It's not that I love the Twins less. It's only that the novelty has passed. And in one way it's a good thing, for over your second and third baby you worry less. You know what is needed, and how to do it. You blaze your trail, as a mother, with your first-born. You build your road, and after that you are no longer a pioneer. You know the way you have to go, henceforth, and you follow it. It is less a Great Adventure, perhaps, but, on the other hand, the double-pointed tooth of Anxiety does not rowel quite so often at the core of your heart.... I've been wondering if, with the coming of the children, there is not something which slips away from the relationship between husband and wife. That there is a difference is not to be denied. There was a time when I resented this and tried to fight against it. But I wasn't big enough, I suppose, to block the course of Nature. And it was Nature, you have to admit when you come to look it honestly in the face, Nature in her inexorable economy working out her inexorable ends. If I hadn't loved Dinky-Dunk, fondly, foolishly, abandonedly, there would have been no little Dinkie and Poppsy and Pee-Wee. They would have been left to wander like disconsolate little ghosts through that lonely and twilit No-Man's Land of barren love and unwanted babes. And the only thing that keeps me human, nowadays, that keeps me from being a woman with a dead soul, a she-being of untenanted hide and bones and dehydrated ham-strings, is my kiddies. The thought of them, at any time of the day, can put a cedilla under my heart to soften it....
Struthers, who is to go in to Buckhorn with the children when they have their picture taken, is already deep in elaborating preparations for that expedition. She is improvising an English nurse's uniform and has asked if there might be one picture of her and the children.
Tuesday the Fifteenth
The children have been away for a whole day, the first time in family history. And oh, what a difference it makes in this lonely little prairie home of ours! The quietness, the emptiness, the desolation of it all was something quite beyond my imagination. I know now that I could never live apart from them. Whatever happens, I shall not be separated from my kiddies....
I spent my idle time in getting Peter's music-box in working order. Dinky-Dunk, who despises it, thoughtlessly sat on the package of records and broke three of them. I've been trying over the others. They sound tinny and flat, and I'm beginning to suspect I haven't my sound-box adjusted right. I've a hunger to hear good music. And without quite knowing it, I've been craving for city life again, for at least a taste of it, for even a chocolate cream-soda at a Huyler counter. Dinky-Dunk yesterday said that I was a cloudy creature, and accused me of having a mutinous mouth. Men seem to think that love should be like an eight-day clock, with a moment or two of industrious winding-up rewarded by a long week of undeviating devotion.
Sunday the Twenty-seventh
The thrashing outfits are over at Casa Grande, and my being a mere spectator of the big and busy final act of the season's drama reminds me of three years ago, just before Dinkie arrived. Struthers, however, is at Casa Grande and in her glory, the one and only woman in a circle of nine active-bodied men.
I begin to see that it's true what Dinky-Dunk said about business looming bigger in men's lives than women are apt to remember. He's working hard, and his neck's so thin that his Adam's apple sticks out like a push-button, but he gets his reward in finding his crop running much higher than he had figured. He's as keen as ever he was for power and prosperity. He wants success, and night and day he's scheming for it. Sometimes I wonder if he didn't deliberately use his cousin Allie in this juggling back of Casa Grande into his own hands. Yet Dinky-Dunk, with all his faults, is not, and could not be, circuitous. I feel sure of that.
He became philosophical, the other day when I complained about the howling of the coyotes, and protested it was these horizon-singers that kept the prairie clean. He even argued that the flies which seem such a pest to the cattle in summer-time are a blessing in disguise, since the unmolested animals over-eat when feed is plentiful and get black-rot. So out of suffering comes wisdom and out of endurance comes fortitude!
Thursday the Sixth
On Tuesday morning we had our first snow of the season, or, rather, before the season. It wasn't much of a snow-storm, but Dinkie was greatly worked up at the sight of it and I finally put on his little reefer and his waders and let him go out in it. But the weather had moderated, the snow turned to slush, and when I rescued Dinkie from rolling in what looked to him like a world of ice-cream he was a very wet boy.
On Tuesday night Dinkie, usually so sturdy and strong, woke up with a tight little chest-cough that rather frightened me. I went over to his crib and covered him up. But when he wakened me again, a couple of hours later, the cough had grown tighter. It turned into a sort of sharp bark. And this time I found Dinkie hot and feverish. So I got busy, rubbing his chest with sweet oil and turpentine until the skin was pink and giving him a sip or two of cherry pectoral which I still had on the upper shelf of the cupboard.
When morning came he was no better. He seemed in a stupor, rousing only to bark into his pillow. I called Dinky-Dunk in, before he left in the pouring rain for Casa Grande, and he said, almost indifferently, "Yes, the boy's got a cold all right." But that was all.
When breakfast was over I tried Dinkie with hot gruel, but he declined it. He refused to eat, in fact, and remembering what Peter had once said about my first-born being pantophagous, I began to suspect that I had a very sick boy on my hands.
At noon, when he seemed no better, I made a mild mustard-plaster and put it on the upper part of his little chest. I let it burn there until he began to cry with the discomfort of it. Then I tucked a double fold of soft flannel above his thorax.
As night came on he was more flushed and feverish than ever, and I wished to heaven that I'd a clinic thermometer in the house. For by this time I was more than worried: I was panicky. Yet Duncan, when he came in, and got out of his oil-skins, didn't seem very sympathetic. He flatly refused to share my fears. The child, he acknowledged, had a croupy little chest-cold, but all he wanted was keeping warm and as much water as he could drink. Nature, he largely protested, would attend to a case like that.
I was ready to turn on him like a she-tiger, but I held myself in, though it took an effort. I saw Duncan go off to bed, dog-tired, of course, but I felt that to go to sleep, under the circumstances, would be criminal. Dinkie, in the meantime, was waking every now and then and barking like a baby-coyote. I could have stood it, I suppose, if that old Bobs of ours hadn't started howling outside, in long-drawn and dreary howls of unutterable woe. I remembered about a dog always howling that way when somebody was going to die in the house. And I concluded, with an icy heart, that it was the death-howl. I tried to count Dinkie's pulse, but it was so rapid and I was so nervous that I lost track of the beats. So I decided to call Dinky-Dunk.
He came in to us kind of sleepy-eyed and with his hair rumpled up, and asked, without thinking, what I wanted.
And I told him, with a somewhat shaky voice, what I wanted. I said I wanted antiphlogistine, and a pneumonia-jacket, and a doctor, and a trained nurse, and just a few of the comforts of civilization.
Dinky-Dunk, staring at me as though I were a madwoman, went over to Dinkie's crib, and felt his forehead and the back of his neck, and held an ear against the boy's chest, and then against his shoulder-blades. He said it was all right, and that I myself ought to be in bed. As though in answer to that Dinkie barked out his croupy protest, tight and hard, barked as I'd never heard a child bark before. And I began to fuss, for it tore my heart to think of that little body burning up with fever and being denied its breath.
"You might just as well get back to bed," repeated Dinky-Dunk, rather impatiently. And that was the spark which set off the mine, which pushed me clear over the edge of reason. I'd held myself in for so long, during weeks and weeks of placid-eyed self-repression, that when the explosion did come I went off like a Big Bertha. I turned on my husband with a red light dancing before my face and told him he was a beast and a heartless brute. He tried to stop me, but it was no use. I even said that this was a hell of a country, where a white woman had to live like a Cree squaw and a child had to die like a sick hound in a coulee. And I said a number of other things, which must have cut to the raw, for even in the uncertain lamplight I could see that Dinky-Dunk's face had become a kind of lemon-color, which is the nearest to white a sunburned man seems able to turn.
"I'll get a doctor, if you want one," he said, with an over-tried-patience look in his eyes.
"I don't want a doctor," I told him, a little shrill-voiced with indignation. "It's the child who wants one."
