A car stopped in the street outside, the bell rang, and she watched the figure of a trim mulatto maid flit through the hall to the door. An instant later Arthur's name was announced, and Gabriella, with her hands in his clasp, stood looking into his face. It had been eighteen years since they parted, and in those eighteen years she had carried his image like some sacred talisman in her breast.
"How little you've changed, Gabriella," he said after a moment of silence in which she told herself that he was far better looking, far more distinguished than she had remembered him. "You are larger than you used to be, but your face is as girlish as ever."
"And I have two children nearly grown," she replied with a trembling little laugh; "a daughter who is already thinking of the White Sulphur."
They sat down in the pink chairs on the gray carpet, and leaned forward, looking into each other's faces as tenderly as they had done when they were lovers.
"It's hard to believe it," he answered a little stiffly, in his dry and gentle voice, which held a curious note of finality, of failure. For the first time, while he spoke, she let her eyes rest frankly upon him, and there came to her, as she did so, a vivid realization of the emptiness and aimlessness of his life. He looked handsomer than ever; he looked stately and formal and impressive; but he looked old—though he was only forty-five—he looked old and ineffectual and acquiescent. The fighting strength, such as it was, had gone out of him, and the stamp of failure was on him, from his high, pale, intellectual forehead, where the fine brown hair had retreated to the crown of his head, to his narrow features, and his relaxed slender limbs, with their slow and indolent movements. He was one of those, she felt intuitively, who had stood aloof from the rewards as well as from the strains of the struggle, who had withered to the core, not from age, but from an inherent distrust of all effort, of all endeavour. For his immobility went deeper than any physical habit: it attacked, like an incurable malady, the very fibre and substance of his nature. With his intellect, his training, his traditions, she discerned, with a flash of insight, that he had failed because he lacked the essential faith in the future. He had lost, not because he had risked, but because he had hesitated, not because he had loved ease, but because he had feared effort. For fear of a misstep, he had not dared to go forward; from dread of pain, he had refused the opportunity of happiness. She knew now why he had never come to her, why he had let her slip from his grasp. All that was a part of his failure, of his distrust of life, of his profound negation of spirit.
"Yes, it is hard," she assented; and there came over her like a sudden sense of discomfort, of physical hardship, the knowledge that, in the very beginning, she was trying to make conversation. Meeting his sympathetic smile—the smile that still delighted the impressionable hearts of old ladies—she told herself obstinately, with desperate determination, that she was not disappointed, that he was just as she had remembered him, dear and lovable and kind and conventional. When she recalled what he had been at twenty-seven, it appeared inevitable to her that at forty-five he should have settled a little more firmly into the mould of the past, that his opinions should have crystallized and imprisoned his mind immovably in the centre of them.
She told him what she could about Archibald and Fanny—about her choice of schools, her maternal pride in Archibald's intellect and Fanny's appearance, her hopeful plans for the future—and he listened attentively, with his manner of slightly pompous consideration, while he passed one of his long narrow hands over his forehead. When she had finished her vivacious recital, he began to talk slowly and gravely about himself, with the tolerant and impersonal detachment of one who has reduced life to a gesture, a manner. "I wonder if he has ever really cared about anything—even about me?" she questioned, after a minute; but while the thought was still in her mind, he mentioned his mother's name, and it was impossible to doubt the sincerity of his sorrow and his tenderness. "I have seemed only half alive since I lost her," he said; and the words were like a searchlight which flashed over his character and illumined its obscurities. Did his whole attitude of immobility and negation result from the depth and the intensity of his feeling, from the exquisite reticence and sensitiveness of his soul?
"I know, I know," she murmured in a voice of sympathy. After all, she was not disappointed in him. He was as tender, as chivalrous, as noble as she had believed him to be. The Dream was true; and yet in spite of its truthfulness, it seemed to evaporate slowly while she sat there in Jane's pink satin chair and looked out at the sunlight. Only the restlessness, the inappeasable longing in her heart had not changed. Looking across the hall into the library she could see the old French mirror reflecting the bronze candelabra, with crystal pendants, and the thought flitted into her brain: "It is all real. I am here, talking to Arthur. It is every bit true." But her words failed to convince her, and she had a curious sensation of vagueness and thinness, as if their low, gentle voices were issuing from shadows.
