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    Chapter 21

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    Chapter 21
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    These sympathetic women had unanimously set their expectation in so romantically pessimistic a groove that the most tragic news of Noble would have surprised them little. But if the truth of his whereabouts could have been made known to them, as they sat thus together at what was developing virtually into his wake, with Herbert as a compulsory participant, they would have turned the session into a riot of amazement. Noble was in the very last place (they would have said, when calmer) where anybody in the world could have even madly dreamed of looking for him! They would have been right about it. No one could have expected to find Noble to-night inside the old, four-square brick house of H. I. Atwater, Senior, chief of the Atwaters and father of too gentle Julia. Moreover, Mr. Atwater himself was not at present in the house; he had closed and locked it the day before, giving the servants a week's vacation and telling them not to return till he sent for them; and he had then gone out of town to look over a hominy-mill he thought of buying. And yet, as the wake went on, there was a light in the house, and under that light sat Noble Dill.

    Returning home, after Florence had placed the shattering paper within his hand, Noble had changed his shoes and his tie. He was but a mechanism; he had no motive. The shoes he put on were no better than those he took off; the fresh tie was no lovelier than the one he had worn; nor had it even the lucidity to be a purple one, as the banner of grief. No; his action was, if so viewed, "crazy," as Aunt Fanny had called it. Agitation first took this form; that was all. Love and change of dress are so closely allied; and in happier days, when Noble had come home from work and would see Julia in the evening, he usually changed his clothes. No doubt there is some faint tracery here, probably too indistinct to repay contemplation.

    When he left the house he walked rapidly downtown, and toward the end of this one-mile journey he ran; but as he was then approaching the railway station, no one thought him eccentric. He was, however, for when he entered the station he went to a bench and sat looking upward for more than ten minutes before he rose, went to a ticket window and asked for a time-table.

    "What road?" the clerk inquired.

    "All points South," said Noble.

    He placed the time-table, still folded, in his pocket, rested an elbow on the brass apron of the window, and would have given himself up to reflections, though urged to move away. Several people, wishing to buy tickets, had formed a line behind him; they perceived that Noble had nothing more to say to the clerk, and the latter encouraged their protests, even going so far as to inquire: "For heaven's sakes, can't you let these folk buy their tickets?" And since Noble still did not move: "My gosh, haven't you got no feet?"

    "Feet? Oh, yes," said Noble gently. "I'm going away." And went back to his seat.

    Afterwhile, he sought to study his time-table. Ordinarily, his mind was one of those able to decipher and comprehend railway time-tables; he had few gifts, but this was one of them. It failed him now; so he wandered back to the ticket-window, and, after urgent coaching, eventually took his place at the end instead of at the head of the line that waited there. In his turn he came again to the window, and departed from it after a conversation with the clerk that left the latter in accord with Aunt Fanny Atwater's commiserating adjective, though the clerk's own pity was expressed in argot. "The poor nut!" he explained to his next client. "Wants to buy a ticket on a train that don't pull out until ten thirty-five to-night; and me fillin' it all out, stampin' it and everything, what for? Turned out all his pockets and couldn't come within eight dollars o' the price! Where you want to go?"

    Noble went back to his bench and sat there for a long time, though there was no time, long or short, for him. He was not yet consciously suffering; nor was he thinking at all. True, he had a dim, persistent impulse to action--or why should he be at the station?--but for the clearest expression of his condition it is necessary to borrow a culinary symbol; he was jelling. But the state of shock was slowly dispersing, while a perception of approaching anguish as slowly increased. He was beginning to swallow nothing at intervals and the intervals were growing shorter.

    Dusk was misting down, outdoors, when with dragging steps he came out of the station. He looked hazily up and down the street, where the corner-lamps and shop-windows now were lighted; and, after dreary hesitation, he went in search of a pawn-shop, and found one. The old man who operated it must have been a philanthropist, for Noble was so fortunate as to secure a loan of nine dollars upon his watch. Surprised at this, he returned to the station, and went back to the same old bench.

