Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton
Part One and Part Two
as first published in Scribner's Magazine, March 1916
"You ought to buy it," said my host; "it's
just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you. And it would be rather worth while to own the
most romantic house in
It was not with the least idea of living up to the character
my friend Lanrivain ascribed to me (as a matter of fact, under my unsociable
exterior I have always had secret yearnings for domesticity) that I took his
hint one autumn afternoon and went to Kerfol.
My friend was motoring over to
I followed Lanrivain's directions with the hesitation occasioned by the usual difficulty of remembering whether he had said the first turn to the right and second to the left, or the contrary. If I had met a peasant I should certainly have asked, and probably been sent astray; but I had the desert landscape to myself, and so stumbled on the right turn and walked on across the heath till I came to an avenue. It was so unlike any other avenue I have ever seen that I instantly knew it must be THE avenue. The grey-trunked trees sprang up straight to a great height and then interwove their pale-grey branches in a long tunnel through which the autumn light fell faintly. I know most trees by name, but I haven't to this day been able to decide what those trees were. They had the tall curve of elms, the tenuity of poplars, the ashen colour of olives under a rainy sky; and they stretched ahead of me for half a mile or more without a break in their arch. If ever I saw an avenue that unmistakeably led to something, it was the avenue at Kerfol. My heart beat a little as I began to walk down it.
Presently the trees ended and I came to a fortified gate in a long wall. Between me and the wall was an open space of grass, with other grey avenues radiating from it. Behind the wall were tall slate roofs mossed with silver, a chapel belfry, the top of a keep. A moat filled with wild shrubs and brambles surrounded the place; the drawbridge had been replaced by a stone arch, and the portcullis by an iron gate. I stood for a long time on the hither side of the moat, gazing about me, and letting the influence of the place sink in. I said to myself: "If I wait long enough, the guardian will turn up and show me the tombs--" and I rather hoped he wouldn't turn up too soon.
I sat down on a stone and lit a cigarette. As soon as I had done it, it struck me as a puerile and portentous thing to do, with that great blind house looking down at me, and all the empty avenues converging on me. It may have been the depth of the silence that made me so conscious of my gesture. The squeak of my match sounded as loud as the scraping of a brake, and I almost fancied I heard it fall when I tossed it onto the grass. But there was more than that: a sense of irrelevance, of littleness, of childish bravado, in sitting there puffing my cigarette-smoke into the face of such a past.
I knew nothing of the history of Kerfol--I was new to
Certainly no house had ever more completely and finally broken with the present. As it stood there, lifting its proud roofs and gables to the sky, it might have been its own funeral monument. "Tombs in the chapel? The whole place is a tomb!" I reflected. I hoped more and more that the guardian would not come. The details of the place, however striking, would seem trivial compared with its collective impressiveness; and I wanted only to sit there and be penetrated by the weight of its silence.
"It's the very place for you!" Lanrivain had said; and I was overcome by the almost blasphemous frivolity of suggesting to any living being that Kerfol was the place for him. "Is it possible that any one could NOT see--?" I wondered. I did not finish the thought: what I meant was undefinable. I stood up and wandered toward the gate. I was beginning to want to know more; not to SEE more--I was by now so sure it was not a question of seeing--but to feel more: feel all the place had to communicate. "But to get in one will have to rout out the keeper," I thought reluctantly, and hesitated. Finally I crossed the bridge and tried the iron gate. It yielded, and I walked under the tunnel formed by the thickness of the chemin de ronde. At the farther end, a wooden barricade had been laid across the entrance, and beyond it I saw a court enclosed in noble architecture. The main building faced me; and I now discovered that one half was a mere ruined front, with gaping windows through which the wild growths of the moat and the trees of the park were visible. The rest of the house was still in its robust beauty. One end abutted on the round tower, the other on the small traceried chapel, and in an angle of the building stood a graceful well-head adorned with mossy urns. A few roses grew against the walls, and on an upper window-sill I remember noticing a pot of fuchsias.
My sense of the pressure of the invisible began to yield to my architectural interest. The building was so fine that I felt a desire to explore it for its own sake. I looked about the court, wondering in which corner the guardian lodged. Then I pushed open the barrier and went in. As I did so, a little dog barred my way. He was such a remarkably beautiful little dog that for a moment he made me forget the splendid place he was defending. I was not sure of his breed at the time, but have since learned that it was Chinese, and that he was of a rare variety called the "Sleeve-dog." He was very small and golden brown, with large brown eyes and a ruffled throat: he looked rather like a large tawny chrysanthemum. I said to myself: "These little beasts always snap and scream, and somebody will be out in a minute."
The little animal stood before me, forbidding, almost menacing: there was anger in his large brown eyes. But he made no sound, he came no nearer. Instead, as I advanced, he gradually fell back, and I noticed that another dog, a vague rough brindled thing, had limped up. "There'll be a hubbub now," I thought; for at the same moment a third dog, a long-haired white mongrel, slipped out of a doorway and joined the others. All three stood looking at me with grave eyes; but not a sound came from them. As I advanced they continued to fall back on muffled paws, still watching me. "At a given point, they'll all charge at my ankles: it's one of the dodges that dogs who live together put up on one," I thought. I was not much alarmed, for they were neither large nor formidable. But they let me wander about the court as I pleased, following me at a little distance--always the same distance--and always keeping their eyes on me. Presently I looked across at the ruined facade, and saw that in one of its window-frames another dog stood: a large white pointer with one brown ear. He was an old grave dog, much more experienced than the others; and he seemed to be observing me with a deeper intentness.
"I'll hear from HIM," I said to myself; but he stood in the empty window-frame, against the trees of the park, and continued to watch me without moving. I looked back at him for a time, to see if the sense that he was being watched would not rouse him. Half the width of the court lay between us, and we stared at each other silently across it. But he did not stir, and at last I turned away. Behind me I found the rest of the pack, with a newcomer added: a small black greyhound with pale agate-coloured eyes. He was shivering a little, and his expression was more timid than that of the others. I noticed that he kept a little behind them. And still there was not a sound.
I stood there for fully five minutes, the circle about me--waiting, as they seemed to be waiting. At last I went up to the little golden-brown dog and stooped to pat him. As I did so, I heard myself laugh. The little dog did not start, or growl, or take his eyes from me--he simply slipped back about a yard, and then paused and continued to look at me. "Oh, hang it!" I exclaimed aloud, and walked across the court toward the well.
As I advanced, the dogs separated and slid away into different corners of the court. I examined the urns on the well, tried a locked door or two, and up and down the dumb facade; then I faced about toward the chapel. When I turned I perceived that all the dogs had disappeared except the old pointer, who still watched me from the empty window-frame. It was rather a relief to be rid of that cloud of witnesses; and I began to look about me for a way to the back of the house. "Perhaps there'll be somebody in the garden," I thought. I found a way across the moat, scrambled over a wall smothered in brambles, and got into the garden. A few lean hydrangeas and geraniums pined in the flower-beds, and the ancient house looked down on them indifferently. Its garden side was plainer and severer than the other: the long granite front, with its few windows and steep roof, looked like a fortress-prison. I walked around the farther wing, went up some disjointed steps, and entered the deep twilight of a narrow and incredibly old box-walk. The walk was just wide enough for one person to slip through, and its branches met overhead. It was like the ghost of a box-walk, its lustrous green all turning to the shadowy greyness of the avenues. I walked on and on, the branches hitting me in the face and springing back with a dry rattle; and at length I came out on the grassy top of the chemin de ronde. I walked along it to the gate-tower, looking down into the court, which was just below me. Not a human being was in sight; and neither were the dogs. I found a flight of steps in the thickness of the wall and went down them; and when I emerged again into the court, there stood the circle of dogs, the golden-brown one a little ahead of the others, the black greyhound shivering in the rear.
"Oh, hang it--you uncomfortable beasts, you!" I exclaimed, my voice startling me with a sudden echo. The dogs stood motionless, watching me. I knew by this time that they would not try to prevent my approaching the house, and the knowledge left me free to examine them. I had a feeling that they must be horribly cowed to be so silent and inert. Yet they did not look hungry or ill-treated. Their coats were smooth and they were not thin, except the shivering greyhound. It was more as if they had lived a long time with people who never spoke to them or looked at them: as though the silence of the place had gradually benumbed their busy inquisitive natures. And this strange passivity, this almost human lassitude, seemed to me sadder than the misery of starved and beaten animals. I should have liked to rouse them for a minute, to coax them into a game or a scamper; but the longer I looked into their fixed and weary eyes the more preposterous the idea became. With the windows of that house looking down on us, how could I have imagined such a thing? The dogs knew better: THEY knew what the house would tolerate and what it would not. I even fancied that they knew what was passing through my mind, and pitied me for my frivolity. But even that feeling probably reached them through a thick fog of listlessness. I had an idea that their distance from me was as nothing to my remoteness from them. In the last analysis, the impression they produced was that of having in common one memory so deep and dark that nothing that had happened since was worth either a growl or a wag.
"I say," I broke out abruptly, addressing myself to the dumb circle, "do you know what you look like, the whole lot of you? You look as if you'd seen a ghost--that's how you look! I wonder if there IS a ghost here, and nobody but you left for it to appear to?" The dogs continued to gaze at me without moving. . .
It was dark when I saw Lanrivain's motor lamps at the
cross-roads--and I wasn't exactly sorry to see them. I had the sense of having escaped from the
loneliest place in the whole world, and of not liking loneliness--to that
degree--as much as I had imagined I should.
My friend had brought his solicitor back from
But that evening, when Lanrivain and the solicitor were closeted in the study, Madame de Lanrivain began to question me in the drawing-room.
"Well--are you going to buy Kerfol?" she asked, tilting up her gay chin from her embroidery.
"I haven't decided yet. The fact is, I couldn't get into the house," I said, as if I had simply postponed my decision, and meant to go back for another look.
"You couldn't get in? Why, what happened? The family are mad to sell the place, and the old guardian has orders--"
"Very likely. But the old guardian wasn't there."
"What a pity! He must have gone to market. But his daughter--?"
"There was nobody about. At least I saw no one."
"How extraordinary! Literally nobody?"
"Nobody but a lot of dogs--a whole pack of them--who seemed to have the place to themselves."
Madame de Lanrivain let the embroidery slip to her knee and folded her hands on it. For several minutes she looked at me thoughtfully.
"A pack of dogs--you SAW them?"
"Saw them? I saw nothing else!"
"How many?" She dropped her voice a little. "I've always wondered--"
I looked at her with surprise: I had supposed the place to be familiar to her. "Have you never been to Kerfol?" I asked.
"Oh, yes: often. But never on that day."
"I'd quite forgotten--and so had Herve, I'm sure. If we'd remembered, we never should have sent you today--but then, after all, one doesn't half believe that sort of thing, does one?"
"What sort of thing?" I asked, involuntarily sinking my voice to the level of hers. Inwardly I was thinking: "I KNEW there was something. . ."
Madame de Lanrivain cleared her throat and produced a reassuring smile. "Didn't Herve tell you the story of Kerfol? An ancestor of his was mixed up in it. You know every Breton house has its ghost-story; and some of them are rather unpleasant."
"Yes--but those dogs?" I insisted.
"Well, those dogs are the ghosts of Kerfol. At least, the peasants say there's one day in
the year when a lot of dogs appear there; and that day the keeper and his
daughter go off to Morlaix and get drunk.
The women in
Lanrivain, the next day, hunted out a shabby calf volume from the back of an upper shelf of his library.
"Yes--here it is.
What does it call itself? A
History of the Assizes of the Duchy of
I left my light burning all night, as he had predicted; but it was chiefly because, till near dawn, I was absorbed in my reading. The account of the trial of Anne de Cornault, wife of the lord of Kerfol, was long and closely printed. It was, as my friend had said, probably an almost literal transcription of what took place in the court-room; and the trial lasted nearly a month. Besides, the type of the book was detestable. . .
At first I thought of translating the old record literally. But it is full of wearisome repetitions, and the main lines of the story are forever straying off into side issues. So I have tried to disentangle it, and give it here in a simpler form. At times, however, I have reverted to the text because no other words could have conveyed so exactly the sense of what I felt at Kerfol; and nowhere have I added anything of my own.
It was in the year 16-- that Yves de Cornault, lord of the
domain of Kerfol, went to the pardon of Locronan to perform his religious
duties. He was a rich and powerful
noble, then in his sixty-second year, but hale and sturdy, a great horseman and
hunter and a pious man. So all his
neighbours attested. In appearance he
seems to have been short and broad, with a swarthy face, legs slightly bowed
from the saddle, a hanging nose and broad hands with black hairs on them. He had married young and lost his wife and
son soon after, and since then had lived alone at Kerfol. Twice a year he went to Morlaix, where he had
a handsome house by the river, and spent a week or ten days there; and
occasionally he rode to
Well, in his sixty-second year, Yves de Cornault went to the pardon at Locronan, and saw there a young lady of Douarnenez, who had ridden over pillion behind her father to do her duty to the saint. Her name was Anne de Barrigan, and she came of good old Breton stock, but much less great and powerful than that of Yves de Cornault; and her father had squandered his fortune at cards, and lived almost like a peasant in his little granite manor on the moors. . . I have said I would add nothing of my own to this bald statement of a strange case; but I must interrupt myself here to describe the young lady who rode up to the lych-gate of Locronan at the very moment when the Baron de Cornault was also dismounting there. I take my description from a rather rare thing: a faded drawing in red crayon, sober and truthful enough to be by a late pupil of the Clouets, which hangs in Lanrivain's study, and is said to be a portrait of Anne de Barrigan. It is unsigned and has no mark of identity but the initials A. B., and the date 16--, the year after her marriage. It represents a young woman with a small oval face, almost pointed, yet wide enough for a full mouth with a tender depression at the corners. The nose is small, and the eyebrows are set rather high, far apart, and as lightly pencilled as the eyebrows in a Chinese painting. The forehead is high and serious, and the hair, which one feels to be fine and thick and fair, drawn off it and lying close like a cap. The eyes are neither large nor small, hazel probably, with a look at once shy and steady. A pair of beautiful long hands are crossed below the lady's breast. . .
The chaplain of Kerfol, and other witnesses, averred that when the Baron came back from Locronan he jumped from his horse, ordered another to be instantly saddled, called to a young page come with him, and rode away that same evening to the south. His steward followed the next morning with coffers laden on a pair of pack mules. The following week Yves de Cornault rode back to Kerfol, sent for his vassals and tenants, and told them he was to be married at All Saints to Anne de Barrigan of Douarnenez. And on All Saints' Day the marriage took place.
As to the next few years, the evidence on both sides seems
to show that they passed happily for the couple. No one was found to say that Yves de Cornault
had been unkind to his wife, and it was plain to all that he was content with
his bargain. Indeed, it was admitted by
the chaplain and other witnesses for the prosecution that the young lady had a
softening influence on her husband, and that he became less exacting with his
tenants, less harsh to peasants and dependents, and less subject to the fits of
gloomy silence which had darkened his widow-hood. As to his wife, the only grievance her
champions could call up in her behalf was that Kerfol was a lonely place, and
that when her husband was away on business at
The very same winter, the Baron absented himself again, this
time as far as
Anne de Cornault exclaimed with pleasure as the little
creature bounded toward her. "Oh,
it looks like a bird or a butterfly!" she cried as she picked it up; and
the dog put its paws on her shoulders and looked at her with eyes "like a
Christian's." After that she would never have it out of her sight, and
petted and talked to it as if it had been a child--as indeed it was the nearest
thing to a child she was to know. Yves
de Cornault was much pleased with his purchase.
The dog had been brought to him by a sailor from an East India
merchantman, and the sailor had bought it of a pilgrim in a bazaar at
So far, all the evidence is at one, and the narrative plain sailing; but now the steering becomes difficult. I will try to keep as nearly as possible to Anne's own statements; though toward the end, poor thing . . .
Well, to go back. The very year after the little brown dog was brought to Kerfol, Yves de Cornault, one winter night, was found dead at the head of a narrow flight of stairs leading down from his wife's rooms to a door opening on the court. It was his wife who found him and gave the alarm, so distracted, poor wretch, with fear and horror--for his blood was all over her--that at first the roused household could not make out what she was saying, and thought she had gone suddenly mad. But there, sure enough, at the top of the stairs lay her husband, stone dead, and head foremost, the blood from his wounds dripping down to the steps below him. He had been dreadfully scratched and gashed about the face and throat, as if with a dull weapon; and one of his legs had a deep tear in it which had cut an artery, and probably caused his death. But how did he come there, and who had murdered him?
His wife declared that she had been asleep in her bed, and hearing his cry had rushed out to find him lying on the stairs; but this was immediately questioned. In the first place, it was proved that from her room she could not have heard the struggle on the stairs, owing to the thickness of the walls and the length of the intervening passage; then it was evident that she had not been in bed and asleep, since she was dressed when she roused the house, and her bed had not been slept in. Moreover, the door at the bottom of the stairs was ajar, and the key in the lock; and it was noticed by the chaplain (an observant man) that the dress she wore was stained with blood about the knees, and that there were traces of small blood-stained hands low down on the staircase walls, so that it was conjectured that she had really been at the postern-door when her husband fell and, feeling her way up to him in the darkness on her hands and knees, had been stained by his blood dripping down on her. Of course it was argued on the other side that the blood-marks on her dress might have been caused by her kneeling down by her husband when she rushed out of her room; but there was the open door below, and the fact that the fingermarks in the staircase all pointed upward.
The accused held to her statement for the first two days, in
spite of its improbability; but on the third day word was brought to her that
Herve de Lanrivain, a young nobleman of the neighbourhood, had been arrested
for complicity in the crime. Two or three witnesses thereupon came forward to
say that it was known throughout the country that Lanrivain had formerly been
on good terms with the lady of Cornault; but that he had been absent from
Anne de Cornault, when questioned as to her reason for going down at night to open the door to Herve de Lanrivain, made an answer which must have sent a smile around the court. She said it was because she was lonely and wanted to talk with the young man. Was this the only reason? she was asked; and replied: "Yes, by the Cross over your Lordships' heads." "But why at midnight?" the court asked. "Because I could see him in no other way." I can see the exchange of glances across the ermine collars under the Crucifix.
Anne de Cornault, further questioned, said that her married
life had been extremely lonely: "desolate" was the word she
used. It was true that her husband
seldom spoke harshly to her; but there were days when he did not speak at
all. It was true that he had never
struck or threatened her; but he kept her like a prisoner at Kerfol, and when
he rode away to Morlaix or
"But what did you want to say to Herve de Lanrivain?" the court asked; and she answered: "To ask him to take me away."
"Ah--you confess that you went down to him with adulterous thoughts?"
"Then why did you want him to take you away?"
"Because I was afraid for my life."
"Of whom were you afraid?"
"Of my husband."
"Why were you afraid of your husband?"
"Because he had strangled my little dog."
Another smile must have passed around the court-room: in days when any nobleman had a right to hang his peasants--and most of them exercised it--pinching a pet animal's wind-pipe was nothing to make a fuss about.
At this point one of the Judges, who appears to have had a certain sympathy for the accused, suggested that she should be allowed to explain herself in her own way; and she thereupon made the following statement.
The first years of her marriage had been lonely; but her husband had not been unkind to her. If she had had a child she would not have been unhappy; but the days were long, and it rained too much.
It was true that her husband, whenever he went away and left her, brought her a handsome present on his return; but this did not make up for the loneliness. At least nothing had, till he brought her the little brown dog from the East: after that she was much less unhappy. Her husband seemed pleased that she was so fond of the dog; he gave her leave to put her jewelled bracelet around its neck, and to keep it always with her.
One day she had fallen asleep in her room, with the dog at her feet, as his habit was. Her feet were bare and resting on his back. Suddenly she was waked by her husband: he stood beside her, smiling not unkindly.
"You look like my great-grandmother, Juliane de Cornault, lying in the chapel with her feet on a little dog," he said.
The analogy sent a chill through her, but she laughed and answered: "Well, when I am dead you must put me beside her, carved in marble, with my dog at my feet."
"Oho--we'll wait and see," he said, laughing also, but with his black brows close together. "The dog is the emblem of fidelity."
"And do you doubt my right to lie with mine at my feet?"
"When I'm in doubt I find out," he answered. "I am an old man," he added, "and people say I make you lead a lonely life. But I swear you shall have your monument if you earn it."
"And I swear to be faithful," she returned, "if only for the sake of having my little dog at my feet."
Not long afterward he went on business to the Quimper Assizes; and while he was away his aunt, the widow of a great nobleman of the duchy, came to spend a night at Kerfol on her way to the pardon of Ste. Barbe. She was a woman of great piety and consequence, and much respected by Yves de Cornault, and when she proposed to Anne to go with her to Ste. Barbe no one could object, and even the chaplain declared himself in favour of the pilgrimage. So Anne set out for Ste. Barbe, and there for the first time she talked with Herve de Lanrivain. He had come once or twice to Kerfol with his father, but she had never before exchanged a dozen words with him. They did not talk for more than five minutes now: it was under the chestnuts, as the procession was coming out of the chapel. He said: "I pity you," and she was surprised, for she had not supposed that any one thought her an object of pity. He added: "Call for me when you need me," and she smiled a little, but was glad afterward, and thought often of the meeting.
She confessed to having seen him three times afterward: not more. How or where she would not say--one had the impression that she feared to implicate some one. Their meetings had been rare and brief; and at the last he had told her that he was starting the next day for a foreign country, on a mission which was not without peril and might keep him for many months absent. He asked her for a remembrance, and she had none to give him but the collar about the little dog's neck. She was sorry afterward that she had given it, but he was so unhappy at going that she had not had the courage to refuse.
Her husband was away at the time. When he returned a few days later he picked up the little dog to pet it, and noticed that its collar was missing. His wife told him that the dog had lost it in the undergrowth of the park, and that she and her maids had hunted a whole day for it. It was true, she explained to the court, that she had made the maids search for the necklet--they all believed the dog had lost it in the park. . .
Her husband made no comment, and that evening at supper he
was in his usual mood, between good and bad: you could never tell which. He
talked a good deal, describing what he had seen and done at
The next morning at dawn she buried the dog in the garden, and hid the necklet in her breast. She said nothing to her husband, then or later, and he said nothing to her; but that day he had a peasant hanged for stealing a faggot in the park, and the next day he nearly beat to death a young horse he was breaking.
Winter set in, and the short days passed, and the long nights, one by one; and she heard nothing of Herve de Lanrivain. It might be that her husband had killed him; or merely that he had been robbed of the necklet. Day after day by the hearth among the spinning maids, night after night alone on her bed, she wondered and trembled. Sometimes at table her husband looked across at her and smiled; and then she felt sure that Lanrivain was dead. She dared not try to get news of him, for she was sure her husband would find out if she did: she had an idea that he could find out anything. Even when a witch-woman who was a noted seer, and could show you the whole world in her crystal, came to the castle for a night's shelter, and the maids flocked to her, Anne held back. The winter was long and black and rainy. One day, in Yves de Cornault's absence, some gypsies came to Kerfol with a troop of performing dogs. Anne bought the smallest and cleverest, a white dog with a feathery coat and one blue and one brown eye. It seemed to have been ill-treated by the gypsies, and clung to her plaintively when she took it from them. That evening her husband came back, and when she went to bed she found the dog strangled on her pillow.
After that she said to herself that she would never have another dog; but one bitter cold evening a poor lean greyhound was found whining at the castle-gate, and she took him in and forbade the maids to speak of him to her husband. She hid him in a room that no one went to, smuggled food to him from her own plate, made him a warm bed to lie on and petted him like a child.
Yves de Cornault came home, and the next day she found the
greyhound strangled on her pillow. She
wept in secret, but said nothing, and resolved that even if she met a dog dying
of hunger she would never bring him into the castle; but one day she found a
young sheep-dog, a brindled puppy with good blue eyes, lying with a broken leg
in the snow of the park. Yves de
Cornault was at
After that she dared not make a pet of any other dog; and her loneliness became almost unendurable. Sometimes, when she crossed the court of the castle, and thought no one was looking, she stopped to pat the old pointer at the gate. But one day as she was caressing him her husband came out of the chapel; and the next day the old dog was gone. . .
This curious narrative was not told in one sitting of the court, or received without impatience and incredulous comment. It was plain that the Judges were surprised by its puerility, and that it did not help the accused in the eyes of the public. It was an odd tale, certainly; but what did it prove? That Yves de Cornault disliked dogs, and that his wife, to gratify her own fancy, persistently ignored this dislike. As for pleading this trivial disagreement as an excuse for her relations--whatever their nature--with her supposed accomplice, the argument was so absurd that her own lawyer manifestly regretted having let her make use of it, and tried several times to cut short her story. But she went on to the end, with a kind of hypnotized insistence, as though the scenes she evoked were so real to her that she had forgotten where she was and imagined herself to be re-living them.
At length the Judge who had previously shown a certain kindness to her said (leaning forward a little, one may suppose, from his row of dozing colleagues): "Then you would have us believe that you murdered your husband because he would not let you keep a pet dog?"
"I did not murder my husband."
"Who did, then? Herve de Lanrivain?"
"Who then? Can you tell us?"
"Yes, I can tell you. The dogs--" At that point she was carried out of the court in a swoon.
. . . . . . . .
It was evident that her lawyer tried to get her to abandon this line of defense. Possibly her explanation, whatever it was, had seemed convincing when she poured it out to him in the heat of their first private colloquy; but now that it was exposed to the cold daylight of judicial scrutiny, and the banter of the town, he was thoroughly ashamed of it, and would have sacrificed her without a scruple to save his professional reputation. But the obstinate Judge--who perhaps, after all, was more inquisitive than kindly--evidently wanted to hear the story out, and she was ordered, the next day, to continue her deposition.
She said that after the disappearance of the old watch-dog nothing particular happened for a month or two. Her husband was much as usual: she did not remember any special incident. But one evening a pedlar woman came to the castle and was selling trinkets to the maids. She had no heart for trinkets, but she stood looking on while the women made their choice. And then, she did not know how, but the pedlar coaxed her into buying for herself an odd pear-shaped pomander with a strong scent in it--she had once seen something of the kind on a gypsy woman. She had no desire for the pomander, and did not know why she had bought it. The pedlar said that whoever wore it had the power to read the future; but she did not really believe that, or care much either. However, she bought the thing and took it up to her room, where she sat turning it about in her hand. Then the strange scent attracted her and she began to wonder what kind of spice was in the box. She opened it and found a grey bean rolled in a strip of paper; and on the paper she saw a sign she knew, and a message from Herve de Lanrivain, saying that he was at home again and would be at the door in the court that night after the moon had set. . .
She burned the paper and then sat down to think. It was nightfall, and her husband was at home. . . She had no way of warning Lanrivain, and there was nothing to do but to wait. . .
At this point I fancy the drowsy courtroom beginning to wake up. Even to the oldest hand on the bench there must have been a certain aesthetic relish in picturing the feelings of a woman on receiving such a message at night-fall from a man living twenty miles away, to whom she had no means of sending a warning. . .
She was not a clever woman, I imagine; and as the first result of her cogitation she appears to have made the mistake of being, that evening, too kind to her husband. She could not ply him with wine, according to the traditional expedient, for though he drank heavily at times he had a strong head; and when he drank beyond its strength it was because he chose to, and not because a woman coaxed him. Not his wife, at any rate--she was an old story by now. As I read the case, I fancy there was no feeling for her left in him but the hatred occasioned by his supposed dishonour.
At any rate, she tried to call up her old graces; but early in the evening he complained of pains and fever, and left the hall to go up to his room. His servant carried him a cup of hot wine, and brought back word that he was sleeping and not to be disturbed; and an hour later, when Anne lifted the tapestry and listened at his door, she heard his loud regular breathing. She thought it might be a feint, and stayed a long time barefooted in the cold passage, her ear to the crack; but the breathing went on too steadily and naturally to be other than that of a man in a sound sleep. She crept back to her room reassured, and stood in the window watching the moon set through the trees of the park. The sky was misty and starless, and after the moon went down the night was pitch black. She knew the time had come, and stole along the passage, past her husband's door--where she stopped again to listen to his breathing--to the top of the stairs. There she paused a moment, and assured herself that no one was following her; then she began to go down the stairs in the darkness. They were so steep and winding that she had to go very slowly, for fear of stumbling. Her one thought was to get the door unbolted, tell Lanrivain to make his escape, and hasten back to her room. She had tried the bolt earlier in the evening, and managed to put a little grease on it; but nevertheless, when she drew it, it gave a squeak . . . not loud, but it made her heart stop; and the next minute, overhead, she heard a noise. . .
"What noise?" the prosecution interposed.
"My husband's voice calling out my name and cursing me."
"What did you hear after that?"
"A terrible scream and a fall."
"Where was Herve de Lanrivain at this time?"
"He was standing outside in the court. I just made him out in the darkness. I told him for God's sake to go, and then I pushed the door shut."
"What did you do next?"
"I stood at the foot of the stairs and listened."
"What did you hear?"
"I heard dogs snarling and panting." (Visible discouragement of the bench, boredom of the public, and exasperation of the lawyer for the defense. Dogs again--! But the inquisitive Judge insisted.)
She bent her head and spoke so low that she had to be told to repeat her answer: "I don't know."
"How do you mean--you don't know?"
"I don't know what dogs. . ."
The Judge again intervened: "Try to tell us exactly what happened. How long did you remain at the foot of the stairs?"
"Only a few minutes."
"And what was going on meanwhile overhead?"
"The dogs kept on snarling and panting. Once or twice he cried out. I think he moaned once. Then he was quiet."
"Then what happened?"
"Then I heard a sound like the noise of a pack when the wolf is thrown to them--gulping and lapping."
(There was a groan of disgust and repulsion through the court, and another attempted intervention by the distracted lawyer. But the inquisitive Judge was still inquisitive.)
"And all the while you did not go up?"
"Yes--I went up then--to drive them off."
"When I got there it was quite dark. I found my husband's flint and steel and struck a spark. I saw him lying there. He was dead."
"And the dogs?"
"The dogs were gone."
"I don't know. There was no way out--and there were no dogs at Kerfol."
She straightened herself to her full height, threw her arms above her head, and fell down on the stone floor with a long scream. There was a moment of confusion in the court-room. Some one on the bench was heard to say: "This is clearly a case for the ecclesiastical authorities"--and the prisoner's lawyer doubtless jumped at the suggestion.
After this, the trial loses itself in a maze of cross-questioning and squabbling. Every witness who was called corroborated Anne de Cornault's statement that there were no dogs at Kerfol: had been none for several months. The master of the house had taken a dislike to dogs, there was no denying it. But, on the other hand, at the inquest, there had been long and bitter discussion as to the nature of the dead man's wounds. One of the surgeons called in had spoken of marks that looked like bites. The suggestion of witchcraft was revived, and the opposing lawyers hurled tomes of necromancy at each other.
At last Anne de Cornault was brought back into court--at the instance of the same Judge--and asked if she knew where the dogs she spoke of could have come from. On the body of her Redeemer she swore that she did not. Then the Judge put his final question: "If the dogs you think you heard had been known to you, do you think you would have recognized them by their barking?"
"Did you recognize them?"
"What dogs do you take them to have been?"
"My dead dogs," she said in a whisper. . . She was taken out of court, not to reappear there again. There was some kind of ecclesiastical investigation, and the end of the business was that the Judges disagreed with each other, and with the ecclesiastical committee, and that Anne de Cornault was finally handed over to the keeping of her husband's family, who shut her up in the keep of Kerfol, where she is said to have died many years later, a harmless madwoman.
So ends her story. As
for that of Herve de Lanrivain, I had only to apply to his collateral
descendant for its subsequent details. The evidence against the young man being
insufficient, and his family influence in the duchy considerable, he was set
free, and left soon afterward for Paris.
He was probably in no mood for a worldly life, and he appears to have
come almost immediately under the influence of the famous M. Arnauld d'Andilly
and the gentlemen of
as first published in Scribner's Magazine, July, 1891
The view from Mrs. Manstey's window was not a striking one,
but to her at least it was full of interest and beauty. Mrs. Manstey occupied the back room on the
third floor of a
She was, indeed, not quite lonely, for a few friends still toiled up now and then to her room; but their visits grew rare as the years went by. Mrs. Manstey had never been a sociable woman, and during her husband's lifetime his companionship had been all-sufficient to her. For many years she had cherished a desire to live in the country, to have a hen-house and a garden; but this longing had faded with age, leaving only in the breast of the uncommunicative old woman a vague tenderness for plants and animals. It was, perhaps, this tenderness which made her cling so fervently to her view from her window, a view in which the most optimistic eye would at first have failed to discover anything admirable.
Mrs. Manstey, from her coign of vantage (a slightly projecting bow-window where she nursed an ivy and a succession of unwholesome-looking bulbs), looked out first upon the yard of her own dwelling, of which, however, she could get but a restricted glimpse. Still, her gaze took in the topmost boughs of the ailanthus below her window, and she knew how early each year the clump of dicentra strung its bending stalk with hearts of pink.
But of greater interest were the yards beyond. Being for the most part attached to boarding-houses they were in a state of chronic untidiness and fluttering, on certain days of the week, with miscellaneous garments and frayed table-cloths. In spite of this Mrs. Manstey found much to admire in the long vista which she commanded. Some of the yards were, indeed, but stony wastes, with grass in the cracks of the pavement and no shade in spring save that afforded by the intermittent leafage of the clothes-lines. These yards Mrs. Manstey disapproved of, but the others, the green ones, she loved. She had grown used to their disorder; the broken barrels, the empty bottles and paths unswept no longer annoyed her; hers was the happy faculty of dwelling on the pleasanter side of the prospect before her.
In the very next enclosure did not a magnolia open its hard white flowers against the watery blue of April? And was there not, a little way down the line, a fence foamed over every May be lilac waves of wistaria? Farther still, a horse-chestnut lifted its candelabra of buff and pink blossoms above broad fans of foliage; while in the opposite yard June was sweet with the breath of a neglected syringa, which persisted in growing in spite of the countless obstacles opposed to its welfare.
But if nature occupied the front rank in Mrs. Manstey's view, there was much of a more personal character to interest her in the aspect of the houses and their inmates. She deeply disapproved of the mustard-colored curtains which had lately been hung in the doctor's window opposite; but she glowed with pleasure when the house farther down had its old bricks washed with a coat of paint. The occupants of the houses did not often show themselves at the back windows, but the servants were always in sight. Noisy slatterns, Mrs. Manstey pronounced the greater number; she knew their ways and hated them. But to the quiet cook in the newly painted house, whose mistress bullied her, and who secretly fed the stray cats at nightfall, Mrs. Manstey's warmest sympathies were given. On one occasion her feelings were racked by the neglect of a housemaid, who for two days forgot to feed the parrot committed to her care. On the third day, Mrs. Manstey, in spite of her gouty hand, had just penned a letter, beginning: "Madam, it is now three days since your parrot has been fed," when the forgetful maid appeared at the window with a cup of seed in her hand.
But in Mrs. Manstey's more meditative moods it was the narrowing perspective of far-off yards which pleased her best. She loved, at twilight, when the distant brown-stone spire seemed melting in the fluid yellow of the west, to lose herself in vague memories of a trip to Europe, made years ago, and now reduced in her mind's eye to a pale phantasmagoria of indistinct steeples and dreamy skies. Perhaps at heart Mrs. Manstey was an artist; at all events she was sensible of many changes of color unnoticed by the average eye, and dear to her as the green of early spring was the black lattice of branches against a cold sulphur sky at the close of a snowy day. She enjoyed, also, the sunny thaws of March, when patches of earth showed through the snow, like ink-spots spreading on a sheet of white blotting-paper; and, better still, the haze of boughs, leafless but swollen, which replaced the clear-cut tracery of winter. She even watched with a certain interest the trail of smoke from a far-off factory chimney, and missed a detail in the landscape when the factory was closed and the smoke disappeared.
Mrs. Manstey, in the long hours which she spent at her window, was not idle. She read a little, and knitted numberless stockings; but the view surrounded and shaped her life as the sea does a lonely island. When her rare callers came it was difficult for her to detach herself from the contemplation of the opposite window-washing, or the scrutiny of certain green points in a neighboring flower-bed which might, or might not, turn into hyacinths, while she feigned an interest in her visitor's anecdotes about some unknown grandchild. Mrs. Manstey's real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.
One April day, as she sat in her usual place, with knitting cast aside and eyes fixed on the blue sky mottled with round clouds, a knock at the door announced the entrance of her landlady. Mrs. Manstey did not care for her landlady, but she submitted to her visits with ladylike resignation. To-day, however, it seemed harder than usual to turn from the blue sky and the blossoming magnolia to Mrs. Sampson's unsuggestive face, and Mrs. Manstey was conscious of a distinct effort as she did so.
"The magnolia is out earlier than usual this year, Mrs. Sampson," she remarked, yielding to a rare impulse, for she seldom alluded to the absorbing interest of her life. In the first place it was a topic not likely to appeal to her visitors and, besides, she lacked the power of expression and could not have given utterance to her feelings had she wished to.
"The what, Mrs. Manstey?" inquired the landlady, glancing about the room as if to find there the explanation of Mrs. Manstey's statement.
"The magnolia in the next yard--in Mrs. Black's yard," Mrs. Manstey repeated.
"Is it, indeed? I didn't know there was a magnolia there," said Mrs. Sampson, carelessly. Mrs. Manstey looked at her; she did not know that there was a magnolia in the next yard!
"By the way," Mrs. Sampson continued, "speaking of Mrs. Black reminds me that the work on the extension is to begin next week."
"The what?" it was Mrs. Manstey's turn to ask.
"The extension," said Mrs. Sampson, nodding her
head in the direction of the ignored magnolia.
"You knew, of course, that Mrs. Black was going to build an
extension to her house? Yes, ma'am. I hear it is to run right back to the end of
the yard. How she can afford to build an extension in these hard times I don't
see; but she always was crazy about building.
She used to keep a boarding-house in
Mrs. Manstey had grown pale. She always spoke slowly, so the landlady did not heed the long pause which followed. At last Mrs. Manstey said: "Do you know how high the extension will be?"
"That's the most absurd part of it. The extension is to be built right up to the roof of the main building; now, did you ever?"
"Mrs. Manstey paused again. "Won't it be a great annoyance to you, Mrs. Sampson?" she asked.
"I should say it would. But there's no help for it; if people have got a mind to build extensions there's no law to prevent 'em, that I'm aware of." Mrs. Manstey, knowing this, was silent. "There is no help for it," Mrs. Sampson repeated, "but if I AM a church member, I wouldn't be so sorry if it ruined Eliza Black. Well, good-day, Mrs. Manstey; I'm glad to find you so comfortable."
So comfortable--so comfortable! Left to herself the old woman turned once more to the window. How lovely the view was that day! The blue sky with its round clouds shed a brightness over everything; the ailanthus had put on a tinge of yellow-green, the hyacinths were budding, the magnolia flowers looked more than ever like rosettes carved in alabaster. Soon the wistaria would bloom, then the horse-chestnut; but not for her. Between her eyes and them a barrier of brick and mortar would swiftly rise; presently even the spire would disappear, and all her radiant world be blotted out. Mrs. Manstey sent away untouched the dinner-tray brought to her that evening. She lingered in the window until the windy sunset died in bat-colored dusk; then, going to bed, she lay sleepless all night.
Early the next day she was up and at the window. It was raining, but even through the slanting gray gauze the scene had its charm--and then the rain was so good for the trees. She had noticed the day before that the ailanthus was growing dusty.
"Of course I might move," said Mrs. Manstey aloud, and turning from the window she looked about her room. She might move, of course; so might she be flayed alive; but she was not likely to survive either operation. The room, though far less important to her happiness than the view, was as much a part of her existence. She had lived in it seventeen years. She knew every stain on the wall-paper, every rent in the carpet; the light fell in a certain way on her engravings, her books had grown shabby on their shelves, her bulbs and ivy were used to their window and knew which way to lean to the sun. "We are all too old to move," she said.
That afternoon it cleared. Wet and radiant the blue reappeared through torn rags of cloud; the ailanthus sparkled; the earth in the flower-borders looked rich and warm. It was Thursday, and on Monday the building of the extension was to begin.
On Sunday afternoon a card was brought to Mrs. Black, as she was engaged in gathering up the fragments of the boarders' dinner in the basement. The card, black-edged, bore Mrs. Manstey's name.
"One of Mrs. Sampson's boarders; wants to move, I suppose. Well, I can give her a room next year in the extension. Dinah," said Mrs. Black, "tell the lady I'll be upstairs in a minute."
Mrs. Black found Mrs. Manstey standing in the long parlor garnished with statuettes and antimacassars; in that house she could not sit down.
Stooping hurriedly to open the register, which let out a cloud of dust, Mrs. Black advanced on her visitor.
"I'm happy to meet you, Mrs. Manstey; take a seat, please," the landlady remarked in her prosperous voice, the voice of a woman who can afford to build extensions. There was no help for it; Mrs. Manstey sat down.
"Is there anything I can do for you, ma'am?" Mrs. Black continued. "My house is full at present, but I am going to build an extension, and--"
"It is about the extension that I wish to speak," said Mrs. Manstey, suddenly. "I am a poor woman, Mrs. Black, and I have never been a happy one. I shall have to talk about myself first to--to make you understand."
Mrs. Black, astonished but imperturbable, bowed at this parenthesis.
"I never had what I wanted," Mrs. Manstey continued. "It was always one disappointment after another. For years I wanted to live in the country. I dreamed and dreamed about it; but we never could manage it. There was no sunny window in our house, and so all my plants died. My daughter married years ago and went away--besides, she never cared for the same things. Then my husband died and I was left alone. That was seventeen years ago. I went to live at Mrs. Sampson's, and I have been there ever since. I have grown a little infirm, as you see, and I don't get out often; only on fine days, if I am feeling very well. So you can understand my sitting a great deal in my window--the back window on the third floor--"
"Well, Mrs. Manstey," said Mrs. Black, liberally, "I could give you a back room, I dare say; one of the new rooms in the ex--"
"But I don't want to move; I can't move," said Mrs. Manstey, almost with a scream. "And I came to tell you that if you build that extension I shall have no view from my window--no view! Do you understand?"
Mrs. Black thought herself face to face with a lunatic, and she had always heard that lunatics must be humored.
"Dear me, dear me," she remarked, pushing her chair back a little way, "that is too bad, isn't it? Why, I never thought of that. To be sure, the extension WILL interfere with your view, Mrs. Manstey."
"You do understand?" Mrs. Manstey gasped.
"Of course I do. And I'm real sorry about it, too. But there, don't you worry, Mrs. Manstey. I guess we can fix that all right."
Mrs. Manstey rose from her seat, and Mrs. Black slipped toward the door.
"What do you mean by fixing it? Do you mean that I can induce you to change your mind about the extension? Oh, Mrs. Black, listen to me. I have two thousand dollars in the bank and I could manage, I know I could manage, to give you a thousand if--" Mrs. Manstey paused; the tears were rolling down her cheeks.
"There, there, Mrs. Manstey, don't you worry," repeated Mrs. Black, soothingly. "I am sure we can settle it. I am sorry that I can't stay and talk about it any longer, but this is such a busy time of day, with supper to get--"
Her hand was on the door-knob, but with sudden vigor Mrs. Manstey seized her wrist.
"You are not giving me a definite answer. Do you mean to say that you accept my proposition?"
"Why, I'll think it over, Mrs. Manstey, certainly I will. I wouldn't annoy you for the world--"
"But the work is to begin to-morrow, I am told," Mrs. Manstey persisted.
Mrs. Black hesitated. "It shan't begin, I promise you that; I'll send word to the builder this very night." Mrs. Manstey tightened her hold.
"You are not deceiving me, are you?" she said.
"No--no," stammered Mrs. Black. "How can you think such a thing of me, Mrs. Manstey?"
