Miss Bingham was easily mistress of the situation; she did not try to bring Miss Simpson into the conversation, but she contrived to make Mrs. Simpson ask Langbourne when he arrived at Upper Ashton Falls; and she herself asked him when he had left New York, with many apposite suppositions concerning the difference in the season in the two latitudes. She presumed he was staying at the Falls House, and she said, always in her high, gay tinkle, that it was very pleasant there in the summer time. He did not know what he answered. He was aware that from time to time Miss Simpson said something in a frightened undertone. He did not know how long it was before Mrs. Simpson made an errand out of the room, in the abeyance which age practises before youthful society in the country; he did not know how much longer it was before Miss Bingham herself jumped actively up, and said, Now she would run over to Jenny's, if Mr. Langbourne would excuse her, and tell her that they could not go the next day.
"It will do just as well in the morning," Miss Simpson pitifully entreated.
"No, she's got to know to-night," said Miss Bingham, and she said she should find Mr. Langbourne there when she got back. He knew that in compliance with the simple village tradition he was being purposely left alone with Miss Simpson, as rightfully belonging to her. Miss Bingham betrayed no intentionality to him, but he caught a glimpse of mocking consciousness in the sidelong look she gave Miss Simpson as she went out; and if he had not known before he perceived then, in the vanishing oval of her cheek, the corner of her arched eyebrow, the point of her classic nose, the original of the photograph he had been treasuring as Miss Simpson's.
"It was her picture I sent you," said Miss Simpson. She was the first to break the silence to which Miss Bingham abandoned them, but she did not speak till her friend had closed the outer door behind her and was tripping down the brick walk to the gate.
"Yes," said Langbourne, in a dryness which he could not keep himself from using.
The girl must have felt it, and her voice faltered a very little as she continued. "We—I—did it for fun. I meant to tell you. I—"
"Oh, that's all right," said Langbourne. "I had no business to expect yours, or to send you mine." But he believed that he had; that his faithful infatuation had somehow earned him the right to do what he had done, and to hope for what he had not got; without formulating the fact, he divined that she believed it too. Between the man-soul and the woman-soul it can never go so far as it had gone in their case without giving them claims upon each other which neither can justly deny.
She did not attempt to deny it. "I oughtn't to have done it, and I ought to have told you at once—the next letter—but I—you said you were coming, and I thought if you did come—I didn't really expect you to; and it was all a joke,—off-hand."
It was very lame, but it was true, and it was piteous; yet Langbourne could not relent. His grievance was not with what she had done, but what she was; not what she really was, but what she materially was; her looks, her figure, her stature, her whole presence, so different from that which he had been carrying in his mind, and adoring for a year past.
If it was ridiculous, and if with her sense of the ridiculous she felt it so, she was unable to take it lightly, or to make him take it lightly. At some faint gleams which passed over her face he felt himself invited to regard it less seriously; but he did not try, even provisionally, and they fell into a silence that neither seemed to have the power of breaking.
It must be broken, however; something must be done; they could not sit there dumb forever. He looked at the sheet of music on the piano and said, "I see you have been trying that song. Do you like it?"
"Yes, very much," and now for the first time she got her voice fairly above a whisper. She took the sheet down from the music-rest and looked at the picture of the lithographed title. It was of a tiled roof lifted among cypresses and laurels with pigeons strutting on it and sailing over it.
"It was that picture," said Langbourne, since he must say something, "that I believe I got the song for; it made me think of the roof of an old Spanish house I saw in Southern California."
"It must be nice, out there," said Miss Simpson, absently staring at the picture. She gathered herself together to add, pointlessly, "Juliet says she's going to Europe. Have you ever been?"
"Not to Europe, no. I always feel as if I wanted to see my own country first. Is she going soon?"
"Who? Juliet? Oh, no! She was just saying so. I don't believe she's engaged her passage yet."
There was invitation to greater ease in this, and her voice began to have the tender, coaxing quality which had thrilled his heart when he heard it first. But the space of her variance from his ideal was between them, and the voice reached him faintly across it.
The situation grew more and more painful for her, he could see, as well as for him. She too was feeling the anomaly of their having been intimates without being acquaintances. They necessarily met as strangers after the exchange of letters in which they had spoken with the confidence of friends.
Langbourne cast about in his mind for some middle ground where they could come together without that effect of chance encounter which had reduced them to silence. He could not recur to any of the things they had written about; so far from wishing to do this, he had almost a terror of touching upon them by accident, and he felt that she shrank from them too, as if they involved a painful misunderstanding which could not be put straight.
He asked questions about Upper Ashton Falls, but these led up to what she had said of it in her letters; he tried to speak of the winter in New York, and he remembered that every week he had given her a full account of his life there. They must go beyond their letters or they must fall far back of them.
In their attempts to talk he was aware that she was seconding all his endeavors with intelligence, and with a humorous subtlety to which he could not pretend. She was suffering from their anomalous position as much as he, but she had the means of enjoying it while he had not. After half an hour of these defeats Mrs. Simpson operated a diversion by coming in with two glasses of lemonade on a tray and some slices of sponge-cake. She offered this refreshment first to Langbourne and then to her niece, and they both obediently took a glass, and put a slice of cake in the saucer which supported the glass. She said to each in turn, "Won't you take some lemonade? Won't you have a piece of cake?" and then went out with her empty tray, and the air of having fulfilled the duties of hospitality to her niece's company.
"I don't know," said Miss Simpson, "but it's rather early in the season for cold lemonade," and Langbourne, instead of laughing, as her tone invited him to do, said:
"It's very good, I'm sure." But this seemed too stiffly ungracious, and he added: "What delicious sponge-cake! You never get this out of New England."
"We have to do something to make up for our doughnuts," Miss Simpson suggested.
"Oh, I like doughnuts too," said Langbourne. "But you can't get the right kind of doughnuts, either, in New York."
They began to talk about cooking. He told her of the tamales which he had first tasted in San Francisco, and afterward found superabundantly in New York; they both made a great deal of the topic; Miss Simpson had never heard of tamales. He became solemnly animated in their exegesis, and she showed a resolute interest in them.
They were in the midst of the forced discussion, when they heard a quick foot on the brick walk, but they had both fallen silent when Miss Bingham flounced elastically in upon them. She seemed to take in with a keen glance which swept them from her lively eyes that they had not been getting on, and she had the air of taking them at once in hand.
"Well, it's all right about Jenny," she said to Miss Simpson. "She'd a good deal rather go day after to-morrow, anyway. What have you been talking about? I don't want to make you go over the same ground. Have you got through with the weather? The moon's out, and it feels more like the beginning of June than the last of April. I shut the front door against dor-bugs; I couldn't help it, though they won't be here for six weeks yet. Do you have dor-bugs in New York, Mr. Langbourne?"
"I don't know. There may be some in the Park," he answered.
"We think a great deal of our dor-bugs in Upper Ashton," said Miss Simpson demurely, looking down. "We don't know what we should do without them."
"Lemonade!" exclaimed Miss Bingham, catching sight of the glasses and saucers on the corner of the piano, where Miss Simpson had allowed Langbourne to put them. "Has Aunt Elmira been giving you lemonade while I was gone? I will just see about that!" She whipped out of the room, and was back in a minute with a glass in one hand and a bit of sponge-cake between the fingers of the other. "She had kept some for me! Have you sung Paloma for Mr. Langbourne, Barbara?"
"No," said Barbara, "we hadn't got round to it, quite."
"Oh, do!" Langbourne entreated, and he wondered that he had not asked her before; it would have saved them from each ether.
"Wait a moment," cried Juliet Bingham, and she gulped the last draught of her lemonade upon a final morsel of sponge-cake, and was down at the piano while still dusting the crumbs from her fingers. She struck the refractory sheet of music flat upon the rack with her palm, and then tilted her head over her shoulder towards Langbourne, who had risen with some vague notion of turning the sheets of the song. "Do you sing?"
"Oh, no. But I like—"
"Are you ready, Bab?" she asked, ignoring him; and she dashed into the accompaniment.
He sat down in his chair behind the two girls, where they could not see his face.
Barbara began rather weakly, but her voice gathered strength, and then poured full volume to the end, where it weakened again. He knew that she was taking refuge from him in the song, and in the magic of her voice he escaped from the disappointment he had been suffering. He let his head drop and his eyelids fall, and in the rapture of her singing he got back what he had lost; or rather, he lost himself again to the illusion which had grown so precious to him.
