There wasn't, on the whole, a happier person in the world at that moment.
Because Rodney Aldrich, pounding along at five miles an hour, in a direction left to chance, was not happy. Or, if he was, he didn't know it. He couldn't yield instantly, and easily, to his intuitions, as Rose had done. He felt that he must think—felt that he had never stood in such dire need of cool level consideration as at this moment:
But the process was impossible. That fine instrument of precision, his mind, that had, for many years, done without complaint the work he gave it to do, had simply gone on a strike. Instead of ratiocinating properly, it presented pictures. Mainly four: a girl, flaming with indignation, holding a street-car conductor pinned by the wrists; a girl in absurd bedroom slippers, her skirt twisted around her knees, her hair a chaos, stretching herself awake like a big cat; a girl with wonderful, blue, tear-brimming eyes, from whose glory he had had to turn away. Last of all, the girl who had said with that adorable stammer, "So are y-you," and smiled a smile that had summed up everything that was desirable in the world.
It was late that night when his mind, in a dazed sort of way, came back on the job. And the first thing it pointed out to him was that Frederica had undoubtedly been right in telling him that, though they had lived together off and on for thirty years, they didn't know each other. The pictures his memory held of his sister, covered no such emotional range as these four. Did Martin's? It seemed absurd, yet there was a strong intrinsic probability of it.
Anyway, it was a remark Frederica had made last night that gave him something to hold on by. Marriage, she had said, was an adventure, the essential adventurousness of which no amount of cautious thought taken in advance could modify. There was no doubt in his mind that marriage with that girl would be a more wonderful adventure than any one had ever had in the world.
All right then, perhaps his mind had been right in refusing to take up the case. The one tremendous question,—would the adventure look promising enough to her to induce her to embark on it?—was one which his own reasoning powers could not be expected to answer. It called simply for experiment.
So, turning off his mind again, with the electric light, he went to bed.
HOW IT STRUCK PORTIA
It was just a fortnight later that Rose told her mother she was going to marry Rodney Aldrich, thereby giving that lady a greater shock of surprise than, hitherto, she had experienced in the sixty years of a tolerably eventful life.
Rose found her neatly writing a paper at the boudoir desk in the little room she called her den. And standing dutifully at her mother's side until she saw the pen make a period, made then her momentous announcement, much in the tone she would have used had it been to the effect that she was going to the matinee with him that afternoon.
Mrs. Stanton said, "What, dear?" indifferently enough, just in mechanical response to the matter-of-fact inflection of Rosalind's voice. Then she laid down her pen, smiled in a puzzled way up into her daughter's face, and added, "My ears must have played me a funny trick. What did you say?"
Rose repeated: "Rodney Aldrich and I are going to be married."
But when she saw a look of painful incomprehension in her mother's face, she sat down on the arm of the chair, slid a strong arm around the fragile figure and hugged it up against herself.
"I suppose," she observed contritely, "that I ought to have broken it more gradually. But I never think of things like that."
As well as she could, her mother resisted the embrace.
"I can't believe," she said, gripping the edge of her desk with both hands, "that you would jest about a solemn subject like that, Rose, and yet it's incredible!... How many times have you seen him?"
"Oh, lots of times," Rose assured her, and began checking them off on her fingers. "There was the first time, in the street-car, and the time he brought the books back, and that other awful call he made one evening, when we were all so suffocatingly polite. You know about those times. But three or four times more, he's come down to the university—he's great friends with several men in the law faculty, so he's there quite a lot, anyway—but several times he's picked me up, and we've gone for walks, miles and miles and miles, and we've talked and talked and talked. So really, we know each other awfully well."
"I didn't know," said her mother in a voice still dull with astonishment, "that you even liked him. You've been so silent—indifferent—both times he was here to call...."
"Oh, I haven't learned yet to talk to him when any one else is around," Rose admitted. "There's so little to say, and it doesn't seem worth the bother. But, truly, I do like him, mother. I like everything about him. I love his looks—I don't mean just his eyes and nose and mouth. I like the shape of his ears, and his hands. I like his big loud voice"—her own broadened a little as she added, "and the way he swears. Oh, not at me, mother! Just when he gets so interested in what he's saying that he forgets I'm a lady.
"And I like the way he likes to fight—not with his fists, I mean, necessarily. He's got the most wonderful mind to—wrestle with, you know. I love to start an argument with him, just to see how easy it is for him to—roll me in the dirt and walk all over me."
The mother freed herself from the girl's embrace, rose and walked away to another chair. "If you'll talk rationally and seriously, my dear," she said, "we can continue the conversation. But this flippant, rather—vulgar tone you're taking, pains me very much."
The girl flushed to the hair. "I didn't know I was being flippant and vulgar," she said. "I didn't mean to be. I was just trying to tell you—all about it."
"You've told me," said her mother, "that Mr. Aldrich has asked you to marry him and that you've consented. It seems to me you have done so hastily and thoughtlessly. He's told you he loves you, I've no doubt, but I don't see how it's possible for you to feel sure on such short acquaintance."
"Why, of course he's told me," Rose said, a little bewildered. "He can't help telling me all the time, any more than I can help telling him. We're—rather mad about each other, really. I think he's the most wonderful person in the world, and"—she smiled a little uncertainly—"he thinks I am. But we've tried to be sensible about it, and think it out reasonably. We're both strong and healthy, and we like each other.... I mean—things about each other, like I've said. So, as far as we can tell, we—fit. He said he couldn't guarantee that we'd be happy; that no pair of people could be sure of that till they'd tried. But he said it looked to him like the most wonderful, magnificent adventure in the world, and asked if it looked to me like that, and I said it did. Because it's true. It's the only thing in the world that seems worth—bothering about. And we both think—though, of course, we can't be sure we're thinking straight—that we've got a good chance to make it go."
Even her mother's bewildered ears couldn't distrust the sincerity with which the girl had spoken. But this only increased the bewilderment. She had listened with a sort of incredulous distaste she couldn't keep her face from showing, and at last she had to wipe away her tears.
At that Rose came over to her, dropped on the floor at her knees and embraced her.
"I guess perhaps I understand, mother," she said. "I didn't realize—you've always been so intellectual and advanced—that you'd feel that way about it—be shocked because I hadn't pretended not to care for him and been shy and coy"—in spite of herself, her voice got an edge of humor in it—"and a startled fawn, you know, running away, but just not fast enough so that he wouldn't come running after and think he'd made a wonderful conquest by catching me at last. But a man like Rodney Aldrich wouldn't plead and protest, mother. He wouldn't want me unless I wanted him just as much."
It was a long time before her mother spoke and when she did, she spoke humbly—resignedly, as if admitting that the situation she was confronted with was beyond her powers.
"It's the one need of a woman's life, Rose, dear," she said, "—the corner-stone of all her happiness, that her husband, as you say, 'wants' her. It's something that—not in words, of course, but in all the little facts of married life—she'll need to be reassured about every day. Doubt of it is the one thing that will have the power to make her bitterly unhappy. That's why it seems to me so terribly necessary that she be sure about it before it's too late."
"Yes, of course," said Rose. "But that's true of the man, too, isn't it? Otherwise, where's the equality?"
Her mother couldn't answer that except with a long sigh.
Strangely enough, it wasn't until after Rose had gone away, and she had shut herself up in her room to think, that any other aspect of the situation occurred to her—even that there was another aspect of it which she'd naturally have expected to be the first and only critical one.
Ever since babyhood Rose had been devoted, by all her mother's plans and hopes, to the furtherance of the cause of Woman, whose ardent champion she herself had always been. For Rose—not Portia—was the devoted one.
The elder daughter had been born at a time when her own activities were at their height. As Portia herself had said, when she and her two brothers were little, their mother had been too busy to—luxuriate in them very much and during those early and possibly suggestible years, Portia had been suffered to grow up, as it were, by herself. She was not neglected, of course, and she was dearly loved. But when, for the first time since actual babyhood, she got into the focal-plane of her mother's mind again, there was a subtle, but, it seemed, ineradicable antagonism between them, though that perhaps is too strong a word for it. A difference there was, anyway, in the grain of their two minds, that hindered unreserved confidences, no matter how hard they might try for them. Portia's brusk disdain of rhetoric, her habit of reducing questions to their least denominator of common sense, carried a constant and perfectly involuntary criticism of her mother's ampler and more emotional style—made her suspect that Portia regarded her as a sentimentalist.
