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Writing a War Story, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  The intervening week seemed long; and it was marked only by the appearance of a review of "The Man-at-Arms" in the "Times"--a long and laudatory article--in which, by some odd accident, "His Letter Home" and its author were not so much as mentioned. Abridged versions of this notice appeared in the English and American newspapers published in Paris, and one anecdotic and intimate article in a French journal celebrated the maternal graces and literary art of the Queen of Norromania. It was signed "Fleur- de-Lys," and described a banquet at the Court of Norromania at which the writer hinted that she had assisted.

  The following week, Ivy reentered her ward with a beating heart. On the threshold one of the nurses detained her with a smile.

  "Do be a dear and make yourself specially nice to the new officer in Number 5; he's only been here two days, and he's rather down on his luck. Oh, by the way--he's the novelist, Harold Harbard; you know, the man who wrote the book they made such a fuss about."

  Harold Harbard--the book they made such a fuss about! What a poor fool the woman was--not even to remember the title of "Broken Wings!" Ivy's heart stood still with the shock of the discovery; she remembered that she had left a copy of "The Man-at-Arms" in Number 5, and the blood coursed through her veins and flooded her to the forehead at the idea that Harold Harbard might at that very moment be reading "His Letter Home."

  To collect herself, she decided to remain a while in the ward, serving tea to the soldiers and N. C. O.'s before venturing into Number 5, which the previous week had been occupied only by a polo- player drowsy with chloroform and uninterested in anything but his specialty. Think of Harold Harbard lying in the bed next to that man!

  Ivy passed into the ward, and as she glanced down the long line of beds she saw several copies of "The Man-at-Arms" lying on them, and one special favorite of hers, a young lance-corporal, deep in its pages.

  She walked down the ward, distributing tea and greetings; and she saw that her patients were all very glad to see her. They always were; but this time there was a certain unmistakable emphasis in their gladness; and she fancied they wanted her to notice it.

  "Why," she cried gayly, "how uncommonly cheerful you all look!"

  She was handing his tea to the young lance-corporal, who was usually the spokesman of the ward on momentous occasions. He lifted his eyes from the absorbed perusal of "The Man-at-Arms," and as he did so she saw that it was open at the first page of her story.

  "I say, you know," he said, "it's simply topping--and we're so awfully obliged to you for letting us see it."

  She laughed, but would not affect incomprehension.

  "That?" She laid a light finger on the review. "Oh, I'm glad--I'm awfully pleased, of course--you do really like it?" she stammered.

  "Rather--all of us--most tremendously--!" came a chorus from the long line of beds.

  Ivy tasted her highest moment of triumph. She drew a deep breath and shone on them with glowing cheeks.

  "There couldn't be higher praise . . . there couldn't be better judges. . . . You think it's really like, do you?"

  "Really like? Rather! It's just topping," rand out the unanimous response.

  She choked with emotion. "Coming from you--from all of you-- it makes me most awfully glad."

  They all laughed together shyly, and then the lance-corporal spoke up.

  "We admire it so much that we're going to ask you a most tremendous favor--"

  "Oh, yes," came from the other beds.

  "A favor--?"

  "Yes; if it's not too much." The lance-corporal became eloquent. "To remember you by, and all your kindness; we want to know if you won't give one to each of us--"

  ("Why, of course, of course," Ivy glowed.)

  "--to frame and take away with us," the lance-corporal continued sentimentally. "There's a chap here who makes rather jolly frames out of Vichy corks."

  "Oh--" said Ivy, with a protracted gasp.

  "You see, in your nurse's dress, it'll always be such a jolly reminder," said the lance-corporal, concluding his lesson.

  "I never saw a jollier photo," spoke up a bold spirit.

  "Oh, do say yes, nurse," the shyest of the patients softly whispered; and Ivy, bewildered between tears and laughter, said, "Yes."

  It was evident that not one of them had read her story.

  SHE stopped on the threshold of Number 5, her heart beating uncomfortably.

