It was a queer sort of feeling—a kind of misgiving, in one form or another, as to her own identity—as if all the events since her marriage were nothing but a dream of Rose Stanton's, from which, with vague painful stirrings, she was just beginning to wake. Or, again, as if for all these months, she had been playing a part in a preposterously long play, on which the curtain was, presently, going to be rung down. She wished Rodney would come—hoped he wouldn't be late, and finally sat down before the telephone with a half-formed idea of calling him up and reminding him that they were dining with the Randolphs.
Just as she laid her hand upon the receiver, the telephone bell rang. It was Rodney calling her.
"Oh, that you, Rose?" he said. "I shan't be out till late to-night. I've got to work."
She wanted to know what he meant by late.
"I've no idea," he said. "Ten—twelve—two. I've got to get hold of something, but I've no idea how long it will take."
"But, Roddy, dearest," she protested. "You have to come home. You've got the Randolphs' dinner."
"Oh, the devil!" he said. "I forgot all about it. But it doesn't make a bit of difference, anyway. I wouldn't leave the office before I finished this job, for anybody short of the Angel Gabriel."
"But what shall we do?" she asked despairingly.
"I don't know," said Rodney. "Call them up and tell them. Randolph will understand."
"But,"—it was absurd that her eyes should be filling up and her throat getting lumpy over a thing like this,—"but what shall I do? Shall I tell Eleanor we can't come, or shall I offer to come without you?"
"Lord!" he said, "I don't care. Do whichever you like. I've got enough to think about without deciding that. Now do hang up and run along."
"But, Rodney, what's happened? Has something gone wrong?"
"Heavens, no!" he said. "What is there to go wrong? I've got a big day in court to-morrow and I've struck a snag, and I've got to wriggle out of it somehow, before I quit. It's nothing for you to worry about. Go to your dinner and have a good time. Good-by."
The click in the receiver told her he had hung up. The difficulty about the Randolphs was managed easily enough. Eleanor was perfectly gracious about it and insisted that Rose should come by herself.
She was completely dressed a good three-quarters of an hour before it was time to start, and after pretending for fifteen interminable minutes to read a magazine, she chucked it away and told her maid to order the car at once. If she drove straight down-town, she could have a ten-minute visit with Rodney and still not be late for the dinner. She was a little vague as to why she wanted it so much, but the prospect was irresistible.
If any one had accused her of feeling very meritorious over not having allowed herself to be hurt at his rudeness to her or annoyed at the way he had demolished their evening's plans, and of hoping to make him feel a little contrite by showing him how sweet she was about it, she might, with a rueful grin, have acknowledged a tincture of truth about the charge; but she didn't discover it by herself. As she dreamed out the little scene, riding down-town in the car, she'd come stealing up behind him as he sat, bent wearily over his book, and clasp her hands over his eyes and stroke the wrinkles out of his forehead. He'd give a long sigh of relaxation, and pull her down on the chair-arm and tell her what it was that troubled him, and she'd tell him not to worry—it was surely coming out all right. And she'd stroke his head a little longer and offer not to go to the dinner if he wanted her to stay, and he'd say, no, he was better already, and then she'd give him a good-by kiss and steal away, and be the life of the party at the Randolphs' dinner, but her thoughts would never leave him....
She knew she was being silly of course, and her beautiful wide mouth smiled an acknowledgment of the fact, even while her checks flushed and her eyes brightened over the picture. Of course it wouldn't come out exactly like that.
Well, it didn't!
She found a single elevator in commission in the great gloomy rotunda of the office building, and the watchman who ran her up made a terrible noise shutting the gate after he had let her out on the fifteenth floor. The dim marble corridor echoed her footfalls ominously, and when she reached the door to his outer office and tried it, she found it locked. The next door down the corridor was the one that led directly into his private office, and here the light shone through the ground-glass.
She stole up to it as softly as she could, tried it and found it locked, too, so she knocked. Through the open transom above it, she heard him say "Hell!" in a heartfelt sort of way, and heard his chair thrust back. The next moment he opened the door with a jerk.
His glare of annoyance changed to bewilderment at the sight of her, and he said:
"Rose! Has anything happened? What's the matter?" And catching her by the arm, he led her into the office. "Here, sit down and get your breath and tell me about it!"
She smiled and took his face in both her hands. "But it's the other way," she said. "There's nothing the matter with me. I came down, you poor old boy, to see what was the matter with you."
He frowned and took her hands away and stepped back out of her reach. Had it not been for the sheer incredibility of it, she'd have thought that her touch was actually distasteful to him.
"Oh," he said. "I thought I told you over the phone there was nothing the matter!—Won't you be awfully late to the Randolphs'?"
"I had ten minutes," she said, "and I thought ..."
She broke off the sentence when she saw him snap out his watch and look at it.
"I know there's something," she said. "I can tell just by the way your eyes look and the way you're so tight and—strained. If you'd just tell me about it, and then sit down and let me—try to take the strain away...."
Beyond a doubt the strain was there. The laugh he meant for a good-humored dismissal of her fears, didn't sound at all as it was intended to.
"Can't you tell me?" she repeated.
"Good heavens!" he said. "There's nothing to tell! I've got an argument before the Court of Appeals to-morrow and there's a ruling decision against me. It is against me, and it's bad law. But that isn't what I want to tell them. I want some way of making a distinction so that I can hold that the decision doesn't rule."
"And it wouldn't help," she ventured, "if you told me all about it? I don't care about the dinner."
"I couldn't explain in a month," he said.
"Oh, I wish I were some good," she said forlornly.
He pulled out his watch again and began pacing up and down the room.
"I just can't stand it to see you like that," she broke out again. "If you'll only sit down for five minutes and let me try to get that strained look out of your eyes...."
"Good God, Rose!" he shouted. "Can't you take my word for it and let it alone? I'm not ill, nor frightened, nor broken-hearted. I don't need to be comforted nor encouraged. I'm in an intellectual quandary. For the next three hours, or six, or however long it takes, I want my mind to run cold and smooth. I've got to be tight and strained. That's the way the job's done. You can't solve an intellectual problem by having your hand held, or your eyes kissed, or anything like that. Now, for God's sake, child, run along and let me forget you ever existed, for a while!"
And he ground his teeth over an impulse that all but got the better of him, after she'd shut the door, to follow her out into the corridor and pull her up in his arms and kiss her face all over, and to consign the Law and the Prophets both, to the devil.
LONG CIRCUITS AND SHORT
James Randolph was a native Chicagoan, but his father, an intelligent and prosperous physician, with a general practise in one of the northern suburbs, afterward annexed to the city, did not belong to the old before-the-fire aristocracy that Rodney and Frederica, and Martin Whitney, the Crawfords and Violet Williamson were born into. The medical tradition carried itself along to the third generation, when James made a profession of it, and in him, it flowered really into genius. From the beginning his bent toward the psychological aspect of it was marked and his father was sympathetic enough to give it free sway. After graduating from one of the Chicago medical colleges he went to Johns Hopkins, and after that to Vienna, where he worked mostly under Professor Freud.