But Rose, with her first adorable smile, had captured her mother's heart beyond the possibility of reservation or restraint. And, as the child grew and her splendid, exuberant vitality and courage and wide-reaching, though not facile, affection became marked characteristics, the hope grew in her mother that here was a new leader born to the great Cause. It would need new leaders. She herself was conscious of a side drift to the great current, that threatened to leave her in a backwater. Or, as she put it to herself, that threatened to sweep over the banks of righteousness and decorum, and inundate, disastrously, the peaceful fields.
She couldn't expect to have the strength to resist this drift herself, but she had a vision of her daughter rising splendidly to the task. And for that task she trained her—or thought she did; saw to it that the girl understood the Eighteenth Century Liberalism, which, limited to the fields of politics and education, and extended to include women equally with men, was the gospel of the movement she had grown up in. With it for a background, with a university education and a legal training, the girl would have everything she needed.
She expected her to marry, of course. But in her day-dreams, it was to be one of Rose's converts to the cause—won perhaps by her advocacy at the bar, of some legal case involving the rights of woman—who was to lay his new-born conviction, along with his personal adoration, at the girl's feet.
Certainly Rodney Aldrich, who, as Rose outrageously had boasted, rolled her in the dust and tramped all over her in the course of their arguments, presented a violent contrast to the ideal husband she had selected. Indeed, it should be hard to think of him as anything but the rock on which her whole ambition for the girl would be shattered.
It was strange she hadn't thought of that during her talk with Rose!
Now that the idea had occurred to her she tried hard to look at the event that way and to nurse into energetic life a tragic regret over the miscarriage of a lifetime's hope. It was all so obviously what she ought to feel. Yet the moment she relaxed the effort, her mind flew back to a vibration between a hope and a fear: the hope, that the man Rose was about to marry would shelter and protect her always, as tenderly as she herself had sheltered her; the terror—and this was stronger—that he might not.
That night, during the process of getting ready for bed, Rose put on a bath-robe, picked up her hair brush and went into Portia's room. Portia, much quicker always about such matters, was already on the point of turning out the light, but guessing what her sister wanted, she stacked her pillows, lighted a cigarette, climbed into bed and settled back comfortably for a chat.
"I hope," Rose began, "that you're really pleased about it. Because mother isn't. She's terribly unhappy. Do you suppose it's because she thinks I've—well, sort of deserted her, in not going on and being a lawyer—and all that?"
"Oh, perhaps," said Portia indifferently. "I wouldn't worry about that, though. Because really, child, you had no more chance of growing up to be a lawyer and a leader of the 'Cause' than I have of getting to be a brigadier-general."
Rose stopped brushing her hair and demanded to be told why not. She had been getting on all right up to now, hadn't she?
"Why, just think," said Portia, "what mother herself had gone through when she was your age; put herself through college because her father didn't believe in 'higher education'—practically disowned her. She'd taught six months in that awful school—remember?—she was used to being abused and ridiculed. And she was working hard enough to have killed a camel. But you!... Why, Lamb, you've never really had to do anything in your life. If you felt like it, all right—and equally all right if you didn't. You've never been hurt—never even been frightened. You wouldn't know what they felt like. And the result is ..."
Portia drew in a long puff, then eyed her cigarette thoughtfully through the slowly expelled smoke. "The result is," she concluded, "that you have grown up into a big, splendid, fearless, confiding creature that it's perfectly inevitable some man like Rodney Aldrich would go straight out of his head about. And there you are."
A troubled questioning look came into the younger sister's eyes. "I've been lazy and selfish, I know," she said. "Perhaps more than I thought. I haven't meant to be. But ... Do you think I'm any good at all?"
"That's the real injustice of it," said Portia; "that you are. You've stayed big and simple. It couldn't possibly occur to you now to say to yourself, 'Poor old Portia! She's always been jealous because mother liked me best, and now she's just green with envy because I'm going to marry Rodney Aldrich.'"
She wouldn't stop to hear Rose's protest. "I know it couldn't," she went on. "That's what I say. And yet there's more than a little truth in it, I suppose. Oh, I don't mean I'm sorry you're going to be happy—I believe you are, you know. I'm just a little sorry for myself. Curious, anyway, to see where I've missed all the big important things you've kept. I've been afraid of my instincts, I suppose. Never able to take a leap because I've always stopped to look, first. I'm too narrow between the cheek-bones, perhaps. Anyhow, here I stay, grinding along, wondering what it's all about and what after all's the use.... While you, you baby! are going to find out."
What Rose wanted to do was to gather her sister up in her arms and kiss her. But the faint ironic smile on Portia's fine lips, the twist of her eyebrows, the poise of her body as she sat up in bed watching the blue-brown smoke rising in a straight thin line from her diminishing cigarette, combined to make such a demonstration altogether impossible.
"Mother thinks, I guess," she said, to break the silence, "that I ought to have looked a little longer. She thinks Rodney would have 'wanted' me more, if I hadn't thrown myself at him like that."
Portia extinguished her cigarette in a little ash-tray, and began unpacking her pillows before she spoke. "I don't know," she said at last. "It's been said for a long time that the only way to make a man want anything very wildly, is to make him think it's desperately hard to get. But I suspect there are other ways. I don't believe you'll ever have any trouble making him 'want' you as much as you like."
The color kept mounting higher and higher in the girl's face during the moment of silence while she pondered this remark. "Why should I—make him want me?—Any more than ... I think that's rather—horrid, Portia."
Portia gave a little shiver and huddled down into her blankets. "You don't put things out of existence by deciding they're horrid, child," she said. "Open my window, will you? And throw out that cigarette. There. Now, kiss me and run along to bye-bye. And forget my nonsense."
The wedding was set for the first week in June. And the decision, instantly acquiesced in by everybody, was that it was to be as quiet—as strictly a family affair—as possible. The recentness of the death of Rodney's mother gave an adequate excuse for such an arrangement, but the comparative narrowness of the Stantons' domestic resources enforced it. Indeed, the notion of even a simple wedding into the Aldrich family left Portia rather aghast.
But this feeling was largely allayed by Frederica's first call. Being a celebrated beauty and a person of great social consequence didn't, it appeared, prevent one from being human and simple mannered and altogether delightful to have about. She was so competent, too, and intelligent (Rose didn't see why Portia should find anything extraordinary in all this. Wasn't she Rodney's sister?) that her conquest of the Stanton family was instantaneous. They didn't suspect that it was deliberate.
Rodney had made his great announcement to her, characteristically, over the telephone, from his office. "Do you remember asking me, Freddy, two or three weeks ago, who Rosalind Stanton was? Well, she's the girl I'm going to marry."
She refused to hear a word more in those circumstances. "I'm coming straight down," she said, "and we'll go somewhere for lunch. Don't you realize that we can't talk about it like this? Of course you wouldn't, but it's so."
Over the lunch table she got as detailed an account of the affair as Rodney, in his somnambulistic condition, was able to give her, and she passed it on to Martin that evening as they drove across to the north side for dinner.
"Well, that all sounds exactly like Rodney," he commented. "I hope you'll like the girl."
"That isn't what I hope," said Frederica. "At least it isn't what I'm most concerned about. I hope I can make her like me. Roddy's the only brother I've got in the world, and I'm not going to lose him if I can help it. That's what will happen if she doesn't like me."
Frederica was perfectly clear about this, though she admitted it had taken her fifteen minutes or so to see it.
"All the way down-town to talk to Rodney," she said, "I sat there deciding what she ought to be like—as if she were going to be brought up to me to see if she'd do. And then all at once I thought, what good would it do me to decide that she wouldn't? I couldn't change his relation to her one bit. But, if she decides I won't do, she can change his relation to me pretty completely. It's about the easiest thing a wife can do.
"Well, I'm going to see her, and her mother and sister—that's the family—to-morrow. And if they don't like me before I come away and think of me as a nice sort of person to be related by marriage to, it won't be because I haven't tried. It will be because I'm just a naturally repulsive person and can't help it."
