Mrs. Sampson never set herself to a problem like this without a feeling of bitterness. To consider what woman of any standing could be induced to eat her salt brought her true social position before her with painful vividness. She could not, in face of the facts which then forced themselves upon her, shut her eyes to the truth that her painful struggles for position had been pretty nearly fruitless. She did now and then get an invitation to a crush in a desirable house, some over- sensitive woman who had been to stare at one of Mrs. Sampson's captures thus discharging her debt, and at the same time virtually wiping her hands of all intercourse with the dashing widow. As for asking her to their tables or going to hers, everybody understood that that was not to be thought of.
With the cleverness born of desperation, Mrs. Sampson solved her difficulty by asking Miss Catherine Penwick to fill the vacant place. Miss Catherine Penwick was the last forlorn and fluttering leaf on the bare branches of a lofty but expiring family tree. The Penwicks had come over in the Mayflower, or at a period yet more remote, and the acme of the prosperity and social distinction of the name was coincident with the second administration of President Washington. Since that time its decadence had been steady; at first slow, but later with the accelerating motion common to falling bodies, until nothing remained of the family revenues, little but a tradition of the family greatness, and none of the race but this frostbitten old lady, poor and forsaken in her desolate old age.
Miss Penwick was one of the learned ladies of her generation, a fact which counted for less in the erudite day into which it was her misfortune to linger than in those of her far-away youth. She struggled against the tide with pathetic bravery, endeavoring to eke out some sort of a livelihood by giving feeble lectures on Greek art, which no living being wished to hear, or could possibly be supposed to be any better for hearing, but to which the charitably disposed subscribed with spasmodic benevolence. The poor creature, with her antique curls quivering about her face, yellow and wrinkled now, its high-bred expression sadly marred by the look of anxious eagerness which comes of watching, like the prophet, for the ravens to bring one's dinner, was but too glad to be invited to sit at any table where she could get a comfortable meal and be allowed to play for the moment at being the grand lady her ancestresses had been in reality.
"I hope you don't mind my asking Miss Penwick as the only lady," Mrs. Sampson said to her guest; "but she is such a dear old creature, and our family and hers have been intimate for centuries. She is getting old, poor dear, and she hasn't any money any more, just as I haven't. But you know she is wiser than Minerva's owl, and quite the fashion in Boston. One really is nobody who doesn't know Miss Penwick; and she is so well bred."
Miss Penwick, dear old soul, had a feeling that Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson was somehow too hopelessly modern for one of her generation ever to be really in sympathy with the widow; but Mrs. Sampson had been born a Welsh, and Miss Catherine was too unworldly to be aware of all the gossip and even scandal which had made the name of the dashing adventuress of so evil savor in the nostrils of people like Mrs. Frederick Staggchase.
And it must be confessed also, that to such petty economies was the last of the Penwicks reduced by poverty that a dinner was an object to her. She could not afford to lose an opportunity of dining at the price of two horse-car tickets, and so promptly at the moment she presented herself in the dainty elegance of bits of real old lace, with family miniatures and locks of hair from the illustrious heads of great-great- grandmothers and grandfathers decorously framed in split pearls, the lustre of the jewels, like that of their wearer, tarnished by time.
Miss Merrivale did feel that the company assembled was an odd one, although she lived too far away to appreciate the fact that none of the guests, with the possible exception of Rangely, were exactly what she would have been asked to dine with at home. A country member, a self- made vulgarian, an antiquated spinster, and a literateur who, after all, was received rather upon sufferance into such exclusive houses as he entered at all, made up a group of which Miss Merrivale, with feminine instinct, felt the inferiority, despite the fact that she had no means of placing the guests. Miss Penwick appreciated the social standing of her fellow-diners, but she had by a long course of social humiliations come to accept unpleasant conditions where getting a dinner was concerned; and she was, moreover, somewhat relieved that at Mrs. Sampson's she was not obliged to meet anybody worse. Her instincts were keen enough, after all her melancholy experiences, to enable her to recognize the fact that Tom Greenfield was the most truly a gentleman of the three men, and she was pleased that he should take her in to dinner.
Mrs. Sampson, as she went in on the arm of Irons, contrived to let him know what she had heard that morning from young Stanton of Greenfield's interest in the young sculptor; adding a hint or two of the use to be made of this information. Rangely, just behind her, was chatting with Miss Frances in that half amorous badinage which some girls always provoke, perhaps because they expect and keenly relish it.
"Oh, no," he observed, just as Mrs. Sampson was able to give an ear to what was being said by the young people. "I am not fickle. I am constancy itself, but when you are in New York and I am in Boston, you really can't expect me to sigh loud enough to be heard all that distance."
"I know you too well to suppose you will sigh at all," she returned, with a coquettish air. "Especially with the consolations I am given to understand that you have near at hand."
"What consolations?" he asked, visibly disconcerted.
"What has that confounded widow been telling her?" he wondered inwardly. "Is it Mrs. Staggchase or Ethel Mott she's aiming at?"
Miss Merrivale tossed her head, as they paused in the doorway of the tiny dining-room a moment to give Mr. Irons opportunity to convey his ungainly length into its proper niche. Her shot had been purely a random one and, unless one believes in telepathy, so was the question by which she abruptly changed the subject.
"Do you know my cousin, Mrs. Frederick Staggchase?"
He held himself in hand wonderfully.
"Oh, yes," was his reply. "I know Mrs. Staggchase very well, but I didn't know she was your cousin. All the good gifts of life seem to fall to her lot."
"Thanks for nothing. She has not been to see me. She invited me to dine and I declined, and then she wrote and asked me to visit there when I finished my stay here."
"Shall you do it?"
The thought with which Rangely asked this question was one oddly mingled of regret and of hope. He had flirted too seriously with Miss Merrivale to wish to meet her at Mrs. Staggchase's, although he had never seriously cared for her; and he reflected with a humorous sense of relief that if the pretty New Yorker should really visit her cousin, he was likely to be put in a position to give his undivided attention to wooing Miss Mott, a consummation for which he wished without having the strength of mind to bring it about. As she let his question pass in silence, he smiled to himself at the ignominious manner in which he must retreat from his attitude as the devoted admirer of Mrs. Staggchase and of Miss Merrivale, feeling that to set about the earnest attempt to win Ethel would be quite consolation enough to enable him to reconcile himself to even this. The comfort of having circumstances make for him a decision which he should make for himself, is often to a self-indulgent man of far more importance than the decision itself.
As the dinner progressed, Miss Penwick, warming with the good cheer— for Mrs. Sampson was too thoroughly a man's woman not to appreciate the value of palatable viands—become decidedly loquacious; and at last, by a happy coincidence for which her hostess could have hugged her on the spot, she introduced the name of Orin Stanton.
"I hear you are on the America committee, Mr. Irons," she said. "We ladies are so much interested in that just now. I called on Mrs. Bodewin Ranger yesterday, and she is really enthusiastic over this young Stanton that's going to make it. He is going to make it, isn't he?"
Irons laughed his vulgar laugh, which Fenton once said was the laugh of a swineherd counting his pigs.
"It has not been decided," he answered. "Stanton seems to have a good many friends."
"Oh, he has, indeed," responded Miss Penwick eagerly. "He is a young man of extraordinary genius. I saw a beautiful notice of him in the Daily Observer the other morning, Mr. Rangely," she continued, turning to Fred, "and Mrs. Frostwinch said she thought you wrote it. It was very appreciative."
"Yes, I wrote it," he responded, not very warmly. "Mr. Stanton is endorsed by Mr. Calvin, you know, Mr. Irons; and Mr. Calvin is our highest authority, I suppose."
Of those present no one except the hostess was surprised at this admission, which marked the great change in Rangely's position since the days when, like Arthur Fenton, he was a pronounced Pagan and denounced Peter Calvin as the incarnation of Philistinism in art. On one occasion Rangely had boldly reproached his friend with having gone over to the camp of the Philistines; and he had been met with the retort,—
"We have found it pleasant in the camp of Philistia, have we not?"
"We?" Rangely had echoed, with an accent of indignation.
"Yes," Arthur had replied, with cool scorn. "You Pagans pitched into me because I made my way over; but I am not so stupid as not to see that there has been considerable sneaking after me."
"But at least," Fred had urged, "we fellows preserved the decency of a respect for the principles we had professed."
"Ah, bah! The principles we had professed Were the impossible dreams of extreme youth. Honesty is a weakness that is outgrown by any man who has brains enough to do his own thinking. You still profess the principles, and betray them, while I boldly disavow them at the start."
"At least," Rangely had said, driven to his last defences, "if we have fallen off, we have done it unconsciously, and you"—
"I," Fenton had flamed out in interruption, "have, at least, made it a point to be honest with myself, whether I was with anybody else or not. I find it easier to be mistaken than to be vague, and I had far rather be."
The thought of Fenton floated through Fred's mind as he endorsed Peter Calvin, and with no especial thought of what he was saying, he observed—
"Arthur Fenton wants Grant Herman to have the commission, and I must say Herman would be sure to do it well."
