Inside the Lines (Biggers and Ritchie)/Chapter 1
JANE GERSON, BUYER
HAD two trunks—two, you ninny! Two! Ou est l'autre?"
The grinning customs guard lifted his shoulders to his ears and spread out his palms. "Mais, mamselle"
"Don't you 'mais' me, sir! I had two trunks—deux troncs—when I got aboard that wabbly old boat at Dover this morning, and I'm not going to budge from this wharf until I find the other one. Where did you learn your French, anyway? Can't you understand when I speak your language?"
The girl plumped herself down on top of the unhasped trunk and folded her arms truculently. With a quizzical smile, the customs guard looked down into her brown eyes, smoldering dangerously now, and began all over again his speech of explanation.
"Wagon-lit?" She caught a familiar word. "Mais oui; that's where I want to go—aboard your wagon-lit, for Paris. Voilà!"—the girl carefully gave the word three syllables—"mon ticket pour Paree!" She opened her patent-leather reticule, rummaged furiously therein, brought out a handkerchief, a tiny mirror, a packet of rice papers, and at last a folded and punched ticket. This she displayed with a triumphant flourish.
"Voilà! Il dit 'Miss Jane Gerson'; that's me—moi-meme, I mean. And il dit 'deux troncs'; now you can't go behind that, can you? Where is that other trunk?"
A whistle shrilled back beyond the swinging doors of the station. Folk in the customs shed began a hasty gathering together of parcels and shawl straps, and a general exodus toward the train sheds commenced. The girl on the trunk looked appealingly about her; nothing but bustle and confusion; no Samaritan to turn aside and rescue a fair traveler fallen among customs guards. Her eyes filled with trouble, and for an instant her reliant mouth broke its line of determination; the lower lip quivered suspiciously. Even the guard started to walk away.
"Oh, oh, please don't go!" Jane Gerson was on her feet, and her hands shot out in an impulsive appeal. "Oh, dear; maybe I forgot to tip you. Here, attende au secours, if you'll only find that other trunk before the train"
"Pardon; but if I may be of any assistance"
Miss Gerson turned. A tallish, old-young-looking man, in a gray lounge suit, stood heels together and bent stiffly in a bow. Nothing of the beau or the boulevardier about his face or manner. Miss Gerson accepted his intervention as heaven-sent.
"Oh, thank you ever so much! The guard, you see, doesn't understand good French. I just can't make him understand that one of my trunks is missing. And the train for Paris"
Already the stranger was rattling incisive French at the guard. That official bowed low, and, with hands and lips, gave rapid explanation. The man in the gray lounge suit turned to the girl.
"A little misunderstanding, Miss—ah"
"Gerson—Jane Gerson, of New York," she promptly supplied.
"A little misunderstanding, Miss Gerson. The customs guard says your other trunk has already been examined, passed, and placed on the baggage van. He was trying to tell you that it would be necessary for you to permit a porter to take this trunk to the train before time for starting. With your permission"
The stranger turned and halloed to a porter, who came running. Miss Gerson had the trunk locked and strapped in no time, and it was on the shoulders of the porter.
"You have very little time. Miss Gerson. The train will be making a start directly. If I might—ah—pilot you through the station to the proper train shed. I am not presuming?"
"You are very kind," she answered hurriedly.
They set off, the providential Samaritan in the lead. Through the waiting-room and on to a broad platform, almost deserted, they went. A guard's whistle shrilled. The stranger tucked a helping hand under Jane Gerson's arm to steady her in the sharp sprint down a long aisle between tracks to where the Paris train stood. It began to move before they had reached its mid-length. A guard threw open a carriage door, in they hopped, and with a rattle of chains and banging of buffers the Express du Nord was off on its arrow flight from Calais to the capital.
The carriage, which was of the second class, was comfortably filled. Miss Gerson stumbled over the feet of a puffy Fleming nearest the door, was launched into the lap of a comfortably upholstered widow on the opposite seat, ricochetted back to jam an elbow into a French gentleman's spread newspaper, and finally was catapulted into a vacant space next to the window on the carriage's far side. She giggled, tucked the skirts of her pearl-gray duster about her, righted the chic sailor hat on her chestnut-brown head, and patted a stray wisp of hair back into place. Her meteor flight into and through the carriage disturbed her not a whit.
As for the Samaritan, he stood uncertainly in the narrow cross aisle, swaying to the swing of the carriage and reconnoitering seating possibilities. There was a place, a very narrow one, next to the fat Fleming; also there was a vacant place next to Jane Gerson. The Samaritan caught the girl's glance in his indecision, read in it something frankly comradely, and chose the seat beside her.
"Very good of you, I'm sure," he murmured. "I did not wish to presume"
"You're not," the girl assured, and there was something so fresh, so ingenuous, in the tone and the level glance of her brown eyes that the Samaritan felt all at once distinctly satisfied with the cast of fortune that had thrown him in the way of a distressed traveler. He sat down with a lifting of the checkered Alpine hat he wore and a stiff little bow from the waist.
"If I may, Miss Gerson—I am Captain Woodhouse, of the signal service."