  She had already recovered from her passing mortification: it was absurd to have imagined that the inmates of the ward, dear, gallant young fellows, would feel the subtle meaning of a story like "His Letter Home." But with Harold Harbard it was different. Now, indeed, she was to be face to face with a critic.

  She stopped on the threshold, and as she did so she heard a burst of hearty, healthy laughter from within. It was not the voice of the polo-player; could it be that of the novelist?

  She opened the door resolutely and walked in with her tray. The polo-player's bed was empty, and the face on the pillow of the adjoining cot was the brown, ugly, tumultuous-locked head of Harold Harbard, well-known to her from frequent photographs in the literary weeklies. He looked up as she came in, and said in a voice that seemed to continue his laugh: "Tea? Come, that's something like!" And he began to laugh again.

  It was evident that he was still carrying on the thread of his joke, and as she approached with the tea she saw that a copy of "The Man-at-Arms" lay on the bed at his side, and that he had his hand between the open pages.

  Her heart gave an apprehensive twitch, but she determined to carry off the situation with a high hand.

  "How do you do, Captain Harbard? I suppose you're laughing at the way the Queen of Norromania's hair is done."

  He met her glance with a humorous look, and shook his head, while the laughter still rippled the muscles of his throat.

  "No--no; I've finished laughing at that. It was the next thing; what's it called? 'His Letter Home,' by--" The review dropped abruptly from his hands, his brown cheek paled, and he fixed her with a stricken stare.

  "Good lord," he stammered out, "but it's you!"

  She blushed all colors, and dropped into a seat at his side. "After all," she faltered, half-laughing too, "at least you read the story instead of looking at my photograph."

  He continued to scrutinize her with a reviving eye. "Why--do you mean that everybody else--"

  "All the ward over there," she assented, nodding in the direction of the door.

  "They all forgot to read the story for gazing at its author?"

  "Apparently." There was a painful pause. The review dropped from his lax hand.

  "Your tea--?" she suggested, stiffly.

  "Oh, yes; to be sure. . . . Thanks."

  THERE was another silence, during which the act of pouring out the milk, and the dropping of the sugar into the cup, seemed to assume enormous magnitude, and make an echoing noise. At length Ivy said, with an effort at lightness, "Since I know who you are, Mr. Harbard,--would you mind telling me what you were laughing at in my story?"

  He leaned back against the pillows and wrinkled his forehead anxiously.

  "My dear Miss Spang, not in the least--if I could."

  "If you could?"

  "Yes; I mean in any understandable way."

  "In other words, you think it so silly that you don't dare to tell me anything more?"

  He shook his head. "No; but it's queer--it's puzzling. You've got hold of a wonderfully good subject: and that's the main thing, of course--"

  Ivy interrupted him eagerly. "The subject is the main thing?"

  "Why, naturally; it's only the people without invention who tell you it isn't."

  "Oh," she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.

  "You've got hold of an awfully good subject," Harbard continued; "but you've rather mauled it, haven't you?"

  She sat before him with her head drooping, and the blood running back from her pale cheeks. Two tears had gathered on her lashes.

  "There!" the noveli
st cried out irritably. "I knew that as soon as I was frank you'd resent it! What was the earthly use of asking me?"

  She made no answer, and he added, lowering his voice a little, "Are you very angry with me, really?"

  "No, of course not," she declared with a stony gayety.

  "I'm so glad you're not; because I do want most awfully to ask you for one of these photographs," he concluded.

  She rose abruptly from her seat. To save her life she could not conceal her disappointment. But she picked up the tray with feverish animation.

  "A photograph? Of course--with pleasure. And now, if you've quite finished. I'm afraid I must run back to my teapot."

  Harold Harbard lay on the bed and looked at her. As she reached the door he said, "Miss Spang!"

  "Yes?" she rejoined, pausing reluctantly.

  "You were angry just now because I didn't admire your story; and now you're angrier still because I do admire your photograph. Do you wonder that we novelists find such an inexhaustible field in Woman?"