Slowly Mrs. Manstey's clutch relaxed, and she passed through the open door. "One thousand dollars," she repeated, pausing in the hall; then she let herself out of the house and hobbled down the steps, supporting herself on the cast-iron railing.
"My goodness," exclaimed Mrs. Black, shutting and bolting the hall-door, "I never knew the old woman was crazy! And she looks so quiet and ladylike, too."
Mrs. Manstey slept well that night, but early the next morning she was awakened by a sound of hammering. She got to her window with what haste she might and, looking out saw that Mrs. Black's yard was full of workmen. Some were carrying loads of brick from the kitchen to the yard, others beginning to demolish the old-fashioned wooden balcony which adorned each story of Mrs. Black's house. Mrs. Manstey saw that she had been deceived. At first she thought of confiding her trouble to Mrs. Sampson, but a settled discouragement soon took possession of her and she went back to bed, not caring to see what was going on.
Toward afternoon, however, feeling that she must know the worst, she rose and dressed herself. It was a laborious task, for her hands were stiffer than usual, and the hooks and buttons seemed to evade her.
When she seated herself in the window, she saw that the workmen had removed the upper part of the balcony, and that the bricks had multiplied since morning. One of the men, a coarse fellow with a bloated face, picked a magnolia blossom and, after smelling it, threw it to the ground; the next man, carrying a load of bricks, trod on the flower in passing.
"Look out, Jim," called one of the men to another who was smoking a pipe, "if you throw matches around near those barrels of paper you'll have the old tinder-box burning down before you know it." And Mrs. Manstey, leaning forward, perceived that there were several barrels of paper and rubbish under the wooden balcony.
At length the work ceased and twilight fell. The sunset was perfect and a roseate light, transfiguring the distant spire, lingered late in the west. When it grew dark Mrs. Manstey drew down the shades and proceeded, in her usual methodical manner, to light her lamp. She always filled and lit it with her own hands, keeping a kettle of kerosene on a zinc-covered shelf in a closet. As the lamp-light filled the room it assumed its usual peaceful aspect. The books and pictures and plants seemed, like their mistress, to settle themselves down for another quiet evening, and Mrs. Manstey, as was her wont, drew up her armchair to the table and began to knit.
That night she could not sleep. The weather had changed and a wild wind was abroad, blotting the stars with close-driven clouds. Mrs. Manstey rose once or twice and looked out of the window; but of the view nothing was discernible save a tardy light or two in the opposite windows. These lights at last went out, and Mrs. Manstey, who had watched for their extinction, began to dress herself. She was in evident haste, for she merely flung a thin dressing-gown over her night-dress and wrapped her head in a scarf; then she opened her closet and cautiously took out the kettle of kerosene. Having slipped a bundle of wooden matches into her pocket she proceeded, with increasing precautions, to unlock her door, and a few moments later she was feeling her way down the dark staircase, led by a glimmer of gas from the lower hall. At length she reached the bottom of the stairs and began the more difficult descent into the utter darkness of the basement. Here, however, she could move more freely, as there was less danger of being overheard; and without much delay she contrived to unlock the iron door leading into the yard. A gust of cold wind smote her as she stepped out and groped shiveringly under the clothes-lines.
That morning at three o'clock an alarm of fire brought the engines to Mrs. Black's door, and also brought Mrs. Sampson's startled boarders to their windows. The wooden balcony at the back of Mrs. Black's house was ablaze, and among those who watched the progress of the flames was Mrs. Manstey, leaning in her thin dressing-gown from the open window.
The fire, however, was soon put out, and the frightened occupants of the house, who had fled in scant attire, reassembled at dawn to find that little mischief had been done beyond the cracking of window panes and smoking of ceilings. In fact, the chief sufferer by the fire was Mrs. Manstey, who was found in the morning gasping with pneumonia, a not unnatural result, as everyone remarked, of her having hung out of an open window at her age in a dressing-gown. It was easy to see that she was very ill, but no one had guessed how grave the doctor's verdict would be, and the faces gathered that evening about Mrs. Sampson's table were awestruck and disturbed. Not that any of the boarders knew Mrs. Manstey well; she "kept to herself," as they said, and seemed to fancy herself too good for them; but then it is always disagreeable to have anyone dying in the house and, as one lady observed to another: "It might just as well have been you or me, my dear."
But it was only Mrs. Manstey; and she was dying, as she had lived, lonely if not alone. The doctor had sent a trained nurse, and Mrs. Sampson, with muffled step, came in from time to time; but both, to Mrs. Manstey, seemed remote and unsubstantial as the figures in a dream. All day she said nothing; but when she was asked for her daughter's address she shook her head. At times the nurse noticed that she seemed to be listening attentively for some sound which did not come; then again she dozed.
The next morning at daylight she was very low. The nurse called Mrs. Sampson and as the two bent over the old woman they saw her lips move.
"Lift me up--out of bed," she whispered.
They raised her in their arms, and with her stiff hand she pointed to the window.
"Oh, the window--she wants to sit in the window. She used to sit there all day," Mrs. Sampson explained. "It can do her no harm, I suppose?"
"Nothing matters now," said the nurse.
They carried Mrs. Manstey to the window and placed her in her chair. The dawn was abroad, a jubilant spring dawn; the spire had already caught a golden ray, though the magnolia and horse-chestnut still slumbered in shadow. In Mrs. Black's yard all was quiet. The charred timbers of the balcony lay where they had fallen. It was evident that since the fire the builders had not returned to their work. The magnolia had unfolded a few more sculptural flowers; the view was undisturbed.
It was hard for Mrs. Manstey to breathe; each moment it grew more difficult. She tried to make them open the window, but they would not understand. If she could have tasted the air, sweet with the penetrating ailanthus savor, it would have eased her; but the view at least was there--the spire was golden now, the heavens had warmed from pearl to blue, day was alight from east to west, even the magnolia had caught the sun.
Mrs. Manstey's head fell back and smiling she died.
That day the building of the extension was resumed.
as first published in Scribner's Magazine, March 1909
Hubert Granice, pacing the length of his pleasant lamp-lit library, paused to compare his watch with the clock on the chimney-piece.
Three minutes to eight.
In exactly three minutes Mr. Peter Ascham, of the eminent legal firm of Ascham and Pettilow, would have his punctual hand on the door-bell of the flat. It was a comfort to reflect that Ascham was so punctual--the suspense was beginning to make his host nervous. And the sound of the door-bell would be the beginning of the end--after that there'd be no going back, by God--no going back!
Granice resumed his pacing. Each time he reached the end of the room opposite the door he caught his reflection in the Florentine mirror above the fine old walnut credence he had picked up at Dijon--saw himself spare, quick-moving, carefully brushed and dressed, but furrowed, gray about the temples, with a stoop which he corrected by a spasmodic straightening of the shoulders whenever a glass confronted him: a tired middle-aged man, baffled, beaten, worn out.
As he summed himself up thus for the third or fourth time
the door opened and he turned with a thrill of relief to greet his guest. But it was only the man-servant who entered,
advancing silently over the mossy surface of the old
"Mr. Ascham telephones, sir, to say he's unexpectedly detained and can't be here till eight-thirty."
Granice made a curt gesture of annoyance. It was becoming harder and harder for him to control these reflexes. He turned on his heel, tossing to the servant over his shoulder: "Very good. Put off dinner."
Down his spine he felt the man's injured stare. Mr. Granice had always been so mild-spoken to his people--no doubt the odd change in his manner had already been noticed and discussed below stairs. And very likely they suspected the cause. He stood drumming on the writing-table till he heard the servant go out; then he threw himself into a chair, propping his elbows on the table and resting his chin on his locked hands.
Another half hour alone with it!
He wondered irritably what could have detained his guest. Some professional matter, no doubt--the punctilious lawyer would have allowed nothing less to interfere with a dinner engagement, more especially since Granice, in his note, had said: "I shall want a little business chat afterward."
But what professional matter could have come up at that unprofessional hour? Perhaps some other soul in misery had called on the lawyer; and, after all, Granice's note had given no hint of his own need! No doubt Ascham thought he merely wanted to make another change in his will. Since he had come into his little property, ten years earlier, Granice had been perpetually tinkering with his will.
Suddenly another thought pulled him up, sending a flush to his sallow temples. He remembered a word he had tossed to the lawyer some six weeks earlier, at the Century Club. "Yes--my play's as good as taken. I shall be calling on you soon to go over the contract. Those theatrical chaps are so slippery--I won't trust anybody but you to tie the knot for me!" That, of course, was what Ascham would think he was wanted for. Granice, at the idea, broke into an audible laugh--a queer stage-laugh, like the cackle of a baffled villain in a melodrama. The absurdity, the unnaturalness of the sound abashed him, and he compressed his lips angrily. Would he take to soliloquy next?
He lowered his arms and pulled open the upper drawer of the writing-table. In the right-hand corner lay a thick manuscript, bound in paper folders, and tied with a string beneath which a letter had been slipped. Next to the manuscript was a small revolver. Granice stared a moment at these oddly associated objects; then he took the letter from under the string and slowly began to open it. He had known he should do so from the moment his hand touched the drawer. Whenever his eye fell on that letter some relentless force compelled him to re-read it.
It was dated about four weeks back, under the letter-head of "The Diversity Theatre."
"MY DEAR MR. GRANICE:
"I have given the matter my best consideration for the last month, and it's no use--the play won't do. I have talked it over with Miss Melrose--and you know there isn't a gamer artist on our stage--and I regret to tell you she feels just as I do about it. It isn't the poetry that scares her--or me either. We both want to do all we can to help along the poetic drama--we believe the public's ready for it, and we're willing to take a big financial risk in order to be the first to give them what they want. BUT WE DON'T BELIEVE THEY COULD BE MADE TO WANT THIS. The fact is, there isn't enough drama in your play to the allowance of poetry--the thing drags all through. You've got a big idea, but it's not out of swaddling clothes.
"If this was your first play I'd say: TRY AGAIN. But it has been just the same with all the others you've shown me. And you remember the result of 'The Lee Shore,' where you carried all the expenses of production yourself, and we couldn't fill the theatre for a week. Yet 'The Lee Shore' was a modern problem play--much easier to swing than blank verse. It isn't as if you hadn't tried all kinds--"
Granice folded the letter and put it carefully back into the envelope. Why on earth was he re-reading it, when he knew every phrase in it by heart, when for a month past he had seen it, night after night, stand out in letters of flame against the darkness of his sleepless lids?
"IT HAS BEEN JUST THE SAME WITH ALL THE OTHERS YOU'VE SHOWN ME."
That was the way they dismissed ten years of passionate unremitting work!
"YOU REMEMBER THE RESULT OF 'THE LEE SHORE.'"
Good God--as if he were likely to forget it! He re-lived it all now in a drowning flash: the persistent rejection of the play, his sudden resolve to put it on at his own cost, to spend ten thousand dollars of his inheritance on testing his chance of success--the fever of preparation, the dry-mouthed agony of the "first night," the flat fall, the stupid press, his secret rush to Europe to escape the condolence of his friends!
"IT ISN'T AS IF YOU HADN'T TRIED ALL KINDS."
No--he had tried all kinds: comedy, tragedy, prose and verse, the light curtain-raiser, the short sharp drama, the bourgeois-realistic and the lyrical-romantic--finally deciding that he would no longer "prostitute his talent" to win popularity, but would impose on the public his own theory of art in the form of five acts of blank verse. Yes, he had offered them everything--and always with the same result.
Ten years of it--ten years of dogged work and unrelieved failure. The ten years from forty to fifty--the best ten years of his life! And if one counted the years before, the silent years of dreams, assimilation, preparation--then call it half a man's life-time: half a man's life-time thrown away!
And what was he to do with the remaining half? Well, he had settled that, thank God! He turned and glanced anxiously at the clock. Ten minutes past eight--only ten minutes had been consumed in that stormy rush through his whole past! And he must wait another twenty minutes for Ascham. It was one of the worst symptoms of his case that, in proportion as he had grown to shrink from human company, he dreaded more and more to be alone. . . . But why the devil was he waiting for Ascham? Why didn't he cut the knot himself? Since he was so unutterably sick of the whole business, why did he have to call in an outsider to rid him of this nightmare of living?
He opened the drawer again and laid his hand on the revolver. It was a small slim ivory toy--just the instrument for a tired sufferer to give himself a "hypodermic" with. Granice raised it slowly in one hand, while with the other he felt under the thin hair at the back of his head, between the ear and the nape. He knew just where to place the muzzle: he had once got a young surgeon to show him. And as he found the spot, and lifted the revolver to it, the inevitable phenomenon occurred. The hand that held the weapon began to shake, the tremor communicated itself to his arm, his heart gave a wild leap which sent up a wave of deadly nausea to his throat, he smelt the powder, he sickened at the crash of the bullet through his skull, and a sweat of fear broke out over his forehead and ran down his quivering face. . .
He laid away the revolver with an oath and, pulling out a cologne-scented handkerchief, passed it tremulously over his brow and temples. It was no use--he knew he could never do it in that way. His attempts at self-destruction were as futile as his snatches at fame! He couldn't make himself a real life, and he couldn't get rid of the life he had. And that was why he had sent for Ascham to help him. . .
The lawyer, over the Camembert and
"I didn't like to say anything while your man was about--but the fact is, I was sent for on a rather unusual matter--"
"Oh, it's all right," said Granice cheerfully. He was beginning to feel the usual reaction that food and company produced. It was not any recovered pleasure in life that he felt, but only a deeper withdrawal into himself. It was easier to go on automatically with the social gestures than to uncover to any human eye the abyss within him.
"My dear fellow, it's sacrilege to keep a dinner
waiting--especially the production of an artist like yours." Mr. Ascham sipped his
Granice raised his head with a quick movement of surprise. For a moment he was shaken out of his self-absorption.
Ascham smiled. "I thought you'd be interested; I know your passion for causes celebres. And this promises to be one. Of course it's out of our line entirely--we never touch criminal cases. But she wanted to consult me as a friend. Ashgrove was a distant connection of my wife's. And, by Jove, it IS a queer case!" The servant re-entered, and Ascham snapped his lips shut.
Would the gentlemen have their coffee in the dining-room?
"No--serve it in the library," said Granice, rising. He led the way back to the curtained confidential room. He was really curious to hear what Ascham had to tell him.
While the coffee and cigars were being served he fidgeted about the library, glancing at his letters--the usual meaningless notes and bills--and picking up the evening paper. As he unfolded it a headline caught his eye.
He read on with a thumping heart--found the name of a young author he had barely heard of, saw the title of a play, a "poetic drama," dance before his eyes, and dropped the paper, sick, disgusted. It was true, then--she WAS "game"--it was not the manner but the matter she mistrusted!
Granice turned to the servant, who seemed to be purposely
lingering. "I shan't need you this
He fancied the man's acquiescence implied surprise. What was going on,
As the door closed he threw himself into an armchair and leaned forward to take a light from Ascham's cigar.
"Tell me about Mrs. Ashgrove," he said, seeming to himself to speak stiffly, as if his lips were cracked.
"Mrs. Ashgrove? Well, there's not much to TELL."
"And you couldn't if there were?" Granice smiled.
"Probably not. As a matter of fact, she wanted my advice about her choice of counsel. There was nothing especially confidential in our talk."
"And what's your impression, now you've seen her?"
"My impression is, very distinctly, THAT NOTHING WILL EVER BE KNOWN."
"Ah--?" Granice murmured, puffing at his cigar.
"I'm more and more convinced that whoever poisoned Ashgrove knew his business, and will consequently never be found out. That's a capital cigar you've given me."
"You like it? I
get them over from
"Of course I do. Look about you--look back for the last dozen years--none of the big murder problems are ever solved." The lawyer ruminated behind his blue cloud. "Why, take the instance in your own family: I'd forgotten I had an illustration at hand! Take old Joseph Lenman's murder--do you suppose that will ever be explained?"
As the words dropped from Ascham's lips his host looked slowly about the library, and every object in it stared back at him with a stale unescapable familiarity. How sick he was of looking at that room! It was as dull as the face of a wife one has wearied of. He cleared his throat slowly; then he turned his head to the lawyer and said: "I could explain the Lenman murder myself."
Ascham's eye kindled: he shared Granice's interest in criminal cases.
"By Jove! You've had a theory all this time? It's odd you never mentioned it. Go ahead and tell me. There are certain features in the Lenman case not unlike this Ashgrove affair, and your idea may be a help."
Granice paused and his eye reverted instinctively to the table drawer in which the revolver and the manuscript lay side by side. What if he were to try another appeal to Rose Melrose? Then he looked at the notes and bills on the table, and the horror of taking up again the lifeless routine of life--of performing the same automatic gestures another day--displaced his fleeting vision.
"I haven't a theory. I KNOW who murdered Joseph Lenman."
Ascham settled himself comfortably in his chair, prepared for enjoyment.
"You KNOW? Well, who did?" he laughed.
"I did," said Granice, rising.
He stood before Ascham, and the lawyer lay back staring up at him. Then he broke into another laugh.
"Why, this is glorious! You murdered him, did you? To inherit his money, I suppose? Better and better! Go on, my boy! Unbosom yourself! Tell me all about it! Confession is good for the soul."
Granice waited till the lawyer had shaken the last peal of laughter from his throat; then he repeated doggedly: "I murdered him."
The two men looked at each other for a long moment, and this time Ascham did not laugh.
"I murdered him--to get his money, as you say."
There was another pause, and Granice, with a vague underlying sense of amusement, saw his guest's look change from pleasantry to apprehension.
"What's the joke, my dear fellow? I fail to see."
"It's not a joke. It's the truth. I murdered him." He had spoken painfully at first, as if there were a knot in his throat; but each time he repeated the words he found they were easier to say.
Ascham laid down his extinct cigar.
"What's the matter? Aren't you well? What on earth are you driving at?"
"I'm perfectly well. But I murdered my cousin, Joseph Lenman, and I want it known that I murdered him."
"YOU WANT IT KNOWN?"
"Yes. That's why I sent for you. I'm sick of living, and when I try to kill myself I funk it." He spoke quite naturally now, as if the knot in his throat had been untied.
"Good Lord--good Lord," the lawyer gasped.
"But I suppose," Granice continued, "there's no doubt this would be murder in the first degree? I'm sure of the chair if I own up?"
Ascham drew a long breath; then he said slowly: "Sit down, Granice. Let's talk."
Granice told his story simply, connectedly.
He began by a quick survey of his early years--the years of drudgery and privation. His father, a charming man who could never say "no," had so signally failed to say it on certain essential occasions that when he died he left an illegitimate family and a mortgaged estate. His lawful kin found themselves hanging over a gulf of debt, and young Granice, to support his mother and sister, had to leave Harvard and bury himself at eighteen in a broker's office. He loathed his work, and he was always poor, always worried and in ill-health. A few years later his mother died, but his sister, an ineffectual neurasthenic, remained on his hands. His own health gave out, and he had to go away for six months, and work harder than ever when he came back. He had no knack for business, no head for figures, no dimmest insight into the mysteries of commerce. He wanted to travel and write--those were his inmost longings. And as the years dragged on, and he neared middle-age without making any more money, or acquiring any firmer health, a sick despair possessed him. He tried writing, but he always came home from the office so tired that his brain could not work. For half the year he did not reach his dim up-town flat till after dark, and could only "brush up" for dinner, and afterward lie on the lounge with his pipe, while his sister droned through the evening paper. Sometimes he spent an evening at the theatre; or he dined out, or, more rarely, strayed off with an acquaintance or two in quest of what is known as "pleasure." And in summer, when he and Kate went to the sea-side for a month, he dozed through the days in utter weariness. Once he fell in love with a charming girl--but what had he to offer her, in God's name? She seemed to like him, and in common decency he had to drop out of the running. Apparently no one replaced him, for she never married, but grew stoutish, grayish, philanthropic--yet how sweet she had been when he had first kissed her! One more wasted life, he reflected. . .
But the stage had always been his master-passion. He would have sold his soul for the time and freedom to write plays! It was IN HIM--he could not remember when it had not been his deepest-seated instinct. As the years passed it became a morbid, a relentless obsession--yet with every year the material conditions were more and more against it. He felt himself growing middle-aged, and he watched the reflection of the process in his sister's wasted face. At eighteen she had been pretty, and as full of enthusiasm as he. Now she was sour, trivial, insignificant--she had missed her chance of life. And she had no resources, poor creature, was fashioned simply for the primitive functions she had been denied the chance to fulfil! It exasperated him to think of it--and to reflect that even now a little travel, a little health, a little money, might transform her, make her young and desirable. . . The chief fruit of his experience was that there is no such fixed state as age or youth--there is only health as against sickness, wealth as against poverty; and age or youth as the outcome of the lot one draws.
At this point in his narrative Granice stood up, and went to lean against the mantel-piece, looking down at Ascham, who had not moved from his seat, or changed his attitude of rigid fascinated attention.
"Then came the summer when we went to Wrenfield to be near old Lenman--my mother's cousin, as you know. Some of the family always mounted guard over him--generally a niece or so. But that year they were all scattered, and one of the nieces offered to lend us her cottage if we'd relieve her of duty for two months. It was a nuisance for me, of course, for Wrenfield is two hours from town; but my mother, who was a slave to family observances, had always been good to the old man, so it was natural we should be called on--and there was the saving of rent and the good air for Kate. So we went.
"You never knew Joseph Lenman? Well, picture to yourself an amoeba or some primitive organism of that sort, under a Titan's microscope. He was large, undifferentiated, inert--since I could remember him he had done nothing but take his temperature and read the Churchman. Oh, and cultivate melons--that was his hobby. Not vulgar, out-of-door melons--his were grown under glass. He had miles of it at Wrenfield--his big kitchen-garden was surrounded by blinking battalions of green-houses. And in nearly all of them melons were grown--early melons and late, French, English, domestic--dwarf melons and monsters: every shape, colour and variety. They were petted and nursed like children--a staff of trained attendants waited on them. I'm not sure they didn't have a doctor to take their temperature--at any rate the place was full of thermometers. And they didn't sprawl on the ground like ordinary melons; they were trained against the glass like nectarines, and each melon hung in a net which sustained its weight and left it free on all sides to the sun and air. . .
"It used to strike me sometimes that old Lenman was just like one of his own melons--the pale-fleshed English kind. His life, apathetic and motionless, hung in a net of gold, in an equable warm ventilated atmosphere, high above sordid earthly worries. The cardinal rule of his existence was not to let himself be 'worried.' . . . I remember his advising me to try it myself, one day when I spoke to him about Kate's bad health, and her need of a change. 'I never let myself worry,' he said complacently. 'It's the worst thing for the liver--and you look to me as if you had a liver. Take my advice and be cheerful. You'll make yourself happier and others too.' And all he had to do was to write a cheque, and send the poor girl off for a holiday!
"The hardest part of it was that the money half-belonged to us already. The old skin-flint only had it for life, in trust for us and the others. But his life was a good deal sounder than mine or Kate's--and one could picture him taking extra care of it for the joke of keeping us waiting. I always felt that the sight of our hungry eyes was a tonic to him.
"Well, I tried to see if I couldn't reach him through his vanity. I flattered him, feigned a passionate interest in his melons. And he was taken in, and used to discourse on them by the hour. On fine days he was driven to the green-houses in his pony-chair, and waddled through them, prodding and leering at the fruit, like a fat Turk in his seraglio. When he bragged to me of the expense of growing them I was reminded of a hideous old Lothario bragging of what his pleasures cost. And the resemblance was completed by the fact that he couldn't eat as much as a mouthful of his melons--had lived for years on buttermilk and toast. 'But, after all, it's my only hobby--why shouldn't I indulge it?' he said sentimentally. As if I'd ever been able to indulge any of mine! On the keep of those melons Kate and I could have lived like gods. . .
"One day toward the end of the summer, when Kate was too unwell to drag herself up to the big house, she asked me to go and spend the afternoon with cousin Joseph. It was a lovely soft September afternoon--a day to lie under a Roman stone-pine, with one's eyes on the sky, and let the cosmic harmonies rush through one. Perhaps the vision was suggested by the fact that, as I entered cousin Joseph's hideous black walnut library, I passed one of the under-gardeners, a handsome full-throated Italian, who dashed out in such a hurry that he nearly knocked me down. I remember thinking it queer that the fellow, whom I had often seen about the melon-houses, did not bow to me, or even seem to see me.
"Cousin Joseph sat in his usual seat, behind the darkened windows, his fat hands folded on his protuberant waistcoat, the last number of the Churchman at his elbow, and near it, on a huge dish, a fat melon--the fattest melon I'd ever seen. As I looked at it I pictured the ecstasy of contemplation from which I must have roused him, and congratulated myself on finding him in such a mood, since I had made up my mind to ask him a favour. Then I noticed that his face, instead of looking as calm as an egg-shell, was distorted and whimpering--and without stopping to greet me he pointed passionately to the melon.
"'Look at it, look at it--did you ever see such a beauty? Such firmness--roundness--such delicious smoothness to the touch?' It was as if he had said 'she' instead of 'it,' and when he put out his senile hand and touched the melon I positively had to look the other way.
"Then he told me what had happened. The Italian under-gardener, who had been specially recommended for the melon-houses--though it was against my cousin's principles to employ a Papist--had been assigned to the care of the monster: for it had revealed itself, early in its existence, as destined to become a monster, to surpass its plumpest, pulpiest sisters, carry off prizes at agricultural shows, and be photographed and celebrated in every gardening paper in the land. The Italian had done well--seemed to have a sense of responsibility. And that very morning he had been ordered to pick the melon, which was to be shown next day at the county fair, and to bring it in for Mr. Lenman to gaze on its blonde virginity. But in picking it, what had the damned scoundrelly Jesuit done but drop it--drop it crash on the sharp spout of a watering-pot, so that it received a deep gash in its firm pale rotundity, and was henceforth but a bruised, ruined, fallen melon?
"The old man's rage was fearful in its impotence--he
shook, spluttered and strangled with it.
He had just had the Italian up and had sacked him on the spot, without
wages or character--had threatened to have him arrested if he was ever caught
prowling about Wrenfield. 'By God, and
I'll do it--I'll write to
"All the while one phrase of the old man's buzzed in my brain like the fly about the melon. 'I'LL SHOW HIM WHAT MONEY CAN DO!' Good heaven! If I could but show the old man! If I could make him see his power of giving happiness as a new outlet for his monstrous egotism! I tried to tell him something about my situation and Kate's--spoke of my ill-health, my unsuccessful drudgery, my longing to write, to make myself a name--I stammered out an entreaty for a loan. 'I can guarantee to repay you, sir--I've a half-written play as security. . .'
"I shall never forget his glassy stare. His face had grown as smooth as an egg-shell again--his eyes peered over his fat cheeks like sentinels over a slippery rampart.
"'A half-written play--a play of YOURS as security?' He looked at me almost fearfully, as if detecting the first symptoms of insanity. 'Do you understand anything of business?' he enquired mildly. I laughed and answered: 'No, not much.'
"He leaned back with closed lids. 'All this excitement has been too much for me,' he said. 'If you'll excuse me, I'll prepare for my nap.' And I stumbled out of the room, blindly, like the Italian."
Granice moved away from the mantel-piece, and walked across to the tray set out with decanters and soda-water. He poured himself a tall glass of soda-water, emptied it, and glanced at Ascham's dead cigar.
"Better light another," he suggested.
The lawyer shook his head, and Granice went on with his tale. He told of his mounting obsession--how the murderous impulse had waked in him on the instant of his cousin's refusal, and he had muttered to himself: "By God, if you won't, I'll make you." He spoke more tranquilly as the narrative proceeded, as though his rage had died down once the resolve to act on it was taken. He applied his whole mind to the question of how the old man was to be "disposed of." Suddenly he remembered the outcry: "Those Italians will murder you for a quarter!" But no definite project presented itself: he simply waited for an inspiration.
Granice and his sister moved to town a day or two after the incident of the melon. But the cousins, who had returned, kept them informed of the old man's condition. One day, about three weeks later, Granice, on getting home, found Kate excited over a report from Wrenfield. The Italian had been there again--had somehow slipped into the house, made his way up to the library, and "used threatening language." The house-keeper found cousin Joseph gasping, the whites of his eyes showing "something awful." The doctor was sent for, and the attack warded off; and the police had ordered the Italian from the neighbourhood.
But cousin Joseph, thereafter, languished, had "nerves," and lost his taste for toast and butter-milk. The doctor called in a colleague, and the consultation amused and excited the old man--he became once more an important figure. The medical men reassured the family--too completely!--and to the patient they recommended a more varied diet: advised him to take whatever "tempted him." And so one day, tremulously, prayerfully, he decided on a tiny bit of melon. It was brought up with ceremony, and consumed in the presence of the house-keeper and a hovering cousin; and twenty minutes later he was dead. . .
"But you remember the circumstances," Granice went on; "how suspicion turned at once on the Italian? In spite of the hint the police had given him he had been seen hanging about the house since 'the scene.' It was said that he had tender relations with the kitchen-maid, and the rest seemed easy to explain. But when they looked round to ask him for the explanation he was gone--gone clean out of sight. He had been 'warned' to leave Wrenfield, and he had taken the warning so to heart that no one ever laid eyes on him again."
Granice paused. He had dropped into a chair opposite the lawyer's, and he sat for a moment, his head thrown back, looking about the familiar room. Everything in it had grown grimacing and alien, and each strange insistent object seemed craning forward from its place to hear him.
"It was I who put the stuff in the melon," he said. "And I don't want you to think I'm sorry for it. This isn't 'remorse,' understand. I'm glad the old skin-flint is dead--I'm glad the others have their money. But mine's no use to me any more. My sister married miserably, and died. And I've never had what I wanted."
Ascham continued to stare; then he said: "What on earth was your object, then?"
"Why, to GET what I wanted--what I fancied was in reach! I wanted change, rest, LIFE, for both of us--wanted, above all, for myself, the chance to write! I travelled, got back my health, and came home to tie myself up to my work. And I've slaved at it steadily for ten years without reward--without the most distant hope of success! Nobody will look at my stuff. And now I'm fifty, and I'm beaten, and I know it." His chin dropped forward on his breast. "I want to chuck the whole business," he ended.
It was after midnight when Ascham left.
His hand on Granice's shoulder, as he turned to go--"District Attorney be hanged; see a doctor, see a doctor!" he had cried; and so, with an exaggerated laugh, had pulled on his coat and departed.
Granice turned back into the library. It had never occurred to him that Ascham would not believe his story. For three hours he had explained, elucidated, patiently and painfully gone over every detail--but without once breaking down the iron incredulity of the lawyer's eye.
At first Ascham had feigned to be convinced--but that, as Granice now perceived, was simply to get him to expose himself, to entrap him into contradictions. And when the attempt failed, when Granice triumphantly met and refuted each disconcerting question, the lawyer dropped the mask suddenly, and said with a good-humoured laugh: "By Jove, Granice you'll write a successful play yet. The way you've worked this all out is a marvel."
Granice swung about furiously--that last sneer about the play inflamed him. Was all the world in a conspiracy to deride his failure?
"I did it, I did it," he muttered sullenly, his rage spending itself against the impenetrable surface of the other's mockery; and Ascham answered with a smile: "Ever read any of those books on hallucination? I've got a fairly good medico-legal library. I could send you one or two if you like. . ."
Left alone, Granice cowered down in the chair before his writing-table. He understood that Ascham thought him off his head.
"Good God--what if they all think me crazy?"
The horror of it broke out over him in a cold sweat--he sat there and shook, his eyes hidden in his icy hands. But gradually, as he began to rehearse his story for the thousandth time, he saw again how incontrovertible it was, and felt sure that any criminal lawyer would believe him.
"That's the trouble--Ascham's not a criminal lawyer. And then he's a friend. What a fool I was to talk to a friend! Even if he did believe me, he'd never let me see it--his instinct would be to cover the whole thing up. . . But in that case--if he DID believe me--he might think it a kindness to get me shut up in an asylum. . ." Granice began to tremble again. "Good heaven! If he should bring in an expert--one of those damned alienists! Ascham and Pettilow can do anything--their word always goes. If Ascham drops a hint that I'd better be shut up, I'll be in a strait-jacket by to-morrow! And he'd do it from the kindest motives--be quite right to do it if he thinks I'm a murderer!"
The vision froze him to his chair. He pressed his fists to his bursting temples and tried to think. For the first time he hoped that Ascham had not believed his story.
"But he did--he did! I can see it now--I noticed what a queer eye he cocked at me. Good God, what shall I do--what shall I do?"
He started up and looked at the clock. Half-past one. What if Ascham should think the case urgent, rout out an alienist, and come back with him? Granice jumped to his feet, and his sudden gesture brushed the morning paper from the table. Mechanically he stooped to pick it up, and the movement started a new train of association.
He sat down again, and reached for the telephone book in the rack by his chair.
"Give me three-o-ten . . . yes."
The new idea in his mind had revived his flagging energy. He would act--act at once. It was only by thus planning ahead, committing himself to some unavoidable line of conduct, that he could pull himself through the meaningless days. Each time he reached a fresh decision it was like coming out of a foggy weltering sea into a calm harbour with lights. One of the queerest phases of his long agony was the intense relief produced by these momentary lulls.
"That the office of the Investigator? Yes?
Give me Mr. Denver, please. . .
Granice put out the lights in the library--it was odd how
the automatic gestures persisted!--went into the hall, put on his hat and
overcoat, and let himself out of the flat.
In the hall, a sleepy elevator boy blinked at him and then dropped his
head on his folded arms. Granice passed
out into the street. At the corner of
The two men grasped hands, and
"Disturb me? Not a bit. You might have, at ten to-morrow morning . . . but this is my liveliest hour . . . you know my habits of old."
Granice had known Robert Denver for fifteen years--watched his rise through all the stages of journalism to the Olympian pinnacle of the Investigator's editorial office. In the thick-set man with grizzling hair there were few traces left of the hungry-eyed young reporter who, on his way home in the small hours, used to "bob in" on Granice, while the latter sat grinding at his plays. Denver had to pass Granice's flat on the way to his own, and it became a habit, if he saw a light in the window, and Granice's shadow against the blind, to go in, smoke a pipe, and discuss the universe.
"Well--this is like old times--a good old habit reversed." The editor smote his visitor genially on the shoulder. "Reminds me of the nights when I used to rout you out. . . How's the play, by the way? There IS a play, I suppose? It's as safe to ask you that as to say to some men: 'How's the baby?'"
"Come in--come in." The editor led the way into a small cheerful room, where there were cigars and decanters. He pushed an arm-chair toward his visitor, and dropped into another with a comfortable groan.
"Now, then--help yourself. And let's hear all about it."
He beamed at Granice over his pipe-bowl, and the latter, lighting his cigar, said to himself: "Success makes men comfortable, but it makes them stupid."
Then he turned, and began: "
The clock ticked rhythmically on the mantel-piece. The little room was gradually filled with drifting blue layers of smoke, and through them the editor's face came and went like the moon through a moving sky. Once the hour struck--then the rhythmical ticking began again. The atmosphere grew denser and heavier, and beads of perspiration began to roll from Granice's forehead.
"Do you mind if I open the window?"
"No. It IS
stuffy in here. Wait--I'll do it
"There's no use in my going on if you don't believe me."
The editor remained unmoved. "Who says I don't believe you? And how can I tell till you've finished?"
Granice went on, ashamed of his outburst. "It was simple enough, as you'll see. From the day the old man said to me, 'Those Italians would murder you for a quarter,' I dropped everything and just worked at my scheme. It struck me at once that I must find a way of getting to Wrenfield and back in a night--and that led to the idea of a motor. A motor--that never occurred to you? You wonder where I got the money, I suppose. Well, I had a thousand or so put by, and I nosed around till I found what I wanted--a second-hand racer. I knew how to drive a car, and I tried the thing and found it was all right. Times were bad, and I bought it for my price, and stored it away. Where? Why, in one of those no-questions-asked garages where they keep motors that are not for family use. I had a lively cousin who had put me up to that dodge, and I looked about till I found a queer hole where they took in my car like a baby in a foundling asylum. . . Then I practiced running to Wrenfield and back in a night. I knew the way pretty well, for I'd done it often with the same lively cousin--and in the small hours, too. The distance is over ninety miles, and on the third trial I did it under two hours. But my arms were so lame that I could hardly get dressed the next morning. . .
"Well, then came the report about the Italian's threats, and I saw I must act at once. . . I meant to break into the old man's room, shoot him, and get away again. It was a big risk, but I thought I could manage it. Then we heard that he was ill--that there'd been a consultation. Perhaps the fates were going to do it for me! Good Lord, if that could only be! . . ."
Granice stopped and wiped his forehead: the open window did not seem to have cooled the room.
"Then came word that he was better; and the day after, when I came up from my office, I found Kate laughing over the news that he was to try a bit of melon. The house-keeper had just telephoned her--all Wrenfield was in a flutter. The doctor himself had picked out the melon, one of the little French ones that are hardly bigger than a large tomato--and the patient was to eat it at his breakfast the next morning.
"In a flash I saw my chance. It was a bare chance, no more. But I knew the ways of the house--I was sure the melon would be brought in over night and put in the pantry ice-box. If there were only one melon in the ice-box I could be fairly sure it was the one I wanted. Melons didn't lie around loose in that house--every one was known, numbered, catalogued. The old man was beset by the dread that the servants would eat them, and he took a hundred mean precautions to prevent it. Yes, I felt pretty sure of my melon . . . and poisoning was much safer than shooting. It would have been the devil and all to get into the old man's bedroom without his rousing the house; but I ought to be able to break into the pantry without much trouble.
"It was a cloudy night, too--everything served me. I dined quietly, and sat down at my desk. Kate had one of her usual headaches, and went to bed early. As soon as she was gone I slipped out. I had got together a sort of disguise--red beard and queer-looking ulster. I shoved them into a bag, and went round to the garage. There was no one there but a half-drunken machinist whom I'd never seen before. That served me, too. They were always changing machinists, and this new fellow didn't even bother to ask if the car belonged to me. It was a very easy-going place. . .
"Well, I jumped in, ran up Broadway, and let the car go
as soon as I was out of
"I left the car in a dark lane behind the Lenman place, and slipped through the kitchen-garden. The melon-houses winked at me through the dark--I remember thinking that they knew what I wanted to know. . . . By the stable a dog came out growling--but he nosed me out, jumped on me, and went back. . . The house was as dark as the grave. I knew everybody went to bed by ten. But there might be a prowling servant--the kitchen-maid might have come down to let in her Italian. I had to risk that, of course. I crept around by the back door and hid in the shrubbery. Then I listened. It was all as silent as death. I crossed over to the house, pried open the pantry window and climbed in. I had a little electric lamp in my pocket, and shielding it with my cap I groped my way to the ice-box, opened it--and there was the little French melon . . . only one.
"I stopped to listen--I was quite cool. Then I pulled out my bottle of stuff and my syringe, and gave each section of the melon a hypodermic. It was all done inside of three minutes--at ten minutes to twelve I was back in the car. I got out of the lane as quietly as I could, struck a back road that skirted the village, and let the car out as soon as I was beyond the last houses. I only stopped once on the way in, to drop the beard and ulster into a pond. I had a big stone ready to weight them with and they went down plump, like a dead body--and at two o'clock I was back at my desk."
Granice stopped speaking and looked across the smoke-fumes
at his listener; but
At length he said: "Why did you want to tell me this?"
The question startled Granice. He was about to explain, as he had explained
to Ascham; but suddenly it occurred to him that if his motive had not seemed
convincing to the lawyer it would carry much less weight with
"Why, I--the thing haunts me . . . remorse, I suppose you'd call it. . ."
"Remorse? Bosh!" he said energetically.
Granice's heart sank. "You don't believe in--REMORSE?"
"Not an atom: in the man of action. The mere fact of your talking of remorse proves to me that you're not the man to have planned and put through such a job."
Granice groaned. "Well--I lied to you about remorse. I've never felt any."
"I'll tell you--" And Granice began again to rehearse the story of his failure, of his loathing for life. "Don't say you don't believe me this time . . . that this isn't a real reason!" he stammered out piteously as he ended.
"Believe that you're sick of the job? Yes. And that you haven't the nerve to pull the trigger? Oh, yes--that's easy enough, too. But all that doesn't make you a murderer--though I don't say it proves you could never have been one."
"I HAVE been one,
"Perhaps." He meditated. "Just tell me one or two things."
"Oh, go ahead. You won't stump me!" Granice heard himself say with a laugh.
"Well--how did you make all those trial trips without exciting your sister's curiosity? I knew your night habits pretty well at that time, remember. You were very seldom out late. Didn't the change in your ways surprise her?"
"No; because she was away at the time. She went to pay several visits in the country soon after we came back from Wrenfield, and was only in town for a night or two before--before I did the job."
"And that night she went to bed early with a headache?"
"Yes--blinding. She didn't know anything when she had that kind. And her room was at the back of the flat."
"Yes. I went
straight to my work--took it up at the word where I'd left off--WHY,
"Yes; how you found me--when you looked in that morning, between two and three . . . your usual hour . . .?"
"Yes," the editor nodded.
Granice gave a short laugh. "In my old coat--with my pipe: looked as if I'd been working all night, didn't I? Well, I hadn't been in my chair ten minutes!"
"My coming in that particular night--or morning."
Granice swung round in his chair. "Why, man alive! That's why I'm here now. Because it was you who spoke for me at the inquest, when they looked round to see what all the old man's heirs had been doing that night--you who testified to having dropped in and found me at my desk as usual. . . . I thought THAT would appeal to your journalistic sense if nothing else would!"
"That's it--that's it!" Granice's laugh had a ring of triumph.
"Well, but how about the other chap's testimony--I mean that young doctor: what was his name? Ned Ranney. Don't you remember my testifying that I'd met him at the elevated station, and told him I was on my way to smoke a pipe with you, and his saying: 'All right; you'll find him in. I passed the house two hours ago, and saw his shadow against the blind, as usual.' And the lady with the toothache in the flat across the way: she corroborated his statement, you remember."
"Yes; I remember."
"Simple enough. Before starting I rigged up a kind of mannikin with old coats and a cushion--something to cast a shadow on the blind. All you fellows were used to seeing my shadow there in the small hours--I counted on that, and knew you'd take any vague outline as mine."
"Simple enough, as you say. But the woman with the toothache saw the shadow move--you remember she said she saw you sink forward, as if you'd fallen asleep."
"Yes; and she was right. It DID move. I suppose some extra-heavy dray must have jolted by the flimsy building--at any rate, something gave my mannikin a jar, and when I came back he had sunk forward, half over the table."
There was a long silence between the two men. Granice, with a throbbing heart, watched
"Well?" Granice faltered out.
"Oh, oh--" Granice broke in. He stood up also, and the two men eyed each other. "You don't believe me, then?"
"This yarn--how can I? There wasn't a flaw in your alibi."
"But haven't I filled it full of them now?"
Granice groaned. "No, I didn't. You mean my wanting to be found guilty--?"
"Of course! If somebody else had accused you, the story might have been worth looking into. As it is, a child could have invented it. It doesn't do much credit to your ingenuity."
Granice turned sullenly toward the door. What was the use of arguing? But on the threshold a sudden impulse drew
him back. "Look here,
The perspiration was rolling off Granice's forehead. Every few minutes he had to draw out his handkerchief and wipe the moisture from his haggard face.
For an hour and a half he had been talking steadily, putting his case to the District Attorney. Luckily he had a speaking acquaintance with Allonby, and had obtained, without much difficulty, a private audience on the very day after his talk with Robert Denver. In the interval between he had hurried home, got out of his evening clothes, and gone forth again at once into the dreary dawn. His fear of Ascham and the alienist made it impossible for him to remain in his rooms. And it seemed to him that the only way of averting that hideous peril was by establishing, in some sane impartial mind, the proof of his guilt. Even if he had not been so incurably sick of life, the electric chair seemed now the only alternative to the strait-jacket.
