Ain’t Nature Wonderful! by Edna Ferber

Story type: Literature

When a child grows to boyhood, and a boy to manhood under the soul-searing blight of a given name like Florian, one of two things must follow. He will degenerate into a weakling, crushed beneath the inevitable diminutive–Flossie; or he will build up painfully, inch by inch, a barrier against the name’s corroding action. He will boast of his biceps, flexing them the while. He will brag about cold baths. He will prate of chest measurements; regard golf with contempt; and speak of the West as God’s country.

Florian Sykes was five feet three and a half, and he liked to quote those red-blooded virile poems about the big open spaces out where the West begins. The biggest open space in his experience was Madison Square, New York; and Eighth Avenue spelled the Far West for him. When Florian spoke or thought of great heights it was never in terms of nature, such as mountains, but in artificial ones, like skyscrapers. Yet his job depended on what he called the great outdoors.

The call of the wild, by the time it had filtered into his city abode, was only a feeble cheep. But he answered it daily from his rooms to the store in the morning, from the store to his rooms in the evening. It must have been fully ten blocks each way. There are twenty New York blocks to the mile. He threw out his legs a good deal when he walked and came down with his feet rather flat, and he stooped ever so little with the easy slouch that came in with the one-button sack suit. It’s the walk you see used by English actors of the what-what school who come over here to play gentlemanly juveniles.

Down at Inverness & Heath’s they called him Nature’s Rival, but that was mostly jealousy, with a strong dash of resentment. Two of the men in his department had been Maine guides, and another boasted that he knew the Rockies as he knew the palm of his hand. But Florian, whose trail-finding had all been done in the subway shuttle, and who thought that butter sauce with parsley was a trout’s natural element, had been promoted above their heads half a dozen times until now he lorded it over the fifth floor.

Not one of you, unless bedridden from birth, but has felt the influence of the firm of Inverness & Heath. You may never have seen the great establishment itself, rising story on story just off New York’s main shopping thoroughfare. But you have felt the call of their catalogue. Surely at one time or another, they have supplied you with tents or talcum; with sleeping-bags or skis or skates; with rubber boots, or resin or reels. On their fourth floor you can be hatted for Palm Beach or booted for Skagway. On the third, outfitted for St. Moritz or San Antonio. But the fifth floor is the pride of the store. There is the camper’s dream realized. There you will find man’s most ingenious devices for softening Mother Nature’s flinty bosom. Mosquito-proof tents; pails that will not leak; fleece-lined sleeping-bags; cooking outfits made up of pots and pans of every size, each shaped to disappear mysteriously into the next, like a conjurer’s outfit, the whole swallowed up by a magic leather case.

Here Florian reigned. If you were a regular Inverness & Heath customer you learned to ask for him as soon as the elevator tossed you up to his domain. He met you with what is known in the business efficiency guides as the strong personality greeting. It consisted in clasping your hand with a grip that drove your ring into the bone, looking you straight in the eye, registering alert magnetic force, and pronouncing your name very distinctly. Like this: hand-clasp firm–straight in the eye–“How do you do, Mr. Outertown. Haven’t seen you since last June. How was the trip?” He didn’t mean to be a liar. And yet he lied daily and magnificently for years, to the world and himself. When, for example, in the course of purchasing rods, flies, tents, canoes, saddles, boots, or sleeping-bags of him, you spoke of the delights of your contemplated vacation, he would say, “That’s the life. I’m a Western man, myself…. God’s country!” He said it with a deep breath, and an exhalation, as one who pants to be free of the city’s noisome fumes. You felt he must have been born with an equipment of chaps, quirts, spurs, and sombrero. You see him flinging himself on a horse and clattering off with a flirt of hoofs as they do it in the movies. His very manner sketched in a background of plains, mountains, six-shooters, and cacti.

The truth of it was Florian Sykes had been born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At the age of three he had been brought to New York by a pair of inexpert and migratory parents. Their reasons for migrating need not concern us. They must, indeed, have been bad reasons. For Florian, at thirteen, a spindle-legged errand-boy in over-size knickers, a cold sore on his lip, and shoes chronically in need of resoling, had started to work for the great sporting goods store of Inverness & Heath.

Now, at twenty-nine, he was head of the fifth floor. The cold sore had vanished permanently under a regime of health-food, dumb-bells, and icy plunges. The shoes were bench-made and flawless. If the legs still were somewhat spindling their correctly creased casings hid the fact.

