This office of comforter usually fell to the lot of Mrs. Frederick Staggchase. Indeed, his fondness for this lady was so marked as to give rise to some question among his intimates whether he were not more attached to her than to the avowed object of his affection.
An hour after he had made his precipitate retreat from Ethel's, he found himself sitting in the library at Mrs. Staggchase's, with his hostess comfortably enthroned in a great chair of carved oak on the opposite side of the fire. The conversation had somehow turned upon marriage. There is always a certain fascination, a piquant if faint sense of being upon the borderland of the forbidden, which makes such a discussion attractive to a man and woman who are playing at making love when marriage stands between them.
"But, of course," Rangely had said, "two married people can't live at peace when one of them is in love with somebody else."
Mrs. Staggchase clasped with her slender hand the ball at the end of the carved arm of the chair in which she was sitting, looking absently at the rings which adorned her fingers. She possessed to perfection the art of being serious, and the air with which she now spoke was admirably calculated to imply a deep interest in the subject under discussion. "I do not understand," she observed, thoughtfully, "why a man and woman need quarrel because they happen to be married to each other, when they had rather be married to somebody else. It wouldn't be considered good business policy to pull against a partner because one might do better with some other arrangement; and it does seem as if people might be as sensible about their marriage relations as in their business."
Her companion glanced at her, and then quickly resumed his intent regard of the fire beside which he sat.
"But people are so unreasonable," he remarked.
Mrs. Staggchase assented, with a characteristic bend of the head, and a movement of her flexible neck. She looked up with a smile.
"I think Fred and I are a model couple," she said. "Fred came into my room this noon, just as I had finished my morning letters. 'Good- morning,' he said, 'I hope you weren't frightened.'—'Frightened?' I said, 'what at?'—'Do you mean to say you didn't know I was out all night?'—'I hadn't an idea of it,' said I. He'd been playing cards at the club all night, and had just come in. He says that the next time, he shan't take the trouble to expose himself."
Rangely laughed in a somewhat perfunctory way.
"But if that is a model fashion of living, what becomes of the old notions of kindred souls, and all that sort of thing?" he asked. "I shouldn't want my wife"—
He paused, rather awkwardly, and Mrs. Staggchase took up the sentence with a smile of amusement, in which there was no trace of annoyance. She was too well aware how completely she was mistress of the situation, in dealing with Rangely, to be either vexed or embarrassed in talking with him.
"To be as frank with another man as I am with you?" she finished for him. "Oh, very likely not. You have all the masculine jealousy which is aroused in an instant by the idea that a woman should be at liberty to like more than one man. You are half a century behind us. Marriage as you conceive it is the old-fashioned article, for the use of families in narrow circumstances intellectually as well as pecuniarily. Love in a cottage is necessary, because people under those conditions can't live unless they are extravagantly devoted to each other. Marriage with us is just what it ought to be, an arrangement of mutual convenience. Fred and I suit each other perfectly, and are sufficiently fond of each other; but there are sides of his nature to which I do not answer, and of mine that he does not touch. He finds somebody who does; I find somebody on my part. You, for instance."
Rangely leaned back in his chair, and clasped his plump white fingers, regarding Mrs. Staggchase with a smile of amusement and admiration.
"You are so awfully clever," was his response, "that you could really never be uncommonly fond of anybody. You'd analyze the whole business too closely."
She laughed slightly, and went on with what she was saying, without heeding his interruption.
"Fred and I make good backgrounds for each other, and, after all, that is what is required. You answer to my need of companionship in another direction, and since that side of my nature is unintelligible to my husband, he is not defrauded, while I should be if I starved my desire for such friendship, to please an idea like yours, that a wife should find her all in her husband. Fortunately, Mr. Staggchase is a broader man than you are."
"Thank you," Rangely retorted, with a faint tinge of annoyance visible, despite his air of jocularity. "Arthur Fenton says a broad man is one who can appreciate his own wife. If Mr. Staggchase does that"—
"Come," interrupted Mrs. Staggchase, smiling with the air of one who has had quite enough of the topic, "don't you think the subject is getting to be unfortunately personal? I have a favor to ask of you."
Rangely was too well aware of the uselessness of trying to direct the conversation to make any attempt to continue the talk, which, moreover, had taken a turn not at all to his liking. He settled himself in his chair, in an attitude of easy attention.
"I am always delighted to do you a favor," he said. "It isn't often I get a chance."
The relations between these two were not easy to understand, unless one accepted the simplest possible theory of their friendship. It was, on the part of Mrs. Staggchase, only one of a succession of platonic intimacies with which her married life had been enriched. She found it necessary to her enjoyment that some man should be her devoted admirer, always quite outside the bounds of any possible love-making, albeit often enough she permitted matters to go to the exciting verge of a flirtation which might merit a name somewhat warmer than friendship. She was a brilliant and clever woman who allowed herself the luxury of gratifying her vanity by encouraging the ardent attentions of some man, which, if they ever became too pressing, she knew how to check, or, if necessary, to stop altogether. She was fond of talking, and she frankly avowed her conviction that women were not worth talking to. She liked an appreciative masculine listener with whom she could converse, now in a strain of bewildering frankness, now in a purely impersonal and intellectual vein, and who, however he might at times delude himself by misconstruing her confidences into expressions of personal regard, was clever enough to comprehend the little corrective hints by which, when necessary, she chose to undeceive him.
Analyzed to its last elements, her feeling, it must be confessed, was pretty nearly pure selfishness; but she was able, without effort, and by half-unconscious art, to throw over it the air of being disinterested friendship. Such a nature is essentially false, but chiefly in that it gives to a passing mood the appearance of a permanent sentiment, and, while seeking only self-gratification, seems actuated by genuine desire to give pleasure to another.
The attitude of Rangely toward Mrs. Staggchase was, perhaps, no more unselfish, and was certainly no more noble, but his sentiment was at least more genuine. He was flattered by her preference, and he was bewildered by her cleverness. He liked to believe himself capable of interesting her, and without in the most remote degree desiring or anticipating an intrigue, he was ready to go as far as she would allow in his devotion. He was constantly tormented by a vague phantom of conquest, which danced with will-o'-the-wisp fantasy before him, and from day to day he endeavored to discover how deeply in love she was willing he should fall. He was really fond of her, a fact that did not prevent his entertaining a half-hearted passion for Ethel Mott, the result of this mixture of emotion being that he was the slave, albeit with a difference, of either lady with whom he chanced to be. That he was the plaything of Mrs. Staggchase's fancy he was far from realizing, although from the nature of things he naturally regarded his fondness for Miss Mott as the permanent factor in the case. He even felt a certain compunction for the regret he supposed Mrs. Staggchase would feel when he should decide formally to transfer his allegiance to her rival; a misgiving he might have spared himself had he been wise enough to appreciate the situation in all its bearings. The lady understood perfectly how matters stood, but Rangely was her junior, and, besides, no man in such a case ever comprehends that he is being played with.
"It is in regard to the statue of America that I want you to be useful," Mrs. Staggchase said, replying to her visitor's proffer of service with a smile. "Do you know what the chances are in regard to the choice of a sculptor?"
"Why, I suppose Grant Herman will have the commission."
"But I think not."
"You think not? Who will then?"
"That is just it. Mr. Hubbard has been backing Mr. Herman; and Mr. Irons, who never will agree to anything that Mr. Hubbard wants, is putting up the claims of this new woman, just to be contrary."
"What new woman? Mrs. Greyson?"
"Yes. Mrs. Frostwinch told me all about it yesterday. Now there is a young man that we are interested in"—
"Who is 'we'?" interrupted Rangely.
"Oh, Mrs. Frostwinch, and Mrs. Bodewin Ranger, and a number of us."
"But whom have you got on the committee?"
"Mr. Calvin; and don't you see that Mr. Calvin's name in a matter of art is worth a dozen of the other two."
"Yes," Rangely assented, rather doubtfully, "in the matter of giving commissions it certainly is."
Mrs. Staggchase smiled indulgently, playing with the ring in which blazed a splendid ruby, and which she was putting on and off her finger.
"If you think," she said, "that you are going to entrap me into a discussion of the merits of art and Philistinism, you are mistaken. I told you long ago that I was a Philistine of the Philistines, deliberately and avowedly. The true artistic soul which you delight to call Pagan is only the servant of Philistinism, and I own that I prefer to stand with the ruling party. As, indeed," she added, with a mischievous gleam in her eye, "do many who will not confess it."
Rangely flushed. The thrust too closely resembled reproaches which in his more sensitive moments he received at the hand of his own inner consciousness, so to speak, not to make him wince. He felt himself, besides, becoming involved in a painful position. He had long been the intimate friend of Grant Herman, and felt that the sculptor had a right to expect whatever aid he could give him in a matter like this.
"But who," he asked, "is your protege?"
"His name," Mrs. Staggchase replied, "is Orin Stanton. He is a fellow of the greatest talent, and he has worked his way"—
Rangely put up his hand in a gesture of impatience.
"I know the fellow," he said. "He made a thing he called Hop Scotch, of which Fenton said the title was far too modest, since he'd not only scotched the subject but killed it."
"One never knew Mr. Fenton to waste the chance of saying a good thing simply for the sake of justice," Mrs. Staggchase observed, with unabated good humor. "But you are to help us in the Daily Observer, and there is to be no discussion about it. Since you know you are too good-natured not to oblige me in the end, why should you not do it gracefully and get the credit of being willing."