As he paused to wipe his forehead he saw the District Attorney glance at his watch. The gesture was significant, and Granice lifted an appealing hand. "I don't expect you to believe me now--but can't you put me under arrest, and have the thing looked into?"
Allonby smiled faintly under his heavy grayish moustache. He had a ruddy face, full and jovial, in which his keen professional eyes seemed to keep watch over impulses not strictly professional.
"Well, I don't know that we need lock you up just yet. But of course I'm bound to look into your statement--"
Granice rose with an exquisite sense of relief. Surely Allonby wouldn't have said that if he hadn't believed him!
"That's all right. Then I needn't detain you. I can be found at any time at my apartment." He gave the address.
The District Attorney smiled again, more openly. "What do you say to leaving it for an
hour or two this evening? I'm giving a
little supper at Rector's--quiet, little affair, you understand: just Miss
Granice stumbled out of the office without knowing what reply he had made.
He waited for four days--four days of concentrated horror. During the first twenty-four hours the fear of Ascham's alienist dogged him; and as that subsided, it was replaced by the exasperating sense that his avowal had made no impression on the District Attorney. Evidently, if he had been going to look into the case, Allonby would have been heard from before now. . . . And that mocking invitation to supper showed clearly enough how little the story had impressed him!
Granice was overcome by the futility of any farther attempt to inculpate himself. He was chained to life--a "prisoner of consciousness." Where was it he had read the phrase? Well, he was learning what it meant. In the glaring night-hours, when his brain seemed ablaze, he was visited by a sense of his fixed identity, of his irreducible, inexpugnable SELFNESS, keener, more insidious, more unescapable, than any sensation he had ever known. He had not guessed that the mind was capable of such intricacies of self-realization, of penetrating so deep into its own dark windings. Often he woke from his brief snatches of sleep with the feeling that something material was clinging to him, was on his hands and face, and in his throat--and as his brain cleared he understood that it was the sense of his own loathed personality that stuck to him like some thick viscous substance.
Then, in the first morning hours, he would rise and look out of his window at the awakening activities of the street--at the street-cleaners, the ash-cart drivers, and the other dingy workers flitting hurriedly by through the sallow winter light. Oh, to be one of them--any of them--to take his chance in any of their skins! They were the toilers--the men whose lot was pitied--the victims wept over and ranted about by altruists and economists; and how gladly he would have taken up the load of any one of them, if only he might have shaken off his own! But, no--the iron circle of consciousness held them too: each one was hand-cuffed to his own hideous ego. Why wish to be any one man rather than another? The only absolute good was not to be . . . And Flint, coming in to draw his bath, would ask if he preferred his eggs scrambled or poached that morning?
On the fifth day he wrote a long urgent letter to Allonby; and for the succeeding two days he had the occupation of waiting for an answer. He hardly stirred from his rooms, in his fear of missing the letter by a moment; but would the District Attorney write, or send a representative: a policeman, a "secret agent," or some other mysterious emissary of the law?
On the third morning
Granice read the name--J. B. Hewson--and underneath, in pencil, "From the District Attorney's office." He started up with a thumping heart, and signed an assent to the servant.
Mr. Hewson was a slight sallow nondescript man of about fifty--the kind of man of whom one is sure to see a specimen in any crowd. "Just the type of the successful detective," Granice reflected as he shook hands with his visitor.
And it was in that character that Mr. Hewson briefly introduced himself. He had been sent by the District Attorney to have "a quiet talk" with Mr. Granice--to ask him to repeat the statement he had made about the Lenman murder.
His manner was so quiet, so reasonable and receptive, that Granice's self-confidence returned. Here was a sensible man--a man who knew his business--it would be easy enough to make HIM see through that ridiculous alibi! Granice offered Mr. Hewson a cigar, and lighting one himself--to prove his coolness--began again to tell his story.
He was conscious, as he proceeded, of telling it better than ever before. Practice helped, no doubt; and his listener's detached, impartial attitude helped still more. He could see that Hewson, at least, had not decided in advance to disbelieve him, and the sense of being trusted made him more lucid and more consecutive. Yes, this time his words would certainly carry conviction. . .
Despairingly, Granice gazed up and down the shabby street. Beside him stood a young man with bright prominent eyes, a smooth but not too smoothly-shaven face, and an Irish smile. The young man's nimble glance followed Granice's.
"Sure of the number, are you?" he asked briskly.
"Oh, yes--it was 104."
"Well, then, the new building has swallowed it up--that's certain."
He tilted his head back and surveyed the half-finished front of a brick and limestone flat-house that reared its flimsy elegance above a row of tottering tenements and stables.
"Dead sure?" he repeated.
"Yes," said Granice, discouraged. "And even if I hadn't been, I know the garage was just opposite Leffler's over there." He pointed across the street to a tumble-down stable with a blotched sign on which the words "Livery and Boarding" were still faintly discernible.
The young man dashed across to the opposite pavement. "Well, that's something--may get a clue there. Leffler's--same name there, anyhow. You remember that name?"
Granice had felt a return of confidence since he had enlisted the interest of the Explorer's "smartest" reporter. If there were moments when he hardly believed his own story, there were others when it seemed impossible that every one should not believe it; and young Peter McCarren, peering, listening, questioning, jotting down notes, inspired him with an exquisite sense of security. McCarren had fastened on the case at once, "like a leech," as he phrased it--jumped at it, thrilled to it, and settled down to "draw the last drop of fact from it, and had not let go till he had." No one else had treated Granice in that way--even Allonby's detective had not taken a single note. And though a week had elapsed since the visit of that authorized official, nothing had been heard from the District Attorney's office: Allonby had apparently dropped the matter again. But McCarren wasn't going to drop it--not he! He positively hung on Granice's footsteps. They had spent the greater part of the previous day together, and now they were off again, running down clues.
But at Leffler's they got none, after all. Leffler's was no longer a stable. It was condemned to demolition, and in the respite between sentence and execution it had become a vague place of storage, a hospital for broken-down carriages and carts, presided over by a blear-eyed old woman who knew nothing of Flood's garage across the way--did not even remember what had stood there before the new flat-house began to rise.
"Well--we may run Leffler down somewhere; I've seen harder jobs done," said McCarren, cheerfully noting down the name.
As they walked back toward
Granice's heart sank. Yes--there was the weak spot; he had felt it from the first! But he still hoped to convince McCarren that his case was strong enough without it; and he urged the reporter to come back to his rooms and sum up the facts with him again.
"Sorry, Mr. Granice, but I'm due at the office now. Besides, it'd be no use till I get some fresh stuff to work on. Suppose I call you up tomorrow or next day?"
He plunged into a trolley and left Granice gazing desolately after him.
Two days later he reappeared at the apartment, a shade less jaunty in demeanor.
"Well, Mr. Granice, the stars in their courses are against you, as the bard says. Can't get a trace of Flood, or of Leffler either. And you say you bought the motor through Flood, and sold it through him, too?"
"Yes," said Granice wearily.
"Who bought it, do you know?"
Granice wrinkled his brows. "Why, Flood--yes, Flood himself. I sold it back to him three months later."
"Flood? The devil! And I've ransacked the town for Flood. That kind of business disappears as if the earth had swallowed it."
Granice, discouraged, kept silence.
"That brings us back to the poison," McCarren continued, his note-book out. "Just go over that again, will you?"
And Granice went over it again. It had all been so simple at the time--and he
had been so clever in covering up his traces!
As soon as he decided on poison he looked about for an acquaintance who
manufactured chemicals; and there was Jim Dawes, a Harvard classmate, in the
dyeing business--just the man. But at
the last moment it occurred to him that suspicion might turn toward so obvious
an opportunity, and he decided on a more tortuous course. Another friend,
Carrick Venn, a student of medicine whom irremediable ill-health had kept from
the practice of his profession, amused his leisure with experiments in physics,
for the exercise of which he had set up a simple laboratory. Granice had the habit of dropping in to smoke
a cigar with him on Sunday afternoons, and the friends generally sat in Venn's
work-shop, at the back of the old family house in
But that had happened ten years ago; and Venn, poor fellow,
was long since dead of his dragging ailment.
His old father was dead, too, the house in
"And there's the third door slammed in our faces." He shut his note-book, and throwing back his head, rested his bright inquisitive eyes on Granice's furrowed face.
"Look here, Mr. Granice--you see the weak spot, don't you?"
The other made a despairing motion. "I see so many!"
"Yes: but the one that weakens all the others. Why the deuce do you want this thing known? Why do you want to put your head into the noose?"
Granice looked at him hopelessly, trying to take the measure of his quick light irreverent mind. No one so full of a cheerful animal life would believe in the craving for death as a sufficient motive; and Granice racked his brain for one more convincing. But suddenly he saw the reporter's face soften, and melt to a naive sentimentalism.
"Mr. Granice--has the memory of it always haunted you?"
Granice stared a moment, and then leapt at the opening. "That's it--the memory of it . . . always . . ."
McCarren nodded vehemently. "Dogged your steps, eh? Wouldn't let you sleep? The time came when you HAD to make a clean breast of it?"
"I had to. Can't you understand?"
The reporter struck his fist on the table. "God, sir! I don't suppose there's a human being with a drop of warm blood in him that can't picture the deadly horrors of remorse--"
The Celtic imagination was aflame, and Granice mutely thanked him for the word. What neither Ascham nor Denver would accept as a conceivable motive the Irish reporter seized on as the most adequate; and, as he said, once one could find a convincing motive, the difficulties of the case became so many incentives to effort.
"Remorse--REMORSE," he repeated, rolling the word under his tongue with an accent that was a clue to the psychology of the popular drama; and Granice, perversely, said to himself: "If I could only have struck that note I should have been running in six theatres at once."
He saw that from that moment McCarren's professional zeal would be fanned by emotional curiosity; and he profited by the fact to propose that they should dine together, and go on afterward to some music-hall or theatre. It was becoming necessary to Granice to feel himself an object of pre-occupation, to find himself in another mind. He took a kind of gray penumbral pleasure in riveting McCarren's attention on his case; and to feign the grimaces of moral anguish became a passionately engrossing game. He had not entered a theatre for months; but he sat out the meaningless performance in rigid tolerance, sustained by the sense of the reporter's observation.
Between the acts, McCarren amused him with anecdotes about the audience: he knew every one by sight, and could lift the curtain from every physiognomy. Granice listened indulgently. He had lost all interest in his kind, but he knew that he was himself the real centre of McCarren's attention, and that every word the latter spoke had an indirect bearing on his own problem.
"See that fellow over there--the little dried-up man in the third row, pulling his moustache? HIS memoirs would be worth publishing," McCarren said suddenly in the last entr'acte.
Granice, following his glance, recognized the detective from Allonby's office. For a moment he had the thrilling sense that he was being shadowed.
"Caesar, if HE could talk--!" McCarren continued. "Know who he is, of course? Dr. John B. Stell, the biggest alienist in the country--"
Granice, with a start, bent again between the heads in front of him. "THAT man--the fourth from the aisle? You're mistaken. That's not Dr. Stell."
McCarren laughed. "Well, I guess I've been in court enough to know Stell when I see him. He testifies in nearly all the big cases where they plead insanity."
A cold shiver ran down Granice's spine, but he repeated obstinately: "That's not Dr. Stell."
"Not Stell? Why, man, I KNOW him. Look--here he comes. If it isn't Stell, he won't speak to me."
The little dried-up man was moving slowly up the aisle. As he neared McCarren he made a slight gesture of recognition.
"How'do, Doctor Stell? Pretty slim show, ain't it?" the reporter cheerfully flung out at him. And Mr. J. B. Hewson, with a nod of amicable assent, passed on.
Granice sat benumbed. He knew he had not been mistaken--the man who had just passed was the same man whom Allonby had sent to see him: a physician disguised as a detective. Allonby, then, had thought him insane, like the others--had regarded his confession as the maundering of a maniac. The discovery froze Granice with horror--he seemed to see the mad-house gaping for him.
"Isn't there a man a good deal like him--a detective named J. B. Hewson?"
But he knew in advance what McCarren's answer would be. "Hewson? J. B. Hewson? Never heard of him. But that was J. B. Stell fast enough--I guess he can be trusted to know himself, and you saw he answered to his name."
Some days passed before Granice could obtain a word with the District Attorney: he began to think that Allonby avoided him.
But when they were face to face Allonby's jovial countenance showed no sign of embarrassment. He waved his visitor to a chair, and leaned across his desk with the encouraging smile of a consulting physician.
Granice broke out at once: "That detective you sent me the other day--"
Allonby raised a deprecating hand.
"--I know: it was Stell the alienist. Why did you do that, Allonby?"
The other's face did not lose its composure. "Because I looked up your story first--and there's nothing in it."
"Nothing in it?" Granice furiously interposed.
If there is, why the deuce don't you bring me proofs? I know you've been talking to Peter Ascham,
Granice's lips began to tremble. "Why did you play me that trick?"
"About Stell? I had to, my dear fellow: it's part of my business. Stell IS a detective, if you come to that--every doctor is."
The trembling of Granice's lips increased, communicating itself in a long quiver to his facial muscles. He forced a laugh through his dry throat. "Well--and what did he detect?"
"In you? Oh, he thinks it's overwork--overwork and too much smoking. If you look in on him some day at his office he'll show you the record of hundreds of cases like yours, and advise you what treatment to follow. It's one of the commonest forms of hallucination. Have a cigar, all the same."
"But, Allonby, I killed that man!"
The District Attorney's large hand, outstretched on his desk, had an almost imperceptible gesture, and a moment later, as if an answer to the call of an electric bell, a clerk looked in from the outer office.
"Sorry, my dear fellow--lot of people waiting. Drop in on Stell some morning," Allonby said, shaking hands.
McCarren had to own himself beaten: there was absolutely no flaw in the alibi. And since his duty to his journal obviously forbade his wasting time on insoluble mysteries, he ceased to frequent Granice, who dropped back into a deeper isolation. For a day or two after his visit to Allonby he continued to live in dread of Dr. Stell. Why might not Allonby have deceived him as to the alienist's diagnosis? What if he were really being shadowed, not by a police agent but by a mad-doctor? To have the truth out, he suddenly determined to call on Dr. Stell.
The physician received him kindly, and reverted without embarrassment to the conditions of their previous meeting. "We have to do that occasionally, Mr. Granice; it's one of our methods. And you had given Allonby a fright."
Granice was silent. He would have liked to reaffirm his guilt, to produce the fresh arguments which had occurred to him since his last talk with the physician; but he feared his eagerness might be taken for a symptom of derangement, and he affected to smile away Dr. Stell's allusion.
"You think, then, it's a case of brain-fag--nothing more?"
"Nothing more. And I should advise you to knock off tobacco. You smoke a good deal, don't you?"
He developed his treatment, recommending massage, gymnastics, travel, or any form of diversion that did not--that in short--
Granice interrupted him impatiently. "Oh, I loathe all that--and I'm sick of travelling."
"H'm. Then some larger interest--politics, reform, philanthropy? Something to take you out of yourself."
"Yes. I understand," said Granice wearily.
"Above all, don't lose heart. I see hundreds of cases like yours," the doctor added cheerfully from the threshold.
On the doorstep Granice stood still and laughed. Hundreds of cases like his--the case of a man who had committed a murder, who confessed his guilt, and whom no one would believe! Why, there had never been a case like it in the world. What a good figure Stell would have made in a play: the great alienist who couldn't read a man's mind any better than that!
Granice saw huge comic opportunities in the type.
But as he walked away, his fears dispelled, the sense of listlessness returned on him. For the first time since his avowal to Peter Ascham he found himself without an occupation, and understood that he had been carried through the past weeks only by the necessity of constant action. Now his life had once more become a stagnant backwater, and as he stood on the street corner watching the tides of traffic sweep by, he asked himself despairingly how much longer he could endure to float about in the sluggish circle of his consciousness.
The thought of self-destruction recurred to him; but again his flesh recoiled. He yearned for death from other hands, but he could never take it from his own. And, aside from his insuperable physical reluctance, another motive restrained him. He was possessed by the dogged desire to establish the truth of his story. He refused to be swept aside as an irresponsible dreamer--even if he had to kill himself in the end, he would not do so before proving to society that he had deserved death from it.
He began to write long letters to the papers; but after the first had been published and commented on, public curiosity was quelled by a brief statement from the District Attorney's office, and the rest of his communications remained unprinted. Ascham came to see him, and begged him to travel. Robert Denver dropped in, and tried to joke him out of his delusion; till Granice, mistrustful of their motives, began to dread the reappearance of Dr. Stell, and set a guard on his lips. But the words he kept back engendered others and still others in his brain. His inner self became a humming factory of arguments, and he spent long hours reciting and writing down elaborate statements of his crime, which he constantly retouched and developed. Then gradually his activity languished under the lack of an audience, the sense of being buried beneath deepening drifts of indifference. In a passion of resentment he swore that he would prove himself a murderer, even if he had to commit another crime to do it; and for a sleepless night or two the thought flamed red on his darkness. But daylight dispelled it. The determining impulse was lacking and he hated too promiscuously to choose his victim. . . So he was thrown back on the unavailing struggle to impose the truth of his story. As fast as one channel closed on him he tried to pierce another through the sliding sands of incredulity. But every issue seemed blocked, and the whole human race leagued together to cheat one man of the right to die.
Thus viewed, the situation became so monstrous that he lost his last shred of self-restraint in contemplating it. What if he were really the victim of some mocking experiment, the centre of a ring of holiday-makers jeering at a poor creature in its blind dashes against the solid walls of consciousness? But, no--men were not so uniformly cruel: there were flaws in the close surface of their indifference, cracks of weakness and pity here and there. . .
Granice began to think that his mistake lay in having appealed to persons more or less familiar with his past, and to whom the visible conformities of his life seemed a final disproof of its one fierce secret deviation. The general tendency was to take for the whole of life the slit seen between the blinders of habit: and in his walk down that narrow vista Granice cut a correct enough figure. To a vision free to follow his whole orbit his story would be more intelligible: it would be easier to convince a chance idler in the street than the trained intelligence hampered by a sense of his antecedents. This idea shot up in him with the tropic luxuriance of each new seed of thought, and he began to walk the streets, and to frequent out-of-the-way chop-houses and bars in his search for the impartial stranger to whom he should disclose himself.
At first every face looked encouragement; but at the crucial moment he always held back. So much was at stake, and it was so essential that his first choice should be decisive. He dreaded stupidity, timidity, intolerance. The imaginative eye, the furrowed brow, were what he sought. He must reveal himself only to a heart versed in the tortuous motions of the human will; and he began to hate the dull benevolence of the average face. Once or twice, obscurely, allusively, he made a beginning--once sitting down at a man's side in a basement chop-house, another day approaching a lounger on an east-side wharf. But in both cases the premonition of failure checked him on the brink of avowal. His dread of being taken for a man in the clutch of a fixed idea gave him an unnatural keenness in reading the expression of his interlocutors, and he had provided himself in advance with a series of verbal alternatives, trap-doors of evasion from the first dart of ridicule or suspicion.
He passed the greater part of the day in the streets, coming
home at irregular hours, dreading the silence and orderliness of his apartment,
and the critical scrutiny of
One humiliation he was spared: the desire to live never revived in him. Not for a moment was he tempted to a shabby pact with existing conditions. He wanted to die, wanted it with the fixed unwavering desire which alone attains its end. And still the end eluded him! It would not always, of course--he had full faith in the dark star of his destiny. And he could prove it best by repeating his story, persistently and indefatigably, pouring it into indifferent ears, hammering it into dull brains, till at last it kindled a spark, and some one of the careless millions paused, listened, believed. . .
It was a mild March day, and he had been loitering on the west-side docks, looking at faces. He was becoming an expert in physiognomies: his eagerness no longer made rash darts and awkward recoils. He knew now the face he needed, as clearly as if it had come to him in a vision; and not till he found it would he speak. As he walked eastward through the shabby reeking streets he had a premonition that he should find it that morning. Perhaps it was the promise of spring in the air--certainly he felt calmer than for many days. . .
He turned into
"I am a stranger to you," he began, sitting down beside her, "but your face is so extremely intelligent that I feel. . . I feel it is the face I've waited for . . . looked for everywhere; and I want to tell you--"
The girl's eyes widened: she rose to her feet. She was escaping him!
In his dismay he ran a few steps after her, and caught her roughly by the arm.
"Here--wait--listen! Oh, don't scream, you fool!" he shouted out.
He felt a hand on his own arm; turned and confronted a policeman. Instantly he understood that he was being arrested, and something hard within him was loosened and ran to tears.
"Ah, you know--you KNOW I'm guilty!"
He was conscious that a crowd was forming, and that the girl's frightened face had disappeared. But what did he care about her face? It was the policeman who had really understood him. He turned and followed, the crowd at his heels. . .
In the charming place in which he found himself there were so many sympathetic faces that he felt more than ever convinced of the certainty of making himself heard.
It was a bad blow, at first, to find that he had not been arrested for murder; but Ascham, who had come to him at once, explained that he needed rest, and the time to "review" his statements; it appeared that reiteration had made them a little confused and contradictory. To this end he had willingly acquiesced in his removal to a large quiet establishment, with an open space and trees about it, where he had found a number of intelligent companions, some, like himself, engaged in preparing or reviewing statements of their cases, and others ready to lend an interested ear to his own recital.
For a time he was content to let himself go on the tranquil current of this existence; but although his auditors gave him for the most part an encouraging attention, which, in some, went the length of really brilliant and helpful suggestion, he gradually felt a recurrence of his old doubts. Either his hearers were not sincere, or else they had less power to aid him than they boasted. His interminable conferences resulted in nothing, and as the benefit of the long rest made itself felt, it produced an increased mental lucidity which rendered inaction more and more unbearable. At length he discovered that on certain days visitors from the outer world were admitted to his retreat; and he wrote out long and logically constructed relations of his crime, and furtively slipped them into the hands of these messengers of hope.
This occupation gave him a fresh lease of patience, and he now lived only to watch for the visitors' days, and scan the faces that swept by him like stars seen and lost in the rifts of a hurrying sky.
Mostly, these faces were strange and less intelligent than those of his companions. But they represented his last means of access to the world, a kind of subterranean channel on which he could set his "statements" afloat, like paper boats which the mysterious current might sweep out into the open seas of life.
One day, however, his attention was arrested by a familiar contour, a pair of bright prominent eyes, and a chin insufficiently shaved. He sprang up and stood in the path of Peter McCarren.
The journalist looked at him doubtfully, then held out his hand with a startled deprecating, "WHY--?"
"You didn't know me? I'm so changed?" Granice faltered, feeling the rebound of the other's wonder.
"Why, no; but you're looking quieter--smoothed out," McCarren smiled.
"Yes: that's what I'm here for--to rest. And I've taken the opportunity to write out a clearer statement--"
Granice's hand shook so that he could hardly draw the folded paper from his pocket. As he did so he noticed that the reporter was accompanied by a tall man with grave compassionate eyes. It came to Granice in a wild thrill of conviction that this was the face he had waited for. . .
"Perhaps your friend--he IS your friend?--would glance over it--or I could put the case in a few words if you have time?" Granice's voice shook like his hand. If this chance escaped him he felt that his last hope was gone. McCarren and the stranger looked at each other, and the former glanced at his watch.
"I'm sorry we can't stay and talk it over now, Mr. Granice; but my friend has an engagement, and we're rather pressed--"
Granice continued to proffer the paper. "I'm sorry--I think I could have explained. But you'll take this, at any rate?"
The stranger looked at him gently. "Certainly--I'll take it." He had his hand out. "Good-bye."
"Good-bye," Granice echoed.
He stood watching the two men move away from him through the long light hall; and as he watched them a tear ran down his face. But as soon as they were out of sight he turned and walked hastily toward his room, beginning to hope again, already planning a new statement.
Outside the building the two men stood still, and the journalist's companion looked up curiously at the long monotonous rows of barred windows.
"So that was Granice?"
"Yes--that was Granice, poor devil," said McCarren.
"Strange case! I suppose there's never been one just like it? He's still absolutely convinced that he committed that murder?"
The stranger reflected. "And there was no conceivable ground for the idea? No one could make out how it started? A quiet conventional sort of fellow like that--where do you suppose he got such a delusion? Did you ever get the least clue to it?"
McCarren stood still, his hands in his pockets, his head cocked up in contemplation of the barred windows. Then he turned his bright hard gaze on his companion.
"That was the queer part of it. I've never spoken of it--but I DID get a clue."
"By Jove! That's interesting. What was it?"
McCarren formed his red lips into a whistle. "Why--that it wasn't a delusion."
He produced his effect--the other turned on him with a pallid stare.
"He murdered the man all right. I tumbled on the truth by the merest accident, when I'd pretty nearly chucked the whole job."
"He murdered him--murdered his cousin?"
"Sure as you live. Only don't split on me. It's about the queerest business I ever ran into. . . DO ABOUT IT? Why, what was I to do? I couldn't hang the poor devil, could I? Lord, but I was glad when they collared him, and had him stowed away safe in there!"
The tall man listened with a grave face, grasping Granice's statement in his hand.
"Here--take this; it makes me sick," he said abruptly, thrusting the paper at the reporter; and the two men turned and walked in silence to the gates.
as first published in Harper's Monthly, December 1903
It was on an impulse hardly needing the arguments he found himself advancing in its favor, that Thursdale, on his way to the club, turned as usual into Mrs. Vervain's street.
The "as usual" was his own qualification of the act; a convenient way of bridging the interval--in days and other sequences--that lay between this visit and the last. It was characteristic of him that he instinctively excluded his call two days earlier, with Ruth Gaynor, from the list of his visits to Mrs. Vervain: the special conditions attending it had made it no more like a visit to Mrs. Vervain than an engraved dinner invitation is like a personal letter. Yet it was to talk over his call with Miss Gaynor that he was now returning to the scene of that episode; and it was because Mrs. Vervain could be trusted to handle the talking over as skilfully as the interview itself that, at her corner, he had felt the dilettante's irresistible craving to take a last look at a work of art that was passing out of his possession.
On the whole, he knew no one better fitted to deal with the unexpected than Mrs. Vervain. She excelled in the rare art of taking things for granted, and Thursdale felt a pardonable pride in the thought that she owed her excellence to his training. Early in his career Thursdale had made the mistake, at the outset of his acquaintance with a lady, of telling her that he loved her and exacting the same avowal in return. The latter part of that episode had been like the long walk back from a picnic, when one has to carry all the crockery one has finished using: it was the last time Thursdale ever allowed himself to be encumbered with the debris of a feast. He thus incidentally learned that the privilege of loving her is one of the least favors that a charming woman can accord; and in seeking to avoid the pitfalls of sentiment he had developed a science of evasion in which the woman of the moment became a mere implement of the game. He owed a great deal of delicate enjoyment to the cultivation of this art. The perils from which it had been his refuge became naively harmless: was it possible that he who now took his easy way along the levels had once preferred to gasp on the raw heights of emotion? Youth is a high-colored season; but he had the satisfaction of feeling that he had entered earlier than most into that chiar'oscuro of sensation where every half-tone has its value.
As a promoter of this pleasure no one he had known was comparable to Mrs. Vervain. He had taught a good many women not to betray their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work in. She had been surprisingly crude when he first knew her; capable of making the most awkward inferences, of plunging through thin ice, of recklessly undressing her emotions; but she had acquired, under the discipline of his reticences and evasions, a skill almost equal to his own, and perhaps more remarkable in that it involved keeping time with any tune he played and reading at sight some uncommonly difficult passages.
It had taken Thursdale seven years to form this fine talent; but the result justified the effort. At the crucial moment she had been perfect: her way of greeting Miss Gaynor had made him regret that he had announced his engagement by letter. It was an evasion that confessed a difficulty; a deviation implying an obstacle, where, by common consent, it was agreed to see none; it betrayed, in short, a lack of confidence in the completeness of his method. It had been his pride never to put himself in a position which had to be quitted, as it were, by the back door; but here, as he perceived, the main portals would have opened for him of their own accord. All this, and much more, he read in the finished naturalness with which Mrs. Vervain had met Miss Gaynor. He had never seen a better piece of work: there was no over-eagerness, no suspicious warmth, above all (and this gave her art the grace of a natural quality) there were none of those damnable implications whereby a woman, in welcoming her friend's betrothed, may keep him on pins and needles while she laps the lady in complacency. So masterly a performance, indeed, hardly needed the offset of Miss Gaynor's door-step words--"To be so kind to me, how she must have liked you!"--though he caught himself wishing it lay within the bounds of fitness to transmit them, as a final tribute, to the one woman he knew who was unfailingly certain to enjoy a good thing. It was perhaps the one drawback to his new situation that it might develop good things which it would be impossible to hand on to Margaret Vervain.
The fact that he had made the mistake of underrating his friend's powers, the consciousness that his writing must have betrayed his distrust of her efficiency, seemed an added reason for turning down her street instead of going on to the club. He would show her that he knew how to value her; he would ask her to achieve with him a feat infinitely rarer and more delicate than the one he had appeared to avoid. Incidentally, he would also dispose of the interval of time before dinner: ever since he had seen Miss Gaynor off, an hour earlier, on her return journey to Buffalo, he had been wondering how he should put in the rest of the afternoon. It was absurd, how he missed the girl. . . . Yes, that was it; the desire to talk about her was, after all, at the bottom of his impulse to call on Mrs. Vervain! It was absurd, if you like--but it was delightfully rejuvenating. He could recall the time when he had been afraid of being obvious: now he felt that this return to the primitive emotions might be as restorative as a holiday in the Canadian woods. And it was precisely by the girl's candor, her directness, her lack of complications, that he was taken. The sense that she might say something rash at any moment was positively exhilarating: if she had thrown her arms about him at the station he would not have given a thought to his crumpled dignity. It surprised Thursdale to find what freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and though his sense of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness to any conscious purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that his sentimental economies had left him such a large surplus to draw upon.
Mrs. Vervain was at home--as usual. When one visits the cemetery one expects to find the angel on the tombstone, and it struck Thursdale as another proof of his friend's good taste that she had been in no undue haste to change her habits. The whole house appeared to count on his coming; the footman took his hat and overcoat as naturally as though there had been no lapse in his visits; and the drawing-room at once enveloped him in that atmosphere of tacit intelligence which Mrs. Vervain imparted to her very furniture.
It was a surprise that, in this general harmony of circumstances, Mrs. Vervain should herself sound the first false note.
"You?" she exclaimed; and the book she held slipped from her hand.
It was crude, certainly; unless it were a touch of the finest art. The difficulty of classifying it disturbed Thursdale's balance.
"Why not?" he said, restoring the book. "Isn't it my hour?" And as she made no answer, he added gently, "Unless it's some one else's?"
She laid the book aside and sank back into her chair. "Mine, merely," she said.
"I hope that doesn't mean that you're unwilling to share it?"
"With you? By no means. You're welcome to my last crust."
He looked at her reproachfully. "Do you call this the last?"
She smiled as he dropped into the seat across the hearth. "It's a way of giving it more flavor!"
He returned the smile. "A visit to you doesn't need such condiments."
She took this with just the right measure of retrospective amusement.
"Ah, but I want to put into this one a very special taste," she confessed.
Her smile was so confident, so reassuring, that it lulled him into the imprudence of saying, "Why should you want it to be different from what was always so perfectly right?"
She hesitated. "Doesn't the fact that it's the last constitute a difference?"
"The last--my last visit to you?"
"Oh, metaphorically, I mean--there's a break in the continuity."
Decidedly, she was pressing too hard: unlearning his arts already!
"I don't recognize it," he said. "Unless you make me--" he added, with a note that slightly stirred her attitude of languid attention.
She turned to him with grave eyes. "You recognize no difference whatever?"
"None--except an added link in the chain."
"An added link?"
"In having one more thing to like you for--your letting Miss Gaynor see why I had already so many." He flattered himself that this turn had taken the least hint of fatuity from the phrase.
Mrs. Vervain sank into her former easy pose. "Was it that you came for?" she asked, almost gaily.
"If it is necessary to have a reason--that was one."
"To talk to me about Miss Gaynor?"
"To tell you how she talks about you."
"That will be very interesting--especially if you have seen her since her second visit to me."
"Her second visit?" Thursdale pushed his chair back with a start and moved to another. "She came to see you again?"
"This morning, yes--by appointment."
He continued to look at her blankly. "You sent for her?"
"I didn't have to--she wrote and asked me last night. But no doubt you have seen her since."
Thursdale sat silent. He was trying to separate his words from his thoughts, but they still clung together inextricably. "I saw her off just now at the station."
"And she didn't tell you that she had been here again?"
"There was hardly time, I suppose--there were people about--" he floundered.
"Ah, she'll write, then."
He regained his composure. "Of course she'll write: very often, I hope. You know I'm absurdly in love," he cried audaciously.
She tilted her head back, looking up at him as he leaned against the chimney-piece. He had leaned there so often that the attitude touched a pulse which set up a throbbing in her throat. "Oh, my poor Thursdale!" she murmured.
"I suppose it's rather ridiculous," he owned; and as she remained silent, he added, with a sudden break--"Or have you another reason for pitying me?"
Her answer was another question. "Have you been back to your rooms since you left her?"
"Since I left her at the station? I came straight here."
"Ah, yes--you COULD: there was no reason--" Her words passed into a silent musing.
Thursdale moved nervously nearer. "You said you had something to tell me?"
"Perhaps I had better let her do so. There may be a letter at your rooms."
"A letter? What do you mean? A letter from HER? What has happened?"
His paleness shook her, and she raised a hand of reassurance. "Nothing has happened--perhaps that is just the worst of it. You always HATED, you know," she added incoherently, "to have things happen: you never would let them."
"Well, that was what she came here for: I supposed you had guessed. To know if anything had happened."
"Had happened?" He gazed at her slowly. "Between you and me?" he said with a rush of light.
The words were so much cruder than any that had ever passed between them that the color rose to her face; but she held his startled gaze.
"You know girls are not quite as unsophisticated as they used to be. Are you surprised that such an idea should occur to her?"
His own color answered hers: it was the only reply that came to him.
Mrs. Vervain went on, smoothly: "I supposed it might have struck you that there were times when we presented that appearance."
He made an impatient gesture. "A man's past is his own!"
"Perhaps--it certainly never belongs to the woman who has shared it. But one learns such truths only by experience; and Miss Gaynor is naturally inexperienced."
"Of course--but--supposing her act a natural one--" he floundered lamentably among his innuendoes--"I still don't see--how there was anything--"
"Anything to take hold of? There wasn't--"
"Well, then--?" escaped him, in crude satisfaction; but as she did not complete the sentence he went on with a faltering laugh: "She can hardly object to the existence of a mere friendship between us!"
"But she does," said Mrs. Vervain.
Thursdale stood perplexed. He had seen, on the previous day, no trace of jealousy or resentment in his betrothed: he could still hear the candid ring of the girl's praise of Mrs. Vervain. If she were such an abyss of insincerity as to dissemble distrust under such frankness, she must at least be more subtle than to bring her doubts to her rival for solution. The situation seemed one through which one could no longer move in a penumbra, and he let in a burst of light with the direct query: "Won't you explain what you mean?"
Mrs. Vervain sat silent, not provokingly, as though to prolong his distress, but as if, in the attenuated phraseology he had taught her, it was difficult to find words robust enough to meet his challenge. It was the first time he had ever asked her to explain anything; and she had lived so long in dread of offering elucidations which were not wanted, that she seemed unable to produce one on the spot.
At last she said slowly: "She came to find out if you were really free."
Thursdale colored again. "Free?" he stammered, with a sense of physical disgust at contact with such crassness.
"Yes--if I had quite done with you." She smiled in recovered security. "It seems she likes clear outlines; she has a passion for definitions."
"Yes--well?" he said, wincing at the echo of his own subtlety.
"Well--and when I told her that you had never belonged to me, she wanted me to define MY status--to know exactly where I had stood all along."
Thursdale sat gazing at her intently; his hand was not yet on the clue. "And even when you had told her that--"
"Even when I had told her that I had HAD no status--that I had never stood anywhere, in any sense she meant," said Mrs. Vervain, slowly--"even then she wasn't satisfied, it seems."
He uttered an uneasy exclamation. "She didn't believe you, you mean?"
"I mean that she DID believe me: too thoroughly."
"Well, then--in God's name, what did she want?"
"Something more--those were the words she used."
"Something more? Between--between you and me? Is it a conundrum?" He laughed awkwardly.
"Girls are not what they were in my day; they are no longer forbidden to contemplate the relation of the sexes."
"So it seems!" he commented. "But since, in this case, there wasn't any--" he broke off, catching the dawn of a revelation in her gaze.
"That's just it. The unpardonable offence has been--in our not offending."
He flung himself down despairingly. "I give it up!--What did you tell her?" he burst out with sudden crudeness.
"The exact truth. If I had only known," she broke off with a beseeching tenderness, "won't you believe that I would still have lied for you?"
"Lied for me? Why on earth should you have lied for either of us?"
"To save you--to hide you from her to the last! As I've hidden you from myself all these years!" She stood up with a sudden tragic import in her movement. "You believe me capable of that, don't you? If I had only guessed--but I have never known a girl like her; she had the truth out of me with a spring."
"The truth that you and I had never--"
"Had never--never in all these years! Oh, she knew why--she measured us both in a flash. She didn't suspect me of having haggled with you--her words pelted me like hail. 'He just took what he wanted--sifted and sorted you to suit his taste. Burnt out the gold and left a heap of cinders. And you let him--you let yourself be cut in bits'--she mixed her metaphors a little--'be cut in bits, and used or discarded, while all the while every drop of blood in you belonged to him! But he's Shylock--and you have bled to death of the pound of flesh he has cut out of you.' But she despises me the most, you know--far the most--" Mrs. Vervain ended.
The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room: they seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon intimacy, the kind of intimacy on which at any moment, a visitor might intrude without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere. It was as though a grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of a private music-room.
Thursdale stood up, facing his hostess. Half the room was between them, but they seemed to stare close at each other now that the veils of reticence and ambiguity had fallen.
His first words were characteristic. "She DOES despise me, then?" he exclaimed.
"She thinks the pound of flesh you took was a little too near the heart."
He was excessively pale. "Please tell me exactly what she said of me."
"She did not speak much of you: she is proud. But I gather that while she understands love or indifference, her eyes have never been opened to the many intermediate shades of feeling. At any rate, she expressed an unwillingness to be taken with reservations--she thinks you would have loved her better if you had loved some one else first. The point of view is original--she insists on a man with a past!"
"Oh, a past--if she's serious--I could rake up a past!" he said with a laugh.
"So I suggested: but she has her eyes on his particular portion of it. She insists on making it a test case. She wanted to know what you had done to me; and before I could guess her drift I blundered into telling her."
Thursdale drew a difficult breath. "I never supposed--your revenge is complete," he said slowly.
He heard a little gasp in her throat. "My revenge? When I sent for you to warn you--to save you from being surprised as I was surprised?"
"You're very good--but it's rather late to talk of saving me." He held out his hand in the mechanical gesture of leave-taking.
"How you must care!--for I never saw you so dull," was her answer. "Don't you see that it's not too late for me to help you?" And as he continued to stare, she brought out sublimely: "Take the rest--in imagination! Let it at least be of that much use to you. Tell her I lied to her--she's too ready to believe it! And so, after all, in a sense, I sha'n't have been wasted."
His stare hung on her, widening to a kind of wonder. She gave the look back brightly, unblushingly, as though the expedient were too simple to need oblique approaches. It was extraordinary how a few words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most complex dissimulations to this contact of naked souls.
It was not in Thursdale to expand with the pressure of fate; but something in him cracked with it, and the rift let in new light. He went up to his friend and took her hand.
"You would do it--you would do it!"
She looked at him, smiling, but her hand shook.
"Good-by," he said, kissing it.
"Good-by? You are going--?"
"To get my letter."
"Your letter? The letter won't matter, if you will only do what I ask."
He returned her gaze. "I might, I suppose, without being out of character. Only, don't you see that if your plan helped me it could only harm her?"
"To sacrifice you wouldn't make me different. I shall go on being what I have always been--sifting and sorting, as she calls it. Do you want my punishment to fall on HER?"
She looked at him long and deeply. "Ah, if I had to choose between you--!"
"You would let her take her chance? But I can't, you see. I must take my punishment alone."
She drew her hand away, sighing. "Oh, there will be no punishment for either of you."
"For either of us? There will be the reading of her letter for me."
She shook her head with a slight laugh. "There will be no letter."
Thursdale faced about from the threshold with fresh life in his look. "No letter? You don't mean--"
"I mean that she's been with you since I saw her--she's seen you and heard your voice. If there IS a letter, she has recalled it--from the first station, by telegraph."
He turned back to the door, forcing an answer to her smile. "But in the mean while I shall have read it," he said.
The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful emptiness of the room.
as first published in Atlantic Monthly, August 1904
"Above all," the letter ended, "don't leave
"Lombard is a queer stick, and jealous of showing his
treasures; but we struck up a friendship when I was working on the Sodomas in
Siena three years ago, and if you will give him the enclosed line you may get a
peep at the Leonardo. Probably not more
than a peep, though, for I hear he refuses to have it reproduced. I want badly to use it in my monograph on the
Wyant sat at the table d'hote of his hotel, re-reading his friend's letter over a late luncheon. He had been five days in Siena without having found time to call on Doctor Lombard; not from any indifference to the opportunity presented, but because it was his first visit to the strange red city and he was still under the spell of its more conspicuous wonders--the brick palaces flinging out their wrought-iron torch-holders with a gesture of arrogant suzerainty; the great council-chamber emblazoned with civic allegories; the pageant of Pope Julius on the Library walls; the Sodomas smiling balefully through the dusk of mouldering chapels--and it was only when his first hunger was appeased that he remembered that one course in the banquet was still untasted.
He put the letter in his pocket and turned to leave the room, with a nod to its only other occupant, an olive-skinned young man with lustrous eyes and a low collar, who sat on the other side of the table, perusing the Fanfulla di Domenica. This gentleman, his daily vis-a-vis, returned the nod with a Latin eloquence of gesture, and Wyant passed on to the ante-chamber, where he paused to light a cigarette. He was just restoring the case to his pocket when he heard a hurried step behind him, and the lustrous-eyed young man advanced through the glass doors of the dining-room.
"Pardon me, sir," he said in measured English, and with an intonation of exquisite politeness; "you have let this letter fall."
Wyant, recognizing his friend's note of introduction to Doctor Lombard, took it with a word of thanks, and was about to turn away when he perceived that the eyes of his fellow diner remained fixed on him with a gaze of melancholy interrogation.
"Again pardon me," the young man at length ventured, "but are you by chance the friend of the illustrious Doctor Lombard?"
"No," returned Wyant, with the instinctive Anglo-Saxon distrust of foreign advances. Then, fearing to appear rude, he said with a guarded politeness: "Perhaps, by the way, you can tell me the number of his house. I see it is not given here."
The young man brightened perceptibly. "The number of the house is thirteen;
but any one can indicate it to you--it is well known in
Wyant stared. "What a queer name!" he said.
"The name comes from an antique hand of marble which for many hundred years has been above the door."
Wyant was turning away with a gesture of thanks, when the other added: "If you would have the kindness to ring twice."
"To ring twice?"
"At the doctor's." The young man smiled. "It is the custom."
It was a dazzling March afternoon, with a shower of sun from the mid-blue, and a marshalling of slaty clouds behind the umber-colored hills. For nearly an hour Wyant loitered on the Lizza, watching the shadows race across the naked landscape and the thunder blacken in the west; then he decided to set out for the House of the Dead Hand. The map in his guidebook showed him that the Via Papa Giulio was one of the streets which radiate from the Piazza, and thither he bent his course, pausing at every other step to fill his eye with some fresh image of weather-beaten beauty. The clouds had rolled upward, obscuring the sunshine and hanging like a funereal baldachin above the projecting cornices of Doctor Lombard's street, and Wyant walked for some distance in the shade of the beetling palace fronts before his eye fell on a doorway surmounted by a sallow marble hand. He stood for a moment staring up at the strange emblem. The hand was a woman's--a dead drooping hand, which hung there convulsed and helpless, as though it had been thrust forth in denunciation of some evil mystery within the house, and had sunk struggling into death.