It was in Vienna that he met Eleanor Blair. She, too, was a native of Illinois, but this fact cut a very different figure in her life from that which it cut in his. Her grandfather, a pioneer, forceful, thrifty and probably rather unscrupulous, had settled on the wonderfully fertile land at a time when one had almost to drive the Indians off it. He had accumulated it steadily to the day of his death and died in possession of about thirty thousand acres of it. It was in much this fashion that a feudal adventurer became the founder of a line of landed nobility, but the centrifugal force of American life caused the thing to work out differently. His son had an eastern college education, got elected to Congress, as a preliminary step in a political career, went to Washington, fell in love with and married the beautiful daughter of an unreconstructed and impoverished southern gentleman. She detested the North, and as her love for the South found its expression in passionate laments over its ruin, uncomplicated by any desire to live there, she spent more and more of her time—her husband's faint wishes becoming less and less operative with her until they ceased altogether—in one after another of the European capitals.
So Eleanor, two generations away from the fertile soil of central Illinois, was as exotic to it as an orchid would be in a New England garden. Two or three brief perfunctory visits to the land her income came from, and to the relatives who still lived upon it, became the substitute for what, in an older and stabler civilization, would have been the dominant tradition in her life.
She must have been a source of profound satisfaction to large numbers of French, Italian, Austrian and English persons, to whose eminent social circles her mother's wealth and breeding gained admittance, by embodying for them, with perfect authenticity, their notion of the American girl. She was rich, beautiful, clever in a rather shallow, "American" way, she had a will of her own, and was indulged by her mother with an astounding amount of liberty; she was audacious, yet with a tempering admixture of cool shrewdness, which kept her out of the difficulties she was always on the brink of.
Kept her out of them, that is, until, in Vienna, as I have said, she met James Randolph. That she fell in love with him is one of those facts which seem astonishing the first time you look at them, and inevitable when you look again. Physically, a sanguine blond, with a narrow head, a forward thrusting nose, and really blue eyes, his dominating spiritual quality was the sort of asceticism which proclaims not weak anemic desires, but strong unruly ones, curbed in by the hand of a still stronger will. He was highly imaginative, as a successful follower of the Freudian method must be. He was capable of the gentlest sympathy, and of the most relentless insistence. And he thought, until he met Eleanor Blair, that he was, indisputably, his own master.
The wide social gulf between them—between a beautiful American heiress with the entry into all circles of aristocratic society, except the highest, and an only decently pecunious medical student, caught both of them off their guard. The utter unlikelihood of anything coming of such an acquaintance as theirs, was just the ambush needed to make it possible for them to fall in love. They would, probably, have attracted each other anywhere. But, in a city like Vienna, where all the sensuous appurtenances of life are raised to their highest power, the attraction became irresistible.
He did resist as long as he could—successfully, indeed, to the point of holding himself back from asking her to marry him, or even explicitly from making love to her. But the thing shone through his deeply-colored emotions, like light through a stained-glass window. And when she asked him to marry her, as she did in so many words—pleaded her homesickness for a home she had never known, and a loneliness she had suddenly become aware of, amid would-be friends and lovers, who could not, not one of them, be called disinterested, his resistance melted like a powder of April snow.
It was the only serious obstacle she had to overcome. The terms of her father's will left her share of the income of the estate wholly at her disposal. And so, in spite of her mother's horrified protest, they were married, and not long afterward, her mother, who was still a year or two on the sunny side of fifty, gratified her aristocratic yearnings by marrying a count herself.
The Randolphs came back to America and, somewhat against Eleanor's wishes, settled in Chicago. With her really very large income, her exotic type of beauty and her social skill, she was probably right in thinking she could have made a success anywhere. One of the larger eastern cities—preferably New York or Washington, would have suited her better. But Chicago, he said, was where he belonged and where his best chance for professional success lay, and she yielded, though without waiving her privilege of making a more or less good-humored grievance of it. However, she found the place much more tolerable than riding into and out of it on the train a few times had led her to expect.
She knew a few people of exactly the right sort and she neatly and almost painlessly detached her husband from his old Lake View associations. She looked out a house in precisely the right neighborhood, and furnished it to combine the splendor of her income with the simple austerity of his profession in just the right proportions. She trailed her game with unfailing precision, never barked up the wrong tree, could distinguish a goat from a sheep as far as she could see one, and in no time at all had won the exact position she wanted.
Her attitude toward her husband (you have already had a sample of it at Frederica's famous dinner, where Rodney was supposed to take the preliminary steps toward marrying Hermione Woodruff) attracted general admiration, and it was fortified, of course, by the story of their romantic marriage. It was conceded she had done a very fine and splendid thing in marrying the man she loved, settling down to live with him on so comparatively simple and modest a scale, and devoting herself so whole-heartedly to his career. She had an air—and it wasn't consciously assumed, either—of living wholly with reference to him, which people found exceedingly engaging. (A cynic might observe at this point that the same quality in a homely unattractive woman would fail of producing this effect.)
Indeed, he had much to be grateful for. But for the fact that his wife was accepted without reserve, a man whose principal preoccupation was with matters of sex psychology, who was said to cure hysterical and neurasthenic patients by the interpretation of their dreams, would have been regarded askance by the average run of common-sense, golf-playing men of affairs. Even his most miraculous cures would be attributed to the imaginary nature of the disease, rather than to the skill of the physician.
Not even his wife's undeniable charm could altogether efface this impression from the mind of this sort of man. But though his way of turning the theme of a smoking-room story into a subject for serious scientific discussion might make you uncomfortable, you couldn't meet James Randolph and hear him talk, without respecting him. He was attractive to women (it amounted almost to fascination with the neurotic type), and to men of high intelligence, like Rodney, he was a boon and a delight. And the people who liked him least were precisely those most attracted by his wife. Anyhow, no one refused an invitation to their dinners.
Rose's arrival at this one—a little late, to be sure, but not scandalously—created a mild sensation. None of the other guests were strangers, either, on whom she could have the effect of novelty. They were the same crowd, pretty much, who had been encountering one another all winter—dancing, dining and talking themselves into a state of complete satiety with one another. They'd split up pretty soon and branch out in different directions—the Florida east coast, California, Virginia Hot Springs and so on, and so galvanize their interest in life and in one another. At present they were approaching the lowest ebb.
But when Rose came into the drawing-room—in a wonderful gown that dared much, and won the reward of daring—a gown she'd meant to hold in reserve for a greater occasion, but had put on to-night because she had felt somehow like especially pleasing Rodney—when she came in, she reoxygenated the social atmosphere. She won a moment of complete silence, and when the buzz of talk arose again, it was jerky—the product of divided minds and unstable attentions.
