"One thing more," said Dr. Perrin. It was the first time he had spoken since van Tuiver's incredible announcement. "I trust, Mrs. Abbott, that this unfortunate situation may at all costs be concealed from servants, and from the world in general."
From which I realized how badly I had them frightened. They actually saw me making physical resistance!
"Dr. Perrin," I replied, "I am acting in this matter for my friend. I will add this: that I believe that you are letting yourself be overborne, and that you will regret it some day."
He made no answer. Douglas van Tuiver put an end to the discussion by rising and signalling the other launch. When it had come alongside, he said to the captain, "Mrs. Abbott is going back to the railroad. You will take her at once."
Then he waited; I was malicious enough to give him an anxious moment before I rose. Dr. Perrin offered me his hand; and Dr. Gibson said, with a smile, "Good-bye, Mrs. Abbott. I'm sorry you can't stay with us any longer."
I think it was something to my credit that I was able to play out the game before the boatmen. "I am sorry, too," I countered. "I am hoping I shall be able to return."
And then came the real ordeal. "Good-bye, Mrs. Abbott," said Douglas van Tuiver, with his stateliest bow; and I managed to answer him!
As I took my seat, he beckoned his secretary. There was a whispered consultation for a minute or two, and then the master returned to the smaller launch with the doctors. He gave the word, and the two vessels set out—one to the key, and the other to the railroad. The secretary went in the one with me!
29. And here ends a certain stage of my story. I have described Sylvia as I met her and judged her; and if there be any reader who has been irked by this method, who thinks of me as a crude and pushing person, disposed to meddle in the affairs of others, here is where that reader will have his satisfaction and revenge. For if ever a troublesome puppet was jerked suddenly off the stage—if ever a long-winded orator was effectively snuffed out—I was that puppet and that orator. I stop and think—shall I describe how I paced up and down the pier, respectfully but emphatically watched by the secretary? And all the melodramatic plots I conceived, the muffled oars and the midnight visits to my Sylvia? My sense of humour forbids it. For a while now I shall take the hint and stay in the background of this story. I shall tell the experiences of Sylvia as Sylvia herself told them to me long afterwards; saying no more about my own fate—save that I swallowed my humiliation and took the next train to New York, a far sadder and wiser social-reformer!
SYLVIA AS REBEL
1. Long afterwards Sylvia told me about what happened between her husband and herself; how desperately she tried to avoid discussing the issue with him—out of her very sense of fairness to him. But he came to her room, in spite of her protest, and by his implacable persistence he made her hear what he had to say. When he had made up his mind to a certain course of action, he was no more to be resisted than a glacier.
"Sylvia," he said, "I know that you are upset by what has happened. I make every allowance for your condition; but there are some statements that I must be permitted to make, and there are simply no two ways about it—you must get yourself together and hear me."
"Let me see Mary Abbott!" she insisted, again and again. "It may not be what you want—but I demand to see her."
So at last he said, "You cannot see Mrs. Abbott. She has gone back to New York." And then, at her look of consternation: "That is one of the things I have to talk to you about."
"Why has she gone back?" cried Sylvia.
"Because I was unwilling to have her here."
"You mean you sent her away?"
"I mean that she understood she was no longer welcome."
Sylvia drew a quick breath and turned away to the window.
He took advantage of the opportunity to come near, and draw up a chair for her. "Will you not pleased to be seated," he said. And at last she turned, rigidly, and seated herself.
"The time has come," he declared, "when we have to settle this question of Mrs. Abbott, and her influence upon your life. I have argued with you about such matters, but now what has happened makes further discussion impossible. You were brought up among people of refinement, and it has been incredible to me that you should be willing to admit to your home such a woman as this—not merely of the commonest birth, but without a trace of the refinement to which you have been accustomed. And now you see the consequences of your having brought such a person into our life!"
He paused. She made no sound, and her gaze was riveted upon the window-curtain.
"She happens to be here," he went on, "at a time when a dreadful calamity befalls us—when we are in need of the utmost sympathy and consideration. Here is an obscure and terrible affliction, which has baffled the best physicians in the country; but this ignorant farmer's wife considers that she knows all about it. She proceeds to discuss it with every one—sending your poor aunt almost into hysterics, setting the nurses to gossiping—God knows what else she has done, or what she will do, before she gets through. I don't pretend to know her ultimate purpose—blackmail, possibly——"
"Oh, how can you!" she broke out, involuntarily. "How can you say such a thing about a friend of mine?"
"I might answer with another question—how can you have such a friend? A woman who has cast off every restraint, every consideration of decency—and yet is able to persuade a daughter of the Castlemans to make her an intimate! Possibly she is an honest fanatic. Dr. Perrin tells me she was the wife of a brutal farmer, who mistreated her. No doubt that has embittered her against men, and accounts for her mania. You see that her mind leaped at once to the most obscene and hideous explanation of this misfortune of ours—an explanation which pleased her because it blackened the honour of a man."
He stopped again. Sylvia's eyes had moved back to the window-curtain.
"I am not going to insult your ears," he said, "with discussions of her ideas. The proper person to settle such matters is a physician, and if you wish Dr. Perrin to do so, he will tell you what he knows about the case. But I wish you to realize somehow what this thing has meant to me. I have managed to control myself——" He saw her shut her lips more tightly. "The doctors tell me that I must not excite you. But picture the situation. I come to my home, bowed down with grief for you and for my child. And this mad woman thrusts herself forward, shoves aside your aunt and your physicians, and comes in the launch to meet me at the station. And then she accuses me of being criminally guilty of the blindness of my child—of having wilfully deceived my wife! Think of it—that is my welcome to my home!"
"Douglas," she cried, wildly, "Mary Abbott would not have done such a thing without reason——"
"I do not purpose to defend myself," he said, coldly. "If you are bent upon filling your mind with such matters, go to Dr. Perrin. He will tell you that he, as a physician, knows that the charge against me is preposterous. He will tell you that even granting that the cause of the blindness is what Mrs. Abbott guesses, there are a thousand ways in which such an infection can be contracted, which are perfectly innocent, involving no guilt on the part of anyone. Every doctor knows that drinking-cups, wash-basins, towels, even food, can be contaminated. He knows that any person can bring the affliction into a home—servants, nurses, even the doctors themselves. Has your mad woman friend told you any of that?"
"She has told me nothing. You know that I have had no opportunity to talk with her. I only know what the nurses believe——"
"They believe what Mrs. Abbott told them. That is absolutely all the reason they have for believing anything!"
She did not take that quite as he expected. "So Mary Abbott did tell them!" she cried.
He hurried on: "The poisonous idea of a vulgar Socialist woman—this is the thing upon which you base your suspicions of your husband!"
"Oh!" she whispered, half to herself. "Mary Abbott did say it!"
"What if she did?"
"Oh, Douglas, Mary would never have said such a thing to a nurse unless she had been certain of it!"
"Certain?" he broke out. "What certainty could she imagine she had? She is a bitter, frantic woman—a divorced woman—who jumped to the conclusion that pleased her, because it involved the humiliation of a rich man."
He went on, his voice trembling with suppressed passion: "When you know the real truth, the thing becomes a nightmare. You, a delicate woman, lying here helpless—the victim of a cruel misfortune, and with the life of an afflicted infant depending upon your peace of mind. Your physicians planning day and night to keep you quiet, to keep the dreadful, unbearable truth from you——"
"Oh, what truth? That's the terrifying thing—to know that people are keeping things from me! What was it they were keeping?"
"First of all, the fact that the baby was blind; and then the cause of it——"
"Then they do know the cause?"
"They don't know positively—no one can know positively. But poor Dr. Perrin had a dreadful idea, that he had to hide from you because otherwise he could not bear to continue in your house——"
"Why, Douglas! What do you mean?"
"I mean that a few days before your confinement, he was called away to the case of a negro-woman—you knew that, did you not?"
"He had the torturing suspicion that possibly he was not careful enough in sterilizing his instruments, and that he, your friend and protector, may be the man who is to blame."
"Oh! Oh!" Her voice was a whisper of horror.
"That is one of the secrets your doctors have been trying to hide."
There was silence, while her eyes searched his face. Suddenly she stretched out her hands to him, crying desperately: "Oh, is this true?"
