Tom Squires came into the drug store to buy a toothbrush, a can of talcum, a gargle, Castile soap, Epsom salts and a box of cigars. Having lived alone for many years, he was methodical, and while waiting to be served he held the list in his hand. It was Christmas week and Minneapolis was under two feet of exhilarating, constantly refreshed snow; with his cane Tom knocked two clean crusts of it from his overshoes. Then, looking up, he saw the blonde girl.
She was a rare blonde, even in that Promised Land of Scandinavians, where pretty blondes are not rare. There was warm color in her cheeks, lips and pink little hands that folded powders into papers; her hair, in long braids twisted about her head, was shining and alive. She seemed to Tom suddenly the cleanest person he knew of, and he caught his breath as he stepped forward and looked into her gray eyes.
"A can of talcum."
"Any kind. . . . That's fine."
She looked back at him apparently without self-consciousness, and, as the list melted away, his heart raced with it wildly.
"I am not old," he wanted to say. "At fifty I'm younger than most men of forty. Don't I interest you at all?"
But she only said "What kind of gargle?"
And he answered, "What can you recommend? . . . That's fine."
Almost painfully he took his eyes from her, went out and got into his coupé.
"If that young idiot only knew what an old imbecile like me could do for her," he thought humorously--"what worlds I could open out to her!"
As he drove away into the winter twilight he followed this train of thought to a totally unprecedented conclusion. Perhaps the time of day was the responsible stimulant, for the shop windows glowing into the cold, the tinkling bells of a delivery sleigh, the white gloss left by shovels on the sidewalks, the enormous distance of the stars, brought back the feel of other nights thirty years ago. For an instant the girls he had known then slipped like phantoms out of their dull matronly selves of today and fluttered past him with frosty, seductive laughter, until a pleasant shiver crawled up his spine.
"Youth! Youth! Youth!" he apostrophized with conscious lack of originality, and, as a somewhat ruthless and domineering man of no morals whatsoever, he considered going back to the drug store to seek the blonde girl's address. It was not his sort of thing, so the half-formed intention passed; the idea remained.
"Youth, by heaven--youth!" he repeated under his breath. "I want it near me, all around me, just once more before I'm too old to care."
He was tall, lean and handsome, with the ruddy, bronzed face of a sportsman and a just faintly graying mustache. Once he had been among the city's best beaus, organizer of cotillions and charity balls, popular with men and women, and with several generations of them. After the war he had suddenly felt poor, gone into business, and in ten years accumulated nearly a million dollars. Tom Squires was not introspective, but he perceived now that the wheel of his life had revolved again, bringing up forgotten, yet familiar, dreams and yearnings. Entering his house, he turned suddenly to a pile of disregarded invitations to see whether or not he had been bidden to a dance tonight.
Throughout his dinner, which he ate alone at the Downtown Club, his eyes were half closed and on his face was a faint smile. He was practicing so that he would be able to laugh at himself painlessly, if necessary.
"I don't even know what they talk about," he admitted. "They pet--prominent broker goes to petting party with débutante. What is a petting party? Do they serve refreshments? Will I have to learn to play a saxophone?"
These matters, lately as remote as China in a news reel, came alive to him. They were serious questions. At ten o'clock he walked up the steps of the College Club to a private dance with the same sense of entering a new world as when he had gone into a training camp back in '17. He spoke to a hostess of his generation and to her daughter, overwhelmingly of another, and sat down in a corner to acclimate himself.
He was not alone long. A silly young man named Leland Jaques, who lived across the street from Tom, remarked him kindly and came over to brighten his life. He was such an exceedingly fatuous young man that, for a moment, Tom was annoyed, but he perceived craftily that he might be of service.
"Hello, Mr. Squires. How are you, sir?"
"Fine, thanks, Leland. Quite a dance."
As one man of the world with another, Mr. Jaques sat, or lay, down on the couch and lit--or so it seemed to Tom--three or four cigarettes at once.
"You should of been here last night, Mr. Squires. Oh, boy, that was a party and a half! The Caulkins. Hap-past five!"
"Who's that girl who changes partners every minute?" Tom asked. . . . "No, the one in white passing the door."
"That's Annie Lorry."
"Arthur Lorry's daughter?"
"She seems popular."