She was, in fact, a stranger. Her voice had a bead on it which roused a perfectly unreasoning physical excitement—the kind of bead which, in singing, makes all the difference between a church choir and grand opera. The glow they were accustomed to in her eyes, concentrated itself into flashes, and the flush that so often, and so adorably, suffused her face, burnt brighter now in her cheeks and left the rest pale.
And these were true indices of the change that had taken place within her. From sheer numb incredulity, which was all she had felt as she'd walked away from Rodney's office door, and from the pain of an intolerable hurt, she had reacted to a fine glow of indignation. She had found herself suddenly feeling lighter, older, indescribably more confident. That dinner was to be gone through with, was it? Well, it should be! They shouldn't suspect her humiliation or her hurt. She was conscious suddenly of enormous reserves of power hitherto unsuspected—a power that could be exercised to any extent she chose, according to her will.
Her husband, James Randolph reflected, had evidently either been making love to her, or indulging in the civilized equivalent of beating her; he was curious to find out which. And having learned from his wife that Rose was to sit beside him at the table, he made up his mind that he would make her tell him.
He didn't attempt it, though, during his first talk with her—confined himself rigorously to the carefully sifted chaff which does duty for polite conversation over the same hors-d'oeuvres and entrees, from one dinner to the next, the season round. It wasn't until Eleanor had turned the table the second time, that he made his first gambit in the game.
"No need asking you if you like this sort of thing," he said. "I would like to know how you keep it up. You have the same things said to you seven nights a week and you make the same answers—thrust and parry, carte and tierce, buttons on the foils. It can't any of it get anywhere. What's the attraction?"
"You can't get a rise out of me to-night," said Rose. "Not after what I've been through to-day. Madame Greville's been talking to me. She thinks American women are dreadful dubs,—or she would if she knew the word—thinks we don't know our own game. Do you agree with her?"
"I'll tell you that," he said, "after you answer my question. What's the attraction?"
"Don't you think it would be a mistake," said Rose, "for me to try to analyze it? Suppose I did and found there wasn't any! You aren't supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth, you know."
"Is that what's the matter with Rodney?" he asked. "Is this sort of"—a gesture with his head took in the table—"caramel diet, beginning to go against his teeth?"
"He had to work to-night," Rose said. "He was awfully sorry he couldn't come."
She smiled just a little ironically as she said it, and exaggerated by a hair's breadth, perhaps, the purely conventional nature of the reply.
"Yes," he observed, "that's what we say. Sometimes it gets us off and sometimes it doesn't."
"Well, it got him off to-night," she said. "He was pretty impressive. He said there was a ruling decision against him and he had to make some sort of distinction so that the decision wouldn't rule. Do you know what that means? I don't."
"Why didn't you ask him?" Randolph wanted to know.
"I did and he said he could explain it, but that it would take a month. So of course there wasn't time."
"I thought," said Randolph, "that he used to talk law to you by the hour."
The button wasn't on the foil that time, because the thrust brought blood—a bright flush into her cheeks and a sudden brightness into her eyes that would have induced him to relent if she hadn't followed the thing up of her own accord.
"I wish you'd tell me something," she said. "I expect you know better than any one else I could ask. Why is it that husbands and wives can't talk to each other? With people who live the way we do, it isn't that they've worn each other out, because they see no more of each other, hardly, than they do of the others. And it isn't that they're naturally more uninteresting to each other than the rest of the people they know. Because then, why did they marry each other in the first place, instead of any one of the others who are so easy to talk to afterward? Imagine what this table would be if the husbands and wives sat side by side! Would Eleanor ever be able to turn it so that they talked that way?"
"That's a fascinating speculation," he said. "I wish I could persuade her some time to indulge the wild eccentricity of trying it out."
"Well, why?" she demanded.
"Shall I try to say something witty," he asked, "or do you want it, as near as may be, absolutely straight?"
"Let's indulge," she said, "in the wild, eccentricity of talking straight."
The cigarettes came around just then, and he lighted one rather deliberately, at one of the candles, before he answered.
"I am under the impression," he said, "that husbands and wives can talk exactly as well as any other two people. Exactly as well, and no better. The necessary conditions for real conversation are a real interest in and knowledge of a common subject; ability on the part of both to contribute something to that subject. Well, if a husband and wife can meet those terms, they can talk. But the joker is, as our legislative friend over there would say," (he nodded down the table toward a young millionaire of altruistic principles, who had got elected to the state assembly) "the joker is that a man and a woman who aren't married, and who are moderately attracted to each other, can talk, or seem to talk, without meeting those conditions."
"Seem to talk?" she questioned.
"Seem to exchange ideas mutually. They think they do, but they don't. It's pure illusion, that's the answer."
"I'm not clever, really," said Rose, "and I don't know much, and I simply don't understand. Will you explain it, in short words,"—she smiled—"since we're not married, you know?"
He grinned back at her. "All right," he said, "since we're not married, I will. We'll take a case ..." He looked around the table. "We'll be discreet," he amended, "and take a hypothetical case. We'll take Darby and Joan. They encounter each other somewhere, and something about them that men have written volumes about and never explained yet, sets up—you might almost call it a chemical reaction between them—a physical reaction, certainly. They arrest each other's attention—get to thinking about each other, are strongly drawn together.
"It's a sex attraction—not quite the oldest and most primitive thing in the world, but nearly. Only, Darby and Joan aren't primitive people. If they were, the attraction would satisfy itself in a direct primitive way. But each of them is carrying a perfectly enormous superstructure of ideas and inhibitions, emotional refinements and capacities, and the sex attraction is so disguised that they don't recognize it. Do you know what a short circuit is in electricity?"
"I think so," said Rose, "but you'd better not take a chance. Tell me that, too."
"Why," he said, "the juice that comes into your house to light it and heat the flat-irons and the toaster, and so on, comes in by one wire and goes out by another. Before it can get out, it's got to do all the work you want it to do—push its way through the resistance of fine tungsten filaments in your lamps and the iron wires in your heaters that get white hot resisting it. When it's pushed its way through all of them and done the work you want it to do, it's tired out and goes away by the other wire. But if you cut off the insulation down in the basement, where those two wires are close together, and make it possible for the current to jump straight across without doing any work, it will take the short circuit instead of the long one and you won't have any lights in your house. Now do you see what I mean?
"Darby and Joan are civilized. That is to say, they're insulated. The current's there, but it's long-circuited. The only expression it's got is through the intelligence,—so it lights the house. Absence of common knowledge and common interests only adds to the resistance and makes it burn all the brighter. Naturally Darby and Joan fall victims to the very dangerous illusion that they're intellectual companions. They think they're having wonderful talks. All they are doing, is long-circuiting their sex attraction. Well, marriage gives it a short circuit. Why should the current light the lamps when it can strike straight across? There you are!"