"I'll get your doctor," he repeated as he began dressing, none too quickly. And it took him an interminable time to get off, for it was raining cats and dogs, a cold, sleety rain from the northeast, and the shafts had to be taken off the buckboard and a pole put in, for it would require a team to haul anything on wheels to Buckhorn, on such a night.
It occurred to me, as I stood at the window and saw Dinky-Dunk's lantern wavering about in the rain while he was getting the team and hooking them on to the buckboard, that it would be only the decent thing to send him off with a cup of hot coffee, now that I had the kettle boiling. But he'd martyrize himself, I knew, by refusing it, even though I made it. And he was already sufficiently warmed by the fires of martyrdom.
Yet it was an awful night, I realized when I stood in the open door and stared after him as he swung out into the muddy trail with the stable lantern lashed to one end of his dashboard. And I felt sorry, and a little guilty, about the neglected cup of coffee.
I went back to little Dinkie, and found him asleep. So I sat down beside him. I sat there wrapped up in one of Dinky-Dunk's four-point Hudson-Bays, deciding that if the child's cough grew tighter I'd rig up a croup-tent, as I'd once seen Chinkie's doctor do with little Gimlets. But Dinkie failed to waken. And I fell asleep myself, and didn't open an eye until I half-tumbled out of the chair, well on toward morning.
By the time Dinky-Dunk got back with the doctor, who most unmistakably smelt of Scotch whisky, I had breakfast over and the house in order and the Twins fed and bathed and off for their morning nap. I had a fresh nightie on little Dinkie, who rather upset me by announcing that he wanted to get up and play with his Noah's Ark, for his fever seemed to have slipped away from him and the tightness had gone from his cough. But I said nothing as that red-faced and sweet-scented doctor looked the child over. His stethoscope, apparently, tickled Dinkie's ribs, for after trying to wriggle away a couple of times he laughed out loud. The doctor also laughed. But Dinky-Dunk's eye happened to meet mine.
It would be hard to describe his expression. All I know is that it brought a disagreeable little sense of shame to my hypocritical old heart, though I wouldn't have acknowledged it, for worlds.
"Why, those lungs are clear," I heard the man of medicine saying to my husband. "It's been a nasty little cold, of course, but nothing to worry over."
His optimism struck me as being rather unprofessional, for if you travel half a night to a case, it seems to me, it ought not to be brushed aside with a laugh. And I was rather sorry that I had such a good breakfast waiting for them. Duncan, it's true, did not eat a great deal, but the way that red-faced doctor lapped up my coffee with clotted cream and devoured bacon and eggs and hot muffins should have disturbed any man with an elementary knowledge of dietetics. And by noon Dinkie was pretty much his old self again. I half expected that Duncan would rub it in a little. But he has remained discreetly silent.
Next time, of course, I'll have a better idea of what to do. But I've been thinking that this exquisite and beautiful animalism known as the maternal instinct can sometimes emerge from its exquisiteness. Children are a joy and a glory, but you pay for that joy and glory when you see them stretched out on a bed of pain, with the shadow of Death hovering over them.
When I tried to express something like this to Dunkie last night, somewhat apologetically, he looked at me with an odd light in his somber old Scotch Canadian eye.
"Wait until you see him really ill," he remarked, man-like, stubbornly intent on justifying himself. But I was too busy saying a little prayer, demanding of Heaven that such a day might never come, to bother about delivering myself of the many laboriously concocted truths which I'd assembled for my bone-headed lord and master. I was grateful enough for things as they were, and I could afford to be generous.
Sunday the Ninth
For the first time since I came out on the prairie, I dread the thought of winter. Yet it's really something more than the winter I dread, since snow and cold have no terrors for me. I need only to look back about ten short months and think of those crystal-clear winter days of ours, with the sleigh piled up with its warm bear-robes, the low sun on the endless sea of white, the air like champagne, the spanking team frosted with their own breath, the caroling sleigh-bells, and the man who still meant so much to me at my side. Then the homeward drive at night, under violet clear skies, over drifts of diamond-dust, to the warmth and peace and coziness of one's own hearth! It was often razor-edge weather, away below zero, but we had furs enough to defy any threat of frost-nip.
We still have the furs, it's true, but there's the promise of a different kind of frost in the air now, a black frost that creeps into the heart which no furs can keep warm....
We still have the furs, as I've already said, and I've been looking them over. They're so plentiful in this country that I've rather lost my respect for them. Back in the old days I used to invade those mirrored and carpeted salons where a trained and deferential saleswoman would slip sleazy and satin-lined moleskin coats over my arms and adjust baby-bear and otter and ermine and Hudson-seal next to my skin. It always gave me a very luxurious and Empressy sort of feeling to see myself arrayed, if only experimentally, in silver-fox and plucked beaver and fisher, to feel the soft pelts and observe how well one's skin looked above seal-brown or shaggy bear.
But I never knew what it cost. I never even considered where they came from, or what they grew on, and it was to me merely a vague and unconfirmed legend that they were all torn from the carcasses of far-away animals. Prairie life has brought me a little closer to that legend, and now that I know what I do, it makes a difference.
For with the coming of the cold weather, last winter, Francois and Whinstane Sandy took to trapping, to fill in the farm-work hiatus. They made it a campaign, and prepared for it carefully, concocting stretching-rings and cutting-boards and fashioning rabbit-snares and overhauling wicked-looking iron traps, which were quite ugly enough even before they became stained and clotted and rusted with blood.
They had a very successful season, but even at the first it struck me as odd to see two men, not outwardly debased, so soberly intent on their game of killing. And in the end I got sick of the big blood-rusted traps and the stretching-rings and the blood-smeared cutting-boards and the smell of pelts being cured. For every pelt, I began to see, meant pain and death. In one trap Francois found only the foot of a young red fox: it had gnawed its leg off to gain freedom from those vicious iron jaws that had bitten so suddenly into its flesh and bone and sinew. He also told me of finding a young bear which had broken the anchor-chain of a twelve-pound trap and dragged it over one hundred miles. All the fight, naturally, was gone out of the little creature. It was whimpering like a woman when Francois came up with it—poor little tortured broken-hearted thing! And some empty-headed heiress goes mincing into the Metropolitan, on a Caruso night, very proud and peacocky over her new ermine coat, without ever dreaming it's a patchwork of animal sufferings that is keeping her fat body warm, and that she's trying to make herself beautiful in a hundred tragedies of the wild.
If women only thought of these things! But we women have a very convenient hand-made imagination all our own, and what upsets us as perfect ladies we graciously avoid. Yet if the petticoated Vandal in that ermine coat were compelled to behold from her box-chair in the Metropolitan, not a musty old love-affair set to music, but the spectacle of how each little animal whose skin she has appropriated had been made to suffer, the hours and sometimes days of torture it had endured, and how, if still alive when the trapper made the rounds of his sets, it had been carefully strangled to death by that frugal harvester, to the end that the pelt might not be bloodied and reckoned only as a "second"—if the weasel-decked lady, I repeat, had to witness all this with her own beaded eyes, our wilderness would not be growing into quite such a lonely wilderness.
Or some day, let's put it, as one of these beaver-clad ladies tripped through the Ramble in Central Park, supposing a steel-toothed trap suddenly and quite unexpectedly snapped shut on her silk-stockinged ankle and she writhed and moaned there in public, over the week-end. Then possibly her cries of suffering might make her sisters see a little more light. But the beaver, they tell me, is trapped under the ice, always in running water. A mud-ball is placed a little above the waiting trap, to leave the water opaque, and when the angry iron jaws have snapped shut on their victim, that victim drowns, a prisoner. Francois used to contend shruggingly that it was an easy death. It may be easy compared with some of the other deaths imposed on his furry captives. But it's not my idea of bliss, drowning under a foot or two of ice with a steel trap mangling your ankle for full measure!