Juliet Bingham sounded the last note almost as she rose from the piano; Barbara passed her handkerchief over her forehead, as if to wipe the heat from it, but he believed that this was a ruse to dry her eyes in it: they shone with a moist brightness in the glimpse he caught of them. He had risen, and they all stood talking; or they all stood, and Juliet talked. She did not offer to sit down again, and after stiffly thanking them both, he said he must be going, and took leave of them. Juliet gave his hand a nervous grip; Barbara's touch was lax and cold; the parting with her was painful; he believed that she felt it so as much as he.
The girls' voices followed him down the walk,—Juliet's treble, and Barbara's contralto,—and he believed that they were making talk purposely against a pressure of silence, and did not know what they were saying. It occurred to him that they had not asked how long he was staying, or invited him to come again: he had not thought to ask if he might; and in the intolerable inconclusiveness of this ending he faltered at the gate till the lights in the windows of the parlor disappeared, as if carried into the hall, and then they twinkled into darkness. From an upper entry window, which reddened with a momentary flush and was then darkened, a burst of mingled laughter came. The girls must have thought him beyond hearing, and he fancied the laugh a burst of hysterical feeling in them both.
Langbourne went to bed as soon as he reached his hotel because he found himself spent with the experience of the evening; but as he rested from his fatigue he grew wakeful, and he tried to get its whole measure and meaning before him. He had a methodical nature, with a necessity for order in his motions, and he now balanced one fact against another none the less passionately because the process was a series of careful recognitions. He perceived that the dream in which he had lived for the year past was not wholly an illusion. One of the girls whom he had heard but not seen was what he had divined her to be: a dominant influence, a control to which the other was passively obedient. He had not erred greatly as to the face or figure of the superior, but he had given all the advantages to the wrong person. The voice, indeed, the spell which had bound him, belonged with the one to whom he had attributed it, and the qualities with which it was inextricably blended in his fancy were hers; she was more like his ideal than the other, though he owned that the other was a charming girl too, and that in the thin treble of her voice lurked a potential fascination which might have made itself ascendently felt if he had happened to feel it first.
There was a dangerous instant in which he had a perverse question of changing his allegiance. This passed into another moment, almost as perilous, of confusion through a primal instinct of the man's by which he yields a double or a divided allegiance and simultaneously worships at two shrines; in still another breath he was aware that this was madness.
If he had been younger, he would have had no doubt as to his right in the circumstances. He had simply corresponded all winter with Miss Simpson; but though he had opened his heart freely and had invited her to the same confidence with him, he had not committed himself, and he had a right to drop the whole affair. She would have no right to complain; she had not committed herself either: they could both come off unscathed. But he was now thirty-five, and life had taught him something concerning the rights of others which he could not ignore. By seeking her confidence and by offering her his, he had given her a claim which was none the less binding because it was wholly tacit. There had been a time when he might have justified himself in dropping the affair; that was when she had failed to answer his letter; but he had come to see her in defiance of her silence, and now he could not withdraw, simply because he was disappointed, without cruelty, without atrocity.
This was what the girl's wistful eyes said to him; this was the reproach of her trembling lips; this was the accusation of her dejected figure, as she drooped in vision before him on the piano-stool and passed her hand soundlessly over the key-board. He tried to own to her that he was disappointed, but he could not get the words out of his throat; and now in her presence, as it were, he was not sure that he was disappointed.
He woke late, with a longing to put his two senses of her to the proof of day; and as early in the forenoon as he could hope to see her, he walked out towards her aunt's house. It was a mild, dull morning, with a misted sunshine; in the little crimson tassels of the budded maples overhead the bees were droning.
The street was straight, and while he was yet a good way off he saw the gate open before the house, and a girl whom he recognized as Miss Bingham close it behind her. She then came down under the maples towards him, at first swiftly, and then more and more slowly, until finally she faltered to a stop. He quickened his own pace and came up to her with a "Good-morning" called to her and a lift of his hat. She returned neither salutation, and said, "I was coming to see you, Mr. Langbourne." Her voice was still a silver bell, but it was not gay, and her face was severely unsmiling.
"To see me?" he returned. "Has anything—"
"No, there's nothing the matter. But—I should like to talk with you." She held a little packet, tied with blue ribbon, in her intertwined hands, and she looked urgently at him.
"I shall be very glad," Langbourne began, but she interrupted,—
"Should you mind walking down to the Falls?"
He understood that for some reason she did not wish him to pass the house, and he bowed. "Wherever you like. I hope Mrs. Simpson is well? And Miss Simpson?"
"Oh, perfectly," said Miss Bingham, and they fenced with some questions and answers of no interest till they had walked back through the village to the Falls at the other end of it, where the saw in a mill was whirring through a long pine log, and the water, streaked with sawdust, was spreading over the rocks below and flowing away with a smooth swiftness. The ground near the mill was piled with fresh-sawed, fragrant lumber and strewn with logs.
Miss Bingham found a comfortable place on one of the logs, and began abruptly:
"You may think it's pretty strange, Mr. Langbourne, but I want to talk with you about Miss Simpson." She seemed to satisfy a duty to convention by saying Miss Simpson at the outset, and after that she called her friend Barbara. "I've brought you your letters to her," and she handed him the packet she had been holding. "Have you got hers with you?"
"They are at the hotel," answered Langbourne.
"Well, that's right, then. I thought perhaps you had brought them. You see," Miss Bingham continued, much more cold-bloodedly than Langbourne thought she need, "we talked it over last night, and it's too silly. That's the way Barbara feels herself. The fact is," she went on confidingly, and with the air of saying something that he would appreciate, "I always thought it was some young man, and so did Barbara; or I don't believe she would ever have answered your first letter."
Langbourne knew that he was not a young man in a young girl's sense; but no man likes to have it said that he is old. Besides, Miss Bingham herself was not apparently in her first quarter of a century, and probably Miss Simpson would not see the earliest twenties again. He thought none the worse of her for that; but he felt that he was not so unequally matched in time with her that she need take the attitude with regard to him which Miss Bingham indicated. He was not the least gray nor the least bald, and his tall figure had kept its youthful lines.
Perhaps his face manifested something of his suppressed resentment. At any rate, Miss Bingham said apologetically, "I mean that if we had known it was a serious person we should have acted differently. I oughtn't to have let her thank you for those seedsman's catalogues; but I thought it couldn't do any harm. And then, after your letters began to come, we didn't know just when to stop them. To tell you the truth, Mr. Langbourne, we got so interested we couldn't bear to stop them. You wrote so much about your life in New York, that it was like a visit there every week; and it's pretty quiet at Upper Ashton in the winter time."
She seemed to refer this fact to Langbourne for sympathetic appreciation; he said mechanically, "Yes."
She resumed: "But when your picture came, I said it had got to stop; and so we just sent back my picture,—or I don't know but what Barbara did it without asking me,—and we did suppose that would be the last of it; when you wrote back you were coming here, we didn't believe you really would unless we said so. That's all there is about it; and if there is anybody to blame, I am the one. Barbara would never have done it in the world if I hadn't put her up to it."
In those words the implication that Miss Bingham had operated the whole affair finally unfolded itself. But distasteful as the fact was to Langbourne, and wounding as was the realization that he had been led on by this witness of his infatuation for the sake of the entertainment which his letters gave two girls in the dull winter of a mountain village, there was still greater pain, with an additional embarrassment, in the regret which the words conveyed. It appeared that it was not he who had done the wrong; he had suffered it, and so far from having to offer reparation to a young girl for having unwarrantably wrought her up expect of him a step from which he afterwards recoiled, he had the duty of forgiving her a trespass on his own invaded sensibilities. It was humiliating to his vanity; it inflicted a hurt to something better than his vanity. He began very uncomfortably: "It's all right, as far as I'm concerned. I had no business to address Miss Simpson in the first place—"
"Well," Miss Bingham interrupted, "that's what I told Barbara; but she got to feeling badly about it; she thought if you had taken the trouble to send back the circular that she dropped in the hotel, she couldn't do less than acknowledge it, and she kept on so about it that I had to let her. That was the first false step."
These words, while they showed Miss Simpson in a more amiable light, did not enable Langbourne to see Miss Bingham's merit so clearly. In the methodical and consecutive working of his emotions, he was aware that it was no longer a question of divided allegiance, and that there could never be any such question again. He perceived that Miss Bingham had not such a good figure as he had fancied the night before, and that her eyes were set rather too near together. While he dropped his own eyes, and stood trying to think what he should say in answer to her last speech, her high, sweet voice tinkled out in gay challenge, "How do, John?"
