Perhaps I should have been more patient with her, but I am bitter on these subjects. "My dear Mrs. van Tuiver," I said, "there is a lot of nonsense talked about this matter. There is very little sex-life for women without a money-price made clear in advance."
"I don't understand," she said.
"I don't know about your case," I replied, "but when I married, it was because I was unhappy and wanted a home of my own. And if the truth were told, that is why most women marry."
"But what has THAT to do with it?" she cried. She really did not see!
"What is the difference—except that such women stand out for a maintenance, while the prostitute takes cash?" I saw that I had shocked her, and I said: "You must be humble about these things, because you have never been poor, and you cannot judge those who have been. But surely you must have known worldly women who married rich men for their money. And surely you admit that that is prostitution?"
She fell suddenly silent, and I saw what I had done, and, no doubt, you will say I should have been ashamed of myself. But when one has seen as much of misery and injustice as I have, one cannot be so patient with the fine artificial delicacies and sentimentalities of the idle rich. I went ahead to tell her some stories, showing her what poverty actually meant to women.
Then, as she remained silent, I asked her how she had managed to remain so ignorant. Surely she must have met with the word "prostitution" in books; she must have heard allusions to the "demi-monde."
"Of course," she said, "I used to see conspicuous-looking women at the race-track in New Orleans; I've sat near them in restaurants, I've known by my mother's looks and her agitation that they must be bad women. But you see, I didn't know what it meant—I had nothing but a vague feeling of something dreadful."
I smiled. "Then Lady Dee did not tell you everything about the possibilities of her system of 'charm.'"
"No," said Sylvia. "Evidently she didn't!" She sat staring at me, trying to get up the courage to go on with this plain speaking.
And at last the courage came. "I think it is wrong," she exclaimed. "Girls ought not to be kept so ignorant! They ought to know what such things mean. Why, I didn't even know what marriage meant!"
"Can that be true?" I asked.
"All my life I had thought of marriage, in a way; I had been trained to think of it with every eligible man I met—but to me it meant a home, a place of my own to entertain people in. I pictured myself going driving with my husband, giving dinner-parties to his friends. I knew I'd have to let him kiss me, but beyond that—I had a vague idea of something, but I didn't think. I had been deliberately trained not to let myself think—to run away from every image that came to me. And I went on dreaming of what I'd wear, and how I'd greet my husband when he came home in the evening."
"Didn't you think about children?"
"Yes—but I thought of the CHILDREN. I thought what they'd look like, and how they'd talk, and how I'd love them. I don't know if many young girls shut their minds up like that."
She was speaking with agitation, and I was gazing into her eyes, reading more than she knew I was reading. I was nearer to solving the problem that had been baffling me. And I wanted to take her hands in mine, and say: "You would never have married him if you'd understood!"
22. Sylvia thought she ought to have been taught, but when she came to think of it she was unable to suggest who could have done the teaching. "Your mother?" I asked, and she had to laugh, in spite of the seriousness of her mood. "Poor dear mamma! When they sent me up here to boarding school, she took me off and tried to tell me not to listen to vulgar talk from the girls. She managed to make it clear that I mustn't listen to something, and I managed not to listen. I'm sure that even now she would rather have her tongue cut out than talk to me about such things."
"I talked to my children," I assured her.
"And you didn't feel embarrassed?"
"I did in the beginning—I had the same shrinkings to overcome. But I had a tragedy behind me to push me on."
I told her the story of my nephew, a shy and sensitive lad, who used to come to me for consolation, and became as dear to me as my own children. When he was seventeen he grew moody and despondent; he ran away from home for six months and more, and then returned and was forgiven—but that seemed to make no difference. One night he came to see me, and I tried hard to get him to tell me what was wrong. He wouldn't, but went away, and several hours later I found a letter he had shoved under the table-cloth. I read it, and rushed out and hitched up a horse and drove like mad to my brother-in-law's, but I got there too late, the poor boy had taken a shot-gun to his room, and put the muzzle into his mouth, and set off the trigger with his foot. In the letter he told me what was the matter—he had got into trouble with a woman of the town, and had caught syphilis. He had gone away and tried to get cured, but had fallen into the hands of a quack, who had taken all his money and left his health worse than ever, so in despair and shame the poor boy had shot his head off.
I paused, uncertain if Sylvia would understand the story. "Do you know what syphilis is?" I asked.
"I suppose—I have heard of what we call a 'bad disease'" she said.
"It's a very bad disease. But if the words convey to you that it's a disease that bad people get, I should tell you that most men take the chance of getting it; yet they are cruel enough to despise those upon whom the ill-luck falls. My poor nephew had been utterly ignorant—I found out that from his father, too late. An instinct had awakened in him of which he knew absolutely nothing; his companions had taught him what it meant, and he had followed their lead. And then had come the horror and the shame—and some vile, ignorant wretch to trade upon it, and cast the boy off when he was penniless. So he had come home again, with his gnawing secret; I pictured him wandering about, trying to make up his mind to confide in me, wavering between that and the horrible deed he did."
I stopped, because even to this day I cannot tell the story without tears. I cannot keep a picture of the boy in my room, because of the self-reproaches that haunt me. "You can understand," I said to Sylvia, "I never could forget such a lesson. I swore a vow over the poor lad's body, that I would never let a boy or girl that I could reach go out in ignorance into the world. I read up on the subject, and for a while I was a sort of fanatic—I made people talk, young people and old people. I broke down the taboos wherever I went, and while I shocked a good many, I knew that I helped a good many more."
All that was, of course, inconceivable to Sylvia. How curious was the contrast of her one experience in the matter of venereal disease. She told me how she had been instrumental in making a match between her friend, Harriet Atkinson and a young scion of an ancient and haughty family of Charleston, and how after the marriage her friend's health had begun to give way, until now she was an utter wreck, living alone in a dilapidated antebellum mansion, seeing no one but negro servants, and praying for death to relieve her of her misery.
"Of course, I don't really know," said Sylvia. "Perhaps it was this—this disease that you speak of. None of my people would tell me—I doubt if they really know themselves. It was just before my own wedding, so you can understand it had a painful effect upon me. It happened that I read something in a magazine, and I thought that—that possibly my fiance—that someone ought to ask him, you understand—"
She stopped, and the blood was crimson in her cheeks, with the memory of her old excitement, and some fresh excitement added to it. There are diseases of the mind as well as of the body, and one of them is called prudery.
"I can understand," I said. "It was certainly your right to be reassured on such a point."
"Well, I tried to talk to my Aunt Varina about it; then I wrote to Uncle Basil, and asked him to write to Douglas. At first he refused—he only consented to do it when I threatened to go to my father."
"What came of it in the end?"
"Why, my uncle wrote, and Douglas answered very kindly that he understood, and that it was all right—I had nothing to fear. I never expected to mention the incident to anyone again."
"Lots of people have mentioned such things to me," I responded, to reassure her. Then after a pause: "Tell me, how was it, if you didn't know the meaning of marriage, how could you connect the disease with it?"
She answered, gazing with the wide-open, innocent eyes: "I had no idea how people gave it to each other. I thought maybe they got it by kissing."
I thought to myself again: The horror of this superstition of prudery! Can one think of anything more destructive to life than the placing of a taboo upon such matters? Here is the whole of the future at stake—the health, the sanity, the very existence of the race. And what fiend has been able to contrive it that we feel like criminals when we mention the subject?
23. Our intimacy progressed, and the time came when Sylvia told me about her marriage. She had accepted Douglas van Tuiver because she had lost Frank Shirley, and her heart was broken. She could never imagine herself loving any other man; and not knowing exactly what marriage meant, it had been easier for her to think of her family, and to follow their guidance. They had told her that love would come; Douglas had implored her to give him a chance to teach her to love him. She had considered what she could do with his money—both for her home-people and for those she spoke of vaguely as "the poor." But now she was making the discovery that she could not do very much for these "poor."
"It isn't that my husband is mean," she said. "On the contrary, the slightest hint will bring me any worldly thing I want. I have homes in half a dozen parts of America—I have carte blanche to open accounts in two hemispheres. If any of my people need money I can get it; but if I want it for myself, he asks me what I'm doing with it—and so I run into the stone-wall of his ideas."
At first the colliding with this wall had merely pained and bewildered her. But now the combination of Veblen and myself had helped her to realize what it meant. Douglas van Tuiver spent his money upon a definite system: whatever went to the maintaining of his social position, whatever added to the glory, prestige and power of the van Tuiver name—that money was well-spent; while money spent to any other end was money wasted—and this included all ideas and "causes." And when the master of the house knew that his money was being wasted, it troubled him.
"It wasn't until after I married him that I realized how idle his life is," she remarked. "At home all the men have something to do, running their plantations, or getting elected to some office. But Douglas never does anything that I can possibly think is useful."
His fortune was invested in New York City real-estate, she went on to explain. There was an office, with a small army of clerks and agents to attend to it—a machine which had been built up and handed on to him by his ancestors. It sufficed if he dropped in for an hour or two once a week when he was in the city, and signed a batch of documents now and then when he was away. His life was spent in the company of people whom the social system had similarly deprived of duties; and they had, by generations of experiment, built up for themselves a new set of duties, a life which was wholly without relationship to reality. Into this unreal existence Sylvia had married, and it was like a current sweeping her in its course. So long as she went with it, all was well; but let her try to catch hold of something and stop, and it would tear her loose and almost strangle her.
As time went on, she gave me strange glimpses into this world. Her husband did not seem really to enjoy its life. As Sylvia put it, "He takes it for granted that he has to do all the proper things that the proper people do. He hates to be conspicuous, he says. I point out to him that the proper things are nearly always conspicuous, but he replies that to fail to do them would be even more conspicuous."
