"The boy won't be big enough for a year or two, will he?" He was interested, she saw, and this unaffected interest in her small affairs moved her almost to tears.
"I wanted him to go to kindergarten, but, of course, I cannot afford it. He is only four and a half, and I'm teaching him myself in the evenings. Already he can read very well in the first reader," she finished proudly.
For a minute the judge stared moodily down on her. His sagging cheeks took a pale purplish flush, and he bit his lower lip with his large yellow teeth, which reminded Gabriella of the tusks of a beast of prey. Then he laid his overcoat and his stick carefully down on a packing-case, and held out his hand.
"I'm going now, and there's one thing I want to ask you—have you any money?"
It was out at last, and she looked up composedly, smiling a little roguishly at his embarrassment.
"I have six hundred dollars in bank for a rainy day, and I am making exactly fifteen dollars a week."
"But you can't live on it. Nobody could live on it even without two children to bring up."
She shook her head. "Oh, Judge Crowborough, how little you rich men really know! I've got to live on it until I can do better, and I hope that will be very soon. If I am worth anything now, in three months I ought to be worth certainly as much as twenty-five dollars a week. In a little while—as soon as I've caught on to the business—I'm going to ask for a larger salary, and I think I shall get it. Twenty-five dollars a week won't go very far, but you don't know how little some people can live on even in New York."
"As soon as the six hundred dollars go you'll be headed straight for starvation," he protested, sincerely worried.
"Perhaps, but I doubt it."
"How much do you have to pay for your rooms?"
"Twenty-five dollars a month. It isn't much of a place, you see, as far as appearances go. Fortunately, I have a little furniture of my own which Mrs. Fowler had given me."
His embarrassment had passed away, and he was smiling now at the recollection of it.
"Well, you're a brick, little girl," he said, "and I like your spirit, but, after all, why can't you put your pride in your pocket, and let me lend you a few thousands? You needn't borrow much—not enough to keep a carriage—but you might at least take a little just to show you aren't proud—just to show you'll be friends. It seems a downright shame that I should have money to throw away, and you should be starting out to pinch and scrape on fifteen dollars a week. Fifteen dollars a week! Good Lord, what are we coming to?"
She was not proud, and she wanted to be friends, but she shook her head obstinately, though she was still smiling. "Not now—not while I can help it—but if I ever get in trouble—in real trouble—I'll remember your offer. If the children fall ill or I lose my place, I'll come to you in a minute."
"Honour bright? It's a promise?"
"It's a promise."
"And you'll let me keep an eye on you?"
She laughed with the natural gaiety which he found so delightful. "You may keep two eyes on me if you will!"
He had already reached the door when, turning suddenly, he said with heavy gravity: "You don't mind my asking what you're going to do about George, do you?
"No, I don't mind. As soon as I can afford it, I shall get my freedom, but everything costs, you know, even justice."
"I could help you there, couldn't I?"
From the gratitude in her eyes he read her horror of the marriage which still bound her. "You could—and, oh, if you would, I'd never, never forget it," she answered.
Then they parted, and he went out into the cold, with a strange warmth like the fire of youth at his heart, while she ran eagerly up the uncarpeted stairs to the nursery.
The trunks were packed, the boxes were nailed down, and the two children were playing shipwreck while they ate a supper of bread and milk at a table made from the bare top of a packing-case. Several days before the nurse had left without warning, and Miss Polly sat now, in hat and mantle, on one of the little beds which would be taken down the next day and sent over to the apartment on the West Side.
"I've been to the Carolina and unpacked the things that had come," she said at Gabriella's entrance. "Those rooms ain't so bad as New York rooms go; but it does seem funny, don't it, to cook in the same kitchen with a lot of strangers you never laid eyes on befo'? I br'iled some chops for the children right alongside of an old maid who had come all the way up from New Orleans to study music—imagine, at her age! Why, she couldn't be a day under fifty! And on the other side there was the mother of a girl who's at the art school, or whatever you call it, where they teach you paintin'. They are from somewhere up yonder in New England and their home folks had sent 'em a pumpkin pie. She gave me a slice of it, but I never did think much of pumpkin. It can't hold a candle to sweet potato pudding, and I wouldn't let the children touch it for fear it might set too heavy in the night. I ain't got much use for Yankee food, nohow."
"I hope the place is perfectly sanitary," was Gabriella's anxious rejoinder. "The front room gets some sunshine in the afternoon, doesn't it?"
"It's a horrid street. I don't want to live there," wailed Fanny, who had rebelled from the beginning against her fallen fortunes. "I got my white shoes dirty, and there were banana peels all about. A man has a fruit-stand in the bottom of our house. Don't let's go there to live, mother."
"You'll have to wear black shoes now, darling, and you mustn't mind the fruit-stand. It will be a good place to buy oranges."
"I like it," said Archibald stoutly. "I like to slide on banana peels, and I like the man. He has black eyes and a red handkerchief in his pocket. Will you buy me a red handkerchief, mamma? He has a boy, too. I saw him. He can skate on roller skates, and the boy has a dog and the dog has a black ear. May I have roller skates for my birthday, and a dog—a small one—and may I ask the boy up to play with me?"
"But the boy is ugly and so is the dog. I hate ugly people," complained Fanny.
"I like ugly people," retorted Archibald, glowering, not from anger, but from earnestness. "Ugly people are nicer than pretty ones, aren't they, mamma? Pang is nicer than Fanny."
He was always like that even as a baby, always on the side of the unfortunate, always fighting valiantly for the under dog. With his large head, his grotesque spectacles, and his pouting lips, he bore a curious resemblance to a brownie, yet when one observed him closely, one saw that there was a remarkable blending of strength and sweetness in his expression.
The next day Miss Polly finished the moving, and at six o'clock Gabriella went home in the Harlem elevated train to the grim, weather-beaten apartment house on the upper West Side. The pavements, as Fanny had scornfully observed, were not particularly clean; the air, in spite of the sharp wind which blew from the river, had a curiously stagnant quality; and the rumble of the elevated road, at the opposite side of the house, reached her in a vibrating undercurrent which was punctuated now and then by the staccato cries of the street. The house, which had been built in a benighted and spacious period, stood now as an enduring refuge for the poor in purse but proud in spirit. A few studios on the roof were still occupied by artists, while the hospitable basement sheltered a vegetable market, a corner drug-store, a fruit-stand, and an Italian bootblack. Within the bleak walls, from which the stucco had peeled in splotches, the life of the city had ebbed and flowed for almost half a century, like some deep wreck-strewn current which bore the seeds of the future as well as the driftwood of the past on its bosom. One might never have set foot outside those gloomy doors and yet have seen the whole of life pass as in a vivid dream through the dim halls, lighted by flickering gas and carpeted in worn strips of brown carpet. And once inside the apartments one might have found, sometimes, cheerfulness, beauty of line and colour, and a certain spaciousness which the modern apartment house, with its rooms like closets, its startling electricity, and its more hygienic conditions of living, could not provide. It was because she could find space there that Gabriella, guided by Miss Polly, had rented the rooms.
She passed the drug-store and the fruit-stand, entered the narrow hail, where a single gas-jet flickered dimly beside the door of the elevator, and after touching the bell, stood patiently waiting. After a time she rang again, and presently, with deliberate ease and geniality, the negro who worked the elevator descended slowly, with a newspaper in his hand, and opened the door for her.
"Good evening, Robert," she said pleasantly, for he also was from Virginia, and the discovery of the bond between them had given Gabriella a feeling of confidence. Like Miss Folly, she had never become entirely accustomed to white servants.
The ropes moved again, the elevator ascended perilously to the fifth floor, and Gabriella walked quickly along the hall, and slipped her latchkey into the keyhole of the last apartment. As the door opened, a woman in worn black came out and spoke to her in passing. She was the old maid of Miss Folly's narrative, and her face, ardent, haggard, with the famished look which comes from a starved soul, gazed back at Gabriella with a touching expression of admiration and envy. There were spots of vivid colour in her cheeks, and this brightness, combined with her gray hair, gave her a theatrical and artificial appearance.
"I have been playing to your little boy, Mrs. Carr," she said with the manner which Miss Polly had described as "flighty." "He came into my room when he heard the piano, and it was a real pleasure to play for him."
"You are very good," returned Gabriella, wondering vaguely who she was, for she was obviously the kind of woman people wondered about. "I hope Archibald didn't make himself troublesome."
"Oh, no, I enjoyed him. My name is Danton. I am Miss Danton," she added effusively, "and I'm so glad you have come into this apartment. My room is the one next to yours."
Then she fluttered off, with her look of spiritual hunger, and Gabriella closed the door and went on to her rooms, which were at the opposite end of the hail from the kitchen. On the way she passed the pretty art student, who was coming from the bathroom, with a freshly powdered face and a pitcher of water in her hand, and again she was obliged to stop to hear news of the children.
"I'm so glad to have your little girl here. I want to paint her. I'm just crazy about her face," said the girl, whose name she learned afterwards was Rosy Plover. Though she was undeniably pretty, and had just powdered her face with scented powder, she had a slovenly, unkempt appearance which Gabriella, from that moment, associated with art students. "If she'd only dress herself properly, she'd be a beauty," she thought, with the aversion of one who is an artist in clothes. She herself, after her long, hard day, was as neat and trim as she had been in the morning. Her severe black suit was worn with grace, and hung perfectly; her crape collar was immaculately fresh; her mourning veil fell in charming folds over her hat brim. "It's a pity some one can't tell her," she mused, as she smiled and hurried on to the doubtful seclusion of her own end of the apartment.
