The world, in short, in spite of my six months' retiring therefrom, seemed to be getting on pleasantly enough, as I turned from the paper to face the six months' accumulation of mail.
A few weeks later, I sent for Mr. George Bulmer, and informed him of his avuncular connection with a genius; and waved certain typewritten pages to establish his title.
Subsequently I read aloud divers portions of As the Coming of Dawn, and Mr. Bulmer sipped Chianti, and listened.
"Look here!" he said, suddenly; "have you seen The Imperial Votaress?"
I frowned. It is always annoying to be interrupted in the middle of a particularly well-balanced sentence. "Don't know the lady," said I.
"She is advertised on half the posters in town," said Mr. Bulmer. "And it is the book of the year. And it is your book."
At this moment I laid down my manuscript. '"I beg your pardon?" said I.
"Your book!" Uncle George repeated firmly; "and scarcely a hair's difference between them, except in the names."
"H'm!" I observed, in a careful voice. "Who wrote it?"
"Some female woman out west," said Mr. Bulmer. "She's a George Something-or-other when she publishes, of course, like all those authorines when they want to say about mankind at large what less gifted women only dare say about their sisters-in-law. I wish to heaven they would pick out some other Christian name when they want to cut up like pagans. Anyhow, I saw her real name somewhere, and I remember it began with an S—Why, to be sure! it's Marian Winwood."
"Amaimon sounds well," I observed; "Lucifer, well; Larbason, well; yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends: but—Marian Winwood!"
"Dear me!" he remonstrated. "Why, she wrote A Bright Particular Star, you know, and The Acolytes, and lots of others."
The author of As the Coming of Dawn swallowed a whole glass of Chianti at a gulp.
"Of course," I said, slowly, "I cannot, in my rather peculiar position, run the risk of being charged with plagiarism—by a Chinese-eyed mental sneak-thief...."
Thereupon I threw the manuscript into the open fire, which my preference for the picturesque rendered necessary, even in May.
"Oh, look here!" my uncle cried, and caught up the papers. "It is infernally good, you know! Can't you—can't you fix it,—and—er— change it a bit? Typewriting is so expensive these days that it seems a pity to waste all this."
I took the manuscript and replaced it firmly among the embers. "As you justly observe," said I, "it is infernally good. It is probably a deal better than anything else I shall ever write."
"Why, then—" said Uncle George.
"Why, then," said I, "the only thing that remains to do is to read The Imperial Votaress."
And I read it with an augmenting irritation. Here was my great and comely idea transmuted by "George Glock"—which was the woman's foolish pen-name,—into a rather clever melodrama, and set forth anyhow, in a hit or miss style that fairly made me squirm. I would cheerfully have strangled Marian Winwood just then, and not upon the count of larceny, but of butchery.
"And to cap it all, she has assigned her hero every pretty speech I ever made to her! I honestly believe the rogue took shorthand jottings on her cuffs. 'There is a land where lovers may meet face to face, and heart to heart, and mouth to mouth'—why, that's the note I wrote her on the day she wasn't feeling well!"
Presently, however, I began to laugh, and presently sitting there alone, I began to applaud as if I were witnessing a play that took my fancy.
"Oh, the adorable jade!" I said; and then: "George Glock, forsooth! George Dandin, tu l' as voulu."
Naturally I put the entire affair into a short story. And—though even to myself it seems incredible,—Miss Winwood wrote me within three days of the tale's appearance, a very indignant letter.
For she was furious, to the last exclamation point and underlining, about my little magazine tale.... "Why don't you stop writing, and try plumbing or butchering or traveling for scented soap? You can't write! If you had the light of creation you wouldn't be using my material"....
—Which caused me to reflect forlornly that I had wasted a great deal of correct behavior upon Marian, since any of the more intimately amorous advances which I might have made, and had scrupulously refrained from making, would very probably have been regarded as raw "material," to be developed rather than shocked by....
He Spends an Afternoon in Arden
I had, in a general way, intended to marry Rosalind Jemmett so soon as I had completed As the Coming of Dawn; but in the fervour of writing that unfortunate volume, I had at first put off a little, and then a little longer, the answering of her last letter, because I was interested just then in writing well and not particularly interested in anything else; and I had finally approximated to forgetfulness of the young lady's existence.
Now, however, my thoughts harked back to her; and I found, upon inquiry, that Rosalind had spent all of May and a good half of April in Lichfield, in the same town with myself, and was now engaged to Alfred Chaytor,—an estimable person, but popularly known as "Sissy" Chaytor.
And this gave an additional whet to my intentions. So I called upon the girl, and she, to my chagrin, received me with an air of having danced with me some five or six times the night before; our conversation was at first trivial and, on her part, dishearteningly cordial; and, in fine, she completely baffled me by not appearing to expect any least explanation of my discourteous neglect. This, look you, when I had been at pains to prepare a perfectly convincing one.
It must be conceded I completely lost my temper; shortly afterward neither of us was speaking with excessive forethought; and each of us languidly advanced a variety of observations which were more dexterous than truthful. But I followed the intractable heiress to the Moncrieffs that spring, in spite of this rebuff, being insufferably provoked by her unshakable assumptions of my friendship and of nothing more.
It was perhaps a week later she told me: "This, beyond any reasonable doubt, is the Forest of Arden."
"But where Rosalind is is always Arden," I said, politely. Yet I made a mental reservation as to a glimpse of the golf-links, which this particular nook of the forest afforded, and of a red-headed caddy in search of a lost ball.
But beyond these things the sun was dying out in a riot of colour, and its level rays fell kindlily upon the gaunt pines that were thick about us two, converting them into endless aisles of vaporous gold.
There was primeval peace about; an evening wind stirred lazily above, and the leaves whispered drowsily to one another over the waters of what my companion said was a "brawling loch," though I had previously heard it reviled as a particularly treacherous and vexatious hazard. Altogether, I had little doubt that we had reached, in any event, the outskirts of Arden.
"And now," quoth she, seating herself on a fallen log, "what would you do if I were your very, very Rosalind?"
"Don't!" I cried in horror. "It wouldn't be proper! For as a decent self-respecting heroine, you would owe it to Orlando not to listen."
"H'umph!" said Rosalind. The exclamation does not look impressive, written out; but, spoken, it placed Orlando in his proper niche.
"Oh, well," said I, and stretched myself at her feet, full length,—which is supposed to be a picturesque attitude,—"why quarrel over a name? It ought to be Gamelyn, anyhow; and, moreover, by the kindness of fate, Orlando is golfing."
Rosalind frowned, dubiously.
"But golf is a very ancient game," I reassured her. Then I bit a pine-needle in two and sighed. "Foolish fellow, when he might be—"
"Admiring the beauties of nature," she suggested.
Just then an impudent breeze lifted a tendril of honey-coloured hair and toyed with it, over a low, white brow,—and I noted that Rosalind's hair had a curious coppery glow at the roots, a nameless colour that I have never observed anywhere else....
"Yes," said I, "of nature."
"Then," queried she, after a pause, "who are you? And what do you in this forest?"
"You see," I explained, "there were conceivably other men in Arden—"
"I suppose so," she sighed, with exemplary resignation.
"—For you were," I reminded her, "universally admired at your uncle's court,—and equally so in the forest. And while Alfred—or, strictly speaking, Gamelyn, or, if you prefer it, Orlando,—is the great love of your life, still—"
"Men are so foolish!" said Rosalind, irrelevantly.
"—it did not prevent you—"
"Me!" cried she, indignant.
"You had such a tender heart," I suggested, "and suffering was abhorrent to your gentle nature."
"I don't like cynicism, sir," said she; "and inasmuch as tobacco is not yet discovered—"
"It is clearly impossible that I am smoking," I finished; "quite true."
"I don't like cheap wit, either," said Rosalind. "You," she went on, with no apparent connection, "are a forester, with a good cross-bow and an unrequited attachment,—say, for me. You groan and hang verses and things about on the trees."
"But I don't write verses—any longer," I amended. "Still how would this do,—for an oak, say,—
"I found a lovely centre-piece Upon the supper-table, But when I looked at it again I saw I wasn't able, And so I took my mother home And locked her in the stable."
She considered that the plot of this epic was not sufficiently inevitable. It hadn't, she lamented, a quite logical ending; and the plot of it, in fine, was not, somehow, convincing.
"Well, in any event," I optimistically reflected, "I am a nickel in. If your dicta had emanated from a person in Peoria or Seattle, who hadn't bothered to read my masterpiece, they would have sounded exactly the same, and the clipping-bureau would have charged me five cents. Maybe I can't write verses, then. But I am quite sure I can groan." And I did so.
"It sounds rather like a fog-horn," said Rosalind, still in the critic's vein; "but I suppose it is the proper thing. Now," she continued, and quite visibly brightening, "you can pretend to have an unrequited attachment for me."
"But I can't—" I decisively said.
"Can't," she echoed. It has not been mentioned previously that Rosalind was pretty. She was especially so just now, in pouting. And, therefore, "—pretend," I added.
She preserved a discreet silence.
"Nor," I continued, with firmness, "am I a shambling, nameless, unshaven denizen of Arden, who hasn't anything to do except to carry a spear and fall over it occasionally. I will no longer conceal the secret of my identity. I am Jaques."
"You can't be Jaques," she dissented; "you are too stout."
"I am well-built," I admitted, modestly; "as in an elder case, sighing and grief have blown me up like a bladder; yet proper pride, if nothing else, demands that my name should appear on the programme."
"But would Jaques be the sort of person who'd—?"
"Who wouldn't be?" I asked, with appropriate ardour. "No, depend upon it, Jaques was not any more impervious to temptation than the rest of us; and, indeed, in the French version, as you will find, he eventually married Celia."
"Minx!" said she; and it seemed to me quite possible that she referred to Celia Reindan, and my heart glowed.
"And how," queried Rosalind, presently, "came you to the Forest of Arden, good Jaques?"
I groaned once more. "It was a girl," I darkly said.
"Of course," assented Rosalind, beaming as to the eyes. Then she went on, and more sympathetically: "Now, Jaques, you can tell me the whole story."
"Is it necessary?" I asked.