He looked up and saw a square-set, brown-faced young man advancing towards them in his shirt-sleeves; he came deliberately, finding his way in and out among the logs, till he stood smiling down, through a heavy mustache and thick black lashes, into the face of the girl, as if she were some sort of joke. The sun struck into her face as she looked up at him, and made her frown with a knot between her brows that pulled her eyes still closer together, and she asked, with no direct reference to his shirt-sleeves,—"A'n't you forcing the season?"
"Don't want to let the summer get the start of you," the young man generalized, and Miss Bingham said,—
"Mr. Langbourne, Mr. Dickery." The young man silently shook hands with Langbourne, whom he took into the joke of Miss Bingham with another smile; and she went on: "Say, John, I wish you'd tell Jenny I don't see why we shouldn't go this afternoon, after all."
"All right," said the young man.
"I suppose you're coming too?" she suggested.
"Hadn't heard of it," he returned.
"Well, you have now. You've got to be ready at two o'clock."
"That so?" the young fellow inquired. Then he walked away among the logs, as casually as he had arrived, and Miss Bingham rose and shook some bits of bark from her skirt.
"Mr. Dickery is owner of the mills," she explained, and she explored Langbourne's face for an intelligence which she did not seem to find there. He thought, indifferently enough, that this young man had heard the two girls speak of him, and had satisfied a natural curiosity in coming to look him over; it did not occur to him that he had any especial relation to Miss Bingham.
She walked up into the village with Langbourne, and he did not know whether he was to accompany her home or not. But she gave him no sign of dismissal till she put her hand upon her gate to pull it open without asking him to come in. Then he said, "I will send Miss Simpson's letters to her at once."
"Oh, any time will do, Mr. Langbourne," she returned sweetly. Then, as if it had just occurred to her, she added, "We're going after May-flowers this afternoon. Wouldn't you like to come too?"
"I don't know," he began, "whether I shall have the time—"
"Why, you're not going away to-day!"
"I expected—I—But if you don't think I shall be intruding—"
"Why, I should be delighted to have you. Mr. Dickery's going, and Jenny Dickery, and Barbara. I don't believe it will rain."
"Then, if I may," said Langbourne.
"Why, certainly, Mr. Langbourne!" she cried, and he started away. But he had gone only a few rods when he wheeled about and hurried back. The girl was going up the walk to the house, looking over her shoulder after him; at his hurried return she stopped and came down to the gate again.
"Miss Bingham, I think—I think I had better not go."
"Why, just as you feel about it, Mr. Langbourne," she assented.
"I will bring the letters this evening, if you will let me—if Miss Simpson—if you will be at home."
"We shall be very happy to see you, Mr. Langbourne," said the girl formally, and then he went back to his hotel.
Langbourne could not have told just why he had withdrawn his acceptance of Miss Bingham's invitation. If at the moment it was the effect of a quite reasonless panic, he decided later that it was because he wished to think. It could not be said, however, that he did think, unless thinking consists of a series of dramatic representations which the mind makes to itself from a given impulse, and which it is quite powerless to end. All the afternoon, which Langbourne spent in his room, his mind was the theatre of scenes with Miss Simpson, in which he perpetually evolved the motives governing him from the beginning, and triumphed out of his difficulties and embarrassments. Her voice, as it acquiesced in all, no longer related itself to that imaginary personality which had inhabited his fancy. That was gone irrevocably; and the voice belonged to the likeness of Barbara, and no other; from her similitude, little, quaint, with her hair of cloudy red and her large, dim-sighted eyes, it played upon the spiritual sense within him with the coaxing, drolling, mocking charm which he had felt from the first. It blessed him with intelligent and joyous forgiveness. But as he stood at her gate that evening this unmerited felicity fell from him. He now really heard her voice, through the open doorway, but perhaps because it was mixed with other voices—the treble of Miss Bingham, and the bass of a man who must be the Mr. Dickery he had seen at the saw mills—he turned and hurried back to his hotel, where he wrote a short letter saying that he had decided to take the express for New York that night. With an instinctive recognition of her authority in the affair, or with a cowardly shrinking from direct dealing with Barbara, he wrote to Juliet Bingham, and he addressed to her the packet of letters which he sent for Barbara. Superficially, he had done what he had no choice but to do. He had been asked to return her letters, and he had returned them, and brought the affair to an end.
In his long ride to the city he assured himself in vain that he was doing right if he was not sure of his feelings towards the girl. It was quite because he was not sure of his feeling that he could not be sure he was not acting falsely and cruelly.
The fear grew upon him through the summer, which he spent in the heat and stress of the town. In his work he could forget a little the despair in which he lived; but in a double consciousness like that of the hypochondriac, the girl whom it seemed to him he had deserted was visibly and audibly present with him. Her voice was always in his inner ear, and it visualized her looks and movements to his inner eye.
Now he saw and understood at last that what his heart had more than once misgiven him might be the truth, and that though she had sent back his letters, and asked her own in return, it was not necessarily her wish that he should obey her request. It might very well have been an experiment of his feeling towards her, a mute quest of the impression she had made upon him, a test of his will and purpose, an overture to a clearer and truer understanding between them. This misgiving became a conviction from which he could not escape.
He believed too late that he had made a mistake, that he had thrown away the supreme chance of his life. But was it too late? When he could bear it no longer, he began to deny that it was too late. He denied it even to the pathetic presence which haunted him, and in which the magic of her voice itself was merged at last, so that he saw her more than he heard her. He overbore her weak will with his stronger will, and set himself strenuously to protest to her real presence what he now always said to her phantom. When his partner came back from his vacation, Langbourne told him that he was going to take a day or two off.
He arrived at Upper Ashton Falls long enough before the early autumnal dusk to note that the crimson buds of the maples were now their crimson leaves, but he kept as close to the past as he could by not going to find Barbara before the hour of the evening when he had turned from her gate without daring to see her. It was a soft October evening now, as it was a soft May evening then; and there was a mystical hint of unity in the like feel of the dull, mild air. Again voices were coming out of the open doors and windows of the house, and they were the same voices that he had last heard there.
He knocked, and after a moment of startled hush within Juliet Bingham came to the door. "Why, Mr. Langbourne!" she screamed.
"I—I should like to come in, if you will let me," he gasped out.
"Why, certainly, Mr. Langbourne," she returned.
He had not dwelt so long and so intently on the meeting at hand without considering how he should account for his coming, and he had formulated a confession of his motives. But he had never meant to make it to Juliet Bingham, and he now found himself unable to allege a word in explanation of his presence. He followed her into the parlor. Barbara silently gave him her hand and then remained passive in the background, where Dickery held aloof, smiling in what seemed his perpetual enjoyment of the Juliet Bingham joke. She at once put herself in authority over the situation; she made Langbourne let her have his hat; she seated him when and where she chose; she removed and put back the lampshades; she pulled up and pulled down the window-blinds; she shut the outer door because of the night air, and opened it because of the unseasonable warmth within. She excused Mrs. Simpson's absence on account of a headache, and asked him if he would not have a fan; when he refused it she made him take it, and while he sat helplessly dangling it from his hand, she asked him about the summer he had had, and whether he had passed it in New York. She was very intelligent about the heat in New York, and tactful in keeping the one-sided talk from falling. Barbara said nothing after a few faint attempts to take part in it, and Langbourne made briefer and briefer answers. His reticence seemed only to heighten Juliet Bingham's satisfaction, and she said, with a final supremacy, that she had been intending to go out with Mr. Dickery to a business meeting of the book-club, but they would be back before Langbourne could get away; she made him promise to wait for them. He did not know if Barbara looked any protest,—at least she spoke none,—and Juliet went out with Dickery. She turned at the door to bid Barbara say, if any one called, that she was at the book-club meeting. Then she disappeared, but reappeared and called, "See here, a minute, Bab!" and at the outer threshold she detained Barbara in vivid whisper, ending aloud, "Now you be sure to do both, Bab! Aunt Elmira will tell you where the things are." Again she vanished, and was gone long enough to have reached the gate and come back from it. She was renewing all her whispered and out-spoken charges when Dickery showed himself at her side, put his hand under her elbow, and wheeled her about, and while she called gayly over her shoulder to the others, "Did you ever?" walked her definitively out of the house.
Langbourne did not suffer the silence which followed her going to possess him. What he had to do he must do quickly, and he said, "Miss Simpson, may I ask you one question?"
"Why, if you won't expect me to answer it," she suggested quaintly.
"You must do as you please about that. It has to come before I try to excuse myself for being here; it's the only excuse I can offer. It's this: Did you send Miss Bingham to get back your letters from me last spring?"
"Why, of course!"
"I mean, was it your idea?"
"We thought it would be better."
The evasion satisfied Langbourne, but he asked, "Had I given you some cause to distrust me at that time?"
"Oh, no," she protested. "We got to talking it over, and—and we thought we had better."