"About the most popular girl in town--anyway, at a dance."
"Not popular except at dances?"
"Oh, sure, but she hangs around with Randy Cambell all the time."
There were new names in town in the last decade.
"It's a boy-and-girl affair." Pleased with this phrase, Jaques tried to repeat it: "One of those boy-and-girls affair--boys-and-girl affairs--" He gave it up and lit several more cigarettes, crushing out the first series on Tom's lap.
"Does she drink?"
"Not especially. At least I never saw her passed out. . . . That's Randy Cambell just cut in on her now."
They were a nice couple. Her beauty sparkled bright against his strong, tall form, and they floated hoveringly, delicately, like two people in a nice, amusing dream. They came near and Tom admired the faint dust of powder over her freshness, the guarded sweetness of her smile, the fragility of her body calculated by Nature to a millimeter to suggest a bud, yet guarantee a flower. Her innocent, passionate eyes were brown, perhaps; but almost violet in the silver light.
"Is she out this year?"
Although the girl's loveliness interested Tom, he was unable to picture himself as one of the attentive, grateful queue that pursued her around the room. Better meet her when the holidays were over and most of these young men were back in college "where they belonged." Tom Squires was old enough to wait.
He waited a fortnight while the city sank into the endless northern midwinter, where gray skies were friendlier than metallic blue skies, and dusk, whose lights were a reassuring glimpse into the continuity of human cheer, was warmer than the afternoons of bloodless sunshine. The coat of snow lost its press and became soiled and shabby, and ruts froze in the street; some of the big houses on Crest Avenue began to close as their occupants went South. In those cold days Tom asked Annie and her parents to go as his guests to the last Bachelors' Ball.
The Lorrys were an old family in Minneapolis, grown a little harassed and poor since the war. Mrs. Lorry, a contemporary of Tom's, was not surprised that he should send mother and daughter orchids and dine them luxuriously in his apartment on fresh caviar, quail and champagne. Annie saw him only dimly--he lacked vividness, as the old do for the young--but she perceived his interest in her and performed for him the traditional ritual of young beauty--smiles, polite, wide-eyed attention, a profile held obligingly in this light or in that. At the ball he danced with her twice, and, though she was teased about it, she was flattered that such a man of the world--he had become that instead of a mere old man--had singled her out. She accepted his invitation to the symphony the following week, with the idea that it would be uncouth to refuse.
There were several "nice invitations" like that. Sitting beside him, she dozed in the warm shadow of Brahms and thought of Randy Cambell and other romantic nebulosities who might appear tomorrow. Feeling casually mellow one afternoon, she deliberately provoked Tom to kiss her on the way home, but she wanted to laugh when he took her hands and told her fervently he was falling in love.
"But how could you?" she protested. "Really, you musn't say such crazy things. I won't go out with you any more, and then you'll be sorry."
A few days later her mother spoke to her as Tom waited outside in his car:
"Who's that, Annie?"
"Shut the door a minute. You're seeing him quite a bit."
"Well, dear, he's fifty years old."
"But, mother, there's hardly anybody else in town."
"But you musn't get any silly ideas about him."
"Don't worry. Actually, he bores me to extinction most of the time." She came to a sudden decision: "I'm not going to see him any more. I just couldn't get out of going with him this afternoon."
And that night, as she stood by her door in the circle of Randy Cambell's arm, Tom and his single kiss had no existence for her.
"Oh, I do love you so," Randy whispered. "Kiss me once more."
Their cool cheeks and warm lips met in the crisp darkness, and, watching the icy moon over his shoulder, Annie knew that she was his surely and, pulling his face down, kissed him again, trembling with emotion.
"When'll you marry me then?" he whispered.
"When can you--we afford it?"
"Couldn't you announce our engagement? If you knew the misery of having you out with somebody else and then making love to you."
"Oh, Randy, you ask so much."
"It's so awful to say good night. Can't I come in for a minute?"
Sitting close together in a trance before the flickering, lessening fire, they were oblivious that their common fate was being coolly weighed by a man of fifty who lay in a hot bath some blocks away.