"Surely," said she, with sudden interest in the structure of pine-cones; "since for a long while I have wanted to know all about Jaques. You see Mr. Shakespeare is a bit hazy about him."
"So!" I thought, triumphantly.
And aloud, "It is an old story," I warned her, "perhaps the oldest of all old stories. It is the story of a man and a girl. It began with a chance meeting and developed into a packet of old letters, which is the usual ending of this story."
Rosalind's brows protested.
"Sometimes," I conceded, "it culminates in matrimony; but the ending is not necessarily tragic."
I dodged exactly in time; and the pine-cone splashed into the hazard.
"It happened," I continued, "that, on account of the man's health, they were separated for a whole year's time before—before things had progressed to any extent. When they did progress, it was largely by letters. That is why this story ended in such a large package.
"Letters," Rosalind confided, to one of the pines, "are so unsatisfactory. They mean so little."
"To the man," I said, firmly, "they meant a great deal. They brought him everything that he most wished for,—comprehension, sympathy, and, at last, comfort and strength when they were sore needed. So the man, who was at first but half in earnest, announced to himself that he had made a discovery. 'I have found,' said he, 'the great white love which poets have dreamed of. I love this woman greatly, and she, I think, loves me. God has made us for each other, and by the aid of her love I will be pure and clean and worthy even of her.' You have doubtless discovered by this stage in my narrative," I added, as in parenthesis, "that the man was a fool."
"Don't!" said Rosalind.
"Oh, he discovered it himself in due time—but not until after he had written a book about her. As the Coming of Dawn the title was to have been. It was—oh, just about her. It tried to tell how greatly he loved her. It tried—well, it failed of course, because it isn't within the power of any writer to express what the man felt for that girl. Why, his love was so great—to him, poor fool!—that it made him at times forget the girl herself, apparently. He didn't want to write her trivial letters. He just wanted to write that great book in her honour, which would make her understand, even against her will, and then to die, if need be, as Geoffrey Rudel did. For that was the one thing which counted—to make her understand—" I paused, and anyone could see that I was greatly moved. In fact, I was believing every word of it by this time.
"Oh, but who wants a man to die for her?" wailed Rosalind.
"It is quite true that one infinitely prefers to see him make a fool of himself. So the man discovered when he came again to bring his foolish book to her,—the book that was to make her understand. And so he burned it—in a certain June. For the girl had merely liked him, and had been amused by him. So she had added him to her collection of men, —quite a large one, by the way,—and was, I believe, a little proud of him. It was, she said, rather a rare variety, and much prized by collectors."
"And how was she to know?" said Rosalind; and then, remorsefully: "Was it a very horrid girl?"
"It was not exactly repulsive," said I, as dreamily, and looking up into the sky.
There was a pause. Then someone in the distance—a forester, probably, —called "Fore!" and Rosalind awoke from her reverie.
"Then—?" said she.
"Then came the customary Orlando—oh, well! Alfred, if you like. The name isn't altogether inappropriate, for he does encounter existence with much the same abandon which I have previously noticed in a muffin. For the rest, he was a nicely washed fellow, with a sufficiency of the mediaeval equivalents for bonds and rubber-tired buggies and country places. Oh, yes! I forgot to say that the man was poor,—also that the girl had a great deal of common-sense and no less than three longheaded aunts. And so the girl talked to the man in a common-sense fashion—and after that she was never at home."
"Never?" said Rosalind.
"Only that time they talked about the weather," said I. "So the man fell out of bed just about then, and woke up and came to his sober senses."
"He did it very easily," said Rosalind, almost as if in resentment.
"The novelty of the process attracted him," I pleaded. "So he said—in a perfectly sensible way—that he had known all along it was only a game they were playing,—a game in which there were no stakes. That was a lie. He had put his whole soul into the game, playing as he knew for his life's happiness; and the verses, had they been worthy of the love which caused them to be written, would have been among the great songs of the world. But while the man knew at last that he had been a fool, he was swayed by a man-like reluctance against admitting it. So he laughed—and lied—and broke away, hurt, but still laughing."
"You hadn't mentioned any verses before," said Rosalind.
"I told you he was a fool," said I. "And, after all, that is the entire story."
Then I spent several minutes in wondering what would happen next. During this time I lost none of my interest in the sky. I believed everything I had said: my emotions would have done credit to a Romeo or an Amadis.
"The first time that the girl was not at home," Rosalind observed, impersonally, "the man had on a tan coat and a brown derby. He put on his gloves as he walked down the street. His shoulders were the most indignant—and hurt things she had ever seen. Then the girl wrote to him,—a strangely sincere letter,—and tore it up."
"Historical research," I murmured, "surely affords no warrant for such attire among the rural denizens of tranquil Arden."
"You see," continued Rosalind, oblivious to interruption, "I know all about the girl,—which is more than you do."
"That," I conceded, "is disastrously probable."
"When she realised that she was to see the man again—Did you ever feel as if something had lifted you suddenly hundreds of feet above rainy days and cold mutton for luncheon, and the possibility of other girls' wearing black evening dresses, when you wanted yours to be the only one in the room? Well, that is the way she felt at first, when she read his note. At first, she realised nothing beyond the fact that he was nearing her, and that she would presently see him. She didn't even plan what she would wear, or what she would say to him. In an indefinite way, she was happier than she had ever been before—or has been since—until the doubts and fears and knowledge that give children and fools a wide berth came to her,—and then she saw it all against her will, and thought it all out, and came to a conclusion."
I sat up. There was really nothing of interest occurring overhead.
"They had played at loving—lightly, it is true, but they had gone so far in their letter writing that they could not go backward,—only forward, or not at all. She had known all along that the man was but half in earnest—believe me, a girl always knows that, even though she may not admit it to herself,—and she had known that a love affair meant to him material for a sonnet or so, and a well-turned letter or two, and nothing more. For he was the kind of man that never quite grows up. He was coming to her, pleased, interested, and a little eager—in love with the idea of loving her,—willing to meet her half-way, and very willing to follow her the rest of the way—if she could draw him. And what was she to do? Could she accept his gracefully insulting semblance of a love she knew he did not feel? Could they see each other a dozen times, swearing not to mention the possibility of loving,—so that she might have a chance to reimpress him with her blondined hair—it is touched up, you know—and small talk? And—and besides—"
"It is the duty of every young woman to consider what she owes to her family," said I, absentmindedly. Rosalind Jemmett's family consists of three aunts, and the chief of these is Aunt Marcia, who lives in Lichfield. Aunt Marcia is a portly, acidulous and discomposing person, with eyes like shoe-buttons and a Savonarolan nose. She is also a well-advertised philanthropist, speaks neatly from the platform, and has wide experience as a patroness, and extreme views as to ineligibles.
Rosalind flushed somewhat. "And so," said she, "the girl exercised her common-sense, and was nervous, and said foolish things about new plays, and the probability of rain—to keep from saying still more foolish things about herself; and refused to talk personalities; and let him go, with the knowledge that he would not come back. Then she went to her room, and had a good cry. Now," she added, after a pause, "you understand."
"I do not," I said, very firmly, "understand a lot of things."
"Yet a woman would," she murmured.
This being a statement I was not prepared to contest, I waved it aside. "And so," said I, "they laughed; and agreed it was a boy-and-girl affair; and were friends."
"It was the best thing—" said she.
"Yes," I assented,—"for Orlando."
"—and it was the most sensible thing."
This seemed to exhaust the subject, and I lay down once more among the pine-needles.
"And that," said Rosalind, "was the reason Jaques came to Arden?"
"Yes," said I.
"And found it—?"
"Shall we say—Hades?"
"Oh!" she murmured, scandalised.
"It happened," I continued, "that he was cursed with a good memory. And the zest was gone from his little successes and failures, now there was no one to share them; and nothing seemed to matter very much. Oh, he really was the sort of man that never grows up! And it was dreary to live among memories of the past, and his life was now somewhat perturbed by disapproval of his own folly and by hunger for a woman who was out of his reach."
"And Rosalind—I mean the girl—?"
"She married Orlando—or Gamelyn, or Alfred, or Athelstane, or Ethelred, or somebody,—and, whoever it was, they lived happily ever afterward," I said, morosely.
Rosalind pondered over this denouement for a moment.
"Do you know," said she, "I think—"
"It's a rather dangerous practice," I warned her.
Rosalind sighed, wearily; but in her cheek at about this time occurred a dimple.
"—I think that Rosalind must have thought the play very badly named."
"As You Like It?" I queried, obtusely.
"Yes—since it wasn't, for her."
It is unwholesome to lie on the ground after sunset.
"I had rather a scene with Alfred yesterday morning. He said you drank, and gambled, and were always running after—people, and weren't in fine, a desirable person for me to know. He insinuated, in fact, that you were a villain of the very deepest and non-crocking dye. He told me of instances. His performance would have done credit to Ananias. I was mad! So I gave him his old ring back, and told him things I can't tell you,—no, not just yet, dear. He is rather like a muffin, isn't he?" she said, with the lightest possible little laugh—"particularly like one that isn't quite done."
"Oh, Rosalind," I babbled, "I mean to prove that you were right. And I will prove it, too!"
And indeed I meant all that I said—just then.
Rosalind said: "Oh, Jaques, Jaques! what a child you are!"
He Plays the Improvident Fool
Now was I come near to the summit of my desires, and advantageously betrothed to a girl with whom I was, in any event, almost in love; but I presently ascertained, to my dismay, that sophisticated, "proper" little Rosalind was thoroughly in love with me, and always in the back of my mind this knowledge worried me.
Imprimis, she persisted in calling me Jaques, which was uncomfortably reminiscent of that time wherein I was called Jack. Yet my objection to this silly nickname was a mischancy matter to explain. There was no way of telling her that I disliked anything which reminded me of Gillian Hardress, without telling more about Gillian than would be pleasant to tell. So Rosalind went on calling me Jaques; and I was compelled to put up with a trivial and unpremeditated, but for all that a daily, annoyance; and I fretted under it.
Item, she insisted on presenting me with all sorts of expensive knick-knacks, and being childishly grieved when I remonstrated.
"But I have the money," Rosalind would say, "and you haven't. So why shouldn't I? And besides, it's really only selfishness on my part, because I like doing things for you, and if you liked doing things for me, Jaques, you'd understand."
