"I don't care if we are," I said, and surprised myself.
"But I care. It's weak, it's cowardly, but it's so. And yet I want to face the situation—I'm trying to get you to face it, to realize how terrible it is."
"I only know that I want you above everything else in the world—I'll take care of you—"
I seized her arms, I drew her down to me.
"Don't!" she cried. "Oh, don't!" and struggled to her feet and stood before me panting. "You must go away now—please, Hugh. I can't bear any more—I want to think."
I released her. She sank into the chair and hid her face in her hands....
As may be imagined, the incident I have just related threw my life into a tangle that would have floored a less persistent optimist and romanticist than myself, yet I became fairly accustomed to treading what the old moralists called the devious paths of sin. In my passion I had not hesitated to lay down the doctrine that the courageous and the strong took what they wanted,—a doctrine of which I had been a consistent disciple in the professional and business realm. A logical buccaneer, superman, "master of life" would promptly have extended this doctrine to the realm of sex. Nancy was the mate for me, and Nancy and I, our development, was all that mattered, especially my development. Let every man and woman look out for his or her development, and in the end the majority of people would be happy. This was going Adam Smith one better. When it came to putting that theory into practice, however, one needed convictions: Nancy had been right when she had implied that convictions were precisely what we lacked; what our world in general lacked. We had desires, yes convictions, no. What we wanted we got not by defying the world, but by conforming to it: we were ready to defy only when our desires overcame the resistance of our synapses, and even then not until we should have exhausted every legal and conventional means.
A superman with a wife and family he had acquired before a great passion has made him a superman is in rather a predicament, especially if he be one who has achieved such superhumanity as he possesses not by challenging laws and conventions, but by getting around them. My wife and family loved me; and paradoxically I still had affection for them, or thought I had. But the superman creed is, "be yourself, realize yourself, no matter how cruel you may have to be in order to do so." One trouble with me was that remnants of the Christian element of pity still clung to me. I would be cruel if I had to, but I hoped I shouldn't have to: something would turn up, something in the nature of an intervening miracle that would make it easy for me. Perhaps Maude would take the initiative and relieve me.... Nancy had appealed for a justifying doctrine, and it was just what I didn't have and couldn't evolve. In the meanwhile it was quite in character that I should accommodate myself to a situation that might well be called anomalous.
This "accommodation" was not unaccompanied by fever. My longing to realize my love for Nancy kept me in a constant state of tension—of "nerves"; for our relationship had merely gone one step farther, we had reached a point where we acknowledged that we loved each other, and paradoxically halted there; Nancy clung to her demand for new sanctions with a tenacity that amazed and puzzled and often irritated me. And yet, when I look back upon it all, I can see that some of the difficulty lay with me: if she had her weakness—which she acknowledged—I had mine—and kept it to myself. It was part of my romantic nature not to want to break her down. Perhaps I loved the ideal better than the woman herself, though that scarcely seems possible.
We saw each other constantly. And though we had instinctively begun to be careful, I imagine there was some talk among our acquaintances. It is to be noted that the gossip never became riotous, for we had always been friends, and Nancy had a saving reputation for coldness. It seemed incredible that Maude had not discovered my secret, but if she knew of it, she gave no sign of her knowledge. Often, as I looked at her, I wished she would. I can think of no more expressive sentence in regard to her than the trite one that she pursued the even tenor of her way; and I found the very perfection of her wifehood exasperating. Our relationship would, I thought, have been more endurable if we had quarrelled. And yet we had grown as far apart, in that big house, as though we had been separated by a continent; I lived in my apartments, she in hers; she consulted me about dinner parties and invitations; for, since we had moved to Grant Avenue, we entertained and went out more than before. It seemed as though she were making every effort consistent with her integrity and self-respect to please me. Outwardly she conformed to the mould; but I had long been aware that inwardly a person had developed. It had not been a spontaneous development, but one in resistance to pressure; and was probably all the stronger for that reason. At times her will revealed itself in astonishing and unexpected flashes, as when once she announced that she was going to change Matthew's school.
"He's old enough to go to boarding-school," I said. "I'll look up a place for him."
"I don't wish him to go to boarding-school yet, Hugh," she said quietly.
"But that's just what he needs," I objected. "He ought to have the rubbing-up against other boys that boarding-school will give him. Matthew is timid, he should have learned to take care of himself. And he will make friendships that will help him in a larger school."
"I don't intend to send him," Maude said.
"But if I think it wise?"
"You ought to have begun to consider such things many years ago. You have always been too—busy to think of the children. You have left them to me. I am doing the best I can with them."
"But a man should have something to say about boys. He understands them."
"You should have thought of that before."
"They haven't been old enough."
"If you had taken your share of responsibility for them, I would listen to you."
"Maude!" I exclaimed reproachfully.
"No, Hugh," she went on, "you have been too busy making money. You have left them to me. It is my task to see that the money they are to inherit doesn't ruin them."
"You talk as though it were a great fortune," I said.
But I did not press the matter. I had a presentiment that to press it might lead to unpleasant results.
It was this sense of not being free, of having gained everything but freedom that was at times galling in the extreme: this sense of living with a woman for whom I had long ceased to care, a woman with a baffling will concealed beneath an unruffled and serene exterior. At moments I looked at her across the table; she did not seem to have aged much: her complexion was as fresh, apparently, as the day when I had first walked with her in the garden at Elkington; her hair the same wonderful colour; perhaps she had grown a little stouter. There could be no doubt about the fact that her chin was firmer, that certain lines had come into her face indicative of what is called character. Beneath her pliability she was now all firmness; the pliability had become a mockery. It cannot be said that I went so far as to hate her for this,—when it was in my mind,—but my feelings were of a strong antipathy. And then again there were rare moments when I was inexplicably drawn to her, not by love and passion; I melted a little in pity, perhaps, when my eyes were opened and I saw the tragedy, yet I am not referring now to such feelings as these. I am speaking of the times when I beheld her as the blameless companion of the years, the mother of my children, the woman I was used to and should—by all canons I had known—have loved....
And there were the children. Days and weeks passed when I scarcely saw them, and then some little incident would happen to give me an unexpected wrench and plunge me into unhappiness. One evening I came home from a long talk with Nancy that had left us both wrought up, and I had entered the library before I heard voices. Maude was seated under the lamp at the end of the big room reading from "Don Quixote"; Matthew and Biddy were at her feet, and Moreton, less attentive, at a little distance was taking apart a mechanical toy. I would have tiptoed out, but Biddy caught sight of me.
"It's father!" she cried, getting up and flying to me.
"Oh, father, do come and listen! The story's so exciting, isn't it, Matthew?"
I looked down into the boy's eyes shining with an expression that suddenly pierced my heart with a poignant memory of myself. Matthew was far away among the mountains and castles of Spain.
"Matthew," demanded his sister, "why did he want to go fighting with all those people?"
"Because he was dotty," supplied Moreton, who had an interesting habit of picking up slang.
"It wasn't at all," cried Matthew, indignantly, interrupting Maude's rebuke of his brother.
"What was it, then?" Moreton demanded.
"You wouldn't understand if I told you," Matthew was retorting, when Maude put her hand on his lips.
"I think that's enough for to-night," she said, as she closed the book. "There are lessons to do—and father wants to read his newspaper in quiet."
This brought a protest from Biddy.
"Just a little more, mother! Can't we go into the schoolroom? We shan't disturb father there."
"I'll read to them—a few minutes," I said.
As I took the volume from her and sat down Maude shot at me a swift look of surprise. Even Matthew glanced at me curiously; and in his glance I had, as it were, a sudden revelation of the boy's perplexity concerning me. He was twelve, rather tall for his age, and the delicate modelling of his face resembled my father's. He had begun to think.. What did he think of me?
Biddy clapped her hands, and began to dance across the carpet.
"Father's going to read to us, father's going to read to us," she cried, finally clambering up on my knee and snuggling against me.
"Where is the place?" I asked.
But Maude had left the room. She had gone swiftly and silently.
"I'll find it," said Moreton.
I began to read, but I scarcely knew what I was reading, my fingers tightening over Biddy's little knee....
Presently Miss Allsop, the governess, came in. She had been sent by Maude. There was wistfulness in Biddy's voice as I kissed her good night.
"Father, if you would only read oftener!" she said, "I like it when you read—better than anyone else."....
Maude and I were alone that night. As we sat in the library after our somewhat formal, perfunctory dinner, I ventured to ask her why she had gone away when I had offered to read.
"I couldn't bear it, Hugh," she answered.
"Why?" I asked, intending to justify myself.
She got up abruptly, and left me. I did not follow her. In my heart I understood why....
Some years had passed since Ralph's prophecy had come true, and Perry and the remaining Blackwoods had been "relieved" of the Boyne Street line. The process need not be gone into in detail, being the time-honoured one employed in the Ribblevale affair of "running down" the line, or perhaps it would be better to say "showing it up." It had not justified its survival in our efficient days, it had held out—thanks to Perry—with absurd and anachronous persistence against the inevitable consolidation. Mr. Tallant's newspaper had published many complaints of the age and scarcity of the cars, etc.; and alarmed holders of securities, in whose vaults they had lain since time immemorial, began to sell.... I saw little of Perry in those days, as I have explained, but one day I met him in the Hambleton Building, and he was white.
"Your friends are doing thus, Hugh," he said.
"Undermining the reputation of a company as sound as any in this city, a company that's not overcapitalized, either. And we're giving better service right now than any of your consolidated lines."...