It took me a long time to get really acquainted with Sylvia, because of the extent to which this world was clamouring for her. I used to drop in when she 'phoned me she had half an hour. I would find her dressing for something, and she would send her maid away, and we would talk until she would be late for some function; and that might be a serious matter, because somebody would feel slighted. She was always "on pins and needles" over such questions of precedent; it seemed as if everybody in her world must be watching everybody else. There was a whole elaborate science of how to treat the people you met, so that they would not feel slighted—or so that they would feel slighted, according to circumstances.
To the enjoyment of such a life it was essential that the person should believe in it. Douglas van Tuiver did believe in it; it was his religion, the only one he had. (Churchman as he was, his church was a part of the social routine.) He was proud of Sylvia, and apparently satisfied when he could take her at his side; and Sylvia went, because she was his wife, and that was what wives were for. She had tried her best to be happy; she had told herself that she was happy yet all the time realizing that a woman who is really happy does not have to tell herself.
Earlier in life she had quaffed and enjoyed the wine of applause. I recollect vividly her telling me of the lure her beauty had been to her—the most terrible temptation that could come to a woman. "I walk into a brilliant room, and I feel the thrill of admiration that goes through the crowd. I have a sudden sense of my own physical perfection—a glow all over me! I draw a deep breath—I feel a surge of exaltation. I say, 'I am victorious—I can command! I have this supreme crown of womanly grace—I am all-powerful with it—the world is mine!'"
As she spoke the rapture was in her voice, and I looked at her—and yes, she was beautiful! The supreme crown was hers!
"I see other beautiful women," she went on—and swift anger came into her voice. "I see what they are doing with this power! Gratifying their vanity—turning men into slaves of their whim! Squandering money upon empty pleasures—and with the dreadful plague of poverty spreading in the world! I used to go to my father, 'Oh, papa, why must there be so many poor people? Why should we have servants—why should they have to wait on me, and I do nothing for them?' He would try to explain to me that it was the way of Nature. Mamma would tell me it was the will of the Lord—'The poor ye have always with you'—'Servants, obey your masters'—and so on. But in spite of the Bible texts, I felt guilty. And now I come to Douglas with the same plea—and it only makes him angry! He has been to college and has a lot of scientific phrases—he tells me it's 'the struggle for existence,' 'the elimination of the unfit'—and so on. I say to him, 'First we make people unfit, and then we have to eliminate them.' He cannot see why I do not accept what learned people tell me—why I persist in questioning and suffering."
She paused, and then added, "It's as if he were afraid I might find out something he doesn't want me to! He's made me give him a promise that I won't see Mrs. Frothingham again!" And she laughed. "I haven't told him about you!"
I answered, needless to say, that I hoped she would keep the secret!
24. All this time I was busy with my child-labour work. We had an important bill before the legislature that session, and I was doing what I could to work up sentiment for it. I talked at every gathering where I could get a hearing; I wrote letters to newspapers; I sent literature to lists of names. I racked my mind for new schemes, and naturally, at such times, I could not help thinking of Sylvia. How much she could do, if only she would!
I spared no one, least of all myself, and so it was not easy to spare her. The fact that I had met her was the gossip of the office, and everybody was waiting for something to happen. "How about Mrs. van Tuiver?" my "chief" would ask, at intervals. "If she would only go on our press committee" my stenographer would sigh.
The time came when our bill was in committee, a place of peril for bills. I went to Albany to see what could be done. I met half a hundred legislators, of whom perhaps half-a-dozen had some human interest in my subject; the rest, well, it was discouraging. Where was the force that would stir them, make them forget their own particular little grafts, and serve the public welfare in defiance to hostile interests?
Where was it? I came back to New York to look for it, and after a blue luncheon with the members of our committee, I came away with my mind made up—I would sacrifice my Sylvia to this desperate emergency.
I knew just what I had to do. So far she had heard speeches about social wrongs, or read books about them; she had never been face to face with the reality of them. Now I persuaded her to take a morning off, and see some of the sights of the underworld of toil. We foreswore the royal car, and likewise the royal furs and velvets; she garbed herself in plain appearing dark blue and went down town in the Subway like common mortals, visiting paper-box factories and flower factories, tenement homes where whole families sat pasting toys and gimcracks for fourteen or sixteen hours a day, and still could not buy enough food to make full-sized men and women of them.
She was Dante, and I was Virgil, our inferno was an endless procession of tortured faces—faces of women, haggard and mournful, faces of little children, starved and stunted, dulled and dumb. Several times we stopped to talk with these people—one little Jewess girl I knew whose three tiny sisters had been roasted alive in a sweatshop fire. This child had jumped from a fourth-story window, and been miraculously caught by a fireman. She said that some man had started the fire, and been caught, but the police had let him get away. So I had to explain to Sylvia that curious bye-product (sic) of the profit system known as the "Arson Trust." Authorities estimated that incendiarism was responsible for the destruction of a quarter of a billion dollars worth of property in America every year. So, of course, the business of starting fires was a paying one, and the "fire-bug," like the "cadet" and the dive-keeper, was a part of the "system." So it was quite a possible thing that the man who had burned up this little girl's three sisters might have been allowed to escape.
I happened to say this in the little girl's hearing, and I saw her pitiful strained eyes fixed upon Sylvia. Perhaps this lovely, soft-voiced lady was a fairy god-mother, come to free her sisters from an evil spell and to punish the wicked criminal! I saw Sylvia turn her head away, and search for her handkerchief; as we groped our way down the dark stairs, she caught my hand, whispering: "Oh, my God! my God!"
It had even more effect than I had intended; not only did she say that she would do something—anything that would be of use—but she told me as we rode back home that her mind was made up to stop the squandering of her husband's money. He had been planning a costume ball for a couple of months later, an event which would keep the van Tuiver name in condition, and would mean that he and other people would spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars. As we rode home in the roaring Subway, Sylvia sat beside me, erect and tense, saying that if the ball were given, it would be without the presence of the hostess.
I struck while the iron was hot, and got her permission to put her name upon our committee list. She said, moreover, that she would get some free time, and be more than a mere name to us. What were the duties of a member of our committee?
"First," I said, "to know the facts about child-labour, as you have seen them to-day, and second, to help other people to know."
"And how is that to be done?"
"Well, for instance, there is that hearing before the legislative committee. You remember I suggested that you appear."
"Yes," she said in a low voice. I could almost hear the words that were in her mind: "What would he say?"
25. Sylvia's name went upon our letter-heads and other literature, and almost at once things began to happen. In a day or two there came a reporter, saying he had noticed her name. Was it true that she had become interested in our work? Would I please give him some particulars, as the public would naturally want to know.
I admitted that Mrs. van Tuiver had joined the committee; she approved of our work and desired to further it. That was all. He asked: Would she give an interview? And I answered that I was sure she would not. Then would I tell something about how she had come to be interested in the work? It was a chance to assist our propaganda, added the reporter, diplomatically.
I retired to another room, and got Sylvia upon the 'phone, "The time has come for you to take the plunge," I said.
"Oh, but I don't want to be in the papers!" she cried "Surely, you wouldn't advise it!"
"I don't see how you can avoid having something appear. Your name is given out, and if the man can't get anything else, he'll take our literature, and write up your doings out of his imagination."
"And they'll print my picture with it!" she exclaimed. I could not help laughing. "It's quite possible."
"Oh, what will my husband do? He'll say 'I told you so!'"
It is a hard thing to have one's husband say that, as I knew by bitter experience. But I did not think that reason enough for giving up.
"Let me have time to think it over," said Sylvia. "Get him to wait till to-morrow, and meantime I can see you."
So it was arranged. I think I told Sylvia the truth when I said that I had never before heard of a committee member who was unwilling to have his purposes discussed in the newspapers. To influence newspapers was one of the main purposes of committees, and I did not see how she could expect either editors or readers to take any other view.
"Let me tell the man about your trip down town," I suggested, "then I can go on to discuss the bill and how it bears on the evils you saw. Such a statement can't possibly do you harm."
She consented, but with the understanding that she was not to be quoted directly. "And don't let them make me picturesque!" she exclaimed. "That's what my husband seems most to dread."
I wondered if he didn't think she was picturesque, when she sat in a splendid, shining coach, and took part in a public parade through Central Park. But I did not say this. I went off, and swore my reporter to abstain from the "human touch," and he promised and kept his word. There appeared next morning a dignified "write-up" of Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver's interest in child-labour reform. Quoting me, it described some of the places she had visited, and some of the sights which had shocked her; it went on to tell about our committee and its work, the status of our bill in the legislature, the need of activity on the part of our friends if the measure was to be forced through at this session. It was a splendid "boost" for our work, and everyone in the office was in raptures over it. The social revolution was at hand! thought my young stenographer.
But the trouble with this business of publicity is that, however carefully you control your interviewer, you cannot control the others who use his material. The "afternoon men" came round for more details, and they made it clear that it was personal details they wanted. And when I side-stepped their questions, they went off and made up answers to suit themselves, and printed Sylvia's pictures, together with photographs of child-workers taken from our pamphlets.
I called Sylvia up while she was dressing for dinner, to explain that I was not responsible for any of this picturesqueness. "Oh, perhaps I am to blame myself!" she exclaimed. "I think I interviewed a reporter."
"How do you mean?"
"A woman sent up her card—she told the footman she was a friend of mine. And I thought—I couldn't be sure if I'd met her—so I went and saw her. She said she'd met me at Mrs. Harold Cliveden's, and she began to talk to me about child-labour, and this and that plan she had, and what did I think of them, and suddenly it flashed over me: 'Maybe this is a reporter playing a trick on me!'"
I hurried out before breakfast next morning and got all the papers, to see what this enterprising lady had done. There was nothing, so I reflected that probably she had been a "Sunday" lady.
But then, when I reached my office, the 'phone rang, and I heard the voice of Sylvia: "Mary, something perfectly dreadful has happened!"
"What?" I cried.