A girl who was drawing water from the well in the court said that the English doctor lived on the first floor, and Wyant, passing through a glazed door, mounted the damp degrees of a vaulted stairway with a plaster AEsculapius mouldering in a niche on the landing. Facing the AEsculapius was another door, and as Wyant put his hand on the bell-rope he remembered his unknown friend's injunction, and rang twice.
His ring was answered by a peasant woman with a low forehead and small close-set eyes, who, after a prolonged scrutiny of himself, his card, and his letter of introduction, left him standing in a high, cold ante-chamber floored with brick. He heard her wooden pattens click down an interminable corridor, and after some delay she returned and told him to follow her.
They passed through a long saloon, bare as the ante-chamber, but loftily vaulted, and frescoed with a seventeenth-century Triumph of Scipio or Alexander--martial figures following Wyant with the filmed melancholy gaze of shades in limbo. At the end of this apartment he was admitted to a smaller room, with the same atmosphere of mortal cold, but showing more obvious signs of occupancy. The walls were covered with tapestry which had faded to the gray-brown tints of decaying vegetation, so that the young man felt as though he were entering a sunless autumn wood. Against these hangings stood a few tall cabinets on heavy gilt feet, and at a table in the window three persons were seated: an elderly lady who was warming her hands over a brazier, a girl bent above a strip of needle-work, and an old man.
As the latter advanced toward Wyant, the young man was conscious of staring with unseemly intentness at his small round-backed figure, dressed with shabby disorder and surmounted by a wonderful head, lean, vulpine, eagle-beaked as that of some art-loving despot of the Renaissance: a head combining the venerable hair and large prominent eyes of the humanist with the greedy profile of the adventurer. Wyant, in musing on the Italian portrait-medals of the fifteenth century, had often fancied that only in that period of fierce individualism could types so paradoxical have been produced; yet the subtle craftsmen who committed them to the bronze had never drawn a face more strangely stamped with contradictory passions than that of Doctor Lombard.
"I am glad to see you," he said to Wyant, extending a hand which seemed a mere framework held together by knotted veins. "We lead a quiet life here and receive few visitors, but any friend of Professor Clyde's is welcome." Then, with a gesture which included the two women, he added dryly: "My wife and daughter often talk of Professor Clyde."
"Oh yes--he used to make me such nice toast; they don't
understand toast in
It would have been difficult, from Doctor Lombard's manner and appearance to guess his nationality; but his wife was so inconsciently and ineradicably English that even the silhouette of her cap seemed a protest against Continental laxities. She was a stout fair woman, with pale cheeks netted with red lines. A brooch with a miniature portrait sustained a bogwood watch-chain upon her bosom, and at her elbow lay a heap of knitting and an old copy of The Queen.
The young girl, who had remained standing, was a slim replica of her mother, with an apple-cheeked face and opaque blue eyes. Her small head was prodigally laden with braids of dull fair hair, and she might have had a kind of transient prettiness but for the sullen droop of her round mouth. It was hard to say whether her expression implied ill-temper or apathy; but Wyant was struck by the contrast between the fierce vitality of the doctor's age and the inanimateness of his daughter's youth.
Seating himself in the chair which his host advanced, the
young man tried to open the conversation by addressing to Mrs. Lombard some
random remark on the beauties of
"But they don't, you know--they don't dust it!" Mrs. Lombard protested, without showing any resentment of her husband's manner.
"Precisely--they don't dust it. Since we have lived in
Mrs. Lombard accepted in silence this remarkable statement of her views, and her husband, with a malicious smile at Wyant's embarrassment, planted himself suddenly before the young man.
"And now," said he, "do you want to see my Leonardo?"
"DO I?" cried Wyant, on his feet in a flash.
The doctor chuckled. "Ah," he said, with a kind of crooning deliberation, "that's the way they all behave--that's what they all come for." He turned to his daughter with another variation of mockery in his smile. "Don't fancy it's for your beaux yeux, my dear; or for the mature charms of Mrs. Lombard," he added, glaring suddenly at his wife, who had taken up her knitting and was softly murmuring over the number of her stitches.
Neither lady appeared to notice his pleasantries, and he
continued, addressing himself to Wyant: "They all come--they all come; but
many are called and few are chosen."
His voice sank to solemnity.
"While I live," he said, "no unworthy eye shall desecrate
that picture. But I will not do my
Wyant hesitated, not knowing whether it was a propitious moment to put in his appeal for a photograph.
"Well, sir," he said, "you know
Doctor Lombard eyed him sardonically. "You're welcome to take away all you can carry," he replied; adding, as he turned to his daughter: "That is, if he has your permission, Sybilla."
The girl rose without a word, and laying aside her work, took a key from a secret drawer in one of the cabinets, while the doctor continued in the same note of grim jocularity: "For you must know that the picture is not mine--it is my daughter's."
He followed with evident amusement the surprised glance which Wyant turned on the young girl's impassive figure.
"Sybilla," he pursued, "is a votary of the arts; she has inherited her fond father's passion for the unattainable. Luckily, however, she also recently inherited a tidy legacy from her grandmother; and having seen the Leonardo, on which its discoverer had placed a price far beyond my reach, she took a step which deserves to go down to history: she invested her whole inheritance in the purchase of the picture, thus enabling me to spend my closing years in communion with one of the world's masterpieces. My dear sir, could Antigone do more?"
The object of this strange eulogy had meanwhile drawn aside one of the tapestry hangings, and fitted her key into a concealed door.
"Come," said Doctor Lombard, "let us go before the light fails us."
Wyant glanced at Mrs. Lombard, who continued to knit impassively.
"No, no," said his host, "my wife will not come with us. You might not suspect it from her conversation, but my wife has no feeling for art--Italian art, that is; for no one is fonder of our early Victorian school."
"Frith's Railway Station, you know," said Mrs. Lombard, smiling. "I like an animated picture."
Miss Lombard, who had unlocked the door, held back the tapestry to let her father and Wyant pass out; then she followed them down a narrow stone passage with another door at its end. This door was iron-barred, and Wyant noticed that it had a complicated patent lock. The girl fitted another key into the lock, and Doctor Lombard led the way into a small room. The dark panelling of this apartment was irradiated by streams of yellow light slanting through the disbanded thunder clouds, and in the central brightness hung a picture concealed by a curtain of faded velvet.
"A little too bright, Sybilla," said Doctor Lombard. His face had grown solemn, and his mouth twitched nervously as his daughter drew a linen drapery across the upper part of the window.
"That will do--that will do." He turned impressively to Wyant. "Do you see the pomegranate bud in this rug? Place yourself there--keep your left foot on it, please. And now, Sybilla, draw the cord."
Miss Lombard advanced and placed her hand on a cord hidden behind the velvet curtain.
"Ah," said the doctor, "one moment: I should like you, while looking at the picture, to have in mind a few lines of verse. Sybilla--"
Without the slightest change of countenance, and with a promptness which proved her to be prepared for the request, Miss Lombard began to recite, in a full round voice like her mother's, St. Bernard's invocation to the Virgin, in the thirty-third canto of the Paradise.
"Thank you, my dear," said her father, drawing a deep breath as she ended. "That unapproachable combination of vowel sounds prepares one better than anything I know for the contemplation of the picture."
As he spoke the folds of velvet slowly parted, and the Leonardo appeared in its frame of tarnished gold:
From the nature of Miss Lombard's recitation Wyant had expected a sacred subject, and his surprise was therefore great as the composition was gradually revealed by the widening division of the curtain.
In the background a steel-colored river wound through a pale
calcareous landscape; while to the left, on a lonely peak, a crucified Christ
hung livid against indigo clouds. The
central figure of the foreground, however, was that of a woman seated in an
antique chair of marble with bas-reliefs of dancing maenads. Her feet rested on
a meadow sprinkled with minute wild-flowers, and her attitude of smiling
majesty recalled that of Dosso Dossi's Circe.
She wore a red robe, flowing in closely fluted lines from under a
fancifully embroidered cloak. Above her
high forehead the crinkled golden hair flowed sideways beneath a veil; one hand
drooped on the arm of her chair; the other held up an inverted human skull,
into which a young Dionysus, smooth, brown and sidelong as the
Wyant, emerging from the first plunge of wonder, turned inquiringly toward his companions. Neither had moved. Miss Lombard stood with her hand on the cord, her lids lowered, her mouth drooping; the doctor, his strange Thoth-like profile turned toward his guest, was still lost in rapt contemplation of his treasure.
Wyant addressed the young girl.
"You are fortunate," he said, "to be the possessor of anything so perfect."
"It is considered very beautiful," she said coldly.
"Beautiful--BEAUTIFUL!" the doctor burst out. "Ah, the poor, worn out, over-worked word! There are no adjectives in the language fresh enough to describe such pristine brilliancy; all their brightness has been worn off by misuse. Think of the things that have been called beautiful, and then look at THAT!"
"It is worthy of a new vocabulary," Wyant agreed.
"Yes," Doctor Lombard continued, "my daughter is indeed fortunate. She has chosen what Catholics call the higher life--the counsel of perfection. What other private person enjoys the same opportunity of understanding the master? Who else lives under the same roof with an untouched masterpiece of Leonardo's? Think of the happiness of being always under the influence of such a creation; of living INTO it; of partaking of it in daily and hourly communion! This room is a chapel; the sight of that picture is a sacrament. What an atmosphere for a young life to unfold itself in! My daughter is singularly blessed. Sybilla, point out some of the details to Mr. Wyant; I see that he will appreciate them."
The girl turned her dense blue eyes toward Wyant; then, glancing away from him, she pointed to the canvas.
"Notice the modeling of the left hand," she began
in a monotonous voice; "it recalls the hand of the Mona Lisa. The head of the naked genius will remind you
of that of the
Wyant watched her curiously; she seemed to be reciting a lesson.
"And the picture itself?" he said. "How do you explain that? Lux Mundi--what a curious device to connect with such a subject! What can it mean?"
Miss Lombard dropped her eyes: the answer was evidently not included in her lesson.
"What, indeed?" the doctor interposed. "What does life mean? As one may define it in a hundred different ways, so one may find a hundred different meanings in this picture. Its symbolism is as many-faceted as a well-cut diamond. Who, for instance, is that divine lady? Is it she who is the true Lux Mundi--the light reflected from jewels and young eyes, from polished marble and clear waters and statues of bronze? Or is that the Light of the World, extinguished on yonder stormy hill, and is this lady the Pride of Life, feasting blindly on the wine of iniquity, with her back turned to the light which has shone for her in vain? Something of both these meanings may be traced in the picture; but to me it symbolizes rather the central truth of existence: that all that is raised in incorruption is sown in corruption; art, beauty, love, religion; that all our wine is drunk out of skulls, and poured for us by the mysterious genius of a remote and cruel past."
The doctor's face blazed: his bent figure seemed to straighten itself and become taller.
"Ah," he cried, growing more dithyrambic, "how lightly you ask what it means! How confidently you expect an answer! Yet here am I who have given my life to the study of the Renaissance; who have violated its tomb, laid open its dead body, and traced the course of every muscle, bone, and artery; who have sucked its very soul from the pages of poets and humanists; who have wept and believed with Joachim of Flora, smiled and doubted with AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini; who have patiently followed to its source the least inspiration of the masters, and groped in neolithic caverns and Babylonian ruins for the first unfolding tendrils of the arabesques of Mantegna and Crivelli; and I tell you that I stand abashed and ignorant before the mystery of this picture. It means nothing--it means all things. It may represent the period which saw its creation; it may represent all ages past and to come. There are volumes of meaning in the tiniest emblem on the lady's cloak; the blossoms of its border are rooted in the deepest soil of myth and tradition. Don't ask what it means, young man, but bow your head in thankfulness for having seen it!"
Miss Lombard laid her hand on his arm.
"Don't excite yourself, father," she said in the detached tone of a professional nurse.
He answered with a despairing gesture. "Ah, it's easy for you to talk. You have years and years to spend with it; I am an old man, and every moment counts!"
"It's bad for you," she repeated with gentle obstinacy.
The doctor's sacred fury had in fact burnt itself out. He dropped into a seat with dull eyes and slackening lips, and his daughter drew the curtain across the picture.
Wyant turned away reluctantly. He felt that his opportunity was slipping
from him, yet he dared not refer to
The doctor had risen and was walking slowly toward the door. His daughter unlocked it, and Wyant followed them back in silence to the room in which they had left Mrs. Lombard. That lady was no longer there, and he could think of no excuse for lingering.
He thanked the doctor, and turned to Miss Lombard, who stood in the middle of the room as though awaiting farther orders.
"It is very good of you," he said, "to allow one even a glimpse of such a treasure."
She looked at him with her odd directness. "You will come again?" she said quickly; and turning to her father she added: "You know what Professor Clyde asked. This gentleman cannot give him any account of the picture without seeing it again."
Doctor Lombard glanced at her vaguely; he was still like a person in a trance.
"Eh?" he said, rousing himself with an effort.
"I said, father, that Mr. Wyant must see the picture again if he is to tell Professor Clyde about it," Miss Lombard repeated with extraordinary precision of tone.
Wyant was silent. He had the puzzled sense that his wishes were being divined and gratified for reasons with which he was in no way connected.
"Well, well," the doctor muttered, "I don't
say no--I don't say no. I know what
Wyant again caught the girl's eye, but its emphatic message perplexed him.
"You're very good," he said tentatively, "but the fact is the picture is so mysterious--so full of complicated detail--that I'm afraid no notes I could make would serve Clyde's purpose as well as--as a photograph, say. If you would allow me--"
Miss Lombard's brow darkened, and her father raised his head furiously.
"A photograph? A photograph, did you say? Good God, man, not ten people have been allowed to set foot in that room! A PHOTOGRAPH?"
Wyant saw his mistake, but saw also that he had gone too far to retreat.
"I know, sir, from what
Doctor Lombard interrupted him with a snarl. "When he had done with it? Just so: I thank thee for that word! When it had been re-photographed, drawn, traced, autotyped, passed about from hand to hand, defiled by every ignorant eye in England, vulgarized by the blundering praise of every art-scribbler in Europe! Bah! I'd as soon give you the picture itself: why don't you ask for that?"
"Well, sir," said Wyant calmly, "if you will trust me with it, I'll engage to take it safely to England and back, and to let no eye but Clyde's see it while it is out of your keeping."
The doctor received this remarkable proposal in silence; then he burst into a laugh.
"Upon my soul!" he said with sardonic good humor.
It was Miss Lombard's turn to look perplexedly at Wyant. His last words and her father's unexpected reply had evidently carried her beyond her depth.
"Well, sir, am I to take the picture?" Wyant smilingly pursued.
"No, young man; nor a photograph of it. Nor a sketch, either; mind that,--nothing that can be reproduced. Sybilla," he cried with sudden passion, "swear to me that the picture shall never be reproduced! No photograph, no sketch--now or afterward. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, father," said the girl quietly.
"The vandals," he muttered, "the desecrators
of beauty; if I thought it would ever get into their hands I'd burn it first,
by God!" He turned to Wyant,
speaking more quietly. "I said you
might come back--I never retract what I say.
But you must give me your word that no one but
Wyant was growing warm.
"If you won't trust me with a photograph I wonder you trust me not to show my notes!" he exclaimed.
The doctor looked at him with a malicious smile.
"Humph!" he said; "would they be of much use to anybody?"
Wyant saw that he was losing ground and controlled his impatience.
"To-morrow--to-morrow morning," cried Miss Lombard, speaking suddenly.
She looked fixedly at her father, and he shrugged his shoulders.
"The picture is hers," he said to Wyant.
In the ante-chamber the young man was met by the woman who had admitted him. She handed him his hat and stick, and turned to unbar the door. As the bolt slipped back he felt a touch on his arm.
"You have a letter?" she said in a low tone.
"A letter?" He stared. "What letter?"
She shrugged her shoulders, and drew back to let him pass.
As Wyant emerged from the house he paused once more to
glance up at its scarred brick facade.
The marble hand drooped tragically above the entrance: in the waning
light it seemed to have relaxed into the passiveness of despair, and Wyant
stood musing on its hidden meaning. But
the Dead Hand was not the only mysterious thing about Doctor Lombard's
house. What were the relations between
Miss Lombard and her father? Above all,
The sky at the end of the street was flooded with turbulent
yellow light, and the young man turned his steps toward the
The great bare aisles were almost dark when he entered, and he had to grope his way to the chapel steps. Under the momentary evocation of the sunset, the saint's figure emerged pale and swooning from the dusk, and the warm light gave a sensual tinge to her ecstasy. The flesh seemed to glow and heave, the eyelids to tremble; Wyant stood fascinated by the accidental collaboration of light and color.
Suddenly he noticed that something white had fluttered to the ground at his feet. He stooped and picked up a small thin sheet of note-paper, folded and sealed like an old-fashioned letter, and bearing the superscription:--
To the Count Ottaviano Celsi.
Wyant stared at this mysterious document. Where had it come from? He was distinctly conscious of having seen it fall through the air, close to his feet. He glanced up at the dark ceiling of the chapel; then he turned and looked about the church. There was only one figure in it, that of a man who knelt near the high altar.
Suddenly Wyant recalled the question of Doctor Lombard's maid-servant. Was this the letter she had asked for? Had he been unconsciously carrying it about with him all the afternoon? Who was Count Ottaviano Celsi, and how came Wyant to have been chosen to act as that nobleman's ambulant letter-box?
Wyant laid his hat and stick on the chapel steps and began to explore his pockets, in the irrational hope of finding there some clue to the mystery; but they held nothing which he had not himself put there, and he was reduced to wondering how the letter, supposing some unknown hand to have bestowed it on him, had happened to fall out while he stood motionless before the picture.
At this point he was disturbed by a step on the floor of the aisle, and turning, he saw his lustrous-eyed neighbor of the table d'hote.
The young man bowed and waved an apologetic hand.
"I do not intrude?" he inquired suavely.
Without waiting for a reply, he mounted the steps of the chapel, glancing about him with the affable air of an afternoon caller.
"I see," he remarked with a smile, "that you know the hour at which our saint should be visited."
Wyant agreed that the hour was indeed felicitous.
The stranger stood beamingly before the picture.
"What grace! What poetry!" he murmured, apostrophizing the St. Catherine, but letting his glance slip rapidly about the chapel as he spoke.
Wyant, detecting the manoeuvre, murmured a brief assent.
"But it is cold here--mortally cold; you do not find it so?" The intruder put on his hat. "It is permitted at this hour--when the church is empty. And you, my dear sir--do you not feel the dampness? You are an artist, are you not? And to artists it is permitted to cover the head when they are engaged in the study of the paintings."
He darted suddenly toward the steps and bent over Wyant's hat.
"Permit me--cover yourself!" he said a moment later, holding out the hat with an ingratiating gesture.
A light flashed on Wyant.
"Perhaps," he said, looking straight at the young man, "you will tell me your name. My own is Wyant."
The stranger, surprised, but not disconcerted, drew forth a coroneted card, which he offered with a low bow. On the card was engraved:--
Il Conte Ottaviano Celsi.
"I am much obliged to you," said Wyant; "and I may as well tell you that the letter which you apparently expected to find in the lining of my hat is not there, but in my pocket."
He drew it out and handed it to its owner, who had grown very pale.
"And now," Wyant continued, "you will perhaps be good enough to tell me what all this means."
There was no mistaking the effect produced on Count Ottaviano by this request. His lips moved, but he achieved only an ineffectual smile.
"I suppose you know," Wyant went on, his anger rising at the sight of the other's discomfiture, "that you have taken an unwarrantable liberty. I don't yet understand what part I have been made to play, but it's evident that you have made use of me to serve some purpose of your own, and I propose to know the reason why."
Count Ottaviano advanced with an imploring gesture.
"Sir," he pleaded, "you permit me to speak?"
"I expect you to," cried Wyant. "But not here," he added, hearing the clank of the verger's keys. "It is growing dark, and we shall be turned out in a few minutes."
He walked across the church, and Count Ottaviano followed him out into the deserted square.
"Now," said Wyant, pausing on the steps.
The Count, who had regained some measure of self-possession, began to speak in a high key, with an accompaniment of conciliatory gesture.
"My dear sir--my dear Mr. Wyant--you find me in an abominable position--that, as a man of honor, I immediately confess. I have taken advantage of you--yes! I have counted on your amiability, your chivalry--too far, perhaps? I confess it! But what could I do? It was to oblige a lady"--he laid a hand on his heart--"a lady whom I would die to serve!" He went on with increasing volubility, his deliberate English swept away by a torrent of Italian, through which Wyant, with some difficulty, struggled to a comprehension of the case.
Count Ottaviano, according to his own statement, had come to
Doctor Lombard, who suspected the young man of trying to persuade Sybilla to sell the picture, had forbidden the lovers to meet or to correspond; they were thus driven to clandestine communication, and had several times, the Count ingenuously avowed, made use of the doctor's visitors as a means of exchanging letters.
"And you told the visitors to ring twice?" Wyant interposed.
The young man extended his hands in a deprecating gesture. Could Mr. Wyant blame him? He was young, he was ardent, he was enamored! The young lady had done him the supreme honor of avowing her attachment, of pledging her unalterable fidelity; should he suffer his devotion to be outdone? But his purpose in writing to her, he admitted, was not merely to reiterate his fidelity; he was trying by every means in his power to induce her to sell the picture. He had organized a plan of action; every detail was complete; if she would but have the courage to carry out his instructions he would answer for the result. His idea was that she should secretly retire to a convent of which his aunt was the Mother Superior, and from that stronghold should transact the sale of the Leonardo. He had a purchaser ready, who was willing to pay a large sum; a sum, Count Ottaviano whispered, considerably in excess of the young lady's original inheritance; once the picture sold, it could, if necessary, be removed by force from Doctor Lombard's house, and his daughter, being safely in the convent, would be spared the painful scenes incidental to the removal. Finally, if Doctor Lombard were vindictive enough to refuse his consent to her marriage, she had only to make a sommation respectueuse, and at the end of the prescribed delay no power on earth could prevent her becoming the wife of Count Ottaviano.
Wyant's anger had fallen at the recital of this simple romance. It was absurd to be angry with a young man who confided his secrets to the first stranger he met in the streets, and placed his hand on his heart whenever he mentioned the name of his betrothed. The easiest way out of the business was to take it as a joke. Wyant had played the wall to this new Pyramus and Thisbe, and was philosophic enough to laugh at the part he had unwittingly performed.
He held out his hand with a smile to Count Ottaviano.
"I won't deprive you any longer," he said, "of the pleasure of reading your letter."
"Oh, sir, a thousand thanks! And when you return to the casa
"The letter she expected?" Wyant paused. "No, thank you. I thought you understood that where I come from we don't do that kind of thing--knowingly."
"But, sir, to serve a young lady!"
"I'm sorry for the young lady, if what you tell me is true"--the Count's expressive hands resented the doubt--"but remember that if I am under obligations to any one in this matter, it is to her father, who has admitted me to his house and has allowed me to see his picture."
"HIS picture? Hers!"
"Well, the house is his, at all events."
"Unhappily--since to her it is a dungeon!"
"Why doesn't she leave it, then?" exclaimed Wyant impatiently.
The Count clasped his hands. "Ah, how you say that--with what force, with what virility! If you would but say it to HER in that tone--you, her countryman! She has no one to advise her; the mother is an idiot; the father is terrible; she is in his power; it is my belief that he would kill her if she resisted him. Mr. Wyant, I tremble for her life while she remains in that house!"
"Oh, come," said Wyant lightly, "they seem to understand each other well enough. But in any case, you must see that I can't interfere--at least you would if you were an Englishman," he added with an escape of contempt.
Wyant's affiliations in
The young nobleman had, it appeared, given a perfectly
correct account of his situation. His
father, Count Celsi-Mongirone, was a man of distinguished family and some
wealth. He was syndic of Orvieto, and
lived either in that town or on his neighboring estate of Mongirone. His wife owned a large property near
Viewed in the light of Count Ottaviano's personality the story had a tinge of opera bouffe; but the next morning, as Wyant mounted the stairs of the House of the Dead Hand, the situation insensibly assumed another aspect. It was impossible to take Doctor Lombard lightly; and there was a suggestion of fatality in the appearance of his gaunt dwelling. Who could tell amid what tragic records of domestic tyranny and fluttering broken purposes the little drama of Miss Lombard's fate was being played out? Might not the accumulated influences of such a house modify the lives within it in a manner unguessed by the inmates of a suburban villa with sanitary plumbing and a telephone?
One person, at least, remained unperturbed by such fanciful problems; and that was Mrs. Lombard, who, at Wyant's entrance, raised a placidly wrinkled brow from her knitting. The morning was mild, and her chair had been wheeled into a bar of sunshine near the window, so that she made a cheerful spot of prose in the poetic gloom of her surroundings.
"What a nice morning!" she said; "it must be delightful weather at Bonchurch."
Her dull blue glance wandered across the narrow street with its threatening house fronts, and fluttered back baffled, like a bird with clipped wings. It was evident, poor lady, that she had never seen beyond the opposite houses.
Wyant was not sorry to find her alone. Seeing that she was surprised at his reappearance he said at once: "I have come back to study Miss Lombard's picture."
"Oh, the picture--" Mrs. Lombard's face expressed a gentle disappointment, which might have been boredom in a person of acuter sensibilities. "It's an original Leonardo, you know," she said mechanically.
"And Miss Lombard is very proud of it, I suppose? She seems to have inherited her father's love for art."
Mrs. Lombard counted her stitches, and he went on: "It's unusual in so young a girl. Such tastes generally develop later."
Mrs. Lombard looked up eagerly. "That's what I say! I was quite different at her age, you
know. I liked dancing, and doing a
pretty bit of fancy-work. Not that I
couldn't sketch, too; I had a master down from
Wyant, half-ashamed of provoking these innocent confidences, could not resist another question. "And Miss Lombard cares for nothing else?"
Her mother looked troubled.
"Sybilla is so clever--she says I don't
understand. You know how self-confident
young people are! My husband never said
that of me, now--he knows I had an excellent education. My aunts were very particular; I was brought
up to have opinions, and my husband has always respected them. He says himself that he wouldn't for the
world miss hearing my opinion on any subject; you may have noticed that he
often refers to my tastes. He has always
respected my preference for living in
At this point Doctor Lombard entered. He glanced sharply at Wyant. "The servant is a fool; she didn't tell me you were here." His eye turned to his wife. "Well, my dear, what have you been telling Mr. Wyant? About the aunts at Bonchurch, I'll be bound!"
Mrs. Lombard looked triumphantly at Wyant, and her husband rubbed his hooked fingers, with a smile.
"Mrs. Lombard's aunts are very superior women. They subscribe to the circulating library, and borrow Good Words and the Monthly Packet from the curate's wife across the way. They have the rector to tea twice a year, and keep a page-boy, and are visited by two baronets' wives. They devoted themselves to the education of their orphan niece, and I think I may say without boasting that Mrs. Lombard's conversation shows marked traces of the advantages she enjoyed."
Mrs. Lombard colored with pleasure.
"I was telling Mr. Wyant that my aunts were very particular."
"Quite so, my dear; and did you mention that they never sleep in anything but linen, and that Miss Sophia puts away the furs and blankets every spring with her own hands? Both those facts are interesting to the student of human nature." Doctor Lombard glanced at his watch. "But we are missing an incomparable moment; the light is perfect at this hour."
Wyant rose, and the doctor led him through the tapestried door and down the passageway.
The light was, in fact, perfect, and the picture shone with an inner radiancy, as though a lamp burned behind the soft screen of the lady's flesh. Every detail of the foreground detached itself with jewel-like precision. Wyant noticed a dozen accessories which had escaped him on the previous day.
He drew out his note-book, and the doctor, who had dropped his sardonic grin for a look of devout contemplation, pushed a chair forward, and seated himself on a carved settle against the wall.
"Now, then," he said, "tell
He sank down, his hands hanging on the arm of the settle like the claws of a dead bird, his eyes fixed on Wyant's notebook with the obvious intention of detecting any attempt at a surreptitious sketch.
Wyant, nettled at this surveillance, and disturbed by the speculations which Doctor Lombard's strange household excited, sat motionless for a few minutes, staring first at the picture and then at the blank pages of the note-book. The thought that Doctor Lombard was enjoying his discomfiture at length roused him, and he began to write.
He was interrupted by a knock on the iron door. Doctor Lombard rose to unlock it, and his daughter entered.
She bowed hurriedly to Wyant, without looking at him.
"Father, had you forgotten that the man from Monte Amiato was to come back this morning with an answer about the bas-relief? He is here now; he says he can't wait."
"The devil!" cried her father impatiently. "Didn't you tell him--"
"Yes; but he says he can't come back. If you want to see him you must come now."
"Then you think there's a chance?--"
He turned and looked at Wyant, who was writing assiduously.
"You will stay here, Sybilla; I shall be back in a moment."
He hurried out, locking the door behind him.
Wyant had looked up, wondering if Miss Lombard would show any surprise at being locked in with him; but it was his turn to be surprised, for hardly had they heard the key withdrawn when she moved close to him, her small face pale and tumultuous.
"I arranged it--I must speak to you," she gasped. "He'll be back in five minutes."
Her courage seemed to fail, and she looked at him helplessly.
Wyant had a sense of stepping among explosives. He glanced about him at the dusky vaulted room, at the haunting smile of the strange picture overhead, and at the pink-and-white girl whispering of conspiracies in a voice meant to exchange platitudes with a curate.
"How can I help you?" he said with a rush of compassion.
"Oh, if you would! I never have a chance to speak to any one; it's so difficult--he watches me--he'll be back immediately."
"Try to tell me what I can do."
"I don't dare; I feel as if he were behind me." She turned away, fixing her eyes on the picture. A sound startled her. "There he comes, and I haven't spoken! It was my only chance; but it bewilders me so to be hurried."
"I don't hear any one," said Wyant, listening. "Try to tell me."
"How can I make you understand? It would take so long to explain." She drew a deep breath, and then with a plunge--"Will you come here again this afternoon--at about five?" she whispered.
"Come here again?"
"Yes--you can ask to see the picture,--make some excuse. He will come with you, of course; I will open the door for you--and--and lock you both in"--she gasped.
"Lock us in?"
"You see? You understand? It's the only way for me to leave the house--if I am ever to do it"-- She drew another difficult breath. "The key will be returned--by a safe person--in half an hour,--perhaps sooner--"
She trembled so much that she was obliged to lean against the settle for support.
"Wyant looked at her steadily; he was very sorry for her.
"I can't, Miss Lombard," he said at length.
"I'm sorry; I must seem cruel; but consider--"
He was stopped by the futility of the word: as well ask a hunted rabbit to pause in its dash for a hole!
Wyant took her hand; it was cold and nerveless.
"I will serve you in any way I can; but you must see that this way is impossible. Can't I talk to you again? Perhaps--"
"Oh," she cried, starting up, "there he comes!"
Doctor Lombard's step sounded in the passage.
Wyant held her fast. "Tell me one thing: he won't let you sell the picture?"
"Make no pledges for the future, then; promise me that."
"In case he should die: your father is an old man. You haven't promised?"
She shook her head.
"Don't, then; remember that."
She made no answer, and the key turned in the lock.
As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.
Wyant turned away impatiently.
"Rubbish!" he said to himself. "SHE isn't walled in; she can get out if she wants to."
Wyant had any number of plans for coming to Miss Lombard's
aid: he was elaborating the twentieth when, on the same afternoon, he stepped
into the express train for
A month later, after his return to
Wyant could now comfortably speculate on the particular complications from which his foresight had probably saved him. The climax was unexpectedly dramatic. Miss Lombard, on the brink of a step which, whatever its issue, would have burdened her with retrospective compunction, had been set free before her suitor's ardor could have had time to cool, and was now doubtless planning a life of domestic felicity on the proceeds of the Leonardo. One thing, however, struck Wyant as odd--he saw no mention of the sale of the picture. He had scanned the papers for an immediate announcement of its transfer to one of the great museums; but presently concluding that Miss Lombard, out of filial piety, had wished to avoid an appearance of unseemly haste in the disposal of her treasure, he dismissed the matter from his mind. Other affairs happened to engage him; the months slipped by, and gradually the lady and the picture dwelt less vividly in his mind.
It was not till five or six years later, when chance took
him again to
"The daughter of the English doctor? But she has never married, signore."
"Never married? What, then, became of Count Ottaviano?"
"For a long time he waited; but last year he married a noble lady of the Maremma."
"But what happened--why was the marriage broken?"
The landlady enacted a pantomime of baffled interrogation.
"And Miss Lombard still lives in her father's house?"
"Yes, signore; she is still there."
"And the Leonardo--"
"The Leonardo, also, is still there."
The next day, as Wyant entered the House of the Dead Hand, he remembered Count Ottaviano's injunction to ring twice, and smiled mournfully to think that so much subtlety had been vain. But what could have prevented the marriage? If Doctor Lombard's death had been long delayed, time might have acted as a dissolvent, or the young lady's resolve have failed; but it seemed impossible that the white heat of ardor in which Wyant had left the lovers should have cooled in a few short weeks.
As he ascended the vaulted stairway the atmosphere of the place seemed a reply to his conjectures. The same numbing air fell on him, like an emanation from some persistent will-power, a something fierce and imminent which might reduce to impotence every impulse within its range. Wyant could almost fancy a hand on his shoulder, guiding him upward with the ironical intent of confronting him with the evidence of its work.
A strange servant opened the door, and he was presently introduced to the tapestried room, where, from their usual seats in the window, Mrs. Lombard and her daughter advanced to welcome him with faint ejaculations of surprise.
Both had grown oddly old, but in a dry, smooth way, as fruits might shrivel on a shelf instead of ripening on the tree. Mrs. Lombard was still knitting, and pausing now and then to warm her swollen hands above the brazier; and Miss Lombard, in rising, had laid aside a strip of needle-work which might have been the same on which Wyant had first seen her engaged.
Their visitor inquired discreetly how they had fared in the
interval, and learned that they had thought of returning to
"I am sorry not to see my aunts again," Mrs. Lombard said resignedly; "but Sybilla thinks it best that we should not go this year."
"Next year, perhaps," murmured Miss Lombard, in a voice which seemed to suggest that they had a great waste of time to fill.
She had returned to her seat, and sat bending over her work. Her hair enveloped her head in the same thick braids, but the rose color of her cheeks had turned to blotches of dull red, like some pigment which has darkened in drying.
"And Professor Clyde--is he well?" Mrs. Lombard asked affably; continuing, as her daughter raised a startled eye: "Surely, Sybilla, Mr. Wyant was the gentleman who was sent by Professor Clyde to see the Leonardo?"
Miss Lombard was silent, but Wyant hastened to assure the elder lady of his friend's well-being.
"Ah--perhaps, then, he will come back some day to
She raised her eyes and looked at him. "Should you like to see it?" she asked.
On his assenting, she rose, and extracting the same key from the same secret drawer, unlocked the door beneath the tapestry. They walked down the passage in silence, and she stood aside with a grave gesture, making Wyant pass before her into the room. Then she crossed over and drew the curtain back from the picture.
The light of the early afternoon poured full on it: its surface appeared to ripple and heave with a fluid splendor. The colors had lost none of their warmth, the outlines none of their pure precision; it seemed to Wyant like some magical flower which had burst suddenly from the mould of darkness and oblivion.
He turned to Miss Lombard with a movement of comprehension.
"Ah, I understand--you couldn't part with it, after all!" he cried.
"No--I couldn't part with it," she answered.
"It's too beautiful,--too beautiful,"--he assented.
"Too beautiful?" She turned on him with a curious stare. "I have never thought it beautiful, you know."
He gave back the stare. "You have never--"
She shook her head. "It's not that. I hate it; I've always hated it. But he wouldn't let me--he will never let me now."
Wyant was startled by her use of the present tense. Her look surprised him, too: there was a strange fixity of resentment in her innocuous eye. Was it possible that she was laboring under some delusion? Or did the pronoun not refer to her father?
"You mean that Doctor Lombard did not wish you to part with the picture?"
"No--he prevented me; he will always prevent me."
There was another pause. "You promised him, then, before his death--"
"No; I promised nothing. He died too suddenly to make me." Her voice sank to a whisper. "I was free--perfectly free--or I thought I was till I tried."
"Till you tried?"
"To disobey him--to sell the picture. Then I found it was impossible. I tried again and again; but he was always in the room with me."
She glanced over her shoulder as though she had heard a step; and to Wyant, too, for a moment, the room seemed full of a third presence.
"And you can't"--he faltered, unconsciously dropping his voice to the pitch of hers.
She shook her head, gazing at him mystically. "I can't lock him out; I can never lock him out now. I told you I should never have another chance."
Wyant felt the chill of her words like a cold breath in his hair.
"Oh"--he groaned; but she cut him off with a grave gesture.
"It is too late," she said; "but you ought to have helped me that day."
THE END OF PART ONE
"Oh, there IS one, of course, but you'll never know it."
The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps to be brought into the library.
The words had been spoken by their friend Alida Stair, as they sat at tea on her lawn at Pangbourne, in reference to the very house of which the library in question was the central, the pivotal "feature." Mary Boyne and her husband, in quest of a country place in one of the southern or southwestern counties, had, on their arrival in England, carried their problem straight to Alida Stair, who had successfully solved it in her own case; but it was not until they had rejected, almost capriciously, several practical and judicious suggestions that she threw it out: "Well, there's Lyng, in Dorsetshire. It belongs to Hugo's cousins, and you can get it for a song."
The reasons she gave for its being obtainable on these terms--its remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot-water pipes, and other vulgar necessities--were exactly those pleading in its favor with two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual architectural felicities.
"I should never believe I was living in an old house unless I was thoroughly uncomfortable," Ned Boyne, the more extravagant of the two, had jocosely insisted; "the least hint of 'convenience' would make me think it had been bought out of an exhibition, with the pieces numbered, and set up again." And they had proceeded to enumerate, with humorous precision, their various suspicions and exactions, refusing to believe that the house their cousin recommended was REALLY Tudor till they learned it had no heating system, or that the village church was literally in the grounds till she assured them of the deplorable uncertainty of the water-supply.
"It's too uncomfortable to be true!" Edward Boyne had continued to exult as the avowal of each disadvantage was successively wrung from her; but he had cut short his rhapsody to ask, with a sudden relapse to distrust: "And the ghost? You've been concealing from us the fact that there is no ghost!"
Mary, at the moment, had laughed with him, yet almost with her laugh, being possessed of several sets of independent perceptions, had noted a sudden flatness of tone in Alida's answering hilarity.
"Oh, Dorsetshire's full of ghosts, you know."
"Yes, yes; but that won't do. I don't want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else's ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. IS there a ghost at Lyng?"
His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she had flung back tantalizingly: "Oh, there IS one, of course, but you'll never know it."
"Never know it?"
"I can't say. But that's the story."
"That there's a ghost, but that nobody knows it's a ghost?"
"Well--not till afterward, at any rate."
"Not till long, long afterward."
"But if it's once been identified as an unearthly visitant, why hasn't its signalement been handed down in the family? How has it managed to preserve its incognito?"
Alida could only shake her head. "Don't ask me. But it has."
"And then suddenly--" Mary spoke up as if from some cavernous depth of divination--"suddenly, long afterward, one says to one's self, 'THAT WAS it?'"
She was oddly startled at the sepulchral sound with which her question fell on the banter of the other two, and she saw the shadow of the same surprise flit across Alida's clear pupils. "I suppose so. One just has to wait."
"Oh, hang waiting!" Ned broke in. "Life's too short for a ghost who can only be enjoyed in retrospect. Can't we do better than that, Mary?"
But it turned out that in the event they were not destined to, for within three months of their conversation with Mrs. Stair they were established at Lyng, and the life they had yearned for to the point of planning it out in all its daily details had actually begun for them.
It was to sit, in the thick December dusk, by just such a wide-hooded fireplace, under just such black oak rafters, with the sense that beyond the mullioned panes the downs were darkening to a deeper solitude: it was for the ultimate indulgence in such sensations that Mary Boyne had endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of the Middle West, and that Boyne had ground on doggedly at his engineering till, with a suddenness that still made her blink, the prodigious windfall of the Blue Star Mine had put them at a stroke in possession of life and the leisure to taste it. They had never for a moment meant their new state to be one of idleness; but they meant to give themselves only to harmonious activities. She had her vision of painting and gardening (against a background of gray walls), he dreamed of the production of his long-planned book on the "Economic Basis of Culture"; and with such absorbing work ahead no existence could be too sequestered; they could not get far enough from the world, or plunge deep enough into the past.
Dorsetshire had attracted them from the first by a semblance of remoteness out of all proportion to its geographical position. But to the Boynes it was one of the ever-recurring wonders of the whole incredibly compressed island--a nest of counties, as they put it--that for the production of its effects so little of a given quality went so far: that so few miles made a distance, and so short a distance a difference.
"It's that," Ned had once enthusiastically explained, "that gives such depth to their effects, such relief to their least contrasts. They've been able to lay the butter so thick on every exquisite mouthful."
The butter had certainly been laid on thick at Lyng: the old gray house, hidden under a shoulder of the downs, had almost all the finer marks of commerce with a protracted past. The mere fact that it was neither large nor exceptional made it, to the Boynes, abound the more richly in its special sense--the sense of having been for centuries a deep, dim reservoir of life. The life had probably not been of the most vivid order: for long periods, no doubt, it had fallen as noiselessly into the past as the quiet drizzle of autumn fell, hour after hour, into the green fish-pond between the yews; but these back-waters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion, and Mary Boyne had felt from the first the occasional brush of an intenser memory.
The feeling had never been stronger than on the December afternoon when, waiting in the library for the belated lamps, she rose from her seat and stood among the shadows of the hearth. Her husband had gone off, after luncheon, for one of his long tramps on the downs. She had noticed of late that he preferred to be unaccompanied on these occasions; and, in the tried security of their personal relations, had been driven to conclude that his book was bothering him, and that he needed the afternoons to turn over in solitude the problems left from the morning's work. Certainly the book was not going as smoothly as she had imagined it would, and the lines of perplexity between his eyes had never been there in his engineering days. Then he had often looked fagged to the verge of illness, but the native demon of "worry" had never branded his brow. Yet the few pages he had so far read to her--the introduction, and a synopsis of the opening chapter--gave evidences of a firm possession of his subject, and a deepening confidence in his powers.
The fact threw her into deeper perplexity, since, now that he had done with "business" and its disturbing contingencies, the one other possible element of anxiety was eliminated. Unless it were his health, then? But physically he had gained since they had come to Dorsetshire, grown robuster, ruddier, and fresher-eyed. It was only within a week that she had felt in him the undefinable change that made her restless in his absence, and as tongue-tied in his presence as though it were SHE who had a secret to keep from him!
The thought that there WAS a secret somewhere between them struck her with a sudden smart rap of wonder, and she looked about her down the dim, long room.
"Can it be the house?" she mused.
The room itself might have been full of secrets. They seemed to be piling themselves up, as evening fell, like the layers and layers of velvet shadow dropping from the low ceiling, the dusky walls of books, the smoke-blurred sculpture of the hooded hearth.
"Why, of course--the house is haunted!" she reflected.
The ghost--Alida's imperceptible ghost--after figuring largely in the banter of their first month or two at Lyng, had been gradually discarded as too ineffectual for imaginative use. Mary had, indeed, as became the tenant of a haunted house, made the customary inquiries among her few rural neighbors, but, beyond a vague, "They du say so, Ma'am," the villagers had nothing to impart. The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.
"And I suppose, poor, ineffectual demon, that's why it beats its beautiful wings in vain in the void," Mary had laughingly concluded.