He was in no frame of mind to argue with; the conversation was distinctly unpleasant. I don't remember what I said sething to the effect that he was excited, that his language was extravagant. But after he had walked off and left me I told Dickinson that he ought to be given a chance, and one of our younger financiers, Murphree, went to Perry and pointed out that he had nothing to gain by obstruction; if he were only reasonable, he might come into the new corporation on the same terms with the others.
All that Murphree got for his pains was to be ordered out of the office by Perry, who declared that he was being bribed to desert the other stockholders.
"He utterly failed to see the point of view," Murphree reported in some astonishment to Dickinson.
"What else did he say?" Mr. Dickinson asked.
"Well—what?" the banker insisted.
"He wasn't quite himself," said Murphree, who was a comparative newcomer in the city and had a respect for the Blackwood name. "He said that that was the custom of thieves: when they were discovered, they offered to divide. He swore that he would get justice in the courts."
Mr. Dickinson smiled....
Thus Perry, through his obstinacy and inability to adapt himself to new conditions, had gradually lost both caste and money. He resigned from the Boyne Club. I was rather sorry for him. Tom naturally took the matter to heart, but he never spoke of it; I found that I was seeing less of him, though we continued to dine there at intervals, and he still came to my house to see the children. Maude continued to see Lucia. For me, the situation would have been more awkward had I been less occupied, had my relationship with Maude been a closer one. Neither did she mention Perry in those days. The income that remained to him being sufficient for him and his family to live on comfortably, he began to devote most of his time to various societies of a semipublic nature until—in the spring of which I write his activities suddenly became concentrated in the organization of a "Citizens Union," whose avowed object was to make a campaign against "graft" and political corruption the following autumn. This announcement and the call for a mass-meeting in Kingdon Hall was received by the newspapers with a good-natured ridicule, and in influential quarters it was generally hinted that this was Mr. Blackwood's method of "getting square" for having been deprived of the Boyne Street line. It was quite characteristic of Ralph Hambleton that he should go, out of curiosity, to the gathering at Kingdon Hall, and drop into my office the next morning.
"Well, Hughie, they're after you," he said with a grin.
"After me? Why not include yourself?"
He sat down and stretched his long legs and his long arms, and smiled as he gaped.
"Oh, they'll never get me," he said. And I knew, as I gazed at him, that they never would.
"What sort of things did they say?" I asked.
"Haven't you read the Pilot and the Mail and State?"
"I just glanced over them. Did they call names?"
"Call names! I should say they did. They got drunk on it, worked themselves up like dervishes. They didn't cuss you personally,—that'll come later, of course. Judd Jason got the heaviest shot, but they said he couldn't exist a minute if it wasn't for the 'respectable' crowd—capitalists, financiers, millionaires and their legal tools. Fact is, they spoke a good deal of truth, first and last, in a fool kind of way."
"Truth!" I exclaimed irritatedly.
Ralph laughed. He was evidently enjoying himself.
"Is any of it news to you, Hughie, old boy?"
"It's an outrage."
"I think it's funny," said Ralph. "We haven't had such a circus for years. Never had. Of course I shouldn't like to see you go behind the bars,—not that. But you fellows can't expect to go on forever skimming off the cream without having somebody squeal sometime. You ought to be reasonable."
"You've skimmed as much cream as anybody else."
"You've skimmed the cream, Hughie,—you and Dickinson and Scherer and Grierson and the rest,—I've only filled my jug. Well, these fellows are going to have a regular roof-raising campaign, take the lid off of everything, dump out the red-light district some of our friends are so fond of."
"Dump it where?" I asked curiously.
"Oh," answered Ralph, "they didn't say. Out into the country, anywhere."
"But that's damned foolishness," I declared.
"Didn't say it wasn't," Ralph admitted. "They talked a lot of that, too, incidentally. They're going to close the saloons and dance halls and make this city sadder than heaven. When they get through, it'll all be over but the inquest."
"What did Perry do?" I asked.
"Well, he opened the meeting,—made a nice, precise, gentlemanly speech. Greenhalge and a few young highbrows and a reformed crook named Harrod did most of the hair-raising. They're going to nominate Greenhalge for mayor; and he told 'em something about that little matter of the school board, and said he would talk more later on. If one of the ablest lawyers in the city hadn't been hired by the respectable crowd and a lot of other queer work done, the treasurer and purchasing agent would be doing time. They seemed to be interested, all right."
I turned over some papers on my desk, just to show Ralph that he hadn't succeeded in disturbing me.
"Who was in the audience? anyone you ever heard of?" I asked.
"Sure thing. Your cousin Robert Breck; and that son-in-law of his—what's his name? And some other representatives of our oldest families,—Alec Pound. He's a reformer now, you know. They put him on the resolutions committee. Sam Ogilvy was there, he'd be classed as respectably conservative. And one of the Ewanses. I could name a few others, if you pressed me. That brother of Fowndes who looks like an up-state minister. A lot of women—Miller Gorse's sister, Mrs. Datchet, who never approved of Miller. Quite a genteel gathering, I give you my word, and all astonished and mad as hell when the speaking was over. Mrs. Datchet said she had been living in a den of iniquity and vice, and didn't know it."
"It must have been amusing," I said.
"It was," said Ralph. "It'll be more amusing later on. Oh, yes, there was another fellow who spoke I forgot to mention—that queer Dick who was in your class, Krebs, got the school board evidence, looked as if he'd come in by freight. He wasn't as popular as the rest, but he's got more sense than all of them put together."
"Why wasn't he popular?"
"Well, he didn't crack up the American people,—said they deserved all they got, that they'd have to learn to think straight and be straight before they could expect a square deal. The truth was, they secretly envied these rich men who were exploiting their city, and just as long as they envied them they hadn't any right to complain of them. He was going into this campaign to tell the truth, but to tell all sides of it, and if they wanted reform, they'd have to reform themselves first. I admired his nerve, I must say."
"He always had that," I remarked. "How did they take it?"
"Well, they didn't like it much, but I think most of them had a respect for him. I know I did. He has a whole lot of assurance, an air of knowing what he's talking about, and apparently he doesn't give a continental whether he's popular or not. Besides, Greenhalge had cracked him up to the skies for the work he'd done for the school board."
"You talk as if he'd converted you," I said.
Ralph laughed as he rose and stretched himself.
"Oh, I'm only the intelligent spectator, you ought to know that by this time, Hughie. But I thought it might interest you, since you'll have to go on the stump and refute it all. That'll be a nice job. So long."
And he departed. Of course I knew that he had been baiting me, his scent for the weaknesses of his friends being absolutely fiendish. I was angry because he had succeeded,—because he knew he had succeeded. All the morning uneasiness possessed me, and I found it difficult to concentrate on the affairs I had in hand. I felt premonitions, which I tried in vain to suppress, that the tide of the philosophy of power and might were starting to ebb: I scented vague calamities ahead, calamities I associated with Krebs; and when I went out to the Club for lunch this sense of uneasiness, instead of being dissipated, was increased. Dickinson was there, and Scherer, who had just got back from Europe; the talk fell on the Citizens Union, which Scherer belittled with an air of consequence and pompousness that struck me disagreeably, and with an eye newly critical I detected in him a certain disintegration, deterioration. Having dismissed the reformers, he began to tell of his experiences abroad, referring in one way or another to the people of consequence who had entertained him.
"Hugh," said Leonard Dickinson to me as we walked to the bank together, "Scherer will never be any good any more. Too much prosperity. And he's begun to have his nails manicured."
After I had left the bank president an uncanny fancy struck me that in Adolf Scherer I had before me a concrete example of the effect of my philosophy on the individual....
Nothing seemed to go right that spring, and yet nothing was absolutely wrong. At times I became irritated, bewildered, out of tune, and unable to understand why. The weather itself was uneasy, tepid, with long spells of hot wind and dust. I no longer seemed to find refuge in my work. I was unhappy at home. After walking for many years in confidence and security along what appeared to be a certain path, I had suddenly come out into a vague country in which it was becoming more and more difficult to recognize landmarks. I did not like to confess this; and yet I heard within me occasional whispers. Could it be that I, Hugh Paret, who had always been so positive, had made a mess of my life? There were moments when the pattern of it appeared to have fallen apart, resolved itself into pieces that refused to fit into each other.
Of course my relationship with Nancy had something to do with this....
One evening late in the spring, after dinner, Maude came into the library.
"Are you busy, Hugh?" she asked.
I put down my newspapers.
"Because," she went on, as she took a chair near the table where I was writing, "I wanted to tell you that I have decided to go to Europe, and take the children."
"To Europe!" I exclaimed. The significance of the announcement failed at once to register in my brain, but I was aware of a shock.
"When?" I asked.
"Right away. The end of this month."
"For the summer?"
"I haven't decided how long I shall stay."
I stared at her in bewilderment. In contrast to the agitation I felt rising within me, she was extraordinarily calm, unbelievably so.
"But where do you intend to go in Europe?"
"I shall go to London for a month or so, and after that to some quiet place in France, probably at the sea, where the children can learn French and German. After that, I have no plans."
"But—you talk as if you might stay indefinitely."
"I haven't decided," she repeated.
"But why—why are you doing this?"
I would have recalled the words as soon as I had spoken them. There was the slightest unsteadiness in her voice as she replied:—"Is it necessary to go into that, Hugh? Wouldn't it be useless as well as a little painful? Surely, going to Europe without one's husband is not an unusual thing in these days. Let it just be understood that I want to go, that the children have arrived at an age when it will do them good."