"And poor Joan," said Rose, after a palpable silence, but evenly enough, "who has thought all along that she was attracting a man by her intelligence and her understanding, and all that, wakes up to find that she's been married for her long eyelashes, and her nice voice—and her pretty ankles. That's a little hard on her, don't you think, if she's been taking herself seriously?"
"Nine times in ten," he said, "she's fooling herself. She's taken her own ankles much more seriously than she has her mind. She's capable of real sacrifices for them—for her sex charm, that is. She'll undergo a real discipline for it. Intelligence she regards as a gift. She thinks the witty conversation she's capable of after dinner, on a cocktail and two glasses of champagne, or the bright letters she can write to a friend, are real exercises of her mind—real work. But work isn't done like that. Work's overcoming something that resists; and there's strain in it, and pain and discouragement."
In her cheeks the red flared up brighter. She smiled again—not her own smile—one at any rate that was new to her.
"You don't 'solve an intellectual problem' then;" she quoted, "'by having your hand held, or your eyes kissed?'"
Whereupon he shot a look at her and observed that evidently he wasn't as much of a pioneer as he thought.
She did not rise to this cast, however. "All right;" she said, "admitting that her ankles are serious and her mind isn't, what is Joan going to do about it?"
"It's easier to say what she's not to do," he decided, after hesitating a moment. "Her fatal mistake will be to despise her ankles without disciplining her mind. If she will take either one of them seriously, or both for that matter—it's possible—she'll do very well."
He could, no doubt, have continued on the theme indefinitely, but the table turned the other way just then and Rose took up an alleged conversation with the man at her right which lasted until they left the table and included such topics as indoor golf, woman's suffrage, the new dances, Bernard Shaw, Campanini and the Progressive party; with a perfectly appropriate and final comment on each.
Rose didn't care. She was having a wonderful time—a new kind of wonderful time. No longer gazing, big-eyed like little Cinderella at a pageant some fairy godmother's whim had admitted her to, but consciously gazed upon; she was the show to-night, and she knew it. Her low, finely modulated voice so rich in humor, so varied in color, had to-night an edge on it that carried it beyond those she was immediately speaking to and drew looks that found it hard to get away again. For the first time in her life, with full self-consciousness, she was producing effects, thrilling with the exercise of a power as obedient to her will as electricity to the manipulator of a switchboard.
She was like a person driving an aeroplane, able to move in all three dimensions. Pretty soon, of course, she'd have to come hack to earth, where certain monstrously terrifying questions were waiting for her.
Madame Greville's final apothegm had suggested one of them. Was all she valued in the world just so much fairy gold that would change over night into dry leaves in her treasure chest because she had never earned it—paid the price for it that life relentlessly exacts for all we may be allowed to call ours?
Her tragi-comic scene with Rodney suggested another. What was her value to him? Was she something enormously desirable when he wanted his hand held and his eyes kissed, but an infernal nuisance when serious matters were concerned? A fine and luxurious dissipation, not dangerous unless recklessly indulged in, but to be kept strictly in her place? Before her talk with Randolph she'd have laughed at that.
But did the horrible plausibility of what he had said actually cover the truth? Did she owe that first golden hour with Rodney, his passionate thrilling avowal of his life's philosophy, to nothing deeper in herself than her unconscious power of rousing in him an equally unconscious, primitive sex desire? Was the fine mutuality of understanding she had so proudly boasted to her mother clear illusion? Now that the short circuit had been established, would the lights never burn in the upper stories of their house again? Turned about conversely the question read like this: Was the thing that had, in Randolph himself, aroused his vivid interest in the subject—well, nothing more than the daring cut of her gown, the gleam of her jewels, the whiteness of her skin ...?
Those questions were waiting for her to come back to earth; and they wouldn't get tired and go away. But for the present the knowledge that they were there only made the aeroplane ride the more exhilarating.
She was called to the telephone just as she was on the point of starting reluctantly for home, and found Rodney on the wire. He told her that he had got hold of the thing he was looking for, but that there were still hours of work ahead of him while he was fortifying himself with necessary authorities. He wouldn't come home to-night at all, he said. When his work was finished, he'd go to the club and have a Turkish bath and all the sleep he had time for. When he got through in court to-morrow afternoon, he'd come home.
It was all perfectly reasonable—it was to her finely tuned ear just a shade too reasonable. It had been thought out as an excuse. Because it wasn't for the Turkish bath nor the extra hour's sleep that he was staying away from home. It was herself he was staying away from. He wanted his mind to stay cold and taut, and he was afraid to face the temptation of her eyes and her soft white arms. And in the mood of that hour, it pleased her that this should be so—that the ascetic in him should pay her the tribute of fear.
Afterward, of course, she felt like lashing herself for having felt like that and for having replied, in a spirit of pure coquetry, in a voice of studied, cool, indifferent good humor:
"That's a good idea, Roddy. I'm glad you're not coming back. Good night."
It was with a reminiscent smile that Rose sat down before her telephone the next morning and called a number from memory. Less than a year ago, it had been such a thrilling adventure to call the number of that fraternity house down at the university and ask, in what she conceived to be a businesslike way, for Mr. Haines. And then, presently, to hear the voice of the greatest half-back the varsity had boasted of in years, saying in answer to her "Hello, Harry," "Hello, Rose."
It was really less than a year, and yet it was so immensely long ago, judged by anything but the calendar, that the natural way to think of him was as a married man with a family somewhere and faint memories of the days when he was a student and used to flirt with a girl called Rose something—Rose Stanton, that was it!
It was during one of the interminable waking hours of last night that she had thought of the half-back as a person who might be able, and willing, to do her the service she wanted, and she had spent a long while wondering how she could get track of him. Then the logic of the calendar had forced the conviction on her, that he was, in all probability still at the university, dozing through recitations, or lounging about the corridors, in a blue serge suit and a sweater with a C on it, waiting for some other girl to come out of her class-room; and that between the hours of ten-fifteen and eleven, it was altogether likely that she'd find him again, as she had so many times in the past, at his fraternity house, going through the motions of getting up an eleven o'clock recitation. It was absurd enough now to find herself calling the old number and asking again for Mr. Haines. The dreamlike unreality of it grew stronger, when the voice that answered said, "Just a minute," and then bellowed out his old nickname—"Hello, Tiny! Phone!" and, after a wait, she heard his own very deep bass.
"Hello. What is it?"
"Hello, Harry," she said. "This is Rose Aldrich. Do you remember me?—Rose Stanton, you know."
The ensuing silence was so long, that she said "Hello" again to make sure that he was still there.
"Y—yes," he said. "Of—of course I haven't forgotten. I—I only ... I ..."
She wondered what he was so embarrassed about, but to save the situation, she interrupted.
"Are you going to be awfully busy this afternoon? Because, if you aren't, there's something you can do for me. You're in the law school this year, aren't you?"
"Yes," he said. "Of course I'm not busy at all."