With the opening of the door, the children fell rapturously into her arms, and while she took off her hat and coat, Miss Polly laid the table for supper in front of the ruddy glow of the fire. On the fender a plate of buttered toast was keeping warm, a delicious aroma of coffee scented the air, and a handful of red carnations made a cheerful bit of colour in the centre of the white tablecloth. It was a pleasant picture for a tired woman to gaze on, and the ruddy glow of the fire was reflected in Gabriella's heart while she enfolded her children. After a day in Madame's hothouse atmosphere, it was delightful to return to this little centre of peace and love, and to feel that its very existence depended upon the work of her brain and hands. The children, she realized, had never loved her so dearly. In better days, when she was rarely separated from them for more than a few hours at a time, they had seemed rather to take her care and her presence for granted; but now, after an absence of nine hours, she had become a delight and an enchantment, something to be looked forward to and longingly talked about through the whole afternoon.
"Mother, you've been away forever," said Fanny, folding her veil for her and putting away her furs.
"Are you going every day just like this for ever and ever?
"Every day, darling, but I'm here every night. Shall I run back to the kitchen and broil the chops, Miss Polly?"
But the chops were already broiled, for Miss Polly had finished her sewing early, and she had beaten up two tiny cups of custard for the children.
"It's nicer than nursery suppers, isn't it, Fanny?" asked Archibald a little later while he ate his bread and milk from a blue bowl. "Mother, I like being poor. Let's stay poor always."
A phrase of Mrs. Fowler's, "happiness costs so little," floated through Gabriella's mind as she poured Miss Folly's coffee out of the tin coffee pot. She was so tired that her body ached; her feet were smarting and throbbing from the long standing; and her eyes stung from the cold wind and the glare of the elevated train; but she knew that in spite of these discomforts she was not unhappy—that she was, indeed, far happier than she had been for the past six years in the hushed suspense of her father-in-law's house. When she had carried the supper things back to the sink in the kitchen, had taught the children their lessons, heard their prayers, and put them to bed, she repeated the words to herself while she sat sewing beside the lamp in front of the comforting glow of the fire, "After all, happiness costs so little."
The next morning, and on every morning throughout the winter, she was up by six o'clock, and had taken in the baker's rolls and the bottle of milk from the outer door before Miss Polly or the children were stirring. Then, having dressed quickly, she ran back to the kitchen and made the coffee and boiled the eggs while the other lodgers were still sleeping. Sometimes the mother of one of the art students would join her over the gas range, but usually her neighbours slept late and then darted through the hall in kimonos, with tumbled hair, to a hurried breakfast at the kitchen table.
Her life was so busy that there was little time for anxiety, and less for futile and painful dwelling upon the past. To get through the day as best she could, to start the children well and in a good humour, to make herself useful, if not indispensable, to Madame, to return with a mind clear and fresh enough to give Fanny and Archibald intelligent lessons, to sew on their clothes or her own until midnight, and then to drop into bed, with aching limbs and a peaceful brain, too tired even to dream—these things made the life that she looked forward to, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was a hard life, as Miss Polly often remarked, but hard or soft, her strength was equal to it, her health was good, her interest in her work and in her children never flagged for a minute. Only on soft spring days, coming home in the dusk, she would sometimes pass carts filled with hyacinths, and in a wave the memory of Arthur and of her first love would rush over her. Then she would see Arthur's face, gentle, protective, tender, as it had looked on that last evening, and for an instant her lost girlhood and her girlhood's dream would envelop her like the fragrance of flowers. At such moments she thought of this love as tenderly as a mother might have thought of the exquisite dead face of an infant who had lived only an hour. Though it was over, though it bore no part, with its elusive loveliness, in her practical plans for the future, this dream became gradually, as the years passed, the most radiant and vital thing in her life. Though it was so vague as to be without warmth, it was as vivid and as real as light. The knowledge that in the past she had known perfect love, even though in her blindness she had thrust it aside, was a balm which healed her wounds and gave her courage to go on, friendless and alone, into the loveless stretch of the future. There was hardly a minute of her day for the next three years which was not sweetened by this hyacinth-scented dream of the past, there was hardly an hour of her drudgery which was not ennobled and irradiated by the splendour of this love that she had lost.
Of George—even of George as the father of her children—she rarely thought. He had dropped out of her life like any other mistake, like any other illusion, and she was too sanguine by nature, too buoyant, too full of happiness and of energy, to waste herself on either mistakes or illusions. During the months when she had waited for her freedom she had resolutely put the thought of him out of her mind, and when at last her divorce was granted, she dismissed the fact as completely as if it had not changed the entire course of her life. The past was over, and only that part of it should live which contributed sweetness and beauty to the present—only that part of it which she could use in the better and stronger structure of the future. Whatever living meant in the end, she told herself each morning as she started out to her work, it must mean, not resignation, not inertia, but endeavour, enterprise, and courage.
THE DREAM AND THE YEARS
In one of the small fitting-rooms, divided by red velvet curtains on gilt rods from the long showrooms of Madame Dinard, a nervous group, comprising the head skirt fitter, the head waist fitter, Miss Bellman, the head saleswoman, and Madame herself, stood disconsolately around the indignant figure of Mrs. Weederman Pletheridge, who, attired in one of Madame's costliest French models, was gesticulating excitedly in the centre of four standing mirrors. For three years Mrs. Pletheridge had lived in Paris, and her return to New York, and to the dressmaking establishments of Fifth Avenue, was an event which had shaken Dinard's, if not the fashionable street in which it stood, to its foundations.
"I don't know what is the matter with it," she said fussily, "but it doesn't suit me, and yet it looked so well in the hand. I wonder if I could wear it if you were to take out some of this fulness, and change the set of the sleeves? The fashions this spring are perfectly hopeless."
"Why, it suits you to perfection, Madame. Just a stitch or two like this—and this—and it will look as if it were designed for you by Worth. Is it not so, Miss Bellman? Don't you think it is wonderful on Madame?"
Miss Bellman, having learned her part, agreed effusively, and then each of the fitters, as she was appealed to in turn, contributed an enraptured assent to the discussion. The price of the gown was a thousand dollars, and Mrs. Pletheridge's favourable decision was worth exactly that much in terms of money to Dinard's. As the season had been scarcely a brisk one, Madame was particularly anxious to have her more extreme models taken off her hands. "It was unpacked only yesterday," she lied suavely, "and no one else has had so much as a glimpse of it."
"I can't imagine what is the matter with it," Mrs. Pletheridge sighed dejectedly, while she regarded her ample form with a resentful and critical gaze. As long as one had nothing else to worry about, Madame reflected without sympathy, one might find cause for positive distress in the fact that a gown appeared to better advantage in the hand than on one's person. The truth—and the truth, as sometimes happens, was the last thing Mrs. Pletheridge cared to admit—was that she had grown too stout to wear pronounced fashions.
"Nothing could be more charming," insisted Madame with increased effusion, "but if you are in doubt, let us ask the opinion of Mrs. Carr. She has the true eye of the artist—a wonderful eye. I don't know whether you remember Mrs. Archibald Fowler or not?" she added as the skirt fitter sped in search of Gabriella; "this is her daughter-in-law. Her husband ran away with another woman about three years ago. It made a great sensation at the time, and his wife got a divorce from him afterwards. Ever since then she has been in my establishment."
No, Mrs. Pletheridge did not remember Mrs. Fowler; but, having had a notorious amount of trouble with her own husbands, she was amiably disposed toward the unfortunate daughter-in-law of the lady she couldn't remember. Thirty years ago, as a pretty, vulgar, kind-hearted girl, she had captured with a glance the eldest son of the newly rich Pletheridge, who had, perhaps, inherited his grandfather's genial admiration for chambermaids; but, to-day, after a generation of self-indulgence, her prettiness had coarsened, her vulgarity had hardened, and her kind heart had withered, through lack of cultivation, to the size of a cherry. And, from having had everything she wanted for so long, she had at last reached that melancholy state of mind when she could think of nothing more to want.
A brisk step crossed the room outside, the curtains were parted with a commanding movement, and Gabriella joined the anxious group surrounded by the four mirrors.
"Did you send for me, Madame?" she asked, and waited, grave, attentive, and perfectly composed, with her hand, the small, strong hand of the Carrs, on the curtain. Her hair was brushed severely back from her candid forehead, and though her figure had grown somewhat heavier and less girlish in line, she still wore her plain black dress and white collar with an incomparable distinction. Through all the hardship and suffering of the last three years she had kept her look of bright intelligence, of radiant energy. In dress and manner she was the successful woman of business, but she was the woman of business with something added. Though she spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, her voice had a vibrating quality; though she wore only the plainest clothes, her grace, her good-breeding, her indefinable charm, softened the severity.
"Mrs. Pletheridge is uncertain about this gown," explained Madame, "but I tell her that it suits her to perfection, as well as if it had been designed for her by Worth. Do you not agree with me, Mrs. Carr? You have, as I said to her, the true eye of the artist."
Without changing her position or moving a step into the room, Gabriella attentively regarded the gown and the wearer. From the mirror Mrs. Pletheridge stared back at her ill-humouredly, with a spiteful gleam in her small black eyes between the carefully darkened lids.
"I can't imagine what is the matter with it," she reiterated, as if she were repeating a sad refrain, and her manner was as insolent as Miss Murphy's had been to the casual customer.
