"I wish there was something I could do for you—something to help you," she said impetuously. "But I never saw any one who seemed to need help so little."
His face brightened, and she saw that her words had brought a touching wistfulness into his eyes.
"Well, if you'd let me come and talk to you sometimes" he answered shyly. "There're a lot of things I'd like to talk to you about—things I don't know, things I do know, and things I half know."
From the brilliant look she turned on him, he understood that he must have given her pleasure, and she saw the smile return to his face.
"I'll tell you everything I know and welcome," she replied readily; "but that isn't much. Better than that, I'll read to you."
"If you don't mind, I think I'd rather you'd just talk." Then he rose with one of his abrupt movements, "I'd better look in again now. The nurse might want something."
"I feel that you oughtn't to stay up," urged Gabriella, rising as he turned away from her. "You have done all you can."
His only response was an impatient negative gesture, and without looking at her, he crossed the room quickly and went out into the hall. Hardly a minute had passed, and she was still standing where he had left her, when he returned and said in a whisper:
"He is going now—very quietly. Will you come?"
She shook her head, crying out sharply: "No! no!" Then before something in his face her opposition melted swiftly away, and she added: "Yes, I'll come. He might like to have some one by him who knew him as he used to be."
"After all, he got the worst of it, poor devil!" he answered gently as he opened the door.
By a miracle of memory her resentment was swept out of her thoughts, and she was conscious of an infinite pity. In George's face, while she watched it, there flickered back for an instant the glory of that enchanted spring when she had first loved him. Of his brilliant promise, his ardent youth, there remained only this fading glimmer in the face of a man who was dying. And it seemed to her suddenly that she saw embodied in this wreck of youth and love all the inscrutable mystery not of death, but of life. Her tears fell quickly, and while they fell O'Hara's grasp enfolded her hand.
"It's over now. The best thing that could happen to him has happened," he said, and the touch of his hand was like the touch of life itself, consoling, strengthening, restoring.
In the days that followed it was as if the helpful spirit of Cousin Jimmy had returned to her in the unfamiliar character of O'Hara. The ghastly details of George's burial were not only taken out of her hands, she was hardly permitted to know even that they were necessary. All explanations were made, not by her, but by O'Hara; and when they returned together from the cemetery, Gabriella brought with her a feeling that she had been watching something that belonged to O'Hara laid in the earth. But when she tried to thank him, she found that he was apparently unaware that he had done anything deserving of gratitude.
"Oh, that's nothing. Anybody would have done it," he remarked, and dismissed the subject forever.
For a week after this she did not see him again; and then one Saturday afternoon, when she was leaving Dinard's, they met by chance and walked home together. It was the first time she had been in the street with him, and she was conscious of feeling absurdly young and girlish—she, the mother of a daughter old enough to have love affairs! A soft flush—the flush of youth—tinted her pale cheek; her step, which so often dragged wearily after the day's work, was as buoyant as Fanny's; and her low, beautiful laugh was as gay as if she were not burdened by innumerable anxieties. As they passed a shop window, her reflection flashed back at her, and she thought happily: "Yes, it is true, you are better looking at thirty-seven, Gabriella, than you were at twenty."
"Shall we walk down?" asked O'Hara, and added: "So that was your shop? I am glad that I saw it. But what do you do there all day?"
She laughed merrily. "Put in pins and take them out again. Design, direct, scold, and flatter. We are getting in the spring models now, and it's very exciting."
He glanced down at her figure, noting, as if for the first time, the narrowness at the feet, the large loose waist, and the bunchiness around the hips.
"Did you make that?" he inquired.
"This coat? Oh, no; it came from Paris. It was left on my hands," she explained, "or I shouldn't be wearing it. I wear only what people won't buy, you know."
"No, I didn't know," he returned abstractedly, and she observed humorously after a minute that he was not thinking of her because he was thinking so profoundly about her clothes. It was his way, she had discovered, to concentrate his mind intensely upon the object before him, no matter how trivial or insignificant it might appear. He seemed never to have learned how to divide either his interest or his attention.
"If you could make what you wanted," he remarked, "I should think you'd make them more comfortable. Are you going to wear those hobble skirts this spring?"
"They'll be narrow at the feet but very bunchy at the top—doesn't that sound delightful? I am making a white taffeta for Fanny that has five or six yards of perfectly good material puffed out in the most ridiculous way at the back over a petticoat of silver lace."
Her spirits felt so light, so effervescent, that she wanted to jest, to laugh, to talk nonsense interminably; and after his first moments of bewilderment, when he appeared still unable to detach his mind from his business, he entered gaily and heartily into her mood. His perplexities once disposed of, he gave himself entirely to the enjoyment of the walk with her, and she noticed for the first time his boyish delight in the simplest details of life. With the simplicity of a man to whom large pleasures are unknown, he threw himself whole-heartedly into the momentary diversion of small ones. Every person in the crowd, she discovered, excited his interest, and his humour bubbled over at the most insignificant things—at the grimace of a newsboy who offered him a paper, at the absurd hat worn by a woman in a motor car, at the expression of disgusted solemnity on the face of a servant in livery, at the giggles of an over-dressed girl who hung on the arm of an anemic and exhausted admirer. Never before had she encountered such vitality, such careless, pure, and uncalculating joy of life. There was a tonic quality in his physical presence, and while she walked at his side down Fifth Avenue she felt as if she were swept onward by one of the health-giving, pine-scented winds of Colorado. And she told herself reassuringly that only a man who had lived decently could have kept himself so extraordinarily young and exuberant at forty-five.
The shop windows, particularly those displaying men's shirtings, enchanted him; and he stopped a moment before each one, while she yielded as obligingly as she might have yielded to a fancy of Archibald's, though she was aware that her son would have scorned to look into a window.
"It's so seldom I get out on the Avenue, that's why I like it, I suppose," he remarked while they were surveying a festive arrangement of pink madras.
She smiled up at him, and her smile, gay as it was, held a touch of maternal solicitude. Notwithstanding his bigness and his success and his forty-five years, there was something appealingly boyish about him.
"It would be so easy to get out, wouldn't it?" she asked as they walked on again.
"Well, there ain't much fun when you are by yourself."
"But you know plenty of people."
"Oh, yes, I know people enough in a business way, but that don't mean having friends, does it? Of course, I've men friends scattered everywhere," he added. "The West is full of 'em, but it's funny when you come to think of it—" He broke off, hesitated an instant, and then went on again: "It's funny, but I don't believe. I ever had a woman friend in my life—I mean a friend who wasn't just the wife of some man I knew in business."
The confession touched her, and she answered impulsively: "Well, that's just what I want to be to you—a good friend."
He laughed, but his eyes shone as he looked down on her. "If you'd only take the trouble."
"It won't be any trouble—not a bit of it. After your goodness to me, how could I help being your friend?"
Lifting her eyes she would have met his squarely while she spoke, but he was not looking at her—he appeared, indeed, to be looking almost obstinately away from her.
"There wasn't anything in what I did," he responded in a barely audible voice, and she understood that he was embarrassed by her gratitude.
"But there was something in it—there was a great deal in it," she insisted. It was so easy to be natural with a man, so easy to be candid and sincere when there was no question of sentiment, and, she thought almost gratefully of the elusive and mysterious Alice. The faintest suggestion of romance would have spoiled things in the beginning; but thanks to the hidden Alice, she might be as kind and frank as she pleased. Besides, she was nearly thirty-eight, and a woman of thirty-eight might certainly be trusted to make a friend of a man of forty-five.
With this thought, over which the memory of Arthur brooded benevolently, in her mind, she said warmly: "It will make so much difference to me, too, having a real friend in New York."
He turned to her with a start. "Do you mean that I could make a difference to you?"
"The greatest difference, of course," she rejoined brightly, eager to convince him of his importance in her life. "I can't tell you—you would never understand how lonely I get at times, and now with the children away it is worse than ever—the loneliness, I mean, and the feeling that there isn't anybody one could turn to in trouble."
For a minute he appeared to ponder this deeply. "Well, you could always come to me if you needed anything," he answered at last, and she felt intuitively that for some reason he was distrustful either of himself or of her. "I am not here very much of my time, but whenever I am, I am entirely at your service."
"But that's only half of it." She was determined to reassure him. "A friendship can't be one-sided, can it? And it isn't fair when you give everything, that I should give nothing."
His scruples surrendered immediately to her argument. "You give everything—you give happiness," he said—a strange speech certainly from the twilight lover of Alice. However, as she reasoned clearly after her first perplexity, men were often strange when one least expected or desired strangeness. At thirty-seven, whatever else life had denied her, she felt that it had granted her a complete understanding of men; and it was out of this complete understanding that she observed brightly after a minute:
"Well, if you feel that way, we are obliged to be friends." At least she would prove by her frankness that she was not one of those foolish women who are always taking things seriously.
"Yes, you give happiness. You scatter it, all over the place," he went on, groping an instant after the right words.
"Cousin Jimmy used to say," she laughed back, "that I had a sunny temper."
