The Lighted Match (Chapter 4)

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Chapter 4

If the living-room at "Idle Times" bore the impress of Van Bristow's
individuality and taste, his den was the tangible setting of his

His marriage had, only eighteen months before, cut his life sharply with
the boundary of an epoch. The den bore something of the atmosphere of a
museum dedicated to past eras. It was crowded with useless junk that
stood for divers memories and much wandering. Many of the pictures that
cumbered the walls were redolent of the atmosphere of overseas.

There were photographs wherein the master of "Idle Times" and Mr. George
Benton appeared together, ranging from ancient football days to
snapshots of a mountain-climbing expedition in the Andes, dated only two
years back.

It was into this sanctum that Benton clanked, booted and spurred, early
the following morning.

Ostensibly Van was looking over business letters, but there was a trace
of wander-lust in the eyes that strayed off with dreamy truancy beyond
the tree-tops.

Benton planted himself before his host with folded arms, and stood
looking down almost accusingly into the face of his old friend.

"Whenever I have anything particularly unpleasant to do," began the
guest, "I do it quick. That's why I'm here now."

Van Bristow looked up, mildly astonished.

During a decade of intimacy these two men had joyously, affectionately
and consistently insulted each other on all possible occasions. Now,
however, there was a certain purposeful ring in Benton's voice which
told the other this was quite different from the time-honored
affectation of slander. Consequently his demand for further
enlightenment came with terse directness.

Benton nodded and a defiant glint came to his pupils.

"I come to serve notice," he announced briefly, "of something I mean to

Van took the pipe from his mouth and regarded it with concentrated
attention, while his friend went on in carefully gauged voice.

"I am here," he explained, "as a guest in your house. I mean to make war
on certain plans and arrangements which presumably have your sympathy
and support--and I mean to make the hardest war I know." He paused, but
as Van gave no indication of cutting in, he went on in aggressive
announcement. "What I mean to do is my business--mine and a girl's--but
since she is your kinswoman and this is your place, it wouldn't be quite
fair to begin without warning."

For a time Bristow's attitude remained that of deep and silent
reflection. Finally he knocked the ashes from his pipe and came over
until he stood directly confronting Benton.

"So she has told you?" was his brief question at last.

The other nodded.

The master of "Idle Times" paced thoughtfully up and down the room. When
at length he stopped it was to clap his hand on his class-mate's

"George," he said, with a voice hardened to edit down the note of
sympathy that threatened it, "you seem to start out with the assumption
that I am against you. Get that out of your head. Cara has hungered for
freedom. We've felt that she had the right to, at least, her little
intervals of recess. It happened that she could have them here. Here she
could be Miss Carstow--and cease to be Cara of Maritzburg. I am sorry if
you--and she--must pay for these vacations with your happiness. I see
now that people who are sentenced to imprisonment, should not play with

"She is not going to play with liberty," declared Benton categorically.
"She is going to have it. She is going to have for the rest of her life
just what she wants." He lifted his hand in protest against anticipated
interruption. "I know that you have got to line up with your royal
relatives. I know the utter impossibility of what I want--but I'm going
to win. If you regard me as a burglar, you may turn me out, but you
can't stop me."

"I sha'n't turn you out," mused Van quietly. "I wish you could win. But
you are not merely fighting people. You are fighting an idea. It is only
for an idea that men and women martyr themselves. With Cara this idea
has become morbid--an obsession. She has inherited it together with an
abnormally developed courage, and her conception of courage is to face
what she most hates and fears."

"But if I can show her that it is a mistaken courage--that instead of
loyalty it is desertion?" The man spoke with quick eagerness.

Van shook his head, and his eyes clouded with the gravity of sympathy
for a futile resolve.

"That you can't do. I am an American myself. I'm not policing thrones.
To me it seems a monstrous thing that a girl superbly American in
everything but the accident of birth should have no chance--no
opportunity to escape life-imprisonment. It doesn't altogether
compensate that the prison happens to be a palace."

For a time neither spoke, then Bristow went on.

"At the age of five, Cara stood before a mirror and critically surveyed
herself. At the end of the scrutiny she turned away with a satisfied
sigh. 'I finks I'm lovely,' she announced. At five one is frank. Her
verdict has since then been duly and reliably confirmed by everyone who
has known her--yet she might as well have been born into unbeautiful,
hopeless slavery."

Benton went to the window and stood moodily looking out. Finally he
wheeled to demand: "How did the crown of Maritzburg come to your uncle?"

"When he married my aunt," said Bristow, "he fancied himself
safe-guarded from the ducal throne by two older brothers. That's why he
was able to choose his own wife. He was dedicated with passionate
loyalty to his brushes and paint tubes. He saw before him achievement of
that sort. Assassination claimed his father and brothers, and, facing
the same peril, he took up the distasteful duties of government. My
aunt's life was intolerably shadowed by the terror of violence for him.
She died at Cara's birth and the child inherited all the protest and
acceptance so paradoxically bequeathed by her heart-broken mother."