He did not take the outstretched hands. "Since I am upon the witness-stand, I have to be careful of my replies. It is what Dr. Perrin tells me. Whether the explanation he gives is the true one—whether he himself, or the nurse he recommended, may have brought the infection——"
"It couldn't have been the nurse," she said quickly. "She was so careful——"
He did not allow her to finish. "You seem determined," he said, coldly, "to spare everyone but your husband."
"No!" she protested, "I have tried hard to be fair—to be fair to both you and my friend. Of course, if Mary Abbott was mistaken, I have done you a great injustice—"
He saw that she was softening, and that it was safe for him to be a man. "It has been with some difficulty that I have controlled myself throughout this experience," he said, rising to his feet. "If you do not mind, I think I will not carry the discussion any further, as I don't feel that I can trust myself to listen to a defence of that woman from your lips. I will only tell you my decision in the matter. I have never before used my authority as a husband; I hoped I should never have to use it. But the time has come when you will have to choose between Mary Abbott and your husband. I will positively not tolerate your corresponding with her, or having anything further to do with her. I take my stand upon that, and nothing will move me. I will not even permit of any discussion of the subject. And now I hope you will excuse me. Dr. Perrin wishes me to tell you that either he or Dr. Gibson are ready at any time to advise you about these matters, which have been forced upon your mind against their judgment and protests."
2. You can see that it was no easy matter for Sylvia to get at the truth. The nurses, already terrified because of their indiscretion, had been first professionally thrashed, and then carefully drilled as to the answers they were to make. But as a matter of fact they did not have to make any answers at all, because Sylvia was unwilling to reveal to anyone her distrust of her husband.
One of two things was certain: either she had been horribly wronged by her husband, or now she was horribly wronging him. Which was the truth? Was it conceivable that I, Mary Abbott, would leap to a false conclusion about such a matter? She knew that I felt intensely, almost fanatically, on the subject, and also that I had been under great emotional stress. Was it possible that I would have voiced mere suspicions to the nurses? Sylvia could not be sure, for my standards were as strange to her as my Western accent. She knew that I talked freely to everyone about such matters—and would be as apt to select the nurses as the ladies of the house. On the other hand, how was it conceivable that I could know positively? To recognize a disease might be easy; but to specify from what source it had come—that was surely not in my power!
They did not leave her alone for long. Mrs. Tuis came in, with her feminine terrors. "Sylvia, you must know that you are treating your husband dreadfully! He has gone away down the beach by himself, and has not even seen his baby!"
"Aunt Varina—" she began, "won't you please go away?"
But the other rushed on: "Your husband comes here, broken with grief because of this affliction; and you overwhelm him with the most cruel and wicked reproaches with charges you have no way in the world of proving——" And the old lady caught her niece by the hand. "My child! Come, do your duty!"
"Make yourself fit, and take your husband to see his baby."
"Oh, I can't!" cried Sylvia. "I don't want to be there when he sees her! If I loved him—" Then, seeing her aunt's face of horror, she was seized with a sudden impulse of pity, and caught the poor old lady in her arms. "Aunt Varina," she said, "I am making you suffer, I know—I am making everyone suffer! But if you only knew how I am suffering myself! How can I know what to do."
Mrs. Tuis was weeping; but quickly she got herself together, and answered in a firm voice, "Your old auntie can tell you what to do. You must come to your senses, my child—you must let your reason prevail. Get your face washed, make yourself presentable, and come and take your husband to see your baby. Women have to suffer, dear; we must not shirk our share of life's burdens."
"There is no danger of my shirking," said Sylvia, bitterly.
"Come, dear, come," pleaded Mrs. Tuis. She was trying to lead the girl to the mirror. If only she could be made to see how distraught and disorderly she looked! "Let me help you to dress, dear—you know how much better it always makes you feel."
Sylvia laughed, a trifle wildly—but Mrs. Tuis had dealt with hysteria before. "What would you like to wear?" she demanded. And then, without waiting for an answer, "Let me choose something. One of your pretty frocks."
"A pretty frock, and a seething volcano underneath! That is your idea of a woman's life!"
The other responded very gravely, "A pretty frock, my dear, and a smile—instead of a vulgar scene, and ruin and desolation afterwards."
Sylvia made no reply. Yes, that was the life of woman—her old aunt knew! And her old aunt knew also the psychology of her sex. She did not go on talking about pretty frocks in the abstract; she turned at once to the clothes-closet, and began laying pretty frocks upon the bed!
3. Sylvia emerged upon the "gallery," clad in dainty pink muslin, her beautiful shiny hair arranged under a semi-invalid's cap of pink maline. Her face was pale, and the big red-brown eyes were hollow; but she was quiet, and apparently mistress of herself again. She even humoured Aunt Varina by leaning slightly upon her feeble arm, while the maid hastened to place her chair in a shaded spot.
Her husband came, and the doctors; the tea-things were brought, and Aunt Varina poured tea, a-flutter with excitement. They talked about the comparative temperatures of New York and the Florida Keys, and about hedges of jasmine to shade the gallery from the evening sun. And after a while, Aunt Varina arose, explaining that she would prepare Elaine for her father's visit. In the doorway she stood for a moment, smiling upon the pretty picture; it was all settled now—the outward forms had been observed, and the matter would end, as such matters should end between husband and wife—a few tears, a few reproaches, and then a few kisses.
The baby was made ready, with a new dress, and a fresh silk bandage to cover the pitiful, lifeless eyes. Aunt Varina had found pleasure in making these bandages; she made them soft and pretty—less hygienic, perhaps, but avoiding the suggestion of the hospital.
When Sylvia and her husband came into the room, the faces of both of them were white. Sylvia stopped near the door-way; and poor Aunt Varina fluttered about, in agony of soul. When van Tuiver went to the cradle, she hurried to his side, and sought to awaken the little one with gentle nudges. Quite unexpectedly to her, van Tuiver sought to pick up the infant; she helped him, and he stood, holding it awkwardly, as if afraid it might go to pieces in his arms.
So any man might appear, with his first infant; but to Sylvia it seemed the most tragic sight she had ever seen in her life. She gave a low cry, "Douglas!" and he turned, and she saw his face was working with the feeling he was ashamed for anyone to see. "Oh, Douglas," she whispered, "I'm so sorry for you!" At which Aunt Varina decided that it was time for her to make her escape.
4. But the trouble between these two were not such as could be settled by any burst of emotion. The next day they were again in a dispute, for he had come to ask her word of honour that she would never see me again, and would give him my letters to be returned unopened. This last was what she had let her father do in the case of Frank Shirley; and she had become certain in her own mind that she had done wrong.
But he was insistent in his demand; declaring that it should be obvious to her there could be no peace of mind for him so long as my influence continued in her life.
"But surely," protested Sylvia, "to hear Mary Abbott's explanation——"
"There can be no explanation that is not an insult to your husband, and to those who are caring for you. I am speaking in this matter not merely for myself, but for your physicians, who know this woman, heard her menaces and her vulgarity. It is their judgment that you should be protected at all hazards from further contact with her."
"Douglas," she argued, "you must realize that I am in distress of mind about this matter——"
"I certainly realize that."
"And if you are thinking of my welfare, you should choose a course that would set my mind at rest. But when you come to me and ask me that I should not even read a letter from my friend—don't you realize what you suggest to me, that there is something you are afraid for me to know?"
"I do not attempt to deny my fear of this woman. I have seen how she has been able to poison your mind with suspicions——"
"Yes, Douglas—but now that has been done. What else is there to fear from her?"
"I have no idea what. She is a bitter, jealous woman, with a mind full of hatred; and you are an innocent girl, who cannot judge about these matters. What idea have you of the world in which you live, of the slanders to which a man in your husband's position is exposed?"
"I am not quite such a child as that——"
"You have simply no idea, I tell you. I remember your consternation when we first met, and I told you about the woman who had written me a begging letter, and got an interview with me, and then started screaming, and refused to leave the house till I had paid her a lot of money. You had never heard such stories, had you? Yet it is the kind of thing that is happening to rich men continually; it was one of the first rules I was taught, never to let myself be alone with a strange woman, no matter of what age, or under what circumstances."
"But, I assure you, I would not listen to such people——"
"You are asking right now to listen! And you would be influenced by her—you could not help it, any more than you can help being distressed about what she has already said. She intimated to Dr. Perrin that she believed that I had been a man of depraved life, and that my wife and child were now paying the penalty. How can I tell what vile stories concerning me she may not have heard? How could I have any peace of mind while I knew that she was free to pour them into your ear?"
