A START IN LIFE
In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties the most important shop in the town of Gabriella's birth was known to its patrons (chiefly ladies in long basques, tightly tied back skirts, and small eccentric bonnets) as Brandywine & Plummer's drygoods store. At that period, when old Mrs. Carr, just completing her ninetieth year with a mind fixed upon heaven, would have dropped dead at the idea that her granddaughter should ever step out of her class, Gabriella's mother bought her dresses (grosgrain of the very best quality) from Major Brandywine. To be sure, even in those days, there were other shops in the city—for was not Broad Street already alluded to in the newspapers as "the shopping thoroughfare of the South?"—but, though they were as numerous as dandelions in June, these places were by no means patronized so widely by "the best people." Small shops, of course, carrying a single line of goods and supplying their particular products to an exacting and discriminating class, held their own even against the established reputation of Brandywine & Plummer's. O'Connell's linen store, Twitlow's china store, Mrs. Tonk's doll store, and Green & Brady's store for notions—all these were situated in Broad Street hardly a stone's throw from the Second Market. But none of these, excellent as they were, could bear comparison with the refined atmosphere, so different from the vulgar bustle of a modern department store, which enveloped one in the quiet gloom of Brandywine & Plummer's. In the first place, one could be perfectly sure that one would be waited on by a lady—for Brandywine & Plummer's, with a distinguished Confederate soldier at its head and front, provided an almost conventual shelter for distressed feminine gentility. There was, for instance, Miss Marye of the black silk counter, whose father had belonged to Stuart's cavalry and had fallen at Yellow Tavern; there was Miss Meason of the glove counter, and there was Mrs. Burwell Smith of the ribbon counter—for, though she had married beneath her, it was impossible to forget that she was a direct descendant of Colonel Micajah Burwell, of Crow's Nest Plantation.
Then, if one happened to be in search of cotton goods, one would be almost certain to remark on the way home: "Miss Peters, who waited on me in Brandywine's this morning, has unmistakably the manner of a lady," or "that Mrs. Jones in Brandywine's must be related to the real Joneses, she has such a refined appearance." And, at last, in the middle 'nineties, after the opening of the new millinery department, which was reached by a short flight of steps, decorated at discreet intervals with baskets of pink paper roses, customers were beginning to ask: "May I speak to Miss Gabriella for a minute? I wish to speak to Miss Gabriella about the hat she is having trimmed for me."
For here, also, because of what poor Jane called her "practical mind," the patrons of Brandywine & Plummer's were learning that Gabriella was "the sort you could count on." As far as the actual work went, she could not, of course, hold a candle (this was Mr. Plummer's way of putting it) to Miss Kemp or Miss Treadway, who had a decided talent for trimming; but no customer in balloon sleeves and bell-shaped skirt was ever heard to remark of these young women as they remarked of Gabriella, "No, I don't want anybody else, please. She takes such an interest." To take an interest in other people might become quite as marketable an asset, Mr. Plummer was discovering, after fifty years of adherence to strictly business methods, as a gift for the needle; and, added to her engaging interest, Gabriella appeared to know by instinct exactly what a customer wanted.
"I declare Miss Kemp had almost persuaded me to take that brown straw with the green velvet bandeau before I thought of asking Gabriella's advice," Mrs. Spencer was overheard saying to her daughter, as she paused, panting and breathless, at the head of the short flight of steps.
"Oh, Gabriella always had taste; I'll ask her about mine," Florrie tossed back gaily in the high fluting notes which expressed so perfectly the brilliant, if slightly metallic, quality of her personality.
Beside her mother, a plump, bouncing person, with a noisy though imperfectly articulate habit of speech, and the prominent hips and bust which composed the "fine figure" of the period, Florrie seemed to float with all the elusive, magic loveliness of a sunbeam. From the shining nimbus of her hair to her small tripping feet she was the incarnation of girlhood—of that white and gold girlhood which has intoxicated the imagination of man. She shed the allurement of sex as unconsciously as a flower sheds its perfume. Though her eyes were softly veiled by her lashes, every male clerk in Brandywine & Plummer's was dazzled by the deep blue light of her glances. In her red mouth, with its parted lips, in the pure rose and white of her flesh, in the rich curve of her bosom, which promised already the "fine figure" of her mother, youth and summer were calling as they called in the velvet softness of the June breeze. Innocent though she was, the powers of Life had selected her as a vehicle for their inscrutable ends.
"Where is Miss Carr? I must speak to Miss Carr, please," she said to one of the shop girls who came up, eager to serve her. "Will you tell her that Miss Spencer is waiting to speak to her?"
Responding to the girl's artless stare of admiration, she threw a friendly glance at her before she turned away to try on a monstrous white Leghorn hat decorated around the crown with a trellis of pink roses. Unless she happened to be in a particularly bad humour—and this was not often the case—Florrie was imperturbably amiable. She enjoyed flattery as a cat enjoys the firelight on its back, and while she purred happily in the pleasant warmth, she had something of the sleek and glossy look of a pretty kitten.
"How does this look on me, mother?" she asked over her shoulder of Mrs. Spencer, who was babbling cheerfully in her loud tones to Miss Lancaster, the forewoman.
Though some of the best blood in Virginia, profusely diluted with some of the worst, flowed comfortably in Mrs. Spencer's veins, it was impossible even for her relatives to deny that she could be at times decidedly vulgar. Having been a conspicuous belle and beauty of a bold and dashing type in her youth, she now devoted her middle-age to the enjoyment of those pleasures which she had formerly sacrificed to the preservation of her figure and her complexion. Though she still dyed her somewhat damaged hair, and strenuously pinched in her widening waist, she had ceased, since her fiftieth birthday, to forego the lesser comforts of the body. As she was a person of small imagination, and of no sentiment, it is probable that she was happier now than she had been in the days when she suffered the deprivations and enjoyed the triumphs of beauty.
"What's that, Florrie?" she inquired shrilly. "No, I shouldn't get that if I were you. It doesn't flare enough. I'm crazy about a flare."
"But I want a pink bandeau, mother," replied Florrie a little pettishly, as she patted her golden-red fringe. "I wonder where Gabriella is? Isn't she ever coming, Miss Lancaster?"
"I thought I saw her when I came in," observed Mrs. Spencer, craning her handsome neck, which was running to fat, in the direction of the trimming room. "Florrie, just turn your head after a minute and look at the hat Patty Carrington is buying—pea green, and it makes her face look like a walnut. She hasn't the faintest idea how to dress. Do you think I ought to speak to her about it?"
"No, let her alone," replied Florrie impatiently. "Is this any better than the Leghorn?"
"Well, I must say I don't think there is much style about it, though, of course, with your hair, you can carry off anything. Isn't it odd how exactly she inherited my hair, Miss Lancaster? I remember her father used to say that he would have fallen in love with a gatepost if it had had golden-red hair."
Miss Lancaster, a thin, erect woman of fifty, with impassive features, and iron-gray hair that looked as if it were rolled over wood, glanced resignedly from Mrs. Spencer's orange-coloured crimps to the imprisoned sunlight in Florrie's hair.
"I'd know you were mother and daughter anywhere," she remarked in the noncommittal manner she had acquired in thirty years of independence; "and she is going to have your beautiful figure, too, Mrs. Spencer."
"Well, I reckon I'll lose my figure now that I've stopped dieting," remarked the lively lady, casting an appreciative glance in the mirror. "Florrie tells me I wear my sleeves too large, but I think they make me look smaller."
"They are wearing them very large in Paris," replied Miss Lancaster, as if she were reciting a verse out of a catalogue. She had, as she sometimes found occasion to remark, been "born tired," and this temperamental weariness showed now in her handsome face, so wrinkled and dark around her bravely smiling eyes. Where she came from, or how she spent her time between the hour she left the shop and the hour she returned to it, the two women knew as little as they knew the intimate personal history of the Leghorn hat on the peg by the mirror. Beyond the fact that she played the part of a sympathetic chorus, they were without curiosity about her life. Their own personalities absorbed them, and for the time at least appeared to absorb Miss Lancaster.
"I like the Leghorn hat," said Florrie decisively, as she tried it on for the third time, "but I'll wait till I ask Gabriella's opinion."
"I hope she's getting on well here," said Mrs. Spencer, who found it impossible to concentrate on Florrie's hat. "Don't you think it was very brave of her to go to work, Miss Lancaster?"
"I understood that she was obliged to," rejoined Miss Lancaster, with the weary amiability of her professional manner.
"She might have married, I happen to know that," returned Mrs. Spencer. "Arthur Peyton has been in love with her ever since she was a child, and there was a young man from New York last winter who seemed crazy about her. Florrie, don't you think George Fowler was just crazy about Gabriella?"
"I'm sure I don't know, mother. He paid her a great deal of attention, but you never can tell about men."
"Julia Caperton told me, and, of course, she's very intimate with George's sister, that he went back to New York because he heard that Gabriella was engaged to Arthur. Florrie, do you suppose she is really engaged to Arthur?"
Thus appealed to, Florrie removed the Leghorn hat from her head, and answered abstractedly: "Jane thought so, but if she is engaged, I don't see why she should have started to work. I know Arthur would hate it."
