"I declare, sister Jemima, you are too sentimental to live," observed Miss Amelia as she filled the tea kettle on the fender "Anybody would think to hear you talk that there was nothing in life except making love."
"Well, there isn't anything else so interesting when you're young. You used to think so yourself, sister Amelia."
Standing gaunt and black, with the tea kettle held out stiffly before her, Miss Amelia turned her tragic face on her sister.
"Well, I reckon you don't know much about it," she responded with the unconscious cruelty of age. Having been once the victim of a great passion, she had developed at last into an uncompromising realist, wholly devoid of sentimentality, while Miss Jemima, lacking experience, had enveloped the unknown in a rosy veil of illusion.
"You don't have to know a thing to think about it, sister Amelia," replied the invalid timidly as she put on her flannel wrapper and fastened it with a safety pin at the throat.
"Well, I reckon it's all right for a girl like Gabriella," said Miss Amelia crushingly, "but when you look back on it from my age, you'll know it isn't worth a row of pins in a life."
And beside the window downstairs Gabriella was thinking passionately: "Shall I ever grow old? Is it possible that I shall ever grow old like that?"
With the bare question, terror seized her—the terror of growing old without George, the terror of dying before she had known the full beauty of life. Looking ahead of her at the years empty of love, she saw them like a gray road, leaf strewn, wind swept, deserted, and herself creeping through them, as bent, as wrinkled, as disillusioned, as Miss Amelia. The very image of a life without love was intolerable to her since she had known George—for love meant George, and only George, in her thoughts. That she could ever be happy again, ever take a natural pleasure in life if she lost him, was unimaginable to her at the instant. She loved him, she had loved him from the first moment she saw him, she would never, though she lived a million years, love any one else. It was as absurd to think that she could love again as that a flower could bloom afresh when its petals were withered. No, without George there was only loveless old age—there was only the future of Miss Amelia before her. And she clung to this idea with a horror which Miss Amelia, who seldom reflected that she was loveless and by no means considered herself an object of pity, would have despised.
"I have no right to marry George, and yet if I don't marry him I shall be miserable all my life," she told herself with a sensation of panic. It would be so long, the rest of her life, and without George it was as desolate as the gray road of her vision. All the beauties of the universe, all the miracles of hope, of youth, of spring; her health, her intellect, her capacity for work and for taking pleasure in little things—all these were as nothing to her if she lost George out of her life. "I oughtn't to marry him," she repeated, "but if I don't marry him I shall be miserable every minute until I die."
Then a terror more awful than any she had yet suffered clutched at her heart. Suppose he should never come back! Suppose he had really meant to leave her for good! Suppose he had ceased to love her since he went out of the house! The possibility was so agonizing that she rose blindly from her chair and turned from the window as if the quiet street, filled with the dreamy sunshine of October, had offered an appalling, an unbelievable sight to her eyes. If he had ceased to love her, she was helpless; and this sense of helplessness awoke a feeling of rage in her heart. If he did not come back, she could never go after him. She could only sit and wait until she grew as old and as ugly as Miss Amelia. While the minutes, which seemed hours, dragged away, she wept the bitterest tears of her life—tears not of wounded love, but of anger because she could do nothing but wait.
While she wept the bell rang. When she did not answer it, it rang again, and after an interminable pause the footsteps of Miss Amelia were heard descending the stairs. Then the door opened and shut, the footsteps began their slow ascent of the stairs, and after an eternity of silence, she knew that George had entered the room.
Wiping her eyes on the ruffle of the sofa pillow, she sat up and faced him, while her pride hardened again.
"Gabriella, I have come back."
"I see you have," she answered coldly, and choked over a sob.
"What are you crying about, Gabriella?"
"I—I have a headache."
"Have you thought about me at all to-day?"
He laughed softly, the laugh of a conqueror.
"I'm glad at least that I didn't give you the headache."
"You didn't. I had it anyway."
He was radiant, he was as fresh as the wind. Never in his life had he looked so gay, so handsome, so kind. His blue eyes were brimming with light. The mere fact of being alive appeared to fill him with ecstasy. And she loved him for his gaiety, for his lightness, for the ease with which he took for granted her unchangeable love. She longed with all her soul and body to prove this love by a surrender more complete than any she had made in the past. She longed to say: "I am yours to do with as you please, and nothing in the universe matters but you and my love for you." The very core of her nature longed to say this to him; but her indomitable pride, which even passion could not overcome, kept her sitting there in silence while she felt that her heart was bursting with happiness.
"Have you thought it over, Gabriella?"
She nodded. To save her life, she felt, she could not utter a word without sobbing.
"And you have absolutely and finally decided to have your way?"
This time she shook her head, but the tears fell on her cheeks and she did not brush them away. From his voice she knew that she had triumphed, but there was no delight in the knowledge. She did not want to triumph; she wanted only to yield to him and to make him happy by yielding.
"O George!" she cried suddenly, and held out her arms to him.
As he looked down at her his expression changed suddenly to one of intense sadness. From his face, which had grown pale, he might have been contemplating the Eternal Verities, though, in reality, he was considering nothing more exalted than the dreary prospect of a lifetime spent in the society of Mrs. Carr.
Then, as Gabriella enfolded him, he laughed softly. He had given in, but he knew in the very instant of his defeat that he should some day turn it to victory.
THE NEW WORLD
Gabriella stood in front of the station, ecstatically watching George while he struggled for a cab. In the pale beams of the early sunshine her face looked young, flushed, and expectant, as if she had just awakened from sleep, and her eyes, following her husband, were the happy eyes of a bride. She wore a new dress of blue broadcloth, passionately overtrimmed by Miss Polly Hatch; on her head a blue velvet toque from Brandywine's millinery department rested as lightly as a benediction; and her hands clasped Arthur's wedding present, a bag of alligator skin bearing her initials in gold. One blissful month ago she and George had been married, and now, on the reluctant return from a camp in the Adirondacks, they were confronting the disillusioning actuality of the New York streets at eight o'clock in the morning. While Gabriella waited, shivering a a little, for the air was sharp and her broadcloth dress was not warm, she amused herself planning a future which appeared to consist of inexhaustible happiness. And mingling with her dreams there were divine memories of the last month and of her marriage. After that one quarrel George, she told herself, had been "simply perfect." His manner to her mother had been beautiful; he had been as eager as Gabriella to obliterate all memory of the difference between them, though, of course, after his yielding that supreme point she had felt that she must give up everything else—and the giving up had been rapture. He had shown not the faintest disposition to crow over her when at last, after consulting Mrs. Carr, she had told him that her mother really preferred to stay with Jane until summer, though he had remarked with evident relief: "Then we'll put off looking for an apartment. It's easier to find one in the summer anyway, and in the meantime you can talk it over with mother."
After this everything had gone so smoothly, so exquisitely, that it was more like a dream than like actual life when she looked back on it. She saw herself in the floating lace veil of her grandmother, holding white roses in her hand, and she saw George's face—the face of her dreams come true—looking at her out of a starry mist, while in the shining wilderness that surrounded them she heard an organ playing softly "The Voice That Breathed O'er Eden." Then the going away! The good-byes at the station in Richmond; her mother's face, pathetic and drawn against the folds of her crape veil; Cousin Jimmy, crimson and jovial; Florrie's violent waving as the train moved away; Miss Jemima, with her smiling, pain-tortured eyes, flinging a handful of rice; the last glimpse of them; the slowly vanishing streets, where the few pedestrians stopped to look after the cars; the park where she had played as a child; the brilliant flower-beds filled with an autumnal bloom of scarlet cannas; the white-aproned negro nurses and the gaily decorated perambulators; the clustering church spires against a sky of pure azure; the negro hovels, with frost-blighted sunflowers dropping brown seeds over the paling fences; the rosy haze of it all; and her heart saying over and over, "There is nothing but love in the world! There is nothing but love in the world!"
"I've got a cab—the last one," said George, pushing his way through the crowd, and laying his hand on her arm with a possessive and authoritative touch. "Let me put you in, and then I'll speak to the driver."
As he gave the address she watched him, still fascinated with the delicious strangeness of it all. It was like an adventure to have George whisk her so peremptorily into a cab, and then stand with his foot on the step while he curtly directed the driver. Nothing could surpass the romance—the supreme exciting romance of life. Every minute was an event; every act of George's was as thrilling as a moment in melodrama. And as they drove through the streets, over the pale bands of sunshine, she had a sense of lightness and wonder, as if she were driving in a world of magic toward ineffable happiness.