"We live forward, but we understand backward." I don't know who first said it. But the older I grow the more I realize how true it is.
Sunday the Umptieth
I've written to Peter, reminding him of his promise, and asking about the Pasadena bungalow.
It seems the one way out. I'm tired of living like an Alpine ibex, all day long above the snow-line. I'm tired of this blind alley of inaction. I'm tired of decisions deferred and threats evaded. I want to get away to think things over, to step back and regain a perspective on the over-smudged canvas of life.
To remain at Alabama Ranch during the winter can mean only a winter of discontent and drifting—and drifting closer and closer to uncharted rocky ledges. There's no ease for the mouth where one tooth aches, as the Chinese say.
Dinky-Dunk, I think, has an inkling of how I feel. He is very thoughtful and kind in small things, and sometimes looks at me with the eyes of a boy's dog which has been forbidden to follow the village gang a-field. And it's not that I dislike him, or that he grates on me, or that I'm not thankful enough for the thousand and one little kind things he does. But it's rubbing on the wrong side of the glass. It can't bring back the past. My husband of to-day is not the Dinky-Dunk I once knew and loved and laughed with. To go back to dogs, it reminds me of Chinkie's St. Bernard, "Father Tom," whom Chinkie petted and trained and loved almost to adoration. And when poor old Father Tom was killed Chinkie in his madness insisted that a taxidermist should stuff and mount that dead dog, which stood, thereafter, not a quick and living companion but a rather gruesome monument of a vanished friendship. It was, of course, the shape and color of the thing he had once loved; but you can't feed a hungry heart by staring at a pair of glass eyes and a wired tail without any wag in it.
Saturday the Ninth
Struthers and I have been busy making clothes, during the absence of Dinky-Dunk, who has been off duck-shooting for the last three days. He complained of being a bit tuckered out and having stood the gaff too long and needing a change. The outing will do him good. The children miss him, of course, but he's promised to bring Dinkie home an Indian bow-and-arrow. I can see death and destruction hanging over the glassware of this household.... The weather has been stormy, and yesterday Whinnie and Struthers put up the stove in the bunk-house. They were a long time about it, but I was reluctant to stop the flutterings of Cupid's wings.
Tuesday the Twelfth
I had a brief message from Peter stating the Pasadena house is entirely at my disposal.... Dinky-Dunk came back with a real pot-hunter's harvest of wild ducks, which we'll pick and dress and freeze for winter use. I'm taking the breast-feathers for my pillows and Whinstane Sandy is taking what's left for a sleeping-bag—from which I am led to infer that he's still reconciled to a winter of solitude. Struthers, I know, could tell him of a warmer bag than that, lined with downier feathers from the pinions of Eros. But, as I've said before, Fate, being blind, weaves badly.
Friday the Fifteenth
I've just told Dinky-Dunk of my decision to take the kiddies to California for the winter months. He rather surprised me by agreeing with everything I suggested. He feels, I think, as I do, that there's danger in going aimlessly on and on as we have been doing. And it's really a commonplace for the prairie rancher—when he can afford it—to slip down to California for the winter. They go by the thousand, by the train-load.
Friday the Sixth
It's three long weeks since I've had time for either ink or retrospect. But at last I'm settled, though I feel as though I'd died and ascended into Heaven, or at least changed my world, as the Chinks say, so different is Pasadena to the prairie and Alabama Ranch. For as I sit here on the loggia of Peter's house I'm bathed in a soft breeze that is heavy with a fragrance of flowers, the air is the air of our balmiest midsummer, and in a pepper-tree not thirty feet away a mocking-bird is singing for all it's worth. It seems a poignantly beautiful world. And everything suggests peace. But it was not an easy peace to attain.
In the first place, the trip down was rather a nightmare. It brought home to me the fact that I had three young barbarians to break and subjugate, three untrained young outlaws who went wild with their first plunge into train-travel and united in defiance of Struthers and her foolishly impressive English uniform which always makes me think of Regent Park. I have a suspicion that Dinky-Dunk all the while knew of the time I'd have, but sagely held his peace.
I had intended, when I left home, to take the boat at Victoria and go down to San Pedro, for I was hungry for salt water and the feel of a rolling deck under my feet again. But the antics of my three little outlaws persuaded me, before we pulled into Calgary, that it would be as well to make the trip south as short a one as possible. Dinkie disgraced me in the dining-car by insisting on "drinking" his mashed potatoes, and made daily and not always ineffectual efforts to appropriate all the fruit on the table, and on the last day, when I'd sagaciously handed him over to the tender mercies of Struthers, I overheard this dialogue:
"I want shooder in my soup!"
"But little boys don't eat sugar in their soup."
"I want shooder in my soup!"
"But, darling, mommie doesn't eat sugar in her soup!"
"Shooder! Dinkie wants shooder, shooder in his soup!"
"Daddy never eats shooder in his soup, Sweetness."
"I want shooder!"
"But really nice little boys don't ask for sugar in their soup," argued the patient-eyed Struthers.
"Shooder!" insisted the implacable tyrant. And he got it.
There was an exceptional number of babies and small children on board and my unfraternal little prairie-waifs did not see why every rattle and doll and automatic toy of their little fellow travelers and sister tourists shouldn't promptly become their own private property. And traveling with twins not yet a year old is scarcely conducive to rest.
And yet, for all the worry and tumult, I found a new peace creeping into my soul. It was the first sight of the Rockies, I think, which brought the change. I'd grown tired of living on a billiard-table, without quite knowing it, tired of the trimly circumscribed monotony of material life, of the isolating flat contention against hunger and want. But the mountains took me out of myself. They were Peter's windmill, raised to the Nth power. They loomed above me, seeming to say: "We are timeless. You, puny one, can live but a day." They stood there as they had stood from the moment God first whispered: "Let there be light"—and there was light. But no, I'm wrong there, as Peter would very promptly have told me, for it was only in the Cambrian Period that the cornerstone of the Rockies was laid. The geologic clock ticked out its centuries until the swamps of the Coal Period were full of Peter's Oldest Inhabitants in the form of Dinosaurs and then came the Cretaceous Period and the Great Architect looked down and bade the Rockies arise, and tooled them into beauty with His blue-green glaciers and His singing rivers, and touched the lordliest peaks with wine-glow and filled the azure valleys with music and peace. And we threaded along those valley-sides on our little ribbons of steel, skirted the shouting rivers and plunged into tiny twisted tubes of darkness, emerging again into the light and once more hearing the timeless giants, with their snow-white heads against the sunset, repeat their whisper: "We live and are eternal. Ye, who fret about our feet, dream for a day, and are forgotten!"
But we seemed to be stepping out into a new world, by the time we got to Pasadena. It was a summery and flowery and holiday world, and it impressed me as being solely and scrupulously organized for pleasure. Yet all minor surprises were submerged in the biggest surprise of Peter's bungalow, which is really more like a chateau, and strikes me as being singularly like Peter himself, not amazingly impressive to look at, perhaps, but hiding from the world a startingly rich and luxurious interior. The house itself, half hidden in shrubbery, is of weather-stained stucco, and looks at first sight a little gloomy, with the patina of time upon it. But it is a restful change from the spick-and-spanness of the near-by millionaire colony, so eloquent of the paint-brush and the lawn-valet's shears, so smug and new and strident in its paraded opulence. Peter's gardens, in fact, are a rather careless riot of color and line, a sort of achieved genteel roughness, like certain phases of his house, as though the wave of refinement driven too high had broken and tumbled over on itself.