So I would eventually have to swear that I did like "doing things" for her; and it followed—somehow—that in consequence she had a perfect right to give me anything she wanted to.
And this too fretted me, mildly, all the summer I spent at Birnam Beach with Rosalind and with the opulent friends of Rosalind's aunt from St. Louis.... They were a queer lot. They all looked so unspeakably new; their clothes were spick and span, and as expensive as possible, but that was not it; even in their bathing suits these middle-aged people—they were mostly middle-aged—seemed to have been very recently finished, like animated waxworks of middle-aged people just come from the factory. And they spent money in a continuous careless way that frightened me.
But I was on my very best, most dignified behavior; and when Aunt Lora presented me as "one of the Lichfield Townsends, you know," these brewers and breweresses appeared to be properly impressed. One of them—actually—"supposed that I had a coat-of-arms"; which in Lichfield would be equivalent to "supposing" that a gentleman possessed a pair of trousers. But they were really very thoughtful about never letting me pay for anything; in this regard there seemed afoot a sort of friendly conspiracy.
So the summer passed pleasantly enough; and we bathed, and held hands in the moonlight, and danced at the Casino, and rode the merry-go-round, and played ping-pong, and read Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall,—which was much better, I told everybody, than that idiotic George Clock book, The Imperial Votaress. And we drank interminable suissesses, and it was all very pleasant.
Yet always in the rear of my mind was stirring restively the instinct to get back to my writing; and these sedately frolicsome benevolent people—even Rosalind—plainly thought that "writing things" was just the unimportant foible of an otherwise fine young fellow.
And in September Rosalind came to visit her Aunt Marcia in Lichfield, to get clothes and all other matters ready for our wedding in November; and Lichfield, as always, made much of Rosalind, and she had the honor of "leading" the first Lichfield German with Colonel Rudolph Musgrave. My partner at that dance was the Marquise d'Arlanges....
I was seeing a deal of the Marquise d'Arlanges. She was Stella's only sister, as you may remember, and was that autumn paying a perfunctory visit to her parents—the second since her marriage.
I shall not expatiate, however, concerning Madame la Marquise. You have doubtless heard of her. For Lizzie has not, even yet, found a time wherein to be idle; she has been busied since the hour of her birth in acquiring first, plain publicity, and then social power, and every other amenity of life in turn. I had not the least doubt even then of her ending where she is now....
She was at this time still well upon the preferable side o! thirty, and had no weaknesses save a liking for gossip, cigarettes, and admiration. Lizzie was never the woman to marry a Peter Blagden. Once Stella was settled, Lizzie Musgrave had sailed for Europe, and eventually had arrived at Monaco with an apologetic mother, several letters of introduction, and a Scotch terrier; and had established herself at the Hotel de la Paix, to look over the "available" supply of noblemen in reduced circumstances. Before the end of a month Miss Musgrave had reached a decision, had purchased her Marquis, much as she would have done any other trifle that took her fancy, and had shipped her mother back to America. Lizzie retained the terrier, however, as she was honestly attached to it.
Her marriage had been happy, and she found her husband on further acquaintance, as she told me, a mild-mannered and eminently suitable person, who was unaccountably addicted to playing dominoes, and who spent a great deal of money, and dined with her occasionally. In a sentence, the marquise was handsome, "had a tongue in her head," and, to utilise yet another ancient phrase, was as hard as nails.
And yet there was a family resemblance. Indeed, in voice and feature she was strangely like an older Stella; and always I was cheating myself into a half-belief that this woman I was talking with was Stella; and Lizzie would at least enable me to forget, for a whole half-hour sometimes, that Stella was dead....
* * * * *
"I must thank you," I said, one afternoon, when I arose to go, "for a most pleasant dream of—what we'll call the Heart's Desire. I suppose I have been rather stupid, Lizzie; and I apologise for it; but people are never exceedingly hilarious in dreams, you know."
She said, very gently: "I understand. For I loved Stella too. And that is why the room is never really lighted when you come. Oh, you stupid man, how could I have helped knowing it—that all the love you have made to me was because you have been playing I was Stella? That knowledge has preserved me, more than once, my child, from succumbing to your illicit advances in this dead Lichfield."
And I was really astonished, for she was not by ordinary the sort of woman who consents to be a makeshift.
I said as much, "And it has been a comfort, Lizzie, because she doesn't come as often now, for some reason—"
"Why—what do you mean?"
The room was very dark, lit only by the steady, comfortable glow of a soft-coal fire. For it was a little after sunset, and outside, carriages were already rumbling down Regis Avenue, and people were returning from the afternoon drive. I could not see anything distinctly, excepting my own hands, which were like gold in the firelight; and so I told her all about The Indulgences of Ole-Luk-Ole.
"She came, that first time, over the crest of a tiny upland that lay in some great forest,—Brocheliaunde, I think. I knew it must be autumn, for the grass was brown and every leaf upon the trees was brown. And she too was all in brown, and her big hat, too, was of brown felt, and about it curled a long ostrich feather dyed brown; and my first thought, as I now remember, was how in the dickens could any mediaeval lady have come by such a garb, for I knew, somehow, that this was a woman of the Middle Ages.
"Only her features were those of Stella, and the eyes of this woman were filled with an unutterable happiness and fear, as she came toward me,—just as the haunting eyes of Stella were upon the night she married Peter Blagden, and I babbled nonsense to the moon.
"'Oh, I have wanted you,—I have wanted you!' she said; and afterward, unarithmeticably dimpling, just as she used to do, you may remember: 'Depardieux, messire! have you then forgotten that upon this forenoon we hunt the great boar?"
"'Stella!' I said, 'O dear, dear Stella! what does it mean?'
"'You silly! it means, of course, that Ole-Luk-Oie is kind, and has put us both into the glaze of the mustard-jar—only I wonder which one we have gotten into?' Stella said. 'Don't you remember them, dear—the blue mustard-jar and the red one your Mammy had that summer at the Green Chalybeate, with men on them hunting a boar?'
"'They stood, one on each corner of the mantelpiece,' I said; 'and in the blue one she kept matches, and in the other—'
"'She kept buttons in the red one,' said Stella,—'big, shiny white buttons, with four holes in them, that had come off your underclothes, and were to be sewed on again. One day you swallowed one of 'em, I remember, because you would keep it in your mouth while you swung in the hammock. And you thought it would surely kill you, so you knelt down in the dry leaves and prayed God He wouldn't let it kill you.'
"'But you weren't there,' I protested; 'nobody was there. So nobody ever knew anything about it, though may be you—' For I had just remembered that Stella was dead, only I knew it was against some rule to mention it.
"'Well, at any rate I'm here,' said Stella, 'and Ole-Luk-Oie is kind; and we had better go and hunt the great boar at once, I suppose, since that is what the people on the mustard-jars always do.'
"'But how did you come hither, O my dear—?'
"'Why, through your wanting me so much,' she said. 'How else?'
"And I understood....
"So we went and slew the great boar. I slew it personally, with a long spear, and with Stella clasping her hands in the background. Only there was a nicked place in the mustard-jar, where I had dropped it on the hearth some fifteen years ago, and my horse kept stumbling over this crevice, so that I knew it was the red jar and the buttons we were riding around. And afterward I made a song in honour of my Stella,—a song so perfect that I presently awoke, weeping with joy that I had made a song so beautiful, and with the knowledge I could not now recollect a single word of it; and I knew that neither I nor any other man could ever make again a song one-half so beautiful....
"Since then Ole-Luk-Oie—or someone—has been very kind at times. He always lets me into pictures, though, never into mouse-holes and hen-houses and silly places like that, as he did little Hjalmar. I don't know why....
"Once it was into the illustrations to the Popular Tales of Poictesme, and we met my great grandfather Jurgen there. And once it was into the picture on the cover of that unveracious pamphlet the manager of the Green Chalybeate sends in the spring to everybody who has once been there. That time was very odd.
"It is a picture of the Royal Hotel, you may remember, as it used to be a good ten years ago. Both fountains were playing in the sunlight, —they were torn down when I was at college, and I had almost forgotten their existence; and elegant and languid ladies were riding by, in victorias, and under tiny parasols trimmed with fringe, and all these ladies wore those preposterously big sleeves they used to wear then; and men in little visored skull caps were passing on tall old-fashioned bicycles, just as they do in the picture. Even the silk-hatted gentleman in the corner, pointing out the beauties of the building with his cane, was there.
"And Stella and I walked past the margin of the picture, and so on down the boardwalk to the other hotel, to look for our parents. And we agreed not to tell anyone that we had ever grown up, but just to let it be a secret between us two; and we were to stay in the picture forever, and grow up all over again, only we would arrange everything differently. And Stella was never to go driving on the twenty-seventh of April, so that we would be quite safe, and would live together for a long, long while.
"She wouldn't promise, though, that when Peter Blagden asked to be introduced, she would refuse to meet him. She just giggled and shook her sunny head. She hadn't any hat on. She was wearing the blue-and-white sailor-suit, of course."....
But a servant was lighting up the front-hall, and the glare of it came through the open door, and now the room was just like any other room.
"And you are Robert Townsend!" the marquise observed. "The one my mother doesn't approve of as a visitor!"
Madame d'Arlanges said, with a certain lack of sequence: "And yet you are planning to do precisely what Peter Blagden did. He liked Stella, she amused him, and he thought her money would come in very handy; and so he, somehow, contrived to marry her in the end, because she was just a child, and you were a child, and he wasn't. And he always lied to her about—about those business-trips—even from the very first. I knew, because I'm not a sentimental person. But, Bob, how can you stoop to mimic Peter Blagden! For you are doing precisely what he did; and for Rosalind, just as it was for Stella, it is almost irresistible, to have the chance of reforming a man who has notoriously been 'talked about.' Still, I see that for Stella's sake you won't lie as steadfastly to Rosalind as Peter did to Stella. It is none of my business of course; oh, I don't meddle. I merely prophesy that you won't."
