“There is one thing we could do.”
“We could marry. If you cared for me even a little it—it might not be so bad for you.”
“But I am not in love with you. I care for you, of course, but—not that way, Peter. And I do not wish to marry.”
“Not even if I wish it very much?”
“If you are thinking of my future—”
“I’m thinking for both of us. And although just now you think you care a little for me, you do not care enough, Peter. You are lonely and I am the only person you see much, so you think you want to marry me. You don’t really. You want to help me.”
Few motives are unmixed. Poor Peter, thus accused, could not deny his altruism.
And in the face of his poverty and the little he could offer, compared with what she must lose, he did not urge what was the compelling motive after all, his need of her.
“It would be a rotten match for you,” he agreed. “I only thought, perhaps—You are right, of course; you ought not to marry.”
“And what about you?”
“I ought not, of course.”
Harmony rose, smiling a little.
“Then that’s settled. And for goodness’ sake, Peter, stop proposing to me every time things go wrong.” Her voice changed, grew grave and older, much older than Peter’s. “We must not marry, either of us, Peter. Anna is right. There might be an excuse if we were very much in love: but we are not. And loneliness is not a reason.”
“I am very lonely,” said Peter wistfully.
Peter took the polished horns to the hospital the next morning and approached Jimmy with his hands behind him and an atmosphere of mystery that enshrouded him like a cloak. Jimmy, having had a good night and having taken the morning’s medicine without argument, had been allowed up in a roller chair. It struck Peter with a pang that the boy looked more frail day by day, more transparent.
“I have brought you,” said Peter gravely, “the cod-liver oil.”
“I’ve had it!”
“You’ve just had one. Don’t be a piggy.”
“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“Vegetable,” said Peter shamelessly.
“Soft or hard!”
This was plainly a disappointment. A pair of horns might be vegetable; they could hardly be soft.
“A kitten is not vegetable, James.”
“I know. A bowl of gelatin from Harry!” For by this time Harmony was his very good friend, admitted to the Jimmy club, which consisted of Nurse Elisabet, the Dozent with the red beard, Anna and Peter, and of course the sentry, who did not know that he belonged.
“Gelatin, to be sure,” replied Peter, and produced the horns.
It was a joyous moment in the long low ward, with its triple row of beds, its barred windows, its clean, uneven old floor. As if to add a touch of completeness the sentry outside, peering in, saw the wheeled chair with its occupant, and celebrated this advance along the road to recovery by placing on the window-ledge a wooden replica of himself, bayonet and all, carved from a bit of cigar box.