But I mustn't let my thoughts run away with me. Of course, even if your heart had not been broken, it would be impossible for you to think of another man as long as your husband is living. No pure woman could do that, and when people tell me about divorced women who remarry, I always maintain that they are not what my mother and I would call "pure women." I would rather think of you nursing your broken heart forever in solitude than that you should put such a blot upon your character and the name of the Carrs. Of course, you were right to divorce George after he forsook you for Florrie—even his mother tells everybody that you were right—but the thought of a second marriage would, I know, be intolerable to your refined and sensitive nature. After all, he is still your husband in the sight of God, and I said this to Miss Lizzie Peyton when we were talking of Arthur.
It is almost eleven o'clock, and I must stop and undress. Kiss the dear children, and remember me kindly to Miss Polly.
Your loving MOTHER.
As she refolded the letter Gabriella stood for an instant with her dreaming gaze on the delicate Italian handwriting on the envelope.
"It's amazing how wide the gulf is between the generations," she thought, not without humour. "I believe mother thinks of George oftener than I do, and I'd marry Arthur to-morrow if he wanted me to—except for the children."
Then, as Archibald rushed into the room, she caught him in her arms, and held him hungrily to her bosom.
"My darling, you want to keep your mother, don't you?"
"I jolly well do. What's the trouble, mother? I believe it's all that sitting up over Fanny's old dresses. Why don't you make something pretty for yourself?"
"She has to have things, and you love me just as well without them, don't you?"
"But I want you to have them, too. I like you to look pretty, and you are pretty."
"Then I can look pretty in plain clothes, can't I?"
"I tell you what I am going to do," he hesitated a minute, knitting his heavy brows over his spectacles, which looked so odd on a boy. "Next summer when school is over I'm going to work and make some money so you can have a velvet dress in the autumn—a black velvet dress with lace on it—lots of lace—and a hat with feathers."
"You foolish boy!" laughed Gabriella. "Do you think for an instant I'd let you?" Her voice was gay, but when he had broken away from her clasp, and was racing along the hail for his school books, she turned aside to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"It's wrong, but I love, him more than I love Fanny," she said. "I love him more than all the rest of the world.".
An hour later, sitting beside an Italian labourer in an elevated train, she tried hard to keep her mind on the day's work and on the morning paper, which she held open before her—for in adopting a business life she had adopted instinctively a man's businesslike habits. A subtle distinction divided her from the over-dressed shopgirls around her as completely as her sex separated her from the portly masculine breadwinner in the opposite seat. Her tailored suit of black serge, with its immaculate white collar and cuffs, had an air of charming simplicity, and the cameolike outline of her features against the luminous background of the window-pane was the aristocratic racial outline of the Carrs. In the whirlpool of modern business she still preserved the finer attributes which Nature had bred in her race. The bitter sweetness of the mother's inheritance, grafted on the hardy stock of the Carr character, had flavoured without weakening the daughter's spirit, and, though few of the men in the train glanced in the direction of Gabriella, the few who noticed her in her corner surmised by intuition that she possessed not only the manner, but the heart of a lady. She was not particularly handsome, not particularly young, and her charm was scarcely the kind to flash like a lantern before the eye of the beholder. To the portly breadwinner she was probably a nice-looking American business woman, nothing more; to the Italian labourer she was, doubtless, a lady with a pleasant face, who would be polite if you asked her a question; and to the other passengers she must have appeared merely a woman reading her newspaper on her way down to work. Her primal qualities of force, restraint, and capability were the last things these superficial observers would have thought of; and yet it was by these qualities that she must succeed or fail in her struggle for life.
When she reached Dinard's she found Miss Smith, the only woman in Madame's employ who was ever punctual, ill-humouredly poking the spring hats out of the cases. Miss Smith, who excelled in the cardinal virtues, manifested at times a few of those minor frailties by which the cardinal virtues are not infrequently attended. Her one pronounced fault was a bad temper, and on this particular morning that fault was conspicuous. As she carried the hats from the cases to the window, which she was decorating with the festive millinery of the spring, she looked as if she were resisting an impulse to throw Madame's choicest confections at the jovial figure of the traffic policeman. Gabriella, who was used to what she called the "peculiarities" of the forewoman, said "good morning" with her bright amiability, and hurried back to the dim regions where she changed from her street suit to the picturesque French gown which she wore in the showroom. When she came out again Miss Smith had finished ornamenting the white pegs in the window, and was vigorously upbraiding a messenger boy who had delivered a parcel at the wrong door.
"You are always so prompt," remarked Gabriella cheerfully, as she arranged the hats in the front room. Her rule of business conduct was simple, and consisted chiefly of the precept that whatever happened she must keep her temper. Never once, never even in Madame's most trying moments, had she permitted herself to appear angry, and her strict adherence to this resolution had established her in an enviable position of authority. Obeying unconsciously some inherited strain of prudence in her nature, she had sacrificed her temper on the solid altar of business expediency.
"Somebody has to be on time, I guess," replied Miss Smith snappishly. "I'd like to know who would be here if I wasn't?"
She was a thin, soured, ugly little woman, with an extraordinary capacity for work, and an excess of nervous vitality bordering on hysteria. Gabriella, who knew something of her story, was aware of the self-sacrificing goodness of her private life, and secure in her own unclouded cheerfulness, could afford to smile tolerantly at the waspish sting.
"It's a pity we can't get more system here," she observed, for Miss Smith, she knew, was no tale-bearer. "The waste of time and misdirected energy are appalling. The business would be worth three times as much to anybody who could give her whole attention to it, but, as Madame is forever telling us, her health keeps her from really overlooking things."
"I wonder why she doesn't sell out?" asked Miss Smith, suddenly good-humoured and interested. "There's a lot in it for the right person, and it isn't in nature that she can hold on much longer. If I could find the money, I'd buy it and cut down expenses until I made a big profit. It would be easy enough." Then she added, while she slammed the ivory-tinted door of a case: "I wish you could run the house, Mrs. Carr. You are so pleasant to work with. Nothing ever seems to depress you."
"It would be nice, wouldn't it?" responded Gabriella promptly, and as she said the words, she decided that she would try to borrow the money from Judge Crowborough. For three months she had been struggling to bring herself to the point of asking his help—or at least his advice—and now, in a flash, without argument or discussion, she had settled the question. "It's a simple business proposition—a promising investment," she thought. "I'll ask him to get the money for me at a fair interest—to get me enough anyhow to give me control of the business. The worst he can do is to refuse," she concluded, with a kind of forlorn optimism; "at least he can't kill me."
Making a hurried excuse, she went back to the telephone, and calling up the judge, asked for an appointment in his office at five o'clock. From his surprised response she inferred his curiosity, and from his hearty acquiescence, she gathered that his surprise was not an unpleasant one. "At five o'clock, then. It is so good of you. There is a little matter of business. Yes, I know how kind you are, and of course your advice is invaluable. I can't think of anybody else on earth I can ask. Oh, thank you. Yes, at five o'clock. I shan't be late and I promise to keep you but a minute. Good-bye. What? Oh, yes, I'll come straight from Dinard's."
His voice, eager and friendly over the telephone, had given her confidence, and when she went back to the showroom, where the saleswomen were assembling, she was already planning the interview.
At eleven o'clock Madame, who never arrived earlier, was seen descending from a hansom, and a few minutes later she waddled, wheezing, asthmatic, and infirm of joints, through the ivory and gold doorway. Like some fantastically garlanded Oriental goddess of death, her rouged and powdered face nodded grotesquely beneath the flowery wreath on her hat. The indestructible youth of her spirit, struggling valiantly against the inert weight of the flesh, had squeezed her enormous figure into the curveless stays of the period, and had painted into some ghastly semblance of health the wrinkled skin of her cheeks. For underneath the decaying mockery of Madame's body, the indomitable soul of Madame still fought the everlasting battle of mind against matter, of the immaterial against the material elements.
"There was no use my trying to get here any sooner," she began in an apologetic tone when she was face to face with Gabriella behind the red velvet curtains of her private office. "My asthma was so bad all night, I had to doze sitting up, and I didn't get any sound sleep until daybreak. If I don't begin to mend before long I'll have to give up, that's all there is to it. There ain't any use my trying to hold on much longer. I'm too sick to think about fighting, and sometimes I don't care what becomes of the business. I want to go to some high place in Europe where I can get my breath, and I'm going to stay there, I don't care what happens. There ain't any use my trying to hold on," she repeated disconsolately.
Gabriella's opportunity had come, and she grasped it with the quickness of judgment which had enabled her to achieve her moderate success.
"I believe I could carry on this business," she said, and her quiet assurance impressed Madame's turbulent temper. With a brief return of her mental alertness, the old woman studied her carefully.
"I don't want any responsibility. I want to be rid of the whole thing," she said after a pause.