There’s little doubt that if Florian had been named Bill, and if the calves of his legs had bulged, and if, in his youth, he had gone to work for a wholesale grocer, he would never have forged for himself a coat of mail whose links were pretense and whose bolts were sham. He probably would have been frankly content with the sight of an occasional ball-game out at the Polo Grounds, and the newspaper bulletins of a prizefight by rounds. But here he was at the base that supplied America’s outdoor equipment. He who outfitted mountaineers must speak knowingly of glaciers, chasms, crevices, and peaks. He who advised canoeists must assume wisdom of paddles, rapids, currents, and portages. He whose sleeping hours were spangled with the clang of the street cars must counsel such hardy ones as were preparing cheerfully to seek rest rolled in blankets before a camp-fire’s dying embers. And so, slowly, year by year, in his rise from errand to stock boy, from stock boy to clerk, from clerk to assistant manager, thence to his present official position, he had built about himself a tissue of innocent lies. He actually believed them himself.

Sometimes a customer who in June had come in to purchase his vacation supplies with the city pallor upon him, returned in September, brown, hard, energized, to thank Florian for the comfort of the outfit supplied him.

“I just want to tell you, Sykes, that that was a great little outfit you sold me. Yessir! Not a thing too much, and not a thing too little, either. Remember how I kicked about that air mattress? Well, say, it saved my life! I slept like a baby every night. And the trip! You’ve been there, haven’t you?”

Florian would smile and nod his head. His grateful customer would clap him on the shoulder. “Some pebble, that mountain!”

“Get to the top?” Florian would ask.

“Well, we didn’t do the peak. That is, not right to the top. Started to a couple of times, but the girls got tired, and we didn’t want to leave ’em alone. Pretty stiff climb, let me tell you, young feller.”

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“You should have made the top.”

“Been up, have you?”

“A dozen times.”

“Oh, well, that’s your business, you might say. Next time, maybe, we’ll do it. The missus says she wants to go back there every year.”

Florian would shake his head. “Oh, you don’t want to do that. Have you been out to Glacier? Have you done the Yellowstone on horseback? Ever been down the Grand Canyon?”

“Why–no–but—-“

“You’ve got a few thrills coming to you then.”

The sunburned traveller would flush mahogany. “That’s all right for you to say. But I’m no chamois. But it was a great trip, just the same. I want to thank you.”

Then, for example, Florian’s clothes. He had adopted that careful looseness–that ease of fit–that skilful sloppiness–which is the last word in masculine sartorial smartness. In talking he dropped his final g’s and said “sportin’” and “mountain climbin’” and “shootin’.” From June until September he wore those Norfolk things with bow ties, and his shirt patterns were restrained to the point of austerity. A signet ring with a large scrolled monogram on the third finger of his right hand was his only ornament, and he had worn a wrist watch long before the War. He had never seen a mountain. The ocean meant Coney Island. He breakfasted at Child’s. He spent two hours over the Sunday papers. He was a Tittlebat Titmouse without the whiskers. And Myra loved him.

If Florian had not pretended to be something he wasn’t; and if he had not professed an enthusiastic knowledge of things of which he was ignorant, he would, in the natural course of events, have loved Myra quickly in return. In fact, he would have admitted that he had loved her first, and desperately. And there would have been no story entitled, “Ain’t Nature Wonderful!”

Myra worked in the women’s and misses’, third floor, and she didn’t care a thing about the big outdoors or the great open spaces. She didn’t even pretend to–at first. A clear-eyed, white-throated, capable young woman, almost poignantly pretty. You sensed it was the kind of loveliness that fades a bit with marriage. In its place come two sturdy babies to carry on the torch of beauty. You sensed, too, that Myra would keep their noses wiped, their knees scrubbed, and their buttons buttoned and that, between a fresh blouse for herself and fresh rompers for them, the blouse would always lose.

She hated discomfort, did Myra, as does one who has always had too much of it. After you have stood all day, from 8:30 A. M. to 5:30 P. M., selling sweaters, riding togs, golf clothes, and trotteurs to athletic Dianas whose lines are more lathe than lithe, you can’t work up much enthusiasm about exercising for the pure joy of it. Myra had never used a tennis-racket in her life, but daily she outfitted for the sport bronzed young ladies who packed a nasty back-hand wallop in their right. She wore (and was justly proud of) a 4-A shoe, and took a good deal of comfort in the fact as she sold 7-Cs at $22.50 a pair to behemothian damsels who possessed money in proportion to Myra’s beauty. Myra was the only girl in her section who never tried to dress in imitation of the moneyed ones whom she served. The other girls were wont to wear severely tailored shirts, mannish ties, stocks, flat-heeled shoes, rough tweed skirts. Not so Myra. That delicate cup-like hollow at the base of her white throat was fittingly framed in a ruffle of frilly georgette. She did her hair in soft undulations that flowed away from forehead and temple, and she powdered her nose a hundred times a day. Her little shoes were high-heeled and her hands were miraculously white, and if you prefer Rosalind to Viola you’d better quit her now.