Tom Squires had guessed from Annie's extremely kind and detached manner of the afternoon that he had failed to interest her. He had promised himself that in such an eventuality he would drop the matter, but now he found himself in no such humor. He did not want to marry her; he simply wanted to see her and be with her a little; and up to the moment of her sweetly casual, half passionate, yet wholly unemotional kiss, giving her up would have been easy, for he was past the romantic age; but since that kiss the thought of her made his heart move up a few inches in his chest and beat there steady and fast.
"But this is the time to get out," he said to himself. "My age; no possible right to force myself into her life."
He rubbed himself dry, brushed his hair before the mirror, and, as he laid down the comb, said decisively: "That is that." And after reading for an hour he turned out the lamp with a snap and repeated aloud: "That is that."
In other words, that was not that at all, and the click of material things did not finish off Annie Lorry as a business decision might be settled by the tap of a pencil on the table.
"I'm going to carry this matter a little further," he said to himself about half-past four; on that acknowledgment he turned over and found sleep.
In the morning she had receded somewhat, but by four o'clock in the afternoon she was all around him--the phone was for calling her, a woman's footfalls passing his office were her footfalls, the snow outside the window was blowing, perhaps, against her rosy face.
"There is always the little plan I thought of last night," he said to himself. "In ten years I'll be sixty, and then no youth, no beauty for me ever any more."
In a sort of panic he took a sheet of note paper and composed a carefully phrased letter to Annie's mother, asking permission to pay court to her daughter. He took it himself into the hall, but before the letter slide he tore it up and dropped the pieces in a cuspidor.
"I couldn't do such an underhand trick," he told himself, "at my age." But this self-congratulation was premature, for he rewrote the letter and mailed it before he left his office that night.
Next day the reply he had counted on arrived--he could have guessed its very words in advance. It was a curt and indignant refusal.
I think it best that you and my daughter meet no more.
Very Sincerely Yours,
MABEL TOLLMAN LORRY.
"And now," Tom thought coolly, "we'll see what the girl says to that." He wrote a note to Annie. Her mother's letter had surprised him, it said, but perhaps it was best that they should meet no more, in view of her mother's attitude.
By return post came Annie's defiant answer to her mother's fiat: "This isn't the Dark Ages. I'll see you whenever I like." She named a rendezvous for the following afternoon. Her mother's short-sightedness brought about what he had failed to achieve directly; for where Annie had been on the point of dropping him, she was now determined to do nothing of the sort. And the secrecy engendered by disapproval at home simply contributed the missing excitement. As February hardened into deep, solemn, interminable winter, she met him frequently and on a new basis. Sometimes they drove over to St. Paul to see a picture or to have dinner; sometimes they parked far out on a boulevard in his coupé, while the bitter sleet glazed the windshield to opacity and furred his lamps with ermine. Often he brought along something special to drink--enough to make her gay, but, carefully, never more; for mingled with his other emotions about her was something paternally concerned.
Laying his cards on the table, he told her that it was her mother who had unwittingly pushed her toward him, but Annie only laughed at his duplicity.
She was having a better time with him than with anyone else she had ever known. In place of the selfish exigency of a younger man, he showed her a never-failing consideration. What if his eyes were tired, his cheeks a little leathery and veined, if his will was masculine and strong. Moreover, his experience was a window looking out upon a wider, richer world; and with Randy Cambell next day she would feel less taken care of, less valued, less rare.
It was Tom now who was vaguely discontented. He had what he wanted--her youth at his side--and he felt that anything further would be a mistake. His liberty was precious to him and he could offer her only a dozen years before he would be old, but she had become something precious to him and he perceived that drifting wasn't fair. Then one day late in February the matter was decided out of hand.
They had ridden home from St. Paul and dropped into the College Club for tea, breaking together through the drifts that masked the walk and rimmed the door. It was a revolving door; a young man came around in it, and stepping into his space, they smelt onions and whisky. The door revolved again after them, and he was back within, facing them. It was Randy Cambell; his face was flushed, his eyes dull and hard.
"Hello, beautiful," he said, approaching Annie.
"Don't come so close," she protested lightly. "You smell of onions."
"You're particular all of a sudden."
"Always. I'm always particular." Annie made a slight movement back toward Tom.
"Not always," said Randy unpleasantly. Then, with increased emphasis and a fractional glance at Tom: "Not always." With his remark he seemed to join the hostile world outside. "And I'll just give you a tip," he continued: "Your mother's inside."