Sylvia sat dumb with questions she would not utter, hovering on the tip of her tongue.
He took her silence for acquiesence, and went on, quickly, "Let me give you an illustration. A friend of mine whom you know well—I might as well tell you his name, it was Freddie Atkins—was at supper with some theatrical women; and one of them, not having any idea that Freddie knew me, proceeded to talk about me, and how she had met me, and where we had been together—about my yacht, and my castle in Scotland, and I don't know what all else. It seems that this woman had been my mistress for several years; she told quite glibly about me and my habits. Freddie got the woman's picture, on some pretext or other, and brought it to me; I had never laid eyes on her in my life. He could hardly believe it, and to prove it to him I offered to meet the woman, under another name. We sat in a restaurant, and she told the tale to Freddie and myself together—until finally he burst out laughing, and told her who I was."
He paused, to let this sink in. "Now, suppose your friend, Mary Abbott, had met that woman! I don't imagine she is particularly careful whom she associates with; and suppose she had come and told you that she knew such a woman—what would you have said? Can you deny that the tale would have made an impression on you? Yet, I've not the least doubt there are scores of women who made such tales about me a part of their stock in trade; there are thousands of women whose fortunes would be made for life if they could cause such a tale to be believed. And imagine how well-informed they would be, if anyone were to ask them concerning my habits, and the reason why our baby is blind! I tell you, when the rumour concerning our child has begun to spread, there will be ten thousand people in New York city who will know of first-hand, personal knowledge exactly how it happened, and how you took it, and everything that I said to you about it. There will be sneers in the society-papers, from New York to San Francisco; and smooth-tongued gentlemen calling, to give us hints that we can stop these sneers by purchasing a de-luxe edition of a history of our ancestors for six thousand dollars. There will be well-meaning and beautiful-souled people who will try to get you to confide in them, and then use their knowledge of your domestic unhappiness to blackmail you; there will be threats of law-suits from people who will claim that they have contracted a disease from you or your child—your laundress, perhaps, or your maid, or one of these nurses——"
"Oh, stop! stop!" she cried.
"I am quite aware," he said, quietly, "that these things are not calculated to preserve the peace of mind of a young mother. You are horrified when I tell you of them—yet you clamour for the right to have Mrs. Abbott tell you of them! I warn you, Sylvia—you have married a rich man, who is exposed to the attacks of cunning and unscrupulous enemies. You, as his wife, are exactly as much exposed—possibly even more so. Therefore when I see you entering into what I know to be a dangerous intimacy, I must have the right to say to you, This shall stop, and I tell you, there can never be any safety or peace of mind for either of us, so long as you attempt to deny me that right."
5. Dr. Gibson took his departure three or four days later; and before he went, he came to give her his final blessing; talking to her, as he phrased it, "like a Dutch uncle." "You must understand," he said, "I am almost old enough to be your grandfather. I have four sons, anyone of whom might have married you, if they had had the good fortune to be in Castleman County at the critical time. So you must let me be frank with you."
Sylvia indicated that she was willing.
"We don't generally talk to women about these matters; because they've no standard by which to judge, and they almost always fly off and have hysterics. Their case seems to them exceptional and horrible, their husbands the blackest criminals in the whole tribe."
He paused for a moment. "Now, Mrs. van Tuiver, the disease which has made your baby blind is probably what we call gonorrhea. When it gets into the eyes, it has very terrible results. But it doesn't often get into the eyes, and for the most part it's a trifling affair, that we don't worry about. I know there are a lot of new-fangled notions, but I'm an old man, with experience of my own, and I have to have things proven to me. I know that with as much of this disease as we doctors see, if it was a deadly disease, there'd be nobody left alive in the world. As I say, I don't like to discuss it with women; but it was not I who forced the matter upon your attention——"
"Pray go on, Dr. Gibson," she said. "I really wish to know all that you will tell me."
"The question has come up, how was this disease brought to your child? Dr. Perrin suggested that possibly he—you understand his fear; and possibly he is correct. But it seems to me an illustration of the unwisdom of a physician's departing from his proper duty, which is to cure people. If you wish to find out who brought a disease, what you need is a detective. I know, of course, that there are people who can combine the duties of physician and detective—and that without any previous preparation or study of either profession."
He waited for this irony to sink in; and Sylvia also waited, patiently.
At last he resumed, "The idea has been planted in your mind that your husband brought the trouble; and that idea is sure to stay there and fester. So it becomes necessary for someone to talk to you straight. Let me tell you that eight men out of ten have had this disease at some time in their lives; also that very few of them were cured of it when they thought they were. You have a cold: and then next month, you say the cold is gone. So it is, for practical purposes. But if I take a microscope, I find the germs of the cold still in your membranes, and I know that you can give a cold, and a bad cold, to some one else who is sensitive. It is true that you may go through all the rest of your life without ever being entirely rid of that cold. You understand me?"
"Yes," said Sylvia, in a low voice.
"I say eight out of ten. Estimates would differ. Some doctors would say seven out of ten—and some actual investigations have shown nine out of ten. And understand me, I don't mean bar-room loafers and roustabouts. I mean your brothers, if you have any, your cousins, your best friends, the men who came to make love to you, and whom you thought of marrying. If you had found it out about any one of them, of course you'd have cut the acquaintance; yet you'd have been doing an injustice—for if you had done that to all who'd ever had the disease, you might as well have retired to a nunnery at once."
The old gentleman paused again; then frowning at her under his bushy eye-brows, he exclaimed, "I tell you, Mrs. van Tuiver, you're doing your husband a wrong. Your husband loves you, and he's a good man—I've had some talks with him, and I know he's not got nearly so much on his conscience as the average husband. I'm a Southern man, and I know these gay young bloods you've danced and flirted with all your young life. Do you think if you went probing into their secret affairs, you'd have had much pleasure in their company afterwards? I tell you again, you're doing your husband a wrong! You're doing something that very few men would stand, as patiently as he has stood it so far."
All this time Sylvia had given no sign. So the old gentleman began to feel a trifle uneasy. "Mind you," he said, "I'm not saying that men ought to be like that. They deserve a good hiding, most of them—they're very few of them fit to associate with a good woman. I've always said that no man is really good enough for a good woman. But my point is that when you select one to punish, you select not the guiltiest one, but simply the one who's had the misfortune to fall under suspicion. And he knows that's not fair; he'd have to be more than human if deep in his soul he did not bitterly resent it. You understand me?"
"I understand," she replied, in the same repressed voice.
And the doctor rose and laid his hand on her shoulder. "I'm going home," he said—"very probably we'll never meet each other again. I see you making a great mistake, laying up unhappiness for yourself in the future; and I wish to prevent it if I can. I wish to persuade you to face the facts of the world in which we live. So I am going to tell you something that I never expected I should tell to a lady."
He was looking her straight in the eye. "You see me—I'm an old man, and I seem fairly respectable to you. You've laughed at me some, but even so, you've found it possible to get along with me without too great repugnance. Well, I've had this disease; I've had it, and nevertheless I've raised six fine, sturdy children. More than that— I'm not free to name anybody else, but I happen to know positively that among the men your husband employs on this island there are two who have the disease right now. And the next charming and well-bred gentleman you are introduced to, just reflect that there are at least eight chances in ten that he has had the disease, and perhaps three or four in ten that he has it at the minute he's shaking hands with you. And now you think that over, and stop tormenting your poor husband!"
6. One of the first things I did when I reached New York was to send a little love-letter to Sylvia. I said nothing that would distress her; I merely assured her that she was in my thoughts, and that I should look to see her in New York, when we could have a good talk. I put this in a plain envelope, with a typewritten address, and registered it in the name of my stenographer. The receipt came back, signed by an unknown hand, probably the secretary's. I found out later that the letter never got to Sylvia.
No doubt it was the occasion of renewed efforts upon her husband's part to obtain from her the promise he desired. He would not be put off with excuses; and at last he got her answer, in the shape of a letter which she told him she intended to mail to me. In this letter she announced her decision that she owed it to her baby to avoid all excitement and nervous strain during the time that she was nursing it. Her husband had sent for the yacht, and they were going to Scotland, and in the winter to the Mediterranean and the Nile. Meantime she would not correspond with me; but she wished me to know that there was to be no break in our friendship, and that she would see me upon her return to New York.
