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Miracle in the rain.

Synopsis Ruth Wood's life was uneventful. By day she worked at an office; by night she cared for her invalid mother at their small New York City apartment. Then, by chance, Ruth met Private Art Hugenon, a jovial young soldier. They dated and Ruth's friend Miss Ullman was sometimes invited along. On one date, Ruth bought Art a Roman coin as a good-luch charm. Art has just told Ruth he is leaving. She has asked, "For where?"

Part II "Overseas," said Art. "I've only got time to say good-bye to you. And listen, write me, will you? Send your letters to this address." He put a slip of paper in her hand. "They'll be forwarded. And don't worry if you don't hear from me for some time. I'll be off the mailman's route for quite some time."

"Oh, Art," said Ruth, and leaned against the building.

"Darling," said Art. He looked at her for a moment, his smoky gray eyes smiling, his wide mouth turned up eargerly. Then he put his arms around her and held her tightly. "Write me, please," he whispered. "I'll think of you every minute."

"Yes," said Ruth.

"I'm wearing the lucky piece you gave me," said Art, "the genuine Roman coin. So you don't have to worry about anything. And I don't either." He looked at her now as if he were going to cry out something wild, and a number of people who were going to lunch on 29th Street turned curiously toward the spectacle of a tall soldier holding a girl in his arms.

"I love you so, Ruth,c he whispered. "You don't know how wonderful you are. Nobody does. Only me. Darling, kiss me once, so I can remember when I'm on the jungle island."

Her lips felt his face, then his mouth. She was conscious of his face gleaming close to her, of his warm lips, and for the minute they stood together she felt as if the sky had come down and covered her with all its beauty.

"Good-bye," said the whisper on her lips. When she opened her eyes she was alone.

After the supper dishes had been washed and put away, Ruth sat each night writing. It took two or three nights to finish a letter. Finding the words that would say the things she felt required time. But she loved this time. She dreamed of it all day. When pain rose in her throat during the day, she had only to remember that in a few hours she would be writing and speaking to him.

Her mother sat watching her as she wrote, but she didn't mind this. Sometimes she even wrote about her mother: "Oh, Art, I understand her so much better now. Because she is waiting for someone who will never come back, and that is so much worse than waiting for someone who will very soon come back. And it is no wonder she has never smiled or spoken to anyone, because how could you if someone you were waiting for never came back? Oh, Art, when I see you again I will look at you so long that you will think I am crazy."

Miss Ullman sat in the crowded lunchroom with her assistant and talked about Private Hugenon.

"It's too bad we didn't ask him some questions," she said. "Then we would know where his folks live and might get some news about him from them."

"I don't think he has any folks,c said Ruth. "Besides, I'll get a letter just as soon as anybody, I'm sure."

"It's two months," said Miss Ullman.

"But he's way on the other side of the world," said Ruth, and turned her eyes to the newspaper beside her plate of scrambled eggs.

"Did he ever say what branch of the service he was in?" Miss Ullman insisted.

"No," said Ruth, "he didn't, because I didn't ask him." Her eyes grew tearful and she added softly, "I never asked him about anything. I just didn't think to ask him."

Miss Ullman ate in silence and watched the flushed face of her assistant bent over the newspaper. She noticed Ruth was reading a story of American troops fighting in the Solomon Islands.

It was a hot night. Ruth sat at the table in the living room, writing. The three months of writing letters were a timeless memory in her heart. The things that happened, the streets growing light and turning dark--these did not make days for her. She looked at the room in shadow and at the piano. She could hear again his voice and watch his smile and the way he moved. And as always when she brought him to her eyes, a panic turned her heart over, and she could not think for a moment, but only feel as she had felt that only time he had kissed her.

But all remembered things that had actually been were a small part of her treasure. The greater part was something outside the reach of words. It would be there in the morning streets, in the faces of the crowd, in the tall buildings, in the sky and the window signs and the office people. It was the glow of friendliness that surrounded her wherever she moved. She had become part of everything she saw, as if the world were eager to embrace her. Her heart, so long used to sitting like a lonely child in the dark, found company everywhere now. Everything that smiled or moved or stood still and looked beautiful was its companion. And all the joy that life gave her now she brought like a gift to the image of her faraway soldier.

The doorbell rang once, and Ruth looked up from her letter. The ringing of the doorbell frightened her, so she could not move for a moment. No doorbells ever rang in her home at this hour. The mailman handed her the letter and asked her to sign her name in the book. The heat-heavy night pressed against her as if it were another visitor on the steps outside.

She closed the door and opened the letter. It was not from him. It was typewritten and very neat. It was engraved on top. Her heart was pounding too much and she couldn't read it. But the typewritten words were already in her head. They said Arthur Hugenon was dead. They notified her he had died bravely in battle in an advance against the enemy. She was being notified because Private Hugenon had requested that if anything happened to him, word be sent to her alone. Then she read the letter again. But although the words jumped about, they had failed to change. Private Hugenon was dead. He had been killed in an advance on the enemy in the jungle surrounging the Guadal-canal airfield.