"I should like to show you some of our improvements," he said presently, with a faintly perceptible ripple of animation. "I wonder if you would care to come out in my car? We might go up Monument Avenue into the country."
The idea was delightful, she told him with convincing enthusiasm; and while she ran upstairs to put on her hat, he went out to the car, which was standing in front of the house. So preoccupied was he with his reflections, that when Gabriella appeared, he started almost as if he had forgotten that he was waiting for her.
The air was as soft and fragrant as summer; the grassy strip under the young maples was diapered with sunlight, and an edge of rosy gold was tinting the far horizon. As they sped up the avenue Arthur pointed out the houses to her as possessively as Charley had done the afternoon before, and in the pride with which he told her the cost of them she recognized an admirable freedom from envy or bitterness. If, he had not achieved things, his attitude seemed to say, it was because he had never been in the race, because he had preferred to stand aside and enjoy the reposeful entertainment of the spectator.
The avenue, which swept on indefinitely after the houses had stopped, dwindled at last to two straight and narrow walks binding the town to the country with bands of concrete. The pines had fallen in blackened ruins, and where Gabriella remembered thickets of wildflowers there were masses of red clay furrowed by cart wheels.
"You see, we're developing all this property now," observed Arthur, in a gratified tone as they whirled past an old field intersected by a concrete walk which informed the curious that it was "Arlington Avenue." "Honeysuckle Lane has gone, too, and we're grading a street there now in front of the old Berkeley place."
"The growth has been wonderful," said Gabriella, a little pensively; "but do you remember how lovely Honeysuckle Lane used to be? That's where we went for wild honeysuckle in the spring."
"Oh, we'll find plenty of honeysuckle farther out. I gathered a big bunch of it for Cousin Nelly yesterday."
For a while they sped on in silence. Arthur was intent on the wheel, and Gabriella could think of nothing to say to him that she had not said in Jane's drawing-room. When at last they left the desolation of improvement, and came out into the natural country, the sun was already low, and the forest of pines along the glowing, horizon was like an impending storm. Once Arthur stopped, and they got out to gather wild honeysuckle by the roadside; then with the sticky, heavily scented blossoms in her lap, they went on again toward the sunset, still silent, still separated by an impalpable barrier. "He is just what I thought he would be," she thought sadly. "He is just where I left him eighteen years ago, and yet it is different. In some inexplicable way it is different from what I expected." And she told herself that the fault was her own—that she had changed, hardened, and become hopelessly matter-of-fact—that she had lost her youth and her sentiment.
Suddenly, as if the action had been forced upon him by the steady pressure of some deep conviction, some inner necessity, Arthur turned his face toward her, and asked gently: "Gabriella, do you ever think of the past?"
Facing the rosy sunset, his features looked wan and colourless, and she noticed again that he seemed to have dried through and through, like some rare fruit that has lain wrapped in tissue paper too long.
She looked at him with wistful and sombre eyes. Now that the desired moment had come, she felt only that she would have given her whole future to escape before it overtook her, to avoid the inevitable, crowning hour of her destiny.
"I think of it very often," she answered truthfully, while she buried her face in the intoxicating bloom of the honeysuckle.
"Do you remember my telling you once that I'd never give you up—that I'd never stop caring?"
"Yes, I remember—but, oh, Arthur, you mustn't—" She sat up with a start, gazing straight ahead into the rose and gold of the afterglow. From the deserted road, winding flat and dun-coloured in the soft light, she heard another voice—the strong and buoyant voice of O'Hara—saying: "I'm not the sort to change—" and then over again, "I'm not the sort to change—"
"I suppose it's too late," Arthur went on, with his patient tenderness. "Things usually come too late for me or else I miss them altogether. That's been the way always—and now—" With his left hand he made a large, slow, commemorative gesture.
"You're the best—the kindest—" An urgent desire moved her to stop him before he put into words the feeling she could see in his face. Though she knew that it was but the ghost of a feeling, the habit of a desire, which had become interwoven with his orderly and unchangeable custom of life, she realized nevertheless that its imaginary vividness might cause him great suffering. A vision of what might have been eighteen years ago—of their possible marriage—rose before her while she struggled for words. How could her energetic nature have borne with his philosophy of hesitation, her imperative affirmation of life with his denial of effort, her unconquered optimism with his deeply rooted mistrust of happiness?