"But isn't he too poor to marry?" inquired Mrs. Spencer, whose curiosity was as robust as her constitution. "Haven't you always understood that the Peytons were poor, Miss Lancaster, in spite of the lovely house they live in?"
Her large, good-humoured face, which had once been as delicate as a flower, but was now growing puffed and mottled under a plentiful layer of rice powder, became almost violently animated, while she adjusted her belt with a single effective jerk of her waist. Though Bessie Spencer was admitted to have one of the kindest hearts in the world, she was chiefly remarkable for her unhappy faculty of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. An inveterate, though benevolent, gossip, she would babble on for hours, reciting the private affairs of her relatives, her friends, and her neighbours. Everybody feared her, and yet everybody was assured that "she never meant any harm." The secrets of the town flowed through her mind as grist flows through a mill, and though she was entirely without malice, she contrived, in the most innocent manner, to do an incalculable amount of injury. Possessing a singularly active intelligence, and having reached middle-age without acquiring sufficient concentration to enjoy books, she directed a vigorous, if casual, understanding toward the human beings among whom she lived. She knew everything that it was possible to know about the people who lived in Franklin Street, and yet her mind was so constituted that she never by any chance knew it correctly. Though she was not old, she had already passed into a proverb. To receive any statement with the remark, "You have heard that from Bessie Spencer," was to cast doubt upon it.
"You don't think I'm getting any stouter, do you, Miss Lancaster?" she inquired dubiously, with her hands on her hips and her eyes measuring the dimensions of her waist. "I'm making up my mind to try one of those B. and T. corsets that Mrs. Murray is wearing. She told me it reduced her waist at least three inches."
"Oh, you aren't like Mrs. Murray—she didn't measure a fraction under thirty inches," replied Miss Lancaster, with her patient politeness. Then, after a pause, which Mrs. Spencer's nimble wit filled with a story about the amazing number of mint juleps Mrs. Murray was seen to drink at the White Sulphur Springs last summer, Florrie exclaimed eagerly:
"Why, there is Gabriella! Won't you get her for us, Miss Lancaster?"
Near one of the long windows, beyond which large greenish flies were buzzing around the branch of a mulberry tree in the alley, Gabriella was trying a purple hat on a prim-looking lady who regarded herself in the mirror with a furtive and deprecating air as if she were afraid of being unjustly blamed for her appearance. "I'm not sure—but I don't think it suits me exactly," she appeared to murmur in a strangled whisper, while she twisted her mouth, which held a jet-headed hatpin, into a quivering grimace.
"She's waiting on Matty French," said Mrs. Spencer, and she added impulsively, "I wonder what it is that men see in Gabriella. You wouldn't call her really pretty, would you, Miss Lancaster?"
"Well, not exactly pretty, but she has an interesting face. It is so full of life."
"Can't you get her, mother?" asked Florrie; and Mrs. Spencer, always eager to oblige, rustled across the room and pounced vivaciously upon the prim lady and Gabriella.
"We've been looking for you everywhere, Gabriella," she began, nodding agreeably to Miss French. "Florrie has tried on all the hats in the room, and she wants you to tell her if that white Leghorn is becoming. Good morning, Matty! That blue wing is so stylish. I think you are very sensible to wear colours and not to stick to black as Susie Chamberlain does. It makes her look as old as the hills, and I believe she does it just to depress people. Life is too short, as I said when I left off mourning, to be an ink blot wherever you go. And it doesn't mean that she grieves a bit more for her husband than anybody else does. Everybody knows they led a cat and dog's life together, and I've even heard, though I can't remember who told me, that she was on the point of getting a divorce when he died. Are you going? Well, I'm glad you decided on that blue hat. I don't believe you'll ever regret it. Good-bye. Be sure and come to see me soon. Gabriella, will you help Florrie about her hat now? I declare, I thought Matty would never get through with you. And, of course, we didn't want anybody but you to wait on us. We were just saying that you had the most beautiful taste, and it is so wise of you to go out to work and not sit down and sew at home in order to support your position. A position that can't support itself isn't much of a prop, my husband used to say. But I don't believe you'll stay here long, you sly piece. You'll be married before the year is up, mark my word. The men are all crazy about you, everybody knows that. Why, Florrie met George Fowler in the street this morning, and when he asked after you, his face turned as hot as fire, she said—"
Gabriella's face, above her starched collar with its neat red tie, was slowly flooded with colour. Her brown eyes shone golden under her dark lashes, and Mrs. Spencer told herself that the girl looked almost pretty for a minute. "If she wasn't so sallow, she'd be really good looking."
Happily unaware that her face had betrayed her, Gabriella slid back a glass door, took a hat out of the case, and answered indifferently, while she adjusted the ribbon bow on one side of the crown:
"I didn't know Mr. Fowler had come back. I haven't seen him for ages."
From her small, smooth head to her slender feet she had acquired in three months the composed efficiency of Miss Lancaster; and one might have imagined, as Mrs. Spencer remarked to Florrie afterwards, that "she had been born in a hat shop."
But instead of the weary patience of Miss Lancaster, she brought to her work the brimming energy and the joyous self-confidence of youth. It was impossible to watch her and not realize that she had given both ability and the finer gift of personality to the selling of hats. Had she started life as a funeral director instead of a milliner, it is probable that she would have infused into the dreary business something of the living quality of genius.
"Oh, Florrie hadn't seen him for ages either," chirped Mrs. Spencer, with her restless eyes on the hat in Gabriella's hand. "I don't know whether I ought to tell you or not, but you and Florrie are so intimate I suppose I might as well—Julia Caperton told Florrie that George came back because he heard in some way that you had broken your engagement to Arthur. Of course, as I told Julia afterwards, you hadn't mentioned a word of it to me, but I've got eyes and I can't help using them. I was obliged to see that George was simply out of his mind about you. It would be a splendid match, too, for they say his father has made quite a large fortune since he went to New York—"
"Mother!" interrupted Florrie sternly, over her shoulder, "you know Julia told you not to breathe a single word as coming from her. She is the bosom friend of George's sister."
"But, Florrie, I haven't told a soul except Gabriella, and I know she wouldn't repeat a thing that I said to her."
"Now, isn't that exactly like mother?" observed Florrie, with the casual disapprobation of youth. "She was on the point of telling Miss Lancaster all about it when I stopped her."
"Why, Florrie, I didn't say a word except that men were crazy about Gabriella—you know I didn't. Of course, I talk a great deal," she pursued in an aggrieved, explanatory tone to Gabriella, "but I never repeat a word—not a single word that is told me in confidence. If Julia had asked me not to tell Gabriella what she said, I shouldn't have dreamed of doing so."
"Oh, it doesn't matter in the least, Mrs. Spencer," said Gabriella hastily, "only there isn't a word of truth in it."
The becoming flush was still in her cheeks, and she poised a hat over Florrie's head with a swift, flying grace which Mrs. Spencer had never noticed in her before. "I wonder if Gabriella can really care about George?" she thought quickly. "But if it is George she is in love with, why on earth did she start to work in a shop?" Then suddenly, following a flash of light, she reasoned it out to her complete satisfaction. "It must have been that she didn't know that George cared—that is why she is blushing so at this minute."
An hour or so later, when Florrie and her mother had fluttered volubly downstairs, and the exhausted assistants were putting the hats away before closing the cases, Gabriella went into the dressing-room, where Miss Nash, a stout, pleasant-looking girl, was sitting in a broken chair, with her shoes off, her blue serge skirt rolled back from her knees, and her head bowed, over her crossed arms, on the window-sill.
At Gabriella's entrance she glanced up, and remarked cheerfully: "My feet were killing me. I just had to take off my shoes."
"They do get dreadfully tired," assented Gabriella in the tone of sympathetic intimacy she had caught from the other girls.
Her naturally friendly spirit had refused to "hold aloof" from her companions, as her mother had begged her to do, and at the end of three months she had learned things about most of them which interested her profoundly. One supported an invalid father, another had a family of six little brothers and sisters to care for, and still another had lost her lover through a railroad accident only two days before her marriage. Several of them were extravagantly loud, one or two were inclined to be vulgar; but the others were quite as refined and gentle as the girls with whom she had grown up, and what impressed her about them all was their courageous and yet essentially light-hearted Southern spirit. To her surprise, she found an utter absence of jealousy among them. The elder women were invariably kind and helpful, and though she liked the girls, she soon discovered in herself a growing feeling of respect for these older women. They represented a different type, for the hardness she noticed in some of the younger girls was entirely lacking in the women of Miss Lancaster's generation. Many of them even her mother would have called well born, and one and all, they were almost painfully ladylike. With their thin, erect figures, their wan, colourless faces, their graying hair, and their sweet Southern voices, they imparted a delicate social air to the shop.
Usually Gabriella stopped to talk to the girls who crowded in from the workroom, brushing shreds of silk or ribbon from their skirts, but to-day her mind wandered while she answered Miss Nash, and when, a minute later, Miss Lancaster spoke to her on her way out, and asked her to match the flowers for Florrie's hat, she was obliged to make an effort before she could recall her roving attention. She was thinking not of Florrie's hat, but of Mrs. Spencer's words, "He has come back because he heard that your engagement was broken." And at the first insurgent rise of emotion, she ceased to be the business woman and became merely an imaginative girl, dreaming of love.
"They aren't quite the right shade, are they?" she asked with an uncertainty which was tactful rather than sincere, "or, perhaps, the ribbon might be darker?"