"Isn't it strange to be here together, George?" she said. "I can hardly believe it." But in her heart she was thinking: "I shall never want anything but love in my life. If I have George I shall never want anything else." The bedraggled, slatternly figures of the women sweeping the pavements in the cross-street through which they were driving filled her with a fugitive sadness, so faint, so pale that it hardly dimmed the serene brightness of her mood. "I wish they were all as happy as I am," she thought; "and they might be if they only knew the secret of happiness. If they only knew that nothing in the world matters when one has love in one's heart."
"You'll believe it soon enough when we turn into Fifth Avenue," replied George, glancing with disgust out of the window. A month of intimacy had increased the power of his smile over her senses, and when he turned to her again after a minute, she felt something of the faint delicious tremor of their first meeting. Already she was beginning to discover that beyond his expressive eyes he had really very little of importance to express, that his prolonged silences covered poverty of ideas rather than abundance of feeling, that his limited vocabulary was due less to reticence than to the simple inarticulateness of the primitive mind. Through the golden glamour of her honeymoon there had loomed suddenly the discovery that George was not clever—but cleverness mattered so little, she told herself, as long as he loved her.
"I hope your mother will like me," she said nervously after a minute.
"I'll be sorry for her if she doesn't."
"Do I look nice?"
"Of course you do. I never saw you when you didn't."
"I feel so dreadfully untidy. I never tried to dress in a sleeping-car before."
"It did rock, didn't it?"
"I'll never travel again at night if I can help it. There's a cinder in your eye; let me get it out for you." It thrilled her pleasantly to remove the cinder with the corner of her handkerchief, and to order him to sit still whenever the cab jolted. It was incredibly young, incredibly foolish, but it was all a part of the wonderful enchantment in which she moved. The cinder had made an agreeable episode, but when it had been removed there was nothing more for them to talk about. In four weeks of daily and hourly companionship they had said very easily, Gabriella had found, everything they had longed so passionately to say to each other. It was strange—it was positively astounding how soon they had talked themselves empty of ideas and fallen back upon repetition and ejaculation. Before her marriage she had thought that a lifetime would be too short to hold the full richness of their confidences; and yet now, after a month, though they still made love, they had ceased, almost with relief, to make conversation.
After turning into Fifth Avenue they drove for ages between depressing examples in brownstone of an architecture which, like George, was trying rather vaguely to express nothing; and then rolling heavily into Fifty-seventh Street stopped presently before one of the solemn houses which stood, in the dignity of utter ugliness, midway of a long block. "They are all so alike I don't see how I shall ever know where I live," thought Gabriella. Then, as George helped her out of the cab, the door opened as if by magic, and beyond the solemn manservant she saw the short, stout figure of a lady in a tightly fitting morning gown of black silk. Hurrying up the steps, she was pressed against a large smooth bosom which yielded as little as if it had been upholstered in leather.
"My dear daughter! my dear Gabriella!" exclaimed the lady in a charming voice; and looking down after the first kiss, Gabriella saw a handsome, slightly florid face, with the vivacious smile of a girl and a beautiful forehead under a stiffly crimped arch of gray hair which looked as hard and bright as silver.
"I've been up since seven o'clock waiting for you. You must be famished. Come straight in to breakfast. Your father is already at the table, George. Poor man, he has to start downtown so dreadfully early."
Bright, effusive, vivacious, and as emphatically Southern as if she had never left Franklin Street, Mrs. Fowler took off Gabriella's hat and coat, kissed her several times while she was doing so, and at last, still talking animatedly, led them into the dining-room.
"Archibald, here they are," she said in a tone of unaffected delight, while a thin, serious-looking man, with anxious eyes, pale, aristocratic features, and skin that had a curious parchment-like texture, put down the Times, and came forward to meet them. Though he did not speak as he kissed her, Gabriella felt that there was sincere, if detached, friendliness in his little pat on her shoulder. He led her almost tenderly to her chair; and as soon as she was comfortably seated and supplied with rolls and bacon, resigned her contentedly to his wife and the butler. His manner of gentle abstraction, which Gabriella attributed first to something he had just read in the newspaper, she presently discovered to be his habitual attitude toward all the world except Wall Street. He ate his breakfast as if his attention were somewhere else; he spoke to his son and his daughter-in-law kindly, but as if he were not thinking about them; he treated his wife, whom he adored, as if he had not clearly perceived her. In the profound abstraction in which he lived every impression appeared to have become blurred except the tremendous impression of whirling forces; every detail seemed to have been obscured except the gigantic details of "Business." His manner was perfectly well-bred, but it was the manner of a man who moves through life rehearsing a part of which he barely remembers the words. From the first minute it was evident to Gabriella that her father-in-law adored his wife as an ideal, though he seemed scarcely aware of her as a person. He had given her his love, but his interests, his energies, his attention were elsewhere.
"Is that the way George will treat me—as if I were only a dream woman?" thought Gabriella while she watched her father-in-law over the open sheet of the Times. Then, with her eyes on her husband, she realized that he was of his mother's blood, not his father's. Business could never absorb him. His restlessness, his instability, his love of pleasure, would prevent the sapping of his nature by one supreme interest.
The table, like everything else in the room, was solid, heavy, and expensive. On the floor a heavy and expensive carpet, with a pattern in squares, stretched to the heavy and expensive moulding which bordered a heavy and expensive paper. Mrs. Fowler's taste, like Jimmy's (he was her third cousin), leaned apparently toward embossment, for behind a massive repouss silver service she sat, as handsome and substantial as the room, with her face flushing in splotches from the heat of her coffee.
Some twenty-odd years before the house had been furnished at great cost, according to the opulent taste of the early 'seventies, and, unchanged by severer and more frugal fashions, it remained a solid monument to the first great financial deal of Archibald Fowler. It was at the golden age, when, still young and energetic, luck had come to him in a day, that he had bought the brownstone house in Fifty-seventh Street, and his wife, also young and energetic, had gone out "to get whatever she liked." Trained in a simple school during the war, and brought up in the formal purity of high-ceiled rooms furnished in Chippendale and Sheraton, her natural tastes were, nevertheless, as ornate as the interiors of the New York shops. Though the blood of colonial heroes ran in her veins, she was still the child of her age, and her age prided itself upon being entirely modern in all things from religion to furniture.
As she sat there behind the mammoth coffee urn, from which a spiral of steam floated, her handsome face irradiated the spirit of kindness. Because of her rather short figure, she appeared at her best when she was sitting, and now, with her large, tightly laced hips hidden beneath the table and her firm, jet-plastered bosom appearing above it, she presented a picture of calm and matronly beauty. Not once did she seem to think of herself or her own breakfast. Even while she buttered her toast and drank her steaming coffee, her bright blue eyes travelled unceasingly over the table, first to her husband's plate, then to Gabriella's, then to her son's. It was easy to see that she was the dominant and vital force in the household. She ruled Archibald, less indirectly perhaps, but quite as consistently as Cousin Pussy ruled Cousin Jimmy.
"My dear, you must eat your breakfast," she said urgently to her daughter-in-law. "Archibald, let me give you your second cup of coffee. Remember what a trying day you have before you, and make a good breakfast. It is so hard to get him to eat," she explained to Gabriella; "I have to coax him to drink his two cups of coffee, for if he doesn't he is sure to come home with a headache."
"Well, give me a cup, Evelyn," replied Mr. Fowler, in his gentle voice, yielding apparently to please her. In his youth he must have been very handsome, Gabriella thought; but now, though he still retained a certain distinction, he had the look of a man who has been drained of his vitality. What surprised her—for she had heard him described as "a hard man in business"—was the suggestion of the scholar in his appearance. With his narrow, carefully brushed head, his dreamy and rather wistful blue eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses, his stooping, slender shoulders, and his long, delicate hands covered with prominent veins, he ought to have been either a poet or a philosopher.
"You must be happy with us, my dear," he had said to Gabriella, showing a minute later such gentle eagerness to return to a part of the newspaper which Gabriella had never read and did not understand, that his wife remarked pityingly: "Read your paper, Archibald, and don't let our chatter disturb you. There are a thousand things I want to say to the children."
"Well, it's time for me to be going, Evelyn," Mr. Fowler responded, reluctantly folding the pages; "I'll look into this on the way down."
"Remember, dear, that Judge Crowborough is coming to dinner."
"I'll remember. Is there any one else?"
"Mrs. Crowborough, of course, and Colonel Buffington, and one or two others. Nobody that you will care for except the judge and Patty and Billy."
"I shan't forget, but I may be a little late getting home. Good-bye, my dear, until evening."
Bending over her chair, he kissed her flushed cheek, while George remarked carelessly: "I'll see you later, father, when I've had a bath and a shave."
After the gentle tones of Mr. Fowler, the vitality of George's voice sounded almost brutal, and he added just as carelessly when the front door had shut softly: "The old man looks seedy, doesn't he, mother?"