"Because I had come here without being asked?"
"No, no; it wasn't that," the girl protested.
"I know I oughtn't to have come. I know I oughtn't to have written to you in the beginning, but you had let me write, and I thought you would let me come. I tried always to be sincere with you; to make you feel that you could trust me. I believe that I am an honest man; I thought I was a better man for having known you through your letters. I couldn't tell you how much they had been to me. You seemed to think, because I lived in a large place, that I had a great many friends; but I have very few; I might say I hadn't any—such as I thought I had when I was writing to you. Most of the men I know belong to some sort of clubs; but I don't. I went to New York when I was feeling alone in the world,—it was from something that had happened to me partly through my own fault,—and I've never got over being alone there. I've never gone into society; I don't know what society is, and I suppose that's why I am acting differently from a society man now. The only change I ever had from business was reading at night: I've got a pretty good library. After I began to get your letters, I went out more—to the theatre, and lectures, and concerts, and all sorts of things—so that I could have something interesting to write about; I thought you'd get tired of always hearing about me. And your letters filled up my life, so that I didn't seem alone any more. I read them all hundreds of times; I should have said that I knew them by heart, if they had not been as fresh at last as they were at first. I seemed to hear you talking in them." He stopped as if withholding himself from what he had nearly said without intending, and resumed: "It's some comfort to know that you didn't want them back because you doubted me, or my good faith."
"Oh, no, indeed, Mr. Langbourne," said Barbara compassionately.
"Then why did you?"
"I don't know. We—"
"No; not 'we.' You!"
She did not answer for so long that he believed she resented his speaking so peremptorily and was not going to answer him at all. At last she said, "I thought you would rather give them back." She turned and looked at him, with the eyes which he knew saw his face dimly, but saw his thought clearly.
"What made you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Didn't you want to?"
He knew that the fact which their words veiled was now the first thing in their mutual consciousness. He spoke the truth in saying, "No, I never wanted to," but this was only a mechanical truth, and he knew it. He had an impulse to put the burden of the situation on her, and press her to say why she thought he wished to do so; but his next emotion was shame for this impulse. A thousand times, in these reveries in which he had imagined meeting her, he had told her first of all how he had overheard her talking in the room next his own in the hotel, and of the power her voice had instantly and lastingly had upon him. But now, with a sense spiritualized by her presence, he perceived that this, if it was not unworthy, was secondary, and that the right to say it was not yet established. There was something that must come before this,—something that could alone justify him in any further step. If she could answer him first as he wished, then he might open his whole heart to her, at whatever cost; he was not greatly to blame, if he did not realize that the cost could not be wholly his, as he asked, remotely enough from her question, "After I wrote that I was coming up here, and you did not answer me, did you think I was coming?"
She did not answer, and he felt that he had been seeking a mean advantage. He went on: "If you didn't expect it, if you never thought that I was coming, there's no need for me to tell you anything else."
Her face turned towards him a very little, but not so much as even to get a sidelong glimpse of him; it was as if it were drawn by a magnetic attraction; and she said, "I didn't know but you would come."
"Then I will tell you why I came—the only thing that gave me the right to come against your will, if it was against it. I came to ask you to marry me. Will you?"
She now turned and looked fully at him, though he was aware of being a mere blur in her near-sighted vision.
"Do you mean to ask it now?"
"And have you wished to ask it ever since you first saw me?"
He tried to say that he had, but he could not; he could only say, "I wish to ask it now more than ever."
She shook her head slowly. "I'm not sure how you want me to answer you."
"No. I'm afraid I might disappoint you again."
He could not make out whether she was laughing at him. He sat, not knowing what to say, and he blurted out, "Do you mean that you won't?"
"I shouldn't want you to make another mistake."
"I don't know what you"—he was going to say "mean," but he substituted—"wish. If you wish for more time, I can wait as long as you choose."
"No, I might wish for time, if there was anything more. But if there's nothing else you have to tell me—then, no, I cannot marry you."
Langbourne rose, feeling justly punished, somehow, but bewildered as much as humbled, and stood stupidly unable to go. "I don't know what you could expect me to say after you've refused me—"
"Oh, I don't expect anything."
"But there is something I should like to tell you. I know that I behaved that night as if—as if I hadn't come to ask you—what I have; I don't blame you for not trusting me now. But it is no use to tell you what I intended if it is all over."
He looked down into his hat, and she said in a low voice, "I think I ought to know. Won't you—sit down?"
He sat down again. "Then I will tell you at the risk of—But there's nothing left to lose! You know how it is, when we think about a person or a place before we've seen them: we make some sort of picture of them, and expect them to be like it. I don't know how to say it; you do look more like what I thought than you did at first. I suppose I must seem a fool to say it; but I thought you were tall, and that you were—well!—rather masterful—"
"Like Juliet Bingham?" she suggested, with a gleam in the eye next him.
"Yes, like Juliet Bingham. It was your voice made me think—it was your voice that first made me want to see you, that made me write to you, in the beginning. I heard you talking that night in the hotel, where you left that circular; you were in the room next to mine; and I wanted to come right up here then; but I had to go back to New York, and so I wrote to you. When your letters came, I always seemed to hear you speaking in them."
"And when you saw me you were disappointed. I knew it."
"No; not disappointed—"
"Why not? My voice didn't go with my looks; it belonged to a tall, strong-willed girl."
"No," he protested. "As soon as I got away it was just as it always had been. I mean that your voice and your looks went together again."
"As soon as you got away?" the girl questioned.
"I mean—What do you care for it, anyway!" he cried, in self-scornful exasperation.
"I know," she said thoughtfully, "that my voice isn't like me; I'm not good enough for it. It ought to be Juliet Bingham's—"
"No, no!" he interrupted, with a sort of disgust that seemed not to displease her, "I can't imagine it!"
"But we can't any of us have everything, and she's got enough as it is. She's a head higher than I am, and she wants to have her way ten times as bad."
"I didn't mean that," Langbourne began. "I—but you must think me enough of a simpleton already."
"Oh, no, not near," she declared. "I'm a good deal of a simpleton myself at times."
"It doesn't matter," he said desperately; "I love you."
"Ah, that belongs to the time when you thought I looked differently."
"I don't want you to look differently. I—"
"You can't expect me to believe that now. It will take time for me to do that."
"I will give you time," he said, so simply that she smiled.
"If it was my voice you cared for I should have to live up to it, somehow, before you cared for me. I'm not certain that I ever could. And if I couldn't? You see, don't you?"
"I see that I was a fool to tell you what I have," he so far asserted himself. "But I thought I ought to be honest."
"Oh, you've been honest!" she said.
"You have a right to think that I am a flighty, romantic person," he resumed, "and I don't blame you. But if I could explain, it has been a very real experience to me. It was your nature that I cared for in your voice. I can't tell you just how it was; it seemed to me that unless I could hear it again, and always, my life would not be worth much. This was something deeper and better than I could make you understand. It wasn't merely a fancy; I do not want you to believe that."
"I don't know whether fancies are such very bad things. I've had some of my own," Barbara suggested.
He sat still with his hat between his hands, as if he could not find a chance of dismissing himself, and she remained looking down at her skirt where it tented itself over the toe of her shoe. The tall clock in the hall ticked second after second. It counted thirty of them at least before he spoke, after a preliminary noise in his throat.
"There is one thing I should like to ask: If you had cared for me, would you have been offended at my having thought you looked differently?"
She took time to consider this. "I might have been vexed, or hurt, I suppose, but I don't see how I could really have been offended."
"Then I understand," he began, in one of his inductive emotions; but she rose nervously, as if she could not sit still, and went to the piano. The Spanish song he had given her was lying open upon it, and she struck some of the chords absently, and then let her fingers rest on the keys.
"Miss Simpson," he said, coming stiffly forward, "I should like to hear you sing that song once more before I—Won't you sing it?"
"Why, yes," she said, and she slipped laterally into the piano-seat.
At the end of the first stanza he gave a long sigh, and then he was silent to the close.
As she sounded the last notes of the accompaniment Juliet Bingham burst into the room with somehow the effect to Langbourne of having lain in wait outside for that moment.
"Oh, I just knew it!" she shouted, running upon them. "I bet John anything! Oh, I'm so happy it's come out all right; and now I'm going to have the first—"
She lifted her arms as if to put them round his neck; he stood dazed, and Barbara rose from the piano-stool and confronted her with nothing less than horror in her face.
Juliet Bingham was beginning again, "Why, haven't you—"
"No!" cried Barbara. "I forgot all about what you said! I just happened to sing it because he asked me," and she ran from the room.