Her eyes questioned Miss Lancaster, who moved a step nearer the window as she held the bolt of ribbon toward the daylight.
"Well, we'd better look at it again in the morning. You are in a hurry, Miss Carr?"
"Oh, no, I've all the time in the world," answered Gabriella, though she longed to be out with the June scents and her dreams, "but I am sure the ribbon ought to be a deeper blue to tone with the ragged robins."
"You've a wonderful eye for colour, that's why I ask your advice," said the other, and a sudden friendliness shone in her tired eyes, for she had liked Gabriella from the beginning. That the girl possessed a genuine gift of taste, the elder woman had already discovered. For herself, Miss Lancaster had always hated the sight of hats, and had taken up the work merely because a place in Brandywine & Plummer's had been offered her shortly after her father, a gallant fighter but a poor worker, had gone to end his kindly anecdotal days in the Home for Confederate Soldiers. She was a repressed, conscientious woman, who had never been younger than she was now at fifty, and who regarded youth, not with envy, but with admiring awe. For she, also, patient and uncomplaining creature, belonged to that world of decay and inertia from which Gabriella had revolted. It was a world where things happened to-day just as they happened yesterday, where no miracles had occurred since the miracles of Scripture, where people hated change, not because they were satisfied, but because they were incapable of imagination. Miss Lancaster, who had never wanted anything with passion, except to be a perfect lady, was proud of the fact that she had been twenty years in business without losing her "shrinking manner."
"Yes, you have an eye for colour," she repeated gently; "if you could only learn to sew, you might command a most desirable position."
"I despise sewing," replied Gabriella, with serene good-humour, "and I could never learn, even at school, anything that I despised. But I suppose I can always tell somebody else how it ought to be done."
Then, because her work always interested her, she forgot the disturbing words Mrs. Spencer had spoken—she forgot even her impatience to feel the June air in her face. Her best gift, the power of mental control, enabled her to bring the needed discipline to her emotion; and when the moment of her release came, she found that the brief restlessness had passed from her mind. "There's no use letting myself get impatient," she thought; "I've got to stick to it, so it won't do a bit of good to begin wriggling."
All the other girls had gone home before her, and on the sidewalk Miss Meason, of the glove counter, stood talking about the spring sales to Mr. Brandywine. As Gabriella passed them, in her white shirtwaist and dark belted skirt, they looked thoughtfully after her until her sailor hat, with the scarlet band, crossed Broad Street and disappeared on the opposite side.
"She's a remarkable girl," observed Mr. Brandywine, with his paternal manner. "I hope she is beginning to feel at home with us."
"I believe she'd feel at home anywhere," replied Miss Meason, "and she's obliged to get on. There's no doubt of it."
"A pleasant face, too. Not exactly pretty, I suppose, but you would call it a pleasant face."
"Oh, well, I'd call her pretty in her way," answered Miss Meason. "Her eyes are lovely, and she has a singularly bright expression. I always say that a bright expression makes up for anything."
"Her mother was a beauty in her day," said Mr. Brandywine reminiscently; "she was the snow and roses sort, and her eldest daughter took after her, though she is a wreck now, poor lady."
"That's Charley Gracey," remarked Miss Meason tartly, for she had the self-supporting woman's contempt for the rake. "Yes, she was lovely as a girl. I remember as well as if it were yesterday how happy she looked when I sold her her wedding gloves. She is a beautiful character, too, they say, but somehow Gabriella, even as a child, appealed to me more. She has three times the sense of her sister."
Then they shook hands and parted, while Gabriella, tripping through the Second Market, was saying to herself: "There's not the least bit of sense in your thinking about him, Gabriella."
In Hill Street, maple and poplar trees were in full leaf, and little flakes of sunshine, as soft as flowers, were scattered over the brick pavement. Beyond the housetops the sky was golden, and at the corner the rusty ironwork of an old balcony had turned to the colour of bronze. The burning light of the sunset blinded her eyes, while an intense sweetness came to her from the honeysuckle clambering over a low white porch; and this light and this sweetness possessed an ineffable quality. Life, which had been merely placid a few hours before, had become suddenly poignant—every instant was pregnant with happiness, every detail was piercingly vivid. Her whole being was flooded with a sensation of richness and wonder, as if she had awakened with surprise to a different world from the one she had closed her eyes on a minute before.
As she crossed the street she saw her mother's head above a box of clove pinks in the window; and a little later the front door opened and Miss Polly Hatch, a small, indomitable spinster who sewed out by the day, walked rapidly between the iron urns and stopped under the creamy blossoms of the old magnolia tree in the yard.
"It's too late for your ma to be workin', Gabriella. You'd better stop her."
Pausing in the middle of the walk, she comfortably tucked under her arm an unwieldy bundle she carried, and added, with the shrewdness which was the result of a long and painful experience with human nature: "It's funny—ain't it?—how downright mulish your ma can be when she wants to?"
"I can't do a thing on earth with her," answered Gabriella in distress. "You have more influence over her than I have, Miss Polly."
Miss Polly, who had the composed and efficient bearing of a machine, shook her head discouragingly as she opened the gate and passed out.
"I reckon she's set for good and all," she remarked emphatically, and went on her way.
"Mother, it's time to stop sewing and think about supper," called Gabriella gaily, as she ran into the room and bent to kiss her mother, who turned a flat, soft cheek in her direction, and remarked gloomily: "Gabriella, you've had a visitor."
Not for worlds would Mrs. Carr have surrendered to the disarming cheerfulness of her daughter's manner; for since Gabriella had gone to work in a shop, her mother's countenance implied that she was piously resigned to disgrace as well as to poverty. It was inconceivable to her that any girl with Berkeley blood in her veins could be so utterly devoid of proper pride as Gabriella had proved herself to be; and the shock of this discovery had left a hurt look in her face. There were days when she hardly spoke to the girl, when refusing food, she opened her lips only to moisten her thread, when the slow tears seemed forever welling between her reddened eyelids. As they had just passed through one of these painful periods, Gabriella was surprised to find that, for the moment at least, her mother appeared to have forgotten her righteous resentment. Though it could hardly be said that Mrs. Carr spoke cheerfully—since cheerfulness was foreign to her nature—at least she had spoken. Of her own accord, unquestioned and unurged, she had volunteered a remark to her daughter; and Gabriella felt that, for a brief respite, the universe had ceased to be menacing.
"Gabriella, you have had a visitor," repeated Mrs. Carr, and it was clear that her sorrow (she never yielded to passion) had been overcome by a natural human eagerness to tell her news.
"Not Cousin Jimmy?" asked the girl lightly.
"No, you could never guess, if you guessed all night."
"Not Charley Gracey surely? I wouldn't speak to him for the world."
Though Jane had returned to Charley, and even Mrs. Carr, feeling in her heart that her younger daughter had dealt her the hardest blow, had been heard to say that she "pitied her son-in-law more than she censured him," Gabriella had not softened in her implacable judgment.
"Of course it wasn't Charley. I shouldn't have mentioned it if it had been, because you are so bitter against him. But it was somebody you haven't seen for months. Do you remember Evelyn Randolph's son who paid you so much attention last winter?"
"George Fowler! Has he been here?" asked Gabriella, and her voice quivered like a harp.
"I told Marthy to say you were out. Of course I wasn't fit to see company, but he caught sight of me on his way to the gate and came back on the porch to speak to me. He remembered all about my having gone to school with his mother, and it seems she had told him about the time she was Queen of May and I maid of honour. I asked him how Evelyn stood living in New York, but he said she likes it better than his father does. Archie Fowler insists that he is coming back to Virginia to end his days. They seem to have plenty of money. I expect Archie has made a fortune up there or he wouldn't be satisfied to live out of Virginia."
"Did George ask when I'd be at home?" inquired Gabriella.
Though she knew that it was unwise to divert her mother's attention from the main narrative, her whole body ached with the longing to hear what George had said of her, and she felt that it was impossible to resist the temptation to question.
"He said something about you as he was going away, but I can't remember whether he asked when you would be in or not." In spite of the fact that Mrs. Carr had the most tenacious memory for useless detail, she was never able to recall the significant points of an interview.
"He didn't ask where I was?"
The question was indiscreet, for it jerked Mrs. Carr's mind back with violence from its innocent ramble into the past, while it reminded her of Gabriella's present unladylike occupation. She shut her lips with soft but obstinate determination, and Gabriella, watching her closely, told herself that "wild horses couldn't drag another word out of her mother to-night." The girl longed to talk it over; but she might have tried as successfully to gossip with the angel on a marble tombstone. She wanted to hear what George had said, to ask how he was looking, and to wonder aloud why he had come back. She wanted to throw herself into her mother's arms and listen to all the little important things that filled the world for her. If only the aloof virtue in Mrs. Carr's face would relax into a human expression!
Taking off her hat, Gabriella went into the bedroom, and then, coming back again after a short absence, remarked with forced gaiety: "I suppose he didn't have anything interesting to tell you, did he?"
"No." Though the light had almost waned, Mrs. Carr broke off a fresh piece of thread and leaned nearer the window, while she tried to find the eye of the needle.
"Let me thread your needle, mother. It is too late to work, anyway. You will ruin your eyesight."