As it happened though, she forgot all about her resolution almost with her first look at Rose. Rodney's attempts at description of her had been well meaning; but what he had prepared his sister for, unconsciously of course, in his emphasis on one or two phases of their first acquaintance, had been a sort of slatternly Amazon. But the effect of this was, really, very happy; because when a perfectly presentably clad, well-bred, admirably poised young girl came into the room and greeted her neither shyly nor eagerly, nor with any affectation of ease, a girl who didn't try to pretend it wasn't a critical moment for her but was game enough to meet it without any evidences of panic—when Frederica realized that this was the Rose whom Rodney had been telling her about, she fell in love with her on the spot.
Amazingly, as she watched the girl and heard her talk, she found she was considering, not Rose's availability as a wife for Rodney, but Rodney's as a husband for her. It was this, perhaps, that led her to say, at the end of her leave-taking, just as Rose, who had come out into the hall with her, was opening the door:
"Roddy has been such a wonderful brother, always, to me, that I suspect you'll find him, sometimes, being a brother to you. Don't let it hurt you if that happens."
The most vivid of all the memories that Frederica took away with her from that memorable visit was the smile with which Rose had answered that remark. She had her chauffeur stop at the first drug store they came to and called up Rodney on the telephone, just because she was too impatient to wait any longer for a talk with him.
"I'm simply idiotic about her," she told him. "I know, now, what you meant when you were trying to tell me about her smile. She looked at me like that just as I was leaving, and my throat's tight with it yet. She's such a darling! Don't be too much annoyed if I put my oar in once in a while, just to see that you're treating her properly."
She walked into his office one morning a few days later, dismissed his stenographer with a nod, and sat down in the just vacated chair. She was sorry, she said, but it was the only way she had left, nowadays, of getting hold of him. Then she introduced a trivial, transparent little errand for an excuse, and, having got it out of the way, inquired after Rose. What had the two of them been doing lately?
"Getting acquainted," he said. "It's going to be an endless process, apparently. Heavens, what a lot there is to talk about!"
"Yes," Frederica persisted, "but what do you do by way of being—nice to her?" And as he only looked puzzled and rather unhappy, she elucidated further. "What's your concession, dear old stupid, to the fact that you're her lover—in the way of presents and flowers and theaters and things?"
"But Rose isn't like the rest of them," he objected. "She doesn't care anything about that sort of thing."
Whereat Frederica laughed. "Try it," she said, "just for an experiment, Roddy. Don't ask her if she wants to go, ask her to go. Get tickets for one of the musical things, engage a table for dinner and for supper, at two of the restaurants, and send her flowers. Do it handsomely, you know, as if ordinary things weren't good enough for her. Oh, and take our big car. Taxis wouldn't quite be in the picture. Try it, Roddy, just to see what happens."
He looked thoughtful at first, then interested, and at last he smiled, reached over and patted her hand. "All right, Freddy," he said. "The handsome thing shall be done."
The result was that at a quarter past one A.M., a night or two later, he tipped the carriageman at the entrance to the smartest of Chicago's supper restaurants, stepped into Martin's biggest limousine, and dropped back on the cushions beside a girl he hardly knew.
"You wonder!" he said, as her hand slid into his. "I didn't know you could shine like that. All the evening you've kept my heart in my throat. I don't know a thing we've seen or eaten—hardly where we've been."
"I do," she declared, "and I shall never forget it. Not one smallest thing about it. You see, it's the first time anything like it ever happened to me."
He exclaimed incredulously at that—wanted to know what she meant.
He felt the weight of her relaxed contented body, as she leaned closer to him—felt her draw in a long slow sigh. "I don't know whether I can talk sense to-night or not," she said, "but I'll try. Why, I've been quite a lot at the theater, of course, and two or three times to the restaurants. But never—oh, as if I belonged like that. It always seemed a little wrong, and extravagant. And then, it's never lasted. After the theater, or the dinner, I've walked over to the elevated, you know. So this has been like—well, like flying in a dream, without any bumps to wake me up. It sort of goes to my head just to be sitting here like this, floating along home. Only—only, I wish it was to our home, Rodney, instead of just mine."
"You darling!" he said. And, presently: "I'll tell you what we'll do to-morrow, if you'll run away from your dressmaker. We'll go and buy a car for ourselves. It's ridiculous I didn't get one long ago. Frederica's always been at me to. You see, mother wouldn't have anything but horses, and I sold those, of course, when she died. I've meant to get a car, but I just never got round to it."
A small disagreeable voice, hermetically sealed in one of the remoter caverns of him, remarked at this point that he was a liar. A motor-car, it pointed out, was one of the things he had always denounced as a part of the useless clutter of existence that he refused to be embarrassed with. But it didn't speak with much conviction.
She picked up his hand and brushed her lips softly against the palm of it. "You're so wonderful to me," she said. "You give me so much. And I—I have so little to give back. And I want to—I want to give you all the world." And then, suddenly, she put her bare arm around his neck, drew his face to hers and kissed him.
It was the first time she had ever begun a caress like that.
For their honeymoon, Martin had loaned them his camp up in northern Wisconsin—uncut forest mostly, with a river and a lot of little lakes in it. There were still deer and bear to be shot there, there was wonderful fishing, and, more to the point in the present instance, as fine a brand of solitude as civilization can ask to lay its hands on. It was modified, and mitigated too, by a backwoods family—a man and his wife, a daughter or two, and half a dozen sons, who lived there the year round, of course; so that by telegraphing two or three days in advance, you could be met by a buckboard at the nearest railroad station for the twenty-five-mile drive over to the camp. You could find the house itself (a huge affair, decorously built of logs, as far as its exterior manifestations went, but amply supplied on the interior with bathrooms, real beds and so forth) opened and warmed and flavored with the odor of fried venison steak. Also, there was always a boy to paddle a canoe for you, or saddle a horse, if you didn't feel like doing it for yourself.
Rodney and Rose spent a night in this establishment, then rigged up an outfit for camping of a less symbolistic sort, and repaired to an island out in the lake, where for two weeks they lived gorgeously, like the savages they both, to a very considerable extent, really were.
But, at the end of this fortnight, a whipping north wind, with a fine penetrating rain in its teeth, settled down for a three-days' visit, and drove them back to adequate shelter. One rainy day in an outdoor camp is a good thing; a second requires fortitude; a third carries the conviction that it has been raining from the first day of Creation and will keep on till the Last Judgment, and if you have anywhere to go to get dry, you do.
Of course the storm blew itself away when it had accomplished its purpose of driving them from their island paradise, but they didn't go back to it. Two weeks of camp-fires, hemlock boughs and blankets, had given them an appreciation for sleeping between smooth sheets, and coming down to a breakfast that was prepared for them. And one morning Rose came into the big living-room to find Rodney lounging there, in front of the fire, with a book.
It wasn't the first time he had done that. But always before, on seeing her come in, he had chucked the book away and come to meet her. This time, he went on reading.
She moved over toward him, meaning to sit down on the arm of his chair, cuddle her arm around his neck, and at the same time, discover what it was that so absorbed him. But half-way across the room, she changed her mind. He hadn't even reached out an unconscious hand toward her. He went on reading as if, actually, he were alone in the room. Evidently, too, it was a book he'd brought with him—a formidable-looking volume printed in German—she got near enough to see that. So she picked up an old magazine from the table, and found a chair of her own, smiling a little in anticipation of the effect this maneuver would have.
She opened the magazine at random, and, presently, for the sake of verisimilitude, turned a page. Rodney was turning pages as regularly as clockwork. It was a silly magazine! She wished she'd found something that really could interest her. It was getting harder and harder to sit still. He couldn't be angry about anything, could he? No, that was absurd. There hadn't been the slightest trace of a disagreement between them. She wouldn't go on pretending to read, anyhow, and she tossed the magazine away.
She had meant it to fall back on the table. But she put more nervous force than she realized into the toss, so that it skittered across the table and fell on the floor with a slap.
That roused him. He closed his book—on his finger, though—looked around at her, stretched his arms and smiled. "Isn't this great?" he said.
It wasn't a sentiment she could echo quite whole-heartedly just then, so she asked him what he meant—wasn't what great.
"Oh, this," he told her. "Being like this."
"Sitting half a mile apart this way," she asked, "each of us reading our own book?"
She didn't realize how completely provocative her meaning was, until, to her incredulous bewilderment, he said enthusiastically, "Yes! exactly!"