"If Fenton wants Herman," Irons returned, with an attempt at lightness which only served to emphasize the genuine bitterness which underlaid his words, "that settles my voting for him."
"Don't you and Mr. Fenton agree?" the hostess asked. "I supposed you were one of his admirers or you wouldn't have had him paint your portrait."
"I admire his works more than I do him," Irons answered, adding with clumsy jocularity "I am waiting for offers from the friends of candidates."
"I am interested in young Stanton," Mr. Greenfield said; "I might make you an offer."
"Oh, to oblige you," the other responded, "I will consent to support him without money and without price."
The talk meant little to any one save the hostess and Irons, but they both felt that this move in their game, slight as it seemed, was both well made and important. Later in the evening Irons took occasion to assure Greenfield that he would really support Stanton in the committee, adding that with the vote of Calvin this would settle the matter. When a few days later Irons asked the decision of Greenfield in regard to the railroad matter, he found that the attitude of the chairman of the committee was satisfactory. And honest Tom Greenfield had the satisfaction of believing that he had been instrumental in furthering the interests of Orin Stanton, in whose success he felt the pride common to people in a country district when a genius has appeared among them and secured recognition from the outside world sufficient to assure them that they are not mistaken in their admiration. Nor was the mind of the country member disturbed by any suspicion that he had been managed and deceived, and that he had really played into the hands of that most unscrupulous corporation, the Wachusett Syndicate.
A MINT OF PHRASES IN HIS BRAIN. Love's Labor's Lost; i.—I.
It was a peculiarity which the St. Filipe shared with most other clubs the world over, that the doings of its committees in private session were always known within twenty-four hours and discussed by the knot of habitues of the house who kept close watch upon its affairs. It did not long remain a secret therefore, that the Executive Committee had taken a firm stand in regard to the troublesome matter of introducing strangers illegally, and that Fenton had been summoned to appear before them to answer to the charge of introducing Snaffle.
The excitement was intense. Fenton was a man whose affairs always provoked comment, and while there was much discussion in regard to what would be done, there was quite as much as to how he would take it. The men who had been in the card-room on the night in question chanced not to be on hand to say that Snaffle had appeared alone, and the word of the servant was accepted as conclusive.
"Fenton's a queer fellow anyway," one man observed reflectively. "He's a damned arrogant cuss."
"He has not only the courage of his convictions," Ainsworth responded, "but he has also the courage of his dislikes."
"He will never give up the assumption that he is above all rules," the first speaker continued. "He feels that he is being bullied if he is ever asked to submit to a law of any kind."
"The committee are bound to put things through this time. They've been waiting for a chance to jump on somebody for a long time, and Fenton put a rod in pickle for himself when he tried to run Rangely in for secretary last election."
"One thing is certain," Ainsworth said, rising and buttoning his coat; "Fenton isn't an easy man to tackle, and if we don't have some music out of this before we are done, I shall be surprised."
There was a general feeling that something unusual would come of this action on the part of the Executive Committee. Fenton was a man of so much audacity, so fertile in resource, and so persistent in his efforts, that while nobody knew what he would do, it was generally supposed that he would make a fight; and expectation was alive to see it.
As to Fenton, he was at first completely overwhelmed by the summons from the committee. Disgrace, reproof,—even examination was a horrible and unspeakable humiliation, which it seemed to him impossible to bear. He hated life and was so thoroughly wretched as to be physically almost prostrated, although his strong will kept him upon his feet still.
As he reflected, however, the hopeful side of the situation presented itself to his mind. He had been confident that his tracks were so well hidden that his share in introducing Snaffle into the Club would not be suspected, unless the guest had himself mentioned it. He made the Princeton Platinum stock a pretext for calling upon the speculator, and endeavored to discover whether the latter had spoken, but he learned nothing. He was not quite ready to ask frankly whether Snaffle had betrayed him, and short of doing so he could not discover. Still Fenton told himself that the only thing he had to fear was some hearsay that might have reached the ears of the Executive Committee, and he trusted to his cleverness to answer this.
He presented himself at the meeting of the committee with a bold front and an air of restrained indignation, which became him very well. All his histrionic instincts were aroused by such an occasion as this. He delighted to act a part, and the fact that real issues were the stake of his success, added a zest which he could not have found on the boards. He spoke to the gentlemen present or replied to their greeting with a manner of dignity which was effective because it was not in the least overdone, and then sat down very quietly to await what might be said.
He had not long to wait. The Secretary of the St. Filipe heartily disliked Fenton, chiefly because Fenton openly disliked him. He was a man who was petty enough to take advantage of his office to gratify his personal spite, and shallow enough not to perceive that he had done so. His whole fat person quivered with indignant gratification as he saw Fenton in the role of a culprit, and he bent his look upon the notes spread out before him because he was aware that his eyes showed more satisfaction than was by any means decorous.
The meeting partook of that awkward unofficial nature which makes matters of discipline so hard in a social club. The men present were Fenton's companions and associates, and the dignity with which their position invested them was hardly sufficient to put them at their ease. They heartily wished to be done with the disagreeable business, and were not without a feeling of personal vexation against the culprit for forcing upon them anything so unpleasant as sitting in judgment upon him.
The chairman, Mr. Staggchase, opened the case by saying in an offhand manner, that they were all very sorry for the turn things had taken, but that the evil of having strangers introduced into the club had grown to proportions which made it impossible longer to overlook it, and that this was especially true of the bringing into the house men who not only were there in violation of the rules, but who were of a character which made it more than a violation of good taste to introduce them into the club at all. He added that he was convinced that the present case was the result of a misunderstanding, and he hoped the gentleman who had been asked to meet the committee would comprehend that he was there rather to assist the government of the club in maintaining discipline, than for any other reason.
He looked at Fenton and smiled as he concluded, and the artist bowed to him with a glance of answering friendliness. Thus far all had been pleasant, so pleasant indeed that the corpulent Secretary had ceased smiling. The remarks of Mr. Staggchase had been conciliatory and gracious, and showed so distinct a leaning toward the accused, that the Secretary felt himself to be personally attacked in this slighting way of holding charges which he had given. He drew his thin lips together and cleared his throat in a preparatory cough, rustling his papers as if to call attention to them.
"If the Secretary is ready," Mr. Staggchase said, "he may read the memorandum of the matter about which we wished to consult Mr. Fenton."
"The charge against Mr. Fenton," the Secretary responded, with deliberate insolence, "is that on the evening of March 13th he brought Mr. Erastus Snaffle into the club house, knowing that that individual had already been several times in the club within the time specified by the by-laws, and knowing him to be a man unfit to be introduced into a gentleman's club at any time."
"I have the honor of Mr. Erastus Snaffle's acquaintance," Fenton interpolated, in a perfectly cool, self-controlled voice, "in virtue of having had him presented to me by the Secretary of this club in the pool-room upstairs."
The members of the committee smiled, but the Secretary flushed with anger. The statement was literally true, and he could not at the moment go into the rather lengthy explanation which would have made it evident that his thus standing sponsor for Mr. Snaffle was entirely the result of a provoking accident rather than of his choice. He hurried on to cover the awkward interruption.
"Mr. Fenton further broke a rule of the club in neglecting, or I should say omitting to register his guest, and his share in the matter might not have been known had not Mr. Snaffle told the servant at the door that he came at Mr. Fenton's invitation."
Arthur had settled himself in an attitude of placid attention, secretly enjoying the clever thrust he had given his adversary. At these last words he sat upright.
"Mr. Staggchase," he said, turning toward the chairman, and speaking with sudden gravity, "do I understand that I have been summoned before this committee in consequence of the report of a servant."
"I think such is the fact, Mr. Fenton," was the reply, "but of course your simple word will be received as ample exoneration."
"Exoneration!" echoed Fenton, starting to his feet, his face pale with excitement which easily passed for virtuous indignation. "Do you fancy I would stoop to exonerate myself from such a charge? Since when has the testimony of servants been received in a club of gentlemen?"
He had his cue, and he felt perfectly safe in letting himself go. He was frightened at the possible consequences of the coil in which he had become involved, since he foresaw easily enough that while his only course was to carry things through with a high hand, his words had already bitterly incensed the Secretary and might in the end set the committee also against him. He experienced a wild delight, however, in giving vent to his excitement in any form, and this simulation of burning indignation served to relieve his pent-up nervousness. He did believe the principle upon which with so much quickness he had hit as his best defence, and could with all his force sustain it. He looked about the room in silence a moment, but nobody was quick enough to pin him down to facts and insist upon his denying or allowing the charge brought against him. The indisputable correctness of his position that a servant's testimony could not be taken against a member in a club of gentlemen confounded them, and before any one thought of the right thing to say, Fenton continued, with growing indignation,—
"Why I personally should be chosen for insult by this committee I will not attempt to decide, although the source of the malice is to be guessed from the manner in which the evidence was brought to their notice. When the Secretary has a charge to bring against me that a gentleman would bring, I shall be ready to answer it. A charge like this it is an insult to expect me to notice."