"I have never considered my eyesight, Gabriella."
"I know you haven't, and that's why you ought to begin."
As it was really growing too dark to see, Mrs. Carr rolled the thread back on the spool, stuck the needle into the last buttonhole, and folding the infant's dress on which she was working, laid it away in her straw work-basket.
"Will you light the gas, Gabriella?"
"Don't work any more to-night, mother. It is almost supper time."
Without replying, Mrs. Carr moved with her basket to a chair under the chandelier. Once seated there, she unfolded the dress, took the needle from the unfinished buttonhole, and tried again unsuccessfully to run the thread through the eye. Then, while Gabriella rushed to her aid, she removed her glasses and patiently polished them on a bit of chamois skin she kept in her basket.
"Don't you feel as if you could eat a chop to-night, mother?"
"I haven't been able to swallow a morsel all day, Gabriella."
"I've saved you a little cream. Shall I make you a toddy?"
"I don't want it. Drink it yourself, dear."
After this there followed one of those pauses which fill not only the room, but the universe with a fury of sound. There were times when Gabriella felt that she could stand anything if only her mother would fly into a rage—when she positively envied Florrie Spencer because her plebeian parent scolded her at the top of her voice instead of maintaining a calm and ladylike reticence. But Mrs. Carr was one of those women who never, even in the most trying circumstances, cease to be patient, who never lose for an instant so much as the palest or the thinnest of the Christian virtues.
Going into the bedroom, Gabriella changed from her shirtwaist into a gown of flowered muslin, with sleeves that looked small beside the balloon ones of the season, and a skirt which was shrunken and pale from many washings the summer before. She had worn the frock when she met George, and though it was old, she knew it was becoming, and she told herself joyfully that if she put it on to-night, "something must come of it." As she smoothed her hair by the dim gas-jet over the mirror, she saw again the face of George as it had first smiled down on her beneath the boughs of a mimosa tree in Mrs. Spencer's front garden. At the time, a year ago, she was engaged to Arthur—she had even called the placid preference she felt for him "being in love"—but while she talked to George she had found herself thinking, "I wonder how it would feel to be engaged to a man like this instead of to Arthur?" Then, since all Southern engagements of the period were secret, she had seen a good deal of George during the summer; and in the autumn, while she was still trying to make believe that it was merely a friendship, he had gone back to New York without saying good-bye. She had tried her best to stop thinking of him, and until this evening, she had never really let herself confess that she cared. But if she didn't care why was she so happy to-night? If she didn't care why was there such intoxicating sweetness in the thought of his return? If she didn't care why had she dressed herself so carefully in the flowered muslin he had once said that he liked? Her face, smiling back at her from the mirror, was suffused with a delicate glow—not pink, not white, but softly luminous as if a lamp, shining behind it, enkindled its expression. She had never seen herself so nearly pretty, and with this thought in her mind, she went back to her mother, who was still working buttonholes under the chandelier.
"Marthy has brought the lamp, mother. Why don't you move over to the table?"
"I can see perfectly, thank you, Gabriella."
"I hate to see you working. Let me finish those buttonholes."
"I'd rather get through them myself, dear."
"Have you seen Jane to-day?"
"Has Cousin Pussy been here?"
"Did you get out for a walk?"
The appalling silence again filled the room like a fog, and Gabriella, moving cautiously about in it, began straightening chairs and picking up shreds of cambric from the carpet. She felt suddenly that she could not endure the strain for another minute, and glancing at Mrs. Carr's bent head, where the thin hair was wound into a tight knot and held in place by a tortoise-shell comb with a carved top, she wondered how her mother could possibly keep it up day after day as she did? But, if she had only known it, this silence, which tried her nerves to the breaking point, was positively soothing to her mother. Mrs. Carr could keep it up not only for days and weeks, but, had it been necessary, she could have kept it up with equal success for half a lifetime. While she sat there, working buttonholes in a bad light, she thought quite as passionately as Gabriella, though her mental processes were different. She thought sadly, but firmly, with a pensive melancholy not untinged with pleasure, that "life was becoming almost too much for her." It seemed incredible to her that after all her struggles to keep up an appearance things should have turned out as they had; it seemed incredible that after all her sacrifices her children should not consider her more. "They have no consideration for me," she reflected, while she took the finest stitch possible to the needle she held. "If Jane had considered me she would never have married Charley. If Gabriella had considered me, or anybody but herself, she would not have gone to work in a store." No, they had never considered her, they had never asked her advice before acting, though she had brought them into the world and had worked like a slave in order to keep them in that respected station of life in which they had been born. Then, her sorrow getting the better of her resolution, she turned her head and spoke:
"I know you never tell me anything on purpose, Gabriella, but I think I have a right to know whether or not you have discarded Arthur for good."
"I told you all about it, mother. I told you I found I was mistaken."
"I suppose you never thought for a moment how much it would distress me? Though Lydia Peyton is so much older than I am, she was always my best friend—we often stayed in the room together when we were girls. I had set my heart on your marrying her son."
"I know that, mother, and I am very sorry, but when it came to the point I couldn't marry him. You can't make yourself care—"
"I should have thought that my wishes might influence you. I should never wish you to do anything that wasn't for your good, Gabriella."
"Of course, mother, you've given up your life to us. I know that, and Jane knows it as well as I do. That's why I want to earn money enough to let you rest. I want you to stop work for good and be happy."
"There are worse things than work," replied Mrs. Carr in a tone which implied that Gabriella had brought them upon her.
After a pause, in which her needle flew mournfully, she added: "I hope for your own sake that you will marry some good man before you lose your attractions. Poor Becky Bollingbroke proved to me how unfortunate it is for a woman to remain unmarried."
For an instant Gabriella looked at her mother without replying. She felt tempted—strongly tempted, she told herself—to say something cross. Then the sight of the bent gray head, of the bowed shoulders, of the knotted needle-pricked fingers, pierced her heart. Though she could not always agree with her mother, she loved her devotedly, and the thought that she must lose her some day had been the most terrible nightmare of her childhood.
"Don't worry about me, mother, dear," she answered tenderly. "I can always take care of myself. I can manage my life, you know that, don't you?" Then she stopped quickly while her heart gave a single bound and lay quiet. She had heard the click of the gate, and a minute later, as Mrs. Carr gathered up her sewing, there was a ring at the bell.
"It can't be a visitor before supper, can it, Gabriella?"
"I think not, mother, but I shouldn't run away if I were you."
"I'd better go. I don't feel dressed. Wait a minute, Marthy, and let me get out of the room before you open the door." She fled, clutching her work-basket, while Gabriella, turning to lower the flaming wick of the lamp, heard George's voice at the door and his footsteps crossing the hall.
"I knew something would happen," she thought wildly, as she went forward to meet him.
"I saw you pull down the shade as I was going by," he began rather lamely; and she hardly heard his words because of the divine tumult in her brain. Her heart sang; her pulses throbbed; every drop of her blood seemed to become suddenly alive with ecstasy. Under the tarnished garlands of the chandelier his face looked younger, gayer, more intensely vivid than it had looked in her dreams. It was the face of her dreams made real; but with what a difference! She saw his crisp brown hair brushed smoothly back from its parting, his blue eyes, with their gay and conquering look, the firm red brown of his cheek, and even the bluish shadow encircling his shaven mouth. In his eyes, which said enchanting things, she could not read the trivial and commonplace quality of his soul—for he was not only a man, he was romance, he was adventure, he was the radiant miracle of youth!
"Florrie told me this morning that you had come back," she answered coldly, as she held out her hand.
Her words seemed to come to her from a distance—from the next room, from the street outside, from the farthest star—but while she uttered them, she knew that her words meant nothing. She shed her joy as if it were fragrance; and her softness was like the magnolia-scented softness of the June night. Even her mother would not have known her, so greatly had she changed in a minute. Of the businesslike figure in the sailor hat and trim shirtwaist—of the Gabriella who had said, "I can manage my life"—there remained only an outline. The very feet of the capable woman had changed into the shrinking and timid feet of a lovesick girl. She was afraid to go forward, afraid to move, afraid to breathe lest she break the wonderful spell of the magic. Not only her basic common sense, but the very soul that shaped her body had become as light, as sweet, as formless as liquid honey.
But of course, she knew nothing of this. She was innocent of deception; she was innocent even of any definite purpose to allure. The thought in her mind, if there were any thought, which is doubtful, was that she must be composed, she must be indifferent if it killed her.
"I know I've come at an awkward hour, but I simply couldn't go by after I saw you."
"Won't you stay?" she asked, trying in vain to shut out the ominous sound of Marthy bringing their scant supper. She remembered, with horror, that she had ordered only two chops, and a wave of rebellion swept over her because life always spoiled its divine instants.
"No, I can't stay. I've an engagement for supper. I merely wanted to see you. You've no idea how I've wanted to see you."
"Have you?" said Gabriella in so low a voice that he hardly heard her. Then, lifting her glowing eyes, she added softly, "I am glad that you wanted to."
"There were times when I simply couldn't get you out of my mind," he responded, and went on almost joyously, with the romantic look which had first enchanted her imagination. "You see I believed that you were going to marry Arthur Peyton. Julia told me that your engagement was broken. That was why I came back. Didn't you guess it?"
"Yes, I guessed it," she answered simply, and all the softness, the sweetness, the beauty of her feeling passed into her voice.