Gabriella nodded comprehendingly. "I believe I could carry it on successfully," she repeated. "Your customers like me. I think I understand how the business ought to be run. I have been here ten years, and I feel perfectly confident that I could make it successful."
"I've had offers—good offers," observed Madame warily, for she was incapable of liberating herself at the age of seventy-two from the lifelong suspicion that some one was taking advantage of her, that something was being got from her for nothing, "and, of course, I was only joking about having to stop work," she added, "I am retiring from choice, not from necessity."
"I understand," agreed Gabriella quietly.
"But I should like you to have the name," pursued Madame "A little money would be necessary, of course—perhaps you might buy a half interest—that would be simple. You could make a big success of it with your social position and your wealthy acquaintances. Surely you can find some one who is ready to make such a splendid investment?"
"Perhaps," admitted Gabriella, as quietly as before. Unlike Madame, who, being an incurable idealist, had won her victories not by accepting but by evading facts, Gabriella was frankly skeptical about the practical value of either her social position or her wealthy acquaintances. Neither possession impressed her at the moment as marketable, except in the vivid imagination of Madame, and her social position, at least, was constructed of a very thin and unsubstantial fabric. Guided by the prudent streak in her character, she rested her hope not upon incorporeal possessions, but upon the solid bodies of her patrons that must be clothed. Her imposing acquaintances would avail her scarcely more, she suspected, than would the noble ghost of that ancestor who was a general in the Revolution. What she relied on was the certainty that she knew her work, and that Madame's customers from the greatest to the least, from Mrs. Pletheridge to poor Miss Peterson, who bought only one good gown a year, admitted the thoroughness of her knowledge. She had got on by learning all that there was to learn about the details of the work, and she stood now, secure and unassailable, on the foundation of her achievement. In ten years she had fulfilled her resolution—she had made herself indispensable. By patience, by hard work, by self-control, by ceaseless thought, and by innumerable sacrifices, she had made herself indispensable; and the result was that, as Madame weakened, she had grown steadily stronger. Without her Dinard's would have dropped long ago to the position of a second-rate house, and she was aware that Madame understood this quite as clearly as she did. For whatever Madame's executive ability may have been in the past, it had dwindled now to the capricious endeavours of a chronic invalid—of an aging invalid, notwithstanding her desperate struggle for youth. Half as much energy as Madame had spent resisting Nature might have won for her a sanctified memory had it been directed toward the practice of piety, or a tablet of imperishable granite had it been devoted to as tireless a pursuit of art or science. To her battle against age she had brought the ambition of a conqueror and the devotion of a martyr; and at the last, even to-day, there was a superb defiance in her refusal to acknowledge defeat, in her demand that her surrender should be regarded as a capitulation.
"In a day or two I hope to be able to discuss my plan with you," said Gabriella, and she could not keep the softness of pity out of her voice. So this was what life came to, after all? For an instant she felt the overwhelming discouragement which is the portion of those who approach life not through vision, but through outward events, who seek a solution not in the deeper consciousness of the spirit, but in the changing surface of experience. Then, even before her glance had left Madame's golden head, her natural optimism regained control of her mind, and she told herself stoutly that if this was Madame's present, then it followed logically that Madame must have had a past, and that past must have been an agreeable one. It was inconceivable that she should defy the laws of God for the sake of a prolongation of tragedy.
"It is a splendid investment," croaked the old woman in the midst of Gabriella's painful reflections. "The house was never more flourishing."
The ruling principle which decreed that Gabriella should keep her temper had disciplined her not less thoroughly in the habit of holding her tongue. The house was in a flourishing condition; but she remembered how fragile and thinly rooted had been its showy prosperity, when she had entered it; and had she cared to confound Madame utterly, she might have reminded her of that unwritten history of the past ten years in which the secret episode of Mrs. Pletheridge occurred. For Gabriella was not inclined to underrate her own efficiency, and her confidence was supported by the knowledge that if she left Dinard's the most fashionable of Madame's clientele would follow her.
"You'll never have such another opportunity—not if you live to be a hundred. At your age I should have jumped at the idea," persisted Madame.
"So should I," responded Gabriella merrily, "if I were sure of landing on my feet."
"You'll always land on your feet—you're that sort. You've got push, and it's push that counts most in business. A woman may have all the brains in the world, but without push she might as well give up the struggle. That was what brought me up in spite of four husbands and six children," pursued Madame, while she took out a small flask from one of the drawers of her desk and measured out, as she remarked in parenthesis, "a little stimulant." "Yes, I had a great success in my line, and if I could only have kept clear of men, I might have saved a fortune to retire on in my old age. But I had a natural taste for men, and they were the ruin of me. As soon as I lost one husband and managed to get on a bit, another would come, and I couldn't resist him. I never could resist marriage; that was the undoing of me as a woman of business."
"Four husbands, and yet you were remarkably successful," observed Gabriella, because it was the only thing with a cheerful sound she could think of to utter, and an intermittent cheerful sound was all that Madame required from a listener when she was under the enlivening influence of brandy.
"But think what I might have done with my talent if I had remained a widow, as you have done. It was my misfortune to attract men whether I wanted to or not," wheezed Madame, wiping her eyes; "some women are like that."
"So I have heard," murmured Gabriella, seeing that Madame paused for the note of encouragement.
"I don't suppose that has been your trouble, for there's a stand-offishness about you that puts men at a distance, and they don't like to be put at a distance. Then, though your figure is very fine for showing off models, it isn't exactly the kind that men lean to. If you'd fatten up it might be different, but that would spoil you for the clothes, and that, after all, is more important. It's strange, isn't it?" she croaked, with an alcoholic chuckle, "how partial men are to full figures even after they have gone out of fashion?"
And with this wonder still ringing in her ears, Gabriella turned away, to attend a customer, who demanded, in cool defiance of man and nature, to be transformed into a straight silhouette.
Gabriella had not seen Judge Crowborough for several years, and her first impression, when she entered his office at five o'clock, was one of surprise at his ugliness. Though he had changed but little since their first meeting at Mrs. Fowler's dinner, the years had softened her memory of his appearance, and she had skilfully persuaded herself that one should not judge a man by a repelling exterior, which, after all, might cover a great deal of goodness. After George's flight and Archibald Fowler's death he had been very kind to her. "I don't know what I should have done without him at that time," she thought now, as she stood with his big, soft hand clasping hers and his admiring fishy eyes on her face. "No, it is impossible to judge by appearances, and all men think well of him, all men respect him," she concluded, feeling suddenly reassured.
"It's been a long time—it must be nearly' three years—since I saw you," he remarked, with flattering geniality, "and you look younger than ever."
"Hard work keeps me young, then. I work very hard." Her charming smile flashed like an edge of light on her lips, and lent glow and fervor to her pale face beneath the silver-brightened cloud of her hair. She read his admiration in the bold gaze he fastened upon her, and though she was without coquetry, she was conscious that her vanity was agreeably soothed.
"What is it? Dressmaking?" He was obviously interested.
"Yes—dresses and hats. Hats are rather my specialty. I manage things now almost entirely at Dinard's. Have you ever heard of the house?"
He nodded. "I remember. That's where you went after Archibald died, wasn't it?" His memory amazed her. What a mind for trifles he had! What a wonderful man he was for his years!
"Yes, I've been there ever since. I've done well as things go, but, of course, it has been hard. It has been a hard life."
"And you never came to me. I wanted to help you. I'd have done anything I could to make it easier for you, but you were so proud. You'd have got on twice as well if you had given up your pride."
The telephone rang, and while he answered it, she watched his broad, slouching back, his swelling paunch overflowing now above the stays he wore to reduce it, the coarsened flesh of his neck, bulging above the edge of his collar, and the shining, baldness on the top of his head, which gave an appearance of commanding intellect to his empurpled forehead. How hideous he was, how revolting, and yet what a power! A face like his on a woman would have condemned her to isolation and misery, but, so far as one could judge, it had scarcely interfered with his happiness. His mental force had risen superior to his face, to his paunch, to his whole repulsive appearance. Greater than Madame because of his sex, he had achieved a triumph over the corporeal mass of his body which she, fortified and abetted by a hundred cosmetics and manipulations, could never attain. Where Madame relied on futile artificial aids in her battle against decay, he hurled the tremendous power of his personality, and ugliness became at once as insignificant as immorality in his life. "One can't judge him by the standards of other men," thought Gabriella, using a remembered phrase of Fifty-seventh Street.
Judge Crowborough was still talking earnestly into the telephone, and she gathered vaguely that his earnestness related to a donation he had promised his church. "Raise two hundred thousand, and I'll double it," he said abruptly, and hung up the receiver. "We want a new organ—something really fine, you know," he observed casually as he turned back to Gabriella. "We are moving—everything is moving up, and the church has to keep step with the age. You can't keep progress out of religion any more than you can out of business—not that I'm in favour of modernism or any of that stuff—but we've got to keep moving." He spoke with conviction, and there was no doubt that he sincerely believed himself to be an important factor in the religious movement of his country. Then his tone changed to one of intimate friendliness and he asked: "Have you heard any music this winter? If I'd only known about you, I'd have sent you tickets to the opera."