"There is much that has happened that I do not understand," she added. "For the present, however, I shall try to dismiss it from my mind. I am sure you will agree that it is right for me to give a year to being a mother; as I wish you to feel perfectly at peace in the meantime, I mention that it is my intention to be a mother only, and not a wife. I am showing this letter to my husband before I mail it, so that he may know exactly what I am doing, and what I have decided to do in the future."
"Of course," he said, after reading this, "you may send the letter, if you insist—but you must realize that you are only putting off the issue."
She made no reply; and at last he asked, "You mean you intend to defy me in this matter?"
"I mean," she replied, quietly, "that for the sake of my baby I intend to put off all discussion for a year."
7. I figured that I should hear from Claire Lepage about two days after I reached New York; and sure enough, she called me on the 'phone. "I want to see you at once," she declared; and her voice showed the excitement under which she was labouring.
"Very well," I said, "come down."
She entered my little living-room. It was the first time she had ever visited me, but she did not stop for a glance about her; she did not even stop to sit down. "Why didn't you tell me that you knew Sylvia Castleman?" she cried.
"My dear woman," I replied, "I was not under the least obligation to tell you."
"You have betrayed me!" she exclaimed, wildly.
"Come, Claire," I said, after I had looked her in the eye a bit to calm her. "You know quite well that I was under no bond of secrecy. And, besides, I haven't done you any harm."
"Why did you do it?" I regret to add that she swore.
"I never once mentioned your name, Claire."
"How much good do you imagine that does me? They have managed to find out everything. They caught me in a trap."
I reminded myself that it would not do to show any pity for her. "Sit down, Claire," I said. "Tell me about it."
She cried, in a last burst of anger, "I don't want to talk to you!"
"All right," I answered. "But then, why did you come?"
There was no reply to that. She sat down. "They were too much for me!" she lamented. "If I'd had the least hint, I might have held my own. As it was—I let them make a fool of me."
"You are talking hieroglyphics to me. Who are 'they'?"
"Douglas, and that old fox, Rossiter Torrance."
"Rossiter Torrance?" I repeated the name, and then suddenly remembered. The thin-lipped old family lawyer!
"He sent up his card, and said he'd been sent to see me by Mary Abbot. Of course, I had no suspicion—I fell right into the trap. We talked about you for a while—he even got me to tell him where you lived; and then at last he told me that he hadn't come from you at all, but had merely wanted to find out if I knew you, and how intimate we were. He had been sent by Douglas; and he wanted to know right away how much I had told you about Douglas, and why I had done it. Of course, I denied that I had told anything. Heavens, what a time he gave me!"
Claire paused. "Mary, how could you have played such a trick upon me?"
"I had no thought of doing you any harm," I replied. "I was simply trying to help Sylvia."
"To help her at any expense!"
"Tell me, what will come of it? Are you afraid they'll cut off your allowance?"
"That's the threat."
"But will they carry it out?"
She sat, gazing at me resentfully. "I don't know whether I ought to trust you any more," she said.
"Do what you please about that," I replied. "I don't want to urge you."
She hesitated a bit longer, and then decided to throw herself upon my mercy. They would not dare to carry out their threat, so long as Sylvia had not found out the whole truth. So now she had come to beg me to tell no more than I had already told. She was utterly abject about it. I had pretended to be her friend, I had won her confidence and listened to her confessions; how did I wish to ruin her utterly, to have her cast out on the street?
Poor Claire! I said in the early part of my story that she understood the language of idealism; but I wonder what I have told about her that justifies this. The truth is, she was going down so fast that already she seemed a different person; and she had been frightened by the thin-lipped old family lawyer, so that she was incapable of even a decent pretence.
"Claire," I said, "there is no need for you to go on like this. I have not the slightest intention of telling Sylvia about you. I cannot imagine the circumstances that would make me want to tell her. Even if I should do it, I would tell her in confidence, so that her husband would never have any idea——"
She went almost wild at this. To imagine that a woman would keep such a confidence! As if she would not throw it at her husband's head the first time they quarreled! Besides, if Sylvia knew this truth, she might leave him; and if she left him, Claire's hold on his money would be gone.
Over this money we had a long and lachrymose interview. And at the end of it, there she sat gazing into space, baffled and bewildered. What kind of a woman was I? How had I got to be the friend of Sylvia van Tuiver? What had she seen in me, and what did I expect to get out of her? I answered briefly; and suddenly Claire was overwhelmed by a rush of curiosity—plain human curiosity. What was Sylvia like? Was she as clever as they said? What was the baby like, and how was Sylvia taking the misfortune? Could it really be true that I had been visiting the van Tuivers in Florida, as old Rossiter Torrance had implied?
Needless to say, I did not answer these questions freely. And I really think my visitor was more pained by my uncommunicativeness than she was by my betrayal of her. It was interesting also to notice a subtle difference in her treatment of me. Gone was the slight touch of condescension, gone was most of the familiarity! I had become a personage, a treasurer of high state secrets, an intimate of the great ones! There must be something more to me than Claire had realized before!
Poor Claire! She passes here from this story. For years thereafter I used to catch a glimpse of her now and then, in the haunts of the birds of gorgeous plumage; but I never got a chance to speak to her, nor did she ever call on me again. So I do not know if Douglas van Tuiver still continues her eight thousand a year. All I can say is that when I saw her, her plumage was as gorgeous as ever, and its style duly certified to the world that it had not been held over from a previous season of prosperity. Twice I thought she had been drinking too much; but then—so had many of the other ladies with the little glasses of bright-coloured liquids before them.
8. For the rest of that year I knew nothing about Sylvia except what I read in the "society" column of my newspaper—that she was spending the late summer in her husband's castle in Scotland. I myself was suffering from the strain of what I had been through, and had to take a vacation. I went West; and when I came back in the fall, to plunge again into my work, I read that the van Tuivers, in their yacht, the "Triton," were in the Mediterranean, and were planning to spend the winter in Japan.
And then one day in January, like a bolt from the blue, came a cablegram from Sylvia, dated Cairo: "Sailing for New York, Steamship 'Atlantic,' are you there, answer."
Of course I answered. And I consulted the sailing-lists, and waited, wild with impatience. She sent me a wireless, two days out, and so I was at the pier when the great vessel docked. Yes, there she was, waving her handkerchief to me; and there by her side stood her husband.
It was a long, cold ordeal, while the ship was warped in. We could only gaze at each other across the distance, and stamp our feet and beat our hands. There were other friends waiting for the van Tuivers, I saw, and so I held myself in the background, full of a thousand wild speculations. How incredible that Sylvia, arriving with her husband, should have summoned me to meet her!
At last the gangway was let down, and the stream of passengers began to flow. In time came the van Tuivers, and their friends gathered to welcome them. I waited; and at last Sylvia came to me—outwardly calm—but with her emotions in the pressure of her two hands. "Oh, Mary, Mary!" she murmured. "I'm so glad to see you! I'm so glad to see you!"
"What has happened?" I asked.
Her voice went to a whisper. "I am leaving my husband."
"Leaving your husband!" I stood, dumbfounded.
"Leaving him for ever, Mary."
"But—but——" I could not finish the sentence. My eyes moved to where he stood, calmly chatting with his friends.
"He insisted on coming back with me, to preserve appearances. He is terrified of the gossip. He is going all the way home, and then leave me."
"Sylvia! What does it mean?" I whispered.
"I can't tell you here. I want to come and see you. Are you living at the same place?"
I answered in the affirmative.
"It's a long story," she added. "I must apologise for asking you to come here, where we can't talk. But I did it for an important reason. I can't make my husband really believe that I mean what I say; and you are my Declaration of Independence!" And she laughed, but a trifle wildly, and looking at her suddenly, I realized that she was keyed almost to the breaking point.
"You poor dear!" I murmured.
"I wanted to show him that I meant what I said. I wanted him to see us meet. You see, he's going home, thinking that with the help of my people he can make me change my mind."
"But why do you go home? Why not stay here with me? There's an apartment vacant next to mine."
"And with a baby?"
"There are lots of babies in our tenement," I said. But to tell the truth, I had almost forgotten the baby in the excitement of the moment. "How is she," I asked.
"Come and see," said Sylvia; and when I glanced enquiringly at the tall gentleman who was chatting with his friends, she added, "She's my baby, and I have a right to show her."
