When the subtle change came, his mother and sister uneasily confided to each other the fear that he was in love. As the years passed, however, and he brought them no new demand upon their affections and resources, they ceased to worry, and finally to wonder. Andrew was not the old Andrew; but, if he did not choose to confide the reason, his reserve must be respected. And at least it had affected neither his generosity nor his good temper. He still spent his evenings at home, listened to his mother or Polly read aloud, and never missed the little supper of beer and crackers and cheese before retiring.
One morning, while Webb was still one with his little family, he read, as was usual with him on the long ride down-town, his Harlem edition of one of the New York dailies. He finished the news, the editorials, the special articles: nothing was there to upset the equilibrium of his life. His attention was attracted, as he was about to close the paper, by a long leaded "story" of a ball given the night before by some people named Webb. Their superior social importance was made manifest by the space and type allotted them, by the fact that their function was not held over for the Sunday issue, and by the imposing rhetoric of the head-lines.
Andrew read the story with a feeling of personal interest. From that moment, unsuspected by himself, the readjustment of his mind to other interests began—the divorce of his inner life from the simple conditions of his youth.
Thereafter he searched the Society columns for accounts of the doings of the Webb folk. Thence, by a natural deflection, he became generally interested in the recreations of the great world: he acquired a habit, much to his sister's delight, of buying the weekly chronicles of Society, and all the Sunday issues of the important dailies.
At first the sparkle and splendor, the glamour and mystery of the world of fashion dazzled and delighted him. It was to him what fairy tales of prince and princess are to children. For even he, prosaic, phlegmatic, with nerves of iron and brain of shallows, had in him that germ of the picturesque which in some natures shoots to high and full-flowered ideals, in others to lofty or restless ambitions, coupled with a true love of art; and yet again develops a weed of tenacious root and coarse enduring fibre which a clever maker of words has named snobbery.
Gradually within Andrew's slow mind grew a dull resentment against Fate for having played him so sinister a trick as to give him the husk without the kernel, a title without a story that any one would ever care to read. Why, when one of those Webb babies was due,—the family appeared to be a large one,—could not his little wandering ego have found its way into that ugly but notable mansion on Fifth Avenue instead of having been spitefully guided to a New Jersey farm? Not that Andrew expressed himself in this wise. Had he put his thoughts into words, he would probably have queried in good terse English: "Why in thunder can't I be Schuyler Churchill Webb instead of a nobody in Harlem? He's just my age, and I might as well have been he as not."
His twenty-third birthday cake, prepared by loving hands, had scarcely been eaten when the waves of snobbery first lapped his feet. At twenty-five they had broken high above his head, and the surge was ever in his ears. He was not acutely miserable: his health was too perfect, his appetite too good. But deeper and deeper each week did he bury his perplexed head in the social folk-lore of New York and Newport. Oftener and oftener during the city season did he promenade central Fifth Avenue from half-past four until half-past five in the afternoon of pleasant days. He lived for the hour which would find him sauntering from Forty-first Street to the Park and back again. He knew all the fashionable men and women by sight. There was no one to tell him their names, but the names themselves were more familiar than the rows of figures in his books down-town. He fitted them to such presences as seemed to demand them as their right. He grew into a certain intimacy with the slender trimly accoutred girls who held themselves so erectly and wore their hair with such maidenly severity. They were so different in appearance from all the women he had known or seen, and from the languishing creatures in his mother's cherished Book of Beauty, that he came to look upon them as a race apart, which they were; as something not quite human, which was a slander. As they stalked along so briskly in their tailor-made frocks, their cheeks and eyes brilliant with health, the average observer would have likened them to healthy high-bred young race-horses.
On the whole, however, Andrew gave the full measure of his admiration to the women who took their exercise less violently. When the spring came, and the Park was green, he would stand in the plaza, surrounded by its great hotels, the deep rumble of the avenue behind him, forgetting even the phalanxes of tramping girls, with their accessories of boys and poodles. Before him were the wide gates of the Park, the green wooded knolls rolling away—almost to his home in Harlem. Just beyond the gates was a bend in the driveway, and he never tired of watching the stream of carriages wind as from a cavern and roll out to the avenue. The vivid background claimed as its own those superb traps with their dainty burdens of women who held their heads so haughtily, whose plumage was so brilliant. The horses glittered and pranced. The parasols fluttered like butterflies above the flower-faces beneath. Webb would stand entranced, bitterly thankful that there was such a scene for him to look upon, choking back a sob that he had no part in it.
When summer came and Society flitted to Newport, that paradise in which he only half believed, he was more lonely and glum than the loneliest and glummest and most blase clubman, who clung to his window because he hated Newport and could not afford London. Quite accidentally, when his infatuation was about three years old, he came into a singular compensation. In the summer, during his ten days' vacation, when he was tramping through the woods, he fell in with a party of Western people, who manifested much interest in New York. To Andrew there was only one New York, and with that his soul was identified. Insensibly, he began to talk of New York Society as if it were part of his daily experience. His careful, if restricted, study of its habits had made him sufficiently familiar with it to enable him to deceive the wholly ignorant. He described the people, their brilliant "functions," the individualities of certain of its members. He talked freely of Ward McAllister, and imitated that gentleman's peculiarities of thought and speech, so familiar to the newspaper reader. For the time he deceived himself as well as his hearers; and so fascinating did he find this delusion, that he remained with the inquisitive and guileless party until the end of his vacation. After that he made it a point each year to attach himself to some party of tourists, and to tell them of New York Society, plus Andrew Webb. He was not a liar in the ordinary sense of the word. In his home and in the bank where he played his daily game of give-and-take, his reputation for veracity was enviable. Every mortal not an idiot has his day-dreams. Webb merely dreamed his aloud to an audience. And these summers were the oases of his life.
He had one other pleasure equally keen. On the first day of each month he dined at Delmonico's. In the beginning it meant the forfeit of his usual stand-up luncheon, but he had decided that the cause was worthy of the sacrifice. One evening, however, he lingered on upper Fifth Avenue longer than usual, and entered late. The restaurant was crowded. He stood at the door, hesitating, knowing that he would not be permitted to seat himself at a table already occupied by even one person. Suddenly a small common-looking little man came forward and touched his arm.
"Won't you share my table?" he said, effusively. "My name's Slocum, and I've seen you here often. You mustn't go away. Come in."
Andrew gratefully accepted, and followed Mr. Slocum over to the little table on the other side of the room.
"I say," said Slocum, after Webb had ordered his dinner, "I've hit on a plan. It's been in my head for some time. How often do you come here?"
"Once a month."
"That's my game exactly. I'm a clerk on a small salary; but I must have one good dinner a month, if I don't have my hair cut. Now, suppose we dine together. One portion's enough for two, and the same dinner'll only cost each of us half what it does now. See?"
Andrew did not take kindly to Mr. Slocum: the vulgar young man was so different from the magnificent creatures about him. But the offer was not to be ignored, and he closed with it. For the following three years, until he was twenty-eight, he dined regularly at Delmonico's, and in that rarefied atmosphere his head gently swam. He forgot the flat in Harlem,—forgot that he was Andrew, not Schuyler Churchill Webb.
One day word came that "Uncle Sandy Armstrong" was dead. Andrew could not get away, nor Polly, who was then a teacher; but Mrs. Webb hastily packed an old carpet-bag and went over to superintend her brother's funeral. That evening the young people discussed the death of their relative in a business-like manner, which their mother would have resented, but which was justifiable from their point of view.
"I suppose ma will have the farm," remarked Polly, still a plump, rosy, and well-dressed Polly, albeit with an added air of importance and a slightly didactic enunciation. "How much do you suppose it's worth?"
Andrew, who was lying on the sofa smoking a pipe, protruded his upper lip. "Four thousand,—not a cent more. The orchard's all gone to seed, and the house too."
"We might mortgage the land, and fit the house up for summer boarders."
Andrew frowned heavily. His sister was absently tapping a pile of compositions on the table beside her, and did not see the frown. She would not have suspected the cause if she had.
"As well that as anything," he replied, indifferently. "No one will buy it, that's positive, with all that marsh."
Two days later he returned home to find the very atmosphere of the place quivering with excitement. Bridget stood in the doorway of the kitchen, which faced the end of the narrow hallway personal to the Webb abode. Her round eyes glittered in a purple face. She waved her arms wildly. [Transcriber's Note: In the original, "She waved her alms wildly."]
"Oh, Mr. Webb!" she began.
"Andrew, come here," shrieked Polly from the other end of the hall. "Come here, quick!"
It was not Webb's habit to move rapidly; but, fearing that his mother was ill, he walked briskly to the parlor. Mrs. Webb, trembling as from a recent nervous shock, her face flushed, a legal document in her lap, sat in an upright chair, apparently in the best of health. Polly was on the verge of hysterics.
