― 83 ―

Clotho's Tangle.

The verandah and upper lawn were crowded, a steady register of 95 degrees at 8 p.m. not being conducive to indoor festivity. The lower lawn was unoccupied, and the hammock curved alluringly between the orange and lemon trees. Conversation had gasped for a time, then had ceased, and nothing was heard but the hum of mosquitoes, the swish of fans, and the steady ripple and tinkle of the sprinkler. The friendly moonlight showed only the dainty coolness of white garments, mercifully toning down the haggard faces and weary, listless figures of those who had battled with the summer in the God-forsaken western town.

A limp figure in a dark corner of the verandah was all that remained of an irrepressible C.P.S. who had been unanimously ejected for attempting to versify the theme, “Go on the Land, Young Man.”

The heat had sorely tried the tempers. Chaff was taken in earnest, jokes stirred up deadly thoughts; there was a steady undercurrent of irritation that nothing but lavish rain and cool breezes could drive away.

The women, notably those with least to do, whined and grumbled, while the men swore. A few kept their usual equilibrium, especially the doctor and the local school-marm, but then, as someone remarked, “a cool southerly was blowing for them all the time.”

The romance was discussed by all the boarders—bets given and taken as to “when he'd do it”; no one betted on the result—that was a foregone conclusion. Such a suitable match—both in the early thirties, graduates of the same year, similar tastes, the philosophic calm of the one tempering the impetuosity of the other.

There was nothing hidden in their regard for each other. Frankly they sought each other's society, and as frankly showed themselves bored when others interrupted them.

A certain tension in the atmosphere the past few days told the onlookers that matters were approaching a crisis, and there was a decided expectancy in the attitudes when the doctor rose from the seat and said leisurely:

“Suppose we try the lower lawn for a change, Miss Stewart. It can't be any hotter, and at least we'll have a different class of mosquito.”

The fans paused a moment to allow Helen's answer to be distinctly heard. “Certainly; the sprinkler must make it a little cooler.”

They walked slowly down the path.

“Lucky devil!” remarked a rising legal luminary. “He'll get a good wife, and that is what more than most of us can hope for.”

  ― 84 ―

“At any rate, the wives are just as good as the specimens of husbands,” was the acid remark of a lady who had sampled two.

Even limp Justice in the corner revived sufficiently to sit up and say: “Go on”—a well-aimed cushion changed it to—“and win, young man. Say, who'll have a drink? Let's get to the back lawn and give them a chance. We wuz all young wunst. Pills, bet you he smokes right through the charge.”

“Shut up, you red-headed ass,” was the reply of the outraged chemist.

Meanwhile, conversation between the two was jerky and intermittent.

“You take the hammock, Nell; I'll have the chair.”

“No, thank you. I refuse to talk to a man who sits with his head in a lemon tree. Besides, you are lazier than I—I want the chair.”

“The same remark applies to a woman with her head in a lemon tree. We'll both sit on chairs, and both be in the light. I want to watch you when I ask you—when I tell you—”

He broke off, and stooped to pick up her fan. Then they looked each other squarely in the face—his white and fixed, hers quivering with pain.

“I want to tell you first one chapter you don't know about. We've neither of us touched on the six years that elapsed from the time we left the ‘Varsity until we met here. We've talked of events, of people, but not of ourselves.”

Helen nodded.

“May I smoke? Thank you.” He settled himself firmly in the chair, struck a match, and lighted his pipe, which almost immediately went out, but he still held it clenched between his teeth.

Twice, thrice he struck matches, and threw them away, then began jerkily:

“Suppose a man meets a girl and they fall in love, and become engaged, and supposing the girl is not sure of herself, and breaks it off, and they remain good friends; and supposing they become engaged again, and again the girl breaks it off; and supposing they become engaged for the third time, and for the third time the woman breaks it off, finally; and supposing there is no one else, but that she simply has no time for men, and will likely continue so till the end of the chapter; and supposing he meets another woman, and they become good friends, have a friendship that is seldom or never seen between man and woman, a friendship that results from a thorough and close understanding, that skilfully pilots round the rocks of opposition, and—”

“Ah! don't go on. Let me finish,” Helen interrupted, in a shaking voice.

“Supposing a woman meets a man in every way her opposite, and they fall in love, and become engaged; and supposing the woman's afraid to bind herself, and asks for release, and is refused; and this goes on for years, and the love is, if possible, stronger, and still the woman is afraid. And then the great break comes, and she gets her wish and finds out that now her freedom is distasteful to her, and that although there is no one else they can never return to the first stage; and then she meets another man, whose tastes in every way are more like hers, and they become good friends, and they make up their minds—”

She stopped, and her hands clutched the arm of the chair as she watched

  ― 85 ―
the strong face opposite, the lines of the forehead, the steady grey eyes, and firm lips holding the unlighted pipe.

He dropped the pipe.

“I meant to-night to ask you to marry me, but I can't. You deserve all the love the best man could give you, and —my God! in spite of all, I love that woman yet.”

“And I meant to say ‘yes’ to you, to give you affection, to blot out all the past; but it is before me still, stronger than ever it has been. Heaven help me! I am a woman that can't forget.”

The sprinkler tinkled and rippled, the mosquitoes hummed. From the upper lawn came the voice of the now resuscitated C.P.S. chanting: “Go on the land, the land. Go, go on the land, young man; I say unto thee, go on the land;” and two bare human souls fought and struggled vainly with Destiny. The question is still debated at the Western Private Boarding Establishment as to whether she refused him or whether he didn't ask her.