"It'll take quite a little while," she warned him, "an hour or so, and I don't want to interfere with anything you've got to do."
Again he assured her that he hadn't anything.
"Well, then," she said rather dubiously, because his voice sounded still so constrained and unnatural, "I'll come down in the car and pick you up about half past one. Is that all right?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes, of course. Thank you very much."
Had inclination led Rose to do a little imaginative thinking about the half-back, from his own point of view, she might, without much trouble, have approximated the cause of his embarrassment.
Here is a poor but honest young man, who has devoted himself, heart, brain and good right arm, to the service of a beautiful young fellow student at the university. They must wait for each other, of course, until he can graduate and get admitted to the bar and make a success that will enable him to support her as she deserves to be supported. The girl declines to wait. A much older man—a great, trampling brute of a man, possessed of wealth and fame, and a social altitude positively vertiginous—asks her to marry him. She, woman-weak, yields to the temptation of all the gauds and baubles that go with his name, and marries him. Indeed, few young men at the university ever have as valid an excuse for becoming broken-hearted misogynists as the half-back. He would he faithful, of course, though she was not. And some day, years later, it might he, she would come hack broken-hearted to him, confess the fatal mistake that she had made; seek his protection, perhaps, against the cruelties of the monster she had come to hate. He would forgive her, console her—in a perfectly moral way, of course—and for a while, they would just be friends. Then the wicked husband would conveniently die, and after long years, they could find happiness.
It made a very pretty idea to entertain during the semi-somnolent hours of dull lectures and while he was waiting for the last possible moment to leap out of bed in the morning and make a dash for his first recitation. Written down on paper, the imaginary conversation between them would have filled volumes.
But to be called actually to the telephone—she had telephoned to him a thousand times in the dream—and hear her say, just as in the dream she had said—"This is Rose; do you remember me?" was enough to make even his herculean knees knock together. To be sure her voice wasn't choked with sobs, but you never could tell over the telephone.
What did she want to do? Confront her husband with him, perhaps, this very afternoon, and say, "Here is the man I love?" And what would he do then? He'd have to back her up, of course—and until his next mouth's allowance came in, he had only a dollar and eighty-five cents in the world!
Rose couldn't have filled in all the details, of course, but she might have approximated the final result. Indeed, I think she had done so, unconsciously, by half past one, when her car stopped in front of the fraternity house and, instantaneously, like a cuckoo out of a clock, the half-back appeared. He was portentously solemn, and Rose thought he looked a little pale.
"Get in," she said holding out a hand to him. "I'm going to take you down-town to do an errand for me—well, two errands, really. My, but it's a long time since I've seen you!"
She didn't look tragic, to be sure—not as if there were livid bruises underneath her furs. And nothing about the manner of her greeting suggested that she was on the point of sobbing out a plea to be forgiven. Still, what did she mean by an errand? It might be anything.
"You see," she explained, "I happened to remember that you were going to begin studying law this year, and that you were just the person who wouldn't mind doing what I want."
"Divorce!" thought the half-back with a shudder.
"I want you," she went on, "to tell me just how you begin studying law—what text-books you get, and where you get them. I want you to come along and pick them out for me. You see, I've decided to study it myself."
It was a fact that the half-back was enormously relieved. But it was a brutal derisive fact—an unescapable one. He wasn't heart-broken over the dashing of a suddenly raised hope. He was, in his heart of hearts, saying, "Thank the Lord!"
If he had been pale before, he was red enough now. He felt ridiculous and irritable.
"Your husband knows all that a great deal better than I, of course," he said.
"Yes, of course," Rose was thoughtless enough to admit, "but you see, I don't want him to know." She flushed a little herself. "It's going to be a—surprise for him," she said.
"And, after we've got the books," she went on, "I want you to do something else. He's making an argument in court to-day, and I want to go and hear him. Only—I'm so ignorant, you see, I don't know how to do it and I didn't want to tell him I was going. So you're to find out where the court room is and how to get me in. Now, tell me all about everything and what's been happening since I went away. I saw you made the all-American last fall, and meant to write you a note about it, but I didn't get a chance. That was great!"
But even at this new angle, the talk didn't run smoothly. Because, precisely as the half-back forgot his terrors and the hopes that had prompted them, and the absurdity of both—precisely as he began to feel, after all, that it was a very superb and grown-up thing to be a familiar friend of a married woman with a limousine and a respectful chauffeur, and wonderful clothes and an air of taking them all for granted—precisely as he made up his mind to this, he became so very mature, and wise and blase, modeled his manners and his conversation so strictly on John Drew in his attempt to rise to the situation, that the schoolboy topics she suggested froze on his tongue. So that, by the time he had picked out the books for her and seen them stowed away in the car, and then had telephoned Rodney's office to find what court he was appearing before, and finally taken her up to the eighth floor in the Federal Building and left her there, she was, though grateful, distinctly glad to be rid of him.
What heightened this feeling was that just as she caught herself smiling a little, down inside, over his callow absurdity, she reflected that a year ago they had been equals; that, as far as actual intelligence went, he was no doubt her equal to-day—her superior, perhaps. He'd gone on studying and she hadn't. Except for the long-circuited sex attraction that Doctor Randolph had been talking about last night, he was as capable of being an intellectual companion to her husband as she was. That idea stung the red of resolution into her cheeks. She would study law. She'd study it with all her might!
She was successful in her project of slipping into the rear of the court room without attracting her husband's attention, and for two hours and a half, she listened with mingled feelings, to his argument. A good part of the time she was occupied in fighting off, fiercely, an almost overwhelming drowsiness. The court room was hot of course, the glare from the skylight pressed down her eyelids; she hadn't slept much the night before. And then, there was no use pretending that she could follow her husband's reasoning. Listening to it had something the same effect on her as watching some enormous, complicated, smooth-running mass of machinery. She was conscious of the power of it, though ignorant of what made it go, and of what it was accomplishing.
The three stolid figures behind the high mahogany bench seemed to be following it attentively, though they irritated her bitterly, sometimes, by indulging in whispered conversations. Toward the end, though, as Rodney opened the last phase of his argument, one of them, the youngest—a man with a thick neck and a square head—hunched forward and interrupted him with a question; evidently a penetrating one, for the man sitting across the table from Rodney looked up and grinned, and interjected a remark of his own.
"I simply followed the cases cited in Aldrich on Quasi Contracts," he said. "I have a copy of the work here, in case Mr. Aldrich didn't bring one along himself, which I'd be glad to submit to the Court."
Rose gasped. It was his own book they were quoting against him.
"I propose to show," said Rodney, "if the Court please, that an absolutely vital distinction is to be made between the cases cited in the section of Aldrich on Quasi Contracts, which my honorable opponent refers to, and the case before the Court."