Then, in the very midst of her happiness, there occurred one of those sordid facts which appear to spring, like vultures, upon the ineffable moments. She heard the bell—the awful supper bell which her mother insisted upon having rung because her parents had had it rung for generations before her. As the horrible sound reverberated through the house, Gabriella felt that the noise passed through her ears, not into her brain, but into the very depths of her suffering soul.
"There, I must go," said George, without embarrassment, for which she blessed him. From his manner, the supper bell might have made a delightful harmony instead of a hideous discord. "I'll see you to-morrow, if I may. May I, Gabriella?"
He smiled charmingly as he went, and looking after him, a minute later, over the clove pinks in the window-box, she saw him turn and gaze back at her from the opposite pavement.
On a bright Sunday in October Mrs. Carr stopped on her way from church to tell Mrs. Peyton of Gabriella's engagement. A crape veil, slightly scented with camphor, hung from her bonnet, and in her gloved hands she carried a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums, for she intended to go on to Hollywood, where her husband was buried. The sermon had been unusually inspiring, and there was a pensive exaltation in her look as she laid her hand on the gate of the walled garden.
"If it couldn't be Arthur—and of course my heart was set on her marrying Arthur—I suppose George is the one I should have chosen," she said to Mrs. Peyton with tender melancholy as she turned her soft, clammy cheek, which was never warm even in summer, to be kissed.
There was nothing against George that she could advance even to Gabriella. He was well born, for his mother had been a Randolph; he was comfortably rich (at least his father was); he was good-looking; he was almost arrogantly healthy—yet because she was obliged to regret something, she found herself clinging fondly to the memory of Arthur. "If it could only have been Arthur," she repeated sadly, gazing through the French window of the drawing-room to the garden where beds of scarlet sage flaunted brilliantly in the sunshine.
"I hope and pray that dear Gabriella will be happy," replied Mrs. Peyton, a beautiful old lady, with wonderful white hair under the widow's ruching in her bonnet. The exquisite simplicity of her soul was reflected in the rose-leaf delicacy of her skin, in her benignant and innocent smile, in the serene and joyous glance of her eyes. Never in her life had she thought evil of any one, and she did not mean to begin on the verge of the grave, with the hope of a peaceful eternity before her. If dear Gabriella had "discarded" dear Arthur, then she could only hope and pray that dear Gabriella would not live to regret it.
"She will be married at once, I suppose?" she said, and beamed as happily as if Gabriella had not disappointed the dearest hope of her heart. "There is no need to wait, is there?"
"They have decided on the 17th of November. I wanted you to know it first of all, Lydia, so I haven't mentioned it to a soul except to Cousin Jimmy Wrenn."
"You will live with dear Jane, will you not? Poor child, what a blessing you will be to her."
"No, I shall be with Jane only for a month or two until Gabriella and George have taken a house in New York. She wouldn't consent to be married so soon until I promised to live with them. But how on earth shall I ever manage to go so far away, Lydia? To think of being so far from Hollywood almost breaks my heart, and yet what can I do?"
Mrs. Peyton's loving gaze enfolded not only her visitor, but the house and the dreamy garden where frost was already blighting the flowers.
"I understand your feeling, of course, Fanny," she said, "but you must think of Gabriella. How different it will be for her if her mother is with her. I shall miss you every minute, but for the sake of that splendid child of yours, I must not allow myself to be sorry."
If Mrs. Carr's features could have lost the fixed impression of a lifetime, they would have appeared almost cheerful while her old friend held her hand and gazed benignly upon her; but so relaxed had the muscles of her face become that, even when her spirits rose, her countenance did not alter, and the flicker of light in her smile only served to illumine its profound melancholy.
"I try to think of Gabriella," she answered, "but I oughtn't to forget poor Jane. Whenever I remember her, I begin to reproach myself."
"Don't reproach yourself, Fanny. There is nothing on earth for which you can justly be blamed. I am sure you have never considered your own wishes for a minute in your life. If ever a mother gave up everything for her children, you have done so, Fanny, and you needn't deny it. But tell me about Gabriella. How thankful you ought to be that she has given up that work in a store!"
"If it had been God's will, I suppose I must have borne it, Lydia, but I felt as if it was killing me."
"The dear child has a strong character," observed Mrs. Peyton, and it seemed to her, while she thought of Gabriella, that a strong character was a beautiful and wonderful thing.
"You would hardly know Gabriella, she is so changed," replied Mrs. Carr. "I declare I sometimes think that I never saw a girl so wildly in love as she is. She positively worships George, and when I look at her, I remember Becky Bollingbroke's saying that a smart woman in love is worse than a silly one. She has that much more to get foolish with, poor Becky used to say.
"How happy it must make you," murmured the other. "There is nothing in life I'd rather see than my Arthur happily married."
"I always thought that he and Gabriella were made for each other, but one never can tell—"
"That must be Gabriella now," said Mrs. Peyton as the bell rang. "Is she coming for you?"
"Yes, Cousin Jimmy was to bring her, and then drive me out to Hollywood. Isn't that Arthur's voice talking to her?"
"Poor boy," whispered Mrs. Peyton, and then she rustled forward and enveloped Gabriella in a warm embrace. "My darling girl, your mother has just told me," she said.
"And Gabriella has just told me," added Arthur at her elbow. Though there was a hurt look in his eyes, his manner was perfect. Years afterwards, whenever Gabriella thought of him, she remembered how perfect his manner was on that morning.
"I wanted you to know first of all," said Gabriella.
As the old lady looked at her with loving eyes, it seemed to her that the girl was softly glowing with happiness. She accepted joy as she accepted sorrow, with quietness, but there was a look in her face which made her appear, for the moment, transfigured. A radiance like that of a veiled flame shone in her eyes; the cool tones of her voice had grown richer and gentler; and at last, as Mrs. Peyton said to herself, Gabriella, the sensible and practical Gabriella, was sweet with the honeysuckle sweetness of Jane.
"She must be over head and ears in love," she thought; and the next minute, "I wonder how it will end?"
The question brought a pang to her kind old heart, which longed to make everybody, and particularly her boy Arthur, happy. Then, because her eyes were filling, she stroked the girl's arm gently, and said:
"That's a pretty dress, my dear. I never saw you look better."
"She's really getting pretty," remarked Mrs. Carr. "Cousin Jimmy was saying only yesterday that if Gabriella keeps it up, she'll be a better looking old lady than Jane."
"Well, I think her a very pretty young one," replied Mrs. Peyton. "She hasn't such small features as Jane has, but there is more in her face. Now, I'm willing to wager that George thinks her a beauty."
Gabriella laughed happily. "He hasn't the faintest idea what I look like, but he declares he won't be a bit disappointed if he finds out some day that I am ugly."
The glow of youth, of hope, of love, gave to her expressive face an almost unearthly brightness. She seemed to draw to her all that was vital and alive in the dim old house, so filled with memories, and in the October pageantry of the garden. It was the day of her miracle, and against the splendour of the scarlet sage, she shone with an unforgettable radiance.
When, a little later, Mrs. Carr, in Cousin Jimmy's buggy, with her bunch of chrysanthemums held rigidly in her lap, drove off at an amble to Hollywood, and Gabriella, turning to wave her hand, had vanished behind the corner of the gray wall, Mrs. Peyton said gently:
"She looked very happy, dear boy. You and I must pray for her happiness."
The beauty which all her life she had created through faith awoke in Arthur's suffering heart while she spoke to him. She demanded nobility of being, and it existed; she exacted generosity of nature, and it was there. By her mere presence, by the overflowing love in her heart, she not only banished jealousy and envy, but made the very idea of them unthinkable.
"She is obliged to be happy. It is her nature," answered Arthur, for his disposition was hardly less perfect than his manner.
Crossing Broad Street, which wore its look of Sabbath sleepiness, Gabriella hurried on to Hill Street, and saw George waiting for her between the two green-painted urns filled with the summer's fading bloom of portulaca.
He was staring straight upward at one of the poplar trees, where a gray squirrel was playing among the branches, and for several minutes before he was aware of her presence, she watched him with her impassioned, yet not wholly uncritical, gaze. The sunlight sparkled in his eyes, which shone brightly blue against the red brown of his flesh; and between his smiling lips, which were thick and somewhat loosely moulded, she saw the gleaming whiteness of his teeth. She could not explain—she had never even tried to understand—why this face, which was not in the least a remarkable one, should so profoundly appeal to her. When George was absent, his look haunted her with the intensity of an hallucination; when at last she saw it again, she felt that nothing else in the world mattered to her, so supreme was the contentment that swept over her. Though she was more intelligent than Jane, not even Jane herself had surrendered so unconditionally to the primal force. At least Jane had made exactions, but so complete was the subjugation of Gabriella that she exacted nothing, not even a return of her love. To give was all she asked, and in the giving she bloomed into a beauty and fullness of nature which Jane's small, closed soul could never attain.
"George!" she called, and went swiftly toward him.
He turned, threw away the cigar in his hand, and held open the gate while she entered.
"There's a jolly little beggar up in the poplar," he said; "I've been watching him for ten minutes."
Then, as she passed before him into the parlour, he shut the door, and catching her in his arms, kissed the back of her neck.
