A stairway he climbed came out delightfully in a garret musical with rain and the plaintive chirping of wet birds huddled under dripping eaves. Unlike the rooms he had left below it was swept and clean. There were trunks in one corner, a great many, and a cedar chest. There should be a cedar chest. It was as essential to an old garret like this as violets in spring or sweetness in a girl’s face. The chest was open. With a low whistle of delight Kenny peered inside and thought of the ferryman in her quaint brocade. The chest was full to the brim of old-time gowns, glints of faded satin and yellowed lace, buckled slippers and old brocade.
Kenny wheeled, his face scarlet with guilt and confusion. Joan was beside him, her startled eyes dark with reproach. Even in his stammering moment of apology he was dismayed to find that her gown was commonplace, old and mended.
Joan caught his glance and colored.
“It’s the dress I wear to Uncle,” she said hurriedly. “I—I meant you never to see it. He doesn’t know. Everything there in the cedar chest he hates. All of it belonged to my mother. He wouldn’t like me to wear her gowns.”
“In the name of Heaven,” demanded Kenny, shocked, “why not? It’s a beautiful thing—like the play-acting of a dryad!”
“My mother,” said the girl in a low voice, “was on the stage.”
Her challenging eyes, big and wistful, fanned his chivalry into reckless flame. The need of the hour was peculiar. There was little room for fact. In a moment of wayward impulse he had slipped up a stairway and blundered on a shrine. He must not make another mistake. The girl beside him was as timorous and defensive as a doe scenting an alien breath in the wood of wild things. A wrong step and in spirit she would bound away from him forever.
“Odd!” said Kenny gently. “So was mine.” And he thought for a tormented minute of Brian and Garry and John Whitaker. Not one of them would understand. He wanted only to be kind and in tune.
Joan caught her breath. The softness and faith in her eyes hurt.
“You’re not ashamed of it!”
“No,” said Kenny, looking away, “Certainly not. Are you?”
“No,” said Joan steadily. “But Uncle is.”
In this second interval of readjustment, yesterday seemed aeons back. They had traveled far. The peace and peril of the moment were ineffably sweet.
“You can be yourself anywhere,” said Joan clearly, taking from the chest an exquisite old lavender gown for which she seemed to have come. “And if your self is bad, the—the where doesn’t matter.”
Her insight rather startled him. Often afterward he was to find in her that curious ability to detach herself from custom and tradition, skiff away the husks of cumulative prejudice and find the kernel of truth for herself.
Joan went toward the stairs; he followed her with a troubled sigh. The stage mother bothered him. With her he had bridged a gulf it would have taken weeks to span, but the trust in Joan’s eyes still hurt. If only he could have begun upon a rock, Brian’s rock of fact and not the shifting sands of his own errant fancy! It would have been a glory to live up to the faith in the girl’s wistful eyes.