"I can't tell you over the 'phone, but a certain person is furiously angry. Can I see you if I come down right away?"
26. Such terrors as these were unguessed by me in the days of my obscurity. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, uneasy also, lies the wife of that head, and the best friend of the wife. I dismissed my stenographer, and spent ten or fifteen restless minutes until Sylvia appeared.
Her story was quickly told. A couple of hours ago the acting-manager of Mr. van Tuiver's office had telephoned to ask if he might call upon a matter of importance. He had come. Naturally, he had the most extreme reluctance to say anything which might seem to criticise the activities of Mr. van Tuiver's wife, but there was something in the account in the newspapers which should be brought to her husband's attention. The articles gave the names and locations of a number of firms in whose factories it was alleged that Mrs. van Tuiver had found unsatisfactory conditions, and it happened that two of these firms were located in premises which belonged to the van Tuiver estates!
A story coming very close to melodrama, I perceived. I sat dismayed at what I had done. "Of course, dear girl," I said, at last, "you understand that I had no idea who owned these buildings."
"Oh, don't say that!" exclaimed Sylvia. "I am the one who should have known!"
Then for a long time I sat still and let her suffer. "Tenement sweat-shops! Little children in factories!" I heard her whisper.
At last I put my hand on hers. "I tried to put it off for a while," I said. "But I knew it would have to come."
"Think of me!" she exclaimed, "going about scolding other people for the way they make their money! When I thought of my own, I had visions of palatial hotels and office-buildings—everything splendid and clean!"
"Well, my dear, you've learned now, and you will be able to do something—"
She turned upon me suddenly, and for the first time I saw in her face the passions of tragedy. "Do you believe I will be able to do anything? No! Don't have any such idea!"
I was struck dumb. She got up and began to pace the room. "Oh, don't make any mistake, I've paid for my great marriage in the last hour or two. To think that he cares about nothing save the possibility of being found out and made ridiculous! All his friends have been 'muckraked,' as he calls it, and he has sat aloft and smiled over their plight; he was the landed gentleman, the true aristrocrat, whom the worries of traders and money-changers didn't concern. Now perhaps he's caught, and his name is to be dragged in the mire, and it's my flightiness, my lack of commonsense that has done it!"
"I shouldn't let that trouble me," I said. "You could not know—"
"Oh, it's not that! It's that I hadn't a single courageous word to say to him—not a hint that he ought to refuse to wring blood-money from sweat-shops! I came away without having done it, because I couldn't face his anger, because it would have meant a quarrel!"
"My dear," I said gently, "it is possible to survive a quarrel."
"No, you don't understand! We should never make it up again, I know—I saw it in his words, in his face. He will never change to please me, no, not even a simple thing like the business-methods of the van Tuiver estates."
I could not help smiling. "My dear Sylvia! A simple thing!"
She came and sat beside me. "That's what I want to talk about. It is time I was growing up. It it time that I knew about these things. Tell me about them."
"What, my dear?"
"About the methods of the van Tuiver estates, that can't be changed to please me. I made out one thing, we had recently paid a fine for some infraction of the law in one of those buildings, and my husband said it was because we had refused to pay more money to a tenement-house inspector. I asked him: 'Why should we pay any money at all to a tenement-house inspector? Isn't it bribery?' He answered: 'It's a custom—the same as you give a tip to a hotel waiter.' Is that true?"
I could not help smiling. "Your husband ought to know, my dear," I said.
I saw her compress her lips. "What is the tip for?"
"I suppose it is to keep out of trouble with him."
"But why can't we keep out of trouble by obeying the law?"
"My dear, sometimes the law is inconvenient, and sometimes it is complicated and obscure. It might be that you are violating it without knowing the fact. It might be uncertain whether you are violating it or not, so that to settle the question would mean a lot of expense and publicity. It might even be that the law is impossible to obey—that it was not intended to be obeyed."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean, maybe it was passed to put you at the mercy of the politicians."
"But," she protested, "that would be blackmail."
"The phrase," I replied, "is 'strike-legislation.'"
"But at least, that wouldn't be our fault!"
"No, not unless you had begun it. It generally happens that the landlord discovers it's a good thing to have politicians who will work with him. Maybe he wants his assessments lowered; maybe he wants to know where new car lines are to go, so that he can buy intelligently; maybe he wants the city to improve his neighbourhood; maybe he wants influence at court when he has some heavy damage suit."
"So we bribe everyone!"
"Not necessarily. You may simply wait until campaign-time, and then make your contribution to the machine. That is the basis of the 'System.'."
"The 'System '?"
"A semi-criminal police-force, and everything that pays tribute to it; the saloon and the dive, the gambling hell the white-slave market, and the Arson trust."
I saw a wild look in her eyes. "Tell me, do you know that all these things are true? Or are you only guessing about them?"
"My dear Sylvia," I answered, "you said it was time you grew up. For the present I will tell you this: Several months before I met you, I made a speech in which I named some of the organised forces of evil in the city. One was Tammany Hall, and another was the Traction Trust, and another was the Trinity Church Corporation, and yet another was the van Tuiver estates."
27. The following Sunday there appeared a "magazine story" of an interview with the infinitely beautiful young wife of the infinitely rich Mr. Douglas van Tuiver, in which the views of the wife on the subject of child-labour were liberally interlarded with descriptions of her reception-room and her morning-gown. But mere picturesqueness by that time had been pretty well discounted in our minds. So long as the article did not say anything about the ownership of child-labour tenements!
I did not see Sylvia for several weeks after that. I took it for granted that she would want some time to get herself together and make up her mind about the future. I did not feel anxious; the seed had sprouted, and I felt sure it would continue to grow.
Then one day she called me up, asking if I could come to see her. I suggested that afternoon, and she said she was having tea with some people at the Palace Hotel, and could I come there just after tea-time? I remember the place and the hour, because of the curious adventure into which I got myself. One hears the saying, when unexpected encounters take place, "How small the world is!" But I thought the world was growing really too small when I went into a hotel tea-room to wait for Sylvia, and found myself face to face with Claire Lepage!
The place appointed had been the "orange-room"; I stood in the door-way, sweeping the place with my eyes, and I saw Mrs. van Tuiver at the same moment that she saw me. She was sitting at a table with several other people and she nodded, and I took a seat to wait. From my position I could watch her, in animated conversation; and she could send me a smile now and then. So I was decidedly startled when I heard a voice, "Why, how do you do?" and looked up and saw Claire holding out her hand to me.
"Well, for heaven's sake!" I exclaimed.
"You don't come to see me any more," she said.
"Why, no—no, I've been busy of late." So much I managed to ejaculate, in spite of my confusion.
"You seem surprised to see me," she remarked—observant as usual, and sensitive to other people's attitude to her.
"Why, naturally," I said. And then, recollecting that it was not in the least natural—since she spent a good deal of her time in such places—I added, "I was looking for someone else."
"May I do in the meantime?" she inquired, taking a seat beside me. "What are you so busy about?"
"My child-labour work," I answered. Then, in an instant, I was sorry for the words, thinking she must have read about Sylvia's activities. I did not want her to know that I had met Sylvia, for it would mean a flood of questions, which I did not want to answer—nor yet to refuse to answer.
But my fear was needless. "I've been out of town," she said.
"Whereabouts?" I asked, making conversation.
"A little trip to Bermuda."
My mind was busy with the problem of getting rid of her. It would be intolerable to have Sylvia come up to us; it was intolerable to know that they were in sight of each other.
Even as the thought came to me, however, I saw Claire start. "Look!" she exclaimed.
"What is it?"
"That woman there—in the green velvet! The fourth table."
"I see her."
"Do you know who she is?"
"Who?" (I remembered Lady Dee's maxim about lying!)
"Sylvia Castleman!" whispered Claire. (She always referred to her thus—seeming to say, "I'm as much van Tuiver as she is!")
"Are you sure?" I asked—in order to say something.
"I've seen her a score of times. I seem to be always running into her. That's Freddie Atkins she's talking to."
"Indeed!" said I.
"I know most of the men I see her with. But I have to walk by as if I'd never seen them. A queer world we live in, isn't it?"
I could assent cordially to that proposition. "Listen," I broke in, quickly. "Have you got anything to do? If not, come down to the Royalty and have tea with me."
"Why not have it here?"
"I've been waiting for someone from there, and I have to leave a message. Then I'll be free."
She rose, to my vast relief, and we walked out. I could feel Sylvia's eyes following me; but I dared not try to send her a message—I would have to make up some explanation afterwards. "Who was your well-dressed friend?" I could imagine her asking; but my mind was more concerned with the vision of what would happen if, in full sight of her companion, Mr. Freddie Atkins, she were to rise and walk over to Claire and myself!
28. Seated in the palm-room of the other hotel, I sipped a cup of tea which I felt I had earned, while Claire had a little glass of the fancy-coloured liquids which the ladies in these places affect. The room was an aviary, with tropical plants and splashing fountains—and birds of many gorgeous hues; I gazed from one to another of the splendid creatures, wondering how many of them were paying for their plumage in the same way as my present companion. It would have taken a more practiced eye than mine to say which, for if I had been asked, I would have taken Claire for a diplomat's wife. She had not less than a thousand dollars' worth of raiment upon her, and its style made clear to all the world the fact that it had not been saved over from a previous season of prosperity. She was a fine creature, who could carry any amount of sail; with her bold, black eyes she looked thoroughly competent, and it was hard to believe in the fundamental softness of her character.
I sat, looking about me, annoyed at having missed Sylvia, and only half listening to Claire. But suddenly she brought me to attention. "Well," she said, "I've met him."
I stared at her. "Douglas van Tuiver?"
She nodded; and I suppressed a cry.
"I told you he'd come back," she added, with a laugh.
"You mean he came to see you?"