"What do you think has happened?" she cried. "Tell him, ma; I can't." Then she flung herself face downward on the sofa and kicked her heels together.
"We are rich, Andrew," said Mrs. Webb, with a desperate effort at calmness. "Your Uncle Sandy has been investing and doubling money these twenty years. He has left one hundred and fifty thousand dollars,—fifty thousand to each of us."
Andrew's knees gave way. He sat down suddenly. He had but one thought. A radiant future flashed the little room out of vision. That would be his which for five years he had desired with all the insidious force of a fixed idea.
"Say something, Andrew, for heaven's sake!" cried Polly, "or I shall scream. Fifty thousand dollars all my own! No more school, no more dress-making! We'll all go to Europe. Ma says it's well invested, and we shall have four thousand a year each. Goodness—goodness—goodness me!"
"I should like to fit up the old house and live there," said Mrs. Webb. "But—yes—I should like to see Europe first. That was one of the dreams of my youth."
"And I'll have a sealskin! At last! You shall have a magnificent black silk and a pair of diamond earrings—"
"Polly!" exclaimed her mother, "what should I do with diamonds? A new black silk—a rich one—yes, I shall like that. Poor Sandy!"
Andrew leaned forward and took the document and laid it on his knee. He stroked it as tenderly as if it had been a woman's head and he another man. There was no sentiment in his nature, although he was an admirer of beauty—New York beauty. After a time he detached himself from his thoughts and talked the matter over with his mother and sister. When they asked him what he should do he replied, confusedly, that he did not know. But the plans of neither were so well defined as his.
All that night he sat on the edge of his bed staring at the worn outlines of the boy and the dog on the rug under his feet. Fifty thousand dollars! It seemed a great fortune to him. Such a sum had been familiar enough in figures for many years. But that it might represent a concrete wad of bills was a fact which had never presented itself to his imagination before. Fifty thousand dollars! He did not know what the objects of his idolatry were worth, merely that they were idle and luxurious. These fifty thousand dollars would enable him to be idle and luxurious—and to meet society at last on its own ground.
The interval between that night and the day upon which the estate was settled, Andrew passed in a sort of impatient dream. Never before had days, weeks, months seemed so long; never had he so dissociated himself from his little world and melted into that luminous circle of which he was to become a component part. How he was to obtain his passport into fashionable society was a question that did not concern him. Its portals were typified to him by the wide gates of Central Park, through which all might roll upon whom fortune smiled. One blessed fact possessed his mind: by the first of July he should be master of his future, liberated from his desk, free to go to Newport. When his foot actually pressed that reservation, all the rest would come about quite naturally. At this time he still preserved his self-respect. He felt quite the equal of the men he had brushed elbows with at Delmonico's—the pink-faced youths with their butter-colored tops, the affable elderly men with their bulbous stomachs and puffy eyes. And he had caught many of their little fads. He had risen in the night, and opening the door connecting the kitchen and dining-room, that he might have sufficient scope, he had practised the remarkable gait of the New York youth of fashion: that slight forward inclination of the shoulders, that slighter crab-like angle of the body, that ponderous thoughtful tread: the only difference from the walk of the "tough" being in the length of the step. One hand was in a pocket, the other absently manipulated a stick. He had also witnessed the hand-shake, and of his proficiency in this accomplishment he felt assured.
On the third day of July, one hour after the law had yielded up its temporary foundling, he ordered an elaborate outfit from the most fashionable tailor in New York. This order and others drilled a large hole in his first quarter's income, but he regarded that as a trifling detail. His mother and sister were meanwhile selling the homely necessities of their flat at auction, as the first step to a year abroad. They wondered at Andrew's desire to go to Newport, but had heard that it was a pretty place with a good bathing-beach, and much visited by tourists. They spent the last night together in a hotel; and Mrs. Webb, in spite of a faint protest from Andrew, ordered beer and crackers and cheese. They had eaten this little supper for many years, and the women, who were very tearful, insisted that this last evening together must be as much like the dear old evenings as possible. It was a sad meal.
It was a profoundly hot August day when Andrew left the steamboat and actually stood upon Newport soil. More properly, he stood upon a plank wharf, and was not impressed with the dock. But as the omnibus rolled through the town his heart began to swell, his rather dull eyes to glow. The hour was two, and the city asleep under its ivy and flowers. After New York, it seemed deliciously quiet, and old, and aristocratic. The pounding of the horses' hoofs, the voices of the people in the omnibus, were desecrating. He had glimpses of long avenues, dark, green, dim; a flash of villa top or imposing gateway behind the stately trees. He felt that he was in paradise.
He was in a mood to admire the hotel, plain and unpretending structure as it was; it was so old and still and highly respectable. He descended from the omnibus nervously and went into the office. A clerk handed him a pen, and he registered his name in a clerkly hand, "A. Armstrong Webb." He had decided to acknowledge his debt to his uncle and add a cubit to his stature at the same time. The clerk wheeled the book round, glanced indifferently at the name, and handed a key to a bell-boy. Webb, conscious of a faint chill, followed the boy up-stairs. The room to which he was conducted was an ordinary one overlooking the area. He had been treated as any commonplace and unknown traveller would be. The thought increased the chill; then he philosophically concluded that a nobleman travelling incognito would be treated in the same way, and went down-stairs to the dining-room. There he was somewhat surprised to find that dinner was being served instead of luncheon. He had supposed that dinner in a Newport hotel would be served at eight o'clock.
After dinner he went out to the veranda, sat himself on one of the chairs by the railing, and smoked an expensive cigar. He was beginning to feel strangely lonely. There seemed to be very few people in the hotel, and he experienced his first pang of helplessness, of doubt. He had supposed that the hotel would be full of great people. As he glanced down the avenue, those big houses seemed like tombs, buried, themselves, under a rank growth of foliage. And it was so wondrous quiet!
His cigar cheered him somewhat, and he sauntered back to the office and entered into conversation with the clerk, a good-humored little Englishman with cheeks like his own apples. The clerk knew at a glance that the stranger was neither a "swell" nor a frequenter of Newport; but he liked his manly appearance, and readily met his advances. To his dismay, Webb learned that the "swells" no longer went to the hotels; or, if obliged to do so for a short period, secluded themselves in their rooms. They lived in cottages. Oh yes! all those fine houses were called cottages. It was a sort of fad—American modesty, the clerk supposed. There was not much run of any sort at the hotel until the fifteenth, when a good many tourists came. Oh yes! there were some people there, mostly old ones, who had come every season for many years, he believed. Rather depressing parties, these; they looked so old-fashioned, and didn't do much to brighten up things.
Webb, with growing dejection, left the hotel and strolled up the avenue. There his spirits revived. The avenue was so beautiful, so gloomy, so old! He drew in deep inhalations of its unmistakably aristocratic atmosphere. He felt its subtle possessing influence. Once more his imagination awakened. He leaned on a Gothic gateway and gazed upon a superb Queen Anne cottage with Tudor towers. Incongruities in architecture mattered nothing to him. He precipitated his astral part through the massive door and wandered, with ponderous, thoughtful tread, over the deep carpets of the drawing-rooms and corridors. He drank tea on the back veranda with languid dames and with men who had never stood at desks. He threw himself into an arm-chair and listened to a slim-waisted smooth-haired girl coquetting with the piano. He sat with the haughty chatelaine and talked of—there his imagination failed him. He hardly knew what these people talked of, although he had read many society novels. As far as his memory served him, they talked of nothing in particular. He wandered down the avenue, dreaming his dream at many gate-posts. He saw no one, but thereby was the illusion deepened. Newport for the hour was his.
He returned to the hotel veranda, lit another cigar, and was about to meditate upon some plan of campaign, when suddenly an odd and delightful thing happened. It was four-and-thirty of the clock. As if to the ringing of a bell and the rising of a curtain, Bellevue Avenue became suddenly alive with carriages. The big gates seemed to yawn simultaneously and discharge their expensive freight. It was as if these actors in the Newport drama would lose their weekly salary did they step on the boards a moment too late. The avenue, with its gay frocks and parasols, was like a long flower-bed in spring. Webb's cigar went out. He leaned forward eagerly, straining his eyes.
In some of the superb traps were decrepit old dowagers wagging their feeble heads, wondering, perhaps, how much longer their millions would keep them alive. Sometimes their young heirs were with them, patient and placid. Others were pitifully alone. Several men were on horseback, riding in the agonized fashion of the day. There were carriages full of girls with complexions of ivory and claret, air of ineffable daintiness. Now and then a victoria would roll by in which women lolled, heavily veiled with crape. Webb wondered if they really could sorrow like common folks. Mingling with the superb turnouts were barouches unmistakably hired, occupied by people dressed with a certain cheap smartness. Here and there a girl, probably of the people, cantered half defiantly down the line, a sailor-hat on her head, her jacket open over a shirt and "four-in-hand." Once a yoke of oxen, driven by a bareheaded maid, straggled into the throng.
