There was a little stir in the company, a small inarticulate sound from Elly. Marise saw everyone's eyes turn to the center of the room and looked back to the plant. The big pink bud was beginning visibly to swell.
A silence came into the room. No one coughed, or stirred, or scraped a chair-leg. It was as though a sound would have wounded the flower. All those human souls bowed themselves. Almost a light shone upon them . . . a phrase from Dante came to Marise's mind . . . "la mia menta fu percossa da un fulgore . . ."
With a quick involuntary turn she looked at Marsh, fearing his mockery of her, "quoting the Paradiso, about Vermont farmers!" as though he could know, for all those sharp eyes of his, what was going on hidden in her mind!
All this came and went in an instant, for she now saw that one big, shining petal was slowly, slowly, but quite visibly uncurling at the tip. From that moment on, she saw nothing, felt nothing but the opening flower, lived only in the incredibly leisurely, masterful motion with which the grotesquely shaped protecting petals curled themselves back from the center. Their motion was so slow that the mind was lost in dreaminess in following it. Had that last one moved? No, it stood still, poised breathlessly . . . and yet, there before them, revealed, exultant, the starry heart of the great flower shimmered in the lamp-light.
* * * * *
Then she realized that she had not breathed. She drew in a great marveling aspiration, and heard everyone about her do the same. They turned to each other with inarticulate exclamations, shaking their heads wonderingly, their lips a little apart as they drew long breaths.
Two very old women, rubbing their age-dimmed eyes, stood up, tiptoed to the table, and bent above the miraculously fine texture of the flower their worn and wrinkled faces. The petals cast a clear, rosy reflection upon their sallow cheeks. Some of the younger mothers took their little children over to the table and lifting them up till their round shining eyes were on a level with the flower, let them gaze their fill at the mysterious splendor of stamen and pistil.
"Would you like to go quite close and look at it, children?" Marise asked her own brood.
The little boys stepped forward at once, curiously, but Elly said, "No, oh no!" and backed off till she stood leaning against Toucle's knee. The old woman put her dark hand down gently on the child's soft hair and smiled at her. How curious it was to see that grim, battered old visage smile! Elly was the only creature in the world at whom the old Indian ever smiled, indeed almost the only thing in the house which those absent old eyes ever seemed to see. Marise remembered that Toucle had smiled when she first took the baby Elly in her arms.
* * * * *
A little murmur of talk arose now, from the assembled neighbors. They stood up, moved about, exchanged a few laconic greetings, and began putting their wraps on. Marise remembered that Mr. Welles had seemed tired and as soon as possible set her party in motion.
"Thank you so much, Nelly, for letting us know," she said to the farmer's wife, as they came away. "It wouldn't seem like a year in our valley if we didn't see your cereus in bloom."
She took Elly's hand in one of hers, and with Mark on the other side walked down the path to the road. The darkness was intense there, because of the gigantic pine-tree which towered above the little house. "Are you there, Paul?" she called through the blackness. The little boy's voice came back, "Yes, with Toucle, we're ahead." The two men walked behind.
Elly's hand was hot and clasped her mother's very tightly. Marise bent over the little girl and divined in the darkness that she was crying. "Why, Elly darling, what's the matter?" she asked.
The child cried out passionately, on a mounting note, "Nothing, nothing! Nothing!" She flung her arms around her mother's neck, straining her close in a wild embrace. Little Mark, on the other side, yawned and staggered sleepily on his feet. Elly gave her mother a last kiss, and ran on ahead, calling over her shoulder, "I'm going to walk by myself!"
"Well!" commented the old gentleman.
Mr. Marsh had not been interested in this episode and had stood gazing admiringly up at the huge pine-tree, divining its bulk and mass against the black sky.
"Like Milton's Satan, isn't it?" was his comment as they walked on, "with apologies for the triteness of the quotation."
For a time nothing was said, and then Marsh began, "Now I've seen it, your rite of the worship of beauty. And do you know what was really there? A handful of dull, insensitive, primitive beings, hardened and calloused by manual toil and atrophied imaginations, so starved for any variety in their stupefyingly monotonous life that they welcome anything, anything at all as a break . . . only if they could choose, they would infinitely prefer a two-headed calf or a bearded woman to your flower. The only reason they go to see that is because it is a curiosity, not because of its beauty, because it blooms once a year only, at night, and because there is only one of them in town. Also because everybody else goes to see it. They go to look at it only because there aren't any movies in Ashley, nor anything else. And you know all this just as well as I do."
"Oh, Mr. Welles," Marise appealed to him, "do you think that is the truth of the facts?"
The old man pronounced judgment gently. "Well, I don't know that anything is the truth. I should say that both of you told the truth about it. The truth's pretty big for any one person to tell. Isn't it all in the way you look at it?" He added, "Only personally I think Mrs. Crittenden's the nicest way."
Marsh was delighted with this. "There! I hope you're satisfied. You've been called 'nice.' That ought to please any good American."
"I wonder, Mr. Welles," Marise said in an ostentatiously casual tone, "I wonder if Mr. Marsh had been an ancient Greek, and had stood watching the procession going up the Acropolis hill, bearing the thank-offerings from field and loom and vineyard, what do you suppose he would have seen? Dullness and insensitiveness in the eyes of those Grecian farmer-lads, no doubt, occupied entirely with keeping the oxen in line; a low vulgar stare of bucolic curiosity as the country girls, bearing their woven linen, looked up at the temple. Don't you suppose he would have thought they managed those things a great deal more artistically in Persia?"
"Well, I don't know much about the ancient Greeks," said Mr. Welles mildly, "but I guess Vincent would have been about the same wherever he lived."
"Who is satisfied with the verdict now?" triumphed Marise.
But she noticed that Marsh's attack, although she considered that she had refuted it rather neatly, had been entirely; efficacious in destroying the aura of the evening. Of the genuine warmth of feeling which the flower and the people around it had roused in her heart, not the faintest trace was left. She had only a cool interested certainty that her side had a perfectly valid foundation for arguing purposes. Mr. Marsh had accomplished that, and more than that, a return from those other centers of feeling to her preoccupation with his own personality.
He now went on, "But I'm glad to have gone. I saw a great deal else there than your eccentric plant and the vacancy of mind of those sons of toil, cursed, soul-destroying toil. For one thing, I saw a woman of very great beauty. And that is always so much gained."
"Oh yes," cried Marise, "that's so. I forgot that you could see that. I've grown so used to the fact that people here don't understand how splendidly handsome Nelly Powers is. Their taste doesn't run to the statuesque, you know. They call that grand silent calm of her, stupidness! Ever since 'Gene brought her here as a bride, a year after we came to live in Crittenden's, I have gone out of my way to look at her. You should see her hanging out the clothes on a windy day. One sculptured massive pose after another. But even to see her walk across the room and bend that shining head is thrilling."
"I saw something else, too," went on Marsh, a cool voice speaking out of the darkness. "I saw that her black, dour husband is furiously in love with her and furiously jealous of that tall, ruddy fellow with an expressive face, who stood by the door in shirt-sleeves and never took his eyes from her."
Marise was silent, startled by this shouting out of something she had preferred not to formulate.
"Vincent, you see too much," said Mr. Welles resignedly. The phrase ran from his tongue as though it were a familiar one.
Marise said slowly, "I've sometimes thought that Frank Warner did go to the Powers' a good deal, but I haven't wanted to think anything more."
"What possible reason in the world have you for not wanting to?" asked Marsh with the most authentic accent of vivid and astonished curiosity.
"What reason . . . ?" she repeated blankly.
He said dispassionately, "I don't like to hear you make such a flat, conventional, rubber-stamp comment. Why in the world shouldn't she love a fine, ardent, living man, better than that knotty, dead branch of a husband? A beautiful woman and a living, strong, vital man, they belong together. Whom God hath joined . . . Don't try to tell me that your judgment is maimed by the Chinese shoes of outworn ideas, such as the binding nature of a mediaeval ceremony. That doesn't marry anybody, and you know it. If she's really married to her husband, all right. But if she loves another man, and knows in her heart that she would live a thousand times more fully, more deeply with him . . . why, she's not married to her husband, and nothing can make her. You know that!"
Marise sprang at the chance to turn his own weapons of mockery against him. "Upon my word, who's idealizing the Yankee mountaineer now?" she cried, laughing out as she spoke at the idea of her literal-minded neighbors dressed up in those trailing rhetorical robes. "I thought you said they were so dull and insensitive they could feel nothing but an interest in two-headed calves, and here they are, characters in an Italian opera. I only wish Nelly Powers were capable of understanding those grand languages of yours and then know what she thought of your idea of what's in her mind. And as for 'Gene's jealousy, I'll swear that it amounts to no more than a vague dislike for Frank Warner's 'all the time hanging around and gassin' instead of stickin' to work.' And you forget, in your fine modern clean-sweep, a few old-fashioned facts like the existence of three Powers children, dependent on their mother."
"You're just fencing, not really talking," he answered imperturbably. "You can't pretend to be sincere in trying to pull that antimacassar home-and-mother stuff on me. Ask Bernard Shaw, ask Freud, ask Mrs. Gilman, how good it is for children's stronger, better selves, to live in the enervating, hot-house concentration on them of an unbalanced, undeveloped woman, who has let everything else in her personality atrophy except her morbid preoccupation with her own offspring. That's really the meaning of what's sentimentally called 'mothering.' Probably it would be the best thing in the world for the Powers children if their mother ran away with that fine broth of a lad."
"But Nelly loves her children and they love her!" Marise brought this out abruptly, impulsively, and felt, as she heard the words, that they had a flat, naive sound, out of key with the general color of this talk, like a C Major chord introduced into Debussy nuances.