"Well, if I ever!" said Juliet Bingham, following her with astonished eyes. Then she turned to Langbourne. "It's perfectly ridiculous, and I don't see how I can ever explain it. I don't think Barbara has shown a great deal of tact," and Juliet Bingham was evidently prepared to make up the defect by a diplomacy which she enjoyed. "I don't know where to begin exactly; but you must certainly excuse my—manner, when I came in."
"Oh, certainly," said Langbourne in polite mystification.
"It was all through a misunderstanding that I don't think I was to blame for, to say the least; but I can't explain it without making Barbara appear perfectly—Mr. Langbourne, will you tell whether you are engaged?"
"No! Miss Simpson has declined my offer," he answered.
"Oh, then it's all right," said Juliet Bingham, but Langbourne looked as if he did not see why she should say that. "Then I can understand; I see the whole thing now; and I didn't want to make another mistake. Ah—won't you—sit down?"
"Thank you. I believe I will go."
"But you have a right to know—"
"Would my knowing alter the main facts?" he asked dryly.
"Well, no, I can't say it would," Juliet Bingham replied with an air of candor. "And, as you say, perhaps it's just as well," she added with an air of relief.
Langbourne had not said it, but he acquiesced with a faint sigh, and absently took the hand of farewell which Juliet Bingham gave him. "I know Barbara will be very sorry not to see you; but I guess it's better."
In spite of the supremacy which the turn of affairs had given her, Juliet Bingham looked far from satisfied, and she let Langbourne go with a sense of inconclusiveness which showed in the parting inclination towards him; she kept the effect of this after he turned from her.
He crept light-headedly down the brick walk with a feeling that the darkness was not half thick enough, though it was so thick that it hid from him a figure that leaned upon the gate and held it shut, as if forcibly to interrupt his going.
"Mr. Langbourne," said the voice of this figure, which, though so unnaturally strained, he knew for Barbara's voice, "you have got to know! I'm ashamed to tell you, but I should be more ashamed not to, after what's happened. Juliet made me promise when she went out to the book-club meeting that if I—if you—if it turned out as you wanted, I would sing that song as a sign—It was just a joke—like my sending her picture. It was my mistake and I am sorry, and I beg your pardon—I—"
She stopped with a quick catch in her breath, and the darkness round them seemed to become luminous with the light of hope that broke upon him within.
"But if there really was no mistake," he began. He could not get further.
She did not answer, and for the first time her silence was sweeter than her voice. He lifted her tip-toe in his embrace, but he did not wish her taller; her yielding spirit lost itself in his own, and he did not regret the absence of the strong will which he had once imagined hers.
A CIRCLE IN THE WATER.
The sunset struck its hard red light through the fringe of leafless trees to the westward, and gave their outlines that black definition which a French school of landscape saw a few years ago, and now seems to see no longer. In the whole scene there was the pathetic repose which we feel in some dying day of the dying year, and a sort of impersonal melancholy weighed me down as I dragged myself through the woods toward that dreary November sunset.
Presently I came in sight of the place I was seeking, and partly because of the insensate pleasure of having found it, and partly because of the cheerful opening in the boscage made by the pool, which cleared its space to the sky, my heart lifted. I perceived that it was not so late as I had thought, and that there was much more of the day left than I had supposed from the crimson glare in the west. I threw myself down on one of the grassy gradines of the amphitheatre, and comforted myself with the antiquity of the work, which was so great as to involve its origin in a somewhat impassioned question among the local authorities. Whether it was a Norse work, a temple for the celebration of the earliest Christian, or the latest heathen, rites among the first discoverers of New England, or whether it was a cockpit where the English officers who were billeted in the old tavern near by fought their mains at the time of our Revolution, it had the charm of a ruin, and appealed to the fancy with whatever potency belongs to the mouldering monuments of the past. The hands that shaped it were all dust, and there was no record of the minds that willed it to prove that it was a hundred, or that it was a thousand, years old. There were young oaks and pines growing up to the border of the amphitheatre on all sides; blackberry vines and sumach bushes overran the gradines almost to the margin of the pool which filled the centre; at the edge of the water some clumps of willow and white birch leaned outward as if to mirror their tracery in its steely surface. But of the life that the thing inarticulately recorded, there was not the slightest impulse left.
I began to think how everything ends at last. Love ends, sorrow ends, and to our mortal sense everything that is mortal ends, whether that which is spiritual has a perpetual effect beyond these eyes or not. The very name of things passes with the things themselves, and
"Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself, Till by broad spreading, it disperse to naught."
But if fame ended, did not infamy end, too? If glory, why not shame? What was it, I mused, that made an evil deed so much more memorable than a good one? Why should a crime have so much longer lodgment in our minds, and be of consequences so much more lasting than the sort of action which is the opposite of a crime, but has no precise name with us? Was it because the want of positive quality which left it nameless, characterized its effects with a kind of essential debility? Was evil then a greater force than good in the moral world? I tried to recall personalities, virtuous and vicious, and I found a fatal want of distinctness in the return of those I classed as virtuous, and a lurid vividness in those I classed as vicious. Images, knowledges, concepts, zigzagged through my brain, as they do when we are thinking, or believe we are thinking; perhaps there is no such thing as we call thinking, except when we are talking. I did not hold myself responsible in this will-less revery for the question which asked itself, Whether, then, evil and not good was the lasting principle, and whether that which should remain recognizable to all eternity was not the good effect but the evil effect?
Something broke the perfect stillness of the pool near the opposite shore. A fish had leaped at some unseasonable insect on the surface, or one of the overhanging trees had dropped a dead twig upon it, and in the lazy doubt which it might be, I lay and watched the ever-widening circle fade out into fainter and fainter ripples toward the shore, till it weakened to nothing in the eye, and, so far as the senses were concerned, actually ceased to be. The want of visible agency in it made me feel it all the more a providential illustration; and because the thing itself was so pretty, and because it was so apt as a case in point, I pleased myself a great deal with it. Suddenly it repeated itself; but this time I grew a little impatient of it, before the circle died out in the wider circle of the pool. I said whimsically to myself that this was rubbing it in; that I was convinced already, and needed no further proof; and at the same moment the thing happened a third time. Then I saw that there was a man standing at the top of the amphitheatre just across from me, who was throwing stones into the water. He cast a fourth pebble into the centre of the pool, and then a fifth and a sixth; I began to wonder what he was throwing at; I thought it too childish for him to be amusing himself with the circle that dispersed itself to naught, after it had done so several times already. I was sure that he saw something in the pool, and was trying to hit it, or frighten it. His figure showed black against the sunset light, and I could not make it out very well, but it held itself something like that of a workman, and yet with a difference, with an effect as of some sort of discipline; and I thought of an ex-recruit, returning to civil life, after serving his five years in the army; though I do not know why I should have gone so far afield for this notion; I certainly had never seen an ex-recruit, and I did not really know how one would look. I rose up, and we both stood still, as if he were abashed in his sport by my presence. The man made a little cast forward with his hand, and I heard the rattle as of pebbles dropped among the dead leaves.
Then he called over to me, "Is that you, Mr. March?"
"Yes," I called back, "what is wanted?"
"Oh, nothing. I was just looking for you." He did not move, and after a moment I began to walk round the top of the amphitheatre toward him. When I came near him I saw that he had a clean-shaven face, and he wore a soft hat that seemed large for his close-cropped head; he had on a sack coat buttoned to the throat, and of one dark color with his loose trousers. I knew him now, but I did not know what terms to put my recognition in, and I faltered. "What do you want with me?" I asked, as if I did not know him.
"I was at your house," he answered, "and they told me that you had walked out this way." He hesitated a moment, and then he added, rather huskily, "You don't know me!"
"Yes," I said. "It is Tedham," and I held out my hand, with no definite intention, I believe, but merely because I did know him, and this was the usual form of greeting between acquaintances after a long separation, or even a short one, for that matter. But he seemed to find a special significance in my civility, and he took my hand and held it silently, while he was trying to speak. Evidently, he could not, and I said aimlessly, "What were you throwing at?"
"Nothing. I saw you lying down, over there, and I wanted to attract your attention." He let my hand go, and looked at me apologetically.
"Oh! was that all?" I said. "I thought you saw something in the water."
"No," he answered, as if he felt the censure which I had not been able to keep out of my voice.