I got up and began to walk up and down the room, while she watched me with a silent calm which was incomprehensible. In vain I summoned my faculties to meet it.
I had not thought her capable of such initiative.
"I can't see why you want to leave me," I said at last, though with a full sense of the inadequacy of the remark, and a suspicion of its hypocrisy.
"That isn't quite true," she answered. "In the first place, you don't need me. I am not of the slightest use in your life, I haven't been a factor in it for years. You ought never to have married me,—it was all a terrible mistake. I began to realize that after we had been married a few months—even when we were on our wedding trip. But I was too inexperienced—perhaps too weak to acknowledge it to myself. In the last few years I have come to see it plainly. I should have been a fool if I hadn't. I am not your wife in any real sense of the word, I cannot hold you, I cannot even interest you. It's a situation that no woman with self-respect can endure."
"Aren't those rather modern sentiments, for you, Maude?" I said.
She flushed a little, but otherwise retained her remarkable composure.
"I don't care whether they are 'modern' or not, I only know that my position has become impossible."
I walked to the other end of the room, and stood facing the carefully drawn curtains of the windows; fantastically, they seemed to represent the impasse to which my mind had come. Did she intend, ultimately, to get a divorce? I dared not ask her. The word rang horribly in my ears, though unpronounced; and I knew then that I lacked her courage, and the knowledge was part of my agony.
"Don't you think you've overdrawn things, Maude exaggerated them? No marriages are perfect. You've let your mind dwell until it has become inflamed on matters which really don't amount to much."
"I was never saner, Hugh," she replied instantly. And indeed I was forced to confess that she looked it. That new Maude I had seen emerging of late years seemed now to have found herself; she was no longer the woman I had married,—yielding, willing to overlook, anxious to please, living in me.
"I don't influence you, or help you in any way. I never have."
"Oh, that's not true," I protested.
But she cut me short, going on inexorably:—"I am merely your housekeeper, and rather a poor one at that, from your point of view. You ignore me. I am not blaming you for it—you are made that way. It's true that you have always supported me in luxury,—that might have been enough for another woman. It isn't enough for me—I, too, have a life to live, a soul to be responsible for. It's not for my sake so much as for the children's that I don't want it to be crushed."
"Crushed!" I repeated.
"Yes. You are stifling it. I say again that I'm not blaming you, Hugh. You are made differently from me. All you care for, really, is your career. You may think that you care, at times, for—other things, but it isn't so."
I took, involuntarily, a deep breath. Would she mention Nancy? Was it in reality Nancy who had brought about this crisis? And did Maude suspect the closeness of that relationship?
Suddenly I found myself begging her not to go; the more astonishing since, if at any time during the past winter this solution had presented itself to me as a possibility, I should eagerly have welcomed it! But should I ever have had the courage to propose a separation? I even wished to delude myself now into believing that what she suggested was in reality not a separation. I preferred to think of it as a trip.... A vision of freedom thrilled me, and yet I was wracked and torn. I had an idea that she was suffering, that the ordeal was a terrible one for her; and at that moment there crowded into my mind, melting me, incident after incident of our past.
"It seems to me that we have got along pretty well together, Maude. I have been negligent—I'll admit it. But I'll try to do better in the future. And—if you'll wait a month or so, I'll go to Europe with you, and we'll have a good time."
She looked at me sadly,—pityingly, I thought.
"No, Hugh, I've thought it all out. You really don't want me. You only say this because you are sorry for me, because you dislike to have your feelings wrung. You needn't be sorry for me, I shall be much happier away from you."
"Think it over, Maude," I pleaded. "I shall miss you and the children. I haven't paid much attention to them, either, but I am fond of them, and depend upon them, too."
She shook her head.
"It's no use, Hugh. I tell you I've thought it all out. You don't care for the children, you were never meant to have any."
"Aren't you rather severe in your judgments?"
"I don't think so," she answered. "I'm willing to admit my faults, that I am a failure so far as you are concerned. Your ideas of life and mine are far apart."
"I suppose," I exclaimed bitterly, "that you are referring to my professional practices."
A note of weariness crept into her voice. I might have known that she was near the end of her strength.
"No, I don't think it's that," she said dispassionately. "I prefer to put it down, that part of it, to a fundamental difference of ideas. I do not feel qualified to sit in judgment on that part of your life, although I'll admit that many of the things you have done, in common with the men with whom you are associated, have seemed to me unjust and inconsiderate of the rights and feelings of others. You have alienated some of your best friends. If I were to arraign you at all, it would be on the score of heartlessness. But I suppose it isn't your fault, that you haven't any heart."
"That's unfair," I put in.
"I don't wish to be unfair," she replied. "Only, since you ask me, I have to tell you that that is the way it seems to me. I don't want to introduce the question of right and wrong into this, Hugh, I'm not capable of unravelling it; I can't put myself into your life, and see things from your point of view, weigh your problems and difficulties. In the first place, you won't let me. I think I understand you, partly—but only partly. You have kept yourself shut up. But why discuss it? I have made up my mind."
The legal aspect of the matter occurred to me. What right had she to leave me? I might refuse to support her. Yet even as these thoughts came I rejected them; I knew that it was not in me to press this point. And she could always take refuge with her father; without the children, of course. But the very notion sickened me. I could not bear to think of Maude deprived of the children. I had seated myself again at the table. I put my hand to my forehead.
"Don't make it hard, Hugh," I heard her say, gently. "Believe me, it is best. I know. There won't be any talk about it,—right away, at any rate. People will think it natural that I should wish to go abroad for the summer. And later—well, the point of view about such affairs has changed. They are better understood."
She had risen. She was pale, still outwardly composed,—but I had a strange, hideous feeling that she was weeping inwardly.
"Aren't you coming back—ever?" I cried.
She did not answer at once.
"I don't know," she said, "I don't know," and left the room abruptly....
I wanted to follow her, but something withheld me. I got up and walked around the room in a state of mind that was near to agony, taking one of the neglected books out of the shelves, glancing at its meaningless print, and replacing it; I stirred the fire, opened the curtains and gazed out into the street and closed them again. I looked around me, a sudden intensity of hatred seized me for this big, silent, luxurious house; I recalled Maude's presentiment about it. Then, thinking I might still dissuade her, I went slowly up the padded stairway—to find her door locked; and a sense of the finality of her decision came over me. I knew then that I could not alter it even were I to go all the lengths of abjectness. Nor could I, I knew, have brought myself to have feigned a love I did not feel.
What was it I felt? I could not define it. Amazement, for one thing, that Maude with her traditional, Christian view of marriage should have come to such a decision. I went to my room, undressed mechanically and got into bed....
She gave no sign at the breakfast table of having made the decision of the greatest moment in our lives; she conversed as usual, asked about the news, reproved the children for being noisy; and when the children had left the table there were no tears, reminiscences, recriminations. In spite of the slight antagonism and envy of which I was conscious,—that she was thus superbly in command of the situation, that she had developed her pinions and was thus splendidly able to use them,—my admiration for her had never been greater. I made an effort to achieve the frame of mind she suggested: since she took it so calmly, why should I be tortured by the tragedy of it? Perhaps she had ceased to love me, after all! Perhaps she felt nothing but relief. At any rate, I was grateful to her, and I found a certain consolation, a sop to my pride in the reflection that the initiative must have been hers to take. I could not have deserted her.
"When do you think of leaving?" I asked.
"Two weeks from Saturday on the Olympic, if that is convenient for you." Her manner seemed one of friendly solicitude. "You will remain in the house this summer, as usual, I suppose?"
"Yes," I said.
It was a sunny, warm morning, and I went downtown in the motor almost blithely. It was the best solution after all, and I had been a fool to oppose it.... At the office, there was much business awaiting me; yet once in a while, during the day, when the tension relaxed, the recollection of what had happened flowed back into my consciousness. Maude was going!
I had telephoned Nancy, making an appointment for the afternoon. Sometimes—not too frequently—we were in the habit of going out into the country in one of her motors, a sort of landaulet, I believe, in which we were separated from the chauffeur by a glass screen. She was waiting for me when I arrived, at four; and as soon as we had shot clear of the city, "Maude is going away," I told her.
"Going away?" she repeated, struck more by the tone of my voice than by what I had said.
"She announced last night that she was going abroad indefinitely."
I had been more than anxious to see how Nancy would take the news. A flush gradually deepened in her cheeks.
"You mean that she is going to leave you?"
"It looks that way. In fact, she as much as said so."
"Why?" said Nancy.
"Well, she explained it pretty thoroughly. Apparently, it isn't a sudden decision," I replied, trying to choose my words, to speak composedly as I repeated the gist of our conversation. Nancy, with her face averted, listened in silence—a silence that continued some time after I had ceased to speak.
"She didn't—she didn't mention—?" the sentence remained unfinished.
"No," I said quickly, "she didn't. She must know, of course, but I'm sure that didn't enter into it."
Nancy's eyes as they returned to me were wet, and in them was an expression I had never seen before,—of pain, reproach, of questioning. It frightened me.
"Oh, Hugh, how little you know!" she cried.
"What do you mean?" I demanded.
"That is what has brought her to this decision—you and I."
"You mean that—that Maude loves me? That she is jealous?" I don't know how I managed to say it.
"No woman likes to think that she is a failure," murmured Nancy.
"Well, but she isn't really," I insisted. "She could have made another man happy—a better man. It was all one of those terrible mistakes our modern life seems to emphasize so."