He wasn't looking at her now, but into the fire, and he rummaged for a match and relighted his pipe before he said anything more. "Being permanent, you know," he explained, "and—well, our real selves again."
She tried hard to keep her voice even when she asked, "But—but what have we been?"
And at that he laughed out. "Good heavens, what haven't we been! A couple of transfigured lunatics. Why, Rose, I haven't been able to see straight, or think straight, for the last six weeks. And I don't believe you have either. My ideas have just been running in circles around you. How I ever got through those last two cases in the Appellate Court, I don't see. When I made an argument before the bench, I was—talking to you. When I wrote my briefs, I was writing you love-letters. And if I'd had sense enough to realize my condition, I'd have been frightened to death. But now—well, we've been sitting here reading away for an hour, without having an idea of each other in our heads."
By a miracle of self-command, she managed to keep control of her voice. "Yes," she said. "That—that other's all over, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," he demurred around a comfortable yawn. "I expect it will catch us again every now and then. But, in the main, we're sane people, ready to go on with our own business. What was it you were reading?"
"I don't believe I'll read any more just now," she said. "I think I'll go out for a walk." And she managed to get outside the room without his discovering that anything was wrong.
It was, indeed, her first preoccupation, to make sure he shouldn't discover the effect his words had had on her—to get far enough away before the storm broke so that she could have it out by herself. The crowning humiliation would be if he came blundering in on her and asked her what was the matter.
She fled down the trail to the little lake, ran out a canoe, caught up a paddle and bent a feverish energy to the task of getting safely around into the shelter of a fir-grown point before she let herself stop, as she would have said, to think. It wasn't really to think, of course. Not, that is, to interpret out to the end of all its logical implications, the admission he had so unconsciously made to her that morning.
She had never seriously been hurt or frightened, Portia had said weeks ago. And when she said it, it was true. She was both hurt and frightened now, and the instinct that had urged her to fly was as simple and primitive as that which urges a wounded animal to hide.
Indeed, if you could have seen her after she had swung her paddle inboard, sitting there, gripping the gunwales with both hands, panting, her wide eyes dry, you might easily have thought of some defenseless wild thing cowering in a momentary shelter, listening for the baying of pursuing hounds.
He didn't love her any more, that was what he had said. For what was the thing he had so cheerfully described himself as cured of, what were the symptoms he had enumerated as if he had been talking about a disease—the obsession with her, the inability to get her further away than the middle ground of his thoughts, and then only temporarily; the necessity of saying everything he said and doing everything he did, with reference to her; the fact that his mind could focus itself sharply on nothing in the world but just herself?—What was all that but the veritable description, though in hostile terms, of the love he had promised to feel for her till death should—part them; of the very love she felt for him, this moment stronger than ever?
Recurrent waves of the panic broke over her, during which she would catch up her paddle again and drive ahead, blindly, without any conscious knowledge of where she was going. And in the intervals, she drifted.
The relief of tears didn't come to her until she saw, just ahead, the island where, for two paradisiacal weeks, she and Rodney had made their camp. Here she beached her canoe and went ashore; crept into a little natural shelter under a jutting rock, where they had lain one day while, for three hours, a violent unheralded storm had whipped the lake to lather. The heap of hemlock branches he had cut for a couch for them was still there.
At the end of half an hour, she observed with a sort of apathetic satisfaction, that the weather conditions of their former visit were going to be repeated now—a sudden darkness, a shriek of wind, a wild squall flashing across the surface of the little lake, and a driving rain so thick that small as the lake was, it veiled the shore of it.
She watched it for an hour before it occurred to her to wonder what Rodney would be doing—whether he'd have discovered her absence from the house and begun to worry about her. She told herself that he wouldn't—that he'd sit there until he finished his book, or until they called him for lunch, without, as he himself had boasted that morning, a thought of her entering his mind.
She wept again over this notion, luxuriating rather, it must be confessed, in the pathos of it, until she caught herself in the act and, disgustedly, dried her eyes. Of course he'd worry about her. Only there was nothing either of them could do about it until the storm should be over; then she'd paddle back to the house as fast as she could and set his mind at rest.
Suddenly she sat erect, looked, rubbed her eyes, looked again, then sprang to her feet and went out into the driving rain. A spot of white, a larger one of black, two moving pin-points of light, was what she saw. The white was Rodney's shirt, the black the canoe, the pin-points the reflection from the two-bladed paddle as, recklessly, he forced his way with it into the teeth of the storm. He wanted her, after all.
So, with a racing heart and flushed cheeks, she watched him. It was not until he had come much nearer that she went white with the realization of his danger—not until she could see how desperately it needed all his strength and skill to keep his little cockle-shell from broaching to and being swamped.
She went as far to meet him as she could—out to the end of the point, and then actually into the water to help him with the half-filled boat.
They emptied it and hauled it up on the beach. Then, looking up at him a little tremulously, between a smile and tears, she saw how white he was, caught him in her arms and felt how he was trembling.
"I thought you were gone," he said, but couldn't manage any more than that because of a great shuddering sob that stopped him.
"Don't!" she cried. "Don't.—Oh, my dear! I didn't know!"
Presently, back in the shelter again, she drew his head down on her breast and held him tight.
Logically, of course, the situation wasn't essentially changed. It couldn't be a part of their daily married routine that he should think he'd lost her and come through perils to the rescue. When the storm had blown over and they'd come back to the house—still more, when after another few weeks they'd gone back to town, he'd still have a world of his own to withdraw into, a business of his own to absorb him, and she, with no world at all except the one he was the principal inhabitant of, would be left outside. But you couldn't have expected her to think of that while she held him, quivering, in her arms.
Love and the World
THE PRINCESS CINDERELLA
When the society editor of "America's foremost newspaper," as in its trademark it proclaims itself to be, announced that the Rodney Aldriches had taken the Allison McCreas' house, furnished, for a year, beginning in October, she spoke of it as an ideal arrangement. As everybody knew, it was an ideal house for a young married couple, and it was equally evident that the Rodney Aldriches were an ideal couple for it.
In the sense that it left nothing to further realization, it was an ideal house; an old house in the Chicago sense, built over into something very much older still—Tudor, perhaps—Jacobean, anyway—by a smart young society architect who wore soft collars and an uptwisted mustache, and who, by a perfectly reciprocal arrangement which almost deserves to be called a form of perpetual motion, owed the fact that he was an architect to his social position, and maintained his social position by being an architect.
He had cooperated enthusiastically with Florence McCrea, not only in the design of the house, but in the supplementary matters of furniture, hangings, rugs and pictures, with the effect that the establishment presented the last politely spoken word in things as they ought to be. The period furniture was accurate almost to the minute, and the arrangement of it, the color schemes and the lighting, had at once the finality of perfection and the perfection of finality. If you happened to like that sort of thing, it was precisely the sort of thing you'd like.
The same sort of neat, fully acquired perfection characterized the McCreas' domestic arrangements. Allison McCrea's income, combined with his wife's, was exactly enough to enable them to live in this house and entertain on the scale it very definitely prescribed, just half the time. Every other year they went off around the world in one direction or another, and rented their house furnished for exactly enough to pay all their expenses. They had no children, and his business, which consisted in allowing his bank to collect his invariable quarterly dividends for him and credit them to his account, offered no obstacle to this arrangement. On the alternate years, they came back and spent two years' income living in their house.
Florence was an old friend of Rodney's and it was her notion that it would be just the thing he'd want. She made no professions of altruism—admitted she was fussy about whom she rented her darling house to, and that Rodney and his wife would be exactly right. Still, she didn't believe he could do better. They'd have to have some sort of place to live in, in the autumn. It would be such a mistake to buy a lot of stuff in a hurry and find out later that they didn't want it! The arrangement she proposed would leave him an idyllically untroubled summer—nothing to fuss about, and provide ... Well, Rodney knew for himself what the house was—complete down to the cork-screws.
Even the servant question was eliminated. "Ours are so good," Florence said, "that the last time we rented the house, we put them in the lease. I wouldn't do that with you, of course, but I know they'll be just what you want." And six thousand dollars a year was simply dirt cheap.
To clinch the thing, Florence went around and saw Frederica about it. And Frederica, after listening, non-committally, dashed off to the last meeting of the Thursday Club (all this happened in June, just before the wedding) and talked the matter over with Violet Williamson on the way home, afterward.