The avenue before the hotel became deserted once more. The upper end was blocked with carriages, all apparently bent in the same direction. Andrew ran down the steps, half inclined to follow, half fearing they would never return. A number of open hacks stood before the hotel. A driver immediately approached Andrew.
"Like a drive, sir?"
"Yes," said Webb. "Go where the others are going."
"Certainly, sir. And, if you be a stranger, I can tell you most of the names."
Andrew could have tipped him on the spot. He should be able to identify those people at last! He felt that he had advanced another step!
"We'll drive slow and meet them on their return," said the driver. He indicated with a gesture of contempt a passing carriage.
"You see them, sir? They be people that comes to the hotels and goes away and talks about spending the summer in Newport. But any one could tell that they're just hotel people, and that the hack is hired. They don't deceive nobody here."
The words gave Andrew a hint for which he was thankful. He understood that he must not stay at the hotel. Where should he go, however? He must take a "cottage," he supposed.
They rolled down a thick-leaved avenue and out over the stubby sand-hills by the sea. Here and there a large mansion crowned the heights, and Andrew was glad to see the traditional cottage in full relief. He paid it scant attention, however. The procession of carriages had already turned, and his faithful guide uttered many a name which sounded like old sweet music in his ears. Some of the younger faces were unfamiliar; but they, too, bore names that the newspapers had made famous.
"Now look with all your eyes," cried the driver, suddenly. "Here's Mrs. Johnny Belhaven. She's worth more millions than all the rest put together, and is an A1 whip."
A plump but distinguished-looking woman bore down on them in what appeared to be a chariot. Andrew had never seen anything so high on wheels before. Mrs. Belhaven looked down upon her "Order" as from a throne, and wore a slightly supercilious expression.
"And there's Ward McAllister," continued the driver, excitedly; "him as is the leader of the Four Hundred, you know."
Andrew almost raised himself from his seat. He stared with bulging eyes at the tired carelessly dressed elderly man with whom he had been intimate so many years.
He returned to the hotel. His spirits were normal again. He had taken his part in a fragment of the daily life of Newport. As he passed through the office on his way to the elevator, the clerk beckoned to him.
"As you seem a stranger, sir," he said, apologetically, "I thought I would introduce you to Mr. Chapman. He's the correspondent of several New York papers, and could tell you how to amuse yourself."
A short thick-set amiable young man shook Andrew's hand heartily. Mr. Chapman was not the sort of person Andrew had gone to Newport to meet, but he was glad of any friendship, temporarily.
The two young men went out to the veranda. Andrew proffered his new cigar-case. The other accepted gratefully. He was the free-lance correspondent of several New York weekly papers, and his salary was not large. He tipped his chair back, put his feet on the railing, and confided to Webb that he hated Newport.
"I wouldn't have come here this summer if I could have got out of it," he said, gloomily. "It's my third year, and the place gets worse every season. These people are so stuck-up there's no approaching them for news. Even Lancaster, who has a sort of entree because he is connected with a swagger family, admits that it's as much as his life is worth to get anything out of them. He's the correspondent of the New York Eye. What's worse, they don't do anything. Here it is the third of August, and not a ball has been given—just little things among themselves that you can't get at. It's enough to drive a fellow to drink. I've faked till my poor imagination is worn to a thread; the papers have to have news. But I've done one big thing this summer,—a corking beat. Did you notice half-way down the avenue a new house surrounded by a big stone wall? That's the new Belhaven house. They'd sworn that no reporter should so much as pass the gates, no paper should ever show an eager world the interior of that marble mausoleum. The newspapers were wild. Even Lancaster had no show. I was bound that I'd get into that house, if I had to go as a burglar. And I did, but not that way. I bribed their butcher to let me dress up as his boy; took a camera, and photographed the house and grounds from the seclusion of the meat-wagon. I flirted with the cook and got her to show me the drawing-rooms. It was early, and the family wasn't up. I dodged the butler and took snap-shots. The other newspaper men were ready to brain me. I felt sorry for some of them, but I had joy over Lancaster. He'd bribed the caterer and florist to keep their best bits of news for him. A low trick that; not but what I'd do it myself if I had his salary. He got a scoop last year, and you couldn't speak to him for a month after. Mrs. Foster,—she's one of the biggest guns, you know, a regular cannon,—refurnished her house last summer, and all the New York papers wanted photographs. She went cranky, and said they shouldn't have them. Wouldn't even listen to Lancaster's pleadings. But he hadn't jollied the butler for nothing. She didn't stop here last summer—only came down every two weeks and rearranged every stick of the furniture. The butler was nearly distracted. It was as much as his place was worth to have her find any of the chairs out of place, and the rooms had to be swept. So he hit on a plan. He bought a camera and photographed the rooms every time Mrs. Foster came down. One day he met Lancaster on the avenue and confided his method of keeping up with the old lady. You may be sure Lancaster was not long getting a set of those photos. It cost the newspaper a pot of money, for the butler was no fool. But there they were next Sunday. And Mrs. Foster doesn't know to this day how it was done."
Webb listened with mingled amusement and dismay. He was slowly beginning to realize the determined segregation, from the common herd, of these people, to whom he had come so confidently to offer homage. He changed the subject.
"I don't want to stay here, don't you know," he said, glancing scornfully over his shoulder at the hotel which in its day had housed the most distinguished in the land. "What would you advise? Take a cottage?"
"Take a cottage!" Mr. Chapman fairly gasped. "Are you a millionaire in disguise? If you were, I don't believe you could get one. The swells shut up theirs when they don't come, or let them to their friends. The others are mostly taken year after year by the same people. No; I'll tell you what you want—a bachelor's apartment. They are not so easy to get either, but I happen to know of one. It was rented four years ago by Jack Delancy, but he blew in most of his money, and then tried to recuperate on cordage. The bottom fell out of that, and now goodness knows where he is. At all events, his apartment is to let. Suppose we go now and see it. There's no time to lose."
Andrew assented willingly, profoundly thankful that he had met Mr. Chapman. The apartment was near the hotel. They found it still vacant, furnished with a certain bold distinction. The rent was high, but Andrew stifled the economic promptings of his nature, and manfully signed a check. That night there was nothing to be seen in Newport, not even a moon. The city was like a necropolis. Andrew gratefully employed his leisure hunting for servants. The following day he was comfortably installed and had invited the fortunate Mr. Chapman to dinner. He found that gentleman next morning on the beach, taking snap-shots at the bathers.
"This sort of thing goes," Chapman said, "although these people are just plain tourists. I label them 'the beautiful Miss Brown,' or 'the famous Miss Jones,' and the average reader swallows it, to say nothing of the fact that it makes the paper look well. The swells won't go in with the common herd, and want the ocean fenced in too, as it were. There are some of them over there in their carriages, taking a languid interest in the scene because they've nothing better to do. But they'd no more think of getting out and sitting on this balcony, as they do at Narragansett, than they'd ride in a street-car. Want to go up to the Casino and see the stage go off? That's one of the sights."
Andrew had spent a half-hour the evening before gazing at the graceful brown building which had long been a part of his dreams. He welcomed the prospect of seeing a phase of its brilliant life.
They reached the Casino a few minutes before the coach started. A large round-shouldered man, with face and frame of phlegmatic mould, occupied the seat and swung his whip with a bored and absent air. Two or three girls, clad in apotheosized organdie, and close hats, were already on top of the coach. An elderly beau was assiduously attending upon a young woman who was about to mount the ladder. She was a plain girl, with an air of refined health, and simply clad in white.
"She's worth sixteen million dollars in her own right," said Chapman, with a groan.
On the sidewalk, between the Casino and the coach, were two groups of girls. One group gazed up at their friends on the coach, wishing them good-fortune; the other gazed upon the first, eagerly and enviously. Andrew looked from one to the other. The girls who talked to those on the coach wore organdie frocks of simple but marvellous construction. Shading their young pellucid eyes, their bare polished brows, were large Leghorn hats covered with expensive feathers or flowers. Air, carriage, complexion, manner, each was a part of the unmistakable uniform of the New York girl of fashion. But the others? Andrew put the question to Chapman.
"Oh, they're natives. We call them that to distinguish them from the cottagers. They get close whenever they get a chance, and copy the cottagers' clothes and manners. But it doesn't take a magnifying-glass to see the difference."
Andrew looked with a pity he did not admit was fellow-feeling at the pretty girls with their bright complexions, their merely stylish clothes—which reminded him of Polly's—the inferior feathers in their chip hats. The sharp contrast between the two groups of girls was almost painful.