The jealous ill-temper of another generation reached Tom only faintly, like the protest of a child, but at this impertinent warning he bristled with annoyance.
"Come on, Annie," he said brusquely. "We'll go in."
With her glance uneasily averted from Randy, Annie followed Tom into the big room.
It was sparsely populated; three middle-aged women sat near the fire. Momentarily Annie drew back, then she walked toward them.
"Hello, mother . . . Mrs. Trumble . . . Aunt Caroline."
The two latter responded; Mrs. Trumble even nodded faintly at Tom. But Annie's mother got to her feet without a word, her eyes frozen, her mouth drawn. For a moment she stood staring at her daughter; then she turned abruptly and left the room.
Tom and Annie found a table across the room.
"Wasn't she terrible?" said Annie, breathing aloud. He didn't answer.
"For three days she hasn't spoken to me." Suddenly she broke out: "Oh, people can be so small! I was going to sing the leading part in the Junior League show, and yesterday Cousin Mary Betts, the president, came to me and said I couldn't."
"Because a representative Junior League girl mustn't defy her mother. As if I were a naughty child!"
Tom stared on at a row of cups on the mantelpiece--two or three of them bore his name. "Perhaps she was right," he said suddenly. "When I begin to do harm to you it's time to stop."
"What do you mean?"
At her shocked voice his heart poured a warm liquid forth into his body, but he answered quietly: "You remember I told you I was going South? Well, I'm going tomorrow."
There was an argument, but he had made up his mind. At the station next evening she wept and clung to him.
"Thank you for the happiest month I've had in years," he said.
"But you'll come back, Tom."
"I'll be two months in Mexico; then I'm going East for a few weeks."
He tried to sound fortunate, but the frozen city he was leaving seemed to be in blossom. Her frozen breath was a flower on the air, and his heart sank as he realized that some young man was waiting outside to take her home in a car hung with blooms.
"Good-by, Annie. Good-by, sweet!"
Two days later he spent the morning in Houston with Hal Meigs, a classmate at Yale.
"You're in luck for such an old fella," said Meigs at luncheon, "because I'm going to introduce you to the cutest little traveling companion you ever saw, who's going all the way to Mexico City."
The lady in question was frankly pleased to learn at the station that she was not returning alone. She and Tom dined together on the train and later played rummy for an hour; but when, at ten o'clock, standing in the door of the stateroom, she turned back to him suddenly with a certain look, frank and unmistakable, and stood there holding that look for a long moment, Tom Squires was suddenly in the grip of an emotion that was not the one in question. He wanted desperately to see Annie, call her for a second on the phone, and then fall asleep, knowing she was young and pure as a star, and safe in bed.
"Good night," he said, trying to keep any repulsion out of his voice.
"Oh! Good night."
Arriving in El Paso next day, he drove over the border to Juarez. It was bright and hot, and after leaving his bags at the station he went into a bar for an iced drink; as he sipped it a girl's voice addressed him thickly from the table behind:
He had noticed her slumped forward on her elbows as he came in; now, turning, he faced a young girl of about seventeen, obviously drunk, yet with gentility in her unsteady, sprawling voice. The American bartender leaned confidentially forward.
"I don't know what to do about her," he said. "She come in about three o'clock with two young fellows--one of them her sweetie. They had a fight and the men went off, and this one's been here ever since."
A spasm of distaste passed over Tom--the rules of his generation were outraged and defied. That an American girl should be drunk and deserted in a tough foreign town--that such things happened, might happen to Annie. He looked at his watch, hesitated.
"Has she got a bill?" he asked.
"She owes for five gins. But suppose her boy friends come back?"
"Tell them she's at the Roosevelt Hotel in El Paso."
Approaching, he put his hand on her shoulder. She looked up.
"You look like Santa Claus," she said vaguely. "You couldn't possibly be Santa Claus, could you?"
"I'm going to take you to El Paso."
"Well," she considered, "you look perfectly safe to me."
She was so young--a drenched little rose. He could have wept for her wretched unconsciousness of the old facts, the old penalties of life. Jousting at nothing in an empty tilt yard with a shaking spear. The taxi moved too slowly through the suddenly poisonous night.
Having explained things to a reluctant night clerk, he went out and found a telegraph office.
