“PLAIN life and death are the only realities. Life eternal — death eternal! For you and me, those are words, my boy — just words!”
It was dusk in my room. I sat on the edge of the bed, chin in hands, staring at the inevitable companion of my solitude. At my feet lay the scattered sheets of Alicia’s letter, scrawled over in a large, childish hand. The outside world was bright with an afterglow of the departed sun. But gray dusk was in my room.
“Just words,” repeated the face.
“Just words,” I said after him dully. Then, at a thought, I roused a trifle. “He won’t go through with it. Even Nils Berquist can’t be willing to die without a protest — and for such a crawling puppy as would let him do it.”
“He will die, but not entirely for your sake,” the presence retorted.
“What do you mean?”
“You haven’t guessed? Well, it is rather amusing from one viewpoint. Your friend is not only in jail; he’s in love!”
“Nils? Nonsense! Besides, if he were in love he would wish to live, not die!”
“That is the amusing part. He is willing to die, because of the love.”
“Some woman refused him, you mean?”
“No; the girl is not even aware of his feeling toward her. She would, I think, be shocked at the very thought. He has only spoken with her twice in his life. But from the first moment that he saw her face he has loved her. He has sat in the courtroom and watched her while the lawyers fought over his life, and to his peculiar nature — rather an amusingly peculiar nature, from our viewpoint — merely watching her so has seemed a privilege beyond price. He is willing to die, not for you, but to buy her happiness.”
“Who is this girl?” I asked hoarsely, and speaking aloud as I still sometimes did with him.
“You should know.”
“Nils Berquist — in love — with Roberta?” I said slowly. “But that’s absurd. You are lying!”
“No. Every day, as you know, she was in that audience beyond the rail. For your sake. Because she knew how you cared for this man Berquist. She herself has a shrinking horror of the ‘red-handed murderer,’ but her devotion to you has served our purpose well. That first mere glimpse he had of her on the street — the hour at dinner in your house — these impressions might have somewhat paled in the stress of confronting so disgraceful a form of death. But in the courtroom he watched her face for hours every day, and each day bound our dear poet and dreamer tighter.”
“He measures her love for you by his own for her. As you are his friend still, uncondemned and worthy, he will buy your life for her.”
“He loves her — and would have her marry a murderer?”
“He believes as you have told him, and truly enough, that you were thrown off balance by some influence connected with Alicia and did not know what you, were doing. But it is rather amusing, as I said. He loves the girl for the goodness and purity of her beauty, and for her newly born sadness. You have tired of her for the same reasons, and plan to break the engagement. But he needn’t know that, eh?”
“Liar! I shall marry Roberta.”
“When? Never! No; you are entirely right. She is not the wife for you. With my help you can easily attract a better. I know at least one woman among your mother’s friends who is already devoted to you, and who has means to make not only you but your whole family happy and comfortable. I mean the blond widow, who owns the big house next to your old home. What is her name? Marcia Baird. Yes; she is the woman I refer to. Oh, I knew she’s over thirty, but think what she could give you. As for the girl, she knows your circumstances. Her love is selfish, or she would have released you before this.”
“You are lying, as you have lied in the past.”
“What have I said that proved untrue?”
“You have lied from the first. There was poor old Van. You said that his father would forgive him, and he didn’t.”
“Be fair. You misquote. I said that Van would not be ruined. With the enthusiastic despair of youth, he played hobo for a while. Then he went to work at the one thing be understood. He is a very industrious mechanic now in an automobile factory with good chances of a foremanship, and — except for grease — living cleaner than he ever did before. He was going the straight down road, but his sacrifice for you pulled him up. You will hear from him shortly. He doesn’t bear you any grudge.”
“You promised to be my ally; to use your power as an influence to help.”
“I kept the promise. Has the least slur of suspicion fallen upon you? Is not every one your friend? Is there a man or woman living who hates or despises you? Are you not shielded and sheltered by the mantle of love, as I foretold?”
“But you promised that Nils would be acquitted.”
“Not acquitted. I said released. For such a spirit as his, this world is a prison. In real life, such as you and I prize, there is no contentment for him. Death will release him to that higher sphere where the idealist finds perfection, and the dreamer his dreams. Believe me, Nils Berquist could never be happy on earth. In speeding his departure, we are really his benefactors — you and I.”
The face beamed as though in serene joy for the good we had done together; but I hid my head in my arms, groaning for the shame of us both.
June 9 was coming. June 9.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00