But those lights had made an astonishing difference. And so, "But why not?" said I. "It is the immemorial method of dealing with savages; and surely women can never expect to become quite civilised so long as chivalry demands that a man say to a woman only what he believes she wants to hear? Ah, no, my dear Lizzie; when a man tries to get into a woman's favour, custom demands that he palliate the invasion with flatteries and veiled truths—or, more explicitly, with lies,—just as any sensible explorer must come prepared to leave a trail of looking-glasses and valueless bright beads among the original owners of any unknown country. For he doesn't know what obstacles he may encounter, and he has been taught, from infancy, to regard any woman as a baleful and unfathomable mystery—"
"She is never so—heaven help her!—if the man be sufficiently worthless."
"I rejoice that we are so thoroughly at one. For upon my word, I believe this widespread belief in feminine inscrutability is the result of a conspiracy on the part of the weaker sex; and that every mother is somehow pledged to inculcate this belief into the immature masculine mind. Apparently the practice originated in the Middle Ages, for it never seemed to occur to anybody before then that a woman was particularly complex. Though, to be sure, Catullus now—" "This is not a time for pedantry. I don't in the least care what Catullus or anyone else observed concerning anything—" "But I had not aspired, my dear Lizzie, to be even remotely pedantic. I was simply about to remark that Catullus, or Ariosto, or Coventry Patmore, or King Juba, or Posidonius, or Sir John Vanbrugh, or perhaps, Agathocles of Chios, or else Simonides the Younger, has conceded somewhere, that women are, in certain respects, dissimilar, as it were, to men." "I am merely urging you not to marry this silly little Rosalind, for the excellent reason that you did love my darling Stella even more than I, and that Rosalind is in love with you." "Do you really think so?" said I. "Why, then, actuated by the very finest considerations of decency and prudence and generosity, I shall, of course, espouse her the very next November that ever is."
The marquise retorted: "No,—because you are at bottom too fond of Rosalind Jemmett; and, besides, it isn't really a question of your feeling toward her. In any event, I begin to like you too well, Bob, to let you kiss me any more."
I declared that I detested paradox. Then I went home to supper.
But, for all this, I meditated for a long while upon what Lizzie had said. It was true that I was really fond of "proper" little Rosalind Jemmett; concerning myself I had no especial illusions; and, to my credit, I faced what I considered the real issue, squarely.
We were in Aunt Marcia's parlour. Rosalind was an orphan, and lived in turn with her three aunts. She said the other two were less unendurable than Aunt Marcia, and I believed her. I consider, to begin with, that a person is not civilised who thumps upon the floor upstairs with a poker, simply because it happens to be eleven o'clock; and moreover, Aunt Marcia's parlour—oh, it really was a "parlour,"—was entirely too like the first night of a charity bazaar, when nothing has been sold.
The room was not a particularly large one; but it contained exactly three hundred and seven articles of bijouterie, not estimating the china pug-dog upon the hearth. I know, for I counted them.
Besides, there were twenty-eight pictures upon the walls—one in oils of the late Mr. Dumby (for Aunt Marcia was really Mrs. Clement Dumby), painted, to all appearances, immediately after the misguided gentleman who married Aunt Marcia had been drowned, and before he had been wiped dry,—and for the rest, everywhere the eye was affronted by engravings framed in gilt and red-plush of "Sanctuary," "Le Hamac," "Martyre Chretienne," "The Burial of Latane," and other Victorian outrages.
Then on an easel there was a painting of a peacock, perched upon an urn, against a gilded background; this painting irrelevantly deceived your expectations, for it was framed in blue plush. Also there were "gift-books" on the centre table, and a huge volume, again in red plush, with its titular "Album" cut out of thin metal and nailed to the cover. This album contained calumnious portraits of Aunt Marcia's family, the most of them separately enthroned upon the same imitation rock, in all the pride of a remote, full-legged and starchy youth, each picture being painfully "coloured by hand."
"Do you know why I want to marry you?" I demanded of Rosalind, in such surroundings, apropos of a Mrs. Vokins who had taken a house in Lichfield for the winter, and had been at school somewhere in the backwoods with Aunt Marcia, and was "dying to meet me."
She answered, in some surprise: "Why, because you have the good taste to be heels over head in love with me, of course."
I took possession of her hands. "If there is anything certain in this world of uncertainties, it is that I am not the least bit in love with you. Yet, only yesterday—do you remember, dear?"
She answered, "I remember."
"But I cannot, for the life of me, define what happened yesterday. I merely recall that we were joking, as we always do when together, and that on a wager I loosened your hair. Then as it tumbled in great honey-coloured waves about you, you were silent, and there came into your eyes a look I had never seen before. And even now I cannot define what happened, Rosalind! I only know I caught your face between my hands, and for a moment held it so, with fingers that have not yet forgotten the feel of your soft, thick hair,—and that for a breathing space your eyes looked straight into mine. Something changed in me then, my lady. Something changed in you, too, I think."
Then Rosalind said, "Don't, Jaques—!" She was horribly embarrassed.
"For I knew you willed me to possess you, and that possession would seem as trivial as a fiddle in a temple.... Yet, too, there was a lustful beast, somewhere inside of me, which nudged me to—kiss you, say! But nothing happened. I did not even kiss you, my beautiful and wealthy Rosalind."
"Don't keep on talking about the money," she wailed. "Why, you can't believe I think you mercenary!"
"I would estimate your intellect far more cheaply, my charming Rosalind, if you thought anything else; for of course I am. I wanted to settle myself, you conceive, and as an accomplice you were very eligible. I now comprehend it is beyond the range of rationality, dear stranger, that we should ever marry each other; and so we must not. We must not, you comprehend, since though we lived together through ten patriarchal lifetimes we would die strangers to each other. For you, dear clean-souled girl that you are, were born that you might be the wife of a strong man and the mother of his sturdy children. The world was made for you and for your offspring; and in time your children will occupy this world and make the laws for us irrelevant folk that scribble and paint and design all useless and beautiful things, and thus muddle away our precious lives. No, you may not wisely mate with us, for you are a shade too terribly at ease in the universe, you sensible people."
"But I love Art," said Rosalind, bewildered.
"Yes,—but by the tiniest syllable a thought too volubly, my dear. You are the sort that quotes the Rubaiyat. Whereas I—was it yesterday or the day before you told me, with a wise pucker of your beautiful low, white brow, that I had absolutely no sense of the responsibilities of life? Well, I really haven't, dear stranger, as you appraise them; and, indeed, I fear we must postpone our agreement upon any possible subject, until the coming of the Coquecigrues. We see the world so differently, you and I,—and for that same reason I cannot but adore you, Rosalind. For with you I can always speak my true thought and know that you will never for a moment suspect it to be anything but irony. Ah, yes, we can laugh and joke together, and be thorough friends; but if there is anything certain in this world of uncertainties, it is that I am not, and cannot be, in love with you. And yet—I wonder now?" said I, and I rose and paced Aunt Marcia's parlour.
"You wonder? Don't you understand even now?" the girl said shyly. "I am not as clever as you, of course; I have known that for a long while, Jaques; and to-night in particular I don't quite follow you, my dear, but I love you, and—why, there is nothing I could deny you!"
"Then give me back my freedom," said I. "For, look you, Rosalind, marriage is proverbially a slippery business. Always there are a variety of excellent reasons for perpetrating matrimony; but the rub of it is that not any one of them insures you against to-morrow. Love, for example, we have all heard of; but I have known fine fellows to fling away their chances in life, after the most approved romantic fashion, on account of a pretty stenographer, and to beat her within the twelvemonth. And upon my word, you know, nobody has a right to blame the swindled lover for doing this—"
I paused to inspect the china pug-dog which squatted on the pink-tiled hearth and which glared inanely at the huge brass coal-box just opposite. Then I turned from these two abominations and faced Rosalind with a bantering flirt of my head.
"—For put it that I marry some entrancing slip of girlhood, what am I to say when, later, I discover myself irrevocably chained to a fat and dowdy matron? I married no such person, I have indeed sworn eternal fidelity to an entirely different person; and this unsolicited usurper of my hearth is nothing whatever to me, unless perhaps the object of my entire abhorrence. Yet am I none the less compelled to justify the ensuing action before an irrational audience, which faces common logic in very much the attitude of Augustine's famed adder! Decidedly I think that, on the whole, I would prefer my Freedom."
It was as though I had struck her. She sat as if frozen. "Jaques, is there another woman in this?"
"Why, in a fashion, yes. Yet it is mainly because I am really fond of you, Rosalind."
She handed me that exceedingly expensive ring the jeweler had charged to me. I thought her action damnably theatrical, but still, it was not as though I could afford to waste money on rings, so I took the trinket absent-mindedly.
"You are unflatteringly prompt in closing out the account," I said, with a grieved smile....
"Good-bye!" said Rosalind, and her voice broke. "Oh, and I had thought—! Well, as it is, I pay for the luxury of thinking, just as you forewarned me, don't I, Jaques? And you won't forget the hall-light? Aunt Marcia, you know—but how glad she will be! I feel rather near to Aunt Marcia to-night," said Rosalind.
She left Lichfield the next day but one, and spent the following winter with the aunt that lived in Brooklyn. She was Rosalind Gelwix the next time I saw her....
And Aunt Marcia, whose taste is upon a par with her physical attractions, inserted a paragraph in the "Social Items" of the Lichfield Courier-Herald to announce the breaking-off of the engagement. Aunt Marcia also took the trouble to explain, quite confidentially, to some seven hundred and ninety-three people, just why the engagement had been broken off: and these explanations were more creditable to Mrs. Dumby's imagination than to me.
And I remembered, then, that the last request my mother made of me was to keep out of the newspapers—"except, of course, the social items"....
He Dines Out, Impeded by Superstitions
Within the week I had repented of what I termed my idiotic quixotism, and for precisely nine days after that I cursed my folly. And then, at the Provises, I comprehended that in breaking off my engagement to Rosalind Jemmett I had acted with profound wisdom, and I unfolded my napkin, and said:
"Do you know I didn't catch your name—not even this time?"
She took a liberal supply of lemon juice. "How delightful!" she murmured, "for I heard yours quite distinctly, and these oysters are delicious."
I noted with approval that her gown was pink and fluffy; it had also the advantage of displaying shoulders that were incredibly white, and a throat which was little short of marvellous. "I am glad," I whispered, confidentially, "that you are still wearing that faint vein about your left temple. I thought it admirable for early morning wear upon the house tops of Liege, but it seems equally effective for dinner parties."