“Anybody who wants to wear those cross-country clothes is welcome to them,” she said. “I’m a girl and I’m satisfied to be. I don’t see why I should wear a hard-boiled shirt and a necktie any more than a man should wear a pink georgette trimmed with filet. By the end of the week, when I’ve spent six solid days selling men’s clothes to women, I feel’s if I’d die happy if I could take a milk bath and put on white satin and pearls and a train six yards long from the shoulders–you know.”

Not the least of Myra’s charm was a certain unexpected and pleasing humour. It was as though, on opening a chocolate box, you were to find it contained caviar.

Of course by now you know that Myra is the girl you used to see smiling out at you from the Inverness & Heath catalogue entitled Sportswomen’s Apparel. The head of her department had soon discovered that Myra, posing for illustrations to be used in the spring booklet, raised that pamphlet’s selling power about 100 per cent. Sunburned misses, with wind-ravaged complexions, gazing at the picture of Myra, cool, slim, luscious-looking, saw themselves as they would fain be–and bought the Knollwood sweater depicted–in silk or wool–putty, maize, navy, rose, copen, or white–$35. Myra posed in paddock coat and breeches–she who had never been nearer a horse than the distance between sidewalk and road. She smiled at you over her shoulder radiant in a white tricot Palm Beach suit, who thought palms grew in jardinieres only. On page 17 she was revealed in the boyish impudence of our Aiken Polo Habit, complete, $90. She was ravishing in her golf clothes, her small feet in sturdy, flat-heeled boots planted far apart, and only the most carping would have commented on the utter impossibility of her stance. Then there was the Killiecrankie Travel Tog (background of assorted mountains) made of Scotch tweed (she would never come nearer Scotland than oatmeal for breakfast) only $140. To say nothing of motor clothes, woodland suits, trap-shooting costumes, Yellowstone Park outfits, hunting habits. She wore brogues, and boots, and skating shoes, and puttees and tennis ties; sou’westers, leather topcoats, Jersey silks, military capes. You saw her fishing, hunting, boating, riding, golfing, snow-shoeing, swimming. She was equally lovely in khaki with woollen stockings, or in a habit of white linen and the shiniest of riding-boots. And as she peeled off the one to put on the next she remarked wearily, “A kimono and felt slippers and my hair down my back will look pretty good to me to-night, after this.”

You see, Myra and Florian really had so much in common that if he had been honest with himself the course of their love would have run too smooth to be true. But Florian, in his effort to register as a two-fisted, hard-riding, nature-taming male, made such a success of it that for a long time he deceived even Myra who loved him. And during that time she, too, lied in her frantic effort to match her step with his. When he talked of riding and swimming; of long, hard mountain hikes; of impenetrable woods, she looked at him with sparkling eyes. (She didn’t need to throw much effort into that, nature having supplied her with the ground materials.) When, on their rare Sundays together, he suggested a long tramp up the Palisades she agreed enthusiastically, though she hated it. Not only that, she went, loathing it. The stones hurt her feet. Her slender ankles ached. The sun burned her delicate skin. The wind pierced her thin coat. Florian strode along with the exaggerated step of the short man who bitterly resents his lack of stature. Every now and then he stood still, and breathed deeply, and said, “Glorious!” And Myra looked at his straight back, and his clear-cut profile, and his well-dressed legs and said, “Isn’t it!” and wished he would kiss her. But he never did.

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In between times he bemoaned his miserable two weeks’ vacation which made impossible the sort of thing he said he craved–a long, hard, rough trip into a mountain interior. The Rockies, preferably, in their jaggedest portions.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes a fellow over. Roughing it. You forget about the city. In the saddle all day–nothing but sky and mountains. God’s big open spaces! That’s the life!”

Myra trudged along, painfully. “But isn’t it awfully uncomfortable? You know. Cold? And tents? I don’t think I’d like—-“

“I wouldn’t give a cent for a person who was so soft they couldn’t stand roughing it a little. That’s the trouble with you Easterners. Soft! No red blood. Too many street cars, and high buildings, and restaurants. Chop down a few trees and fry your own bacon, and make your own camp, and saddle your own horses–that’s what I call living. I’m going back to it some day, see if I don’t.”

Myra looked down at her own delicate wrists, with the blue veins so exquisitely etched against the white flesh. A little look of terror and hopelessness came into her eyes.