"She is a woman," Nancy said, with what seemed a touch of vehemence. "It's useless to expect you to understand.... Do you remember what I said to you about her? How I appealed to you when you married to try to appreciate her?"
"It wasn't that I didn't appreciate her," I interrupted, surprised that Nancy should have recalled this, "she isn't the woman for me, we aren't made for each other. It was my mistake, my fault, I admit, but I don't agree with you at all, that we had anything to do with her decision. It is just the—the culmination of a long period of incompatibility. She has come to realize that she has only one life to live, and she seems happier, more composed, more herself than she has ever been since our marriage. Of course I don't mean to say it isn't painful for her.... But I am sure she isn't well, that it isn't because of our seeing one another," I concluded haltingly.
"She is finer than either of us, Hugh,—far finer."
I did not relish this statement.
"She's fine, I admit. But I can't see how under the circumstances any of us could have acted differently." And Nancy not replying, I continued: "She has made up her mind to go,—I suppose I could prevent it by taking extreme measures,—but what good would it do? Isn't it, after all, the most sensible, the only way out of a situation that has become impossible? Times have changed, Nancy, and you yourself have been the first to admit it. Marriage is no longer what it was, and people are coming to look upon it more sensibly. In order to perpetuate the institution, as it was, segregation, insulation, was the only course. Men segregated their wives, women their husbands,—the only logical method of procedure, but it limited the individual. Our mothers and fathers thought it scandalous if husband or wife paid visits alone. It wasn't done. But our modern life has changed all that. A marriage, to be a marriage, should be proof against disturbing influences, should leave the individuals free; the binding element should be love, not the force of an imposed authority. You seemed to agree to all this."
"Yes, I know," she admitted. "But I cannot think that happiness will ever grow out of unhappiness."
"But Maude will not be unhappy," I insisted. "She will be happier, far happier, now that she has taken the step."
"Oh, I wish I thought so," Nancy exclaimed. "Hugh, you always believe what you want to believe. And the children. How can you bear to part with them?"
I was torn, I had a miserable sense of inadequacy.
"I shall miss them," I said. "I have never really appreciated them. I admit I don't deserve to have them, and I am willing to give them up for you, for Maude..."
We had made one of our favourite drives among the hills on the far side of the Ashuela, and at six were back at Nancy's house. I did not go in, but walked slowly homeward up Grant Avenue. It had been a trying afternoon. I had not expected, indeed, that Nancy would have rejoiced, but her attitude, her silences, betraying, as they did, compunctions, seemed to threaten our future happiness.
One evening two or three days later I returned from the office to gaze up at my house, to realize suddenly that it would be impossible for me to live there, in those great, empty rooms, alone; and I told Maude that I would go to the Club—during her absence. I preferred to keep up the fiction that her trip would only be temporary. She forbore from contradicting me, devoting herself efficiently to the task of closing the house, making it seem, somehow, a rite,—the final rite in her capacity as housewife. The drawing-room was shrouded, and the library; the books wrapped neatly in paper; a smell of camphor pervaded the place; the cheerful schoolroom was dismantled; trunks and travelling bags appeared. The solemn butler packed my clothes, and I arranged for a room at the Club in the wing that recently had been added for the accommodation of bachelors and deserted husbands. One of the ironies of those days was that the children began to suggest again possibilities of happiness I had missed—especially Matthew. With all his gentleness, the boy seemed to have a precocious understanding of the verities, and the capacity for suffering which as a child I had possessed. But he had more self-control. Though he looked forward to the prospect of new scenes and experiences with the anticipation natural to his temperament, I thought he betrayed at moments a certain intuition as to what was going on.
"When are you coming over, father?" he asked once. "How soon will your business let you?"
He had been brought up in the belief that my business was a tyrant.
"Oh, soon, Matthew,—sometime soon," I said.
I had a feeling that he understood me, not intellectually, but emotionally. What a companion he might have been!.... Moreton and Biddy moved me less. They were more robust, more normal, less introspective and imaginative; Europe meant nothing to them, but they were frankly delighted and excited at the prospect of going on the ocean, asking dozens of questions about the great ship, impatient to embark.....
"I shan't need all that, Hugh," Maude said, when I handed her a letter of credit. "I—I intend to live quite simply, and my chief expenses will be the children's education. I am going to give them the best, of course."
"Of course," I replied. "But I want you to live over there as you have been accustomed to live here. It's not exactly generosity on my part,—I have enough, and more than enough."
She took the letter.
"Another thing—I'd rather you didn't go to New York with us, Hugh. I know you are busy—"
"Of course I'm going," I started to protest.
"No," she went on, firmly. "I'd rather you didn't. The hotel people will put me on the steamer very comfortably,—and there are other reasons why I do not wish it." I did not insist.... On the afternoon of her departure, when I came uptown, I found her pinning some roses on her jacket.
"Perry and Lucia sent them," she informed me. She maintained the friendly, impersonal manner to the very end; but my soul, as we drove to the train, was full of un-probed wounds. I had had roses put in her compartments in the car; Tom and Susan Peters were there with more roses, and little presents for the children. Their cheerfulness seemed forced, and I wondered whether they suspected that Maude's absence would be prolonged.
"Write us often, and tell us all about it, dear," said Susan, as she sat beside Maude and held her hand; Tom had Biddy on his knee. Maude was pale, but smiling and composed.
"I hope to get a little villa in France, near the sea," she said. "I'll send you a photograph of it, Susan."
"And Chickabiddy, when she comes back, will be rattling off French like a native," exclaimed Tom, giving her a hug.
"I hate French," said Biddy, and she looked at him solemnly. "I wish you were coming along, Uncle Tom."
Bells resounded through the great station. The porter warned us off. I kissed the children one by one, scarcely realizing what I was doing. I kissed Maude. She received my embrace passively.
"Good-bye, Hugh," she said.
I alighted, and stood on the platform as the train pulled out. The children crowded to the windows, but Maude did not appear.... I found myself walking with Tom and Susan past hurrying travellers and porters to the Decatur Street entrance, where my automobile stood waiting.
"I'll take you home, Susan," I said.
"We're ever so much obliged, Hugh," she answered, "but the street-cars go almost to ferry's door. We're dining there."
Her eyes were filled with tears, and she seemed taller, more ungainly than ever—older. A sudden impression of her greatness of heart was borne home to me, and I grasped the value of such rugged friendship as hers—as Tom's.
"We shouldn't know how to behave in an automobile," he said, as though to soften her refusal. And I stood watching their receding figures as they walked out into the street and hailed the huge electric car that came to a stop beyond them. Above its windows was painted "The Ashuela Traction Company," a label reminiscent of my professional activities. Then I heard the chauffeur ask:—"Where do you wish to go, sir?"
"To the Club," I said.
My room was ready, my personal belongings, my clothes had been laid out, my photographs were on the dressing-table. I took up, mechanically, the evening newspaper, but I could not read it; I thought of Maude, of the children, memories flowed in upon me,—a flood not to be dammed.... Presently the club valet knocked at my door. He had a dinner card.
"Will you be dining here, sir?" he inquired.
I went downstairs. Fred Grierson was the only man in the dining-room.
"Hello, Hugh," he said, "come and sit down. I hear your wife's gone abroad."
"Yes," I answered, "she thought she'd try it instead of the South Shore this summer."
Perhaps I imagined that he looked at me queerly. I had made a great deal of money out of my association with Grierson, I had valued very highly being an important member of the group to which he belonged; but to-night, as I watched him eating and drinking greedily, I hated him even as I hated myself. And after dinner, when he started talking with a ridicule that was a thinly disguised bitterness about the Citizens Union and their preparations for a campaign I left him and went to bed.
Before a week had passed my painful emotions had largely subsided, and with my accustomed resiliency I had regained the feeling of self-respect so essential to my happiness. I was free. My only anxiety was for Nancy, who had gone to New York the day after my last talk with her; and it was only by telephoning to her house that I discovered when she was expected to return.... I found her sitting beside one of the open French windows of her salon, gazing across at the wooded hills beyond the Ashuela. She was serious, a little pale; more exquisite, more desirable than ever; but her manner implied the pressure of control, and her voice was not quite steady as she greeted me.
"You've been away a long time," I said.
"The dressmakers," she answered. Her colour rose a little. "I thought they'd never get through."
"But why didn't you drop me a line, let me know when you were coming?" I asked, taking a chair beside her, and laying my hand on hers. She drew it gently away.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I've been thinking it all over—what we're doing. It doesn't seem right, it seems terribly wrong."
"But I thought we'd gone over all that," I replied, as patiently as I could. "You're putting it on an old-fashioned, moral basis."
"But there must be same basis," she urged. "There are responsibilities, obligations—there must be!—that we can't get away from. I can't help feeling that we ought to stand by our mistakes, and by our bargains; we made a choice—it's cheating, somehow, and if we take this—what we want—we shall be punished for it."
"But I'm willing to be punished, to suffer, as I told you. If you loved me—"
"Hugh!" she exclaimed, and I was silent. "You don't understand," she went on, a little breathlessly, "what I mean by punishment is deterioration. Do you remember once, long ago, when you came to me before I was married, I said we'd both run after false gods, and that we couldn't do without them? Well, and now this has come; it seems so wonderful to me, coming again like that after we had passed it by, after we thought it had gone forever; it's opened up visions for me that I never hoped to see again. It ought to restore us, dear—that's what I'm trying to say—to redeem us, to make us capable of being what we were meant to be. If it doesn't do that, if it isn't doing so, it's the most horrible of travesties, of mockeries. If we gain life only to have it turn into death—slow death; if we go to pieces again, utterly. For now there's hope. The more I think, the more clearly I see that we can't take any step without responsibilities. If we take this, you'll have me, and I'll have you. And if we don't save each other—"
"But we will," I said.