For an instant Gabriella returned her look with the steady gaze of one who, having achieved the full courage of living, has attained also a calm insensibility to the shafts of arrogance. Three years ago she would have flinched before Mrs. Pletheridge's disdain, but in those three years she had passed beyond the variegated tissue of appearances to the bare structure of life—she had worked and wept and starved and suffered—and to-day her soul was invulnerable against even more destructive weapons than the contempt of a plutocrat. Perhaps, too, though she assured herself that she was without snobbishness, there was a secret satisfaction in the knowledge that one of her ancestors had been a general under Washington while the early Pletheridges were planting potatoes in a peasant's patch in Ireland. Her dignity was more assured than Madame's; for she was perfectly aware of a fact to which Madame was blind, and this was, that, in spite of her position in the social columns of the newspapers and her multitudinous possessions, Mrs. Pletheridge was not, and could never be, a lady. While Gabriella stood there these thoughts flashed recklessly through her mind; yet she answered Madame's question as frankly and honestly as if the woman they were staring at with such intentness had not been the tragic vulgarian she was.
"I think the gown doesn't suit her at all," she said quietly to Madame, who made a horrified face at her over the sumptuous shoulder of Mrs. Pletheridge. "There is too much of it, too much billowy lace everywhere." She did not add that the coral and silver brocade gave Mrs. Pletheridge a curious resemblance to an overblown prize hollyhock.
Madame's horrified face changed, as if under a spell, to one of abject despair; and a menacing frown convulsed the puffy features of Mrs. Pletheridge, while she burst out of her gorgeous sheath with a petulant haste which expressed her inward perturbation better than words could have done. For a minute one could have heard a flower drop in the fitting-room; then the offended customer spoke, and her words, when she found them, were not lacking in either force or effectiveness. "No, there's no use trying on anything else, I have an appointment at Cambon's." Cambon was Dinard's hated and wholly incompetent rival; and until this illuminating instant Madame had never suspected that her particular Mrs. Pletheridge had ever entered the high white doors of Cambon's establishment.
"But, surely, we have something else. There is a lovely Doucet model—in white and silver—"
But no, Mrs. Pletheridge would have none of the lovely model. "Give me my skirt at once," she commanded haughtily, bending her opulent bosom and holding the lacy frills of her petticoat together while Agnes, the youngest and the gentlest of the assistants, knelt at her feet with her dress skirt held invitingly open on the floor. As she inserted the toe of her exquisitely shod foot into the opening, she remarked maliciously: "It is impossible to find decent clothes in New York—one might as well give up trying. Paris dressmakers send you only their failures." And, having crushed Madame to silence, she finished her dressing, fastened her black lace veil with a flying swallow in diamonds, flung her feather boa over her shoulders, and taking up her gold chain bag, studded with rubies, marched out of the establishment with all the pomp and impressiveness of a military parade.
"I've lost her. She will never come back," moaned Madame, and burst into tears.
"But she couldn't possibly have worn that gown. She would have found it out as soon as she got home," replied Gabriella reassuringly, though her heart was almost as heavy as Madame's.
It was all her fault, of course, as Madame, recovering her voice as she lost her temper, began immediately to tell her. It was all her fault, and yet how could she have stood there and lied to the woman in cold blood because Madame expected it of her as a part of her work? That she had infuriated Madame and imperilled her position she realized perfectly; but, realizing this, she still felt that she could not have told Mrs. Pletheridge that the gown was becoming to her. "There are times when one has to be honest no matter what happens," she thought rebelliously, while she went back to the workroom. Had Madame discharged her on the spot she would not have been surprised, and it was with a sensation of relief that she presently saw the forewoman measuring a dose of aromatic spirits of ammonia, and heard that the crisis was passing. A little later, when she went into the showroom with a hat for Miss Bellman, she encountered Madame bonneted, cloaked, panting, with moist eyes and raddled cheeks, preparing to take a slow airing in a hansom. As she was assisted into the vehicle by Miss Murphy and the driver, Madame pressed her beringed hand to her forehead with a despairing gesture; then the driver cracked his whip, the horse started, and the hansom disappeared up Fifth Avenue.
"What under the sun did you do to her?" inquired Miss Murphy, holding her wheaten-red pompadour down in the wind. "I declare I thought at first it was murder!"
"I told her the truth, when she asked me, that was all."
"Well, I never! Now what, in the name of goodness, possessed you?"
"I had to. I don't see how I could have kept from it."
"Good gracious! There're always ways, but what sort of truth was it? You see, it's been so long since I've met one," she explained airily, "that I don't even know what they're like."
"It was about Mrs. Pletheridge's gown—the one she wanted her to buy, you know. I told her it didn't suit her. And it didn't—you know it didn't," she concluded emphatically.
"Of course it didn't, but I don't see why you had to go and tell her."
"She asked me. They both asked me, and if I'd lied she wouldn't have believed me. You can't fool people so outrageously, and I wouldn't if I could. It isn't honest, and it isn't good business."
"Anything is good business that gets by," remarked Miss Murphy, who had a philosophy. "I must go indoors or this wind will blow all my puffs away."
She departed breezily; and Gabriella, returning to the workroom, spent her afternoon patiently stitching flat garlands of flowers on the brim of a hat. When she left the house at six o'clock the April weather was so lovely that she decided to walk all the way home; and while she moved rapidly with the crowd in Fifth Avenue, she considered anxiously the possible disastrous results of Madame's anger. Between her and absolute want there stood only her salary, and she had deliberately—she realized now how deliberate her reply had been—undermined that thin and insecure protection. Though she was now earning as much as thirty dollars a week, an illness of a year ago, when she had been obliged to stop work for several months, had exhausted the remains of the modest nest egg with which she had started; and to lose her place, she knew, would mean either starvation or beggary. There was no one, with the exception of Cousin Jimmy, of whom she could beg, and to beg of him would be a tacit confession that she had failed as a breadwinner. In Mrs. Carr's last letter Charley had appeared in a new light as a reformed character, a devoted attendant at church, and an enthusiastic convert to the prohibition party; and Gabriella had gathered from her mother's pious rambling that, like other sinners who have outlived temptation, he was devoting his middle years to a violent crusade against the moderate indulgences of the abstemious. But Charley, she felt, was out of the question. She would die before she would stoop to ask help of a man she had despised as heartily as she had once despised Charley. She must sink or swim by her own strength, not by another's.
"I wonder why I did it?" she asked herself again, and again she could not answer the question. She felt that she might have lied had it been merely a lie and not a test of courage before her; but she could not lie simply because she was afraid of speaking the truth. In every character there is one supreme vice or virtue which strikes the deepest root and blossoms most luxuriantly, and in the character of Gabriella this virtue was courage. At the crucial moments of life some primordial instinct prompted her to fight, not to yield. "I ought to have been evasive, I suppose," she thought regretfully. "But how could I have been?" There were instants, she had discovered, when wisdom surrendered to the more militant virtues.
When she reached home she found Fanny, who was fretfully recovering from influenza, lying on the sofa in the living-room, with Miss Polly busily stitching at her side, while Archibald, excited by a strenuous afternoon with the son of the Italian fruit dealer, was kneeling before the window, making mysterious signs to a group of yellow-haired German children in the apartment house on the opposite side of the street. Both children were eagerly expecting their mother, and as soon as she entered they grew animated and cheerful.
She kissed and cuddled them, and listened sympathetically to their excited stories of the day, and of Dr. French, who had been to see Fanny, and who had waited as long as he could.
"He's going to take us for a drive to-morrow, mother, and we're to sit in the carriage while he goes in to pay his calls, and then he's to show us the river and we're to stop somewhere to have tea."
"Did he stay long?" asked Gabriella of Miss Folly.
"For more than an hour," replied Miss Folly, and commented shrewdly after a minute: "It looks to me as if there was more in that young man than you can see on the surface, Gabriella."
A blush tinged Gabriella's cheek, but she shook her head almost indignantly. "Oh, there's nothing of that kind," she answered emphatically, and rose to take off her hat and prepare supper.
Since her illness of a year ago, when she had summoned the strange young doctor who had once been the assistant of the Fowlers' family physician, she had grown to feel a certain dependence upon Dr. French as the only useful friend who was left to her. He was a thin, gray-eyed, fair-haired young man, who practised largely among the poor, from choice rather than from necessity, since Dr. Morton had given him an excellent start in life. His pale, ascetic face had attracted Gabriella from their first meeting; there was the flamelike enthusiasm of the visionary in his eyes; and he had, she thought, the most beautiful and sympathetic hands she had ever seen. Even Fanny, who was usually impervious to sensitive impressions, felt the charm of his touch when he stroked her forehead or placed his long, delicate fingers on her wrist. From that first visit he had been a source of comfort and strength to Gabriella; but of late she had felt moments of uneasiness when she was with him. Was it possible, she asked herself now, as she went back to the kitchen to stew the oysters Miss Polly had bought for supper, that the kindly doctor was misinterpreting the simple and unaffected nature of her friendship? For herself she felt that she had put the reality of love out of her life, and that if the emotion existed for her at all, it existed only as a dream and a regret. She enshrined the memory of Arthur in something of the sentimental worship which Mrs. Carr had consecrated to Gabriel after she had lost him. It was an exquisite consolation to her to feel that if things had been otherwise, she might have loved a man with the whole of her nature—with both body and spirit; there were even moments in the spring of the year, when, softened by the caressing air and the scent of hyacinths, she felt that she did so love a memory; but beyond this her feeling was as bodiless and ethereal as the vague image to which it was dedicated. And yet this gentle regret was all that she wanted of love.