"I've got to leave you," said Chapman; "but I'll see you later. Take care of yourself."
The horn tooted, the whip cracked, the coach started. The men on the club balcony above the Casino watched it lazily. The street between the coach and the green wall opposite had been blocked with carriages that now rolled away.
Webb turned his attention to the group of cottagers. One of the girls wore a yellow organdie trimmed with black velvet ribbons, a large Leghorn covered with yellow feathers and black velvet. She was not pretty, but she had "an air," and that was supremest beauty in Andrew's eyes. Another was in lilac, another in pink. Each had the same sleek brown hair, the same ivory complexion. In attendance was a tall clumsily built but very imposing young man with sleepy blue eyes and a mighty mustache. The girls paid him marked attention.
They chatted for a few moments, then walked through the entrance of the Casino, over the lawn, towards the lower balcony of the horseshoe surrounding it. Andrew followed, fascinated. The young man in attendance walked after the manner of his kind, and Andrew, unconsciously imitating him, ascended the steps, seated himself with an air of elaborate indifference opposite the party in the narrow semicircle, and composed his face into an expression of blank abstraction. His trouble was wasted: they did not see him. They had an air of seeing no one in the world but their kind. One of the girls, to Andrew's horror, crossed her knees and swung her foot airily. The young man sank into a slouching position. Another girl joined the group, but he did not rise when introduced, nor offer to get her a chair. She was obliged to perform that office, at some difficulty, for herself.
The band began to play. Andrew leaned forward, gazing at the floor, intent upon hearing these people actually converse. But their talk only came to him in snatches between the rise and fall of the music. Like many other New-Yorkers, he had a deaf ear.
"My things disappear so"—(from the yellow girl) ... "I suspect my maid wears them.... Don't really know what I have.... Don't dare say anything." This was said with a languid drawl which Andrew thought delicious.
"Shall you go to Paris this year?"
"I don't know ... till time comes.... Then we keep four servants up all night packing.... Must have some new gowns.... You know how you have to talk to Ducet and Paquin yourself."
The young man went to sleep. The girls put their heads together and whispered. After a time they arose with a little capricious air, which completed Andrew's subjugation, and strolled away.
That evening, as he sat with Chapman over the coffee in the stately little dining-room of the victim of cordage, the journalist remarked suddenly:
"I say, old fellow, you don't seem to be in it. Don't you know anybody here at all?"
Andrew shook his head gloomily.
"Well, you'll have a stupid time, I'm afraid. There are only three classes of people that come to Newport—the swells, the people who want to see the swells, and the correspondents whose unhappy fate it is to report the doings of the swells. Now, what on earth did you come here for?"
Andrew had not a confiding nature, but he could not repress a dark flush. The astute little journalist understood it.
"It's too bad you didn't bring a letter or two. One would have made it easy work. You look as well as any of them, and you've got the boodle. Where did you come from, anyway?"
Chapman puckered his lips about his cigar. "That's bad. It's harder for a non-commissioned New-Yorker to get into society than for a district-attorney to get into heaven. Didn't you make any swagger friends at college?"
"I never went to college."
"Too bad! A man should always strain a point to get to college. If he's clever he can make friends there that he can 'work' for the rest of his life."
Little by little, with adroit use of the detective faculty of the modern reporter, he extracted from Webb the tale of his years—even the extent of his fortune. The young aspirant's ingenuousness made him gasp more than once; but he had too kindly a nature to state to Webb the hopelessness of his case. His new friend was manly and generous, and had won from him a sincere liking, tempered with pity. Better let him find out for himself how things stood; then, when his eyes were open, steer him out of his difficulties.
He rose in a few moments. "Well," he said, cheerily, "I wish I were Lancaster. I might be able to do something for you: but I'm not in it—not for a cent. You may as well take in the passing show, however. The first Casino hop is on to-night. Put on your togs and go."
"Anybody there?" asked Andrew, loftily.
"Oh, rather. All the cottagers will be there, or a goodly number of them. And it's a pretty sight."
"But how can I get in?"
"By paying the sum of one dollar, old man."
Andrew's cigar dropped from his mouth.
"Do you mean to say that they go to a place and dance—in full dress—on the floor—with everybody? Why, any one can pay a dollar."
Chapman laughed. "Oh!—well—go and see how it is for yourself. Meet me in the gallery at ten, and I'll tell you who's who. Au revoir."
* * * * *
At half-past nine Andrew stood before his mirror and regarded himself meditatively. Without vanity, he could admit that so far as appearance counted he would be an ornament to any ballroom. His strong young figure carried its evening clothes with the air of a gentleman, not of a waiter. He had seen fashionable men in Delmonico's who needed their facial tresses to avoid confusion. Chapman had that day pointed out to him two scions of distinguished name whose "sideboards" had caused him to mistake them for coachmen. He stroked his own mustache. It had never been cut, and was as silken as the hair of the ladies he worshipped. His head had been cropped by the most fashionable barber in New York. He wore no jewels. In a word, he was correct, and he assured himself of the fact with proud humility. Nevertheless, his heart was heavy behind his irreproachable waistcoat.
From his apartment it was but a few steps to the Casino. He walked there without injury to his pumps, bought his ticket at the office, half fearing that it would be refused him, and sauntered across the lawn to the inner door of the ballroom. The horseshoe was brilliantly lighted, and, with its airy architecture, looked as if awaiting a revel of the fairies. The cottagers, Andrew understood, would alight at an outside door. They were subscribers, and the office was not for them.
He went up to the gallery to await his friend. It was less than a fourth occupied by pretty girls—"natives," he recognized at once. Some wore hats, others were in local substitute for full dress—a muslin or Indian silk turned away at the throat, a flower in the hair. He took a chair before the railing. The one beside him was occupied by a handsome dark-eyed girl who had made a brave attempt to be smart. She wore a red silk frock and a red rose in her rough abundant hair. Round her white throat she had gracefully arranged some silk lace. Andrew paid that tribute to her charms of one whose eyes have been too long accustomed to great works of art to take any interest in the chromo. Nevertheless, he was young and she was young. They flirted mildly until Chapman came in and introduced them.
"Miss Leslie is an old friend of mine, Webb," he said in his hearty way. "I hope you will be friends too."
Miss Leslie bowed and beamed and flashed her pretty teeth. Andrew made some vague remark, wondering at the spite of fate, then forgot her utterly. Chapman had whispered to him that the cottagers were coming.
He leaned eagerly over the rail. A number of buxom dames, accompanied by slender girls, were filing in. Some of the old women were in white satin, with many jewels on their platitudinous bosoms. The slim sisterhood, with their deerlike movements, their curried hair arranged to simulate a walnut on the crown of their little heads, their tiny waists and white necks and arms, riveted Andrew's gaze as ever. Some looked like Easter lilies in their pure white gowns, others like delicate orchids. One beautiful young woman, evidently a matron, wore a gown of black gauze, with a row of sparkling crescents, stars, and clusters, about the low line of the corsage.
"Isn't she lovely?" whispered Miss Leslie. "She got a French Duke. But she deserved her luck. She's sweet."
All were very decolletee.
"Reminds one of the days when slaves were put up on sale at the mart, not far from this very spot," murmured Chapman.
One sprightly matron entered with an imperious air, and was immediately surrounded.
"Who's she?" inquired Andrew, scornfully. "Why, her frock and gloves are soiled, and her hair's dyed."
"Oh, she's out of sight, my boy! Once in a while they do look like that. She's going to lead things this summer. Wish she'd hurry up!" Then he named a number of people to Webb.
The band on the platform facing the triple row of seats at the far end began a waltz. Most of the men were elderly and well preserved. They danced with the girls. The half-dozen youths improved their chances by assiduous attentions to the unwieldy dames. Andrew thought that his princesses danced very badly. Many of them were taller than the men, and looked about to go head first over the shoulders whose support they seemed to disdain. The little ones bounded like rubber balls. The old women formed groups and gossiped. A number sat about a plethoric lady, whose diamonds made her look like a crystal chandelier. Chapman informed Webb that she was a duchess.
"You see that fellow over there!" he exclaimed, suddenly, indicating with the point of his lead-pencil a young man with a vulgar, vacuous face and a clumsy assumption of the grand air; "well, he was nobody a year ago,—a distant connection of the Webbs; but they never recognized his existence until he came into some money. Then they took him up, and now he's out of sight. It's too bad you didn't happen to be that kind of Webb. You look a long sight more of a gentleman than he does."
"Are any of the Webbs here?" asked Andrew, choking with bitterness.
"There's the old girl over there. Regular old ice-chest."
"Is—is—Schuyler Churchill Webb here?"
"He's just come in. He is talking to the duchess—the French one."