"John said once," observed Violet, "that if he had to live in that house, he'd either go out and buy a plush Morris chair from feather-your-nest Saltzman's, and a golden oak sideboard, or else run amuck."
Frederica grinned, but was sure it wouldn't affect Rodney that way. He'd never notice that there wasn't a golden oak sideboard with a beveled mirror in it. As for Rose, she thought Rose would like it—for a while, anyway. Of course it wasn't forever. But this wasn't the point. It was something else she had to get an unprejudiced opinion on, "simply because in this case my own isn't trustworthy. I'm so foolish about old Roddy, that I can't be sure I haven't—well, caught being mad about Rose from him. It all depends, you see, on whether Rose is going to be a hit this winter or not. If she is, they'll want a place just like that and it would be a shame for her to be bothered and unsettled when she might have everything all oiled for her. But of course if she doesn't—go (and it all depends on her; Rodney won't be much help)—why, having a house like that might be pretty sad. So, if you're a true friend, you'll tell me what you think."
"What I really think," said Violet, "—of course I suppose I'd say this anyway, but I do honestly mean it—is that she'll be what John calls a 'knock-out.' To be sure, I've only met her twice, but I think she's absolutely thrilling. She's so perfectly simple. She's never—don't you know—being anything. She just is. And she thinks we're all so wonderful—clever and witty and beautiful and all that—just honestly thinks so, that she'll make everybody feel warm and nice inside, and they'll be sure to like her. Of course, when she gets over feeling that way about us...."
"She's got a real eye for clothes, too," said Frederica. "We've been shopping. Well then, I'm going to tell Rodney to go ahead and take the house."
Rose was consulted about it of course, though consulted is perhaps not the right word to use. She was taken to see it, anyway, and asked if she liked it, a question in the nature of the case superfluous. One might as well have asked Cinderella if she liked the gown the fairy godmother had provided her with for the prince's ball.
It didn't occur to her to ask how much the rent would be, nor would the fact have had any value for her as an illuminant, because she would have had no idea whether six thousand dollars was a half or a hundredth of her future husband's income. The new house was just a part—as so many of the other things that had happened to her since that night when Rodney had sent her flowers and taken her to the theater and two restaurants in Martin's biggest limousine had been parts—of a breath-arresting fairy story.
It takes a consciousness of resistance overcome to make anything feel quite real, and Rose, during the first three months after their return to town in the autumn, encountered no resistance whatever. It was all, as Frederica had said, oiled. She was asked to make no effort. The whole thing just happened, exactly as it had happened to Cinderella. All she had to do was to watch with wonder-wide eyes, and feel that she was, deliciously, being floated along.
The conclusion Frederica and Violet had come to about her chance for social success was amply justified by the event, and it is probable that Violet had put her finger on the mainspring of it. One needn't assume that there were not other young women at the prince's ball as beautiful as Cinderella, and other gowns, perhaps, as marvelous as the one provided by the fairy godmother. The godmother's greatest gift, I should say, though the fable lays little stress on it, was a capacity for unalloyed delight. No other young girl, beautiful as she may have been, if she were accustomed to driving to balls in coaches and having princes ask her to dance with them, could possibly have looked at that prince the way Cinderella must have looked at him.
While a sophisticated woman can affect this sort of simplicity well enough to take in the men, the affectation is always transparently clear to other women and they detest her for it. But it was altogether the real thing with Rose, and they knew it and took to her as naturally as the men did.
So it fell out that what with the Junior League, the woman's auxiliary boards of one or two of the more respectably elect charities, the Thursday Club and The Whifflers (this was the smallest and smartest organization of the lot—fifteen or twenty young women supposed to combine and reconcile social and intellectual brilliancy on even terms. They met at one another's houses and read scintillating papers about nothing whatever under titles selected generally from Through the Looking-glass or The Hunting of the Snark)—what with all this, her days were quite as full as the evenings were, when she and Rodney dined and went to the opera and paid fabulous prices to queer professionals, to keep themselves abreast of the minute in all the new dances.
But it wasn't merely the events of this sort, sitting in boxes at the opera and going to marvelous supper dances afterward, that had this thrilling quality of incredibility to Rose. The connective tissue of her life gave her the same sensation, perhaps even more strongly.
Portia had been quite right in saying that she had never had to do anything; the rallying of all her forces under the spur of necessity was an experience she had never undergone. And it was also true that her mother, and for that matter, Portia herself had spoiled her a lot—had run about doing little things for her, come in and shut down her windows in the morning, and opened the register, and on any sort of excuse, on a Saturday morning, for example, had brought her her breakfast on a tray.
But these things had been favors, not services—never to be asked for, of course, and always to be accepted a little apologetically. She never knew what it was really to be served, until she and Rodney came back from their camp in the woods. The whole mechanism of ringing bells for people, telling them, quite courteously of course, but with no spare words, precisely what she wanted them to do and seeing them, with no words at all of their own, except the barest minimum required to indicate respectful acquiescence—carrying out these instructions, was in its novelty, as sensuously delightful a thing to her feelings as the contact with a fine fabric was to her finger-tips.
"I haven't," Rose, in bed, told Rodney one morning, "a single, blessed, mortal thing to do all day." Some fixture scheduled for that morning had been moved, she went on to explain, and Eleanor Randolph was feeling seedy and had called off a little luncheon and matinee party. So, she concluded with a deep-drawn sigh, the day was empty.
"Oh, that's too bad," he said with concern. "Can't you manage something ...?"
"Too bad!" said Rose in lively dissent. "It's too heavenly! I've got a whole day just to enjoy being myself;—being"—she reached across to the other bed for his hand, and getting it, stroked her cheek with it—"being my new self. You've no idea how new it is, or how exciting all the little things about it are. State Street's so different now—going and getting the exact thing I want, instead of finding something I can make do, and then faking it up to look as much like the real thing as I could. Portia used to think I faked pretty well. It was the one thing she really admired about me, because she couldn't do it herself at all. But I never was—don't you know?—right.
"And then when I was going anywhere, I'd figure out the through routes and where I'd take transfers, and how many blocks I'd have to walk, and what kind of shoes I'd have to wear. And coming home in time for dinner always meant the rush hour, and I'd have to stand. And it simply never occurred to me that everybody else didn't do it that way. Except"—she smiled—"except in Robert Chambers' novels and such."
It wasn't necessary to see Rose smile to know she did it. Her voice, broadening out and—dimpling, betrayed the fact. This smile, plainly enough, went rather below the surface, carried a reference to something. But Rodney didn't interrupt. He let her go on and waited to inquire about it later.
"So you see," she concluded, "it's quite an adventure just to say—well, that I want the car at a quarter to eleven and to tell Otto exactly where I want him to drive me to. I always feel as if I ought to say that if he'll just stop the car at the corner of Diversey Street, I can walk."
He laughed out at that and asked her how long she thought this blissful state of things would last.
"Forever," she said.
But presently she propped herself up on one elbow and looked over at him rather thoughtfully. "Of course it's none of it new to you," she said—"not the silly little things I've been talking about, nor the things we do together—oh, the dinners, and the dances, and the operas. Do you sort of—wish I'd get tired of it? Is it a dreadful bore to you?"
"So long as it doesn't bore you," he said; "so long as you go on—shining the way you do over it, and I am where I can see you shine"—he got out of his bed, sat down on the edge of hers, and took both her hands—"so long as it's like that, you wonder," he said, "well, the dinners and the operas and all that may be piffle, but I shall be blind to the fact."
She kissed his hands and told him contentedly that he was a darling. But, after a moment's silence, a little frown puckered her eyebrows and she asked him what he was so solemn about.
Well, he had told her the truth. The edge of excitement in his voice would have carried the irresistible conviction to anybody, that the thing he had said was, without reserve, the very thing he meant. But precisely as he said it, as if, indeed, the thing that he had said were the detonating charge that fires the shell, he felt the impact, away down in the inner depths of him, of a realization that he was not the same man he had been six months ago. Not the man who had tramped impatiently back and forth across Frederica's drawing-room, expounding his ideals of space and leisure—open, wind-swept space, for the free range of a hard, clean, athletic mind. Not the man who despised the clutter of expensive junk—"so many things to have and to do, that one couldn't turn around for fear of breaking something." That man would have derided the possibility that he could ever say this thing that he, still Rodney Aldrich, had just said to Rose—and meant.