In the kitchen she found Miss Danton, the musical spinster, making her scant supper of tea and toast on the gas-range. Though the hectic flush still burned in Miss Danton's cheeks, the famished look in her eyes seemed to have devoured all the strength of her body, and she moved like one who has run to the point of exhaustion and is about to drop to the ground. Long ago Gabriella had heard her story, and she understood now that the yearning in her face was the yearning for life, which she had rejected in her youth, and which, in middle-age, had eluded her. As a young girl, aflame with temperament, she had sacrificed herself to a widowed father and a family of little brothers and sisters in a small town in the South. For thirty years she had fought down her dreams and her impulses; for thirty years she had cooked, washed, ironed, and sewed, until the children had all grown up and married, and her father, after a long illness, had died in her arms. On her fifty-second birthday her freedom had come—freedom not only from cares and responsibilities, but from love, from duty, from the constant daily thought that she was necessary to some one who depended on her. At fifty-three, with broken health and a few thousand dollars brought from the sale of the old home, she had come to New York to study music as she had dreamed of doing when she was young. And the tragedy of it was that she had a gift, she had temperament, she had genuine artistic feeling.
"When I remember the way I used to cook for the children," she remarked while she measured a teaspoonful of green tea into a little Japanese tea-pot, "why, I'd think nothing of roasting a turkey when we had one at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and now, I declare, it seems too much trouble to do more than make a pot of tea. Sometimes I don't even take the trouble to toast my bread."
"You ought to eat," replied Gabriella, briskly. "When one gets run down, one never looks at life fairly." True to her fundamental common sense, she had never underestimated the importance of food as a prop for philosophy.
"I'd never eat if I could help it," rejoined Miss Danton, with the abhorrence of the aesthetic temperament for material details. "It's queer the thoughts I have sometimes," she added irrelevantly as she sat down before the kitchen table, and poured out a cup of tea. "I don't know what's come over me, but I'd give anything on earth—if it wasn't wicked I'd almost give my soul—to be your age and to be starting to live my life. I never had any life. It wasn't fair. I never had any," she repeated bitterly, dropping a lump of sugar into her cup.
"Well, I've had my troubles, too," observed Gabriella, busily stirring the oysters.
"You've had them and you'll have others. It doesn't matter—nothing really matters as long as you're young. It's all a part of the game, trouble and everything else—everything except old age and death. I'm getting old—I'm getting old, and I began too late, and that's the worst that can happen to a woman. Do you know I never had a love affair in my life," she pursued bitterly after a moment. "I never had love, or pleasure, or anything but work and duty—and now it's too late. It's too late for it all," she finished, rising to take her toast from the oven.
"Poor thing, she exaggerates so dreadfully," thought Gabriella. "I believe it comes from drinking too much green tea"; and she resolved that she would never touch green tea as long as she lived. Like most women whose love had ended not in unfulfilment, but in satiety and bitterness, she was inclined to deny the supreme importance of the passion in the scheme of life. As a deserted wife and the mother of two children, she felt that she could live for years without the desire, without even the thought of romantic love in her mind. "I wonder why I, who have known and lost love, should be so much freer from that obsession than poor Miss Danton, who has never been loved in her life?" she asked herself while she carried the supper tray down the long hall and into the living-room.
Some hours later, when the children were asleep, and Gabriella sat darning Archibald's stockings beside the kerosene lamp, she described to Miss Polly the scene with Madame and Mrs. Pletheridge.
"I don't know how it will end. She may discharge me to-morrow," she deliberated, as she cut off a length of black darning cotton, and bent over to thread her needle. "I wonder what I ought to do?"
"Well, now, ain't that exactly like you, Gabriella," scolded Miss Polly; "but when you come to think of it," she conceded after a minute or two, "I reckon we're all made like that in the beginning. Why, I remember way back yonder in the 'seventies how I was always tryin' to persuade a woman with a skinny figure not to wear a cuirass basque and a woman with a stout figure not to put on a draped polonaise. I got to know better presently, and you will, too, before you've been at it much longer. They all think they can look like fashion plates—the skinniest and the stoutest alike—and there ain't a bit of use tryin' to undeceive 'em. The last thing a woman ever sees straight is her figure."
"I can't help feeling," demurred Gabriella, forsaking the moral issue for the argument of mere expediency, "that honesty is good business."
"Well, it ain't," retorted Miss Polly sharply. "It may be good religion and good behaviour, but there's one thing it certainly ain't, and that is good business. How many of these rich men we read about in the papers do you reckon spend their time settin' around and bein' honest? Mind you I ain't sayin' I'd lie or steal myself, Gabriella, but I'm poor, and what I'm sayin' is that when you feel that way about it, you're as likely to stay poor as not."
But the next day, life, with one of those startling surprises which defy philosophy and make drama, confirmed the most illogical of Gabriella's assumptions. Madame, coming in late, with a blotched face and puffy eyelids, had dispatched her to the workroom, and she was sitting before one of the long tables, embroidering azure beads on a black collar, when Agnes darted through the door and jerked the needle out of her hand.
"Madame is asking for you. Come as quick as you can!" she cried excitedly, and sped back again to the shelter of the artificial rose-bushes at the end of the hall.
Rising hurriedly, and brushing the scraps of silk from her cloth skirt as she walked, Gabriella followed the sound of Madame's wheedling voice, and found herself, as she parted the curtains of a fitting-room, in the opulent presence of Mrs. Pletheridge.
"Yes, as I told you, we trust implicitly to Mrs. Carr's eye. She has the true eye of the artist," Madame simpered fawningly as she entered. "Did you send for me?" asked Gabriella, business-like and alert on the threshold.
"Good morning, Mrs. Carr! I told Madame Dinard that I wanted you to wait on me. I want some one who tells me the truth," explained Mrs. Pletheridge so graciously that Gabriella would hardly have recognized her. Something—sleep, pleasure, or pious meditation—had altered overnight not only her temper but even the fleshly vehicle of its uncertain manifestations. Her features appeared to have adjusted themselves to the size of her face, and she spoke quite affably, though still with her manner of addressing an inferior.
"I want you to show me something that will really suit me," she said. "I think the grayish-green cloth from Blandin might be copied in silver, but I should like you to see it on me. I know you will tell me what you really think." Her voice faltered and deepened to a note of pathos.
"Poor woman," thought Gabriella, "it must be hard for her to get people to tell her what they really think," and she added exultantly while she went for the gowns: "If I satisfy her now, I am saved with Madame!"
When she returned, with the green cloth in one hand and a charming lavender crpe tea-gown in the other, she approached Mrs. Pletheridge with the manner of intelligent sympathy, of serene and smiling competence, which had made her so valuable to Madame as a saleswoman. She had the air not only of seeking to please, but of knowing just how to go about the difficult matter of pleasing. With the eye of an artist in dress, she analyzed Mrs. Pletheridge's possibilities; and softening here and there her pronounced features, succeeded presently in producing a charming and harmonious whole. By the time a dozen gowns were tried on and their available points discussed and criticised in detail, Mrs. Pletheridge had given the largest order ever received by the house, and was throwing out enthusiastic hints of an even greater munificence in the future. She left at last in a thoroughly good humour not only with Dinard's, but with her own rejuvenated attractions; and Gabriella, exhausted but triumphant, watched Agnes gather up the French models from chairs and sofas and carry them back to the obscurity of the closets. In her heart there was both peace and rejoicing because her belief in life had been justified. In spite of Madame, in spite of Miss Polly, in spite of experience, the day had proved that it was, after all, "good business" to be honest. Though she was still in debt, though she was still compelled to scrimp and save over market bills, nevertheless she felt that her work had progressed beyond the experimental stages, and that her place at Dinard's was secured until some better opening appeared. For that morning at least she had made herself indispensable to Madame. For years, she knew, Madame had striven fawningly for the exclusive patronage of Mrs. Pletheridge, and she, Gabriella, had attained it, without loss of pride or self-respect, by a few words of honest and sensible criticism. She had applied her intelligence to the situation, and her intelligence had served Dinard's more successfully than Madame's duplicity had done.
At home she found Dr. French, who had just brought the delighted children back from their drive. When she thanked him, she saw that there was a glow of pleasure in his rather delicate face, and that this glow lent an expression of ecstasy to his dark-gray eyes—the eyes of a mystic and a dreamer. "I wonder how he ever became a physician," she thought. "He is more like a priest—like a priest of the Middle Ages." But aloud she only said: "You have done them a world of good. Fanny has got some of her colour back already, and that means an appetite for supper."
"We had tea," broke in Archibald, with enthusiasm, "but it was really milk, and we had cake, but it was really bread and butter." He looked so well and vigorous that Gabriella called the doctor's attention to the animation in his face. "If only he didn't have to wear glasses," she said. "I'm so afraid it will interfere with his love of sports. His ambition is to be captain of a football team and to write poetry."
"It's a queer combination," responded the doctor, smiling his slightly whimsical smile. He was rather short, with an almost imperceptible limp, and he had, as he put it, "never gone in for sports." "There's so much else when one comes to think of it," he added, pausing, with his hat in his hand, at the door; "there are plenty of ways of having fun even without football." Then he turned away from the children, and said directly to Gabriella:
"Will you come out with me to-morrow? It is Sunday."
"And leave the children?" she asked a little blankly.
"And leave the children!" He was laughing, but it occurred to her suddenly, for the first time, that her maternal raptures were beginning to bore him. For a year she had believed that his interest in her was mainly a professional interest in the children; and now she was confronted with the disturbing fact that he wanted to be rid of the children for a few hours at least, that he evidently saw in her something besides the overwhelming force of her motherhood.