"Not much she doesn't, nor they her. Any honest observer of life knows that the only sincere relation possible between the young and the old (after the babies are weaned) is hostility. We hated our elders, because they got in our way. And they'll hate us as soon as they get the strength to, because we'll be in their way. And we will hate them because they will want to push us off the scene. It's impossible to ignore the gulf. Most human tragedies come from trying to pretend it's not there."
"Why, Mr. Welles," cried Marise again, "what do you say to such talk? Don't you find him perfectly preposterous?"
Mr. Welles answered a little absently. "Oh, I'm pretty well used to him, by now. And all his friends in the city are talking like that now. It's the fashion. I'm so old that I've seen a good many fashions in talk come and go. I never could see that people acted any differently, no matter which way they talk." As he finished, he drew a long sigh, which had obviously no connection with what he had been saying. With the sigh, came an emanation from him of dispirited fatigue. Marise wished she dared draw his hand upon her arm and ask him to lean on her as they walked.
Nothing more was said for a time. Marise lost herself in the outdoor wideness of impression that always came to her under a night sky, where she felt infinity hovering near. She was aware of nothing but the faint voice of the pines, the distant diminuendo of the frog's song, the firm elastic quality of the ground under her feet, so different from the iron rigidity of the winter earth, and the cool soft pressure of the night-air on her cheeks, when, like something thrust into her mind from the outside, there rose into her consciousness, articulate and complete, the reason why she had shrunk from looking at the photograph of Rocca di Papa. It was because it was painful to her, intimately painful and humiliating to remember how she and Neale had felt there, the wild, high things they had said to each other, that astounding flood of feeling which had swept them away at the last. What had become of all that? Where now was that high tide?
* * * * *
Of course she loved Neale, and he loved her; there was nobody like Neale, yes, all that; but oh! the living flood had been ebbing, ebbing out of their hearts. They were not alive as they had been alive when they had clung to each other, there on that age-old rock, and felt the tide of all the ages lift them high.
It must have been ebbing for a long time before she realized it because, hurried, absorbed, surrounded incessantly by small cares as she was, hustled and jostled in her role of mother and mistress-of-the-house in servantless America, with the primitive American need to do so much with her own hands, she had not even had the time to know the stupid, tragic thing that was happening to her . . . that she was turning into a slow, vegetating plant instead of a human being. And now she understood the meaning of the strange dejection she had felt the day when little Mark went off to school with the others. How curiously jaded and apprehensive she had felt that morning, and when she had gone downstairs to see the callers who arrived that day. That was the first time she had felt that the tide was ebbing.
All this went through her mind with the cruel swiftness of a sword-flash. And the first reaction to it, involuntary and reflex, was to crush it instantly down, lest the man walking at her side should be aware of it. It had come to her with such loud precision that it seemed it must have been audible.
As she found herself still on the dark country road, cloaked and protected by the blackness of the starless night, she was struck with wonder, as though she had never thought of it before, at the human body, its opaque, inscrutable mystery, the locked, sealed strong-box of unimaginable secrets which it is. There they were, the three of them, stepping side by side, brushing each other as they moved; and as remote from each other as though they were on different stars. What were the thoughts, powerful, complex, under perfect control, which were being marshaled in that round, dark head? She felt a little afraid to think; and turned from the idea to the other man with relief. She knew (she told herself) as though she saw inside, the tired, gentle, simple, wistful thoughts that filled the white head on her other side.
With this, they were again at the house, where the children and Toucle had preceded them. Paul was laughing and saying, "Elly's the looniest kid! She's just been saying that Father is like . . ." Elly, in a panic, sprang up at him, clapping her hand over his mouth, crying out, "No, Paul, you shan't tell! Don't!"
The older, stronger child pulled himself away and, holding her at arm's length, continued, "She said Father was like the end of her hair that's fastened into her head, and Mother was the end that flaps in the wind, and Mr. Marsh was like the Eagle Rock brook, swirly and hurrying the way it is in the spring."
Elly, half crying, came to her mother. "Mother, it's nasty-horrid in Paul to tell when I didn't want him to."
Marise began taking off the little girl's coat. "It wasn't very kind in Paul, but there was nothing in those funny little fancies to hide, dear."
"I didn't care about you and Father!" explained the child. "Only . . ." She looked at Mr. Marsh from under downbent brows.
"Why, Elly, I am very much complimented, I'm sure," Marsh hastened to tell her, "to be compared with such a remarkably nice thing as a brook in spring-time. I didn't suppose any young lady would ever have such a poetic idea about me."
"Oh . . ." breathed Elly, relieved, "well . . ."
"Do you suppose you little folks can get yourselves to bed without me?" asked Marise. "If one of you big children will unbutton Mark in the back, he can manage the rest. I must set a bread-sponge before I go upstairs."
They clung to her imploringly. "But you'll be upstairs in time to kiss us good-night in our beds," begged Elly and Mark together. Paul also visibly hung on his mother's answer.
Marise looked down into their clear eyes and eager faces, reaching out to her ardently, and she felt her heart melt. What darlings they were! What inestimable treasures! How sweet to be loved like that!
She stooped over them and gathered them all into a great armful, kissing them indiscriminately. "Yes, of course, I will . . . and give you an extra kiss now!" she cried.
She felt Marsh's eyes on her, sardonically.
She straightened herself, saying with affectionate roughness, "There, that's enough. Scamper along with you. And don't run around with bare feet!"
She thought to herself that she supposed this was the sort of thing Marsh meant when he spoke about hot-house enervating concentration. She had been more stung by that remark of his than she had been willing to acknowledge to Marsh or to herself.
But for the moment, any further reflection on it was cut short by the aspect of Mr. Welles' face. He had sunk into a chair near the lamp, with an attitude and an expression of such weariness, that Marise moved quickly to him. "See here, Mr. Welles," she said impulsively, "you have something on your mind, and I've got the mother-habit so fastened on me that I can't be discreet and pretend not to notice it. I want to make you say what the trouble is, and then flu it right, just as I would for one of mine."
The old man looked up at her gratefully and reaching out one of his wrinkled hands took hers in it. "It does me good to have you so nice to me," he said, "but I'm afraid even you can't fix it right. I've had a rather distressing letter today, and I can't seem to get it out of my mind."
"Schwatzkummerer can't send the gladioli," conjectured Marsh.
For the first time since he had entered the house, Marise felt a passing dislike for him. She had often felt him to be hard and ruthless, but she had never seen anything cheap in him, before, she thought.
"What was your letter?" she asked the older man.
"Oh, nothing in the least remarkable, nothing new," he said heavily. "I've got a cousin whom I haven't seen since she was a little little girl, though she must be somewhere near my age, now. She has been a teacher in a school for Negroes, down in Georgia, for years, most of her life. But I had sort of lost track of her, till I had to send her some little family trinkets that were left after my old aunt died. Her letter, that I received today, is in answer to that. And while she was writing, she gave me her news, and told me a good deal about conditions down there. Pretty bad, I should think it, pretty bad."
A little spasm crossed his face. He shook his head, as though to shake off a clinging filament of importunate thought.
"What's the trouble? Do they need money, the school?" asked Marise with a vague idea of getting up a contribution.
"No, my cousin didn't say anything about that. It's not so simple. It's the way the Negroes are treated. No, not lynchings, I knew about them. But I knew they don't happen every day. What I hadn't any idea of, till her letter came, was how every day, every minute of every day, they're subject to indignity that they can't avoid, how they're made to feel themselves outsiders and unwelcome in their own country. She says the Southern white people are willing to give them anything that will make good day-laborers of them, almost anything in fact except the thing they can't rise without, ordinary human respect. It made a very painful impression on my mind, her letter, very. She gave such instances. I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. For instance, one of the small things she told me . . . it seems incredible . . . is that Southern white people won't give the ordinary title of respect of Mr. or Mrs. or Dr. even to a highly educated Negro. They call them by their first names, like servants. Think what an hourly pin-prick of insult that must be. Ever since her letter came, I've been thinking about it, the things she told me, about what happens when they try to raise themselves and refine themselves, how they're made to suffer intimately for trying to be what I thought we all wanted all Americans to be." He looked at Marise with troubled eyes. "I've been thinking how it would feel to be a Negro myself. What a different life would be in front of your little Elly if she had Negro blood!"
Marise had listened to him in profound silence. Sheer, unmixed astonishment filled her mind, up to the brim. Of all the totally unexpected things for Mr. Welles to get wrought up about!
She drew a long breath. How eternally disconcerting human beings are! There she had been so fatuously sure, out there on the walk home, that she knew exactly what was in that old white head. And all the time it had been this. Who could have made the faintest guess at that? It occurred to her for the first time that possibly more went on under Mr. Welles' gently fatigued exterior than she thought.
She found not a word to say, so violent and abrupt was the transition of subject. It was as though she had been gazing down through a powerful magnifying glass, trying to untangle with her eyes a complicated twist of moral fibers, inextricably bound up with each other, the moral fibers that made up her life . . . and in the midst of this, someone had roughly shouted in her ear, "Look up there, at that distant cliff. There's a rock on it, all ready to fall off!"
She could not be expected all of a sudden, that way, to re-focus her eyes. And the rock was so far away. And she had such a dim sense of the people who might be endangered by it. And the confusion here, under the microscope of her attention, was so vital and immediate, needing to be understood and straightened before she could go on with her life.
She looked at the old man in an astonishment which she knew must seem fairly stupid to him, but she could not bring out anything else. What was it to her, whether a Negro physician was called Dr. or "Jo"?
Mr. Welles patted her hand, released it, smiled at her kindly, and stood up. "I'm pretty tired. I guess we'd better be getting along home, Vincent and I."