Oh, yes, the jungle, thought Ruth. He had always talked about the jungle. She stopped to remember, and the words went clearly through her head, "Think how surprised you would be if you were cast away on a jungle island in the rain for ten weeks and suddenly saw a girl standing beside you."

Private Hugenon was so alive as he said this over in her head that the letter seemed to tell a horrible lie. She read it again. Then she stood still and looked at nothing. Her mind felt white, as if everything had disappeared from it. Private Hugenon stood beside the piano, his head lowered, his wide mouth tipped in a smile, his humorous nose and humorous eyes a bit pensive, and said to her he was dead somewhere in a jungle. But she did not answer him. She turned her back on the piano and went to her bed. She undressed slowly and lay down. She stared at the ceiling and tried to think of something. But no thoughts would come to her. When the alarm clock rang at a quarter to seven, her eyes were still open and her heart was still empty, as if the heat-heavy night had blotted it out.

The office people buzzed with the tragedy of the bookkeeper's assistant. They looked furtively at the pale girl and felt themselves near to heroism. A soldier one of them had loved had died bravely in battle, and this brought the war into the office and stood it beside every desk.

Miss Ullman went to lunch with her assistant each day and went home with her after work. She was worried about the silent, placid face of her friend.

When they were alone she said, "Come on, let's talk about him. It'll be better if you do. Remember, I was his friend, too."

To this Ruth answered, "There's nothing to talk about."

"You might tell me what you're thinking," Miss Ullman said.

"I'm not thinking about anything," Ruth said.

This was true during the daytime. During the night Ruth lay and looked for hours into the humorous face of Private Hugenon. He stood in the corner, his head slightly lowered, and regarded her pensively. Or sometimes he raised his head and his mouth smiled as if he were going to laugh. When she saw him thus in her mind, a hand seized her heart as if it were going to squeeze it into nothing.

The change that came to Ruth began to worry Miss Ullman. She could not understand how anyone as sweet as Ruth could become so bitter and hard. It would have been easy to understand if she had cried and been unable to come to work because of grief. But Ruth came to work every day on time and never cried, but grew more and more rasping and took to sneering at everybody. And in her home she spoke angrily to her mother and ordered her to bed. Miss Ullman, wondering how to help her friend, could think of nothing except to remain at her side as much as was possible.

One Sunday, walking in the park, Ruth turned to her and said suddenly, in a voice that made her shiver, "I hate this. I hate them all." She was looking at the people lying on the sunny grass. "You always keep asking me what I think. Well, I'll tell you. I want to die, because I hate everything. I can't stand it."

Ruth began to shake and Miss Ullman's arm went around her.

"Sit down dear," she said.

"I don't want to sit down," said Ruth, and she raised her voice. "It's such a damn fake. The music playing and people walking around. So damn smug. You, too. Everybody. I don't want to see you any more."

Ruth pulled herself away from her friend's arm and ran off through the park. Miss Ullman could not understand Ruth because she herself had never known hope.

On Monday morning Miss Ullman waited eagerly for her assistant. She looked quickly at her face when she came in. It was cold and without the light of greeting.

At six Miss Ullman said, "Do you mind if I go home with you?"

"I'm not going home," said Ruth. "What should I go home for? If she's too sick to get her supper, let her go without any."

The two went to a small restaurant and sat in a dim corner. Neither spoke. Here, for the first time, Ruth cried. Her tears began unexpectedly. She stood up blindly and walked out of the restaurant. Miss Ullman went with her.

They walked together until Ruth came to the corner where they had once stood waiting on a Saturday afternoon for the appearance of Private Hugenon.

Here the girl stopped and half hid herself in a dark doorway and stood looking with streaming eyes into the crowded street.

The little bookkeeper finally took Ruth's arm and said in a shaking voice, "Oh, please, let's go somewhere."

Ruth followed her without asking where, and an idea came to Miss Ullman. As they walked through the war-dimmed streets, the girl's head drooped and she moved without sight, guided by Miss Ullman's hand on her arm. Behind her tears a thought repeated itself dully. She wanted to die. Everything that had been so wonderful--the faces of people and the tall buildings, the sky and the window lights--these were gone. She was back again in the little corner where she had always sat like a lonely child. But the corner was darker now and the loneliness deeper, and she would rather die than return to it. Her dream was gone, and her hope, and the magic smile lay dead in a jungle. Thus she moved, guided by the bookkeeper, up a flight of wide, stone steps.

"I thought we would go in here," said Miss Ullman. "It's St. Patrick's Cathedral. It's very nice inside. And very restful. You don't have to do anything. Just sit down and rest." And she walked through the outer doors into the body of the cathedral and held the girl's arm.