"Oh!" The girl let slip a little gasp—the meed of admiration the feminine heart always pays to shoulder straps. "Signal service; that means the army?"
"His majesty's service; yes, Miss Gerson."
"You are, of course, off duty?" she suggested, with the faintest possible tinge of regret at the absence of the stripes and buttons that spell "soldier" with the woman.
"You might say so, Miss Gerson. Egypt—the Nile country is my station. I am on my way back there after a bit of a vacation at home—London I mean, of course."
She stole a quick side glance at the face of her companion. A soldier's face it was, lean and school-hardened and competent. Lines about the eyes and mouth—the stamp of the sun and the imprint of the habit to command—had taken from Captain Woodhouse's features something of freshness and youth, though giving in return the index of inflexible will and lust for achievement. His smooth lips were a bit thin, Jane Gerson thought, and the out-shooting chin, almost squared at the angles, marked Captain Woodhouse as anything but a trifler or a flirt. She was satisfied that nothing of presumption or forwardness on the part of this hard-molded chap from Egypt would give her cause to regret her unconventional offer of friendship.
Captain Woodhouse, in his turn, had made a satisfying, though covert, appraisal of his traveling companion by means of a narrow mirror inset above the baggage rack over the opposite seat. Trim and petite of figure, which was just a shade under the average for height and plumpness; a small head set sturdily on a round smooth neck; face the very embodiment of independence and self-confidence, with its brown eyes wide apart, its high brow under the parting waves of golden chestnut, broad humorous mouth, and tiny nose slightly nibbed upward: Miss Up-to-the-Minute New York, indeed! From the cocked red feather in her hat to the dainty spatted boots Jane Gerson appeared in Woodhouse's eyes a perfect, virile, vividly alive American girl. He'd met her kind before; had seen them browbeating bazaar merchants in Cairo and riding desert donkeys like strong young queens. The type appealed to him. The first stiffness of informal meeting wore away speedily. The girl tactfully directed the channel of conversation into lines familiar to Woodhouse. What was Egypt like; who owned the Pyramids, and why didn't the owners plant a park around them and charge admittance? Didn't he think Rameses and all those other old Pharaohs had the right idea in advertising—putting up stone billboards to last all time? The questions came crisp and startling; Woodhouse found himself chuckling at the shrewd incisiveness of them. Rameses an advertiser and the Pyramids stone hoardings to carry all those old boys' fame through the ages! He'd never looked on them in that light before.
"I say, Miss Gerson, you'd make an excellent business person, now, really," the captain voiced his admiration.
"Just cable that at my expense to old Pop Hildebrand, of Hildebrand's department store. New York," she flashed back at him. "I'm trying to convince him of just that very thing."
"Really, now; a department shop! What, may I ask, do you have to do for—ah—Pop Hildebrand?"
"Oh, I'm his foreign buyer," Jane answered, with a conscious note of pride. "I'm over here to buy gowns for the winter season, you see. Paul Poiret—Worth—Paquin; you've heard of those wonderful people, of course?"
"Can't say I have," the captain confessed, with a rueful smile into the girl's brown eyes.
"Then you've never bought a Worth?" she challenged. "For if you had you'd not forget the name—or the price—very soon."
"Gowns—and things are not in my line, Miss Gerson," he answered simply, and the girl caught herself feeling a secret elation. A man who didn't know gowns couldn't be very intimately acquainted with women. And—well—
"And this Hildebrand, he sends you over here alone just to buy pretties for New York's wonderful women?" the captain was saying. "Aren't you just a bit—ah—nervous to be over in this part of the world—alone?"
"Not in the least," the girl caught him up. "Not about the alone part, I should say. Maybe I am fidgety and sort of worried about making good on the job. This is my first trip—my very first as a buyer for Hildebrand. And, of course, if I should fall down"
"Fall down?" Woodhouse echoed, mystified. The girl laughed, and struck her left wrist a smart blow with her gloved right hand.
"There I go again—slang; 'Vulgar American slang,' you'll call it. If I could only rattle off the French as easily as I do New Yorkese I'd be a wonder. I mean I'm afraid I won't make good."
"But why should I worry about coming over alone?" Jane urged. "Lots of American girls come over here alone with an American flag pinned to their shirt-waists and wearing a Baedeker for a wrist watch. Nothing ever happens to them."
Captain Woodhouse looked out on the flying panorama of straw-thatched houses and fields heavy with green grain. He seemed to be balancing words. He glanced at the passenger across the aisle, a wizened little man, asleep. In a lowered voice he began:
"A woman alone—over here on the Continent at this time; why, I very much fear she will have great difficulties when the—ah—trouble comes."
"Trouble?" Jane's eyes were questioning.
"I do not wish to be an alarmist. Miss Gerson," Captain Woodhouse continued, hesitant. "Goodness knows we've had enough calamity shouters among the Unionists at home. But have you considered what you would do—how you would get back to America in case of—war?" The last word was almost a whisper.
"War?" she echoed. "Why, you don't mean all this talk in the papers is"
"Is serious, yes," Woodhouse answered quietly. "Very serious."