To that man, the priceless hour of the day had always been precisely this one, the first waking hour, when his mind, in the enjoyment of a sort of clairvoyant limpidity, had been wont to challenge its stiffest problems, wrestle with them, and whether triumphant or not, despatch him to his office avid for the day's work and strides ahead of where he had left it the night before.
He spent that hour very differently now. He spent all his hours, even the formal working ones, differently. And the terrifying thing was that he hadn't resisted the change, hadn't wanted to resist, didn't want to now, as he sat there looking down at her—at the wonderful hair which framed her face and, in its two thick braids, the incomparable whiteness of her throat and bosom—at the slumberous glory of her eyes.
So, when she asked him what he was looking so solemn about, he said with more truth than he pretended to himself, that it was enough to make anybody solemn to look at her. And then, to break the spell, he asked her why she had laughed a little while back, over something she had said about Robert W. Chambers' novels.
"I was thinking," she said, "of the awful disgrace I got into yesterday, with somebody—well, with Bertram Willis, by saying something like that. I'll have to tell you about it."
Bertram Willis, it should be said, was the young architect with the upturned mustaches and the soft Byronic collars, who had done the house for the McCreas. And I must warn you to take the adjective young, with a grain of salt. Youth was no mere accident with him. He made an art of it, just as he did of eating and drinking and love-making and, incidentally, architecture. He was enormously in demand, chiefly perhaps, among young married women whose respectability and social position were alike beyond cavil. He never carried anything too far, you see. He was no pirate—a sort, rather, of licensed privateer. And what made him so invincibly attractive—after you had granted his other qualities, that is—was that he professed himself, among women, exceedingly difficult to please, so that attentions from him, even of a casual sort, became ex hypothesi compliments of the first order. If he asked you, in his innocently shameless way, to belong to his hareem, you boasted of it afterward;—jocularly, to be sure, but you felt pleased just the same. The thing that had given the final cachet of distinction to Rose's social success that season, had been the fact that he had shown a disposition to flirt with her quite furiously.
Rose didn't need to tell her husband that, of course, because he knew it already, as he also knew that Willis had asked her to be one of the Watteau group he was getting up for the charity ball (the ball was to be a sumptuously picturesque affair that year), nor that he had been spending hours with her over the question of costumes—getting as good as he gave, too, because her eye for clothes amounted to a really special talent.
All that Rodney didn't know, was about the conversation the two of them had had yesterday afternoon at tea-time.
Rose, intent on telling him all about it, had postponed the recital while she made up her own mind as to how she should regard the thing herself; whether she ought to have been annoyed, or seriously remonstrant, or whether the smile of pure amusement which had come so spontaneously to her lips, had expressed, after all, an adequate emotion.
The look in her husband's face made an end of all doubts, reduced the episode of yesterday to its proper scale. Married to a man who could look at her like that, she needn't take any one else's looks or speeches very seriously. It was at this angle that she told about it.
"Why," she said, "of course he's always talked to me as if I were about six—sixteen, anyway, no older than that, and the names he makes up to call me are simply too silly to repeat. But I never paid any attention, because—well, everybody knows he's that way to everybody. 'Flower face' was one of his favorites, but there were others that were worse. Well, yesterday he brought around some old costume plates, but he wouldn't let me look at them without coming round beside me and—holding my hand, so that didn't work very well. And then he got quite solemn and said I'd—given him the only real regret of his life, because he hadn't seen me until it was too late."
"I didn't know," said Rodney, "that he ever let obstacles like husbands bother him."
"That's what I thought he meant at first," said Rose, "but it wasn't. He didn't mean it was too late because of my being married to you. He meant too late because of him. He couldn't love me, he said, as I deserved, because he'd been in love so many times before, himself.
"And then, of course, just when I should have been looking awfully sad and sympathetic, I had to go and grin, and he wanted to know why, and I said, 'Nothing,' but he insisted, you know, so then I told him.
"Well, it was just what I said to you a while ago—that I didn't know any men ever talked like that except in books by Hichens or Chambers—why do you suppose they're both named Robert?—and he went perfectly purple with rage and said I was a savage. And then he got madder still and said he'd like to be a savage himself for about five minutes; and I wanted to tell him to go ahead and try, and see what happened, but I didn't. I asked him how he wanted his tea, and he didn't want it at all, and went away."
As she finished, she glanced up into his face for a hardly-needed reassurance that the episode looked to him, as it had looked to her, trivial. Then, with a contented little sigh, for his look gave her just what she wanted, she sat up and slid her arms around his neck.
"How plumb ridiculous it would have been," she said, "if either of us had married anybody else."
If Rodney, that is, had married a girl who'd have taken Bertram Willis seriously; or if she had married a man capable of thinking the architect's attentions important.
THE FIRST QUESTION AND AN ANSWER TO IT
But within a day or two, when a conversation overheard at a luncheon table recalled the architect to her mind, a rather perplexing question propounded itself to her. Why had it infuriated him so—why had he glared at her with that air of astounded incredulity, on discovering that she wasn't prepared to take him seriously? There could be only one answer to that question. He could not have expected Rose to be properly impressed and fluttered, unless that were the effect he was in the habit of producing on other women. These others, much older that Rose all of them (because no debutantes were ever invited to belong to the hareem), these new, brilliant, sophisticated friends her marriage with Rodney had brought her, did not, evidently, regard the dapper little architect with feelings anything like the mild, faintly contemptuous mirth that he had roused so spontaneously and irresistibly in Rose. Every one of them had a husband of her own, hadn't she? And they were happily married, too. Well, then ...!
She found Violet Williamson in Frederica's box at the Symphony concert one Friday afternoon, and took them both home to tea with her afterward. And when the talk fairly got going, she tossed her problem about Bertie Willis and his hareem into the vortex to see what would come of it.
It was always easy to talk with Frederica and Violet, there was so much real affection under the amusement they freely expressed over her youth and inexperience and simplicity. They always laughed at her, but they came over and hugged her afterward.
"I'm turned out of the hareem," she said, apropos of the mention of him, "in disgrace."
Violet wanted to know whatever in the world she had done to him. "Because, he's been positively—what do you call it?—dithyrambic about you for the last three months."
"I laughed," Rose acknowledged; "in the wrong place of course."
The two older women exchanged glances.
"Do you suppose it's ever been done to him before," asked Frederica, "in the last fifteen years, anyway?" And Violet solemnly shook her head.
"But why?" demanded Rose. "That's what I want to know. How can any one help thinking he's ridiculous. Of course if you were alone on a desert island with him like the Bab Ballad, I suppose you'd make the best of him. But with any one else that was—real, you know, around ..."
Only a very high vacuum—this was the idea Rose seemed to be getting at—might be expected, faute de mieux, to tolerate Bertie. So if you found him tolerated seriously in a woman's life, you couldn't resist the presumption that there was a vacuum there.
"Don't ask me about him," said Frederica. "He never would have anything to do with me; said I was a classic type and they always bored him stiff. But Violet, here ..."
"Oh, yes," said Violet, "I lasted one season, and then he dropped me. He beat me to it by about a minute. All the same—oh, I can understand it well enough. You see, what he builds on is that a woman's husband is always the least interesting man in the world. Oh, I don't mean we don't love them, or that we want to change them—permanently, you know. Take Frederica and me. We wouldn't exchange for anything. Yet, we used to have long arguments. I've said that Martin was more—interesting, witty, you know, and all that, than John. And Frederica says John is more interesting than Martin. Oh, just to talk to, I mean. Not about anything in particular, but when you haven't anything else to do."
She paused long enough to take a tentative sip or two of boiling hot tea. But the way she had hung up the ending to her sentence, told them she wasn't through with the topic yet.
"It's funny about that, too," she went on, "because really, we see each other so much and have known each other so long, that I know Martin's—repertory, about as well as Frederica. I mean, it isn't like Walter Mill, when he was just back from the Legation at Pekin, or even like Jimmy Wallace, who spends half his time playing around with all sorts of impossible people—chorus-girls and such, and tells you queer stories about them. There's something besides the—familiarness that makes husbands dull. And that's what makes Bertie amusing."
"Oh, of course," said Frederica, "everybody likes to flirt—whether they have to or not."