"That's it—that's what I meant," he replied eagerly; and she was impressed again by his utter inability to make light conversation. When he was once started, when he had lost himself in his subject, she knew that he could speak both fluently and convincingly; but she realized that he simply couldn't talk unless he had something to say. In order to put him at his ease again, she remarked with pleasant firmness: "Do you know there is something about you that reminds me of my Cousin Jimmy. It gives me almost a cousinly feeling for you."
She had the air of expecting him to be interested, but he met it with the rather vague interrogation: "Cousin Jimmy?"
"The cousin who always came to our help when we were in trouble. We used to say that if the bread didn't rise, mother sent for Cousin Jimmy."
Though he laughed readily enough, she could see that his attention was still wandering. "I never had a cousin," he returned after a pause, "or a relation of any sort, for that matter."
His voice was curiously distant, and she was conscious of a slight shock, as if she had run against one of the hard places in his character. "Well, I've done my best," she thought impatiently. "If he doesn't want to be friends he needn't be." Then, with a change of manner, she observed flippantly: "Sometimes one's relatives are useful and sometimes they're not." Really, he was impossibly heavy except in a crisis; and one could scarcely be expected to produce crises in order to put him thoroughly at his ease.
As he made no response to her trite remark, she, also, fell silent, while they turned into Twenty-third Street, and began the long walk to Ninth Avenue. Once or twice, glancing inquiringly into his face, which wore a preoccupied look, she wondered if he were thinking of Alice. Then, as the silence became suddenly oppressive, she ventured warily in the effort to dispel it: "I hope you are not disturbed about anything?"
"Disturbed?" He turned to her with a start. "No, I was only wondering if you knew how much your friendship would mean to me."
It was out at last, and confirmed once more in her knowledge of men, she retorted gaily: "How can I know if you won't take the trouble to tell me?" After all, she reflected cheerfully, the education she had derived from George and Judge Crowborough, though lacking in the higher branches, was fundamentally sound. All men were alike in one thing at least—they invariably disappointed one's expectations.
"I've been trying to tell you for a quarter of an hour," he answered, "and I didn't know how to put it."
"But at last you didn't have to put it at all," she said laughingly; "it simply put itself, didn't it?"
"I am still wondering," he persisted gravely.
"Wondering if I know?" She spoke in the sweetly practical tone of one who is firmly resolved not to permit any nonsense. "Yes, I do know—that is, I know there are ways in which I might be useful to you."
"Well, there are some little—some very little things I might tell you if we were friends—real friends," she made this plain, "just as two men might be."
"But the very last things two men would tell each other," he was laughing now, "are the little things—the things about slang and walking-sticks and oak furniture."
So he hadn't forgotten! The recollection of her impertinence confused her, and she hastened to make light of it by protesting gaily: "I was only joking. Of course, you didn't take that seriously."
"I don't know how much more seriously," he replied emphatically, "I could have taken it."
"But you haven't thought of it since?"
"What would you say if I told you I hadn't thought of anything else?"
"Then I wish I hadn't said it." She was obviously worried by his admission. "It was horrid of me—perfectly horrid. I ought to have been ashamed of myself. I had no right to criticise you, and you have been so heavenly kind."
"After that"—he appeared to be hammering the idea into her mind—"I was so grateful I'd have done almost anything. Do you know," he burst out with evident emotion, "that was the first criticism—I mean downright honest criticism—I've ever had in my life. Nobody—that is nobody who knew—ever thought enough of me before to tell me where I was wrong."
It was all a pathetic mistake, she saw, but she saw also that it was impossible for her to explain it away. She could not tell him the ugly truth that she had been merely laughing at him when he had believed, in his beautiful simplicity, that she was speaking as a friend. Though she felt ashamed, humbled, remorseful, there was nothing that she could say now which would not hurt him more than the original misunderstanding had done.
In her desire to atone as far as possible, she remarked recklessly: "I only wish I could be of some real help to you."
"You can," he answered frankly. "You can let me come to see you sometimes before I go West again."
"You are going back in the spring?"
He laughed happily, drawing himself erect with a large, free movement as if he needed to stretch his limbs. "I can't stand more than six months of the East, and I've been here a year now, off and on. After a time I begin to want air. I want to breathe."
"Yet you lived here once."
"A sort of life, yes, but that don't count."
"What does count with you, I wonder?" She was smiling up at him, and as they passed under a street light her eyes shone with a misty brightness through her veil of dotted net.
For a minute he thought over her question. "I guess fighting does," he answered at last. "Getting on in spite of hard knocks, and smashing things that stand in your way. I like the feeling that comes after you've put through a big deal or got the better of the desert or the mountains. I got joy in Arizona out of my first silver mine; but I didn't get the joy exactly out of the silver. I don't suppose you understand."
"Oh, yes, I do. I understand perfectly. It's the pure spirit of adventure. Whenever we do a thing for the sake of the struggle, not for the thing itself, it's pure adventure, isn't it?"
"Well, I like money," he said with the air of being entirely honest. "I'm not a romantic chap, don't think that about me. I care a lot about money, only after I've made it, somehow, I never know what to do with it. All I want for myself is a place to sleep and a bite to eat—I'm not over-particular what it is—and clothes to wear, good clothes, too—but I don't give a hang for motor cars except to go long distances in when there are no trains running."
It was the commonplace problem, worked out in intricate detail, of the newly rich, of the uncultivated rich, of the rich whose strenuously active processes of enrichment had permanently closed all other highways to experience. Seventeen years ago the Gabriella of Hill Street would have had only disdain for the newly rich and their problems; but life, which had softened her judgment and modified her convictions, had completely reversed her inherited opinion of such a case as O'Hara's. Though he was as raw as unbaked brick, she was penetrating enough to discern that he was also as genuine; and, so radically had events altered her point of view, that at thirty-seven she found genuine rawness more appealing than superficial refinement. George had wearied her of the sham and the superficial, of gloss without depth, of manner without substance, of charm without character.
"But there is so much that you might do to help," she said presently. "After all, money is power, isn't it?"
"Misused power too often," he answered. "Of course, you can always build lodging-houses and tenements and hospitals; but when you come squarely down to facts, I've never in my life tried to help a man by giving him money that I haven't regretted it. Why, I've ruined men by helping to make their way too easy at the start."
"Perhaps you're right," she admitted; "I don't know much about it, I confess; but I should have been spared a great deal of suffering if I had had something to start with when I was obliged to make my living."
"That's different." His voice had grown gentle in an instant. "I can't think of your ever having had a hard time. You seem so strong, so successful, so happy."
If she had answered straight from her heart, Gabriella would have retorted frankly: "A good deal of that is in the shape of my face and the way I dress," but instead of speaking sincerely, she remarked with impersonal cheerfulness: "Oh, well, happiness, like everything else, is mainly a habit, isn't it? I cultivated the habit of happiness at the most miserable time of my life, and I've never quite lost it."
"But I don't like to think of your ever having worried," he protested.
Of her ever having worried! Was he becoming dangerously sentimental or was it merely a random spark of his unquenchable Western chivalry?
Though she told herself emphatically again that she was not falling in love with O'Hara, though she was perfectly faithful in her heart to the memory of Arthur, still she was vividly aware with every drop of her blood, with every beat of her pulses, of the man at her side. And through her magnetic sense of his nearness there flowed to her presently a deeper and clearer perception of the multitudinous movements of life which surrounded her—of the variable darkness out of which lights flashed and gigantic spectacular outlines loomed against a dim background of sky, of the vague shapes stirring, swarming, creating there in the darkness, and always of the pitiless, insatiable hunger from which the city had sprung. For the first time, flowing like a current from the mind of the man beside her, there came to her an understanding of her own share in the common progress of life—for the first time she felt herself to be not merely a woman who lived in a city, but an integral part of that city, one cell among closely packed millions of cells. Something of the responsibility she felt for her own children seemed to spread out and cover the city lying there in its dimness and mystery.
"But I don't like to think of your ever having worried," he repeated.
"Oh, it's over now," she returned, severely matter-of-fact. "It took me years to make my way, but I've made it at last, and I may settle down to a comfortable middle-age without the dread of the poorhouse to spur me into activity. My business is doing very well; our custom has doubled in the last two or three years."
"But wasn't it a tough pull at one time?"
"It was hard; but what isn't? Of course, when I was obliged to work from nine till six and then come home to cook the children's dinner and teach them their lessons, I used to be tired out by the end of the day—but that lasted only a few years: five or six at the most—and now I can afford to let Fanny wear imported gowns when she goes out to parties."
Though she spoke gaily, making a jest of her struggle, she saw the gravity of his face deepen until his features looked almost wooden.
"And through it all you kept something that so many other women seem to lose when they work for a living," he said. "You've kept your—your charm."
Again she found herself on the point of exclaiming frankly: "heaven knows I've tried to!"—and again, checking herself, she proceeded cautiously: "I've never understood why charm should be merely a hothouse flower."
"I suppose it does depend a good deal upon a sunny temper," he rejoined in his blindness.
They had reached the gate, and stopping him when he would have entered, she said with the directness of a man: "So we're friends, and you're coming to see me?"
"Yes, I'm coming," he replied gravely. Then, standing beside the gate, he watched her while she went up the walk and opened the door with her key.