"Well, I should say we would better be getting along home to bed!" agreed the other man, coming forward and slipping his arm under the older man's. "I'll tuck you up, my old friend, with a good hot toddy inside you, and let you sleep off this outrageously crazy daylight nightmare you've cooked up for yourself. And don't wake up with the fate of the Japanese factory-hand sitting on your chest, or you'll get hard to live with."
Mr. Welles answered this with literal good faith. "Oh, the Japanese factory-hands, they're not on the conscience of Americans."
"But, when I see an aged and harmless inhabitant of Ashley, Vermont, stretching his poor old protesting conscience till it cracks, to make it reach clear down to the Georgia Negroes, how do I know where he's going to stop?"
The old man turned to their hostess. "Well, good-night, Mrs. Crittenden. I enjoyed seeing that wonderful flower very much. I wonder if I could grow one like it? It would be something to look forward to, to have the flower open in your own house."
To Marise he looked so sweet and good, and like a tired old child, that she longed to kiss him good-night, as she had her own. But even as she felt the impulse, she had again a startled sense of how much more goes on under the human surface than ever appears. Evidently Mr. Welles, too, was a locked and sealed strong-box of secrets.
* * * * *
In the doorway Marsh stopped abruptly and said, looking at the dense, lustreless black silk wrap about Marise's head and shoulders, "What's that thing? I meant to ask you when you put it on."
She felt as she often did when he spoke to her, as startled as though he had touched her. What an extraordinarily living presence he was, so that a word from him was almost like an actual personal contact. But she took care not to show this. She looked down casually at the soft, opaque folds of her wrap. "Oh, this is a thousand years old. It dates from the Bayonne days. It's Basque. It's their variation, I imagine, on the Spanish mantilla. They never wear hats, the Basque women. The little girls, when they have made their first communion, wear a scarf of light net, or open transparent lace. And when they marry they wear this. It's made of a special sort of silk, woven just for this purpose. As far away as you can see a woman in the Basque country, if she wears this, you know she's married."
"Oh, you do, do you?" said Marsh, going out after his companion.
* * * * *
They were very far from the Negroes in Georgia.
WHAT GOES ON INSIDE
Half an Hour in the Life of a Modern Woman
Marise looked at the clock. They all three looked at the clock. On school mornings the clock dominated their every instant. Marise often thought that the swinging of its great pendulum was as threatening as the Pendulum that swung in the Pit. Back and forth, back and forth, bringing nearer and nearer the knife-edge of its dire threat that nine o'clock would come and the children not be in school. Somehow they must all manage to break the bonds that held them there and escape from the death-trap before the fatal swinging menace reached them. The stroke of nine, booming out in that house, would be like the Crack o' Doom to the children.
Marise told Paul not to eat so fast, and said to Elly, who was finishing her lessons and her breakfast together, "I let you do this, this one time, Elly, but I don't want you to let it happen again. You had plenty of time yesterday to get that done."
She stirred her coffee and thought wistfully, "What a policeman I must seem to the children. I wish I could manage it some other way."
Elly, her eyes on the book, murmured in a low chanting rhythm, her mouth full of oatmeal, "Delaware River, Newcastle, Brandywine, East Branch, West Branch, Crum Creek, Schuylkill."
Paul looked round at the clock again. His mother noted the gesture, the tension of his attitude, his preoccupied expression, and had a quick inner vision of a dirty, ragged, ignorant, gloriously free little boy on a raft on the Mississippi river, for whom life was not measured out by the clock, in thimbleful doses, but who floated in a golden liberty on the very ocean of eternity. "Why can't we bring them up like Huckleberry Finns!" she thought, protestingly, pressing her lips together.
Then she laughed inwardly at the thought of certain sophisticated friends and their opinion of her life. "I daresay we do seem to be bringing them up like Huckleberry Finns, in the minds of any of the New York friends, Eugenia Mills for instance!" She remembered with a passing gust of amusement the expression of slightly scared distaste which Eugenia had for the children. "Too crudely quivering lumps of life-matter for Eugenia's taste," she thought, and then, "I wonder what Marsh's feeling towards children really is, children in general. He seems to have the greatest capacity to ignore their existence at all. Or does he only seem to do that, because I have grown so morbidly conscious of their existence as the only thing vital in life? That's what he thinks, evidently. Well, I'd like to have him live a mother's life and see how he'd escape it!"
"Mother," said Paul seriously, "Mother, Mark isn't even awake yet, and he'll never be ready for school."
"Oh, his teacher had to go to a wedding today. Don't you remember? He doesn't have any school till the afternoon session."
She thought to herself, "What a sense of responsibility Paul has! He is going to be one of the pillars of the earth, one of those miraculous human beings who are mixed in just the right proportions, so that they aren't pulled two ways at once. Two ways! Most of us are pulled a thousand ways! It is one of the injustices of the earth that such people aren't loved as much as impulsive, selfish, brilliant natures like dear little Mark's. Paul has had such a restful personality! Even when he was a baby, he was so straight-backed and robust. There's no yellow streak in Paul, such as too much imagination lets in. I know all about that yellow streak, alas!"
The little boy reached down lovingly, and patted the dog, sitting in a rigid attitude of expectancy by his side. As the child turned the light of his countenance on those adoring dog eyes, the animal broke from his tenseness into a wriggling fever of joy.
"'Oh, my God, my dear little God!'" quoted Marise to herself, watching uneasily the animal's ecstasy of worship. "I wish dogs wouldn't take us so seriously. We don't know so much more than they, about anything." She thought, further, noticing the sweetness of the protecting look which Paul gave to Medor, "All animals love Paul, anyhow. Animals know more than humans about lots of things. They haven't that horrid perverse streak in them that makes humans dislike people who are too often in the right. Paul is like my poor father. Only I'm here to see that Paul is loved as Father wasn't. Medor is not the only one to love Paul. I love Paul. I love him all the more because he doesn't get his fair share of love. And old Mr. Welles loves him, too, bless him!"
"Roanoke River, Staunton River, Dan River," murmured Elly, swallowing down her chocolate. She stroked a kitten curled up on her lap.
"What shall I have for lunch today?" thought Marise. "There are enough potatoes left to have them creamed."
Like a stab came the thought, "Creamed potatoes to please our palates and thousands of babies in Vienna without milk enough to live!" She shook the thought off, saying to herself, "Well, would it make any difference to those Viennese babies if I deprived my children of palatable food?" and was aware of a deep murmur within her, saying only half-articulately, "No, it wouldn't make any literal difference to those babies, but it might make a difference to you. You are taking another step along the road of hardening of heart."
All this had been the merest muted arpeggio accompaniment to the steady practical advance of her housekeeper's mind. "And beefsteak . . . Mark likes that. At fifty cents a pound! What awful prices. Well, Neale writes that the Canadian lumber is coming through. That'll mean a fair profit. What better use can we put profit to, than in buying the best food for our children's growth. Beefsteak is not a sinful luxury!"
The arpeggio accompaniment began murmuring, "But the Powers children. Nelly and 'Gene can't afford fifty cents a pound for beefsteak. Perhaps part of their little Ralph's queerness and abnormality comes from lack of proper food. And those white-cheeked little Putnam children in the valley. They probably don't taste meat, except pork, more than once a week." She protested sharply, "But if their father won't work steadily, when there is always work to be had?" And heard the murmuring answer, "Why should the children suffer because of something they can't change?"
She drew a long breath, brushed all this away with an effort, asking herself defiantly, "Oh, what has all this to do with us?" And was aware of the answer, "It has everything to do with us, only I can't figure it out."
Impatiently she proposed to herself, "But while I'm trying to figure it out, wouldn't I better just go ahead and have beefsteak today?" and wearily, "Yes, of course, we'll have beefsteak as usual. That's the way I always decide things."
She buttered a piece of toast and began to eat it, thinking, "I'm a lovely specimen, anyhow, of a clear-headed, thoughtful modern woman, muddling along as I do."
The clock struck the half-hour. Paul rose as though the sound had lifted him bodily from his seat. Elly did not hear, her eyes fixed dreamily on her kitten, stroking its rounded head, lost in the sensation of the softness of the fur.
Her mother put out a reluctant hand and touched her quietly. "Come, dear Elly, about time to start to school."
As she leaned across the table, stretching her neck towards the child, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the other side of the room, and thought, "Oh, how awful! I begin to look as Cousin Hetty does, with that scrawny neck. . . ."
She repulsed the thought vigorously. "Well, what does it matter if I do? There's nothing in my life, any more, that depends on my looking young."
At this thought, something perfectly inchoate, which she did not recognize, began clawing at her. She pushed it off, scornfully, and turned to Elly, who got up from the table and began collecting her books into her school-bag. Her face was rosy and calm with the sweet ineffable confidence of a good child who has only good intentions. As she packed her books together, she said, "Well, I'm ready. I've done my grammar, indefinite pronouns, and I can say all those river-tributaries backwards. So now I can start. Good-bye, Mother dear." Marise bent to kiss the shining little face. "Good-bye, Elly."
To herself she thought, as her face was close to the child's, "I wonder if I look to my little girl as Cousin Hetty used to look to me?" and startled and shocked that the idea kept recurring to her, assuming an importance she was not willing to give it, she cried out to herself, "Oh, stop being so paltry about that!"
Aloud she said, "Don't forget to put your rubbers on. Have you a clean handkerchief? Oh, Elly, look at your nails! Here, hand me the nail-file over there, Paul. I'll clean them more quickly than you, dear."