The house, which is the shape of an "E" without the middle stroke, has a green-sodded patio between the two wings, with a small fountain and a stained marble basin at the center. There are shade-trees and date-palms and shrubs and Romanesque-looking stone seats about narrow walks, for this is the only really formalized portion of the entire property. This leads off into a grove and garden, a confusion of flowers and trees where I've already been able to spot out a number of orange trees, some of them well fruited, several lemon and fig trees, a row of banana trees, or plants, whichever they should be called, besides pepper and palm and acacia and a long-legged double-file of eucalyptus at the rear. And in between is a pergola and a mixture of mimosa and wistaria and tamarisk and poppies and trellised roses and one woody old geranium with a stalk like a crab-apple trunk and growth enough to cover half a dozen prairie hay-stacks.
But, as I've already implied, it was the inside of the house that astonished me. It is much bigger than it looks and is crowded with the most gorgeous old things in copper and brass and leather and mahogany that I ever saw under one roof. It has three open fireplaces, a huge one of stone in the huge living-room, and rough-beamed ceilings of redwood, and Spanish tiled floors, and chairs upholstered with cowhide with the ranch-brand still showing in the tanned leather, and tables of Mexican mahogany set in redwood frames, and several convenient little electric heaters which can be carried from room to room as they are needed.
Pinshaw, Peter's gardener and care-taker, had before our arrival picked several clumps of violets, with perfume like the English violets, and the house was aired and everything waiting and ready when we came, even to two bottles of certified milk in the icebox for the babies and half a dozen Casaba melons for their elders. My one disturbing thought is that it will be a hard house to live up to. But Struthers, who is not untouched with her folie de grandeur, has the slightly flurried satisfaction of an exile who has at last come into her own. One of the first things I must do, however, is to teach my kiddies to respect Peter's belongings. In one cabinet of books, which is locked, I have noticed several which are by "Peter Ketley" himself. Yet that name meant nothing to me, when I met it out on the prairie and humiliated its owner by converting him into one of my hired hands. Ce monde est plein de fous.
Monday the Sixteenth
This is a great climate for meditation. And I have been meditating. Back at Alabama Ranch, I suppose, there's twenty degrees of frost and a northwest wind like a search-warrant. Here there's a pellucid blue sky, just enough breeze to rustle the bamboo-fronds behind me, and a tall girl in white lawn, holding a pale green parasol over her head and meandering slowly along the sun-steeped boulevard, which smells of hot tar.
I've been sitting here staring down that boulevard, with the strong light making me squint a little. I've been watching the two rows of date-palms along the curb, with their willow-plume head-dress stirring lazily in the morning breeze. Well back from the smooth and shining asphalt, as polished as ebony with its oil-drip and tire-wear, is a row of houses, some shingled and awninged, some Colonial-Spanish, and stuccoed and bone-white in the sun, some dark-wooded and vine-draped and rose-grown, but all immaculate and finished and opulent. The street is very quiet, but half-way down the block I can see a Jap gardener in brown denim sedately watering a well-barbered terrace. Still farther away, somebody, in one of the deep-shadowed porches, is tinkling a ukelele, and somebody that I can't see is somewhere beating a rug. I can see a little rivulet of water that flows sparkling down the asphalted runnel of the curb. Then the clump of bamboos back by Peter's bedroom window rustles crisply again and is quiet and the silence is broken by a nurse-maid calling to a child sitting in a toy motor-wagon. Then a touring-car purrs past, with the sun flashing on its polished metal equipment, and the toy motor child being led reluctantly homeward by the maid cries shrilly, and in the silence that ensues I can hear the faint hiss of a spray-nozzle that builds a transient small rainbow just beyond the trellis of Cherokee roses from which a languid white petal falls, from time to time.
It's a dolce-far-niente day, as all the days seem to be here, and the best that I can do is sit and brood like a Plymouth Rock with a full crop. But I've been thinking things over. And I've come to several conclusions.
One is that I'm not so contented as I thought I was going to be. I am oppressed by a shadowy feeling of in some way sailing under false colors. I am also hounded by an equally shadowy impression that I'm a convalescent. Yet I find myself vulgarly healthy, my kiddies have all acquired a fine coat of tan, and only Struthers is slightly off her feed, having acquired a not unmerited attack of cholera morbus from over-indulgence in Casaba melon. But I keep wondering if Dinky-Dunk is getting the right sort of things to eat, if he's lonely, and what he does in his spare time.
And another conclusion I've come to is that men, much as I hate to admit it, are built of a stronger fiber than women. They seem able to stand shock better than the weaker sex. They are not so apt to go down under defeat, to take the full count, as I have done. For I still have to face the fact that I was a failure. Then I turned tail and fled from the scene of my collapse. That flight, it is true, has brought me a certain brand of peace, but it is not an enduring peace, for you can't run away from what's in your own heart. And already I'm restless and ill-at-ease. It's not so much that I'm dissatisfied; it's more that I'm unsatisfied. There still seems to be something momentous left out of the plan of things. I have the teasing feeling of confronting something which is still impending, which is being withheld, which I can not reach out for, no matter how I try, until the time is ripe.... Those rustling bamboos so close to the room where I sleep have begun to bother me so much that I'm migrating to a new bedroom to-night. "There's never anything without something!"
Tuesday the Twenty-fourth
Little Dinky-Dunk has adventured into illicit knowledge of his first orange from the bough. It was one of Peter's low-hanging Valencias, and seems to have left no ill-effects, though I prefer that all inside matter be carefully edited before consumption by that small Red. So Struthers hereafter must stand the angel with the flaming sword and guard the gates that open upon that tree of forbidden fruit. Her own colic, by the way, is a thing of the past, and at present she's extremely interested in Pinshaw, who, she tells me, was once a cabinet-maker in England, and came out to California for his health. Struthers, as usual, is attempting to reach the heart of her new victim by way of the stomach, and Pinshaw, apparently, is not unappreciative, since he appears a little more punctually at his watering and raking and gardening and has his ears up like a rabbit for the first inkling of his lady-love's matutinal hand-out. And poor old Whinstane Sandy, back at Alabama Ranch, is still making sheep's eyes at the patches which Struthers once sewed on his breeks, like as not, and staring with a moonish smile at the atrabilious photograph which the one camera-artist of Buckhorn made of Struthers and my three pop-eyed kiddies....
These are, without exception, the friendliest people I have ever known. The old millionaire lumberman from Bay City, who lives next door to me, pushes through the hedge with platefuls of green figs and tid-bits from his gardens, and delightful girls whose names I don't even know come in big cars and ask to take little Dinkie off for one of their lawn fetes. It even happened that a movie-actor—who, I later discovered, was a drug-addict—insisted on accompanying me home and informed me on the way that I had a dream of a face for camera-work. It quite set me up, for all its impertinence, until I learned to my sorrow that it had flowered out of nothing more than an extra shot in the arm.
They are a friendly and companionable folk, and they'd keep me on the go all the time if I'd let 'em. But I've only had energy enough to run over to Los Angeles twice, though there are a dozen or two people I must look up in that more frolicsome suburb. But I can't get away from the feeling, the truly rural feeling, that I'm among strangers. I can't rid myself of the extremely parochial impression that these people are not my people. And there's a valetudinarian aspect to the place which I find slightly depressing. For this seems to be the one particular point where the worn-out old money-maker comes to die, and the antique ladies with asthma struggle for an extra year or two of the veranda rocking-chair, and rickety old beaux sit about in Panamas and white flannels and listen to the hardening of their arteries. And I haven't quite finished with life yet—not if I know it—not by a long shot!