Andrew gazed with dull hatred at the plain amiable-looking young man, whose air of indefinable elegance seemed to reach forth and smite him in the face. The gulf, which had been a gradually widening rift, seemed suddenly to yawn.
"Well, I must go," said Chapman. "I have to get my stuff off, you know. Will see you in the morning."
As he left, Miss Leslie renewed her pleasantries, hoping that Andrew would ask her to go down and dance. She was terribly afraid of the great folk, poor little soul, but she felt that this strong self-reliant young man would protect her. Andrew excused himself in a few moments, however, and went down-stairs. He had bought the right to be in the same room with those people, and he would claim it.
The treble row of seats was evidently reserved for strangers; no cottagers were at that end of the room. They sat about the other three sides with an air of being on their own ground. Andrew walked resolutely into the room, and took possession of one of the chairs reserved for his kind. He had only three or four neighbors; most of the tourists had gone up-stairs, and were darkly surveying the scene. There were no decorations, but the dowagers were a jewelled dado, the girls an animated bed of blossoms.
For one hour Andrew sat there, and at its end he comprehended why the cottagers did not concern themselves about the tickets sold. Not one icy glance had been directed at the treble row of seats, not one inquiring stare bent upon the occasional tourist-couple who summoned courage to take a whirl. He and his companions might have been invisible intruders on a foreign planet, for all the notice the elect took of them. There was nothing overt, nothing unkind, but the stranger was as effectually frozen out as if he had fled before a battery of lorgnettes. The cottagers were like one large family. There was no more reserve among the young people than if they had been a party of happy well-trained schoolchildren. What wonder that the stranger within their gates felt his remoteness! During the "Lancers" they almost romped. They might have been on the lawn of one of their own cottages, and these outsiders hanging on the fence. To any and all without their world they were unaffectedly oblivious.
At the end of the hour Andrew rose heavily and left his seat. His face was gray, his knees shook a little. He understood.
* * * * *
But his cup of bitterness was not yet full. As he made his way down the passage behind one of the rows of chairs reserved for the cottagers, he beheld a girl who had just entered. He stood still and stared at her, wondering that he had ever thought other women beautiful. If those he had worshipped were princesses, this was a goddess. Only New York could give her that nameless distinction, so curiously unlike the graceful breeding of older lands,—the difference between the hothouse orchid and the lily of ancient parks. This girl's figure was more Junoesque than was usual with her kind, her waist larger. She was very tall. Her carriage was one of regal simplicity, as if she were wont to walk on stars. Her shining brown hair was gathered into a knot at the base of her classic head. Her brow and chin and throat were perfect in their modelling. Her skin, of a marvellous whiteness, seemed to shed a light of its own; one might surely examine it with a microscope and find no flaw. Her mouth and nose were irregular, but her large blue-gray eyes shone triumphant, and she had beautiful ears. She wore a simple gown of pale blue organdie, clinging to her faultless figure, even at the throat and wrists. At her right was the new-found relative of the Webbs, half a head too short to reach that exquisite ear with his mumblings. About her were several other men.
Andrew's capacity for love may not have been very profound, but he loved this woman at once and finally. It was a love that would have delighted the cynical Schopenhauer and the philosophical Darwin. The instinct of selection had never been more spontaneously and unerringly exercised. He was conscious of neither passion nor sentiment, however. She hovered in his visions as a companion at great functions—his possession whom all the world would envy. It was not so much she he loved as what she represented.
His attention was momentarily distracted by the remarkable antics of an elderly man. This person was bowing and genuflecting before the goddess, rolling his eyes upward, throwing out his hands, clasping and wringing them—a pantomime of speechless admiration. To Andrew he looked like an elderly billy-goat with a thorn in its hoof. The goddess looked down upon him with an expression of good-natured contempt. The men applauded heartily. Andrew once more riveted his gaze on the face which had completed his undoing. In a moment the girl's clear eyes met his, then moved past as indifferently as if she had gazed upon space. Andrew turned, forgetting his hat, and almost ran from the house, down the street, and up the stairs to his apartment. He flung himself into a chair, buried his face in his hands, and groaned aloud. The hopelessness of his case surged through his brain with pitiless reiteration. He might as well attempt to fly to one of the cold stars above his casement as to besiege the society of New York. There was literally no human being out of earth's millions to give him the line that would pass him through those open invincible portals. Had he been a baboon from Central Africa, his chances would have been better; he would have compelled their attention for a moment.
There were heavy portieres over his door; no one could hear his groans, and he afforded himself that measure of relief. The tears ran down his cheeks; he twisted his strong hands together. Those whose hearts have been convulsed by the bitterness of love, by the loss of children, by the downfall of great hopes, may read with scorn this suffering of a snob. It may seem a mean and trivial emotion. But he has had scant opportunity to study his kind who knows nothing of the power of the snob to suffer. An artist may toil on unrecognized, yet with the deep delight of his art as compensation. A man in public life may be stung with a thousand bitter defeats, but he has the joy of the fight, the self-respect of legitimate ambition. But for the repeated defeats of even the successful snob, what compensation? Step by step he climbs, to find another still to mount, each bristling with obstacles, to which he yields the shreds and patches of his self-respect. The bitter knowledge that he is on tolerance is ever with him—that no matter how high he rises, he can never reach his goal, for at the goal are only those who have never known the need to strive. 'Tis a constant battle for a soap-bubble, an ambition without soul.
And Andrew? He had not even planted his foot on the first step. For five years he had lived in a fool's paradise, a corroding dream. There was literally nothing else on earth that he wanted. His money had come to him as the very irony of Fate. It could not give him the one thing he wished, and he had no other use for it. His dream was over. He felt like an aged man set free from an asylum for the demented after a period of incarceration which had devoured the good years of his life. He looked at what still seemed wealth to him as such a man would look at all the joys of light and liberty and taste, offered to his paralyzed senses.
When the sun rose it shone down with an air of personal sympathy upon the fleet of white yachts in the bay, upon the grand old avenues, upon the relics of an historic past no cottager ever thinks of, upon the splendid houses of those who have made Newport's younger fame. And it straggled through one pair of heavy curtains and gleamed upon the white face of a young man who had joined the ranks of those that proclaim the world their conqueror.
Crowned with One Crest
(Published in Vanity Fair, London, in 1895)
People were beginning to wonder if an American, having captured a title and worn it for five years, would renounce it for mere good looks and brains; in other words, if Lady Carnath, formerly Miss Edith Ingoldsby, of Washington, and still earlier—before her father had found leisure to crown a triumphant financial career with the patriotic labors of a United States Senator—of Boone, Iowa, would marry Butler Hedworth, M.P., a gentleman of some fortune and irreproachable lineage who had already made himself known on the floor of the House, but was not so much as heir-presumptive to a title. So many American maidens had placidly stood by while their mammas "arranged" a marriage between their gold-banked selves and the impecunious scion of an historical house, that the English, when forced to admit them well-bred, found solace in the belief that these disgustingly rich and handsome girls were without heart.
Nevertheless, Lady Carnath, who had worn her weeds but a year, permitted Butler Hedworth to pay her attentions so pronounced that her world was mildly betting on his possible acceptance as husband or lover. It was argued that during the life of Lord Carnath his wife's demeanor had been above comment, but a cynic remarked that women had all sorts of odd ideals; and was widely quoted.
Edith Ingoldsby had bought her Earl and paid a high price for him; nevertheless she had liked him better than any man but one that she had ever known, and they had been the best of friends. When she met him she was in the agonies of her only passion, and had clutched the first opportunity to bury alive the love that was destroying her beauty and her interest in life.
The passion had lingered for a time, then gone the way of all passions unfed by a monotonous environment and too much leisure. She found it very interesting to be an English countess. For a while she had the impression of playing a part in a modern historical drama; but before long she realized, with true American adaptability, that her new life was but the living chapters of a book whose earlier parts had been serial instalments of retiring memory. Her great wealth, her beauty, her piquant dashing thoroughbred manner, her husband's popularity and title, created for her a position that would have closed any wound not irritated by domestic unhappiness; and this canker was not in her rose. When Carnath died she mourned him sincerely, but not too profoundly to anticipate pleasurably the end of the weeded year. When she met Hedworth she was as free of fancy and of heart as if she had but stepped from a convent.
"Yes, I was in love once—" she admitted to him one evening as they sat alone. She blushed as she tripped at the word "before." Hedworth had made no declaration as yet; they were still playing with electricity, and content with sparks. "At least, I thought I was. All girls have their love freaks. I had had several—when I was in my teens. This seemed more serious, the grande passion—because there was an obstacle: he was married. If he had been free, if there had been no barrier between myself and what I wanted, I think it would have been quite different. You see, I had had my own way so long that the situation, combined, of course, with the man himself—who was very magnetic—fascinated me; and I let myself go, to see what it would be like to long for something I could not have. I suppose it was my imagination that was at work principally; but I ended by believing myself frantically in love with him."
