from far away, but more than before.
"Ellen, I want you to answer me one question. Is he going to
be on this train?"
She hesitated; then, an instant too late, she shook her
"Be careful, Ellen. Now I'm going to ask you one thing more,
and I wish you'd try very hard to answer. Coming West, when did
this man get on the train?"
"I don't know," she said with an effort.
Just at that moment I became aware, with the unquestionable
knowledge reserved for facts, that he was just outside the door.
She knew it, too; the blood left her face and that expression of
low-animal perspicacity came creeping back. I lowered my face
into my hands and tried to think.
We must have sat there, with scarcely a word, for well over an
hour. I was conscious that the lights of Chicago, then of
Englewood and of endless suburbs, were moving by, and then there
were no more lights and we were out on the dark flatness of
Illinois. The train seemed to draw in upon itself; it took on an
air of being alone. The porter knocked at the door and asked if
he could make up the berth, but I said no and he went away.
After a while I convinced myself that the struggle inevitably
coming wasn't beyond what remained of my sanity, my faith in the
essential all-rightness of things and people. That this person's
purpose was what we call "criminal," I took for granted, but
there was no need of ascribing to him an intelligence that
belonged to a higher plane of human, or inhuman, endeavor. It was
still as a man that I considered him, and tried to get at his
essence, his self-interest--what took the place in him of a
comprehensible heart--but I suppose I more than half knew what I
would find when I opened the door.
When I stood up Ellen didn't seem to see me at all. She was
hunched into the corner staring straight ahead with a sort of
film over her eyes, as if she were in a state of suspended
animation of body and mind. I lifted her and put two pillows
under her head and threw my fur coat over her knees. Then I knelt
beside her and kissed her two hands, opened the door and went out
into the hall.
I closed the door behind me and stood with my back against it
for a minute. The car was dark save for the corridor lights at
each end. There was no sound except the groaning of the couplers,
the even click-a-click of the rails and someone's loud sleeping
breath farther down the car. I became aware after a moment that
the figure of a man was standing by the water cooler just outside
the men's smoking room, his derby hat on his head, his coat
collar turned up around his neck as if he were cold, his hands in
his coat pockets. When I saw him, he turned and went into the
smoking room, and I followed. He was sitting in the far corner of
the long leather bench; I took the single armchair beside the
As I went in I nodded to him and he acknowledged my presence
with one of those terrible soundless laughs of his. But this time
it was prolonged, it seemed to go on forever, and mostly to cut
it short, I asked: "Where are you from?" in a voice I tried to
He stopped laughing and looked at me narrowly, wondering what
my game was. When he decided to answer, his voice was muffled as
though he were speaking through a silk scarf, and it seemed to
come from a long way off.
"I'm from St. Paul, Jack."
"Been making a trip home?"
He nodded. Then he took a long breath and spoke in a hard,
"You better get off at Fort Wayne, Jack."
He was dead. He was dead as hell--he had been dead all along,
but what force had flowed through him, like blood in his veins,
out to St. Paul and back, was leaving him now. A new outline--the
outline of him dead--was coming through the palpable figure that
had knocked down Joe Jelke.
He spoke again, with a sort of jerking effort:
"You get off at Fort Wayne, Jack, or I'm going to wipe you
out." He moved his hand in his coat pocket and showed me the
outline of a revolver.
I shook my head. "You can't touch me," I answered. "You see, I
know." His terrible eyes shifted over me quickly, trying to
determine whether or not I did know. Then he gave a snarl and
made as though he were going to jump to his feet.
"You climb off here or else I'm going to get you, Jack!" he
cried hoarsely. The train was slowing up for Fort Wayne and his
voice rang loud in the comparative quiet, but he didn't move from
his chair--he was too weak, I think--and we sat staring at each
other while workmen passed up and down outside the window banging
the brakes and wheels, and the engine gave out loud mournful
pants up ahead. No one got into our car. After a while the porter
closed the vestibule door and passed back along the corridor, and
we slid out of the murky yellow station light and into the long
What I remember next must have extended over a space of five
or six hours, though it comes back to me as something without any
existence in time--something that might have taken five minutes
or a year. There began a slow, calculated assault on me, wordless
and terrible. I felt what I can only call a strangeness stealing
over me--akin to the strangeness I had felt all afternoon, but
deeper and more intensified. It was like nothing so much as the
sensation of drifting away, and I gripped the arms of the chair
convulsively, as if to hang onto a piece in the living world.
Sometimes I felt myself going out with a rush. There would be
almost a warm relief about it, a sense of not caring; then, with
a violent wrench of the will, I'd pull myself back into the
Suddenly I realized that from a while back I had stopped
hating him, stopped feeling violently alien to him, and with the
realization, I went cold and sweat broke out all over my head. He
was getting around my abhorrence, as he had got around Ellen
coming West on the train; and it was just that strength he drew
from preying on people that had brought him up to the point of
concrete violence in St. Paul, and that, fading and flickering
out, still kept him fighting now.