But one has to be educated for idleness, I find, almost as much as for industry. I knew the trick once, but I've lost the hang of it. The one thing that impresses me, on coming straight from prairie life to a city like this, is how much women-folk can have done for them without quite knowing it. The machinery of life here is so intricate and yet so adequate that it denudes them of all the normal and primitive activities of their grandmothers, so they have to invent troubles and contrive quite unnecessary activities to keep from being bored to extinction. Everything seems to come to them ready-made and duly prepared, their bread, their light and fuel and water, their meat and milk. All that, and the daily drudgery it implies, is made ready and performed beyond their vision, and they have no balky pumps to prime and no fires to build, and they'd probably be quite disturbed to think that their roasts came from a slaughter-house with bloody floors and that their breakfast rolls, instead of coming ready-made into the world, are mixed and molded in bake-rooms where men work sweating by night, stripped to the waist, like stokers.
Wednesday the Second
Dinky-Dunk's letter, which reached me Monday, was very short and almost curt. It depressed me for a day. I tried to fight against that feeling, when it threatened to return yesterday, and was at Peter's piano shouting to the kiddies:
"Coon, Coon, Coon, I wish my color'd fade! Coon, Coon, Coon, I'd like a different shade!"
when Struthers carried in to me, with a sort of triumphant and tight-lipped I-told-you-so air, a copy of the morning's Los Angeles Examiner. She had it folded so that I found myself confronting a picture of Lady Alicia Newland, Lady Alicia in the "Teddy-Bear" suit of an aviator, with a fur-lined leather jacket and helmet and heavy gauntlets and leggings and the same old audacious look out of the quietly smiling eyes, which were squinting a little because of the sunlight.
Lady Allie, I found on perusing the letter-press, had been flying with some of the North Island officers down in San Diego Bay. And now she and the Right Honorable Lieutenant-Colonel Brereton Ainsley-Brook, of the British Imperial Commission to Canada, were to attempt a flight to Kelly Field Number Two, at San Antonio, in Texas, in a De Haviland machine. She had told the Examiner reporter who had caught her as she stood beside a naval sea-plane, that she "loved" flying and loved taking a chance and that her worst trouble was with nose-bleed, which she'd get over in time, she felt sure. And if the Texas flight was a success she would try to arrange for a flight down to the Canal at the same time that the Pacific fleet comes through from Colon.
"Isn't that 'er, all over?" demanded Struthers, forgetting her place and her position and even her aspirate in the excitement of the moment. But I handed back the paper without comment. For a day, however, Lady Allie has loomed large in my thoughts.
Sunday the Thirteenth
It will be two weeks to-morrow since I've had a line from Dinky-Dunk. The world about me is a world of beauty, but I'm worried and restless and Edna Millay's lines keep running through my head:
"...East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by!"
Wednesday the Sixteenth
Peter has written to me saying that unless he hears from me to the contrary he thinks he can arrange to "run through" to the Coast in time for the Rose Tournament here on New Year's Day. He takes the trouble to explain that he'll stay at the Alexandria in Los Angeles, so there'll be no possible disturbance to me and my family routine.
That's so like Peter!
But there's been no word from Dinky-Dunk. The conviction is growing in my mind that he's not at Alabama Ranch.
Monday the Twenty-first
A letter has just come to me this morning from Whinstane Sandy, written in lead-pencil. It said, with an orthography all its own, that Duncan had been in bed for two weeks with what they thought was pneumonia, but was up again and able to eat something, and not to worry. It seemed a confident and cheerful message at first, but the oftener I read it the more worried I became. So one load was taken off my heart only to make room for another. My first decision was to start north at once, to get back to Alabama Ranch and my Dinky-Dunk as fast as steam could take me. I was still the sharer of his joys and sorrows, and ought to be with him when things were at their worst. But on second thought it didn't seem quite fair to the kiddies, to dump them from midsummer into shack-life and a sub-zero climate. And always, always, always, there were the children to be considered. So I wired Ed Sherman, the station-agent at Buckhorn, asking him to send out a message to Duncan, saying I was waiting for him in Pasadena and to come at once....
I wonder what his answer will be? It's surrender, on my part. It's capitulation, and Dinky-Dunk, of course, will recognize that fact. Or he ought to. But it's not this I'm worrying over. It's Duncan himself, and his health. It gives me a guilty feeling.... I once thought that I was made to heal hearts. But about all I can do, I find, is to bruise them.
Thursday the Twenty-fourth
A telegram of just one word has come from Duncan, dated at Calgary. It said: "Coming." I could feel a little tremble in my knees as I read it. He must be better, or he'd never be able to travel. To-morrow will be Christmas Day, but we've decided to postpone all celebration until the kiddies' daddy is on the scene. It will never seem much like Christmas to us Eskimos, at eighty-five in the shade. And we're temporarily subduing that red-ink day to the eyes of the children by carefully secreting in one of Peter's clothes-closets each and every present that has come for them.
Sunday the Twenty-seventh
Dinky-Dunk is here. He arrived this morning, and we were all at the station in our best bib-and-tucker and making a fine show of being offhanded and light-hearted. But when I saw the porter helping down my Diddums, so white-faced and weak and tired-looking, something swelled up and burst just under my floating ribs and for a moment I thought my heart had had a blow-out like a tire and stopped working for ever and ever. Heaven knows I held my hands tight, and tried to be cheerful, but in spite of everything I could do, on the way home, I couldn't stop the tears from running slowly down my cheeks. They kept running and running, as though I had nothing to do with it, exactly as a wound bleeds. The poor man, of course, was done out by the long trip. He was just blooey, and saved himself from being pitiful by shrinking back into a shell of chalky-faced self-sufficiency. He has said very little, and has eaten nothing, but had a sleep this afternoon for a couple of hours, out in the patio on a chaise-longue. It hurt him, I think, to find his own children look at him with such cold and speculative eyes. But he has changed shockingly since they last saw him. And they have so much to fill up their little lives. They haven't yet reached the age when life teaches them they'd better stick to what's given them, even though there's a bitter tang to its sweetness!
Wednesday the Thirtieth
It is incredible, what three days of rest and forced feeding at my implacable hands, have done for Dinky-Dunk. He is still a little shaky on his pins, if he walks far, and the noonday sun makes him dizzy, but his eyes don't look so much like saucers and I haven't heard the trace of a cough from him all to-day. Illness, of course, is not romantic, but it plays its altogether too important part in life, and has to be faced. And there is something so disturbingly immuring and depersonalizing about it! Dinky-Dunk appears rather in a world by himself. Only once, so far, has he seemed to step back to our every-day old world. That was when he wandered into the Blue Room in the East Wing where little Dinkie has been sleeping. I was seated beside his little lordship's bed singing:
"The little pigs sleep with their tails curled up,"
and when that had been exhausted, rambling on to
"The sailor being both tall and slim, The lady fell in love with him,"
when pater familias wandered in and inquired, "Whyfore the cabaret?"
I explained that Dinkie, since coming south, had seemed to demand an even-song or two before slipping off.
"I see that I'll have to take our son in hand," announced Dinky-Dunk—but there was just the shadow of a smile about his lips as he went slowly out and closed the door after him.
To-night, when I told Dinky-Dunk that Peter would in all likelihood be here to-morrow, he listened without batting an eyelash. But he asked if I'd mind handing him a cigarette, and he studied my face long and intently. I don't know what he saw there, or what he concluded, for I did my best to keep it as noncommittal as possible. If there is any move, it must be from him. That sour-inked Irishman called Shaw has said that women are the wooers in this world. A lot he knows about it!... Yet something has happened, in the last half-hour, which both disturbs and puzzles me. When I was unpacking Dinky-Dunk's second trunk, which had stood neglected for almost four long days, I came across the letter which I thought I'd put away in the back of the ranch ledger and had failed to find.... And he had it, all the time!