"Ah," she exclaimed, "if we could start new, without any past. I married Ham with my eyes open."
"You couldn't know that he would become—well, as flagrant as he is. You didn't really know what he was then."
"There's no reason why I shouldn't have anticipated it. I can't claim that I was deceived, that I thought my marriage was made in heaven. I entered into a contract, and Ham has kept his part of it fairly well. He hasn't interfered with my freedom. That isn't putting it on a high plane, but there is an obligation involved. You yourself, in your law practice, are always insisting upon the sacredness of contract as the very basis of our civilization."
Here indeed would have been a home thrust, had I been vulnerable at the time. So intent was I on overcoming her objections, that I resorted unwittingly to the modern argument I had more than once declared in court to be anathema-the argument of the new reform in reference to the common law and the constitution.
"A contract, no matter how seriously entered into at the time it was made, that later is seen to violate the principles of humanity should be void. And not only this, but you didn't consent that he should disgrace you."
"I never told you that he paid my father's debts, I never told anyone," she said, in a low voice.
"Even then," I answered after a moment, "you ought to see that it's too terrible a price to pay for your happiness. And Ham hasn't ever pretended to consider you in any way. It's certain you didn't agree that he should do—what he is doing."
"Suppose I admitted it," she said, "there remain Maude and your children. Their happiness, their future becomes my responsibility as well as yours."
"But I don't love Maude, and Maude doesn't love me. I grant it's my fault, that I did her a wrong in marrying her, but she is right in leaving me. I should be doing her a double wrong. And the children will be happy with her, they will be well brought up. I, too, have thought this out, Nancy," I insisted, "and the fact is that in our respective marriages we have been, each of us, victims of our time, of our education. We were born in a period of transition, we inherited views of life that do not fit conditions to-day. It takes courage to achieve happiness, initiative to emancipate one's self from a morality that begins to hamper and bind. To stay as we are, to refuse to take what is offered us, is to remain between wind and water. I don't mean that we should do anything—hastily. We can afford to take a reasonable time, to be dignified about it. But I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that matters in the world is a love like ours, and its fulfilment. Achievement, success, are empty and meaningless without it. And you do love me—you've admitted it."
"Oh, I don't want to talk about it," she exclaimed, desperately.
"But we have to talk about it," I persisted. "We have to thrash it out, to see it straight, as you yourself have said."
"You speak of convictions, Hugh,—new convictions, in place of the old we have discarded. But what are they? And is there no such thing as conscience—even though it be only an intuition of happiness or unhappiness? I do care for you, I do love you—"
"Then why not let that suffice?" I exclaimed, leaning towards her.
She drew back.
"But I want to respect you, too," she said.
I was shocked, too shocked to answer.
"I want to respect you," she repeated, more gently. "I don't want to think that—that what we feel for each other is—unconsecrated."
"It consecrates itself," I declared.
She shook her head.
"Surely it has its roots in everything that is fine in both of us."
"We both went wrong," said Nancy. "We both sought to wrest power and happiness from the world, to make our own laws. How can we assert that—this is not merely a continuation of it?"
"But can't we work out our beliefs together?" I demanded. "Won't you trust me, trust our love for one another?"
Her breath came and went quickly.
"Oh, you know that I want you, Hugh, as much as you want me, and more. The time may come when I can't resist you."
"Why do you resist me?" I cried, seizing her hands convulsively, and swept by a gust of passion at her confession.
"Try to understand that I am fighting for both of us!" she pleaded—an appeal that wrung me in spite of the pitch to which my feelings had been raised. "Hugh, dear, we must think it out. Don't now."
I let her hands drop....
Beyond the range of hills rising from the far side of the Ashuela was the wide valley in which was situated the Cloverdale Country Club, with its polo field, golf course and tennis courts; and in this same valley some of our wealthy citizens, such as Howard Ogilvy and Leonard Dickinson, had bought "farms," week-end playthings for spring and autumn. Hambleton Durrett had started the fashion. Capriciously, as he did everything else, he had become the owner of several hundred acres of pasture, woodland and orchard, acquired some seventy-five head of blooded stock, and proceeded to house them in model barns and milk by machinery; for several months he had bored everyone in the Boyne Club whom he could entice into conversation on the subject of the records of pedigreed cows, and spent many bibulous nights on the farm in company with those parasites who surrounded him when he was in town. Then another interest had intervened; a feminine one, of course, and his energies were transferred (so we understood) to the reconstruction and furnishing of a little residence in New York, not far from Fifth Avenue. The farm continued under the expert direction of a superintendent who was a graduate of the State Agricultural College, and a select clientele, which could afford to pay the prices, consumed the milk and cream and butter. Quite consistent with their marital relations was the fact that Nancy should have taken a fancy to the place after Ham's interest had waned. Not that she cared for the Guernseys, or Jerseys, or whatever they may have been; she evinced a sudden passion for simplicity,—occasional simplicity, at least,—for a contrast to and escape from a complicated life of luxury. She built another house for the superintendent banished him from the little farmhouse (where Ham had kept two rooms); banished along with the superintendent the stiff plush furniture, the yellow-red carpets, the easels and the melodeon, and decked it out in bright chintzes, with wall-papers to match, dainty muslin curtains, and rag-carpet rugs on the hardwood floors. The pseudo-classic porch over the doorway, which had suggested a cemetery, was removed, and a wide piazza added, furnished with wicker lounging chairs and tables, and shaded with gay awnings.
Here, to the farm, accompanied by a maid, she had been in the habit of retiring from time to time, and here she came in early July. Here, dressed in the simplest linen gowns of pink or blue or white, I found a Nancy magically restored to girlhood,—anew Nancy, betraying only traces of the old, a new Nancy in a new Eden. We had all the setting, all the illusion of that perfect ideal of domesticity, love in a cottage. Nancy and I, who all our lives had spurned simplicity, laughed over the joy we found in it: she made a high art of it, of course; we had our simple dinners, which Mrs. Olsen cooked and served in the open air; sometimes on the porch, sometimes under the great butternut tree spreading its shade over what in a more elaborate country-place, would have been called a lawn,—an uneven plot of grass of ridges and hollows that ran down to the orchard. Nancy's eyes would meet mine across the little table, and often our gaze would wander over the pastures below, lucent green in the level evening light, to the darkening woods beyond, gilt-tipped in the setting sun. There were fields of ripening yellow grain, of lusty young corn that grew almost as we watched it: the warm winds of evening were heavy with the acrid odours of fecundity. Fecundity! In that lay the elusive yet insistent charm of that country; and Nancy's, of course, was the transforming touch that made it paradise. It was thus, in the country, I suggested that we should spend the rest of our existence. What was the use of amassing money, when happiness was to be had so simply?
"How long do you think you could stand it?" she asked, as she handed me a plate of blackberries.
"Forever, with the right woman," I announced.
"How long could the woman stand it?".... She humoured, smilingly, my crystal-gazing into our future, as though she had not the heart to deprive me of the pleasure.
"I simply can't believe in it, Hugh," she said when I pressed her for an answer.
"I suppose it's because I believe in continuity, I haven't the romantic temperament,—I always see the angel with the flaming sword. It isn't that I want to see him."
"But we shall redeem ourselves," I said. "It won't be curiosity and idleness. We are not just taking this thing, and expecting to give nothing for it in return."
"What can we give that is worth it?" she exclaimed, with one of her revealing flashes.
"We won't take it lightly, but seriously," I told her. "We shall find something to give, and that something will spring naturally out of our love. We'll read together, and think and plan together."
"Oh, Hugh, you are incorrigible," was all she said.
The male tendency in me was forever strained to solve her, to deduce from her conversation and conduct a body of consistent law. The effort was useless. Here was a realm, that of Nancy's soul, in which there was apparently no such thing as relevancy. In the twilight, after dinner, we often walked through the orchard to a grassy bank beside the little stream, where we would sit and watch the dying glow in the sky. After a rain its swollen waters were turbid, opaque yellow-red with the clay of the hills; at other times it ran smoothly, temperately, almost clear between the pasture grasses and wild flowers. Nancy declared that it reminded her of me. We sat there, into the lush, warm nights, and the moon shone down on us, or again through long silences we searched the bewildering, starry chart of the heavens, with the undertones of the night-chorus of the fields in our ears. Sometimes she let my head rest upon her knee; but when, throbbing at her touch, with the life-force pulsing around us, I tried to take her in my arms, to bring her lips to mine, she resisted me with an energy of will and body that I could not overcome, I dared not overcome. She acknowledged her love for me, she permitted me to come to her, she had the air of yielding but never yielded. Why, then, did she allow the words of love to pass? and how draw the line between caresses? I was maddened and disheartened by that elusive resistance in her—apparently so frail a thing!—that neither argument nor importunity could break down. Was there something lacking in me? or was it that I feared to mar or destroy the love she had. This, surely, had not been the fashion of other loves, called unlawful, the classic instances celebrated by the poets of all ages rose to mock me.