"Have to?" Rose echoed. She didn't want to miss anything.
Frederica hesitated. Then, rather tentatively, began her exegesis.
"Why, there are a lot of women—especially of our sort, I suppose, who are always ... well, it's like taking your own temperature—sticking a thermometer into their mouths and looking at it. They think they know how they ought to feel about certain things, and they're always looking to see if they do. And when they don't, they think their emotional natures are being starved, or some silly thing like that. And of course, if you're that way, you're always trying experiments, just the way people do with health foods. In the end, they generally settle on Bertie. He's perfectly safe, you know—just as anxious as they are not to do anything really outrageous. Bertie keeps them in a pleasant sort of flutter, and maybe he does them good. I don't know.—Drink your tea, Violet. We've got to run."
That was explicit enough anyway. But it didn't solve Rose's problem—broadened and deepened it rather, and gave it a greater basis of reality. It was silly, of course, always to be asking yourself questions. But after all, you didn't question a thing that wasn't questionable. There had been no necessity for a compromise between romance and reality in her own case. She hadn't any need of a thermometer. Why had they?
Of course she knew well enough that marriage was not always the blissful transformation it had been for her. There were unhappy marriages. There were such things in the world as unfaithful husbands and brutal drunken husbands, who had to be divorced. And equally, too, there were cold-blooded, designing, mercenary wives. (In the back of her mind was the unacknowledged notion that these people existed generally in novels. She knew, of course, that those characters must have real prototypes somewhere. Only, it hadn't occurred to her to identify them with people of her own acquaintance.) But the idea had been that, barring these tragic and disastrous types, marriage was a state whose happy satisfactoriness could, more or less, be taken for granted.
Oh, there were bumps and bruises, of course. She hadn't forgotten that tragic hour in the canoe last summer. There had, indeed, been two or three minor variants on the same theme since. She had seen Rodney drop off now and again into a scowling abstraction, during which it was so evident he didn't want to talk to her, or even be reminded that she was about, that she had gone away flushed and wondering, and needing an effort to hold back the tears.
These weren't frequent occurrences, though. Once settled into what apparently was going to be their winter's routine, they had so little time alone together that these moments, when they came, had almost the tension of those that unmarried lovers enjoy. They were something to look forward to and make the delicious utmost of.
So, until she got to wondering about Bertie, Rose's instinctive attitude toward the group of young to middle-aged married people into which her own marriage had introduced her, was founded on the assumption that, allowing for occasional exceptions, the husbands and wives felt toward each other as she and Rodney did—were held together by the same irresistible, unanalyzable attraction, could remember severally, their vivid intoxicating hours, just as she remembered the hour when Rodney had told her the story and the philosophy of his life.
Bertie, or rather the demand for what Bertie supplied, together with Frederica's explanation of it, brought her the misgiving that marriage was not, perhaps, even between people who loved each other,—between husbands who were not "unfaithful" and wives who were not "mercenary"—quite so simple as it seemed.
The misgiving was not very serious at first—half amused, and wholly academic, because she hadn't, as yet, the remotest notion that the thing concerned, or ever could concern, herself; but the point was, it formed a nucleus, and the property of a nucleus is that it has the power of attracting to itself particles out of the surrounding nebulous vapor. It grows as it attracts, and it attracts more strongly as it grows.
An illustration of this principle is in the fact that, but for the misgiving, she would hardly have asked Simone Greville what she meant by saying that though she had always supposed the fundamental sex attraction between men and women to be the same in its essentials, in all epochs and in all civilizations, her acquaintance with upper-class American women was leading her to admit a possible exception.
Since that amiable celestial, Wu Ting Fang, made his survey of our western civilization and left us wondering whether after all we had the right name for it, no one has studied our leisured and cultivated classes with more candor and penetration than this great Franco-Austrian actress. She had ample opportunities for observation, because during the first week of her tour the precise people who count the most in our informal social hierarchy took her up and, upon examination, took her in. Playing in English as she did, and with an American supporting company, she did not make a great financial success (the Continental technique, especially when contrasted so intimately with the one we are familiar with does not attract us), but socially she was a sensation. So during her four weeks in Chicago, while she played to houses that couldn't be dressed to look more than a third full, she was enormously in demand for luncheons, teas, dinners, suppers, Christmas bazaars, charity dances and so on. (If it had only been possible to establish a scale of fees for these functions, her manager used to reflect despairingly, he might have come out even after all.) Any other sort of engagement melted away like snow in the face of an opportunity of meeting Simone Greville.
Rose had met her a number of times before the incident referred to happened, but had always surveyed the lioness from afar. What could she, whose acquaintance with Europe was limited to one three-months trip, undertaken by the family during the summer after she graduated from high school, have to say to an omniscient cosmopolite like that?
So she hung about, within ear-shot when it was possible, and watched, leaving the active duties of entertainment to heavily cultured illuminati like the Howard Wests, or to clever creatures like Hermione Woodruff and Frederica, and Constance Crawford, whose French was good enough to fill in the interstices in Madame Greville's English.
She was standing about like that at a tea one afternoon, when she heard the actress make the remark already quoted, to the effect that American women seemed to her to be an exception to what she always supposed to be the general law of sex attraction.
It was taken, by the rather tense little circle gathered around her, as a compliment; exactly as, no doubt, Greville intended it to be taken. But her look flashed out beyond the confines of the circle and encountered a pair of big luminous eyes, under brows that had a perplexed pucker in them. Whereupon she laughed straight into Rose's face and said, lifting her head a little, but not her voice:
"Come here, my child, and tell me who you are and why you were looking at me like that."
Rose flushed, smiled that irresistible wide smile of hers, and came, not frightened a bit, nor, exactly, embarrassed; certainly not into pretending she was not surprised, and a little breathlessly at a loss what to say.
"I'm Rose Aldrich." She didn't, in words, say, "I'm just Rose Aldrich." It was the little bend in her voice that carried that impression. "And I suppose I was—looking that way, because I was wishing I knew exactly what you meant by what you said."
Greville's eyes, somehow, concentrated and intensified their gaze upon the flushed young face; took a sort of plunge, so it seemed to Rose, to the very depths of her own. It was an electrifying thing to have happen to you.
"Mon dieu," she said, "j'ai grande envie de vous le dire." She hesitated the fraction of a moment, glanced at a tiny watch set in a ring upon the middle finger of her right hand, took Rose by the arm as if to keep her from getting away, and turned to her hostess.
"You must forgive me," she said, "if I make my farewells a little soon. I am under orders to have some air each day before I go to the theater, and if it is to be done to-day, it must be now. I am sorry. I have had a very pleasant afternoon.—Make your farewells, also, my child," she concluded, turning to her prisoner, "because you are going with me."
There was something Olympian about the way she did it. The excuse was made, and the regret expressed in the interest of courtesy, but neither was insisted on as a fact, nor was seriously intended, it appeared, even to disguise the fact, which was simply that she had found something better worth her while, for the moment, than that tea. It occurred to Rose that there wasn't a woman in town—not even terrible old Mrs. Crawford, Constance's mother-in-law, who could have done that thing in just that way; no one who felt herself detached, or, in a sense, superior enough, to have done it without a trace of self-consciousness, and consequently without offense. An empress must do things a good deal like that.
The effect on Rose was to make complete frankness seem the easiest thing in the world. And frankness seemed to be the thing called for. Because no sooner were they seated in the actress' car and headed north along the drive, than she, instead of answering Rose's question, repeated one of her own.
"I ask who you are, and you say your name—Rose something. But that tells me nothing. Who are you—one of them?"
"No, not exactly," said Rose. "Only by accident. The man I married is—one of them, in a way. I mean, because of his family and all that. And so they take me in."
"So you are married," said the French woman. "But not since long?"
"Six months," said Rose.
She said it so with the air of regarding it as a very considerable period of time that Greville laughed.
"But tell me about him then, this husband of yours. I saw him perhaps at the tea this afternoon?"
Rose laughed. "No, he draws the line at teas," she said. "He says that from seven o'clock on, until as late as I like, he's—game, you know—willing to do whatever I like. But until seven, there are no—well, he says, siren songs for him."
"Tell me—you will forgive the indiscretions of a stranger?—how has it arrived that you married him? Was it one of your American romances?"