Then the other judges spoke up. They knew the cases, it appeared, and didn't want to look at the book, but it was clear that they were skeptical about the distinction. For five minutes the formal argument was lost in swift flashing phrases in which everybody took a part. Rodney was defending himself against them all. And Rose, in an agony because she couldn't understand it, was reminded, grotesquely enough, of the Gentleman of France, or some other of the sword-and-cloak heroes of her girlhood, defending the head of the stairway against the simultaneous assault of half a dozen enemies. And then suddenly it was over. The judges settled back again, the argument went on.
At half past four, the oldest judge, who sat in the middle, interrupted again to tell Rodney, with what seemed to Rose brutally bad manners, what time it was.
"If you can finish your argument in fifteen minutes, Mr. Aldrich, we'll hear you out. If it's going to take longer than that, the Court will adjourn till to-morrow morning."
"I don't think I shall want more than fifteen minutes," said Rodney, and he went on again.
And, presently, he just stopped talking and began stacking up his notes. The oldest judge mumbled something, everybody stood up and the three stiff formidable figures filed out by a side door. It was all over.
But nothing had happened!
Rose had been looking forward, you see, to a driving finish; to a dramatic summoning of reserves, a mighty onslaught. And at the end of it, as from the umpire at a ball game, to a decision. She had expected to leave the court room in the blissful knowledge of Rodney's victory or the tragic acceptance of his defeat. In her surprise over the failure of this climax to materialize, she almost neglected to make her escape before he discovered her there.
One practical advantage she had gained out of what was, on the whole, a rather unsatisfactory afternoon. When she had gone home and changed into the sort of frock she thought he'd like and come down-stairs in it in answer to his shouted greeting from the lower hall, she didn't say, as otherwise she would have done, "How did it come out, Roddy? Did you win?"
In the light of her newly-acquired knowledge, she could see how a question of that sort would irritate him. Instead of that, she said: "You dear old boy, how dog tired you must be! How do you think it went? Do you think you impressed them? I bet you did."
And not having been rubbed the wrong way by a foolish question, he held her off with both hands for a moment, then hugged her up and told her she was a trump.
"I had a sort of uneasy feeling," he confessed, "that after last night—the way I threw you out of my office, fairly, I'd find you—tragic. I might have known I could count on you. Lord, but it's good to have you like this! Is there anywhere we have got to go? Or can we just stay home?"
He didn't want to flounder through an emotional morass, you see. A firm smooth-bearing surface, that was what, for every-day use, he wanted her to provide him with; lightly given, casual caresses that could be accepted with a smile, pleasantness, a confident security that she wouldn't be "tragic." And on the assumption that she couldn't walk beside him on the main path of his life, it was just and sensible. But it wasn't good enough for Rose.
So the very next morning, she stripped the cover off the first of the books the half-back had picked out for her, and really went to work. She bit down, angrily, the yawns that blinded her eyes with tears; she made desperate efforts to flog her mind into grappling with the endless succession of meaningless pages spread out before her, to find a germ of meaning somewhere in it that would bring the dead verbiage to life. She tried to recall the thrill in Rodney's voice when he had told her, on that wonderful wind-swept afternoon, that the law was the finest profession in the world. Also, he had told her, he'd never been bored with it—it was immoral to be bored. It was a confession of defeat, anyway, she could see that. And she wouldn't—she absolutely would not be defeated.
In a variety of moods which included everything except real hope and confidence, she kept the thing up for weeks—didn't give up indeed, until Fate stepped in, in her ironic way, and took the decision out of her hands. She was very secretive about it; developed an almost morbid fear that Rodney would discover what she was doing and laugh his big laugh at her. She resisted innumerable questions she wanted to propound to him, from a fear that they'd betray her secret.
She even forbore to ask him about the case—it was The Case in her mind—the one she knew about, and as she struggled along with her heavy text-books, and a realization grew in her mind of the countless hours of such struggling on his part which must have lain behind his ability to make that argument that day, the thing accumulated importance to her. How could he, under the suspense of waiting for that decision, concentrate his mind on anything else?
She discovered in the newspaper one day, a column summary of court decisions that had been handed down, and though The Case wasn't in it, she kept, from that day forward, a careful watch—discovered where the legal news was printed, and never overlooked a paragraph. And at last she found it—just the bare statement "Judgment affirmed." Rodney, she knew, had represented the appellant. He was beaten.
For a moment the thing bruised her like a blow. She had never succeeded in entertaining, seriously, the possibility that it could end otherwise than in victory for him. She read it again and made sure. She remembered the names of both parties to the suit, and she knew which side Rodney was on. There couldn't be any mistake about it. And the certainty weighed down her spirits with a leaden depression.
And then, all at once, in the indrawing of a single breath, she saw it differently. Now that it had happened—and she couldn't help its happening—didn't it give her, after all, the very opportunity she wanted? She remembered what he had said the night he had turned her out of his office. He wasn't sick or discouraged. He was in an intellectual quandary that couldn't be solved by having his hand held or his eyes kissed.
She saw now, that that had been just enough. She couldn't help him out of his intellectual quandaries—yet. But under the discouragement and lassitude of defeat, couldn't she help him? She remembered how many times she had gone to him for help like that. In panicky moments when the new world she had been transplanted into seemed terrible to her; in moments when she feared she had made hideous mistakes; and, most notably, during the three or four days of an acute illness of her mother's, when she had been brought face to face with the monstrous, incredible possibility of losing her, how she had clung to him, how his tenderness had soothed and quieted her—how his strength and steady confidence had run through her veins like wine!
He had never come to her like that. She knew now it was a thing she had unconsciously longed for. And to-night she'd have a chance! Oddly enough, it turned out to be the happiest day she'd known in a long while. There was a mounting excitement in her, as the hours passed—a thrilling suspense. Perhaps, after all, it wasn't going to be necessary to grind through all those law-books in order to win the place beside him that she wanted. If she could comfort him—mother him in his defeat and discouragement—hold him fast when his world reeled around him, that would be the basis of a better companionship than mere ability to chop legal logic with him. She could he content with the shallow sparkle of the stream of their life together, if it deepened, now and then, into still pools like this.
She resisted the impulse to call him up on the telephone, and a stronger one to go straight to him at his office. She'd wait until he came home to her. She had been feeling wretched lately—headachy, nervous, sickish;—probably, she thought, from staying in the house too much and bending over her heavy law-books. Perhaps she had strained her eyes. But to-day these discomforts were forgotten. Every little while she straightened up and stood at an open window drawing in long breaths. He should see her at her best to-night—serene—triumphant. The pallor of her cheeks he had commented on lately, shouldn't be there to trouble him.
For two hours that afternoon, she listened for his latch-key, and when at last she heard it she stole down the stairs. He didn't shout her name from the hall, as he often did. He didn't hear her coming, and she got a look at his face as he stood at the table absently turning over some mail that lay there. He looked tired, she thought.
