Lizzie, bowed in anxious scrutiny above the shirts, broke into an unruffled laugh. "Really, Andora, really—six, seven, nine; no, there isn't even a dozen. There isn't a whole dozen of anything. I don't see how men live alone!"
Andora broodingly pursued her theme. "Do you mean to tell me it doesn't make you jealous to handle these things of his that other women may have given him?"
Lizzie shook her head again, and, straightening herself with a smile, tossed a bundle in her friend's direction. "No, it doesn't make me the least bit jealous. Here, count these socks for me, like a darling."
Andora moaned, "Don't you feel anything at all?" asthe socks landed in her hollow bosom; but Lizzie, intent upon her task, tranquilly continued to unfold and sort. She felt a great deal as she did so, but her feelings were too deep and delicate for the simplifying process of speech. She only knew that each article she drew from the trunks sent through her the long tremor of Deering's touch. It was part of her wonderful new life that everything belonging to him contained an infinitesimal fraction of himself—a fraction becoming visible in the warmth of her love as certain secret elements become visible in rare intensities of temperature. And in the case of the objects before her, poor shabby witnesses of his days of failure, what they gave out acquired a special poignancy from its contrast to his present cherished state. His shirts were all in round dozens now, and washed as carefully as old lace. As for his socks, she knew the pattern of every pair, and would have liked to see the washerwoman who dared to mislay one, or bring it home with the colors "run"! And in these homely tokens of his well-being she saw the symbol of what her tenderness had brought him. He was safe in it, encompassed by it, morally and materially, and she defied the embattled powers of malice to reach him through the armor of her love. Such feelings, however, were not communicable, even had one desired to express them: they wereno more to be distinguished from the sense of life itself than bees from the lime-blossoms in which they murmur.
"Oh, do look at him, Lizzie! He's found out how toopen the bag!"
Lizzie lifted her head to smile a moment at her son, who satthroned on a heap of studio rubbish, with Andora before him on adoring knees. She thought vaguely, "Poor Andora!" and then resumed the discouraged inspection of a buttonless white waistcoat. The next sound she was aware of was a fluttered exclamation from her friend.
"Why, Lizzie, do you know what he used the bag for? To keepyour letters in!"
Lizzie looked up more quickly. She was aware that Andora's pronoun had changed its object, and was now applied to Deering. And it struck her as odd, and slightly disagreeable, that a letter of hers should be found among the rubbish abandoned in her husband's New York lodgings.
"How funny! Give it to me, please."
"Give the bag to Aunt Andora, darling! Here—look inside, and see what else a big big boy can find there! Yes, here's another! Why, why—"
Lizzie rose with a shade of impatience and crossed the floorto the romping group beside the other trunk.
"What is it? Give me the letters, please." As she spoke, she suddenly recalled the day when, in Mme. Clopin's pension, she had addressed a similar behest to Andora Macy.
Andora had lifted a look of startled conjecture. "Why, thisone's never been opened! Do you suppose that awful woman could have kept it from him?"
Lizzie laughed. Andora's imaginings were really puerile. "What awful woman? His landlady? Don't be such a goose, Andora. How can it have been kept back from him, when we've found it here among his things?"
"Yes; but then why was it never opened?"
Andora held out the letter, and Lizzie took it. The writingwas hers; the envelop bore the Passy postmark; and it was unopened. She stood looking at it with a sudden sharp drop of the heart.
"Why, so are the others—all unopened!" Andora threw out on a rising note; but Lizzie, stooping over, stretched out her hand.
"Give them to me, please."
"Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie—" Andora, still on her knees, continued to hold back the packet, her pale face paler with anger and compassion. "Lizzie, they're the letters I used to post for you—the letters he never answered! Look!"
"Give them back to me, please."
The two women faced each other, Andora kneeling, Lizzie motionless before her, the letters in her hand. The blood had rushed to her face, humming in her ears, and forcing itself into the veins of her temples like hot lead. Then it ebbed, and she felt cold and weak.
"It must have been some plot—some conspiracy!" Andora cried, so fired by the ecstasy of invention that for the moment she seemed lost to all but the esthetic aspect of the case.