As she cleaned the nails, one eye on the grimly relentless clock, the ideas flicked through her mind like quick, darting flames. "What mediaeval nonsense we do stuff into the school-children's head. What an infamous advantage we take of the darlings' trust in us and their docility to our purposes! My dear little daughter with her bright face of desire-to-do-her-best! What wretched chaff she is getting for that quick, imaginative brain of hers! It's not so bad for Paul, but . . . oh, even for him what nonsense! Rules of grammar, names of figures of speech . . . stuff left over from scholastic hair-splitting! And the tributaries of rivers . . . !" She glanced up for an instant and was struck into remorse by the tranquil expression of peace in the little girl's clear eyes, bent affectionately on her mother. "Oh, my poor, darling little daughter," she thought, "how can you trust anything in this weak and wicked world as you trust your broken reed of a mother? I don't know, dear child, any more than you do, where we are going, nor how we are going to get there. We are just stumbling along, your father and I, as best we can, dragging you and your brothers along with us. And all we can do for you, or for each other, is to love you and . . ."
Elly withdrew her hand. "There, Mother, I know they're clean enough now. I'm afraid I'll be late if I don't go. And you know she scolds like everything if anybody's late." She repeated in a rapid murmur, "The tributaries of the Delaware on the left bank are . . ."
Her mother's mind went back with a jerk to the question of river-tributaries. "And what's the use of cramming her memory with facts she could find in three minutes in any Atlas if by any strange chance she should ever ever need to know about the tributaries of the Delaware. As well set her to learning the first page of the Telephone Directory! Why don't I do the honest thing by her and say to her that all that is poppy-cock?"
* * * * *
An inner dialogue flashed out, lunge, parry, riposte, like rapier blades at play. "Because if I told her it is nonsense, that would undermine her faith in her teacher and her respect for her."
"But why should she respect her teacher if her teacher does not deserve that sort of respect? Ought even a little child to respect anything or anybody merely because of a position of authority and not because of intrinsic worth? No, of course not."
"Oh, you know that's only wild talk. Of course you couldn't send the child to school, and keep her under her teacher, unless you preserve the form of upholding the teacher's authority."
"Yes, but in Heaven's name, why do we send her to school? She could learn twenty times more, anywhere else."
"Because sending her to school keeps her in touch with other children, with her fellow-beings, keeps her from being 'queer' or different. She might suffer from it as she grew up, might desire more than anything in the world to be like others."
* * * * *
Elly had been staring at her mother's face for a moment, and now said, "Mother, what makes you look so awfully serious?"
Marise said ruefully, "It's pretty hard to explain to a little girl. I was wondering whether I was as good a mother to you as I ought to be."
Elly was astonished to the limit of astonishment at this idea. "Why, Mother, how could you be any better than you are?" She threw herself on her mother's neck, crying, "Mother, I wish you never looked serious. I wish you were always laughing and cutting up, the way you used to. Seems to me since the war is over, you're more soberer than you were before, even, when you were so worried about Father in France. I'd rather you'd scold me than look serious."
Paul came around the table, and shouldered his way against Elly up to a place where he touched his mother. "Is that masculine jealousy, or real affection?" she asked herself, and then, "Oh, what a beast! To be analyzing my own children!" And then, "But how am I ever going to know what they're like if I don't analyze them?"
The dog, seeing the children standing up, half ready to go out, began barking and frisking, and wriggling his way to where they stood all intertwined, stood up with his fore-paws against Paul. The kitten had been startled by his approach and ran rapidly up Marise as though she had been a tree, pausing on her shoulder to paw at a loosened hair-pin.
Marise let herself go on this wave of eager young life, and thrust down into the dark all the razor-edged questions. "Oh, children! children! take the kitten off my back!" she said, laughing and squirming. "She's tickling me with her whiskers. Oh, ow!" She was reduced to helpless mirth, stooping her head, reaching up futilely for the kitten, who had retreated to the nape of her neck and was pricking sharp little pin-pointed claws through to the skin. The children danced about chiming out peals of laughter. The dog barked excitedly, standing on his hind-legs, and pawing first at one and then at another. Then Paul looked at the clock, and they all looked at the clock. The children, flushed with fun, crammed on their caps, thrust their arms into coats, bestowed indiscriminate kisses on their mother and the kitten, and vanished for the morning, followed by the dog, pleading with little whines to be taken along too. The kitten got down and began soberly to wash her face.
* * * * *
There was an instant of appalling silence in the house, the silence that is like no other, the silence that comes when the children have just gone. Through it, heavy-footed and ruthless, Marise felt something advancing on her, something which she dreaded and would not look at.
From above came a sweet, high, little call, "Mo-o-o-ther!" Oh, a respite—Mark was awake!
His mother sprang upstairs to snatch at him as he lay, rosy and smiling and sleepy. She bent over him intoxicated by his beauty, by the flower-perfection of his skin, by the softness of his sleep-washed eyes.
She heard almost as distinctly as though the voice were in her ear, "Oh, you mothers use your children as other people use drugs. The child-habit, the drug-habit, the baby-habit, the morphine habit . . . two different ways of getting away from reality." That was what Marsh had said one day. What terribly tarnishing things he did say. How they did make you question everything. She wondered what Neale would say to them.
She hoped to have a letter from Neale today. She hoped so, suddenly, again, with such intensity, such longing, such passion that she said to herself, "What nonsense that was, that came into my head, out on the road in the dark, the other night, that Neale and I had let the flood-tide of emotion ebb out of our hearts! What could have put such a notion into my head?" What crazy, fanciful creatures women are! Always reaching out for the moon. Yes, that must have been the matter with her lately, that Neale was away. She missed him so, his strength and courage and affection.
"I'm awfully hungry," remarked Mark in her ear. "I feel the hole right here." He laid a small shapely hand on the center of his pajama-clad body, but he kept the other hand and arm around his mother's neck, and held her close where he had pulled her to him in his little bed. As he spoke he rubbed his peach-like cheek softly against hers.
A warm odor of sleep and youth and clean, soaped skin came up from him. His mother buried her face in it as in a flower.
"Ooh!" he cried, laughing richly, "you're tickling me."
"I mean to tickle you!" she told him savagely, worrying him as a mother-cat does her kitten. He laughed delightedly, and wriggled to escape her, kicking his legs, pushing at her softly with his hands, reaching for the spot back of her ear. "I'll tickle you," he crowed, tussling with her, disarranging her hair, thudding his little body against her breast, as he thrashed about. The silent house rang with their laughter and cries.
They were both flushed, with lustrous eyes, when the little boy finally squirmed himself with a bump off the bed and slid to the floor.
At this point the kitten came walking in, innocent-eyed and grave. Mark scrambled towards her on his hands and knees. She retreated with a comic series of stiff-legged, sideways jumps, that made him roll on the floor, chuckling and giggling, and grabbing futilely for the kitten's paws.
Marise had stood up and was putting the loosened strands of her hair back in place. The spell was broken. Looking down on the laughing child, she said dutifully, "Mark, the floor's cold. You mustn't lie down on it. And, anyhow, you're ever so late this morning. Hop up, dear, and get into your clothes."
"Oh, Mother, you dress me!" he begged, rolling over to look up at her pleadingly.
She shook her head. "Now, Mark, that's silly. A great big boy like you, who goes to school. Get up quick and start right in before you take cold."
He scrambled to his feet and padded to her side on rosy bare feet. "Mother, you'll have to 'tay here, anyhow. You know I can't do those back buttons. And I always get my drawer-legs twisted up with my both legs inside my one leg."
Marise compromised. "Well, yes, if you'll hurry. But not if you dawdle. Mother has a lot to do this morning. Remember, I won't help you with a single thing you can do yourself."
The child obediently unbuttoned his pajamas and stepping out of them reached for his undershirt. His mother, looking at him, fell mentally on her knees before the beautiful, living body. "Oh, my son, the straight, strong darling! My precious little son!" She shook with that foolish aching anguish of mothers, intolerable. . . . "Why must he stop being so pure, so safe? How can I live when I am no longer strong enough to protect him?"
Mark remarked plaintively, shrugging himself into the sleeves of his shirt, "I've roden on a horse, and I've roden on a dog, and I've even roden on a cow, but I've never roden on a camel, and I want to."
The characteristic Mark-like unexpectedness of this made her smile.
"You probably will, some day," she said, sitting down.
"But I've never even sawn a camel," complained Mark. "And Elly and Paul have, and a elephant too."
"Well, you're big enough to be taken to the circus this year," his mother promised him. "This very summer we'll take you."
"But I want to go now!" clamored Mark, with his usual disregard of possibilities, done in the grand style.
"Don't dawdle," said his mother, looking around for something to read, so that she would seem less accessible to conversation. She found the newspaper under her hand, on the table, and picked it up. She had only glanced at the head-lines yesterday. It took a lot of moral courage to read the newspapers in these days. As she read, her face changed, darkened, set.
The little boy, struggling with his underwear, looked at her and decided not to ask for help.
She was thinking as she read, "The Treaty muddle worse than ever. Great Britain sending around to all her colonies asking for the biggest navy in the world. Our own navy constantly enlarged at enormous cost. Constantinople to be left Turkish because nobody wants anybody else to have it. Armenian babies dying like flies and evening cloaks advertised to sell for six hundred dollars. Italy land-grabbing. France frankly for anything except the plain acceptance of the principles we thought the war was to foster. The same reaction from those principles starting on a grand scale in America. Men in prison for having an opinion . . . what a hideous bad joke on all the world that fought for the Allies and for the holy principles they claimed! To think how we were straining every nerve in a sacred cause two years ago. Neale's enlistment. Those endless months of loneliness. That constant terror about him. And homes like that all over the world . . . with this as the result. Could it have been worse if we had all just grabbed what we could get for ourselves, and had what satisfaction we could out of the baser pleasures?"
She felt a mounting wave of horror and nausea, and knowing well from experience what was on its way, fought desperately to ward it off, reading hurriedly a real-estate item in the newspaper, an account of a flood in the West, trying in vain to fix her mind on what she read. But she could not stop the advance of what was coming. She let the newspaper fall with a shudder as the thought arrived, hissing, gliding with venomous swiftness along the familiar path it had so often taken to her heart . . . "suppose this reactionary outburst of hate and greed and intolerance and imperialistic ambitions all around, means that the 'peace' is an armed truce only, and that in fifteen years the whole nightmare will start over."