"The children go sometimes," she answered. That he should imagine her buying opera tickets for herself, with the children needing every penny she made, seemed to her ridiculous; but rich men were always like that, she reflected a little scornfully.
"If I'd only remembered about you," he murmured, and turning heavily in his chair, he added authoritatively: "Now tell me about it. Tell me the whole thing straight through. I am going to help you."
She told him rapidly, and while she talked a sense of perfect peace and security enveloped her. It was so long since she had been able to ask advice of a man; it was so long since anybody bigger and stronger than she had undertaken to adjust her perplexities. The past returned to her as a dream, and she felt again that absolute reliance on the masculine ability to control events, to ease burdens, to remove difficulties, which had visited her in her childhood when Cousin Jimmy appeared in the front parlour in Hill Street. "It's wonderful how men manage things," she thought. "It's wonderful being a man. Everything is so simple for men."
"Well, don't worry a minute longer. It's all as easy as—as possible," observed the great man serenely when she had finished. "From what you tell me it looks as if it were a pretty good investment to begin with, and there are plenty of people around looking for ways to invest money. I'm looking for ways myself, when it comes to that," he proclaimed, with a paternal smile as he sank back on the luxurious leather cushions of his chair.
"You are so good," she responded gratefully, "so good"; and she was speaking sincerely.
With his casual gaze, which seemed to turn inward, fixed on the ceiling above her head, he invited her confidence by a few perfectly chosen expressions of comprehension and sympathy. The acuteness and activity of his mental processes delighted her while he questioned her. After the slovenly methods of Madame, after the loose reasoning and the muddled thinking of all the women she met in the course of her work, there was a positive pleasure in following the exactness and inflexibility of his logic. His reasoning was orderly, neat, elastic, without loose ends or tangled skeins to unravel, and she felt again, while she listened to him, the confidence which had come to her as soon as she entered his office. He was efficiency incarnate, and from her childhood up she had respected efficiency. In an hour, in less time than it had taken her to tell her story, he had lifted the weight from her shoulders, had mastered the details of Madame's intricate problems, and had outlined the terms by which Gabriella could accept the old woman's offer without placing herself under financial obligations. Her pride, he had discerned at a glance, shrank from obligation, and he was as alert to save her pride as he was to make a good bargain with Madame.
"It's a good thing. It's good business. Don't think I'm losing for a minute," he said as she rose to go, and she felt that some secret delicacy, the last feeling she would have attributed to him, was prompting his words.
"I can't tell you what a relief it is to talk to you," she said, holding out her hand while she hesitated between the desk and the door. "I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am. I haven't had any one to advise me since I left Richmond, and it is such a comfort"
"Well, I'll give you the best advice in my power. I'll give you the very best," he replied as frankly as if he were discussing his gift to the church. "What's more, I'll think it over a bit while I'm at the Hot Springs, and talk to you about it when I come back. I suppose I can always get you on the telephone, can't I?"
His manner was still casual and business-like, and it did not change by so much as a shade when he moved a step nearer and put his arm about her waist. If he had taken down his hat or lighted a cigar, he would probably have performed either action with the same air of automatic efficiency; and she realized, in the very instant of her amazement, that his manner was merely an authoritative expression of his power. What astonished her most in the incident, after all, was not the judge's share in it, but the vividness and coolness of her own mental impressions. She was not frightened, she was not even disturbed, she was merely disgusted. Never before had she understood so clearly the immeasurable distance that divided the Gabriella of seventeen years ago from the Gabriella who released herself calmly from the appalling clasp of the casual and business-like old man. To the Gabriella who had loved George such an episode would have appeared as an inconceivable horror. Now, with her worldly wisdom and her bitter knowledge of love, she found herself regarding the situation with sardonic humour. The stupendous, the incredible vanity of man!—she reflected disdainfully. Was there ever a man too ugly, too repulsive, or too old to delude himself with the belief that he might still become the object of passion?
"Now you've spoiled it," she said shortly, but without embarrassment. "Now you've spoiled it." She put the case to him plainly, the Gabriella who would have blushed and trembled and wept seventeen years ago.
"But I meant nothing," he said, genuinely disturbed. "I assure you I am truly sorry if I have offended you. It was nothing—a mere matter of—" the word "habit," she knew, hovered on his lips, though he did not utter it, and broke off inconclusively.
So there had not been even the excuse of emotion about it. He had embraced her as instinctively, as methodically, as he might have switched on the electric light over his desk. Here again she was brought to a stop before an overwhelming realization of the fundamental differences between man and woman. To think of woman behaving like that merely because it had become a matter of habit!
"I always liked you, you know," he said abruptly, with a sincere emphasis.
"Well, there are different ways of liking," she rejoined coldly, "and I happen not to care for this way."
"If you don't like it, I'll never do it again," he promised, almost humbly. "I'll be a good friend to you, honestly I will. I'll treat you as if you were—you were—"
"A gentleman," finished Gabriella, and smiled in spite of herself. After all, what was the use of resenting the facts of life? What was the use of reproaching the mud that spattered over one's clothes?
"Well, that's a bargain. I'll treat you as a gentleman." There was a fine quality about the man; she could not deny it.
"I'll forgive you then and forget it." It was the tolerant Gabriella who spoke—the Gabriella of disillusioning experience and a clear vision of life—not the impassioned idealist of the 'nineties. When all was said, you had to take men and things as you found them. That was philosophy, and that was also "good business." It was foolish to apply romantic theories to the positive actuality.
"Well, you are a gentleman," exclaimed the judge, with facetiousness. "That's why I always liked you, I suppose. You're straight and you're honest and there's no nonsense about you."
If he had only known! She thought of the romantic girl of the 'nineties, of her buoyant optimism, her childlike ignorance, her violent certainties, and of her triumphant, "I can manage my life!" If he had only known how she had "muddled things" at the beginning, would he have said that she had "no nonsense about her?"
In the subway, a little later, clinging to a dirty strap, with a blackened mechanic in the seat before her, a box of tools at her feet, and a garlic-scented charwoman jolting against her shoulder, she was overcome by a sudden cloud of despondency. Her courage, her hopefulness, her philosophy, seemed to melt like frost in her thoughts, leaving behind only a sodden sense of loss, of emptiness, of defeat. "I've had a mean life," she said to herself resentfully. "I've had a mean life. What has ever happened to me that was worth while? What have I ever had except hard work and disappointment? I am thirty-seven years old. My youth is going, and I have nothing to show for it but ten years of dressmaking. The best of my life is over, and when I look back on it, it is only a blank." It was as if the interview with the great man she had just left had completed the desolating retrospect of a lifetime. Was there nothing but disenchantment ahead of her? Was life merely the dropping of illusion after illusion, the falling of petals at the first touch from a flower that is beginning to fade? "Yes, nothing has ever happened to me that was worth while," she repeated, forgetting her children for the moment. Then, because the heavy air stifled her, she left the car and turned into West Twenty-third Street where the lights were coming out softly in the spring twilight. Though it was too late to go over the house Fanny wanted, it occurred to her that she might look at the outside of it before she took the Harlem elevated train at one of the West Side stations. The walk would do her good and perhaps blow away the disquieting recollections of her encounter with Judge Crowborough. Not until her mood changed, she determined, would she go back to the children.
At the corner she bought a bunch of lilacs because a man held them out to her temptingly when she approached, and as she buried her face in the blossoms, she said resolutely: "No, I haven't had a mean life. It can't be mean unless I think it so, and I won't—I won't. After all, it isn't the kind of life you have, but the way you think about it that matters."
The air was deliciously mild; streaks of pale gold lingered above the grim outlines of the buildings; and the wild, sweet spirit of spring fluttered like an imprisoned creature in the gray streets of the city. It was May again, and the pipes of Pan were fluting the ancient songs in the ancient racial fields of the memory. There was a spring softness in the fleecy white of the clouds, in the flowing gold of the sunset, in the languorous kiss of the breeze, in the gentle rippling waves of the dust on the pavement. For years she had been so tranquil, and now suddenly, at the flitting touch of the spirit of spring, she knew that youth was slipping, slipping, and that with youth, went romance, enchantment, adventure. It was slipping from her, and she had never really held it. She had had only the second-rate; she had missed the best always—the best of life, the best of love, the best of endeavour and achievement. She had missed the finer reality. From somewhere, from the past or the present, from the dream or the actuality, her young illusions and her young longings rushed over her, driven by the fragrance of the lilacs, which was stinging her blood into revolt. Only an instant the revolt lasted, but in that instant of vision nothing mattered in life except romance, enchantment, adventure.