She raised her eyebrows slightly and selected a biscuit.
"You see," said I, "I was horribly late. And when Kittie Provis said, 'Allow me,' and I saw—well, I didn't care," I concluded, lucidly, "because to have every one of your dreams come true, all of a sudden, leaves you past caring."
"It really is funny," she confided to a spoonful of consomme a la Julienne.
"After almost two years!" sighed I, ever so happily. But I continued, with reproach, "To go without a word—that very day—"
"Mamma—" she began.
I recalled the canary-bird, and the purple shawl. "I sought wildly," said I; "you were evanished. The proprietaire was tearing his hair—no insurance—he knew nothing. So I too tore my hair; and I said things. There was a row. For he also said things: 'Figure to yourselves, messieurs! I lose the Continental—two ladies come and go, I know not who—I am ruined, desolated, is it not?—and this pig of an American blusters—ah, my new carpets, just down, what horror!' And then, you know, he launched into a quite feeling peroration concerning our notorious custom of tomahawking one another—
"Yes," I coldly concluded into Mrs. Clement Dumby's ear, "we all behaved disgracefully. As you very justly observe, liquor has been the curse of the South." It was of a piece with Kittie Provis to put me next to Aunt Marcia, I reflected.
And mentally I decided that even though a portion of my assertions had not actually gone through the formality of occurring, it all might very easily have happened, had I remained a while longer in Liege; and then ensued a silent interval and an entree.
"And so I knocked about the world, in various places, hoping against hope that at last—"
"Your voice carries frightfully—"
I glanced toward Mrs. Clement Dumby, who, as a dining dowager of many years' experience, was, to all appearances, engrossed by the contents of her plate. "My elderly neighbour is as hard of hearing as a telephone-girl," I announced. She was the exact contrary, which was why I said it quite audibly. "And your neighbour—why, his neighbour is Nannie Allsotts. We might as well be on a desert island, Elena—" And the given name slipped out so carelessly as to appear almost accidental.
"Sir!" said she, with proper indignation; "after so short an acquaintance—"
"Centuries," I suggested, meekly. "You remember I explained about that."
She frowned,—an untrustworthy frown that was tinged with laughter. "One meets so many people! Yes, it really is frightfully warm, Colonel Grimshaw; they ought to open some of the windows."
"Er—haw—hum! Didn't see you at the Anchesters."
"No; I am usually lucky enough to be in bed with a sick headache when Mrs. Anchester entertains. Of two evils one should choose the lesser, you know."
In the manner of divers veterans Colonel Grimshaw evinced his mirth upon a scale more proper to an elephant; and relapsed, with a reassuring air of having done his duty once and for all.
"I never," she suggested, tentatively, "heard any more of your poem, about—?"
"Oh, I finished it; every magazine in the country knows it. It is poor stuff, of course, but then how could I write of Helen when Helen had disappeared?"
The lashes exhibited themselves at full length. "I looked her up," confessed their owner, guiltily, "in the encyclopaedia. It was very instructive—about sun-myths and bronzes and the growth of the epic, you know, and tree-worship and moon-goddesses. Of course"—here ensued a flush and a certain hiatus in logic,—"of course it is nonsense."
"Nonsense?" My voice sank tenderly. "Is it nonsense, Elena, that for two years I have remembered the woman whose soft body I held, for one unforgettable moment, in my arms? and nonsense that I have fought all this time against—against the temptations every man has,—that I might ask her at last—some day when she at last returned, as always I knew she would—to share a fairly decent life? and nonsense that I have dreamed, waking and sleeping, of a wondrous face I knew in Ilium first, and in old Rome, and later on in France, I think, when the Valois were kings? Well!" I sighed, after vainly racking my brain for a tenderer fragment of those two-year-old verses, "I suppose it is nonsense!"
"The salt, please," quoth she. She flashed that unforgotten broadside at me. "I believe you need it."
"Why, dear me! of course not!" said I, to Mrs. Dumby; "immorality lost the true cachet about the same time that ping-pong did. Nowadays divorces are going out, you know, and divorcees are not allowed to. Quite modish women are seen in public with their husbands nowadays."
"H'mph!" said Mrs. Dumby; "I've no doubt that you must find it a most inconvenient fad!"
I ate my portion of duck abstractedly. "Thus to dive into the refuse-heap of last year's slang does not quite cover the requirements of the case. For I wish—only I hardly dare to ask—"
"If I were half of what you make out," meditatively said she, "I would be a regular fairy, and couldn't refuse you the usual three wishes."
"Two," I declared, "would be sufficient."
"That you tell me your name."
"I adore orange ices, don't you? And the second?" was her comment.
"Well, then, you' re a pig," was mine. "You are simply a nomenclatural Berkshire. But the second is that you let me measure your finger—oh, any finger will do. Say, the third on the left hand."
"You really talk to me as if—" But this non-existent state of affairs proved indescribable, and the unreal condition lapsed into a pout.
"Oh, very possibly!" I conceded; "since the way in which a man talks to a woman—to the woman—depends by ordinary upon the depth—"
"The depth of his devotion?" she queried, helpfully. "Of course!"
I faced the broadside, without flinching. "No," said I, critically; "the depth of her dimples."
"Nonsense!" Nevertheless, the dimples were, and by a deal, the more conspicuous. We were getting on pretty well.
I bent forward; there was a little catch in my voice. Aunt Marcia was listening. I wanted her to listen.
"You must know that I love you," I said, simply, "I have always loved you, I think, since the moment my eyes first fell upon you in that—other pink thing. Of course, I realize the absurdity of my talking in this way to a woman whose name I don't know; but I realise more strongly that I love you. Why, there is not a pulse in my body which isn't throbbing and tingling and leaping riotously from pure joy of being with you again, Elena! And in time, you will love me a little, simply because I want you to,—isn't that always a woman's main reason for caring for a man?"
She considered this, dubious and flushed.
"I will not insist," said I, with a hurried and contented laugh, "that you were formerly an Argive queen. I mean I will not be obstinate about it, because that, I confess, was a paraphrase of my verses. But Helen has always been to me the symbol of perfect loveliness, and so it was not unnatural that I should confuse you with her."
"Thank you, sir," said she, demurely.
"I half believe it is true, even now; and if not—well, Helen was acceptable enough in her day, Elena, but I am willing to Italianise, for I have seen you and loved you, and Helen is forgot. It is not exactly the orthodox pace for falling in love," I added, with a boyish candour, "but it is very real to me."
"You—you couldn't have fallen in love—really—"
"It was not in the least difficult," I protested.
"And you don't even know my name—"
"I know, however, what it is going to be," said I; "and Mrs. 'Enry 'Awkins, as we'll put it, has found favour in the judgment of connoisseurs. So after dinner—in an hour—?"
"Oh, very well! since you're an author and insist, I will be ready, in an hour, to decline you, with thanks."
"Rejection not implying any lack of merit," I suggested. "This is damnable iteration; but I am accustomed to it."
But by this, Mrs. Provis was gathering eyes around the table, and her guests arose, with the usual outburst of conversation, and swishing of dresses, and the not always unpremeditated dropping of handkerchiefs and fans. Mrs. Clement Dumby bore down upon us now, a determined and generously proportioned figure in her notorious black silk.
"Really," said she, aggressively, "I never saw two people more engrossed. My dear Mrs. Barry-Smith, you have been so taken up with Mr. Townsend, all during dinner, that I haven't had a chance to welcome you to Lichfield. Your mother and I were at school together, you know. And your husband was quite a beau of mine. So I don't feel, now, at all as if we were strangers—"
And thus she bore Elena off, and I knew that within ten minutes Elena would have been warned against me, as "not quite a desirable acquaintance, you know, my dear, and it is only my duty to tell you that as a young and attractive married woman—"
"And so," I said in my soul, as the men redistributed themselves, "she is married,—married while you were pottering with books and the turn of phrases and immortality and such trifles—oh, you ass! And to a man named Barry-Smith—damn him, I wonder whether he is the hungry scut that hasn't had his hair cut this fall, or the blancmange-bellied one with the mashed-strawberry nose? Yes, I know everybody else. And Jimmy Travis is telling a funny story, so laugh! People will think you are grieving over Rosalind.... But why in heaven's name isn't Jimmy at home this very moment,—with a wife and carpet-slippers and a large-size bottle of paregoric on his mantelpiece,—instead of here, grinning like a fool over some blatant indecency? He ought to marry; every young man ought to marry. Oh, you futile, abject, burbling twin-brother of the first patron that procured a reputation for Bedlam! why aren't you married—married years ago,—with a home of your own, and a victoria for Mrs. Townsend and bills from the kindergarten every quarter? Oh, you bartender of verbal cocktails! I believe your worst enemy flung your mind at you in a moment of unbridled hatred."
So I snapped the stem of my glass carefully, and scowled with morose disapproval at the unconscious Mr. Travis, and his now-applauded and very Fescennine jest....
I found her inspecting a bulky folio with remarkable interest. There was a lamp, with a red shade, that cast a glow over her, such as one sometimes sees reflected from a great fire. The people about us were chattering idiotically, and something inside my throat prevented my breathing properly, and I was miserable.
"Mrs. Barry-Smith,"—thus I began,—"if you've the tiniest scrap of pity in your heart for a very presumptuous, blundering and unhappy person, I pray you to forgive and to forget, as people say, all that I have blatted out to you. I spoke, as I thought, to a free woman, who had the right to listen to my boyish talk, even though she might elect to laugh at it. And now I hardly dare to ask forgiveness."
Mrs. Barry-Smith inspected a view of the Matterhorn, with careful deliberation. "Forgiveness?" said she.
"Indeed," said I, "I don't deserve it." And I smiled most resolutely. "I had always known that somewhere, somehow, you would come into my life again. It has been my dream all these two years; but I dream carelessly. My visions had not included this—obstacle."
She made wide eyes at me. "What?" said she.
"Your husband," I suggested, delicately.
The eyes flashed. And a view of Monaco, to all appearances, awoke some pleasing recollection. "I confess," said Mrs. Barry-Smith, "that—for the time—I had quite forgotten him. I—I reckon you must think me very horrid?"