I do not know why I should have chosen to take this simple fact as proof of an abiding want of straight-forwardness in Tedham's nature. I do not know why I should have expected him to change, or why I should have felt authorized at that moment to renew his punishment for it. I certainly had said and thought very often that he had been punished enough, and more than enough. In fact, his punishment, like all the other punishments that I have witnessed in life, seemed to me wholly out of proportion to the offence; it seemed monstrous, atrocious, and when I got to talking of it I used to become so warm that my wife would warn me people would think I wanted to do something like Tedham myself if I went on in that way about him. Yet here I was, at my very first encounter with the man, after his long expiation had ended, willing to add at least a little self-reproach to his suffering. I suppose, as nearly as I can analyse my mood, I must have been expecting, in spite of all reason and experience, that his anguish would have wrung that foible out of him, and left him strong where it had found him weak. Tragedy befalls the light and foolish as well as the wise and weighty natures, but it does not render them wise and weighty; I had often made this sage reflection, but I failed to apply it to the case before me now.
After waiting a little for the displeasure to clear away from my face, Tedham smiled as if in humorous appreciation, and I perceived, as nothing else could have shown me so well, that he was still the old Tedham. There was an offer of propitiation in this smile, too, and I did not like that, either; but I was touched when I saw a certain hope die out of his eye at the failure of his appeal to me.
"Who told you I was here?" I asked, more kindly. "Did you see Mrs. March?"
"No, I think it must have been your children. I found them in front of your house, and I asked them for you, without going to the door."
"Oh," I said, and I hid the disappointment I felt that he had not seen my wife; for I should have liked such a leading as her behavior toward him would have given me for my own. I was sure she would have known him at once, and would not have told him where to find me, if she had not wished me to be friendly with him.
"I am glad to see you," I said, in the absence of this leading; and then I did not know what else to say. Tedham seemed to me to be looking very well, but I could not notify this fact to him, in the circumstances; he even looked very handsome; he had aged becomingly, and a clean-shaven face suited him as well as the full beard he used to wear; but I could speak of these things as little as of his apparent health. I did not feel that I ought even to ask him what I could do for him. I did not want to have anything to do with him, and, besides, I have always regarded this formula as tantamount to saying that you cannot, or will not, do anything for the man you employ it upon.
The silence which ensued was awkward, but it was better than anything I could think of to say, and Tedham himself seemed to feel it so. He said, presently, "Thank you. I was sure you would not take my coming to you the wrong way. In fact I had no one else to come to—after I——" Tedham stopped, and then, "I don't know," he went on, "whether you've kept run of me; I don't suppose you have; I got out to-day at noon."
I could not say anything to that, either; there were very few openings for me, it appeared, in the conversation, which remained one-sided as before.
"I went to the cemetery," he continued. "I wanted to realize that those who had died were dead, it was all one thing as long as I was in there; everybody was dead; and then I came on to your house."
The house he meant was a place I had taken for the summer a little out of town, so that I could run in to business every day, and yet have my mornings and evenings in the country; the fall had been so mild that we were still eking out the summer there.
"How did you know where I was staying?" I asked, with a willingness to make any occasion serve for saying something.
Tedham hesitated. "Well, I stopped at the office in Boston on my way out, and inquired. I was sure nobody would know me there." He said this apologetically, as if he had been taking a liberty, and explained: "I wanted to see you very much, and I was afraid that if I let the day go by I should miss you somehow."
"Oh, all right," I said.
We had remained standing at the point where I had gone round to meet him, and it seemed, in the awkward silence that now followed, as if I were rooted there. I would very willingly have said something leading, for my own sake, if not for his, but I had nothing in mind but that I had better keep there, and so I waited for him to speak. I believed he was beating about the bush in his own thoughts, to find some indirect or sinuous way of getting at what he wanted to know, and that it was only because he failed that he asked bluntly, "March, do you know where my daughter is?"
"No, Tedham, I don't," I said, and I was glad that I could say it both with honesty and with compassion. I was truly sorry for the man; in a way, I did pity him; at the same time I did not wish to be mixed up in his affairs; in washing my hands of them, I preferred that there should be no stain of falsehood left on them.
"Where is my sister-in-law?" he asked next, and now at least I could not censure him for indirection.
"I haven't met her for several years," I answered. "I couldn't say from my own knowledge where she was."
"But you haven't heard of her leaving Somerville?"
"No, I haven't."
"Do you ever meet her husband?"
"Yes, sometimes, on the street; but I think not lately; we don't often meet."
"The last time you saw her, did she speak of me?"
"I don't know—I believe—yes. It was a good many years ago."
"Was she changed toward me at all?"
This was a hard question to answer, but I thought I had better answer it with the exact truth. "No, she seemed to feel just the same as ever about it."
I do not believe Tedham cared for this, after all, though he made a show of having to collect himself before he went on. "Then you think my daughter is with her?"
"I didn't say that. I don't know anything about it."
"March," he urged, "don't you think I have a right to see my daughter?"
"That's something I can't enter into, Tedham."
"Good God!" said the man. "If you were in my place, wouldn't you want to see her? You know how fond I used to be of her; and she is all that I have got left in the world."
I did indeed remember Tedham's affection for his daughter, whom I remembered as in short frocks when I last saw them together. It was before my own door in town. Tedham had driven up in a smart buggy behind a slim sorrel, and I came out, at a sign he made me through the bow-window with his whip, and saw the little maid on the seat there beside him. They were both very well dressed, though still in mourning for the child's mother, and the whole turnout was handsomely set up. Tedham was then about thirty-five, and the child looked about nine. The color of her hair was the color of his fine brown beard, which had as yet no trace of gray in it; but the light in her eyes was another light, and her smile, which was of the same shape as his, was of another quality, as she leaned across him and gave me her pretty little gloved hand with a gay laugh. "I should think you would be afraid of such a fiery sorrel dragon as that," I said, in recognition of the colt's lifting and twitching with impatience as we talked.
"Oh, I'm not afraid with papa!" she said, and she laughed again as he took her hand in one of his and covered it out of sight.
I recalled, now, looking at him there in the twilight of the woods, how happy they had both seemed that sunny afternoon in the city square, as they flashed away from my door and glanced back at me and smiled together. I went into the house and said to my wife with a formulation of the case which pleased me, "If there is anything in the world that Tedham likes better than to ride after a good horse, it is to ride after a good horse with that little girl of his." "Yes," said my wife, "but a good horse means a good deal of money; even when a little girl goes with it." "That is so," I assented, "but Tedham has made a lot lately in real estate, they say, and I don't know what better he could do with his money; or, I don't believe he does." We said no more, but we both felt, with the ardor of young parents, that it was a great virtue, a saving virtue, in Tedham to love his little girl so much; I was afterward not always sure that it was. Still, when Tedham appealed to me now in the name of his love for her, he moved my heart, if not my reason, in his favor; those old superstitions persist.
"Why, of course, you want to see her. But I couldn't tell you where she is."
"You could find out for me."
"I don't see how," I said; but I did see how, and I knew as well as he what his next approach would be. I felt strong against it, however, and I did not perceive the necessity of being short with him in a matter not involving my own security or comfort.
"I could find out where Hasketh is," he said, naming the husband of his sister-in-law; "but it would be of no use for me to go there. They wouldn't see me." He put this like a question, but I chose to let it be its own answer, and he went on. "There is no one that I can ask to act for me in the matter but you, and I ask you, March, to go to my sister-in-law for me."
I shook my head. "That I can't do, Tedham."
"Ah!" he urged, "what harm could it do you?"
"Look here, Tedham!" I said. "I don't know why you feel authorized to come to me at all. It is useless your saying that there is no one else. You know very well that the authorities, some of them—the chaplain—would go and see Mrs. Hasketh for you. He could have a great deal more influence with her than any one else could, if he felt like saying a good word for you. As far as I am concerned, you have expiated your offence fully; but I should think you yourself would see that you ought not to come to me with this request; or you ought to come to me last of all men."
"It is just because of that part of my offence which concerned you that I come to you. I knew how generous you were, and after you told me that you had no resentment—I acknowledge that it is indelicate, if you choose to look at it in that light, but a man like me can't afford to let delicacy stand in his way. I don't want to flatter you, or get you to do this thing for me on false pretences. But I thought that if you went to Mrs. Hasketh for me, she would remember that you had overlooked something, and she would be more disposed to—to—be considerate."
"I can't do it, Tedham," I returned. "It would be of no use. Besides, I don't like the errand. I'm not sure that I have any business to interfere. I am not sure that you have any right to disturb the shape that their lives have settled into. I'm sorry for you, I pity you with all my heart. But there are others to be considered as well as you. And—simply, I can't."
"How do you know," he entreated, "that my daughter wouldn't be as glad to see me as I to see her?"