"Or, rather," Ned answered, in the same strain, "why, amid so much that's ghostly, it can never affirm its separate existence as THE ghost." And thereupon their invisible housemate had finally dropped out of their references, which were numerous enough to make them promptly unaware of the loss.
Now, as she stood on the hearth, the subject of their earlier curiosity revived in her with a new sense of its meaning--a sense gradually acquired through close daily contact with the scene of the lurking mystery. It was the house itself, of course, that possessed the ghost-seeing faculty, that communed visually but secretly with its own past; and if one could only get into close enough communion with the house, one might surprise its secret, and acquire the ghost-sight on one's own account. Perhaps, in his long solitary hours in this very room, where she never trespassed till the afternoon, her husband HAD acquired it already, and was silently carrying the dread weight of whatever it had revealed to him. Mary was too well-versed in the code of the spectral world not to know that one could not talk about the ghosts one saw: to do so was almost as great a breach of good-breeding as to name a lady in a club. But this explanation did not really satisfy her. "What, after all, except for the fun of the frisson," she reflected, "would he really care for any of their old ghosts?" And thence she was thrown back once more on the fundamental dilemma: the fact that one's greater or less susceptibility to spectral influences had no particular bearing on the case, since, when one DID see a ghost at Lyng, one did not know it.
"Not till long afterward," Alida Stair had said. Well, supposing Ned HAD seen one when they first came, and had known only within the last week what had happened to him? More and more under the spell of the hour, she threw back her searching thoughts to the early days of their tenancy, but at first only to recall a gay confusion of unpacking, settling, arranging of books, and calling to each other from remote corners of the house as treasure after treasure of their habitation revealed itself to them. It was in this particular connection that she presently recalled a certain soft afternoon of the previous October, when, passing from the first rapturous flurry of exploration to a detailed inspection of the old house, she had pressed (like a novel heroine) a panel that opened at her touch, on a narrow flight of stairs leading to an unsuspected flat ledge of the roof--the roof which, from below, seemed to slope away on all sides too abruptly for any but practised feet to scale.
The view from this hidden coign was enchanting, and she had flown down to snatch Ned from his papers and give him the freedom of her discovery. She remembered still how, standing on the narrow ledge, he had passed his arm about her while their gaze flew to the long, tossed horizon-line of the downs, and then dropped contentedly back to trace the arabesque of yew hedges about the fish-pond, and the shadow of the cedar on the lawn.
"And now the other way," he had said, gently turning her about within his arm; and closely pressed to him, she had absorbed, like some long, satisfying draft, the picture of the gray-walled court, the squat lions on the gates, and the lime-avenue reaching up to the highroad under the downs.
It was just then, while they gazed and held each other, that she had felt his arm relax, and heard a sharp "Hullo!" that made her turn to glance at him.
Distinctly, yes, she now recalled she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow of anxiety, of perplexity, rather, fall across his face; and, following his eyes, had beheld the figure of a man--a man in loose, grayish clothes, as it appeared to her--who was sauntering down the lime-avenue to the court with the tentative gait of a stranger seeking his way. Her short-sighted eyes had given her but a blurred impression of slightness and grayness, with something foreign, or at least unlocal, in the cut of the figure or its garb; but her husband had apparently seen more--seen enough to make him push past her with a sharp "Wait!" and dash down the twisting stairs without pausing to give her a hand for the descent.
A slight tendency to dizziness obliged her, after a provisional clutch at the chimney against which they had been leaning, to follow him down more cautiously; and when she had reached the attic landing she paused again for a less definite reason, leaning over the oak banister to strain her eyes through the silence of the brown, sun-flecked depths below. She lingered there till, somewhere in those depths, she heard the closing of a door; then, mechanically impelled, she went down the shallow flights of steps till she reached the lower hall.
The front door stood open on the mild sunlight of the court, and hall and court were empty. The library door was open, too, and after listening in vain for any sound of voices within, she quickly crossed the threshold, and found her husband alone, vaguely fingering the papers on his desk.
He looked up, as if surprised at her precipitate entrance, but the shadow of anxiety had passed from his face, leaving it even, as she fancied, a little brighter and clearer than usual.
"What was it? Who was it?" she asked.
"Who?" he repeated, with the surprise still all on his side.
"The man we saw coming toward the house."
He seemed honestly to reflect. "The man? Why, I thought I saw Peters; I dashed after him to say a word about the stable-drains, but he had disappeared before I could get down."
"Disappeared? Why, he seemed to be walking so slowly when we saw him."
That was all. At the time the occurrence had been less than nothing, had, indeed, been immediately obliterated by the magic of their first vision from Meldon Steep, a height which they had dreamed of climbing ever since they had first seen its bare spine heaving itself above the low roof of Lyng. Doubtless it was the mere fact of the other incident's having occurred on the very day of their ascent to Meldon that had kept it stored away in the unconscious fold of association from which it now emerged; for in itself it had no mark of the portentous. At the moment there could have been nothing more natural than that Ned should dash himself from the roof in the pursuit of dilatory tradesmen. It was the period when they were always on the watch for one or the other of the specialists employed about the place; always lying in wait for them, and dashing out at them with questions, reproaches, or reminders. And certainly in the distance the gray figure had looked like Peters.
Yet now, as she reviewed the rapid scene, she felt her husband's explanation of it to have been invalidated by the look of anxiety on his face. Why had the familiar appearance of Peters made him anxious? Why, above all, if it was of such prime necessity to confer with that authority on the subject of the stable-drains, had the failure to find him produced such a look of relief? Mary could not say that any one of these considerations had occurred to her at the time, yet, from the promptness with which they now marshaled themselves at her summons, she had a sudden sense that they must all along have been there, waiting their hour.
Weary with her thoughts, she moved toward the window. The library was now completely dark, and she was surprised to see how much faint light the outer world still held.
As she peered out into it across the court, a figure shaped itself in the tapering perspective of bare lines: it looked a mere blot of deeper gray in the grayness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, her heart thumped to the thought, "It's the ghost!"
She had time, in that long instant, to feel suddenly that the man of whom, two months earlier, she had a brief distant vision from the roof was now, at his predestined hour, about to reveal himself as NOT having been Peters; and her spirit sank under the impending fear of the disclosure. But almost with the next tick of the clock the ambiguous figure, gaining substance and character, showed itself even to her weak sight as her husband's; and she turned away to meet him, as he entered, with the confession of her folly.
"It's really too absurd," she laughed out from the threshold, "but I never CAN remember!"
"That when one sees the Lyng ghost one never knows it."
Her hand was on his sleeve, and he kept it there, but with no response in his gesture or in the lines of his fagged, preoccupied face.
"Did you think you'd seen it?" he asked, after an appreciable interval.
"Why, I actually took YOU for it, my dear, in my mad determination to spot it!"
"Me--just now?" His arm dropped away, and he turned from her with a faint echo of her laugh. "Really, dearest, you'd better give it up, if that's the best you can do."
"Yes, I give it up--I give it up. Have YOU?" she asked, turning round on him abruptly.
The parlor-maid had entered with letters and a lamp, and the
light struck up into
"Have YOU?" Mary perversely insisted, when the servant had disappeared on her errand of illumination.
"Have I what?" he rejoined absently, the light bringing out the sharp stamp of worry between his brows as he turned over the letters.
"Given up trying to see the ghost." Her heart beat a little at the experiment she was making.
Her husband, laying his letters aside, moved away into the shadow of the hearth.
"I never tried," he said, tearing open the wrapper of a newspaper.
"Well, of course," Mary persisted, "the exasperating thing is that there's no use trying, since one can't be sure till so long afterward."
He was unfolding the paper as if he had hardly heard her; but after a pause, during which the sheets rustled spasmodically between his hands, he lifted his head to say abruptly, "Have you any idea HOW LONG?"
Mary had sunk into a low chair beside the fireplace. From her seat she looked up, startled, at her husband's profile, which was darkly projected against the circle of lamplight.
"No; none. Have YOU?" she retorted, repeating her former phrase with an added keenness of intention.
"Lord, no! I only meant," he explained, with a faint tinge of impatience, "is there any legend, any tradition, as to that?"
"Not that I know of," she answered; but the impulse to add, "What makes you ask?" was checked by the reappearance of the parlor-maid with tea and a second lamp.
With the dispersal of shadows, and the repetition of the daily domestic office, Mary Boyne felt herself less oppressed by that sense of something mutely imminent which had darkened her solitary afternoon. For a few moments she gave herself silently to the details of her task, and when she looked up from it she was struck to the point of bewilderment by the change in her husband's face. He had seated himself near the farther lamp, and was absorbed in the perusal of his letters; but was it something he had found in them, or merely the shifting of her own point of view, that had restored his features to their normal aspect? The longer she looked, the more definitely the change affirmed itself. The lines of painful tension had vanished, and such traces of fatigue as lingered were of the kind easily attributable to steady mental effort. He glanced up, as if drawn by her gaze, and met her eyes with a smile.
"I'm dying for my tea, you know; and here's a letter for you," he said.
She took the letter he held out in exchange for the cup she proffered him, and, returning to her seat, broke the seal with the languid gesture of the reader whose interests are all inclosed in the circle of one cherished presence.
Her next conscious motion was that of starting to her feet, the letter falling to them as she rose, while she held out to her husband a long newspaper clipping.
"Ned! What's this? What does it mean?"
He had risen at the same instant, almost as if hearing her cry before she uttered it; and for a perceptible space of time he and she studied each other, like adversaries watching for an advantage, across the space between her chair and his desk.
You fairly made me jump!"
Her hand shook so that she could hardly give him the clipping.
"This article--from the 'Waukesha Sentinel'--that a man named Elwell has brought suit against you--that there was something wrong about the Blue Star Mine. I can't understand more than half."
They continued to face each other as she spoke, and to her astonishment, she saw that her words had the almost immediate effect of dissipating the strained watchfulness of his look.
"Oh, THAT!" He glanced down the printed slip, and then folded it with the gesture of one who handles something harmless and familiar. "What's the matter with you this afternoon, Mary? I thought you'd got bad news."
She stood before him with her undefinable terror subsiding slowly under the reassuring touch of his composure.
"You knew about this, then--it's all right?"
"Certainly I knew about it; and it's all right."
"But what IS it? I don't understand. What does this man accuse you of?"
"Oh, pretty nearly every crime in the
"But who is this Elwell? I don't know the name."
"Oh, he's a fellow I put into it--gave him a hand up. I told you all about him at the time."
"I daresay. I must have forgotten." Vainly she strained back among her memories. "But if you helped him, why does he make this return?"
"Oh, probably some shyster lawyer got hold of him and talked him over. It's all rather technical and complicated. I thought that kind of thing bored you."
His wife felt a sting of compunction. Theoretically, she deprecated the American
wife's detachment from her husband's professional interests, but in practice
she had always found it difficult to fix her attention on
She glanced again at her husband, and was reassured by the composure of his face; yet she felt the need of more definite grounds for her reassurance.
"But doesn't this suit worry you? Why have you never spoken to me about it?"
He answered both questions at once: "I didn't speak of it at first because it DID worry me--annoyed me, rather. But it's all ancient history now. Your correspondent must have got hold of a back number of the 'Sentinel.'"
She felt a quick thrill of relief. "You mean it's over? He's lost his case?"
There was a just perceptible delay in
But she persisted, as if to exonerate herself from the inward charge of being too easily put off. "Withdrawn because he saw he had no chance?"
"Oh, he had no chance,"
She was still struggling with a dimly felt perplexity at the back of her thoughts.
"How long ago was it withdrawn?"
He paused, as if with a slight return of his former uncertainty. "I've just had the news now; but I've been expecting it."
"Just now--in one of your letters?"
"Yes; in one of my letters."
She made no answer, and was aware only, after a short interval of waiting, that he had risen, and strolling across the room, had placed himself on the sofa at her side. She felt him, as he did so, pass an arm about her, she felt his hand seek hers and clasp it, and turning slowly, drawn by the warmth of his cheek, she met the smiling clearness of his eyes.
"It's all right--it's all right?" she questioned, through the flood of her dissolving doubts; and "I give you my word it never was righter!" he laughed back at her, holding her close.
One of the strangest things she was afterward to recall out of all the next day's incredible strangeness was the sudden and complete recovery of her sense of security.
It was in the air when she woke in her low-ceilinged, dusky room; it accompanied her down-stairs to the breakfast-table, flashed out at her from the fire, and re-duplicated itself brightly from the flanks of the urn and the sturdy flutings of the Georgian teapot. It was as if, in some roundabout way, all her diffused apprehensions of the previous day, with their moment of sharp concentration about the newspaper article,--as if this dim questioning of the future, and startled return upon the past,--had between them liquidated the arrears of some haunting moral obligation. If she had indeed been careless of her husband's affairs, it was, her new state seemed to prove, because her faith in him instinctively justified such carelessness; and his right to her faith had overwhelmingly affirmed itself in the very face of menace and suspicion. She had never seen him more untroubled, more naturally and unconsciously in possession of himself, than after the cross-examination to which she had subjected him: it was almost as if he had been aware of her lurking doubts, and had wanted the air cleared as much as she did.
It was as clear, thank Heaven! as the bright outer light
that surprised her almost with a touch of summer when she issued from the house
for her daily round of the gardens. She
Seen thus, across the level tracery of the yews, under the suffused, mild light, it sent her, from its open windows and hospitably smoking chimneys, the look of some warm human presence, of a mind slowly ripened on a sunny wall of experience. She had never before had so deep a sense of her intimacy with it, such a conviction that its secrets were all beneficent, kept, as they said to children, "for one's good," so complete a trust in its power to gather up her life and Ned's into the harmonious pattern of the long, long story it sat there weaving in the sun.
She heard steps behind her, and turned, expecting to see the
gardener, accompanied by the engineer from
"I came to see Mr. Boyne," he replied. His intonation, rather than his accent, was faintly American, and Mary, at the familiar note, looked at him more closely. The brim of his soft felt hat cast a shade on his face, which, thus obscured, wore to her short-sighted gaze a look of seriousness, as of a person arriving "on business," and civilly but firmly aware of his rights.
Past experience had made Mary equally sensible to such claims; but she was jealous of her husband's morning hours, and doubtful of his having given any one the right to intrude on them.
"Have you an appointment with Mr. Boyne?" she asked.
He hesitated, as if unprepared for the question.
"Not exactly an appointment," he replied.
"Then I'm afraid, this being his working-time, that he can't receive you now. Will you give me a message, or come back later?"
The visitor, again lifting his hat, briefly replied that he
would come back later, and walked away, as if to regain the front of the
house. As his figure receded down the
walk between the yew hedges, Mary saw him pause and look up an instant at the
peaceful house-front bathed in faint winter sunshine; and it struck her, with a
tardy touch of compunction, that it would have been more humane to ask if he
had come from a distance, and to offer, in that case, to inquire if her husband
could receive him. But as the thought
occurred to her he passed out of sight behind a pyramidal yew, and at the same
moment her attention was distracted by the approach of the gardener, attended
by the bearded pepper-and-salt figure of the boiler-maker from
The encounter with this authority led to such far-reaching
issues that they resulted in his finding it expedient to ignore his train, and
beguiled Mary into spending the remainder of the morning in absorbed
confabulation among the greenhouses. She
was startled to find, when the colloquy ended, that it was nearly
luncheon-time, and she half expected, as she hurried back to the house, to see
her husband coming out to meet her. But
she found no one in the court but an under-gardener raking the gravel, and the
hall, when she entered it, was so silent that she guessed
Not wishing to disturb him, she turned into the drawing-room, and there, at her writing-table, lost herself in renewed calculations of the outlay to which the morning's conference had committed her. The knowledge that she could permit herself such follies had not yet lost its novelty; and somehow, in contrast to the vague apprehensions of the previous days, it now seemed an element of her recovered security, of the sense that, as Ned had said, things in general had never been "righter."
She was still luxuriating in a lavish play of figures when the parlor-maid, from the threshold, roused her with a dubiously worded inquiry as to the expediency of serving luncheon. It was one of their jokes that Trimmle announced luncheon as if she were divulging a state secret, and Mary, intent upon her papers, merely murmured an absent-minded assent.
She felt Trimmle wavering expressively on the threshold as if in rebuke of such offhand acquiescence; then her retreating steps sounded down the passage, and Mary, pushing away her papers, crossed the hall, and went to the library door. It was still closed, and she wavered in her turn, disliking to disturb her husband, yet anxious that he should not exceed his normal measure of work. As she stood there, balancing her impulses, the esoteric Trimmle returned with the announcement of luncheon, and Mary, thus impelled, opened the door and went into the library.
She turned back to the parlor-maid.
"Mr. Boyne must be up-stairs. Please tell him that luncheon is ready."
The parlor-maid appeared to hesitate between the obvious duty of obeying orders and an equally obvious conviction of the foolishness of the injunction laid upon her. The struggle resulted in her saying doubtfully, "If you please, Madam, Mr. Boyne's not up-stairs."
"Not in his room? Are you sure?"
"I'm sure, Madam."
Mary consulted the clock. "Where is he, then?"
"He's gone out," Trimmle announced, with the superior air of one who has respectfully waited for the question that a well-ordered mind would have first propounded.
Mary's previous conjecture had been right, then.
Mary turned back. "Where DID he go? And when?"
"He went out of the front door, up the drive, Madam." It was a matter of principle with Trimmle never to answer more than one question at a time.
"Up the drive? At this hour?" Mary went to the door herself, and glanced across the court through the long tunnel of bare limes. But its perspective was as empty as when she had scanned it on entering the house.
"Did Mr. Boyne leave no message?" she asked.
Trimmle seemed to surrender herself to a last struggle with the forces of chaos.
"No, Madam. He just went out with the gentleman."
"The gentleman? What gentleman?" Mary wheeled about, as if to front this new factor.
"The gentleman who called, Madam," said Trimmle, resignedly.
"When did a gentleman call? Do explain yourself, Trimmle!"
Only the fact that Mary was very hungry, and that she wanted to consult her husband about the greenhouses, would have caused her to lay so unusual an injunction on her attendant; and even now she was detached enough to note in Trimmle's eye the dawning defiance of the respectful subordinate who has been pressed too hard.
"I couldn't exactly say the hour, Madam, because I didn't let the gentleman in," she replied, with the air of magnanimously ignoring the irregularity of her mistress's course.
"You didn't let him in?"
"No, Madam. When the bell rang I was dressing, and Agnes--"
"Go and ask Agnes, then," Mary interjected. Trimmle still wore her look of patient magnanimity. "Agnes would not know, Madam, for she had unfortunately burnt her hand in trying the wick of the new lamp from town--" Trimmle, as Mary was aware, had always been opposed to the new lamp--"and so Mrs. Dockett sent the kitchen-maid instead."
Mary looked again at the clock. "It's after two! Go and ask the kitchen-maid if Mr. Boyne left any word."
She went into luncheon without waiting, and Trimmle presently brought her there the kitchen-maid's statement that the gentleman had called about one o'clock, that Mr. Boyne had gone out with him without leaving any message. The kitchen-maid did not even know the caller's name, for he had written it on a slip of paper, which he had folded and handed to her, with the injunction to deliver it at once to Mr. Boyne.
Mary finished her luncheon, still wondering, and when it was
over, and Trimmle had brought the coffee to the drawing-room, her wonder had
deepened to a first faint tinge of disquietude.
It was unlike
Still, since no life can completely defend itself from the unforeseen, it was evident that all Boyne's precautions would sooner or later prove unavailable, and Mary concluded that he had cut short a tiresome visit by walking with his caller to the station, or at least accompanying him for part of the way.
This conclusion relieved her from farther preoccupation, and she went out herself to take up her conference with the gardener. Thence she walked to the village post-office, a mile or so away; and when she turned toward home, the early twilight was setting in.
She had taken a foot-path across the downs, and as
Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long, silent, shadowy room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there audibly breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her short-sighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible propinquity she threw herself suddenly on the bell-rope and gave it a desperate pull.
The long, quavering summons brought Trimmle in precipitately with a lamp, and Mary breathed again at this sobering reappearance of the usual.
"You may bring tea if Mr. Boyne is in," she said, to justify her ring.
"Very well, Madam. But Mr. Boyne is not in," said Trimmle, putting down the lamp.
"Not in? You mean he's come back and gone out again?"
"No, Madam. He's never been back."
The dread stirred again, and Mary knew that now it had her fast.
"Not since he went out with--the gentleman?"
"Not since he went out with the gentleman."
"But who WAS the gentleman?" Mary gasped out, with the sharp note of some one trying to be heard through a confusion of meaningless noises.
"That I couldn't say, Madam." Trimmle, standing there by the lamp, seemed suddenly to grow less round and rosy, as though eclipsed by the same creeping shade of apprehension.
"But the kitchen-maid knows--wasn't it the kitchen-maid who let him in?"
"She doesn't know either, Madam, for he wrote his name on a folded paper."
Mary, through her agitation, was aware that they were both designating the unknown visitor by a vague pronoun, instead of the conventional formula which, till then, had kept their allusions within the bounds of custom. And at the same moment her mind caught at the suggestion of the folded paper.
"But he must have a name! Where is the paper?"
She moved to the desk, and began to turn over the scattered documents that littered it. The first that caught her eye was an unfinished letter in her husband's hand, with his pen lying across it, as though dropped there at a sudden summons.
"My dear Parvis,"--who was Parvis?--"I have just received your letter announcing Elwell's death, and while I suppose there is now no farther risk of trouble, it might be safer--"
She tossed the sheet aside, and continued her search; but no folded paper was discoverable among the letters and pages of manuscript which had been swept together in a promiscuous heap, as if by a hurried or a startled gesture.
"But the kitchen-maid SAW him. Send her here," she commanded, wondering at her dullness in not thinking sooner of so simple a solution.
Trimmle, at the behest, vanished in a flash, as if thankful to be out of the room, and when she reappeared, conducting the agitated underling, Mary had regained her self-possession, and had her questions pat.
The gentleman was a stranger, yes--that she understood. But what had he said? And, above all, what had he looked like? The first question was easily enough answered, for the disconcerting reason that he had said so little--had merely asked for Mr. Boyne, and, scribbling something on a bit of paper, had requested that it should at once be carried in to him.
"Then you don't know what he wrote? You're not sure it WAS his name?"
The kitchen-maid was not sure, but supposed it was, since he had written it in answer to her inquiry as to whom she should announce.
"And when you carried the paper in to Mr. Boyne, what did he say?"
The kitchen-maid did not think that Mr. Boyne had said anything, but she could not be sure, for just as she had handed him the paper and he was opening it, she had become aware that the visitor had followed her into the library, and she had slipped out, leaving the two gentlemen together.
"But then, if you left them in the library, how do you know that they went out of the house?"
This question plunged the witness into momentary inarticulateness, from which she was rescued by Trimmle, who, by means of ingenious circumlocutions, elicited the statement that before she could cross the hall to the back passage she had heard the gentlemen behind her, and had seen them go out of the front door together.
"Then, if you saw the gentleman twice, you must be able to tell me what he looked like."
But with this final challenge to her powers of expression it became clear that the limit of the kitchen-maid's endurance had been reached. The obligation of going to the front door to "show in" a visitor was in itself so subversive of the fundamental order of things that it had thrown her faculties into hopeless disarray, and she could only stammer out, after various panting efforts at evocation, "His hat, mum, was different-like, as you might say--"
"Different? How different?" Mary flashed out at her, her own mind, in the same instant, leaping back to an image left on it that morning, but temporarily lost under layers of subsequent impressions.
"His hat had a wide brim, you mean? and his face was
pale--a youngish face?" Mary pressed her, with a white-lipped intensity of
interrogation. But if the kitchen-maid
found any adequate answer to this challenge, it was swept away for her listener
down the rushing current of her own convictions. The stranger--the stranger in the
garden! Why had Mary not thought of him
before? She needed no one now to tell her that it was he who had called for her
husband and gone away with him. But who
was he, and why had
It leaped out at her suddenly, like a grin out of the dark,
that they had often called
A CONFOUNDEDLY HARD PLACE TO GET LOST IN! That had been her husband's phrase. And now, with the whole machinery of official investigation sweeping its flash-lights from shore to shore, and across the dividing straits; now, with Boyne's name blazing from the walls of every town and village, his portrait (how that wrung her!) hawked up and down the country like the image of a hunted criminal; now the little compact, populous island, so policed, surveyed, and administered, revealed itself as a Sphinx-like guardian of abysmal mysteries, staring back into his wife's anguished eyes as if with the malicious joy of knowing something they would never know!
In the fortnight since
Mary, while every external means of investigation was
working at its highest pressure, had ransacked her husband's papers for any
trace of antecedent complications, of entanglements or obligations unknown to
her, that might throw a faint ray into the darkness. But if any such had existed in the background
"I have just heard of Elwell's death, and while I
suppose there is now no farther risk of trouble, it might be safer--" That was all.
The "risk of trouble" was easily explained by the newspaper
clipping which had apprised Mary of the suit brought against her husband by one
of his associates in the Blue Star enterprise. The only new information
conveyed in the letter was the fact of its showing
This negative information, sole fruit of the first fortnight's feverish search, was not increased by a jot during the slow weeks that followed. Mary knew that the investigations were still being carried on, but she had a vague sense of their gradually slackening, as the actual march of time seemed to slacken. It was as though the days, flying horror-struck from the shrouded image of the one inscrutable day, gained assurance as the distance lengthened, till at last they fell back into their normal gait. And so with the human imaginations at work on the dark event. No doubt it occupied them still, but week by week and hour by hour it grew less absorbing, took up less space, was slowly but inevitably crowded out of the foreground of consciousness by the new problems perpetually bubbling up from the vaporous caldron of human experience.
Even Mary Boyne's consciousness gradually felt the same lowering of velocity. It still swayed with the incessant oscillations of conjecture; but they were slower, more rhythmical in their beat. There were moments of overwhelming lassitude when, like the victim of some poison which leaves the brain clear, but holds the body motionless, she saw herself domesticated with the Horror, accepting its perpetual presence as one of the fixed conditions of life.
These moments lengthened into hours and days, till she
passed into a phase of stolid acquiescence.
She watched the familiar routine of life with the incurious eye of a
savage on whom the meaningless processes of civilization make but the faintest
impression. She had come to regard
herself as part of the routine, a spoke of the wheel, revolving with its
motion; she felt almost like the furniture of the room in which she sat, an
insensate object to be dusted and pushed about with the chairs and tables. And this deepening apathy held her fast at
Lyng, in spite of the urgent entreaties of friends and the usual medical
recommendation of "change."
Her friends supposed that her refusal to move was inspired by the belief
that her husband would one day return to the spot from which he had vanished,
and a beautiful legend grew up about this imaginary state of waiting. But in
reality she had no such belief: the depths of anguish inclosing her were no
longer lighted by flashes of hope. She
was sure that
No, she would never know what had become of him--no one
would ever know. But the house KNEW; the
library in which she spent her long, lonely evenings knew. For it was here that the last scene had been
enacted, here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused
"I don't say it WASN'T straight, yet don't say it WAS straight. It was business."
Mary, at the words, lifted her head with a start, and looked intently at the speaker.
When, half an hour before, a card with "Mr. Parvis" on it had been brought up to her, she had been immediately aware that the name had been a part of her consciousness ever since she had read it at the head of Boyne's unfinished letter. In the library she had found awaiting her a small neutral-tinted man with a bald head and gold eye-glasses, and it sent a strange tremor through her to know that this was the person to whom her husband's last known thought had been directed.
Parvis, civilly, but without vain preamble,--in the manner of a man who has his watch in his hand,--had set forth the object of his visit. He had "run over" to England on business, and finding himself in the neighborhood of Dorchester, had not wished to leave it without paying his respects to Mrs. Boyne; without asking her, if the occasion offered, what she meant to do about Bob Elwell's family.
The words touched the spring of some obscure dread in Mary's
bosom. Did her visitor, after all, know
"I know nothing--you must tell me," she faltered out; and her visitor thereupon proceeded to unfold his story. It threw, even to her confused perceptions, and imperfectly initiated vision, a lurid glare on the whole hazy episode of the Blue Star Mine. Her husband had made his money in that brilliant speculation at the cost of "getting ahead" of some one less alert to seize the chance; the victim of his ingenuity was young Robert Elwell, who had "put him on" to the Blue Star scheme.
Parvis, at Mary's first startled cry, had thrown her a sobering glance through his impartial glasses.
"Bob Elwell wasn't smart enough, that's all; if he had
been, he might have turned round and served
Mary felt a physical shrinking from the next question she tried to frame; it was as though the words on her lips had a taste that nauseated her.
"But then--you accuse my husband of doing something dishonorable?"
Mr. Parvis surveyed the question dispassionately. "Oh, no, I don't. I don't even say it wasn't straight." He glanced up and down the long lines of books, as if one of them might have supplied him with the definition he sought. "I don't say it WASN'T straight, and yet I don't say it WAS straight. It was business." After all, no definition in his category could be more comprehensive than that.
Mary sat staring at him with a look of terror. He seemed to her like the indifferent, implacable emissary of some dark, formless power.
"But Mr. Elwell's lawyers apparently did not take your view, since I suppose the suit was withdrawn by their advice."
"Oh, yes, they knew he hadn't a leg to stand on, technically. It was when they advised him to withdraw the suit that he got desperate. You see, he'd borrowed most of the money he lost in the Blue Star, and he was up a tree. That's why he shot himself when they told him he had no show."
The horror was sweeping over Mary in great, deafening waves.
"He shot himself? He killed himself because of THAT? "
"Well, he didn't kill himself, exactly. He dragged on two months before he died." Parvis emitted the statement as unemotionally as a gramophone grinding out its "record."
"You mean that he tried to kill himself, and failed? And tried again?"
"Oh, he didn't have to try again," said Parvis, grimly.
They sat opposite each other in silence, he swinging his eye-glass thoughtfully about his finger, she, motionless, her arms stretched along her knees in an attitude of rigid tension.
"But if you knew all this," she began at length, hardly able to force her voice above a whisper, "how is it that when I wrote you at the time of my husband's disappearance you said you didn't understand his letter?"
Parvis received this without perceptible discomfiture. "Why, I didn't understand it--strictly speaking. And it wasn't the time to talk about it, if I had. The Elwell business was settled when the suit was withdrawn. Nothing I could have told you would have helped you to find your husband."
Mary continued to scrutinize him. "Then why are you telling me now?"
Still Parvis did not hesitate. "Well, to begin with, I supposed you knew more than you appear to--I mean about the circumstances of Elwell's death. And then people are talking of it now; the whole matter's been raked up again. And I thought, if you didn't know, you ought to."
She remained silent, and he continued: "You see, it's only come out lately what a bad state Elwell's affairs were in. His wife's a proud woman, and she fought on as long as she could, going out to work, and taking sewing at home, when she got too sick--something with the heart, I believe. But she had his bedridden mother to look after, and the children, and she broke down under it, and finally had to ask for help. That attracted attention to the case, and the papers took it up, and a subscription was started. Everybody out there liked Bob Elwell, and most of the prominent names in the place are down on the list, and people began to wonder why--"
Parvis broke off to fumble in an inner pocket. "Here," he continued, "here's an account of the whole thing from the 'Sentinel'--a little sensational, of course. But I guess you'd better look it over."
He held out a newspaper to Mary, who unfolded it slowly, remembering, as she did so, the evening when, in that same room, the perusal of a clipping from the "Sentinel" had first shaken the depths of her security.
As she opened the paper, her eyes, shrinking from the
glaring head-lines, "Widow of Boyne's Victim Forced to Appeal for
Aid," ran down the column of text to two portraits inserted in it. The first was her husband's, taken from a
photograph made the year they had come to
"I thought if you felt disposed to put your name down--" she heard Parvis continue.
She opened her eyes with an effort, and they fell on the other portrait. It was that of a youngish man, slightly built, in rough clothes, with features somewhat blurred by the shadow of a projecting hat-brim. Where had she seen that outline before? She stared at it confusedly, her heart hammering in her throat and ears. Then she gave a cry.
"This is the man--the man who came for my husband!"
She heard Parvis start to his feet, and was dimly aware that she had slipped backward into the corner of the sofa, and that he was bending above her in alarm. With an intense effort she straightened herself, and reached out for the paper, which she had dropped.
"It's the man! I should know him anywhere!" she cried in a voice that sounded in her own ears like a scream.
Parvis's voice seemed to come to her from far off, down endless, fog-muffled windings.
"Mrs. Boyne, you're not very well. Shall I call somebody? Shall I get a glass of water?"
"No, no, no!" She threw herself toward him, her hand frantically clenching the newspaper. "I tell you, it's the man! I KNOW him! He spoke to me in the garden!"
Parvis took the journal from her, directing his glasses to the portrait. "It can't be, Mrs. Boyne. It's Robert Elwell."
"Robert Elwell?" Her white stare seemed to travel into space. "Then it was Robert Elwell who came for him."
Mary sat with her eyes fixed on the picture, unconscious of what he was saying.
"Don't you remember
Yes, she remembered: that was the profoundest horror of it.
Elwell had died the day before her husband's disappearance; and this was
Elwell's portrait; and it was the portrait of the man who had spoken to her in
the garden. She lifted her head and
looked slowly about the library. The
library could have borne witness that it was also the portrait of the man who
had come in that day to call
"This was the man who spoke to me," she repeated.
She looked again at Parvis. He was trying to conceal his disturbance under what he imagined to be an expression of indulgent commiseration; but the edges of his lips were blue. "He thinks me mad; but I'm not mad," she reflected; and suddenly there flashed upon her a way of justifying her strange affirmation.
She sat quiet, controlling the quiver of her lips, and waiting till she could trust her voice to keep its habitual level; then she said, looking straight at Parvis: "Will you answer me one question, please? When was it that Robert Elwell tried to kill himself?"
"When--when?" Parvis stammered.
"Yes; the date. Please try to remember."
She saw that he was growing still more afraid of her. "I have a reason," she insisted gently.
"Yes, yes. Only I can't remember. About two months before, I should say."
"I want the date," she repeated.
Parvis picked up the newspaper. "We might see here," he said, still humoring her. He ran his eyes down the page. "Here it is. Last October--the--"
She caught the words from him. "The 20th, wasn't it?" With a sharp look at her, he verified. "Yes, the 20th. Then you DID know?"
"I know now." Her white stare continued to travel past him. "Sunday, the 20th--that was the day he came first."
Parvis's voice was almost inaudible. "Came HERE first?"
"You saw him twice, then?"
"Yes, twice." She breathed it at him with dilated eyes. "He came first on the 20th of October. I remember the date because it was the day we went up Meldon Steep for the first time." She felt a faint gasp of inward laughter at the thought that but for that she might have forgotten.
Parvis continued to scrutinize her, as if trying to intercept her gaze.
"We saw him from the roof," she went on. "He came down the lime-avenue toward the house. He was dressed just as he is in that picture. My husband saw him first. He was frightened, and ran down ahead of me; but there was no one there. He had vanished."
"Elwell had vanished?" Parvis faltered.
"Yes." Their two whispers seemed to grope for each other. "I couldn't think what had happened. I see now. He TRIED to come then; but he wasn't dead enough--he couldn't reach us. He had to wait for two months; and then he came back again--and Ned went with him."
She nodded at Parvis with the look of triumph of a child who has successfully worked out a difficult puzzle. But suddenly she lifted her hands with a desperate gesture, pressing them to her bursting temples.
"Oh, my God! I sent him to Ned--I told him where to go! I sent him to this room!" she screamed out.
She felt the walls of the room rush toward her, like inward falling ruins; and she heard Parvis, a long way off, as if through the ruins, crying to her, and struggling to get at her. But she was numb to his touch, she did not know what he was saying. Through the tumult she heard but one clear note, the voice of Alida Stair, speaking on the lawn at Pangbourne.
"You won't know till afterward," it said. "You won't know till long, long afterward."
The End of Afterward
For hours she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike that sweet lassitude which masters one in the hush of a midsummer noon, when the heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk in the tasselled meadow-grasses, one looks up through a level roofing of maple-leaves at the vast shadowless, and unsuggestive blue. Now and then, at ever-lengthening intervals, a flash of pain darted through her, like the ripple of sheet-lightning across such a midsummer sky; but it was too transitory to shake her stupor, that calm, delicious, bottomless stupor into which she felt herself sinking more and more deeply, without a disturbing impulse of resistance, an effort of reattachment to the vanishing edges of consciousness.
The resistance, the effort, had known their hour of violence; but now they were at an end. Through her mind, long harried by grotesque visions, fragmentary images of the life that she was leaving, tormenting lines of verse, obstinate presentments of pictures once beheld, indistinct impressions of rivers, towers, and cupolas, gathered in the length of journeys half forgotten--through her mind there now only moved a few primal sensations of colorless well-being; a vague satisfaction in the thought that she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine . . . and that she should never again hear the creaking of her husband's boots--those horrible boots--and that no one would come to bother her about the next day's dinner . . . or the butcher's book. . . .
At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric roses, circling softly, interminably before her, now darkened to a uniform blue-blackness, the hue of a summer night without stars. And into this darkness she felt herself sinking, sinking, with the gentle sense of security of one upheld from beneath. Like a tepid tide it rose around her, gliding ever higher and higher, folding in its velvety embrace her relaxed and tired body, now submerging her breast and shoulders, now creeping gradually, with soft inexorableness, over her throat to her chin, to her ears, to her mouth. . . . Ah, now it was rising too high; the impulse to struggle was renewed;. . . her mouth was full;. . . she was choking. . . . Help!
"It is all over," said the nurse, drawing down the eyelids with official composure.
The clock struck three. They remembered it afterward. Someone opened the window and let in a blast of that strange, neutral air which walks the earth between darkness and dawn; someone else led the husband into another room. He walked vaguely, like a blind man, on his creaking boots.
She stood, as it seemed, on a threshold, yet no tangible gateway was in front of her. Only a wide vista of light, mild yet penetrating as the gathered glimmer of innumerable stars, expanded gradually before her eyes, in blissful contrast to the cavernous darkness from which she had of late emerged.
She stepped forward, not frightened, but hesitating, and as her eyes began to grow more familiar with the melting depths of light about her, she distinguished the outlines of a landscape, at first swimming in the opaline uncertainty of Shelley's vaporous creations, then gradually resolved into distincter shape--the vast unrolling of a sunlit plain, aerial forms of mountains, and presently the silver crescent of a river in the valley, and a blue stencilling of trees along its curve--something suggestive in its ineffable hue of an azure background of Leonardo's, strange, enchanting, mysterious, leading on the eye and the imagination into regions of fabulous delight. As she gazed, her heart beat with a soft and rapturous surprise; so exquisite a promise she read in the summons of that hyaline distance.
"And so death is not the end after all," in sheer
gladness she heard herself exclaiming aloud.
"I always knew that it couldn't be.
I believed in
Her gaze lost itself in the ethereal remoteness of the mountains.
"How beautiful! How satisfying!" she murmured. "Perhaps now I shall really know what it is to live."
As she spoke she felt a sudden thickening of her heart-beats, and looking up she was aware that before her stood the Spirit of Life.
"Have you never really known what it is to live?" the Spirit of Life asked her.
"I have never known," she replied, "that fulness of life which we all feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one sometimes far out at sea."
"And what do you call the fulness of life?" the Spirit asked again.
"Oh, I can't tell you, if you don't know," she said, almost reproachfully. "Many words are supposed to define it--love and sympathy are those in commonest use, but I am not even sure that they are the right ones, and so few people really know what they mean."
"You were married," said the Spirit, "yet you did not find the fulness of life in your marriage?"
"Oh, dear, no," she replied, with an indulgent scorn, "my marriage was a very incomplete affair."
"And yet you were fond of your husband?"
"You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes."
"And your husband," asked the Spirit, after a pause, "never got beyond the family sitting-room?"
"Never," she returned, impatiently; "and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: 'Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?'"
"Then," the Spirit continued, "those moments of which you lately spoke, which seemed to come to you like scattered hints of the fulness of life, were not shared with your husband?"
"Oh, no--never. He was different. His boots creaked, and he always slammed the door when he went out, and he never read anything but railway novels and the sporting advertisements in the papers--and--and, in short, we never understood each other in the least."
"To what influence, then, did you owe those exquisite sensations?"
"I can hardly tell. Sometimes to the perfume of a flower; sometimes to a verse of Dante or of Shakespeare; sometimes to a picture or a sunset, or to one of those calm days at sea, when one seems to be lying in the hollow of a blue pearl; sometimes, but rarely, to a word spoken by someone who chanced to give utterance, at the right moment, to what I felt but could not express."
"Someone whom you loved?" asked the Spirit.
"I never loved anyone, in that way," she said,
rather sadly, "nor was I thinking of any one person when I spoke, but of
two or three who, by touching for an instant upon a certain chord of my being,
had called forth a single note of that strange melody which seemed sleeping in
my soul. It has seldom happened,
however, that I have owed such feelings to people; and no one ever gave me a
moment of such happiness as it was my lot to feel one evening in the
"Tell me about it," said the Spirit.
"It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the church the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cope a livid spot in the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.
"Strange to say, though
"The church was silent, but for the wail of the priest and the occasional scraping of a chair against the floor, and as I sat there, bathed in that light, absorbed in rapt contemplation of the marble miracle which rose before me, cunningly wrought as a casket of ivory and enriched with jewel-like incrustations and tarnished gleams of gold, I felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to be in the very beginning of things, and whose tremendous waters gathered as they went all the mingled streams of human passion and endeavor. Life in all its varied manifestations of beauty and strangeness seemed weaving a rhythmical dance around me as I moved, and wherever the spirit of man had passed I knew that my foot had once been familiar.
"As I gazed the mediaeval bosses of the tabernacle of Orcagna seemed to melt and flow into their primal forms so that the folded lotus of the Nile and the Greek acanthus were braided with the runic knots and fish-tailed monsters of the North, and all the plastic terror and beauty born of man's hand from the Ganges to the Baltic quivered and mingled in Orcagna's apotheosis of Mary. And so the river bore me on, past the alien face of antique civilizations and the familiar wonders of Greece, till I swam upon the fiercely rushing tide of the Middle Ages, with its swirling eddies of passion, its heaven-reflecting pools of poetry and art; I heard the rhythmic blow of the craftsmen's hammers in the goldsmiths' workshops and on the walls of churches, the party-cries of armed factions in the narrow streets, the organ-roll of Dante's verse, the crackle of the fagots around Arnold of Brescia, the twitter of the swallows to which St. Francis preached, the laughter of the ladies listening on the hillside to the quips of the Decameron, while plague-struck Florence howled beneath them--all this and much more I heard, joined in strange unison with voices earlier and more remote, fierce, passionate, or tender, yet subdued to such awful harmony that I thought of the song that the morning stars sang together and felt as though it were sounding in my ears. My heart beat to suffocation, the tears burned my lids, the joy, the mystery of it seemed too intolerable to be borne. I could not understand even then the words of the song; but I knew that if there had been someone at my side who could have heard it with me, we might have found the key to it together.
"I turned to my husband, who was sitting beside me in an attitude of patient dejection, gazing into the bottom of his hat; but at that moment he rose, and stretching his stiffened legs, said, mildly: 'Hadn't we better be going? There doesn't seem to be much to see here, and you know the table d'hote dinner is at half-past six o'clock."
Her recital ended, there was an interval of silence; then the Spirit of Life said: "There is a compensation in store for such needs as you have expressed."
"Oh, then you DO understand?" she exclaimed. "Tell me what compensation, I entreat you!"
"It is ordained," the Spirit answered, "that every soul which seeks in vain on earth for a kindred soul to whom it can lay bare its inmost being shall find that soul here and be united to it for eternity."
A glad cry broke from her lips. "Ah, shall I find him at last?" she cried, exultant.
"He is here," said the Spirit of Life.
She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face) drew her toward him with an invincible force.
"Are you really he?" she murmured.
"I am he," he answered.
She laid her hand in his and drew him toward the parapet which overhung the valley.