But she was at pains to accompany this query with a broadside that rendered such a supposition most unthinkable. And so—
"I think you—" My speech was hushed and breathless, and ended in a click of the teeth. "Oh, don't let's go into the minor details," I pleaded.
Then Mrs. Barry-Smith descended to a truism. "It is usually better not to," said she, with the air of an authority. And latterly, addressing the facade of Notre Dame, "You see, Mr. Barry-Smith being so much older than I—"
"I would prefer that. Of course, though, it is none of my business."
"You see, you came and went so suddenly that—of course I never thought to see you again—not that I ever thought about it, I reckon—" Her candour would have been cruel had it not been reassuringly over-emphasized. "And Mr. Barry-Smith was very pressing—"
"He would be," I assented, after consideration. "It is, indeed, the single point in his outrageous conduct I am willing to condone."
"—and he was a great friend of my father's, and I liked him—"
"So you married him and lived together ever afterward, without ever throwing the tureen at each other. That is the most modern version; but there is usually a footnote concerning the bread-and-butter plates."
She smiled, inscrutably, a sphinx in Dresden china. "And yet," she murmured, plaintively, "I would like to know what you think of me."
"Why, prefacing with the announcement that I pray God I may never see you after to-night, I think you the most adorable creature He ever made. What does it matter now? I have lost you. I think—ah, desire o' the world, what can I think of you? The notion of you dazzles me like flame,—and I dare not think of you, for I love you."
"Yes?" she queried, sweetly; "then I reckon Mrs. Dumby was right after all. She said you were a most depraved person and that, as a young and—well, she said it, you know—attractive widow—"
"H'm!" said I; and I sat down. "Elena Barry-Smith," I added, "you are an unmitigated and unconscionable and unpardonable rascal. There is just one punishment which would be adequate to meet your case; and I warn you that I mean to inflict it. Why, how dare you be a widow! The court decides it is unable to put up with any such nonsense, and that you've got to stop it at once."
"Really," said she, tossing her head and moving swiftly, "one would think we were on a desert island!"
"Or a strange roof"—and I laughed, contentedly. "Meanwhile, about that ring—it should be, I think, a heavy, Byzantine ring, with the stones sunk deep in the dull gold. Yes, we'll have six stones in it; say, R, a ruby; O, an opal; B, a beryl; E, an emerald; R, a ruby again, I suppose; and T, a topaz. Elena, that's the very ring I mean to buy as soon as I've had breakfast, tomorrow, as a token of my mortgage on the desire of the world, and as the badge of your impendent slavery." And I reflected that Rosalind had, after all, behaved commendably in humiliating me by so promptly returning this ring.
Very calmly Elena Barry-Smith regarded the Bay of Naples; very calmly she turned to the Taj Mahal. "An obese young Lochinvar," she reflected aloud, "who has seen me twice, unblushingly assumes he is about to marry me! Of course," she sighed, quite tolerantly, "I know he is clean out of his head, for otherwise—" "Yes,—otherwise?" I prompted.
"—he would never ask me to wear an opal. Why," she cried in horror, "I couldn't think of it!" "You mean—?" said I.
She closed the album, with firmness. "Why, you are just a child," said Mrs. Barry-Smith. "We are utter strangers to each other. Please remember that, for all you know, I may have an unbridled temper, or an imported complexion, or a liking for old man Ibsen. What you ask—only you don't, you simply assume it,—is preposterous. And besides, opals are unlucky."
"Desire o' the world," I said, in dolorous wise, "I have just remembered the black-lace mitts and reticule you left upon the dinner-table. Oh, truly, I had meant to bring 'em to you—Only do you think it quite good form to put on those cloth-sided shoes when you've been invited to a real party?"
For a moment Mrs. Barry-Smith regarded me critically. Then she shook her head, and tried to frown, and reopened the album, and inspected the crater of Vesuvius, and quite frankly laughed. And a tender, pink-tipped hand rested upon my arm for an instant,—a brief instant, yet pulsing with a sense of many lights and of music playing somewhere, and of a man's heart keeping time to it.
"If you were to make it an onyx—" said Mrs. Barry-Smith.
He is Urged to Desert His Galley
She had been a widow even when I first encountered her in Liege. I may have passed her dozens of times, only she was in mourning then, for Barry-Smith, and so I never really saw her.
It seems, though, that "in the second year" it is permissible to wear pink garments in the privacy of your own apartments, and that if people see you in them, accidentally, it is simply their own fault.
And very often they are punished for it; as most certainly was I, for Elena led me a devil's dance of jealousy, and rapture, and abject misery, and suspicion, and supreme content, that next four months. She and her mother had rented a house on Regis Avenue for the winter; and I frequented it with zeal. Mrs. Vokins said I "came reg'lar as the milkman."
Now of Mrs. Vokins I desire to speak with the greatest respect, if only for the reason that she was Elena Barry-Smith's mother. Mrs. Vokins had, no doubt, the kindest heart in the world; but she had spent the first thirty years of her life in a mountain-girdled village, and after her husband's wonderful luck—if you will permit me her vernacular,—in being "let in on the groundfloor" when the Amalgamated Tobacco Company was organised, I believe that Mrs. Vokins was never again quite at ease.
I am abysmally sure she never grew accustomed to being waited on by any servant other than a girl who "came in by the day"; though, oddly enough, she was incessantly harassed by the suspicion that one or another "good-for-nothing nigger was getting ready to quit." Her time was about equally devoted to tending her canary, Bill Bryan, and to furthering an apparently diurnal desire to have supper served a quarter of an hour earlier to-night, "so that the servants can get off."
Finally Mrs. Vokins considered that "a good woman's place was right in her own home, with a nice clean kitchen," and was used to declare that the fummadiddles of Mrs. Carrie Nation—who was in New York that winter, you may remember, advocating Prohibition,—would never have been stood for where Mrs. Vokins was riz. Them Yankee huzzies, she estimated, did beat her time.
It was, and is, the oddest thing I ever knew of that Elena could have been her daughter. Though, mind you, even to-day, I cannot commit myself to any statement whatever as concerns Elena Barry-Smith, beyond asserting that she was beautiful. I am willing to concede that since the world's creation there may have lived, say, six or seven women who were equally good to look upon; but at the bottom of my heart I know the concession is simply verbal. For she was not pretty; she was not handsome; she was beautiful. Indeed, I sometimes thought her beauty overshadowed any serious consideration of the woman who wore it, just as in admiration of a picture you rarely think to wonder what sort of canvas it is painted on.
Yes, I am quite sure, upon reflection, that to Elena Barry-Smith her beauty was a sort of tyrant. She devoted her life, I think, to the retention of her charms; and what with the fixed seven hours for sleep—no more and not a moment less,—the rigid limits of her diet, the walking of exactly five miles a day, and her mathematical adherence to a predetermined programme of massage and hair-treatment and manicuring and face-creams and so on, Elena had hardly two hours in a day at her own disposal.
She would as soon have thought of sacrificing her afternoon walk to the Musgrave Monument and back, as of having a front-tooth unnecessarily removed; and would as willingly have partaken of prussic acid as of candy or potatoes. She was, in fine, an artist of the truest type, in that she immolated her body, and her own preferences, in the cause of beauty.
Nor was she vain, or stupid either, though what I have written vaguely sounds as though she were both. She was just Elena Barry-Smith, of whom your memory was always how beautiful she had been at this or that particular moment, rather than what she said or did. And I believe that every man in Lichfield was in love with her.
But, in recollection of any person with whom you have had intimate and tender intercourse, the pre-eminent feature is the big host of questions which you cannot answer, or not, at least, with certainty....
For instance: the night of the Allardyce dance, after seeing Elena home, I stepped in for a moment to get warm and have her mix me a highball. We sat for a considerable while on the long sofa in the dimly-lighted dining room, talking in whispers so as not to disturb the rest of the house: and Elena was unusually beautiful that night, and I was more than usually in love, more thanks to three of the five drinks she mixed....
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," she stated, sighing.
I did not say anything.
"Oh, well, then—! If you will just promise me," she stipulated, "that you will never in any way refer to it afterwards—"
So I promised.... And the next day she met me, cool as the proverbial cucumber, and never once did she "refer to it afterwards," nor did I think it wise to do so either. But the incident, however delightful, puzzled me. It puzzles me even now....
In any event, she was not only beautiful but exceedingly well-to-do likewise, since her dead father and her husband also had provided for her amply; and Lichfield sniggered in consequence, and as a matter of course assumed my devotion to be of astute and mercenary origin. But I had, in this period, a variety of reasons to know that Lichfield was for once entirely in the wrong; and that what Lichfield mistook to be the begetter of, was in reality—so we will phrase it—the almost unnecessary augmenter of my infatuation. Of course I did not exactly object to her having money....
Meantime Elena was profoundly various. I told her once that being married to her would be the very next thing to owning a harem. And in consequence of this same mutability, it was as late as March before Elena Barry-Smith made up her mind to marry me; and I was so deliciously perturbed that the same night I wrote to tell Bettie Hamlyn all about it. I had accepted Rosalind more calmly somehow. Now I was dithyrambic; and you would never have suspected I had lived within fifty miles of Bettie for an entire two years without attempting to communicate with her, for very certainly my letter did not touch upon the fact. I was, in fine, supremely happy, and I wanted Bettie, first of all, to know of this circumstance, because my happiness had always made her happy too.
The act was natural enough; only Elena telephoned, at nine the following morning, that she had altered her intention.
"My regret is beyond expression," said I, politely, "I shall come for my tea at five, however."
She entered upon a blurred protest. "You have already broken my heart," I said, with some severity, "and now it would appear you contemplate swindling the remainder of my anatomy out of its deserts. You are a curmudgeon." And I hung up the receiver.
And my first thought was, "Oh, how gladly I would give the gold of Ormus and of Alaska just to have my letter back!" But I had mailed it, shuffling to the corner in my slippers, and without any collar on, in the hushed middle of the night, because my letter had seemed so important then.
"Will you not have me, lady?" I began that afternoon.
"No, my lord," she demurely responded, "for I've decided it would be too much like living in my Sunday-clothes."
And "I give it up. So what's the answer?" was my annotation.