Hedworth stood up as she paused, and leaned against the mantel, looking down at her. They were in her boudoir, a yellow satin room that looked like a large jewel-casket. Lady Carnath's long slender round figure betrayed its perfections in a gown of black chiffon; on her white neck and arms and in her black hair were many diamonds; she had dressed for the opera, then given the evening to Hedworth. Her dark face was delicately modelled; the mouth and chin were very firm, but the lips were full and red. The eyes in repose were a trifle languid, in animation mutable and brilliant. The brows were finely pencilled, and the soft dark hair, brushed back from a low forehead, added to the general distinction of her appearance. Hedworth studied her face as he had studied it many times.
"Well?" he asked. He had an abrupt voice, suggestive of temper, and the haughty bearing which is the chief attraction of Englishmen for American women. His face was as well chiselled as the average of his kind, but lacked the national repose. The eyes were very clever, the features mobile; the tenacity and strength of his nature were indicated in the lower part of his face and in the powerful yet supple build of the man.
"What sort of a man was this Johnny?"
"Oh, I am not very good at describing people—quite different from you—much lighter—"
"I don't care what he looked like. A man only looks to a woman who is in love with him as she imagines he looks. Was he in love with you?"
"Yes, of course he was."
"Did he tell you so?"
The delicate red in Lady Carnath's dark cheek deepened. "Yes. He did."
"Did you tell him that you loved him?"
"What did he do?"
"I don't know that you have any right to be so curious."
"Of course you need not answer if you don't wish. Did he kiss you?"
"Yes, he did, if you want to know. We had a tremendous scene. I went into high tragics, and, I suppose, bored the poor man dreadfully."
"He was much more matter-of-fact, I suppose?"
"Where did this scene take place?"
"In the drawing-room one afternoon when he had walked home with me from a tea."
"What happened the next time you met him?"
"I never saw him again—that is, alone."
Hedworth's face and tone changed suddenly. Both softened. "Why not?"
She raised her head from the back of the sofa and lifted her chin defiantly. "I did not dare—if you will know. Carnath came along shortly after, and I took him as soon as he offered himself. Why do you look so pleased? The one was as bad as the other, only in the course I took there was no scandal."
"Which is the point. Scandal and snubs and vulgar insinuation in print and out of it would have demoralized you. How do you feel towards this man now? If he were free and came for you would you marry him?"
She shook her head, and looked up at him, smiling and blushing again. "He is no more to me than one of the book-heroes I used to fancy myself in love with."
"Why didn't he get a divorce and marry you? I thought any one could get a divorce in the States."
"You English people know so much about the United States! You are willing to believe anything and to know nothing. I really think you feel that your dignity would be compromised if you knew as much about America as we know about Europe. Your attitude is like that of old people to a new invention which is too remarkable for their powers of appreciation, so they take refuge in disdain."
He smiled, as he always did when her patriotism flamed. "You haven't answered my question."
"What?—oh, divorce. If a man has a good wife, no matter how uncongenial, he can't get rid of her unless he is a brute; and I didn't happen to like that sort of man."
"Like? I thought you said just now that you loved him."
"I don't think now that I did. I explained that a while ago."
"Why have you changed your mind?"
"I never knew a man to ask so many questions."
But before he left her he knew.
* * * * *
Edith anticipated pleasurably the sensation her engagement would make, but did not announce it at once. She had a certain feminine secretiveness which made her doubly enjoy a happiness undiluted by publicity; moreover, some further deference was due to Carnath. She was very happy, the more so as she had believed until a short while ago that her strong temperamental possibilities were vaulted in her nature's little church-yard. "Our hearts after first love are like our dead," she thought; "they sleep until the hour of resurrection." Hedworth dominated her, had taken her love rather than asked for it, and, although he was jealous and exacting, she was haunted by the traditions of man's mutability, and studied her resources as it had never occurred to her to study them before. She found that the outer envelopes of her personality could be made to shift with kaleidoscopic brilliancy, and except when Hedworth needed repose—she had much tact—she treated him to these many moods in turn. It is possible that she added to her fascination, but, having won him without effort, she might have rested on her laurels. He was deeply in love with her, and worried himself with presentiments of what might happen before she would consent to name the wedding-day. Both being children of worldly wisdom, however, they harlequined their misgivings and were happy when together.
Fortunately for both, she was heavy-laden with femininity, and was content to give all, and receive the little that man in the nature of his life and inherited particles has to offer. She was satisfied to be adored, desired, mentally appreciated. If his ego was always paramount, his spiritual demands so imperious that he appropriated the full measure of sympathy and comprehension that Nature has let loose for man and woman, not caring to know anything of her beyond the fact that she was the one woman in the world in whom he saw no fault, she was satisfied to have it so. She was a clever woman, but not too clever; and their chances of happiness were good.
And then a strange thing happened to her.
Hedworth was called to Switzerland by his mother, who fell ill. His parting with Edith occupied several hours, and during the three or four days following, his affianced protested that she was inconsolable. But his letters were frequent and characteristic, and she began to enjoy the new phase of their intercourse: the excitement of waiting for the post, the delight which the first glimpse of the envelope on her breakfast-tray gave her, the novelty of receiving a fragment of him daily, which her imagination could expand into his hourly life and thoughts. The season was over, and she had little else to do. She expected him back at any moment, and preferred to await his arrival in town.
One evening she was sitting in her bedroom thinking of him. The night was hot and the windows were open. It was very late. She had been staring down upon the dark mass of tree-tops in the Park, recapitulating, phase by phase, the growth of her feeling for Hedworth. Suddenly it occurred to her that it bore a strong racial resemblance to her first passion, and, being too intelligent to have escaped the habit of analysis, she dug up the old love and dissected it. It had been better preserved than she would have thought, for it did not offend her sense; and she gave an hour to the office. She went back to her first moment of conscious interest in the hero of her tragedy, galvanized the thrill she had felt when he entered her presence, her restlessness and doubt and jealousy when he was away, or appeared to neglect her; the recognition that she was in the hard grasp of a passion in which she had had little faith; the sweetness and terror of it, the keen delight in the sense of danger. There had been weeks of companionship before he had defined their position; it occurred to her now that he had managed her with the skill and coolness of a man who understood women and could keep his head, even while quickened with all that he inspired. She also recalled, her lips curling into a cynical grin, that she had felt the same promptings for spiritual abandonment, of high desire to help this man where he was weak, to restore some of his lost ideals, or to replace them with better; to root out the weeds which she recognized in his nature, and to coax the choked bulbs of those fairer flowers which may have been there before he and the world knew each other too well. Then she relived the days and nights of torment when she had walked the floor wringing her hands, barely eating and sleeping. She recalled that she had even beaten the walls and flung herself against them.
The procession was startlingly familiar and fresh of lineament; even the moments of rapture, whose memory is soonest to fade, and the fitful solace she had found, in those last days, imagining what might have been.
She got up and walked about the room, half amused, half appalled. "What does it mean?" she thought. "Is it that there is an impalpable entity in this world for me, and that part of it is in one man and part in another? Is the man who has the larger share the one I really love? Is that the explanation of loving a second time? It certainly is very like—ridiculously like."
She turned her thoughts to Hedworth, but they swung aside and pointed straight to the other man. She half expected to see his ghost framed in the dark window, he seemed so close. She found herself living the past again and again, instinct with its sensations. He had had much in his life to cark and harrow, and the old sympathy and tenderness vibrated aloud, and little out of tune. She wondered what had become of him, what he was doing at the moment. She did not believe that he had loved any woman since; he had nearly exhausted his capacity for loving when he met her.
And at the same time she was distinctly conscious that if the two men stood before her she should spring to Hedworth. Nevertheless, when she conjured his image, the shadowy figure of the other man stood behind, looking over Hedworth's shoulder, with the half-cynical smile which had only left his mouth when he had told her, with white face whose muscles were free of his will for the moment, that he loved her.
"Is it the old love that is demanding its rights, not the man?" she thought. "Is it true, then, that all we women want is love, and that it is as welcome in one attractive frame as another? That it is not Hedworth I love, but what he gives me? Now that I even suspect this, can I be happy? Will that ghost always look over his shoulder?"
She was a woman of sound practical sense, and had no intention of risking her happiness by falling a victim to her imagination. She pressed the electric-button and wrote a letter to her former lover—a friendly letter, without sentimental allusion, asking for news of him. The sight of the handwriting that once had thrilled her, as well as the nature of his reply, would at least bring her to some sort of mental climax. Moreover, he might be dead. It might be spiritual influence that had handled her imagination. She was not a superstitious woman; she was merely wise enough to know that she knew nothing, and that it was folly to disbelieve anything.