There was beauty in his face, in his ascetic and over-refined features, in his sympathetic smile and his cultured voice; but it was the beauty of resignation, of defeat nobly borne, of a spirit confirmed in the bitter sweetness of renouncement. "It would make an old woman of me to marry him," she thought, "an old, patient, resigned woman."
"Most things have slipped by me," he resumed presently, while they raced down a long hill toward the black pines and the fading red of the afterglow. In a marshy pond near the roadside frogs were croaking, while from the darkening fields, encircled with webs of mist, there floated the mingled scents of freshly mown grass, of dewy flowers, of trodden weeds, of ploughed earth, of ancient mould—all the fugitive and immemorially suggestive odours of the country at twilight. And at the touch of these scents, some unforgotten longing seemed to stir in her brain as if it had slept there, covered by clustering memories, from another lifetime. She wanted something with an unbearable intensity; the vague and elusive yearning for happiness had become suddenly poignant and definite. In that instant she knew unerringly that she was in love not with a dream, but with a fact, that she was in love not with Arthur, but with O'Hara. For days, weeks, months, she had been blindly groping toward the knowledge; and now, in a flash of intuition, it had come to her like one of those discoveries of science, which baffle investigators for years, and then miraculously reveal themselves in a moment of insight. Her first antagonism, her injustice, her unreasonable resentments and suspicions, she recognized now, in the piercing light of this discovery, as the inexplicable disguises of love. And she was not old—she was not even middle-aged—she was as young as Fanny, as young as the eternal, ageless spirit of romance, of adventure. This was life in her pulses, in her brain, in her heart—life, not pale, not bitter sweet, but sparkling, glowing, bubbling like wine.
At the foot of the long hill Arthur turned the car, and they flew back between the dim fields where the croaking of frogs sounded louder in the darkness. Ahead of them the lights of the car flitted like golden moths over the dust of the road, and in the sky, beyond the thin veil of mist, the stars were shining over the city. Spring, which possessed the earth, bloomed in Gabriella's heart with a wonderful colour, a wonderful fragrance. She was young again with the imperishable youth of magic, of enchantment. To love, to hope, to strive, this was both romance and adventure.
"Is it too late, then, Gabriella?" asked Arthur, after a long silence, and in his voice there was the sound of suffering acquiescence.
"I'm afraid it is, dear Arthur," she answered softly, and they did not speak again until the lights blazed over them, and they ran into Monument Avenue. After all, it was too late. What could she have added to the answer she had given him?
When they reached the house, he did not come in with her, and tears stained her face while she went slowly up the steps, and stood beside Jane's hydrangeas with her hand on the bell. Then, as the door opened quickly, she saw her mother waiting, with an eager, expectant look, at the door of the library, and heard her excited voice murmur: "Well, dear?"
"We had a lovely drive, mother. Arthur is just as I remembered him, except that he has grown so much older."
A disappointed expression crossed Mrs. Carr's face. "Is that all?" she asked regretfully.
Gabriella laughed happily. "That is all—only I found out exactly what I wanted to know."
For the rest of the week she devoted herself to her mother with a solicitude which aroused in the brain of that melancholy lady serious apprehensions of a hastening decline; and when her visit was over, she packed her trunks, with girlish, delicious thrills of happiness, and started back to New York.
"Do you really think I am failing so rapidly, Gabriella?" Mrs. Carr inquired anxiously while they waited for the train on the platform of the upper station.
"Failing? Why, no, mother. You look splendidly," Gabriella assured her, a little surprised, a little startled. "Why should you ask me such a thing?"
"Oh, nothing, dear. I had a fancy," murmured Mrs. Carr meekly; and then as the train rushed into view, she kissed her daughter reproachfully, and stood gazing after her until the last coach and the last white jacket of the dining-car attendants vanished in the smoky sunshine of the distance.