"Oh, George!" she murmured, and her voice was like music. Even to his short-sighted vision there was pathos at the heart of her happiness—the pathos of ignorance, Of innocence, of the reckless generosity of soul that spends its best for the pure joy of spending. With the instinctive miserliness of the man who realizes that passion to last must be hoarded, not scattered, he had drawn back almost unconsciously from the simple abandonment of her love. He wanted her because the deep discomfort of his nature could not be satisfied without her; but in possessing her he did not mean to give up anything else. Never for an instant had he deluded himself with the mystic ecstasies of Gabriella. The passion which had changed her whole being as if by a miracle, had altered neither his fundamental egoism nor his superficial philosophy. He loved her, he knew, as much as it was possible for him to love any woman; but he was still able to take a profound and healthy interest in his physical comfort. In one thing, however, they were passionately agreed, and that was that the aim and end of their marriage was to make George perfectly happy.
"You are sweet enough to eat this morning," he said as he kissed her.
"I told Mrs. Peyton that you didn't know whether I was pretty or ugly," she answered merrily.
"It isn't beauty that takes a man, though women think so," he rejoined lightly, and yet as if he were imparting one of the basic facts of experience. "I don't know what it is—but it's something else, and you've got it, Gabriella."
She looked at him with luminous eyes.
"I've got you," she answered in a whisper; "that's all—nothing else on earth matters. I want nothing but love."
"But you let me go away for six months. I could never understand that."
"I had to, George. I couldn't be mean even for you, could I?"
"Well, I don't know." His gaze dwelt on her moodily. "Sometimes I wonder if you haven't too much conscience in your body?"
Careless as were his words, they brought stinging tears to her eyes. Her throat ached with the longing to pour out her love; but it seemed to her suddenly that a wall of personality had risen between them, and that she could only beat blindly against the impenetrable mass that divided them. She knew now that he could never understand, and yet the knowledge of this intensified rather than diminished her love. The mere physical attraction, which she had glorified into passion, was invested with the beauty and the mystery of an unattainable ideal.
"I believe you are going to cry, darling. Don't be so serious," he said, laughing.
"But you know—tell me you know that I love you."
"Of course I know it. Am I blind or a fool?"
Then before the glowing worship in her face, he caught her in his arms, while he said over and over, "I love you! I love you!"
He held her close, thrilling at her touch, seeking her warm lips with an eagerness which comforted her because she was too inexperienced to understand how ephemeral was its nature and its sweetness.
"Promise to love me always, George, as you do now," she said, passionately trying to make the fugitive joy immortal.
"If you'll tell me how to help it, I shall be grateful," he retorted as gaily as if her eyes had not filled with tears.
"I swear it. Now, are you satisfied?"
"I don't believe it. I'll never believe that you love me as much as I love you. Nobody could."
In his heart he agreed with her. That Gabriella loved him more than he loved her was a fact to which he was easily reconciled. He loved her quite as much as he could love anybody except himself and be comfortable, and if she demanded more, she merely proved herself to be an unreasonable person. Women did love more than men, he supposed, but what else were they here for? During the six months when he had thought that she belonged to another, she had, he told himself, almost driven him out of his mind; but possession once assured, he had speedily recovered his health and his sanity. Her worship flattered him, and in this flattery she had, perhaps, her strongest hold on his heart. Nothing in his engagement had pleased him more than the readiness with which she had given up her work at his request. He abhorred independence in a wife; and Gabriella's immediate and unresisting acquiescence in his desire appeared to him to establish the fact of her essential and inherent femininity. Had not all laws, as well as all religions, proclaimed that woman should be content to lay down not only her life but her very identity for love; and that Gabriella was womanly to the core of her nature, in spite of her work in Brandywine's millinery department, it was impossible to doubt while he kissed her. There were times, indeed, when the exaltation of Gabriella's womanliness seemed to have left her without a will of her own; when, in a divine submission to love, she appeared to exist only for the laudable purpose of making her lover happy.
"I'd do anything on earth for you, Gabriella," said George suddenly. "I wonder if you would make a sacrifice for me if I asked it?" From his face as he looked down on her it was evident that he was not speaking from impulse, but that he had seized an opportune moment.
"You know I would, George. I'd give up the whole world for you. I'd beg my bread with you by the roadside."
"Well, it isn't so bad as that, darling—it's only about your mother coming to us so soon. I've had a letter from home, and it seems that father has had losses and can't help me out as he intended to do. He's always either losing or making piles of money, so don't bother your precious head about that. In six months he'll probably be making piles again, but, in the meantime, mother suggests that we should postpone taking a house, and come and live with her for a few months."
"I'd rather live on your income, George, no matter how small it is. I'm an awfully good manager, and you'd be surprised to see how far I can make a little money go. Why can't we take an apartment somewhere in an inexpensive neighbourhood—one just big enough for mother and you and me?"
"We couldn't live half so well in the first place, and, besides, I'd hate like the devil to see you working yourself to death and losing your looks. That's just exactly what Patty is doing. She was the family's greatest investment, you know. Everything we had for years was spent on her because she was such a ripping beauty, and mother set her heart on her marrying nothing less than a duke. So we sent her abroad to be educated and squandered a fortune on her clothes, and then, just as mother was gloating over her triumphs, the very day after the Duke of Toxbridge proposed to her, Patty walked out one morning and married Billy King at the Little Church Around the Corner. Billy, of course, hasn't a cent to his name except what he makes painting blue pictures, and that's precious little. They're up on the West Side now, living in four rooms with neighbours who fry onions at nine o'clock in the morning next door to them, and half the time Patty hasn't even a maid, I believe, and has to do her work with the help of a charwoman."
"And is she happy?" There was eagerness in Gabriella's voice, for she was sure that she should love Patty.
"Oh, yes, Patty is happy, but mother isn't. It's rough on mother."
"I think she ought to have told your mother before she married."
"Well, Patty thought she could stand the fuss better after she'd done it than she could before. She said she needed the support of knowing they couldn't stop it. Cheeky, wasn't it?"
"And is she really so beautiful?"
"Ripping," said George; "simply ripping."
"I know I shall love her. Is she dark or fair?"
"I never thought about it, but she's a towering beauty—something between dark and fair, I suppose. She has golden hair, you know."
His arm was around her, and lifting her earnest face to his, Gabriella began in her softest voice: "I shouldn't mind a bit living like that, George—honestly I shouldn't."
"Yes, you would. It would be rotten."
"I wish you would tell me just how much we shall have to live on, dear. Even if it is very, very little, it would be so much better not to expect anything from your father. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always go back to work, you know, and I feel as if I ought to help because you are so generous about wanting mother to live with us."
He frowned slightly, while a dark flush rose to his forehead. Already Gabriella was learning how dangerously easy it was to irritate George. Serious discussions always appeared to disturb him, and at the first allusion to the responsibilities he had assumed, she could see the look of bored restlessness creep into his face. It was evidently abhorrent to him to hear her talk about business; but with her practical nature and her fundamental common sense it was impossible that she should be content to remain in a fool's paradise of financial mysteries. She had only the vaguest idea how he earned a living, and a still vaguer one of what that living represented. There was an impression in her mind that he worked in his father's office somewhere in Wall Street—he had once given her the number—and that he went "downtown" every morning after breakfast and did not get home to luncheon. Cousin Jimmy had once told her that George's father was a stockbroker, but this information conveyed little to her mind. The men she knew in Richmond were lawyers, doctors, clergymen, or engaged, like Cousin Jimmy, in the "tobacco business," and she supposed that "a stockbroker" must necessarily belong to a profession which was restricted to New York. The whole matter was hazy in her thoughts, but she hoped in time, by intelligent and tactful application, to overcome her ignorance as well as George's deeply rooted objection to her enlightenment.
"Well, you see, my income is uncertain, Gabriella. It depends a good deal upon the stock market and the sort of stuff we've been buying. Look here, darling, don't, for heaven sake, get the business bee in your bonnet. A mannish woman is worse than poison, and the less you know about stocks the more attractive you will be. Mother has lived for thirty years with father, and she doesn't know any more how he makes his money than you do at this minute."
This was as lucid, she suspected, as George was ever likely to be on the subject, and, since he was becoming visibly annoyed, she abandoned her fruitless search for information. After she was married there would be time and opportunity to find out all that she wanted to know; and even if he never told her anything more—well, she was quite accustomed to the masculine habit of never telling women anything more. Her mother and Jane were as ignorant of finance as they had been in their cradles; Cousin Pussy spoke of the "tobacco business" as if it were a sacred mystery superior to the delicate feminine faculties; and while Gabriella was engaged to Arthur, he had fallen into the habit of gently reminding her that she "knew nothing of law."
"Very well, dearest, I shan't bother you," she said cheerfully, "only, of course, I couldn't possibly leave mother with Jane and Charley. She doesn't realize it, but she would be perfectly miserable."
"She told me that leaving Richmond was like death to her."
"That's only because she knows she's going," answered Gabriella, but her endeavour to explain her mother's habit of mind appeared to her to be so hopeless that she added unconvincingly: "You can't imagine how dependent she is on me. Jane doesn't know how to manage her at all, though they are so much alike."
"Well, of course, if we live at home—"
"But you promised me we'd be to ourselves, George; you can't have forgotten it. We talked it over, every bit of it, and I told you in the beginning I couldn't leave mother."