"I don't know it. I don't know anything about it. That's the reason I can't have anything to do with it. I can't justify myself in meddling with what doesn't concern me, and in what I'm not sure but I should do more harm than good. I must say good-night. It's getting late, and they will be anxious about me at home." My heart smote me as I spoke the last word, which seemed a cruel recognition of Tedham's homelessness. But I held out my hand to him for parting, and braced myself against my inward weakness.
He might well have failed to see my hand. At any rate he did not take it. He turned and started to walk out of the woods by my side. We came presently to some open fields. Beyond them was the road, and after we had climbed the first wall, and found ourselves in a somewhat lighter place, he began to speak again.
"I thought," he said, "that if you had forgiven me, I could take it as a sign that I had suffered enough to satisfy everybody."
"We needn't dwell upon my share in the matter, Tedham," I answered, as kindly as I could. "That was entirely my own affair."
"You can't think," he pursued, "how much your letter was to me. It came when I was in perfect despair—in those awful first days when it seemed as if I could not bear it, and yet death itself would be no relief. Oh, they don't know how much we suffer! If they did, they would forgive us anything, everything! Your letter was the first gleam of hope I had. I don't know how you came to write it!"
"Why, of course, Tedham, I felt sorry for you—"
"Oh, did you, did you?" He began to cry, and as we hurried along over the fields, he sobbed with the wrenching, rending sobs of a man. "I knew you did, and I believe it was God himself that put it into your heart to write me that letter and take off that much of the blame from me. I said to myself that if I ever lived through it, I would try to tell you how much you had done for me. I don't blame you for refusing to do what I've asked you now. I can see how you may think it isn't best, and I thank you all the same for that letter. I've got it here." He took a letter out of his breast-pocket, and showed it to me. "It isn't the first time I've cried over it."
I did not say anything, for my heart was in my throat, and we stumbled along in silence till we climbed the last wall, and stood on the sidewalk that skirted the suburban highway. There, under the street-lamp, we stopped a moment, and it was he who now offered me his hand for parting. I took it, and we said, together, "Well, good-by," and moved in different directions. I knew very well that I should turn back, and I had not gone a hundred feet away when I faced about. He was shambling off into the dusk, a most hapless figure. "Tedham!" I called after him.
"Well?" he answered, and he halted instantly; he had evidently known what I would do as well as I had.
We reapproached each other, and when we were again under the lamp I asked, a little awkwardly, "Are you in need of money, Tedham?"
"I've got my ten years' wages with me," he said, with a lightness that must have come from his reviving hope in me. He drew his hand out of his pocket, and showed me the few dollars with which the State inhumanly turns society's outcasts back into the world again.
"Oh, that won't do." I said. "You must let me lend you something."
"Thank you," he said, with perfect simplicity. "But you know I can't tell when I shall be able to pay you."
"Oh, that's all right." I gave him a ten-dollar note which I had loose in my pocket; it was one that my wife had told me to get changed at the grocery near the station, and I had walked off to the old temple, or the old cockpit, and forgotten about it.
Tedham took the note, but he said, holding it in his hand, "I would a million times rather you would let me go home with you and see Mrs. March a moment."
"I can't do that, Tedham," I answered, not unkindly, I hope. "I know what you mean, and I assure you that it wouldn't be the least use. It's because I feel so sure that my wife wouldn't like my going to see Mrs. Hasketh, that I—"
"Yes, I know that," said Tedham. "That is the reason why I should like to see Mrs. March. I believe that if I could see her, I could convince her."
"She wouldn't see you, my dear fellow," said I, strangely finding myself on these caressing terms with him. "She entirely approved of what I did, the letter I wrote you, but I don't believe she will ever feel just as I do about it. Women are different, you know."
"Yes," he said, drawing a long, quivering breath.
We stood there, helpless to part. He did not offer to leave me, and I could not find it in my heart to abandon him. After a most painful time, he drew another long breath, and asked, "Would you be willing to let me take the chances?"
"Why, Tedham," I began, weakly; and upon that he began walking with me again.
I went to my wife's room, after I reached the house, and faced her with considerable trepidation. I had to begin rather far off, but I certainly began in a way to lead up to the fact. "Isabel," I said, "Tedham is out at last." I had it on my tongue to say poor Tedham, but I suppressed the qualification in actual speech as likely to prove unavailing, or worse.
"Is that what kept you!" she demanded, instantly. "Have you seen him?"
"Yes," I admitted. I added, "Though I am afraid I was rather late, anyway."
"I knew it was he, the moment you spoke," she said, rising on the lounge where she had been lying, and sitting up on it; with the book she had been reading shut on her thumb, she faced me across the table where her lamp stood. "I had a presentiment when the children said there was some strange-looking man here, asking for you, and that they had told him where to find you. I couldn't help feeling a little uneasy about it. What did he want with you, Basil?"
"Well, he wanted to know where his daughter was."
"You didn't tell him!"
"I didn't know. Then he wanted me to go to Mrs. Hasketh and find out."
"You didn't say you would?"
"I said most decidedly I wouldn't," I returned, and I recalled my severity to Tedham in refusing his prayer with more satisfaction than it had given me at the time. "I told him that I had no business to interfere, and that I was not sure it would be right even for me to meddle with the course things had taken." I was aware of weakening my case as I went on; I had better left her with a dramatic conception of a downright and relentless refusal.
"I don't see why you felt called upon to make excuses to him, Basil. His impudence in coming to you, of all men, is perfectly intolerable. I suppose it was that sentimental letter you wrote him."
"You didn't think it sentimental at the time, my dear. You approved of it."
"I didn't approve of it, Basil; but if you felt so strongly that you ought to do it, I felt that I ought to let you. I have never interfered with your sense of duty, and I never will. But I am glad that you didn't feel it your duty to that wretch to go and make more trouble on his account. He has made quite enough already; and it wasn't his fault that you were not tried and convicted in his place."
"There wasn't the slightest danger of that—"
"He tried to put the suspicion on you, and to bring the disgrace on your wife and children."
"Well, my dear, we agreed to forget all that long ago. And I don't think—I never thought—that Tedham would have let the suspicion rest on me. He merely wanted to give it that turn, when the investigation began, so as to gain time to get out to Canada."
My wife looked at me with a glance in which I saw tender affection dangerously near contempt. "You are a very forgiving man, Basil," she said, and I looked down sheepishly. "Well, at any rate, you have had the sense not to mix yourself up in his business. Did he pretend that he came straight to you, as soon as he got out? I suppose he wanted you to believe that he appealed to you before he tried anybody else."
"Yes, he stopped at the Reciprocity office to ask for my address, and after he had visited the cemetery he came on out here. And, if you must know, I think Tedham is still the old Tedham. Put him behind a good horse, with a pocketful of some one else's money, in a handsome suit of clothes, and a game-and-fish dinner at Tafft's in immediate prospect, and you couldn't see any difference between the Tedham of to-day and the Tedham of ten years ago, except that the actual Tedham is clean-shaved and wears his hair cut rather close."
"Why do you object to the fact? Did you imagine he had changed inwardly?"
"He must have suffered."
"But does suffering change people? I doubt it. Certain material accessories of Tedham's have changed. But why should that change Tedham? Of course, he has suffered, and he suffers still. He threw out some hints of what he had been through that would have broken my heart if I hadn't hardened it against him. And he loves his daughter still, and he wants to see her, poor wretch."
"I suppose he does!" sighed my wife.
"He would hardly take no for an answer from me, when I said I wouldn't go to the Haskeths for him; and when I fairly shook him off, he wanted me to ask you to go."
"And what did you say?" she asked, not at all with the resentment I had counted upon equally with the possible pathos; you never can tell in the least how any woman will take anything, which is perhaps the reason why men do not trust women more.
"I told him that it would not be the smallest use to ask you; that you had forgiven that old affair as well as I had, but that women were different, and that I knew you wouldn't even see him."
"Well, Basil, I don't know what right you had to put me in that odious light," said my wife.
"Why, good heavens! Would you have seen him?"
"I don't know whether I would or not. That's neither here nor there. I don't think it was very nice of you to shift the whole responsibility on me."
"How did I do that? It seems to me that I kept the whole responsibility myself."
"Yes, altogether too much. What became of him, then?"
"We walked along a little farther, and then—"
"Then, what? Where is the man?"
"He's down in the parlor," I answered hardily, in the voice of some one else.
My wife stood up from the lounge, and I rose, too, for whatever penalty she chose to inflict.
"Well, Basil, that is what I call a very cowardly thing."
"Yes, my dear, it is; I ought to have protected you against his appeal. But you needn't see him. It's practically the same as if he had not come here. I can send him away."
"And you call that practically the same! No, I am the one that will have to do the refusing now, and it is all off your shoulders. And you knew I was not feeling very well, either! Basil, how could you?"