    It was fully occupied, and he stood for some time looking with vague reproach at the large family of coloured people who had taken it. He had a feeling that he lived there and that these coloured people were trespassers; but upon becoming aware that part of an orange was being rubbed over his left shoe by the youngest of the children, he groaned abruptly and found another bench.

    A little after six o'clock a clanging and commotion in the train-shed outside, attending the arrival of a "through express," stirred him from his torpor, and he walked heavily across the room to the same ticket-window he had twice blocked; but there was no queue attached to it now. He rested his elbow upon the apron and his chin upon his hand, while the clerk waited until he should state his wishes. This was a new clerk, who had just relieved the other.

    "Well! Well!" he said at last.

    "I'll take it now," Noble responded.

    "What'll you take now?"

    "That ticket."

    "What ticket?"

    "The same one I wanted before," Noble sighed.

    The clerk gave him a piercing look, glanced out of the window and saw that there were no other clients, then went to a desk at the farther end of his compartment, and took up some clerical work he had in hand.

    Noble leaned upon the apron of the window, waiting; and if he thought anything, he thought the man was serving him.

    The high, vaulted room became resonant with voices and the blurred echoes of mingling footsteps on the marble floor, as passengers from the express hurried anxiously to the street, or more gaily straggled through, shouting with friends who came to greet them; and among these moving groups there walked a youthful fine lady noticeably enlivening to the dullest eye. She was preceded by a brisk porter who carried two travelling-bags of a rich sort, as well as a sack of implements for the game of golf; and she was warm in dark furs, against which the vasty clump of violets she wore showed dewy gleamings of blue.

    At sight of Noble Dill, more than pensive at the ticket-window, she hesitated, then stopped and observed him. That she should observe anybody was in a way a coincidence, for, as it happened, she was herself the most observed person in all the place. She was veiled in two veils, but she had been seen in the train without these, and some of her fellow-travellers, though strangers to her, were walking near her in a hypocritical way, hoping still not to lose sight of her, even veiled. And although the shroudings permitted the most meagre information of her features, what they did reveal was harmfully piquant; moreover, there was a sweetness of figure, a disturbing grace; while nothing could disguise her air of wearing that many violets casually as a daily perquisite and matter of course.

    So this observed lady stopped and observed Noble, who in return observed her not at all, being but semi-conscious. Looked upon thoughtfully, it is a coincidence that we breathe; certainly it is a mighty coincidence that we speak to one another and comprehend; for these are true marvels. But what petty interlacings of human action so pique our sense of the theatrical that we call them coincidences and are astonished! That Julia should arrive during Noble's long process of buying a ticket to go to her was stranger than that she stopped to look at him, though still not comparable in strangeness to the fact that either of them, or any living creature, stood upon the whirling earth;--yet when Noble Dill comprehended what was happening he was amazed.

    She spoke to him.

    "Noble!" she said.

    He stared at her. His elbow sagged away from the window; the whole person of Noble Dill seemed near collapse. He shook; he had no voice.

    "I just this minute got off the train," she said. "Are you going away somewhere?"

    "No," he whispered; then obtained command of a huskiness somewhat greater in volume. "I'm just standing here."

    "I told the porter to get me a taxicab," she said. "If you're going home for dinner I'll drop you at your house."

    "I--I'm--I----" His articulation encountered unsurmountable difficulties, but Julia had been with him through many such trials aforetime. She said briskly, "I'm awfully hungry and I want to get home. Come on--if you like?"

    He walked waveringly at her side through the station, and followed her into the dim interior of the cab, which became fragrant of violets--an emanation at once ineffable and poisonous.

    "I'm so glad I happened to run across you," she said, as they began to vibrate tremulously in unison with the fierce little engine that drew them. "I want to hear all the news. Nobody knows I'm home. I didn't write or telegraph to a soul; and I'll be a complete surprise to father and everybody--I don't know how pleasant a one! You didn't seem so frightfully glad to see me, Noble!"

