All through these trying days she had recurrently wondered what this strange young man would have to say that Dickens and Hugo had not already said. That was the true marvel of it. No matter how many books one read, each was different, as each human being was different. Some had the dignity and the aloofness of a rock in the sea; and others were as the polished pebbles on the sands—one saw the difference of pebble from pebble only by close scrutiny. Ruth, without suspecting it, had fallen upon a fundamental truth: that each and every book fitted into the scheme of human moods and intelligence.
Ruth was at that stage where the absorption of facts is great, but where the mental digestion is not quite equal to the task. She was acquiring truths, but in a series of shocks rather than by the process of analysis.
There were seven tales in all—short stories—a method of expression quite strange to her, after the immense canvases of Dickens and Hugo. When she had finished the first tale, there was a sense of disappointment. She had expected a love story; and love was totally absent. It was a tale of battle, murder, and sudden death on the New York waterfront. Sordid; but that was not Ruth’s term for it; she had no precise commentary to offer.
From time to time she would come upon a line of singular beauty or a paragraph full of haunting music; and these would send her rushing on for something that never happened. Each manuscript was like the other: the same lovely treatment of an unlovely subject. Abruptly would come the end. It was as if she had come upon the beautiful marble facade of a fairy palace, was invited to enter, and behind the door—nothing.
She did not realize that she was offering criticisms. The word “criticism” had no concrete meaning to her then; no more than “compromise.” Some innate sense of balance told her that something was wrong with these tales. She could not explain in words why they disappointed her or that she was disappointed.
Two hours had come and gone during this tantalizing occupation. At the least, the tales had the ability to make her forget where she was; which was something in their favour.
Ruth did not move but stared astonishedly at the patient.
“My coat!” he repeated, his glance burning into hers.
[Illustration: Distinctive Pictures Corporation. The Ragged Edge. A SCENE FROM THE PHOTOPLAY.]
The second call energized her into action. She dropped the manuscripts and swiftly brought the coat to him, noting that a button hung loose. Later, she would sew it on.
“What is it you want?” she asked, as she held out the coat.
“Fold it ... under the pillow.”
This she did carefully, but inwardly commenting that he was still in the realm of strange fancies. Wanting his coat, when he must have known that the pockets were empty! But the effort to talk had cost him something. The performance over, he relaxed and closed his eyes. Even as she watched, the sweat of weakness began to form on his forehead and under the nether lip. She wet some absorbent cotton with alcohol and refreshed his face and neck. This done, she waited at the side of the bed; but he gave no sign that he was conscious of her nearness.