Upstairs, with her knitting on her lap and her feet on the fender, Miss Polly looked up to observe: "You're late, Gabriella. You must have walked all the way."
"Yes, I walked all the way. Mr. O'Hara joined me."
"Where did you run across him?"
"Just as I left the shop. He was walking down Fifth Avenue."
"Do you reckon he was waitin' outside?"
"Oh, no, he said he had been up to Fifty-ninth Street on business."
"Well, the walk certainly did you good. You are bloomin' like a rose."
"The air was delicious, and I really like talking to Mr. O'Hara. He is quite interesting after you get over the first impression, and he isn't nearly so ignorant about things as I imagined. He has thought a great deal even if he hasn't read very much. It's wonderful, isn't it, what the West can do with a man? Now, if he'd stayed in New York he would have been merely impossible, but because he has lived out of doors he has achieved a certain distinction. I can understand a woman falling in love with him just because of his force and his bigness. They are the qualities a woman likes most, I think."
"He must have made a great deal of money."
"Yes, he's rich, and that's a good thing. I like money tremendously, though I used to think that I didn't. I wonder if he had been poor if I should have liked him quite so much?" she asked herself honestly.
"I don't 'spose you could ever—ever bring yourself to think of him, honey? It would be a mighty good thing in some ways."
Gabriella, being in a candid mood, pondered the question without subterfuge or evasion. "Of course I've passed the sentimental age," she answered. "If Mr. O'Hara had been poor, I suppose I should never have thought of him; but his money does make a difference. It stands for success, achievement, and ability, and I like all those qualities. Then he is rough in many ways, but he isn't a bit vulgar. He has genuine character. There is absolutely no pretence about him."
"You could catch him in a minute," replied Miss Polly hopefully, animated by the inveterate match-making instinct of her class.
Gabriella laughed merrily. "Oh, yes, I might capture him if I went questing for him. I am not a child. But put that out of your head forever, Miss Polly. I have given him clearly to understand that there must be no nonsense, though, for the matter of that, I doubt if he needed the warning. There is an Alice."
"I reckon it would take more than an Alice to stand in the way if you wanted him," insisted the little seamstress, possessed by an obstinate conviction that fate could provide no happiness apart from marriage.
"Perhaps. But you see I don't want him." Gabriella had become perfectly serious, and to Miss Polly's amazement a hint of petulance showed in her manner. "Everything of that kind was over for me long ago. I never think of love now, and if I did there wouldn't be but one—but one—"
"I know, honey," agreed Miss Polly, suddenly softened, "and I'd give anything on earth if you and Arthur could come together again."
"It wouldn't be any use. I made my choice, and I have had to abide by it. He could never forgive me—". She stopped as if she were choking, and Miss Polly said sympathetically:
"Well, I wish he had a chance to, that's all. Why don't you run down to Richmond for a few days this spring to see your folks? Your ma and all would be so glad to see you, and it ain't as if you had the children to keep you back. The thing that worries me," she added with feeling, "is the thought of your spendin' the summer here without the children. If Archibald goes to camp from school and Fanny joins Jane at the White Sulphur Springs as soon as her school is out, you won't have them at all, will you?"
"No, but they will be happy; that is the only thing that matters."
"It seems all wrong to me. What do you get out of life, honey?"
"What do any of us get out of it, dear little Miss Polly, except the joy of triumphing? It's overcoming that really matters, nothing else, and it is the same thing to you and to me that it is to the man downstairs. I am happy because in my little way I stood the test of struggle, and so are you, and so is Mr. O'Hara."
"But you're young yet, and it ain't natural for you to live as you're doin'. Lots of women marry when they're older than you are."
"Oh, yes, if they want to—"
For a minute the little seamstress rattled her newspaper while she looked at her without replying. Then, after folding the paper, and removing her spectacles, she asked grimly: "Can you look me in the eyes, Gabriella, and tell me that you ain't still hankerin' after Arthur?"
The blush of a girl made the business-like Gabriella appear as young and as piquantly feminine as her daughter.
"No, Miss Polly, I cannot," she answered with incomparable directness; "I have loved Arthur all my life."
"That's just what I thought all along, and yet you went off and married somebody else." Excited by the unexpected confession, Miss Polly was quivering with sympathy.
In that supreme instant of self-revelation Gabriella answered this accusation as if it had been uttered by her remorseful conscience. "But that wasn't love," she said slowly; "it was my youth craving experience; it was my youth reaching after the unknown, the untried, the undiscovered. We all go questing for adventure one way or another, I suppose, but it was not the reality."
"I wonder what is," said Miss Polly in a whisper; "I wonder what is, Gabriella?"
"That," replied Gabriella softly, "is what I am still trying to discover."
It was the morning of Gabriella's thirty-eighth birthday, and she was standing, with her hat on, before the window of her sitting-room, gazing with dreaming eyes at the young leaves on the elm tree. The day's work was ahead of her, but for a little while, standing there by the open window, she gave herself, with a sense of pleasure, of abandonment, to the rare luxury of regret. Out of her whole year it was the one day when, for a few hours, she permitted herself to think sadly of the past and the future, when she cherished in her heart something of the gentle melancholy of her mother's retrospective philosophy.
In the street, beyond the narrow yard, where the grass lay like a veil, there was a curious deadening of sounds, as if the traffic had become suddenly muffled in the languorous softness of spring. Out of this imaginary stillness floated the sharp twittering of sparrows and the bright laugh of a child at play in one of the neighbouring yards. Above the grim outlines of the city the sky shone divinely clear and blue, flecked by a single cloud, soft as an eagle's feather, which drifted in a mist of light above the horizon. The city, beneath that azure sky, borrowed the transparent brightness of an object that is imprisoned in crystal. White magic had transformed it for an hour, and the street, the houses, the shining elm tree, and the distant frowning brows of the skyscrapers, all seemed as unreal as the vivid yet impalpable images in a dream. And into this world of crystal there drifted, like the essence of spring, the dreamy fragrance from the window box filled with white hyacinths.
While she stood there Gabriella thought pensively of many things. She thought of the day's work before her, of the gown she was designing for Mrs. Pletheridge, of Fanny's latest lover, the brother of a schoolmate, of the clothes she should send the child to the White Sulphur Springs, of her mother, and of Jane's eldest daughter, Margaret; and then very slowly, with the scent of the hyacinths drowning all merely prosaic memories, she began to think hopelessly and tenderly of Arthur Peyton. She thought of him as he had looked on the day when she had told him of her engagement of the sympathetic expression in his eyes, and of his beautiful manner, which she had felt at the time she could never forget. Well, after eighteen years she had not forgotten it. Compared with Arthur, all other men seemed to her as unreal as shadows. "How could Miss Polly imagine that I'd think of Ben O'Hara after a love like that?" she reflected indignantly.
And then, perhaps because for a shadow he was so solidly substantial, she became aware that O'Hara's image was trespassing upon the hallowed soil of her reverie. To be sure, she had seen a great deal of him since George's death, when he had been so wonderfully considerate and helpful. Scarcely a day had passed since then that he had not brightened by some reminder of his friendship. They had spent long evenings together; and occasionally, accompanied by the delighted Miss Polly, they had gone to dinner at a restaurant and later to a concert or a play. That he had been almost too kind it was impossible for her to deny; but she had tried her best to repay him—she had, when one came to the point, done as much as she could to remedy the defects of his education. At first she had given zest, sympathy, eagerness, to her self-appointed task of making him over; then, as the months went by, a sense of doubt, of discouragement, of approaching failure, had tempered her enthusiasm, and at last she had realized that her work, except in the merest details, had been ineffectual and futile. The differences, which she had regarded as superficial, were, in reality, fundamental. It was impossible to make him over because he was so completely himself. He stood quite definitely for certain tendencies in democracy, and by no ingenious manipulation could she twist him about until he presented the sham appearance of moving in the opposite direction. For the logic of her failure was perfectly simple—he couldn't see, however hard he tried, the things she wanted him to look at. The difficulty was far deeper than a mere matter of finish, or even of education—for it was, after all, not one of manner, but of material. Day by day she had realized more clearly that the problem confronting them was one which involved their different standards of living and their individual philosophies. The things which she regarded as essential were to him only the accidental variations of life. He had lived so long in touch with the basic realities—with vast spaces and the stark aspect of desert horizons, with droughts, and winds, and the unquenchable pangs of thirst and hunger, with the vital issues of birth and death in their most primitive forms—he had lived so long in touch with the simplest and most elemental forces of Nature, that his spirit, as well as his vision, had adjusted itself to a trackless and limitless field of view. No, what he was now he must remain, since to change him, except in trivial details, was out of her power.