Through the long day, lying back in her chair, with her eyes on the flying green landscape, Gabriella thought of the discovery she had made while she was driving with Arthur. The restlessness, the uncertainty, the vague yet poignant longing for an indefinite good, had passed out of her happy and exultant heart. In obedience to the law of her nature, which decreed that she should move swiftly and directly toward the end of her destiny, she was returning to O'Hara as resolutely, as unswervingly, as she had fled from him.
"It's strange how little I've ever understood, how little I've ever known myself," she thought, staring vacantly at a severe spinster, with crimped hair and a soured expression, who sat before the opposite window. "I've gone on in the dark, making mistakes and discoveries from the very beginning, undoing and doing over again, creating illusions and then destroying them—always moving, always changing, always growing in new directions. A year ago I'd have laughed at the idea that I could love any man but Arthur—that of all men I could love Ben O'Hara; and to-day I know that he is the future for me—that he is the beginning again of my youth. A year ago I thought only how I might change him, how I might make him over, and now I realize that I shall never change him, that I shall never make him over, and that it doesn't really matter. It isn't the vital thing. The vital thing is character, and I wouldn't change that if I could. For the rest, I shall probably always wish him different in some ways, just as I wish myself different. I'd like to have him more like Arthur on the surface, just as I'd like to have myself more like Fanny. I'd like to give him Arthur's manner just as I'd like to give myself Fanny's complexion. But it isn't possible. He will always be what he is now, and, after all, it is what he is—it is not something else that I want—"
With a glimmer of the clairvoyant insight which had come to her on the country road, she understood that O'Hara was for her an embodied symbol of life—that she must either take him or leave him completely and without reserve or evasion. He was not an ideal. In the love she felt for him there was none of the sentimental glamour of her passion for George. She saw his imperfections, but she saw that the man was bigger than any attributes, that his faults were as nothing compared to the abundance of his virtues, and that, perfect or imperfect, the tremendous fact remained that she loved him.
In the opposite chair, the severe spinster had taken a strip of knitted silk out of her bag, and was working industriously on a man's necktie of blue and gray. From her intent and preoccupied look, from the nervous twitching of her thin lips, the close peering of her near-sighted eyes, through rimless glasses which she wore attached by a gold chain to her hair, she might have found in the act of knitting a supreme consolation for the inexorable denials of destiny. "I wonder if it satisfies her, just knitting?" thought Gabriella. "Has she submitted like Arthur to chance, to the way things happen when one no longer resists? Is she really contented merely to knit, or is she knitting as a condemned prisoner might knit while he is waiting for the scaffold?" And while she watched the patient fingers, she added: "One must either conquer or be conquered, and I will never be conquered."
It was eight o'clock when she reached New York, and as she drove the short distance to West Twenty-third Street she began to wonder when she should see O'Hara, and what she should say to him. In the end she decided that she would wait for a chance meeting, that she would let it happen when it would without moving a step or lifting a hand. Before many days they would be obliged to meet in the yard or the hall, and some obscure, consecrated tradition of sex, some secret strain of her mother's ineradicable feminine instinct, opposed the direct and sensible way. "As soon as I meet him—and in the end I shall surely meet him—everything will be right," she thought, with her eyes on the streets where the spring multitude of children were swarming. And from this multitude of children, of young, ardent, and adventurous life, there seemed to emanate a colossal and irresistible will—the will to be, to live, to love, to create, and to conquer.
The taxicab turned swiftly into Twenty-third Street, and while it stopped beside the pavement, she saw that Mrs. Squires was standing, with her arms on the gate, staring into the street. As Gabriella alighted, the woman came forward and said, with suppressed emotion, while she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand: "You came just a minute too late to say good-bye to Mr. O'Hara."
"Good-bye? But where has he gone?"
"He has gone to Washington to-night. To-morrow he is starting to the West."
"When is he coming back? Did he tell you?"
At this Mrs. Squires broke down. "He ain't ever coming back, that's what I'm crying for. He's given up his rooms, and his furniture all went to the auction yesterday. He says he's going to live out in Colorado or Wyoming for the rest of his life, and he didn't even tell me where I could write to him. It's a great loss to me, Mrs. Carr. I'd got used to him and his ways, and when you've once got used to a man, it ain't easy to give him up."