"Yes, I've missed life," she thought, and the regret was still in her mind when one of those miracles which in our ignorance we call accidents occurred. Out of the lilac-scented twilight, out of the wild, sweet spirit of spring, a voice said in her ear, "Alice, you waited!"
Turning quickly, she had a vivid impression of height, breadth, bigness, of roughened dark red hair, of gray eyes so clean that they looked 'as if they had been washed by the sea. Then the voice spoke again: "I beg your pardon. It was a mistake." And the next instant she was alone in the street.
"Who is Alice?" she wondered on her way home, "and for whom was she waiting?" A shopgirl perhaps, and he was, probably—not a clerk in a shop—he looked more like a mechanic—but hardly a gentleman. Not, at any rate, what her mother or Jane would call a gentleman—not the kind of gentleman that George was, or Charley Gracey, for instance. He was doubtless devoid of those noble traditions by and through which, her mother had always told her, a gentleman was made out of a man—the traditions which had created Arthur and Cousin Jimmy as surely as they had created George and Charley. "I wonder what tradition really amounts to?" she thought, while she stood on the rear platform of a Harlem train, grasping the handle of the door as the car swung round a curve. "All my life, I have been getting farther away from it—a woman has to, I suppose, when she works—and if I get away from it myself how can I honestly hold to it for men, who, according to mother, can't be gentlemen without it?" Then reverting to her first question, she resumed musingly: "Who is Alice? It would be rather amusing to be Alice for one evening, and to find out what it means to be loved by a man like that, even if he isn't a gentleman. He was, I think, the cleanest creature I ever saw, and it wasn't just the cleanness of soap and water—it went deeper than that. It was the cleanness of the winds and the sea—as if his eyes had been washed by the sea. I wonder who Alice is? A common little shopgirl probably from Sixth Avenue, with padded hair and painted lips, and smelling of cheap powder. That's just the kind of girl to fascinate a big, strong, simple creature like that Yes, of course, Alice is cheap and tawdry and vulgar, with no substance to her mind." She tried to think of Arthur, but her mental image of him had become as thin and unsubstantial as a shadow.
When she reached the apartment, Fanny rushed into her arms, and inquired breathlessly if she had taken the house?
"We went down again to look at it, mother, and we like it even better than ever. It will be so lovely to live next door to Carlie. We can tango every evening, and Carlie knows a lot of boys who come in to dance because the floor is so good."
Her cheeks flushed while she talked, and, for the moment, she lost entirely her resemblance to Jane, who was never animated, though she made a perpetual murmurous sound. Unlike Jane, Fanny was vivacious, pert, and, for her years, extraordinarily sophisticated. Already she dressed with extreme smartness; already she was thinking of men as of possible lovers; and already she was beginning, in her mother's phrase, "to manage her life." Her trite little face, in its mist of golden hair, which she took hours to arrange, still reminded one of the insipid angel on a Christmas card; but in spite of the engaging innocence of her look, she was prodigiously experienced in the beguiling arts of her sex. Almost from the cradle she had had "a way" with men; and her "way" was as far superior in finesse to the simple coquetry of Cousin Pussy as the worldliness of Broadway was superior to the worldliness of Hill Street. From her yellow hair, which she wore very low over her forehead and ears, to her silk stockings of the gray called "London smoke," which showed coquettishly below her "hobble" skirt, and above the flashing silver buckles on her little pointed shoes of; patent leather, Fanny was as uncompromisingly modern in her appearance as she was in her tastes or her philosophy. Her mind, which was small and trite like her face, was of a curiously speculative bent, though its speculations were directed mainly toward the by-paths of knowledge which Gabriella, in her busy life, had had neither the time nor the inclination to explore. For Fanny was frankly interested in vice with the cool and dispassionate interest of the inquiring spectator. She was perfectly aware of the social evil; and unknown to Gabriella she had investigated, through the ample medium of the theatre and fiction, every dramatic phase of the traffic in white slaves. Her coolness never deserted her, for she was as temperamental as a fish, and, for all the sunny white and gold of her surface, she had the shallow restlessness of a meadow brook. At twelve years of age she had devoted herself to music and had planned an operatic career; at fourteen, she had turned to literature, and was writing a novel; and a year later, encouraged by her practical mother, she had plunged into the movement for woman suffrage, and had marched, in a white dress and carrying a purple banner, through an admiring crowd in Fifth Avenue. To-day, after a variable period, when she had dabbled in kindergarten, wood engraving, the tango, and settlement work, she was studying for the stage, and had fallen in love with a matine idol. Gabriella, who had welcomed the wood engraving and the kindergartening and had been sympathetically, though impersonally, aware of the suffrage movement, just as she had been aware many years before of the Spanish War, was deeply disturbed by her daughter's recent effervescence of emotion.
"I suppose she'll get over it. She gets over everything," she had said to Miss Polly, drawing painful comfort from the shallowness and insincerity of Fanny's nature, "but something dreadful might happen while she is in one of her moods."
"Not with Fanny," Miss Polly had replied reassuringly. "Fanny knows more already than you and I put together, and she's got about as much red blood as a lemon. She ain't the sort that things happen to, so don't you begin to worry about her. She's got mighty little sense, that's the gospel truth, but the little she's got has been sharpened down to a p'int."
"I can't help feeling that she hasn't been well brought up. I did what I could, but she needed more time and care than I could give her. It wasn't, of course, as if I'd chosen to neglect her. I have been obliged to work or she would have starved."
"Oh, well, I wouldn't bother about that. It's like wishing chickens back in the shell after they're hatched—there ain't a particle of use in it. If you ask me what I think—then, I'd say that Fanny would be just exactly what she is if you'd raised her down yonder in Virginia. Her father's in her as well as you, and it seems to me that she grows more like him every day that she lives. Now, Archibald is your child, anybody can tell that at a glance. It's queer, ain't it how the boys almost always seem to take after the mother?"
"But Charley has a splendid daughter. Think of his Margaret."
"Of course, there ain't any rule that works out every time; but you know, I'll always take up for Mr. Charley if it's with the last breath I draw. It ain't always the woman that gets the worst of marriage, though to hear some people talk you'd think it was nothin' but turkey and plum puddin' for men. But it ain't, I don't care who says so, and if anybody but a saint could have married Jane without takin' to drink, I'd like to have seen him try it, that's all."
That was three weeks ago, and to-night, while Fanny rattled on about the house in West Twenty-third Street, her mother watched her with a tolerant affection in which there was neither admiration nor pride. She was not deluded about Fanny's character, though the maternal mote in her eye obscured her critical vision of her appearance. But, notwithstanding the fact that she thought Fanny beautiful, she was clearly aware that the girl had never been, since she left the cradle, anything but a source of anxiety; and for the last week or two Gabriella had been more than usually worried about her infatuation for the matine idol. In spite of Miss Polly's assurances that Fanny was too calculating for rash adventures, Gabriella had spent several sleepless nights over the remote possibility of an entanglement, and her anxiety was heightened by the fact that the child told her nothing. They were so different that there was little real sympathy between them, and confidences from daughter to mother must spring, she knew, from fulness of sympathy. "I wonder if she ever realizes how hard I have worked for her?" she thought. "How completely I've given up my life?" And there rose in her thoughts the wish that her children could have stayed children forever. "As long as they were little, they filled my life, but as soon as they get big enough for other things, they break away from me—even Archibald will change when he goes away to school, next year, and I shall never have him again as he is now." At the very time, she knew, when she needed them most—when middle-age was approaching—her children were failing her not only as companions, but as a supreme and vital reason for living. If they could have stayed babies, she felt that she should have been satisfied to go on forever with nothing else in her life; but in a little while they would grow up and begin to lead their own intense personal lives, while she, having outlived her usefulness, would be left with only her work, with only dressmaking and millinery for a life interest. "Something is wrong with me," she thought sternly; "the visit to the judge must have upset me. I don't usually have such wretched thoughts in the evening."
"Did you bring me your school report, darling?" she asked.
Yes, Fanny had brought it, and she drew it forth reluctantly from the pages of a novel. It was impossible to make her study. She was as incapable of application as a butterfly. "I thought you were going to do better this month, Fanny," said Gabriella reproachfully.
"Oh, mother dear, I want to leave school. I hate it! Please let me begin to study for the stage. You know you always said the study of Shakespeare was improving."
They were in the midst of the argument when Archibald came in, and he showed little sympathy with Fanny's dramatic ambition.
"The stage? Nonsense! What you want is to get safely married," he remarked scornfully, and Gabriella agreed with him. There was no doubt in her mind that for some women, and Fanny promised to be one of these, marriage was the only safeguard. Then she looked at Archibald, strong, sturdy, self-reliant, and clever; and she realized, with a pang, that some day he also would marry—that she must lose him as well as Fanny.
"I've had a letter from Pelham Forest, dear," she said—Pelham Forest was a school in Virginia—"and I am making up my mind to let you go there next autumn."