And of course he had his virtues—she would have been the last to deny him his virtues. Whenever she applied the touchstone of character, she realized how little alloy there was in the pure gold of his nature. He was truthful, he was generous, he was brave, kind, and tolerant; but his virtues, like his personality, were large, flamboyant, and without gradations of colour. Custom had not pruned their natural luxuriance, nor had tradition toned down the violence of their contrasts. They were experimental, not established virtues, as obviously the expression of the man himself as was his uncultivated preference for red geraniums. For he possessed, she admitted, a sincerity such as she had not believed compatible with human designs—certainly not with human achievement. According to the code of the sheltered half of her sex—according to the inflexible code of her mother and Jane—he was not a gentleman. He lacked breeding, he lacked taste, he lacked the necessary education of schools; but in other ways, in ways peculiarly his own, she was beginning dimly to realize that he possessed qualities immeasurably larger than any superficial lack in his nature. In balance, moderation, restraint—in all the gracious attributes with which Arthur was endowed in her memory, in all the attributes she had particularly esteemed in the past—she understood that O'Hara would undoubtedly fall below her inherited standards. But, failing in these things, he had been able to command her respect by the sheer force of his character. Though he had, as he had confessed to her, gone down into hell, she could not talk to him for an hour without recognizing that he had never lost a natural chivalry of mind beside which the cultivated chivalry of manner appeared as exotic as an orchid in a hothouse. Even Arthur, she was aware, would have lied to her for her own good; but she would have trusted O'Hara to speak the truth to her at any cost. In this, as well as in his practical efficiency, and his crude yet vital optimism, he embodied, she felt, the triumphs and the failures of American democracy—this democracy of ugly fact and of fine ideals, of crooked deeds and of straight feeling, of little codes and of large adventures, of puny lives and of heroic deaths—this democracy of the smoky present and the clear future. "If this is our raw material to-day," she thought hopefully, "what will the finished and signed product of to-morrow be?"
"Gabriella, ain't these lovely?"
Whirling out of the sunshine, she saw Miss Polly holding a rustic basket of primroses and cowslips. "Mr. O'Hara wants to know if he may speak to you for a minute before you go out?"
"Oh, yes, I'm not in a hurry this morning." Then Miss Polly disappeared and an instant later the vacant space in the doorway was filled exuberantly by O'Hara.
"I wanted to be the first to wish you a happy birthday," he began, a little shyly, a little awkwardly, though his face was flushing with pleasure.
"The flowers are wonderful!" For a minute, while she answered him, he seemed to be a part of the unreal intense brightness of the world outside—of that magic world where the elm tree and the grass and the sunny street were all imprisoned in crystal. He diffused a glowing consciousness of success, a sanguine faith in the inherent goodness of experience. For, as she had discovered long ago, O'Hara was one of those who stood not for the elimination of struggle, but for the complete acceptance of life. He had sprung out of ugliness, he had lived intimately with evil; and yet more than any one she had ever known, he seemed to her to radiate the simple, uncalculating joy of living. He was the strongest person she knew, as well as the happiest. He had never evaded facts, never feared a risk, never shirked an issue, never lacked the hardy, adventurous courage of battle. In his own words, life had never "found him a quitter."
He stood in front of her now, fresh, smiling, robust, with his look of suddenly arrested energy, and the dark red of his hair, which was still moist from his bath, striking a vivid note against the cool grays and blues of the background. The sunshine, falling through the open window, warmed the ruddy tan of his face, and made his eyes like pools of clear light in which the jubilant spirit of the spring was reflected. "After all, it isn't what one does, it is what one is, that matters," she thought while she looked at him. "At the end, as Miss Polly said, it is character, not circumstances, that counts."
"I've been all over New York this morning looking for that basket," he said. Though he had been so eager to make light of his services to her in her trouble, she was amused from time to time by a childlike vanity which prompted him to impress her with the value of small attentions; and this she was swift to recognize as the opposite of Arthur's delicacy. It was the only littleness she had observed in O'Hara so far—this reluctance to hide his smaller lights under a bushel—and in its place, it was amusing. Here was an obvious instance where nature unassisted by training appeared to fall short.
"They couldn't be lovelier if you'd gone all over the world," she responded sincerely.
Before answering her he hesitated a moment, and she watched pityingly the struggle he was making toward an impossible self-expression. The thing he wanted to say, the thing struggling so pathetically in the inarticulateness of his feeling, would not, she knew, be uttered in words.
"You are the first woman I ever wanted to send flowers to," he said presently; and added with abject infelicity: "It's strange, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's strange," she assented pleasantly. Though his words were ineffectual, she was aware suddenly of a force before which she felt a vague impulse of flight. Now, if ever, she understood that she must keep their relations as superficial as she had always meant them to be—that she must cling with all her strength to the comfortable surface of appearances. "But you haven't had many women friends, have you?"
"I've wanted to give other things," he went on hurriedly; "but not flowers. I never thought of flowers until I met you."
"That's nice for me." She was growing nervous, and in her nervousness she precipitated the explosion by venturing rashly: "But there's Alice, too, isn't there, to like them?" Her voice was firm and friendly. Once for all she intended him to understand how aloof she stood from any sentimental advances.
"Alice?" For an instant his response hung fire, enveloped in a fog of perplexity. Then, with an air of dispelling the cloud, he made a vigorous gesture of denial, and moved nearer to her with the swiftness and directness of a natural force. "Why, Alice was you! You were Alice all the time!" he exclaimed energetically.
"You mean—" She checked herself in alarm, paralyzed the next instant by the tremendous, unexpected blow of her discovery.
"So you thought there was somebody else!" The delight in his face kept her silent, amazed, incapable of explanation. His arm was still outstretched, as if he were brushing aside the last flimsy barrier between them, and his voice, with its unrestrained and radiant joy, stirred some faintly quivering echoes in the secret depths of her being. It was as if the jubilant spirit of spring had flowered suddenly in his look.
"There wasn't anybody else." He came still nearer, and she stood there, startled, incredulous, powerless either to retreat or to prevent the inevitable instant that was approaching. "At least, there wasn't anybody I ever knew named Alice except a school teacher when I was a kid. She was good and she was pretty like you, and I used to dream about her after school, and every evening at dusk I would go out of my way to speak to her in Sixth Avenue. Once she told me that she'd wait for me to grow up and get rich so I could marry her, and after I went out to Arizona I used to think about her a lot. When I came on you suddenly, standing there in the dusk with your hands full of lilacs, it all came back to me because you, looked like her, with your dark hair and your tall slenderness. Then before I knew what I was, doing I called you by her name. I oughtn't to have done it," he finished ecstatically, "but I'm jolly glad now that I did."
So he also, the man of action and of enterprise, he, the worker and the adventurer, so he also cultivated his garden of dreams!
"I didn't know—I didn't know—" she found herself murmuring faintly in protest.
"But you know now!" His voice rang out exultantly, and, though she felt that the thing she feared and dreaded was coming upon her, she still stood there without moving a step, without lifting a hand, mesmerized, enchanted, by the force of the man. "You know now," he repeated. "You know now, Gabriella, and you knew all along."
It was true. In spite of her surprise, in spite of her shrinking, in spite of her evasion, she confessed it in her heart. She had known all the time. Something deep down in her, something secret and profound and clairvoyant, had discerned the truth from the beginning.
"No! no!" she cried out sharply, for, mistaking her silence, he had stooped to her with the directness which impelled all his movements, which so easily brushed aside and discarded intervening encumbrances, and had kissed her on the lips.
For an instant, in the merciless tenderness of his arms, her resistance melted from her. Beneath the crash of the storm she did not think, she did not struggle, she did not murmur. Her consciousness seemed suspended, and with her consciousness, her memory, her judgment, even her passionate unshaken loyalty to the love of her youth. Then, after the moment of weakness, of passive submission, it was as if her soul and body caught fire at a flash, and a quiver of anger ran through her, enkindling her glance and nerving her spirit.
"But I do not love you! I never meant that I loved you!" she cried.
At her words his arms dropped to his sides, and he stood as if turned to stone, with only his questioning eyes and the vivid red of his hair seeming alive. There was no need now for her to struggle. At her first movement to escape he had released her and drawn to a distance.
"You don't love me?" he stammered. "Why, I saw it. I've seen it for weeks. I see it now in your face."
"You see nothing—nothing." She denied it bitterly. "I liked you as a friend. I did not think of this. I never suspected it. I don't love you. I don't love you in the least."
He was very still. The jubilant spirit of the spring had ebbed away from his look, and even in the height of her anger she was struck by the change in his face.
"I don't believe you," he said gravely after a minute. "I don't believe you."
"You must believe me. I don't love you. I have never thought of you except as a friend. I have loved another man all my life."
Her voice rose accusingly, triumphantly, and so fervent was her look that she might have been repeating a creed. It was as if she hoped by convincing him to persuade her own rebellious heart of the truth she proclaimed.
Now at last he understood. She had been lucid enough even for the crystalline lucidity of his thought.
"I am sorry. I made a mistake," he said quietly, and after the exultant note of a few moments ago there was a dull level of flatness in his voice. "I am sorry. There don't seem to be anything else that I can say or do, but—but it wouldn't have happened if I had understood—" He paused, looked at her closely for a minute, and then added stubbornly, with an echo of the old confidence in his tone: "I still don't believe it."