"Incurably romantic," she had called me, in calmer moments, when I was able to discuss our affair objectively. And once she declared that I had no sense of tragedy. We read "Macbeth" together, I remember, one rainy Sunday. The modern world, which was our generation, would seem to be cut off from all that preceded it as with a descending knife. It was precisely from "the sense of tragedy" that we had been emancipated: from the "agonized conscience," I should undoubtedly have said, had I been acquainted then with Mr. Santayana's later phrase. Conscience—the old kind of conscience,—and nothing inherent in the deeds themselves, made the tragedy; conscience was superstition, the fear of the wrath of the gods: conscience was the wrath of the gods. Eliminate it, and behold! there were no consequences. The gods themselves, that kind of gods, became as extinct as the deities of the Druids, the Greek fates, the terrible figures of German mythology. Yes, and as the God of Christian orthodoxy.
Had any dire calamities overtaken the modern Macbeths, of whose personal lives we happened to know something? Had not these great ones broken with impunity all the laws of traditional morality? They ground the faces of the poor, played golf and went to church with serene minds, untroubled by criticism; they appropriated, quite freely, other men's money, and some of them other men's wives, and yet they were not haggard with remorse. The gods remained silent. Christian ministers regarded these modern transgressors of ancient laws benignly and accepted their contributions. Here, indeed, were the supermen of the mad German prophet and philosopher come to life, refuting all classic tragedy. It is true that some of these supermen were occasionally swept away by disease, which in ancient days would have been regarded as a retributive scourge, but was in fact nothing but the logical working of the laws of hygiene, the result of overwork. Such, though stated more crudely, were my contentions when desire did not cloud my brain and make me incoherent. And I did not fail to remind Nancy, constantly, that this was the path on which her feet had been set; that to waver now was to perish. She smiled, yet she showed concern.
"But suppose you don't get what you want?" she objected. "What then? Suppose one doesn't become a superman? or a superwoman? What's to happen to one? Is there no god but the superman's god, which is himself? Are there no gods for those who can't be supermen? or for those who may refuse to be supermen?"
To refuse, I maintained, were a weakness of the will.
"But there are other wills," she persisted, "wills over which the superman may conceivably have no control. Suppose, for example, that you don't get me, that my will intervenes, granting it to be conceivable that your future happiness and welfare, as you insist, depend upon your getting me—which I doubt."
"You've no reason to doubt it."
"Well, granting it, then. Suppose the orthodoxies and superstitions succeed in inhibiting me. I may not be a superwoman, but my will, or my conscience, if you choose, may be stronger than yours. If you don't get what you want, you aren't happy. In other words, you fail. Where are your gods then? The trouble with you, my dear Hugh, is that you have never failed," she went on, "you've never had a good, hard fall, you've always been on the winning side, and you've never had the world against you. No wonder you don't understand the meaning and value of tragedy."
"And you?" I asked.
"No," she agreed, "nor I. Yet I have come to feel, instinctively, that somehow concealed in tragedy is the central fact of life, the true reality, that nothing is to be got by dodging it, as we have dodged it. Your superman, at least the kind of superman you portray, is petrified. Something vital in him, that should be plastic and sensitive, has turned to stone."
"Since when did you begin to feel this?" I inquired uneasily.
"Since—well, since we have been together again, in the last month or two. Something seems to warn me that if we take—what we want, we shan't get it. That's an Irish saying, I know, but it expresses my meaning. I may be little, I may be superstitious, unlike the great women of history who have dared. But it's more than mere playing safe—my instinct, I mean. You see, you are involved. I believe I shouldn't hesitate if only myself were concerned, but you are the uncertain quantity—more uncertain than you have any idea; you think you know yourself, you think you have analyzed yourself, but the truth is, Hugh, you don't know the meaning of struggle against real resistance."
I was about to protest.
"I know that you have conquered in the world of men and affairs," she hurried on, "against resistance, but it isn't the kind of resistance I mean. It doesn't differ essentially from the struggle in the animal kingdom."
I bowed. "Thank you," I said.
She laughed a little.
"Oh, I have worshipped success, too. Perhaps I still do—that isn't the point. An animal conquers his prey, he is in competition, in constant combat with others of his own kind, and perhaps he brings to bear a certain amount of intelligence in the process. Intelligence isn't the point, either. I know what I'm saying is trite, it's banal, it sounds like moralizing, and perhaps it is, but there is so much confusion to-day that I think we are in danger of losing sight of the simpler verities, and that we must suffer for it. Your super-animal, your supreme-stag subdues the other stags, but he never conquers himself, he never feels the need of it, and therefore he never comprehends what we call tragedy."
"I gather your inference," I said, smiling.
"Well," she admitted, "I haven't stated the case with the shade of delicacy it deserves, but I wanted to make my meaning clear. We have raised up a class in America, but we have lost sight, a little—considerably, I think—of the distinguishing human characteristics. The men you were eulogizing are lords of the forest, more or less, and we women, who are of their own kind, what they have made us, surrender ourselves in submission and adoration to the lordly stag in the face of all the sacraments that have been painfully inaugurated by the race for the very purpose of distinguishing us from animals. It is equivalent to saying that there is no moral law; or, if there is, nobody can define it. We deny, inferentially, a human realm as distinguished from the animal, and in the denial it seems to me we are cutting ourselves off from what is essential human development. We are reverting to the animal. I have lost and you have lost—not entirely, perhaps, but still to a considerable extent—the bloom of that fervour, of that idealism, we may call it, that both of us possessed when we were in our teens. We had occasional visions. We didn't know what they meant, or how to set about their accomplishment, but they were not, at least, mere selfish aspirations; they implied, unconsciously no doubt, an element of service, and certainly our ideal of marriage had something fine in it."
"Isn't it for a higher ideal of marriage that we are searching?" I asked.
"If that is so," Nancy objected, "then all the other elements of our lives are sadly out of tune with it. Even the most felicitous union of the sexes demands sacrifice, an adjustment of wills, and these are the very things we balk at; and the trouble with our entire class in this country is that we won't acknowledge any responsibility, there's no sacrifice in our eminence, we have no sense of the whole."
"Where did you get all these ideas?" I demanded.
"Well," she admitted, "I've been thrashing around a little; and I've read some of the moderns, you know. Do you remember my telling you I didn't agree with them? and now this thing has come on me like a judgment. I've caught their mania for liberty, for self-realization—whatever they call it—but their remedies are vague, they fail to convince me that individuals achieve any quality by just taking what they want, regardless of others."....
I was unable to meet this argument, and the result was that when I was away from her I too began to "thrash around" among the books in a vain search for a radical with a convincing and satisfying philosophy. Thus we fly to literature in crises of the heart! There was no lack of writers who sought to deal—and deal triumphantly with the very situation in which I was immersed. I marked many passages, to read them over to Nancy, who was interested, but who accused me of being willing to embrace any philosophy, ancient or modern, that ran with the stream of my desires. It is worth recording that the truth of this struck home. On my way back to the city I reflected that, in spite of my protests against Maude's going—protests wholly sentimental and impelled by the desire to avoid giving pain on the spot—I had approved of her departure because I didn't want her. On the other hand I had to acknowledge if I hadn't wanted Nancy, or rather, if I had become tired of her, I should have been willing to endorse her scruples.... It was not a comforting thought.
One morning when I was absently opening the mail I found at my office I picked up a letter from Theodore Watling, written from a seaside resort in Maine, the contents of which surprised and touched me, troubled me, and compelled me to face a situation with which I was wholly unprepared to cope. He announced that this was to be his last term in the Senate. He did not name the trouble his physician had discovered, but he had been warned that he must retire from active life. "The specialist whom I saw in New York," he went on, "wished me to resign at once, but when I pointed out to him how unfair this would be to my friends in the state, to my party as a whole—especially in these serious and unsettled times—he agreed that I might with proper care serve out the remainder of my term. I have felt it my duty to write to Barbour and Dickinson and one or two others in order that they might be prepared and that no time may be lost in choosing my successor. It is true that the revolt within the party has never gained much headway in our state, but in these days it is difficult to tell when and where a conflagration may break out, or how far it will go. I have ventured to recommend to them the man who seems to me the best equipped to carry on the work I have been trying to do here—in short, my dear Hugh, yourself. The Senate, as you know, is not a bed of roses just now for those who think as we do; but I have the less hesitancy in making the recommendation because I believe you are not one to shun a fight for the convictions we hold in common, and because you would regard, with me, the election of a senator with the new views as a very real calamity. If sound business men and lawyers should be eliminated from the Senate, I could not contemplate with any peace of mind what might happen to the country. In thus urging you, I know you will believe me when I say that my affection and judgment are equally involved, for it would be a matter of greater pride than I can express to have you follow me here as you have followed me at home. And I beg of you seriously to consider it.... I understand that Maude and the children are abroad. Remember me to them affectionately when you write. If you can find it convenient to come here, to Maine, to discuss the matter, you may be sure of a welcome. In any case, I expect to be in Washington in September for a meeting of our special committee. Sincerely and affectionately yours, Theodore Watling."
It was characteristic of him that the tone of the letter should be uniformly cheerful, that he should say nothing whatever of the blow this must be to his ambitions and hopes; and my agitation at the new and disturbing prospect thus opened up for me was momentarily swept away by feelings of affection and sorrow. A sharp realization came to me of how much I admired and loved this man, and this was followed by a pang at the thought of the disappointment my refusal would give him. Complications I did not wish to examine were then in the back of my mind; and while I still sat holding the letter in my hand the telephone rang, and a message came from Leonard Dickinson begging me to call at the bank at once.
Miller Gorse was there, and Tallant, waving a palm-leaf while sitting under the electric fan. They were all very grave, and they began to talk about the suddenness of Mr. Watling's illness and to speculate upon its nature. Leonard Dickinson was the most moved of the three; but they were all distressed, and showed it—even Tallant, whom I had never credited with any feelings; they spoke about the loss to the state. At length Gorse took a cigar from his pocket and lighted it; the smoke, impelled by the fan, drifted over the panelled partition into the bank.