    "Am I?" he whispered. "I mean--I mean--I mean: Didn't I?"

    "No!" she laughed. "You looked--you looked shocked! It couldn't have been because I'm ill or anything, because I'm not; and if I were you couldn't have told it through these two veils. Possibly I'd better take your expression as a compliment." She paused, then asked hesitatingly, "Shall I?"

    This was the style for which the Atwaters held Julia responsible; but they were mistaken: she was never able to control it. Now she went cheerily on: "Perhaps not, as you don't answer. I shouldn't be so bold! Do you suppose anybody at all will be glad to see me?"

    "I--I----" He seemed to hope that words would come in their own good time.

    "Noble!" she cried. "Don't be so glum!" And she touched his arm with her muff, a fluffy contact causing within him a short convulsion, naturally invisible. "Noble, aren't you going to tell me what's all the news?"

    "There's--some," he managed to inform her. "Some--some news."

    "What is it?"

    "It's--it's----"

    "Never mind," she said soothingly. "Get your breath; I can wait. I hope nothing's wrong in your family, Noble."

    "No. Oh, no."

    "It isn't just my turning up unexpectedly that's upset you so, of course," she dared to say. "Naturally, I know better than to think such a thing as that."

    "Oh, Julia!" he said. "Oh, Julia!"

    "What is it, Noble?"

    "Noth-ing," he murmured, disjointing the word.

    "How odd you happened to be there at the station," she said, "just when my train came in! You're sure you weren't going away anywhere?"

    "No; oh, no."

    She was thoughtful, then laughed confidentially. "You're the only person in town that knows I'm home, Noble."

    "I'm glad," he said humbly.

    She laughed again. "I came all of a sudden--on an impulse. It's a little idiotic. I'll tell you all about it, Noble. You see, ten or twelve days ago I wrote the family a more or less indiscreet letter. That is, I told them something I wanted them to be discreet about, and, of course, when I got to thinking it over, I knew they wouldn't. You see, I wrote them something I wanted them to keep a secret, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw I'd better hurry back. Yesterday it got into my head that I'd better jump on the next train for home!"

    She paused, then added, "So I did! About ten or twelve days is as long as anybody has a right to expect the Atwater family connection to keep the deadliest kind of a secret, isn't it?" And as he did not respond, she explained, modestly, "Of course, it wasn't a very deadly secret; it was really about something of only the least importance."

    The jar of this understatement restored Noble's voice to a sudden and startling loudness. "'Only the least importance'!" he shouted. "With a man named Crum!"

    "What!" she cried

    "Crum!" Noble insisted. "That's exactly what it said his name was!"

    "What said his name was?"

    "The North End Daily Oriole!"

    "What in heaven's name is that?"

    "It's the children's paper, Herbert's and Florence's: your own niece and nephew, Julia! You don't mean you deny it, do you, Julia?"

    She was in great confusion: "Do I deny what?"

    "That his name's Crum!" Noble said passionately. "That his name's Crum and that he's a widower and he's been divorced and's got nobody knows how many children!"

    Julia sought to collect herself. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "If you mean that I happened to meet a very charming man while I was away, and that his name happened to be Crum, I don't know why I should go to the trouble of denying it. But if Mr. Crum has had the experiences you say he has, it is certainly news to me! I think someone told me he was only twenty-six years old. He looked rather younger."

    "You 'think someone told' you!" Noble groaned. "Oh, Julia! And here it is, all down in black and white, in my pocket!"

    "I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about." Julia's tone was cold, and she drew herself up haughtily, though the gesture was ineffective in the darkness of that quivering interior. The quivering stopped just then, however, as the taxicab came to a rather abrupt halt before her house.

    "Will you come in with me a moment, please?" Julia said as she got out. "There are some things I want to ask you--and I'm sure my father hasn't come home from downtown yet. There's no light in the front part of the house."
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