"It is true, nevertheless." She was trembling with indignation, and this indignation, in spite of her natural fairness, was not directed against herself, against her own blindness and folly. Though she knew that she was to blame, she was furious, not with herself, but with O'Hara. He had insulted her, and she resolved bitterly that she would never forgive him. Even now, whenever she was silent, she could still feel his kiss on her mouth, and the vividness of the sensation stung her into passionate anger. She was no longer the reasonable and competent Gabriella, who had so successfully "managed her life"; she was primitive woman in the grip of primitive anger; and balance, moderation, restraint, had flown from her soul. The very mystery of her feeling, its complexity, its suddenness, its remorselessness—these emotions worked together to deepen the sense of insult, of injury, with which she burned.
"It is true, and you have no right to doubt it. You have no right." She caught her breath sharply, and then went on with inexcusable harshness: "Even if there hadn't been any one else, I should never—I could never in the world—"
Her loss of self-control gave him an advantage, which he was either too generous or too stupid to perceive. "Well, forget all about it. I am going now," he answered quietly.
While she watched him moving away from her, she was conscious of an inexplicable longing to stab him again more deeply before she lost him forever. It was intolerable to her that he should leave her while she was still indignant, that he should evade her just resentment by the natural cowardice of flight.
"I can't forget it," she said; "how can you expect me to?"
For an instant he seemed on the point of smiling. Then, turning, at the door, he walked back to where she was standing, and said gravely: "When I came in here it was to ask you to marry me, and, if it's the last word I ever speak, I thought you understood—that you knew how I felt. I was even fool enough to think you would be willing to marry me. That's all I can say. I haven't any other excuses."
For the second time he went to the door, opened it, and then turning quickly, came back again. "I am not the sort to change, and I shan't change about this. You are a free woman, and if you ever feel that you made a mistake, if you ever want me or need me, you can just come to me. I shan't stop caring for you, and if you choose to come, I'll be waiting. I believed you were meant for me when I first saw you—and I believe it now. In spite of all you say, I am going to keep on believing it—"
He went out, closing the door softly, and five minutes later, feeling extraordinarily young, she watched him pass through the gate, and walk as buoyantly as ever in the direction of Broadway. While she looked after him she wondered suddenly why novelists always dropped their heroines as soon as they passed twenty-seven? "If I'd been in a play, they'd have put me in the background, dressed in lavender, and made me look on and do fancywork," she thought humorously, "but this is real life, and I've just had a real love scene on my thirty-eighth birthday. He couldn't have been more romantic if I'd been Fanny," she mused with an agreeable complacency. "It's only in books and plays that people stop falling in love when they pass the twenties. I don't believe they ever stop in real life. I believe it goes on forever." And glancing at the glass, she added truthfully: "I want love more to-day than I wanted it when I was twenty—and so does Ben O'Hara."
A sensation of stifling, as if her throat were closing together, oppressed her suddenly, and picking up her hand-bag, she ran downstairs and out of the house.
By the time she reached Broadway her anger had ebbed, but the oppression, the feeling that she was being slowly smothered, was still in her throat and bosom. After all, seen in the sober light of reason, why had she been so indignant? There had been a misapprehension; he had thought that she was in love with him, and thinking so, he had kissed her. That was the case plainly stated; and what was there in this to send a burning, rush of anger to her heart? What was there in this that had made her turn and insult him? For the first time in her life she had lost her temper without cause, and had raged, she told herself sternly, like a fury. And beneath her rage she had been conscious always of some vague, incomprehensible disloyalty to Arthur—of a feeling of, humiliation, of self-reproach, which appeared ridiculous when she remembered that she had been kissed against her will and without warning. But, in spite of this, she knew intuitively, with a knowledge deeper than reason, that the glory of her Dream had paled in the moment when she lay in O'Hara's arms.
A subtle change had come over the spirit of spring since she had left the elm tree and the emerald veil of the grass. It was no longer jubilant, but languorous, wistful, haunting, as if it eternally pursued, through the fugitive seasons, an immortal and ineffable beauty. The enchanted crystal had been shattered in an instant, and she saw life now, not imprisoned in magical sunshine, but gray, sordid, monotonous, as utterly hopeless as the faces thronging in Broadway. Yet not many months ago she had seen in these, same faces the inward hope, the joy in sadness, the gaiety in disappointment, which had brightened the world for her. Then she had been aware of an invisible current flowing from the crowd to herself; but to-day this shining current was broken or turned aside, and she felt detached, adrift, and distrustful of the future. That mental correspondence with the mood of the crowd, with the life of the city, which had come to her first on the brilliant morning in September, and then again when she walked home with O'Hara in the winter's dusk—which had released a new faculty in her soul, and had given her a fresh perception of human responsibilities—this had deserted her so utterly that she could barely remember its miraculous visitation. Then her personal life had seemed to become a part of the life of the street, of the sky, of the mysterious city outlined against the gray background of dusk. To-day she walked alone and without sympathy through the crowd. Her feet dragged, and she felt dully that she had lost her share in both the street and the sky. The very faces of the men and women around her—those lethargic foreign faces which crowded out the finer American type—awoke in her the sensation of hopeless revolt which one feels before the impending destruction of higher forms by masses of inert and conscienceless matter. She thought gloomily: "I have lost the vision—there is no hope either for me or for America except in the clear vision of the future." And while she spoke there passed over her the vague feeling of loss, of something missing, as if a precious possession had slipped from her grasp.
Her morning's work was unusually trying, and at one o'clock, when she put on her hat before going out to lunch, she asked herself dejectedly: "What can be the matter with me? Before I go home I'll take a taxicab and drive up Riverside for an hour. If only the children were here, I should not feel so depressed." She remembered regretfully that Archibald and Fanny would be away all summer; and then from thinking of her children, she passed by almost insensible degrees of despondency to meditating pensively about Arthur Peyton. What a wreck, what an inconceivably stupid wreck she had made of her happiness!
As she entered the outer showroom on her way to the street, she heard the voice of Miss Murphy attuned to a cooing pitch, and glancing around a little, painted cabinet, filled with useless ornaments, which stood in the centre of the floor, she beheld a dazzling head of reddish gold before one of the elaborately decorated French mirrors. While she advanced the red-gold waves, worn with extreme flatness over a forehead of pearly whiteness, were submerged for a minute in the smallest and roundest hat in the shop, and from a fashionable figure, reminding her vaguely of an ambulatory dressmaker's model, there issued a high, fluting note of delighted ejaculation.
"This is just exactly what I've been looking all over New York for! Now, isn't it too funny for anything that I should have found it right here the very minute I came in?" As Gabriella's face flashed back from the mirror the fashionable figure sprang suddenly to life, and the voice, still fluting delightedly, exclaimed:
"Why, Gabriella! Where on earth did you come from?"
For a minute sheer amazement kept Gabriella clinging helplessly to the ridiculous cabinet, from the top of which an artificial rose-bush seemed to shower artificial pink petals down on her head. Then, recovering herself, with a sharp effort of will, she went forward a few steps beyond the shelter of the cabinet, and said composedly:
"How do you do, Florrie? I did not recognize you at first."
For it was Florrie herself, Florrie in the flesh, Florrie, glowing, sparkling, prosperous, victorious. Her figure, conforming to the latest mode, had lost its pinched protuberances, and was long, slender, sinuous in its perfection of line. Beneath the small round hat, her hair, glossy with brilliantine, was like melted gold in the large loose waves which revealed the rosy tips of her ears. She was thirty-nine, and she looked scarcely a day over twenty-five. The peach-blossom texture of her skin was as unlined by care or pain as if she had spent the last ten years immured in a convent; for in this case, at least, Gabriella realized while she looked at her, the retribution which awaits upon sinners had been tardy in its fulfilment.
As she moved toward her, without noticing the friendly hand that Florrie held out, Gabriella was conscious of an ironical inclination to laugh. Though she felt no bitter personal resentment against Florrie—for, after all, Florrie had not been able to hurt her—there struggled in her bosom an indignation more profound, more moving, than any merely personal emotion could be. Her resentment was directed not against Florrie, but against some abstract destiny which had permitted Florrie to have her way without paying the price. For on the pinnacle of a destructive career, unsinged by the conflagration she had so carelessly started, Florrie was poised securely, crowned, triumphant, rejoicing. On her dazzling height, successful and happy, she was as far removed as one could imaginably be from the repentant Magdalen of tradition. The memory of George's face as it looked in death, floated before the austere mental vision of Gabriella, and she reflected grimly that tradition was not always the mirror of life. For in this one case at least, the man, not the woman, had been the victim of natural law, and Florrie, fool though she was, had shown herself at the hour of requital to be stronger than fate. By that instinctive wisdom, which is so much older, so much truer than civilization, she had triumphed over the ordination of life. In refusing to suffer she had blunted every weapon with which Nature might have punished her in the end. Not by virtue, since she had none, but by pure insensibility, she had escaped the wages of sin. She was a sensualist whose sensuality, hard, metallic, glittering, encased her like armour.
At Gabriella's approach Miss Murphy fluttered off cooingly in the direction of a fresh customer, and only the festively garlanded French mirror witnessed the meeting of the two who had been schoolgirls together. Swift as an arrow there shot through Gabriella's mind, "I wonder what Ben O'Hara would think of her?" Then she checked the dangerous flight of her fancy, for she remembered that O'Hara's thoughts about anything no longer concerned her.