And then, being a wise woman, she disregarded Rangely's muttered remonstrance and turned the conversation into a new channel.
THIS IS NOT A BOON. Othello; iii.—3.
If the old-time opinion that a woman whose name is a jest with men has lost her claims to respect, Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson might be supposed to have little ground for the inner anger she felt at the scantness of the courtesy with which she was treated by Mr. Irons. That gentleman was calling upon her in her tiny suite of rooms at the top of one of those apartment hotels which stand upon the debatable ground between the select regions of Back Bay and the scorned precincts of the South End, and he was apparently as much at home as if the sofa upon which he lounged were in his own dwelling.
The apartment of Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson gave to the experienced eye evidences of a pathetic struggle to make scanty resources furnish at least an appearance of luxury. The walls were adorned with amateur china painting in the shape of dreadful placques and plates in livid hues; there was abundance of embroidery that should have been impossible, in garish tints and uneven stitches; much shift had been made to produce an imposing appearance by means of cheap Japanese fans and the inexpensive wares of which the potteries at Kioto, corrupted by foreign influence, turn out such vast quantities for the foreign market. Against the wall stood an upright piano—if a piano could be called upright which habitually destroyed the peace of the entire neighborhood—and over it was placed a scarf upon which apparently some boarding-school miss had taken her first lesson in painting wild flowers.
The room was small, and so well filled with furniture that there seemed little space for the long limbs of Alfred Irons, who, however, had contrived to make himself comfortable by the aid of various cushions covered with bright-colored sateens. He had lighted a cigar without thinking it necessary to ask leave, and had even made himself more easy by putting one leg across a low chair.
Mrs. Sampson was fully aware that in her struggles with life she had sometimes provoked laughter, often disapproval, and now and then given rise to positive scandal, yet she was still accustomed to at least a fair semblance of respect from the men who came to see her; women, it is to be noted, being not often seen within her walls, since those who were willing to come she did not care to receive, and those whom she invited seldom set her name down on their calling lists. Among themselves, at the clubs or elsewhere, the men speculated more or less coarsely and unfeelingly upon the foundations of the numerous scandals which had from time to time blossomed like brilliant and life-sapping parasites upon the tree of Mrs. Sampson's reputation. Her name, either spoken boldly or too broadly hinted at to be misunderstood, adorned many a racy tale told in smoking-rooms after good dinners, or when the hours had grown small in more senses than one; and her career was made to point more than one moral drawn for the benefit of the sisters and daughters of the men who joked and sneered concerning her.
Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson was born of a good old Boston family, to which she clung with a desperate clutch which her relatives ignored so far as with dignity they were able. Her father had been a lawyer of reputation, and his portrait was still displayed prominently in the daughter's parlor, a circumstance which had given Chauncy Wilson opportunity for a jest rather clever than elegant concerning Judge Welsh's well-known fondness in life for watching the progress of criminal cases. Of her husband, the late Mr. Sampson, there was very little said, and not much was known beyond the fact that having run away from school to marry him, Amanda had shared a shady and it was whispered rather disreputable existence for three years, at the end of which she was fortunately relieved from the matrimonial net by his timely decease; an event of which she sometimes spoke to her more intimate male friends with undisguised satisfaction.
It might not have been easy to tell how far Mrs. Sampson's subsequent career was forced upon her by circumstances, and how far it was the result of her own choice. She always represented herself as the victim of a hard fate: but her relatives, one of whom was Mr. Staggchase, declared that Amanda had no capabilities of respectability in her composition. Mrs. Staggchase, upon whom marriage had conferred the privilege of expressing her mind with the freedom of one of the family, while it happily spared her from the responsibility of an actual relative, declared that everything had been done to keep Mrs. Sampson within the bounds of propriety, but all in vain. The income from the estate of the late Judge Welsh was not large, and as Mrs. Sampson's tastes, especially in dress, were somewhat expensive, it followed that she was often reduced to devices for increasing her bank account which were generally adroit and curious, but often not of a character to be openly boasted of. She had had some business transactions already with Irons, who was at this moment laying out the plan of work in a fresh operation where she might make herself useful.
"Of course," he said, "all the men from Wachusett way are on our side, and the men from the other part of the county will be against us."
"What other part of the county?" Mrs. Sampson inquired.
She had laid down her sewing and was listening intently, with a look of keen intelligence, the tips of her long and rather large fingers pressed closely together. She hated Irons devoutly, but his scheme meant financial profit to her, and various bills were troublesomely overdue.
"That's what we have to discover. When we find out, I'll let you know. The other syndicate have been deucedly close-mouthed about their plans, but of course they can't keep dark a great while longer; and in any case I am on the track of the information."
"And what," Mrs. Sampson asked, with an air of innocence too obviously artificial, "am I expected to do?"
Irons glanced at her with a wink, taking in her plain, vivacious face with its sparkling eyes, her fine figure, and stylish, if somewhat too pronounced, presence.
"The old game," he said. "Show a tender and sisterly interest in a few of the country members. There are one or two men from the western part of the state that we want to capture at once before the thing is started. Do you know anybody in that region?"
"My father, Judge Welsh," she answered with an amusing touch amid her frankness of the air with which she always mentioned her ancestors in society, "had numerous connections there."
"Ah, that is good," the visitor responded, with evident satisfaction.
He knocked the ashes from his cigar into a tiny bronze which Mrs. Sampson had put within his reach when he showed signs of throwing them upon the carpet, and then plunged into a discussion of the members of the State Legislature with whom it was possible for Mrs. Sampson to establish an acquaintance, and whom she was likely to be able to influence. He drew from his pocket a list of men, and with quite as business-like an air his hostess produced a similar document from her desk; the pair being soon deep in consultation over the schedules.
Lobbying in Massachusetts is not by the public recognized as a well- organized business, and yet any one who desires to secure personal influence to aid or to hinder legislation is seldom at a loss to find people well experienced in such work. The lobby to the eyes of the public, moreover, consists entirely of men, if one excepts the group of foolish intriguers in favor of the vagaries of proposed law-making by which it is supposed the distinctions of sex may be abolished. There are in the city, however, women who by no means lack experience in manipulating the votes of country members, and who are but too willing to sell their services to whoever can make it to their pecuniary interest to favor a bill.
Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson was extremely adroit and careful in concealing her connection with the law-making of the State. She was in evidence in most public places; at the theatres, the concert halls, the County Club races, and at every fashionable entertainment to which her cleverness could procure her admission, her conspicuous figure, made more prominent by a certain indefinable loudness of style, a marked dash of manner, and gowns in a taste rather daring than refined, was too conspicuous to be overlooked. Yet it is doubtful if she had ever been up the steps leading to the gilded-domed capitol in her life. She went about much; and the unchaperoned life which in virtue of her widowhood and her love of freedom she chose to lead, the width of the circle over which her acquaintance extended, allowed her to carry on her work unobserved; so that while a great variety of stories of one sort of queerness or another were told of Mrs. Sampson, this particular side of her career was almost unknown.
"There is Mr. Greenfield," Mrs. Sampson observed, tapping her teeth with her pencil. "His wife was a cousin of my husband. I don't know them at all, but I could easily ask him to come and see me. It would be only proper to offer him the hospitality of the town, you know."
"Good!" cried Mr. Irons, slapping his open palm down on his knee. "Greenfield's the hardest nut we've got to crack in the whole business. He's the sort of man you can't talk to on a square business basis. You've got to mince things damned fine with him, and he's chairman of the Railroad Committee, you know. He'd have a tremendous amount of influence, anyway."
"He's a little tin god at Fentonville, I've heard," Mrs. Sampson responded, laughing in the mechanical way which was her habit. "When he's at home they say the sun doesn't rise there till he's given his permission."
Irons in his excitement took his leg down from its supporting chair and sat up straight, dropping his list of members to the floor and clasping his knees with his heavy hands.
"Now look here, old lady," he said, "here's a chance to show your mettle. If you'll manage Greenfield, I'll run the rest of the hayseed crowd, and I'll make it something handsomer than you ever had in your life."
The woman smiled a smile of greed and cunning.
"I'll take care of him," she said. "And he shall never know he has been taken care of either."
Irons laughed with coarse jocoseness.
"A man has very little chance that falls into your clutches," he observed, "but in this particular case you've got a heavy contract on hand. Greenfield's got his price, of course, like everybody else, but I'm hanged if I know what it is. If you offered him tin he'd simply fly out on the whole thing and nobody could hold him. There isn't any particular pull in politics on him. This new-fashioned independence has knocked all that to pieces; and Greenfield is an Independent from the word go. I don't know what you're to bait your hook with, unless it's your lovely self."
Mrs. Sampson began a laugh, and then recovering herself, she frowned.
"Don't be personal," she said. "I won't stand it."
She began to feel that the circumstances were such as to make her important to her caller's schemes, and her air by insensible degrees became more assured and less subservient. She knew her man, and she was prepared for his becoming proportionately more respectful. He dusted a little heap of ashes from the small table beside him and scattered them with his foot, in a well-meant attempt to cover the traces of his previous untidiness. She watched him with a covert sneer.
"Even so difficult a problem as that," she said, with a slight toss of the head, a bit of antique coquetry which impressed him with a new sense of her thorough self-possession, and imposed itself upon his untrained mind as the air of a true woman of the world; "I fancy I can solve. Leave him to me. I'll find out what can be done with him."