"And then to the University of Virginia where Grandfather went?"
"Yes, and then to the University of Virginia."
Though she tried to speak lightly, the thought of the coming separation brought a pang to her heart.
"Well, I'd rather work," said Archibald stoutly. "I don't want to go away to school. I'd a long sight rather start in with a railroad or a steamship company and make my way up."
"But, darling, I couldn't bear that. You must have an education. It's what I've worked for from the beginning, and when you've finished at the university, I want to send you abroad to study. If only Fanny would go to college, too, I'd be so happy."
"Don't you waste any money on Fanny's education," retorted Archibald, "because it isn't worth it. What we ought to do is to get to work and let you take a rest. The first money I make, I'm going to spend on giving you pretty clothes and a rest."
"I don't want to rest, dear," replied Gabriella, with a laugh. "I'm not an old lady yet, you silly boy." How ridiculous it was that he always spoke of her work as if it were a hardship—a burden from which she must be released at the first opportunity. That was so like Cousin Jimmy, a survival, she supposed, from the tradition of the South. Unlike Fanny, whose horizon was bounded by her personal inclinations, Archibald seemed never to think of himself, never to put either his comfort or his career before his love for his mother. To attempt to shape Fanny's character was like working in tissue paper, but there was stout substance in Archibald. Gabriella had tried hard—she told herself over and over again that she had tried as hard as she could—with both of her children; and with one of them at least she felt that she had succeeded. There was, she knew, the making of a splendid man in her son; and his very ugliness, which had been so noticeable when he was a child, was developing now into attractiveness. For it was the ugliness of strength, not of weakness, and there was no trace in his nature of the self-indulgence which had ruined his father.
"But I don't want to go to college, mother dear," protested Fanny, who always addressed Gabriella as "dear" when she was about to become intractable; "I want to go on the stage."
"You are not to see another play, except when I take you, for a whole year. Remember what I tell you, Fanny!" replied Gabriella sternly. Not Mrs. Carr herself, not Cousin Becky Bollingbroke, of sanctified memory, could have regarded an actress's career with greater horror than did the advanced and independent Gabriella. Any career, indeed, appeared to her to be out of the question for Fanny (a girl who couldn't even get on a street car without being spoken to), and of all careers the one the stage afforded was certainly the last she would have selected for her daughter.
"I'll remember," responded Fanny coolly, and Gabriella knew in her heart that the girl would disobey her at the first opportunity. It was impossible to chaperon her every minute, and Fanny, unchaperoned, was, in the realistic phrase of her brother, "looking for trouble."
"I'll send her to boarding-school next year," Gabriella determined; and she reflected gloomily that with Fanny and, Archibald both away, she might as well be a bachelor woman.
"Well, children, you're both going away next winter," she said positively. "I can't look after you, Fanny, and make your living at the same time, so I shall send you to boarding-school. What do you say to Miss Bradfordine's?"
"That's up on the Hudson, mother. I don't want to go out of New York." Fanny was genuinely alarmed at last.
"The farther away from New York the better, my daughter."
"What will you do here all alone with Miss Polly?
"Oh, we'll do very well," answered Gabriella with cheerful promptness; "you need not worry about me."
"If I'm good this summer, will you change your mind, mother?"
"Try being good, and see." Though Gabriella spoke sweetly, it was with the obstinate sweetness of Mrs. Carr. One thing she had resolved firmly in the last quarter of an hour: Fanny should go away to boarding-school next September.
"Ain't you goin' to walk in the suffrage parade this year, Fanny?" inquired Miss Polly, who always thought it necessary to interrupt an argument between Gabriella and her daughter.
"I haven't anything to wear," replied Fanny pettishly. Her brief interest in "votes for women" had evaporated with the entrance of the matine idol into her life.
"There's a lovely white gown just in from Paris I'll get for you," said Gabriella pleasantly. She was tired, for she had had a trying day; but long ago, when her children were babies, she had determined that she would never permit herself to speak sharply to them. In Fanny's most exasperating humours, Gabriella tried to remember her own youthful mistakes, tried to be lenient to George's faults which she recognized in the girl's character.
"As if anybody needed to be dressed up to march!" exclaimed Archibald scornfully, and he added: "She's always acting, isn't she, mother?"
"Hush, dear, you mustn't tease your sister," Gabriella admonished the boy, though her voice when she spoke to him was attuned to a deeper and softer note.
"If you make me go to boarding-school next year, I don't care whether you take the rooms in Twenty-third Street or not," said Fanny sullenly, for, in spite of her fickle temperament, there was a remarkable tenacity in her thwarted inclinations.
"Very well. I'll look at the house and decide to-morrow." As the servant came in to lay the table, Gabriella dismissed the subject of Fanny's school, and opened the book—it chanced to be a volume of Browning—which she was reading aloud to the children.
"I am really worried about Fanny," she said to Miss Folly at midnight, while she lingered in the living-room before going to bed. "I honestly don't know what to make of her, and I feel, somehow, that she is one of my failures."
"Well, you can't expect everything to go the way you want it. Did you see the judge?"
"Yes, I saw him, but it was no use." Her visit to Judge Crowborough appeared to her perturbed mind as a piece of headstrong and extravagant folly, and she dismissed it from her thoughts as she had dismissed heavier burdens in the past. "Men simply won't treat Women in business as they treat men, and I don't see unless human nature changes, how it is to be helped. But what about the house in Twenty-third Street? Do you think I ought to look at it?"
"It was the most homelike place we saw, by a long way. There ain't many places in New York where you can have a flower-bed in the front yard."
"Do you think Fanny will be happy there? A year before this stage mania seized her, you know, she was wild to move to Park Avenue."
"Well, you know I've got a suspicion," Miss Folly dropped her voice to a whisper. "Of course it ain't nothin' but a suspicion, for she never opens her mouth about it to me, but I've got a right smart suspicion that that young actor she is so crazy about lives somewhere down there in that neighbourhood, and she thinks she could watch him go by in the street. I don't believe, you know, that she's ever so much as spoken to him in her life."
"It's impossible!" exclaimed Gabriella, for this revelation of Miss Polly's discernment was astonishing to her; "but if that's the case," she added gravely, "I oughtn't to think of moving into the house."
"Oh, well, I don't know that he's anywhere very near, and Fanny's goin' to be at boarding-school for a year or two and away with Jane at the White Sulphur in the summers. She won't be there much anyhow, will she?"
"Not much, but how I shall miss her—and, of course, if I miss her, I'll miss Archibald even more, because he gives me no anxiety. It's odd," she finished abruptly, "but I've been depressed all day. I suppose my birthday has something to do with it."
"You ain't often like that, Gabriella. I never saw anybody keep in better spirits than you do."
"I'm happy, but the spring makes me restless. I feel as if I'd missed something I ought to have had."
"All of us feel that way at times, I reckon, but it don't last, and we settle down comfortably after a while to doin' without what we haven't got. And you've been mighty successful, honey. You've succeeded in everything you undertook except marriage."
"Yes, except my marriage."
"Well, I reckon things happen and you can't do 'em over again," observed the little seamstress, with the natural fatalism of the "poor white" of the South.
As she undressed and got into bed, Gabriella told herself cheerfully that there was, indeed, no need to worry over things that you couldn't change after they happened. From the open window a shaft of light fell on her mirror, and while she watched it, she tried to convince her rebellious imagination that she was perfectly satisfied, that life had given her all that she had ever desired. "I have more than most women anyhow," she insisted, weakening a little. "I've accomplished what I undertook, and by the time I'm fifty, if things go well, I may become a rich woman. I'll be able to give Fanny everything that she wants, and if she hasn't married, we can go abroad every summer, and Archibald can join us in Switzerland or the Tyrol. About Archibald, at least, I can feel perfectly easy. He is the kind of boy to succeed. He is strong, he hasn't a weakness, and I am sure there isn't a brighter boy in the world." Around the shaft of light in the mirror a stream of sparks, like tiny comets, began to form and quiver back and forth as if they were flying. "It's a pity the judge can't help me, but it wouldn't do. I'd never forget what happened to-day, and you can never tell when trouble like that is coming. I'll either make Madame give me half the profits for managing the business or I'll go to Blakeley & Grymn at a salary of ten thousand a year. She won't let me go, of course, because she knows I'd take two thirds of her customers with the. Then I'll invest all I can save in the business until finally I am able to buy it entirely—" An elevated train passed the corner, and while the rumble died slowly in the distance, she found herself thinking of Arthur. "How different my life might have been if I had only stayed true to him. That's the happiest lot that could fall to a woman, to be loved by a man as faithful and tender as Arthur." For a few minutes she lay, without thought, watching the lights quiver and dance in the mirror, and listening to the faint rumble of the elevated train far up the street. Then, just as she was falling asleep, a question flashed out of the flickering lights into her mind, and she started awake again. "I wonder who Alice is?" she said aloud to the night.