"But I never leave them on Sunday. It is the only day I have with them," she answered.
"Don't go, mother! You mustn't go!" cried Fanny, and clung to her.
"Oh, very well," returned Dr. French, dismissing the subject with irritation. "But you look pale, and I thought the air might do you good."
He went away rather abruptly, while Gabriella stood looking at Miss Polly in regret and perplexity. "I hope I didn't hurt his feelings by declining," she said; and then, as the children raced into the nursery to take off their coats, she added slowly, "He couldn't expect me to go without them."
"If you want to know what I think," replied Miss Polly flatly, "it is that he's just sick to death of the children. You've stuck them down his throat until he's had as much of them as he can swallow."
For a moment Gabriella considered this ruefully.
"You don't honestly believe that he's interested in me in that way?" she demanded in a horrified whisper.
"I don't know but one way in which a man's ever interested in a woman," retorted Miss Polly. "It's either that way or it's none at all, as far as I can see. But if I was you, honey, I'd drop him a little encouragement now and then, just to keep up his spirits. Men ain't no mo' than flesh and blood, after all" and it's natural that he shouldn't be as crazy about the children as you are."
"But why should I encourage him? Even if you are right, I couldn't marry him. I could never marry again."
"I'd like to know why not, if you get a chance? You're free enough, ain't you?"
"Yes, it isn't that—but I couldn't."
"You ain't hankerin' after George, are you, Gabriella?"
"After George? No!" responded Gabriella with so sincere an accent that Miss Polly jumped.
"Well, I'm glad you ain't," observed the seamstress soothingly as she stooped to pick up her sewing. "I shouldn't think he was worth hankerin' after, myself, but you've looked kind of peaked and thin this spring, so I've just been wonderin'."
"I never loved George. It was madness, nothing else," returned Gabriella, and she really believed it.
"Well, your thinkin' it madness now don't mean it wan't love ten years ago," commented Miss Polly, with the shrewdness of a detached and observant spinster.
"I suppose you're right," admitted Gabriella thoughtfully. Though she had not mentioned Arthur, her mind was full of him, and she was perfectly convinced that she had loved him all her life—even during her brief period of "madness." It was a higher love, she felt, so much higher, indeed, that it had been too spiritual, too ethereal, to take root in the earthly soil from which her passion for George had sprung. But, if it were not love, why was it that every faint stirring of her emotions revived the memory so poignantly? Why was it that Miss Polly's sentimental interpretation of the doctor's interest evoked the image of Arthur?
"No, I never think of George—never," she repeated, and her fine, pure features assumed an expression of sternness. "But I shan't marry again," she went on after a pause in which Miss Polly's sewing-machine buzzed cheerfully over its work. "I've had enough of marriage to last me for one lifetime."
The machine stopped, and Miss Polly, snipping the thread as she came to the end of a seam, turned squarely to answer. "Don't you be too sure about that, honey. You may have had enough to last you for ten years or so, but wait till you've turned forty, and if the hankerin' for love don't catch you at forty, you may begin to expect it somewhere around fifty. Why, just look at that poor piano-playin' old maid in there. Wouldn't you think she'd have done with it? Well, she ain't—she ain't, and you ain't either, for that matter, I don't care how hard you argue!"
"There are ten happy years ahead of me anyhow!" rejoined Gabriella, with a ringing laugh—the laugh, as Dr. French had once remarked, of a woman who is sound to the core. She had triumphed over the past, and was not afraid, she told herself valiantly, of the future.
At the beginning of July the children went with Miss Polly to the country, and Gabriella, after seeing them off, turned back alone to begin a long summer of economy and drudgery. In order to keep Fanny and Archibald out of town she was obliged to deny herself every unnecessary comfort—luxuries she had given up long ago—and to stay at Dinard's, in Madame's place, through the worst weeks of the year, when the showroom was deserted except for an occasional stray Southerner, and even the six arrogant young women were away on vacations. Even if she had had the chance, the money for a trip would have been lacking, and to fill Madame's conspicuous place gave her, she realized, a certain importance and authority in the house. There was opportunity, in a small way, to work out some of her ideas of system and order, and there was sufficient time to think out a definite and practical plan for the future. Her aim from the first had been, not only to catch on, but to master the details of the business, and she knew that, in spite of Madame's sporadic attempts to keep her in her place, she was gradually making herself felt—she was slowly impressing her individual methods upon the establishment. Madame was no longer what she once was, and the business was showing it. She was getting old, she was growing tired, and her naturally careless methods of work were fastening upon her. In the last years she had offered less and less resistance to her tendency to let go, to leave loose ends ungathered, to allow opportunities to slip out of her grasp, to be inexact and unsystematic. There was urgent need of a strong hand at Dinard's, if the business was to be kept from running gradually downhill, and Gabriella became convinced, as the days passed, that hers was the only hand in the house strong enough to check the perilous descent to failure. Her plans were made, her scheme arranged, but, as Madame was both jealous and suspicious, she saw that she must move very cautiously.
There were times—since this is history, not romance—when her spirits flagged and her strength failed her. The heat of the summer was intense, and the breathless days dragged on interminably into the breathless nights. When her work was over she would wait until the last of her fellow-workers had gone home, and then walk across to Sixth Avenue and take the Harlem elevated train for her deserted rooms, which appeared more desolate, more ugly than ever because the children were absent. In the lonely kitchen—for Miss Danton and the art students were all away—she would eat her supper of bread and tea, which she drank without cream because it was more economical; and then, lighting her lamp, she would sew or read until midnight. Sometimes, when it was too hot for the lamp, and she found it impossible to work by the flickering gas, she would sit by her window and look down on the panting humanity in the street below—on the small shopkeepers seated in chairs on the sidewalk, on the little son of the Italian fruiterer playing with his dog, on the three babies of the Jewish tobacco merchant, sprawling in the door of the tiny shop which was pressed like a sardine between a bakery and a dairy. She was alone in the apartment, and there were late afternoons when the grim emptiness of the rooms seemed haunted, when she shrank back in apprehensive foreboding as she turned her key in the lock, when the profound silence within preyed on her nerves like an obsession. On these days she dreaded to go down the long hail to the kitchen, where the fluttering clothes-lines on fire-escapes at the back of the next apartment house offered the only suggestion of human companionship in the unfriendly wilderness of the city. The sight of the children's toys, of Fanny's story books, of Archibald's roller skates, moved her to tears once or twice; and when this happened she caught herself up sharply and struggled with the vague, malignant demon of melancholy.
"Whatever comes, I must not lose my courage," she told herself at such times. "If I lose my courage I shall have nothing left."
Then she would put on her hat, and go down into the street, where the unwashed children swarmed like insects over the pavements, and the air was as hot and parched as the air of a desert. If the mother of the Jewish babies sat on her doorstep, she would stop for a little talk with her about the heat and the health of the children, and the increasing price of whatever one happened to buy in the market, or, perhaps, if the fruit stall still kept open, she would ask after the Italian's little boy, and stop to pat Archibald's friend, the white mongrel with the black ear. She had left her acquaintances when she left Fifty-seventh Street, and, with the exception of Judge Crowborough, who telephoned occasionally to inquire if she needed assistance, she was without friends in New York. Patty wrote often from Paris, but Billy was happy with his work, and they said nothing of returning to America. In the whole city, outside of Dinard's, she knew only Dr. French, and from him she had had no word or sign for several months.
It was on one of these depressing evenings, while she was boiling an egg in the kitchen, that the ringing of the door-bell reverberated with an uncanny sound through the empty apartment. Spurred by an instinctive fear of a telegram, she ran to open the door, and found Dr. French standing in the dimly lighted hail, with the negro Robert grinning cheerfully at his back.
"I am so glad," she said, "so glad," and her voice shook in spite of the effort she made.
"I've been thinking about you all summer," he explained, "and the other day I passed you in the street as you were coming from work. You are not looking well. Is it the heat?"
"No, it isn't the heat. I think it is the loneliness. You see it is so different not having the children to come back to in the afternoon, and when I get lonely I see things in false proportions. This apartment has been like a grave to me all summer."
She led the way into the living-room, where her sewing, a blue cambric frock she was scalloping for Fanny, was lying on the chair by the window. "Things are all upset. I hope you won't mind," she added apologetically while she folded the dress and laid it aside, "but nothing seems to matter when I sit here all by myself."
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, I work all day. There is really very little to do except plan for the autumn, and I like that. Madame is in Paris, and I am in charge of the place."
"And in the evenings?"
She laughed with recovered spirit. "In the evening I sew and read and mope."
"Well, we must change all that," he said, with a tenderness which brought tears to her eyes. "Why can't you come out with me somewhere to dinner?"
Three years ago, when she was first separated from George, she would have evaded the suggestion; but to-night, at the end of the long summer, she caught eagerly at the small crumb of pleasure.
"Oh, I'd love to! Only wait until I put out the stove and tidy my hair."
"I want to see what you have to eat," he remarked in his whimsical tone, as he followed her back into the kitchen. "Only an egg!"
"It is so hot. I wasn't hungry, but I am now," she replied gaily, her thin face flushing to beauty. After her loneliness there was a delight in being cared for, in being scolded. "But for the mistake I made this might happen to me always," she thought, and her mind went back to Arthur.