"Are you buying a hat?" inquired Florrie curiously.
"No, I belong here. I am Madame Dinard."
"You don't mean it! I never should have believed it! The idea of your being a dressmaker. That's why you look so smart, I suppose. You're the smartest thing I've seen anywhere, but you look older, Gabriella."
"Well, you don't." It was perfectly true. Except for the gaudy decorations and the twanging accents of the arrogant young women, Gabriella might have imagined herself in the last century atmosphere of Broad Street in the middle 'nineties.
"I must tell you about the things I use." Florrie was always generous. "But, I declare if I'd known this place was yours, I'd have got my hats here ages ago. Of course I knew it was dreadfully swell, but I thought the prices were beyond anything."
"They are," responded Gabriella with business-like brevity, while she glanced about for the flitting Miss Murphy.
"Look here, Gabriella, I hope you don't bear me any malice," Florrie burst out solicitously, for her frankness, like her sensuality, was elemental in its audacity. "You oughtn't to if you know what I saved you from," she proceeded convincingly. "Anyway, we were chums long before either of us ever thought about a man, and I didn't really do you a bit of harm. It wasn't as if you cared about George, was it?"
"No, it wasn't as if I'd cared about him." Gabriella was answering the appeal as truthfully as if Florrie had been the most excellent of her sex. "You didn't harm me in any way—not in any way," she repeated with firmness.
"That's just the way I told mother you'd look at it. I knew you were always so broad-minded even as a girl. Then there isn't any reason we shouldn't be friends just as we used to be."
Gabriella shook her head, polite but implacable in her refusal. "It isn't what you did to me, Florrie," she answered gently, "it's what you are that I can't forgive. I can imagine that a good woman might do almost anything—might even run off with another woman's husband, but you aren't good. You wouldn't be good if you'd spent your life in a convent."
A quick flush—the flush of temper—stained the pearly whiteness of Florrie's skin. "Oh, of course, if you don't want to," she retorted, a little shrilly, though she tried to subdue her rebellious voice to the pitch of Fifth Avenue. "I only thought that being a working woman, you wouldn't have so very many friends, and you might get lonely. I had seats at the opera every night last winter, and time and again I'd have been glad to have given them to you. Then, too, I might have been able to bring you some custom. I know any number of rich women who don't think anything of paying a thousand dollars for a dress—"
Her insolence was so evidently the result of anger that Gabriella, without interrupting the flow, waited courteously until she paused.
"No, you cannot do anything for me, Florrie." Though Gabriella's voice was crisp and firm, her face looked suddenly older, and little lines, stamped by weariness and regret, appeared at the corners of her still brilliant eyes. "I don't wish you any harm," she went on more softly. "If you were in trouble I'd do what I could for you, but somehow I don't seem able to forgive you for being what you are. Would you like to look at anything else?" she inquired in her professional tone. "Miss Murphy is waiting to show you some hats."
Her cheeks were burning when she passed out of the ivory and gold door, saluted deferentially by the attendant in livery. "The effrontery!" she thought, "the barefaced effrontery!" and then, as her eyes fell on Florrie's trim little electric coup beside the curb, she exclaimed mentally, recalling George's animated perplexity about the pearl necklace, "I wonder how in the world she does it?"
The meeting with Florrie appeared to her, as she walked home that afternoon, to be the last touch needed to push her into a state of utter despondency. The oppressive languor of the day had exhausted her strength, and when she left Dinard's she felt too indifferent, too spiritless even for the drive in the Park. It was still light when she got out of the stage at Twenty-third Street, and while she strolled listlessly down the blocks on the West Side, she had again that curious sensation of smothering which had come to her after her talk with O'Hara.
At the corner of Sixth Avenue a young Italian, with the face of a poet, was roasting peanuts in a little kerosene stove beside a flickering torch which enkindled the romantic youth in his eyes. Farther away some ragged children were dancing to the music of a hand-organ, which ground out a melancholy waltz; and from a tiny flower stall behind the stand of a bootblack there drifted the intense sweetness of hyacinths. An old negro, carrying a basket of clothes, passed her in the middle of the block, and she thought: "That might have been in Richmond—that and the hand-organ and the perfume of hyacinths." A vision of Hill Street floated before her—the long straight street, with the sudden drop of ragged hill at the end; the old houses, with crumbling porches and countless signs: "Boarders Wanted" in the windows between the patched curtains; the irregular rows of tulip poplar, elm, or sycamore trees throwing their crooked shadows over the cobblestones; the blades of grass sprouting along the edges of the brick pavement—the vision of Hill Street as she remembered it twenty years ago in her girlhood; and then the image of her mother's face gazing out beneath the creamy blossoms and the dark shining leaves of the old magnolia tree. "Everything must have changed, I'd hardly recognize it," she thought. "Nobody we know lives on that side now, mother says. Yes, it has been a long time." She sighed, and then a little laugh broke from her lips, as she remembered that Charley, who had recently been West on a business trip, had brought home the good news that Richmond was as progressive as Denver. "At least it seems so to Charley," Mrs. Carr had hastened to add, "but you know how proud Charley is of all our newness. He says there is not a street in the West that looks fresher or more beautiful than Monument Avenue, and I am sure that is a great comfort. Cousin Jimmy says it shows what the South can do when it tries."
"I'd like to go back," mused Gabriella, walking more and more slowly. "I haven't been home for eighteen years, and I am thirty-eight to-day." With the fugitive sweetness of the hyacinths there rushed over her again the feeling that life was slipping, slipping, and that she was missing something infinitely precious, something infinitely desirable. It was the panic of fleeting youth, of youth unsatisfied, denied, and still insatiable.
As she entered the gate she saw that O'Hara's windows were dark, and while a sigh of relief escaped her, she felt a swift contraction of her throat as if she had become suddenly paralyzed and was unable to swallow. "I hope he has gone," she said to herself in a whisper. "If he has gone, everything will be so much easier." But even to herself she could not explain what it was that would be made easier. Her relief was so vague that when she endeavoured to put it into words it seemed to dissolve and evaporate.
Miss Polly was watering the flowers in the window box, and turning, with the green watering-pot in her hand, she stared at Gabriella in silence for a minute before she exclaimed anxiously: "Mercy on us, Gabriella, what on earth, is the matter?"
"Nothing. I've had a hard day, and I'm tired."
"Well, you lie right straight down as soon as you take off your hat. I declare you look ten years older than you did this morning."
"I have seen Florrie for a minute."
"I reckon that was enough to upset anybody. Did she say she was sorry?"
"Sorry! She looked as if she had never been sorry for anything in her life. She was handsomer than ever—don't you remember how much you always admired her figure?—and she didn't look a day over twenty-five. I don't believe she has ever known what it is to feel a regret."
"Well, you just wait, honey," responded Miss Polly consolingly, "you just wait. She'll be punished yet as sure as you're born."
"Oh, I'm not waiting for that. I don't wish her to be punished. Why should I? She is what she is."
"Do you s'pose she knows about George?"
"I doubt it. She didn't speak of his death. She is quite capable of forgetting that she ever knew him, and if she does, think of him, it is probably as a man who betrayed her innocence. You may be sure she has twisted it all about until every shred of the blame rests on somebody else. Florrie isn't the only woman who is made like that, but I believe," she reasoned it out coolly, "that it is her way of keeping her youth."
Miss Polly had put down the watering-pot, and she came presently with a bottle of camphor to the sofa where Gabriella was lying. "Are you sure you wouldn't like me to rub your head?" she inquired. "Dinner will be ready in a minute, but I shouldn't change my dress if I were you."
Gabriella rose slowly to a sitting position, and then stood up while she pushed the camphor away. "I hate the smell of it," she answered; "it makes me think of one of Jane's attacks. And, besides, I don't need it. There is nothing in the world the matter with me." A moment later, to Miss Polly's unspeakable amazement, she sank down again, flung her arms over the back of the sofa, and burst into tears.
"Well, I never!" ejaculated Miss Polly, rooted to the spot. "Well, I never!" In the ten years she had lived with Gabriella she had never seen her cry—not even after George's flight—and she felt as if the solid ground on which she stood had crumbled without warning, and left her insecurely balanced in space. "Something certainly must be wrong, for it ain't like you to give way. Are you real sure you ain't got a pain somewhere?"
Shaking her head, and swallowing her sobs with an effort, Gabriella rose to her feet. "I'm just tired out, that's all," she said, strangely humble and deprecating.
"You must have been working too hard. It ain't right." For a minute or two the little seamstress brooded anxiously; then guided by an infallible instinct, she added decisively: "It's been a long time since you've seen your ma, and she's gettin' right smart along. Why don't you run down home for a few days while the flowers are blooming?"
A change passed over Gabriella's face, and drying her eyes, she looked down on Miss Polly with a lovely enigmatical smile.
"I wonder if I might?" she said doubtfully.
"There ain't any earthly reason why you shouldn't. To-morrow's Friday, and they can get along without you at Dinard's perfectly well till the first of the week."