“I–I couldn’t chop down a tree,” she said. She was panting a little in keeping up with him, for he was walking very fast. “I’d be afraid to saddle a horse. You have to stand right next to them, don’t you? Most girls can’t chop—-“

Florian smiled a little superior smile. “Miss Jessie Heath can.” Myra looked up at him, quickly. “She’s a wonder! She was in yesterday,” he went on. “Spent all of two hours up in my department, looking things over. There’s nothing she can’t do. She won a blue ribbon at the Horse Show in February. Saddle. She’s climbed every peak that amounts to anything in Europe. Did the Alps when she was a little girl. This summer she’s going to do the Rockies, because things are so mussed up in Europe, she says. I’m selecting the outfit for the party. Gad, what a trip!” He sighed, deeply.

Myra was silent. She was not ungenerous toward women, as are so many pretty girls. But she was human, after all, and she did love this Florian, and Jessie Heath was old man Heath’s daughter. Whenever she came into the store she created a little furore among the clerks. Myra could not resist a tiny flash of claws.

“She’s flat, like a man. And she wears 7-1/2-C. And her face looks as if it had been rubbed with a scouring brick.”

“She’s a goddess!” said Florian, striding along. Myra laughed, a little high hysterical laugh. Then she bit her lip, and then she was silent for a long time. He was silent, too, until suddenly he heard a little sound that made him turn quickly to look at her stumbling along at his side. And she was crying.

“Why–what’s the matter! What’s!—-“

“I’m tired,” sobbed Myra, and sank in a little limp heap on a convenient rock. “I’m tired. I want to go home.”

“Why”–he was plainly bewildered–“why didn’t you tell me you were tired!”

“I’m telling you now.”

They took the nearest ferry across the river, and the Subway home. At the entrance to the noisy, crowded flat in which she lived Myra turned to face him. She was through with pretense. She was tired of make-believe. She felt a certain relief in the thought of what she had to say. She faced him squarely.

“I’ve lived in the city all my life and I’m crazy about it. I love it. I like to walk in the park a little maybe, Sundays, but I hate tramping like we did this afternoon, and you might as well know it. I wouldn’t chop down a tree, not if I was freezing to death, and I’d hate to have to sleep in a tent, so there! I hate sunburn, and freckles, and ants in the pie, and blisters on my feet, and getting wet, and flat-heeled shoes, and I never saddled a horse. I’d be afraid to. And what’s more, I don’t believe you do, either.”

“Don’t believe I do what?” asked Florian in a stunned kind of voice.

But Myra had turned and left him. And as he stood there, aghast, bewildered, resentful, clear and fair in the back of his mind, against all the turmoil of thoughts that seethed there, was the picture of her white, slim, exquisite throat with a little delicate pulse beating in it as she cried out her rebellion. He wished–or some one inside him that he could not control wished–that he could put his fingers there on her throat, gently.

It was very warm that evening, for May. And as he sat by the window in his pajamas, just before going to bed, he thought about Myra, and he thought about himself. But when he thought about himself he slammed the door on what he saw. Florian’s rooms were in Lexington Avenue in the old brownstone district that used to be the home of white-headed millionaires with gold-headed canes, who, on dying, left their millions to an Alger newsboy who had once helped them across the street. Millionaires, gold-headed canes, and newsboys had long vanished, and the old brownstone fronts were rooming houses now, interspersed with delicatessens, interior decorators, and dressmaking establishments. Florian was fond of boasting when he came down to the store in the morning, after a hot, muggy July night, “My place is like a summer resort. Breeze just sweeps through it. I have to have the covers on.”

Sometimes Mrs. Pet, his landlady, made him a pitcher of lemonade and brought it up to him, and he sipped it, looking out over the city, soothed by its roar, fascinated by its glow and brilliance. Mrs. Pet said it was a pleasure to have him around, he was so neat.

Florian was neat. Not only neat, but methodical. He had the same breakfast every week-day morning at Child’s; half a grapefruit, one three-minute egg, coffee, rolls. On Sunday morning he had bacon and eggs. It was almost automatic. Speaking of automatics, he never took his meals at one of those modern mechanical feeders. Though at Child’s he never really beheld the waitress with his seeing eye, he liked to have her slap his dishes down before him with a genial crash. A gentleman has his little foibles, and being waited on at meal-time was one of his. Occasionally, to prove to himself that he wasn’t one of those fogies who get in a rut, he ordered wheat cakes with maple syrup for breakfast. They always disagreed with him.

She was a wise young woman, Myra.

Perhaps Florian, as he sat by his window that Sunday night of Myra’s outburst, thought on these things. But he would not admit to himself whither his thinking led. And presently he turned back the spread, neatly, and turned out the light, and opened the window a little wider, and felt of his chin, as men do, though the next shave is eight hours distant, and slept, and did not dream of white throats as he had secretly hoped he would.