"If he can be got hold of," Irons remarked, reflectively, "he will carry the whole thing through. They'd believe him up at Feltonville if he told them it was right to walk backward and vote to give their incomes to the temperance cranks."
He rose to go as he spoke, unconsciously assuming with the overcoat he put on that air of stiffness and immaculate propriety which he wore always in public. He seldom allowed himself the undignified freedom which marked his intercourse with Mrs. Sampson, and he liked the rest he found in being for a time his vulgar, ill-bred self with no restraints of artificial manner.
"Well, good afternoon," he said, extending his large hand, into which she laid hers with a certain faint air of condescension. "I've got to go to a meeting of the committee on the new statue. They've got a new fellow they are trying to push in, a young unlicked cub that Peter Calvin's running. I'll let you know anything that's for our advantage."
When he was gone, Mrs. Sampson produced a brush and a dustpan from behind the books on a whatnot and carefully collected the scattered ashes of his cigar.
"Vulgar old brute!" she muttered. "To think of my having to clean up after him; his mother was my grandmother's laundress."
Then she smiled contemptuously, and added by way of self-consolation,—
"But it will all count in the bill, Al Irons."
THE BITTER PAST. All's Well That Ends Well; v.—3.
"Do you see much of Mrs. Herman?" Helen Greyson asked of Edith Fenton, as they sat at luncheon together in the latter's pretty dining-room.
"Why, no," was the somewhat hesitating answer. "I really see very little of her. The fact is we have so little common ground to meet on. —You know Arthur says I am dreadfully narrow, and I am sometimes afraid he is right. I have tried to know her, but of course I couldn't take her into society. She wouldn't enjoy it, and she wouldn't feel at home, even if she'd go with me."
Helen smiled with mingled amusement and wistfulness.
"No," she responded. "I can't exactly fancy Ninitta in society. She'd be quite out of her element. My master in Rome, Flammenti, had a way of saying a thing was like the pope at a dancing-party, and I fancy Ninitta at an afternoon tea would be hardly less out of place."
"But she must be very lonely," Edith said, stirring her coffee meditatively. "She used to have a few Italians come to see her; people she met that time she ran away, you remember, and we brought her home, but they don't come now."
Edith smiled and raised her eyebrows.
"A question of caste, I believe."
"Of caste?" echoed Helen. "What do you mean?"
"When her son was born," Edith responded, "she told them that the bambino was born a gentleman, and couldn't associate with them."
Helen laughed lightly; then her face clouded, and she sighed.
"Poor Ninitta!" she said. "There is something infinitely pitiful in her devotion and faithfulness to her youthful love."
Edith's face assumed an expression of mingled perplexity and disquiet. With eyes downcast she seemed for a moment to be seeking a phrase in which properly to express some thought which troubled her. Then she looked up quickly.
"I don't know that I ought to say it," she remarked, "but I can't help feeling that Ninitta is not so fond of her husband as she used to be. Of course I may be mistaken, but either I overestimated her devotion before they were married, or she cares less for him now."
An expression of pain contracted Helen's brow.
"Isn't it possible," she suggested, "that her being more demonstrative in her love for the boy makes her seem cold toward her husband?"
"No," returned Edith, shaking her head, "it is more than that. I fancy sometimes that she unconsciously expected to be somehow transformed into his equal by marrying him; and that the disappointment of being no more on a level with him when she became his wife than before, has made her somehow give him up, as if she concluded that she could never really belong to his life. Of course I don't mean," she added, "that Ninitta would reason this out, and very likely I am all wrong, anyway, but certainly something of this kind has happened."
"Poor Ninitta," repeated Helen, "fate hasn't been kind to her."
"But Mr. Herman?" Edith returned. "What do you say of him? I think his case is far harder. What a mistake his marriage was. I cannot conceive how he was ever betrayed into such a mesalliance. She cannot be a companion to him; she does not understand him: she is only a child who has to be borne with, and who tries his patience and his endurance."
Edith had forgotten her husband's suggestion that her companion was responsible for Grant Herman's marriage; but Helen, who for six years had been questioning with herself whether she had done well in urging the sculptor to marry his model, heard this outburst with beating heart and flushing cheek. Had Helen allowed Herman to break his early pledge to Ninitta, and marry his later love, it is probable that all her life would have been shadowed by a consciousness of guilt. The conscience bequeathed to her, as Fenton rightly said, by Puritan ancestors, would ever have reproached her with having come to happiness over the ruins of another woman's heart and hopes. Having in the supreme hour of temptation, however, overcome herself and given him up, it was not perhaps strange that Helen unconsciously fell somewhat into the attitude of assuming that this sacrifice gave her not only the right to sit in judgment upon Ninitta, but also that of having done somewhat more than might justly have been demanded of her. She had often found herself wondering whether she had been wise; whether her devotion to an ideal had not been overstrained; and if she ought not to have considered rather the happiness of the man she loved than devotion to an abstract principle.
It was also undoubtedly true, although Helen had not herself reflected upon this phase of the matter, that her half a dozen years' residence in Europe had softened and broadened her views. In the present age of the world there is no method possible by which one can resist the whole tendency of modern thought and prevent himself from moving forward with it, unless it be active and violent controversy. No man can be a fanatic without opposition, either real or vividly fancied, upon which to stay his resolution, and it is equally difficult to maintain a stand at any given point of faith unless one has steadily to fight with vigor for the right to possess it.
It is probable that to-day Helen might have found it more difficult than six years before to urge Herman to marry Ninitta, since besides the self-sacrifice then involved would now be a doubtfulness of purpose. She sat silent some moments, reflecting deeply, while her hostess watched her with a loving admiration which was growing very strongly upon her.
"But what is to be done now," Helen asked slowly. "You would not have him cast her off?"
"Oh, no," returned Edith, in genuine consternation. "Now, it is six years too late."
"I am afraid I do not wholly agree with your point of view," answered Mrs. Greyson, roused by the doubt in her own mind to a need to combat the assumption that the marriage was a mistake. "I certainly do not feel that the mere ceremony is the great point. See!" she continued, becoming more animated, and half involuntarily saying aloud what she had so often said in her own mind; "a man makes a woman love him. As time goes on, he outgrows her. It is no fault of hers. Why should the fact that he has or has not come into the marriage relations affect her claims on him? Isn't he in honor bound to marry her?"
"But suppose," Edith returned, "that he has not only outgrown her but made some other woman love him too?"
It was merely a chance shot of argument, but it smote Helen so that she trembled as she sat.
"Is not that woman to be considered?" Edith continued. "Is the good of the man to count for nothing? Mr. Herman is sacrificed to an old mistake. Perhaps it is right that he should pay the price of his error; and that in the end it will be overruled for his good, we may hope. But it is hard to have patience now with the state of things."
Helen tapped her teaspoon nervously against her cup.
"But what can be done?"
"Nothing," Mrs. Fenton said, without the slightest hesitation. "You and I may think these things, but it would be a crime for Mr. Herman to think them."
"It might be cowardice to yield to them," responded Helen; "but how crime? And how can one help the thoughts from turning whithersoever they will?"
Edith pushed back her plate, leaned forward with folded arms resting upon the edge of the table. She flushed a little, as she did sometimes when she felt it her duty to say something to her husband which it was hard to utter.
"I do not think you and I agree in this," she said, in a voice which her earnestness made somewhat lower than before. "Marriage is to me a sacrament, and this very fact gives it a nature different from ordinary promises. We promise to love until death do us part. To me that is as imperative as any vow I can make to God and man."
"But love," Helen urged, with a somewhat perplexed air, "is not a thing to be coerced."
"It must be," Edith returned, inflexibly. "Even if my husband ceased to love me, that does not absolve me. I must fulfil my promise and my duty."
"But," Helen responded, doubtfully and slowly, "it seems to me a sacrilege to live with a man after one has ceased to love him."
"But I would love him," Edith broke in almost fiercely. "That is just the point. One must refuse to cease to love him."
"But if he ceased to love her?"
A flush came into Edith's clear cheek, and her eyes shone. Half unconsciously to herself, she was fighting with the doubts which would now and then rise in her own mind of her husband's affection.
"Then," she said, in a low voice, "one must still be worthy of his love; one must do one's duty. Besides," she added, looking up with a gleam of hope, "when one has made a solemn vow, as a wife vows to love her husband until death part them, I firmly believe that strength to keep that vow will not be withheld."
Helen was silent a moment. She by no means agreed to the position Edith took. She had no belief in those promises in virtue of which the sacraments of the church took on a peculiar sanctity; she did not at all trust to any special help bestowed by higher powers. She did not, however, care to argue upon these points, and she said more lightly,—
"You task womanhood pretty heavily."
"A little woman who is a protegee of mine," Edith returned, in the same manner, "said rather quaintly the other day, that women were made so there should be somebody to be patient with men. She's having trouble with her lover, I suspect, and takes it hardly."
"But," Helen persisted more gravely, "it seems to me that you set before the unloved wife a task to which humanity is absolutely unequal."
"You remember St. Theresa and her two sous," Edith replied, her eyes shining with deep inner feeling; "how she said, 'St. Theresa and two sous are nothing, but St. Theresa and two sous and God are everything.' I can't argue, but for myself, I could not live if I should give up my ideal of duty."
As often it had happened before, Helen found herself so deeply moved by the fervor and the genuineness of Edith's faith, that she felt it impossible to go on with an argument which could convince only at the expense of weakening this rare trust. She brought the conversation back to its starting point.