"Oh, yes, they can get along. I was only wondering"—a faint breeze stole in through the window, wafting toward her the scent of wet flowers—"I was only wondering"—her eyes grew suddenly radiant, and lifting her arms, she made a gesture as of one escaping from bondage—"I was only wondering if I might go to-morrow," she said.
THE DREAM AND THE REALITY
At the upper station a little group stood awaiting her, and as the train pulled slowly to the platform, Gabriella distinguished her mother's pallid face framed in the hanging crape of her veil; Jane, thin, anxious, anmic, with her look of pinched sweetness; Chancy, florid, portly, and virtuously middle-aged, and their eldest daughter Margaret, a blooming, beautiful girl. Alighting, Gabriella was embraced by Mrs. Carr, who shed a few gentle tears on her shoulders.
"Gabriella, my child, I thought you would never come back to us," she lamented; "and now everything is so changed that you will hardly recognize it as home."
"Well, if she can find a change that isn't for the better, I hope she'll point it out and let me make a note of it," boasted Charley, with hilarity. "I tell you what, Gabriella, my dear, we're becoming a number one city. Everything's new. We haven't left so much as an old brick lying around if we could help it. If you were to go back there to Hill Street, you'd scarcely know it for the hospitals and schools we've got there, and as for this part of the town—well, I reckon the apartment houses will fairly take your breath away. Apartment houses! Well, that's what I call progress—apartment houses and skyscrapers, and we've got them, too, down on Main Street. I'll show them to you to-morrow. Yes, by George, we're progressing so fast you can hardly see how we grow. Why, there wasn't a skyscraper or an apartment house in the city when you left here, and precious few hospitals. But now—well, I'll show you! We're the hospital city of the South, and more than that, we're becoming a metropolis. Yes, that's the word—we're becoming a metropolis. If you don't believe me, just watch as we go up Franklin Street to Monument Avenue. I suppose you thought of us still as a poor folksy little Southern city, with a lot of ground going to waste in gardens and green stuff. Well, you just wait till you see Monument Avenue. It's the handsomest boulevard south of Washington. It's all new, every brick of it. There's not a house the whole way up that isn't as fresh as paint, and the avenue is just as straight as if you'd drawn it with a ruler—"
But the change in the city, Gabriella reflected while she embraced Jane, was as nothing compared to the incredible change in Charley himself. Middle-age had passed over him like some fattening and solidifying process. He was healthy, he was corpulent, he was prosperous, conventional, and commonplace. If Gabriella had been seeking, with Hogarthian humour, to portray the evils of torpid and self-satisfied respectability, she could scarcely have found a better picture of the condition than Charley presented. And the more Charley expanded, the more bloodless and wan Jane appeared at his side. Her small, flat face with its yellowish and unhealthy tinge, its light melancholy eyes, and its look of lifeless and inhuman sanctification, exhaled the dried fragrance of a pressed flower. So disheartening was her appearance to Gabriella that it was a relief to turn from her to the freshness of Margaret, handsome, athletic, with cheeks like roses and the natural grace of a young animal.
"Oh, Aunt Gabriella, I hadn't any idea you were like this!" cried the girl with nave enthusiasm.
"You thought of me as gray-haired and wearing a bonnet and mantle?"
"No, not that, but I didn't dream you were so handsome. I thought mother was the beauty of the family. But what a wonderful dress you have on! Are they wearing all those flounces around the hips?"
"There is no doubt about it, you are getting a lot better looking as you grow older," observed Charley, with genial pleasantry.
"She keeps herself up. There is a great deal in that," remarked Jane, and the speech was so characteristic of her that Gabriella tossed back gaily:
"Well, I'm not old, you know. I am only thirty-eight."
"She married so young," said Mrs. Carr mournfully. "I hope none of your girls will marry young, Jane. Gabriella must be a warning to them and to clear little Fanny."
"But you married young, mother, and so did I," replied Jane, a trifle tartly.
For some incommunicable reason Jane's sweetness had become decidedly prickly. Charley's reformation had left her with the hurt and incredulous air of a missionary whose heathen have been converted under his eyes by a rival denomination: and obeying an entirely natural impulse, she appeared ever so slightly, and in the most refined manner possible to revenge herself on the other members of her family. Though she had of late devoted her attention to the Associated Charities and the Confederate Museum, neither of these worthy objects provided so agreeable an opportunity for the exercise of her benevolent instincts as did the presence of a wayward husband in the household. For there could be no question of the thoroughness of Charley's redemption. The very cut of his clothes, the very colour of his necktie, proclaimed a triumph, for the prohibition party.
At last they were packed tightly in the touring car, and Charley, after imparting directions with the manner of a man who regards himself as the fount of wisdom, began expounding the noisy gospel of progress to Gabriella. Mrs. Carr, who had never been active, and was now over seventy, was visibly excited by the suddenness with which she had been whisked from the platform, and while they shot away from the station, she clutched her crape veil despairingly to the sides of her face, and fixed her blank and terrified stare on her son-in-law. After a whispered conference with Jane, Gabriella discovered that her mother was less afraid of an accident than she was of fresh air. "She's afraid of neuralgia," whispered Jane, "but the doctor says the air can't possibly do her any harm."
In Franklin Street the trees were in full leaf, and the charming vista through which Gabriella looked at the sunset, softened mercifully the impending symbols of the ironic Spirit of Progress. It was modern; it was progressive; yet there was the ancient lassitude of spring in the faint sunshine; and the women passing under the vivid green of the elms and maples moved with a flowing walk which one did not see in Fifth Avenue. On the porches, too, groups were assembled in chairs after the Southern fashion, while children, in white frocks and gay sashes, accompanied by negro nurses wheeling perambulators, made a spring pageant in the parks. Though the gardens had either disappeared or dwindled to mere emerald patches of grass, a few climbing roses, of modern varieties, lent brightness and fragrance to the solid, if undistinguished, architecture of the houses.
"That's the finest apartment house in the city!" exclaimed Charley, with enthusiasm. "Looks pretty tall, doesn't it? But it's nothing to the height of some of the buildings downtown. As for changes—well, I hope Jane will take you on Broad Street to-morrow, and then you'll see what we're doing. Why, there's not a shop left there now where you used to deal. Brandywine's—you recollect old Brandywine & Plummer's, don't you?—isn't there any longer. Got a new department store, with a restaurant and a basement in the very spot where it used to be. Look sharp now, we're coming to a hospital. That belongs to Dr. Browning. You don't remember Dr. Browning. After your day, I reckon. He's a young chap, but he's got his hospital like all the rest, and every bed filled—he told me so yesterday. But they've all got their hospitals. Darrow—you recollect Darrow who used to be old Dr. Walker's assistant—well, he's got his, too, just around the corner on the next street. They say he cuts up more people than any man in the South except Spendlow—".
"I miss the old-fashioned flowers," said Gabriella to her mother in one of Charley's plethoric pauses. "The microphylla roses and snowballs."
"Everybody is planting crimson ramblers and hydrangeas now," responded Mrs. Carr, with something of her son-in-law's pride in the onward movement of her surroundings.
"Here are the monuments!" cried Charley, who had treated each apartment house or hospital as if it were a bright, inestimable jewel in the city's crown. "You don't see many streets finer than this in New York, do you?"
"It looks very pretty and attractive," answered Gabriella, as they swung dangerously round a statue, and then started in a race up the avenue, "but I miss the shrubs and the flowers."
"Oh, there are flowers enough. You just wait till you get on a bit. We've got some urns filled with hydrangeas, that queer new sort between blue and pink. But what do you want with shrubs? All they're good for is to get in your way whenever you want to look out into the street. Mrs. Madison was telling me only yesterday that she cut down the lilac bushes in her front yard because they kept her from recognizing the people in motor cars. Look at that house now, that's one of the finest, in the city. Rushington built it—he made his money in fertilizers, and the one next with the green tiles belongs to Hanly, the tobacco trust fellow, you know, and this whopper on the next square is where Albertson lives. He made his pile out of railroad stocks—he's one of the banking firm of Albertson, Jacobstein, Moss & Company. Awfully clever fellows, but too tricky for me, I give them a wide berth when I go out to do business—"
"But where are the old people—the people I used to know?"
"Oh, they're scattered about everywhere, but they haven't got most of the money. A lot of 'em live up here, and a lot are down in Franklin Street in the same old houses."
"Tell me about Cousin Jimmy."
"He's up here, too. Pussy planned that red brick house with the green shutters next door to us. I reckon Jimmy is about as prosperous as is good for him, but he's getting on. He must be over seventy now. He has a son who is a chip of the old block, and his youngest daughter was the prettiest girl who ever came out here. Margaret will tell you about her."
"And the Peytons?" Her voice trembled, and she looked hastily away from the keen eyes of Margaret.
"They are still in the old home—at least Arthur lives there with his Cousin Nelly. You know Mrs Peyton died about nine or ten years ago?"
"Yes, I heard it."
"She was getting on, but it was a great loss to Arthur. Somehow, I could never make up my mind about Arthur. He was bright enough as a young chap, and we used to think he would have a brilliant future; but when the time came, he never seemed to catch on. He wasn't progressive, and he has never amounted to much more than he did when he left college. What I say about him is that he had the wrong ideas—Yes, Jane, I mean exactly what I say, he had the wrong ideas. He doesn't know what he is driving at. No progress, no push, no punch in him."