She looked down at the little boy, applying himself seriously to his buttons. "In fifteen years' time my baby will be a man of twenty-one."
Wild cries broke out in her heart. "No, oh no! I couldn't live through another. To see them all go, husband and sons! Not another war! Let me live quickly, anyhow, somehow, to get it over with . . . and die before it comes."
The little boy had been twisting himself despairingly, and now said in a small voice, "Mother, I've tried and I've tried and I can't do that back button."
His mother heard his voice and looked down at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. He said, less resigned, impatience pricking through his tone, "Mother, I told you I never could reach that button behind."
She bent from her chair, mechanically secured the little garment, and then, leaning back, looked down moodily at her feet. The little boy began silently to put on and lace up his shoes.
Marise was aware of a dimming of the light in the inner room of her consciousness, as though one window after another were being darkened. A hushed, mournful twilight fell in her heart. Melancholy came and sat down with her, black-robed. What could one feel except Melancholy at the sight of the world of humanity, poor world, war-ridden, broken in health, ruined in hope, the very nerves of action cut by the betrayal of its desperate efforts to be something more than base.
* * * * *
Was that really Melancholy? Something else slid into her mind, something watchful. She sat perfectly still so that no chance movement should disturb that mood till it could be examined and challenged. There was certainly something else in her heart beside sorrow over the miseries of the after-war world.
She persisted in her probing search, felt a cold ray of daylight strike into that gloom and recognized with amazement and chagrin what else it was! Disgusting! There in the very bottom of her mind, lay still that discomfort at beginning to look like Cousin Hetty! And so that wound to her vanity had slowly risen again into her consciousness and clothed itself in the ampler, nobler garments of impersonal Melancholy. . . . "Oh," she cried aloud, impatiently, contemptuous of herself, "what picayune creatures human beings are! I'm ashamed to be one!"
She started up and went to the window, looking out blankly at the mountain wall, as she had at the newspaper, not seeing what was there, her eyes turned inward. "Wait now, wait. Don't go off, half-cocked. Go clear through with this thing," she exhorted herself. "There must be more in it than mere childish, silly vanity." She probed deep and brought up, "Yes, there is more to it. In the first place I was priggish and hypocritical when I tried to pretend that it was nothing to me when I looked in the glass and saw for the first time that my youth has begun to leave me. That was Anglo-Saxon pretense, trying to seem to myself made of finer stuff than I really am. It's really not cheerful for any woman, no matter on what plane, to know that the days of her physical flowering are numbered. I'd have done better to look straight at that, and have it out with myself."
She moved her head very slightly, from side to side. "But there was more than that. There was more than that. What was it?" She leaned her ear as if to listen, her eyes very large and fixed. "Yes, there was the war, and the awfulness of our disappointment in it, too, after all. There was the counsel of despair about everything, the pressure on us all to think that all efforts to be more than base are delusions. We were so terribly fooled with our idealistic hopes about the war . . . who knows but that we are being fooled again when we try for the higher planes of life? Perhaps those people are right who say that to grab for the pleasures of the senses is the best . . . those are real pleasures, at least. Who knows if there is anything else?"
Something like a little, far-away tolling said to her, "There was something else. There was something else."
This time she knew what it was. "Yes, there was that other aspect of the loss of physical youth, when you think that the pleasures of the senses are perhaps all there are. There was the inevitable despairing wonder if I had begun to have out of my youth all it could have given, whether . . ."
There tolled in her ear, "Something else, something else there." But now she would not look, put her hands over her eyes, and stood in the dark, fighting hard lest a ray of light should show her what might be there.
A voice sounded beside her. Toucle was saying, "Have you got one of your headaches? The mail carrier just went by. Here are the letters."
She took down her hands, and opened her eyes. She felt that something important hung on there being a letter from Neale. She snatched at the handful of envelopes and sorted them over, her fingers trembling. Yes, there it was, the plain stamped envelope with Neale's firm regular handwriting.
She felt as though she were a diver whose lungs had almost collapsed, who was being drawn with heavenly swiftness up to the surface of the water. She tore open the envelope and read, "Dearest Marise." It was as though she had heard his voice.
She drew in a great audible breath and began to read. What a relief it was to feel herself all one person, not two or three, probing hatefully into each other!
* * * * *
But there was something she had not done, some teasing, unimportant thing, she ought to finish before going on with the letter. She looked up vacantly, half-absently, wondering what it was. Her eyes fell on Toucle. Toucle was looking at her, Toucle who so seldom looked at anything. She felt a momentary confusion as though surprised by another person in a room she had thought empty. And after that, uneasiness. She did not want Toucle to go on looking at her.
"Mark hasn't had his breakfast yet," she said to the old Indian woman. "Won't you take him downstairs, please, and give him a dish of porridge for me?"
"The Gent Around the Lady
The Lady Round the Gent"
An Evening in the Life of Mr. Vincent Marsh
"Come in, come in!" cried an old black-clad woman, with a white apron, who opened the door wider into the flaring brilliance of the lamp-lit kitchen. "I'm real glad you felt to come to one of our dances. They're old-fashioned, but we like 'em." She closed the door behind them and added cordially, "Now Mr. Welles is going to live here, he'll have to learn to shake his feet along with the rest of us."
Mr. Welles was frankly terrified at the idea. "Why, I never dreamed of dancing in all my life!" he cried. "I only came to look on." He hesitated to divest himself of his overcoat, panic-struck and meditating flight. Vincent fell upon him from one side and the lively old woman from the other. Together they stripped the older man of his wraps. "Never too late to learn," old Mrs. Powers assured him briskly. "You dance with me and I'll shove ye around, all right. There ain't a quadrille ever danced that I couldn't do backwards with my eyes shut, as soon as the music strikes up." She motioned them towards the door, "Step right this way. The folks that have come are all in the settin'-room."
As they followed her, Vincent said, "Mrs. Powers, aren't you going to dance with me, too?"
"Oh, of course I be," she answered smartly, "if you ask me."
"Then I ask you now," he urged, "for the first dance. Only I don't know any more than Mr. Welles how to dance a quadrille. But I'm not afraid."
"I guess there ain't much ye be afraid of," she said admiringly. They came now into the dining-room and caught beyond that a glimpse of the living-room. Both wore such an unusual aspect of elegance and grace that Vincent stared, stopping to look about him. "Looks queer, don't it," said Mrs. Powers, "with the furniture all gone. We always move out everything we can, up garret, so's to leave room for dancing."
Oh yes, that was it, Vincent thought; the shinily varnished cheap furniture had almost disappeared, and the excellent proportions of the old rooms could be seen. Lamps glowed from every shelf, their golden light softened by great sprays of green branches with tender young leaves, which were fastened everywhere over the doors, the windows, banked in the corner The house smelled like a forest, indescribably fresh and spicy.
"There ain't many flowers yet; too early," explained Mrs. Powers apologetically, "so we had to git green stuff out'n the woods to kind of dress us up. 'Gene he would have some pine boughs too. He's crazy about pine-trees. I always thought that was one reason why he took it so hard when we was done out of our wood-land. He thinks as much of that big pine in front of the house as he does of a person. And tonight he's got the far room all done up with pine boughs."
They arrived in the living-room now, where the women and children clustered on one side, and the men on the other, their lean boldly marked faces startlingly clear-cut in the splendor of fresh shaves. The women were mostly in light-colored waists and dark skirts, their hair carefully dressed. Vincent noticed, as he nodded to them before taking his place with the men, that not a single one had put powder on her face. Their eyes looked shining with anticipation. They leaned their heads together and chatted in low tones, laughing and glancing sideways at the group of men on the other side of the room. Vincent wondered at the presence of the children. When she arrived, he would ask Marise about that. At the inward mention of the name he felt a little shock, which was not altogether pleasurable. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head slightly, as though to toss a lock of hair from his forehead, a gesture which was habitual with him when he felt, with displeasure, an unexpected emotion not summoned by his will. It passed at once.
On joining the dark-suited group of men he found himself next to young Frank Warner, leaning, loose-jointed and powerful, against the wall, and not joining in the talk of weather, pigs, roads, and spring plowing which rose from the others. Vincent looked at him with approval. He felt strongly drawn to this splendid, primitive creature, and knew perfectly well why. He liked anybody who had pep enough to have an original feeling, not one prescribed by the ritual and tabu of his particular tribe.
"Hello, Frank," he said. "Have a cigarette?
"We'll have to go out if we smoke," said Frank.
"Well, why shouldn't we?" suggested Vincent, looking around him. "There's nothing to do here, yet."
Frank tore himself loose from the supporting wall with a jerk, and nodded. Together they stepped out of the front door, unused by the guests, who all entered by the kitchen. At first it was as though they had plunged into black velvet curtains, so great was the contrast with the yellow radiance of the room they had left. They looked back through the unshaded windows and saw the room as though it were an illustration in a book, or a scene in a moving-picture play, the men grouped in a dark mass on one side, the women, smiling, bending their heads towards each other, the lamps glowing on the green branches and on the shining eyes of all those pleasure-expectant human beings.
As they looked, Nelly Powers came in from another room, doubtless the "far room" of which her mother-in-law had spoken. She was carrying a large tray full of cups. She braced herself against the weight of the earthenware and balancing herself with a free swinging motion on her high-heeled shoes walked with an accentuation of her usual vigorous poise.
"By George, she's a beauty!" cried Vincent, not sorry to have an opportunity to talk of her with his companion.
Frank made no comment. Vincent laughed to himself at the enormous capacity for silence of these savages, routing to the imagination of a civilized being. He went on, determined to get some expression from the other, "She's one of the very handsomest women I ever saw anywhere."