"But about Ninitta," she said. "I saw her yesterday, and she acted as if she had something on her mind. She somehow seemed to be trying to tell me something. I told her that the bambino, as she calls Nino, must keep her occupied most of the time, and she said the nurse stole him away half of the day; she has the peasant instinct to take entire charge of her own child."
"If that is a peasant instinct," Edith rejoined laughing, "I am afraid I am a peasant."
"Oh, but you are reasonable about it, and know that it is better for the boy to have change and so on. She acts as if she felt it to be a conspiracy between the nurse and her husband to steal the child's affections from her. Really, I felt as if she was coming to love Nino so fiercely that she had fits of almost hating her husband."
The ringing of the door bell and the entrance of the servant with a card interrupted the conversation, and Helen had only time to say,—
"Of course on general principles you know I do not agree with you. Indeed, I should find it hard to justify what I consider the most meritorious acts of my life if I did. But I do want to say that, given your creed, your view of marriage seems to me the noble—indeed, the only one."
As Helen walked home in the gray afternoon, sombre with a winter mist, she thought over the conversation and measured her life by its principles.
"If one accepts Edith's standard," she reflected, "it is impossible not to accept her conclusions. She is a St. Theresa, with her strict adherence to forms and her loyalty to her convictions. But surely one's own self has some claims. My first duty to whatever the highest power is,—the All, perhaps,—must be to do the best I can with myself. It could not be my duty to go on living with Will"—
She stopped, with a faint shudder, raising her eyes and looking about upon the wet and dreary landscape with an almost furtive glance, as if she were oppressed by the fear that the eyes of the husband with whom she had found it impossible to live, and who for six years had been under the sod, dead by his own hand, might be watching her unawares. It was one of those moments when a bygone emotion is so vividly revived, as if some long hidden landscape were revealed by a sudden lightning flash. The years had brought her immunity from the poignancy of the pain of old sorrows, but for one brief and bitter instant she cowed with the old fear, she trembled with the old-time agony.
Then she smiled at the unreasonableness of her feeling, and dropping her eyes, walked on with slightly quickened steps.
"It cannot be a woman's duty to go on living with a man who is dragging her down, or even who prevents her from realizing her best; and yet, there is the influence. That is a trick of my old Puritan training, of course, but after all it is right to consider. One must count influence as a factor if one believes in civilization, and I do believe in civilization; certainly, I would not go back to barbarism. But is a woman to be tied down—oh! how a woman is always tied down! Limitation —limitation—limitation; that is the whole story of a woman's life; and the harder she struggles to get away from her bonds the more she proves to herself by the pain of the wrist cut by the fetters how impossible it is to break them. Women contrive to deceive men sometimes into believing that they have overcome the limitations of their sex; and they even deceive themselves; but they never deceive each other. A woman may believe that she herself has accomplished the impossible, but she knows no one of her sisters has."
She smiled sadly and yet humorously, pausing a moment on the curbstone before crossing the wet and icy street. Then as she went on and a coachman pulled up his horses almost upon their haunches to let her pass, she took up the thread of her reflections once more,—
"Yet surely women must not rebel against civilization. Civilization is after all quite as largely as anything else a determined ignoring and combatting on the part of mankind of the cruel disadvantages under which nature has put women. No; we must look at it in the large; we must hold to the conventional even, rather than fight against civilization, however wrong and illogical and heartless civilization may be. It is the best we have and we go to the wall without it."
She had reached her boarding-house and fitted her latch-key into the lock. As she opened the door she looked back into the gathering dusk of the misty afternoon, and her thought was almost as if it were a last word flung to some presence to be left behind and shut out, a personality with whom she had argued, and who had logically defeated but not convinced her.
"And yet," she said inwardly, with a sudden swelling of defiance and conviction, "not for all the universe could I have done it. I could not go on living with Will,—though," she added, a sudden compunction seizing her, "I was fond of him in a way, poor fellow."
And the door closed.
THE GREAT ASSAY OF ART. Macbeth; iv.—3.
The inner history of the effigies which in Boston do duty as statues would be most interesting reading, amusing or depressing as one felt obliged to take it. To know what causes led to the production and then to the erection of these monstrosities could hardly fail to be instructive, although the knowledge might be rather dreary.
The subject has been too much discussed to make it easy to touch it, but all this examination has by no means resulted in general enlightenment, as was sufficiently evident at the meeting of the committee in charge of the new statue of America about to be erected in a properly select Back Bay location. The committee consisted of Stewart Hubbard, Alfred Irons, and Peter Calvin, three names which were seldom long absent from the columns of the leading Boston daily newspapers. Mr. Irons had been strongly objected to by both his associates, neither of whom felt quite disposed to assume even such equality as might seem to follow from joint membership of the committee. That gentleman had, however, sufficient influence at City Hall to secure appointment, a whim which had seized him to pose as a patron of art being his obvious motive; and neither Mr. Hubbard nor Mr. Calvin was prepared to go quite to the length of declining to serve with the obnoxious parvenu.
Stewart Hubbard was a most admirable example of the best type of an American gentleman. Arthur Fenton once described him as "a genuine old Beacon street, purple window-glass swell;" a description expressive, if not especially elegant. Tall and well-built, with the patrician written in every line of his handsome face, his finely shaped head covered with short hair, snowy white although he had hardly passed middle age, his clear dark eyes straightforward and frank in their glances, he was a striking and pleasing figure in any company. He had graduated, like his ancestors for three or four generations, at Harvard; and if he knew less about art than his place on the committee made desirable, he at least had a pretty fair idea of what authorities could be trusted.
Peter Calvin's place in Boston art matters has already been spoken of. He took himself very seriously, moving through life with a sunny-faced self-complacency so inoffensive and sincere as to be positively delightful. He was too good-natured and in all respects of character too little virile to meet Irons with anything but kindness, but as he was a trifle less sure of his social standing than Hubbard, he was naturally more annoyed at the choice of the third member of the committee. He made not a few protests to his friends, and gently represented himself as a martyr to his devotion to the cause of art from having accepted the place he held.
When one considered, however, the way in which committees upon art matters are made up at City Hall, it becomes evident that the wonder was not that the present body was no better, but that it should be so good. The truth was that the choice of Hubbard and Calvin had been considered a great concession to the unreasonable prejudices of the self-appointed arbitrators of art affairs in town. A short time before, a committee consisting of a butcher, a furniture dealer and a North End ward politician, had been sent to New York on a matter connected with a public monument, and their action had been so egregiously absurd as to bring down upon their heads and upon the heads of those who appointed them such a torrent of ridicule that even the tough hide of City Hall could not withstand it. It was felt that the public was more alive on art matters than had been suspected; and when a South Boston liquor- dealer manifested a singular but unmistakable desire to be appointed on the America committee, he had been promptly suppressed with the information that this was to be "a regular bang-up, silver-top committee," and was forced to soothe his disappointed ambition with such consolation as lay in the promise that next time he should be counted in.
When the committee had been named, a hint was dropped in one or two newspaper offices that the powers which work darkly at City Hall expected due credit for the self-sacrifice involved in putting on two men at least from whom no reward was to be expected. The journals improved the opportunity, and praised highly the choice of all three of the members. When this called out a protest from the artists, because no artist had been appointed, City Hall had no words adequate to the expression of its disgust.
"That's what comes of trying to satisfy them fellows," one City Father observed, in an indignant and unstilted speech to his colleagues. "They want the earth, and nothing else will satisfy them. What if they ain't got no artist on the committee; everybody knows that Peter Calvin's a man who's published a lot of books about art, and it stands to reason he's a bigger gun than a feller that just paints."
The committee paid no attention to the discussion concerning their fitness, of which indeed they did not know a great deal, but came together in a matter-of-fact way, precisely as they would have assembled to transact any other business.
"I don't know what you think," Mr. Irons observed, as the three gentlemen settled themselves in the easy-chairs of Mr. Hubbard's private office and lighted their cigars, "but it seems to me we had better try to come to some reasonably definite idea of what we want this monument to be before we go any farther. It will be time enough to talk about who's to get the order when we've made up our minds what the order is to be."
Both the words and the manner rasped the nerves of Mr. Calvin almost beyond endurance. He was accustomed to phrasing his views with elegance, and although in truth his ideas in the matter on hand were not widely different from those of Mr. Irons, the latter had stated the proposition with a boldness which made it impossible for him to agree with it. By birth, by instinct, and by lifelong training a faithful servant of the god Dagon, he yet seldom professed his allegiance frankly. He sheltered his slavish adherence to conventions under a decent show of following convictions; so that the pure and straightforward Philistinism which Mr. Irons professed from simple lack of a knowledge of the secrets of what might perhaps be called the priestly cult of Philistia, appeared to Peter Calvin shockingly crude and offensive.
"Perhaps," he said, with a smile which was hardly less sweet than usual, so well trained were the muscles of his face in producing it, "it can hardly be said that we can decide. The artist after all cannot be expected to accept too many limitations if he is to produce a work of art. His genius must have full play."
Secretly, Irons had a most profound respect for the other's art knowledge, and he was too anxious to appear well in his capacity as a member of the statue committee to be willing to run any risks by attempting to controvert any aesthetic proposition laid down by Mr. Calvin. He was by no means fond of the man, however, and to his dislike his envy of Calvin's reputation, socially and aesthetically, added venom. He hastened now, with quite unnecessary vigor, to defend himself from the mildly implied attack.