He saw her when she reached the lower landing, but for just a fraction of a second his gaze left her and went back to the letter he held in his hand, as if to satisfy himself it was of no importance before he tossed it away. Then he came to meet her.
"Oh!" he said. "I thought you were going to be off somewhere with Frederica this afternoon. It's been a great day. I hope you haven't spent the whole of it indoors. You're looking great, anyway. Come here and give me a kiss."
Because she had hesitated, a little perplexed. Did he mean not to tell her—to "spare" her, as he'd have said? The kiss she gave had a different quality from those that ordinarily constituted her greetings, and the arms that went round his neck, didn't give him their customary hug. But they stayed there.
"You poor dear old boy!" she said. And then, "Don't you care, Roddy!"
He returned the caress with interest, before he seemed to realize the different significance of it. Then he pushed her away by the shoulders and held her where he could look into her face.
"What do you mean?" he asked. "Don't care about what?"
It didn't seem like bravado—like an acted out pretense, and yet of course it must be.
"Don't," she said. "Because I know. I've known all day. I read it in the paper this morning."
From puzzled concern, the look in his face took on a deeper intensity. "Tell me what it is," he said very quietly. "I don't know. I didn't read the paper this morning. Is it Harriet?" Harriet was his other sister—married, and not very happily, it was beginning to appear, to an Italian count.
A revulsion—a sort of sick misgiving took the color out of Rose's cheeks.
"It isn't any one," she said. "It's nothing like that. It's—it's that case." Her lips stumbled over the title of it. "It's been decided against you. Didn't you know?"
For a moment his expression was simply the absence of all expression whatever. "Good lord!" he murmured. Then, "But how the dickens did you know anything about it? How did you happen to see it in the paper? How did you know the title of it?"
"I was in the court the day you argued it," she said unevenly. "And when I found they printed those things in the paper, I kept watch. And to-day ..."
"Why, you dear child!" he said. And the queer ragged quality of his voice drew her eyes back to his, so that she saw, wonderingly, that they were bright with tears. "And you never said a word, and you've been bothering your dear little head about it all the time. Why, you darling!"
He sat down on the edge of the table, and pulled her up tight into his arms again. She was glad to put her head down—didn't want to look at his face; she knew that there was a smile there along with the tears.
"And you thought I was worrying about it," he persisted, "and that I'd be unhappy because I was beaten?" He patted her shoulder consolingly with a big hand. "But that's all in the day's work, child. I'm beaten somewhere nearly as often as I win. And really, down inside, leaving out a little superficial pleasure, I don't care a damn whether I win or lose. A man couldn't be any good as a lawyer, if he did care, any more than a surgeon could be any good if he did. You've got to keep a cold mind or you can't do your best work. And if you've done your best work, there's nothing to care about. I honestly haven't thought about the thing once from that day to this. Don't you see how it is?"
He couldn't see how it was, that was plain enough. What he very reasonably expected was that after so lucid an explanation, she would turn her wet face up to his, with her old wide smile on it. But that was not what happened at all. Instead, she just went limp in his arms, and the sobs that shook her seemed to be meeting no resistance whatever. It wasn't like her to work herself up in that way over trifles, either; yet, surely a trifle was all this could be called—a laughable mistake he couldn't help loving her for, or a touching demonstration of affection that he couldn't help smiling at. Either way you took it, it was nothing to make a scene about. Where was her sense of humor? That was the thing to do—get her quiet first, and then persuade her to laugh at the whole affair with him.
He was saved from carrying out this program by the fact that Rose, of her own accord, anticipated him. At least she controlled, rather suddenly, her sobs, sat up, wiped her eyes and, after a fashion, smiled. Not at him, though; resolutely away from him, he might almost have thought—as if she didn't want him to see.
"That's right," he said, craning round to make sure that the smile was there. "Have a look at the funny side of it."
She winced at that as from a blow and pulled herself away from him. Then she controlled herself and, in answer to his look of troubled amazement, said:
"It's all right. Only it happens that you're the one who d-doesn't know how awfully funny it really is." Her voice shook, but she got it in hand again. "No, I don't mean anything by that. Here! Give me a kiss and then let me wash my face."
And for the whole evening, and again next morning until he left the house, she managed to keep him in the only half-questioning belief that nothing was the matter.
It was about an hour after that, that her maid came into her bedroom, where she had had her breakfast, and said that Miss Stanton wanted to see her.
THE DAMASCUS ROAD
It argued no real lack of sisterly affection that Rose didn't want to see Portia that morning. Even if there had been no other reason, being found in bed at half past ten in the morning by a sister who inflexibly opened her little shop at half past eight, regardless of bad weather, backaches and other potentially valid excuses, was enough to make one feel apologetic and worthless. Rose could truthfully say that she was feeling wretched. But Portia would sit there, slim and erect, in a little straight-backed chair, and whatever perfunctory commiseration she might manage to express, the look of her fine eyebrows would be skeptical. Justly, too. Rose could never deny that. Not so long as she could remember the innumerable times when she had yielded to her mother's persuasions that she was over-tired and that a morning in bed was just what she needed. Portia, so far as she could remember, had never been the subject of these persuasions.
But this was only the beginning of Rose's troubles to-day. She was paying the price of yesterday's exaltation and her spirits had sunk down to nowhere. What a fool's paradise yesterday had been with its vision of her big self-sufficient husband coming to her for mothering because he had lost a law-suit! What a piece of mordant irony it was, that she should have found herself, after all her silly hopes, sobbing in his arms, while he comforted her for her bitter disappointment over not being able to comfort him! She had told the truth when she said he was the one, really, who didn't know how funny it was.
Well, and wasn't her other effort just as ridiculous? If ever he found her heap of law-books and learned of the wretched hours she had spent trying to discover what they were all about in the hope of promoting herself to a true intellectual companionship with him, wouldn't he take the discovery in exactly the same way—be touched by the childish futility of it and yet amused at the same time—cuddle her indulgently in his arms and soothe her disappointment;—and then urge her to look at the funny side of it? He must know hundreds of practising lawyers. Were there a dozen out of them all whose minds had the power to stimulate and bring into action the full powers of his own?
Well then, what was the use of trying? If James Randolph was right—and it seemed absurd to question it—she had just one charm for her husband—the charm of sex. To that she owed her hours of simulated companionship with him, his tenderness for her, his willingness to make her pleasures his own. To that she owed the extravagantly pretty clothes he was always urging her to buy—the house he kept her in—the servants he paid to wait on her. Well then, why not make the best of it?
Only, if she went on much longer, feeling sick and faded like this, she'd have nothing left to make the most of, and then where would she be?
Oh, she was getting maudlin, and she knew it! And when she got over feeling so weak and giddy, she'd brace up and be herself again. But for the present, she didn't feel like seeing Portia.
But Rose's shrinking from a talk with Portia that morning was a mild feeling compared with Portia's dread of the impending talk with Rose. Twice she had walked by the perfect doorway of the McCrea house before she entered it; ostensibly to give herself a little more time to think—really, because she shrank from the ordeal that awaited her in there.