Lizzie turned away her eyes with an effort, and they rested on the boy, who sat at her feet placidly sucking the tassels of the bag. His mother stooped and extracted them from his rosy mouth, which a cry of wrath immediately filled. She lifted him in her arms, and for the first time no current of life ran from his bodyinto hers. He felt heavy and clumsy, like some one else's child; and his screams annoyed her.
"Take him away, please, Andora."
"Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie!" Andora wailed.
Lizzie held out the child, and Andora, struggling to her feet, received him.
"I know just how you feel," she gasped out above the baby's head.
Lizzie, in some dark hollow of herself, heard the echo of a laugh. Andora always thought she knew how people felt!
"Tell Marthe to take him with her when she fetches Juliet home from school."
"Yes, yes." Andora gloated over her. "If you'd only give way, my darling!"
The baby, howling, dived over Andora's shoulder for the bag.
"Oh, take him!" his mother ordered.
Andora, from the door, cried out: "I'll be back at once. Remember, love, you're not alone!"
But Lizzie insisted, "Go with them—I wish you to go with them," in the tone to which Miss Macy had never learned the answer.
The door closed on her outraged back, and Lizzie stood alone. She looked about the disordered room, which offered a dreary image of the havoc of her life. An hour or two ago everything about her had been so exquisitely ordered, without and within; her thoughtsand emotions had lain outspread before her like delicate jewels laid away symmetrically in a collector's cabinet. Now they had been tossed down helter-skelter among the rubbish there on the floor, and had themselves turned to rubbish like the rest. Yes, there lay her life at her feet, among all that tarnished trash.
She knelt and picked up her letters, ten in all, and examined the flaps of the envelops. Not one had been opened—not one. Asshe looked, every word she had written fluttered to life, and every feeling prompting it sent a tremor through her. With vertiginousspeed and microscopic vision she was reliving that whole period of her life, stripping bare again the black ruin over which the drift of three happy years had fallen.
She laughed at Andora's notion of a conspiracy—of the letters having been "kept back." She required no extraneous aid in deciphering the mystery: her three years' experience of Deering shed on it all the light she needed. And yet a moment before shehad believed herself to be perfectly happy! Now it was the worstpart of her anguish that it did not really surprise her.
She knew so well how it must have happened. The letters hadreached him when he was busy, occupied with something else, and had been put aside to be read at some future time—a time which nevercame. Perhaps on his way to America, on the steamer, even, he had met "some one else"—the "some one" who lurks, veiled and ominous, in the background of every woman's thoughts about her lover. Or perhaps he had been merely forgetful. She had learned from experience that the sensations which he seemed to feel with the most exquisite intensity left no reverberations in his mind—thathe did not relive either his pleasures or his pains. She needed no better proof of that than the lightness of his conduct toward hisdaughter. He seemed to have taken it for granted that Juliet would remain indefinitely with the friends who had received her after her mother's death, and it was at Lizzie's suggestion that the littlegirl was brought home and that they had established themselves at Neuilly to be near her school. But Juliet once with them, he became the model of a tender father, and Lizzie wondered that he had not felt the child's absence, since he seemed so affectionately aware of her presence.
Lizzie had noted all this in Juliet's case, but had taken for granted that her own was different; that she formed, for Deering, the exception which every woman secretly supposes herself to formin the experience of the man she loves. Certainly, she had learned by this time that she could not modify his habits, but she imagined that she had deepened his sensibilities, had furnished him with an "ideal"—angelic function! And she now saw that the fact of her letters—her unanswered letters—having, on his own assurance, "meant so much" to him, had been the basis on which this beautiful fabric was reared.
There they lay now, the letters, precisely as when they had left her hands. He had not had time to read them; and there had been a moment in her past when that discovery would have been thesharpest pang imaginable to her heart. She had traveled far beyond that point. She could have forgiven him now for having forgottenher; but she could never forgive him for having deceived her.
She sat down, and looked again vaguely about the room. Suddenly she heard his step overhead, and her heart contracted. She was afraid he was coming down to her. She sprang up and bolted the door; then she dropped into the nearest chair, tremulous and exhausted, as if the pushing of the bolt had required an immense muscular effort. A moment later she heard him on the stairs, andher tremor broke into a cold fit of shaking. "I loathe you—I loathe you!" she cried.