A worried look brought out three startling lines in Mrs. Fowler's forehead, and Gabriella observed suddenly that there were tiny crow's feet around her blue eyes where the whites were flecked ever so faintly with yellow. Though she was well into the mid-fifties, her carefully preserved skin had kept the firmness and the texture of youth, and she still flushed easily and unbecomingly as she had done as a girl.
"He hasn't been a bit well, George. I am very anxious about him. You know when he worries over his business, he doesn't eat his meals, and as soon as he stops eating he begins to have nervous dyspepsia. He has just had a bad attack; that's why he looks so run down and haggard."
"Can't the doctor do anything for him?"
"He gave him some drops, but it is so hard to get your father to take medicine. Rest is what he needs, and, of course, that is out of the question while things are so unsettled. You must help him all you can, my boy, and Gabriella and I will manage with each other's company."
Her bright smile was still on her lips, but Gabriella noticed that she pushed her buttered roll away as if she were choking.
In the early afternoon, when George had gone to join his father in the office, and Gabriella, seated at a little white and gold desk in the room which had been Patty's, was just finishing a letter to her mother, Mrs. Fowler came in, and pushing a chintz-covered chair close to the desk, sank into it and laid her small nervous hand on the arm of her daughter-in-law. She was wearing a velvet bonnet, with strings, and a street gown of black broadcloth, which fitted her like a glove and accentuated, after the fashion of the 'nineties, her small, compact waist and the deep substantial curves of her bosom and hips. Her eyes, behind the little veil of spotted tulle which reached to the tip of her nose, were bright and wistful, and though her colour was too high, a smile of troubled sweetness lent it a peculiar charm of expression.
"How nice you look, my dear," she said, with her pleasant manner, which no anxiety, hardly any grief, could dispel. "Are you very busy, or may I talk to you a little while?"
Drawing closer to her, Gabriella raised the plump little hand to her lips. Beneath the surface pleasantness of Mrs. Fowler's life—that pleasantness which wrapped her like a religion—she was beginning to discern a deep disquietude.
"I want to talk to you, mamma," she said, and her manner was a caress.
"You love George very much, dear?" asked Mrs. Fowler so suddenly that Gabriella looked at her startled.
For a minute the girl could not speak. "Oh, yes; oh, yes," she answered presently, and choked over the words.
"We wanted so much to go to your wedding—we were afraid you would think it strange that we stayed away, but Archibald had his attack just then, and on top of it he was terribly worried about his affairs. We have had a very hard year, and we feel so sorry, both of us, that we can't do more for your pleasure. As it is, we are cutting down our expenses in every way, and I have even decided to give up my carriage the first of next year.
"I know, I know," said Gabriella, who had never had a carriage, and to whom the giving up of one seemed the smallest imaginable sacrifice. "We mustn't add to your cares," she went on after a minute. "Wouldn't it be better, really better, if we were to take an apartment at once instead of waiting until June?"
"Until June?" repeated Mrs. Fowler vaguely, and she added quickly: "It is the greatest pleasure to have you here. Since Patty went I get so terribly lonely, and I don't think it would be at all wise for you to go to yourselves. George has hardly anything except what his father is able to give him, you know. The poor boy hasn't the least head for business."
"But we shouldn't need much. I am sure I could manage just with what George makes—no matter how little it is."
For an instant Mrs. Fowler looked at her thoughtfully.
"You could, but George couldn't," she answered.
"You mean he is extravagant?"
"He has never had the slightest idea of the value of money—that is one of the things you must teach him. He is a dear boy, but he has never made a success of anything he has undertaken, and his father thinks he is too unpractical ever to do so. But you must try to get him to live within your means, my dear, or you will both be miserable. Try to keep him from borrowing."
"But he refuses to talk to me about his work. It bores him," said Gabriella; and her simple soul, trained to regard debt as a deeper disgrace than poverty, grew suddenly troubled. In her childhood they had gone without food rather than borrow, she remembered.
"The matter with dear George," pursued Mrs. Fowler—and from the sweetness of her manner she might have been paying him a compliment—"is that he has never been steady. He doesn't stick at anything long enough to make it a success. If he were left to himself he would speculate wildly, and this is why his father is obliged to overlook all that he does in the office. It is just here that you can be of such wonderful help to him, Gabriella, by your influence. This is why I am telling you."
But had she any influence over him? In spite of his passion for her had she ever turned him by so much as a hair's breadth from the direction of his impetuous desires? Once only she had withstood him—once only she had triumphed, and for that triumph she had paid by a complete surrender! She had been too glad to yield, too fearful of bringing a cloud over the sunny blue of his eyes.
"I want to help him—I want you to tell me how I can help him," she said earnestly. "While we are with you this winter, you must teach me how to do it. Before we begin housekeeping in the summer, I want to learn all I possibly can about George's affairs. He won't talk to me about practical matters, so you must do it."
"But where are you going, Gabriella? I thought you had decided to live with us?"
"But didn't George tell you? Surely he must have told you. We are to take an apartment in June so my mother can come to us. I felt, of course, that I couldn't leave mother, and George understands. He was perfectly lovely about it."
"I see, I see," murmured Mrs. Fowler, as if she were thinking of something else. "Well, that will all come right, dear, I hope."
Rising abruptly, she began to draw on her gloves. "If you only knew how I long to make you happy," she said softly; "as happy as I have been with George's father."
"They are so unlike," answered Gabriella, and the next day when she remembered the admission, she wondered how it had slipped from her.
"Yes, they are unlike," agreed Mrs. Fowler. "George takes after me, and I am a frivolous person. But there doesn't live a better man than my husband," she added, glowing. "I've been his wife for thirty years, and in all that time I don't believe he has ever thought first of himself. Yes, it was thirty years ago that I drove through the streets with my bridal veil on, and felt so sorry for all the girls I saw who were not going to be married. To-day I feel exactly the same way—sorry for all the women who couldn't have Archibald for a husband. I've lived with him thirty years, I've borne him children, and I'm still sorry for all the other women—even for you, Gabriella."
"He seems so kind," said Gabriella; "I felt that about him, and it's the best thing, after all, isn't it?" It was the best thing, and yet she knew that George was not kind—that he was not even good-tempered.
"Yes, it's the best thing, after all, in marriage," answered the older woman; "it's the thing that wears."
"I have always wanted the best of life," rejoined Gabriella thoughtfully; and she went on gravely after a moment: "I couldn't love George any more than I do, but I wish that in some ways he would grow like his father."
"The boy has a very sweet nature," replied George's mother, "and I hope marriage will steady him." It was a warning, Gabriella knew, and she wondered afterwards if her silent acquiescence in Mrs. Fowler's judgment had not been furtive disloyalty to George.
"A great deal will depend on you, dear, for he is very much in love," resumed Mrs. Fowler when Gabriella did not speak, and she repeated very solemnly, "I hope marriage will steady him."
In her heart Gabriella was hoping so, too, but all she said was, "I promise you that I will do all I can." She had given her word, and, looking into her eyes, Mrs. Fowler understood that her daughter-in-law was not one to give her word lightly. Gabriella would keep her promise. She would do her best, whatever happened.
The older woman, with her life's history behind her, watched the girl for a minute in silence. There was so much that she longed to say, so much that could never be spoken even between women. She herself was an optimist, but her optimism had been wrung from the bitter core of experience. Her faith was firm, though it held few illusions, for, if she was an optimist, she was also a realist. She believed in life, not because it had satisfied her, but because she had had the wisdom to understand that the supreme failure had been, not life's, but her own. If she could only have lived it again and lived it differently from the beginning! If she could only have used her deeper wisdom not to regret the past, but to create the future! Much as she had loved her husband, she knew now that she had sacrificed him to the world. Much as she had loved her children, she would have sacrificed them, also, had it been possible. To the tin gods she had offered her soul—to the things that did not matter she had yielded up the only things that mattered at all. And she knew now that, in spite of her clearness of vision, the worldliness which had ruined her life was still bound up in all that was essential and endurable in her nature. She still wanted the illusions as passionately as if she believed in their reality; she still winced as sharply at the thought of Patty's marriage and of all that Patty had given up. In the case of George, she admitted that it was her fault—that she had spoiled him—but how could she have helped it? She remembered how he had looked as a child, with his round flushed face, his chestnut curls, and his eager, questioning eyes. He had been a beautiful child, more beautiful even than Patty, and because of his beauty she had been able to refuse him nothing. Then she thought of his boyhood, of his reckless extravagance at college; of the tales of his wildness to which she had shut her ears; of his debts, and still of his debts, which she had paid out of the housekeeping money because she was afraid to let his father know of them. Yes, George, in spite of his sweet nature, had given them a great deal of trouble, so much trouble that she had been quite reconciled to his marriage with any respectable girl. The memory of a chorus girl with whom he had once entangled himself still gave her a shiver at the heart when she recalled it. Money, always more money, had gone into that; and at last, just as she had grown hopeless of saving him, he had met this fine, sensible Gabriella, who looked so strong, so competent, and there had come an end to the disturbing stories which reached her at intervals. Surely it was proof of her son's inborn fineness that from the pink perfection of girlhood he should have chosen the capable Gabriella! At first she had regretted his choice, hoping, as the worldly and the unworldly alike hope for their sons, that the object of George's disinterested affection would prove to be wealthy. Then at the sight of Gabriella she had surrendered completely. The girl was fine all through, this she could see as soon as she looked at her. She liked her noble though not beautiful face, with the broad clear forehead from which the soft dark hair was brushed back so simply, and, most of all, she liked the charm and sympathy in her voice. George had chosen well, and if she could trust his choice, why could she not trust him to be true to it?