The hush and height of the great room startled the weeping girl. Dark wings seemed to spread above her. Around her a light glowed faintly, as if fearful of breaking a silence. And far away, as if this were not a room but a wide land with beacons, candles shone.

The girl stood awed by a sense of invisible elegance, and her eyes looked frightenedly for Miss Ullman. She saw the little bookkeeper kneeling in an empty space with her head hung, as if there were nothing to see in all this sweep of shadows and shrines.

Ruth remained standing against the wall. The tears dried in her eyes, and she could see more plainly the many-pointed golden altar in the distance and the mute statues along the wall before which red and yellow candle cups were burning. Then she saw how almost empty the rows on rows of benches were. In the great and vaulted room sat only a handful of people--a sailor and an old man, a trembling old woman and a young man and woman together, making a lonely pattern of attendance. The figures she could see did not seem to be praying, but merely sitting, as if they were resting from something. They're all thinking of God, Ruth said to herself, and the words confused her as if she had said something silly.

No usher appeared, but finally the very silence came to her elbow and bade her move. She started walking down the aisle in front of the statues. Oh, she thought, they're supposed to be saints.

The saints stood in niches behind a marble rail with candles in front of them, and they looked festive and well attended, even though all the worshiping places were empty. The girl walked by the beckoning marble effigies heedlessly, a lonely figure in a lonely place. None of the tender and graceful statues tempted her to pause, and as she moved by them the darkness in her heart seemed to grow. The people of heaven, like the people of the streets, were strangers, and all the grandeur and history of the great, hollow room beat down in vain on her small, forlorn figure.

She paused finally because the candle-lighted aisle had grown dark. There was another statue behind the marble rail, but she could barely see it. No candles were lit in front of it. It stood in the dark, unfestive and unattended.

Staring at this white figure in the shadows, Ruth felt her body grow warm with tears. Why should there be one even in heaven who was lonely and stood in the dark? Why did everybody light candles for the others and none for him? Her hands clung to the marble rail and she shivered as her eyes peered into the shadows. The other statues had been strangers, even though they bore the names of God's friends, but this one she knew. She knew what it was to stand in the dark unnoticed. Trembling, she knelt to read the plate on the marble rail. It said this unattended one was Saint Andrew, famed for his generosity and self-effacement, and he had been the first friend of Jesus.

Long minutes went by as she knelt, completely absorbed, before the statue. Yes, here was a friend who would know what she had been through. The candles dwindled ever shorter as she basked in the warm glow of her kindred soul.

When she stood up, Miss Ullman was beside her. Ruth turned a flushed face to her.

"Why hasn't he got any candles?" she whispered. "You'd think somebody would pay attention to him."

Her eyes turned wildly to the many cups glowin before the image of Saint Theresa. She hesitated and then moved quickly to the saint's shrine. She took two of the yellow lights and put one on each side of Saint Andrew. The candle cups filled the holy niche with a glow, and for a moment the brightness startled the girl as if it came from somewhere else. The statue looked down on her with the sudden intimacy of light in its long, bearded face--looked down on her and into her heart that glowed back brightly, as if the two candles were burning there.

Ruth's conversion was a matter shared only by Saint Andrew and Miss Ullman. Every evening after work Ruth stopped on her way home to put two fresh candles in the place, one on each side of the statue.

Miss Ullman often went with her and knelt to pray. Her friend neither knelt nor prayed, but stood for several minutes looking up at the lean, tender face of the saint, then went on home to make the supper for her mother and for herself.

One evening when she was alone, Ruth stood before the lighted saint and felt a long misery end in her heart--the misery of loneliness and of vanished hope. The friendless streets that led nowhere, the smiling face of her soldier that returned again and again to send its look through her, like a knife falling on her heart--these and all the dark, silent hours in which she lived went suddenly away from her, like a bad dream ending.

She knelt before the glowing statue and began to whisper. She informed Saint Andrew of the way she had met Mr. Hugenon and of all the things he had said to her. When she walked out of the church her face was smiling.

Thereafter the girl talked each evening to the saint. She knew no prayers and had no religious habits from childhood to guide her conferences with the lean, bearded face, aglow in the holy niche. But all through her day in the office her heart was filled with the knowledge that a friend waited for her in the great hollow room of the church. She could tell him of all the secret things she had dreamed after the soldier went away, and of the apartment she had planned to furnish when he came back to marry her. She could tell him of the letters she had written that he had never received, and of the sort of life they would have lived--a very wonderful life that would have kept on and on, growing more full of love and happiness each year. And at the end of these conferences, Ruth grew silent and looked up intently at the lean, bearded face above her. Then she whispered eagerly, "Oh, please take care of him."
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Hecht, Ben
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1984
Previous Article:Sixty minutes with Andy Rooney.
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