She listened apprehensively for his touch on the handle of the door. He would come in, humming a tune, to ask some idle question and lay a caress on her hair. But no, the door was bolted; she was safe. She continued to listen, and the step passed on. He had not been coming to her, then. He must have gone down-stairs to fetchsomething—another newspaper, perhaps. He seemed to read little else, and she sometimes wondered when he had found time to store the material that used to serve for their famous "literary" talks. The wonder shot through her again, barbed with a sneer. At that moment it seemed to her that everything he had ever done and beenwas a lie.
She heard the house-door close, and started up. Was he going out? It was not his habit to leave the house in the morning.
She crossed the room to the window, and saw him walking, with a quick decided step, between the budding lilacs to the gate. What could have called him forth at that unwonted hour? It was odd that he should not have told her. The fact that she thought it odd suddenly showed her how closely their lives were interwoven. Shehad become a habit to him, and he was fond of his habits. But toher it was as if a stranger had opened the gate and gone out. She wondered what he would feel if he knew that she felt that.
"In an hour he will know," she said to herself, with a kind of fierce exultation; and immediately she began to dramatize the scene. As soon as he came in she meant to call him up to her room and hand him the letters without a word. For a moment she gloated on the picture; then her imagination recoiled from it. She was humiliated by the thought of humiliating him. She wanted to keephis image intact; she would not see him.
He had lied to her about her letters—had lied to her when he found it to his interest to regain her favor. Yes, there was thepoint to hold fast. He had sought her out when he learned that she was rich. Perhaps he had come back from America on purpose to marry her; no doubt he had come back on purpose. It was incredible that she had not seen this at the time. She turned sick at the thought of her fatuity and of the grossness of his arts. Well, the event proved that they were all heneeded. But why had he gone out at such an hour? She was irritated to find herself still preoccupied by his comings and goings.
Turning from the window, she sat down again. She wondered what she meant to do next. No, she would not show him the letters; she would simply leave them on his table and go away. She would leave the house with her boy and Andora. It was a relief to feela definite plan forming itself in her mind—something that her uprooted thoughts could fasten on. She would go away, of course; and meanwhile, in order not to see him, she would feign a headache, and remain in her room till after luncheon. Then she and Andora would pack a few things, and fly with the child while he was dawdling about up-stairs in the studio. When one's house fell, one fled from the ruins: nothing could be simpler, more inevitable.
Her thoughts were checked by the impossibility of picturing what would happen next. Try as she would, she could not see herself and the child away from Deering. But that, of course, was because of her nervous weakness. She had youth, money, energy: all the trumps were on her side. It was much more difficult to imagine what would become of Deering. He was so dependent on her, and they had been so happy together! The fact struck her as illogical, and even immoral, and yet she knew he had been happy with her. It never happened like that in novels: happiness "built on a lie" always crumbled, and buried the presumptuous architect beneath the ruins. According to the laws of every novel she had ever read, Deering, having deceived her once, would inevitably have gone on deceiving her. Yet she knew he had not gone on deceiving her.
She tried again to picture her new life. Her friends, of course, would rally about her. But the prospect left her cold; she did not want them to rally. She wanted only one thing—the life she had been living before she had given her baby the embroideredbag to play with. Oh, why had she given him the bag? She had been so happy, they had all been so happy! Every nerve in her clamored for her lost happiness, angrily, unreasonably, as the boy had clamored for his bag! It was horrible to know too much; there was always blood in the foundations. Parents "kept things" from children—protected them from all the dark secrets of pain and evil. And was any life livable unless it were thus protected? Could any one look in the Medusa's face and live?
But why should she leave the house, since it was hers? Here, with her boy and Andora, she could still make for herself the semblance of a life. It was Deering who would have to go; he would understand that as soon as he saw the letters.
She pictured him in the act of going—leaving the house as he had left it just now. She saw the gate closing on him for the last time. Now her vision was acute enough: she saw him as distinctlyas if he were in the room. Ah, he would not like returning to the old life of privations and expedients! And yet she knew he wouldnot plead with her.
Suddenly a new thought rushed through her mind. What if Andora had rushed to him with the tale of the discovery of the letters—with the "Fly, you are discovered!" of romantic fiction? What if he had left her for good? It would not be unlikehim, after all. Under his wonderful gentleness he was always evasive and inscrutable. He might have said to himself that he would forestall her action, and place himself at once on the defensive. It might be that she had seen him go out of the gate forthe last time.