I could not hide my concern. But there was no need to, for it flattered Claire's vanity. "No—not yet, but he will. I met him at Jack Taylor's—at a supper-party."
"Did he know you were to be there?"
"No. But he didn't leave when he saw me."
There was a pause. I could not trust myself to say anything. But Claire had no intention of leaving me curious. "I don't think he's happy with her," she remarked.
"What makes you say that?"
"Oh, several things. I know him, you know. He wouldn't say he was."
"Perhaps he didn't want to discuss it with you."
"Oh, no—not that. He isn't reserved with me."
"I should think it was dangerous to discuss one's wife under such circumstances," I laughed.
Claire laughed also. "You should have heard what Jack had to say about his wife! She's down at Palm Beach."
"She'd better come home," I ventured.
"He was telling what a dance she leads him; she raises Cain if a woman looks at him—and she damns every woman he meets before the woman has a chance to look. Jack said marriage was hell—just hell. Reggie Channing thought it was like a pair of old slippers that you got used to." Jack laughed and answered, "You're at the stage where you think you can solve the marriage problem by deceiving your wife!"
I made no comment. Claire sat for a while, busy with her thoughts; then she repeated, "He wouldn't say he was happy! And he misses me, too. When he was going, I held his hand, and said: 'Well, Douglas, how goes it?'"
"And then?" I asked; but she would not say any more.
I waited a while, and then began, "Claire, let him alone. Give them a chance to be happy."
"Why should I?" she demanded, in a voice of hostility.
"She never harmed you," I said. I knew I was being foolish, but I would do what I could.
"She took him away from me, didn't she?" And Claire's eyes were suddenly alight with the hatred of her outcast class. "Why did she get him? Why is she Mrs. van Tuiver, and I nobody? Because her father was rich, because she had power and position, while I had to scratch for myself in the world. Is that true, or isn't it?"
I could not deny that it might be part of the truth. "But they're married now," I said, "and he loves her."
"He loves me, too. And I love him still, in spite of the way he's treated me. He's the only man I ever really loved. Do you think I'm going off and hide in a hole, while she spends his money and plays the princess up and down the Avenue? Not much!"
I fell silent. Should I set out upon another effort at "moulding water"? Should I give Claire one more scolding—tell her, perhaps, how her very features were becoming hard and ugly, as a result of the feelings she was harbouring? Should I recall the pretences of generosity and dignity she had made when we first met? I might have attempted this—but something held me back. After all, the one person who could decide this issue was Douglas van Tuiver.
I rose. "Well, I have to be going. But I'll drop round now and then, and see what success you have."
She became suddenly important. "Maybe I won't tell!"
To which I answered, indifferently, "All right, it's your secret." But I went off without much worry over that part of it. Claire must have some one to whom to recount her troubles—or her triumphs, as the case might be.
29. I had my talk with Sylvia a day or two later, and made my excuse—a friend from the West who had been going out of town in a few hours later.
The seed had been growing, I found. Ever since we had last met, her life had consisted of arguments over the costume-ball on which her husband had set his heart, and at which she had refused to play the hostess.
"Of course, he's right about one thing," she remarked. "We can't stay in New York unless we give some big affair. Everyone expects it, and there is no explanation except one he could not offer."
"I've made a big breach in your life, Sylvia," I said.
"It wasn't all you. This unhappiness has been in me—it's been like a boil, and you've been the poultice." (She had four younger brothers and sisters, so these domestic similes came naturally.)
"Boils," I remarked, "are disfiguring, when they come to a head."
There was a pause. "How is your child-labour bill?" she asked, abruptly.
"Why, it's all right."
"Didn't I see a letter in the paper saying it had been referred to a sub-committee, some trick to suppress it for this session?"
I could not answer. I had been hoping she had not seen that letter.
"If I were to come forward now," she said, "I could possibly block that move, couldn't I?"
Still I said nothing.
"If I were to take a bold stand—I mean if I were to speak at a public meeting, and denounce the move."
"I suppose you could," I had to admit.
For a long time she sat with her head bowed. "The children will have to wait," she said, at last, half to herself.
"My dear," I answered (What else was there to answer?) "the children have waited a long time."
"I hate to turn back—to have you say I'm a coward—"
"I won't say that, Sylvia."
"You will be too kind, no doubt, but that will be the truth."
I tried to reassure her. But the acids I had used—intended for tougher skins than hers—had burned into the very bone, and now it was not possible to stop their action. "I must make you understand," she said, "how serious a thing it seems to me for a wife to stand out against her husband. I've been brought up to feel that it was the most terrible thing a woman could do."
She stopped, and when she went on again her face was set like one enduring pain. "So this is the decision to which I have come. If I do anything of a public nature now, I drive my husband from me; on the other hand, if I take a little time, I may be able to save the situation. I need to educate myself, and I'm hoping I may be able to educate him at the same time. If I can get him to read something—if it's only a few paragraphs everyday—I may gradually change his point of view, so that he will tolerate what I believe. At any rate, I ought to try; I am sure that is the wise and kind and fair thing to do."
"What will you do about the ball?" I asked.
"I am going to take him away, out of this rush and distraction, this dressing and undressing, hurrying about meeting people and chattering about nothing."
"He is willing?"
"Yes; in fact, he suggested it himself. He thinks my mind is turned, with all the things I've been reading, and with Mrs. Frothingham, and Mrs. Allison, and the rest. He hopes that if I go away, I may quiet down and come to my senses. We have a good excuse. I have to think of my health just now—-"
She stopped, and looked away from my eyes. I saw the colour spreading in a slow wave over her cheeks; it was like those tints of early dawn that are so ravishing to the souls of poets. "In four or five months from now—-" And she stopped again.
I put my big hand gently over her small one. "I have three children of my own," I said.
"So," she went on, "it won't seem so unreasonable. Some people know, and the rest will guess, and there won't be any talk—I mean, such as there would be if it was rumoured that Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver had got interested in Socialism, and refused to spend her husband's money."
"I understand," I replied. "It's quite the most sensible thing, and I'm glad you've found a way out. I shall miss you, of course, but we can write each other long letters. Where are you going?"
"I'm not absolutely sure. Douglas suggests a cruise in the West Indies, but I think I should rather be settled in one place. He has a lovely house in the mountains of North Carolina, and wants me to go there; but it's a show-place, with rich homes all round, and I know I'd soon be in a social whirl. I thought of the camp in the Adirondacks. It would be glorious to see the real woods in winter; but I lose my nerve when I think of the cold—I was brought up in a warm place."
"A 'camp' sounds rather primitive for one in your condition," I suggested.
"That's because you haven't been there. In reality it's a big house, with twenty-five rooms, and steam-heat and electric lights, and half a dozen men to take care of it when it's empty—as it has been for several years."
I smiled—for I could read her thought. "Are you going to be unhappy because you can't occupy all your husband's homes?"
"There's one other I prefer," she continued, unwilling to be made to smile. "They call it a 'fishing lodge,' and it's down in the Florida Keys. They're putting a railroad through there, but meantime you can only get to it by a launch. From the pictures, it's the most heavenly spot imaginable. Fancy running about those wonderful green waters in a motor-boat!"
"It sounds quite alluring," I replied. "But isn't it remote for you?"
"We're not so very far from Key West; and my husband means to have a physician with us in any case. The advantage of being in a small place is that we couldn't entertain if we wanted to. I can have my Aunt Varina come to stay with me, a dear, sweet soul who loves me devotedly; and then if I find I have to have some new ideas, perhaps you can come—-"
"I don't think your husband would favour that," I said.
She put her hand out to me in a quick gesture. "I don't mean to give up our friendship! I want you to understand, I intend to go on studying and growing. I am doing what he asked me—it's right that I should think of his wishes, and of the health of my child. But the child will be growing up, and sooner or later my husband must grant me the right to think, to have a life of my own. You must stand by me and help me, whatever happens."
I gave her my hand on that, and so we parted—for some time, as it proved. I went up to Albany once more, in a last futile effort to save our precious bill; and while I was there I got a note from her, saying that she was leaving for the Florida Keys.
SYLVIA AS MOTHER
For three months after this I had nothing but letters from Sylvia. She proved to be an excellent letter-writer, full of verve and colour. I would not say that she poured out her soul to me, but she gave me glimpses of her states of mind, and the progress of her domestic drama.
First, she described the place to which she had come; a ravishing spot, where any woman ought to be happy. It was a little island, fringed with a border of cocoanut-palms, which rustled and whispered day and night in the breeze. It was covered with tropical foliage, and there was a long, rambling bungalow, with screened "galleries," and a beach of hard white sand in front. The water was blue, dazzling with sunshine, and dotted with distant green islands; all of it, air, water, and islands, were warm. "I don't realize till I get here," she said, "I am never really happy in the North. I wrap myself against the assaults of a cruel enemy. But here I am at home; I cast off my furs, I stretch out my arms, I bloom. I believe I shall quite cease to think for a while—I shall forget all storms and troubles, and bask on the sand like a lizard.
"And the water! Mary, you cannot imagine such water; why should it be blue on top, and green when you look down into it? I have a little skiff of my own in which I drift, and I have been happy for hours, studying the bottom; you see every colour of the rainbow, and all as clear as in an aquarium. I have been fishing, too, and have caught a tarpon. That is supposed to be a great adventure, and it really is quite thrilling to feel the monstrous creature struggling with you—though, of course, my arms soon gave out, and I had to turn him over to my husband. This is one of the famous fishing-grounds of the world, and I am glad of that, because it will keep the men happy while I enjoy the sunshine.