"Why, Captain Woodhouse, I thought you had war talk every summer over here just as our papers are filled each spring with gossip about how Tesreau is going to jump to the Feds, or the Yanks are going to be sold. It's your regular midsummer outdoor sport over here, this stirring up the animals."
Woodhouse smiled, though his gray eyes were filled with something not mirth.
"I fear the animals are—stirred, as you say, too far this time," he resumed. "The assassination of the Archduke Ferd"
"Yes, I remember I did read something about that in the papers at home. But archdukes and kings have been killed before, and no war came of it. In Mexico they murder a president before he has a chance to send out 'At home' cards."
"Europe is so different from Mexico," her companion continued, the lines of his face deepening. "I am afraid you over in the States do not know the dangerous politics here; you are so far away; you should thank God for that. You are not in a land where one man—or two or three—may say, 'We will now go to war,' and then you go, willy-nilly."
The seriousness of the captain's speech and the fear that he could not keep from his eyes sobered the girl. She looked out on the sun-drenched plains of Pas de Calais, where toy villages, hedged fields, and squat farmhouses lay all in order, established, seeming for all time in the comfortable doze of security. The plodding manikins in the fields, the slumberous oxen drawing the harrows amid the beet rows, pigeons circling over the straw hutches by the tracks' side—all this denied the possibility of war's corrosion.
"Don't you think everybody is suffering from a bad dream when they say there's to be fighting?" she queried. "Surely it is impossible that folks over here would all consent to destroy this." She waved toward the peaceful countryside.
"A bad dream, yes. But one that will end in a nightmare," he answered. "Tell me, Miss Gerson, when will you be through with your work in Paris, and on your way back to America?"
"Not for a month; that's sure. Maybe I'll be longer if I like the place."
"A month. This is the tenth of July. I am afraid I say, Miss Gerson, please do not set me down for a meddler—this short acquaintance, and all that; but may I not urge on you that you finish your work in Paris and get back to England at least in two weeks?" The captain had turned, and was looking into the girl's eyes with an earnest intensity that startled her. "I can not tell you all I know, of course. I may not even know the truth, though I think I have a bit of it, right enough. But one of your sort—to be caught alone on this side of the water by the madness that is brewing! By George, I do not like to think of it!"
"I thank you, Captain Woodhouse, for your warning," Jane answered him, and impulsively she put out her hand to his. "But, you see, I'll have to run the risk. I couldn't go scampering back to New York like a scared pussy-cat just because somebody starts a war over here. I'm on trial. This is my first trip as buyer for Hildebrand, and it's a case of make or break with me. War or no war, I've got to make good. Anyway"—this with a toss of her round little chin—"I'm an American citizen, and nobody'll dare to start anything with me."
"Right you are!" Woodhouse beamed his admiration. "Now we'll talk about those skyscrapers of yours. Everybody back from the States has something to say about those famous buildings, and I'm fairly burning for first-hand information from one who knows them."
Laughingly she acquiesced, and the grim shadow of war was pushed away from them, though hardly forgotten by either. At the man's prompting, Jane gave intimate pictures of life in the New World metropolis, touching with shrewd insight the fads and shams of New York's denizens even as she exalted the achievements of their restless energy.
Woodhouse found secret amusement and delight in her racy nervous speech, in the dexterity of her idiom and patness of her characterizations. Here was a new sort of girl for him. Not the languid creature of studied suppression and feeble enthusiasm he had known, but a virile, vivid, sparkling woman of a new land, whose impulses were as unhindered as her speech was heterodox. She was a woman who worked for her living; that was a new type, too. Unafraid, she threw herself into the competition of a man's world; insensibly she prided herself on her ability to "make good"—expressive Americanism, that,—under any handicap. She was a woman with a "job"; Captain Woodhouse had never before met one such.
Again, here was a woman who tried none of the stale arts and tricks of coquetry; no eyebrow strategy or maidenly simpering about Jane Gerson. Once sure Woodhouse was what she took him to be, a gentleman, the girl had established a frank basis of comradeship that took no reckoning of the age-old conventions of sex allure and sex defense. The unconventionality of their meeting weighed nothing with her. Equally there was not a hint of sophistication on the girl's part.
So the afternoon sped, and when the sun dropped over the maze of spires and chimney pots that was Paris, each felt regret at parting.
"To Egypt, yes," Woodhouse ruefully admitted. "A dreary deadly 'place in the sun' for me. To have met you, Miss Gerson; it has been delightful, quite."
"I hope," the girl said, as Woodhouse handed her into a taxi, "I hope that if that war comes it will find you still in Egypt, away from the firing-line."
"Not a fair thing to wish for a man in the service," Woodhouse answered, laughing. "I may be more happy when I say my best wish for you is that when the war comes it will find you a long way from Paris. Good-by, Miss Gerson, and good luck!"
Captain Woodhouse stood, heels together and hat in hand, while her taxi trundled off, a farewell flash of brown eyes rewarding him for the military correctness of his courtesy. Then he hurried to another station to take a train—not for a Mediterranean port and distant Egypt, but for Berlin.
This page was last edited on 19 May 2021, at 15:03.