"Shall we go down together," she asked him, "into that marvellous country; shall we see it together, as if with the self-same eyes, and tell each other in the same words all that we think and feel?"
"So," he replied, "have I hoped and dreamed."
"What?" she asked, with rising joy. "Then you, too, have looked for me?"
"All my life."
"How wonderful! And did you never, never find anyone in the other world who understood you?"
"Not wholly--not as you and I understand each other."
"Then you feel it, too? Oh, I am happy," she sighed.
They stood, hand in hand, looking down over the parapet upon the shimmering landscape which stretched forth beneath them into sapphirine space, and the Spirit of Life, who kept watch near the threshold, heard now and then a floating fragment of their talk blown backward like the stray swallows which the wind sometimes separates from their migratory tribe.
"Did you never feel at sunset--"
"Ah, yes; but I never heard anyone else say so. Did you?"
"Do you remember that line in the third canto of the 'Inferno?'"
"Ah, that line--my favorite always. Is it possible--"
"You know the stooping Victory in the frieze of the Nike Apteros?"
"You mean the one who is tying her sandal? Then you have noticed, too, that all Botticelli and Mantegna are dormant in those flying folds of her drapery?"
"After a storm in autumn have you never seen--"
"Yes, it is curious how certain flowers suggest certain painters--the perfume of the incarnation, Leonardo; that of the rose, Titian; the tuberose, Crivelli--"
"I never supposed that anyone else had noticed it."
"Have you never thought--"
"Oh, yes, often and often; but I never dreamed that anyone else had."
"But surely you must have felt--"
"Oh, yes, yes; and you, too--"
"How beautiful! How strange--"
Their voices rose and fell, like the murmur of two fountains answering each other across a garden full of flowers. At length, with a certain tender impatience, he turned to her and said: "Love, why should we linger here? All eternity lies before us. Let us go down into that beautiful country together and make a home for ourselves on some blue hill above the shining river."
As he spoke, the hand she had forgotten in his was suddenly withdrawn, and he felt that a cloud was passing over the radiance of her soul.
"A home," she repeated, slowly, "a home for you and me to live in for all eternity?"
"Why not, love? Am I not the soul that yours has sought?"
"Y-yes--yes, I know--but, don't you see, home would not be like home to me, unless--"
"Unless?" he wonderingly repeated.
She did not answer, but she thought to herself, with an impulse of whimsical inconsistency, "Unless you slammed the door and wore creaking boots."
But he had recovered his hold upon her hand, and by imperceptible degrees was leading her toward the shining steps which descended to the valley.
"Come, O my soul's soul," he passionately
implored; "why delay a moment?
Surely you feel, as I do, that eternity itself is too short to hold such
bliss as ours. It seems to me that I can
see our home already. Have I not always
seem it in my dreams? It is white, love,
is it not, with polished columns, and a sculptured cornice against the
blue? Groves of laurel and oleander and
thickets of roses surround it; but from the terrace where we walk at sunset,
the eye looks out over woodlands and cool meadows where, deep-bowered under
ancient boughs, a stream goes delicately toward the river. Indoors our favorite pictures hang upon the
walls and the rooms are lined with books.
Think, dear, at last we shall have time to read them all. With which shall we begin? Come, help me to choose. Shall it be 'Faust' or the 'Vita Nuova,' the
'Tempest' or 'Les Caprices de Marianne,' or the thirty-first canto of the '
As he spoke he saw the answer trembling joyously upon her lips; but it died in the ensuing silence, and she stood motionless, resisting the persuasion of his hand.
"What is it?" he entreated.
"Wait a moment," she said, with a strange hesitation in her voice. "Tell me first, are you quite sure of yourself? Is there no one on earth whom you sometimes remember?"
"Not since I have seen you," he replied; for, being a man, he had indeed forgotten.
Still she stood motionless, and he saw that the shadow deepened on her soul.
"Surely, love," he rebuked her, "it was not that which troubled you? For my part I have walked through Lethe. The past has melted like a cloud before the moon. I never lived until I saw you."
She made no answer to his pleadings, but at length, rousing herself with a visible effort, she turned away from him and moved toward the Spirit of Life, who still stood near the threshold.
"I want to ask you a question," she said, in a troubled voice.
"Ask," said the Spirit.
"A little while ago," she began, slowly, "you told me that every soul which has not found a kindred soul on earth is destined to find one here."
"And have you not found one?" asked the Spirit.
"Yes; but will it be so with my husband's soul also?"
"No," answered the Spirit of Life, "for your husband imagined that he had found his soul's mate on earth in you; and for such delusions eternity itself contains no cure."
She gave a little cry. Was it of disappointment or triumph?
"Then--then what will happen to him when he comes here?"
"That I cannot tell you. Some field of activity and happiness he will doubtless find, in due measure to his capacity for being active and happy."
She interrupted, almost angrily: "He will never be happy without me."
"Do not be too sure of that," said the Spirit.
She took no notice of this, and the Spirit continued: "He will not understand you here any better than he did on earth."
"No matter," she said; "I shall be the only sufferer, for he always thought that he understood me."
"His boots will creak just as much as ever--"
"And he will slam the door--"
"And continue to read railway novels--"
She interposed, impatiently: "Many men do worse than that."
"But you said just now," said the Spirit, "that you did not love him."
"True," she answered, simply; "but don't you understand that I shouldn't feel at home without him? It is all very well for a week or two--but for eternity! After all, I never minded the creaking of his boots, except when my head ached, and I don't suppose it will ache HERE; and he was always so sorry when he had slammed the door, only he never COULD remember not to. Besides, no one else would know how to look after him, he is so helpless. His inkstand would never be filled, and he would always be out of stamps and visiting-cards. He would never remember to have his umbrella re-covered, or to ask the price of anything before he bought it. Why, he wouldn't even know what novels to read. I always had to choose the kind he liked, with a murder or a forgery and a successful detective."
She turned abruptly to her kindred soul, who stood listening with a mien of wonder and dismay.
"Don't you see," she said, "that I can't possibly go with you?"
"But what do you intend to do?" asked the Spirit of Life.
"What do I intend to do?" she returned, indignantly. "Why, I mean to wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first HE would have waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to find me here when he comes." She pointed with a contemptuous gesture to the magic vision of hill and vale sloping away to the translucent mountains. "He wouldn't give a fig for all that," she said, "if he didn't find me here."
"But consider," warned the Spirit, "that you are now choosing for eternity. It is a solemn moment."
"Choosing!" she said, with a half-sad smile. "Do you still keep up here that old fiction about choosing? I should have thought that YOU knew better than that. How can I help myself? He will expect to find me here when he comes, and he would never believe you if you told him that I had gone away with someone else--never, never."
"So be it," said the Spirit. "Here, as on earth, each one must decide for himself."
She turned to her kindred soul and looked at him gently, almost wistfully. "I am sorry," she said. "I should have liked to talk with you again; but you will understand, I know, and I dare say you will find someone else a great deal cleverer--"
And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift farewell and turned back toward the threshold.
"Will my husband come soon?" she asked the Spirit of Life.
"That you are not destined to know," the Spirit replied.
"No matter," she said, cheerfully; "I have all eternity to wait in."
And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the creaking of his boots.
The End of The Fulness of Life
This is the story that, in the dining-room of the old Beacon Street house (now the Aldebaran Club), Judge Anthony Bracknell, of the famous East India firm of Bracknell & Saulsbee, when the ladies had withdrawn to the oval parlour (and Maria's harp was throwing its gauzy web of sound across the Common), used to relate to his grandsons, about the year that Buonaparte marched upon Moscow.
"Him Venice!" said the Lascar with the big earrings; and Tony Bracknell, leaning on the high gunwale of his father's East Indiaman, the Hepzibah B., saw far off, across the morning sea, a faint vision of towers and domes dissolved in golden air.
It was a rare February day of the year 1760, and a young
Tony, newly of age, and bound on the grand tour aboard the crack merchantman of
old Bracknell's fleet, felt his heart leap up as the distant city trembled into
As Tony advanced in years and experience this childish
mumming lost its magic; but not so the early imaginings it had excited. For the
old picture had been but the spring-board of fancy, the first step of a
cloud-ladder leading to a land of dreams.
With these dreams the name of
The Reverend Ozias Mounce, Tony's governor and bear-leader, was
just putting a hand to the third clause of the fourth part of a sermon on
Free-Will and Predestination as the Hepzibah B.'s anchor rattled
overboard. Tony, in his haste to be
ashore, would have made one plunge with the anchor; but the Reverend Ozias, on
being roused from his lucubrations, earnestly protested against leaving his
argument in suspense. What was the
trifle of an arrival at some Papistical foreign city, where the very churches
wore turbans like so many Moslem idolators, to the important fact of Mr.
Mounce's summing up his conclusions before the Muse of Theology took
flight? He should be happy, he said, if
the tide served, to visit
The next morning, ha!--Tony murmured a submissive "Yes, sir," winked at the subjugated captain, buckled on his sword, pressed his hat down with a flourish, and before the Reverend Ozias had arrived at his next deduction, was skimming merrily shoreward in the Hepzibah's gig.
A moment more and he was in the thick of it! Here was the very world of the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour, and bubbling with merry noises. What a scene it was! A square enclosed in fantastic painted buildings, and peopled with a throng as fantastic: a bawling, laughing, jostling, sweating mob, parti-coloured, parti-speeched, crackling and sputtering under the hot sun like a dish of fritters over a kitchen fire. Tony, agape, shouldered his way through the press, aware at once that, spite of the tumult, the shrillness, the gesticulation, there was no undercurrent of clownishness, no tendency to horse-play, as in such crowds on market-day at home, but a kind of facetious suavity which seemed to include everybody in the circumference of one huge joke. In such an air the sense of strangeness soon wore off, and Tony was beginning to feel himself vastly at home, when a lift of the tide bore him against a droll-looking bell-ringing fellow who carried above his head a tall metal tree hung with sherbet-glasses.
The encounter set the glasses spinning and three or four spun off and clattered to the stones. The sherbet-seller called on all the saints, and Tony, clapping a lordly hand to his pocket, tossed him a ducat by mistake for a sequin. The fellow's eyes shot out of their orbits, and just then a personable-looking young man who had observed the transaction stepped up to Tony and said pleasantly, in English:
"I perceive, sir, that you are not familiar with our currency."
"Does he want more?" says Tony, very lordly; whereat the other laughed and replied: "You have given him enough to retire from his business and open a gaming-house over the arcade."
Tony joined in the laugh, and this incident bridging the
preliminaries, the two young men were presently hobnobbing over a glass of
Canary in front of one of the coffee-houses about the square. Tony counted himself lucky to have run across
an English-speaking companion who was good-natured enough to give him a clue to
the labyrinth; and when he had paid for the Canary (in the coin his friend
selected) they set out again to view the town.
The Italian gentleman, who called himself Count Rialto, appeared to have
a very numerous acquaintance, and was able to point out to Tony all the chief
dignitaries of the state, the men of ton and ladies of fashion, as well as a
number of other characters of a kind not openly mentioned in taking a census of
Tony, who was not averse from reading when nothing better offered, had perused the "Merchant of Venice" and Mr. Otway's fine tragedy; but though these pieces had given him a notion that the social usages of Venice differed from those at home, he was unprepared for the surprising appearance and manners of the great people his friend named to him. The gravest Senators of the Republic went in prodigious striped trousers, short cloaks and feathered hats. One nobleman wore a ruff and doctor's gown, another a black velvet tunic slashed with rose-colour; while the President of the dreaded Council of Ten was a terrible strutting fellow with a rapier-like nose, a buff leather jerkin and a trailing scarlet cloak that the crowd was careful not to step on.
It was all vastly diverting, and Tony would gladly have gone on forever; but he had given his word to the captain to be at the landing-place at sunset, and here was dusk already creeping over the skies! Tony was a man of honour; and having pressed on the Count a handsome damascened dagger selected from one of the goldsmiths' shops in a narrow street lined with such wares, he insisted on turning his face toward the Hepzibah's gig. The Count yielded reluctantly; but as they came out again on the square they were caught in a great throng pouring toward the doors of the cathedral.
"They go to Benediction," said the Count. "A beautiful sight, with many lights and flowers. It is a pity you cannot take a peep at it."
Tony thought so too, and in another minute a legless beggar had pulled back the leathern flap of the cathedral door, and they stood in a haze of gold and perfume that seemed to rise and fall on the mighty undulations of the organ. Here the press was as thick as without; and as Tony flattened himself against a pillar, he heard a pretty voice at his elbow:--"Oh, sir, oh, sir, your sword!"
He turned at sound of the broken English, and saw a girl who matched the voice trying to disengage her dress from the tip of his scabbard. She wore one of the voluminous black hoods which the Venetian ladies affected, and under its projecting eaves her face spied out at him as sweet as a nesting bird.
In the dusk their hands met over the scabbard, and as she freed herself a shred of her lace flounce clung to Tony's enchanted fingers. Looking after her, he saw she was on the arm of a pompous-looking graybeard in a long black gown and scarlet stockings, who, on perceiving the exchange of glances between the young people, drew the lady away with a threatening look.
The Count met Tony's eye with a smile. "One of our Venetian beauties,"
said he; "the lovely Polixena Cador.
She is thought to have the finest eyes in
"She spoke English," stammered Tony.
"Oh--ah--precisely: she learned the language at the
Court of Saint James's, where her father, the Senator, was formerly accredited
as Ambassador. She played as an infant
with the royal princes of
"And that was her father?"
"Assuredly: young ladies of Donna Polixena's rank do not go abroad save with their parents or a duenna."
Just then a soft hand slid into Tony's. His heart gave a foolish bound, and he turned about half-expecting to meet again the merry eyes under the hood; but saw instead a slender brown boy, in some kind of fanciful page's dress, who thrust a folded paper between his fingers and vanished in the throng. Tony, in a tingle, glanced surreptitiously at the Count, who appeared absorbed in his prayers. The crowd, at the ringing of a bell, had in fact been overswept by a sudden wave of devotion; and Tony seized the moment to step beneath a lighted shrine with his letter.
"I am in dreadful trouble and implore your help. Polixena"--he read; but hardly had he seized the sense of the words when a hand fell on his shoulder, and a stern-looking man in a cocked hat, and bearing a kind of rod or mace, pronounced a few words in Venetian.
Tony, with a start, thrust the letter in his breast, and tried to jerk himself free; but the harder he jerked the tighter grew the other's grip, and the Count, presently perceiving what had happened, pushed his way through the crowd, and whispered hastily to his companion: "For God's sake, make no struggle. This is serious. Keep quiet and do as I tell you."
Tony was no chicken-heart. He had something of a name for pugnacity among the lads of his own age at home, and was not the man to stand in Venice what he would have resented in Salem; but the devil of it was that this black fellow seemed to be pointing to the letter in his breast; and this suspicion was confirmed by the Count's agitated whisper.
"This is one of the agents of the Ten.--For God's sake, no outcry." He exchanged a word or two with the mace-bearer and again turned to Tony. "You have been seen concealing a letter about your person--"
"And what of that?" says Tony furiously.
"Gently, gently, my master. A letter handed to you by the page of Donna
Polixena Cador.--A black business! Oh, a
very black business! This Cador is one
of the most powerful nobles in
His hand on Tony's shoulder, he carried on a rapid dialogue with the potentate in the cocked hat.
"I am sorry, sir--but our young ladies of rank are as
jealously guarded as the
Meanwhile the agent of the Ten had yielded his place to a sharp-featured shabby-looking fellow in black, dressed somewhat like a lawyer's clerk, who laid a grimy hand on Tony's arm, and with many apologetic gestures steered him through the crowd to the doors of the church. The Count held him by the other arm, and in this fashion they emerged on the square, which now lay in darkness save for the many lights twinkling under the arcade and in the windows of the gaming-rooms above it.
Tony by this time had regained voice enough to declare that he would go where they pleased, but that he must first say a word to the mate of the Hepzibah, who had now been awaiting him some two hours or more at the landing-place.
The Count repeated this to Tony's custodian, but the latter shook his head and rattled off a sharp denial.
"Impossible, sir," said the Count. "I entreat you not to insist. Any resistance will tell against you in the end."
Tony fell silent.
With a rapid eye he was measuring his chances of escape. In wind and limb he was more than a mate for
his captors, and boyhood's ruses were not so far behind him but he felt himself
equal to outwitting a dozen grown men; but he had the sense to see that at a
cry the crowd would close in on him. Space was what he wanted: a clear ten
yards, and he would have laughed at Doge and Council. But the throng was thick as glue, and he
walked on submissively, keeping his eye alert for an opening. Suddenly the mob swerved aside after some new
show. Tony's fist shot out at the black fellow's chest, and before the latter
could right himself the young New Englander was showing a clean pair of heels
to his escort. On he sped, cleaving the
crowd like a flood-tide in
The servant picked up a lantern and signed to Tony to follow her. They climbed a squalid stairway of stone, felt their way along a corridor, and entered a tall vaulted room feebly lit by an oil-lamp hung from the painted ceiling. Tony discerned traces of former splendour in his surroundings, but he had no time to examine them, for a figure started up at his approach and in the dim light he recognized the girl who was the cause of all his troubles.
She sprang toward him with outstretched hands, but as he advanced her face changed and she shrank back abashed.
"This is a misunderstanding--a dreadful misunderstanding," she cried out in her pretty broken English. "Oh, how does it happen that you are here?"
"Through no choice of my own, madam, I assure you!" retorted Tony, not over-pleased by his reception.
"But why--how--how did you make this unfortunate mistake?"
"Why, madam, if you'll excuse my candour, I think the mistake was yours--"
--"in sending me a letter--"
--"by a simpleton of a lad, who must needs hand it to me under your father's very nose--"
The girl broke in on him with a cry. "What! It was YOU who received my letter?" She swept round on the little maid-servant and submerged her under a flood of Venetian. The latter volleyed back in the same jargon, and as she did so, Tony's astonished eye detected in her the doubleted page who had handed him the letter in Saint Mark's.
"What!" he cried, "the lad was this girl in disguise?"
Polixena broke off with an irrepressible smile; but her face clouded instantly and she returned to the charge.
"This wicked, careless girl--she has ruined me, she will be my undoing! Oh, sir, how can I make you understand? The letter was not intended for you--it was meant for the English Ambassador, an old friend of my mother's, from whom I hoped to obtain assistance--oh, how can I ever excuse myself to you?"
"No excuses are needed, madam," said Tony, bowing; "though I am surprised, I own, that any one should mistake me for an ambassador."
Here a wave of mirth again overran Polixena's face. "Oh, sir, you must pardon my poor girl's mistake. She heard you speaking English, and--and--I had told her to hand the letter to the handsomest foreigner in the church." Tony bowed again, more profoundly. "The English Ambassador," Polixena added simply, "is a very handsome man."
"I wish, madam, I were a better proxy!"
She echoed his laugh, and then clapped her hands together with a look of anguish. "Fool that I am! How can I jest at such a moment? I am in dreadful trouble, and now perhaps I have brought trouble on you also-- Oh, my father! I hear my father coming!" She turned pale and leaned tremblingly upon the little servant.
Footsteps and loud voices were in fact heard outside, and a moment later the red-stockinged Senator stalked into the room attended by half-a-dozen of the magnificoes whom Tony had seen abroad in the square. At sight of him, all clapped hands to their swords and burst into furious outcries; and though their jargon was unintelligible to the young man, their tones and gestures made their meaning unpleasantly plain. The Senator, with a start of anger, first flung himself on the intruder; then, snatched back by his companions, turned wrathfully on his daughter, who, at his feet, with outstretched arms and streaming face, pleaded her cause with all the eloquence of young distress. Meanwhile the other nobles gesticulated vehemently among themselves, and one, a truculent-looking personage in ruff and Spanish cape, stalked apart, keeping a jealous eye on Tony. The latter was at his wit's end how to comport himself, for the lovely Polixena's tears had quite drowned her few words of English, and beyond guessing that the magnificoes meant him a mischief he had no notion what they would be at.
At this point, luckily, his friend Count Rialto suddenly broke in on the scene, and was at once assailed by all the tongues in the room. He pulled a long face at sight of Tony, but signed to the young man to be silent, and addressed himself earnestly to the Senator. The latter, at first, would not draw breath to hear him; but presently, sobering, he walked apart with the Count, and the two conversed together out of earshot.
"My dear sir," said the Count, at length turning to Tony with a perturbed countenance, "it is as I feared, and you are fallen into a great misfortune."
"A great misfortune! A great trap, I call it!" shouted Tony, whose blood, by this time, was boiling; but as he uttered the word the beautiful Polixena cast such a stricken look on him that he blushed up to the forehead.
"Be careful," said the Count, in a low tone. "Though his Illustriousness does not speak your language, he understands a few words of it, and--"
"So much the better!" broke in Tony; "I hope he will understand me if I ask him in plain English what is his grievance against me."
The Senator, at this, would have burst forth again; but the Count, stepping between, answered quickly: "His grievance against you is that you have been detected in secret correspondence with his daughter, the most noble Polixena Cador, the betrothed bride of this gentleman, the most illustrious Marquess Zanipolo--" and he waved a deferential hand at the frowning hidalgo of the cape and ruff.
"Sir," said Tony, "if that is the extent of my offence, it lies with the young lady to set me free, since by her own avowal--" but here he stopped short, for, to his surprise, Polixena shot a terrified glance at him.
"Sir," interposed the Count, "we are not accustomed
"No more are we in
Polixena's eyes signalled her gratitude, and he felt he would have died to defend her.
The Count translated his statement, and presently pursued: "His Illustriousness observes that, in that case, his daughter's misconduct has been all the more reprehensible."
"Her misconduct? Of what does he accuse her?"
"Of sending you, just now, in the
Tony stared contemptuously at the black Marquess. "If his Illustriousness is so lacking in gallantry as to repudiate a lady on so trivial a pretext, it is he and not I who should be the object of her father's resentment."
"That, my dear young gentleman, is hardly for you to decide. Your only excuse being your ignorance of our customs, it is scarcely for you to advise us how to behave in matters of punctilio."
It seemed to Tony as though the Count were going over to his enemies, and the thought sharpened his retort.
"I had supposed," said he, "that men of sense had much the same behaviour in all countries, and that, here as elsewhere, a gentleman would be taken at his word. I solemnly affirm that the letter I was seen to read reflects in no way on the honour of this young lady, and has in fact nothing to do with what you suppose."
As he had himself no notion what the letter was about, this was as far as he dared commit himself.
There was another brief consultation in the opposing camp, and the Count then said:--"We all know, sir, that a gentleman is obliged to meet certain enquiries by a denial; but you have at your command the means of immediately clearing the lady. Will you show the letter to her father?"
There was a perceptible pause, during which Tony, while appearing to look straight before him, managed to deflect an interrogatory glance toward Polixena. Her reply was a faint negative motion, accompanied by unmistakable signs of apprehension.
"Poor girl!" he thought, "she is in a worse case than I imagined, and whatever happens I must keep her secret."
He turned to the Senator with a deep bow. "I am not," said he, "in the habit of showing my private correspondence to strangers."
The Count interpreted these words, and Donna Polixena's father, dashing his hand on his hilt, broke into furious invective, while the Marquess continued to nurse his outraged feelings aloof.
The Count shook his head funereally. "Alas, sir, it is as I feared. This is not the first time that youth and propinquity have led to fatal imprudence. But I need hardly, I suppose, point out the obligation incumbent upon you as a man of honour."
Tony stared at him haughtily, with a look which was meant for the Marquess. "And what obligation is that?"
"To repair the wrong you have done--in other words, to marry the lady."
Polixena at this burst into tears, and Tony said to himself: "Why in heaven does she not bid me show the letter?" Then he remembered that it had no superscription, and that the words it contained, supposing them to have been addressed to himself, were hardly of a nature to disarm suspicion. The sense of the girl's grave plight effaced all thought of his own risk, but the Count's last words struck him as so preposterous that he could not repress a smile.
"I cannot flatter myself," said he, "that the lady would welcome this solution."
The Count's manner became increasingly ceremonious. "Such modesty," he said, "becomes your youth and inexperience; but even if it were justified it would scarcely alter the case, as it is always assumed in this country that a young lady wishes to marry the man whom her father has selected."
"But I understood just now," Tony interposed, "that the gentleman yonder was in that enviable position."
"So he was, till circumstances obliged him to waive the privilege in your favour."
"He does me too much honour; but if a deep sense of my unworthiness obliges me to decline--"
"You are still," interrupted the Count, "labouring under a misapprehension. Your choice in the matter is no more to be consulted than the lady's. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is necessary that you should marry her within the hour."
Tony, at this, for all his spirit, felt the blood run thin in his veins. He looked in silence at the threatening visages between himself and the door, stole a side-glance at the high barred windows of the apartment, and then turned to Polixena, who had fallen sobbing at her father's feet.
"And if I refuse?" said he.
The Count made a significant gesture. "I am not so foolish as to threaten a man of your mettle. But perhaps you are unaware what the consequences would be to the lady."
Polixena, at this, struggling to her feet, addressed a few impassioned words to the Count and her father; but the latter put her aside with an obdurate gesture.
The Count turned to Tony. "The lady herself pleads for you--at what cost you do not guess--but as you see it is vain. In an hour his Illustriousness's chaplain will be here. Meanwhile his Illustriousness consents to leave you in the custody of your betrothed."
He stepped back, and the other gentlemen, bowing with deep ceremony to Tony, stalked out one by one from the room. Tony heard the key turn in the lock, and found himself alone with Polixena.
The girl had sunk into a chair, her face hidden, a picture of shame and agony. So moving was the sight that Tony once again forgot his own extremity in the view of her distress. He went and kneeled beside her, drawing her hands from her face.
"Oh, don't make me look at you!" she sobbed; but it was on his bosom that she hid from his gaze. He held her there a breathing-space, as he might have clasped a weeping child; then she drew back and put him gently from her.
"What humiliation!" she lamented.
"Do you think I blame you for what has happened?"
"Alas, was it not my foolish letter that brought you to this plight? And how nobly you defended me! How generous it was of you not to show the letter! If my father knew I had written to the Ambassador to save me from this dreadful marriage his anger against me would be even greater."
"Ah--it was that you wrote for?" cried Tony with unaccountable relief.
"Of course--what else did you think?"
"But is it too late for the Ambassador to save you?"
"From YOU?" A smile flashed through her tears. "Alas, yes." She drew back and hid her face again, as though overcome by a fresh wave of shame.
Tony glanced about him. "If I could wrench a bar out of that window--" he muttered.
court is guarded. You are a prisoner,
"I think ill of you?"
"Alas, you must! To be unwilling to marry the man my father has chosen for me--"
"Such a beetle-browed lout! It would be a burning shame if you married him."
"Ah, you come from a free country. Here a girl is allowed no choice."
"It is infamous, I say--infamous!"
"No, no--I ought to have resigned myself, like so many others."
"Resigned yourself to that brute! Impossible!"
"He has a dreadful name for violence--his gondolier has told my little maid such tales of him! But why do I talk of myself, when it is of you I should be thinking?"
"Of me, poor child?" cried Tony, losing his head.
"Yes, and how to save you--for I CAN save you! But every moment counts--and yet what I have to say is so dreadful."
"Nothing from your lips could seem dreadful."
"Ah, if he had had your way of speaking!"
"Well, now at least you are free of him," said Tony, a little wildly; but at this she stood up and bent a grave look on him.
"No, I am not free," she said; "but you are, if you will do as I tell you."
Tony, at this, felt a sudden dizziness; as though, from a mad flight through clouds and darkness, he had dropped to safety again, and the fall had stunned him.
"What am I to do?" he said.
"Look away from me, or I can never tell you."
He thought at first that this was a jest, but her eyes commanded him, and reluctantly he walked away and leaned in the embrasure of the window. She stood in the middle of the room, and as soon as his back was turned she began to speak in a quick monotonous voice, as though she were reciting a lesson.
"You must know that the Marquess Zanipolo, though a great noble, is not a rich man. True, he has large estates, but he is a desperate spendthrift and gambler, and would sell his soul for a round sum of ready money.--If you turn round I shall not go on!--He wrangled horribly with my father over my dowry--he wanted me to have more than either of my sisters, though one married a Procurator and the other a grandee of Spain. But my father is a gambler too--oh, such fortunes as are squandered over the arcade yonder! And so--and so--don't turn, I implore you--oh, do you begin to see my meaning?"
She broke off sobbing, and it took all his strength to keep his eyes from her.
"Go on," he said.
"Will you not understand? Oh, I would say anything to save you! You don't know us Venetians--we're all to be bought for a price. It is not only the brides who are marketable--sometimes the husbands sell themselves too. And they think you rich--my father does, and the others--I don't know why, unless you have shown your money too freely--and the English are all rich, are they not? And--oh, oh--do you understand? Oh, I can't bear your eyes!"
She dropped into a chair, her head on her arms, and Tony in a flash was at her side.
"My poor child, my poor Polixena!" he cried, and wept and clasped her.
"You ARE rich, are you not? You would promise them a ransom?" she persisted.
"To enable you to marry the Marquess?"
"To enable you to escape from this place. Oh, I hope I may never see your face again." She fell to weeping once more, and he drew away and paced the floor in a fever.
Presently she sprang up with a fresh air of resolution, and pointed to a clock against the wall. "The hour is nearly over. It is quite true that my father is gone to fetch his chaplain. Oh, I implore you, be warned by me! There is no other way of escape."
"And if I do as you say--?"
"You are safe! You are free! I stake my life on it."
"And you--you are married to that villain?"
"But I shall have saved you. Tell me your name, that I may say it to myself when I am alone."
"My name is Anthony. But you must not marry that fellow."
"You forgive me, Anthony? You don't think too badly of me?"
"I say you must not marry that fellow."
She laid a trembling hand on his arm. "Time presses," she adjured him, "and I warn you there is no other way."
For a moment he had a vision of his mother, sitting very
upright, on a Sunday evening, reading Dr. Tillotson's sermons in the best
She shrank back from him, white and radiant. "Oh, hush, be silent!" she said.
"I am no noble Marquess, and have no great estates,"
he cried. "My father is a plain
"Oh, hush, I say! I don't know what your long words mean. But I bless you, bless you, bless you on my knees!" And she knelt before him, and fell to kissing his hands.
He drew her up to his breast and held her there.
"You are willing, Polixena?" he said.
"No, no!" She broke from him with outstretched hands. "I am not willing. You mistake me. I must marry the Marquess, I tell you!"
"On my money?" he taunted her; and her burning blush rebuked him.
"Yes, on your money," she said sadly.
"Why? Because, much as you hate him, you hate me still more?"
She was silent.
"If you hate me, why do you sacrifice yourself for me?" he persisted.
"You torture me! And I tell you the hour is past."
"Let it pass. I'll not accept your sacrifice. I will not lift a finger to help another man to marry you."
"Oh, madman, madman!" she murmured.
Tony, with crossed arms, faced her squarely, and she leaned against the wall a few feet off from him. Her breast throbbed under its lace and falbalas, and her eyes swam with terror and entreaty.
"Polixena, I love you!" he cried.
A blush swept over her throat and bosom, bathing her in light to the verge of her troubled brows.
"I love you! I love you!" he repeated.
And now she was on his breast again, and all their youth was in their lips. But her embrace was as fleeting as a bird's poise and before he knew it he clasped empty air, and half the room was between them.
She was holding up a little coral charm and laughing. "I took it from your fob," she said. "It is of no value, is it? And I shall not get any of the money, you know."
She continued to laugh strangely, and the rouge burned like fire in her ashen face.
"What are you talking of?" he said.
"They never give me anything but the clothes I wear. And I shall never see you again, Anthony!" She gave him a dreadful look. "Oh, my poor boy, my poor love--'I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, POLIXENA!'"
He thought she had turned light-headed, and advanced to her with soothing words; but she held him quietly at arm's length, and as he gazed he read the truth in her face.
He fell back from her, and a sob broke from him as he bowed his head on his hands.
"Only, for God's sake, have the money ready, or there may be foul play here," she said.
As she spoke there was a great tramping of steps outside and a burst of voices on the threshold.
"It is all a lie," she gasped out, "about my marriage, and the Marquess, and the Ambassador, and the Senator--but not, oh, not about your danger in this place--or about my love," she breathed to him. And as the key rattled in the door she laid her lips on his brow.
The key rattled, and the door swung open--but the black-cassocked gentleman who stepped in, though a priest indeed, was no votary of idolatrous rites, but that sound orthodox divine, the Reverend Ozias Mounce, looking very much perturbed at his surroundings, and very much on the alert for the Scarlet Woman. He was supported, to his evident relief, by the captain of the Hepzibah B., and the procession was closed by an escort of stern-looking fellows in cocked hats and small-swords, who led between them Tony's late friends the magnificoes, now as sorry a looking company as the law ever landed in her net.
The captain strode briskly into the room, uttering a grunt of satisfaction as he clapped eyes on Tony.
"So, Mr. Bracknell," said he, "you have been seeing the Carnival with this pack of mummers, have you? And this is where your pleasuring has landed you? H'm--a pretty establishment, and a pretty lady at the head of it." He glanced about the apartment and doffed his hat with mock ceremony to Polixena, who faced him like a princess.
"Why, my girl," said he, amicably, "I think I saw you this morning in the square, on the arm of the Pantaloon yonder; and as for that Captain Spavent--" and he pointed a derisive finger at the Marquess--"I've watched him drive his bully's trade under the arcade ever since I first dropped anchor in these waters. Well, well," he continued, his indignation subsiding, "all's fair in Carnival, I suppose, but this gentleman here is under sailing orders, and I fear we must break up your little party."
At this Tony saw Count
"I can assure you, sir," said the Count in his best English, "that this incident is the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding, and if you will oblige us by dismissing these myrmidons, any of my friends here will be happy to offer satisfaction to Mr. Bracknell and his companions."
Mr. Mounce shrank visibly at this, and the captain burst into a loud guffaw.
"Satisfaction?" says he. "Why, my cock, that's very handsome of you, considering the rope's at your throats. But we'll not take advantage of your generosity, for I fear Mr. Bracknell has already trespassed on it too long. You pack of galley-slaves, you!" he spluttered suddenly, "decoying young innocents with that devil's bait of yours--" His eye fell on Polixena, and his voice softened unaccountably. "Ah, well, we must all see the Carnival once, I suppose," he said. "All's well that ends well, as the fellow says in the play; and now, if you please, Mr. Bracknell, if you'll take the reverend gentleman's arm there, we'll bid adieu to our hospitable entertainers, and right about face for the Hepzibah."
The End of A Venetian Night's Entertainment
Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition. The Lunch Club, after three or four winters of lunching and debate, had acquired such local distinction that the entertainment of distinguished strangers became one of its accepted functions; in recognition of which it duly extended to the celebrated "Osric Dane," on the day of her arrival in Hillbridge, an invitation to be present at the next meeting.
The Club was to meet at Mrs. Ballinger's. The other members, behind her back, were of one voice in deploring her unwillingness to cede her rights in favor of Mrs. Plinth, whose house made a more impressive setting for the entertainment of celebrities; while, as Mrs. Leveret observed, there was always the picture-gallery to fall back on.
Mrs. Plinth made no secret of sharing this view. She had always regarded it as one of her
obligations to entertain the Lunch Club's distinguished guests. Mrs. Plinth was almost as proud of her
obligations as she was of her picture-gallery; she was in fact fond of implying
that the one possession implied the other, and that only a woman of her wealth
could afford to live up to a standard as high as that which she had set
herself. An all-round sense of duty,
roughly adaptable to various ends, was, in her opinion, all that
The question of that lady's reception had for a month past profoundly moved the members of the Lunch Club. It was not that they felt themselves unequal to the task, but that their sense of the opportunity plunged them into the agreeable uncertainty of the lady who weighs the alternatives of a well-stocked wardrobe. If such subsidiary members as Mrs. Leveret were fluttered by the thought of exchanging ideas with the author of "The Wings of Death," no forebodings of the kind disturbed the conscious adequacy of Mrs. Plinth, Mrs. Ballinger and Miss Van Vluyck. "The Wings of Death" had, in fact, at Miss Van Vluyck's suggestion, been chosen as the subject of discussion at the last club meeting, and each member had thus been enabled to express her own opinion or to appropriate whatever seemed most likely to be of use in the comments of the others. Mrs. Roby alone had abstained from profiting by the opportunity thus offered; but it was now openly recognised that, as a member of the Lunch Club, Mrs. Roby was a failure. "It all comes," as Miss Van Vluyck put it, "of accepting a woman on a man's estimation." Mrs. Roby, returning to Hillbridge from a prolonged sojourn in exotic regions--the other ladies no longer took the trouble to remember where--had been emphatically commended by the distinguished biologist, Professor Foreland, as the most agreeable woman he had ever met; and the members of the Lunch Club, awed by an encomium that carried the weight of a diploma, and rashly assuming that the Professor's social sympathies would follow the line of his scientific bent, had seized the chance of annexing a biological member. Their disillusionment was complete. At Miss Van Vluyck's first off-hand mention of the pterodactyl Mrs. Roby had confusedly murmured: "I know so little about metres--" and after that painful betrayal of incompetence she had prudently withdrawn from farther participation in the mental gymnastics of the club.
"I suppose she flattered him," Miss Van Vluyck summed up--"or else it's the way she does her hair."
The dimensions of Miss Van Vluyck's dining-room having restricted the membership of the club to six, the non-conductiveness of one member was a serious obstacle to the exchange of ideas, and some wonder had already been expressed that Mrs. Roby should care to live, as it were, on the intellectual bounty of the others. This feeling was augmented by the discovery that she had not yet read "The Wings of Death." She owned to having heard the name of Osric Dane; but that--incredible as it appeared--was the extent of her acquaintance with the celebrated novelist. The ladies could not conceal their surprise, but Mrs. Ballinger, whose pride in the club made her wish to put even Mrs. Roby in the best possible light, gently insinuated that, though she had not had time to acquaint herself with "The Wings of Death," she must at least be familiar with its equally remarkable predecessor, "The Supreme Instant."
Mrs. Roby wrinkled her sunny brows in a conscientious effort of memory, as a result of which she recalled that, oh, yes, she HAD seen the book at her brother's, when she was staying with him in Brazil, and had even carried it off to read one day on a boating party; but they had all got to shying things at each other in the boat, and the book had gone overboard, so she had never had the chance--
The picture evoked by this anecdote did not advance Mrs. Roby's credit with the club, and there was a painful pause, which was broken by Mrs. Plinth's remarking: "I can understand that, with all your other pursuits, you should not find much time for reading; but I should have thought you might at least have GOT UP 'The Wings of Death' before Osric Dane's arrival."
Mrs. Roby took this rebuke good-humouredly. She had meant, she owned to glance through the book; but she had been so absorbed in a novel of Trollope's that--
"No one reads Trollope now," Mrs. Ballinger interrupted impatiently.
Mrs. Roby looked pained. "I'm only just beginning," she confessed.
"And does he interest you?" Mrs. Plinth inquired.
"He amuses me."
"Amusement," said Mrs. Plinth sententiously, "is hardly what I look for in my choice of books."
"Oh, certainly, 'The Wings of Death' is not amusing," ventured Mrs. Leveret, whose manner of putting forth an opinion was like that of an obliging salesman with a variety of other styles to submit if his first selection does not suit.
"Was it MEANT to be?" enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of asking questions that she permitted no one but herself to answer. "Assuredly not."
"Assuredly not--that is what I was going to say," assented Mrs. Leveret, hastily rolling up her opinion and reaching for another. "It was meant to--to elevate."
Miss Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as though they were the black cap of condemnation. "I hardly see," she interposed, "how a book steeped in the bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate, however much it may instruct."
"I meant, of course, to instruct," said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by the unexpected distinction between two terms which she had supposed to be synonymous. Mrs. Leveret's enjoyment of the Lunch Club was frequently marred by such surprises; and not knowing her own value to the other ladies as a mirror for their mental complacency she was sometimes troubled by a doubt of her worthiness to join in their debates. It was only the fact of having a dull sister who thought her clever that saved her from a sense of hopeless inferiority.
"Do they get married in the end?" Mrs. Roby interposed.
"They--who?" the Lunch Club collectively exclaimed.
"Why, the girl and man. It's a novel, isn't it? I always think that's the one thing that matters. If they're parted it spoils my dinner."
Mrs. Plinth and Mrs. Ballinger exchanged scandalised glances, and the latter said: "I should hardly advise you to read 'The Wings of Death,' in that spirit. For my part, when there are so many books that one HAS to read, I wonder how any one can find time for those that are merely amusing."
"The beautiful part of it," Laura Glyde murmured, "is surely just this--that no one can tell HOW 'The Wings of Death' ends. Osric Dane, overcome by the dread significance of her own meaning, has mercifully veiled it--perhaps even from herself--as Apelles, in representing the sacrifice of Iphigenia, veiled the face of Agamemnon."
"What's that? Is it poetry?" whispered Mrs. Leveret nervously to Mrs. Plinth, who, disdaining a definite reply, said coldly: "You should look it up. I always make it a point to look things up." Her tone added--"though I might easily have it done for me by the footman."
"I was about to say," Miss Van Vluyck resumed, "that it must always be a question whether a book CAN instruct unless it elevates."
"Oh--" murmured Mrs. Leveret, now feeling herself hopelessly astray.
"I don't know," said Mrs. Ballinger, scenting in Miss Van Vluyck's tone a tendency to depreciate the coveted distinction of entertaining Osric Dane; "I don't know that such a question can seriously be raised as to a book which has attracted more attention among thoughtful people than any novel since 'Robert Elsmere.'"
"Oh, but don't you see," exclaimed Laura Glyde,
"that it's just the dark hopelessness of it all--the wonderful tone-scheme
of black on black--that makes it such an artistic achievement? It reminded me so when I read it of
"Who is HE?" Mrs. Leveret whispered to her neighbour. "Some one she's met abroad?"
"The wonderful part of the book," Mrs. Ballinger conceded, "is that it may be looked at from so many points of view. I hear that as a study of determinism Professor Lupton ranks it with 'The Data of Ethics.'"
"I'm told that Osric Dane spent ten years in preparatory studies before beginning to write it," said Mrs. Plinth. "She looks up everything--verifies everything. It has always been my principle, as you know. Nothing would induce me, now, to put aside a book before I'd finished it, just because I can buy as many more as I want."
"And what do YOU think of 'The Wings of Death'?" Mrs. Roby abruptly asked her.
It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such a breach of discipline. They all knew that there was nothing Mrs. Plinth so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House. The club had always respected this idiosyncrasy of Mrs. Plinth's. Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her house, was furnished with monumental "pieces" that were not meant to be suddenly disarranged; and it was one of the unwritten rules of the Lunch Club that, within her own province, each member's habits of thought should be respected. The meeting therefore closed with an increased sense, on the part of the other ladies, of Mrs. Roby's hopeless unfitness to be one of them.
Mrs. Leveret, on the eventful day, had arrived early at Mrs. Ballinger's, her volume of Appropriate Allusions in her pocket.
It always flustered Mrs. Leveret to be late at the Lunch Club: she liked to collect her thoughts and gather a hint, as the others assembled, of the turn the conversation was likely to take. To-day, however, she felt herself completely at a loss; and even the familiar contact of Appropriate Allusions, which stuck into her as she sat down, failed to give her any reassurance. It was an admirable little volume, compiled to meet all the social emergencies; so that, whether on the occasion of Anniversaries, joyful or melancholy (as the classification ran), of Banquets, social or municipal, or of Baptisms, Church of England or sectarian, its student need never be at a loss for a pertinent reference. Mrs. Leveret, though she had for years devoutly conned its pages, valued it, however, rather for its moral support than for its practical services; for though in the privacy of her own room she commanded an army of quotations, these invariably deserted her at the critical moment, and the only line she retained--CANST THOU DRAW OUT LEVIATHAN WITH A HOOK?--was one she had never yet found the occasion to apply.