And next morning, at eleven, a very wonderful thing began to happen. Next morning, at eleven, Miss Jessie Heath loped (well, it can’t be helped. That describes it exactly) into the broad aisles of the fifth floor. She had been coming in a great deal, lately. The Western trip, no doubt.

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Descriptions of people are clumsy things, at best, and stop one’s story. But Jessie Heath must have her paragraph. A half-dozen lines ought to do it. Well–she was the kind of girl who always goes around with a couple of Airedales, and in woollen stockings, low shoes and mannish shirts, and shell-rimmed glasses, and you felt she wore Ferris waists. Her hair was that ashen blonde with no glint of gold in it. You knew it would become grey in middle age with no definite period of transition. She never buttoned her heavy welted gloves but wore them back over her hand, like a cuff, very English. You felt there must be a riding crop concealed about her somewhere. Perhaps up her spine.

As has been said, there was always a little flurry when she came into the big store that had made millions for her father. It would be nonsense to suppose that Jessie Heath ever deliberately set out to attract a man who was an employee in that store. But it is pleasant and soothing to be admired, and to have a fine pair of eyes look fine things into one’s own (shell-rimmed) ones. And, after all, the Jessie Heaths of this world are walked with, and golfed with, and ridden with, and tennised with, and told that they’re wonderful pals. But it’s the Myras that are made love to. So now, when Florian Sykes looked at her, and flushed a little, and said, “I suppose there are a lot of lucky ones going along with you on this trip, Miss–Jessie,” she flushed, too, and flicked her boot with her riding crop–No, no! I forgot. She didn’t have a riding crop. Well, anyway she gave the effect of flicking her boot with her riding crop, and said:

“Would you like to go?”

“Would I like to go—-!” He choked over it. Then he sighed, and smiled rather wistfully. “That’s needlessly cruel of you, Miss Jessie.”

“Maybe it’s not so cruel as you think,” Jessie Heath answered. “Did you make out that list?”

“I spent practically all of yesterday on it.” Which we know was a lie because, look, wasn’t he with Myra?

They went over the list together. Fishing tackle, tents, pocket-flashes, puttees, ponchos, chocolate, quirts, slickers, matches, medicine-case, sweaters, cooking utensils, blankets. It grew longer, and longer. Their heads came close together over it. And they trailed from department to department, laughing and talking together. And the two Maine ex-guides and the clerk who boasted he knew the Rockies like the palm of his hand, said to one another, “Get on to Nature’s Rival trying to make a hit with Jessie.”

Meanwhile Jessie was saying, “Of course you know the Rockies, being a Western man, and all.”

Florian smiled rather deprecatingly. “Queer part of it is I don’t know the Rockies so well–” with an emphasis on the word Rockies that led one to think his more noteworthy feats of altitude had been accomplished about the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Andes, and the lesser Appalachians.

“But you’ve climbed them, haven’t you?”

He burned his bridges behind him. “Only the–ah–eastern slopes.”

“Oh, that’s all right, then. We’re going to do the west. It’ll be wonderful having you—-“

“Me!”

“Nothing. Let’s go on with the list. M-m-m–where were we? Oh, yes. Now trout flies. Which do you honestly think best for mountain trout? The Silver Doctor or the Gray Hackle or the Yellow Professor? U’m?”

Inspiration comes to us at such times. It could have been nothing less that prompted him to say, “Well–doesn’t that depend a lot on the weather and the depth of the–ahem!–water?”

“Yes, of course. How silly of me. We’ll take a lot of all kinds, and then we’ll be safe.”

He breathed again and smiled. He had a winning smile, Florian. Jessie Heath smiled in return and they stood there, the two of them, lips parted, eyes holding eyes.

“My God!” said the man who boasted he knew the Rockies like the palm of his own hand, “it looks as if he’d landed her, the stiff.”

Certainly it looked as if he had. For next morning old Heath, red-faced, genial-looking (and not so genial as he looked) approached the head of the fifth floor and said, “How long you been with us, Sykes?”

“Well, I came here as errand boy at thirteen. That’s ten–twelve–fifteen–just about sixteen years next June. Yes, sir.”

“How’d Jessie–how’d my daughter get the idea you were from the West, and a regular mountain goat, and a peak-climber and all that?”

He did look a little uncomfortable then, but it was too late for withdrawal. “I am from the West, you know.”

“Have you had any long vacations since you’ve been with us?”

“No, sir. You see, in the summer, of course–our busy season. I never can get away then. So I’ve taken my two weeks in the fall.”

Old Heath’s eyes narrowed musingly. “Well, you couldn’t have done all this mountain climbing before you were thirteen. And Jessie says—-” He paused, rather blankly. “You say you do know the Rockies, though, eh?”