"It didn't seem very romantic," said Rose. "I mean not much like the romantic stories you read, and of course one couldn't make a story about it, because there was nothing to tell. We just happened to get acquainted, and we knew almost straight off that we wanted to marry each other, so we did. Some people thought it was a little—headlong, I suppose, but he said it was an adventure anyway, and that people could never tell how it was going to come out until they tried. So we tried, and—it came out very well."
"It 'came out'?" questioned the actress.
"Yes," said Rose. "Ended happily, you know."
"Ended!" Madame Greville echoed. Then she laughed.
Rose flushed and smiled at herself. "Of course I don't mean that," she admitted, "and I suppose six months isn't so very long. Still you could find out quite a good deal ..."
"What is his affair?" The actress preferred asking another question, it seemed, to committing herself to an answer to Rose's unspoken one. "Is he one of your—what you call tired business men?"
"He's never tired," said Rose, "and he isn't a business man. He's a lawyer—a rather special kind of lawyer. He has other lawyers, mostly, for his clients, he's awfully enthusiastic about it. He says it's the finest profession in the world, if you don't let yourself get dragged down into the stupid routine of it. It certainly sounds thrilling when he tells about it."
The actress looked round at her. "So," she said, "you follow his work as he follows your play? He talks seriously to you about his affairs?"
"Why, yes," said Rose, "we have wonderful talks." Then she hesitated. "At least we used to have. There hasn't seemed to be much—time, lately. I suppose that's it."
"One question more," said the French woman, "and not an idle one—you will believe that? Alors! You love your husband. No need to ask that. But how do you love him? Are you a little indulgent, a little cool, a little contemptuous of the grossness of masculine clay, and still willing to tolerate it as part of your bargain? Is that what you mean by love? Or do you mean something different altogether—something vital and strong and essential—the meeting of thought with thought, need with need, desire with desire?"
"Yes," said Rose after a little silence, "that's what I mean."
She said it quietly, but without embarrassment and with full meaning; and as if conscious of the adequacy of her answer, she forbore to embroider on the theme. There was a momentary silence, while the French woman gazed contemplatively out of the open window of the limousine, at a skyscraping apartment building which jutted boldly into a curve of the parkway they were flying along.
"That's a beauty, isn't it?" said Rose, following her gaze. "Every apartment in that building has its own garage that you get to with an elevator."
The actress nodded. "You Americans do that;" she said, "better than any one else in the world. The—surfaces of your lives are to marvel at."
"But with nothing inside?" asked Rose. "Is that what you mean? Is—that what you mean about—American women, that you said you'd tell me?"
Madame Greville took her time about answering. "They are an enigma to me," she said, "I confess it. I have never seen such women anywhere, as these upper-class Americans. They are beautiful, clever, they know how to dress. For the first hour, or day, or week, of an acquaintance, they have a charm quite incomparable. And, up to a certain point, they exercise it. Your jeunes filles are amazing. All over the world, men go mad about them. But when they marry ..." She finished the sentence with the ghost of a shrug, and turned to Rose. "Can you account for them? Were you wondering at them, too, with those great eyes of yours? Alors! Are we puzzled by the same thing? What is it, to you, they lack?"
Rose stirred a little uneasily. "I don't know very much," she said. "I don't know them well at all, and of course I shouldn't criticize ..."
"Ah, child," broke in the actress, "there you mistake yourself. One must always criticize. It is by the power of criticism and the courage of criticism, that we have become different from the beasts."
"I don't know," said Rose, "except that some of them seem a little dissatisfied and restless, as if—well, as if they wanted something they haven't got."
"But do they truly want it?" Madame Greville demanded. "I am willing to be convinced, but myself, I find of your women of the aristocrat class, the type most characteristic is"—she paused and said the thing first to herself in French, then translated—"is a passive epicure in sensations; sensations mostly mental, irritating or soothing—a pleasant variety. She waits to be made to feel; she perpetually—tastes. One may demand whether it is that their precocity has exhausted them before they are ripe, or whether your Puritan strain survives to make all passion reprehensible, or whether simply they have too many ideas to leave room for anything else. But, from whatever cause, they give to a stranger like me, the impression of being perfectly frigid, perfectly passionless. And so, as you say, of missing the great thing altogether.
"A few of your women are great, but not as women, and of second-rate men in petticoats, you have a vast number. But a woman, great by the qualities of her sex, an artist in womanhood, I have not seen."
"Oh, I wish," cried Rose, "that I knew what you meant by that!"
"Why, regard now," said the actress. "In every capital of Europe—and I know them all—wherever you find great affairs—matters of state, diplomacy, politics—you find the influence of women in them; women of the great world, sometimes, sometimes of the half-world; great women, at all events, with the power to make or ruin great careers; women at whose feet men of the first class lay all they have; women the tact of whose hands is trusted to determine great matters. They may not be beautiful (I have seen a faded little woman of fifty, of no family or wealth, whose salon attracted ministers of state), they haven't the education, nor the liberties that your women enjoy, and, in the mass, they are not regarded—how do you say?—chivalrously. Yet there they are!
"And why? Because they are capable of great passions, great desires. They are willing to take the art of womanhood seriously, make sacrifices for it, as one must for any art, in order to triumph in it."
Rose thought this over rather dubiously. It was a new notion to her—or almost new. Portia had told her once she never would have any trouble making her husband "want" her as much as she liked. This idea of making a serious art of your power to attract and influence men, seemed to range itself in the same category.
"But suppose," she objected, "one doesn't want to triumph at it? Suppose one wants to be a—person, rather than just a woman?"
"There are other careers indeed," Madame Greville admitted, "and one can follow them in the same spirit, make the sacrifices—pay the price they demand. Mon dieu! How I have preached. Now you shall talk to me. It was for that I took you captive and ran away with you."
For the next half-hour, until the car stopped in front of her house, Rose acted on this request; told about her life before and since her marriage to Rodney, about her friends, her amusements—anything that came into her mind. But she lingered before getting out of the car, to say:
"I hope I haven't forgotten a single word of your—preaching. You said so many things I want to think about."
"Don't trouble your soul with that, child," said the actress. "All the sermon you need can be boiled down into a sentence, and until you have found it out for yourself, you won't believe it."
"Try me," said Rose.
"Then attend.—How shall I say it?—Nothing worth having comes as a gift, nor even can be bought—cheap. Everything of value in your life will cost you dear; and some time or other you'll have to pay the price of it."
It was with a very thoughtful, perplexed face that Rose watched the car drive away, and then walked slowly into her house—the ideal house that had cost Florence McCrea and Bertie Willis so many hours and so many hair-line decisions—and allowed herself to be relieved of her wraps by the perfect maid, who had all but been put in the lease.
The actress had said many strange and puzzling things during their ride; things to be accepted only cautiously, after a careful thinking out. But strangest of all was this last observation of hers; that there was nothing of worth in your life that you hadn't to pay a heavy price for.
Certainly it contradicted violently everything in Rose's experience, for everything she valued had come to her precisely as a gift. Her mother's and Portia's love of her, the life that had surrounded her in school and at the university, the friends; and then, with her marriage, the sudden change in her estate, the thrills, the excitement, the comparative luxuries of the new life. Why,—even Rodney himself, about whom everything else swung in an orbit! What price had she paid for him, or for any of the rest of it? It was all as free as the air she breathed. It had come to her without having cost even a wish. Was Rodney's love for her, therefore, valueless? No, the French woman was certainly wrong about that.
WHERE DID ROSE COME IN
However, it was one thing to decide that this was so, and quite another thing to dismiss the preposterous idea from her mind. There was still an hour before she need begin dressing for the Randolph dinner, but as she had already had her tea and there was nothing else to do, she thought she might as well go about it. It might help her resist a certain perfectly irrational depression which the talk with the actress, somewhat surprisingly, had produced. And besides, if she were all dressed when Rodney came home, she'd be free to visit with him while he dressed—to sit and watch him swearing at his studs, and tell him about the events of her day, including their climax in the ride with the famous Simone Greville. And he'd come over every now and then and interrupt himself and her with some sort of unexpected caress—a kiss on the back of her neck, or an embrace that would threaten her coiffure—and this vague, scary, nightmarish sort of feeling, which for no reasonable reason at all seemed to be clutching at her, would be forgotten.