"I have discovered a fascinating diversion," she wrote, in a second letter. "I make them take me in the launch to one of the loneliest of the keys; they go off to fish, and I have the whole day to myself, and am as happy as a child on a picnic! I roam the beach, I take off my shoes and stockings—there are no newspaper reporters snapping pictures. I dare not go far in, for there are huge black creatures with dangerous stinging tails; they rush away in a cloud of sand when I approach, but the thought of stepping upon one by accident is terrifying. However, I let the little wavelets wash round my toes, and I try to grab little fish, and I pick up lovely shells; and then I go on, and I see a huge turtle waddling to the water, and I dash up, and would stop him if I dared, and then I find his eggs—such an adventure!
"I am the prey of strange appetites and cravings. I have a delicious luncheon with me, but suddenly the one thing in the world I want to eat is turtle-eggs. I have no matches with me, and I do not know how to build a fire like the Indians, so I have to hide the eggs back in the sand until to-morrow. I hope the turtle does not move them—and that I have not lost my craving in the meantime!
"Then I go exploring inland. These islands were once the haunts of pirates, so I may imagine all sorts of romantic things. What I find are lemon-trees. I do not know if they are wild, or if the key was once cultivated; the lemons are huge in size, and nearly all skin, but the flavour is delicious. Turtle-eggs with wild lemon-juice! And then I go on and come to a mangrove-swamp—dark and forbidding, a grisly place; you imagine the trees are in torment, with limbs and roots tangled like writhing serpents. I tiptoe in a little way, and then get frightened, and run back to the beach.
"I see on the sand a mysterious little yellow creature, running like the wind; I make a dash, and get between him and his hole; and so he stands, crouching on guard, staring at me, and I at him. He is some sort of crab, but he stands on two legs like a caricature of a man; he has two big weapons upraised for battle, and staring black eyes stuck out on long tubes. He is an uncanny thing to look at; but then suddenly the idea comes, How do I seem to him? I realize that he is alive; a tiny mite of hunger for life, of fear and resolution. I think, How lonely he must be! And I want to tell him that I love him, and would not hurt him for the world; but I have no way to make him understand me, and all I can do is to go away and leave him. I go, thinking what a strange place the world is, with so many living things, each shut away apart by himself, unable to understand the others or make the others understand him. This is what is called philosophy, is it not? Tell me some books where these things are explained....
"I am reading all you sent me. When I grew tired of exploring the key, I lay down in the shade of a palm-tree, and read—guess what? 'Number Five John Street'! So all this loveliness vanished, and I was back in the world's nightmare. An extraordinary book! I decided that it would be good for my husband, so I read him a few paragraphs; but I found that it only irritated him. He wants me to rest, he says—he can't see why I've come away to the Florida Keys to read about the slums of London.
"My hope of gradually influencing his mind has led to a rather appalling discovery—that he has the same intention as regards me! He too has brought a selection of books, and reads to me a few pages every day, and explains what they mean. He calls this resting! I am no match for him, of course—I never realized more keenly the worthlessness of my education. But I see in a general way where his arguments tend—that life is something that has grown, and is not in the power of men to change; but even if he could convince me of this, I should not find it a source of joy. I have a feeling always that if you were here, you would know something to answer.
"The truth is that I am so pained by the conflict between us that I cannot argue at all. I find myself wondering what our marriage would have been like if we had discovered that we had the same ideas and interests. There are days and nights at a time when I tell myself that I ought to believe what my husband believes, that I ought never have allowed myself to think of anything else. But that really won't do as a life-programme; I tried it years ago with my dear mother and father. Did I ever tell you that my mother is firmly convinced in her heart that I am to suffer eternally in a real hell of fire because I do not believe certain things about the Bible? She still has visions of it—though not so bad since she turned me over to a husband!
"Now it is my husband who is worried about my ideas. He is reading a book by Burke, a well-known old writer. The book deals with English history, which I don't know much about, but I see that it resents modern changes, and the whole spirit of change. And Mary, why can't I feel that way? I really ought to love those old and stately things, I ought to be reverent to the past; I was brought up that way. Sometimes I tremble when I realize how very flippant and cynical I am. I seem to see the wrong side of everything, so that I couldn't believe in it if I wanted to!"
2. Her letters were full of the wonders of Nature about her. There was a snow-white egret who made his home upon her island; she watched his fishing operations, and meant to find his nest, so as to watch his young. The men made a trip into the Everglades, and brought back wonder-tales of flocks of flamingoes making scarlet clouds in the sky, huge colonies of birds' nests crowded like a city. They had brought home a young one, which screamed all day to be stuffed with fish.
A cousin of Sylvia's, Harley Chilton, had come to visit her. He had taken van Tuiver on hunting-trips during the latter's courtship days, and now was a good fishing-companion. He was not allowed to discover the state of affairs between Sylvia and her husband, but he saw his cousin reading serious books, and his contribution to the problem was to tell her that she would get wrinkles in her face, and that even her feet would grow big, like those of the ladies in New England.
Also, there was the young physician who kept watch over Sylvia's health; a dapper little man with pink and white complexion, and a brown moustache from which he could not keep his fingers. He had a bungalow to himself, but sometimes he went along on the launch-trips, and Sylvia thought she observed wrinkles of amusement round his eyes whenever she differed from her husband on the subject of Burke. She suspected this young man of not telling all his ideas to his multi-millionaire patients, and she was entertained by the prospect of probing him.
Then came Mrs. Varina Tuis; who since the tragic cutting of her own domestic knot, had given her life to the service of the happier members of the Castleman line. She was now to be companion and counsellor to Sylvia; and on the very day of her arrival she discovered the chasm that was yawning in her niece's life.
"It's wonderful," wrote Sylvia, "the intuition of the Castleman women. We were in the launch, passing one of the viaducts of the new railroad, and Aunt Varina exclaimed, 'What a wonderful piece of work!' 'Yes,' put in my husband, 'but don't let Sylvia hear you say it.' 'Why not?' she asked; and he replied, 'She'll tell you how many hours a day the poor Dagoes have to work.' That was all; but I saw Aunt Varina give a quick glance at me, and I saw that she was not fooled by my efforts to make conversation. It was rather horrid of Douglas, for he knows that I love these old people, and do not want them to know about my trouble. But it is characteristic of him—when he is annoyed he seldom tries to spare others.
"As soon as we were alone, Aunt Varina began, 'Sylvia, my dear, what does it mean? What have you done to worry your husband?'
"You would be entertained if I could remember the conversation. I tried to dodge the trouble by answering off-hand, 'Douglas had eaten too many turtle-eggs for luncheon '—this being a man-like thing, that any dear old lady would understand. But she was too shrewd. I had to explain to her that I was learning to think, and this sent her into a perfect panic.
"'You actually mean, my child, that you are thinking about subjects to which your husband objects, and you refuse to stop when he asks you to? Surely you must know that he has some good reason for objecting.'
"'I suppose so,' I said, 'but he has not made that reason clear to me; and certainly I have a right—'
"She would not hear any more than that. 'Right, Sylvia? Right? Are you claiming the right to drive your husband from you?'
"'But surely I can't regulate all my thinking by the fear of driving my husband from me!'
"'Sylvia, you take my breath away. Where did you get such ideas?'
"'But answer me, Aunt Varina—can I?'
"'What thinking is as important to a woman as thinking how to please a good, kind husband? What would become of her family if she no longer tried to do this?'
"So you see, we opened up a large subject. I know you consider me a backward person, and you may be interested to learn that there are some to whom I seem a terrifying rebel. Picture poor Aunt Varina, her old face full of concern, repeating over and over, 'My child, my child, I hope I have come in time! Don't scorn the advice of a woman who has paid bitterly for her mistakes. You have a good husband, a man who loves you devotedly; you are one of the most fortunate of women—now do not throw your happiness away!'
"'Aunt Varina,' I said (I forget if I ever told you that her husband gambled and drank, and finally committed suicide) 'Aunt Varina, do you really believe that every man is so anxious to get away from his wife that it must take her whole stock of energy, her skill in diplomacy, to keep him?'
"'Sylvia,' she answered, "you put things so strangely, you use such horribly crude language, I don't know how to talk to you!' (That must be your fault, Mary. I never heard such a charge before.) 'I can only tell you this—that the wife who permits herself to think about other things than her duty to her husband and her children is taking a frightful risk. She is playing with fire, Sylvia—she will realize too late what it means to set aside the wisdom of her sex, the experience of other women for ages and ages!'
"So there you are, Mary! I am studying another unwritten book, the Maxims of Aunt Varina!
"She has found the remedy for my troubles, the cure for my disease of thought—I am to sew! I tell her that I have more clothes than I can wear in a dozen seasons, and she answers, in an awesome voice, 'There is the little stranger!' When I point out that the little stranger will be expected to have a 'layette' costing many thousands of dollars, she replies, 'They will surely permit him to wear some of the things his mother's hands have made.' So, behold me, seated on the gallery, learning fancy stitches—and with Kautsky on the Social Revolution hidden away in the bottom of my sewing-bag!"
3. The weeks passed. The legislature at Albany adjourned, without regard to our wishes; and so, like the patient spider whose web is destroyed, we set to work upon a new one. So much money must be raised, so many articles must be written, so many speeches delivered, so many people seized upon and harried and wrought to a state of mind where they were dangerous to the future career of legislators. Such is the process of social reform under the private property rgime; a process which the pure and simple reformers imagine we shall tolerate for ever—God save us!
Sylvia asked me for the news, and I told it to her—how we had failed, and what we had to do next. So pretty soon there came by registered mail a little box, in which I found a diamond ring. "I cannot ask him for money just now," she explained, "but here is something that has been mine from girlhood. It cost about four hundred dollars—this for your guidance in selling it. Not a day passes that I do not see many times that much wasted; so take it for the cause." Queen Isabella and her jewels!
In this letter she told me of a talk she had had with her husband on the "woman-problem." She had thought at first that it was going to prove a helpful talk—he had been in a fairer mood than she was usually able to induce. "He evaded some of my questions," she explained, "but I don't think it was deliberate; it is simply the evasive attitude of mind which the whole world takes. He says he does not think that women are inferior to men, only that they are different; the mistake is for them to try to become like men. It is the old proposition of 'charm,' you see. I put that to him, and he admitted that he did like to be 'charmed.'