He walked toward the door, as he finished, and turned to bow as he put his hand on the latch.
"Oh, come now, Fenton," Mr. Staggchase said confusedly, "don't go off that way. Of course"—
He hesitated, not knowing how to continue, and another member took up the word.
"All that is nonsense, of course. If the servant was mistaken, why can't you say so, and put yourself right with the committee?"
"Because," Fenton answered, throwing up his head, "I prefer retaining my self-respect even to putting myself right with this or any other committee. Good morning."
He went out quickly. He felt that this was a good point for an exit, and he wished to get away lest he should be unable to keep up to the level of the scene as he had played it. So thoroughly was his whole attitude consciously theatrical, that he smiled to himself outside the door as the whimsical reflection crossed his mind that he really deserved a call before the curtain. Then he remembered how awkward he should find it to be called back; and with a smile he ran down stairs to get his hat and coat, and hurried out of the house into the darkening spring afternoon.
When Fenton had gone, the members of the committee sat looking at each other in that condition of bewilderment which could easily turn to either indignation or contrition as the direction might be determined by the first impulse. Unfortunately for Fenton, it was his enemy the Secretary who spoke first.
"Heroics are all very well," he sneered, "but they don't change facts. He's evidently played poker enough to know how to bluff in good shape."
There was a rustle of impatience in the room. The men seemed to be reminded that a very high tone had been taken with them, and that they had all come in for a share of the rebuke which Fenton had administered. They were irritated by the mingling of a secret concurrence with the artist's position that a member of the club should not be impeached on the testimony of a servant, and the conviction that Fenton was really guilty of the charge brought against him, so that it was contrary to both justice and common sense to allow him to escape on a mere technicality.
"Fenton is so hot-headed," Mr. Staggchase began; and then he added: "I can't say that I blame him so very much, though. I don't fancy I should be very amiable myself if I were brought up on the word of one of the servants."
"But it was the duty of the servant to inform me," the Secretary returned doggedly, "and why shouldn't the committee take action on information which comes to it that way as well as any other. We didn't set the servant to spy on the members, and I can't for the life of me follow anything so fine spun as Fenton's theory. He only set it up, in my opinion, to get himself out of a bad box."
"He might at least have had the grace to deny it, if he could," another man said. "It leaves us in a devilish awkward fix as it is. We can't drop the matter, and if he shouldn't be guilty"—
"Oh, he's guilty, fast enough," the Secretary interrupted, his little green eyes shining under their fat lids. "He's one of the set that have been playing poker in the club until it's begun to be talked about outside, and I saw him go out with Snaffle that night myself."
There was some deliberation, some doubting, and some hesitation in regard to the proper course in such a case. The committee felt that their own dignity had suffered, that their authority should be asserted, and their majesty avenged. Mr. Staggchase was the most lenient in his views of the situation, and even he admitted that whether Fenton were innocent of the offence with which he was charged or not, he had at least treated the committee most cavalierly, and against the ground taken by most of the members, that if Fenton had been able to deny the charge he would have done so, he could only reply,—
"I don't think that at all follows. In the first place he wasn't asked. He is just the man to feel that a summons before this committee is in itself a pretty severe reprimand, as plenty of men would. He's high spirited and sensitive as the devil, and there was nothing in what he said to-day that wasn't compatible to my mind with his being perfectly innocent. Indeed, I don't believe he has cheek enough to carry it off so, if he were not sure of his position."
"Oh, as to cheek," retorted the Secretary, venomously, "Arthur Fenton has enough of that for anything. And, as for that matter, almost any man will fight when he is cornered."
In the end the Secretary prevailed, and the committee, albeit somewhat doubtingly, passed a vote of censure upon Fenton. The Secretary was directed to communicate this fact to the artist, and he took it upon himself also to include the information in the printed notices of the monthly meeting which were sent out a few days later, an innovation which stirred the club to its very depths and became town talk within twenty-four hours.
HIS PURE HEART'S TRUTH. Two Gentlemen of Verona; iv.—2.
Helen Greyson was at work in her studio modelling the hand of a statue. The pretty hand of Melissa Blake lay before her, so near that Milly's face came close to her own as she sat beside the modelling stand. It was one of those anomalies of which nature is fond the world over, and in which she displays nowhere more whimsical wilfulness than in New England, that Melissa, born of a race of plain country farmers, should have the hand of a princess. It was slender and beautiful, with exquisite taper fingers which had not as yet been spoiled by hard work, although were the present generation of New England maidens called upon to labor as vigorously as did their grandmothers the girl's hands would hardly have retained their comeliness so long.
Helen was working silently, absorbed in thought, and going on with her modelling mechanically. She was pondering the old question, whether she had done well in coming back to America, or whether she should have still kept the ocean between herself and Grant Herman. While she was in Europe, the longing to see him, to feel that he was near, to breathe the same air, had become ever more strenuous, until at last it could not be resisted. The sense of safety she had while so far away prevented her from appreciating that she was returning to the same danger from which she had fled. She told herself that time had so softened and changed her feelings, that Herman with wife and son was so different from the lonely man who had sought her love, and whom she had bravely renounced from a stern sense of duty, whether wise or not, that there could be no danger. She was a woman, and she had kept temptation at a distance until the nerve of resistance was worn out; then she had come home.
Now she asked herself what she had gained. She had renounced the passive acquiescence which she had won by years of hard struggle, and she had in exchange only a fierce unrest which was well-nigh unendurable. To be near Herman and yet to be as far removed from him as if the universe were between was a torture such as she had not dreamed of. All the old love awoke, and something of the old conviction which had made renunciation possible had failed her with time.
Nothing is more common than for the conscience half unconsciously to assume that a heroic self-sacrifice has been of so great efficacy that even the conditions which made it right are thereby altered. Without realizing it, Helen's mental attitude was that in giving up Herman's love and bringing about his marriage to Ninitta that his honor might be unstained, she had accomplished a self-denial so tremendous that even the need of making it was thereby destroyed. The idea was paradoxical, but that a proposition is paradoxical is no obstacle to its being held firmly by the feminine mind.
But by coming home Helen had also been put in a position where she could not avoid seeing something of Herman's married life, and it was at once impossible for her to help perceiving that it was a failure, or to evade the conclusion that if it were a failure she was to blame for the part she had taken in bringing it about. It is always dangerous to judge of actions by their results, since by so doing one refers them to the code of expediency rather than to that of ethics. Helen was not prepared to pronounce her old decision wrong; but the feeling that her renunciation had been vain forced itself more and more strongly upon her.
She was losing sight of her conviction that the need of doing what one felt to be right was in itself so imperative that no course of action could be wrong which was based upon this principle. The truth is that all mortals, and perhaps women especially, feel that a virtuous resolution, a noble self-denial, must bring with it a spiritual uplifting which will render it possible to hold to it. The hour of self-conquest is one of inner exaltation which is so vivid that it is impossible to realize that it can be otherwise than perpetual; a life of self-conquest is a continuous struggle against the double doubt which is the ghost of the short-lived exaltation that promised to be immortal.
From her reverie, Helen was aroused by a question of Melissa which almost seemed as if suggested by thought transference.
"Do you know," Melissa asked, "why the commission was not given to Mr. Herman?"
"The commission?" Helen repeated, so startled by the mention of the name which had been in her mind that for the moment she did not comprehend the question.
"Why, for the America," returned Melissa. "I thought you knew Mr. Herman, and Orin said that you had withdrawn."
Helen looked at her with a puzzled air.
"I did withdraw," she said, "but I did not know the matter had been decided. Who is Orin? Orin Stanton?"
"Yes, he is to make the statue."
"Did he tell you so?"
"Yes, he thinks I helped him by speaking to Mrs. Fenton; but she said Mr. Calvin already wanted Orin, so it made no difference."
"How long has it been decided?" asked Helen.
"He showed me the letter from Mr. Calvin day before yesterday. The committee hadn't met, but Mr. Irons had promised his vote, and he and Mr. Calvin make a majority. Orin had been afraid Mr. Irons would vote for Mr. Herman, and I did not know but what you could tell. We are all so much interested in the statue."
Helen laid down her tools with an air of sudden determination.
"Why are you?" she asked, rather absently. "When Mrs. Fenton told me she had asked you to let me model your hands, she didn't mention your being interested in my art."
"Oh, I don't know anything about it," returned the other, with the utmost frankness, "only that Orin's a sculptor."
Helen smiled at the girl's naivete.
"And am I to congratulate you on Orin's success?"
"Of course I am pleased," she answered, "especially for John's sake."
"And John?" Helen pursued, finishing her preparations for leaving her work.
"John is Orin's half-brother," Milly replied, in a voice and with a manner which made it unnecessary for Mrs. Greyson to question farther.
"I shall not work any more this morning," she said. "I have to go out."