"I suppose we have got to give an order—or a commission, if the word suits you better—of some sort; and whatever it is to be it needs to be defined."
His manner was so evidently belligerent that Mr. Hubbard hastened to interpose.
"That is pretty well defined for us, isn't it?" he said. "We were directed to give a commission for a single figure representing America, to be executed in bronze and not to exceed a fixed sum in cost. That does not leave much latitude, so far as I can see, beyond the right of selecting or rejecting models shown us. For my own part, I may as well say at once, I am in favor of giving Mr. Herman whatever terms he wants to make a model, and trusting everything to him. Of course we should still have the right to veto the arrangement if the figure he made should not prove satisfactory."
Mr. Hubbard spoke with a certain elegant deliberation and precision which Irons supposed himself to regard as affected, while secretly he thoroughly envied it.
"Oh, we all know what Herman would do," Irons retorted. "He'd make one of those things that nobody could understand, and then say it was artistic. We want something to please folks."
Irons was more concerned about his popularity than even in regard to the reputation as an art patron he was laboriously striving to build up. He was an inordinately vain man, but he was an exceedingly shrewd one. His self-esteem was gratified by seeing his name among those of men influential in art matters; he bought pictures largely for the pleasure of being talked of as a man who patronized the proper painters, and he was looked upon as likely at no distant day to become president of a club which Fenton dubbed the Discourager of Art; but he realized that for a man who still had some political aspirations there was a substantial value in popular favor not to be found in any reputation for culture, however delightful the latter might be. He distinctly intended to please the public by his action in regard to the statue, a resolution which was rendered the more firm by the fact that he vastly over-estimated the interest which the public was likely to take in the matter. He trimmed the ashes from his cigar as he spoke, with an air which was intended to convey the idea that he would stand no nonsense.
"Won't Mr. Herman enter a competitive trial?" Calvin asked. "We might ask two or three others and then select the best model."
"He won't go into a competition. He says it's beneath an artist's dignity."
"Damned nonsense!" blustered Irons, sitting up in his chair in excitement over such an extraordinary proposition. "Don't we all go into competitions whenever we send in sealed proposals? Beneath his dignity! Great Scott! The cockiness of artists is enough to take away a man's breath."
Mr. Hubbard, who was a lawyer chiefly occupied, as far as business went, in managing his own large property and certain trust funds, and Mr. Calvin, who had never in his life soiled his aristocratic hands with any business whatever, smiled in the mutual consciousness that "sealed proposals" were as much outside their experience as competitions were foreign to that of Grant Herman. The thought, passing and trivial as it was, moved their sympathy a little toward the sculptor's view of the matter, although since secretly Mr. Calvin was determined that the commission should be given to Orin Stanton, the fact made little difference.
"You evidently don't want to undergo the general condemnation that has fallen on whoever has had a share in the Boston statues thus far," Mr. Calvin observed, glancing at Irons with a genial smile. "If you are going to set yourself to hit the popular taste and keep yourself clear of the claws of the critics at the same time, I fear you've a heavy task laid out."
"The critics always pitch into everything," Irons responded with a growl. "It's the taste of the people I want to please. I believe in art as a popular educator, and people can't be educated by things they won't look at."
"Oh, as to that," Stewart Hubbard rejoined, with a twinkle in his eye, "conventionality is after all the consensus of the taste of mankind."
Peter Calvin was at a loss to tell whether his friend was in earnest or was only quizzing Irons, so he contented himself with an appreciative look, and a smile of dazzling warmth. Irons, on the other hand, looked toward the speaker with suspicion.
"I haven't much sympathy with a good deal of the stuff artists talk," he continued, following his own train of thought. "It doesn't square very well with common sense and ain't much more than pure gassing, I think. The truth is, genius is mostly moonshine. The man I call a genius is the one that makes things work practically."
"In other words," said Calvin, spurred to emulate Hubbard's epigram, and involuntarily glancing toward the latter for approval, "you think a genius is a man who is able to harness Pegasus to the plough, and make him work without kicking things to pieces."
"That's about it," Irons assented; "and I think Herman is too toploftical and full of cranky theories. They say Mrs. Greyson has hit the nail exactly on the head in that statue she showed in Paris last year. That pleased the critics and the public both, and that's exactly what we are after. I think we ought to ask her to make a design."
Mr. Calvin saw and seized the opportunity easily to introduce his own especial candidate.
"If each of you have a sculptor," he said, lightly, "I can hardly do less than to have one, too. There's an exceedingly clever fellow just home from Rome, that I want to see given a chance. He's done some very promising work, and I look upon him as the coming man."
The two men regarded him with some interest, as one who has introduced a new element into a game. Mr. Hubbard leaned back in his chair, and sent a puff of cigar smoke floating upward, before he answered.
"I can't enter my man for the triangular contest," said he. "He won't go into a competition unless he's paid for making the design. He says, in so many words, that he doesn't want the commission to make the statue unless he can do it in his own way. He will be unhindered, or he will let the whole thing alone."
"For my part," Mr. Irons responded, settling himself in his chair, with a certain air of determination, "I don't take a great deal of stock in this letting an artist have his own way. He might put up a naked woman, or any rubbish he happened to think of. The amount of the matter is that it isn't such a devilish smart thing to make a figure as they try to make out. Any man can do it that has learned the trade, and I haven't any great amount of patience with the fuss these fellows make over their statues."
Neither of his companions felt inclined to enter into a general discussion of the principles underlying art work, and, although neither agreed with this broad statement, there was no direct response offered. Calvin and Hubbard looked at each other, and the latter asked,—
"Have you any notion what Mrs. Greyson would do?"
"No, I have never talked with her."
"Very likely she'd give us another figure like those that are stuck all over Boston, like pins in a pincushion," Hubbard objected. "Some carpet-knight, with a face spread over with a grin as inane as that of Henry Clay on a cigar-box cover."
Irons laughed contemptuously, and rose, throwing away his cigar stub.
"Well, I must go," he announced. "We don't seem to be getting ahead very fast. I'll try and find out if she'll go into a competition, and you two had better do the same with your folks. Then we shall at least have something to go upon. The Daily Observer has already begun to ask why something isn't done, and I'd like to get the thing finished up, myself."
The two others rose also, and it was thereby manifest that this unproductive sitting of the committee was at an end.
WHOM THE FATES HAVE MARKED. Comedy of Errors; i.—1.
Never was a man more utterly wretched than was Arthur Fenton, after the luckless day when Mr. Irons had lighted upon the presence of Mrs. Herman at the studio. He raged against himself, against chance, most of all against the unmannerly and coarse-minded fellow who had forced himself into the studio, and then persisted in imagining evil which had never existed. He experienced all the acute anguish of finding himself in the toils, and of the added sting from wounded vanity, since he felt that he had been wanting in adroitness and presence of mind. It is to be doubted if he did not suffer more than would have been the case had the injurious suspicions of Irons been correct. To a vain man, it is often harder to be entrapped through stupidity or awkwardness than through crime.
Fenton realized well enough how impossible it was now to correct the evil that had been done. He might have explained away the fact that Ninitta had been his model, but his own bearing under the accusation had produced an impression not to be eradicated. The wavering before his eyes, for a single instant, of the will-o'-the-wisp fire of sudden temptation had blinded him, so that he had been guilty of a cursed piece of folly, which had put him at once in the power of Irons. He knew enough of the latter to be pretty sure that he was capable of keeping his threat to enlighten Herman concerning his wife's visit to the studio, and disgrace in the eyes of Herman meant more than Arthur dared to think. Sensitive to the last fibre of his being, the artist grew faint with exquisite pain at the thought of what he must endure from a scandal spread among his friends. An accusation without foundation would have been almost more than he could bear, but one supported by such circumstantial evidence as lay behind the story Irons would tell if he set himself to make trouble,—the bare idea drove Fenton wild.
Fenton had always prided himself upon his superiority to public opinion, but without public respect he could not but be supremely miserable. It is true that he valued his own good opinion above that of the world. It was his theory that the ultimate appeal in matters of conduct was always to the man's inner consciousness, and in this highest court only the man himself could be present, all the world being shut out. It followed that a person's own opinion of his acts was of infinitely more weight than that of any or all other people whosoever.
"All standards are arbitrary," he was accustomed to say, "and all terms are relative. Every man must make his own ethical code, and nobody but the man himself can tell how far he lives up to it. Why should I care whether people who do not even know what my rules of conduct are, consider my course correct or not? Very likely the things they condemn are the things it has cost me most struggle and self-denial to achieve. We have outgrown old ethical systems, because the world has become enlightened enough to perceive that every mind must make its own code; to realize that what a man is must be his religion."
This course of reasoning was one shared by many of Fenton's friends, and indeed by a goodly company of nineteenth century thinkers. Fenton was in reality only going with the majority of liberalists in regarding sincerity to personal conviction as the highest of ethical laws; and he was generally pretty logical in choosing the approval of his inward knowledge to that of the world outside. Yet his vanity was keenly sensitive to disapprobation, and when the censure of the world coincided with the condemnation of his own reason he suffered. To self- contempt was added a baffled sense of having been discovered; and as his imagination now ran forward to picture the effects of Irons's disclosure, the suffering he endured was really pitiful.