The nurse, a rosy-cheeked English girl in a blue dress and a bonnet with long streamers, stood apart, holding an armful of white silk and lace. Sylvia turned back the coverings; and again I beheld the vision which had so thrilled me—the comical little miniature of herself—her nose, her lips, her golden hair. But oh, the pitiful little eyes, that did not move! I looked at my friend, uncertain what I should say; I was startled to see her whole being aglow with mother-pride. "Isn't she a dear?" she whispered. "And, Mary, she's learning so fast, and growing—you couldn't believe it!" Oh, the marvel of mother-love, I thought—that is blinder than any child it ever bore!
We turned away; and Sylvia said, "I'll come to you as soon as I've got the baby settled. Our train starts for the South to-night, so I shan't waste any time."
"God bless you, dear," I whispered; and she gave my hand a squeeze, and turned away. I stood for a few moments watching, and saw her approach her husband, and exchange a few smiling words with him in the presence of their friends. I, knowing the agony that was in the hearts of that desperate young couple, marvelled anew at the discipline of caste.
9. She sat in my big arm-chair; and how proud I was of her, and how thrilled by her courage. Above all, however, I was devoured by curiosity. "Tell me!" I exclaimed.
"There's so much," she said.
"Tell me why you are leaving him."
"Mary, because I don't love him. That's the one reason. I have thought it out—I have thought of little else for the last year. I have come to see that it is wrong for a woman to live with a man she does not love. It is the supreme crime a woman can commit."
"Ah, yes!" I said. "If you have got that far!"
"I have got that far. Other things have contributed, but they are not the real things—they might have been forgiven. The fact that he had this disease, and made my child blind——"
"Oh! You found out that?"
"Yes, I found it out."
"It came to me little by little. In the end, he grew tired of pretending, I think." She paused for a moment, then went on, "The trouble was over the question of my obligations as a wife. You see, I had told him at the outset that I was going to live for my baby, and for her alone. That was the ground upon which he had persuaded me not to see you or read any of your letters. I was to ask no questions, and be nice and bovine—and I agreed. But then, a few months ago, my husband came to me with the story of his needs. He said that the doctors had given their sanction to our reunion. Of course, I was stunned. I knew that he had understood me before we left Florida."
She stopped. "Yes, dear," I said, gently.
"Well, he said now the doctors were agreed there was no danger to either of us. We could take precautions and not have children. I could only plead that the whole subject was distressing to me. He had asked me to put off my problems till my baby was weaned; now I asked him to put off his. But that would not do, it seemed. He took to arguing with me. It was an unnatural way to live, and he could not endure it. I was a woman, and I couldn't understand this. It seemed utterly impossible to make him realize what I felt. I suppose he has always had what he wanted, and he simply does not know what it is to be denied. It wasn't only a physical thing, I think; it was an affront to his pride, a denial of his authority." She stopped, and I saw her shudder.
"I have been through it all," I said.
"He wanted to know how long I expected to withhold myself. I said, 'Until I have got this disease out of my mind, as well as out of my body; until I know that there is no possibility of either of us having it, to give to the other.' But then, after I had taken a little more time to think it over, I said, 'Douglas, I must be honest with you. I shall never be able to live with you again. It is no longer a question of your wishes or mine—it is a question of right or wrong. I do not love you. I know now that it can never under any circumstances be right for a woman to give herself in the intimacy of the sex-relation without love. When she does it, she is violating the deepest instinct of her nature, the very voice of God in her soul.'
"His reply was, 'Why didn't you know that before you married?'
"I answered, 'I did not know what marriage meant; and I let myself be persuaded by others.'
"'By your own mother!' he declared.
"I said, 'A mother who permits her daughter to commit such an offence is either a slave-dealer, or else a slave.' Of course, he thought I was out of my mind at that. He argued about the duties of marriage, the preserving of the home, wives submitting themselves to their husbands, and so on. He would not give me any peace——"
And suddenly she started up. I saw in her eyes the light of old battles. "Oh, it was a horror!" she cried, beginning to pace the floor. "It seemed to me that I was living the agony of all the loveless marriages of the world. I felt myself pursued, not merely by the importunate desires of one man—I suffered with all the millions of women who give themselves night after night without love! He came to seem like some monster to me; I could not meet him unexpectedly without starting. I forbade him to mention the subject to me again, and for a long time he obeyed. But several weeks ago he brought it up afresh, and I lost my self-control completely. 'Douglas,' I said, 'I can stand it no longer! It is not only the tragedy of my blind child—it's that you have driven me to hate you. You have crushed all the life and joy and youth out of me! You've been to me like a terrible black cloud, constantly pressing down on me, smothering me. You stalk around me like a grim, sepulchral figure, closing me up in the circle of your narrow ideas. But now I can endure it no longer. I was a proud, high-spirited girl, you've made of me a colourless social automaton, a slave of your stupid worldly traditions. I'm turning into a feeble, complaining, discontented wife! And I refuse to be it. I'm going home—where at least there's some human spontaneity left in people; I'm going back to my father!'—And I went and looked up the next steamer!"
She stopped. She stood before me, with the fire of her wild Southern blood shining in her cheeks and in her eyes.
I sat waiting, and finally she went on, "I won't repeat all his protests. When he found that I was really going, he offered to take me in the yacht, but I wouldn't go in the yacht. I had got to be really afraid of him—sometimes, you know, his obstinacy seems to be abnormal, almost insane. So then he decided he would have to go in the steamer with me to preserve appearances. I had a letter saying that papa was not well, and he said that would serve for an excuse. He is going to Castleman County, and after he has stayed a week or so, he is going off on a hunting-trip, and not return."
"And will he do it?"
"I don't think he expects to do it at present. I feel sure he has the idea of starting mamma to quoting the Bible to me, and dragging me down with her tears. But I have done all I can to make clear to him that it will make no difference. I told him I would not say a word about my intentions at home until he had gone away, and that I expected the same silence from him. But, of course—" She stopped abruptly, and after a moment she asked: "What do you think of it, Mary?"
I leaned forward and took her two hands in mine. "Only," I said, "that I'm glad you fought it out alone! I knew it had to come—and I didn't want to have to help you to decide!"
10. She sat for a while absorbed in her own thoughts. Knowing her as I did, I understood what intense emotions were seething within her, what a terrific struggle her decision must have represented.
"Dear Friend," she said, suddenly, "don't think I haven't seen his side of the case. I try to tell myself that I dealt with him frankly from the beginning. But then I ask was there ever a man I dealt with frankly? There was coquetry in the very clothes I wore! And now that we are so entangled, now that he loves me, what is my duty? I find I can't respect his love for me. A part of it is because my beauty fascinates him, but more of it seems to me just wounded vanity. I was the only woman who ever flouted him, and he has a kind of snobbery that made him think I must be something remarkable because of it. I talked that all out with him—yes, I've dragged him through all that humiliation. I wanted to make him see that he didn't really love me, that he only wanted to conquer me, to force me to admire him and submit to him. I want to be myself, and he wants to be himself—that has always been the issue between us."
"That is the issue in many unhappy marriages," I said.
"I've done a lot of thinking in the last year," she resumed—"about things generally, I mean. We American women think we are so free. That is because our husbands indulge us, give us money, and let us run about. But when it comes to real freedom—freedom of intellect and of character, English women are simply another kind of being from us. I met a cabinet minister's wife—he's a Conservative in everything, and she's an ardent suffragist; she not merely gives money, she makes speeches and has a public name. Yet they are friends, and have a happy home-life. Do you suppose my husband would consider such an arrangement?"
"I thought he admired English ways," I said.
"There was the Honorable Betty Annersley—the sister of a chum of his. She was friendly with the militants, and I wanted to talk to her to understand what such women thought. Yet my husband tried to stop me from going to see her. And it's the same way with everything I try to do, that threatens to take me out of his power. He wanted me to accept the authority of the doctors as to any possible danger from venereal disease. When I got the books, and showed him what the doctors admitted about the question—the narrow margin of safety they allowed, the terrible chances they took—he was angry again."
She stopped, seeing a question in my eyes. "I've been reading up on the subject," she explained. "I know it all now—the things I should have known before I married."
"How did you manage that?"
"I tried to get two of the doctors to give me something to read, but they wouldn't hear of it. I'd set myself crazy imagining things, it was no sort of stuff for a woman's mind. So in the end I took the bit in my teeth. I found a medical book store, and I went in and said: 'I am an American physician, and I want to see the latest works on venereal disease.' So the clerk took me to the shelves, and I picked out a couple of volumes."
"You poor child!" I exclaimed.