"Realizing that Cara could not hope to escape a royal marriage, her
father looked toward Galavia. There at least the strain was clean ...
untouched by degeneracy and untainted with libertinism. Karyl is as
decent a chap as yourself. He loves her, and though he knows she accepts
him only from compulsion, he believes he can eventually win her love as
well as her mere acquiescence. It's all as final as the laws of the
Medes and Persians."

Again there was a long silence. Bristow began to wonder if it was, with
his friend, the silence of despair and surrender. At last Benton lifted
his face and his jaw was set unyieldingly.

"Personally," he commented quietly, "I have decided otherwise."

* * * * * Despite the raw edge on the air, the hardier guests at "Idle Times"
still clung to those outdoor sports which properly belonged to the
summer. That afternoon a canoeing expedition was made up river to
explore a cave which tradition had endowed with some legendary tale of
pioneer days and Indian warfare.

Pagratide, having organized the expedition with that object in view, had
made use of his prior knowledge to enlist Cara for the crew of his
canoe, but Benton, covering a point that Pagratide had overlooked,
pointed out that an engagement to go up the river in a canoe is entirely
distinct from an engagement to come down the river in a canoe. He cited
so many excellent authorities in support of his contention that the
matter was decided in his favor for the return trip, and Mrs.
Porter-Woodleigh, all unconscious that her escort was a Crown Prince,
found in him an introspective and altogether uninteresting young man.

Benton and the girl in one canoe, were soon a quarter of a mile in
advance of the others, and lifting their paddles from the water they
floated with the slow current. The singing voices of the party behind
them came softly adrift along the water. All of the singers were young
and the songs had to do with sentiment.

The girl buttoned her sweater closer about her throat. The man stuffed
tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and bent low to kindle it into a
cheerful spot of light.

A belated lemon afterglow lingered at the edge of the sky ahead. Against
it the gaunt branches of a tall tree traced themselves starkly. Below
was the silent blackness of the woods.

Suddenly Benton raised his head.

"I have a present for you," he announced.

"A present?" echoed the girl. "Be careful, Sir Gray Eyes. You played the
magician once and gave me a rose. It was such a wonderful rose"--she
spoke almost tenderly,--"that it has spoiled me. No commonplace gift
will be tolerated after that."

"This is a different sort of present," he assured her. "This is a god."

"A what!" Cara was at the stern with the guiding paddle. The man leaned
back, steadying the canoe with a hand on each gunwale, and smiled into
her face.

"Yes," he said, "he is a god made out of clay with a countenance that is
most unlovely and a complexion like an earthenware jar. I acquired him
in the Andes for a few centavos. Since then we have been companions.
In his day he had his place in a splendid temple of the Sun Worshipers.
When I rescued him he was squatting cross-legged on a counter among
silver and copper trinkets belonging to a civilization younger than his
own. When you've been a god and come to be a souvenir of ruins and dead
things--" the man paused for a moment, then with the ghost of a laugh
went on, "--it makes you see things differently. In the twisted squint
of his small clay face one reads slight regard for mere systems and

He paused so long that she prompted him in a voice that threatened to
become unsteady. "Tell me more about him. What is his godship's name?"

"He looked so protestingly wise," Benton went on, "that I named him
Jonesy. I liked that name because it fitted him so badly. Jonesy is not
conventional in his ideas, but his morals are sound. He has seen
religions and civilizations and dynasties flourish and decay, and it has
all given him a certain perspective on life. He has occasionally given
me good council."

He paused again, but, noting that the singing voices were drawing
nearer, he continued more rapidly.

"In Alaska I used to lie flat on my cot before a great open fire and his
god-ship would perch cross-legged on my chest. When I breathed, he
seemed to shake his fat sides and laugh. When a pagan god from Peru
laughs at you in a Yukon cabin, the situation calls for attention. I
gave attention.

"Jonesy said that the major human motives sweep in deep channels,
full-tide ahead. He said you might in some degree regulate their floods
by rearing abutments, but that when you try to build a dam to stop the
Amazon you are dealing with folly. He argued that when one sets out to
dam up the tides set flowing back in the tributaries of the heart it is
written that one must fail. That is the gospel according to Jonesy."

He turned his face to the front and shot the canoe forward. There was
silence except for the quiet dipping of their paddles, the dripping of
the water from the lifted blades, and the song drifting down river.
Finally Benton added: "I don't know what he will say to you, but perhaps he will give you good
advice--on those matters which the centuries can't change."

Cara's voice came soft, with a hint of repressed tears. "He has already
given me good advice, dear--" she said, "good advice that I can't

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