"If you loved me enough to marry me, I should think you'd be willing to give up your family for me." He spoke doggedly; it was his way to speak doggedly when he was driving a point.
"It isn't that, dear, you know it isn't that."
Taking a letter from his pocket, he drew a sheet of blue note paper, closely interlined, from the envelope, and handed it to her.
"You can see for yourself how it is," he said in an aggrieved voice. By his tone he had managed to put her in the wrong as utterly as if she, not he, were trying to break her word. Yet she had told him in the very beginning that she could not leave her mother; she had refused to engage herself to him until he had offered Mrs. Carr a home with them. It had all been carefully arranged at the start, and now, within a month of their marriage, he had apparently forgotten that the matter was settled.
Leaning forward until the light fell on the paper, she read with trembling lips:
My Dear Son:
Your letter was a blow to me because you had said nothing of Gabriella's plan to bring her mother to New York to live with her, and, of course, this makes it out of the question that you should come straight to us. Now that Patty has gone—poor child, I am afraid she will live to repent her rashness—your father and I had quite looked forward to having you young people in the house; but we haven't room, even if I could bring myself to face the prospect of a rival mother-in-law under the same roof with me—and frankly I can't. And your father has simply put his foot down on the idea. As you know he hasn't been very well of late—the doctor says he is threatened with diabetes—so my one thought is to spare him every useless anxiety. He sleeps very badly and doesn't seem able, even at night, to detach his mind from his business worries. If he hadn't had such a bad summer, he might have been able to help you start housekeeping, but there have been a great many failures in the last few months, and he says he is obliged to cut down all his expenses in order to tide over the depression in the market. We are trying to retrench in every possible way, and, for this reason, I fear we shall hardly be able to go down to your wedding. This is a terrible disappointment to us both, and your father is particularly distressed because he will not be able to add to your income this year. Of course, if you should change your mind and decide to come to us, we can get Patty's old room ready for you at once, and turn yours into a sitting-room. Think this over and let me know as soon as you possibly can.
I see Patty occasionally. She is in high spirits, but looking a little thinner, I think. Billy has painted a portrait of Mrs. Pletheridge, but it isn't a bit flattering, and he wouldn't let her wear her pearls, so I'm afraid she won't buy it. I don't believe he will ever make anything of himself. What a waste when Patty might have been Duchess of Toxbridge. Though I am not a bit worldly, I can't help regretting all that she has lost.
Your loving mother,
When she had folded the letter and given it back to him, Gabriella dropped her hands in her lap and sat gazing thoughtfully at the square of sunlight by the window.
"If you cared as much as I do, you'd be willing to give up your family," he said suddenly, encouraged not only by her manner, which appeared yielding, but by his secret ineradicable conviction that her love was greater than his. Across the romantic screen of his features there flashed a swift change of expression, like the flicker of light on a coloured mask. If she could only have looked through the charming vacancy of his face, she would have been surprised to discover the directness and simplicity of his mental processes. He wanted his way, and he meant, provided it was humanly possible, to have whatever he wanted.
"It isn't that, George. Love has nothing to do with it. It is a question of right."
For a minute he surveyed her moodily; then, rising from her side on the sofa, he took two steps to the window and looked up at the boughs of the poplar tree. The gray squirrel was still there, and he watched it attentively while he pondered his answer. Yes, the whole trouble with Gabriella was too much conscience. This conscience of hers had got in his way before now, and he had suddenly an uneasy feeling, as if he had struck against the vein of iron which lay beneath the rich bloom of her passion. The thought of her opposition, of her secret hardness, bitterly angered him. He wanted her—no other woman could satisfy him—but he wanted her utterly different from what she was. He was seized with an indomitable desire to make her over, to change her entirely from that Gabriella with whom he had fallen in love. Of course, she was right as far as the mere facts of the case were concerned. He had promised that her mother should live with them; but he felt indignantly that it was an act of disloyalty for her to be right at his expense. She ought to have given in, and she ought to have given in gracefully, there was no question of that. When a woman loved a man as much as she loved him, it was unreasonable of her to let these innumerable little points of fact come between them; it was ungenerous of her to cling so stubbornly to her advantage. Her very quietness—that look of gentle obstinacy which refused either to fight back or to surrender—irritated him almost to desperation. His temper, always inflammable, suddenly burst out, and he felt that he wanted to shake her. He wanted, indeed, to do anything in the world except the sensible thing of walking out of the house and leaving her to reflection.
"I should think your first duty would be to your husband," he said, while the streak of cruelty which was at the heart of his love showed like a livid mark on the surface of his nature. His mind was conscious of but a single thought while he stood there in the wind which fluttered the curtains and filled the room with the roving scents of October, and this was the bitter longing to make Gabriella over into the girl that he wanted her to become. Though it cost him her love, he felt that he must punish her for being herself.
"Do you mean always to put your mother before me?" he asked passionately, after a minute.
Still she did not answer, and in the deep, earnest eyes that she turned on him he saw not anger, not sorrow even, but wonder. As he stretched out his hand, it fell on Mrs. Carr's window box, where a rose geranium remained bright green in the midst of the withered stems of the clove pinks, and the scent of the leaves, as he crushed them between his fingers, evoked a swift memory of Gabriella in one of her soft moods, saying over and over, "I love you! Oh, I do love you!" At the image his temper changed as if by magic, and crossing the room, he bent down and kissed her with a fierceness that bruised her lips.
"I adore you, Gabriella," he said.
Though she had seen these sudden changes in him before, she had never grown wholly used to them. Her deeper nature, with its tranquil brightness, untroubled by passing storms, was unprepared for the shallow violence which swept over him, leaving no visible trace of its passage. No, she could not understand him—she could only hope that after they were married the blindness would pass from her love, and she would attain that completer knowledge for which she was striving so patiently. The transforming miracle of marriage, she trusted, would reveal this mystery, with so many others.
"How can you hurt me so, George?" she asked with reproachful tenderness.
"It's because you are so stubborn, darling. If you weren't so stubborn I shouldn't do it. Do you know you get almost mulish at times," he added, laughing, while she moved nearer and rubbed her cheek softly against his sleeve.
"You frighten me," she whispered. "I was just beginning to believe that you really meant it."
"Oh, lovers always quarrel. There's nothing in that."
"But I hate to see you angry. It would almost kill me if it lasted longer than a minute. Never let it last, will you, George?"
"Of course not, Goosey. It never has lasted, has it?"
"Goosey" was one of his favourite names for her. He liked it because it gave him a merry feeling of superiority when he said it, and Gabriella liked it for perhaps the same reason. In the first ardour of her self-surrender she caught eagerly at any straw that she might cast on the flame of her passion.
"And I'm not really stubborn, dear. Tell me that I'm not really stubborn."
"You darling! I was only teasing you."
"I'll do anything on earth for you that I can, George."
"I know you will, dearest, and you don't honestly care more for your family, do you?"
"I love you better than all the rest of the world put together. There are times when I think it must be wrong to love any man as much as I love you. My grandmother used to say that when you loved like that you 'tempted Providence.' Isn't it dreadful to believe that you could tempt Providence by loving?"
He kissed her throat where a loosened strand of dark hair had fallen against the whiteness.
"Will you do what I ask, Gabriella?"
So it was all to begin over again! He had not really given in, he had not really yielded even while he was kissing her. She closed her eyes, leaning her head on his shoulder. For a moment she felt as if a physical pain were pressing into her forehead.
"Will you do it, Gabriella?" It was as if he put his soul into his voice, wooing her tenderly away from her better judgment. He was testing his power to dominate her; and never had she felt it so vividly, never had her will been so incapable of resisting him as at that instant. Moving slightly in his arms she looked at the clear red brown of his throat, at his sensitive mouth, with the faint dent in the lower lip, at his bright blue eyes, which had grown soft while he pleaded. His physical power over her was complete, and he knew it. Her flesh had become as soft as flowers in his arms, while her eyes, like dark flames, trembled and fell away from his look.
"It isn't only the thing itself, darling, but I don't like you to refuse me. It hurts me that you won't do what I ask of you."
"If it were anything else, George."
"But it isn't anything else. It is just that I want you to myself—all to myself, after we are married."
"Don't ask me, dearest. If you only knew how it makes me suffer."
Her voice was a caress when she answered, but, as he told himself passionately, she had not yielded an inch. Once again he had run against the iron hidden under the bloom.
"Then you refuse absolutely?" he asked, and though his voice quivered still, it was no longer from tenderness. He hated stubbornness, and, most of all, he hated it in the woman who was going to be his wife. A life of continual contradiction, he felt, would be intolerable. A strong will, which he had always admired in himself, became a positive failing in Gabriella. A woman's strength lay, after all, not in force of character, but in sweetness of nature. And yet how lovely she was! How soft, how sweet she looked as she gazed up at him with her radiant eyes. There was a fascination for him in her tall slenderness, in the graceful curve of her head, which drooped slightly like a dark flower on its stem. Everything about her charmed him, and yet he had never called her beautiful in his thoughts.