"I wonder if you would like to put on your hat and come with me?" she asked, obeying an impulse. "I'm going to drive up to Patty's with some curtains for her bedroom."
"Oh, I'd love to," replied Gabriella with eagerness, for she hated inaction, and it was impossible to spend a whole afternoon merely thinking about one's happiness. "It won't take me a minute to get ready."
While she put on her hat and coat, Mrs. Fowler watched her thoughtfully, saying once: "It is quite cool, you'd better bring your furs, dear."
When Gabriella answered frankly, "I haven't any, I never had any furs in my life," a tender expression crept into the rather hard blue eyes of her mother-in-law, and she said quickly: "Well, I've a set of white fox that I am too old to wear, and you shall have it."
"But what of Patty?" asked Gabriella, for she had grown up thinking of other people and she couldn't break the habit of twenty years in a minute.
"Oh, Patty has all the furs she'll need for years. We spent every penny we had on Patty before she married," answered Mrs. Fowler, but she was saying to herself: "Yes, the girl is the right wife for him. I am sure she is the right wife for him."
The Park was brilliant with falling leaves, and as they drove beneath a perfect sky beside a lake which sparkled like sapphire, Gabriella, lifting her chin above the white furs, said rapturously, "Oh, I am so happy! Life is so beautiful!"
A shadow stole into the eyes with which Mrs. Fowler was watching the passing carriages, and the fixed sweetness about her mouth melted into an expression of yearning. Tears veiled the faces of the women who spoke to her in passing, for she was thinking of her first drive in the Park with her husband, and though her marriage had been a happy one, she felt a strange longing as if she wanted to weep.
"I never saw such wonderful horses," said Gabriella. "Cousin Jimmy would be wild about them;" and she added impetuously, "But the hats aren't in the least like the one I am wearing." A misgiving seized her as she realized that her dresses, copied by Miss Polly with ardent fidelity from a Paris fashion book, were all hopelessly wrong. She wondered if her green silk gown with the black velvet sleeves was different in style from the gowns the other women were wearing under their furs? Had sleeves of a different colour from the bodice, which Miss Polly considered the last touch of elegance, really gone out of fashion?
The carriage passed out of the Park, and turning into one of the streets on the upper West Side stopped presently before a small dingy apartment house, where a dozen ragged children were playing leapfrog on the pavement.
"Patty has the top floor—there's a studio." Drawing her skirts away from the children, for her generation feared contact with the lower classes, Mrs. Fowler walked briskly to the low brown steps, on which an ash can stood waiting for removal. Inside, where the hall smelled uninvitingly of stale cooking, they rang for the elevator under a dim yellow light which revealed a hundred secret lines in their faces.
"I can't imagine how Patty puts up with the place," remarked Patty's mother dejectedly. "You wouldn't believe the trouble we went to to start her well. She was the acknowledged beauty of her winter—everybody was crazy about her looks—and the very week before she ran off with Billy she had a proposal from the Duke of Toxbridge. Of course, if I'd ever dreamed she had a fancy for Billy, I'd have kept him out of her sight instead of allowing him to paint her portrait whenever she had any time she could spare. But who on earth would have suspected it? Billy King, whom she had known all her life, as poor as a church mouse, and the kind of painter whose work will never 'take' if he lives to be a thousand! His portraits may be good art—I don't pretend to know anything about that—but I do know pictures of pretty women when I see them, and his women are frights, every last one of them. If you're thin, he paints your skeleton, and if you're fat, he makes you as square as a house, and, thin or fat, he always gives you a blue and yellow complexion. He wouldn't even make Patty white, though I implored him to do it—and he made her look exactly ten years older than her age."
"I've never seen any portraits of living people—only of ancestors," said Gabriella, "and I am so much interested."
"Well, you mustn't judge them by Billy's, my dear, even if he did get all those prizes in Paris. But I always said the French were queer, and if they hadn't been, they would never have raved so over the things Billy painted. Now, Augustus Featherfield's are really charming. One can tell to look at his portraits that he paints only ladies, and he gives them all the most perfectly lovely hair, whether they have it or not. Some day I'll take you to his studio and let you see for yourself."
The elevator descended, creaking beneath the weight of a negro youth who seemed half asleep, and a little later, creaking more loudly, it bore them slowly upward to the top of the house.
"I feel as if I were taking my life in my hands whenever I come here," observed Mrs. Fowler, in the tone of dispassionate resignation with which she always discussed Patty and the surroundings amid which Patty lived. Marching resolutely, though disapprovingly, down a long hall, she pressed a small bell at the side of a door, and stood, holding tightly to the bundle of curtains, while her expression of unnatural pleasantness grew almost painful in its determination. Here, also, they waited some time, and when at last the door was opened by an agitated maid, without an apron, and they were led into a long, queerly furnished studio, with a balcony from which they had a distant cloudless view of the river, Gabriella felt for a minute that she must have fallen into a dream. Long afterwards she learned that Billy's studio was charming, with its blurred Italian tapestries, which had faded to an exquisite tone, with its broken torsos of old marble, warming to deep ivory in the sunlight, with its ecstatic haloed saints praying against dim Tuscan landscapes, with its odd and unexpected seats of carved stone on which the cushions made strange splotches and pools of colour. At the time, seen through provincial eyes, it seemed merely "queer" to her; and queerer still appeared the undraped figures of women, all lean lines and violet shadows, which, unframed and unhung, filled the dusty corners.
"The river is lovely, but it is so far away," she said, turning her abashed eyes from the nude figures, and thinking how terribly they would have shocked the innocence of Cousin Jimmy.
"I always look at the river when I come here," responded Mrs. Fowler, and her tone implied that the river at least was perfectly proper. "A month ago the colours were wonderful."
In the drive, which they could see from a corner view, a few old men, forgotten by time, warmed themselves in the sunlight. Far below, the river reflected the changeable blue of the sky, while the autumnal pageantry on the horizon was fading slowly, like a burned-out fire, to the colour of ashes.
"Mother, dear, I'm so glad," said a gay voice in the doorway, and turning quickly, Gabriella stared with wide eyes at the vision of Patty—of Patty in some soft tea-gown, which borrowed its tone from the old tapestries on the wall, with her honey-coloured hair hanging over her shoulders, and her eyes as fresh as blue flowers in the ivory pallor of her face.
"And this is Gabriella," she added, holding out her arms. "What a darling you are to come so soon, Gabriella."
She was a tall girl, so tall that she stooped to kiss Gabriella, whose height measured exactly five feet and seven inches, and she was beautiful with the faultless beauty which is seen only once or twice in a generation, but which, seen once, is never forgotten. For Patty's beauty, as a poet once wrote of a dead woman, was the beauty of destiny, the beauty that changes history and turns men into angels or into beasts. Though Gabriella had seen lovely skins on Southern women—rose-leaf skins, magnolia skins, peach-blossom skins—she had seen nothing that resembled the exquisite colour and texture of Patty's face.
"The curtains were finished, so I brought them," said Mrs. Fowler, pointing to the bundle. "I wanted Gabriella to see the Park. You are coming to-night without fail, aren't you, Patty?"
"Without fail, even if we have to walk," answered Patty. "You can't imagine how much it costs to get about when one lives so far uptown. That's one reason we are anxious to move. Billy has been looking for a studio for weeks, and, do you know, he has really found one at last. Harry Allen is moving out of the Rubens Building, and we are going to take his studio on the top floor. We're awfully lucky, too, to get it, for it is the first vacancy there for years."
"But it's over a stable, isn't it?" asked Mrs. Fowler. "How could you possibly live there? And the East Side way down there is just as bad as up here"
"I believe there is a stable, but it won't bother us—we're too high," replied Patty.