"I said, 'You wouldn't, if you knew as much about the process as I do.'
"'Why not?' he asked.
"'Because, it's not an honest process. It's not a straight way for one sex to deal with the other.'
"He asked what I meant by that; but then, remembering the cautions of my great-aunt, I laughed. 'If you are going to compel me to use the process, you can hardly expect me to tell you the secret of it.'
"'Then there's no use trying to talk,' he said.
"'Ah, but there is!' I exclaimed. 'You admit that I have 'charm'—dozens of other men admitted it. And so it ought to count for something if I declare that I know it's not an honest thing—that it depends upon trickery, and appeals to the worst qualities in a man. For instance, his vanity. "Flatter him," Lady Dee used to say. "He'll swallow it." And he will—I never knew a man to refuse a compliment in my life. His love of domination. "If you want anything, make him think that he wants it!" His egotism. She had a bitter saying—I can hear the very tones of her voice: "When in doubt, talk about HIM." That is what is called "charm"!'
"'I don't seem to feel it,' he said.
"' No, because now you are behind the scenes. But when you were in front, you felt it, you can't deny. And you would feel it again, any time I chose to use it. But I want to know if there is not some honest way a woman can interest a man. The question really comes to this—Can a man love a woman for what she really is?'
"'I should say,' he said, 'that it depends upon the woman.'
"I admitted this was a plausible answer. 'But you loved me, when I made myself a mystery to you. But now that I am honest with you, you have made it clear that you don't like it, that you won't have it. And that is the problem that women have to face. It is a fact that the women of our family have always ruled the men; but they've done it by indirection—nobody ever thought seriously of "women's rights" in Castleman County. But you see, women have rights; and somehow or other they will fool the men, or else the men must give up the idea that they are the superior sex, and have the right, or the ability, to rule women.'
"Then I saw how little he had followed me. 'There has to be a head to the family,' he said.
"I answered, 'There have been cases in history of a king and queen ruling together, and getting along very well. Why not the same thing in a family?'
"'That's all right, so far as the things of the family are concerned. But such affairs as business and politics are in the sphere of men; and women cannot meddle in them without losing their best qualities as women.'
"And so there we were. I won't repeat his arguments, for doubtless you have read enough anti-suffrage literature. The thing I noticed was that if I was very tactful and patient, I could apparently carry him along with me; but when the matter came up again, I would discover that he was back where he had been before. A woman must accept the guidance of a man; she must take the man's word for the things that he understands. 'But suppose the man is wrong?' I said; and there we stopped—there we shall stop always, I begin to fear. I agree with him that woman should obey man—so long as man is right!"
4. Her letters did not all deal with this problem. In spite of the sewing, she found time to read a number of books, and we argued about these. Then, too, she had been probing her young doctor, and had made interesting discoveries about him. For one thing, he was full of awe and admiration for her; and her awakening mind found material for speculation in this.
"Here is this young man; he thinks he is a scientist, he rather prides himself upon being cold-blooded; yet a cunning woman could twist him round her finger. He had an unhappy love-affair when he was young, so he confided to me; and now, in his need and loneliness, a beautiful woman is transformed into something supernatural in his imagination—she is like a shimmering soap-bubble, that he blows with his own breath. I know that I could never get him to see the real truth about me; I might tell him that I have let myself be tied up in a golden net—but he would only marvel at my spirituality. Oh, the women I have seen trading upon the credulity of men! And when I think how I did this myself! If men were wise, they would give us the vote, and a share in the world's work—anything that would bring us out into the light of day, and break the spell of mystery that hangs round us!
"By the way," she wrote in another letter, "there will be trouble if you come down here. I was telling Dr. Perrin about you, and your ideas about fasting, and mental healing, and the rest of your fads. He got very much excited. It seems that he takes his diploma seriously, and he's not willing to be taught by amateur experiments. He wanted me to take some pills, and I refused, and I think now he blames you for it. He has found a bond of sympathy with my husband, who proves his respect for authority by taking whatever he is told to take. Dr. Perrin got his medical training here in the South, and I imagine he's ten or twenty years behind the rest of the medical world. Douglas picked him out because he'd met him socially. It makes no difference to me—because I don't mean to have any doctoring done to me!"
Then, on top of these things, would come a cry from her soul. "Mary, what will you do if some day you get a letter from me confessing that I am not happy? I dare not say a word to my own people. I am supposed to be at the apex of human triumph, and I have to play that role to keep from hurting them. I know that if my dear old father got an inkling of the truth, it would kill him. My one real solid consolation is that I have helped him, that I have lifted a money-burden from his life; I have done that, I tell myself, over and over; but then I wonder, have I done anything but put the reckoning off? I have given all his other children a new excuse for extravagance, an impulse towards worldliness which they did not need.
"There is my sister Celeste, for example. I don't think I have told you about her. She made her dbut last fall, and was coming up to New York to stay with me this winter. She had it all arranged in her mind to make a rich marriage; I was to give her the entre—and now I have been selfish, and thought of my own desires, and gone away. Can I say to her, Be warned by me, I have made a great match, and it has not brought me happiness? She would not understand, she would say I was foolish. She would say, 'If I had your luck, I would be happy.' And the worst of it is, it would be true.
"You see the position I am in with the rest of the children. I cannot say, 'You are spending too much of papa's money, it is wrong for you to sign cheques and trust to his carelessness.' I have had my share of the money, I have lined my own nest. All I can do is to buy dresses and hats for Celeste; and know that she will use these to fill her girl-friends with envy, and make scores of other families live beyond their means."
5. Sylvia's pregnancy was moving to its appointed end. She wrote me beautifully about it, much more frankly and simply than she could have brought herself to talk. She recalled to me my own raptures, and also, my own heartbreak. "Mary! Mary! I felt the child to-day! Such a sensation, I could not have credited it if anyone had told me. I almost fainted. There is something in me that wants to turn back, that is afraid to go on with such experiences. I do not wish to be seized in spite of myself, and made to feel things beyond my control. I wander off down the beach, and hide myself, and cry and cry. I think I could almost pray again."
And then again, "I am in ecstasy, because I am to bear a child, a child of my own! Oh, wonderful, wonderful! But suddenly my ecstasy is shot through with terror, because the father of this child is a man I do not love. There is no use trying to deceive myself—nor you! I must have one human soul with whom I can talk about it as it really is. I do not love him, I never did love him, I never shall love him!
"Oh, how could they have all been so mistaken? Here is Aunt Varina—one of those who helped to persuade me into this marriage. She told me that love would come; it seemed to be her idea—my mother had it too—that you had only to submit yourself to a man, to follow and obey him, and love would take possession of your heart. I tried credulously, and it did not happen as they promised. And now, I am to bear him a child; and that will bind us together for ever!
"Oh, the despair of it—I do not love the father of my child! I say, The child will be partly his, perhaps more his than mine. It will be like him—it will have this quality and that, the very qualities, perhaps, that are a source of distress to me in the father. So I shall have these things before me day and night, all the rest of my life; I shall have to see them growing and hardening; it will be a perpetual crucifixion of my mother-love. I seek to comfort myself by saying, The child can be trained differently, so that he will not have these qualities. But then I think, No, you cannot train him as you wish. Your husband will have rights to the child, rights superior to your own. Then I foresee the most dreadful strife between us.
"A shrewd girl-friend once told me that I ought to be better or worse; I ought not to see people's faults as I do, or else I ought to love people less. And I can see that I ought to have been too good to make this marriage, or else not too good to make the best of it. I know that I might be happy as Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver, if I could think of the worldly advantages, and the fact that my child will inherit them. But instead, I see them as a trap, in which not only ourselves but the child is caught, and from which I cannot save us. Oh, what a mistake a woman makes when she marries a man with the idea that she is going to change him! He will not change, he will not have the need of change suggested to him. He wants peace in his home—which means that he wants to be what he is.
"Sometimes I can study the situation quite coolly, and as if it didn't concern me at all. He has required me to subject my mind to his. But he will not be content with a general capitulation; he must have a surrender from each individual soldier, from every rebel hidden in the hills. He tracks them out (my poor, straggling, feeble ideas) and either they take the oath of allegiance, or they are buried where they lie. The process is like the spoiling of a child, I find; the more you give him, the more he wants. And if any little thing is refused, then you see him set out upon a regular campaign to break you down and get it."
A month or more later she wrote: "Poor Douglas is getting restless. He has caught every kind of fish there is to catch, and hunted every kind of animal and bird, in and out of season. Harley has gone home, and so have our other guests; it would be embarrassing to me to have company now. So Douglas has no one but the doctor and myself and my poor aunt. He has spoken several times of our going away; but I do not want to go, and I think I ought to consider my own health at this critical time. It is hot here, but I simply thrive in it—I never felt in better health. So I asked him to go up to New York, or visit somewhere for a while, and let me stay here until my baby is born. Does that seem so very unreasonable? It does not to me, but poor Aunt Varina is in agony about it—I am letting my husband drift away from me!
"I speculate about my lot as a woman; I see the bitterness and the sorrow of my sex through the ages. I have become physically misshapen, so that I am no longer attractive to him. I am no longer active and free, I can no longer go about with him; on the contrary, I am a burden, and he is a man who never tolerated a burden before. What this means is that I have lost the magic hold of sex.
"As a woman it was my business to exert all my energies to maintain it. And I know how I could restore it now; there is young Dr. Perrin! He does not find me a burden, he would tolerate any deficiencies! And I can see my husband on the alert in an instant, if I become too much absorbed in discussing your health-theories with my handsome young guardian!