When she came out of her room, wearing a fresh linen blouse, with her hair smoothly brushed, and her eyes sparkling with pleasure, he was gazing abstractedly down into the street, and she was obliged to speak twice to him before he heard her and turned. At last he broke away, almost with an effort, from his meditation, and when he looked at her she saw that there was the mystic gleam in his eyes—the light as of a star shining through clouds—which attracted her so strongly. The thought flashed through her vague impressions, "He loves me. I may win him by a smile, by a word, by a look," and, for a minute, she rested on the certainty with an ineffable sense of peace, of ease, of deep inward rejoicing. "Love is everything. There is nothing worth while except love," she thought; and love meant to her then, not passion, not even romance, but comfort, tenderness, and the companionship that sweetens the flat monotony of daily living. Then, beneath the beauty and sweetness of the vision, she felt the vein of iron in her soul as she had felt it whenever she struggled to escape the sterner issues of life. The face of Arthur rose in her memory, tender, wistful, protecting, and young with the eternal youth of desire. No, love was not for her again. Not for the second time would she betray the faith of her Dream.
They dined at a little French restaurant, where the green-shaded lights, festooned with grape leaves, shed a romantic pallor over their faces, and the haunting refrains of an Italian love song stirred the buried ghosts in their hearts. The doctor made her drink a glass of champagne; and after her frugal meals and the weakening effect of the heat and the loneliness, the sparkle of the wine, mingling with the music and the lights, sent a sudden rush of joy through her veins. Her courage came back to her, not in slow drops, but in a radiant flood, which pervaded her being. After the lonely months there was delight in the clasp of a friend's hand, in the glance of a friend's eye, in the sound of a friend's voice speaking her name. Life appeared divinely precious at the instant; and by life she meant not happiness, not even fulfilment, but the very web, the very texture and pattern of experience.
"You're better already," he said, with a solicitude that was more intoxicating than wine to her. "How I wish I'd known all summer that you were here. I might have done something to make you happy, and now I've missed my chance."
"I don't think I've ever been so happy as I am to-night," she answered simply, and then after a pause she let fall word by word, "After all, it takes so little to make me happy."
"One can tell that to look at you. You have the air of happiness. I noticed it the first moment I saw you. And yet you have not had an easy life. There must have been terrible hours for you in the past."
"No, I haven't had an easy life, but I love it. I mean I love living."
"I know, I understand," he said softly. "It is the true American spirit—optimism springing out of a struggle. Do you know you have always made me think of the American spirit at its best—of its unquenchable youth, its gallantry, its self-reliance—"
They walked back slowly through the hot, close streets, and sat for an hour beside her window-sill on which a rose geranium was blooming in an earthen pot. Now and then a breeze entered warily, stealing the fragrance from the rose geranium, and rippling the dark, straying tendrils of Gabriella's hair. By the dim light she saw the wistful pallor of his face, and his blue eyes, with their exalted look, which moved her heart to an inexpressible tenderness.
"You are so different from other physicians," she said in perplexity, "I can't think of you as one, no matter how hard I try. All the others I have known, even old Dr. Walker, were materialists."
"Well, I got in some way. There are fools in every school, I suppose. But if it's any comfort to you, they've done their best to get rid of me. They don't like my theories." When he talked of his work he seemed all at once another man to her, and she discerned presently, while she listened to his earnest voice, that he was one of the men whose emotional natures are nourished by an abstract and impersonal passion—by the passion for science, for truth in its concrete form. After all, he was a mystic only in his eyes. Beneath his dreamer's face he was a scientist to the last drop of his blood, to the last fibre of his being. "He can't be hurt deeply through the heart," she thought; "only through the mind."
"I've wondered about you all summer," he repeated presently, "and yet I kept away—partly, I suppose, because I was thinking too much of you."
At his change of tone from the impersonal to the tender all the frozen self-pity in her heart seemed to melt suddenly, threatening in its overflow the very foundations of her philosophy. The temptation to yield utterly, to rest for a while not on her strength, but on his, assailed her with the swiftness and the violence of a spiritual revulsion. For an instant she surrendered to the uncontrollable force of this desire; then she drew quickly back while the world about her—the room, the window, the bare skeleton of the elevated road, the street, and even the rose geranium blooming on the sill—became as remote and impalpable as a phantom.
"It has been a long summer," she heard herself saying from a distance in a thin and colourless voice.
"And you suffered?"
"Sometimes, but I'm interested in my work, and I've been thinking and planning all summer."
For a moment he was silent, and though she did not look at him, she could feel his intense gaze on her face. The breeze, scented with rose geranium, touched her forehead like the healing and delicate stroke of his fingers.
"You are still so young, so vital, not to have something else in your life," he went on presently in a voice so charged with feeling that her eyes filled while she listened to it.
"I have had love, and I have my children."
"But you will love again? You will marry again some day?"
She shook her head, hearing, above the street cries and the muffled rumble of the elevated train, a voice that said: "I shall never give you up, Gabriella!" To her weakened nerves there appeared, with the vividness of an hallucination, the memory of Arthur as he had looked in her school-days when she had first loved him; and in this hallucination she saw him, not as he was in reality, but divinely glorified and enkindled by the light her imagination had created around him.
"No, I shall never love again, I shall never love again," she answered at last, while a feeling of exultation surged through her.
"You mean," his voice shook a little, "that your husband still holds you?"
"My husband? No, I never think of my husband."
"Is there some one else?"
Before answering she looked up at him, and by his face she knew that her reply would cost her his friendship. She wanted his friendship—at the moment she felt that she would gladly give a year of her life for it. It meant companionship instead of loneliness, it meant plenty instead of famine. Yet only for an instant, only while she stopped to draw breath, did she hesitate. "Women must learn to be honourable," she found herself thinking suddenly with an extraordinary intensity.
"Yes, there is some one else—there has always been some one else," she said, driven on by an impulsive desire for full confession, for absolute candour. "When I met George I was engaged to another man, and I have loved that man all my life."
She had confessed all, she told herself; and the remarkable part was that she really believed her confession—she was honestly convinced that she had spoken only the truth. Her soul, like the soul of Cousin Jimmy, sheltered a romantic strain which demanded that one supreme illusion should endure amid a world of disillusionment. Because she was obliged to believe in something or die, she had built her imperishable Dream on the flame-swept ruins of her happiness.
"He must be a big man if he can fill a life like yours," said Dr. French.
"I don't know why I told you," she faltered; "I have never told any one else. It is my secret."
"Well, it is safe with me. Don't be afraid."
For the few minutes before he rose to go they talked indifferently of other things. She had lost him, she knew, and while she held his hand at parting, she felt a sharp regret for what was passing out of her life—for the one chance of love, of peace, of a tranquil and commonplace happiness. But beneath the regret there was a hidden spring of joy in her heart. At the instant of trial she had found strength to be true to her Dream.
"I declare you're real pretty to-night, honey," remarked Miss Polly from the floor, where she knelt pinning up the hem of a black serge skirt she was making for Gabriella. "Some days you're downright plain, and then you flame out just like a lamp. Nobody would ever think to look at you that you'd be thirty-seven years old to-morrow." For it was the evening before Gabriella's birthday, and she was at the end of her thirty-sixth year.
"I feel young," she answered brightly, "and I feel happy. The children are well, and I've had all the success I could ask. Some day I'm going to own Madame's business, Miss Polly."
"I reckon she's gettin' mighty old, ain't she?"
"She gave up the work years ago, and I believe she'd be glad to sell out to me to-morrow if I had the money.
"I wish you had. It would be nice for you to be at the head, now wouldn't it?" rejoined Miss Polly, speaking with difficulty through a mouthful of pins.
"Yes, I wish I had, but I've thought and thought, and I don't see how I could borrow enough. I've sometimes thought of asking Judge Crowborough to invest some money in the business. It would be investing, the returns are so good."
"He'd do it in a minute, I expect. He always set a lot of store by you, didn't he?"
"He used to, but somehow I hate to ask favours."
"You were always a heap too proud. Don't you remember how you'd never eat the other children's cake when you were a child unless you had some of your own to offer 'em?"
Gabriella laughed. "No, I don't remember, but it sounds like me. I was horrid."
"There was always a hard streak somewhere down in you, and you don't mind my sayin' that you ain't gettin' any softer, Gabriella. There are times now when your mouth gets a set look like your Aunt Becky Bollingbroke's. You don't recollect her, I 'spose, but she never married."
"Well, I married," Gabriella flippantly reminded her; "so it can't be that."
Though the hard work of the last ten years had left its visible mark upon her, and she looked a little older, a little tired, a little worn, experience had added a rare spiritual beauty to her face, and she was far handsomer than she had been at twenty. The rich sprinkling of silver in the heavy waves of hair over her ears framed the firm pale oval of her face with a poetic and mysterious darkness, and gave depth and softness to her brilliant eyes. For the struggle, which had stolen her first freshness and left faintly perceptible lines in her expressive face, had not robbed her of the eyes and the heart of a girl.
"I don't count George, somehow," retorted Miss Polly. "That wan't like marryin' a real man, you know, and, when all's said and done, a lone woman gets mighty hard and dried up."
"But I can't marry when there's nobody to marry me," laughed Gabriella. "I haven't seen a man for seven years except in the street or occasionally in the shop. Men have either passed me by without seeing me or they have wanted to sell me something."