"Well, we can't stop; Gabriella hasn't unpacked her trunks," returned Mrs. Fowler; "but be sure to come early, Patty. I want your father to see you."
"I wish there wasn't going to be anybody else. I want to talk to my sister. Isn't it lovely to have a sister, and mamma was too selfish to give me one. Do you call her 'mamma,' too, Gabriella?"
"Of course she calls me 'mamma,'" answered Mrs. Fowler before Gabriella could speak, "and she is a much better daughter already than you ever were."
"And a much better son, too, than George ever was?" asked Patty slyly.
"We aren't talking about George. George has settled down," said Mrs. Fowler quickly, too quickly it occurred to Gabriella, who was eager to hear all that the daring Patty would say. "Don't you think those white furs look well on Gabriella?"
"She looks like the snow queen in them. Does it matter what I wear to-night? Who is coming?"
"Nobody you will care about—only Judge and Mrs. Crowborough and Colonel Buffington."
"That old bore of a colonel! And why do you have to ask the judge again so soon? He looks like a turkey gobbler, Gabriella, and he has so much money that it is impossible to judge him by the standards of other people, everybody says that—even Billy."
"Hush, Patty. You mustn't corrupt Gabriella."
"If the judge doesn't, I shan't, mamma."
"Well, your father has the greatest respect for him, and as for asking him often to dinner, it isn't by any means so easy to get him as you think. I don't suppose there's another man in New York who is invited out so often and goes out so little."
"Papa is a sweet innocent," observed Patty maliciously, "but if you can stand the judge, mamma, dear, I am sure I can, especially as I shan't have to sit by him. That honour will be reserved for poor Gabriella. I wish you didn't have to go, but you really must, I suppose?"
"Yes, we must go. Come, Gabriella, or you won't have time to get into your trunks before dinner."
On the drive home Mrs. Fowler was grimly silent, while the sweetness about her mouth ebbed slowly away, leaving the faintest quiver of the muscles. For the first time Gabriella saw George's mother look as she must look in her sleep, when the artificial cheerfulness of her expression faded into the profound unconsciousness which drowns not only happiness, but the very pretence of happiness. So here, also, was insincerity, here, also, was the striving, not for realities, but for appearances! In a different form she saw her mother's struggle again—that struggle, without beginning and without end, which moved always in a circle and led nowhere. Was there no sincerity, no reality even in love? Was George, too, only a shadow? And the visible sadness of the November afternoon, with its faint haze like the haze of a dream landscape, seemed a part of this invisible sadness which had sprung from nothing and which would change and pass away in a breath. "If things would only last," she thought, looking with wistful eyes on the gold and purple around her. "If things would only last, how wonderful life would be!"
"To think that all Patty's beauty should have been thrown away," said Mrs. Fowler suddenly.
Though Gabriella had never seen Billy, she was inclined at the moment, in her mood of dissatisfaction with the universe, to sympathize with Mrs. Fowler's view of the matter. To her frugal mind, trained to economy of material, it seemed that Patty was altogether too much for a poor man—even though he could paint her in lean lines and violet shadows.
Upstairs she found her trunks in her bedroom, and after she had unpacked her wedding-gown of white satin, removed the tissue paper stuffing from the sleeves, and shaken out the creases with gentle hands, she sat down and pondered deeply the problem of dressing for dinner. By removing the lace yoke, she might make the gown sufficiently indecorous for the fashion of the period, and her only evening dress, the white muslin she had worn to dances in Richmond, she reflected gloomily, would appear absurd in New York.
"I wish I didn't look such a fright," she said aloud, as she ripped and sewed. Then, in a flash, her mind wandered from herself, and she thought: "I wonder why George didn't tell his mother that we are going to take an apartment? I wonder why he didn't tell her that mother is coming in June? When he comes I must ask him."
Looking at the clock, she saw that it was after seven, and hurriedly taking the last few stitches, she laid the gown on the bed, bathed her face in cold water, and then, sitting down before her dressing-table, drew the pins from her hair. In some obscure way she felt herself a different person from the bride who had watched George so ecstatically at the station that morning. She could not tell how she had altered, and yet she felt perfectly conscious that an alteration had taken place in her soul—that she was not the same Gabriella—that life could never be again exactly as it had been before. Nothing and yet everything seemed to have happened to her in a day. Her face, gazing gravely back at her from the mirror, looked young and wistful, the face of one who, like a bird flying suddenly out of darkness against a lamp, is bewildered by the first shock of the light.
When her hair was arranged in the simple way she had always worn it, she slipped her dress over her bare shoulders, and fastened it slowly—for Miss Polly had no patience with "back fastenings"—while she told herself again that George would not be satisfied. She knew that her gown was provincial, knew that she lacked the "dash" he admired in women; and from the first she had been mystified by a love which could, while still passionately desiring her, wish her different in so many ways. "I'd like him to be proud of me, but I suppose he never will be," she thought dejectedly, "and yet he fell in love with me just as I was, and he did not fall in love with any of the dashing women he knows," she added quickly, consoled by the reflection. "And of course in a few things I wish him different, too. I wish he wasn't so careless. He is so careless that I shall have to be twice as careful, I shall have to look after him all the time. Even to-night he has forgotten about the dinner, and he'll be obliged to dress in a hurry, which he hates."
Glancing at the clock again, she saw that it was a quarter of eight, and still George had not come.
THE OLD SERPENT
At five minutes of eight o'clock he came in, with a lighted cigar in his mouth. For the first few days after her marriage there had been a pleasant excitement in the scent of George's cigars in her bedroom. Now, however, habit had dulled the excitement, and the smell of tobacco gave her a headache.
"Oh, George, you are late!" she exclaimed, sinking the lesser into the greater offence after the habit of wives. As if he had all night instead of five minutes before him in which to dress, he stood in the centre of the room, blandly looking her over.
"You're all right," he said after a pause. "I met a fellow at the club I hadn't seen for a year. He had been hunting big game in Africa, and he was telling me about it. By Jove, that is life!"
They had been married but a month; it was their first day at home, and he could linger at the club to talk of big game while she waited for him. Flushed, excited, he stood there on the white bearskin rug midway between the bed and the wood-fire, while she felt his charm stealing like a drug over her senses. Though she had begun to realize the thinness of his mental qualities, she was still as completely in the power of his physical charm as she had been on the day of her wedding. In the flickering light of the fire he appeared to diffuse the glamour of romance, of adventure; and she felt that this single day in New York had left a vital impression upon him. It was as if he had become suddenly more alive, more inexplicable in his simplicity; and, though she had grasped vaguely the fact that his personality was composed of innumerable reactions, she had never really understood before how entirely he was the creature of his environment. It was as if the very essence of his soul floated there, a variable and fluid quantity, forever changing form and colour beneath the shallow ripples of his personality. She had seen him in many moods, but never in this one. Did he possess a deeper subtlety than she had imagined or was it the sincerity of his nature that defied analysis?
"Did you enjoy yourself?" she asked cheerfully. Tell me about it."
"Oh, it was rather jolly," he replied, and she knew that this was as much as she should ever get out of him. Beyond a few stock phrases, words hardly existed for him at all, or existed only in foreign languages, for, having been educated abroad, he spoke French and German fluently, if without felicity. Already his inarticulateness was like an encumbering veil between them—a veil in which she struggled as helplessly as a moth in a net. And only a month ago she had believed that the very immensity of his nature rendered him dumb.
"Then you had better hurry, dear. Dinner is at eight, and you have only a minute."
"You go down and tell them not to wait. I was detained downtown, but it won't take me a second to dress."
As he passed under the electric light by the mirror, she saw his face with exaggerated distinctness, as if it were held under a microscope, and a heaviness, which she had never noticed before, marred the edge of his profile. If he hadn't been George, would she have said that he looked stupid at the moment? For a flashing instant of illumination she saw him with a vision that was not her own, but a stranger's, with a pitiless clearness unsoftened by any passion. Then the clearness faded rapidly before an impulse of tenderness, and she told herself that he was merely handsome, gay, and careless, as he had been on their honeymoon. If he would only talk to her, she felt that he would be perfect.
"Yes, I'm going. Come as soon as you can," she said; and catching up her satin train, she descended the oak staircase to the drawing-room, where a fire was burning and the lights were shaded in crimson.
Twenty minutes later, seated at the round table, which was bright with chrysanthemums in tall silver vases, she looked with a feeling of resentment at George's empty place. Why was he so careless? Time had for him, she realized, as little meaning as words had. Then, in the midst of her disquietude, she caught the serene blue eyes of George's mother fixed upon her. With her young face, her red lips, and her superb shoulders rising out of the rich black lace of her gown, Mrs. Fowler looked almost beautiful. Had Patty not been present, with her loveliness like a summer's day, her mother would have seemed hardly more than a girl; but who could shine while Patty, beside that long, lean man with the gray imperial, smiled with lips that were like a scarlet flower in her face?