To-day she felt that even the complete mastery of the volume would hardly have insured her self-possession; for she thought it probable, even if she DID, in some miraculous way, remember an Allusion, it would be only to find that Osric Dane used a different volume (Mrs. Leveret was convinced that literary people always carried them), and would consequently not recognise her quotations.
Mrs. Leveret's sense of being adrift was intensified by the appearance of Mrs. Ballinger's drawing-room. To a careless eye its aspect was unchanged; but those acquainted with Mrs. Ballinger's way of arranging her books would instantly have detected the marks of recent perturbation. Mrs. Ballinger's province, as a member of the Lunch Club, was the Book of the Day. On that, whatever it was, from a novel to a treatise on experimental psychology, she was confidently, authoritatively "up." What became of last year's books, or last week's even; what she did with the "subjects" she had previously professed with equal authority; no one had ever yet discovered. Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board. It was Mrs. Ballinger's boast that she was "abreast with the Thought of the Day," and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by the books on her drawing-room table. These volumes, frequently renewed, and almost always damp from the press, bore names generally unfamiliar to Mrs. Leveret, and giving her, as she furtively scanned them, a disheartening glimpse of new fields of knowledge to be breathlessly traversed in Mrs. Ballinger's wake. But to-day a number of maturer-looking volumes were adroitly mingled with the primeurs of the press--Karl Marx jostled Professor Bergson, and the "Confessions of St. Augustine" lay beside the last work on "Mendelism"; so that even to Mrs. Leveret's fluttered perceptions it was clear that Mrs. Ballinger didn't in the least know what Osric Dane was likely to talk about, and had taken measures to be prepared for anything. Mrs. Leveret felt like a passenger on an ocean steamer who is told that there is no immediate danger, but that she had better put on her life-belt.
It was a relief to be roused from these forebodings by Miss Van Vluyck's arrival.
"Well, my dear," the new-comer briskly asked her hostess, "what subjects are we to discuss to-day?"
Mrs. Ballinger was furtively replacing a volume of Wordsworth by a copy of Verlaine. "I hardly know," she said somewhat nervously. "Perhaps we had better leave that to circumstances."
"Circumstances?" said Miss Van Vluyck drily. "That means, I suppose, that Laura Glyde will take the floor as usual, and we shall be deluged with literature."
Philanthropy and statistics were Miss Van Vluyck's province, and she naturally resented any tendency to divert their guest's attention from these topics.
Mrs. Plinth at this moment appeared.
"Literature?" she protested in a tone of remonstrance. "But this is perfectly unexpected. I understood we were to talk of Osric Dane's novel."
Mrs. Ballinger winced at the discrimination, but let it pass. "We can hardly make that our chief subject--at least not TOO intentionally," she suggested. "Of course we can let our talk DRIFT in that direction; but we ought to have some other topic as an introduction, and that is what I wanted to consult you about. The fact is, we know so little of Osric Dane's tastes and interests that it is difficult to make any special preparation."
"It may be difficult," said Mrs. Plinth with decision, "but it is absolutely necessary. I know what that happy-go-lucky principle leads to. As I told one of my nieces the other day, there are certain emergencies for which a lady should always be prepared. It's in shocking taste to wear colours when one pays a visit of condolence, or a last year's dress when there are reports that one's husband is on the wrong side of the market; and so it is with conversation. All I ask is that I should know beforehand what is to be talked about; then I feel sure of being able to say the proper thing."
"I quite agree with you," Mrs. Ballinger anxiously assented; "but--"
And at that instant, heralded by the fluttered parlour-maid, Osric Dane appeared upon the threshold.
Mrs. Leveret told her sister afterward that she had known at a glance what was coming. She saw that Osric Dane was not going to meet them half way. That distinguished personage had indeed entered with an air of compulsion not calculated to promote the easy exercise of hospitality. She looked as though she were about to be photographed for a new edition of her books.
The desire to propitiate a divinity is generally in inverse ratio to its responsiveness, and the sense of discouragement produced by Osric Dane's entrance visibly increased the Lunch Club's eagerness to please her. Any lingering idea that she might consider herself under an obligation to her entertainers was at once dispelled by her manner: as Mrs. Leveret said afterward to her sister, she had a way of looking at you that made you feel as if there was something wrong with your hat. This evidence of greatness produced such an immediate impression on the ladies that a shudder of awe ran through them when Mrs. Roby, as their hostess led the great personage into the dining-room, turned back to whisper to the others: "What a brute she is!"
The hour about the table did not tend to correct this verdict. It was passed by Osric Dane in the silent deglutition of Mrs. Ballinger's menu, and by the members of the Club in the emission of tentative platitudes which their guest seemed to swallow as perfunctorily as the successive courses of the luncheon.
Mrs. Ballinger's deplorable delay in fixing a topic had thrown the Club into a mental disarray which increased with the return to the drawing-room, where the actual business of discussion was to open. Each lady waited for the other to speak; and there was a general shock of disappointment when their hostess opened the conversation by the painfully commonplace inquiry: "Is this your first visit to Hillbridge?"
Even Mrs. Leveret was conscious that this was a bad beginning; and a vague impulse of deprecation made Miss Glyde interject: "It is a very small place indeed."
Mrs. Plinth bristled. "We have a great many representative people," she said, in the tone of one who speaks for her order.
Osric Dane turned to her thoughtfully. "What do they represent?" she asked.
Mrs. Plinth's constitutional dislike to being questioned was intensified by her sense of unpreparedness; and her reproachful glance passed the question on to Mrs. Ballinger.
"Why," said that lady, glancing in turn at the other members, "as a community I hope it is not too much to say that we stand for culture."
"For art--" Miss Glyde eagerly interjected.
"For art and literature," Mrs. Ballinger emended.
"And for sociology, I trust," snapped Miss Van Vluyck.
"We have a standard," said Mrs. Plinth, feeling herself suddenly secure on the vast expanse of a generalisation: and Mrs. Leveret, thinking there must be room for more than one on so broad a statement, took courage to murmur: "Oh, certainly; we have a standard."
"The object of our little club," Mrs. Ballinger continued, "is to concentrate the highest tendencies of Hillbridge--to centralise and focus its complex intellectual effort."
This was felt to be so happy that the ladies drew an almost audible breath of relief.
"We aspire," the President went on, "to stand for what is highest in art, literature and ethics."
Osric Dane again turned to her. "What ethics?" she asked.
A tremor of apprehension encircled the room. None of the ladies required any preparation to pronounce on a question of morals; but when they were called ethics it was different. The club, when fresh from the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," the "Reader's Handbook" or Smith's "Classical Dictionary," could deal confidently with any subject; but when taken unawares it had been known to define agnosticism as a heresy of the Early Church and Professor Froude as a distinguished histologist; and such minor members as Mrs. Leveret still secretly regarded ethics as something vaguely pagan.
Even to Mrs. Ballinger, Osric Dane's question was unsettling, and there was a general sense of gratitude when Laura Glyde leaned forward to say, with her most sympathetic accent: "You must excuse us, Mrs. Dane, for not being able, just at present, to talk of anything but 'The Wings of Death.'"
"Yes," said Miss Van Vluyck, with a sudden resolve to carry the war into the enemy's camp. "We are so anxious to know the exact purpose you had in mind in writing your wonderful book."
"You will find," Mrs. Plinth interposed, "that we are not superficial readers."
"We are eager to hear from you," Miss Van Vluyck continued, "if the pessimistic tendency of the book is an expression of your own convictions or--"
"Or merely," Miss Glyde hastily thrust in, "a sombre background brushed in to throw your figures into more vivid relief. ARE you not primarily plastic?"
"I have always maintained," Mrs. Ballinger interposed, "that you represent the purely objective method--"
Osric Dane helped herself critically to coffee. "How do you define objective?" she then inquired.
There was a flurried pause before Laura Glyde intensely murmured: "In reading YOU we don't define, we feel."
Osric Dane smiled. "The cerebellum," she remarked, "is not infrequently the seat of the literary emotions." And she took a second lump of sugar.
The sting that this remark was vaguely felt to conceal was almost neutralised by the satisfaction of being addressed in such technical language.
"Ah, the cerebellum," said Miss Van Vluyck complacently. "The Club took a course in psychology last winter."
"Which psychology?" asked Osric Dane.
There was an agonising pause, during which each member of the Club secretly deplored the distressing inefficiency of the others. Only Mrs. Roby went on placidly sipping her chartreuse. At last Mrs. Ballinger said, with an attempt at a high tone: "Well, really, you know, it was last year that we took psychology, and this winter we have been so absorbed in--"
She broke off, nervously trying to recall some of the Club's discussions; but her faculties seemed to be paralysed by the petrifying stare of Osric Dane. What HAD the club been absorbed in lately? Mrs. Ballinger, with a vague purpose of gaining time, repeated slowly: "We've been so intensely absorbed in--"
Mrs. Roby put down her liqueur glass and drew near the group with a smile.
A thrill ran through the other members. They exchanged confused glances, and then, with one accord, turned a gaze of mingled relief and interrogation on their unexpected rescuer. The expression of each denoted a different phase of the same emotion. Mrs. Plinth was the first to compose her features to an air of reassurance: after a moment's hasty adjustment her look almost implied that it was she who had given the word to Mrs. Ballinger.
"Xingu, of course!" exclaimed the latter with her accustomed promptness, while Miss Van Vluyck and Laura Glyde seemed to be plumbing the depths of memory, and Mrs. Leveret, feeling apprehensively for Appropriate Allusions, was somehow reassured by the uncomfortable pressure of its bulk against her person.
Osric Dane's change of countenance was no less striking than that of her entertainers. She too put down her coffee-cup, but with a look of distinct annoyance: she too wore, for a brief moment, what Mrs. Roby afterward described as the look of feeling for something in the back of her head; and before she could dissemble these momentary signs of weakness, Mrs. Roby, turning to her with a deferential smile, had said: "And we've been so hoping that to-day you would tell us just what you think of it."
Osric Dane received the homage of the smile as a matter of course; but the accompanying question obviously embarrassed her, and it became clear to her observers that she was not quick at shifting her facial scenery. It was as though her countenance had so long been set in an expression of unchallenged superiority that the muscles had stiffened, and refused to obey her orders.
Mrs. Roby continued to press her. "Knowing how engrossing the subject is,
you will understand how it happens that the Club has let everything else go to
the wall for the moment. Since we took
Osric Dane's stern features were darkened rather than lit up by an uneasy smile. "I am glad to hear there is one exception," she gave out between narrowed lips.
"Oh, of course," Mrs. Roby said prettily; "but as you have shown us that--so very naturally!--you don't care to talk about your own things, we really can't let you off from telling us exactly what you think about Xingu; especially," she added, with a persuasive smile, "as some people say that one of your last books was simply saturated with it."
It was an IT, then--the assurance sped like fire through the
parched minds of the other members. In
their eagerness to gain the least little clue to
The latter reddened nervously under her antagonist's direct assault. "May I ask," she faltered out in an embarrassed tone, "to which of my books you refer?"
Mrs. Roby did not falter. "That's just what I want you to tell us; because, though I was present, I didn't actually take part."
"Present at what?" Mrs. Dane took her up; and for
an instant the trembling members of the Lunch Club thought that the champion
There was a portentous pause, a silence so big with
incalculable dangers that the members with one accord checked the words on
their lips, like soldiers dropping their arms to watch a single combat between
their leaders. Then Mrs. Dane gave
expression to their inmost dread by saying sharply: "Ah--you say THE
Mrs. Roby smiled undauntedly. "It IS a shade pedantic, isn't it? Personally, I always drop the article; but I don't know how the other members feel about it."
The other members looked as though they would willingly have
dispensed with this deferential appeal to their opinion, and Mrs. Roby, after a
bright glance about the group, went on: "They probably think, as I do,
that nothing really matters except the thing itself--except
No immediate reply seemed to occur to Mrs. Dane, and Mrs.
Ballinger gathered courage to say: "Surely every one must feel that about
Mrs. Plinth came to her support with a heavy murmur of assent, and Laura Glyde breathed emotionally: "I have known cases where it has changed a whole life."
"It has done me worlds of good," Mrs. Leveret interjected, seeming to herself to remember that she had either taken it or read it in the winter before.
"Of course," Mrs. Roby admitted, "the difficulty is that one must give up so much time to it. It's very long."
"I can't imagine," said Miss Van Vluyck tartly, "grudging the time given to such a subject."
"And deep in places," Mrs. Roby pursued; (so then it was a book!) "And it isn't easy to skip."
"I never skip," said Mrs. Plinth dogmatically.
"Ah, it's dangerous to, in
"I should hardly call it WADING," said Mrs. Ballinger sarcastically.
Mrs. Roby sent her a look of interest. "Ah--you always found it went swimmingly?"
Mrs. Ballinger hesitated. "Of course there are difficult passages," she conceded modestly.
"Yes; some are not at all clear--even," Mrs. Roby added, "if one is familiar with the original."
"As I suppose you are?" Osric Dane interposed, suddenly fixing her with a look of challenge.
Mrs. Roby met it by a deprecating smile. "Oh, it's really not difficult up to a certain point; though some of the branches are very little known, and it's almost impossible to get at the source."
"Have you ever tried?" Mrs. Plinth enquired, still distrustful of Mrs. Roby's thoroughness.
Mrs. Roby was silent for a moment; then she replied with lowered lids: "No--but a friend of mine did; a very brilliant man; and he told me it was best for women--not to . . ."
A shudder ran around the room. Mrs. Leveret coughed so that the parlour-maid, who was handing the cigarettes, should not hear; Miss Van Vluyck's face took on a nauseated expression, and Mrs. Plinth looked as if she were passing some one she did not care to bow to. But the most remarkable result of Mrs. Roby's words was the effect they produced on the Lunch Club's distinguished guest. Osric Dane's impassive features suddenly melted to an expression of the warmest human sympathy, and edging her chair toward Mrs. Roby's she asked: "Did he really? And--did you find he was right?"
Mrs. Ballinger, in whom annoyance at Mrs. Roby's unwonted assumption of prominence was beginning to displace gratitude for the aid she had rendered, could not consent to her being allowed, by such dubious means, to monopolise the attention of their guest. If Osric Dane had not enough self-respect to resent Mrs. Roby's flippancy, at least the Lunch Club would do so in the person of its President.
Mrs. Ballinger laid her hand on Mrs. Roby's arm. "We must not forget," she said with
a frigid amiability, "that absorbing as
"Oh, no, on the contrary, I assure you," Osric Dane energetically intervened.
"--to others," Mrs. Ballinger finished firmly; "and we must not allow our little meeting to end without persuading Mrs. Dane to say a few words to us on a subject which, to-day, is much more present in all our thoughts. I refer, of course, to 'The Wings of Death.'"
The other members, animated by various degrees of the same sentiment, and encouraged by the humanised mien of their redoubtable guest, repeated after Mrs. Ballinger: "Oh, yes, you really MUST talk to us a little about your book."
Osric Dane's expression became as bored, though not as haughty, as when her work had been previously mentioned. But before she could respond to Mrs. Ballinger's request, Mrs. Roby had risen from her seat, and was pulling her veil down over her frivolous nose.
"I'm so sorry," she said, advancing toward her hostess with outstretched hand, "but before Mrs. Dane begins I think I'd better run away. Unluckily, as you know, I haven't read her books, so I should be at a terrible disadvantage among you all; and besides, I've an engagement to play bridge."
If Mrs. Roby had simply pleaded her ignorance of Osric Dane's works as a reason for withdrawing, the Lunch Club, in view of her recent prowess, might have approved such evidence of discretion; but to couple this excuse with the brazen announcement that she was foregoing the privilege for the purpose of joining a bridge-party, was only one more instance of her deplorable lack of discrimination.
The ladies were disposed, however, to feel that her departure--now that she had performed the sole service she was ever likely to render them--would probably make for greater order and dignity in the impending discussion, besides relieving them of the sense of self-distrust which her presence always mysteriously produced. Mrs. Ballinger therefore restricted herself to a formal murmur of regret, and the other members were just grouping themselves comfortably about Osric Dane when the latter, to their dismay, started up from the sofa on which she had been deferentially enthroned.
"Oh wait--do wait, and I'll go with you!" she called out to Mrs. Roby; and, seizing the hands of the disconcerted members, she administered a series of farewell pressures with the mechanical haste of a railway-conductor punching tickets.
"I'm so sorry--I'd quite forgotten--" she flung back at them from the threshold; and as she joined Mrs. Roby, who had turned in surprise at her appeal, the other ladies had the mortification of hearing her say, in a voice which she did not take the pains to lower: "If you'll let me walk a little way with you, I should so like to ask you a few more questions about Xingu . . ."
The incident had been so rapid that the door closed on the departing pair before the other members had had time to understand what was happening. Then a sense of the indignity put upon them by Osric Dane's unceremonious desertion began to contend with the confused feeling that they had been cheated out of their due without exactly knowing how or why.
There was an awkward silence, during which Mrs. Ballinger, with a perfunctory hand, rearranged the skilfully grouped literature at which her distinguished guest had not so much as glanced; then Miss Van Vluyck tartly pronounced: "Well, I can't say that I consider Osric Dane's departure a great loss."
This confession crystallised the fluid resentment of the other members, and Mrs. Leveret exclaimed: "I do believe she came on purpose to be nasty!"
It was Mrs. Plinth's private opinion that Osric Dane's attitude toward the Lunch Club might have been very different had it welcomed her in the majestic setting of the Plinth drawing-rooms; but not liking to reflect on the inadequacy of Mrs. Ballinger's establishment she sought a round-about satisfaction in depreciating her savoir faire.
"I said from the first that we ought to have had a
subject ready. It's what always happens when you're unprepared. Now if we'd only got up
The slowness of Mrs. Plinth's mental processes was always allowed for by the Club; but this instance of it was too much for Mrs. Ballinger's equanimity.
This retort impressed even Mrs. Plinth, and Laura Glyde, moved by an impulse of generosity, said: "Yes, we really ought to be grateful to Mrs. Roby for introducing the topic. It may have made Osric Dane furious, but at least it made her civil."
"I am glad we were able to show her," added Miss Van Vluyck, "that a broad and up-to-date culture is not confined to the great intellectual centres."
This increased the satisfaction of the other members, and they began to forget their wrath against Osric Dane in the pleasure of having contributed to her defeat.
Miss Van Vluyck thoughtfully rubbed her spectacles. "What surprised me most," she
continued, "was that Fanny Roby should be so up on
This frank admission threw a slight chill on the company,
but Mrs. Ballinger said with an air of indulgent irony: "Mrs. Roby always
has the knack of making a little go a long way; still, we certainly owe her a
debt for happening to remember that she'd heard of
Even Mrs. Leveret took courage to speed a timid shaft of
irony: "I fancy Osric Dane hardly expected to take a lesson in
Mrs. Ballinger smiled.
"When she asked me what we represented--do you remember?--I wish
I'd simply said we represented
All the ladies laughed appreciatively at this sally, except Mrs. Plinth, who said, after a moment's deliberation: "I'm not sure it would have been wise to do so."
Mrs. Ballinger, who was already beginning to feel as if she had launched at Osric Dane the retort which had just occurred to her, looked ironically at Mrs. Plinth. "May I ask why?" she enquired.
Mrs. Plinth looked grave. "Surely," she said, "I understood from Mrs. Roby herself that the subject was one it was as well not to go into too deeply?"
Miss Van Vluyck rejoined with precision: "I think that applied only to an investigation of the origin of the--of the--"; and suddenly she found that her usually accurate memory had failed her. "It's a part of the subject I never studied myself," she concluded lamely.
"Nor I," said Mrs. Ballinger.
Laura Glyde bent toward them with widened eyes. "And yet it seems--doesn't it?--the part that is fullest of an esoteric fascination?"
"I don't know on what you base that," said Miss Van Vluyck argumentatively.
"Well, didn't you notice how intensely interested Osric Dane became as soon as she heard what the brilliant foreigner--he WAS a foreigner, wasn't he?--had told Mrs. Roby about the origin--the origin of the rite--or whatever you call it?"
Mrs. Plinth looked disapproving, and Mrs. Ballinger visibly wavered. Then she said in a decisive tone: "It may not be desirable to touch on the--on that part of the subject in general conversation; but, from the importance it evidently has to a woman of Osric Dane's distinction, I feel as if we ought not to be afraid to discuss it among ourselves--without gloves--though with closed doors, if necessary."
"I'm quite of your opinion," Miss Van Vluyck came briskly to her support; "on condition, that is, that all grossness of language is avoided."
"Oh, I'm sure we shall understand without that," Mrs. Leveret tittered; and Laura Glyde added significantly: "I fancy we can read between the lines," while Mrs. Ballinger rose to assure herself that the doors were really closed.
Mrs. Plinth had not yet given her adhesion. "I hardly see," she began, "what benefit is to be derived from investigating such peculiar customs--"
But Mrs. Ballinger's patience had reached the extreme limit of tension. "This at least," she returned; "that we shall not be placed again in the humiliating position of finding ourselves less up on our own subjects than Fanny Roby!"
Even to Mrs. Plinth this argument was conclusive. She peered furtively about the room and lowered her commanding tones to ask: "Have you got a copy?"
"A--a copy?" stammered Mrs. Ballinger. She was aware that the other members were looking at her expectantly, and that this answer was inadequate, so she supported it by asking another question. "A copy of what?"
Her companions bent their expectant gaze on Mrs. Plinth, who, in turn, appeared less sure of herself than usual. "Why, of--of--the book," she explained.
"What book?" snapped Miss Van Vluyck, almost as sharply as Osric Dane.
Mrs. Ballinger looked at Laura Glyde, whose eyes were
interrogatively fixed on Mrs. Leveret.
The fact of being deferred to was so new to the latter that it filled
her with an insane temerity. "Why,
A profound silence followed this direct challenge to the resources of Mrs. Ballinger's library, and the latter, after glancing nervously toward the Books of the Day, returned in a deprecating voice: "It's not a thing one cares to leave about."
"I should think NOT!" exclaimed Mrs. Plinth.
"It IS a book, then?" said Miss Van Vluyck.
This again threw the company into disarray, and Mrs. Ballinger, with an impatient sigh, rejoined: "Why--there IS a book--naturally . . ."
"Then why did Miss Glyde call it a religion?"
Laura Glyde started up. "A religion? I never--"
"Yes, you did," Miss Van Vluyck insisted; "you spoke of rites; and Mrs. Plinth said it was a custom."
Miss Glyde was evidently making a desperate effort to reinforce her statement; but accuracy of detail was not her strongest point. At length she began in a deep murmur: "Surely they used to do something of the kind at the Eleusinian mysteries--"
"Oh--" said Miss Van Vluyck, on the verge of disapproval; and Mrs. Plinth protested: "I understood there was to be no indelicacy!"
Mrs. Ballinger could not control her irritation. "Really, it is too bad that we should
not be able to talk the matter over quietly among ourselves. Personally, I think that if one goes into
"Oh, so do I!" cried Miss Glyde.
"And I don't see how one can avoid doing so, if one wishes to keep up with the Thought of the Day--"
Mrs. Leveret uttered an exclamation of relief. "There--that's it!" she interposed.
"What's it?" the President curtly took her up.
"Why--it's a--a Thought: I mean a philosophy."
This seemed to bring a certain relief to Mrs. Ballinger and
Laura Glyde, but Miss Van Vluyck said dogmatically: "Excuse me if I tell
you that you're all mistaken.
"A language!" the Lunch Club cried.
"Certainly. Don't you remember Fanny Roby's saying that there were several branches, and that some were hard to trace? What could that apply to but dialects?"
Mrs. Ballinger could no longer restrain a contemptuous
laugh. "Really, if the Lunch Club has reached such a pass that it has to
go to Fanny Roby for instruction on a subject like
"It's really her fault for not being clearer," Laura Glyde put in.
"Oh, clearness and Fanny Roby!" Mrs. Ballinger shrugged. "I daresay we shall find she was mistaken on almost every point."
"Why not look it up?" said Mrs. Plinth.
As a rule this recurrent suggestion of Mrs. Plinth's was ignored in the heat of discussion, and only resorted to afterward in the privacy of each member's home. But on the present occasion the desire to ascribe their own confusion of thought to the vague and contradictory nature of Mrs. Roby's statements caused the members of the Lunch Club to utter a collective demand for a book of reference.
At this point the production of her treasured volume gave
Mrs. Leveret, for a moment, the unusual experience of occupying the centre
front; but she was not able to hold it long, for Appropriate Allusions
contained no mention of
"Oh, that's not the kind of thing we want!" exclaimed Miss Van Vluyck. She cast a disparaging glance over Mrs. Ballinger's assortment of literature, and added impatiently: "Haven't you any useful books?"
"Of course I have," replied Mrs. Ballinger indignantly; "but I keep them in my husband's dressing-room."
From this region, after some difficulty and delay, the parlour-maid produced the W-Z volume of an Encyclopaedia and, in deference to the fact that the demand for it had come from Miss Van Vluyck, laid the ponderous tome before her.
There was a moment of painful suspense while Miss Van Vluyck rubbed her spectacles, adjusted them, and turned to Z; and a murmur of surprise when she said: "It isn't here."
"I suppose," said Mrs. Plinth, "it's not fit to be put in a book of reference."
"Oh, nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Ballinger. "Try X."
Miss Van Vluyck turned back through the volume, peering short-sightedly up and down the pages, till she came to a stop and remained motionless, like a dog on a point.
"Well, have you found it?" Mrs. Ballinger enquired, after a considerable delay.
"Yes. I've found it," said Miss Van Vluyck in a queer voice.
Mrs. Plinth hastily interposed: "I beg you won't read it aloud if there's anything offensive."
Miss Van Vluyck, without answering, continued her silent scrutiny.
"Well, what IS it?" exclaimed Laura Glyde excitedly.
"DO tell us!" urged Mrs. Leveret, feeling that she would have something awful to tell her sister.
Miss Van Vluyck pushed the volume aside and turned slowly toward the expectant group.
"It's a river."
"Who? Fanny Roby? Oh, but you must be mistaken. You've been reading the wrong thing," Mrs. Ballinger exclaimed, leaning over her to seize the volume.
"It's the only XINGU in the Encyclopaedia; and she HAS
been living in
"Yes: her brother has a consulship there," Mrs. Leveret eagerly interposed.
"But it's too ridiculous! I--we--why we ALL remember studying
"I thought I did when YOU said so," Laura Glyde avowed.
"I said so?" cried Mrs. Ballinger.
"Yes. You said it had crowded everything else out of your mind."
"Well, YOU said it had changed your whole life!"
"For that matter, Miss Van Vluyck said she had never grudged the time she'd given it."
Mrs. Plinth interposed: "I made it clear that I knew nothing whatever of the original."
Mrs. Ballinger broke off the dispute with a groan. "Oh, what does it all matter if she's been making fools of us? I believe Miss Van Vluyck's right--she was talking of the river all the while!"
"How could she? It's too preposterous," Miss Glyde exclaimed.
Miss Van Vluyck had repossessed herself of the Encyclopaedia, and
restored her spectacles to a nose reddened by excitement. "'The Xingu, one of the principal rivers
of Brazil, rises on the plateau of Mato Grosso, and flows in a northerly direction
for a length of no less than one thousand one hundred and eighteen miles,
entering the Amazon near the mouth of the latter river. The upper course of the
The ladies received this communication in a state of stupefied silence from which Mrs. Leveret was the first to rally. "She certainly DID speak of its having branches."
The word seemed to snap the last thread of their incredulity. "And of its great length," gasped Mrs. Ballinger.
"She said it was awfully deep, and you couldn't skip--you just had to wade through," Miss Glyde subjoined.
The idea worked its way more slowly through Mrs. Plinth's compact resistances. "How could there be anything improper about a river?" she inquired.
"Why, what she said about the source--that it was corrupt?"
"Not corrupt, but hard to get at," Laura Glyde corrected. "Some one who'd been there had told her so. I daresay it was the explorer himself--doesn't it say the expedition was dangerous?"
"'Difficult and dangerous,'" read Miss Van Vluyck.
Mrs. Ballinger pressed her hands to her throbbing temples. "There's nothing she said that wouldn't apply to a river--to this river!" She swung about excitedly to the other members. "Why, do you remember her telling us that she hadn't read 'The Supreme Instant' because she'd taken it on a boating party while she was staying with her brother, and some one had 'shied' it overboard--'shied' of course was her own expression?"
The ladies breathlessly signified that the expression had not escaped them.
"Well--and then didn't she tell Osric Dane that one of
her books was simply saturated with
This surprising reconstruction of the scene in which they had just participated left the members of the Lunch Club inarticulate. At length Mrs. Plinth, after visibly labouring with the problem, said in a heavy tone: "Osric Dane was taken in too."
Mrs. Leveret took courage at this. "Perhaps that's what Mrs. Roby did it for. She said Osric Dane was a brute, and she may have wanted to give her a lesson."
Miss Van Vluyck frowned. "It was hardly worth while to do it at our expense."
"At least," said Miss Glyde with a touch of bitterness, "she succeeded in interesting her, which was more than we did."
"What chance had we?" rejoined Mrs. Ballinger. "Mrs. Roby monopolised her from the first. And THAT, I've no doubt, was her purpose--to give Osric Dane a false impression of her own standing in the Club. She would hesitate at nothing to attract attention: we all know how she took in poor Professor Foreland."
"She actually makes him give bridge-teas every Thursday," Mrs. Leveret piped up.
Laura Glyde struck her hands together. "Why, this is Thursday, and it's THERE she's gone, of course; and taken Osric with her!"
"And they're shrieking over us at this moment," said Mrs. Ballinger between her teeth.
This possibility seemed too preposterous to be admitted. "She would hardly dare," said Miss Van Vluyck, "confess the imposture to Osric Dane."
"I'm not so sure: I thought I saw her make a sign as she left. If she hadn't made a sign, why should Osric Dane have rushed out after her?"
"Well, you know, we'd all been telling her how wonderful Xingu was, and she said she wanted to find out more about it," Mrs. Leveret said, with a tardy impulse of justice to the absent.
This reminder, far from mitigating the wrath of the other members, gave it a stronger impetus.
"Yes--and that's exactly what they're both laughing over now," said Laura Glyde ironically.
Mrs. Plinth stood up and gathered her expensive furs about her monumental form. "I have no wish to criticise," she said; "but unless the Lunch Club can protect its members against the recurrence of such--such unbecoming scenes, I for one--"
"Oh, so do I!" agreed Miss Glyde, rising also.
Miss Van Vluyck closed the Encyclopaedia and proceeded to button herself into her jacket. "My time is really too valuable--" she began.
"I fancy we are all of one mind," said Mrs. Ballinger, looking searchingly at Mrs. Leveret, who looked at the others.
"I always deprecate anything like a scandal--" Mrs. Plinth continued.
"She has been the cause of one to-day!" exclaimed Miss Glyde.
Mrs. Leveret moaned: "I don't see how she COULD!" and Miss Van Vluyck said, picking up her note-book: "Some women stop at nothing."
"--but if," Mrs. Plinth took up her argument impressively, "anything of the kind had happened in MY house" (it never would have, her tone implied), "I should have felt that I owed it to myself either to ask for Mrs. Roby's resignation--or to offer mine."
"Oh, Mrs. Plinth--" gasped the Lunch Club.
"Fortunately for me," Mrs. Plinth continued with an awful magnanimity, "the matter was taken out of my hands by our President's decision that the right to entertain distinguished guests was a privilege vested in her office; and I think the other members will agree that, as she was alone in this opinion, she ought to be alone in deciding on the best way of effacing its--its really deplorable consequences."
A deep silence followed this unexpected outbreak of Mrs. Plinth's long-stored resentment.
"I don't see why I should be expected to ask her to
resign--" Mrs. Ballinger at length began; but Laura Glyde turned back to
remind her: "You know she made you say that you'd got on swimmingly in
An ill-timed giggle escaped from Mrs. Leveret, and Mrs. Ballinger energetically continued "--but you needn't think for a moment that I'm afraid to!"
The door of the drawing-room closed on the retreating backs of the Lunch Club, and the President of that distinguished association, seating herself at her writing-table, and pushing away a copy of "The Wings of Death" to make room for her elbow, drew forth a sheet of the club's note-paper, on which she began to write: "My dear Mrs. Roby--"
The End of
I had always thought Jack Gisburn rather a cheap
genius--though a good fellow enough--so it was no great surprise to me to hear
that, in the height of his glory, he had dropped his painting, married a rich
widow, and established himself in a villa on the
"The height of his glory"--that was what the women
called it. I can hear Mrs. Gideon
Well!--even through the prism of Hermia's tears I felt able to face the fact with equanimity. Poor Jack Gisburn! The women had made him--it was fitting that they should mourn him. Among his own sex fewer regrets were heard, and in his own trade hardly a murmur. Professional jealousy? Perhaps. If it were, the honour of the craft was vindicated by little Claude Nutley, who, in all good faith, brought out in the Burlington a very handsome "obituary" on Jack--one of those showy articles stocked with random technicalities that I have heard (I won't say by whom) compared to Gisburn's painting. And so--his resolve being apparently irrevocable--the discussion gradually died out, and, as Mrs. Thwing had predicted, the price of "Gisburns" went up.
It was not till three years later that, in the course of a
few weeks' idling on the
Of course, if she had not dragged him down, she had equally, as Miss Croft contended, failed to "lift him up"--she had not led him back to the easel. To put the brush into his hand again--what a vocation for a wife! But Mrs. Gisburn appeared to have disdained it--and I felt it might be interesting to find out why.
The desultory life of the
I found the couple at tea beneath their palm-trees; and Mrs. Gisburn's welcome was so genial that, in the ensuing weeks, I claimed it frequently. It was not that my hostess was "interesting": on that point I could have given Miss Croft the fullest reassurance. It was just because she was NOT interesting--if I may be pardoned the bull--that I found her so. For Jack, all his life, had been surrounded by interesting women: they had fostered his art, it had been reared in the hot-house of their adulation. And it was therefore instructive to note what effect the "deadening atmosphere of mediocrity" (I quote Miss Croft) was having on him.
I have mentioned that Mrs. Gisburn was rich; and it was immediately perceptible that her husband was extracting from this circumstance a delicate but substantial satisfaction. It is, as a rule, the people who scorn money who get most out of it; and Jack's elegant disdain of his wife's big balance enabled him, with an appearance of perfect good-breeding, to transmute it into objects of art and luxury. To the latter, I must add, he remained relatively indifferent; but he was buying Renaissance bronzes and eighteenth-century pictures with a discrimination that bespoke the amplest resources.
"Money's only excuse is to put beauty into circulation," was one of the axioms he laid down across the Sevres and silver of an exquisitely appointed luncheon-table, when, on a later day, I had again run over from Monte Carlo; and Mrs. Gisburn, beaming on him, added for my enlightenment: "Jack is so morbidly sensitive to every form of beauty."
Poor Jack! It had always been his fate to have women say such things of him: the fact should be set down in extenuation. What struck me now was that, for the first time, he resented the tone. I had seen him, so often, basking under similar tributes--was it the conjugal note that robbed them of their savour? No--for, oddly enough, it became apparent that he was fond of Mrs. Gisburn--fond enough not to see her absurdity. It was his own absurdity he seemed to be wincing under--his own attitude as an object for garlands and incense.
"My dear, since I've chucked painting people don't say that stuff about me--they say it about Victor Grindle," was his only protest, as he rose from the table and strolled out onto the sunlit terrace.
I glanced after him, struck by his last word. Victor Grindle was, in fact, becoming the man of the moment--as Jack himself, one might put it, had been the man of the hour. The younger artist was said to have formed himself at my friend's feet, and I wondered if a tinge of jealousy underlay the latter's mysterious abdication. But no--for it was not till after that event that the rose Dubarry drawing-rooms had begun to display their "Grindles."
I turned to Mrs. Gisburn, who had lingered to give a lump of sugar to her spaniel in the dining-room.
"Why HAS he chucked painting?" I asked abruptly.
She raised her eyebrows with a hint of good-humoured surprise.
"Oh, he doesn't HAVE to now, you know; and I want him to enjoy himself," she said quite simply.
I looked about the spacious white-panelled room, with its famille-verte vases repeating the tones of the pale damask curtains, and its eighteenth-century pastels in delicate faded frames.
"Has he chucked his pictures too? I haven't seen a single one in the house."
A slight shade of constraint crossed Mrs. Gisburn's open countenance. "It's his ridiculous modesty, you know. He says they're not fit to have about; he's sent them all away except one--my portrait--and that I have to keep upstairs."
His ridiculous modesty--Jack's modesty about his pictures? My curiosity was growing like the bean-stalk. I said persuasively to my hostess: "I must really see your portrait, you know."
She glanced out almost timorously at the terrace where her husband, lounging in a hooded chair, had lit a cigar and drawn the Russian deerhound's head between his knees.
"Well, come while he's not looking," she said, with a laugh that tried to hide her nervousness; and I followed her between the marble Emperors of the hall, and up the wide stairs with terra-cotta nymphs poised among flowers at each landing.
In the dimmest corner of her boudoir, amid a profusion of delicate and distinguished objects, hung one of the familiar oval canvases, in the inevitable garlanded frame. The mere outline of the frame called up all Gisburn's past!
Mrs. Gisburn drew back the window-curtains, moved aside a jardiniere full of pink azaleas, pushed an arm-chair away, and said: "If you stand here you can just manage to see it. I had it over the mantel-piece, but he wouldn't let it stay."
Yes--I could just manage to see it--the first portrait of Jack's I had ever had to strain my eyes over! Usually they had the place of honour--say the central panel in a pale yellow or rose Dubarry drawing-room, or a monumental easel placed so that it took the light through curtains of old Venetian point. The more modest place became the picture better; yet, as my eyes grew accustomed to the half-light, all the characteristic qualities came out--all the hesitations disguised as audacities, the tricks of prestidigitation by which, with such consummate skill, he managed to divert attention from the real business of the picture to some pretty irrelevance of detail. Mrs. Gisburn, presenting a neutral surface to work on--forming, as it were, so inevitably the background of her own picture--had lent herself in an unusual degree to the display of this false virtuosity. The picture was one of Jack's "strongest," as his admirers would have put it--it represented, on his part, a swelling of muscles, a congesting of veins, a balancing, straddling and straining, that reminded one of the circus-clown's ironic efforts to lift a feather. It met, in short, at every point the demand of lovely woman to be painted "strongly" because she was tired of being painted "sweetly"--and yet not to lose an atom of the sweetness.
"It's the last he painted, you know," Mrs. Gisburn said with pardonable pride. "The last but one," she corrected herself--"but the other doesn't count, because he destroyed it."
"Destroyed it?" I was about to follow up this clue when I heard a footstep and saw Jack himself on the threshold.
As he stood there, his hands in the pockets of his velveteen coat, the thin brown waves of hair pushed back from his white forehead, his lean sunburnt cheeks furrowed by a smile that lifted the tips of a self-confident moustache, I felt to what a degree he had the same quality as his pictures--the quality of looking cleverer than he was.
His wife glanced at him deprecatingly, but his eyes travelled past her to the portrait.
"Mr. Rickham wanted to see it," she began, as if excusing herself. He shrugged his shoulders, still smiling.
"Oh, Rickham found me out long ago," he said lightly; then, passing his arm through mine: "Come and see the rest of the house."
He showed it to me with a kind of naive suburban pride: the bath-rooms, the speaking-tubes, the dress-closets, the trouser-presses--all the complex simplifications of the millionaire's domestic economy. And whenever my wonder paid the expected tribute he said, throwing out his chest a little: "Yes, I really don't see how people manage to live without that."
Well--it was just the end one might have foreseen for him. Only he was, through it all and in spite of it all--as he had been through, and in spite of, his pictures--so handsome, so charming, so disarming, that one longed to cry out: "Be dissatisfied with your leisure!" as once one had longed to say: "Be dissatisfied with your work!"
But, with the cry on my lips, my diagnosis suffered an unexpected check.
"This is my own lair," he said, leading me into a dark plain room at the end of the florid vista. It was square and brown and leathery: no "effects"; no bric-a-brac, none of the air of posing for reproduction in a picture weekly--above all, no least sign of ever having been used as a studio.
The fact brought home to me the absolute finality of Jack's break with his old life.
"Don't you ever dabble with paint any more?" I asked, still looking about for a trace of such activity.
"Never," he said briefly.
"Or water-colour--or etching?"
His confident eyes grew dim, and his cheeks paled a little under their handsome sunburn.
"Never think of it, my dear fellow--any more than if I'd never touched a brush."
And his tone told me in a flash that he never thought of anything else.
I moved away, instinctively embarrassed by my unexpected discovery; and as I turned, my eye fell on a small picture above the mantel-piece--the only object breaking the plain oak panelling of the room.
"Oh, by Jove!" I said.
It was a sketch of a donkey--an old tired donkey, standing in the rain under a wall.
"By Jove--a Stroud!" I cried.
He was silent; but I felt him close behind me, breathing a little quickly.
"What a wonder! Made with a dozen lines--but on everlasting foundations. You lucky chap, where did you get it?"
He answered slowly: "Mrs. Stroud gave it to me."
"Ah--I didn't know you even knew the Strouds. He was such an inflexible hermit."
"I didn't--till after. . . . She sent for me to paint him when he was dead."
"When he was dead? You?"
I must have let a little too much amazement escape through my surprise, for he answered with a deprecating laugh: "Yes--she's an awful simpleton, you know, Mrs. Stroud. Her only idea was to have him done by a fashionable painter--ah, poor Stroud! She thought it the surest way of proclaiming his greatness--of forcing it on a purblind public. And at the moment I was THE fashionable painter."
"Ah, poor Stroud--as you say. Was THAT his history?"
"That was his history. She believed in him, gloried in him--or thought she did. But she couldn't bear not to have all the drawing-rooms with her. She couldn't bear the fact that, on varnishing days, one could always get near enough to see his pictures. Poor woman! She's just a fragment groping for other fragments. Stroud is the only whole I ever knew."
"You ever knew? But you just said--"
Gisburn had a curious smile in his eyes.
"Oh, I knew him, and he knew me--only it happened after he was dead."
I dropped my voice instinctively. "When she sent for you?"
"Yes--quite insensible to the irony. She wanted him vindicated--and by me!"
He laughed again, and threw back his head to look up at the sketch of the donkey. "There were days when I couldn't look at that thing--couldn't face it. But I forced myself to put it here; and now it's cured me--cured me. That's the reason why I don't dabble any more, my dear Rickham; or rather Stroud himself is the reason."
For the first time my idle curiosity about my companion turned into a serious desire to understand him better.
"I wish you'd tell me how it happened," I said.
He stood looking up at the sketch, and twirling between his fingers a cigarette he had forgotten to light. Suddenly he turned toward me.
"I'd rather like to tell you--because I've always suspected you of loathing my work."
I made a deprecating gesture, which he negatived with a good-humoured shrug.
"Oh, I didn't care a straw when I believed in myself--and now it's an added tie between us!"
He laughed slightly, without bitterness, and pushed one of the deep arm-chairs forward. "There: make yourself comfortable--and here are the cigars you like."
He placed them at my elbow and continued to wander up and down the room, stopping now and then beneath the picture.
"How it happened? I can tell you in five minutes--and it didn't take much longer to happen. . . . I can remember now how surprised and pleased I was when I got Mrs. Stroud's note. Of course, deep down, I had always FELT there was no one like him--only I had gone with the stream, echoed the usual platitudes about him, till I half got to think he was a failure, one of the kind that are left behind. By Jove, and he WAS left behind--because he had come to stay! The rest of us had to let ourselves be swept along or go under, but he was high above the current--on everlasting foundations, as you say.
"Well, I went off to the house in my most egregious mood--rather moved, Lord forgive me, at the pathos of poor Stroud's career of failure being crowned by the glory of my painting him! Of course I meant to do the picture for nothing--I told Mrs. Stroud so when she began to stammer something about her poverty. I remember getting off a prodigious phrase about the honour being MINE--oh, I was princely, my dear Rickham! I was posing to myself like one of my own sitters.