At the sound of the children's voices she slipped out of the serge skirt, and began hurriedly fastening the old black silk gown she wore at dinner. Through all the years of toil and self-denial she had preserved a certain formality of living, a gracious ease of manner, which she kept for the evenings with her children. Cares were thrust away then, to be taken up again as soon as Fanny and Archibald were in bed, and no matter how hard the day had been, she was always cheerful, always gay and light-hearted for the dinner hour by the fireside. Not often had she been too poor to buy a handful of flowers for the table, and never once, except during her illness, had she come home too tired to change to the black silk gown, which she had turned and made from bishop sleeves to small ones, and from "dropped" shoulders to high ones, for the last six or seven years. The damask on the table was darned and mended, but it was always spotlessly fresh. In winter the fire was made up brightly in the evenings; in summer the room was deliciously scented with rose geranium and heliotrope from the box in the window. For ten years she had not had a holiday; she had worked harder than a man, harder than any servant, for she had worked from dawn until midnight; but into her hard life she had instilled a quality of soul which had enabled her to endure the strain without breaking. "No life is so hard that you can't make it easier by the way you take it," she had said to herself in the beginning; and remembering always that courage is one of the eternal virtues, she had disciplined her mind as well as her body to firmness and elasticity of fibre. "Nobody, except myself, is ever going to make me happy," she would repeat over and over again when the day was wearying and the work heavy. "I want to be happy. I have a right to be happy, but it depends on myself."
This indestructible belief in her "right to happiness" supported her through the hardest hours of her life, and diffused an invigorating atmosphere not only in her home, but even in her long working hours at Dinard's. The children grew and strengthened in its bracing air; Miss Polly quickly responded to it; the women in the workroom breathed it in as if it were the secret of health, and even Madame showed occasional signs that she was not entirely impervious to its vital and joyous influence. It was not always easy for Gabriella to keep the light in her eyes and the faith in her heart. There were days when both seemed to fail her, when, with aching body and depressed mind, she felt that she could not look beyond the immediate suffering minute, when she told herself despairingly that she had lost everything in losing her courage. But bad days passed as irrevocably as good ones; and left her, when they were over, with her strong soul unshaken, and her philosophy of happiness still undestroyed. Like other human beings, she found that her moods were largely controlled by her physical health.
"Oh, mother dear, I went down to meet you, and I missed you by just five minutes," said Fanny, kissing her cheek. "I wanted you to go with me to look at the house in London Terrace. Miss Polly and I are crazy about it."
"I know," said Gabriella tenderly, while she feasted her eyes on her daughter.
The old apartment house in which they had spent the last ten years would be torn down in the summer, and Fanny and Miss Folly had devoted the past week to an exhaustive hunt for a home.
"Then you'll look at it to-morrow, won't you, mother?" urged Fanny. "We can get the upper rooms and they are larger than these. There is a little yard in front, with an elm tree and a rose-bush, and plenty of space for flowers."
"I can't recall the house exactly," said Gabriella thoughtfully. "It must be in a row, isn't it? I have a vague recollection of some old houses, with fronts of stuccoed pilasters, and rather nice yards. But West Twenty-third Street is too far away, dear. I don't like the neighbourhood. Wouldn't you rather be in Park Avenue?" Her ignorance of New York, though she had lived there seventeen years, amazed Fanny, who was a true child of the city.
"Carlie Herndon lives in that row, mother"—Carlie Herndon, the daughter of a distinguished and unpopular novelist, was Fanny's best friend for the moment—"and I could always go out with her in the evening."
"It isn't the location I should have liked, Fanny," said Gabriella, weakly yielding, as she always yielded to her daughter; "but if you really fancy the house, I'll try to look at it on my way home to-morrow. One has to be very careful about the plumbing in these old houses. I insist upon good plumbing. After that, you may have what you want."
"Oh, it has brand new bathrooms, Mrs. Mallon told me so, and she's lived there until a year ago. And if you had only seen the new apartments we looked at, mother, nothing on the East Side that would have held us under twenty-five hundred a year, and even at that the bedrooms were no bigger than closets, and you'd have to have electric light all day in the bathroom. We searched everywhere, didn't we, Miss Polly?"
"West Twenty-third Street is mighty far out of the way, honey," observed Miss Polly cautiously.
"Oh, but I'd have Carlie, and she's my best friend," persisted Fanny, with caressing obstinacy.
"Well, we'll see, precious," said Gabriella, while she assured herself that if Fanny cost her every penny she had, at least the child was worth what she spent on her. To a superficial observer, Fanny would probably have appeared merely an attractive girl, of Jane's willowy type, with something of Jane's trite prettiness of feature; but to Gabriella, who suffered from a maternal obliquity of vision, she seemed both brilliant and beautiful. Of course she was selfish, but this selfishness, as long as it was clothed in her youth and loveliness, was as inoffensive as the playfulness of a kitten. Her face was round and shallow, with exquisite colouring which veiled the flatness and lack of character in her features. Above her azure eyes her hair, which was not plentiful, but fine and soft, and as yellow as ripe corn, broke in a shining mist over her forehead. All her life, by being what she was, she had got, without effort, everything that she wanted. She had got dolls when she wanted dolls; she had got Miss Ludwell's expensive school when she wanted an expensive private school; she would get the house in West Twenty-third Street to-morrow, and when she began to want love, she would get it as easily and as undeservedly as she got everything else. She was very expensive, but, like the flowers on the table and the spotless damask and the lace in Gabriella's sleeves, she was one of her mother's luxuries to be paid for by additional hours of work and thought.
"Wasn't Archibald with you?" inquired Gabriella, while she pushed the chairs into place and tidied the room.
"He stopped at the library. There's his ring now. I'll open the door."
She ran out, and Gabriella, with the tablecloth in her hand, stood waiting for Archibald to enter. In her eager expectancy, in the wistful brightness of her eyes, in the tender quivering of her lips, she was like a girl who is awaiting a lover. Every evening, after her day's work, she greeted her son with the same passionate tenderness. Never had it lessened, never, even when she was most discouraged, had she failed to summon her strength and her sweetness for this beatific end to the day. For Archibald was more than a son to her. As he grew older their characters became more perfectly adjusted, and the rare bond of a deep mental sympathy held them together. Fanny loved her as a spoiled child loves the dispenser of its happiness; but in Archibald's devotion there was something of the worship of a man for an ideal.
Flushed and hungry, the boy came in, and after kissing her hurriedly, ran off to wash his face and hands before dinner. When he came back the table was laid, with a bunch of lilacs in a cut glass vase over the darned spot in the tablecloth, and Miss Polly was bringing in the old-fashioned soup tureen, which had belonged to Gabriella's maternal grandmother.
"If you don't sit right straight down everything will be cold," said Miss Polly severely, for this was her customary manner of announcing dinner. Every night for ten years she had threatened them with a cold dinner while she served them a hot one.
With a child on either side of her, Gabriella sat down, and ladled the soup out of the old china tureen. It was her consecrated hour—the single hour of her toiling day that she dedicated to personal happiness; and because it was her hour, her life had gradually centred about it as if it were the divine point of her universe—the pivot upon which her whole world revolved. Nothing harsh, nothing sordid, nothing sad, ever touched the sacred precincts of her twilight hour with her children.
"I can beat any boy at school running, mother," said Archibald, watching his plate of soup hungrily as it travelled toward him. "If my eyes won't let me be captain of a football team, I'm going to become the champion runner in America. I bet I can, if I try."
"I shouldn't wonder, dear. It's good for you, too. I never saw you look better."
He was a tall, thin boy, with a muscular figure, and thick brown hair, which was always rumpled. Through his ugly spectacles his eyes showed large, dark, and as beautifully soft as a girl's. His mind was remarkably keen and active, and there was in his carriage something of Gabriella's capable and commanding air, as if, like her, he embodied those qualities which compel acknowledgment. Though she had never admitted it even to herself, he was her favourite child.
When dinner was over she had the children to herself—to the gracious, unhurried self she gave them—until ten o'clock. Then their books were put away, and after she had kissed them good-night, and tucked the covers about them, she came back to the living-room, and sat down to her sewing with Miss Polly. The ease and cheerfulness dropped from her at the approach of midnight, and while the two women bent over their needles they talked of their anxieties, and planned innumerable and intricate ways of economy.
"Fanny's school costs so much, and, of course, she must have clothes. All the other girls dress so expensively."
"You spend three times as much on her as you do on Archibald."
"I know," her voice melted to the mother note, "but Archibald is different. He is a man, and he will make his way in the world. Then, too, his expenses will be trebled next year when he goes off to school, and after that, of course, will come college. I don't believe anything or anybody can keep Archibald back," she went on proudly. "Do you know he talks already of going to work in a shipping office in order to help me?"
"It's a pity about his eyes."
"There's nothing wrong except near-sightedness, but he'll have to wear glasses all his life."
For a minute Miss Polly stitched almost furiously, while her small weatherbeaten face, with its grotesque features, was visited by an illumination that softened and ennobled its ugliness. From living entirely in the lives of others, she had attained the spiritual serenity and detachment of a saint as well as the saint's immunity from the intenser personal forms of suffering. Long habit had accustomed her to think of herself only in connection with somebody's need of her, and beyond this she hardly appeared as an individual existence even in her own secret reflections. As far as it is possible to achieve absolute unselfishness in a world planned upon egoistic principles Miss Polly had achieved it; and the result was that she was almost perfectly happy.
"Fanny seems right set on goin' down to Twenty-third Street, don't she?" she inquired, after an interval of musing.
"It's all because Carlie lives in the row, and by next year, after we've had all the trouble of moving, she'll find another bosom friend and want to go to Park Avenue."