He must have seen that faltering in my heart, for he spoke at
once, in a low, even, almost gentle voice: "You better go
"Oh, I'm not going," I forced myself to say.
"Suit yourself, Jack."
He was my friend, he implied. He knew how it was with me and
he wanted to help. He pitied me. I'd better go away before it was
too late. The rhythm of his attack was soothing as a song: I'd
better go away--and let him get at Ellen. With a little
cry I sat bolt upright.
"What do you want of this girl?" I said, my voice shaking. "To
make a sort of walking hell of her."
His glance held a quality of dumb surprise, as if I were
punishing an animal for a fault of which he was not conscious.
For an instant I faltered; then I went on blindly:
"You've lost her; she's put her trust in me."
His countenance went suddenly black with evil, and he cried:
"You're a liar!" in a voice that was like cold hands.
"She trusts me," I said. "You can't touch her. She's
He controlled himself. His face grew bland, and I felt that
curious weakness and indifference begin again inside me. What was
the use of all this? What was the use?
"You haven't got much time left," I forced myself to say, and
then, in a flash of intuition, I jumped at the truth. "You died,
or you were killed, not far from here!"--Then I saw what I had
not seen before--that his forehead was drilled with a small round
hole like a larger picture nail leaves when it's pulled from a
plaster wall. "And now you're sinking. You've only got a few
hours. The trip home is over!"
His face contorted, lost all semblance of humanity, living or
dead. Simultaneously the room was full of cold air and with a
noise that was something between a paroxysm of coughing and a
burst of horrible laughter, he was on his feet, reeking of shame
"Come and look!" he cried. "I'll show you--"
He took a step toward me, then another and it was exactly as
if a door stood open behind him, a door yawning out to an
inconceivable abyss of darkness and corruption. There was a
scream of mortal agony, from him or from somewhere behind, and
abruptly the strength went out of him in a long husky sigh and he
wilted to the floor. . . .
How long I sat there, dazed with terror and exhaustion, I
don't know. The next thing I remember is the sleepy porter
shining shoes across the room from me, and outside the window the
steel fires of Pittsburgh breaking the flat perspective
also--something too faint for a man, too heavy for a shadow, of
the night. There was something extended on the bench. Even as I
perceived it it faded off and away.
Some minutes later I opened the door of Ellen's compartment.
She was asleep where I had left her. Her lovely cheeks were white
and wan, but she lay naturally--her hands relaxed and her
breathing regular and clear. What had possessed her had gone out
of her, leaving her exhausted but her own dear self again.
I made her a little more comfortable, tucked a blanket around
her, extinguished the light and went out.
When I came home for Easter vacation, almost my first act was
to go down to the billiard parlor near Seven Corners. The man at
the cash register quite naturally didn't remember my hurried
visit of three months before.
"I'm trying to locate a certain party who, I think, came here
a lot some time ago."
I described the man rather accurately, and when I had
finished, the cashier called to a little jockeylike fellow who
was sitting near with an air of having something very important
to do that he couldn't quite remember.
"Hey, Shorty, talk to this guy, will you? I think he's looking
for Joe Varland."
The little man gave me a tribal look of suspicion. I went and
sat near him.
"Joe Varland's dead, fella," he said grudgingly. "He died last
I described him again--his overcoat, his laugh, the habitual
expression of his eyes.
"That's Joe Varland you're looking for all right, but he's
"I want to find out something about him."
"What you want to find out?"
"What did he do, for instance?"
"How should I know?"
"Look here! I'm not a policeman. I just want some kind of
information about his habits. He's dead now and it can't hurt
him. And it won't go beyond me."
"Well"--he hesitated, looking me over--"he was a great one for
travelling. He got in a row in the station in Pittsburgh and a
dick got him."
I nodded. Broken pieces of the puzzle began to assemble in my
"Why was he a lot on trains?"
"How should I know, fella?"
"If you can use ten dollars, I'd like to know anything you may
have heard on the subject."
"Well," said Shorty reluctantly, "all I know is they used to
say he worked the trains."
"Worked the trains?"
"He had some racket of his own he'd never loosen up about. He
used to work the girls travelling alone on the trains. Nobody
ever knew much about it--he was a pretty smooth guy--but
sometimes he'd turn up here with a lot of dough and he let 'em
know it was the janes he got it off of."
I thanked him and gave him the ten dollars and went out, very
thoughtful, without mentioning that part of Joe Varland had made
a last trip home.
Ellen wasn't West for Easter, and even if she had been I
wouldn't have gone to her with the information, either--at least
I've seen her almost every day this summer and we've managed to
talk about everything else. Sometimes, though, she gets silent
about nothing and wants to be very close to me, and I know what's
in her mind.
Of course she's coming out this fall, and I have two more
years at New Haven; still, things don't look so impossible as
they did a few months ago. She belongs to me in a way--even if I
lose her she belongs to me. Who knows? Anyhow, I'll always be