"Nobody will understand," he said to himself one day, half in bitter self-contempt and half in self-defence, "that I couldn't help doing as I did; no cruelty surpasses that of holding weak and sensitive natures accountable for shortcomings they are born incapable of avoiding."
And having accomplished an epigram at his own expense, he felt as if he had to some degree atoned for his fault, just as a flagellant looks upon his self-scourging as expiatory.
How to act in the position in which he had been placed by Irons's insulting proposal was a question which he found more difficult to answer than according to his theories, it should have been. When a man becomes his own highest law he is constantly exposed to the danger of finding his theories of conduct utterly confounded by a change in self- interest; and Fenton began to have a most painful sense of being ethically wholly at sea. He had not yielded to temptation, however. He had given Stewart Hubbard a couple of sittings, and so great had been his fear lest he should inadvertently gather from his sitter some hint of the knowledge he had been urged to obtain, that he had half unconsciously been reserved and silent. The picture was going badly, and the sitter wondered what had come over the witty and vivacious artist.
Besides these vexations the artist had, moreover, other causes for uneasiness at this time. His financial affairs were by no means in satisfactory condition. He had been filling a good many orders and getting excellent prices for his work, yet somehow he had been all the year running behindhand. He lived beyond his means, priding himself upon being the one Boston artist who had been born, bred, and educated a gentleman, as he chose to put it to himself, and who was able to live as a man of the world should. His summer had been passed at Newport, a place which Edith by no means liked, and where her ideas of propriety and religion were constantly offended, especially in regard to the sanctity of marriage. He entertained sumptuously, spent money freely at the clubs, and, in a word, tried to be no less a man of fashion than an artist.
The result was beginning to be disastrous. Living pretty closely up to his income, a few losses and a speculation or two which turned out unlucky, were sufficient to embarrass him seriously. It was the old trite and dreary story of extravagance and its inevitable consequence; and as Fenton had no talent for finance, his struggles rather made matters worse than bettered them, as the efforts of a fly to escape from the web, even although they may damage the net, are apt to end also in binding the victim more securely.
The truth was that the painter, like many another man endowed with imaginative gifts, had little practical knowledge of affairs beyond a talent for spending money; and it is amazing how stupid a clever man can contrive to be when he is taken out of his sphere. For such men there is no safety save in keeping out of debt, and once the balance was on the wrong side of his account, Fenton, self-poised as he was, lost his head. It troubled and worried him to be in debt even when he could see his way clear to paying everything, and now that matters began to get too complicated to be settled by plain and obvious arithmetic, he was miserable.
In the midst of these unhappy complications, he was one morning working upon the portrait of Miss Damaris Wainwright, whose cousin and aunts, the Dimmonts, had induced her to have it painted, although she was in deep mourning. He was interested in the lovely, melancholy girl, and he felt that he was doing some of the best work of his life in her portrait. He sometimes was proud of his skill, and at others he was unreasonably vexed that this picture should be so much better than that of Mr. Hubbard promised to be.
He had been talking this morning half-absently, and merely for the sake of keeping his sitter interested. He had not noticed that her whole being was keyed up to a pitch of intense feeling, and he had almost unconsciously accomplished the really difficult task of putting his sitter at her ease and making her ready to talk.
Suddenly, after a brief silence, she said,—"You provoke confidences."
Some note in her voice and the closeness of connection between her words and the thought in his own mind that he certainly must be able to do what Irons asked, arrested Fenton's attention.
"Yes," he returned, his air of sincerely meaning what he said being by no means wholly unreal; "that is because I am unworthy of them."
Miss Wainwright smiled. The self-detraction seemed delicate, and the unexpectedness of the reply amused her.
"That is perhaps a modest thing to say, Mr. Fenton," she responded, "but the truth must be—if you'll pardon my saying anything so personal—that you are very sympathetic."
The artist moved backward a step from his easel, regarding his work with that half-shutting of the eyes and turning of the head which seems to be an essential of professional inspection.
"Even so," persisted he, "a sympathetic person is one whose emotions are fickle enough to give place to whatever others any sudden accident brings up; and if one's feelings are so transient, how can he be worthy of confidence?"
"I can't argue with you," Damaris replied, smiling and shaking her head, "but all the same I don't agree with what you say."
"Oh, I hoped you wouldn't when I said it," Fenton threw back lightly.
He went on with his work, outwardly tranquil, as if he had no thought beyond the perfect shading of the cheek he was painting; but his mind was in a tumult. He thought how easy it is to deceive; how constantly, indeed, we do deceive whether we will or no; how foolish it is to rule our lives by standards which rest so largely on mere seeming; how—Bah! Why should he pretend to himself? He was not really concerned with generalities or great moral principles. He was trying to decide whether he should worm a secret out of Hubbard to throw as a sop to that vile cursed cad, Irons, to keep his foul mouth shut about Ninitta. Heavens! What a tangle he had got into simply because he wanted a decent model for his picture! The abominable prudery and hypocrisy of the time lay behind the whole matter. But this would never do. He must work now; not think of these exciting things. It was hardly a brief moment before to his last words he added aloud,—
"Did what you said mean that I was to be favored with a confidence?"
A painful, deep problem was weighing upon her heart, wearing away her reason and her life alike. She had almost been ready to ask advice of the artist, although she by no means knew him well enough to render so intimate a conversation other than strange.
"Not necessarily," was her reply to Fenton's question.
She found it after all impossible to utter anything definite upon the subject which lay so near her heart. She even felt a dim wonder whether she had really ever seriously contemplated speaking of it, even never so remotely.
"I was thinking," she continued, "of the point the conversation had reached this morning when I left my friend at the door downstairs."
"It was some great moral problem, I think you said," Fenton responded, trying to recall accurately what she had told him earlier in the sitting of a talk she had had with a friend on her way to the studio. "The object of life, or something of that sort. Well, the object of life is to endure life, I suppose, just as the object of time is to kill time."
"We had got so far in our talk as to decide," Miss Wainwright went on, too much absorbed in recalling the interview she was relating to notice the painter's words, "he decided, that is, not I—that the only thing to do is to enjoy the present and to let the future go; but I object that one cannot help dreading what might come."
She spoke, of course, solely with reference to her own inner experiences, but Fenton, with the egotism which is universal to humanity, received the words in their application to his own case. If he could but determine what would come, he might decide how to act in this hard present. Yet, whatever that future might be, he must at any cost extricate himself from this coil which pressed so cruelly upon him.
"Even so he would be right," he answered her words. "Happiness in this world consists, at best, in a choice of evils, and at least one may make of the present a sauce piquante to cover the flavor of the dread of the future."
"You take a more desperate view of the matter than my friend," Miss Wainwright said, sighing bitterly. "His only fear is that I shall lose everything by not making sure of whatever present happiness is possible."
Fenton glanced at her curiously, aware no less from her tone and manner than from her words that the conversation was touching her as well as himself through some keen personal experience. A feeling of sharp and irritating remorse stung him from the thought that he, whose whole sensuous nature strove for selfish joyousness in life, was discussing this question from his own standpoint, while the pale, lovely girl before him was regarding the whole problem from the high plane of duty. Instinctively he set himself to justify his position against hers; to demonstrate that his Pagan, selfish philosophy was the true guide.
"Oh," he cried out with sudden vehemence, waving his palette with a gesture of supreme impatience, "I do take a desperate view! Life is desperate, and the most absurd of all the multitudinous ways of making it worse is to waste the present in dreading the future. I've no patience with the notion that seems to be so many people's creed, that we can do nothing nobler than to be as miserable as possible. It is a dreadful remainder of that awful malady of Puritanism. Besides, where is the logic of supposing we shall be better prepared for any misfortune that may come if we can only contrive to dread it enough beforehand. Good heavens! We all need whatever strength we can get from happiness whenever it comes, as much as a plant needs the sunshine while it lasts. You wouldn't prepare a delicate plant for cloudy days by keeping it in the shadow; and I think one is simply an idiot who keeps in the shade to accustom himself to-day after to-morrow's storm."
His excitement increased as he went on. He was arguing against the coward sense that he had deserved the troubles which had come upon him. He was saying in as plain language as the conditions of the conversation would allow, that he had been right in gratifying his desires; in living as he wished without too closely considering the consequences which were likely to follow. He spoke with a bitter earnestness born of the intense strain under which he was laboring; and he did not consider how his words might or might not affect his hearer. The thought came into his mind how he had deliberately sacrificed his convictions in marrying Edith Caldwell and going over to Philistinism; and he reflected that this decision had shaped his life. Already his course was determined; it was idle to ignore the fact.
Why should he hesitate from squeamish scruples to do what Irons asked when to meet the consequences of the latter's anger would not only be supremely disagreeable but contrary to his whole theory of life?
It was one of Fenton's peculiarities that he never knowingly shrank from telling himself the truth about his thoughts and actions with the most brutal frankness. Indeed, it might not be too much to say that this self-honesty was a sort of fetish to which he made expiatory sacrifices in the shape of the most cruelly disagreeable admissions before his inner consciousness. He constantly settled his moral accounts by setting down on the credit side "Self-contempt to balance," a method of mental bookkeeping by no means rare, albeit seldom carried on in connection with such clear powers of moral discrimination as Fenton possessed when he chose to exercise them.
"If you chance on ill-luck," he ran on, arguing aloud with himself concerning the possible consequences of betraying Mr. Hubbard's trust, "you'll be glad you were happy while it was possible; and if the fates make you the one person in a million, by letting you get through life decently, you surely can't think it would be better to spend it moping until you are incapable of enjoying anything."