Florian drew himself up a little. “As well as I know any mountain.”

“Oh, well, then, that’s all right. Seems Jessie thinks you’d be a fine fellow to have along on this trip. I can’t go myself. I hate this mountain climbing, anyway. Too darned hard work. But it’s all right for young folks. Well, now, what do you say? Want to go? You’ve earned a vacation, after sixteen years. There’s about eight in Jessie’s crowd. Not counting guides. What do you say? Like to go?”

For a dazed moment Florian stared at him. “Why, yessir. Yes, sir, I’d–I’d like to go–very much.” And he coughed to hide his joy and terror.

And two weeks later he went.

The thing swept the store like a flame. In an hour everyone knew it from the shipping-room to the roof-restaurant. Myra saw him the day he left. She was game, that girl.

“I hope you’re going to have a beautiful time, Mr. Sykes.”

“Thanks, Myra.” He could afford to be lenient with her, poor little girl.

She ventured a final wretched word or two. “It’s–it’s wonderful of Mr. Heath and–Miss Heath–isn’t it?” She was rubbing salt into her own wound and taking a fierce sort of joy in it.

“Wonderful! Say, they’re a couple of God’s green footstools, that’s what they are!” He was a little mixed, but very much in earnest. “A couple of God’s green footstools.” And he went.

He went, and Myra watched him go, and except for a little swelling gulp in her white throat you’d never have known she’d been hit. He was going with Jessie Heath. Now, Myra had no illusions about those things. Old man Heath’s wife, now dead, had been a girl with no money and no looks, and yet he had married her. If Jessie Heath happened to take a fancy to Florian, why—-

Myra’s little world stood still, and in it were small voices, far away, asking for 6-1/2-B; and have you it in brown, and other unimportant things like that.

Ten minutes after the train had started Florian Sykes knew he shouldn’t have come. He had suspected it before. He kept saying to himself, over and over: “You’ve always wanted a mountain trip, and now you’re going to have it. You’re a lucky guy, that’s what you are. A lucky guy.” But in his heart he knew he was lying.

In the first place, they were all so glib with their altitudes, and their packs, and their trails, and their horses and their camps. It was a rather mixed and raggle-taggle group that Miss Jessie Heath had gathered about her for this expedition to the West. They ranged all the way from a little fluffy witless golden-haired girl they all called Mud, for some obscure reason, and who had been Miss Heath’s room-mate at college, surprisingly enough, to a lady of stern and rock-bound countenance who looked like a stage chaperon made up for the part. She was Miss Heath’s companion in lieu of Mrs. Heath, deceased. In between there were a couple of men of Florian’s age; two youngsters of twenty-one or two who talked of Harvard and asked Florian what his university had been; an old girl whose name Florian never did learn; and two others of Jessie Heath’s age and general style. Florian found himself as bewildered by their talk and views as though they had been jabbering a foreign language. Every now and then, though, one of them would turn to him for a bit of technical advice. If it happened to concern equipment Florian could answer it readily enough. Ten years on the fifth floor had taught him many things. But if the knowledge sought happened to be of things geographical or of nature, he floundered, struggled, sank. And it took them just about half a day to learn this. The trip out takes four, from New York.

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At first they asked him things to see him suffer. But they tired of that, after a bit. It was too easy. Queerly enough, Jessie Heath, mountain-wise though she was, believed in him almost to the end. But that only made the next three weeks the bitterer for Florian Sykes. For when it came to leaping from peak to peak Jessie turned out to be the young gazelle. And she liked to have Florian with her. On the trail she was a mosquito afoot, a jockey ahorseback. A thousand times, in those three weeks of torture, he would fix his eye on a tree ten feet away, up the steep trail. And to himself he would say, “I’ll struggle, somehow, as far as that tree, and then die under it.” And he would stagger another ten feet, his heart pounding in the unaccustomed altitude, his lungs bursting, his lips parted, his breath coming sobbingly, his eyes starting from his head. Leaping lightly ahead of him, around the bend, was Jessie, always. She had a way of calling to the laggard–hallooing, I believe it’s supposed to be. And she expected an answer. An answer! When your lungs were bursting through your chest and your heart was crowding your tonsils. When he reached her it was always to find her perched on a seemingly inaccessible rock, demanding that he join her to admire the view. Before three days had gone by the sound of that halloo with its breeziness and breath-control and power, made him sick all over. Sometimes she sang, going up the trail. He could not have croaked a note if failure to do it had meant instant death. The Harvard hellions (it is his own term) were indefatigable, simian, pitiless. At nine thousand feet they aimed at ten. At ten they would have nothing less than twelve. At twelve thousand they were all for making another drive for it and having lunch at an altitude of thirteen thousand five hundred. As he toiled painfully along hundreds of feet behind them, Florian used to take a hideous pleasure in fancying how, on reaching the ever-distant top, the Harvard hellions would be missing. And after searching and hallooing he would peer over the edge (13,500 feet, at the very least, surely) and there, at the bottom, would discern their mangled forms, distorted, crushed, and quite, quite dead.