"This is one of the recognized methods of keeping your husband; I learned from Lady Dee all there is to know about it. But I would find the method impossible now, even if my happiness were dependent upon retaining my husband's love. I should think of the rights of my friend, the little doctor. That is one point to note for the 'new' woman, is it not? You may mention it in your next suffrage-speech!
"There are other methods, of course. I have a mind, and I might turn its powers to entertaining him, instead of trying to solve the problems of the universe. But to do this, I should have to believe that it was the one thing in the world for me to do; and I have permitted a doubt of that to gain entrance to my brain! My poor aunt's exhortations inspire me to efforts to regain the faith of my mothers, but I simply cannot—I cannot! She sits by me with the terror of all the women of all the ages in her eyes. I am losing a man!
"I don't know if you have ever set out to hold a man—deliberately, I mean. Probably you haven't. That bitter maxim of Lady Dee's is the literal truth of it—'When in doubt, talk about HIM!' If you will tactfully and shrewdly keep a man talking about himself, his tastes, his ideas, his work and the importance of it, there is never the least possibility of your boring him. You must not just tamely agree with him, of course; if you hint a difference now and then, and make him convince you, he will find that stimulating; or if you can manage not to be quite convinced, but sweetly open to conviction, he will surely call again. 'Keep him busy every minute,' Lady Dee used to say. 'Run away with him now and then—like a spirited horse!' And she would add, 'But don't let him drop the reins!'
"You can have no idea how many women there are in the world deliberately playing such parts. Some of them admit it; others just do the thing that is easiest, and would die of horror if they were told what it is. It is the whole of the life of a successful society woman, young or old. Pleasing a man! Waiting upon his moods, piquing him, flattering him, feeding his vanity—'charming' him! That is what Aunt Varina wants me to do now; if I am not too crude in my description of the process, she has no hesitation in admitting the truth. It is what she tried to do, it is what almost every woman has done who has held a family together and made a home. I was reading Jane Eyre the other day. There is your woman's ideal of an imperious and impetuous lover! Listen to him, when his mood is on him!—
"I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative to-night; and that is why I sent for you; the fire and the chandelier were not sufficient company for me; nor would Pilot have been, for none of these can talk. To-night I am resolved to be at ease; to dismiss what importunes, and recall what pleases. It would please me now to draw you out—to learn more of you—therefore speak!"
6. It was now May, and Sylvia's time was little more than a month off. She had been urging me to come and visit her, but I had refused, knowing that my presence must necessarily be disturbing to both her husband and her aunt. But now she wrote that her husband was going back to New York. "He was staying out of a sense of duty to me," she said. "But his discontent was so apparent that I had to point out to him that he was doing harm to me as well as to himself.
"I doubt if you will want to come here now. The last of the winter visitors have left. It is really hot, so hot that you cannot get cool by going into the water. Yet I am revelling in it; I wear almost nothing, and that white; and even the suspicious Dr. Perrin cannot but admit that I am thriving; his references to pills are purely formal.
"Lately I have not permitted myself to think much about the situation between my husband and myself. I cannot blame him, and I cannot blame myself, and I am trying to keep my peace of mind till my baby is born. I have found myself following half-instinctively the procedure you told me about; I talk to my own subconscious mind, and to the baby—I command them to be well. I whisper to them things that are not so very far from praying; but I don't think my poor dear mamma would recognize it in its new scientific dress!
"But sometimes I can't help thinking of the child and its future, and then all of a sudden my heart is ready to break with pity for the child's father! I have the consciousness that I do not love him, and that he has always known it—and that makes me remorseful. But I told him the truth before we married—he promised to be patient with me till I had learned to love him! Now I want to burst into tears and cry aloud, 'Oh, why did you do it? Why did I let myself be persuaded into this marriage?'
"I tried to have a talk with him last night, after he had decided to go away. I was full of pity, and a desire to help. I said I wanted him to know that no matter how much we might disagree about some things, I meant to learn to live happily with him. We must find some sort of compromise, for the sake of the child, if not for ourselves; we must not let the child suffer. He answered coldly that there would be no need for the child to suffer, the child would have the best the world could afford. I suggested that there might arise some question as to just what the best was; but to that he said nothing. He went on to rebuke my discontent; had he not given me everything a woman could want? he asked. He was too polite to mention money; but he said that I had leisure and entire freedom from care. I was persisting in assuming cares, while he was doing all in his power to prevent it.
"And that was as far as we got. I gave up the discussion, for we should only have gone the old round over again.
"Douglas has taken up a saying that my cousin brought with him: 'What you don't know won't hurt you!' I think that before he left, Harley had begun to suspect that all was not well between my husband and myself, and he felt it necessary to give me a little friendly counsel. He was tactful, and politely vague, but I understood him—my worldly-wise young cousin. I think that saying of his sums up the philosophy that he would teach to all women—'What you don't know won't hurt you!'"
7. A week or so later Sylvia wrote me that her husband was in New York. And I waited another week, for good measure, and then one morning dropped in for a call upon Claire Lepage.
Why did I do it? you ask. I had no definite purpose—only a general opposition to the philosophy of Cousin Harley.
I was ushered into Claire's boudoir, which was still littered with last evening's apparel. She sat in a dressing-gown with resplendent red roses on it, and brushed the hair out of her eyes, and apologized for not being ready for callers.
"I've just had a talking to from Larry," she explained.
"Larry?" said I, inquiringly; for Claire had always informed me elaborately that van Tuiver had been her one departure from propriety, and always would be.
Apparently she had now reached a stage in her career where pretences were too much trouble. "I've come to the conclusion that I don't know how to manage men," she said. "I never can get along with one for any time."
I remarked that I had had the same experience; though of course I had only tried it once. "Tell me," I said, "who's Larry?"
"There's his picture." She reached into a drawer of her dresser.
I saw a handsome blonde gentleman, who looked old enough to know better. "He doesn't seem especially forbidding," I said.
"That's just the trouble—you can never tell about men!"
I noted a date on the picture. "He seems to be an old friend. You never told me about him."
"He doesn't like being told about. He has a troublesome wife."
I winced inwardly, but all I said was, "I see."
"He's a stock-broker; and he got 'squeezed,' so he says, and it's made him cross—and careful with his money, too. That's trying, in a stock-broker, you must admit." She laughed. "And still he's just as particular—wants to have his own way in everything, wants to say whom I shall know and where I shall go. I said, 'I have all the inconveniences of matrimony, and none of the advantages.'"
I made some remark upon the subject of the emancipation of woman; and Claire, who was now leaning back in her chair, combing out her long black tresses, smiled at me out of half-closed eyelids. "Guess whom he's objecting to!" she said. And when I pronounced it impossible, she looked portentous. "There are bigger fish in the sea than Larry Edgewater!"
"And you've hooked one?" I asked, innocently.
"Well, I don't mean to give up all my friends."
I went on casually to talk about my plans for the summer; and a few minutes later, after a lull—"By the way," remarked Claire, "Douglas van Tuiver is in town."
"How do you know?"
"I've seen him."
"I got Jack Taylor to invite me again. You see, when Douglas fell in love with his peerless southern beauty, Jack predicted he'd get over it even more quickly. Now he's interested in proving he was right."
I waited a moment, and then asked, carelessly, "Is he having any success?"
"I said, 'Douglas, why don't you come to see me?' He was in a playful mood. 'What do you want? A new automobile?' I answered, 'I haven't any automobile, new or old, and you know it. What I want is you. I always loved you—surely I proved that to you.' 'What you proved to me was that you were a sort of wild-cat. I'm afraid of you. And anyway, I'm tired of women. I'll never trust another one.'"
"About the same conclusion as you've come to regarding men," I remarked.
"'Douglas,' I said, 'come and see me, and we'll talk over old times. You may trust me, I swear I'll not tell a living soul.' 'You've been consoling yourself with someone else,' he said. But I knew he was only guessing. He was seeking for something that would worry me, and he said, 'You're drinking too much. People that drink can't be trusted.' 'You know,' I replied, 'I didn't drink too much when I was with you. I'm not drinking as much as you are, right now.' He answered, 'I've been off on a desert island for God knows how many months, and I'm celebrating my escape.' 'Well,' I answered, 'let me help celebrate!'"
"What did he say to that?"
Claire resumed the combing of her silken hair, and smiled a slow smile at me. "'You may trust me, Douglas,' I said. 'I swear I'll not tell a living soul!'"
"Of course," I remarked, appreciatively, "that means he said he'd come!"
"I haven't told you!" was the reply.
8. I knew that I had only to wait for Claire to tell me the rest of the story. But her mind went off on another tack. "Sylvia's going to have a baby," she remarked, suddenly.
"That ought to please her husband," I said.
"You can see him beginning to swell with paternal pride!—so Jack said. He sent for a bottle of some famous kind of champagne that he has, to celebrate the new 'millionaire baby.' (They used to call Douglas that, once upon a time.) Before they got through, they had made it triplets. Jack says Douglas is the one man in New York who can afford them."
"Your friend Jack seems to be what they call a wag," I commented.
"It isn't everybody that Douglas will let carry on with him like that. He takes himself seriously, as a rule. And he expects to take the new baby seriously."
"It generally binds a man tighter to his wife, don't you think?"
I watched her closely, and saw her smile at my naivet. "No," she said, "I don't. It leaves them restless. It's a bore all round."
I did not dispute her authority; she ought to know her husbands, I thought.
She was facing the mirror, putting up her hair; and in the midst of the operation she laughed. "All that evening, while we were having a jolly time at Jack Taylor's, Larry was here waiting."
"Then no wonder you had a row!" I said.
"He hadn't told me he was coming. And was I to sit here all night alone? It's always the same—I never knew a man who really in his heart was willing for you to have any friends, or any sort of good time without him."
"Perhaps," I replied, "he's afraid you mightn't be true to him." I meant this for a jest, of the sort that Claire and her friends would appreciate. Little did I foresee where it was to lead us!