Several weeks, later, at the end of a busy day, Gabriella stood in front of the house in London Terrace, watching her furniture as it passed across the pavement and up the flagged walk into the hail. The yard was neglected and overgrown with dandelions and wire-grass; but an old rose-bush by the steps was in full bloom, and already Miss Polly was surveying the tangled weeds with the eye of a destroyer.
"I declare I'm just hungerin' for flowers," she said wistfully, following the dining-room table as far as the foot of the steps where Gabriella stood. "The very first thing in the morning before I get breakfast, I'm goin' to sow some mignonette and nasturtium seeds in that border along the wall, and fix some window boxes with clove pinks and sweet alyssum in 'em like your ma used to have in summer. I reckon that's why I was so set on this place from the first. It looks more like Richmond in old times than it does like New York."
Beyond the grass and weeds, over which Gabriella was gazing, the street was so quiet for the moment that it might have been one of those forgotten squares in Richmond (she had never called them blocks) where needy gentlewomen still practised "light housekeeping" in the social twilight of the last century. Now and then a tired man or woman slouched by from work; once a newsboy stopped at the gate to shout the name of his paper in belligerent accents; and a few wagons or a clanging car passed rapidly in the direction of Broadway. From the corner of Ninth Avenue the elevated road, which seemed to her at times the only permanent thing in her surroundings, still roared and rumbled its disturbing undercurrent in her life.
"I think we shall be quite comfortable here," she said, watching the last piece of furniture pass through the door. "Where are the children?" The air had the rich softness of summer, and the roving fragrance from the old garden rose-bush by the steps awakened a strange homesickness in her heart—that mysterious homesickness which the spring gives us for places we have never seen.
"The children are upstairs fixing their rooms," replied Miss. Polly, stooping to pluck up a weed by the roots. "I reckon I'd better go and tell Minnie to begin gettin' dinner, hadn't I?"
"Yes, I'll come in presently. I hate to leave the air and the roses."
"I wish we had the whole house, Gabriella."
"It would be ever so much nicer, because I'm afraid the man on the first floor is dreadfully common. I don't like the look of that golden-oak hatrack in the hail."
"Well, men never did have much taste. Think of the things your Cousin Jimmy would admire if Miss Pussy didn't tell him not to. Do you recollect that paper in your parlour at home? Now Mr. Jimmy thought that paper downright handsome. I've heard him say so."
"It was dreadful, but, do you know, I designed a gown last winter in peacock blue like that paper, and it was a tremendous success. Poor mother, I wish she could have seen it—peacock blue with an embossed border."
"You may laugh about it now, but I don't believe your mother minded it much. People in old times didn't let things get on their nerves the way they do to-day."
She went indoors to attend to the dinner table; and as Gabriella turned back to the steps, she heard the gate slam and a man's voice exclaim heartily: "I'll see you about it to-morrow." Then a figure came rapidly up the walk—a large, free figure, with a buoyant swing, which awoke a trivial and fleeting association in her memory. Without noticing her, the man stooped for an instant beside the rose-bush, plucked a bud, and held it to his nostrils as he turned to the steps. His voice, singing a snatch of ragtime which she recognized without recalling the name of it, rang out, gay and powerful, as he approached her.
"I've seen him somewhere. Who can he be?" she thought, and then swiftly, as in a blaze of light, she remembered the May afternoon in West Twenty-third Street, and "Alice," whom she had wondered about and forgotten. She had again a vivid impression of bigness, of freshness, and of gray eyes that, reminded her vaguely of the colour of a storm on the sea.
"Good evening!" he remarked with impersonal friendliness as he passed her; and from the quality of his voice she inferred, as she had done on that May afternoon, that he was without culture, probably without education.
He went inside; the door of his front room opened and shut, and after a minute or two the snatch of ragtime floated merrily through his window. If there was anything on earth she disliked, she reflected impatiently, it was a comic song.
"He isn't a gentleman. I was right, he is common," she thought disdainfully, as she went indoors and ascended the stairs. "And he may make it very disagreeable for us if he insists on bringing common people into the houses" There was a vague impression in her mind that the males of the lower classes were invariably noisy.
"I saw the man on the first floor as I came up," she remarked to Miss Folly. "I hope he isn't going to be an annoyance."
"Mrs. Squires says he's never in evenings. He gets all his meals out except breakfast, and she fixes that for him. She told me he was hardly ever here unless he was eatin' or sleepin', so I don't reckon he'll bother us?"
"Well, I'm glad of that, because he isn't the kind of person I'd like the children to see anything of. You can tell that he is quite common."
"What does he look like? Is he rough?"
"Oh, no, he is good looking enough—a fine animal. I suppose he's handsome in a way, and he was dressed very carefully, but, of course, he isn't a gentleman." For the second time this stranger had made her feel that she had missed something in life, and she felt almost that she hated him.
"Oh, well, I don't reckon it will hurt us to pass him in the hall," replied Miss Polly soothingly, "as long as he don't bring in any diseases."
The next day they settled comfortably in the upper rooms and, as far as sound or movement went, the floor below might have been tenanted by the dead. When she went out Gabriella passed the dreadful hatrack of golden-oak in the lower hail; and after a day or two she noticed that it held a collection of soft felt hats, two overcoats of good cut and material, and an assortment of gold-headed walking-sticks, which appeared never to be used. Though she tried to ignore the presence of the hatrack, there was an aggressive masculinity about it which revived in her the almost forgotten feeling of having "a man in the house." The mere existence of a man—of an unknown man—on the first floor, altered the character not only of the lower hail, but of the entire house; it was, she felt instinctively, a different place from a house occupied by women alone. She had seen so little of men in the last ten years that she had almost forgotten their distinguishing characteristics, and the scent of tobacco stealing through the closed door of the front room downstairs came as a fresh surprise when she passed Out in the morning. "I suppose I'm getting old maidish," she thought. "That comes of leading a one-sided life. Yes, I am getting into a groove." And she determined that she would go out more in the evenings and try to take an interest in the theatre and the new dances. But even while she was in the act of resolving, she realized that when her hard day's work was over, and she came home at six o'clock, she was too tired; too utterly worn out, for anything except dinner and bed. There was still the cheerful hour with the children (that she had kept up in the busiest seasons); but when the question of going out was discussed at dinner, she usually ended by sending the children to a lecture or a harmless play with Miss Polly. "When you work as hard as I do, there isn't much else for you in life," she concluded regretfully, and there swept over her, as on that May afternoon, a sense of failure, of dissatisfaction, of disappointment. Youth was slipping, slipping, and she had missed something.
At such moments she thought sadly of her life, of its possibilities and its significance. It ought in the nature of things, she felt, to mean so much more than it had meant; it ought to have been so much more vital, so much more satisfying and complete. As it was, she could remember of it only scattered ends, frayed places, useless beginnings, and broken promises. With how many beliefs had she started, and now not one of them remained with her—well, hardly one of them! The dropping of illusion after illusion—that was what the years had brought to her as they passed; for she saw that she had always been growing farther and farther away from tradition, from accepted opinions, from the dogmas and the ideals of the ages. The experience and the wisdom of others had failed her at the very beginning.
At the end of the week, when she and Miss Polly were watering seeds in the yard one afternoon at sunset, the man from the first floor came leisurely up the walk, and removing a big black cigar from his mouth, wished them "good evening" as he passed.
"Good evening," responded Gabriella coolly. She had resolved that there should be no interchange of unnecessary civilities between the first floor and the upper storeys. "One can never tell how far men of that class will presume," she thought sternly.
"Don't you think he's good lookin', honey?" inquired Miss Polly in a whisper when O'Hara had entered the house with his latchkey and closed the door after him.
"Is he? I didn't look at him."
"You wouldn't think he'd ever had a day's sickness in his life. I reckon he's as big as your Cousin Micajah Berkeley was. You don't recollect, him, do you?"
"He died before I was born. Are those wisps of gray green, in the border, pinks, Miss Polly?"
"Clove pinks like your ma used to raise. It ain't the right time to set 'em out, but I sent all the way down to Richmond for 'em. I'm goin' to get a microphylla rose, too, in the fall. Do you reckon it would grow up North, Gabriella?"
"Well, we might try, anyhow. Where are the children?"
"Fanny's over at Carlie's, an' Archibald said he was goin' to the gymnasium befo' dinner. He's just crazy about gettin' as strong as the man on the first floor. He was punching a ball this mornin', and Archibald saw him. I never knew the boy to take such a sudden fancy."
"When did he speak to him?" asked Gabriella, and her tone had a touch of asperity so unusual that Miss Polly exclaimed in astonishment: "For goodness sake, Gabriella, what has come over you? Do you feel any sort of palpitations? Shall I run after the harts-horn?"
"No, I'm not ill, but I don't like Archibald to pick up acquaintances I know nothing about."