“Yoo-o-o–hoo-oo-oo-oo!” Jessie, up the trail. His rosy dream would vanish.

He learned why seasoned mountain climbers make nothing of the ascent. He learned, in bitterness and unshed tears, that it is the descent that breaks the heart and shatters the already broken frame. That down-climb with your toes crashing through your boots at every step; with your knee-brakes refusing to work, your thighs creaking, your joints spavined. The views were wonderful. But, oh, the price he paid! The air was intoxicating. But what, he asked himself, was wine to a dead man! Miserable little cockney that he was he told himself a hundred times a day that if he ever survived this he’d never look at another view again, unless from the Woolworth Tower, on a calm day. He thought of New York as a traveller, dying of thirst in the desert, thinks of the lush green oasis. New York in July! Dear New York in July, its furs in storage, its collar unstarched, its coat unbuttoned; even its doormen and chauffeurs almost human. Would he ever see it again? And then, as if in answer to his question, there befell an incident so harrowing, so nerve-shattering, as almost to make a negative answer seem inevitable.

Florian got lost.

It was the third week of the trip. Florian had answered Jessie’s eleven thousandth question about things of which he was quite, quite ignorant. His brain felt queer and tight, as though something were about to snap.

They were to climb the Peak next day. All that day they had been approaching it. Florian looked at it. And he hated it. It was like a colossal forbidding finger pointing upward, upward, taunting him, menacing him. He wished that some huge cataclysm of nature would occur, swallowing up this hideous mass of pitiless rock.

Jessie Heath’s none too classic nose had peeled long ere this and her neck was like a choice cut of underdone beefsteak. Florian told himself that there was something almost indecent about a girl who cared so little about her skin, and hair, and eyes, and hands. He actually hated her sturdy legs in their boots or puttees–those tireless, pitiless legs, always twinkling ahead of him, up the trail.

On the fateful day he was tired. He had often been tired to the point of desperation during the past three weeks. But this was different. Every step was torture. Every breath was pain. Jessie was a few hundred feet up the trail, as always, and hallooing to him every dozen paces. The Harvard hellions were doing the chamois ahead of her. The rest of the party were toiling along behind. One guide was just ahead. Another, leading two horses, bringing up the rear. Suddenly, desperately, Florian knew he must rest. He would fling himself on a bed of moss by the side of the trail, in the shade, near a stunted, wind-tortured timber-line pine, and let the whole procession pass him, and then catch up with them before they disappeared.

He stepped to the side of the narrow trail, almost indiscernible at this height, flung himself down with a little groan of relief, and shut his sun-seared eyes. The voices of the others came to him. There was little conversation. He heard Jessie’s accursed halloo. Then the soft thud of the pack-horses’ hoofs, the creak of the saddles. He must get up and follow now. In a minute. In a minute. In a m—-

He must have slept there for two hours. When he awoke the light had changed and the air was chill. He sat up, bewildered. He rose. He looked about, called, hallooed, shouted, did all the futile frenzied things that a city man does who is lost in the mountains, and, knowing he is lost, is panic-stricken. The trail, of course! He looked for it, and there was no trail, to his town-wise eyes. He ran hither and thither, and back to hither again. He went forward, seemingly, and found himself back whence he started. He looked for cairns, for tree-blazes, for any one of the signs of which he had learned in the last three weeks. He found none. He called again, shrilly. A terror seized him. Terror of those grim, menacing, towering mountain masses. He ran round and round and round; darted backward and forward; called; stumbled; fell, and subsided, beaten.

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He had a tiny box of matches with him, but little else. He had found the trail difficult enough without being pack-burdened. Food? He bethought himself of a little blue tin box in his coat pocket. He took it out and looked at it. Its very name struck terror to his heart.

U. S. Emergency Ration. It was printed on the box. Just below that he made out:

Powdered sugar
Chocolate
Cocoa butter
Malted milk
Egg Albumin
Casein.
Not to be opened except on command of officer.

My God! He had come to this! He looked at it, wide-eyed. He was very hungry. The ration, in its blue tin, like a box of shaving talcum, had been handed to each of the party in a chorus of shouting and laughter. And now it was to save his life. He managed to pry open the box, and ate some of its contents, slowly. It was not agreeable.