"I don't know. The abject creature drove me out of my senses. I suppose that if I had respected him more, or believed in him more, I should have had more strength to refuse him. But his limpness seemed to impart itself to me, and I—I gave way. But really you needn't see him, Isabel. I can tell him we have talked it over, and I concluded, entirely of myself, that it was best for you not to meet him, and—"
"He would see through that in an instant. And if he is still the false creature you think he is, we owe him the truth, more than any other kind of man. You must understand that, Basil!"
"Then you are going to—"
"Don't speak to me, Basil, please," she said, and with an air of high offence she swept out of the room, and out to the landing of the stairs. There she hesitated a moment, and put her hand to her hair, mechanically, to feel if it were in order, and then she went on downstairs without further faltering. It was I who descended slowly, and with many misgivings.
Tedham was sitting in the chair I had shown him when I brought him in, and in the half-light of one gas-burner in the chandelier he looked, with his rough, clean clothes, and his slouch hat lying in his lap, like some sort of decent workingman; his features, refined by the mental suffering he had undergone, and the pallor of a complexion so seldom exposed to the open air, gave him the effect of a workingman just out of the hospital. His eyes were deep in their sockets, and showed fine shadows in the overhead light, and I must say he looked very interesting.
At the threshold my wife paused again; then she went forward, turning the gas up full as she passed under the chandelier, and gave him her hand, where he had risen from his chair.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Tedham," she said; and I should have found my astonishment overpowering, I dare say, if I had not felt that I was so completely in the hands of Providence, when she added, "Won't you come out to dinner with us? We were just going to sit down, when Mr. March came in. I never know when he will be back, when he starts off on these Saturday afternoon tramps of his."
The children seemed considerably mystified at the appearance of our guest, but they had that superior interest in the dinner appropriate to their years, and we got through the ordeal, in which, I believe, I suffered more than any one else, much better than I could have hoped. I could not help noting in Tedham a certain strangeness to the use of a four-pronged fork, at first, but he rapidly overcame this; and if it had not been for a terrible moment when, after one of the courses, he began, mechanically, to scrape his plate with his knife, there would not have been anything very odd in his behavior, or anything to show that it was the first dinner in polite society that he had taken for so many years.
The man's mind had apparently stiffened more than his body. It used to be very agile, if light, but it was not agile now. It worked slowly toward the topics which we found with difficulty, in our necessity of avoiding the only topics of real interest between us, and I could perceive that his original egotism, intensified by the long years in which he had only himself for company, now stood in the way of his entering into the matters brought forward, though he tried to do so. They were mostly in the form of reminiscences of this person and that whom we had known in common, and even in this shape they had to be very carefully handled so as not to develop anything leading. The thing that did most to relieve the embarrassment of the time was the sturdy hunger Tedham showed, and his delight in the cooking; I suppose that I cannot make others feel the pathos I found in this.
After dinner we shut the children into the library, and kept Tedham with us in the parlor.
My wife began at once to say, "Mr. March has told me why you wanted to see me, Mr. Tedham."
"Yes," he said, as if he were afraid to say more lest he should injure his cause.
"I think that it would not be the least use for me to go to Mrs. Hasketh. In the first place I do not know her very well, and I have not seen her for years, I am not certain she would see me."
Tedham turned the hollows of his eyes upon my wife, and asked, huskily, "Won't you try?"
"Yes," she answered, most unexpectedly to me, "I will try to see her. But if I do see her, and she refuses to tell me anything about your daughter, what will you do? Of course, I shall have to tell her I come from you, and for you."
"I thought," Tedham ventured, with a sort of timorous slyness, "that perhaps you might approach it casually, without any reference to me."
"No, I couldn't do that," my wife said.
He went on as if he had not heard her: "If she did not know that the inquiries were made in my behalf, she might be willing to say whether my daughter was with her."
There was in this suggestion a quality of Tedham's old insinuation, but coarser, inferior, as if his insinuation had degenerated into something like mere animal cunning. I felt rather ashamed for him, but to my surprise, my wife seemed only to feel sorry, and did not repel his suggestion in the way I had thought she would.
"No," she said, "that wouldn't do. She has kept account of the time, you may be sure, and she would ask me at once if I was inquiring in your behalf, and I should have to tell her the truth."
"I didn't know," he returned, "but you might evade the point, somehow. So much being at stake," he added, as if explaining.
Still my wife was not severe with him. "I don't understand, quite," she said.
"Being the turning-point in my life, I can't begin to do anything, to be anything, till I have seen my daughter. I don't know where to find myself. If I could see her, and she did not cast me off, then I should know where I was. Or, if she did, I should. You understand that."
"But, of course, there is another point of view."
"I don't care for Mrs. Hasketh. She did what she has done for the child's sake. It was the best thing for the child at the time—the only thing; I know that. But I agreed to it because I had to."
He continued: "I consider that I have expiated the wrong I did. There is no sense in the whole thing, if I haven't. They might as well have let me go in the beginning. Don't you think that ten years out of my life is enough for a thing that I never intended to go as far as it did, and a thing that I was led into, partly, for the sake of others? I have tried to reason it out, and not from my own point of view at all, and that is the way I feel about it. Is it to go on forever, and am I never to be rid of the consequences of a single act? If you and Mr. March could condone—"
"Oh, you mustn't reason from us," my wife broke in. "We are very silly people, and we do not look at a great many things as others do. You have got to reckon with the world at large."
"I have reckoned with the world at large, and I have paid the reckoning. But why shouldn't my daughter look at this thing as you do?"
Instead of answering, my wife asked, "When did you hear from her last?"
Tedham took a few thin, worn letters from his breast-pocket "There is Mr. March's letter," he said, laying one on his knee. He handed my wife another.
She read it, and asked, "May Mr. March see it?"
Tedham nodded, and I took the little paper in turn. The letter was written in a child's stiff, awkward hand. It was hardly more than a piteous cry of despairing love. The address was Mrs. Hasketh's, in Somerville, and the date was about three months after Tedham's punishment began. "Is that the last you have heard from her?" I asked.
Tedham nodded as he took the letter from me.
"But surely you have heard something more about her in all this time?" my wife pursued.
"Once from Mrs. Hasketh, to make me promise that I would leave the child to her altogether, and not write to her, or ask to see her. When I went to the cemetery to-day, I did not know but I should find her grave, too."
"Well, it is cruel!" cried my wife. "I will go and see Mrs. Hasketh, but—you ought to feel yourself that it's hopeless."
"Yes," he admitted. "There isn't much chance unless she should happen to think the same way you do: that I had suffered enough, and that it was time to stop punishing me."
My wife looked compassionately at him, and she began with a sympathy that I have not always known her to show more deserving people, "If it were a question of that alone it would be very easy. But suppose your daughter were so situated that it would be—disadvantageous to her to have it known that you were her father?"
"You mean that I have no right to mend my broken-up life—what there is left of it—by spoiling hers? I have said that to myself. But then, on the other hand, I have had to ask myself whether I had any right to keep her from choosing for herself about it. I sha'n't force myself on her. I expect to leave her free. But if the child cares for me, as she used to, hasn't that love—not mine for her, but hers for me—got some rights too?"
His voice sank almost to a hush, and the last word was scarcely more than a breathing. "All I want is to know where she is, and to let her know that I am in the world, and where she can find me. I think she ought to have a chance to decide."
"I am afraid Mrs. Hasketh may think it would be better, for her sake, not to have the chance," my wife sighed, and she turned her look from Tedham upon me, as if she wished me rather than him to answer.
"The only way to find out is to ask her," I answered, non-committally, and rather more lightly than I felt about it. In fact, the turn the affair had taken interested me greatly. It involved that awful mystery of the ties by which, unless we are born of our fathers and mothers for nothing more than the animals are, we are bound to them in all the things of life, in duty and in love transcending every question of interest and happiness. The parents' duty to the children is obvious and plain, but the child's duty to its parents is something subtler and more spiritual. It is to be more delicately, more religiously, regarded. No one, without impiety, can meddle with it from the outside, or interfere in its fulfilment. This and much more I said to my wife when we came to talk the matter over after Tedham left us. Above all, I urged something that came to me so forcibly at the moment that I said I had always thought it, and perhaps I really believed that I had. "Why should we try to shield people from fate? Isn't that always wrong? One is fated to be born the child of a certain father, and one can no more escape the consequences of his father's misdeeds than the doer himself can. Perhaps the pain and the shame come from the wish and the attempt to do so, more than from the fact itself. The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children. But the children are innocent of evil, and this visitation must be for their good, and will be, if they bear it willingly."