"When Douglas found that I was reading these books he threatened to burn them. I told him 'There are more copies in the store, and I am determined to be educated on this subject.'"
She paused. "How much like my own experience!" I thought.
"There were chapters on the subject of wives, how much they were not told, and why this was. So very quickly I began to see around my own experience. Douglas must have figured out that this would be so, for the end of the matter was an admission."
"You don't mean he confessed to you!"
She smiled bitterly. "No," she said. "He brought Dr. Perrin to London to do it for him. Dr. Perrin said he had concluded I had best know that my husband had had some symptoms of the disease. He, the doctor, wished to tell me who was to blame for the attempt to deceive me. Douglas had been willing to admit the truth, but all the doctors had forbidden it. I must realise the fearful problem they had, and not blame them, and, above all I must not blame my husband, who had been in their hands in the matter."
"How stupid men are! As if that would excuse him!"
"I'm afraid I showed the little man how poor an impression he had made—both for himself and for his patron. But I had suffered all there was to suffer, and I was tired of pretending. I told him it would have been far better for them if they had told me the truth at the beginning."
"Ah, yes!" I said. "That is what I tried to make them see; but all I got for it was a sentence of deportation!"
11. When Sylvia's train arrived at the station of her home town, the whole family was waiting upon the platform for her, and a good part of the town besides. The news that she had arrived in New York, and was coming home on account of her father's illness, had, of course, been reproduced in all the local papers, with the result that the worthy major had been deluged with telegrams and letters concerning his health. Notwithstanding, he had insisted upon coming to the train to meet his daughter. He was not going to be shut up in a sickroom to please all the gossips of two hemispheres. In his best black broad-cloth, his broad, black hat newly brushed, and his old-fashioned, square-toed shoes newly shined, he paced up and down the station platform for half an hour, and it was to his arms that Sylvia flew when she alighted from the train.
There was "Miss Margaret," who had squeezed her large person and fluttering draperies out of the family automobile, and was waiting to shed tears over her favourite daughter; there was Celeste, radiant with a wonderful piece of news which she alone was to impart to her sister; there were Peggy and Maria, shot up suddenly into two amazingly-gawky girls; there was Master Castleman Lysle, the only son of the house, with his black-eyed and bad-tempered French governess. And finally there was Aunt Varina, palpitating with various agitations, not daring to whisper to anyone else the fears which this sudden home-coming inspired in her. Bishop Chilton and his wife were away, but a delegation of cousins had come; also Uncle Mandeville Castleman had sent a huge bunch of roses, which were in the family automobile, and Uncle Barry Chilton had sent a pair of wild turkeys, which were soon to be in the family.
Behind Sylvia stalked her cold and haughty husband, and behind him tripped the wonderful nursemaid, with her wonderful blue streamers, and her wonderful bundle of ruffles and lace. All the huge family had to fall upon Sylvia and kiss and embrace her rapturously, and shake the hand of the cold and haughty husband, and peer into the wonderful bundle, and go into ecstasies over its contents. Rarely, indeed, did the great ones of this earth condescend to spread so much of their emotional life before the public gaze; and was it any wonder that the town crowded about, and the proprieties were temporarily repealed?
It had never been published, but it was generally known throughout the State that Sylvia's child was blind, and it was whispered that this portended something strange and awful. So there hung about the young mother and the precious bundle an atmosphere of mystery and melancholy. How had she taken her misfortune? How had she taken all the great events that had befallen her—her progress through the courts and camps of Europe? Would she still condescend to know her fellow-townsmen? Many were the hearts that beat high as she bestowed her largess of smiles and friendly words. There were even humble old negroes who went off enraptured to tell the town that "Mi' Sylvia" had actually shaken hands with them. There was almost a cheer from the crowd as the string of automobiles set out for Castleman Hall.
12. There was a grand banquet that evening, at which the turkeys entered the family. Not in years had there been so many people crowded into the big dining-room, nor so many servants treading upon each other's toes in the kitchen.
Such a din of chatter and laughter! Sylvia was her old radiant self, and her husband was quite evidently charmed by the patriarchal scene. He was affable, really genial, and won the hearts of everybody; he told the good major, amid a hush which almost turned his words into a speech, that he was able to understand how they of the South loved their own section so passionately; there was about the life an intangible something—a spell, an elevation of spirit, which set it quite apart by itself. And since this was the thing which they of the South most delighted to believe concerning themselves, they listened enraptured, and set the speaker apart as a rare and discerning spirit.
Afterwards came the voice of Sylvia: "You must beware of Douglas, Papa; he is an inveterate flatterer." She laughed as she said it; and of those present it was Aunt Varina alone who caught the ominous note, and saw the bitter curl of her lips as she spoke. Aunt Varina and her niece were the only persons there who knew Douglas van Tuiver well enough to appreciate the irony of the term "inveterate flatterer."
Sylvia realized at once that her husband was setting out upon a campaign to win her family to his side. He rode about the major's plantations, absorbing information about the bollweevil. He rode back to the house, and exchanged cigars, and listened to stories of the major's boyhood during the war. He went to call upon Bishop Chilton, and sat in his study, with its walls of faded black volumes on theology. Van Tuiver himself had had a Church of England tutor, and was a punctilious high churchman; but he listened respectfully to arguments for a simpler form of church organization, and took away a voluminous expos of the fallacies of "Apostolic Succession." And then came Aunt Nannie, ambitious and alert as when she had helped the young millionaire to find a wife; and the young millionaire made the suggestion that Aunt Nannie's third daughter should not fail to visit Sylvia at Newport.
There was no limit, apparently, to what he would do. He took Master Castleman Lysle upon his knee, and let him drop a valuable watch upon the floor. He got up early in the morning and went horse-back riding with Peggy and Maria. He took Celeste automobiling, and helped by his attentions to impress the cocksure young man with whom Celeste was in love. He won "Miss Margaret" by these attentions to all her children, and the patience with which he listened to accounts of the ailments which had afflicted the precious ones at various periods of their lives. To Sylvia, watching all these proceedings, it was as if he were binding himself to her with so many knots.
She had come home with a longing to be quiet, to avoid seeing anyone. But this could not be, she discovered. There was gossip about the child's blindness, and the significance thereof; and to have gone into hiding would have meant an admission of the worst. The ladies of the family had prepared a grand "reception," at which all Castleman County was to come and gaze upon the happy mother. And then there was the monthly dance at the Country Club, where everybody would come, in the hope of seeing the royal pair. To Sylvia it was as if her mother and aunts were behind her every minute of the day, pushing her out into the world. "Go on, go on! Show yourself! Do not let people begin to talk!"
13. She bore it for a couple of weeks; then she went to her cousin, Harley Chilton. "Harley," she said, "my husband is anxious to go on a hunting-trip. Will you go with him?"
"When?" asked the boy.
"Right away; to-morrow or the next day."
"I'm game," said Harley.
After which she went to her husband. "Douglas, it is time for you to go."
He sat studying her face. "You still have that idea?" he said, at last.
"I still have it."
"I was hoping that here, among your home-people, your sanity would partially return."
"I know what you have been hoping, Douglas. And I am sorry—but I am quite unchanged."
"Have we not been getting along happily here?" he demanded.
"No, I have not—I have been wretched. And I cannot have any peace until you no longer haunt me. I am sorry for you, but I must be alone—and so long as you are here the entertainments will continue."
"We could make it clear that we did not care for entertainments. We could find some quiet place near your people, where we could live in peace."
"Douglas," she said, "I have spoken to Cousin Harley. He is ready to go hunting with you. Please call him up and make arrangements to start to-morrow. If you are still here the following day, I shall leave for one of Uncle Mandeville's plantations."
There was a long silence. "Sylvia," he said, at last, "how long do you imagine this behaviour of yours can continue?"
"It will continue forever. My mind is made up. It is necessary that you make up yours."
Again he waited, while he made sure of his self-control. "You propose to keep the baby with you?" he asked, at last.
"For the present, yes. The baby cannot get along without me."
"And for the future?"
"We will make a fair arrangement as to that. Give me a little time to get myself together, and then I will come and live somewhere near you in New York, and I will arrange it so that you can see the child as often as you please. I have no desire to take her from you—I only want to take myself from you."
"Sylvia," he said, "have you realized all the unhappiness this course of yours is going to bring to your people?"
"Oh, don't begin that now!" she pleaded.
"I know," he said, "how determined you are to punish me. But I should think you would try to find some way to spare them."