Hedworth did not return for three weeks. During that time it seemed to her that her brain was an amphitheatre in which the two men were constantly wrestling. She never saw one without the other. When Hedworth mastered for the moment she was reminded that he was merely playing a familiar tune on her soul-keys. She felt for the man who had first touched those keys a persistent tenderness, and during the last days watched restlessly for his letter. But she felt no desire whatever to see him again. For Hedworth she longed increasingly.
Hedworth returned. The other man vanished.
* * * * *
She announced the engagement. They had been invited to the same houses for the autumn. Necessarily they saw little of each other, and planned to meet in the less-frequented rooms and in the woods. At first they enjoyed this new experience; but when they found themselves in a large party that seemed to pervade every corner of the house and grounds at once, and two days had passed without an interview of five minutes' duration, Hedworth walked up to her—she was alone for the moment—and said:
"Four weeks from to-day we marry."
She gave a little gasp, but made no protest.
"I have had enough of dawdling and sentimentalizing. We will marry at your place in Sussex on the second of October."
"Very well," she said.
Shortly after she went to Paris to confer with the talent that should enhance her loveliness, then paid Mrs. Hedworth a visit in Switzerland. Hedworth met her there, and his mother saw little of her guests. Edith returned to England alone. Hedworth was to follow at the end of the week, and spend the few remaining days of his bachelorhood at the house of a friend whose estate adjoined the one Lady Carnath had bought not long after her husband's death.
Several days after her return she was sitting at her dressing-table when a letter was handed her bearing the Washington post-mark. Her maid was devising a new coiffure, and she was grumbling at the result. She glanced at the handwriting, pushed the letter aside, and commanded the maid to arrange her hair in the simple fashion that suited her best. After the woman had fixed the last pin, Edith critically examined her profile in the triple mirror; then thrust out a thin little foot to be divested of its mule and shod in a slipper that had arrived that morning from Paris: she expected people to tea. While the maid was on her knees Edith bethought herself of the letter and read it:—
Dear Lady Carnath—I have been in Canada all summer. No letters were forwarded. I find yours here at the Metropolitan. Thanks, I am well. Life is the same with me. I eat and drink and wither. But you are a memory to be thankful for, and I have never tried to forget you. I was glad to learn through Tower, whom I met in Montreal, that you were well and happy. I wish I may never hear otherwise.
Then followed several pages of news of her old friends.
"Poor fellow!" thought Edith with a sigh. "But I doubt if any woman or any circumstances would ever make a man like that happy. There are those wretched people, and I am not half dressed!"
Nevertheless, he again took his stand in her brain and elbowed Hedworth—whose concrete part was still detained in Switzerland. She did not answer the letter at once; it was not an easy letter to answer. But it haunted her; and finally she sat down at her desk and bit the end of her penholder.
She sat staring before her, the man in complete possession. And gradually the color left her face. If this old love, which her mind and senses had corporealized, refused to abdicate, had she any right to marry Hedworth? Now that she had unlocked this ghost, might not she find it at her side whenever her husband was absent, reminding her that she was a sort of mental bigamist? Carnath had no part in her dilemma; she barely recalled his episode.
She was as positive as she had been when the past unrolled itself that she had no wish to see the first man again; that did he stand before her his power would vanish. He was a back number—a fatal position to occupy in the imagination of a vital and world-living woman.
"Is it all that he awakened, made known to me, represented, that arises in resentment? Or is it that the soul only gives itself once, acknowledges only one mate? The mind and body, perhaps, obey the demand for companionship again. The soul in its loneliness endeavors to accompany these comrades, but finds itself linked to the mate of the past. Probably when a woman marries a man she does not love, the soul, having no demand made upon it, abstracts itself, sleeps. It is when a mate to whom it might wholly have given itself appears, that, in its isolation and desolation, it clamors for its wedded part."
Her teeth indented the nib of her penholder. "Was ever a woman in such a predicament before? So illusionary and yet so ridiculously actual! Shall I send Hedworth away and sit down with this phantom through life? I understand that some women get their happiness out of just that sort of thing. Then when I forget Hedworth would I forget him? Is passion needed to set the soul free? Until Hedworth made me feel awakened womanhood personified, I had not thought of this man for years, not even during the year of my mourning, when I was rather bored. What am I to do? I can't fling my life away. I am not a morbid idiot. But I can't marry one man if what I feel for him is simply the galvanizing of a corpse. Hedworth ought to be taken ill and his life despaired of. That is the way things would work out in a novel."
Her face grew whiter still. She had experienced another mental shock. For the first time she realized that no woman could suffer twice as she had suffered five years ago. That at least was all the other man's. Her capacity for pain had been blunted, two-thirds exhausted. If Hedworth left her, died, she might regret him, long to have him back; but the ghost of that abandon of grief, that racking of every sense, that groping in an abyss while a voiceless something within her raved and shrieked, resolved itself into a finger of fire, which wrote Hedworth's inferior position.
"What shall I do? What shall I do?" She dipped the pen into the ink and put it to the paper. At least, for the moment, she could write a friendly note to this man, convey tactful sympathy, little good as it would do him. The letter must be answered.
She heard a step on the gravel beneath her open window. She sprang to her feet, the blood rushing to her hair. She ran to the window and leaned out, smiling and trembling. Hedworth's eyes flashed upward to hers. She was, it must be admitted, a product of that undulating and alluring plain we call "the world," not of those heights where the few who have scaled them live alone.
Death and the Woman.
(This story first appeared in Vanity Fair, London, in 1892)
Her husband was dying, and she was alone with him. Nothing could exceed the desolation of her surroundings. She and the man who was going from her were in the third-floor-back of a New York boarding-house. It was summer, and the other boarders were in the country; all the servants except the cook had been dismissed, and she, when not working, slept profoundly on the fifth floor. The landlady also was out of town on a brief holiday.
The window was open to admit the thick unstirring air; no sound rose from the row of long narrow yards, nor from the tall deep houses annexed. The latter deadened the rattle of the streets. At intervals the distant elevated lumbered protestingly along, its grunts and screams muffled by the hot suspended ocean.
She sat there plunged in the profoundest grief that can come to the human soul, for in all other agony hope flickers, however forlornly. She gazed dully at the unconscious breathing form of the man who had been friend, and companion, and lover, during five years of youth too vigorous and hopeful to be warped by uneven fortune. It was wasted by disease; the face was shrunken; the night-garment hung loosely about a body which had never been disfigured by flesh, but had been muscular with exercise and full-blooded with health. She was glad that the body was changed; glad that its beauty, too, had gone some other-where than into the coffin. She had loved his hands as apart from himself; loved their strong warm magnetism. They lay limp and yellow on the quilt: she knew that they were already cold, and that moisture was gathering on them. For a moment something convulsed within her. They had gone too. She repeated the words twice, and, after them, "forever." And the while the sweetness of their pressure came back to her.
She leaned suddenly over him. HE was in there still, somewhere. Where? If he had not ceased to breathe, the Ego, the Soul, the Personality was still in the sodden clay which had shaped to give it speech. Why could it not manifest itself to her? Was it still conscious in there, unable to project itself through the disintegrating matter which was the only medium its Creator had vouchsafed it? Did it struggle there, seeing her agony, sharing it, longing for the complete disintegration which should put an end to its torment? She called his name, she even shook him slightly, mad to tear the body apart and find her mate, yet even in that tortured moment realizing that violence would hasten his going.
The dying man took no notice of her, and she opened his gown and put her cheek to his heart, calling him again. There had never been more perfect union; how could the bond still be so strong if he were not at the other end of it? He was there, her other part; until dead he must be living. There was no intermediate state. Why should he be as entombed and unresponding as if the screws were in the lid? But the faintly beating heart did not quicken beneath her lips. She extended her arms suddenly, describing eccentric lines, above, about him, rapidly opening and closing her hands as if to clutch some escaping object; then sprang to her feet, and went to the window. She feared insanity. She had asked to be left alone with her dying husband, and she did not wish to lose her reason and shriek a crowd of people about her.
The green plots in the yards were not apparent, she noticed. Something heavy, like a pall, rested upon them. Then she understood that the day was over and that night was coming.
She returned swiftly to the bedside, wondering if she had remained away hours or seconds, and if he were dead. His face was still discernible, and Death had not relaxed it. She laid her own against it, then withdrew it with shuddering flesh, her teeth smiting each other as if an icy wind had passed.
She let herself fall back in the chair, clasping her hands against her heart, watching with expanding eyes the white sculptured face which, in the glittering dark, was becoming less defined of outline. Did she light the gas it would draw mosquitoes, and she could not shut from him the little air he must be mechanically grateful for. And she did not want to see the opening eye—the falling jaw.