Dusk was coming on. There were mountain lions, he knew that. Those rocks and crevices were peopled with all sorts of stealthy, snarling, slinking, four-footed creatures. He would build a fire. They were afraid of the flames, he had read somewhere, and would not come near. Perhaps the others would see the light, and come back to find him. Curse them! Why hadn’t they come before now!

It was dusk by the time he had his fire built. He had crouched over it for a half-hour, blowing it, coaxing it, wheedling it. There were few twigs or sticks at this height. He was very cold. His heavy sweater was in the pack on the horse’s back. Finally he was rewarded with a feeble flicker, a tiny tongue of flame. He rose from his knees and passed his hand over his forehead with a gesture of utter weariness and despair. And then he stared, transfixed. For on the plateau above him rose a great shaft of fire. The kind of fire that only Pete, the most expert among guides, could build. And as he stared there burst out at him from behind trees, rocks, crevices, a whole horde of imps shrieking with fiendish laughter.

“Ho, ho,” laughed Jessie.

And “Ha, ha!” howled the Harvard hellions.

“Thought you were lost, didn’tcha?”

“Gosh, you looked funny!”

“Your face!—-“

Florian stared at them. He did not smile. He went quietly over to his tiny camp-fire and stamped it out, neatly, as he had been taught to do. He took his can of emergency ration (not to be opened except on command of officer) and hurled it far, far down the mountainside. Jessie Heath laughed, contemptuously. And Florian, looking at her, didn’t care. Didn’t care. Didn’t care.

The nightmare was over in August. Over, that is, for Florian. The rest were to do another four weeks of it, farther into the interior. Florian sickened at the thought of it. When he bade them farewell he was so glad to be free of them that he almost loved them. When he found himself actually on the little jerkwater train that was to connect him with the main line he patted the dusty red plush seat, gratefully, as one would stroke a faithful beast. When he came into the Grand Central station he would have stooped and kissed the steps of the marble staircase if his porter had not been on the point of vanishing with his bags. That night on reaching home he stayed in the bathtub for an hour, just lying there in the warm, soothing liquid, only moving to dapple his fingers now and then as a lazy fish moves a languid fin. God’s country! This was it.

“My, it’s nice to have you back again, Mr. Sykes,” said Mrs. Pet.

“Is your big two-room suite on the next floor vacant?” said Florian, cryptically.

Mrs. Pet stared a little, wonderingly. “Yes, that’s vacant since the Ostranders left, in July. Why do you ask, Mr. Sykes?”

“Nothing,” Florian answered, airily. “Not a thing. Just asked.”

His train had come in at nine. It was eleven now, but he was restless, and a little hungry, and very much exhilarated. “You certainly look grand,” Mrs. Pet had exclaimed, admiringly. “And my, how you’re sunburned!”

He left the Lexington Avenue house, now, and strolled over to the near-by white-tiled restaurant. There, in the window, was the white-capped one, flapping pancakes. Florian could have kissed him. He sat down. A waitress approached him.

“I don’t know,” mused Florian. “I’m sort of hungry, but I don’t just—-“

“The pork and beans are elegant to-night,” suggested the girl.

And “Pork and beans! NO!” thundered Florian.

The girl drew herself up icily. “I ain’t deef. You don’t need to yell.”

Florian looked up at her contritely, and smiled his winning smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–I–I never want to see beans again as long as I live!”

He was down at the store early, early next morning. His practised eye swept the department for possible slackness, for changes, for needed adjustments. The two Maine ex-guides and the chap who knew the Rockies like the palm of his hand welcomed him with Judas-like slaps on the shoulder. “Like it?” they asked him. And, “God’s country–the West,” he answered, mechanically. After that he ignored them. At nine he ran down the two flights of stairs to the third floor. He did not wait for the elevator.

For a moment he could not find her and his heart sank. She might be away on a vacation. Then he spied her in a corner half-hidden by a rack of covert coats. She was hanging them up. The floor was empty of customers thus early. He strode over to her. She turned. Into her eyes there leaped a look which she quickly veiled as had been taught her by a thousand thousand female ancestors.

“I got your postals,” she said.

Florian said nothing.

“My, you’re brown!”

Florian said nothing.

“Did you–have a good time?”

Florian said nothing.

“What–what—-” Her hand went to her throat, where his eyes were fastened.

Then Florian spoke. “How white your throat is!” he said. “How white your throat is!”

Myra stepped out, then, from among the covert coats on the rack. Her head was lifted high on the creamy column that supported it. She had her pride, had Myra.

“It’s no whiter than it was a month ago, that I can see.”

“I know it.” His tone was humble, with a little pleading note in it. “I know a lot of things that I didn’t know a month ago, Myra.”

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