"I reckon if you're goin' to sample all Archibald's acquaintances, you'll have a job on your hands. You ain't gone an' taken a dislike to Mr. O'Hara for nothin', have you?"
"Oh, no, but I have to be careful about the children. Suppose he should begin speaking to Fanny?" She had been vividly aware of the man as he passed, and the sensation had provoked her. "If it wasn't for Alice, I shouldn't have given him another thought," she told herself savagely. "Imagine me at my age blushing because a strange man spoke to me in the street!"
"You needn't worry about his admirin' Fanny," replied Miss Polly, in her matter-of-fact manner, while she lifted the green watering-pot. "He was on the steps when she set out for school this mornin', an' he didn't notice her any more than he did me. Fanny ain't the sort he takes notice of, I could see that in a minute."
"Then he must be blind." There was a resentful sound in Gabriella's voice. "It embarrasses me when I get on a street car with her because the men stare so."
"Well, he didn't stare. But it's a mighty good thing that all men haven't got the same kind of eyes, ain't it? What I could never make out was why men ever marry women who haven't got curly hair, an' yet they do it every day—they go right straight out an' do it with their wits about 'em."
The front door opened suddenly, and the man came out again, and, descended the walk with the springy step Gabriella had noticed at their first meeting. Notwithstanding his size, he moved with the lightness and agility of a boy, and without looking at him she could see, as she bent over the flower-bed, that he had the look of exuberant vitality which accompanies perfect physical condition. Without meaning to, without knowing why she did it, she glanced up quickly and met his eyes.
"So you are making a garden?" he remarked, and stopped beside the freshly turned flower-bed. Against the gray twilight the red of his hair was like a dark flame, and the vivid colour appeared to intensify the sanguine glow in his face, the steady gaze of his eyes, and the cheerful heartiness of his voice.
"He is cyclonic," she said to herself. "Yes, that is the word—he is cyclonic—but he isn't a gentleman."
"It's a pity to let the yard run to waste," she responded, with an imperiousness which took Miss Polly's breath away, though it left the irrepressible O'Hara still buoyantly gay and kind.
"Now it takes a woman to think of that," he observed with an off-hand geniality which she felt was directed less toward herself than toward an impersonal universe. "I like to look at that old rose-bush when it is in bloom, but the idea"—(he pronounced it idee)—"of planting anything would never have occurred to me."
Gabriella's lips closed firmly, while she sprinkled the earth with an air of patient finality which made Miss Polly think of Mrs. Carr on one of her neuralgic days.
"What's that stringy looking grass over there?" pursued the man, undismayed by her manner.
"Clove pinks." Nothing, she told herself indignantly, could persuade her to encourage the acquaintance of a man who mispronounced his words so outrageously.
"And here?" He pointed to the flower-bed she was watering.
"Mignonette and nasturtium seeds."
"When will they come up?"
"Very soon if they're watered."
"And they'll bloom about July, I guess?"
"They ought to bloom all summer. In the autumn, if we have room, we're going to plant some dahlias, and a row of hollyhocks against the house. By next summer the yard will look much better."
"By George!" he exclaimed abruptly, and after a minute or two: "Do you know, I can remember the first time I ever saw a flower—or the first time I took notice of one, anyway. It was red—a red geranium. There was a whole cart of 'em, and that's why I noticed 'em, I expect. But a red geranium is a Jim-dandy flower, ain't it?"
To this outburst Gabriella made no reply. Her will had hardened with the determination not to be drawn into conversation, and while he waited with his eager gray eyes—so like the alert, wistful eyes of a great dog—on her profile, she began carelessly plucking up spears of grass from the flower-bed.
For a minute he waited expectantly; then, as she did not look up, he remarked, "So long!" in a voice of serene friendliness, and went on to the gate. He had actually said "So long" to her, Gabriella, and he had said it with a manner of established intimacy!
"Well, what do you think of that?" she demanded scornfully of Miss Polly when he had disappeared up the street.
"I reckon he don't know any better, honey. You don't learn much about manners in a mine, I 'spose, and when he ain't down in a mine, Mrs. Squires says he's building railroads across deserts. She says he ain't ever had anything, education or money, that he didn't pick up for himself, and you oughtn't to judge him as you do some others you've known. Anyway, she says he's made a big pile of money."
"I believe you're taking up for him, Miss Polly. Has he bewitched you?"
"I don't like to see you hard, Gabriella. You're almost always so tolerant. It ain't like you to sit in judgment."
"I am not sitting in judgment, but I don't see why I'm obliged to be friendly with a strange man who says 'idee.' It would be bad for the children."
"Mrs. Squires has known him for thirty years—he's forty-five now—and she says it's a miracle the way he's come up. He was born in a cellar."
"I dare say he has a great deal of force, but you must admit that blood tells, Miss Polly."
"I never said it didn't, Gabriella—only that there's much more credit to a man that comes up without it."
"Oh, I'll admire him all you please," retorted Gabriella, "if you'll promise to keep him away from the children."
Though she spoke sharply, the sharpness was directed not to Miss Polly, but to herself—to her own incomprehensible childishness. The man interested her; already she had thought of him daily since she first came to the house; already she had begun to wonder about him, and she realized that she should wonder still more because of what Miss Polly had told her. When he had approached her in the yard, she had been vaguely disturbed, vaguely thrilled by the strangeness and the mystery surrounding him; she had been subtly aware of his nearness before she heard his step, and turning, found his eyes fixed upon her. Her own weakness in not controlling her curiosity, in recurring, in spite of her determined resolve to that first meeting, in allowing a coarse, rough stranger—yes, a coarse, rough, uneducated stranger, she insisted desperately—to hold her attention for a minute—the incredible weakness of these things goaded her into a feeling of positive anger. For ten years there had been no men in her life, and now at thirty-seven, when she was almost middle-aged, she was beginning to feel curious about the history of the first good-looking man she encountered—about a mere robust, boisterous embodiment of masculinity. "What difference can it make to me who Alice is?" she demanded indignantly. "What possible difference?" She forced herself to think tenderly of Arthur; but during the last few months the image of Arthur had receded an immeasurable distance from her life. His remoteness and his unreality distressed her; but try as she would, she could not recall him from the gauzy fabric of dreams to the tangible substance of flesh.
"It isn't that I care for myself," she said to Miss Polly abruptly, as if she were defending herself against an unspoken accusation. "I am a working woman, and a working woman can't afford to be snobbish—certainly a dressmaker can't—but I must look after my children. That is an imperative duty. I must see that they form friendships in their own class."
But life, as she had already discovered, has a sardonic manner of its own in such crises. That night she planned carefully, lying awake in the darkness, the subterfuges and excuses by which she would keep Archibald away from O'Hara, and the very next afternoon when she came home from work she found confusion in the street, a fire engine at the corner, and, on the steps of her home, the boy clinging rapturously to the hand of the man.
"You ought to have been here, mother," cried Archibald in tones of ecstatic excitement. "We had a fire down the street in that apartment house—and before the firemen came Mr. O'Hara went in and got out a woman and some children who had been overcome by smoke. He had to lower them from a fire-escape, and he got every one of them out before the engine could get here. I saw it all. I was on the corner and saw it all.
"I hope Mr. O'Hara wasn't hurt," remarked Gabriella, but her voice was not enthusiastic.
"To hear the kid run on," responded O'Hara, overpowered by embarrassment, "you'd think I'd really done something, wouldn't you? Well, it wasn't anything. It was as easy as—as eating. Now, I was caught down in a mine once in Arizona—"
"Tell me about it. Mother, ask him to tell you about it," entreated Archibald. The boy was obviously consumed with curiosity and delight. Gabriella had never seen him so enthusiastic, so swept away by emotion. Already, she suspected, he had fallen a victim to the passion of hero worship, and O'Hara—the man who spoke of "idees"—was his hero! "I shall have to be careful," she thought. "I shall have to be very careful or Archibald will come under his influence."
"Well, I guess I must be going along," remarked O'Hara, a little nervously, for he was evidently confused by her imperious manner. "A fellow is expecting me to dinner over at the club."
"But I want to hear about the mine. Mother, make him tell us about the mine!" cried Archibald insistently.
"I'll tell you another time, sonny. We'll get together some day when your mother don't want you, and we'll start off on a regular bat. How would you like that?"
"When?" demanded the boy eagerly. His fear of losing O'Hara showed in the fervour with which he spoke, in the frantic grasp with which he still clung to his hand. It occurred to Gabriella suddenly that she ought to have thrown Archibald more in the companionship of men, that she had kept him too much with women, that 'she had smothered him in her love. This was the result of her selfish devotion—that he should turn from her to the first male creature that came into his life!
Her heart was sore, but she said merely: "That is very kind of you, Mr. O'Hara, but I'm afraid I mustn't let my boy go off on a regular bat without me."