"Have given up Mexican trip," he wired. "Leaving here tonight. Please meet train in the St. Paul station at three o'clock and ride with me to Minneapolis, as I can't spare you for another minute. All my love."
He could at least keep an eye on her, advise her, see what she did with her life. That silly mother of hers!
On the train, as the baked tropical lands and green fields fell away and the North swept near again with patches of snow, then fields of it, fierce winds in the vestibule and bleak, hibernating farms, he paced the corridors with intolerable restlessness. When they drew into the St. Paul station he swung himself off like a young man and searched the platform eagerly, but his eyes failed to find her. He had counted on those few minutes between the cities; they had become a symbol of her fidelity to their friendship, and as the train started again he searched it desperately from smoker to observation car. But he could not find her, and now he knew that he was mad for her; at the thought that she had taken his advice and plunged into affairs with other men, he grew weak with fear.
Drawing into Minneapolis, his hands fumbled so that he must call the porter to fasten his baggage. Then there was an interminable wait in the corridor while the baggage was taken off and he was pressed up against a girl in a squirrel-trimmed coat.
"Well, I'll be--"
Her arms went up around his neck. "But, Tom," she cried, "I've been right here in this car since St. Paul!"
His cane fell in the corridor, he drew her very tenderly close and their lips met like starved hearts.
The new intimacy of their definite engagement brought Tom a feeling of young happiness. He awoke on winter mornings with the sense of undeserved joy hovering in the room; meeting young men, he found himself matching the vigor of his mind and body against theirs. Suddenly his life had a purpose and a background; he felt rounded and complete. On gray March afternoons when she wandered familiarly in his apartment the warm sureties of his youth flooded back--ecstasy and poignancy, the mortal and the eternal posed in their immemorially tragic juxtaposition and, a little astounded, he found himself relishing the very terminology of young romance. But he was more thoughtful than a younger lover; and to Annie he seemed to "know everything," to stand holding open the gates for her passage into the truly golden world.
"We'll go to Europe first," he said.
"Oh, we'll go there a lot, won't we? Let's spend our winters in Italy and the spring in Paris."
"But, little Annie, there's business."
"Well, we'll stay away as much as we can anyhow. I hate Minneapolis."
"Oh, no." He was a little shocked. "Minneapolis is all right."
"When you're here it's all right."
Mrs. Lorry yielded at length to the inevitable. With ill grace she acknowledged the engagement, asking only that the marriage should not take place until fall.
"Such a long time," Annie sighed.
"After all, I'm your mother. It's so little to ask."
It was a long winter, even in a land of long winters. March was full of billowy drifts, and when it seemed at last as though the cold must be defeated, there was a series of blizzards, desperate as last stands. The people waited; their first energy to resist was spent, and man, like weather, simply hung on. There was less to do now and the general restlessness was expressed by surliness in daily contacts. Then, early in April, with a long sigh the ice cracked, the snow ran into the ground and the green, eager spring broke up through.
One day, riding along a slushy road in a fresh, damp breeze with a little starved, smothered grass in it, Annie began to cry. Sometimes she cried for nothing, but this time Tom suddenly stopped the car and put his arm around her.
"Why do you cry like that? Are you unhappy?"
"Oh, no, no!" she protested.
"But you cried yesterday the same way. And you wouldn't tell me why. You must always tell me."
"Nothing, except the spring. It smells so good, and it always has so many sad thoughts and memories in it."
"It's our spring, my sweetheart," he said. "Annie, don't let's wait. Let's be married in June."
"I promised mother, but if you like we can announce our engagement in June."
The spring came fast now. The sidewalks were damp, then dry, and the children roller-skated on them and boys played baseball in the soft, vacant lots. Tom got up elaborate picnics of Annie's contemporaries and encouraged her to play golf and tennis with them. Abruptly, with a final, triumphant lurch of Nature, it was full summer.
On a lovely May evening Tom came up the Lorrys' walk and sat down beside Annie's mother on the porch.
"It's so pleasant," he said, "I thought Annie and I would walk instead of driving this evening. I want to show her the funny old house I was born in."
"On Chambers Street, wasn't it? Annie'll be home in a few minutes. She went riding with some young people after dinner."
"Yes, on Chambers Street."