"I suppose Mr. Watling mentioned to you what he wrote to us," he said.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Well," he asked, "what do you think of it?"
"I attribute it to Mr. Watling's friendship," I replied.
"No," said Gorse, in his businesslike manner, "Watling's right, there's no one else." Considering the number of inhabitants of our state, this remark had its humorous aspect.
"That's true," Dickinson put in, "there's no one else available who understands the situation as you do, Hugh, no one else we can trust as we trust you. I had a wire from Mr. Barbour this morning—he agrees. We'll miss you here, but now that Watling will be gone we'll need you there. And he's right—it's something we've got to decide on right away, and get started on soon, we can't afford to wobble and run any chances of a revolt."
"It isn't everybody the senatorship comes to on a platter—especially at your age," said Tallant.
"To tell you the truth," I answered, addressing Dickinson, "I'm not prepared to talk about it now. I appreciate the honour, but I'm not at all sure I'm the right man. And I've been considerably upset by this news of Mr. Watling."
"Naturally you would be," said the banker, sympathetically, "and we share your feelings. I don't know of any man for whom I have a greater affection than I have for Theodore Wading. We shouldn't have mentioned it now, Hugh, if Watling hadn't started the thing himself, if it weren't important to know where we stand right away. We can't afford to lose the seat. Take your time, but remember you're the man we depend upon."
Gorse nodded. I was aware, all the time Dickinson was speaking, of being surrounded by the strange, disquieting gaze of the counsel for the Railroad....
I went back to my office to spend an uneasy morning. My sorrow for Mr. Watling was genuine, but nevertheless I found myself compelled to consider an honour no man lightly refuses. Had it presented itself at any other time, had it been due to a happier situation than that brought about by the illness of a man whom I loved and admired, I should have thought the prospect dazzling indeed, part and parcel of my amazing luck. But now—now I was in an emotional state that distorted the factors of life, all those things I hitherto had valued; even such a prize as this I weighed in terms of one supreme desire: how would the acceptance of the senatorship affect the accomplishment of this desire? That was the question. I began making rapid calculations: the actual election would take place in the legislature a year from the following January; provided I were able to overcome Nancy's resistance—which I was determined to do—nothing in the way of divorce proceedings could be thought of for more than a year; and I feared delay. On the other hand, if we waited until after I had been duly elected to get my divorce and marry Nancy my chances of reelection would be small. What did I care for the senatorship anyway—if I had her? and I wanted her now, as soon as I could get her. She—a life with her represented new values, new values I did not define, that made all I had striven for in the past of little worth. This was a bauble compared with the companionship of the woman I loved, the woman intended for me, who would give me peace of mind and soul and develop those truer aspirations that had long been thwarted and starved for lack of her. Gradually, as she regained the ascendency over my mind she ordinarily held—and from which she had been temporarily displaced by the arrival of Mr. Watling's letter and the talk in the bank—I became impatient and irritated by the intrusion. But what answer should I give to Dickinson and Gorse? what excuse for declining such an offer? I decided, as may be imagined, to wait, to temporize.
The irony of circumstances—of what might have been—prevented now my laying this trophy at Nancy's feet, for I knew I had only to mention the matter to be certain of losing her.
I had bought a small automobile, which I ran myself, and it was my custom to arrive at the farm every evening about five o'clock. But as I look back upon those days they seem to have lost succession, to be fused together, as it were, into one indeterminable period by the intense pressure of emotion; unsatisfied emotion,—and the state of physical and mental disorganization set up by it is in the retrospect not a little terrifying. The world grew more and more distorted, its affairs were neglected, things upon which I had set high values became as nothing. And even if I could summon back something of the sequence of our intercourse, it would be a mere repetition—growing on my part more irrational and insistent—of what I have already related. There were long, troubled, and futile silences when we sat together on the porch or in the woods and fields; when I wondered whether it were weakness or strength that caused Nancy to hold out against my importunities: the fears she professed of retribution, the benumbing effects of the conventional years, or the deep-rooted remnants of a Calvinism which—as she proclaimed—had lost definite expression to persist as an intuition. I recall something she said when she turned to me after one of these silences.
"Do you know how I feel sometimes? as though you and I had wandered together into a strange country, and lost our way. We have lost our way, Hugh—it's all so clandestine, so feverish, so unnatural, so unrelated to life, this existence we're leading. I believe it would be better if it were a mere case of physical passion. I can't help it," she went on, when I had exclaimed against this, "we are too—too complicated, you are too complicated. It's because we want the morning stars, don't you see?" She wound her fingers tightly around mine. "We not only want this, but all of life besides—you wouldn't be satisfied with anything less. Oh, I know it. That's your temperament, you were made that way, and I shouldn't be satisfied if you weren't. The time would come when you would blame me I don't mean vulgarly—and I couldn't stand that. If you weren't that way, if that weren't your nature, I mean, I should have given way long ago."
I made some sort of desperate protest.
"No, if I didn't know you so well I believe I should have given in long ago. I'm not thinking of you alone, but of myself, too. I'm afraid I shouldn't be happy, that I should begin to think—and then I couldn't stop. The plain truth, as I've told you over and over again, is that I'm not big enough." She continued smiling at me, a smile on which I could not bear to look. "I was wrong not to have gone away," I heard her say. "I will go away."
I was, at the time, too profoundly discouraged to answer....
One evening after an exhausting talk we sat, inert, on the grass hummock beside the stream. Heavy clouds had gathered in the sky, the light had deepened to amethyst, the valley was still, swooning with expectancy, louder and louder the thunder rolled from behind the distant hills, and presently a veil descended to hide them from our view. Great drops began to fall, unheeded.
"We must go in," said Nancy, at length.
I followed her across the field and through the orchard. From the porch we stood gazing out at the whitening rain that blotted all save the nearer landscape, and the smell of wet, midsummer grasses will always be associated with the poignancy of that moment.... At dinner, between the intervals of silence, our talk was of trivial things. We made a mere pretence of eating, and I remember having my attention arrested by the sight of a strange, pitying expression on the face of Mrs. Olsen, who waited on us. Before that the woman had been to me a mere ministering automaton. But she must have had ideas and opinions, this transported Swedish peasant.... Presently, having cleared the table, she retired.... The twilight deepened to dusk, to darkness. The storm, having spent the intensity of its passion in those first moments of heavy downpour and wind, had relaxed to a gentle rain that pattered on the roof, and from the stream came recurringly the dirge of the frogs. All I could see of Nancy was the dim outline of her head and shoulders: she seemed fantastically to be escaping me, to be fading, to be going; in sudden desperation I dropped on my knees beside her, and I felt her hands straying with a light yet agonized touch, over my head.
"Do you think I haven't suffered, too? that I don't suffer?" I heard her ask.
Some betraying note for which I had hitherto waited in vain must have pierced to my consciousness, yet the quiver of joy and the swift, convulsive movement that followed it seemed one. Her strong, lithe body was straining in my arms, her lips returning my kisses.... Clinging to her hands, I strove to summon my faculties of realization; and I began to speak in broken, endearing sentences.
"It's stronger than we are—stronger than anything else in the world," she said.
"But you're not sorry?" I asked.
"I don't want to think—I don't care," she replied. "I only know that I love you. I wonder if you will ever know how much!"
The moments lengthened into hours, and she gently reminded me that it was late. The lights in the little farmhouses near by had long been extinguished. I pleaded to linger; I wanted her, more of her, all of her with a fierce desire that drowned rational thought, and I feared that something might still come between us, and cheat me of her.
"No, no," she cried, with fear in her voice. "We shall have to think it out very carefully—what we must do. We can't afford to make any mistakes."
"We'll talk it all over to-morrow," I said.
With a last, reluctant embrace I finally left her, walked blindly to where the motor car was standing, and started the engine. I looked back. Outlined in the light of the doorway I saw her figure in what seemed an attitude of supplication....
I drove cityward through the rain, mechanically taking the familiar turns in the road, barely missing a man in a buggy at a four-corners. He shouted after me, but the world to which he belonged didn't exist. I lived again those moments that had followed Nancy's surrender, seeking to recall and fix in my mind every word that had escaped from her lips—the trivial things that to lovers are so fraught with meaning. I lived it all over again, as I say, but the reflection of it, though intensely emotional, differed from the reality in that now I was somewhat able to regard the thing, to regard myself, objectively; to define certain feelings that had flitted in filmy fashion through my consciousness, delicate shadows I recognized at the time as related to sadness. When she had so amazingly yielded, the thought for which my mind had been vaguely groping was that the woman who lay there in my arms, obscured by the darkness, was not Nancy at all! It was as if this one precious woman I had so desperately pursued had, in the capture, lost her identity, had mysteriously become just woman, in all her significance, yes, and helplessness. The particular had merged (inevitably, I might have known) into the general: the temporary had become the lasting, with a chain of consequences vaguely implied that even in my joy gave me pause. For the first time in my life I had a glimpse of what marriage might mean,—marriage in a greater sense than I had ever conceived it, a sort of cosmic sense, implying obligations transcending promises and contracts, calling for greatness of soul of a kind I had not hitherto imagined. Was there in me a grain of doubt of my ability to respond to such a high call? I began to perceive that such a union as we contemplated involved more obligations than one not opposed to traditional views of morality. I fortified myself, however,—if indeed I really needed fortification in a mood prevailingly triumphant and exalted,—with the thought that this love was different, the real thing, the love of maturity steeped in the ideals of youth. Here was a love for which I must be prepared to renounce other things on which I set a high value; prepared, in case the world, for some reason, should not look upon us with kindliness. It was curious that such reflections as these should have been delayed until after the achievement of my absorbing desire, more curious that they should have followed so closely on the heels of it. The affair had shifted suddenly from a basis of adventure, of uncertainty; to one of fact, of commitment; I am exaggerating my concern in order to define it; I was able to persuade myself without much difficulty that these little, cloudy currents in the stream of my joy were due to a natural reaction from the tremendous strain of the past weeks, mere morbid fancies.