"Oh, yes, I may, mother. Say I may," interrupted Archibald with rebellious determination.
"Well, we'll see about it when the time comes." She turned her head, meeting O'Hara's gaze, and for an instant they looked unflinchingly into each other's eyes. In her look there was surprise, indignation, and a suspicion of fear—why should he, a stranger, come between her and her son?—and in his steady gaze there was surprise, also, but it was mingled, not with indignation and fear, but with careless and tolerant amusement. She knew from his smile that he was perfectly indifferent to her resentment, that he was even momentarily entertained by it, and the knowledge enraged her. The glance he gave her was as impersonal as the glance he gave Miss Polly or the rose-bush or the street with its casual stream of pedestrians. It was the glance of a man who had lived deeply, and to whom living meant action and achievement rather than criticism or philosophy. He would not judge her, she understood, simply because his mind was not in the habit of judging. His interest in her was merely a part of his intense, zestful interest in life. She shared with Miss Polly and Archibald, and any chance object that attracted his attention for an instant, the redundant vitality of his inquiring spirit. "No wonder he has worked his way up with all that energy," she reflected. "No wonder he has made money." His face, with its clear ruddiness, was the face of a man who has breathed strong winds and tasted the sharp tang of sage and pine; and she noticed again that his deep gray eyes had the unwavering look of eyes that have watched wide horizons of sea or desert. There was no suggestion of the city about him, though his clothes were well cut, and she was quick to observe, followed the latest styles of Fifth Avenue. "Yes, he is good looking," she admitted reluctantly. "There is no question about that, and he has personality, too—of a kind." His hat was in his hand—a soft hat of greenish-gray felt—and her eye rested for a moment on his uncovered head with its thick waves of red hair, a little disordered as if a high wind had roughened them. "If he only had breeding or education, he might be really worth while," she added, almost approvingly.
When he spoke again O'Hara ignored Gabriella, and turned his alert questioning glance on the little seamstress. Fanny had sauntered up the walk to join the group—Fanny in all the glory of her yellow curls, and her "debutante slouch "—and he bowed gravely to her without the faintest change of expression. If he admired Fanny's beauty and pitied Miss Polly's plainness, there was no hint of it in the indifferent look he turned from the girl to the old woman.
"The next time you're planting things," he said earnestly, "I wish you'd set out a red geranium. I saw a cart of 'em go by in the street this morning and I had half a mind to buy a pot or two for the yard. If I get some, will you put 'em out?"
"Why, of course, I will. I'll be real glad to," responded Miss Polly, agreeably flattered by his request. "Is there any special place you want me to plant them?"
"Anywhere I can see 'em from the window. I'd like to look at 'em while I eat my breakfast. And while we are about it, wouldn't it be just as well to set out a whole bed of 'em?" he asked with a munificent gesture which included in one comprehensive sweep the weeds, the walk, the elm tree, the blossoming rose-bush, and the freshly turned flower-borders. The large free movement of his arm expressed a splendid scorn of small things, of little makeshifts, of subterfuges and evasions.
"Don't you think it would cut up the yard too much to make another bed?" asked Gabriella, inspired by the whimsical demon of opposition. It was true that she had no particular fondness for red geraniums; but if Miss Polly had expressed, on her own account, a desire to plant the street with them, she would never have thought of objecting.
"Well, the yard ain't much to brag of anyhow," replied Miss Polly with that careful penetration which never sees below the surface of things. "To tell the truth I've always had a sort of leanin' toward geraniums myself—especially rose geraniums. I don't know why on earth," she concluded with animated wonder, "I never thought of putting rose geraniums in that window box along with the sweet alyssum. They would have been the very things and they don't take so much watering."
"That's a bargain, then," said O'Hara, with his ringing laugh which made Gabriella smile in spite of herself. Then, after shaking hands with each one of the group, he went down the walk and passed with his vigorous stride in the direction of Broadway.
When the gate had closed, and his large figure had vanished in the distance, Gabriella said sternly: "Archibald, you must not lose your head over strangers. We know nothing on earth about Mr. O'Hara except that he lives in this house."
"Oh, but, mother, he was splendid at the fire! You ought to have seen him holding a girl by one arm out of the window. He was as brave as a fireman, everybody said so, didn't they, Miss Polly?"
"Men of that sort always have courage," observed Gabriella contemptuously, and despised herself for the remark. What was the matter with her this afternoon? Why did this man arouse in her the instinct of combativeness, the fever of opposition? Was it all because she suspected him of a vulgar intrigue with a shopgirl? And why had she decided so positively that Alice was vulgar? Certainly, she, a dressmaker, should be the last to condemn shopgirls as vulgar.
"I declare, I can't begin to make you out, Gabriella," said Miss Polly uneasily. "I never heard you talk about folks bein' common before. It don't sound like you."
"Well, he is common, you know," protested Gabriella, with a strange, almost tearful violence. "Why did he have to shake hands with us all—with each one of us, even Fanny, when he went away? We'd hardly spoken to him."
"I don't know what's come over you," observed the seamstress gloomily. "I reckon I'm common, too, so I don't notice it. But I must say I like the way he spoke about geraniums. He showed a real nice feelin'."
The words were hardly out of her mouth before Gabriella had caught her in her arms. "I know I'm horrid, dear Miss Polly," she said penitently, "but I don't like Mr. O'Hara."
"Then I shouldn't see any more of him than I was obliged to, honey, and there ain't a bit of use in Archibald's goin' with him if you don't want him to."
"I don't like to forbid him. Of course, I know nothing against the man—it is only a feeling."
"Well, feelin's are mighty queer things sometimes," remarked Miss Polly, scoring a triumph which left the indignant Gabriella at her mercy; "and when I come to think of it; I don't recollect that yours have always been such good judges of folks."
The geraniums arrived in a small cart the next morning, but O'Hara did not appear, and for several weeks, though Gabriella glanced suspiciously at the hatrack each morning when she passed through the hail, there was no sign of life in his rooms. Then one afternoon he reappeared as suddenly as he had vanished, and she found Archibald with him in the yard when she came home at six o'clock. That the boy would be her difficulty, she knew by instinct, for he had been seized by one of those unaccountable romantic fancies to which the young of the race are disposed. Though the sentiment was certainly far less dangerous than Fanny's passion for the, matine idol, since it revealed itself principally as a robust and wholly masculine ambition to follow in the footsteps of adventure, Gabriella fought it almost as fiercely as she had fought Fanny's incipient love affair.
"He is making Archibald rough," she said to Miss Polly, after a fortnight of unavailing opposition to the new influence in Archibald's life. "Until we came here," she added despondently, "Archibald loved me better than anything in the world, and now he seems to think of nothing but this man."
"It looks to me as if it was mighty good for the child, honey. You can't keep a boy tied to your apron-strings all the time. Archibald needs a father the same as other boys, and if he hasn't got one, he's either goin' to break loose or he's goin' to become a mollycoddle. You don't want to make a mollycoddle of him, do you?"
"Of course not," answered Gabriella honestly, for, in spite of her strange fits of unreasonableness, she was still sensible enough in theory. "I've tried hard to keep him manly—not to spoil him, you know that as well as I do. And it isn't that I object to his making friends. I'd give anything in the world if he could know Arthur. If it had been Arthur," she went on gently, "I should have been glad to have him come first. I shouldn't have cared a bit if he had loved Arthur better than me."
"You oughtn't to talk like that, Gabriella, for you know just as well as can be that Archibald don't love anybody better than he loves you. As far as I can make out though, Mr. O'Hara sets him a real good example. I don't see that he's doin' the child a particle of harm, and I don't believe you see it either. To be sure you don't think much of football, but it's a long ways better than loafin' round with nothin' to do, and this boy scout business that Archibald talks so much about sounds all right to me. Now, he never would have thought a thing about that except for Mr. O'Hara."
"Yes, that's all right. I approve of that, but I can't help hating to see a stranger get so strong an influence over my son. It isn't fair of him."
"Then why don't you tell him to stop it. I believe he'd be sensible about it, and if I was you, I'd have it every bit out with him."
"If it doesn't stop, I'll find some way of showing him that I object to the friendship. But, after all, it may be only a fancy of Archibald's. Anyhow, I'll wait a while before I take any step."
At the beginning of August Gabriella sent the children to the country with Miss Polly, and sailed, on a fast boat, for a brief visit to the great dress designers of Paris. Ever since Madame's age and infirmities had forced her to relinquish this annual trip, Gabriella had taken her place, and all through the year she looked forward to it as to the last of her youthful adventures. On her last visit, Billy and Patty had been in Switzerland; but this summer they met her at Cherbourg; and she spent several brilliant days with them before they flitted off again, and left her to the doubtful consideration of dressmakers and milliners. Patty, who appeared to grow younger and lovelier with each passing year, came to her room the evening before they parted, and asked her in a whisper if she had heard of George or Florrie in the ten years since their elopement?