"Oh, I'm not making jokes to-day. Why are you so—Oh, as we used to say at school," she re-began, "Que diable allais-tu faire dans cette galere?"
"I was born in a vale of tears, Elena, and must take the consequences of being found in such a situation."
She came to me, and her finger-tips touched my hand ever so lightly. "That is another quotation, I suppose. And it is one other reason why I mean not to marry you. Frankly, you bore me to death with your erudition; you are three-quarters in love with me, but you pay heaps less attention to what I say about anything than to what Aristotle or some other old fellow said about it. Oh, that I should have lived to be jealous of Aristotle! Indeed I am, for I have the misfortune to be hideously in love with you. You are so exactly the sort of infant I would like to adopt."
"Love," I suggested, "while no longer an excuse for marriage, is at least a palliation."
"Listen, dear. From the first I have liked you, but that was not very strange, because I like almost everybody; but it was strange I should have remembered you and have liked the idea of you ever since you went away that first time."
"Oh, well, this once I will excuse you—"
"But it happened in this way: I had found everybody—very nice, you know—particularly the men,—and the things which cannot be laughed at I had always put aside as not worth thinking about. You like to laugh, too, but I have always known—and sometimes it gets me real mad to think about it, I can tell you—that you could be in earnest if you chose, and I can't. And that makes me a little sorry and tremendously glad, because, quite frankly, I am head over heels in love with you. That is why I don't intend to marry you."
And I was not a little at sea. "Oh, very well!" I pleasantly announced, "I shall become a prominent citizen at once, if that's all that is necessary. I will join every one of the patriotic societies, and sit perpetually on platforms with a perspiring water-pitcher, and unveil things every week, with felicitous allusions to the glorious past of our grand old State; and have columns of applause in brackets on the front page of the Courier-Herald. I will even go into civic politics, if you insist upon it, and leave round-cornered cards at all the drugstores, so that everybody who buys a cigar will know I am subject to the Democratic primary. I wonder, by the way, if people ever survive that malady? It sounds to me a deal more dangerous that epilepsy, say, yet lots of persons seem to have it—"
But Elena was not listening. "You know," she re-began, "I could get out of it all very gracefully by telling you you drink too much. You couldn't argue it, you know—particularly after your behavior last Tuesday."
"Oh, now and then one must be sociable. You aren't a prude, Elena—"
"However, I am not really afraid of that, somehow. I even confess I don't actually mind your being rather good for nothing. No woman ever really does, though she has her preference, and pretends, of course, to mind a great deal. What I mean, then, is this: You don't marry just me. I—I have very few relations, just two brothers and my mother; yet, in a sense, you know, you marry them as well. But I don't believe you would like being married to them. They are so different from you, dear. Your whole view-point of life is different—"
I had begun to speak when she broke in: "No, don't say anything, please, until I'm quite, quite through. My brothers are the most admirable men I ever knew. I love them more than I can say. I trust them more than I do you. But they are just good. They don't fail in the really important things of life, but they are remiss in little ways, they—they don't care for the little elegantnesses, if that's a word. Even Arthur chews tobacco when he feels inclined. And he thinks no man would smoke a cigarette. Oh, I can't explain just what I mean—"
"I think I understand, Elena. Suppose we let it pass as said."
"And Mamma is not—we'll say, particularly highly educated. Oh, you've been very nice to her. She adores you. You won her over completely when you took so much trouble to get her the out-of-print paper novels—about the village maidens and the wicked dukes—in that idiotic Carnation Series she is always reading. The whole affair was just like both of you, I think."
"But, oh, my dear—!" I laughed.
"No, not one man in a thousand would have remembered it after she had said she did think the titles 'were real tasty'; and I don't believe any other man in the world would have spent a week in rummaging the second-hand bookstores, until he found them. Only I don't know, even yet, whether it was really kindness, or just cleverness that put you up to it—on account of me. And I do know that you are nice to her in pretty much the same way you were nice to the negro cook yesterday. And I have had more advantages than she's had. But at bottom I'm really just like her. You'd find it out some day. And—and that is what I mean, I think."
I spoke at some length. It was atrocious nonsense which I spoke; in any event, it looked like atrocious nonsense when I wrote it down just now, and so I tore it up. But I was quite sincere throughout that moment; it is the Townsend handicap, I suspect, always to be perfectly sincere for the moment.
"Oh, well!" she said; "I'll think about it."
That night Elena and I played bridge against Nannie Allsotts and Warwick Risby. I was very much in love with Elena, but I hold it against her, even now, that she insisted on discarding from strength. However, there was to be a little supper afterward, and you may depend upon it that Mrs. Vokins was seeing to its preparation.
She came into the room about eleven o'clock, beaming with kindliness and flushed—I am sure,—by some slight previous commerce with the kitchen-fire.
"Well, well!" said Mrs. Vokins, comfortably; "and who's a-beating?"
I looked up. I must protest, until my final day, I could not help it. "Why, we is," I said.
And Nannie Allsotts giggled, ever so slightly, and Warwick Risby had half risen, with a quite infuriate face, and I knew that by to-morrow the affair would be public property, and promptly lost the game and rubber. Afterward we had our supper.
When the others had gone—for my footing in the house was such that I, by ordinary, stayed a moment or two after the others had gone,—Elena Barry-Smith came to me and soundly boxed my jaws.
"That," she said, "is one way to deal with you."
A minute ago I had been ashamed of myself. I had not room to be that now; I was too full of anger. "I did make rather a mess of it," I equably remarked, "but, you see, Nannie had shown strength in diamonds, and I simply couldn't resist the finesse. So they made every one of their clubs. And I hadn't any business to take the chance of course at that stage, with the ace right in my hand—"
"Arthur would have said, before he'd thought of it, 'You damn fool—!' And then he would have apologised for forgetting himself in the presence of a lady," she said, in a sorry little voice. "Yes, you—you have hurt me," she presently continued,—"just as you meant to do, if that's a comfort to you. I feel as though I'd smacked a marble statue. You are the sort that used to take snuff just before they had their heads cut off, and when they were in the wrong. And I'm not. That's always been the trouble."
"Elena!" I began,—"wait, just a moment! I'm in anger now—!" It was not much to stammer out, but for me, who have the Townsend temper, it was very hard to say.
"You talk about loving me! and I believe you do love me, in at any rate a sort of way. But you'll never forget, you never have forgotten, those ancestors of yours who were in the House of Burgesses when I hadn't any ancestors at all. It isn't fair, because we haven't got the chance to pick our parents, and it's absurd, and—it's true. The woman is my mother, and I'll be like her some day, very probably. Yes, she is ignorant and tacky, and at times she is ridiculous. She hadn't even the smartness to notice it when you made a fool of her; and if anybody were to explain it to her she would just laugh and say, 'Law, I don't mind, because young people always have to have their fun, I reckon.' And she would forgive you! Why, she adores you! she's been telling me for months that you're 'a heap the nicest young man that visits with me.'"
Afterward Elena paused for an instant. "I think that is all," she said. "It's a difference that isn't curable. Yes, I simply wanted to tell you that much, and then ask you to go, I believe—"
"So you don't wish me, Elena, in the venerable phrase, to make an honest woman of you?"
She had half turned, standing, in pink and silver fripperies, with one bared arm resting on the chair back, in one of her loveliest attitudes. "What do you mean?"
"I was referring to what happened the other night, after the Allardyce dance."
And Elena smiled rather strangely. "You baby! how much would it shock you if I told you no woman really minds about that either? Any way, you have broken your solemn promise," she said, with indignation.
"Ah, but perfidy seemed, somehow, in tone with an establishment wherein one concludes the evening's entertainment by physical assault upon the guests. Frankly, my dear"—I observed, with my most patronizing languor, —"your breeding is not quite that to which I have been accustomed, and I have had a rather startling glimpse of Lena Vokins, with all the laboriously acquired veneering peeling off. Still, in view of everything, I suppose I do owe it to you to marry you, if you insist—"
"Insist! I wouldn't wipe my feet on you!"
"That especial demonstration of affection was not, as I recall, requested of you. So it is all off? along with the veneering, eh? Well, perhaps I did attach too much importance to that diverting epilogue to the Allardyce dance. And as you say, Elena—and I take your word for it, gladly,—once one has become used to granting these little favors indiscriminately—"
"Get out of my house!" Elena said, quite splendid in her fury, "or I will have you horsewhipped. I was fond of you. You would not let me be in peace. And I didn't know you until to-night for the sneering, stuck-up dirty beast you are at heart—" She came nearer, and her glittering eyes narrowed. "And you have no hold on me, no letters to blackmail me with, and nobody anywhere would take your word for anything against mine. You would only be whipped by some real man, and probably shot. So do you remember to keep a watch upon that lying, sneering mouth of yours! And do you get out of my house!"
"It is only rented," I submitted: "yet, after all, to boast vaingloriously of their possessions is pardonable in those who have risen in the world, and aren't quite accustomed to it...." There were a pair of us when it came to tempers.
And I went homeward almost physically sick with rage. I knew, even then, that, while Elena would forgive me in the outcome, if I set about the matter properly, I could never bring myself to ask forgiveness. If only she had been in the wrong, I could have eagerly gone back and have submitted to the extremest and the most outrageous tyranny she could devise.
But—although I would never have blackmailed her, I think,—she had been mainly in the right. She had humiliated me, with a certain lack of decorum, to be sure, but with some justice: and to pardon plain retaliation is beyond the compass of humanity. At least, it ranks among achievements which have always baffled me.
He Cleans the Slate
It was within a month of this other disaster that Jasper Hardress came to America, accompanied by his wife. They planned a tour of the States, which they had not visited in seven years, and more particularly, as his forerunning letter said, they meant to investigate certain mining properties which Hardress had acquired in Montana. So, not unstirred by trepidations, I met them at the pier.
For I was already in New York, in part to see a volume of my short stories through the press—which you may or may not have read, in its elaborate "gift-book" form, under the title of The Aspirants,—and in part about less edifying employments. I was trying to forget Elena, and in Lichfield it was not possible to induce such forgetfulness without affording unmerited pleasure for gabbling busybodies.... It was not in me to apologise, except in a letter, where the wording and interminable tinkering with phraseology would enable me to forget it was I who was apologising, until a bit of nearly perfect prose was safely mailed; and I knew she would not read any letter from me, because Elena comprehended that I always persuaded her to do what I prompted, if only she listened to me.