She dressed herself for the street, and, for the first time in six years, took the well-remembered way toward Herman's studio down among the warehouses and wharves. She was indignant at the action of the committee, of which she felt that Herman should be told. As, however, she neared the place, old associations and feelings made her heart beat quickly. When she put aside the great Oran rug and entered the studio, she felt a choking sensation in her throat, and the tears sprang to her eyes. She remembered so vividly the day when she had stood in this very spot and parted from her lover, that it almost seemed to her for the moment as if she had come to enact that scene again.
The place was more bare than of old. The pictures from the walls and many of the ornaments had been removed to the house which Herman had fitted up on his marriage with Ninitta; but in his usual place stood the sculptor, at work by his modelling stand, and over the rail of the gallery above, toward which her eyes instinctively turned as the old memories wakened, she saw the sculptured edge of a marble Grecian altar. The recollections were too poignant, and she started forward quickly, as if to escape an actual presence.
The studio was so large that Herman had fallen into the way of saving himself the trouble of answering the bell by putting up the sign "Come in" upon the door, and he was not aware of Helen's presence until he saw her standing with her hand upon the portiere, as he had seen her six years before when she had renounced him, placing his honor before their love. With an exclamation that was almost a cry, he dropped his modelling tool and started forward to meet her.
"Helen!" he cried, and the intensity of his feelings made it impossible for him to say more.
Yet, however strong the emotions which were aroused by this meeting,— and for both of them the moment was one of keenest feeling,—they were schooled to self-control, and after that first exclamation the sculptor was outwardly calm as he went to greet his visitor. Even for those who are not guided by principle, self-restraint comes as the result of habit, and none of us in this age of the world assert the right of emotion to vent itself in utterance. The Philoctetes of Sophocles might shriek to high heaven, and Mars vent the anguish of his wounds in cries and sobs, but we have changed all that. Even the muse of tragedy is self-possessed in modern days; good breeding has conquered even the fierce impulse of passion to find outlet in words.
Both Herman and Helen were alive to the danger of the situation, and their meeting was one of perfect outward calm.
"Good morning," she said, "it seemed so natural to walk in, that I should almost have done it if your card hadn't been on the door."
She held out her hand as she spoke.
"I cannot shake hands," he said, "I am at work, you see."
She answered by a little conventional laugh which might mean anything. Both of them hesitated a moment, their real feeling being too deep for it to be easy quickly to call to mind conventionalities of talk. Then the sculptor turned to lead the way up the studio, waving his hand as he did so toward the place where he had been working.
"You couldn't have come more opportunely," remarked he. "You are just in time to criticise my model for America. I was just looking it over for the last touches."
"It was that I came to talk about," Helen returned, moving forward toward the modelling stand on which was a figure in clay. "I have just learned that the commission has already been awarded; and I thought you ought to know how the committee is acting."
"I do know," he answered. "Mr. Hubbard came and told me, although the committee meant to keep the decision quiet until after the models were in."
"But you are finishing yours."
"Yes, I declined to enter a competition and was hired to make a model. Of course I finish that, whatever the decision of the committee. Mr. Hubbard told me because he had before assured me of his support, and he wished to avoid even the suspicion of double dealing."
"The action of the committee is outrageous!" Helen protested, indignantly. "They might as well put up a tobacconist's sign as the thing Orin Stanton will make. It shows that you are right in refusing to enter a competition, since they have decided without even seeing the models they asked for."
"Yes," was Herman's reply. He paused a moment, and added, "Was that the reason you withdrew?"
Helen flushed slightly, and turned her face aside.
"It hardly seemed worth while," she began; but he interrupted her.
"I would not have gone in," he said, "even as I did, if I had known there was a chance of your competing."
She turned toward him, and her eyes unconsciously said what she had been careful not to put into words.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, with sudden comprehension. "You knew I was in it and that is why you withdrew."
"Well," she said, trying to laugh lightly, "it would not have been modest for me to compete against my master."
She moved away as she spoke. She had a tingling sense of his nearness, a passionate yearning to turn toward him and to break down all barriers which made her afraid. She felt that she had been rash in coming to the studio, and had overestimated her own strength. She glanced around quickly, as if in search of something which would help to bring the conversation to conventional levels; but her eye fell upon a terra- cotta figure which sent the blood surging into her head so fiercely that a rushing sound seemed to fill her ears. It was the nude figure of a soldier lying dead upon a trampled mound, with broken poppies about him, while across the pedestal ran the inscription,—
"I strew these opiate flowers Round thy restless pillow."
It was the figure beside the clay model of which, yet wet from his hand, the sculptor had told her, that day long ago, of her husband's death. In the years since, she had believed herself to have worn her love into friendship, to have beaten her passion into affection; but every woman, even the most clear-headed, deceives herself in matters of the heart, and now Helen knew what pitiful self-deception her belief had been.
Over and over and over again has it been noted how great a part in human life and action is played by trifles, and despite this constant reiteration the fact remains both true and unappreciated. And yet it is, after all, more exact to consider that the thing is simply our habit of noticing the obvious trifles rather than the underlying causes, as it is the straws on the surface of the current that catch our eye rather than the black flood which sweeps them along. It was the chance sight of the figure of the dead soldier which now broke down Helen's self-control, but the true explanation of her outburst lay in long pent up and well-nigh resistless emotions.
She turned toward her companion with a passionate gesture.
"It is no use," she broke forth, "I did wrong to come home. I should have kept the ocean between us. I must go back."
Herman grasped the edge of the modelling stand strongly.
"Helen," he said, in a voice of intensest feeling; "We may as well face the truth. We were wrong six years ago."
"Stop!" she interrupted piteously, putting up her hand. "You must not say it. Don't tell me that all this misery has been for nothing, and that we have sacrificed our lives to an error. And, besides," she went on, as he regarded her without speaking, "however it was then, surely now Ninitta has claims on you which cannot be gainsaid."
"Yes," he said bitterly, "and of whose making?"
She looked at him, pale as death, and with all the anguish of years of passionate sorrow in her eyes. He faltered before the reproach of her glance, but he would not yield. The disappointment of his married life, his sorrow in the years of separation, the selfish masculine instinct which makes all suffering seem injustice, asserted themselves now. The effect of the fact that he was forbidden to love this woman was to make him half consciously feel as if he had now the right to consider only himself. He almost seemed absolved from any claims for pity which she might once have had upon him. Even the noblest of men, except the two or three in the history of the race who have shown themselves to be possessed of a certain divine effeminacy, instinctively feel that a disappointment in passion is an absolution from moral obligation.
"See," he said, with a force that was almost brutal; "we loved each other and we have made that love simply a means of torture. My God! Helen, the besotted idiots that fling themselves under the wheels of Juggernaut are no more mad than we were."
She hurried to him and clasped both her hands upon his arm.
"Stop!" she begged, her voice broken with sobs, "for pity's sake, stop! It is all true. I have said it to myself a hundred times; but I will not believe it. Don't you see," she went on, the tears on her cheek, "that to say this is to give up everything, that if there is no truth and no right, there is nothing for which we can respect each other, and our love has no dignity, no quality we should be willing to name."
He looked at her with fierce, unrelenting eyes.
"Ah," he retorted cruelly, "my love is too strong for me to argue about it."
She loosed her hold upon his arm and stepped backward a little, regarding him despairingly. She did not mind the taunt, but the moral fibre of her nature always responded to opposition. She broke out excitedly into irrelevant inconsistency.
"It is right," she cried. "We were right six years ago, and you shall not break my ideal now. I must respect you, Grant. Out of the wreck of my life I will save that, that I can honor where I love."
She stopped to choke back the sobs which shook her voice, and to wipe away the tears which blinded her. The sculptor stood immovable; but his face was softened and full of yearning.
"And, oh," Helen said, the memory of sorrowful years surging upon her, "you would not try to shake my conviction if you realized how absolutely it has been my only support. It is so bitter to doubt whether the thing that wrings the heart is really right after all."
Herman made a sudden movement as if he would start forward, then he restrained himself.
"Forgive me," he said, in a strangely softened voice. "You have forgiven me for being cruel before. To have done a thing because you believe it is right is of more consequence than anything else can be. The truth is in the heart, not the thing."
She tried to smile. She felt as if she were acting again an old scene, the trick of taking refuge from too dangerous personal feeling in the expression of general truths carrying her back to the time when the expedient had served them both before.
"But people who have faith," she said, "who believe creeds and doctrines, can have little conception how much harder it is for us than for them to do what we think is the right."
He did not answer her, and a moment they stood in silence with downcast looks. Then she moved slowly down the great studio toward the door, and he followed by her side.
As she put her hand upon the Oran rug to lift it, she raised her eyes and met his glance. The blood rushed into their faces. They remembered their parting embrace and the burning kisses of long ago.
"Good-by," she said, and even before he could answer her she had gone out swiftly.
AS FALSE AS STAIRS OF SAND. Merchant of Venice; v.—2.
The fact that her mother was a Beauchester Mrs. Staggchase never forgot, although she seldom spoke of it. It formed what she would have called a background to her life, and gave her the liberty of doing many things which would have been unallowable to persons of less distinguished ancestry. It was, perhaps, in virtue of her Beauchester blood, for instance, that she made the somewhat singular selection of guests brought together at a luncheon which she gave in honor of Miss Frances Merrivale when that young lady came to pay her a visit, at the conclusion of her stay with Mrs. Amanda Welsh Sampson.