"It's a real comfortable sort of house, more like Richmond than New York, and I reckon we could get flowers to grow there just about as well as they did in Hill Street."
"I don't like having those O'Haras on the lower floor. If they are loud and common, it might be very disagreeable."
"There ain't but one, a man, and he's hardly ever there, the caretaker's wife told me. She said he was almost always in the West, and anyway his lease is up next year, and he thinks he'll give up his rooms. She says he has made piles of money in mines somewhere out West, and he only keeps those rooms because they used to belong to a man who picked him out of the street when he was a little boy selling newspapers. That caretaker's wife seems to be a mighty kind-hearted creature, but she talks as if she was never goin' to stop."
"I think I could afford to take an apartment in Park Avenue," returned Gabriella, dismissing the name of O'Hara; "but, of course, I want to save as much as I can in order to invest in the business. If it wasn't for that, I could stop scraping and pinching. I can't bear, though, to think of leaving nothing for the children when I die."
"Go away from here, honey. The idea of your talkin' about dyin'! You look healthier than you ever did in your life, only you're gettin' that set look again about your mouth."
"I wonder if I'm growing hard," said Gabriella, stopping to glance in the mirror. "I suppose that's the problem of life for the working woman—not to grow hard." In some ways, she realized, Miss Polly was right. She was a handsome woman, as Madame occasionally informed her; but she was no longer shrinking, she was no longer alluringly feminine. To dress smartly for Dinard's was a part of her work, and she had grown quite indifferent to having men turn and stare after her in the street or when she entered a restaurant. But the men who stared never spoke to her as they did to Fanny when she was alone. They regarded her admiringly, but she aroused neither disrespect nor the protective instinct in their minds. Only when she smiled her face grew as young as her eyes, and with the powdering of silver on her hair, gave her a look of radiance and charm; but at other times, when she was grave or preoccupied with the management of Dinard's, the "set look" that Miss Polly dreaded hardened her mouth.
"I wish you could go easier now for a while," resumed the little seamstress, after a pause which she had filled with vague speculations about Gabriella's sentimental prospects. "I just hate like anything to see you wearing yourself out. Of course I'd like you to own part of the business, and I can't help thinkin' that the judge could get you the money as easy as not. It ain't as if you couldn't pay him the interest regular, is it?" she pursued with the financial helplessness of a woman who has never thought in terms of figures. "You couldn't be doin' any better, could you? There ain't anybody can run the business as well as you do, I don't care who 'tis."
"I sometimes think," returned Gabriella deliberately, while she draped a lace bertha on a white silk frock she was making for Fanny, "that I will try to borrow the money."
"It couldn't hurt, could it?"
"No, I don't suppose it could hurt."
Her eyes were on the lace, which she was adjusting over the shoulder, and Miss Polly followed her gaze with a look which was not entirely approving.
"There ain't a bit of sense in your wearin' yourself out over that child," said the seamstress presently, with so sharp an accent that Gabriella glanced up quickly from her work. "It was just the way Mrs. Spencer started Florrie, and it ain't right."
"Florrie!" exclaimed Gabriella, startled, and she added slowly, "I wonder what has become of her? I haven't thought of her for years."
"It was a mean trick she played you, Gabriella. I'd never have believed it of Florrie if I hadn't been there to see it with my own eyes."
"Yes, it was mean," assented Gabriella, but there was no anger in her voice. She had left the past so far behind her that its disappointments and its cruelties had become as dim and shadowy to her imagination as if they had been phantoms of the mind instead of actual events through which she had lived.
"Well, I'm glad she didn't spoil your life for you, honey."
"No, she didn't spoil my life. Don't I look happy? And Madame told me to-day that my figure was distinguished. Now, when a woman's life is spoiled her figure and her complexion are the first things to show it."
"Of course you ain't gettin' slouchy, I don't mean anything like that. But I hate to see you workin' your fingers to the bone and bringin' lines around your eyes when you ought to be taken care of. I don't hold with women workin' unless they're obliged to."
"But I'm obliged to. How on earth could I take care of the children if I didn't work?"
For a minute there was an austere silence while Miss Polly reflected grimly that Gabriella Mary—she thought of her as "Gabriella Mary" in moments of disapprobation"—was gettin' almost as set as her ma."
"You could marry," she said flatly at last, stopping to press down the hem she had turned with the blunted nail of her thumb. "Of course your ma would be dead against it, but there ain't any reason in the world why you shouldn't go back home and marry Arthur Peyton, as you ought to have done seventeen years ago."
Though Gabriella laughed in reply, there was no merriment in the sound, and a look of sadness crept into the eyes she turned away from the sharp gaze of the little seamstress.
"You've forgotten that I haven't seen him for seventeen years," she answered.
"That don't make any difference in his sort, and you know it. He ain't ever married anybody else, and he ain't goin' to. The faithfulness that ought to be spread over the whole sex gets stored up in a few, and he's one of 'em."
"He has never written to me. No, he must have got over it," responded Gabriella, with an impassioned emphasis, "and, besides, even if he cared, I don't want to marry again. My children are enough for me."
"It won't look that way next year when both the children are away at school, and when they once break away from your apron strings they're the sort that will go the way they want to and look out for their own happiness. You won't have much of Archibald while he's at school and college, and Fanny will marry befo' she's twenty just as sure as you live. Why, she's already got her head full of beaux. Have you noticed that picture of an actor she keeps on her bureau?"
"Yes" admitted Gabriella anxiously, "I've noticed it, but when I asked her about it, she only laughed."
After this the conversation dropped, and the two women put away their work for the might; but hours later, while Miss Polly lay in her hard little bed wondering if it would be possible to "fix" things between Gabriella and Arthur, the stern heroine of her romance wept a few tender tears on her pillow.
In the morning, with the tears still ready to spring at a touch, Gabriella read a letter from her mother, which he had found, beside the baker's rolls, at the door.
As the others are all out to-night, and I have finished the mat I was crocheting, I thought I would send you a letter to reach you on your birthday instead of the telegram from the family. I am so thankful to hear that you keep well and happy and that Fanny has quite recovered from her cold. It was thoughtful of you to send the check, and I shall find it very useful, though Jane refuses to let me pay any board since Charley has inherited such a large income from his brother Tom. I sent you all the papers about the dreadful accident on the River road in which poor Tom and his wife were killed, but you haven't heard yet that Tom left his new house in Monument Avenue—they had only just moved into it—and almost all of his property to Charley. Of course, this will make a great difference in our manner of living; but just now none of us can think of anything except poor Tom and Gertrude, to whom we were all so deeply attached. No amount of money could in any way soften the blow of their loss, and the accident has given me such a horror of automobiles, though both Charley and Jane tell me this is very foolish.
To turn to more cheerful subjects, I can't begin to tell you how much the last photograph of Fanny has been admired. She is such a lovely girl, almost as pretty, we think, as Jane used to be when she first grew up, and I'm sure there could be no higher praise than that. You pleased me by saying that Archibald is like his grandfather, even if he isn't so handsome, and that he has a strong character. Good looks aren't nearly so important in a man as they are in a woman, and, you know, I don't think that men are as handsome to-day as they used to be when I was a girl. They have lost something—I can't make out just what it is.
Charley and Jane are at the Prohibition meeting. It is the first time they have gone anywhere since the accident, but we all felt that Tom and Gertrude would have wanted them to go for the sake of the cause. I don't suppose you, would recognize Charley now if you were to meet him. He is entirely changed, and I believe our new minister is the reason for it, though Jane likes to think that her influence reclaimed him. But, you remember, neither you nor I ever thought that Jane went about reforming Charley in the right way; and even now, though I wouldn't hurt dear Jane's feelings for anything in the world, I am afraid she nags Charley and the children too much. Of course, she means it for the best. No one could look at the dear child without realizing what a beautiful character she is.
But the change in Charley is really remarkable, and he won't allow a drop of alcohol to come into the house—not even as medicine. I can't help feeling sorry for poor old Uncle Meriweather, who despises grape juice and misses his mint julep when he comes to dine on Sunday; but Charley forbids Jane to make him a julep; and I suppose he is right since he says it is a matter of principle. Even Jane, however, thinks dear Charley is going a little too far when he refuses to let me have the sherry and egg the doctor ordered. However, I tell Jane that, since Charley feels so strongly about my taking it, she must not try to persuade him against his convictions. Dr. Darrow doesn't know that I stopped the sherry when Charley found out I was buying it. Perhaps the plain eggs will do me quite as much good. Anyhow, I wouldn't let my health stand in the way of Charley's salvation.
Margaret has gone out to a concert, and you would never guess who came to take her. I said to her when she was starting, "Well, I'm going to sit straight down and write your Aunt Gabriella that you've gone out with her old sweetheart." But doesn't it make you realize how time flies when you think of Arthur Peyton's paying attention to Jane's daughter? Of course, it isn't anything serious—everybody knows that he has never recovered from his feeling for you—but last winter he took Margaret to two germans and to any number of plays. I believe Jane would be really pleased if he were to take a fancy to Margaret, but I don't think there is the faintest chance of it, for his Cousin Lizzie told me last winter that she couldn't mention your name in his presence. She says his faithfulness is perfectly beautiful, and she ought to know for she has lived with him ever since his mother's death. Of course, he has never accomplished very much in his profession. Chancy says all the men downtown look upon him as a failure; but, then, he is such a perfect gentleman, and, as I tell Charley and Jane, one can't have everything. How different your life would have been, my dear daughter, if you had listened to the prayers of your mother, and married a gentle Christian character like Arthur Peyton.