The redoubtable Struthers, it must be recorded, to-day handed me another paper, and almost as triumphantly as the first one. She'd picked it up on her way home from the druggist's, where she went for aspirin for Dinky-Dunk. On what was labeled its "Woman's Page" was yet another photographic reproduction of the fair Lady Allie in aviation togs and a head-line which read: "Insists On Tea Above The Clouds." But I plainly disappointed the expectant Struthers by promptly handing the paper back to her and by declining to make any comment.
Thursday the Thirty-first
Peter walked in on us to-day, a little less spick and span, I'm compelled to admit, than I had expected of one in his position, but as easy and unconcerned as though he had dropped in from across the way for a cigarette and a cup of tea. And I played up to that pose by having Struthers wheel the tea-wagon out into the patio, where we gathered about it in a semicircle, as decorously as though we were sitting in a curate's garden to talk over the program for the next meeting of the Ladies' Auxiliary.
There we sat, Dinky-Dunk, my husband who was in love with another woman; Peter, my friend, who was in love with me, and myself, who was too busy bringing up a family to be in love with anybody. There we sat in that beautiful garden, in that balmy and beautiful afternoon sunlight, with the bamboos whispering and a mocking-bird singing from its place on the pepper-tree, stirring our small cups and saying "Lemon, please," or "Just one lump, thank you." It may not be often, but life does occasionally surprise us by being theatrical. For I could not banish from my bones an impression of tremendous reservations, of guarded waiting and watching from every point of that sedate and quiet-mannered little triangle. Yet for only one moment had I seen it come to the front. That was during the moment when Dinky-Dunk and Peter first shook hands. On both faces, for that moment, I caught the look with which two knights measure each other. Peter, as he lounged back in his wicker chair and produced his familiar little briar pipe, began to remind me rather acutely of that pensive old picador in Zuloaga's The Victim of The Fete, the placid and plaintive and only vaguely hopeful knight on his bony old Rosinante, not quite ignorant of the fact that he must forage on to other fields and look for better luck in newer ventures, yet not quite forgetful that life, after all, is rather a blithe adventure and that the man who refuses to surrender his courage, no matter what whimsical turns the adventure may take, is still to be reckoned the conqueror. But later on he was jolly enough and direct enough, when he got to showing Dinky-Dunk his books and curios. I suppose, at heart, he was about as interested in those things as an aquarium angel-fish is in a Sunday afternoon visitor. But if it was pretense, and nothing more, there was very actual kindliness in it. And there was nothing left for me but to sit tight, and refill the little lacquered gold cups when necessary, and smile non-committally when Dinky-Dunk explained that my idea of Heaven was a place where husbands were served en brochette, and emulate the Priest and the Levite by passing by on the other side when Peter asked me if I'd ever heard that the West was good for mules and men but hard on horses and women. And it suddenly struck me as odd, the timidities and reticences which nature imposes on our souls. It seemed so ridiculous that the three of us couldn't sit there and unbosom our hearts of what was hidden away in them, that we couldn't be open and honest and aboveboard and say just what we felt and thought, that we couldn't quietly talk things out to an end and find where each and all of us stood. But men and women are not made that way. Otherwise, I suppose, life would be too Edenic, and we'd part company with a very old and venerable interest in Paradise!
Saturday the Second
Peter had arranged to come for us with a motor-car and carry us all off to the Rose Tournament yesterday morning, "for I do want to be sitting right next to that little tike of yours," he explained, meaning Dinkie, "when he bumps into his first brass band!"
But little Dinkie didn't hear his brass band, and we didn't go to the Rose Tournament, although it was almost at our doors and some eighty thousand crowded automobiles foregathered here from the rest of the state to get a glimpse of it. For Peter, who is staying at the Greene here instead of at the Alexandria over in Los Angeles, presented himself before I'd even sat down to breakfast and before lazy old Dinky-Dunk was even out of bed.
Peter, I noticed, had a somewhat hollow look about the eye, but I accepted it as nothing more than the after-effects of his long trip, and blithely commanded him to sit down and partake of my coffee.
Peter, however, wasn't thinking about coffee.
"I'm afraid," he began, "that I'm bringing you rather—rather bad news."
We stood for a moment with our gazes locked. He seemed appraising me, speculating on just what effect this message of his might have on me.
"What is it?" I asked, with that forlorn tug at inner reserves which life teaches us to send over the wire as we grow older.
"I've come," explained Peter, "simply because this thing would have reached you a little later in your morning paper—and I hated the thought of having it spring out at you that way. So you won't mind, will you? You'll understand the motive behind the message?"
"But what is it?" I repeated, a little astonished by this obliquity in a man customarily so direct.
"It's about Lady Newland," he finally said. And the solemnity of his face rather frightened me.
"She's not dead?" I asked in a breath.
Peter shook his head from side to side.
"She's been rather badly hurt," he said, after several moments of silence. "Her plane was winged yesterday afternoon by a navy flier over San Diego Bay. She didn't fall, but it was a forced landing and her machine had taken fire before they could get her out of her seat."
"You mean she was burnt?" I cried, chilled by the horror of it.
And, inapposite as it seemed, my thoughts flashed back to that lithe and buoyant figure, and then to the picture of it charred and scorched and suffering.
"Only her face," was Peter's quiet and very deliberate reply.
"Only her face," I repeated, not quite understanding him.
"The men from the North Bay field had her out a minute or two after she landed. But practically the whole plane was afire. Her heavy flying coat and gauntlets saved her body and hands. But her face was unprotected. She—"
"Do you mean she'll be disfigured?" I asked, remembering the loveliness of that face with its red and wilful lips and its ever-changing tourmaline eyes.
"I'm afraid so," was Peter's answer. "But I've been wiring, and you'll be quite safe in telling your husband that she's in no actual danger. The Marine Hospital officials have acknowledged that no flame was inhaled, that it's merely temporary shock, and, of course, the face-burn."
"But what can they do?" I asked, in little more than a whisper.
"They're trying the new ambersine treatment, and later on, I suppose, they can rely on skin-grafting and facial surgery," Peter explained to me.
"Is it that bad?" I asked, sitting down in one of the empty chairs, for the mere effort to vision any such disfigurement had brought a Channel-crossing and Calais-packet feeling to me.
"It's very sad," said Peter, more ill-at-ease than I'd ever seen him before, "But there's positively no danger, remember. It won't be so bad as your morning paper will try to make it out. They've sensationalized it, of course. That's why I wanted to be here first, and give you the facts. They are distressing enough, God knows, without those yellow reporters working them over for wire consumption."
I was glad that Peter didn't offer to stay, didn't even seem to wish to stay. I wanted quietness and time to think the thing over. Dinky-Dunk, I realized, would have to be told, and told at once. It would, of course, be a shock to him. And it would be something more. It would be a sudden crowding to some final issue of all those possibilities which lay like spring-traps beneath the under-brush of our indifference. I had no way of knowing what it was that had attracted him to Lady Alicia. Beauty of face, of course, must have been a factor in it. And that beauty was now gone. But love, according to the Prophets and the Poets, overcometh all things. And in her very helplessness, it was only too plain to me, his Cousin Allie might appeal to him in a more personal and more perilous way. My Diddums himself, of late, had appealed more to me in his weakness and his unhappiness than in his earlier strength and triumph. There was a time, in fact, when I had almost grown to hate his successes. And yet he was my husband. He was mine. And it was a human enough instinct to fight for what was one's own. But that wild-bird part of man known as his will could never be caged and chained. If somewhere far off it beheld beauty and nobility it must be free to wing its way where it wished. The only bond that held it was the bond of free-giving and goodness. And if it abjured such things as that, the sooner the flight took place and the colors were shown, the better. If on the home-bough beside him nested neither beauty nor nobility, it was only natural that he should wander a-field for what I had failed to give him. And now, in this final test, I must not altogether fail him. For once in my life, I concluded, I had to be generous.