"Then I was taken up and left alone with him. I had sent all my traps in advance, and I had only to set up the easel and get to work. He had been dead only twenty-four hours, and he died suddenly, of heart disease, so that there had been no preliminary work of destruction--his face was clear and untouched. I had met him once or twice, years before, and thought him insignificant and dingy. Now I saw that he was superb.
"I was glad at first, with a merely aesthetic satisfaction: glad to have my hand on such a 'subject.' Then his strange life-likeness began to affect me queerly--as I blocked the head in I felt as if he were watching me do it. The sensation was followed by the thought: if he WERE watching me, what would he say to my way of working? My strokes began to go a little wild--I felt nervous and uncertain.
"Once, when I looked up, I seemed to see a smile behind his close grayish beard--as if he had the secret, and were amusing himself by holding it back from me. That exasperated me still more. The secret? Why, I had a secret worth twenty of his! I dashed at the canvas furiously, and tried some of my bravura tricks. But they failed me, they crumbled. I saw that he wasn't watching the showy bits--I couldn't distract his attention; he just kept his eyes on the hard passages between. Those were the ones I had always shirked, or covered up with some lying paint. And how he saw through my lies!
"I looked up again, and caught sight of that sketch of
the donkey hanging on the wall near his bed.
His wife told me afterward it was the last thing he had done--just a
note taken with a shaking hand, when he was down in
"I turned back to my work, and went on groping and muddling; then I looked at the donkey again. I saw that, when Stroud laid in the first stroke, he knew just what the end would be. He had possessed his subject, absorbed it, recreated it. When had I done that with any of my things? They hadn't been born of me--I had just adopted them. . . .
"Hang it, Rickham, with that face watching me I couldn't do another stroke. The plain truth was, I didn't know where to put it--I HAD NEVER KNOWN. Only, with my sitters and my public, a showy splash of colour covered up the fact--I just threw paint into their faces. . . . Well, paint was the one medium those dead eyes could see through--see straight to the tottering foundations underneath. Don't you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time not what one wants to but what one can? Well--that was the way I painted; and as he lay there and watched me, the thing they called my 'technique' collapsed like a house of cards. He didn't sneer, you understand, poor Stroud--he just lay there quietly watching, and on his lips, through the gray beard, I seemed to hear the question: 'Are you sure you know where you're coming out?'
"If I could have painted that face, with that question on it, I should have done a great thing. The next greatest thing was to see that I couldn't--and that grace was given me. But, oh, at that minute, Rickham, was there anything on earth I wouldn't have given to have Stroud alive before me, and to hear him say: 'It's not too late--I'll show you how'?
"It WAS too late--it would have been, even if he'd been alive. I packed up my traps, and went down and told Mrs. Stroud. Of course I didn't tell her THAT--it would have been Greek to her. I simply said I couldn't paint him, that I was too moved. She rather liked the idea--she's so romantic! It was that that made her give me the donkey. But she was terribly upset at not getting the portrait--she did so want him 'done' by some one showy! At first I was afraid she wouldn't let me off--and at my wits' end I suggested Grindle. Yes, it was I who started Grindle: I told Mrs. Stroud he was the 'coming' man, and she told somebody else, and so it got to be true. . . . And he painted Stroud without wincing; and she hung the picture among her husband's things. . . ."
He flung himself down in the arm-chair near mine, laid back his head, and clasping his arms beneath it, looked up at the picture above the chimney-piece.
"I like to fancy that Stroud himself would have given it to me, if he'd been able to say what he thought that day."
And, in answer to a question I put half-mechanically--"Begin again?" he flashed out. "When the one thing that brings me anywhere near him is that I knew enough to leave off?"
He stood up and laid his hand on my shoulder with a laugh. "Only the irony of it is that I AM still painting--since Grindle's doing it for me! The Strouds stand alone, and happen once--but there's no exterminating our kind of art."
The End of The Verdict
"The marriage law of the new dispensation will be: THOU SHALT NOT BE UNFAITHFUL--TO THYSELF."
A discreet murmur of approval filled the studio, and through the haze of cigarette smoke Mrs. Clement Westall, as her husband descended from his improvised platform, saw him merged in a congratulatory group of ladies. Westall's informal talks on "The New Ethics" had drawn about him an eager following of the mentally unemployed--those who, as he had once phrased it, liked to have their brain-food cut up for them. The talks had begun by accident. Westall's ideas were known to be "advanced," but hitherto their advance had not been in the direction of publicity. He had been, in his wife's opinion, almost pusillanimously careful not to let his personal views endanger his professional standing. Of late, however, he had shown a puzzling tendency to dogmatize, to throw down the gauntlet, to flaunt his private code in the face of society; and the relation of the sexes being a topic always sure of an audience, a few admiring friends had persuaded him to give his after-dinner opinions a larger circulation by summing them up in a series of talks at the Van Sideren studio.
The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren's pictures were chiefly valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his wife's "afternoons" from the blighting functions held in long New York drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint, she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the "artistic" impression. It was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him, somewhat to his wife's surprise, into a flattered participation in her fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.
Julia Westall had long had her own views on the immorality of marriage; she might indeed have claimed her husband as a disciple. In the early days of their union she had secretly resented his disinclination to proclaim himself a follower of the new creed; had been inclined to tax him with moral cowardice, with a failure to live up to the convictions for which their marriage was supposed to stand. That was in the first burst of propagandism, when, womanlike, she wanted to turn her disobedience into a law. Now she felt differently. She could hardly account for the change, yet being a woman who never allowed her impulses to remain unaccounted for, she tried to do so by saying that she did not care to have the articles of her faith misinterpreted by the vulgar. In this connection, she was beginning to think that almost every one was vulgar; certainly there were few to whom she would have cared to intrust the defence of so esoteric a doctrine. And it was precisely at this point that Westall, discarding his unspoken principles, had chosen to descend from the heights of privacy, and stand hawking his convictions at the street-corner!
It was Una Van Sideren who, on this occasion, unconsciously focussed upon herself Mrs. Westall's wandering resentment. In the first place, the girl had no business to be there. It was "horrid"--Mrs. Westall found herself slipping back into the old feminine vocabulary--simply "horrid" to think of a young girl's being allowed to listen to such talk. The fact that Una smoked cigarettes and sipped an occasional cocktail did not in the least tarnish a certain radiant innocency which made her appear the victim, rather than the accomplice, of her parents' vulgarities. Julia Westall felt in a hot helpless way that something ought to be done--that some one ought to speak to the girl's mother. And just then Una glided up.
"Oh, Mrs. Westall, how beautiful it was!" Una fixed her with large limpid eyes. "You believe it all, I suppose?" she asked with seraphic gravity.
"All--what, my dear child?"
The girl shone on her. "About the higher life--the freer expansion of the individual--the law of fidelity to one's self," she glibly recited.
Mrs. Westall, to her own wonder, blushed a deep and burning blush.
"My dear Una," she said, "you don't in the least understand what it's all about!"
Miss Van Sideren stared, with a slowly answering blush. "Don't YOU, then?" she murmured.
Mrs. Westall laughed. "Not always--or altogether! But I should like some tea, please."
Una led her to the corner where innocent beverages were dispensed. As Julia received her cup she scrutinized the girl more carefully. It was not such a girlish face, after all--definite lines were forming under the rosy haze of youth. She reflected that Una must be six-and-twenty, and wondered why she had not married. A nice stock of ideas she would have as her dower! If THEY were to be a part of the modern girl's trousseau--
Mrs. Westall caught herself up with a start. It was as though some one else had been speaking--a stranger who had borrowed her own voice: she felt herself the dupe of some fantastic mental ventriloquism. Concluding suddenly that the room was stifling and Una's tea too sweet, she set down her cup, and looked about for Westall: to meet his eyes had long been her refuge from every uncertainty. She met them now, but only, as she felt, in transit; they included her parenthetically in a larger flight. She followed the flight, and it carried her to a corner to which Una had withdrawn--one of the palmy nooks to which Mrs. Van Sideren attributed the success of her Saturdays. Westall, a moment later, had overtaken his look, and found a place at the girl's side. She bent forward, speaking eagerly; he leaned back, listening, with the depreciatory smile which acted as a filter to flattery, enabling him to swallow the strongest doses without apparent grossness of appetite. Julia winced at her own definition of the smile.
On the way home, in the deserted winter dusk, Westall surprised his wife by a sudden boyish pressure of her arm. "Did I open their eyes a bit? Did I tell them what you wanted me to?" he asked gaily.
Almost unconsciously, she let her arm slip from his. "What I wanted--?"
"Why, haven't you--all this time?" She caught the honest wonder of his tone. "I somehow fancied you'd rather blamed me for not talking more openly--before-- You've made me feel, at times, that I was sacrificing principles to expediency."
She paused a moment over her reply; then she asked quietly: "What made you decide not to--any longer?"
She felt again the vibration of a faint surprise. "Why--the wish to please you!" he answered, almost too simply.
"I wish you would not go on, then," she said abruptly.
He stopped in his quick walk, and she felt his stare through the darkness.
"Not go on--?"
"Call a hansom, please. I'm tired," broke from her with a sudden rush of physical weariness.
Instantly his solicitude enveloped her. The room had been infernally hot--and then that confounded cigarette smoke--he had noticed once or twice that she looked pale--she mustn't come to another Saturday. She felt herself yielding, as she always did, to the warm influence of his concern for her, the feminine in her leaning on the man in him with a conscious intensity of abandonment. He put her in the hansom, and her hand stole into his in the darkness. A tear or two rose, and she let them fall. It was so delicious to cry over imaginary troubles!
That evening, after dinner, he surprised her by reverting to the subject of his talk. He combined a man's dislike of uncomfortable questions with an almost feminine skill in eluding them; and she knew that if he returned to the subject he must have some special reason for doing so.
"You seem not to have cared for what I said this afternoon. Did I put the case badly?"
"No--you put it very well."
"Then what did you mean by saying that you would rather not have me go on with it?"
She glanced at him nervously, her ignorance of his intention deepening her sense of helplessness.
"I don't think I care to hear such things discussed in public."
"I don't understand you," he exclaimed. Again the feeling that his surprise was genuine gave an air of obliquity to her own attitude. She was not sure that she understood herself.
"Won't you explain?" he said with a tinge of impatience. Her eyes wandered about the familiar drawing-room which had been the scene of so many of their evening confidences. The shaded lamps, the quiet-colored walls hung with mezzotints, the pale spring flowers scattered here and there in Venice glasses and bowls of old Sevres, recalled, she hardly knew why, the apartment in which the evenings of her first marriage had been passed--a wilderness of rosewood and upholstery, with a picture of a Roman peasant above the mantel-piece, and a Greek slave in "statuary marble" between the folding-doors of the back drawing-room. It was a room with which she had never been able to establish any closer relation than that between a traveller and a railway station; and now, as she looked about at the surroundings which stood for her deepest affinities--the room for which she had left that other room--she was startled by the same sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity. The prints, the flowers, the subdued tones of the old porcelains, seemed to typify a superficial refinement that had no relation to the deeper significances of life.
Suddenly she heard her husband repeating his question.
"I don't know that I can explain," she faltered.
He drew his arm-chair forward so that he faced her across the hearth. The light of a reading-lamp fell on his finely drawn face, which had a kind of surface-sensitiveness akin to the surface-refinement of its setting.
"Is it that you no longer believe in our ideas?" he asked.
"In our ideas--?"
"The ideas I am trying to teach. The ideas you and I are supposed to stand for." He paused a moment. "The ideas on which our marriage was founded."
The blood rushed to her face. He had his reasons, then--she was sure now that he had his reasons! In the ten years of their marriage, how often had either of them stopped to consider the ideas on which it was founded? How often does a man dig about the basement of his house to examine its foundation? The foundation is there, of course--the house rests on it--but one lives abovestairs and not in the cellar. It was she, indeed, who in the beginning had insisted on reviewing the situation now and then, on recapitulating the reasons which justified her course, on proclaiming, from time to time, her adherence to the religion of personal independence; but she had long ceased to feel the need of any such ideal standards, and had accepted her marriage as frankly and naturally as though it had been based on the primitive needs of the heart, and needed no special sanction to explain or justify it.
"Of course I still believe in our ideas!" she exclaimed.
"Then I repeat that I don't understand. It was a part of your theory that the greatest possible publicity should be given to our view of marriage. Have you changed your mind in that respect?"
She hesitated. "It depends on circumstances--on the public one is addressing. The set of people that the Van Siderens get about them don't care for the truth or falseness of a doctrine. They are attracted simply by its novelty."
"And yet it was in just such a set of people that you and I met, and learned the truth from each other."
"That was different."
"In what way?"
"I was not a young girl, to begin with. It is perfectly unfitting that young girls should be present at--at such times--should hear such things discussed--"
"I thought you considered it one of the deepest social wrongs that such things never ARE discussed before young girls; but that is beside the point, for I don't remember seeing any young girl in my audience to-day--"
"Except Una Van Sideren!"
He turned slightly and pushed back the lamp at his elbow.
"Oh, Miss Van Sideren--naturally--"
"The daughter of the house--would you have had her sent out with her governess?"
"If I had a daughter I should not allow such things to go on in my house!"
Westall, stroking his mustache, leaned back with a faint smile. "I fancy Miss Van Sideren is quite capable of taking care of herself."
"No girl knows how to take care of herself--till it's too late."
"And yet you would deliberately deny her the surest means of self-defence?"
"What do you call the surest means of self-defence?"
"Some preliminary knowledge of human nature in its relation to the marriage tie."
She made an impatient gesture. "How should you like to marry that kind of a girl?"
"Immensely--if she were my kind of girl in other respects."
She took up the argument at another point.
"You are quite mistaken if you think such talk does not affect young girls. Una was in a state of the most absurd exaltation--" She broke off, wondering why she had spoken.
Westall reopened a magazine which he had laid aside at the beginning of their discussion. "What you tell me is immensely flattering to my oratorical talent--but I fear you overrate its effect. I can assure you that Miss Van Sideren doesn't have to have her thinking done for her. She's quite capable of doing it herself."
"You seem very familiar with her mental processes!" flashed unguardedly from his wife.
He looked up quietly from the pages he was cutting.
"I should like to be," he answered. "She interests me."
If there be a distinction in being misunderstood, it was one denied to Julia Westall when she left her first husband. Every one was ready to excuse and even to defend her. The world she adorned agreed that John Arment was "impossible," and hostesses gave a sigh of relief at the thought that it would no longer be necessary to ask him to dine.
There had been no scandal connected with the divorce: neither side had accused the other of the offence euphemistically described as "statutory." The Arments had indeed been obliged to transfer their allegiance to a State which recognized desertion as a cause for divorce, and construed the term so liberally that the seeds of desertion were shown to exist in every union. Even Mrs. Arment's second marriage did not make traditional morality stir in its sleep. It was known that she had not met her second husband till after she had parted from the first, and she had, moreover, replaced a rich man by a poor one. Though Clement Westall was acknowledged to be a rising lawyer, it was generally felt that his fortunes would not rise as rapidly as his reputation. The Westalls would probably always have to live quietly and go out to dinner in cabs. Could there be better evidence of Mrs. Arment's complete disinterestedness?
If the reasoning by which her friends justified her course was somewhat cruder and less complex than her own elucidation of the matter, both explanations led to the same conclusion: John Arment was impossible. The only difference was that, to his wife, his impossibility was something deeper than a social disqualification. She had once said, in ironical defence of her marriage, that it had at least preserved her from the necessity of sitting next to him at dinner; but she had not then realized at what cost the immunity was purchased. John Arment was impossible; but the sting of his impossibility lay in the fact that he made it impossible for those about him to be other than himself. By an unconscious process of elimination he had excluded from the world everything of which he did not feel a personal need: had become, as it were, a climate in which only his own requirements survived. This might seem to imply a deliberate selfishness; but there was nothing deliberate about Arment. He was as instinctive as an animal or a child. It was this childish element in his nature which sometimes for a moment unsettled his wife's estimate of him. Was it possible that he was simply undeveloped, that he had delayed, somewhat longer than is usual, the laborious process of growing up? He had the kind of sporadic shrewdness which causes it to be said of a dull man that he is "no fool"; and it was this quality that his wife found most trying. Even to the naturalist it is annoying to have his deductions disturbed by some unforeseen aberrancy of form or function; and how much more so to the wife whose estimate of herself is inevitably bound up with her judgment of her husband!
Arment's shrewdness did not, indeed, imply any latent intellectual power; it suggested, rather, potentialities of feeling, of suffering, perhaps, in a blind rudimentary way, on which Julia's sensibilities naturally declined to linger. She so fully understood her own reasons for leaving him that she disliked to think they were not as comprehensible to her husband. She was haunted, in her analytic moments, by the look of perplexity, too inarticulate for words, with which he had acquiesced to her explanations.
These moments were rare with her, however. Her marriage had been too concrete a misery to be surveyed philosophically. If she had been unhappy for complex reasons, the unhappiness was as real as though it had been uncomplicated. Soul is more bruisable than flesh, and Julia was wounded in every fibre of her spirit. Her husband's personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed by some world-old conspiracy into this bondage of body and soul filled her with despair. If marriage was the slow life-long acquittal of a debt contracted in ignorance, then marriage was a crime against human nature. She, for one, would have no share in maintaining the pretence of which she had been a victim: the pretence that a man and a woman, forced into the narrowest of personal relations, must remain there till the end, though they may have outgrown the span of each other's natures as the mature tree outgrows the iron brace about the sapling.
It was in the first heat of her moral indignation that she had met Clement Westall. She had seen at once that he was "interested," and had fought off the discovery, dreading any influence that should draw her back into the bondage of conventional relations. To ward off the peril she had, with an almost crude precipitancy, revealed her opinions to him. To her surprise, she found that he shared them. She was attracted by the frankness of a suitor who, while pressing his suit, admitted that he did not believe in marriage. Her worst audacities did not seem to surprise him: he had thought out all that she had felt, and they had reached the same conclusion. People grew at varying rates, and the yoke that was an easy fit for the one might soon become galling to the other. That was what divorce was for: the readjustment of personal relations. As soon as their necessarily transitive nature was recognized they would gain in dignity as well as in harmony. There would be no farther need of the ignoble concessions and connivances, the perpetual sacrifice of personal delicacy and moral pride, by means of which imperfect marriages were now held together. Each partner to the contract would be on his mettle, forced to live up to the highest standard of self-development, on pain of losing the other's respect and affection. The low nature could no longer drag the higher down, but must struggle to rise, or remain alone on its inferior level. The only necessary condition to a harmonious marriage was a frank recognition of this truth, and a solemn agreement between the contracting parties to keep faith with themselves, and not to live together for a moment after complete accord had ceased to exist between them. The new adultery was unfaithfulness to self.
It was, as Westall had just reminded her, on this understanding that they had married. The ceremony was an unimportant concession to social prejudice: now that the door of divorce stood open, no marriage need be an imprisonment, and the contract therefore no longer involved any diminution of self-respect. The nature of their attachment placed them so far beyond the reach of such contingencies that it was easy to discuss them with an open mind; and Julia's sense of security made her dwell with a tender insistence on Westall's promise to claim his release when he should cease to love her. The exchange of these vows seemed to make them, in a sense, champions of the new law, pioneers in the forbidden realm of individual freedom: they felt that they had somehow achieved beatitude without martyrdom.
This, as Julia now reviewed the past, she perceived to have been her theoretical attitude toward marriage. It was unconsciously, insidiously, that her ten years of happiness with Westall had developed another conception of the tie; a reversion, rather, to the old instinct of passionate dependency and possessorship that now made her blood revolt at the mere hint of change. Change? Renewal? Was that what they had called it, in their foolish jargon? Destruction, extermination rather--this rending of a myriad fibres interwoven with another's being! Another? But he was not other! He and she were one, one in the mystic sense which alone gave marriage its significance. The new law was not for them, but for the disunited creatures forced into a mockery of union. The gospel she had felt called on to proclaim had no bearing on her own case. . . . She sent for the doctor and told him she was sure she needed a nerve tonic.
She took the nerve tonic diligently, but it failed to act as a sedative to her fears. She did not know what she feared; but that made her anxiety the more pervasive. Her husband had not reverted to the subject of his Saturday talks. He was unusually kind and considerate, with a softening of his quick manner, a touch of shyness in his consideration, that sickened her with new fears. She told herself that it was because she looked badly--because he knew about the doctor and the nerve tonic--that he showed this deference to her wishes, this eagerness to screen her from moral draughts; but the explanation simply cleared the way for fresh inferences.
The week passed slowly, vacantly, like a prolonged Sunday. On Saturday the morning post brought a note from Mrs. Van Sideren. Would dear Julia ask Mr. Westall to come half an hour earlier than usual, as there was to be some music after his "talk"? Westall was just leaving for his office when his wife read the note. She opened the drawing-room door and called him back to deliver the message.
He glanced at the note and tossed it aside. "What a bore! I shall have to cut my game of racquets. Well, I suppose it can't be helped. Will you write and say it's all right?"
Julia hesitated a moment, her hand stiffening on the chair-back against which she leaned.
"You mean to go on with these talks?" she asked.
"I--why not?" he returned; and this time it struck her that his surprise was not quite unfeigned. The discovery helped her to find words.
"You said you had started them with the idea of pleasing me--"
"I told you last week that they didn't please me."
"Last week? Oh--" He seemed to make an effort of memory. "I thought you were nervous then; you sent for the doctor the next day."
"It was not the doctor I needed; it was your assurance--"
Suddenly she felt the floor fail under her. She sank into the chair with a choking throat, her words, her reasons slipping away from her like straws down a whirling flood.
"Clement," she cried, "isn't it enough for you to know that I hate it?"
He turned to close the door behind them; then he walked toward her and sat down. "What is it that you hate?" he asked gently.
She had made a desperate effort to rally her routed argument.
"I can't bear to have you speak as if--as if--our marriage--were like the other kind--the wrong kind. When I heard you there, the other afternoon, before all those inquisitive gossiping people, proclaiming that husbands and wives had a right to leave each other whenever they were tired--or had seen some one else--"
Westall sat motionless, his eyes fixed on a pattern of the carpet.
"You HAVE ceased to take this view, then?" he said as she broke off. "You no longer believe that husbands and wives ARE justified in separating--under such conditions?"
"Under such conditions?" she stammered. "Yes--I still believe that--but how can we judge for others? What can we know of the circumstances--?"
He interrupted her. "I thought it was a fundamental article of our creed that the special circumstances produced by marriage were not to interfere with the full assertion of individual liberty." He paused a moment. "I thought that was your reason for leaving Arment."
She flushed to the forehead. It was not like him to give a personal turn to the argument.
"It was my reason," she said simply.
"Well, then--why do you refuse to recognize its validity now?"
"I don't--I don't--I only say that one can't judge for others."
He made an impatient movement. "This is mere hair-splitting. What you mean is that, the doctrine having served your purpose when you needed it, you now repudiate it."
"Well," she exclaimed, flushing again, "what if I do? What does it matter to us?"
Westall rose from his chair. He was excessively pale, and stood before his wife with something of the formality of a stranger.
"It matters to me," he said in a low voice, "because I do NOT repudiate it."
"And because I had intended to invoke it as"--
He paused and drew his breath deeply. She sat silent, almost deafened by her heart-beats.
--"as a complete justification of the course I am about to take."
Julia remained motionless. "What course is that?" she asked.
He cleared his throat. "I mean to claim the fulfilment of your promise."
For an instant the room wavered and darkened; then she recovered a torturing acuteness of vision. Every detail of her surroundings pressed upon her: the tick of the clock, the slant of sunlight on the wall, the hardness of the chair-arms that she grasped, were a separate wound to each sense.
"My promise--" she faltered.
"Your part of our mutual agreement to set each other free if one or the other should wish to be released."
She was silent again. He waited a moment, shifting his position nervously; then he said, with a touch of irritability: "You acknowledge the agreement?"
The question went through her like a shock. She lifted her head to it proudly. "I acknowledge the agreement," she said.
"And--you don't mean to repudiate it?"
A log on the hearth fell forward, and mechanically he advanced and pushed it back.
"No," she answered slowly, "I don't mean to repudiate it."
There was a pause. He remained near the hearth, his elbow resting on the mantel-shelf. Close to his hand stood a little cup of jade that he had given her on one of their wedding anniversaries. She wondered vaguely if he noticed it.
"You intend to leave me, then?" she said at length.
His gesture seemed to deprecate the crudeness of the allusion.
"To marry some one else?"
Again his eye and hand protested. She rose and stood before him.
"Why should you be afraid to tell me? Is it Una Van Sideren?"
He was silent.
"I wish you good luck," she said.
She looked up, finding herself alone. She did not remember when or how he had left the room, or how long afterward she had sat there. The fire still smouldered on the hearth, but the slant of sunlight had left the wall.
Her first conscious thought was that she had not broken her word, that she had fulfilled the very letter of their bargain. There had been no crying out, no vain appeal to the past, no attempt at temporizing or evasion. She had marched straight up to the guns.
Now that it was over, she sickened to find herself alive. She looked about her, trying to recover her hold on reality. Her identity seemed to be slipping from her, as it disappears in a physical swoon. "This is my room--this is my house," she heard herself saying. Her room? Her house? She could almost hear the walls laugh back at her.
She stood up, a dull ache in every bone. The silence of the room frightened her. She remembered, now, having heard the front door close a long time ago: the sound suddenly re-echoed through her brain. Her husband must have left the house, then--her HUSBAND? She no longer knew in what terms to think: the simplest phrases had a poisoned edge. She sank back into her chair, overcome by a strange weakness. The clock struck ten--it was only ten o'clock! Suddenly she remembered that she had not ordered dinner . . . or were they dining out that evening? DINNER--DINING OUT--the old meaningless phraseology pursued her! She must try to think of herself as she would think of some one else, a some one dissociated from all the familiar routine of the past, whose wants and habits must gradually be learned, as one might spy out the ways of a strange animal. . .
The clock struck another hour--eleven. She stood up again and walked to the door: she thought she would go up stairs to her room. HER room? Again the word derided her. She opened the door, crossed the narrow hall, and walked up the stairs. As she passed, she noticed Westall's sticks and umbrellas: a pair of his gloves lay on the hall table. The same stair-carpet mounted between the same walls; the same old French print, in its narrow black frame, faced her on the landing. This visual continuity was intolerable. Within, a gaping chasm; without, the same untroubled and familiar surface. She must get away from it before she could attempt to think. But, once in her room, she sat down on the lounge, a stupor creeping over her. . .
Gradually her vision cleared. A great deal had happened in the interval--a wild marching and countermarching of emotions, arguments, ideas--a fury of insurgent impulses that fell back spent upon themselves. She had tried, at first, to rally, to organize these chaotic forces. There must be help somewhere, if only she could master the inner tumult. Life could not be broken off short like this, for a whim, a fancy; the law itself would side with her, would defend her. The law? What claim had she upon it? She was the prisoner of her own choice: she had been her own legislator, and she was the predestined victim of the code she had devised. But this was grotesque, intolerable--a mad mistake, for which she could not be held accountable! The law she had despised was still there, might still be invoked . . . invoked, but to what end? Could she ask it to chain Westall to her side? SHE had been allowed to go free when she claimed her freedom--should she show less magnanimity than she had exacted? Magnanimity? The word lashed her with its irony--one does not strike an attitude when one is fighting for life! She would threaten, grovel, cajole . . . she would yield anything to keep her hold on happiness. Ah, but the difficulty lay deeper! The law could not help her--her own apostasy could not help her. She was the victim of the theories she renounced. It was as though some giant machine of her own making had caught her up in its wheels and was grinding her to atoms. . .
It was afternoon when she found herself out-of-doors. She walked with an aimless haste, fearing to
meet familiar faces. The day was
radiant, metallic: one of those searching American days so calculated to reveal
the shortcomings of our street-cleaning and the excesses of our
architecture. The streets looked bare
and hideous; everything stared and glittered.
She called a passing hansom, and gave Mrs. Van Sideren's address. She did not know what had led up to the act;
but she found herself suddenly resolved to speak, to cry out a warning. it was too late to save herself--but the girl
might still be told. The hansom rattled
The ladies were both out . . . the parlor-maid stood waiting for a card. Julia, with a vague murmur, turned away from the door and lingered a moment on the sidewalk. Then she remembered that she had not paid the cab-driver. She drew a dollar from her purse and handed it to him. He touched his hat and drove off, leaving her alone in the long empty street. She wandered away westward, toward strange thoroughfares, where she was not likely to meet acquaintances. The feeling of aimlessness had returned. Once she found herself in the afternoon torrent of Broadway, swept past tawdry shops and flaming theatrical posters, with a succession of meaningless faces gliding by in the opposite direction. . .
A feeling of faintness reminded her that she had not eaten since morning. She turned into a side street of shabby houses, with rows of ash-barrels behind bent area railings. In a basement window she saw the sign LADIES' RESTAURANT: a pie and a dish of doughnuts lay against the dusty pane like petrified food in an ethnological museum. She entered, and a young woman with a weak mouth and a brazen eye cleared a table for her near the window. The table was covered with a red and white cotton cloth and adorned with a bunch of celery in a thick tumbler and a salt-cellar full of grayish lumpy salt. Julia ordered tea, and sat a long time waiting for it. She was glad to be away from the noise and confusion of the streets. The low-ceilinged room was empty, and two or three waitresses with thin pert faces lounged in the background staring at her and whispering together. At last the tea was brought in a discolored metal teapot. Julia poured a cup and drank it hastily. It was black and bitter, but it flowed through her veins like an elixir. She was almost dizzy with exhilaration. Oh, how tired, how unutterably tired she had been!
She drank a second cup, blacker and bitterer, and now her
mind was once more working clearly. She
felt as vigorous, as decisive, as when she had stood on the Van Siderens'
door-step--but the wish to return there had subsided. She saw now the futility of such an
attempt--the humiliation to which it might have exposed her. . . The pity of it was that she did not know what
to do next. The short winter day was
fading, and she realized that she could not remain much longer in the
restaurant without attracting notice.
She paid for her tea and went out into the street. The lamps were alight, and here and there a
basement shop cast an oblong of gas-light across the fissured pavement. In the dusk there was something sinister
about the aspect of the street, and she hastened back toward
At the corner of
Suddenly she found herself in a familiar street. She stood still a moment, breathing quickly. She had turned the corner without noticing whither it led; but now, a few yards ahead of her, she saw the house in which she had once lived--her first husband's house. The blinds were drawn, and only a faint translucence marked the windows and the transom above the door. As she stood there she heard a step behind her, and a man walked by in the direction of the house. He walked slowly, with a heavy middle-aged gait, his head sunk a little between the shoulders, the red crease of his neck visible above the fur collar of his overcoat. He crossed the street, went up the steps of the house, drew forth a latch-key, and let himself in. . .
There was no one else in sight. Julia leaned for a long time against the area-rail at the corner, her eyes fixed on the front of the house. The feeling of physical weariness had returned, but the strong tea still throbbed in her veins and lit her brain with an unnatural clearness. Presently she heard another step draw near, and moving quickly away, she too crossed the street and mounted the steps of the house. The impulse which had carried her there prolonged itself in a quick pressure of the electric bell--then she felt suddenly weak and tremulous, and grasped the balustrade for support. The door opened and a young footman with a fresh inexperienced face stood on the threshold. Julia knew in an instant that he would admit her.
"I saw Mr. Arment going in just now," she said. "Will you ask him to see me for a moment?"
The footman hesitated. "I think Mr. Arment has gone up to dress for dinner, madam."
Julia advanced into the hall. "I am sure he will see me--I will not detain him long," she said. She spoke quietly, authoritatively, in the tone which a good servant does not mistake. The footman had his hand on the drawing-room door.
"I will tell him, madam. What name, please?"
Julia trembled: she had not thought of that. "Merely say a lady," she returned carelessly.
The footman wavered and she fancied herself lost; but at that instant the door opened from within and John Arment stepped into the hall. He drew back sharply as he saw her, his florid face turning sallow with the shock; then the blood poured back to it, swelling the veins on his temples and reddening the lobes of his thick ears.
It was long since Julia had seen him, and she was startled at the change in his appearance. He had thickened, coarsened, settled down into the enclosing flesh. But she noted this insensibly: her one conscious thought was that, now she was face to face with him, she must not let him escape till he had heard her. Every pulse in her body throbbed with the urgency of her message.
She went up to him as he drew back. "I must speak to you," she said.
Arment hesitated, red and stammering. Julia glanced at the footman, and her look acted as a warning. The instinctive shrinking from a "scene" predominated over every other impulse, and Arment said slowly: "Will you come this way?"
He followed her into the drawing-room and closed the door. Julia, as she advanced, was vaguely aware that the room at least was unchanged: time had not mitigated its horrors. The contadina still lurched from the chimney-breast, and the Greek slave obstructed the threshold of the inner room. The place was alive with memories: they started out from every fold of the yellow satin curtains and glided between the angles of the rosewood furniture. But while some subordinate agency was carrying these impressions to her brain, her whole conscious effort was centred in the act of dominating Arment's will. The fear that he would refuse to hear her mounted like fever to her brain. She felt her purpose melt before it, words and arguments running into each other in the heat of her longing. For a moment her voice failed her, and she imagined herself thrust out before she could speak; but as she was struggling for a word, Arment pushed a chair forward, and said quietly: "You are not well."
The sound of his voice steadied her. It was neither kind nor unkind--a voice that suspended judgment, rather, awaiting unforeseen developments. She supported herself against the back of the chair and drew a deep breath. "Shall I send for something?" he continued, with a cold embarrassed politeness.
Julia raised an entreating hand. "No--no--thank you. I am quite well."
He paused midway toward the bell and turned on her. "Then may I ask--?"
"Yes," she interrupted him. "I came here because I wanted to see you. There is something I must tell you."
Arment continued to scrutinize her. "I am surprised at that," he said. "I should have supposed that any communication you may wish to make could have been made through our lawyers."
"Our lawyers!" She burst into a little laugh. "I don't think they could help me--this time."
Arment's face took on a barricaded look. "If there is any question of help--of course--"
It struck her, whimsically, that she had seen that look when some shabby devil called with a subscription-book. Perhaps he thought she wanted him to put his name down for so much in sympathy--or even in money. . . The thought made her laugh again. She saw his look change slowly to perplexity. All his facial changes were slow, and she remembered, suddenly, how it had once diverted her to shift that lumbering scenery with a word. For the first time it struck her that she had been cruel. "There IS a question of help," she said in a softer key: "you can help me; but only by listening. . . I want to tell you something. . ."
Arment's resistance was not yielding. "Would it not be easier to--write?" he suggested.
She shook her head. "There is no time to write . . . and it won't take long." She raised her head and their eyes met. "My husband has left me," she said.
"Westall--?" he stammered, reddening again.
"Yes. This morning. Just as I left you. Because he was tired of me."
The words, uttered scarcely above a whisper, seemed to dilate to the limit of the room. Arment looked toward the door; then his embarrassed glance returned to Julia.
"I am very sorry," he said awkwardly.
"Thank you," she murmured.
"But I don't see--"
"No--but you will--in a moment. Won't you listen to me? Please!" Instinctively she had shifted her position putting herself between him and the door. "It happened this morning," she went on in short breathless phrases. "I never suspected anything--I thought we were--perfectly happy. . . Suddenly he told me he was tired of me . . . there is a girl he likes better. . . He has gone to her. . ." As she spoke, the lurking anguish rose upon her, possessing her once more to the exclusion of every other emotion. Her eyes ached, her throat swelled with it, and two painful tears burnt a way down her face.
Arment's constraint was increasing visibly. "This--this is very unfortunate," he began. "But I should say the law--"
"The law?" she echoed ironically. "When he asks for his freedom?"
"You are not obliged to give it."
"You were not obliged to give me mine--but you did."
He made a protesting gesture.
"You saw that the law couldn't help you--didn't you?" she went on. "That is what I see now. The law represents material rights--it can't go beyond. If we don't recognize an inner law . . . the obligation that love creates . . . being loved as well as loving . . . there is nothing to prevent our spreading ruin unhindered . . . is there?" She raised her head plaintively, with the look of a bewildered child. "That is what I see now . . . what I wanted to tell you. He leaves me because he's tired . . . but I was not tired; and I don't understand why he is. That's the dreadful part of it--the not understanding: I hadn't realized what it meant. But I've been thinking of it all day, and things have come back to me--things I hadn't noticed . . . when you and I. . ." She moved closer to him, and fixed her eyes on his with the gaze that tries to reach beyond words. "I see now that YOU didn't understand--did you?"
Their eyes met in a sudden shock of comprehension: a veil seemed to be lifted between them. Arment's lip trembled.
"No," he said, "I didn't understand."
She gave a little cry, almost of triumph. "I knew it! I knew it! You wondered--you tried to tell me--but no words came. . . You saw your life falling in ruins . . . the world slipping from you . . . and you couldn't speak or move!"
She sank down on the chair against which she had been leaning. "Now I know--now I know," she repeated.
"I am very sorry for you," she heard Arment stammer.
She looked up quickly. "That's not what I came for. I don't want you to be sorry. I came to ask you to forgive me . . . for not understanding that YOU didn't understand. . . That's all I wanted to say." She rose with a vague sense that the end had come, and put out a groping hand toward the door.
Arment stood motionless. She turned to him with a faint smile.
"You forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive--"
"Then will you shake hands for good-by?" She felt his hand in hers: it was nerveless, reluctant.
"Good-by," she repeated. "I understand now."
She opened the door and passed out into the hall. As she did so, Arment took an impulsive step forward; but just then the footman, who was evidently alive to his obligations, advanced from the background to let her out. She heard Arment fall back. The footman threw open the door, and she found herself outside in the darkness.
The End of The Reckoning
WHAT strange presentiment, O Mother, lies
On thy waste brow and sadly-folded lips,
Forefeeling the Light's terrible eclipse
And thou couldst read in those dear infant eyes
The sorrow that beneath their smiling sleeps,
And guess what bitter tears a mother weeps
When the cross darkens her unclouded skies?
Sad Lady, if some mother, passing thee,
Should feel a throb of thy foreboding pain,
And think--"My child at home clings so to me,
With the same smile . . . and yet in vain, in vain,
this Jesus died on
Say to her then: "He also rose again."
ILARIA, thou that wert so fair and dear
That death would fain disown thee, grief made wise
With prophecy thy husband's widowed eyes
And bade him call the master's art to rear
Thy perfect image on the sculptured bier,
With dreaming lids, hands laid in peaceful guise
Beneath the breast that seems to fall and rise,
And lips that at love's call should answer, "Here!"
First-born of the Renascence, when thy soul
Cast the sweet robing of the flesh aside,
Into these lovelier marble limbs it stole,
Regenerate in art's sunrise clear and wide
As saints who, having kept faith's raiment whole,
Change it above for garments glorified.
PURE form, that like some chalice of old time
Contain'st the liquid of the poet's thought
Within thy curving hollow, gem-enwrought
With interwoven traceries of rhyme,
While o'er thy brim the bubbling fancies climb,
What thing am I, that undismayed have sought
To pour my verse with trembling hand untaught
Into a shape so small yet so sublime?
Because perfection haunts the hearts of men,
Because thy sacred chalice gathered up
The wine of Petrarch, Shakspere, Shelley--then
Receive these tears of failure as they drop
(Sole vintage of my life), since I am fain
To pour them in a consecrated cup.
I. LA VIERGE AU DONATEUR.
HERE by the ample river's argent sweep,
Bosomed in tilth and vintage to her walls,
A tower-crowned Cybele in armored sleep
The city lies, fat plenty in her halls,
With calm, parochial spires that hold in fee
The friendly gables clustered at their base,
And, equipoised o'er tower and market-place,
The Gothic minster's winged immensity;
And in that narrow burgh, with equal mood,
Two placid hearts, to all life's good resigned,
Might, from the altar to the lych-gate, find
Long years of peace and dreamless plenitude.
II. MONA LISA.
Yon strange blue city crowns a scarped steep
No mortal foot hath bloodlessly essayed;
Dreams and illusions beacon from its keep,
But at the gate an Angel bares his blade;
And tales are told of those who thought to gain
At dawn its ramparts; but when evening fell
Far off they saw each fading pinnacle
Lit with wild lightnings from the heaven of pain;
Yet there two souls, whom life's perversities
Had mocked with want in plenty, tears in mirth,
Might meet in dreams, ungarmented of earth,
And drain Joy's awful chalice to the lees.
LIKE Crusoe with the bootless gold we stand
Upon the desert verge of death, and say:
"What shall avail the woes of yesterday
To buy to-morrow's wisdom, in the land
Whose currency is strange unto our hand?
In life's small market they have served to pay
Some late-found rapture, could we but delay
Till Time hath matched our means to our demand."
But otherwise Fate wills it, for, behold,
Our gathered strength of individual pain,
When Time's long alchemy hath made it gold,
Dies with us--hoarded all these years in vain,
Since those that might be heir to it the mould
Renew, and coin themselves new griefs again.
O, Death, we come full-handed to thy gate,
Rich with strange burden of the mingled years,
Gains and renunciations, mirth and tears,
And love's oblivion, and remembering hate,
Nor know we what compulsion laid such freight
Upon our souls--and shall our hopes and fears
Buy nothing of thee, Death? Behold our wares,
And sell us the one joy for which we wait.
Had we lived longer, life had such for sale,
With the last coin of sorrow purchased cheap,
But now we stand before thy shadowy pale,
And all our longings lie within thy keep--
Death, can it be the years shall naught avail?
"Not so," Death answered, "they shall purchase sleep."
IMMENSE, august, like some Titanic bloom,
The mighty choir unfolds its lithic core,
Petalled with panes of azure, gules and or,
Splendidly lambent in the Gothic gloom,
And stamened with keen flamelets that illume
The pale high-altar. On the prayer-worn floor,
By surging worshippers thick-thronged of yore,
A few brown crones, familiars of the tomb,
The stranded driftwood of Faith's ebbing sea--
For these alone the finials fret the skies,
The topmost bosses shake their blossoms free,
While from the triple portals, with grave eyes,
Tranquil, and fixed upon eternity,
The cloud of witnesses still testifies.
The crimson panes like blood-drops stigmatize
The western floor. The aisles are mute and cold.
A rigid fetich in her robe of gold
The Virgin of the Pillar, with blank eyes,
Enthroned beneath her votive canopies,
Gathers a meagre remnant to her fold.
The rest is solitude; the church, grown old,
Stands stark and gray beneath the burning skies.
Wellnigh again its mighty frame-work grows
To be a part of nature's self, withdrawn
From hot humanity's impatient woes;
The floor is ridged like some rude mountain lawn,
And in the east one giant window shows
The roseate coldness of an Alp at dawn.
LIFE, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia's gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.
But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian's perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.
LEAGUERED in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets,
And, halting higher,
The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
That, balked, yet stands at bay.
Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day
In wind-lustrated hollows crystalline,
A wan valkyrie whose wide pinions shine
Across the ensanguined ruins of the fray,
And in her lifted hand swings high o'erhead,
Above the waste of war,
The silver torch-light of the evening star
Wherewith to search the faces of the dead.
Lagooned in gold,
Seem not those jetty promontories rather
The outposts of some ancient land forlorn,
Uncomforted of morn,
Where old oblivions gather,
The melancholy, unconsoling fold
Of all things that go utterly to death
And mix no more, no more
With life's perpetually awakening breath?
Shall Time not ferry me to such a shore,
Over such sailless seas,
To walk with hope's slain importunities
In miserable marriage? Nay, shall not
All things be there forgot,
Save the sea's golden barrier and the black
Dead to all shames, forgotten of all glories,
Shall I not wander there, a shadow's shade,
A spectre self-destroyed,
So purged of all remembrance and sucked back
Into the primal void,
That should we on that shore phantasmal meet
I should not know the coming of your feet?
THE END OF PART TWO