There were only four guests, but these four, as Mrs. Fowler had said, "counted for something." The long, lean man beside Patty was one Colonel Buffington, a Virginia lawyer, who had wandered North in search of food in the barren years after the war. As his mind was active in a patient accumulative fashion, he had become in time a musty storehouse of war anecdotes, and achieving but moderate success in his law practice, his chief distinction, perhaps, was as a professional Southerner. Combining a genial charm of manner with as sterile an intellect as it is possible to attain, he was generally regarded as a perfect example of "the old school," and this picturesque reputation made him desirable as a guest at club dinners as well as at the larger gatherings of the various Southern societies. His conversation, which was entirely anecdotal, consisted of an elaborate endless chain of more or less historical "stories." Social movements and the development of civilization interested him as little as did art or science—for which he entertained a chronic suspicion due to the indiscretions of Darwin. Change of any kind was repugnant to his deeper instincts, and of all changes the ones relating to the habits of women appeared to him to interfere most unwarrantably with the Creator's original plan. For the rest he had the heart of a child, would strip the clothes from his back to give to a friend, or even to an enemy, and possessed an infallible gift for making a dinner successful.
On Colonel Buffington's right sat Mrs. Hamilton, a very pretty, very sprightly widow, with her hair coiled into the fashionable Psyche knot, and the short puffs of her sleeves emphasizing the hour-glass perfection of her figure. Next to Mrs. Hamilton there was Billy King, who wore a white flower in his buttonhole and looked like a soldier out of uniform, and beyond Billy sat Mrs. Crowborough, whom he was trying despairingly to entertain. She, renowned and estimable woman, was planning in her mind what she should say at a board meeting of one of her pet charities on the morrow, a charity which, like all of her favourite ones, concerned itself with the management and spiritual elevation of girl orphans. Tall, raw-boned, strung with jet, Mrs. Crowborough, who had been married for her money, looked as sympathetic as a moral principle or an organized charity. Unfortunately, for she was rather heavy in company, Judge Crowborough was obliged by custom to bring her to dinner; and she came willingly, inspired less by sociability than by the virtuous instinct which animated her being. Mr. Fowler had taken her in to dinner, and while she lent an inert attention to Billy's jests, he talked across Gabriella to Judge Crowborough, who was eating his soup with the complete absorption of a man to whom the smallest of his appetities is sacred. It was a grievance of Mrs. Fowler's that her husband would never, as she said, "pay any attention to women," and in order to feel assured of even so much as a cheerful noise at his end of the table, she was obliged to place within hearing distance of him somebody who could talk fluently, if not eloquently, of the stock market.
To Gabriella's surprise, her father-in-law, who had appeared inert and listless at breakfast, became, in the stimulating presence of the judge, not only awake, but mildly animated. She had felt before the charm in his scholarly face, with its look of detached spirituality so strangely out of keeping with the calling he pursued; and she recognized now the quality of controlled force which had enabled him to hold his own in the financial whirlpool of his country. Had the girl known more of life, she would have understood that in the American business world there were hundreds of such men winning their way and leaving their mark at that moment of history—men whose natures were redeemed from grossness by the peculiar idealism they infused into their material battles. Of Scotch-Irish inheritance, the direct descendant of one Gregory Truesdale, who had died a martyr for Presbyterianism, Archibald Fowler was inspired by something of the austere devotion which had fortified his religious ancestor. Since his college days his private life had been irreproachable. Though he was a stronger character than his wife, he regarded her with almost superstitious reverence, and made no decision above Wall Street without consulting her. His heart, and as much of his time as he could spare from business, were hers, and she made the most of them. Women, as women, did not attract him, and he avoided them except at his own table, where custom constrained him to be polite. After a few courteous words to Mrs. Crowborough, he had turned with relief to her husband.
"You've got a bright chap in your office, Stanley," he said; "that fellow Latham. I was talking to him this morning. He's from Colorado, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes, they're all from the West now," responded the judge—he had sat on the bench in his youth. "Ten years ago the bright ones were from the South, but you Southerners are outstripped to-day, and it's the men from the West who are doing it. There's a fundamental reason there, I suppose, if you go deep enough," he added, fingering the ends of his short gray moustache while he kept an eye on his champagne glass. "We've done with mere classifying and imitation, and we're waiting for a fresh explosion of raw energy. Now for pure constructive imagination the North and South don't hold a candle—they simply don't hold a candle—to the West. Mark my words, in twenty-five years there'll hardly be a big railroad man in the country who wasn't born in sight of the Rockies." Unlike Mr. Fowler, whose mind ran in a groove leading directly to business, the judge had a natural bent toward generalization, and when dining, preferred to discuss impersonal topics. He was a tall, florid man with an immense paunch flattened by artificial devices, and a vitality so excessive that it overflowed in numberless directions—in his hearty animal appetites, in his love of sports, in his delight in the theatre and literature, particularly in novels of the sentimental and romantic school, in his fondness for the lighter operas, and in his irrepressible admiration for pretty women. His face, large, ruddy, with a hooked nose, where the red was thickly veined with purple, and protruding lips over square yellow teeth that gripped like the teeth of a bulldog, aroused in Gabriella a quick repulsion which only the genial humour of his smile overcame. That he should have married his wife for her money was less amazing to the girl than that his wife should have married him for any reason whatsoever. Only a moral principle or a charitable institution, she felt, could have endured him and survived. But in spite of his repulsiveness he had evidently experienced the natural activities of humanity. He had taken a wife; he had begotten children; he had judged other men; he had dug into the bowels of the earth for mines, and had built railroads on its surface; he had made grass grow in deserts and had turned waste places into populous cities; he had read romances and heard music; he had attained a social position securely founded upon millions of dollars—and all these things he had achieved through his unconquerable colossal vitality. "I wonder why they put him by me," thought Gabriella. "I shall never get on with him."
Then he turned to her and said bluntly, between two mouthfuls of lobster: "So you're George's wife! Handsome chap George, but he hasn't much head for business. He lacks the grip of the old man. Where's he to-night?"
"He got home so late that he wasn't ready for dinner. He'll be down in a minute."
"It's a bad habit. He oughtn't to be late. Now, I haven't been late for dinner for twenty years."
"I'm afraid he doesn't pay much attention to time. I'll try to change him."
"You won't. No woman alive ever changed a man's habits. All you can do is to hide them."
That his blunt manner was an affectation, she was quick to discern. While he talked to her, he looked at her knowingly with his light fishy eyes, and by his look and his tone he seemed to establish an immediate intimacy between them—as if he and she were speaking a language which was foreign to the rest of the table. He appeared to be kind, she thought, and on his side he was thinking that she was a nice girl, with an attractive face and remarkable eyes. On the whole, he preferred brown eyes, though his wife's were the colour of slate. "Why the deuce did she marry that fool?" he questioned impatiently.
Across the table Billy King was working hopelessly but valiantly to engage Mrs. Crowborough's attention. What a splendid figure he had, and how clean and fine was the modelling of his features! He was just the man a girl like Patty would fall in love with, and Gabriella no longer felt that. Patty's beauty was wasted. Once or twice she caught fleeting glances passing between them, and these glances, so winged with happiness, spoke unutterable and ecstatic things.
A hush dropped suddenly on the table, and in this hush she heard the voice of Colonel Buffington telling a story in dialect. It was an immemorial anecdote of Cousin Jimmy's—she had heard him tell it a dozen times—and while she listened, it made her feel comfortably at home.
"'Uncle Amos,' I said to him, 'we've been together thirty years, but we've got to part. You're a drunkard and a thief and a worthless darky all round, and you've lived on my place ever since the war without doing a lick of work for your keep. I've stood it as long as I can, but there's an end to human endurance. Yes, Amos, the time has come for us to part.'
"Hi! Marse Beverly,' said the old rascal, 'whar you gwine?"
"Capital!" ejaculated the judge softly. "Capital!" And he added for Gabriella's ear: "Buffington tells the best negro stories of any man I know. Ought to have heard him at the club the other night."
Gabriella did not answer; Cousin Jimmy's story had made her think of Cousin Jimmy, with his soft heart and his dark shining eyes like the eyes of a good and gentle dog. Then she thought of her mother, and reminded herself that she must ask George when they were to begin the hunt for an apartment. He had said they were very hard to find when you wanted them.