Her vision became so fixed that at length she saw nothing, and closed her eyes and waited for the moisture to rise and relieve the strain. When she opened them his face had disappeared; the humid waves above the house-tops put out even the light of the stars, and night was come.
Fearfully, she approached her ear to his lips; he still breathed. She made a motion to kiss him, then threw herself back in a quiver of agony—they were not the lips she had known, and she would have nothing less.
His breathing was so faint that in her half-reclining position she could not hear it, could not be aware of the moment of his death. She extended her arm resolutely and laid her hand on his heart. Not only must she feel his going, but, so strong had been the comradeship between them, it was a matter of loving honor to stand by him to the last.
She sat there in the hot heavy night, pressing her hand hard against the ebbing heart of the unseen, and awaited Death. Suddenly an odd fancy possessed her. Where was Death? Why was he tarrying? Who was detaining him? From what quarter would he come? He was taking his leisure, drawing near with footsteps as measured as those of men keeping time to a funeral march. By a wayward deflection she thought of the slow music that was always turned on in the theatre when the heroine was about to appear, or something eventful to happen. She had always thought that sort of thing ridiculous and inartistic. So had He.
She drew her brows together angrily, wondering at her levity, and pressed her relaxed palm against the heart it kept guard over. For a moment the sweat stood on her face; then the pent-up breath burst from her lungs. He still lived.
Once more the fancy wantoned above the stunned heart. Death—where was he? What a curious experience: to be sitting alone in a big house—she knew that the cook had stolen out—waiting for Death to come and snatch her husband from her. No; he would not snatch, he would steal upon his prey as noiselessly as the approach of Sin to Innocence—an invisible, unfair, sneaking enemy, with whom no man's strength could grapple. If he would only come like a man, and take his chances like a man! Women had been known to reach the hearts of giants with the dagger's point. But he would creep upon her.
She gave an exclamation of horror. Something was creeping over the window-sill. Her limbs palsied, but she struggled to her feet and looked back, her eyes dragged about against her own volition. Two small green stars glared menacingly at her just above the sill; then the cat possessing them leaped downward, and the stars disappeared.
She realized that she was horribly frightened. "Is it possible?" she thought. "Am I afraid of Death, and of Death that has not yet come? I have always been rather a brave woman; He used to call me heroic; but then with him it was impossible to fear anything. And I begged them to leave me alone with him as the last of earthly boons. Oh, shame!"
But she was still quaking as she resumed her seat, and laid her hand again on his heart. She wished that she had asked Mary to sit outside the door; there was no bell in the room. To call would be worse than desecrating the house of God, and she would not leave him for one moment. To return and find him dead—gone alone!
Her knees smote each other. It was idle to deny it; she was in a state of unreasoning terror. Her eyes rolled apprehensively about; she wondered if she should see It when It came; wondered how far off It was now. Not very far; the heart was barely pulsing. She had heard of the power of the corpse to drive brave men to frenzy, and had wondered, having no morbid horror of the dead. But this! To wait—and wait—and wait—perhaps for hours—past the midnight—on to the small hours—while that awful, determined, leisurely Something stole nearer and nearer.
She bent to him who had been her protector with a spasm of anger. Where was the indomitable spirit that had held her all these years with such strong and loving clasp? How could he leave her? How could he desert her? Her head fell back and moved restlessly against the cushion; moaning with the agony of loss, she recalled him as he had been. Then fear once more took possession of her, and she sat erect, rigid, breathless, awaiting the approach of Death.
Suddenly, far down in the house, on the first floor, her strained hearing took note of a sound—a wary, muffled sound, as if some one were creeping up the stair, fearful of being heard. Slowly! It seemed to count a hundred between the laying down of each foot. She gave a hysterical gasp. Where was the slow music?
Her face, her body, were wet—as if a wave of death-sweat had broken over them. There was a stiff feeling at the roots of her hair; she wondered if it were really standing erect. But she could not raise her hand to ascertain. Possibly it was only the coloring matter freezing and bleaching. Her muscles were flabby, her nerves twitched helplessly.
She knew that it was Death who was coming to her through the silent deserted house; knew that it was the sensitive ear of her intelligence that heard him, not the dull, coarse-grained ear of the body.
He toiled up the stair painfully, as if he were old and tired with much work. But how could he afford to loiter, with all the work he had to do? Every minute, every second, he must be in demand to hook his cold, hard finger about a soul struggling to escape from its putrefying tenement. But probably he had his emissaries, his minions: for only those worthy of the honor did he come in person.
He reached the first landing and crept like a cat down the hall to the next stair, then crawled slowly up as before. Light as the footfalls were, they were squarely planted, unfaltering; slow, they never halted.
Mechanically she pressed her jerking hand closer against the heart; its beats were almost done. They would finish, she calculated, just as those footfalls paused beside the bed.
She was no longer a human being; she was an Intelligence and an EAR. Not a sound came from without, even the Elevated appeared to be temporarily off duty; but inside the big quiet house that footfall was waxing louder, louder, until iron feet crashed on iron stairs and echo thundered.
She had counted the steps—one—two—three—irritated beyond endurance at the long deliberate pauses between. As they climbed and clanged with slow precision she continued to count, audibly and with equal precision, noting their hollow reverberation. How many steps had the stair? She wished she knew. No need! The colossal trampling announced the lessening distance in an increasing volume of sound not to be misunderstood. It turned the curve; it reached the landing; it advanced—slowly—down the hall; it paused before her door. Then knuckles of iron shook the frail panels. Her nerveless tongue gave no invitation. The knocking became more imperious; the very walls vibrated. The handle turned, swiftly and firmly. With a wild instinctive movement she flung herself into the arms of her husband.
* * * * *
When Mary opened the door and entered the room she found a dead woman lying across a dead man.
(TO AN UNWRITTEN PLAY)
Characters: James Hamilton, Mary Fawcett, Rachael Lavine, two slaves. Place: Nevis, British West Indies. Time: The month of April, 1756.
[A large room, with open windows, to which are attached heavy inside wooden shutters furnished with iron bars. Beyond the windows are seen masses of tropical trees and foliage, green and more brilliantly hued, filled with screaming birds and monkeys. In the court is a fountain. The house is half-way up the mountain, and between the trees is a glint of the sea. The room is severely simple. There are no curtains, carpets, nor upholstered furniture; but there are two handsome pieces of mahogany, a bookcase full of books bound in old calf, a table on which are tropical fruits and cooling drinks in earthen jugs, one or two palm-trees, and Caribbean pottery on shelves. In one corner is a harp.
In the distance is heard a loud menacing roar. The sky is covered with racing clouds. Suffusing everything is a livid light.
Mistress Fawcett is leaning on her crutch, looking through one of the windows. Two slaves are crouching on the floor. All are in an intense attitude, listening. Suddenly there is heard the quick loud firing of cannon, four guns in rapid succession. The negroes shriek and crouch lower as if they would insinuate their trembling bodies through the floor. Mistress Fawcett hastily closes the window by which she is standing, swings to and bars its shutters. Immediately after may be heard the sound, gradually diminishing in the distance, of a long line of windows slammed and barred. Mistress Fawcett attempts to move the shutters of the other window, but the hinges are rusty and defy her feeble strength.]
MISTRESS FAWCETT (to the slaves). Come here. Close this window. Did you not hear the guns? A hurricane is upon us.
THE SLAVES (crouching lower and wailing almost unintelligibly). Oh, mistress, save us! Send for oby doctor!
MISTRESS FAWCETT. To strangle you with a horse-hair pie! Your obeah charlatans are grovelling in their cellars. Only our courage and our two hands can save us to-day. Come! (Beating the floor with her crutch.) A hundred man slaves on the estate, and not one to help us save the house! Are my daughter and I to do it all? Get up! (She menaces them with her crutch.)
THE SLAVES (not moving). Oh, mistress!
[Enter RACHAEL. She walks to the open window and looks out.]
MISTRESS FAWCETT. Close the windows, Rachael. I cannot. And those creatures are empty skulls.
RACHAEL. In a moment.
MISTRESS FAWCETT. In a moment? Open your ears. Do you want to see the roof racing with the wind?'
RACHAEL. The hurricane is still miles away.
MISTRESS FAWCETT. Great God! How can you stand there and wait for a hurricane? Do you realize that an hour, if this old house be not strong enough, may see us struggling out in those roaring waters? These desolate afflicted Caribbees! They have tested my courage many times, and I can go through this without flinching; but I cannot stand that unnatural calm of yours.
RACHAEL. Do I seem calm? (She closes and bars the window.) It is a fine sight. We may never have such another.
MISTRESS FAWCETT. Nor live to know.
RACHAEL (her back is still turned, as she shakes and tests the window). Well, what of that? Are you so in love with life?