The form of his speech was still that of one talking simply from the point of view of his hearer. It did not for a moment occur to Damaris Wainwright that in all he had said there had been anything but a perfectly disinterested discussion of the principles involved in her own questions and in her own perplexities. Yet, as a matter of fact, his words were but the surface indications of the conflict going on in his own mind. He was arguing down his disinclination to accept the obvious and dishonorable means of escaping from an unpleasant position; he was fighting against the better instincts of his nature, and trying to convince himself that the easy course was the one to be chosen, the one logically following from the conclusions forced upon him by his study of life.
"But duty!" she interposed, rather timidly, as he paused.
She was confused by his persistent ignoring of all the standards by which she was accustomed to judge, and she threw out the question as one in desperation brings forward a last argument, half foreseeing that it will be useless.
"Duty!" he echoed, fiercely. "Life is an outrage, and what duty can take precedence of righting it as far as we can. That old fool of a Ruskin—I beg your pardon, Miss Wainwright, if you're fond of him—did manage to say a sensible thing when he told a boarding-school full of girls that their first duty was to want to dance. To allow that there is any duty above making the best of life is a species of moral suicide."
She looked at him with an expression of profoundest feeling. She was too little used to arguments of this sort to discern that the whole matter was involved in the definition one gave to the phrase "The best of life," and that to assume that this meant mere selfish or sensuous enjoyment, was to beg the whole question. She was carried away by the dramatic fashion in which he ended, dashing down his palette and throwing himself into a chair.
"There!" he exclaimed, with an air of whimsical impatience. "Now I've got so excited that I can't paint! That's what comes of having convictions." The struggle was over. He brushed all doubts and questions aside. There was but one thing to do, and, disagreeable as it might be, he must accept the situation. The mention of the word "duty" reminded him that he had long ago settled in his own mind the folly of being bound down by superstitions masquerading under grand names as ethical principles. The duty of self-preservation was above all others. He must defend himself, no matter if he did violate the principles by which fools allowed their lives to be narrowed and hampered. He would set himself to work upon Hubbard to-morrow, and get this unpleasant thing over.
His sitter came down from the dais upon which she had been sitting, and held out her hand.
"You have decided my life for me," she said, in a low voice, "and I thank you."
Those who knew her perplexities had argued with her in vain; and this stranger, talking to his own inner self, had said the final word which had moved her to a conclusion they had not been able to force upon her.
He looked up with a smile, as he pressed her hand, but he said nothing; refraining from adding, as he might have done truthfully,—
"And I have decided my own."
THIS "WOULD" CHANGES. Hamlet; iv.—7.
Melissa Blake was growing paler in these days, worn with the ache of a hurt love. Since the night on which he had parted from her in anger, John had been to see her only on brief errands which he could not well avoid, and while he had made no allusion to the difference which separated them, it was evident that he still brooded over his fancied grievance.
This phase of John's character, its least amiable characteristic, which marred it amid many excellent qualities, was not wholly unknown to Melissa. She was by far the more clear-headed of the two, and she understood her lover with much greater acuteness than he was able to bring to the task of comprehending her. It was from intelligent perception and not merely from the feminine instinct for making excuses, that she said to herself that John was worn out with the strain of burdens long and uncomplainingly borne; and she was, it might be added, near enough to the primitive savagery of the rustic New Englanders of the last generation, to find it perfectly a matter of course that a man should make of his womenfolk a sort of scapegoat upon whom to visit his wrath against the sins alike of fate and of his fellows.
She waited for John to relent from his unjust anger, but she did not protest, and when he chose once more to be gracious unto his handmaiden he would be met only with faithful affection and with no reproaches. From the abstract standpoint, nothing could be farther astray than the fulness and freedom of Milly's forgivenesses; practically, this illogical feminine weakness made life easier and happier, not alone for everybody about her, but for herself as well. Doubtless such a yielding disposition tempted her lover to injustices he would never have ventured with a more spirited woman, but after all her forgiveness was so divine as almost to turn the transgression into a virtue for causing it.
When the account of Milly's life was made up, there must be put into the record long, wordless stretches of uncomplaining and prayerful patience, hidden from the eyes of all mankind. The capabilities of women of this sort for quiet suffering are as infinitely pathetic as they are measureless; and, although she was silent, the dark rings under her eyes and the lagging step told how her sorrow was wearing upon her. She went on faithfully with her work; she held still to the faith that somehow help was sure to come; and as only such women can be, she was patient with the patience of a god.
Milly was surprised one afternoon by a visit from Orin Stanton, the half brother of John. The sculptor had never before come to see her, and, although Milly was little given to censoriousness, she could not avoid the too-obvious reflection that, in one known to be so consistently self-seeking as was Orin, the probability was that some selfish motive lay behind the call. Orin had never been especially fond of Milly, and since his return from Europe, where he had been maintained by the liberality of an old lady, who, in a summer visit to Feltonville, had been attracted by his talent for modelling in clay, he had avoided as far as possible all intercourse with his townspeople. The old lady, who took much innocent pleasure in imagining herself the patroness of a future Phidias, died suddenly one day, leaving the will by which provision was made for young Stanton's future unhappily without signature; a fact which ever after furnished him with definite grounds upon which to found his accusations against society and fate.
It was largely in virtue of this interesting and pathetic story that Mrs. Frostwinch and Mrs. Bodewin Ranger had taken it upon themselves to better the fortunes of Stanton. Large-hearted ladies in Boston, as elsewhere in the world, find no difficulty in discovering signs of genius in a work of art where they deliberately look for it; and being moved by the sculptor's history,—in which, to say sooth, there was nothing remarkable, and, save the disappointment in regard to the will, little that was even striking—his patronesses were not slow in coming to regard his productions with admiration curiously resembling momentary veneration. They in a mild way instituted a Stanton cult, as a minor interest in lives already richly full, and when more weighty matters did not interfere, Mrs. Frostwinch, in varying degrees of enthusiasm, could be charming in her praises of the sculptor, whom she designated as "adorably ursine," and of his work, which in turn, she termed "irresistibly insistent," whatever that might mean.
Bearish, Orin Stanton certainly was, whether one did or did not find the quality adorable. He was heavy in mould, with a face marked by none of the delicacy one expects in an artist and to which his small eyes and thick lips lent a sensual cast. Milly had always found his countenance repulsive, strongly as she strove not to be affected by mere outward appearances. He wore his hair long, its coarse, reddish masses showing conspicuously in a crowd, when he got to going about among such people as hunt lions in Boston.
Mrs. Bodewin Ranger patronized him from afar, and could not be brought to invite him to her house.
"Really, my dear," the beautiful old lady said to her husband; "it seems to me that people are not wise in asking Mr. Stanton about so much. It only unsettles him, and he should be left to associate with persons in his own class."
"I quite agree with you," her husband replied, as he had replied to every proposition she had advanced for the half century of their married life.
Mrs. Frostwinch was less rigid. It is somewhat the fashion of the more exclusive of the younger circles of Boston to make a more or less marked display of a democracy which is far more apparent than real. Partly from the genuine and affected respect for culture and talent which is so characteristic of the town, and partly from some remnants of the foolish superstition that the persons who produce interesting works of art must themselves be interesting, the social leaders of the town are, as a rule, not unwilling to receive into a sort of lay- brotherhood those who are gifted with talent or genius. No fashion of place or hour, however, can change the essential facts of life; and it is perhaps quite as much the incompatibility of aim, of purpose in life, as any instinctive arrogance on either side, that makes any intimate union impossible. It is inevitable that members of any exclusive circle shall regard others concerning whose admission there has been question with some shade of more or less conscious patronage, and sensitive men of genius are very likely as conscious of "the pale spectrum of the salt" as was Mrs. Browning's poet Bertram, invited into company where he did not belong, because it was socially too high and intellectually and humanely too low. The members of what is awkwardly called fashionable society are too thoroughly trained in the knowledge of the principles of birth, wealth, and mutual recognition upon which their order is founded, to be likely to lose sight of the fact that artists and authors and actors, not possessing, however great their cleverness in other directions, these especial qualifications, can only be received into the charmed ring on sufferance; and nothing could be more absurd or illogical than to blame them for recognizing this fact.
Mrs. Frostwinch, at least, was in no danger of forgetting where she stood in relation to such lions as she invited to her house. She understood accurately how to be gracious and yet to keep them in their place. Indeed, she did this instinctively, so thoroughly was she imbued with the spirit of her class. She did not open her doors to many people on the score of their talent, and least of all did she encourage lions of appearance so coarse and uncouth as Orin Stanton. She found the role of lady patroness amusing, however, and, although she would not have put the sculptor's name on the lists of guests for a dinner or an evening reception, she did invite him to a Friday afternoon, when she knew Stewart Hubbard was likely to be present; and a glowing knowledge of this honor was in Orin's mind when he went to call on Melissa.
"I've no doubt you're surprised to see me," Orin said, brusquely, as he seated himself, still in his overcoat. "The truth is, I don't run round a great deal, and if I do, it's where it will do me some good."
Milly smiled to herself. She was not without a sense of humor.
"Naturally, I don't expect you to waste your time on me," she answered. "You must be very busy, and I suppose you have lots of engagements."