Miss Merrivale had been in doubt whether she could properly accept this invitation, in view of the fact that her cousin's wife had neglected to call upon her since her arrival in Boston. The reflection, however, that this visit to the Staggchase's was the chief object of her becoming Mrs. Sampson's guest at all had decided the young lady upon overlooking considerations of etiquette, and from the flat of the widow she had removed to the more aristocratic region of Back Bay.
Miss Frances had been shrewd enough to forestall all possible objections by accepting the invitation before mentioning it to Mrs. Sampson; and however deep the chagrin of that enterprising individual, she was too astute to protest against the inevitable. Mrs. Sampson even, in her secret heart, considered the advisability of calling upon her late guest in her new quarters, but reluctantly abandoned the idea as being likely, on the whole, to be productive of no good results socially. That Miss Merrivale would probably forget her as quickly as possible she was but too well assured, and it pretty exactly indicates the position of the widow toward society that this prospective ingratitude moved her to no indignation. It was so exactly the course which in similar circumstances she herself would have pursued, that no question of its propriety presented itself to her mind. Even the faint air of conscious guilt with which the girl announced her intention did not arouse in Mrs. Sampson any feeling of surprise or bitterness. Society to her mind was a ladder, and being so, to climb it was but to follow the use for which it was designed.
Miss Merrivale was of better stuff, and if not well bred enough to live up to the obligations she had assumed by becoming Mrs. Sampson's guest, she was at least conscious of them; and she said good-by with an air of apologetic cordiality, quieting her conscience by the secret determination some time to repay the widow's kindness in one way or another, although she should be obliged to repudiate her socially. Had she known Mrs. Staggchase better, and been aware how much she fell in that lady's estimation by throwing Mrs. Sampson overboard, her decision might have been different.
"She is coming, my dear," Mrs. Staggchase had said to her husband, on receiving Miss Merrivale's acceptance of her invitation. "I shouldn't have expected it of one of your family."
"You know we can't all be born Beauchesters," he had returned, with good-natured sarcasm.
Once at Mrs. Staggchase's, Miss Merrivale began to see Boston society under very different auspices. She had been at a luncheon at Ethel Mott's, given in compliment to herself, where she had sat nearly speechless for an hour and a half while half a dozen young ladies had discussed the origin of evil with great volubility, and what seemed to her, however it might have impressed metaphysicians, astounding erudition and profundity. She had assisted at that sacred rite of musical devotees, the Saturday night Symphony concert, where a handful of people gathered to hear the music, and all the rest of the world crowded for the sake of having been there. She had been taken by Miss Mott to a select sewing-circle—that peculiar institution by means of which exclusive Boston society keeps tally of the standing of all its young women. She was somewhat bewildered, but enjoyed what might be called a hallowed consciousness that she was doing exactly the right thing; and it was, perhaps, only a delicate consciousness of the fitness of things that made her answer all questions as to the time of her arrival in Boston with the date of her coming to Mrs. Staggchase, ignoring her previous visit to a woman of whose existence it was only proper to assume her new acquaintances to be entirely unaware.
Fred Rangely was shrewdly and humorously appreciative of her attitude, being the more keenly conscious of the exact situation because he himself made a point of ignoring his acquaintance with Mrs. Sampson. He had debated in his mind what change in his conduct was advisable now that Miss Merrivale was visiting Mrs. Staggchase. He had astutely decided that the latter, at least, would make no remarks about him to her guest; and, in view of the fact that it was scarcely possible to conceal his flirtation with the New Yorker from the penetration of her hostess, he decided to content himself with hiding from the stranger his devotion to his older friend. He still assured himself that his serious intentions were directed toward Miss Mott, and he secretly smiled to himself with the foolish over-confidence of a vain man, when, from time to time, he heard allusions to the devotion of Thayer Kent to Ethel. Kent had been in the field before Rangely presented himself as a rival candidate for the damsel's good graces; and the novelist might have been less confident had not personal interest blinded him to a state of things which he would have apprehended easily enough where another was concerned. The easy familiarity, born of long friendship and perfect understanding, which Ethel showed toward Kent, Fred mistook for indifference. His own sudden popularity had somewhat turned his head, so that he failed to distinguish between the attentions shown to the author and those bestowed upon the man, and constantly felt himself to be making personal conquests when he was simply being lionized.
Mrs. Staggchase invited the guests for her luncheon before she spoke of them to Miss Merrivale.
"I have asked Mrs. Bodewin Ranger," she explained, "although she is old enough to be your grandmother, because she is the nicest old lady in Boston, and it is a liberal education to meet her."
The other guests were Mrs. Frostwinch, Ethel Mott, and Elsie Dimmont.
"Elsie Dimmont," Mrs. Staggchase observed, "needs to be looked after. She is either going to make a fool of herself by marrying that odious Dr. Wilson or she is allowing herself to be made a fool of by him, which is quite as bad."
Secretly Mrs. Staggchase, for all her Beauchester blood, had a good deal of sympathy for the girl who was defying her family in receiving the attentions of a man of no antecedents, although, having done the same thing herself, she was the more strongly bound outwardly to discountenance any such insubordination.
Guests may be selected on the principle of harmony of taste and feeling, or simply with an eye to variety; in the present instance it was distinctly the latter method which had obtained; and it was perhaps to be regarded as no mean triumph of social civilization that a harmony apparently so perfect resulted from the strange combination which the hostess had brought about. Whether from a secret intention of rebuking Miss Dimmont for her associations with one socially so impossible as Chauncy Wilson, or with the less amiable design of disciplining Miss Merrivale for her friendship with Mrs. Sampson, the hostess adroitly and deliberately turned the conversation to social themes, and thence on to what perhaps were best described as the proprieties of caste.
She was too clever a woman to do this crudely, and indeed would have seemed to any but the most acute observer to follow the conversation rather than to lead it. Ethel and Elsie chatted briskly of the current gossip of the day, and it was Mrs. Bodewin Ranger who was skilfully led on to strike the keynote of the talk by saying,—
"Doesn't it seem to you that the modern fashion of admitting artists into society is mixing up things terribly? Nowadays one is always meeting queer people everywhere, and being told that they are writers or painters."
The fine old lady smiled so genially that one seeing her benign countenance framed in its beautiful snowy curls, must know her well to realize that in truth she meant exactly what she said. Mrs. Frostwinch's answering smile was not without a tinge of sarcasm,—
"It is worse than that," she said. "You even meet actors in quite respectable houses."
"Oh, actors!" threw in Ethel Mott, briskly; "nowadays they even go below the level of humanity and invite those things called elocutionists."
"But of course," ventured Miss Merrivale, wishing to put herself on record and striking a false note, as usually happens in such cases, "one doesn't really know these people. They are only brought in to amuse."
"One never knows undesirable people, my dear," Mrs. Staggchase responded, without the faintest shadow of the sarcastic intent which her guest yet secretly felt in her words.
"Bless me!" broke in Elsie Dimmont, with characteristic explosiveness. "What an abandoned creature I must be! I am actually going to the Fenton's to dine to-night."
"Mr. Fenton," Mrs. Bodewin Ranger responded, in her soft voice, "is a gentleman by birth, and his wife was a Caldwell; her mother was a Calvin, you know."
Ethel Mott laughed.
"And so he passes," she said, "in spite of his being an artist. How pleased he would be if he knew it."
"It would be worth while to tell him," Mrs. Frostwinch interpolated, "just to hear his comments."
"We owe Arthur Fenton more scores than we can ever settle," observed the hostess, "for the things he says about women. He said to me the other day that the society of lovely woman is always a delight except when a man was in earnest about something."
"I said to him, one night," added Elsie Dimmont, "that Kate West wasn't in her first youth. 'Oh, no!' he said, 'her third or fourth at least.'"
The others smiled, except Mrs. Ranger.
"Poor Kate!" she said; "all you girls seem to dislike her somehow. Mrs. West was a somebody from Washington," she added, reflectively, as if she unconsciously sought in the girl's pedigree some explanation of her unpopularity.
"Is it so dreadful to come from Washington?" asked Miss Merrivale; and then wondered if she ought to have said it.
"It is not the coming from Washington," was Mrs. Frostwinch's reply, delivered in the same faintly satirical manner which she had maintained throughout the discussion; "it is the being merely a somebody instead of having a definite family name behind her."
"It is all very well for you to make fun of my old-fashioned notions, Anna," Mrs. Ranger returned, good-naturedly. "You think just as I do."
"I should be sorry not to think as you do about everything," was the answer. "And, to be perfectly honest, I can't help being a little ashamed that a cousin of mine has gone on to the stage. She was always dreadfully headstrong."
"Has she talent?" asked Mrs. Staggchase.
"Yes, she has talent; but is anything short of genius an excuse for taking to the boards?"
"I wish I could act," put in Miss Dimmont, emphatically. "I'd go on to the stage in a minute."