"Why, Charley," murmured Mrs. Carr reproachfully, while Jane, recovering her nagging manner with an accession of spirit, remonstrated feelingly: "Charley, you really must be more careful what you say."
"Oh, fudge!" retorted Charley, with playful rudeness. "You see she's at it still, Gabriella," he pursued, winking audaciously. "If it isn't one thing, it's another, but she wouldn't be satisfied with perfection. Well, here we are. There are the hydrangeas. I hope you're pleased."
"I declare, those waste papers have blown right back again on the grass, and I had them picked up the last thing before I left," said Jane in a tone of annoyance.
"Never mind the papers; Gabriella isn't looking for papers," returned Charley, while he helped Mrs. Carr out of the motor and up the steps. "So here you are, mother, and the air didn't kill you."
"I may have neuralgia to-morrow. You never can tell," replied Mrs. Carr. "I shouldn't worry about the papers, Jane. Nobody can help the way they blow about. I want Gabriella to see the children the first thing."
As they entered the house Jane's children, a flock of five girls and two boys, fluttered up to be introduced, and among them Gabriella discovered the composed baby of Jane's tragic flight. It seemed an age ago, and she felt not thirty-eight, but a thousand.
After dinner Charley, who had eaten immoderately, unfolded the evening paper under the electric lamp in the library, and dozed torpidly while the girls plied their aunt with innumerable questions about New York and the spring fashions. "It will be lovely to have Fanny with us at the White Sulphur. I know her clothes will be wonderful," they chirped happily, clustering eagerly about the sofa on which Gabriella was sitting. Jane's children, deriving from some hardy stock of an earlier generation, were handsome, vigorous, optimistic in blood and fibre, and so uncompromisingly modern that Gabriella wondered how Mrs. Carr, with her spiritual neuralgia and her perpetual mourning, had survived the unceasing currents of fresh air with which they surrounded her.
"Yes, things have changed. It is the age," thought Gabriella; and presently, when Cousin Jimmy and Cousin Pussy came in to welcome her, she repeated: "Yes, it is the age. There is no escaping it."
"Why, my dear child, you are looking splendidly," trilled Cousin Pussy, with her old delightful manner and her flattering vision so different from Florrie's. She was still trim, plump, and rosy, though her hair was now snow white and her pretty face was covered with cheerful wrinkles. "You're handsomer than you ever were in your life, and the dash of gray on your temples doesn't make you look, a day older—not a day. Some people turn gray so very young. I remember Cousin Becky Bollingbroke's hair was almost white by the time she was thirty-five. It runs like that in some families. But you look just as girlish as ever. It's wonderful, isn't it, Cousin Fanny, the way the women of this generation stay girls until they are fifty? I don't believe you'll ever look any older, Gabriella, than you do now. Of course, I suppose your business has something to do with it, but if I met you for the first time, it would never cross my mind that you were a day over twenty-five."
"Well, well, so little Gabriella went to New York and became a dressmaker," observed Jimmy, who was seldom original, "and she's the same Gabriella, too. I always said, you know, that she was the sort you could count on."
Age, though it had not entirely passed him by, had, on the whole, treated him with great gentleness. He was a remarkably handsome old man, with a distinguished and courtly presence, a head of wonderful white hair, which looked as if it had been powdered, a ruddy unwrinkled face, and the dark shining eyes of the adventurous youth he had never lost.
"Of course, she couldn't have been a dressmaker here where everybody knows her," purred Cousin Pussy, with her arm about Gabriella, "but in New York it is different, and they tell me that even titled women are dressmakers in London."
"Well, she has pluck," declared Cousin Jimmy, as he had declared eighteen years ago at the family council. "There's nothing like pluck when it comes to getting along in the world."
Then they sat down in Jane's library, which, contained most of the things Gabriella associated with the old parlour in Hill Street, and Cousin Pussy asked if Gabriella had found many changes.
"A great many. Everything, looks new to me except this room. The only thing I miss here is the horsehair sofa."
"I keep that in the back hall," said Jane. "The town does look different up here, but the Peytons' house is just as you remember it—even the scarlet sage is in the garden. Miss Nelly plants it still every summer."
A lovely light shone in Gabriella's eyes, and Cousin Pussy watched it tenderly, while a smile hovered about the corners of her shrewd though still pretty mouth.
"It has been such a disappointment that Arthur hasn't done more in his profession," she said presently, "but, as I was saying to Mr. Wrenn only the other day, I have always felt that dear Gabriella was to blame for it."
"The trouble with Arthur," observed Charley, awaking truculently from his doze, "is that he's got the wrong ideas. When a man has the wrong ideas in these days, he might as well go out and hang himself."
"Well, I don't know that I'd call his ideas wrong exactly," reasoned Cousin Jimmy, with the judicial manner befitting the best judge of tobacco in Virginia; "I shouldn't call them wrong, but they're out of date. They belong to the last century."
"I always say that dear Arthur is a perfect gentleman of the old school," remonstrated Mrs. Carr, meekly obstinate. "There aren't many of them left now, so I tell myself regretfully whenever I see him."
"And there'll be fewer than ever by the time you Suffragists get your rights," remarked Charley, with bitterness, while Mrs. Carr, incensed by the word, which she associated with various indelicacies, stared at him with an indignant expression.
"Charley, be careful what you say," nagged Jane acridly from her corner. "Now that so many of our relatives have gone in for suffrage, you mustn't be intolerant."
"I cannot help it, Jane. I shall never knowingly bow to one even if she is related to me," announced Mrs. Carr more assertively than Gabriella would have believed possible.
"Well, for my part, Cousin Fanny, I can't feel that it hurts me to bow to anybody," said Pussy, with her unfailing kindness of heart. "Why, I even bowed to Florrie Spencer last winter. I wanted to cut her, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it when I met her face to face. I hope you don't mind, dear," she whispered to Gabriella. "I suppose I oughtn't to have mentioned her, but I forgot."
"Oh, it doesn't matter in the least," responded Gabriella cheerfully. "I bowed to her myself the day before I left New York."
Though she tried to be independent, to be advanced and resolute, she felt the last eighteen years receding slowly from her consciousness. The family point of view, the family soul, had enveloped her again, and, in spite of her experience and her success, she seemed inwardly as young and ignorant as on the evening when she broke her engagement to Arthur. The spirit of the place had defeated her individual endeavour. Except for the wall paper of pale gray, and the Persian rugs on the floor, Jane's library might have been the old front parlour in Hill Street, and it was as if the French mirror, the crystal candelabra, the rosewood bookcases, with their diamond-shaped panes lined with fluted magenta silk, the family portraits, the speckled engravings of the Burial of Latan and of the groups of amiable children feeding chickens and fish—it was as if these inanimate objects exuded a spiritual anodyne which enfeebled the will. Across the hall, in the modern pink and gray drawing-room, the five girls were playing bridge with several young men whom Gabriella remembered as babies, and the sounds of their voices floated to her now and then as thinly as if they had come out of a phonograph. "There is nothing better than peace, after all," she thought, while her, eyes rested tenderly on the simple, affectionate face of Cousin Jimmy. "Goodness and peace, these things are really worth while."
Then the telephone rang gently, and after a minute Margaret, who had gone to answer it, came in with a roguish smile on her lips. "Aunt Gabriella, Mr. Peyton wishes to come to-morrow at five," she said; and the roguish smile flitted from her lips to the lips of Cousin Pussy, and from Cousin Pussy to each sympathetic and watchful face in the group.
"You may say what you please," argued Charley, still truculent, "the whole trouble with Arthur is that he has got the wrong ideas."
* * * * *
At five o'clock the next day the family crowded into the touring car for an excursion, and left Gabriella in a deserted house to receive the lover of her girlhood. Before going Mrs. Carr had embraced her sentimentally; Charley had dropped one of his broad jokes on the subject of the reunion; Jane had murmured sweetly that there was no man on earth she admired as much as she did Arthur; and the girls had effusively complimented Gabriella on her appearance. Even Willy, the baby of eighteen years ago, had prophesied with hilarity that "Old Arthur Peyton wasn't coming for nothing." One and all they appeared to take her part in the romance for granted; and while she waited in the drawing-room, gazing through the interstices of Jane's new lace curtains into the avenue, where beyond the flying motor cars the grassy strip in the middle of the street was dappled with shadows, she wondered if she also were taking Arthur's devotion for granted. She had not seen him for eighteen years, and yet she was awaiting him as expectantly as if he were still her lover. Would his presence really quiet this strange new restlessness in her heart—this restlessness which had come to her so suddenly after her meeting with Florrie? Was it true that her youth was slipping from her before she had grasped all the happiness that life offered? Or was it only the stirring of the spring winds, of the young green against the blue sky, of the mating birds, of the roving, provocative scents of flowers, of the checkered light and shade on the grassy strip under the maples? Was it all these things, or was it none of them, that awoke this longing, so vague and yet so unquenchable, in her heart?