She sobbed audibly as she finished; and it seemed to Gabriella that a lifetime of experience passed in the instant while she stood there, with her pulses drumming in her ears, her throat contracting until she struggled for breath, and the lights of the city swimming in a nebulous blur before her eyes. Yet in that instant, as in every crisis of her life, she turned instinctively to action, to movement, to exertion, however futile. While she walked across the pavement to the waiting cab, for the crowning and ultimate choice of her life, she abandoned forever the authority and guide of tradition. Tradition, she knew, bade her sit and wait on destiny until she withered, like Arthur, to the vital core of her nature; but something mightier than tradition, something which she shared with the swarming multitude of children in the streets—the will to live, to strive, and to conquer—this had risen superior to the empty rules of the past. With her hand on the door of the taxicab, she spoke rapidly to the driver: "Drive back to the station as fast as you can, there is not a minute to lose."
When the cab started, she leaned forward, with her hands clasped on her knees, and her eyes on the street, where the children were playing. Because of the children, they drove very slowly, and once, when the traffic held them up for a few minutes, she felt an impulse to scream. Suppose she missed him, after all! Suppose she lost him in the station! Suppose she never saw him again! And beside this possibly it seemed to her that all the other suffering of her life—George's desertion, her humiliation, her struggle to make a living for her children, the loneliness of the long summers, her poverty and hunger and self-denial—that all these things were merely superficial annoyances. "If we don't go on, I shall die," she said aloud suddenly; "if we don't go on, I shall die," and when at last the cab started again, she heard the words like an undercurrent beneath the innumerable noises of the street, "If we don't go on, I shall die."
The taxicab stopped; a porter ran forward to take her bag, and while she thrust the money into the driver's hand, she heard her voice coolly and calmly giving directions.
"I must catch the next train to Washington."
"Have you got your ticket, Miss?"
She stared back at him blankly. Though she saw his lips moving, it was impossible for her to distinguish the words because she was still hearing in a muffled undercurrent the roar of the streets.
"Have you got your ticket?" They were passing through the station now, and he explained hurriedly: "You can't go through the gate without a ticket."
She drew out her purse, and panic seized her afresh while she waited before the window behind a bald-headed man who counted his change twice before he would move aside, and let her step into his place. Then, when the ticket was given to her, she turned and ran after the porter through the gate and down the steps to the platform. As she ran, her eyes wavered to the long platform, and the little groups gathered beside the waiting train, which seemed to shake like a moving black and white picture.
"Suppose I miss him, after all! Suppose I never see him again!" she thought, and all that was young in her, all that was vital and alive, strained forward as her feet touched the platform. Except for several coloured porters and a woman holding a child by the hand, the place was deserted. Then a man stepped quickly out of one of the last coaches, and by his bigness and the red of his hair, she knew that it was O'Hara. At the first sight of him the panic died suddenly in her heart, and the old peace, the old sense of security and protection swept over her. Her face, which had been lowered, was lifted like a flower that revives, and her feet, which had stumbled, became the swift, flying feet of a girl. It was as if both her spirit and her body sprang toward him.
At the sound of his name, he turned and stood motionless, as if hardly believing his vision.
"I came back because I couldn't help it," she said.
But he was always hard to convince, and he waited now, still transfixed, still incredulous.
"I came back because I wanted you more than anything else," she added.
"You came back to me?" he asked, slowly, as if doubting her.
"I came back to you. I wanted you," she repeated, and her voice did not quaver, her eyes did not drop from his questioning gaze. It was all so simple at last; it was all as natural as the joyous beating of her heart.
"And you'll marry me now—to-night?"
It was the ultimate test, she knew, the test not only of her love for O'Hara, but of her strength, her firmness, her courage, and of her belief in life. The choice was hers that comes to all men and women sooner or later—the choice between action and inaction, between endeavour and relinquishment, between affirmation and denial, between adventure and deliberation, between youth and age. One thought only made her hesitate, and she almost whispered the words:
"But the children?"
He laughed softly. "Oh, the children are always there. We're not quitters," and in a graver tone, he asked for the second time: "Will you come with me now—to-night, Gabriella?"
At the repeated question she stretched out her hands, while she watched the light break on his face.
"I'll come with you now—anywhere—toward the future," she answered.