Mrs. Ranger looked shocked and grieved as well.
"My dear," she said, "you can't realize what you are saying. The stage has always been a hotbed of immorality from the very beginning of theatrical art, and nothing can reform it."
"Reform it," echoed Mrs. Staggchase, suavely; "we don't want to reform it. Nothing would so surely ruin the actor's art as the reformation of his morals."
"Oh, my dear!" remonstrated Mrs. Ranger.
"Really, Diana," Mrs. Frostwinch said, good-naturedly, "your sentiments are too shocking for belief."
"But she doesn't mean them," added Mrs. Ranger.
"I am sorry to shock anybody," the hostess responded, "but I really do mean what I say. Not that I can see," she added, "that society can afford to be too squeamish on the question of morals."
A look of genuine distress began to shadow
Mrs. Ranger's face, and it deepened as Miss Merrivale said, flippantly,—
"Is Boston such an abandoned place?"
"Really, Diana," the old gentlewoman remarked, with a manner in which playfulness and earnestness were pretty equally mingled, "I don't think you ought to talk so before these girls. When I was your age, half a century ago, it wouldn't have been considered at all proper."
Mrs. Staggchase laughed softly.
"But, nowadays," she returned, "the girls are so sophisticated that what we say makes no difference."
There was a moment of silence while the servant changed the plates, and then Miss Dimmont broke out, saying, with unnecessary force,—
"I don't care who people are if they only amuse me, and I'll know anybody I like, whether they had any grandfathers or not."
"Since when?" Ethel whispered significantly into her ear.
Elsie crimsoned, but she gave no other sign that she had heard or understood the thrust.
"Then there is Fred Rangely," Mrs. Staggchase remarked, in a tone so even that it showed she meant mischief. "He comes here to see Frances, and you can't think, Mrs. Ranger, that it's my duty to be rude to him just because he writes for the newspapers."
"It is impossible to imagine Mrs. Staggchase being rude to anybody," quickly interpolated Ethel, with smiling malice; "and I supposed Mr. Rangely had won at least a brevet right to be considered in the swim from his long intimacy with social leaders."
The hostess was too old a hand not to be pleased with a clever stroke, even at her own expense, and she took refuge in an irrelevant generality which might mean anything or nothing.
"One learns so much in life," she said, "and of it appreciates so little."
And Frances Merrivale looked from Miss Mott to Mrs. Staggchase with an uncomfortable wonder what allusions to Fred Rangely lay behind this talk, which she could not understand.
THERE BEGINS CONFUSION. I Henry VI.; iv.—1.
Fred Rangely began to find himself in the condition of being controlled by circumstances, instead of himself controlling them. Nor with all his astuteness could he decide how far he was being managed by Mrs. Staggchase, or led on by Miss Merrivale. He went about in a state of continual astonishment at the extent to which he had committed himself with the latter, and fell into that dangerous mental condition where one seems passively to regard his own actions rather than to direct them. Rangely had been so long settled in the conviction that he was to marry Ethel Mott, even the not infrequent rebuffs of that lady producing in his mind only temporary misgiving, that his present doubts bewildered him. He was less of a coxcomb than might seem to follow from this statement, albeit there was no timidity and little burning passion in his feeling toward her. His was simply the cool masculine assurance of a man selfish enough to regard even love in a cold-blooded manner. He approved of his own choice socially, financially, and aesthetically; and since he loved himself rather more for having selected Ethel, he fell into the not unnatural error of supposing himself to be in love with her.
His entanglement with Miss Merrivale, on the other hand, was largely a matter of vanity. What had begun as an idle flirtation, designed to kill the leisure of summer days in the mountains, was continued from a half-conscious fear that he should appear at a disadvantage by breaking it off. It so keenly wounded Rangely's self-love to be thought ill of by a woman, that he was often forced to play at devotion which he not only did not feel but of which the simulation was almost wearisome to him. Nevertheless he was not, in this instance, without a shrewd appreciation of all the possibilities of the situation. He said to himself philosophically, that if worst came to worst and the fates had really decided to marry him to Miss Merrivale, she had money, good looks, and a fair position, and might on the whole prove more manageable as a wife than one so clever and so high spirited as Ethel.
Miss Merrivale, on her part, was foolishly and fondly in love with the broad-shouldered egotist. She had made up her mind from a variety of causes that she should, on the whole, prefer to marry in Boston, although in reality this meant simply that she wanted to marry Fred Rangely. She pored over his books in secret, talked to him of them with a want of comprehension only made tolerable by the fervor of her admiration, and took pains to show him that she regarded him as the literary hope of his generation of novelists. In vulgar parlance, she flung herself at his head; and in such a case a girl's success may be said to depend almost wholly on opportunity and the extent of her lover's vanity.
Rangely had vanity enough and Mrs. Staggchase supplied the opportunity. If a feminine mind could ever properly be called spherical, that epithet should be applied to Mrs. Staggchase's inner consciousness. She was so sufficient unto herself, she so absolutely scored success or failure simply as a matter of her own sensations that her self-poise was perfect. She had even the quality, rare in a woman, of being almost indifferent whether others shared her opinions or not. She was content with the knowledge that she had succeeded in doing what she wished, while often the results and effects were so subtile and remote as to be imperceptible to others. Life was to her a toy with which she amused herself, and she found her chief enjoyment in trying experiments upon it of which the results were intangible to all but herself.
In the present case it amused Mrs. Staggchase and gave her some feminine satisfaction as well, to think that Rangely should marry Frances Merrivale. By promoting this marriage into which she was aware that he had no intention of being drawn, she avenged herself upon him for having presumed to show attentions to another while she honored him with her intimate friendship. It was not so much the nature of the punishment which pleased her as the fact that she was able to constrain him to her will. She found an ungenerous satisfaction in proving to herself that it lay within her power to do with him what she would; and if this conclusion did not inevitably follow from the premises, her logic was at least satisfactory to herself, and that was sufficient to determine her course of action. She found some pleasure, too, in feeling that she was taking away a lover from Ethel Mott, for whom she had a dislike which in another woman would have been petty but which in Mrs. Staggchase was merely intellectual, since she was not a woman without understanding that one of her sex must feel the loss of even an admirer for whom she has no love. She did not share Rangely's mistake of supposing that Ethel would marry him, yet it was distinctly her intention that Miss Mott should not have the satisfaction of undeceiving him, but that Fred should carry through life the regretful and tantalizing conviction that he had thrown away this chance. It required only a little cleverness in bringing together the young man and Miss Merrivale, with a little skill in dropping now and then a word assuming his devotion to her guest, and Mrs. Staggchase's plan was evidently in a fair way of accomplishment.
On the morning of the day of her luncheon, for instance, she had managed that Rangely should take Frances to some of the studios. The girl had little acquaintance with artistic life, but it attracted her by that romantic flavor which it is so apt to have for the uninitiated.
"I should think," she observed, as they walked along in the bright sunny morning, "that you would want to go to the studios all the time, if you know so many artists. I'm sure I should."
"Oh, it very soon gets to be an old story," was his answer. "One studio is very like another."
"But their work? That must be awfully interesting."
"Yes, to a novice, but that soon gets to be an old story too. An artist is only a man who puts paint or charcoal on cardboard or canvas with more or less cleverness, just as an author is a man who has more or less skill in getting ink on to paper."
Miss Merrivale laughed, with more glee than comprehension.
"You are always so witty," she said. "I don't wonder your books sell. I think that girl who couldn't tell which man she liked best was just too funny for anything. I can't for the life of me see how you think of such things, anyway."
"The trouble isn't to think what to say, but to tell what not to say."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean. Now of course an artist just sees things, and all he has to do is to make pictures of them; but you have to make up things."
"But we see things too," the novelist responded, smiling upon her, and reflecting that she was looking uncommonly pretty that morning.
"Oh, but that's different. Now you never knew a girl who was hesitating which of two lovers to choose, and she wouldn't tell you how she felt if you did; but there it is all in your book so natural that every girl says to herself that's just the way she should feel."
The flattery was too evidently sincere not to be pleasing. So long as praise is genuine, few men are so exacting as to insist that it be also intelligent.
"Thank you," he said; "you at least understand the art of saying nice things. Though that," he added, with his warmest smile, "is perhaps only natural in one who must have had so many nice things said to her."
She laughed, her ready, girlish laugh, which always seemed to him so young; and they climbed the crooked stairs of Studio Building, their breath hardly being any longer sufficient for much speech.
"I'm going to take you to Arthur Fenton's first," Rangely observed, as they paused to rest on one of the landings. "These stairs are awful. I wonder how he gets his elderly sitters up here."
Miss Merrivale seated herself upon a bench benevolently placed on the landing.
"They sit down here, of course," she responded.
"This is a sort of life-saving station," he remarked, seating himself beside her.
"Oh, Mr. Rangely, how awfully funny you are."
"It's my trade; I have to be to earn my living. Now you and I are the only survivors from a wreck."
"Alone on a desert island?"