She looked about the room again, as if this thought had given it a new aspect. Yes, this alone could explain her husband's going out. It was past twelve o'clock, their usual luncheon hour, and he was scrupulously punctual at meals, and gently reproachful if shekept him waiting. Only some unwonted event could have caused himto leave the house at such an hour and with such marks of haste. Well, perhaps it was better that Andora should have spoken. She mistrusted her own courage; she almost hoped the deed had been done for her. Yet her next sensation was one of confused resentment. She said to herself, "Why has Andora interfered?" She felt baffled and angry, as though her prey had escaped her. If Deering had been in the house, she would have gone to him instantly and overwhelmed him with her scorn. But he had gone out, and she did not know where he had gone, and oddly mingled with her anger against him was the latent instinct of vigilance, thesolicitude of the woman accustomed to watch over the man she loves. It would be strange never to feel that solicitude again, never to hear him say, with his hand on her hair: "Why, you foolish child, were you worried? Am I late?"
The sense of his touch was so real that she stiffened herself against it, flinging back her head as if to throw off his hand. The mere thought of his caress was hateful; yet she felt it in all her traitorous veins. Yes, she felt it, but with horror and repugnance. It was something she wanted to escape from, and the fact of struggling against it was what made its hold so strong. It was as though her mind were sounding her body to make sure of itsallegiance, spying on it for any secret movement of revolt.
To escape from the sensation, she rose and went again to thewindow. No one was in sight. But presently the gate began to swing back, and her heart gave a leap—she knew not whether up ordown. A moment later the gate opened slowly to admit a perambulator, propelled by the nurse and flanked by Juliet and Andora. Lizzie's eyes rested on the familiar group as if she hadnever seen it before, and she stood motionless, instead of flyingdown to meet the children.
Suddenly there was a step on the stairs, and she heard Andora's agitated knock. She unbolted the door, and was strainedto her friend's emaciated bosom.
"My darling!" Miss Macy cried. "Remember you have your child—and me!"
Lizzie loosened herself gently. She looked at Andora with afeeling of estrangement which she could not explain.
"Have you spoken to my husband?" she asked, drawing coldly back.
"Spoken to him? No." Andora stared at her in genuine wonder.
"Then you haven't met him since he left me?"
"No, my love. Is he out? I haven't met him."
Lizzie sat down with a confused sense of relief, which welled up to her throat and made speech difficult.
Suddenly light came to Andora. "I understand, dearest. Youdon't feel able to see him yourself. You want me to go to him for you." She looked about her, scenting the battle. "You're right, darling. As soon as he comes in I'll go to him. The sooner we get it over the better."
She followed Lizzie, who without answering her had turned mechanically back to the window. As they stood there, the gate moved again, and Deering entered the garden.
"There he is now!" Lizzie felt Andora's fervent clutch uponher arm. "Where are the letters? I will go down at once. You allow me to speak for you? You trust my woman's heart? Oh, believe me, darling," Miss Macy panted, "I shall know just what to say to him!"
"What to say to him?" Lizzie absently repeated.
As her husband advanced up the path she had a sudden trembling vision of their three years together. Those years were her wholelife; everything before them had been colorless and unconscious, like the blind life of the plant before it reaches the surface ofthe soil. They had not been exactly what she dreamed; but if they had taken away certain illusions, they had left richer realities in their stead. She understood now that she had gradually adjusted herself to the new image of her husband as he was, as he would always be. He was not the hero of her dream, but he was the man she loved, and who had loved her. For she saw now, in this last wide flash of pity and initiation, that, as a solid marble may bemade out of worthless scraps of mortar, glass and pebbles, so outof mean mixed substances may be fashioned a love that will bear the stress of life.
More urgently, she felt the pressure of Miss Macy's hand.
"I shall hand him the letters without a word. You may rely, love, on my sense of dignity. I know everything you're feeling at this moment!"
Deering had reached the door-step. Lizzie continued to watch him in silence till he disappeared under the glazed roof of the porch below the window; then she turned and looked almost compassionately at her friend.
"Oh, poor Andora, you don't know anything—you don't know anything at all!" she said.