When at length I reached my room at the Club I sat looking out at the rain falling on the shining pavements under the arc-lights. Though waves of heat caused by some sudden recollection or impatient longing still ran through my body, a saner joy of anticipation was succeeding emotional tumult, and I reflected that Nancy had been right in insisting that we walk circumspectly in spite of passion. After all, I had outwitted circumstance, I had gained the prize, I could afford to wait a little. We should talk it over to-morrow,—no, to-day. The luminous face of the city hall clock reminded me that midnight was long past....
I awoke with the consciousness of a new joy, suddenly to identify it with Nancy. She was mine! I kept repeating it as I dressed; summoning her, not as she had lain in my arms in the darkness—though the intoxicating sweetness of that pervaded me—but as she had been before the completeness of her surrender, dainty, surrounded by things expressing an elusive, uniquely feminine personality. I could afford to smile at the weather, at the obsidian sky, at the rain still falling persistently; and yet, as I ate my breakfast, I felt a certain impatience to verify what I knew was a certainty, and hurried to the telephone booth. I resented the instrument, its possibilities of betrayal, her voice sounded so matter-of-fact as she bade me good morning and deplored the rain.
"I'll be out as soon as I can get away," I said. "I have a meeting at three, but it should be over at four." And then I added irresistibly: "Nancy, you're not sorry? You—you still—?"
"Yes, don't be foolish," I heard her reply, and this time the telephone did not completely disguise the note for which I strained. I said something more, but the circuit was closed....
I shall not attempt to recount the details of our intercourse during the week that followed. There were moments of stress and strain when it seemed to me that we could not wait, moments that strengthened Nancy's resolution to leave immediately for the East: there were other, calmer periods when the wisdom of her going appealed to me, since our ultimate union would be hastened thereby. We overcame by degrees the distastefulness of the discussion of ways and means.... We spent an unforgettable Sunday among the distant high hills, beside a little lake of our own discovery, its glinting waters sapphire and chrysoprase. A grassy wood road, at the inviting entrance to which we left the automobile, led down through an undergrowth of laurel to a pebbly shore, and there we lunched; there we lingered through the long summer afternoon, Nancy with her back against a tree, I with my head in her lap gazing up at filmy clouds drifting imperceptibly across the sky, listening to the droning notes of the bees, notes that sometimes rose in a sharp crescendo, and again were suddenly hushed. The smell of the wood-mould mingled with the fainter scents of wild flowers. She had brought along a volume by a modern poet: the verses, as Nancy read them, moved me,—they were filled with a new faith to which my being responded, the faith of the forth-farer; not the faith of the anchor, but of the sail. I repeated some of the lines as indications of a creed to which I had long been trying to convert her, though lacking the expression. She had let the book fall on the grass. I remember how she smiled down at me with the wisdom of the ages in her eyes, seeking my hand with a gesture that was almost maternal.
"You and the poets," she said, "you never grow up. I suppose that's the reason why we love you—and these wonderful visions of freedom you have. Anyway, it's nice to dream, to recreate the world as one would like to have it."
"But that's what you and I are doing," I insisted.
"We think we're doing it—or rather you think so," she replied. "And sometimes, I admit that you almost persuade me to think so. Never quite. What disturbs me," she continued, "is to find you and the poets founding your new freedom on new justifications, discarding the old law only to make a new one,—as though we could ever get away from necessities, escape from disagreeable things, except in dreams. And then, this delusion of believing that we are masters of our own destiny—" She paused and pressed my fingers.
"There you go-back to predestination!" I exclaimed.
"I don't go back to anything, or forward to anything," she exclaimed. "Women are elemental, but I don't expect you to understand it. Laws and codes are foreign to us, philosophies and dreams may dazzle us for the moment, but what we feel underneath and what we yield to are the primal forces, the great necessities; when we refuse joys it's because we know these forces by a sort of instinct, when we're overcome it's with a full knowledge that there's a price. You've talked a great deal, Hugh, about carving out our future. I listened to you, but I resisted you. It wasn't the morality that was taught me as a child that made me resist, it was something deeper than that, more fundamental, something I feel but can't yet perceive, and yet shall perceive some day. It isn't that I'm clinging to the hard and fast rules because I fail to see any others, it isn't that I believe that all people should stick together whether they are happily married or not, but—I must say it even now—I have a feeling I can't define that divorce isn't for us. I'm not talking about right and wrong in the ordinary sense—it's just what I feel. I've ceased to think."
"Nancy!" I reproached her.
"I can't help it—I don't want to be morbid. Do you remember my asking you about God?—the first day this began? and whether you had a god? Well, that's the trouble with us all to-day, we haven't any God, we're wanderers, drifters. And now it's just life that's got hold of us, my dear, and swept us away together. That's our justification—if we needed one—it's been too strong for us." She leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes. "We're like chips in the torrent of it, Hugh."....
It was not until the shadow of the forest had crept far across the lake and the darkening waters were still that we rose reluctantly to put the dishes in the tea basket and start on our homeward journey. The tawny fires of the sunset were dying down behind us, the mist stealing, ghostlike, into the valleys below; in the sky a little moon curled like a freshly cut silver shaving, that presently turned to gold, the white star above it to fire.
Where the valleys widened we came to silent, decorous little towns and villages where yellow-lit windows gleaming through the trees suggested refuge and peace, while we were wanderers in the night. It was Nancy's mood; and now, in the evening's chill, it recurred to me poignantly. In one of these villages we passed a church, its doors flung open; the congregation was singing a familiar hymn. I slowed down the car; I felt her shoulder pressing against my own, and reached out my hand and found hers.
"Are you warm enough?" I asked....
We spoke but little on that drive, we had learned the futility of words to express the greater joys and sorrows, the love that is compounded of these.
It was late when we turned in between the white dates and made our way up the little driveway to the farmhouse. I bade her good night on the steps of the porch.
"You do love me, don't you?" she whispered, clinging to me with a sudden, straining passion. "You will love me, always no matter what happens?"
"Why, of course, Nancy," I answered.
"I want to hear you say it, 'I love you, I shall love you always.'"
I repeated it fervently....
"No matter what happens?"
"No matter what happens. As if I could help it, Nancy! Why are you so sad to-night?"
"Ah, Hugh, it makes me sad—I can't tell why. It is so great, it is so terrible, and yet it's so sweet and beautiful."
She took my face in her hands and pressed a kiss against my forehead....
The next day was dark. At two o'clock in the afternoon the electric light was still burning over my desk when the telephone rang and I heard Nancy's voice.
"Is that you, Hugh?"
"I have to go East this afternoon."
"Why?" I asked. Her agitation had communicated itself to me. "I thought you weren't going until Thursday. What's the matter?"
"I've just had a telegram," she said. "Ham's been hurt—I don't know how badly—he was thrown from a polo pony this morning at Narragansett, in practice, and they're taking him to Boston to a private hospital. The telegram's from Johnny Shephard. I'll be at the house in town at four."
Filled with forebodings I tried in vain to suppress I dropped the work I was doing and got up and paced the room, pausing now and again to gaze out of the window at the wet roofs and the grey skies. I was aghast at the idea of her going to Ham now even though he were hurt badly hurt; and yet I tried to think it was natural, that it was fine of her to respond to such a call. And she couldn't very well refuse his summons. But it was not the news of her husband's accident that inspired the greater fear, which was quelled and soothed only to rise again when I recalled the note I had heard in her voice, a note eloquent of tragedy—of tragedy she had foreseen. At length, unable to remain where I was any longer, I descended to the street and walked uptown in the rain. The Durrett house was closed, the blinds of its many windows drawn, but Nancy was watching for me and opened the door. So used had I grown to seeing her in the simple linen dresses she had worn in the country, a costume associated with exclusive possession, that the sight of her travelling suit and hat renewed in me an agony of apprehension. The unforeseen event seemed to have transformed her once more. Her veil was drawn up, her face was pale, in her eyes were traces of tears.
"You're going?" I asked, as I took her hands.
"Hugh, I have to go."
She led me through the dark, shrouded drawing room into the little salon where the windows were open on the silent city-garden. I took her in my arms; she did not resist, as I half expected, but clung to me with what seemed desperation.
"I have to go, dear—you won't make it too hard for me! It's only—ordinary decency, and there's no one else to go to him."
She drew me to the sofa, her eyes beseeching me.
"Listen, dear, I want you to see it as I see it. I know that you will, that you do. I should never be able to forgive myself if I stayed away now, I—neither of us could ever be happy about it. You do see, don't you?" she implored.
"Yes," I admitted agitatedly.
Her grasp on my hand tightened.
"I knew you would. But it makes me happier to hear you say it."
We sat for a moment in helpless silence, gazing at one another. Slowly her eyes had filled.
"Have you heard anything more?" I managed to ask.
She drew a telegram from her bag, as though the movement were a relief.