"Douglas," she replied, "I know exactly what you have been doing. I have watched your change of character since you came here. You may be able to make my people so unhappy that I must be unhappy also. You see how deeply I love them, how I yield everything for love of them. But let me make it clear, I will not yield this. It was for their sake I went into this marriage, but I have come to see that it was wrong, and no power on earth can induce me to stay in it. My mind is made up—I will not live with a man I do not love. I will not even pretend to do it. Now do you understand me, Douglas?"
There was a silence, while she waited for some word from him. When none came, she asked, "You will arrange to go to-morrow?"
He answered calmly, "I see no reason why I, your husband, should permit you to pursue this insane course. You propose to leave me; and the reason you give is one that would, if it were valid, break up two-thirds of the homes in the country. Your own family will stand by me in my effort to prevent your ruin."
"What do you expect to do?" she asked in a suppressed voice.
"I have to assume that my wife is insane; and I shall look after her till she comes to her senses."
She sat watching him for a few moments, wondering at him. Then she said, "You are willing to stay on here, day after day, pursuing me in the only refuge I have. Well then, I shall not consider your feelings. I have a work to do here—and I think that when I begin it, you will want to be far away."
"What do you mean?" he asked—and he looked at her as if she were really a maniac.
"You see my sister Celeste is about to marry. That was the wonderful news she had to tell me at the depot. It happens that I have known Roger Peyton all my life, and know he has the reputation of being one of the 'fastest' boys in the town."
"Well?" he asked.
"Just this, Douglas—I do not intend to leave my sister unprotected as I was. I am going to tell her about Elaine. I am going to tell her all that she needs to know. It is bound to mean arguments with the old people, and in the end the whole family will be discussing the subject. I feel sure you will not care to be here under such circumstances."
"And may I ask when this begins?" he inquired, with intense bitterness in his tone.
"Right away," she said. "I have merely been waiting until you should go."
He said not a word, but she knew by the expression on his face that she had carried her point at last. He turned and left the room; and that was the last word she had with him, save for their formal parting in the presence of the family.
14. Roger Peyton was the son and heir of one of the oldest families in Castleman County. I had heard of this family before—in a wonderful story that Sylvia told of the burning of "Rose Briar," their stately mansion, some years previously: how the neighbours had turned out to extinguish the flames, and failing, had danced a last whirl in the ball-room, while the fire roared in the stories overhead. The house had since been rebuilt, more splendid than ever, and the prestige of the family stood undiminished. One of the sons was an old "flame" of Sylvia's, and another was married to one of the Chilton girls. As for Celeste, she had been angling for Roger the past year or two, and she stood now at the apex of happiness.
Sylvia went to her father, to talk with him about the difficult subject of venereal disease. The poor major had never expected to live to hear such a discourse from a daughter of his; however, with the blind child under his roof, he could not find words to stop her. "But, Sylvia," he protested, "what reason have you to suspect such a thing of Roger Peyton?"
"I have the reason of his life. You know that he has the reputation of being 'fast'; you know that he drinks, you know that I once refused to speak to him because he danced with me when he was drunk."
"My child, all the men you know have sowed their wild oats."
"Papa, you must not take advantage of me in such a discussion. I don't claim to know what sins may be included in the phrase 'wild oats.' Let us speak frankly—can you say that you think it unlikely that Roger Peyton has been unchaste?"
The major hesitated and coughed; finally he said: "The boy drinks, Sylvia; further than that I have no knowledge."
"The medical books tell me that the use of alcohol tends to break down self-control, and to make continence impossible. And if that be true, you must admit that we have a right to ask assurances. What do you suppose that Roger and his crowd are doing when they go roistering about the streets at night? What do they do when they go off to Mardi Gras? Or at college—you know that Cousin Clive had to get him out of trouble several times. Go and ask Clive if Roger has ever been exposed to the possibility of these diseases."
"My child," said the major, "Clive would not feel he had the right to tell me such things about his friend."
"Not even when the friend wants to marry his cousin?"
"But such questions are not asked, my daughter."
"Papa, I have thought this matter out carefully, and I hava something definite to propose to you. I have no idea of stopping with what Clive Chilton may or may not see fit to tell about his chum. I want you to go to Roger."
Major Castleman's face wore a blank stare.
"If he's going to marry your daughter, you have the right to ask about his past. What I want you to tell him is that you will get the name of a reputable specialist in these diseases, and that before he can have your daughter he must present you with a letter from this man, to the effect that he is fit to marry."
The poor major was all but speechless. "My child, who ever heard of such a proposition?"
"I don't know that any one ever did, papa. But it seems to me time they should begin to hear of it; and I don't see who can have a better right to take the first step than you and I, who have paid such a dreadful price for our neglect."
Sylvia had been prepared for opposition—the instinctive opposition which men manifest to having this embarrassing subject dragged out into the light of day. Even men who have been chaste themselves—good fathers of families like the major—cannot be unaware of the complications incidental to frightening their women-folk, and setting up an impossibly high standard in sons-in-law. But Sylvia stood by her guns; at last she brought her father to his knees by the threat that if he could not bring himself to talk with Roger Peyton, she, Sylvia Castleman, would do it.
15. The young suitor came by appointment the next day, and had a session with the Major in his office. After he had gone, Sylvia went to her father and found him pacing the floor, with an extinct cigar between his lips, and several other ruined cigars lying on the hearth.
"You asked him, papa?"
"I did, Sylvia."
"And what did he say?"
"Why, daughter——" The major flung his cigar from him with desperate energy. "It was most embarrassing!" he exclaimed—"most painful!" His pale old face was crimson with blushes.
"Go on, papa," said Sylvia, gentle but firm.
"The poor boy—naturally, Sylvia, he could not but feel hurt that I should think it necessary to ask such questions. Such things are not done, my child. It seemed to him that I must look upon him as—well, as much worse than other young fellows——"
The old man stopped, and began to walk restlessly up and down. "Yes, papa," said Sylvia. "What else?"
"Well, he said it seemed to him that such a matter might have been left to the honour of a man whom I was willing to think of as a son-in-law. And you see, my child, what an embarrassing position I was in; I could not give him any hint as to my reason for being anxious about these matters—anything, you understand, that might be to the discredit of your husband."
"Go on, papa."
"Well, I gave him a fatherly talking to about his way of life."
"Did you ask him the definite question as to his health?"
"Did he tell you anything definite?"
"Then you didn't do what you had set out to do!"
"Yes, I did. I told him that he must see a doctor."
"You made quite clear to him what you wanted?"
"Yes, I did—really, I did."
"And what did he say?" She went to him and took his arm and led him to a couch. "Come, papa, let us get to the facts. You must tell me." They sat down, and the major sighed, lit a fresh cigar, rolled it about in his fingers until it was ruined, and then flung it away.
"Boys don't talk freely to older men," he said. "They really never do. You may doubt this——"
"What did he say, papa?"
"Why, he didn't know what to say. He didn't really say anything." And here the major came to a complete halt.
His daughter, after studying his face for a minute, remarked, "In plain words, papa, you think he has something to hide, and he may not be able to give you the evidence you asked?"
The other was silent.
"You fear that is the situation, but you are trying not to believe it." As he still said nothing, Sylvia whispered, "Poor Celeste!"
Suddenly she put her hands upon his shoulders, and looked into his eye. "Papa, can't you see what that means—that Celeste ought to have been told these things long ago?"
"What good would that have done?" he asked, in bewilderment.
"She could have known what kind of man she was choosing; and she might be spared the dreadful unhappiness that is before her now."
"Sylvia! Sylvia!" protested the other. "Surely such things cannot be discussed with innocent young girls!"
"So long as we refuse to do it, we are simply entering into a conspiracy with the man of loose life, so that he may escape the worst penalty of his evil-doing. Take the boys in our own set—why is it they feel safe in running off to the big cities and 'sowing their wild oats'—even sowing them in the obscure parts of their own town? Is it not because they know that their sisters and girl friends are ignorant and helpless; so that when they are ready to pick a wife, they will be at no disadvantage? Here is Celeste; she knows that Roger has been 'wild,' but no one has hinted to her what that means; she thinks of things that are picturesque—that he's high-spirited, and brave, and free with his money."
"But, my daughter," protested the major, "such knowledge would have a terrible effect upon young girls!" He rose and began to pace the floor again. "Daughter, you are letting yourself run wild! The sweetness, the virginal innocence of young and pure women—if you take that from them, there'd be nothing left to keep men from falling to the level of brutes!"