Frank stirred in the darkness as though he were about to speak. Vincent cocked his ear and prepared to listen with all the prodigious sharpness of which he knew himself capable. If he could only once make this yokel speak her name, he'd know . . . all he wanted to know.
Frank said, "Yes, she's good-looking, all right."
Vincent kept silence, pondering every tone and overtone of the remark. He was astonished to find that he had no more direct light than ever on what he wanted to know. He laughed again at his own discomfiture. There were the two extremes, the super-sophisticated person who could control his voice so that it did not give him away, and the utter rustic whose voice had such a brute inexpressiveness that his meaning was as effectively hidden. He would try again. He said casually, "She's an enough-sight better-looking specimen than her husband. However does it happen that the best-looking women are always caught by that sort of chimpanzees? How did she ever happen to marry 'Gene, anyhow?"
The other man answered, literally. "I don't know how she did happen to marry him. She don't come from around here. 'Gene was off working in a mill, down in Massachusetts, Adams way, and they got married there. They only come back here to live after they'd had all that trouble with lawyers and lost their wood-land. 'Gene's father died about that time. It cut him pretty hard. And 'Gene and his wife they come back to run the farm."
At this point they saw, looking in at the lighted dumb-show in the house, that new arrivals had come. Vincent felt a premonitory clap of his heart and set his teeth in his cigarette. Yes, Marise had come, now appeared in the doorway, tall, framed in green-leafed branches, the smooth pale oval of her face lighted by the subtle smile, those dark long eyes! By God! What would he not give to know what went on behind that smile, those eyes!
She was unwinding from her head the close, black nun-like wrap that those narrow primitive country-women far away on the other side of the globe had chosen to express their being united to another human being. And a proper lugubrious symbol it made for their lugubrious, prison-like, primitive view of the matter.
Now she had it off. Her sleek, gleaming dark head stood poised on her long, thick, white throat. What a woman! What she could be in any civilized setting!
She was talking to Nelly Powers now, who had come back and stood facing her in one of those superb poses of hers, her yellow braids heavy as gold. It was Brunhilda talking to Leonardo da Vinci's Ste. Anne. No, heavens no! Not a saint, a musty, penitential negation like a saint! Only of course, the Ste. Anne wasn't a saint either, but da Vinci's glorious Renaissance stunt at showing what an endlessly desirable woman he could make if he put his mind on it.
"What say, we go in," suggested Frank, casting away the butt of his cigarette. "I think I hear old Nate beginning to tune up."
They opened the door and stepped back, the laughing confusion of their blinking entrance, blinded by the lights, carrying off the first moments of greeting. In the midst of this, Vincent heard the front door open and, startled to think that anyone else had used that exit, turned his head, and saw with some dismay that 'Gene had followed them in. How near had he been to them in the black night while they talked of his wife's mismated beauty? He walked past them giving no sign, his strong long arms hanging a little in front of his body as he moved, his shoulders stooped apparently with their own weight. From the dining-room came a sound which Vincent did not recognize as the voice of any instrument he had ever heard: a series of extraordinarily rapid staccato scrapes, playing over and over a primitively simple sequence of notes. He stepped to the door to see what instrument was being used and saw an old man with a white beard and long white hair, tipped back in a chair, his eyes half shut, his long legs stretched out in front of him, patting with one thick boot. Under his chin was a violin, on the strings of which he jiggled his bow back and forth spasmodically, an infinitesimal length of the horse-hair being used for each stroke, so that there was no sonority in the tones. Vincent gazed at him with astonishment. He had not known that you could make a violin, a real violin, sound like that.
Old Mrs. Powers said at his elbow, "The first sets are forming, Mr. Marsh." She called across to Frank Warner, standing very straight with Nelly Powers' hand on his arm, "Frank, you call off, wun't ye?"
Instantly the young man, evidently waiting for the signal, sent out a long clear shout, "First sets fo-orming!"
Vincent was startled by the electrifying quality of the human voice when not hushed to its usual smothered conversational dullness.
"Two sets formed in the living-room! Two in the dining-room! One in the far room!" chanted Frank. He drew a deep breath which visibly swelled his great chest and sang out, resonantly, "Promenade to your places!"
He set the example, marching off through the throng with Nelly by his side.
"Frank, he generally calls off," explained old Mrs. Powers. "It's in his family to. His father always did before him." She looked around her, discerned something intelligible in what looked like crowding confusion to Vincent and told him hurriedly, "Look-y-here, we'll have to git a move on, if we git into a set. They're all full here." Frank appeared in the doorway, alone, and lifted a long high arm. "One couple needed in the far room!" he proclaimed with stentorian dignity and seriousness.
"Here we are!" shouted old Mrs. Powers, scrambling her way through the crowd, and pulling Vincent after her. He could see now that the couples about him were indeed in their places, hand in hand, facing each other, gravely elate and confident. The younger ones were swinging their bodies slightly, in time to the sharply marked beat of the fiddle, and in the older ones, the pulse throbbed almost visibly as they waited.
He felt the breath of pines on him, resinous, penetrating, stimulating. He was in a small, square room with a low ceiling, dense and green with pine-boughs, fastened to the walls. The odor was as strange an accompaniment to dancing as was that furiously whirling primitive iteration of the fiddle.
"Over here!" cried Mrs. Powers, dragging masterfully at her partner. She gave a sigh of satisfaction, caught at his hand and held it high. "All ready, Frank," she said.
Facing them, near the doorway stood Frank and Nelly, their heads up, Nelly's small high-heeled shoe thrust forward, their clasped hands held high. Vincent felt his blood move more quickly at the spectacle they made. On one side stood Marise Crittenden, her fingers clasped by the huge knotted hand of 'Gene Powers, and on the other was rounded, rosy old Mr. Bayweather holding by the hand the oldest Powers child, a pretty blonde girl of twelve.
Frank's voice pealed out above the jig-jig-jigging of the fiddle. "Salute your partners!"
Vincent had a qualm of a feeling he thought he had left behind him with his boyhood, real embarrassment, fear of appearing at a disadvantage. What in the world did their antiquated lingo mean? Was he to kiss that old woman?
Mrs. Powers said reassuringly, "Don't you worry. Just do what the others do."
As she spoke she was holding out her skirts and dipping to a courtesy. A little later, he caught at the idea and sketched a bow such as to his astonishment he saw the other men executing. Was he in old Versailles or Vermont?
He felt his hand seized by the old woman's. Such a hearty zest was in her every action that he looked at her amazed.
"Balance to the corners, right!" chanted Frank, sending his voice out like a bugle so that it might be heard in all the rooms.
With perfect precision, and poise, the men and women of the couples separated, stepped swayingly, each towards the nearest of the couple to their right, and retreated.
"Balance to corners, left!"
The same movement was executed to the other side.
"First couple forward and back!" shouted Frank.
Marise and 'Gene advanced, hand in hand, to meet the old clergyman and the little girl. They met in the middle, poised an instant on the top wave of rhythm and stepped back, every footfall, every movement, their very breathing, in time to the beat-beat-beat of the fiddle's air which filled the room as insistently as the odor of the pines.
Mrs. Powers nodded her white head to it and tapped her foot. Marsh had not ventured to remove his eyes from the weaving interplay of the dancers in his own set. Now, for an instant, he glanced beyond them into the next room. He received an impression of rapid, incessant, intricate shifting to and fro, the whole throng of dancers in movement as swift and disconcerting to the eyes as the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. It made him literally dizzy to see it, and he turned his eyes back to his own set.
The air changed, but not the rhythm, and all the men broke out in a hoarse chant, singing to a whirring, rapid tune,
"Oh, pass right through and never mind who And leave the girl behind you. Now come right back on the same old track And swing the girl behind you!"
In obedience to these chanted commands, the four who were executing the figure went through labyrinthine manoeuvers, forward and back, dividing and reuniting. The old clergyman held out his hand to Mrs. Crittenden, laughing as he swung her briskly about. 'Gene bent his great bulk solemnly to swing his own little daughter. Then with neat exactitude, on the stroke of the beat, they were all back in their places.
"Second couple forward and back!" sang out Frank, prolonging the syllables in an intoned chant like a muezzin calling from a tower. Vincent felt himself being pushed and shoved by Mrs. Powers through the intricate figure.
"Now come right back on the same old track And swing the girl behind you!"
The men shouted loudly, stamping in time, with such a relish for the beat of the rhythm that it sang itself through to the motor-centers and set them throbbing. Vincent found himself holding Nelly Powers at arm's length and swinging her till his head whirled. She was as light as sea-foam, dreamy, her blue eyes shining.
"Grand right and left!" shouted Frank.
Vincent's hand was seized by the little Powers girl. She swung him competently and passed him on to her mother, who swam past him like a goddess, a golden aroma of health and vivid sensual seduction trailing from her as she moved.
Then it was Marise's hand in his . . . how strange, how strange . . . that hand which knew the secrets of Debussy's heart. . . . She grasped his fingers firmly and looked at him full, laughingly, her face as open as a child's . . . the many-sided tantalizing creature! She pulled him about and was gone.
And there was old Mrs. Powers in her place, absurdly light and elastic, treading the floor in her flat, old-woman's shoes with brilliant precision.
"All promenade!" cried Frank, this time his voice exultant that the end was successfully reached.
He seized Nelly by the waist and danced with her the length of the room, followed by the other couples. The music stopped. He released her instantly, made a strange, stiff little bow, and turned away. The set was over.
"There!" said Mrs. Powers, breathing quickly. "'Twan't so hard as you thought 'twas goin' to be, was it?"