He looked at his watch presently, hoping Annie would come while it was still light enough to see. Quarter of nine. He frowned. She had kept him waiting the night before, kept him waiting an hour yesterday afternoon.
"If I was twenty-one," he said to himself, "I'd make scenes and we'd both be miserable."
He and Mrs. Lorry talked; the warmth of the night precipitated the vague evening lassitude of the fifties and softened them both, and for the first time since his attentions to Annie began, there was no unfriendliness between them. By and by long silences fell, broken only by the scratch of a match or the creak of her swinging settee. When Mr. Lorry came home Tom threw away his second cigar in surprise and looked at his watch; it was after ten.
"Annie's late," Mrs. Lorry said.
"I hope there's nothing wrong," said Tom anxiously. "Who is she with?"
"There were four when they started out. Randy Cambell and another couple--I didn't notice who. They were only going for a soda."
"I hope there hasn't been any trouble. Perhaps--Do you think I ought to go and see?"
"Ten isn't late nowadays. You'll find--" Remembering that Tom Squires was marrying Annie, not adopting her, she kept herself from adding: "You'll get used to it."
Her husband excused himself and went up to bed, and the conversation became more forced and desultory. When the church clock over the way struck eleven they both broke off and listened to the beats. Twenty minutes later just as Tom impatiently crushed out his last cigar, an automobile drifted down the street and came to rest in front of the door.
For a minute no one moved on the porch or in the auto. Then Annie, with a hat in her hand, got out and came quickly up the walk. Defying the tranquil night, the car snorted away.
"Oh, hello!" she cried. "I'm so sorry! What time is it? Am I terribly late?"
Tom didn't answer. The street lamp threw wine color upon her face and expressed with a shadow the heightened flush of her cheek. Her dress was crushed, her hair was in brief, expressive disarray. But it was the strange little break in her voice that made him afraid to speak, made him turn his eyes aside.
"What happened?" Mrs. Lorry asked casually.
"Oh, a blow-out and something wrong with the engine--and we lost our way. Is it terribly late?"
And then, as she stood before them, her hat still in her hand, her breast rising and falling a little, her eyes wide and bright, Tom realized with a shock that he and her mother were people of the same age looking at a person of another. Try as he might, he could not separate himself from Mrs. Lorry. When she excused herself he suppressed a frantic tendency to say, "But why should you go now? After sitting here all evening?"
They were alone. Annie came up to him and pressed his hand. He had never been so conscious of her beauty; her damp hands were touched with dew.
"You were out with young Cambell," he said.
"Yes. Oh, don't be mad. I feel--I feel so upset tonight."
She sat down, whimpering a little.
"I couldn't help it. Please don't be mad. He wanted so for me to take a ride with him and it was such a wonderful night, so I went just for an hour. And we began talking and I didn't realize the time. I felt so sorry for him."
"How do you think I felt?" He scorned himself, but it was said now.
"Don't, Tom. I told you I was terribly upset. I want to go to bed."
"I understand. Good night, Annie."
"Oh, please don't act that way, Tom. Can't you understand?"
But he could, and that was just the trouble. With the courteous bow of another generation, he walked down the steps and off into the obliterating moonlight. In a moment he was just a shadow passing the street lamps and then a faint footfall up the street.
All through that summer he often walked abroad in the evenings. He liked to stand for a minute in front of the house where he was born, and then in front of another house where he had been a little boy. On his customary routes there were other sharp landmarks of the 90's, converted habitats of gayeties that no longer existed--the shell of Jansen's Livery Stables and the old Nushka Rink, where every winter his father had curled on the well-kept ice.
"And it's a darn pity," he would mutter. "A darn pity."
He had a tendency, too, to walk past the lights of a certain drug store, because it seemed to him that it had contained the seed of another and nearer branch of the past. Once he went in, and inquiring casually about the blonde clerk, found that she had married and departed several months before. He obtained her name and on an impulse sent her a wedding present "from a dumb admirer," for he felt he owed something to her for his happiness and pain. He had lost the battle against youth and spring, and with his grief paid the penalty for age's unforgivable sin--refusing to die. But he could not have walked down wasted into the darkness without being used up a little; what he had wanted, after all, was only to break his strong old heart. Conflict itself has a value beyond victory and defeat, and those three months--he had them forever.