"Papa," said Sylvia, "all that sounds well, but it has no meaning. I have been robbed of my 'innocence,' and I know that it has not debased me. It has only fitted me to deal with the realities of life. And it will do the same for any girl who is taught by earnest and reverent people. Now, as it is, we have to tell Celeste, but we tell her too late."
"But we won't have to tell her!" cried the major.
"Dear papa, please explain how we can avoid telling her."
"I will inform her that she must give the young man up. She is a good and dutiful daughter——"
"Yes," replied Sylvia, "but suppose on this one occasion she were to fail to be good and dutiful? Suppose the next day you learn that she had run away and married Roger—what would you do about it then?"
16. That evening Roger was to take his fiance to one of the young people's dances. And there was Celeste, in a flaming red dress, with a great bunch of flaming roses; she could wear these colours, with her brilliant black hair and gorgeous complexion. Roger was fair, with a frank, boyish face, and they made a pretty couple; but that evening Roger did not come. Sylvia helped to dress her sister, and then watched her wandering restlessly about the hall, while the hour came and went. Later in the evening Major Castleman called up the Peyton home. The boy was not there, and no one seemed to know where he was.
Nor the next day did there come any explanation. At the Peytons it was still declared that no one had heard from Roger, and for another day the mystery continued, to Celeste's distress and mortification. At last, from Clive Chilton, Sylvia managed to extract the truth. Roger was drunk—crazy drunk, and had been taken off by some of the boys to be straightened out.
Of course this rumour soon got to the rest of the family and they had to tell Celeste, because she was frantic with anxiety. There were grave consultations among the Castleman ladies. It was a wanton affront to his fiance that the boy had committed, and something must be done about it quickly. Then came the news that Roger had escaped from his warders, and got drunker than ever; he had been out at night, smashing the street lamps, and it had required extreme self-control on the part of the town police force to avoid complications.
"Miss Margaret" went to her young daughter, and in a tear-flooded scene informed her of the opinion of the family, that her self-respect required the breaking of the engagement. Celeste went into hysterics. She would not have her happiness ruined for life! Roger was "wild," but so were all the other boys—and he would atone for his recklessness. She had the idea that if only she could get hold of him, she could recall him to his senses; the more her mother was scandalised by this proposal, the more frantically Celeste wept. She shut herself up in her room, refusing to appear at meals, and spending her time pacing the floor and wringing her hands.
The family had been through all this with their eldest daughter several years before, but they had not learned to handle it any better. The whole household was in a state of distraction, and the conditions grew worse day by day, as bulletins came in concerning the young man. He seemed to have gone actually insane. He was not to be restrained even by his own father, and if the unfortunate policemen could be believed, he had violently attacked them. Apparently he was trying to break down the unwritten law that the sons of the "best families" are not arrested.
Poor Celeste, with pale, tear-drenched face, sent for her elder sister, to make one last appeal. Could Sylvia not somehow get hold of Roger and bring him to his senses? Could she not interview some of the other boys, and find out what he meant by his conduct?
So Sylvia went to her cousin Clive, and had a talk with him—assuredly the most remarkable talk that that young man had ever had in his life. She told him that she wanted to know the truth about Roger Peyton, and after a cross-examination that would have made the reputation of a criminal lawyer, she got what she wanted. All the young men in town, it seemed, knew the true state of affairs, and were in a panic concerning it; that Major Castleman had sent for Roger and informed him that he could not marry his daughter, until he produced a certain kind of medical certificate. No, he couldn't produce it! Was there a fellow in town who could produce it? What was there for him to do but to get drunk and stay drunk, until Celeste had cast him off?
It was Clive's turn then to do some plain speaking. "Look here, Sylvia," he said, "since you have made me talk about this——"
"Do you know what people are saying—I mean the reason the Major made this proposition to Roger?"
She answered, in a quiet voice: "I suppose, Clive, it has something to do with Elaine."
"Yes, exactly!" exclaimed Clive. "They say—" But then he stopped. He could not repeat it. "Surely you don't want that kind of talk, Sylvia?"
"Naturally, Clive, I'd prefer to escape that kind of talk, but my fear of it will not make me neglect the protection of my sister."
"But Sylvia," cried the boy, "you don't understand about this! A woman can't understand about these things——"
"You are mistaken, my dear cousin," said Sylvia—and her voice was firm and decisive. "I do understand."
"All right!" cried Clive, with sudden exasperation. "But let me tell you this—Celeste is going to have a hard time getting any other man to propose to her!"
"You mean, Clive, because so many of them are——?"
"Yes, if you must put it that way," he said.
There was a pause, then Sylvia went on: "Let us discuss the practical problem, Clive. Don't you think it would have been better if Roger, instead of going off and getting drunk, had set about getting himself cured?"
The other looked at her, with evident surprise. "You mean in that case Celeste might marry him?"
"You say the boys are all alike, Clive; and we can't turn our girls into nuns. Why didn't some of you fellows point that out to Roger?"
"The truth is," said Clive, "we tried to." There was a little more cordiality in his manner, since Sylvia had shown such a unexpected amount of intelligence.
"Well?" she asked. "What then?"
"Why, he wouldn't listen to anything."
"You mean—because he was drunk?"
"No, we had him nearly sober. But you see—" And Clive paused for a moment, painfully embarrassed. "The truth is, Roger had been to a doctor, and been told it might take him a year or two to get cured."
"Clive!" she cried. "Clive! And you mean that in the face of that, he proposed to go on and marry?"
"Well, Sylvia, you see—" And the young man hesitated still longer. He was crimson with embarrassment, and suddenly he blurted out: "The truth is, the doctor told him to marry. That was the only way he'd ever get cured."
Sylvia was almost speechless. "Oh! Oh!" she cried, "I can't believe you!"
"That's what the doctors tell you, Sylvia. You don't understand—it's just as I told you, a woman can't understand. It's a question of a man's nature——"
"But Clive—what about the wife and her health? Has the wife no rights whatever?"
"The truth is, Sylvia, people don't take this disease with such desperate seriousness. You understand, it isn't the one that everybody knows is dangerous. It doesn't do any real harm——"
"Look at Elaine! Don't you call that real harm?"
"Yes, but that doesn't happen often, and they say there are ways it can be prevented. Anyway, fellows just can't help it! God knows we'd help it if we could."
Sylvia thought for a moment, and then came back to the immediate question. "It's evident what Roger could do in this case. He is young, and Celeste is still younger. They might wait a couple of years and Roger might take care of himself, and in time it might be properly arranged."
But Clive did not seem too warm to the proposition, and Sylvia, who knew Roger Peyton, was not long in making out the reason. "You mean you don't think he has character enough to keep straight for a year or two?"
"To tell you the honest truth, we talked it out with him, and he wouldn't make any promises."
To which Sylvia answered: "Very well, Clive—that settles it. You can help me find some man for Celeste who loves her a little more than that!"
17. That afternoon came Aunt Nannie, the Bishop's wife, in shining chestnut-coloured silk to match a pair of shining chestnut-coloured horses. Other people, it appeared, had been making inquiries into Roger Peyton's story, and other people besides Clive Chilton had been telling the truth. Aunt Nannie gathered the ladies of the family in a hurried conference, and Sylvia was summoned to appear before it—quite as in the days of her affair with Frank Shirley.
"Miss Margaret" and Aunt Varina were solemn and frightened, as of old; and, as of old, Aunt Nannie did the talking. "Sylvia, do you know what people are saying about you?"
"Yes, Aunt Nannie" said Sylvia.
"Oh, you do know?"
"Yes, of course. And I knew in advance that they would say it."
Something about the seraphic face of Sylvia, chastened by terrible suffering, must have suggested to Mrs. Chilton the idea of caution. "Have you thought of the humiliation this must inflict upon your relatives?"
"I have found, Aunt Nannie," said Sylvia, "that there are worse afflictions than being talked about."
"I am not sure," declared the other, "that anything could be worse than to be the object of the kind of gossip that is now seething around our family. It has been the tradition of our people to bear their afflictions in silence."
"In this case, Aunt Nannie, it is obvious that silence would have meant more afflictions, many more. I have thought of my sister—and of all the other girls in our family, who may be led to sacrifice by the ambitions of their relatives." Sylvia paused a moment, so that her words might have effect.