"Oh, of course," he returned, with an obvious thrill of self- satisfaction. "The Boston women are always interested in art, and I could keep going all the time, if I had a mind to. I'm going to Mrs. Frostwinch's to-morrow. She wants to introduce me to Mr. Hubbard, one of the committee on the new statue."
To Orin's disappointment this fact seemed to make little impression upon Milly, who was far too ignorant of Boston's social distinctions to realize that an invitation to one of Mrs. Frostwinch's Fridays was an honor greatly to be coveted.
"I am glad if people are interesting themselves in your work, Orin," she said, with a manner she tried not to make formal.
She had never been able to like Orin, and since the time when he had not only utterly refused to share with John the burden of their father's debts but had scoffed at what he called his brother's "idiocy" in paying them, Milly had found comfort in having a definite and legitimate excuse for disliking him. She regarded him as greatly gifted; in the eyes of Feltonville people, Orin's talents, since they had received the sanction of substantial patronage, had loomed into greatness somewhat absurdly disproportionate to their actual value. She was not insensible of the honor of being connected, as the betrothed of John, with so distinguished a man as she felt Orin to be; but she neither liked nor trusted him.
"Oh, there are some people in Boston who know a good thing when they see it," the young man responded, intuitively understanding that here he need not take the trouble to affect any artificial modesty. "It's about that that I came to talk to you."
"About—I don't think I understand."
"I want your help."
"My help? How can I help you?"
The sculptor tossed his hat into a chair, and leaned forward, tapping on one broad, thick palm with the fingers of the other hand.
"They tell me," he said, "that you know Mrs. Fenton pretty well; Arthur Fenton's wife,—he's an awful snob, I hate him."
"Mrs. Fenton has been very kind to me," Milly responded, involuntarily shrinking a little, and speaking guardedly.
"Well, put it any way you like. If she's interested in you, that's all I want," Stanton went on, in his rough way. "You'll have a pull on her through the church racket, I suppose."
Melissa looked at him with pain and disgust in her eyes. She always shrank from Orin's rough coarseness; and she always felt helpless before him. She made no reply, but played nervously with the pen she had laid down upon his entrance. He regarded her curiously.
"You see," he said, with a clumsy attempt at easy familiarity, "Mrs. Fenton's a niece of Mr. Calvin, who is on the statue committee. Mrs. Frostwinch says Mr. Calvin's the man who has most influence in the committee, and it occurred to me that it would be a good thing if you'd put Mrs. Fenton up to taking my part with Calvin. You see," he continued, in an offhand manner, "artists don't get any show nowadays unless they keep their eyes open, and I mean to be wide awake. I'm ready to do a good turn, too, for anybody that helps me. John told me the other day that you and he had had a row, and if you can do me a good turn in this, I may be able to pay you by smoothing John down."
Milly flushed painfully. Her delicacy was outraged, but, too, her combative instinct was roused to defend her lover.
"John and I haven't quarrelled," she said, in a voice a little raised; "he is worried about the debts and that makes him out of sorts, sometimes, that is all."
A look of shrewd cunning came into Orin's narrow eyes. He suspected the allusion to John's determination to clear his father's memory from dishonor to be a clever device to win a concession from him. He looked upon the remark as a statement from Milly of the price of her aid.
"If I get this commission," he said, watching the effect of his words, "I shall be in a position to help John pay off those debts, and I shall tell him he has you to thank for my helping him out in his foolishness,—for it is foolishness to waste money on dead debts."
A glad light sprang into Milly's face. She was too childlike to suspect the thought which led Orin to make this proffer, and the hope of having John aided at once and of being able to contribute to the bringing about of this result, made her heart beat joyfully. "You know how glad I shall be if I can help you," she said quickly. "I will speak to Mrs. Fenton when I see her to-morrow; though I do not see what good I can do you," her honesty forced her to add, with sudden self-distrust.
"Oh, you just put in and do your level best," Orin responded, with the smile which Mrs. Frostwinch had once called his "deplorably Satanic grin," "and it is sure to come out all right. There are other wires being pulled."
THE SHOT OF ACCIDENT. Othello; iv.—I.
It was not often that Arthur Fenton permitted himself to be ill- tempered at home. He had too keen an appreciation of good taste to allow his dark humors to vent themselves upon the heads of those with whom he lived.
"A man is to be excused for being cross abroad," he was wont to observe, "but only a brute is peevish at home."
On the morning following his conversation with Damaris Wainwright, however, he was decidedly out of sorts, and proved but ill company for his wife at the breakfast table. She ventured some simple remark in relation to a plan which Mr. Candish had for the re-decoration of the Church of the Nativity, and her husband retorted with an open sneer.
"Oh, don't talk about Mr. Candish to me," he said. "He is that obsolete thing, a clergyman."
"I supposed," Edith responded good-naturedly, "that a question of artistic decoration would interest you, even if it was connected with a church."
"I hate anything connected with a religion," Fenton observed savagely. "A religion is simply an artificial scheme of life, to be followed at the expense of all harmony with nature."
It was evident to Edith that her husband was nervous and irritable, and with wifely protective instinct she attributed his condition to overwork. She did not take up the challenge which he in a manner flung down. She seldom argued with him now; she cast about in her mind for a safe topic of conversation, and, by ill-luck, hit upon the one least calculated to restore Arthur to good humor and a sane temper.
"Helen was in last evening," she said. "She is troubled about Ninitta; but I think it is because she isn't used to her ways."
Fenton started guiltily.
"What about Ninitta?" he demanded.
"Helen says she acts strangely, as if she had something on her mind; and that she complains bitterly that her husband doesn't care for her."
Arthur shrugged his shoulders. He was on his guard now, and perfectly self-possessed.
"No?" he said, inquiringly. "Why should he?"
"Why should he?" echoed his wife indignantly. Then she recovered herself, and let the question pass, saying simply: "That would lead us into one of our old discussions about right and wrong."
"Those struggles and quibbles between right and wrong," Fenton retorted contemptuously, "have ceased to amuse me. They were interesting when I was young enough for them to have novelty, but now I find grand passions and a strong will more entertaining than that form of amusement."
Edith raised her clear eyes to his with a calmness which she had learned by years of patient struggle.
"And yet," she answered, "the people whom I have found most true, most helpful, and even most comfortable, have been those who believed these questions of right and wrong the most vital things in the universe."
"Oh, certainly," was the reply. "A superstition is an admirable thing in its place."
He rose from the table as he spoke, and stood an instant with his hand upon the back of his chair, looking at her in apparent indecision. She saw that he was troubled, and she longed to help him, but she had learned that his will was definite and unmanageable, and she secretly feared that her inquiry would be fruitless when she asked,—
"What is it that troubles you this morning, Arthur? Has anything gone wrong?"
"Things are always wrong," replied he. Then, with seeming irrelevance, he added: "People are so illogical! They so insist that a man shall think in the beaten rut. They are angry because I don't like the taste of life. Good Heavens! Why haven't I the same right to dislike life that I have to hate sweet champagne? If other people want to live and to drink Perrier Jouet, I am perfectly willing that they should, but, for my own part, I don't want one any more than the other."
What he said sounded to Edith like one of the detached generalities he was fond of uttering, and if she had learned that beneath his seemingly irrelevant words always lay a connecting thread of thought, she had learned also that she could seldom hope to discover what this cord might be. To understand his words, now, it would have been necessary for her to be aware of the net spread for him by Irons, the struggle in his mind as he talked with Miss Wainwright, and the effort he was now making to bring himself up to the firmness needed for the important interview with Mr. Hubbard which lay before him. In the sleepless hours of the night, Fenton had gone over the ground again and again; he had painted to himself the baseness of the thing he meant to do, and all his instincts of loyalty, of taste, of good-breeding, rose against it; but none the less did he cling doggedly to his determination. His purpose never wavered. His decision had been made, and this summing up of the cost did not shake him; it only made him miserable by the keen appreciation it brought him of the bitter humiliation fate—for so he viewed it—was heaping upon his head.
The strength and weakness which are often mingled in one character, like the iron and clay in the image of the prophet's vision, make the most surprising of the many strange paradoxes of human life. Fenton was sensuous, selfish, yielding, yet he possessed a tenacity of purpose, a might of will, which nothing could shake. He looked across the table now, at his sweet-faced, clear-eyed wife, with a dreadful sense of her purity, her honor, her remoteness; it cut him to the quick to think that the breach of trust he had in view would fill her mind with loathing; yet the possibility of therefore abandoning his purpose did not occur to him. Indeed, such was his nature, that it might be said that the possibility of abandoning his deliberately formed intention, on this or on any other grounds, did not for him exist.
It was one of the peculiarities which he shared with many sensitive and sensuous natures, that his first thought in any unpleasant situation was always a reflection upon the bitterness of existence. He always thought of the laying down of life as the easiest method of escape from any disagreeable dilemma. He was infected with the distaste of life, that disease which is seldom fatal, yet which in time destroys all save life alone. He thought now how he hated living, and the inevitable reflection came after, how easy it were to get out of the coil of humanity. A faint smile of bitterness curled his lips as he recalled a remark which Helen Greyson had once quoted to him as having been made of him by her dead husband. "He'll want to kill himself, but he won't. He's too soft-hearted, and he'd never forget other people and their opinions." He had acknowledged to himself that this was true, and he wondered whether Mrs. Greyson appreciated its justice.
The thought of Helen brought up the old days when he had been so frankly her friend that he had told her everything that was in his heart except those things which vanity bade him conceal lest he fall in her estimation.