Between Friends

Robert W. Chambers


It was late in December before Drene opened his eyes in his right senses. He unclosed them languidly, gazed at the footboard of his bed, then, around at the four shabby walls of his room. 
          "Cecile?" he said, distinctly. 
          The girl who had been watching him laid aside her sewing, rose, and bent over him. Suddenly her pale face flushed and one hand flew to her throat. 
          "Dearest?" he said, inquiringly. 
          Then down on her knees fell the girl, and groped for his wasted hand and laid her cheek on it, crying silently. 
          As for Drene, he lay there, his hollow eyes roaming from wall to wall. At last he turned his head on the pillow and looked down at her. 
          The next day when he opened his eyes from a light sleep his skin was moist and cool and he managed to move his hand toward hers as she bent over him. 
          "I want--Graylock," he whispered.  The girl flushed, bent nearer, gazing at him intently. 
          "Graylock," he repeated. 
          "Not now," she murmured, "not today.  Rest for a, while." 
          "Please," he said, looking up at her trustfully--"Graylock.  Now." 
          "When you are well--" 
          "I am--well.  Please, dear." 
          For a while she continued sitting there on the side of his bed, his limp hands in hers, her lips pressed against them. But he never took his eyes from her, and in them she saw only the same wistful expression, unchanging, trustful that she would do his bidding. 
          So at last she went into the studio and wrote a note to Graylock. It was late. She went downstairs to the janitor's quarters where there was a messenger call. But no messenger came probably Christmas day kept them busy. Perhaps, too, some portion of the holiday was permitted them, for it was long after dinner and the full tide of gaiety in town was doubtless at its flood. 
          So she waited until it was plain that no messenger was coming; then she rose from the chair and stood gazing out into the wintry darkness through the dirty basement window. Clocks were striking eleven. 
          As she turned to go her eye fell upon the telephone.  She hesitated. But the memory of Drene's eyes, their wistfulness and trust decided her. 
          After a little waiting she got Graylock's apartment.  A servant asked her to hold the wire. 
          After an interval she recognized Graylock's voice at the telephone, pleasant, courteous, serenely wishing her the happiness of the season. 
          "What are you doing this Christmas night?" she asked.  "Surely you are not all alone there at home?" 
          "I am rather too old for anything else," he said. 
          "But what are you doing?  Reading?" 
          "As a matter of fact," he said, "I happened to be cleaning an automatic revolver when you called up." 
          "What a gay employment for Christmas night!  Is that your idea of celebrating?" 
          "There happens to be nothing else for me to do tonight." 
          "But there is.  You are requested to make a call." 
          "On whom?" he asked, quietly. 
          "On Mr. Drene." 
          For a full minute he remained silent, although she spoke to him twice, thinking the connection might have been interrupted. Then his voice came, curiously altered: 
          "Who asked that of me?" 
          "Mr. Drene." 
          "Mr. Drene is very ill, I hear." 
          "He is convalescent." 
          "Did he ask you to call me?" 
          "Then--you are with him?" 
          "In his apartment.  I came downstairs to the janitor's rooms.  I am telephoning from there what he wished me to ask you." 
          After a pause Graylock said: "Is his mind perfectly clear?" 
          "Perfectly, now." 
          "He asked for me?" 
          "Yes.  Will you come?" 
          "He asked for me?  Tonight?  At eleven o'clock?" 
          She said: "I don't think he knows even what month it is.  He has only been conscious for a day or two. Had he known it was Christmas night perhaps he might not have disturbed you. But--will you come?" 
          "I am afraid it is too late--to-night." 
          "Tomorrow, then?  Shall I tell him?" 
          There was a silence. She repeated the question.  But Graylock's reply was inaudible and she thought he said good-bye instead of good night. 
          Somewhere in the rear of the basement the janitor and his family and probably all his relatives were celebrating. A fiddle squeaked in there; there was a steady tumult of voices and laughter. 
          The girl stood a while listening, a slight smile on her lips. Blessed happiness had come to her in time for Christmas--a strange and heavenly happiness, more wonderful than when a life is spared to one who loves, for it had been more than the mere life of this man she had asked of God: it had been his mind. 
          He lay asleep when she entered and stood by the shaded lamp, looking down at him. 
          After a while she seated herself and took up her sewing.  But laid it aside again as there came a low knocking at the door. 
          Drene opened his eyes as Graylock entered all alone and stood still beside the bed looking down at him. In the studio Cecile moved about singing under her breath. They both heard her. 
          Drene nodded weakly.  After a moment he made the effort to speak: 
          "I am trying to get well--to start again--better--live more--nobly. . . . Take your chance, too." 
          "If you wish, Drene." 
          "Yes.  I was not--very--well.  I had been ill--very--a long while . . . And you are not to clean the automatic. . . . Only your own-soul. . . . Ask help. . . . You'll get it. . . . . I did. . . . And--all that is true--what we believed--as boys. . . . I know. I've seen. And it's all true--all true--what we believed--as little boys." 
          He looked up at Graylock, then closed his eyes with the shadow of a smile in them. 
          "Good-bye--Jack," he whispered. 
          Graylock's mouth quivered, his lips moved in speech; and perhaps Drene heard and understood, for he opened his eyes and looked once more at his boyhood friend. 
          "Somewhere--somebody will straighten out--all this," he murmured, closing his eyes again: "We can't; we can only try--to straighten out--ourselves." 
          Graylock looked down at him in silence, then, tall and heavily erect, he turned away. 
          Cecile met him from the studio. 
          "Good night," she said, offering her hand. . . .  "And a happy Christmas. . . . I hope you will not be lonely." 
          He took her hand, gravely, thanked her, and went his way forever. 
          For a few minutes she lingered in the doorway connecting Drene's bedroom with the studio. She held a sprig of holly. 
          After a little while he opened his eyes and looked at her, and, smiling, she came forward to the bedside. 
          "It was a terrible dream," he whispered--"all those years.  But it was a dream." 
          "You must dream no more." 
          "No.  Come nearer." 
          She rested on the bed's edge beside him and laid one hand on his. The other held the holly, but he did not notice it until she offered it. 
          "Dear," she whispered, "it is Christmas night.  And you did not even know it." 
          Suddenly the tears he had not known for years burned in his eyes, and he closed them, trembling, awed by the mercy of God that had been vouchsafed to him at the eleventh hour, else he had slain his soul. 
          After a while he felt her lips touching his brow. And now silent in the spell of the dream that invaded her--the exquisite vision of wifehood--she sat motionless with childlike eyes lost in thought. 
          Once more he turned his head and looked at her.  Then her slender neck bent, and he saw that her eyes were divinely blue-- 
          "Cecile!"--he faltered--"Madonna inviolate! . . .  The woman--between--friends--" 

          THE END

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