"Life-saving stations are not generally on desert islands; but I hope you wouldn't mind so very much if it were."
She looked at him with bright eyes, and then let her glance fall.
"That would depend," she responded demurely.
"Upon what? How I behaved?"
"Oh, of course you'd behave well."
"Of course; but how would I have to behave to make you contented on a desert island?"
She shot him a keen quick glance from beneath her bent brows.
"I never said I should be contented."
"But you implied it."
She whirled her muff over and over upon her two hands like the wheel of a squirrel cage, regarding it intently with her pretty head on one side.
"No, I didn't imply it either. I don't believe I could be contented."
"Not even with me?"
She flushed, but evidently not with displeasure.
"Why with you more than anybody else?" she softly inquired, with great apparent artlessness.
"Because," he began, "I should"—He was going to add, "be so fond of you," but reflected that this was perhaps going a little too fast and too far, and concluded instead—"take such good care of you."
Perhaps it was because approaching footsteps sounded on the stairs below them; perhaps it was because her subtile feminine sense appreciated the fact that he was on his guard; but for some reason or for no reason she tossed her head and rose to her feet.
"I am fortunately not obliged to go so far as a desert island to get taken care of," she said.
Her companion was not unwilling that the talk should be broken in upon. He smiled to himself as he followed her lead, and in a moment more he was knocking at the door of Fenton's studio, which was well up toward the roof. There was no response, and, as Fred rapped the second time, a carpenter who was at work on the casing of a door near by looked up, and said,—
"Mr. Fenton has a sitter, sir."
"He is in then?" said Rangely.
"Yes," answered John Stanton, straightening himself up, with his plane in his hand, "but since Mrs. Herman went in half an hour ago, he hasn't opened the door to anybody."
"Mrs. Herman?" echoed Rangely, in astonishment.
It was a capricious fate which brought John Stanton to tangle the web of Fenton's life. His brother Orin's relations with artists had given John a sort of acquaintanceship with them at second-hand, a kind of vicarious proprietorship in the privileges of art circles. He had long known Fenton by sight, while that he recognized Mrs. Herman also was the result of accident. He had been standing with Orin a few days before on a street corner, when the sculptor had lifted his hat to Mrs. Herman and named her in answer to John's question. There had not been in his honest mind the faintest tinge of suspicion when he saw her enter the studio, and he never had any intimation of the mischief he had clone in mentioning her name to Rangely.
Fred and Miss Merrivale went on to Tom Bentley's curio-crowded rooms, while the sound of their knock still lingered in the double ears of the two people who sat confronting each other within the studio, with looks on the one hand sullen; on the other, pleading. Fenton's picture of Fatima was finished, yet Ninitta continued to come to the studio. His brief passion, which had been more than half mere intellectual curiosity how far his power over the Italian could go, had ended with that curiosity. In its place was a gradually increasing hatred for this woman, who seemed to assert a claim upon him, this model whom he never had loved, and whom he could now scarcely tolerate, since he had ceased to respect her. He cursed himself vehemently after the fashion of such offenders, when eager, vibrating passion has given place to a sense of irksome obligations, but more vigorously still did he upbraid fate, to whose score he set down all annoyance.
As for Ninitta, she, perhaps, no more truly loved Fenton than he had cared for her, but she clung to him as a frightened child might clutch the arm of one with whom it has wandered into the darkness of some vault beset with pitfalls. Ninitta's moral sense was of the most rudimentary character. She was, perhaps, incapable of appreciating an ethical principle, and her spiritual life never soared beyond the crudest emotions and the simplest questions of personal feeling. She had come to live without the guidance of a priest, and this fact, in itself, had left her without moral support. She had now no particular consciousness of having done wrong, although she was moved by the fear of the consequences of the discovery of her transgression.
It has been said that Ninitta's affection for her husband might have been more enduring had he been less gentle with her. She came of a race of peasants whose women understood masculine superiority in the old brutal, physical sense, and whenever Herman bore patiently with his wife's caprices he lessened a respect which he could have retained only at the expense of a blow. With all Arthur Fenton's soft and caressing ways toward Ninitta, there was always an instinctive masterfulness in his attitude toward any woman and especially since he had tired of her did he keep Mrs. Herman figuratively at his feet. The more strongly her appealing attitude seemed to press upon him claims which he could not satisfy and had no mind to acknowledge, the more harsh he became, and the more she bent before him. The language of brutality was one which she Understood by inherited instinct.
"But why," Fenton was saying impatiently, when Rangely's knock startled them, "do you come here, when I haven't sent for you? There's somebody at the door, now, and we haven't even the shadow of an excuse, since the picture is done."
"I wanted to see you," Ninitta answered humbly, her plain face working with her effort to keep back the tears. "It is so lonely at home, and they take even Nino away from me."
The artist started up impatiently, and took his wet palette from the stand beside him.
"Well!" he said, answering as she had spoken, in Italian, "you must be anxious that your husband shall know of your coming here, or you would not take such pains to have him find it out."
He began painting sullenly, putting in the last touches upon the background of the portrait of a beautiful girl. The lovely face of Damaris Wainwright, so pathetic, so pure, and so noble, looking at him from the canvas stung him inwardly into an impotent fury. His fine sense of the fitness of things was outraged by the presence of Ninitta beside the spiritual personality which shone upon him from the portrait. He could even feel the incongruity between himself and his work, though this appealed to his sense of humor as the other aroused his anger.
Ninitta watched in silence a moment; then she rose from her seat, her wrap falling away from her shoulders. Her tears were done, and a white look of intense feeling showed the despair that she felt. All the isolation which tortured her, that pain which souls like hers, blind, groping, and helpless, are least able to bear, had left its stamp upon her. Perhaps even her sin had been a desperate and only half-conscious attempt once more to draw in sympathy really near a human heart. She had learned little from the changed conditions into which the fates of her life had brought her, but she had been separated, in mind no less than in body, from her own kind without being fitted for other companionship. She was utterly and fatally alone, and a terrible sense of her remoteness from all human fellowship smote her now at Arthur's cruelty. She hesitated an instant, supporting herself by the arms of the big carved chair in which she had been sitting; then, with an impulsive gesture, she threw her arms above her head, wringing her hands together.
"Oh, my God!" she cried, "what shall I do?"
Fenton turned quickly toward her.
"Oh, mon Dieu!" was his inward comment; "what a divine pose! What a glorious figure! But ah, how tiresome she is!" Then, aloud, he said: "Come, come, don't be foolish, Ninitta! You know as well as I do that there is no danger, if you are only careful."
And putting aside his palette again, he soothed her with soft words until she was calm enough to be sent home.
When she was gone, he shrugged his shoulders, and spread out his hands with a deprecatory gesture.
"After all," he soliloquized aloud, "it is difficult for civilization to get on without the sultan's sack and bowstring."
AFTER SUCH A PAGAN CUT. Henry VIII.; i.—3.
The announcement by the Secretary of the St. Filipe Club that a vote of censure had been passed upon Fenton had not only caused a tempest of excitement, but had brought about the unexpected result of eliciting testimony to prove that the charge against him was without foundation. Men came forward to testify that Snaffle entered the club alone on the evening when Fenton was said to have brought him there, while Tom Bently, Ainsworth, and others had seen the artist come in afterward, and had spoken with him before he went upstairs with Fred Rangely to the card-room. The Executive Committee found itself in a most awkward predicament, and its members took what comfort they could in pitching upon the Secretary, who had, without authorization, announced the vote of censure on the call for the monthly meeting. He was now directed to write to Mr. Fenton a letter of apology, which he did with such small grace as he could command, taking the precaution to mark the note "confidential."
The artist experienced more than a feeling of conscious virtue at being thus exonerated from a fault which he had committed; and it was with mingled glee and a certain dare-devil desperation that he resolved upon his own course of action.
The monthly meeting of the St. Filipe came on the evening of the day when Mrs. Staggchase gave her luncheon. By a misunderstanding of Fenton's wishes, his wife had invited friends to dine that night. He meant to excuse himself after dinner and go to the club for a short time, returning to his guests after he had said a few words upon which he had determined.
The guests were Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Hubbard, Helen Greyson, Ethel Mott, Miss Catherine Penwick, Thayer Kent, the Rev. De Lancy Candish, and Fred Rangely. It was wholly by chance, and without malicious intent that Edith assigned Ethel to Mr. Kent, while Rangely took Mrs. Greyson in to dinner. Mrs. Fenton, of course, knew that gossip had sometimes connected the names of Ethel and Rangely in a speculative way, but she partly suspected and partly knew by feminine intuition that Fred was practically out of the running, and that Ethel's heart was given to Thayer Kent. It was hardly to be expected that Rangely should be pleased at the sight of his rival's advantage; but having passed the morning in squiring Miss Merrivale, his conscience was hardly case- hardened enough to have made him at his ease had he been able to exchange places with Kent.