Another hush fell, and Colonel Buffington was just beginning a second story—one of Uncle Meriweather's this time—when George came in from the drawing-room, and after a murmured apology, took his seat between Patty and Mrs. Hamilton.
"That's a handsome boy," said the judge in a husky whisper to Gabriella, "but he hasn't much to say for himself, has he?"
His manner of playful intimacy conveyed the impression that the secret understanding between them did not include Gabriella's husband. George was an outsider, but this hideous old man, with his curious repelling suggestion of over-ripeness, as of fruit that is beginning to rot at the core, was the dominant personality in her mind at the moment. She wondered if he knew how repulsive he was, and while she wondered, the judge, unaware of his tragic plight, went on eating lobster with unimpaired relish. His importance, founded upon a more substantial basis than mere personal attraction, had risen superior not only to morality, but to the outward failings of the flesh. Had he been twice as repulsive, she realized that his millions would have commanded a respect denied to both beauty and virtue.
"I wonder how any woman can stand him," mused Gabriella. Then, glancing across the table at Mrs. Crowborough, she realized something of the amazing insensibility of the more ethereal sex. No man, not even in the last extremity, could have loved a woman as ugly as Judge Crowborough was. The roughest man would have had sufficient esthetic sense to have been shocked into revolt; yet a woman, a refined and intelligent woman, had married the judge and survived it. She appeared now, not only expressionless and unrevolted, but filled with a healthy zest for social reforms and the spiritual welfare of girl orphans.
"Well, I've learned something of life to-night," thought Gabriella while she watched her.
Later in the evening, when she passed into the drawing-room, with Mrs. Crowborough, bleak, unbending, and trailing her chains of jet, she comforted herself again with the reflection that what she was "seeing" might not be particularly exciting, "but it was life."
On a short, hard sofa near the fire, beside Fatty, who bloomed like a white rose under the red-shaded light, she listened to Mrs. Fowler's unflagging efforts to "get on" with the judge's wife. Never had the dauntless little woman revealed more surprising resourcefulness, never had she talked so vivaciously, never had she appeared so relentlessly pleasant. It was as if she said in the face of Mrs. Crowborough's insensibility, which was the insensibility not of mind, but of inanimate matter, "Whatever you do, you can't keep me from being sweet." And in this strained sweetness there was something touching, something wistful, a hint of inner weariness which showed now and then beneath the restless vivacity.
"Isn't it funny," said Patty suddenly, "how much mamma cares about things that don't matter at all? You wouldn't believe it to look at her, but she is in her heart the most worldly one of the family. Father wouldn't give a tallow candle for anything that isn't real."
A log broke in the centre, and fell, scattering a shower of golden embers over the hearth. Rising quickly, with one of her sprightly movements, Mrs. Fowler reached for a pair of small brass tongs and pushed the broken log back on the andirons. Then she threw some fresh wood on the flames, and resumed her seat with an animated gesture as if the incident had enlivened her.
"Now they are talking about the everlasting Pletheridges," whispered Patty. "I never understand how mother can take so much interest in those people just because they are rich."
But to Gabriella it was more inconceivable still that her mother-in-law, with the bluest blood of Virginia in her veins, should regard with such artless reverence the social activities of the granddaughter of a tavern-keeper. In her native State an impoverished branch of Mrs. Fowler's family still lived on land which, tradition said, had been granted one of her ancestors by Charles the Second in recognition of distinguished services to that dubious monarch; yet she could long enviously for a closer acquaintance with the plutocratic descendant of an Irish tavern-keeper—an honest man, doubtless, who had laid the foundations of his fortune in a string of halfway houses stretching from New York to Chicago.
"Yes, I dined with Mrs. Pletheridge once," she was saying in the tone in which her royalist ancestor might have acknowledged a command from his King.
"It always makes me angry, I can't help it," pursued Patty. "If dear mamma had only some other weakness—cards or wine or clothes or anything else. It's queer, with all her pride, how little social backbone she has. Now to hear her talk, you would imagine that that vulgar snob, whose father kept hotels and married one of his chambermaids, had conferred an honour by inviting her to dinner. And the funniest part is that, for all her good breeding, and her family portraits, and her titled ancestors, mother hasn't half so much respect for the genuine New Yorkers—I mean the New Yorkers whose names really mean something—as she has for these mushroom plutocrats. She had set her heart on George marrying one of them, you know, but it's a jolly good thing he didn't."
"That's the girl he told me about," said Gabriella. "Was he ever interested in her?"
"Not for a minute. We're awfully contrary about our love affairs. We will marry for love—even mother did though she may have forgotten it. We never marry the people—" She clipped off the sentence, but Gabriella caught it up with a laugh:
"I know," she said gaily, "you never marry the people your family pick out for you."
"Well, of course, Billy went dreadfully hard with them—at least with mother. She wanted the Duke of Somewhere so very badly. But it was Billy or nobody for me. I'd have married Billy," she added while her beautiful face grew stern, "if I'd had to walk all the way across the world to him."
"He looks as if he were worth it," admitted Gabriella.
"He is, but that probably wasn't my reason for marrying him. One never knows why one marries, I suppose, unless one marries for money and then it is so beautifully simple. Now, you and George don't seem a bit alike, but it all happened on the spur of the moment, didn't it?"
"It always seems that way when one looks back, doesn't it?" asked Gabriella. "But what I can't understand"—she brought it out with a frown—"is why marriage doesn't change one. I used to think I'd be different, but I'm not. And even love seems to leave people wanting everything else just as badly. Your mother has had a perfect love—she told me so—and yet it hasn't kept her from wanting all the other things in life, has it? I wish I could work it out," she finished, a little sadly, for she was thinking of her mother's cry on the night of Jane's attack: "I am tempted to hope Gabriella will never marry. The Carrs all marry so badly!" Why had those words come back to her to-night? She had not remembered them for months, she had even forgotten that she had heard them, and now they floated to her as clearly as if they had been spoken aloud.
In a little while Billy came in, and when, after a few moments of spasmodic affability, Mrs. Crowborough rose and pleaded an early board meeting on the morrow, Gabriella watched Patty wrap her honey-coloured head in a white scarf and then stand, waiting for a cab, in the doorway. Happiness, with so many people an invisible attribute, encircled Patty like a garment of light. It crowned her white brow under the glory of her hair; it shone in her eyes; it rippled in her smile; it lingered in a beam of sunshine on her lips. With her arm in Billy's she looked back laughing from the steps, and it seemed to Gabriella that all the brightness of life was going with them into the darkness. Beside the curbstone an old cab horse, dazzled by the light from the door, turned his head slowly toward them; and the look in his eyes, wistful, questioning, expectant, seemed to say, "This is not life, but a miracle." And from his box the red-cheeked, wheezy Irish driver gazed down on Patty with the same wistfulness, the same questioning, the same expectancy.
"I never see Patty go off in a cab that I don't feel she has thrown herself away," observed Mrs. Fowler, yawning, while she turned to the staircase. "Archibald, I hope you had a really good time with the judge. I must say it is like ploughing to talk to his wife."
Upstairs in her room a little later Gabriella said to George: "Patty was telling me about the girl your mother wanted you to marry."
He was pouring out a glass of water, and, absorbed in the act, he merely grunted for answer. It was his disagreeable habit to grunt when grunting saved effort.
"I wish you'd talk to me, George. It is so annoying to be grunted at."
"Well, what do you want?" he replied amiably enough. "Patty is a regular sieve, you know. Never tell her a secret."
"Did you ever like that girl—really?"
"The girl mother had in mind?" Having emptied the glass, he returned it to the tray and came over to her. "Yes, but if you want the truth, I preferred the girl in the chorus—the one the old lady got in a blue funk about, you know. She's still there, the last but one from the end, in the Golden Slipper. I'll take you to see it some night."
"Men are strange," observed Gabriella, with philosophic detachment. "Now I couldn't feel the slightest interest in a man in comic opera. Did she really attract you?"
"Um—humph," he was grunting again.
"Wasn't she terribly common?"
"Wasn't she vulgar?"
"Rather. They all are."
"Regular streak of lightning."
Then it was that Gabriella arrived at an understanding of masculine nature. "You never can tell what men will like," she concluded.
While she spoke he winked at her from the mirror into which he was looking—mirrors always fascinated George and he could never keep away from them—and there was in his face the whimsical and appealing naughtiness of a child. Suddenly Gabriella felt that as far as character and experience counted, she was immeasurably older than George. Her superior common sense made her feel almost middle-aged when he was in one of his boyish moods. At the age of nine she had not been so utterly irresponsible as George was at twenty-six; as an infant in arms she had probably regarded the universe with a profounder philosophy. Though of course George was charming, he was without any sense of the deeper purpose of life. Like a child he must have what he wanted, and like a child he sulked when he was thwarted and grew angelic when his wishes were gratified. A single day had taught her that his father could not depend on him in business, that his mother could not trust him even to remember a dinner engagement. Gabriella loved him, she had chosen him, she told herself now, and she meant to abide by her choice; but she was not blind, she was not a fool, and she was deficient in the kind of loyalty which obliges one to lie even in the sanctity of one's own mind. She would be true to him, but she would be true with her eyes open, not shut.
