“Of course,” Otto agreed, and his next remark was called forth by Van Alen’s pale blue pajamas.
“Well, those are new on me.”
Van Alen explained that in the city they were worn, and that silk was cool, but while he talked he was possessed by a kind of fury. For the first time the delicate garments, the luxurious toilet articles packed in his bag, seemed foppish, unnecessary, things for a woman. With all of them, he could not compete with this fair young god, who used a rough towel and a tin basin on the kitchen bench.
“Maybe I’d better go,” the boy offered. “You’ll want to go to bed.”
But Van Alen held him. “I always smoke first,” he said, and, wrapped in his dressing-gown, he flung himself into a chair on the opposite side of the fireplace.
And after a time he brought the conversation around to Mazie Wetherell.
He found the boy rather sure of his success with her.
“All women are alike,” he said; “you’ve just got to keep after them long enough.”
To Van Alen the idea of this hulking youngster as a suitor for such a woman seemed preposterous. He was not fit to touch the hem of her garment. He was unmannerly, uneducated; he was not of her class—and even as he analyzed, the boy stood up, perfect in his strong young manhood.
“I’ve never had much trouble making women like me,” he said; “and I ain’t goin’ to give up, just because she thinks she’s better than the rest round about here.”
He went away, and Van Alen stared long into the fire, until the flames left a heart of opal among the ashes.
He had not been unsuccessful with women himself. Many of them had liked him, and might have loved him if he had cared to make them. But until he met Mazie Wetherell he had not cared.
Desperately he wished for some trial of courage where he might be matched against Otto Brand. He grew melodramatic in his imaginings, and saw himself at a fire, fighting the flames to reach Mazie, while Otto Brand shrank back. He stood in the path of runaway horses, and Otto showed the white feather. He nursed her through the plague, and Otto fled fearfully from the disease.
And then having reached the end of impossibilities, he stood up and shook himself.
“I’m a fool,” he said to the flames, shortly, and went to bed, to lie awake, wondering whether Mazie Wetherell had reached that chapter of his book where he had written of love, deeply, reverently, with a foreknowledge of what it might mean to him some day. It was that chapter which had assured the success of his novel. Would it move her, as it had moved him when he reread it? That was what love ought to be—a thing fine, tender, touching the stars! That was what love might be to him, to Mazie Wetherell, what it could never be to Otto Brand.
At breakfast the next morning he found Mrs. Brand worrying about her waitress.
“I guess she couldn’t get back, and I’ve got a big day’s work.”