So I waited until Dinky-Dunk emerged. I waited, deep in thought, while he splashed like a sea-lion in his bath, and called out to Struthers almost gaily for his glass of orange-juice, and shaved, and opened and closed drawers, and finished dressing and came out in his cool-looking suit of cricketer's flannel, so immaculate and freshly-pressed that one would never dream it had been bought in England and packed in mothballs for four long years.
I heard him asking for the kiddies while I was still out in the patio putting the finishing touches to his breakfast-table, and his grunt that was half a sigh when he learned that they'd been sent off before he'd had a glimpse of them. And I could see him inhale a lungful of the balmy morning air as he stood in the open doorway and stared, not without approval, at me and the new-minted day.
"Why the clouded brow, Lady-Bird?" he demanded as he joined me at the little wicker table.
"I've had some rather disturbing news," I told him, wondering just how to begin.
"The kiddies?" he asked, stopping short.
I stared at him closely as I shook my head in answer to that question. He looked leaner and frailer and less robustious than of old. But in my heart of hearts I liked him that way. It left him the helpless and unprotesting victim of that run-over maternal instinct of mine which took wayward joy in mothering what it couldn't master. It had brought him a little closer to me. But that contact, I remembered, was perhaps to be only something of the moment.
"Dinky-Dunk," I told him as quietly as I could, "I want you to go down to San Diego and see Lady Allie."
It was a less surprised look than a barricaded one that came into his eyes.
"Why?" he asked as he slowly seated himself across the table from me.
"Because I think she needs you," I found the courage to tell him.
"Why?" he asked still again.
"There has been an accident," I told him.
"What sort of accident?" he quickly inquired, with one hand arrested as he went to shake out his table-napkin.
"It was an air-ship accident. And Lady Allie's been hurt."
"Badly?" he asked, as our glances met.
"Not badly, in one way," I explained to him. "She's not in any danger, I mean. But her plane caught fire, and she's been burned about the face."
His lips parted slightly, as he sat staring at me. And slowly up into his colorless face crept a blighted look, a look which brought a vague yet vast unhappiness to me as I sat contemplating it.
"Do you mean she's disfigured," he asked, "that it's something she'll always—"
"I'm afraid so," I said, when he did not finish his sentence.
He sat looking down at his empty plate for a long time.
"And you want me to go?" he finally said.
"Yes," I told him.
He was silent for still another ponderable space of time.
"But do you understand—" he began. And for the second time he didn't finish his sentence.
"I understand," I told him, doing my best to sit steady under his inquisitorial eye. Then he looked down at the empty plate again.
"All right," he said at last. He spoke in a quite flat and colorless tone. But it masked a decision which we both must have recognized as being momentous. And I knew, without saying anything further, that he would go.
Sunday the Third
Dinky-Dunk left Friday night and got back early this morning before I was up. This naturally surprised me. But what surprised me more was the way he looked. He was white and shaken and drawn about the eyes. He seemed so wretched that I couldn't help feeling sorry for him.
"She wouldn't see me!" was all he said as I stopped him on the way to his room.
But he rather startled me, fifteen minutes later, by calling up the Greene and asking for Peter. And before half an hour had dragged past Peter appeared in person. He ignored the children, and apparently avoided me, and went straight out to the pergola, where he and Dinky-Dunk fell to pacing slowly up and down, with the shadows dappling their white-clad shoulders like leopards as they walked up and down, up and down, as serious and solemn as two ministers of state in a national crisis. And something, I scarcely knew what, kept me from going out and joining them.
It was Peter himself who finally came in to me. He surprised me, in the first place, by shaking hands. He did it with that wistful wandering-picador smile of his on his rather Zuloagaish face.
"I've got to say good-by," I found him saying to me.
"Peter!" I called out in startled protest, trying to draw back so I could see him better. But he kept my hand.
"I'm going east to-night," he quite casually announced. "But above all things I want you and your Dinky-Dunk to hang on here as long as you can. He needs it. I'm stepping out. No, I don't mean that, exactly, for I'd never stepped in. But it's a fine thing, in this world, for men and women to be real friends. And I know, until we shuffle off, that we're going to be that!"
"Peter!" I cried again, trying not to choke up with the sudden sense of deprivation that was battering my heart to pieces. And the light in faithful old Peter's eyes didn't make it any easier.
But he dropped my hand, of a sudden, and went stumbling rather awkwardly over the Spanish tiling as he passed out to the waiting car. I watched him as he climbed into it, stiffly yet with a show of careless bravado, for all the world like the lean-jowled knight of the vanished fete mounting his bony old Rosinante.
It was nearly half an hour later that Dinky-Dunk came into the cool-shadowed living-room where I was making a pretense of being busy at cutting down some of Dinkie's rompers for Pee-Wee, who most assuredly must soon bid farewell to skirts.
"Will you sit down, please?" he said with an abstracted sort of formality. For he'd caught me on the wing, half-way back from the open window, where I'd been glancing out to make sure Struthers was on guard with the children.
My face was a question, I suppose, even when I didn't speak.
"There's something I want you to be very quiet and courageous about," was my husband's none too tranquillizing beginning. And I could feel my pulse quicken.
"What is it?" I asked, wondering just what women should do to make themselves quiet and courageous.
"It's about Allie," answered my husband, speaking so slowly and deliberately that it sounded unnatural. "She shot herself last night. She—she killed herself, with an army revolver she'd borrowed from a young officer down there."
I couldn't quite understand, at first. The words seemed like half-drowned things my mind had to work over and resuscitate and coax, back into life.
"This is terrible!" I said at last, feebly, foolishly, as the meaning of it all filtered through my none too active brain.
"It's terrible for me," acknowledged Dinky-Dunk, with a self-pity which I wasn't slow to resent.
"But why aren't you there?" I demanded. "Why aren't you there to keep a little decency about the thing? Why aren't you looking after what's left of her?"
Dinky-Dunk's eye evaded mine, but only for a moment.
"Colonel Ainsley-Brook is coming back from Washington to take possession of the remains," he explained with a sort of dry-lipped patience, "and take them home."
"But why should an outsider like—"
Dinky-Dunk stopped me with a gesture.
"He and Allie were married, a little over three weeks ago," my husband quietly informed me. And for the second time I had to work life into what seemed limp and sodden words.
"Did you know about that?" I asked.
"Yes, Allie wrote to me about it, at the time," he replied with a sort of coerced candor. "She said it seemed about the only thing left to do."
"Why should she say that?"
Dinky-Dunk stared at me with something strangely like a pleading look in his haggard eye.
"Wouldn't it be better to keep away from all that, at a time like this?" he finally asked.
"No," I told him, "this is the time we can't keep away from it. She wrote you that because she was in love with you. Isn't that the truth?"
Dinky-Dunk raised his hand, as though he were attempting a movement of protest, and then dropped it again. His eyes, I noticed, were luminous with a sort of inward-burning misery. But I had no intention of being merciful. I had no chance of being merciful. It was like an operation without ether, but it had to be gone through with. It had to be cut out, in some way, that whole cancerous growth of hate and distrust.
"Isn't that the truth?" I repeated.
"Oh, Tabby, don't turn the knife in the wound!" cried Dinky-Dunk, with his face more than ever pinched with misery.
"Then it is a wound!" I proclaimed in dolorous enough triumph. "But there's still another question, Dinky-Dunk, you must answer," I went on, speaking as slowly and precisely as I could, as though deliberation in speech might in some way make clearer a matter recognized as only too dark in spirit. "And it must be answered honestly, without any quibble as to the meaning of words. Were you in love with Lady Allie?"
His gesture of repugnance, of seeming self-hate, was both a prompt and a puzzling one.
"That's the hideous, the simply hideous part of it all," he cried out in a sort of listless desperation.