"I told you how it was, dear, when you first asked me to marry you," she said, with infinite patience. "I told you that it wasn't fair to ask you to take mother, but that I couldn't possibly leave her alone in her old age. Jane's home is wretchedly unhappy—she can never tell when Charley is to be counted on—and it would kill mother to be dependent on Charley even if he were willing. I see your side, George, indeed, indeed, I do, but I can't—I simply can't act differently. I have always known it was my duty to look after mother—nothing can change that, not even love. She worked for us while we were little, and it is trouble that has made her what she is to-day. You must see that I am right, George; you can't possibly help it."
But he couldn't see it. If the truth had been twice as evident, if Gabriella had been twice as reasonable, he could still have seen only his wishes.
"I am only asking you to do what is best for us both, Gabriella."
"But how can it be best for me to become an ungrateful child, George?"
Neither of them wanted to quarrel, yet in a minute the barbed words were flying between them; in a minute they faced each other as coldly as if they had been strangers instead of adoring lovers. At the last, he looked at her an instant in silence while she sat perfectly motionless with her deep eyes changing to gold in the sunlight; then, turning on his heel, without a word, he left the house, and walked rapidly over the coloured leaves on the pavement. As he passed under the poplar tree the gray squirrel darted gaily along a bough over his head, but he did not look up, and a minute later Gabriella saw him cross the street and vanish beyond the pointed yew tree in the yard at the corner.
"I wonder if this is the end?" she thought bitterly, and she knew that even if it were the end, that even if she died of it, she could never give way. Something stronger than herself—that vein of iron in her soul—would not bend, would not break though every fibre of her being struggled against it. All the happiness of her life vanished with George as he passed beyond the yew tree at the corner, yet she sat there with her hands still folded, her lips still firm, watching the tree long after its pointed dusk had hidden her lover's figure. Had she followed her desire as lightly as George followed his, she would have run after him as he disappeared, and bringing him back to the room he had left, dissolved in tears on his breast. She longed to do this, but the vein of iron held her firm in spite of herself. She could not move toward him, she could not even have put out her hand had he entered.
The bell rang, and her blood drummed in her ears; but it was only Cousin Jimmy bringing Mrs. Carr back from the cemetery. Hearty, deep-chested, meticulously brushed and groomed, he wore his Sunday frock with an unnatural stiffness, as if he were still hearing Pussy's parting warning to be "careful about his clothes." His dark hair, trained for twenty years from a side parting, shone with the lustre of satin, and his shining eyes, so like the eyes of adventurous youth, wore their accustomed Sabbath look of veiled and ashamed sleepiness.
"So you're going to take the old lady to New York with you, Gabriella?"
"I can't bear to think of it, Cousin Jimmy," remarked Mrs. Carr, while she adjusted her crape veil over the back of her chair. "I don't see how I can stand living in the North."
"Well, what about our friend Charley? Do you think you could get on any better with Charley for a son-in-law?"
"You oughtn't to joke about it, Cousin Jimmy. It is too serious for joking."
"I beg your pardon, Cousin Fanny—but where is George, Gabriella? I thought he was to meet you here."
"He had to go just before you came. Don't you think mother is looking well?"
"As well as I ever saw her. I was telling her so as we drove back from Hollywood. All she needs is to leave off moping for a while and she'd lose ten years of her age. Why, I tell you if it were I, I'd jump at the chance to go to New York for a few years. If there wasn't a single thing there except the theatres, I'd jump at it. You can go to a different show every night of your life, Cousin Fanny."
"I have never been inside of a theatre in my life. You ought to know me better than to think it," replied Mrs. Carr, while the corners of her mouth drooped. She had laid her bag of grosgrain silk on the table at her elbow, and untying the strings of her bonnet, she neatly rolled them into two tight little wads which she fastened with jet-headed pins.
"You make her go, honey, when you get hold of her," said Jimmy to Gabriella in a sympathetic aside "What she needs is bracing up—I was saying so to Pussy only this morning. 'If you could just brace up Cousin Fanny, she'd be as well as you or I,' was what I said to her Now I don't believe there's a better place on earth to brace a body up than old New York. I remember I took my poor old father there just a month or two before his last illness, when he was getting over a spell of lumbago, and it worked on him like magic. We stayed at the Fifth Avenue Hotel—you must be sure to get a dinner at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Cousin Fanny—and went to a show every blessed night for a week. It made the old man young again, upon my word it did, and he was still talking about it when he came down with his last illness. Well, I must be going home to Pussy now. The boys and I went out squirrel hunting yesterday, and Pussy promised me Brunswick stew for dinner. Now, don't you forget to brace up, Cousin Fanny. That's all on earth you need. The world ain't such a bad place, after all, when you sit down and think right hard about it."
He went out gaily, followed by Mrs. Carr's accusing eyes to the hatrack, where he stopped to take his glossy silk hat from a peg. Turning in the buggy as he drove off, he waved merrily back at them with the whip before he touched the fat flanks of his gray.
"Cousin Jimmy means well, but he has a most unfortunate manner at times," observed Mrs. Carr.
"What is the matter, Gabriella? Have you a headache?"
"Oh, no, but the sunshine is so strong."
"Then you'd better lower the shade. Why, what in the world has happened to my rose geranium? I was just going to pot it for the winter."
"I'm sure it isn't hurt, mother. George broke the leaves when he was looking out of the window."
"I thought he was going to stay for dinner. Did you make the jelly and syllabub?"
"I made it, but he wouldn't stay."
"Well, we'll send some upstairs to Miss Jemima. Do you know she had to have the doctor this morning? I met him as I was going out, and he said he was sorry to hear I was going to leave Richmond. I can't imagine where on earth he could have heard it, for I haven't mentioned it to a soul except Lydia Peyton. Yes, I believe I did speak of it to Bessie Spencer at the meeting of the Ladies' Aid Society the other day. Where are you going, Gabriella? Would you mind putting my bonnet in the bandbox?"
No, Gabriella wouldn't mind, and taking the folds of crape in her arms, she went to get the green paper bandbox out of the closet. Though she had sacrificed her happiness for her mother, she felt that it would be impossible for her to listen with a smiling face to her innocent prattle.
In the afternoon, when Mrs. Carr, with a small and inconspicuous basket in her hand, had set out on her Sunday visit to the Old Ladies' Home, and Marthy, attired in an apron with an embroidered bib, had taken the jelly and syllabub upstairs to Miss Jemima, Gabriella sat down in her mother's rocking-chair by the window, and tried desperately to be philosophical. The sound of the old maids from the floor above descending on their way to a funeral disturbed her for a minute, and she thought with an extraordinary clearness, "That is what my life will be if George never comes back. That is what it means to be old." And there was a morbid pleasure in pressing this thought, like a pointed weapon, into her heart. "That is all there will be for me—that will be my life," she went on after an instant of throbbing anguish. "I had no right to think of marriage with mother dependent on me, and the best thing for me to do is to start again with Mr. Brandywine. George was right in a way. Yes, it is hard on him, and I was wrong ever to think of it—ever to let him fall in love with me." The mere thought that George was right in a way gave her singular comfort, and while she dwelt on it, the discovery seemed to throw a vivid light on the cause of the quarrel. Of course, she had expected too much of him. It was natural that he should not want to be burdened with her family. What she had looked upon as selfishness was only the natural instinct of a man in love with a woman. He had said that he wanted her to himself, and to want her to himself appeared now to be the most reasonable desire in the world.
Yes, she had acquitted George; but, in acquitting him, it was characteristic of her that she should not have yielded an inch of her ground. She drew comfort from declaring him innocent, but it was the tragic comfort of one who blesses while she renounces. George's blamelessness did not alter in the least her determination to cling to her mother.
The afternoon wore on; the soft golden light on the pavement was dappled with shadows; and the wind, blowing over the iron urns in the yard, scattered the withered leaves of portulaca over the grass. Though the summer still lingered, and flowers were blooming behind the fences along the street, the faint violet haze of autumn was creeping slowly over the sunshine. Now and then an acquaintance, returning from afternoon service, looked up to bow to her, and while the daylight was still strong, Marthy, resplendent in Sunday raiment, came out of the little green gate at the side of the yard and passed, mincing, in the direction of the negro church. Then the door opened slowly, and the two old maids came in and stopped for a minute at the parlour door to see if Gabriella "had company."
"Such a lovely evening, my dear"—they never used the word afternoon—"we went all the way to the cemetery. She was buried in her grandfather's lot, you know, in the old part up on the hill. It was a beautiful drive, but Amelia and I couldn't help thinking of the poor young thing all the time."
It was Miss Jemima who had spoken, and her kind, plain face, all puffs and pleasant wrinkles, had not yet relaxed from the unnatural solemnity it had worn at the funeral. She was seldom grave, and never despondent, though to Gabriella she appeared to lead an unendurable life. Unlike Miss Amelia, she had not even a happy youth and a lover to look back upon; she had nothing, indeed, except her unfailing goodness and patience to support her.
"I don't like to see you alone, honey," she said, untying the strings of her black silk bonnet, which fitted her cheerful features like a frame. "If the doctor hadn't told me to go to bed as soon as I came in, we'd sit a while with you for company."
She felt that it was morbid and unnatural in Gabriella to sit alone in a dim room when there were so many young people out in the streets. "You mark my words, there's some reason back of Gabriella's moping all by herself," she remarked to Miss Amelia as she took off her "things" a few minutes later. "It wouldn't surprise me a bit to hear that she'd had a fuss with her sweetheart."