As it was, I talked that morning for an hour or more with fat Jasper Hardress.... Even now I find the two errands which brought him to America of not unlaughable incongruity.
For, first, he came as an agent of the Philomatheans, who were endeavouring to secure official recognition by the churches of America and England of a revised translation of, in any event, the New Testament.
He told me of a variety of buttressing reasons,—which I suppose are well-founded, though I must confess I never investigated the matter. He told me how the Authorised Version was a paraphrase, abounding in confusions and in mistranslations from the Greek of Erasmus's New Testament, which, as the author confessed, "was rather tumbled headlong into the world than edited." And he told me how the edition of Erasmus itself was hastily prepared from careless copies of inaccurate transcriptions of yet further copies of divers manuscripts of which the oldest dates no further back than the fourth century, and is in turn, most probably, just a liberal paraphrase, as all the others are, of still another manuscript.
So that the English version, as I gathered, may be very fine English, but has scarcely a leg left, when you consider it as a safe foundation for superiority, or pillorying, or as a guide in conduct.
I suspect, however, that Jasper Hardress somewhat overstated the case, since on this subject he was a fanatic. To me it seemed rather quaint that Hardress or anybody else should be bothering about such things.
And as he feelingly declaimed concerning the great Uncials, and explained why in this particular verse the Ephraem manuscript was in the right, whereas to probe the meaning of the following verse we clearly must regard the Syriac version as of supreme authority, I could well understand how at one period or another his young wife must inevitably have considered him in the light of a rather tedious person.
And I told him that it hardly mattered, because the true test of a church-member was the ability to believe that when the Bible said anything inconvenient it really meant something else.
But actually I was not feeling over-cheerful, because Jasper's second object in coming to America was to leave his wife in Sioux City, so that she could secure a divorce from him, on quite un-Scriptural grounds. Hardress told me of this at least without any excitement. He did not blame her. He was too old for her, too stolid, too dissimilar in every respect, he said. Their marriage had been a mistake, that was all,—a mismating, as many marriages were. She wanted to marry someone else, he rather thought.
And "Oh, Lord! yes!" I inwardly groaned. "She probably does."
Aloud I said: "But the Bible—Yes, I am provincial at bottom. It's because I always think in nigger-English and translate it when I talk. It was my Mammy, you see, who taught me how to think,—and in our nigger-English, what the Bible says is true. Why, Jasper, even this Revised Version of yours says flatly that a man—"
"Child, child!" said Jasper Hardress, and he patted my hair, and I really think it crinkled under his touch, "when you grow up—if indeed you ever do,—you will find that a man's feeling for his wife and the mother of his children, is not altogether limited by what he has read in a book. He wants—well, just her happiness."
I looked up without thinking; and the aspect of that gross and unattractive man humiliated me. He had reached a height denied to such as I; and inwardly I cursed and envied this fat Jasper Hardress.... I would have told him everything, had not the waiter come just then.
And the same afternoon I was alone with Gillian Hardress, for the first time in somewhat more than two years. We had never written each other; I had been too cautious for that; and now when the lean, handsome woman came toward me, murmuring "Jack—" very tenderly,—for she had always called me Jack, you may remember,—I raised a hand in protest.
"No,—that is done with, Jill. That is dead and buried now, my dear."
She remained motionless; only her eyes, which were like chrysoberyls, seemed to grow larger and yet more large. There was no anger in them, only an augmenting wonder.
"Ah, yes," she said at last, and seemed again to breathe; "so that is dead and buried—in two years." Gillian Hardress spoke with laborious precision, like a person struggling with a foreign language, and articulating each word to its least sound before laying tongue to its successor.
"Yes! we have done with each other, once for all," said I, half angrily. "I wash my hands of the affair, I clean the slate today. I am not polite about it, and—I am sorry, dear. But I talked with your husband this morning, and I will deceive Jasper Hardress no longer. The man loves you as I never dreamed of loving any woman, as I am incapable of loving any woman. He dwarfs us. Oh, go and tell him, so that he may kill us both! I wish to God he would!"
Mrs. Hardress said: "You have planned to marry. It is time the prodigal marry and settle down, is it not? So long as we were in England it did not matter, except to that Faroy girl you seduced and flung out into the streets—"
"I naturally let her go when I found out—"
"As if I cared about the creature! She's done with. But now we are in America, and Mr. Townsend desires no entanglements just now that might prevent an advantageous marriage. So he is smitten—very conveniently—with remorse." Gillian began to laugh. "And he discovers that Jasper Hardress is a better man than he. Have I not always known that, Jack?"
Now came a silence. "I cannot argue with you as to my motives. Let us have no scene, my dear—"
"God keep us respectable!" the woman said; and then: "No; I can afford to make no scene. I can only long to be omnipotent for just one instant that I might deal with you, Robert Townsend, as I desire—and even then, heaven help me, I would not do it!" Mrs. Hardress sat down upon the divan and laughed, but this time naturally. "So! it is done with? I have had my dismissal, and, in common justice, you ought to admit that I have received it not all ungracefully."
"From the first," I said, "you have been the most wonderful woman I have ever known." And I knew that I was sincerely fond of Gillian Hardress.
"But please go now," she said, "and have a telegram this evening that will call you home, or to Kamchatka, or to Ecuador, or anywhere, on unavoidable business. No, it is not because I loathe the sight of you or for any melodramatic reason of that sort. It is because, I think, I had fancied you to be not completely self-centred, after all, and I cannot bear to face my own idiocy. Why, don't you realize it was only yesterday you borrowed money from Jasper Hardress—some more money!"
"Well, but he insisted on it: and I owed it to you to do nothing to arouse his suspicions—"
"And I don't hate you even now! I wish God would explain to me why He made women so."
"You accuse me of selfishness," I cried. "Ah, let us distinguish, for there is at times a deal of virtue in this vice. A man who devotes himself to any particular art or pursuit, for instance, becomes more and more enamoured of it as time wears on, because he comes to identify it with himself; and a husband is fonder of his wife than of any other woman,—at least, he ought to be,—not because he considers her the most beautiful and attractive person of his acquaintance, but because she is the one in whom he is most interested and concerned. He has a proprietary interest in her welfare, and she is in a manner part of himself. Thus the arts flourish and the home-circle is maintained, and all through selfishness."
I snapped my fingers airily; I was trying, of course, to disgust her by my callousness. And it appeared I had almost succeeded.
"Please go!" she said.
"But surely not while we are as yet involved in a question of plain logic? You think selfishness a vice. None the less you must concede that the world has invariably progressed because, upon the whole, we find civilisation to be more comfortable than barbarism; and that a wholesome apprehension of the penitentiary enables many of us to rise to deaconships. Why, deuce take it, Jill! I may endow a hospital because I want to see my name over the main entrance, I may give a beggar a penny because his gratitude puts me in a glow of benevolence that is cheap at the price. So let us not rashly declare that selfishness is a vice, and—let us part friends, my dear."
And I assumed possession of the thin hands that seemed to push me from her in a species of terror, and I gallantly lifted them to my lips.
The ensuing event was singular. Gillian Hardress turned to the door of her bedroom and brutally, as with two bludgeons, struck again and again upon its panels with clenched hand. She extended her hands to me, and everywhere their knuckles oozed blood. "You kissed them," she said, "and even today they liked it, and so they are not clean. They will never again be clean, my dear. But they were clean before you came."
Then Gillian Hardress left me, and where she had touched it, the brass door knob of her bedroom door was smeared with blood....
When I had come again to Lichfield I found that in the brief interim of my absence Elena Barry-Smith, without announcement, had taken the train for Washington, and had in that city married Warwick Risby. This was, I knew, because she comprehended that, if I so elected, it was always in my power to stop her halfway up the aisle and to dissuade her from advancing one step farther.... "I don't know how it is!—" she would have said, in that dear quasi-petulance I knew so well....
But as it was, I met the two one evening at the Provises', and with exuberant congratulation. Then straddling as a young Colossus on the hearth-rug, and with an admonitory forefinger, I proclaimed to the universe at large that Mrs. Risby had blighted my existence and beseeched for Warwick some immediate and fatal and particularly excruciating malady. In fine, I was abjectly miserable the while that I disarmed all comment by being quite delightfully boyish for a whole two hours.
I must record it, though, that Mrs. Vokins patted my hand when nobody else was looking, and said: "Oh, my dear Mr. Bob, I wish it had been you! You was always the one I liked the best." For that, in view of every circumstance, was humorous, and hurt as only humour can.
So in requital, on the following morning, I mailed to Mrs. Risby some verses. This sounds a trifle like burlesque; but Elena had always a sort of superstitious reverence for the fact that I "wrote things." It would not matter at all that the verses were abominable; indeed, Elena would never discover this; she would simply set about devising an excellent reason for not showing them to anybody, and would consider Warwick Risby, if only for a moment, in the light of a person who, whatever his undeniable merits, had neither the desire nor the ability to write "poetry." And, though it was hideously petty, this was precisely what I desired her to do.
So I dispatched to her a sonnet-sequence which I had originally plagiarized from the French of Theodore Passerat in honour of Stella. I loathed sending Stella's verses to anyone else, somehow; but, after all, my one deterrent was merely a romantic notion; and there was not time to compose a new set. Moreover, "your eyes are blue, your speech is gracious, but you are not she; and I am older,—and changed how utterly!—I am no longer I, you are not you," and so on, was absolutely appropriate. And Elena most undoubtedly knew nothing of Theodore Passerat. And Stella, being dead, could never know what I had done.
So I sent the verses, with a few necessitated alterations, to the address of Mrs. Warwick Risby.
I had within the week, an unsigned communication which, for a long while afterward, I did not comprehend. It was the photograph of an infant, with the photographer's address scratched from the cardboard and without of course any decipherable postmark; and upon the back of the thing was written: "His has been the summer air, and the sunshine, and the flowers; and gentle ears have listened to him, and gentle eyes have been upon him. Let others eat his honey that please, so that he has had his morsel and his song."