"Good-evening," said Mr. Bayweather on the other side, wiping the pink roll at the back of his neck. "What do you think of our aboriginal folk-dancing? I'll warrant you did not think there was a place in the United States where the eighteenth century dances had had an uninterrupted existence, did you?"
"I assure you I had never thought about the subject at all," said Vincent, edging away rapidly towards escape.
"Fascinating historical phenomenon, I call it," said the clergyman. "Analogous to the persistence of certain parts of old English speech which is to be observed in the talk of our people. For instance in the eighteenth century English vocabulary, the phrase . . ."
His voice died away in the voices of the people Vincent had put resolutely between them shoving his way through the crowd, recklessly. He was struck by the aspect of the people, their blood warmed, their lips moist, their eyes gleaming. The rooms were growing hot, and the odor of pines was heavy in the air.
He found himself next to Nelly Powers, and asked her to dance with him, "although I don't know at all how to do it," he explained. She smiled, silently, indifferently, confidently, and laid her hand on his arm in token of accepting his invitation. Vincent had a passing fancy that she did not care at all with whom she danced, that the motion itself was enough for her. But he reflected that it was probably that she did not care at all whether she danced with him.
From the other end of the room came Frank's deep-mouthed shout, "The set is forming! Promenade to your places!"
Nelly moved swiftly in that direction and again Vincent found himself opposite Frank, dancing this time with Marise Crittenden.
The music broke out into its shaking, quavering iteration of the pulse of the dance.
"Salute your partners!"
This time Vincent knew what to do, and turning, bowed low to Nelly, who made him a deep courtesy, her toe pointed, instep high, her eyes shining, looking straight at him but evidently not seeing him. The music seemed to float her off on a cloud.
"Chassay to the corners, right!"
Vincent untangled the difference between "chassay" and "balance" and acquitted himself. Now that his first panic of astonishment was over, he observed that the figures of the dance were of great simplicity, all but the central part, the climax.
When the preliminary part was over, the music changed and again the men broke out into their accompanying chant. This time it ran,
"The gent around the lady and The lady around the gent. Then The lady around the lady and The gent around the gent."
Somewhere in the hypnotic to-and-fro of those swaying, poised, alert human figures, he encountered Marise, coming on her suddenly, and finding her standing stock-still.
"Around me!" she commanded, imperatively, nodding and laughing. "Just as the song says."
"The gent around the lady,"
sang the men.
Frank was circling about Nelly, his eyes on hers, treading lightly, his tall body apparently weighing no more than thistle-down. It was as though he were weaving a charm.
Vincent ended his circle.
The men sang, "And the lady round the gent."
Marise and Nelly stepped off, overlaying the men's invisible circle with one of their own.
The room beyond boiled with the dervish-like whirling of the dancers. The fiddle rose louder and shriller, faster and faster. The men sang at the tops of their voices, and beat time heavily. Under cover of this rolling clamor, Vincent called out boldly to Marise, "A symbol of life! A symbol of our life!" and did not know if she heard him.
"Then The lady around the lady."
Nelly and Marise circled each other.
"And The gent around the gent."
He and Frank followed them.
His head was turning, the room staggered around him. Nelly's warm, vibrant hand was again in his. They were in their places. Frank's voice rose, resounding, "Promenade all!"
Nelly abandoned herself to his arms, in the one brief moment of close physical contact of the dance. They raced to the end of the room.
The music stopped abruptly, but it went on in his head.
The odor of pines rose pungent in the momentary silence. Everyone was breathing rapidly. Nelly put up a hand to touch her hair. Vincent, reflecting that he would never acquire the native-born capacity for abstaining from chatter, said, because he felt he must say something, "What a pleasant smell those pine-branches give."
She turned her white neck to glance into the small room lined with the fragrant branches, and remarked, clearly and dispassionately, "I don't like the smell."
Vincent was interested. He continued, "Well, you must have a great deal of it, whether you like it or not, from that great specimen by your front door."
She looked at him calmly, her eyes as blue as precious stones. "The old pine-tree," she said, "I wish it were cut down, darkening the house the way it does." She spoke with a sovereign impassivity, no trace of feeling in her tone. She turned away.
Vincent found himself saying almost audibly, "Oh ho!" He had the sensation, very agreeable to him, of combining two clues to make a certainty. He wished he could lay his hands on a clue to put with Marise Crittenden's shrinking from the photograph of the Rocca di Papa.
He had not spoken to Marise that evening, save the first greetings, and his impudent shout to her in the dance, and now turned to find her. On the other side of the room she was installed, looking extraordinarily young and girl-like, between Mr. Welles and Mr. Bayweather, fanning first one and then the other elderly gentleman and talking to them with animation. They were both in need of fanning, puffing and panting hard. Mr. Welles indeed was hardly recognizable, the usual pale quiet of his face broken into red and glistening laughter.
"I see you've been dancing," said Vincent, coming to a halt in front of the group and wishing the two old gentlemen in the middle of next week.
"Old Mrs. Powers got me," explained Mr. Welles. "You never saw anything so absurd in your life." He went on to the others, "You simply can't imagine how remarkable this is, for me. I never, never danced and I no more thought I ever would . . ."
Mr. Bayweather ran his handkerchief around and around his neck in an endeavor to save his clerical collar from complete ruin, and said, panting still, "Best thing in the world for you, Mr. Welles."
"Yes indeed," echoed Marise. "We'll have to prescribe a dance for you every week. You look like a boy, and you've been looking rather tired lately." She had an idea and added, accusingly, "I do believe you've gone on tormenting yourself about the Negro problem!"
"Yes, he has!" Mr. Bayweather unexpectedly put in. "And he's not the only person he torments about it. Only yesterday when he came down to the rectory to see some old deeds, didn't he expatiate on that subject and succeed in spoiling the afternoon. I had never been forced to think so much about it in all my life. He made me very uncomfortable, very! What's the use of going miles out of your way, I say, out of the station to which it has pleased God to place us? I believe in leaving such insoluble problems to a Divine Providence."
Marise was evidently highly amused by this exposition of one variety of ministerial principle, and looked up at Vincent over her fan, her eyes sparkling with mockery. He savored with an intimate pleasure her certainty that he would follow the train of her thought; and he decided to try to get another rise out of the round-eyed little clergyman. "Oh, if it weren't the Negro problem, Mr. Bayweather, it would be free-will or predestination, or capital and labor. Mr. Welles suffers from a duty-complex, inflamed to a morbid degree by a life-long compliance to a mediaeval conception of family responsibility."
Mr. Bayweather's eyes became rounder than ever at this, and Vincent went on, much amused, "Mr. Welles has done his duty with discomfort to himself so long that he has the habit. His life at Ashley seems too unnaturally peaceful to him. I'd just as soon he took it out with worrying about the Negroes. They are so safely far away. I had been on the point of communicating to him my doubts as to the civic virtues of the Martians, as a safety valve for him."
Marise laughed out, as round a peal as little Mark's, but she evidently thought they had gone far enough with their fooling, for she now brought the talk back to a safe, literal level by crying, "Well, there's one thing sure, Mr. Welles can't worry his head about any of the always-with-us difficulties of life, as long as he is dancing art Ashley quadrille."
Mr. Welles concurred in this with feeling. "I'd no idea I would ever experience anything so . . . so . . . well, I tell you, I thought I'd left fun behind me, years and years ago."
"Oh, what you've had is nothing compared to what you're going to have," Marise told him. "Just wait till old Nate strikes up the opening bars of 'The Whirlwind' and see the roof of the house fly off. See here," she laid her hand on his arm. "This is leap-year. I solemnly engage you to dance 'The Whirlwind' with me." She made the gesture of the little-boy athlete, feeling the biceps of one arm, moving her forearm up and down. "I'm in good health, and good muscle, because I've been out stirring up the asparagus bed with a spading-fork. I can shove you around as well as old Mrs. Powers, if I do say it who shouldn't."
Vincent looked down at her, bubbling with light-hearted merriment, and thought, "There is no end to the variety of her moods!"
She glanced up at him, caught his eyes on her and misinterpreted their wondering expression. "You think I'm just silly and childish, don't you?" she told him challengingly. "Oh, don't be such an everlasting adult. Life's not so serious as all that!"
He stirred to try to protest, but she went on, "It's dancing that sets me off. Nelly Powers and I are crazy about it. And so far as my observation of life extends, our dances here are the only social functions left in the world, that people really enjoy and don't go to merely because it's the thing to. It always goes to my head to see people enjoy themselves. It's so sweet."
Mr. Welles gave her one of his affectionate pats on her hand. Vincent asked her casually, "What's the idea of making a family party of it and bringing the children too?"
She answered dashingly, "If I answer you in your own language, I'd say that it's because their households are in such a low and lamentably primitive condition that they haven't any slave-labor to leave the children with, and so bring them along out of mere brute necessity. If I answer you in another vocabulary, I'd say that there is a close feeling of family unity, and they like to have their children with them when they are having a good time, and find it pleasant to see mothers dancing with their little boys and fathers with their little girls."
* * * * *
Without the slightest premonition of what his next question was to bring out, and only putting it to keep the talk going, Vincent challenged her, "Why don't you bring your own, then?" He kept down with difficulty the exclamation which he inwardly added, "If you only knew what a relief it is to see you for once, without that intrusive, tiresome bunch of children!"
"Why, sometimes I do," she answered in a matter-of-fact tone. "But I just had a telegram from my husband saying that he is able to get home a little sooner than he thought, and will be here early tomorrow morning. And the children voted to go to bed early so they could be up bright and early to see him."
Vincent continued looking down on her blankly for an instant, after she had finished this reasonable explanation. He was startled by the wave of anger which spurted up over him like flame.
He heard Mr. Welles make some suitable comment, "How nice." He himself said, "Oh really," in a neutral tone, and turned away.