I remember how once on the farm my husband had a lot of dynamite, blasting out stumps; and my emotions when I discovered the children innocently playing with a stick of it. Something like these children I seem now to myself, looking back on this visit to Claire, and our talk.
"You know," she observed, without smiling, "Larry's got a bee in his hat. I've seen men who were jealous, and kept watch over women, but never one that was obsessed like him."
"What's it about?"
"He's been reading a book about diseases, and he tells me tales about what may happen to me, and what may happen to him. When you've listened a while, you can see microbes crawling all over the walls of the room."
"Well——" I began.
"I was sick of his lecturing, so I said, 'Larry, you'll have to do like me—have everything there is, and get over it, and then you won't need to worry.'"
I sat still, staring at her; I think I must have stopped breathing. At the end of an eternity, I said, "You've not really had any of these diseases, Claire?"
"Who hasn't?" she countered.
Again there was a pause. "You know," I observed, "some of them are dangerous——"
"Oh, of course," she answered, lightly. "There's one that makes your nose fall in and your hair fall out—but you haven't seen anything like that happening to me!"
"But there's another," I hinted—"one that's much more common." And when she did not take the hint, I continued, "Also it's more serious than people generally realize."
She shrugged her shoulders. "What of it? Men bring you these things, and it's part of the game. So what's the use of bothering?"
9. There was a long silence; I had to have time to decide what course to take. There was so much that I wanted to get from her, and so much that I wanted to hide from her!
"I don't want to bore you, Claire," I began, finally, "but really this is a matter of importance to you. You see, I've been reading up on the subject as well as Larry. The doctors have been making new discoveries. They used to think this was just a local infection, like a cold, but now they find it's a blood disease, and has the gravest consequences. For one thing, it causes most of the surgical operations that have to be performed on women."
"Maybe so," she said, still indifferent. "I've had two operations. But it's ancient history now."
"You mayn't have reached the end yet," I persisted. "People suppose they are cured of gonorrhea, when really it's only suppressed, and is liable to break out again at any time."
"Yes, I knew. That's some of the information Larry had been making love to me with."
"It may get into the joints and cause rheumatism; it may cause neuralgia; it's been known to affect the heart. Also it causes two-thirds of all the blindness in infants——"
And suddenly Claire laughed. "That's Sylvia Castleman's lookout it seems to me!"
"Oh! OH!" I whispered, losing my self-control.
"What's the matter?" she asked, and I noticed that her voice had become sharp.
"Do you really mean what you've just implied?"
"That Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver may have to pay something for what she has done to me? Well, what of it?" And suddenly Claire flew into a passion, as she always did when our talk came to her rival. "Why shouldn't she take chances the same as the rest of us? Why should I have it and she get off?"
I fought for my composure. After a pause, I said: "It's not a thing we want anybody to have, Claire. We don't want anybody to take such a chance. The girl ought to have been told."
"Told? Do you imagine she would have given up her great catch?"
"She might have, how can you be sure? Anyhow, she should have had the chance."
There was a long silence. I was so shaken that it was hard for me to find words. "As a matter of fact," said Claire, grimly, "I thought of warning her myself. There'd have been some excitement at least! You remember—when they came out of church. You helped to stop me! "
"It would have been too late then," I heard myself saying.
"Well," she exclaimed, with fresh excitement, "it's Miss Sylvia's turn now! We'll see if she's such a grand lady that she can't get my diseases!"
I could no longer contain myself. "Claire," I cried, "you are talking like a devil!"
She picked up a powder-puff, and began to use it diligently. "I know," she said—and I saw her burning eyes in the glass—"you can't fool me. You've tried to be kind, but you despise me in your heart. You think I'm as bad as any woman of the street. Very well then, I speak for my class, and I tell you, this is where we prove our humanity. They throw us out, but you see we get back in!"
"My dear woman," I said, "you don't understand. You'd not feel as you do, If you knew that the person to pay the penalty might be an innocent little child."
"Their child! Yes, it's too bad if there has to be anything the matter with the little prince! But I might as well tell you the truth—I've had that in mind all along. I didn't know just what would happen, or how—I don't believe anybody does, the doctors who pretend to are just faking you. But I knew Douglas was rotten, and maybe his children would be rotten, and they'd all of them suffer. That was one of the things that kept me from interfering and smashing him up."
I was speechless now, and Claire, watching me, laughed. "You look as if you'd had no idea of it. Don't you know that I told you at the time?"
"You told me at the time!"
"I suppose, you didn't understand. I'm apt to talk French when I'm excited. We have a saying: 'The wedding present which the mistress leaves in the basket of the bride.' That was pretty near telling, wasn't it?"
"Yes," I said, in a low voice.
And the other, after watching me for a moment more, went on: "You think I'm revengeful, don't you? Well, I used to reproach myself with this, and I tried to fight it down; but the time comes when you want people to pay for what they take from you. Let me tell you something that I never told to anyone, that I never expected to tell. You see me drinking and going to the devil; you hear me talking the care-free talk of my world, but in the beginning I was really in love with Douglas van Tuiver, and I wanted his child. I wanted it so that it was an ache to me. And yet, what chance did I have? I'd have been the joke of his set for ever if I'd breathed it; I'd have been laughed out of the town. I even tried at one time to trap him—to get his child in spite of him, but I found that the surgeons had cut me up, and I could never have a child. So I have to make the best of it—I have to agree with my friends that it's a good thing, it saves me trouble! But she comes along, and she has what I wanted, and all the world thinks it wonderful and sublime. She's a beautiful young mother! What's she ever done in her life that she has everything, and I go without? You may spend your time shedding tears over her and what may happen to her but for my part, I say this—let her take her chances! Let her take her chances with the other women in the world—the women she's too good and too pure to know anything about!"
10. I came out of Claire's house, sick with horror. Not since the time when I had read my poor nephew's letter had I been so shaken. Why had I not thought long ago of questioning Claire about these matters. How could I have left Sylvia all this time exposed to peril?
The greatest danger was to her child at the time of birth. I figured up, according to the last letter I had received; there was about ten days yet, and so I felt some relief. I thought first of sending a telegram, but reflected that it would be difficult, not merely to tell her what to do in a telegram, but to explain to her afterwards why I had chosen this extraordinary method. I recollected that in her last letter she had mentioned the name of the surgeon who was coming from New York to attend her during her confinement. Obviously the thing for me to do was to see this surgeon.
"Well, madame?" he said, when I was seated in his inner office.
He was a tall, elderly man, immaculately groomed, and formal and precise in his manner. "Dr. Overton," I began, "my friend, Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver writes me that you are going to Florida shortly."
"That is correct," he said.
"I have come to see you about a delicate matter. I presume I need hardly say that I am relying upon the seal of professional secrecy."
I saw his gaze become suddenly fixed. "Certainly, madame," he said.
"I am taking this course because Mrs. van Tuiver is a very dear friend of mine, and I am concerned about her welfare. It has recently come to my knowledge that she has become exposed to infection by a venereal disease."
He would hardly have started more if I had struck him. "HEY?" he cried, forgetting his manners.
"It would not help you any," I said, "if I were to go into details about this unfortunate matter. Suffice it to say that my information is positive and precise—that it could hardly be more so."
There was a long silence. He sat with eyes rivetted upon me. "What is this disease?" he demanded, at last.
I named it, and then again there was a pause. "How long has this—this possibility of infection existed?"
"Ever since her marriage, nearly eighteen months ago."
That told him a good part of the story. I felt his look boring me through. Was I a mad woman? Or some new kind of blackmailer? Or, was I, possibly, a Claire? I was grateful for my forty-cent bonnet and my forty-seven years.
"Naturally," he said at length, "this information startles me."
"When you have thought it over," I responded, "you will realise that no possible motive could bring me here but concern for the welfare of my friend."
He took a few moments to consider. "That may be true, madame, but let me add that when you say you KNOW this——"
He stopped. "I MEAN that I know it," I said, and stopped in turn.
"Has Mrs. van Tuiver herself any idea of this situation?"
"None whatever. On the contrary, she was assured before her marriage that no such possibility existed."
Again I felt him looking through me, but I left him to make what he could of my information. "Doctor," I continued, "I presume there is no need to point out to a man in your position the seriousness of this matter, both to the mother and to the child."
"Certainly there is not."
"I assume that you are familiar with the precautions that have to be taken with regard to the eyes of the child?"
"Certainly, madame." This with just a touch of HAUTEUR, and then, suddenly: "Are you by any chance a nurse?"
"No," I replied, "but many years ago I was forced by tragedy in my own family to realise the seriousness of the venereal peril. So when I learned this fact about my friend, my first thought was that you should be informed of it. I trust that you will appreciate my position."
"Certainly, madame, certainly," he made haste to say. "You are quite right, and you may rest assured that everything will be done that our best knowledge directs. I only regret that the information did not come to me sooner."
"It only came to me about an hour ago," I said, as I rose to leave. "The blame, therefore, must rest upon another person."
I needed to say no more. He bowed me politely out, and I walked down the street, and realised that I was restless and wretched. I wandered at random for a while. trying to think what else I could do, for my own peace of mind, if not for Sylvia's welfare. I found myself inventing one worry after another. Dr. Overton had not said just when he was going, and suppose she were to need someone at once? Or suppose something were to happen to him—if he were to be killed upon the long train-journey? I was like a mother who has had a terrible dream about her child—she must rush and fling her arms about the child. I realised that I wanted to see Sylvia!
She had begged me to come; and I was worn out and had been urged by the office to take a rest. Suddenly I bolted into a store, and telephoned the railroad station about trains to Southern Florida. I hailed a taxi-cab, rode to my home post-haste, and flung a few of my belongings into a bag and the waiting cab sped with me to the ferry. In little more than two hours after Claire had told me the dreadful tidings, I was speeding on my way to Sylvia.