"Why hideous?" I demanded, quite clear-headed, and quite determined that now or never the overscored slate of suspicion should be wiped clean. I still forlornly and foolishly felt, I suppose, that he might yet usher before me some miraculously simple explanation that would wipe his scutcheon clean, that would put everything back to the older and happier order. But as I heard his deep-wrung cry of "Oh, what's the good of all this?" I knew that life wasn't so romantic as we're always trying to make it.
"I've got to know," I said, as steel-cold as a surgeon.
"But can't you see that it's—that it's worse than revolting to me?" he contended, with the look of a man harried beyond endurance.
"Why should it be?" I exacted.
He sank down in the low chair with the ranch-brand on its leather back. It was an oddly child-like movement of collapse. But I daren't let myself feel sorry for him.
"Because it's all so rottenly ignoble," he said, without looking at me.
"For whom?" I asked, trying to speak calmly.
"For me—for you," he cried out, with his head in his hands. "For you to have been faced with, I mean. It's awful, to think that you've had to stand it!" He reached out for me, but I was too far away for him to touch. "Oh, Tabby, I've been such an awful rotter. And this thing that's happened has just brought it home to me."
"Then you cared, that much?" I demanded, feeling the bottom of my heart fall out, for all the world like the floor of a dump-cart.
"No, no; that's the unforgivable part of it," he cried in quick protest. "It's not only that I did you a great wrong, Tabby, but I did her a worse one. I coolly exploited something that I should have at least respected. I manipulated and used a woman I should have been more generous with. There wasn't even bigness in it, from my side of the game. I traded on that dead woman's weakness. And my hands would be cleaner if I could come to you with the claim that I'd really cared for her, that I'd been swept off my feet, that passion had blinded me to the things I should have remembered." He let his hands fall between his knees. Knowing him as the man of reticence that he was, it seemed an indescribably tragic gesture. And it struck me as odd, the next moment, that he should be actually sobbing. "Oh, my dear, my dear, the one thing I was blind to was your bigness, was your goodness. The one thing I forgot was how true blue you could be."
I sat there staring at his still heaving shoulders, turning over what he had said, turning it over and over, like a park-squirrel with a nut. I found a great deal to think about, but little to say.
"I don't blame you for despising me," Dinky-Dunk said, out of the silence, once more in control of himself.
"I was thinking of her," I explained. And then I found the courage to look into my husband's face. "No, Dinky-Dunk, I don't despise you," I told him, remembering that he was still a weak and shaken man. "But I pity you. I do indeed pity you. For it's selfishness, it seems to me, which costs us so much, in the end."
He seemed to agree with me, by a slow movement of the head.
"That's the only glimmer of hope I have," he surprised me by saying.
"But why hope from that?" I asked.
"Because you're so utterly without selfishness," that deluded man cried out to me. "You were always that way, but I didn't have the brains to see it. I never quite saw it until you sent me down to—to her." He came to a stop, and sat staring at the terra-cotta Spanish floor-tiles. "I knew it was useless, tragically useless. You didn't. But you were brave enough to let my weakness do its worst, if it had to. And that makes me feel that I'm not fit to touch you, that I'm not even fit to walk on the same ground with you!"
I tried my best to remain judicial.
"But this, Dinky-Dunk, isn't being quite fair to either of us," I protested, turning away to push in a hair-pin so that he wouldn't see the tremble that I could feel in my lower lip. For an unreasonable and illogical and absurdly big wave of compassion for my poor old Dinky-Dunk was welling up through my tired body, threatening to leave me and all my make-believe dignity as wobbly as a street-procession Queen of Sheba on her circus-float. I was hearing, I knew, the words that I'd waited for, this many a month. I was at last facing the scene I'd again and again dramatized on the narrow stage of my woman's imagination. But instead of bringing me release, it brought me heart-ache; instead of spelling victory, it came involved with the thin humiliations of compromise. For things could never be the same again. The blot was there on the scutcheon, and could never be argued away. The man I loved had let the grit get into the bearings of his soul, had let that grit grind away life's delicate surfaces without even knowing the wine of abandoned speed. He had been nothing better than the passive agent, the fretful and neutral factor, the cheated one without even the glory of conquest or the tang of triumph. But he had been saved for me. He was there within arm's reach of me, battered, but with the wine-glow of utter contrition on his face.
"Take me back, Babushka," I could hear his shaken voice imploring. "I don't deserve it—but I can't go on without you. I can't! I've had enough of hell. And I need you more than anything else in this world!"
That, I had intended telling him, wasn't playing quite fair. But when he reached out his hands toward me, exactly as I've seen his own Dinky do at nightfall when a darkening room left his little spirit hungry for companionship, something melted like an overlooked chocolate mousse in my crazy old maternal heart, and before I was altogether aware of it I'd let my hands slip over his shoulders as he knelt with his bowed head in my lap. The sight of his colorless and unhappy face with that indescribable homeless-dog look in his eyes was too much for me. I gave up. I hugged his head to my breast-bone as though it were my only life-buoy in an empty and endless Atlantic and only stopped when I had to rub the end of my nose, which I couldn't keep a collection of several big tears from tickling.
"I'm a fool, Dinky-Dunk, a most awful fool," I tried to tell him, when he gave me a chance to breathe again. "And I've got a temper like a bob-cat!"
"No, no, Beloved," he protested, "it's not foolishness—it's nobility!"
I couldn't answer him, for his arms had closed about me again. "And I love you, Tabbie, I love you with every inch of my body!"
Women are weak. And there is no such thing, so far as I know, as an altogether and utterly perfect man. So we must winnow strength out of our weakness, make the best of a bad bargain, and over-scroll the walls of our life-cell with the illusions which may come to mean as much as the stone and iron that imprison us. All we can do, we who are older and wiser, is wistfully to overlook the wobble where the meshed perfection of youth has been bruised and abused and loosened, tighten up the bearings, and keep as blithely as we can to the worn old road. For life, after all, is a turn-pike of concession deep-bedded with compromise. And our To-morrows are only our To-days over again.... So Dinky-Dunk, who keeps saying in unexpected and intriguing ways that he can't live without me, is trying to make love to me as he did in the old days before he got salt-and-peppery above the ears. And I'm blockhead enough to believe him. I'm like an old shoe, I suppose, comfortable but not showy. Yet it's the children we really have to think of. Our crazy old patch-work of the Past may be our own, but the Future belongs to them. There's a heap of good, though, in my humble-eyed old Dinky-Dunk, too much good ever to lose him, whatever may have happened in the days that are over.
Sunday the Twenty-fourth
Dinky-Dunk, whom I actually heard singing as he took his bath this morning, is exercising his paternal prerogative of training little Dinkie to go to bed without a light. He has peremptorily taken the matter out of my hands, and is, of course, prodigiously solemn about it all.
"I'll show that young Turk who's boss around this house!" he magisterially proclaims almost every night when the youthful wails of protest start to come from the Blue Room in the East Wing.
And off he goes, with his Holbein's Astronomer mouth set firm and the fiercest of frowns on his face.
It had a tendency to terrify me, at first. But now I know what a colossal old fraud and humbug this same soft-hearted and granite-crusted specimen of humanity can be. For last night, after the usual demonstration, I slipped out to the Blue Room and found big Dunkie kneeling down beside little Dinkie's bed, with Dinkie's small hand softly enclosed in his dad's big paw, and Dinkie's yellow head nestled close against his dad's salt-and-peppery pate.
It made me gulp a little, for some reason or other. So I tiptoed away, without letting my lord and master know I'd discovered the secret of that stern mastery of his. And later on Dinky-Dunk himself tiptoed into Peter's study, farther down the same wing, so that he could, with a shadow of truth, explain that he'd been looking over some of the Spanish manuscripts there, when I happened to ask him, on his return, just what had kept him away so long!
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