* * * * *
For a moment he saw nothing of what was before him, and then realized that he had moved next to Frank Warner, who was standing by Nelly Powers, and asking her to dance with him again. She was shaking her head, and looking about the room uneasily. Vincent felt a gust of anger again. "Oh, go to it, Frank!" he said, in a low fierce tone. "Take her out again, as often as you like. Why shouldn't you?"
Nelly gave him one of her enigmatic looks, deep and inscrutable, shrugged her shoulders, put her hand on Frank's arm, and walked off with him.
"They're the handsomest couple in the room," said Vincent, at random to a farmer near him, who looked at him astonished by the heat of his accent. And then, seeing that Nelly's husband was in possible earshot, Vincent raised his voice recklessly. "They're the handsomest couple in the room," he repeated resentfully. "They ought always to dance together."
If 'Gene heard, he did not show it, the granite impassivity of his harsh face unmoved.
Vincent went on towards the door, his nerves a little relieved by this outburst. He would go out and have another cigarette, he thought, and then take his old man-child home to bed. What were they doing in this absurd place?
The music began to skirl again as he stepped out and closed the door behind him.
He drew in deeply the fresh night-air, and looking upward saw that the clouds had broken away and that the stars were out, innumerable, thick-sown, studding with gold the narrow roof of sky which, rising from the mountains on either side, arched itself over the valley. He stood staring before him, frowning, forgetting what he had come out to do. He told himself that coming from that yelling confusion inside, and the glare of those garish lamps, he was stupefied by the great silence of the night. There was nothing clear in his mind, only a turmoil of eddying sensations which he could not name. He walked down to the huge dark pine, the pine which 'Gene Powers loved like a person, and which his wife wished were cut down. What a ghastly prison marriage was, he thought, a thing as hostile to the free human spirit as an iron ball-and-chain.
He looked back at the little house, tiny as an insect before the great bulk of the mountains, dwarfed by the gigantic tree, ridiculous, despicable in the face of Nature, like the human life it sheltered. From its every window poured a flood of yellow light that was drunk up in a twinkling by the vastness of the night's obscurity.
He leaned against the straight, sternly unyielding bole of the tree, folding his arms and staring at the house. What a beastly joke the whole business of living!
A thousand ugly recollections poured their venom upon him from his past life. Life, this little moment of blind, sensual groping and grabbing for something worth while that did not exist, save in the stultification of the intelligence. All that you reached for, so frantically, it was only another handful of mud, when you held it.
Past the yellow squares of the windows, he saw the shapes of the dancers, insect-tiny, footing it to and fro. And in one of those silhouettes he recognized Marise Crittenden.
He turned away from the sight and struck his fist against the rough bark of the tree. What an insane waste and confusion ruled everywhere in human life! A woman like that to be squandered . . . an intelligence fine and supple, a talent penetrating and rare like hers for music, a strange personal beauty like that of no other woman, a depth one felt like mid-ocean, a capacity for fun like a child's and a vitality of personality, a power for passion that pulsed from her so that to touch her hand casually set one thrilling . . . ! And good God! What was destiny doing with her? Spending that gold like water on three brats incapable of distinguishing between her and any good-natured woman who would put on their shoes and wash their faces for them. Any paid Irish nurse could do for them what their mother bent the priceless treasure of her temperament to accomplish. The Irish nurse would do it better, for she would not be aware of anything else better, which she might do, and their mother knew well enough what she sacrificed . . . or if she did not know it yet, she would, soon. She had betrayed that to him, the very first time he had seen her, that astonishing first day, when, breathing out her vivid charm like an aureole of gold mist, she had sat there before him, quite simply the woman most to his taste he had even seen . . . here! That day when she had spoken about the queerness of her feeling "lost" when little Mark went off to school, because for the first time in years she had had an hour or so free from those ruthless little leeches who spent their lives in draining her vitality. He had known, if she had not, the significance of that feeling of hers, the first time she had had a moment to raise her eyes from her trivial task and see that she had been tricked into a prison. That very day he had wanted to cry out to her, as impersonally as one feels towards a beautiful bird caught in a net, "Now, now, burst through, and spread your wings where you belong."
It was like wiping up the floor with cloth of gold. In order that those three perfectly commonplace, valueless human lives might be added to the world's wretched population, a nature as rare as a jewel was being slowly ground away. What were the treasures to whom she was being sacrificed? Paul, the greasy, well-intentioned, priggish burgher he would make; Elly, almost half-witted, a child who stared at you like an imbecile when asked a question, and who evidently scarcely knew that her mother existed, save as cook and care-taker. And Mark, the passionate, gross, greedy baby. There were the three walls of the prison where she was shut away from any life worthy of her.
And the fourth wall . . .
* * * * *
The blackness dropped deeper about him, and within him. There they were dancing, those idiots, dancing on a volcano if ever human beings did, in the little sultry respite from the tornado which was called the world-peace. Well, that was less idiotic than working, at least. How soon before it would break again, the final destructive hurricane, born of nothing but the malignant folly of human hearts, and sweep away all that they now agonized and sweated to keep? What silly weakness to spend the respite in anything but getting as much of what you wanted as you could, before it was all gone in the big final smash-up, and the yellow or black man were on top.
* * * * *
With a bitter relish he felt sunk deep in one of his rank reactions against life and human beings. Now at least he was on bed-rock. There was a certain hard, quiet restfulness in scorning it all so whole-heartedly as either stupid or base.
* * * * *
At this a woman's face hung suddenly there in the blackness. Her long eyes seemed to look directly into his, a full revealing look such as they had never given him in reality. His hard quiet was broken by an agitation he could not control. No, no, there was something there that was not mud. He had thought he would live and die without meeting it. And there it was, giving to paltry life a meaning, after all, a troubling and immortal meaning.
A frosty breath blew down upon him from the mountains. A long shudder ran through him.
The sensation moved him to a sweeping change of mood, to a furious resentment as at an indignity. God! What was he doing? Who was this moping in the dark like a boy?
* * * * *
The great night stood huge and breathless above him as before, but now he saw only the lamp-lit house, tiny as an insect, but vibrant with eager and joyous life. With a strong, resolute step he went rapidly back to the door, opened it wide, stepped in, and walked across the floor to Marise Crittenden. "You're going to dance the next dance with me, you know," he told her.
AT THE MILL
An Afternoon in the Life of Mr. Neale Crittenden, aet. 38
The stenographer, a pale, thin boy, with a scarred face, and very white hands, limped over to the manager's desk with a pile of letters to be signed. "There, Captain Crittenden," he said, pride in his accent.
Neale was surprised and pleased. "All done, Arthur?" He looked over the work hastily. "Good work, good work." He leaned back, looking up at the other. "How about it, anyhow, Arthur? Is it going to work out all right?"
The stenographer looked at him hard and swallowed visibly. "I never dreamed I'd be fit to do anything I like half so well. I thought when I was in the hospital that I was done for, for sure. Captain Crittenden, if you only knew what my mother and I think about what you've done for . . ."
Neale dodged hastily. "That's all right. That's all right. If you like it, that's all that's necessary. And I'm not Captain any more."
"I forget, sir," said the other apologetically.
"Can you sit down and take a second batch right now? I want to get through early. Mrs. Crittenden's going to bring some visitors to see the place this afternoon, and I'll have to be with them more or less."
He looked at the clock. It was half-past three. Marise had said she would be there about four. He gave a calculating glance at the stack of letters. He would never be able to get through those. "We'll have to get a move on," he remarked. "Things got pretty well piled up while I was away."
He began to dictate rapidly, steadily, the end of a sentence clearly in his mind before he pronounced the first word. He liked to dictate and enjoyed doing it well. The pale young stenographer bent over his note-book, his disfigured face intent and serious.
"Turned out all right, Arthur has," thought Neale to himself. "I wasn't so far off, when I thought of the business college for him." Then he applied himself single-mindedly to his dictation, taking up one letter after another, with hardly a pause in his voice. But for all his diligence, he had not come to the bottom of the pile when four o'clock struck; nor ten minutes later when, glancing out of the window, he saw Marise and the children with Mr. Bayweather and the two other men coming across the mill-yard. Evidently Mr. Bayweather had dropped in just as they were going to start and had come along. He stopped dictating and looked at the group with a certain interest. Marise and the children had had a good deal to say yesterday about the newcomers to Crittenden's.
It seemed to him that the impression he had received of them had been as inaccurate as such second-hand impressions were apt to be. The older man was just like any elderly business man, for all he could see, nothing so especially attractive about him, although Marise had said in her ardent way that he was "the sort of old American you love on sight, the kind that makes you home-sick when you meet him in Europe." And as for Mr. Marsh, he couldn't see any signs of his being such a record-breaking live-wire as they had all said. He walked along quietly enough, and was evidently as resigned as any of them to letting Mr. Bayweather do all the talking. On the other hand, none of them had told him what a striking-looking fellow he was, so tall, and with such a bold carriage of that round dark head.
"Here they come, Arthur," he remarked. "No more time. But I'll try to squeeze in a minute or two, while they are here, to finish up these last ones."
The young man followed the direction of his eyes and nodded. He continued looking at the advancing group for a moment, and as he stood up, "You could tell that Mr. Marsh is a millionaire by the way his clothes fit, couldn't you?" he remarked, turning to go back to his desk in the outer office.
They were coming down the hall now. Neale went forward to open the door, met and breasted the wave of children who after hugging casually at his knees and arms, swept by; and stepped forward to be presented to the newcomers. They had not crossed the threshold, before his first impression was reversed in one case. Marsh was a live-wire all right. Now that he had seen his eyes, he knew what Elly had meant when she said that when he looked at you it was like lightning.
Mr. Bayweather barely waited for the first greetings to be pronounced before he burst out, "Do they say, 'backwards and forwards' or 'back and forth'?"