"George," she said presently, while she loosened her hair, "your father told me you didn't stay more than an hour in the office." The question, "What were you doing?" rose to her lips, but she strangled the words before they escaped her. Her mind was quick to grasp facts, and she had learned already something of a man's instinctive dislike to being made to give an account of himself.
"You've been hearing too much gossip to-night," he rejoined gaily. "Take care what you listen to."
"Don't joke, dear. I wish you would tell me things."
"There isn't anything to tell, is there?"
"Is your father very rich?"
"Not very. Did you think you were marrying a millionaire?"
"I never thought about it, but everybody at home thinks he has a great deal of money, and yet your mother talks as if she were poor."
"Well, he made a pile of money in a big deal about ten years ago, and the papers had a lot about it. After that he lost it, or most of it, and the papers didn't tell. The fact is, he's always either making or losing, and now he's losing. That's why they wanted me to put off our marriage."
"They wanted you to put it off?"
"Mother did—the old man never interferes. She had got into her head, you see, that the only way for me to make a living was to marry one, so it was a little while before she could get used to the idea that I was going to marry because I wanted to, not because my family wanted me to. She was a brick though when she found out I was in earnest. Mother is true blue when you know how to take her."
"But you never told me."
"You bet I didn't. If I had, as likely as not, you would be Gabriella Mary Carr at this minute."
Drawing gently out of his grasp, which had grown possessive, she stood looking at him with a smile in which tenderness and irony mingled; and the tenderness was her own, while the irony seemed to belong to the vision of an impersonal spectator of life. The smile fascinated him. He could not withdraw his gaze from it, and yet it had the disturbing effect of placing her at an emotional distance.
"Your mother is very good to me," she said, "but I feel somehow as if I had taken an unfair advantage of her. And you hadn't even told her," she added, "that we are going to take an apartment in June."
"Oh, that's all right—there's plenty of time," he responded irritably. "Only you mustn't make mountains out of molehills."
Then, because she dreaded his anger, she gave up her point as she had given up many before. He was irresponsible, but he was hers and she loved him.
"I am so sleepy," she said, stifling a yawn, "that I feel as if I could cry."
Marriage, at the end of a month, had already disciplined the fearless directness of Gabriella. She had learned not to answer back when she knew she was right; she had learned to appear sweet when her inner spirit demanded a severe exterior; she had learned to hold her tongue when a veritable torrent of words rose to her lips. And these lessons, which George's temper and her own reason had taught her, remained with her in the future, long after she had forgotten George and the severity of her schooling.
There were many things for her to learn, and the lessons of that first day and night stretched through the winter and well into the beginning of spring. Accompanying Mrs. Fowler on her busy rounds, she discovered that here also, as in the house in Hill Street, the chief end of life was to keep up an appearance; here also the supreme effort, the best energies, were devoted to a sham—to a thing which had no actual existence. Though Mrs. Fowler was rich beside Mrs. Carr, Gabriella soon found out that she was not nearly so rich as her neighbours were, not nearly so rich as her position in society exacted that she should be. She was still not rich enough to be spared the sordid, nerve-racking effort to make two ends meet without a visible break. Her small economies, to Gabriella's surprise, were as rigid as Mrs. Carr's; and though she lived in surroundings which appeared luxurious to the girl, there was almost as little ready money to spend as there had been in Mrs. Carr's household. Bills were made recklessly, and dinner parties were given at regular intervals; for Mrs. Fowler, who denied herself a hundred small comforts of living, who gave up cream in her coffee and bought her butter from a grocer below Washington Square, took quite as a matter of course the fact that she must, as she put it, "pay off social scores." Though they ate the simplest food in the market for six days of the week, on the seventh, hothouse flowers bloomed profusely in the lower rooms and champagne flowed abundantly into the delicate Venetian glasses on the round table. To be sure, Mrs. Fowler's gown may have been two seasons old, but it was covered with rare laces, which she had picked up during her summers abroad; and her pearls—the string was short, but really good, for she had matched it in Paris—shone, rich and costly, around her still beautiful neck. After one of these dinners the family lived on scraps and looked at fading flowers for days, while Mrs. Fowler, with the air of one who has done her duty, sat upstairs before the little French writing-desk in her room, and patiently added accounts from morning till night. A strained look would come into her plump, firm face, three little wrinkles would appear between her eyebrows, and her blue eyes, circled by faint shadows, would grow dark and anxious. Then, when at last the accounts were finished and the unpaid bills laid away in a pigeonhole, she would remark with animation:
"I don't see how on earth I am ever to pay all these bills," and, after changing her dress, set out to bring her butcher or her grocer to reason. On one of these days she took Gabriella (they went in the stage because she had given up her carriage) on a hunt for bargains in underwear, and, to the girl's astonishment, her mother-in-law, who presented so opulent an appearance on the surface, purchased for herself a supply of cheap and badly made chemises and nightgowns. As she grew to know Mrs. Fowler better, she found that the expenditures of that redoubtable woman, in spite of her naturally delicate tastes, were governed by one of the most elementary principles of economy. Through long habit she had acquired a perception as unerring as instinct, and this perception enabled her to tell exactly where extravagance was useful and where it failed in its effect. She had learned to perfection never to spend money on things that did not show a result. An appearance was what she strove for, and one's chemises and nightgowns, however exquisite in themselves, could not very well contribute to one's external appearance. "Of course I like good underclothes," she remarked cheerfully to her daughter-in-law, "but, after all, nobody sees them."
This was so different from the poverty-stricken point of view of Gabriella's childhood, that the girl puzzled over it afterwards when she sat in her corner of the stage. Mrs. Carr had kept up an appearance, too, she reflected, but, like the old maids on the floor above, she had kept it up even to herself. Perhaps the difference lay in the immense gulf which divided the appearance of Hill Street from the appearance of the East Fifties. Mrs. Fowler was obliged by the public opinion she obeyed to appear affluent, while Mrs. Carr was merely constrained not to appear destitute. On the whole Gabriella felt that she preferred the safe middle distance between the two exacting standards of living.
But, though she might disapprove of her mother-in-law's philosophy, there was no question about her fervent admiration for her disposition. It was Mrs. Fowler's habit to appear "sweet," and never once did Gabriella see her lose her temper, never once, no matter how hard the day or how exasperating the accounts, did she show so much as a passing hint of irritability. Her temper was so angelic that it was the more surprising George should not have inherited a trace of it.
If George had not inherited his mother's nature, he revealed, as time went on, even less resemblance to the perfect reasonableness of his father's temperament. Ever since her first day in the house, Gabriella had been drawn to her father-in-law with an affection which his wife, for all her preoccupied kindness, had not inspired. She respected him for his calm strength, against which the boisterous moods of George reacted as harmlessly as the whims of a child, and she liked him for his unfailing courtesy, for his patience, for his gentleness, which made her feel that he was, in spite of the material nature of his occupation, the only member of the household who possessed even a glimmer of spirituality. All day long, and the greater part of the night, he thought about money, and yet he had escaped the spiritual corruption which the ceaseless pursuit of wealth had produced in the other rich men whom Gabriella met in his house. It was as if some subtle alchemy in his soul had transmuted the baser qualities into the pure gold of character; and sometimes the girl wondered if the fact that he worked not for himself but for others had preserved him from the grosser contamination of money. For he seemed to think of himself so little, that after three months in his house, Gabriella was still ignorant of his interests apart from his work, except, of course, his absorbing interest in the morning papers. From the time he got up at seven o'clock until he went to bed punctually on the stroke of ten, he appeared to order his life with the single purpose of giving as little trouble as was compatible with living at all. His tastes were the simplest; he drank only boiled water; he ate two eggs and a roll with his coffee at breakfast; he spent hardly a third as much on his clothes as George spent; and beyond an occasional visit to his club in the evening, he seemed to have absolutely no recreation. His life was in the stock market, and it was a life of almost monastic simplicity and self-sacrifice. If he had any pleasure, except the pleasure of providing his wife with the money for her dinner parties, which bored him excruciatingly, Gabriella had never discovered it. "He asks so little for himself that it is pathetic," she remarked to George one night, when Mr. Fowler had gone upstairs, carrying the evening papers to bed with him.