To Mr. Candish was given the care of Miss Penwick, since with her Edith knew that his sensitive awkwardness would be as comfortable as was possible with any one; and the guests were so arranged that the clergyman sat upon his hostess's left hand, being thus in a manner intrenched between her and Miss Penwick against the raillery which Mrs. Fenton knew her husband would press as far as his position as host would allow. Edith always made it a point to do all that she could for Mr. Candish's comfort, and it was largely on his account that she had included Miss Penwick in the list of guests. She had a certain tenderness for the forlorn old lady, but it might not have found active expression had not the rector's pleasure come into the question. Arthur had laughed when the proposed arrangement was submitted to him.
"Does your care for your pastor's spiritual welfare go so far," he asked jocosely, "that you don't dare trust him with a young woman? Really, it looks as if you were jealous of the red-haired angel."
"Mr. Candish is not a young woman's man," had been Edith's answer; whereat her husband laughed again.
The talk at dinner was less animated than was usual at Fenton's table. The host was preoccupied, despite his efforts not to appear so, and the company was somehow not fully in touch. No conversation could be wholly dull, however, which Arthur led; and while the "lady's finger" in his cheek told his wife and Helen that he was laboring under some intense excitement, he held himself pluckily in hand.
The conversation at first was between neighbors, but soon the host, according to his fashion, began to answer any remark that his quick ears caught, no matter from whose lips.
"You talk about marriage like a Pagan," he heard Helen say to Rangely.
"Oh, no," Fenton broke in, "he doesn't go half far enough for a Pagan. The Pagan position is that matrimony is a matter of temperament and convenience; it is essentially Philistine to consider that a marriage ceremony imposes eternal obligations."
"There, Mr. Fenton," Mrs. Hubbard rejoined, "I haven't heard you say anything so heathenish for half a dozen years. I hoped your wife had reformed you."
"Or that he had come to years of discretion," suggested Mr. Hubbard, with his charming smile.
"Oh, but I find years of indiscretion so much more interesting," Fenton retorted.
A moment later Helen said something about the truth, and Rangely retorted,—
"Truth is generally what one wishes to believe."
"Except in Puritanism," broke in Arthur, "there it was whatever one didn't wish to believe."
"Don't you think," questioned Mr. Hubbard, "that you are always a little hard on the Puritans? You must admire their conviction and their bravery."
"Oh, yes," was Fenton's reply; "there is something superb in the earnestness of the Puritans, and their absorption in one idea; but that idea has left its birthmark of gloom on all their descendants, and one cannot forget that Puritanism was the soil from which sprang the unbelief of today."
"Bless us!" cried Rangely, "is Saul also among the prophets? Are you also condemning unbelief?"
"Not at all," said Fenton, coolly, "I only want those who defend Puritanism to accept its legitimate results."
"It seems to me," protested Mr. Candish, who had become very red according to his unfortunate wont; "that if you argue in that way, you must always condemn good, because evil may come after it."
"Oh, I do," retorted Fenton, airily.
Everybody except the clergyman laughed at the unexpectedness of this reply; but Mr. Candish was wounded by the most faint suspicion of anything like trifling with sacred things.
"My husband is utterly abandoned, as you see, Mr. Candish," said Edith, coming to the rescue, as she always did when Arthur showed signs of baiting the rector. "Is the decision made in regard to the America?" she continued, turning to Mr. Hubbard, by way of changing the subject.
"Yes," he answered, "the commission is to be given to Orin Stanton."
"Orin Stanton?" asked Kent. "Who is he?"
"Oh, he," returned Fenton, "is a man that had the misfortune to be born with a wooden toothpick in his mouth instead of a silver spoon."
"Is he Irish?"
"No, but he ought to be to have won favor in the sight of a committee appointed by the Boston City Government."
"Come," said Helen; "that is rather severe when Mr. Hubbard is on the committee."
"Oh, I don't mind," returned Hubbard. "I know Fenton wouldn't lose a chance of having his fling at the Irish."
"Well," Fenton explained, defensively, "I am always irritated at the pity of the United States having expended so much blood and treasure to free itself from the dominion of the whole of Great Britain simply to sink into dependence upon so insignificant a part of that kingdom as Ireland."
"Mercy!" exclaimed Miss Penwick. "What extreme sentiments!"
They smiled at the old lady's words, and then Edith went back to the statue.
"I fancy young Stanton hasn't been above some wire-pulling," she remarked. "He sent his prospective sister-in-law, Melissa Blake, to ask me to use my influence with Uncle Peter in his behalf."
"He needn't have troubled," Mr. Hubbard returned. "Mr. Calvin supported him from the first."
"Oh, yes," Ethel said; "Mrs. Frostwinch and Mrs. Bodewin Ranger chose Stanton long ago and persuaded Mr. Calvin to help them."
"I can't fancy Mr. Calvin as anybody's tool," commented Kent, who would have regarded his companion's words as a trifle too frank to be spoken at the table of Mr. Calvin's niece, had his mind been in a condition to take exception to anything that she said.
"Isn't that Melissa Blake," asked Mr. Hubbard of Edith, "the one you recommended to me as a copyist?"
"Yes, I hope you found her satisfactory."
Mr. Hubbard smiled somewhat grimly.
"Indeed he did not," broke in Mrs. Hubbard speaking for him. "She broke confidence."
"Broke confidence!" echoed Edith, in astonishment. "Melissa Blake?"
"Yes," Hubbard returned. "I really didn't mean to tell you, but my wife, you see, has all the indignation of a woman against a woman."
"But how did she break confidence?" demanded Edith. "I would trust her as implicitly as I would myself."
"The papers she copied," was the reply, "were the plans for a syndicate to put up mills at Fentonville. We kept the scheme quiet until the route of the new railroad should be decided, and when we came before the Committee of the House, the whole thing had been given away, and the Wachusett men had even secured the chairman, Tom Greenfield. He lives in Fentonville himself, and we had counted him at least as sure."
"That must have been the thing," placidly observed Miss Penwick to Rangely, "that Mr. Irons was talking to Mrs. Sampson about, the night we dined there to meet Miss Merrivale."
Rangely glanced up in vexation, to see if Miss Mott were listening, and caught a gleam of mischievous intelligence from her eyes.
"I don't remember it," he answered ambiguously.
"But how do you know," persisted Edith, "that the information came from Miss Blake?"
"Because Mr. Staggchase found out at Fentonville afterward that she came from there, and that a young man she is engaged to had just forfeited on a mortgage some of the meadows our company was to buy."
"The evidence doesn't seem to me conclusive," remarked Fenton, "and simply as a matter of family unity I am bound to believe in my wife's proteges."
Even the faint sense of humor which he felt at the situation could not prevent him from experiencing the sting of self-shame. Had it been an equal who was unjustly accused of a fault he had committed he would have felt less humiliated. To the degradation of having betrayed Hubbard, the addition of this last touch of having also unconsciously injured an inferior came to him like the exquisite irony of fate. He wondered in an abstract and dispassionate way whether the ghost of all his misdeeds were continually to rise before him. "Really," he said to himself with a smile that curled his lips "in that case I shall become a perfect Macbeth." And at that instant the ghost most dreadful of all rose at the feast like that of Banquo as Rangely said,—
"I knocked at your studio this morning but couldn't get in."
There flashed through Fenton's mind all the possibilities of discovery and disaster that might lie behind this remark, and his one strong feeling was that it would be unsafe to venture on a definite statement; he took refuge in the vaguest of general remarks.
"I am sorry not to have seen you," he said.
He tried to reflect, while Edith said something further in defence of Melissa. He joked with Ethel about the probable appearance of the statue young Stanton would make, which was to be set up directly opposite her father's house. He noticed that Helen was very silent, and he even reflected how handsome a man was Thayer Kent; but through it all he seemed to hear the echo of that knock upon his studio door and a foreboding which he could not shake off made him reflect gloomily how utterly defenceless he should be in case of discovery.
A brief silence suddenly recalled him to his duties as host, and he caught quickly at the first topic which presented itself to his mind, going back to the question of the America, which had been much discussed because the funds to pay for it had been bequeathed to the city by a woman of prominent social position.
"I suppose," he observed, turning to Hubbard, "that with two such lights of the art world as Peter Calvin and Alfred Irons on the committee, the new statue will be regarded as the flower of Boston culture. Of all droll things," he added, "nothing could be funnier than coupling those two men. It is more striking than the lion and the lamb of Scriptural prophecy."
"Who is the lion and who the lamb?" asked Candish.
"It is your place to apply Scripture, not mine," retorted Fenton.
"I represent the minority of the committee," was Hubbard's reply to his host's question. "There is no other position so safe in matters of art as that of an objector."
"That is because art appeals to the most sensitive of human characteristics," Arthur retorted smiling,—"human vanity."
"Vanity?" echoed Mrs. Hubbard.
"That from you?" exclaimed Miss Mott.
"Really, Mr. Fenton," protested Miss Penwick, in accents of real concern, "you shouldn't say such a thing; there are so many people who would suppose you meant it."
The simple old creature knew no more of the real meaning of art than she did of that of the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian obelisk, but she had lectured on it, and she felt for it the deep reverence common to those who label their superstition with the name "culture."