Her sister's menage had been a source of irritation to Portia ever since it was established, though a deeper irritation was her own with herself for allowing it to affect her thus. Rose's whole-hearted plunge into the frivolities of a social season, her outspoken delight in it, her finding in it, apparently, a completely satisfactory solution to the problem of existence, couldn't fail to arouse Portia's ironic smile. This was the sort of vessel her mother had freighted with her hopes! This was the course she steered.
She had fought this feeling with a bitter self-contempt. The trouble with her was, she told herself in icy self-communings, that she envied Rose her happiness, her opportunities, her husband—even her house. Why should all that wonderful furniture have been wasted on Rose, to whom a perfect old Jacobean gate-legged table was nothing but a surface to drop anything on that she wanted out of her hands? Why should a man of Rodney's powerful intelligence waste his time on her frivolous amusements, content, apparently, just to sit and gaze at her, oblivious of any one else who might happen to be about? She knew that she, Portia, out of her disciplined experience of life, and her real eagerness for knowledge of it, was better able to challenge the attention of his mind than Rose. And yet she had never really got it. She remained half invisible to him—some one to be remembered with a start, after an interval of oblivion, and treated considerately—even affectionately, for that matter—as Rose's sister!
They had been seeing each other with reasonable frequency all winter. The Aldriches had Portia and her mother in to a family dinner pretty often, and always came out to Edgewater for a one-o'clock dinner with the Stantons on Sunday. The habit was for Rose to come out early in the car and take them to church, while Rodney walked out later, and turned up in time for dinner.
Mrs. Stanton had taken a great liking to Rodney. His manner toward her had just the blend of deference and breezy unconventionality that pleased her. So, while Portia would worry through the dinner, for fear it wouldn't be cooked well enough, or served well enough, not to present a sorry contrast to the meals her guests were accustomed to, her mother would sit beaming upon the pair with a contentment as unalloyed as if Rose were the acknowledged new leader of the great Cause and her husband her adoring convert, as they had been in her old day-dream.
As far as Rodney went, the dream might have been true, for he showed an unending interest in the Woman Movement—never tired of drawing from his mother-in-law the story of her labors and the exposition of her beliefs. Sometimes he argued with her playfully in order to get her started. More often, and as far as Portia could see, quite seriously, he professed himself in full accord with her views.
After this had been going on for about so long, Rose would yawn and stretch and sit down on the arm of her mother's chair, begin stroking her hair and offering her all manner of quaint unexpected caresses. And then, pretty soon, Rodney's attention to the subject would begin to wander and at last flag altogether and leave him stranded, gazing and unable to do anything but gaze, at the lovely creature—the still miraculous creature, who, when he got her home again, would come and sit on the arm of his chair like that! When this happened, Portia found it hard to stay in the room.
Until Mrs. Stanton's terrifying illness along in January, these meetings constituted the whole of the intercourse between the families. Rose had done her best to carry Portia with her, to some extent at least, into her new life—to introduce her to her new friends and make her, as far as might be, one of them. And in this she was seconded very amiably, by Frederica. But Portia had put down a categorical veto on all these attempts. She hadn't the inclination nor the energy, she said, and her mother needed all the time she could spare away from her business. Once, when Rose pressed the matter, she gave a more genuine reason. Rose's new friends, she said, would regard her introduction to them solely as a bid for business. She didn't want them coming around to her place to buy their wedding presents "in order to help out that poor old maid sister of Rose Aldrich's." She was getting business enough in legitimate ways.
Sometimes she told herself that if Rose had really wanted her, she'd have pressed the matter harder—wouldn't have given up unless she was clutching with real relief at an excuse that let her out of an embarrassment. But at other times she accused herself of having acted in a petty snobbish spirit in declining the chance not only for pleasant new friendships, especially Frederica's, but for a closer association with her sister. Well, the thing was done now, and the question certainly never would rise again.
The reason why it couldn't arise again was what Portia came to tell Rose this morning. She hoped she'd be able to tell it gently—provide Rose with just the facts she'd have to know, and get away without letting any other facts escape, so that afterward she'd have the consolation of being able to say to herself, "That was finely done." All her life, she told herself, she had been doing fine things grudgingly, mutilating them in the doing. If she weren't very careful, that would happen this morning. If she could have known the truth and made her resolution, and confided it to Rose during the first hours of her mother's illness, when the fight for life had drawn them together, it would not have been hard. But with the beginning of convalescence, when Rose, with an easy visit and a few facile caresses, could outweigh in one hour, all of Portia's unremitting tireless service during the other twenty-three, and carry off as a prize the whole of her mother's gratitude and affection, the old envy and irritation had come back threefold.
Rose greeted her with a "Hello, Angel! Why didn't you come right up? Isn't it disgraceful to be lying around in bed like this in the middle of the morning?"
"I don't know," said Portia. "Might as well stay in bed, if you've nothing to do when you get up." She meant it to sound good-humored, but was afraid it didn't. "Anyhow," she added after a straight look into Rose's face, "you look, this morning, as if bed was just where you ought to be. What's the matter with you, child?"
"Nothing," said Rose, "—nothing that you'd call anything at any rate."
Portia smiled ironically. "I'm still the same old dragon, then," she said. And then, with a gesture of impatience, turned away. She hadn't meant to begin like that. Why couldn't she keep her tongue in control!
"I only meant," said Rose very simply, "that you'd say it was nothing, if it was the matter with you. I've seen you, so many times, get up looking perfectly sick and, without any breakfast but a cup of black coffee, put on your old mackintosh and rubbers and start off for the shop, saying you were all right and not to bother, that I knew that was what you'd say now, if you felt the way I do."
"I'm sorry," said Portia. "I might have known that was what you meant. I wonder if you ever want to say ugly things and don't, or if it's just that it never occurs to you to try to hurt anybody. I didn't mean to say that either. I've had a rather worrying sort of week."
"What is it?" said Rose. "Tell me about it. Can I help?"
"No," said Portia. "I've thought it over and it isn't your job." She got up and went to the window where Rose couldn't see her face, and stood looking out. "It's about mother," she concluded.
Rose sat up with a jerk. "About mother!" she echoed. "Has she been ill again this week? And you haven't let me know! It's a shame I haven't been around, but I've been busy"—her smile reflected some of the irony of Portia's—"and rather miserable. Of course I was going this afternoon."
"Yes," said Portia, "I fancied you'd come this afternoon. That's why I wanted to see you alone first."
"Alone!" Rose leaned sharply forward. "Oh, don't stand there where I can't see you! Tell me what it is."
"I'm going to," said Portia. "You see, I wasn't satisfied with old Murray. That soothing bedside manner of his, and his way of encouraging you as if you were a child going to have a tooth pulled, drove me nearly wild. I thought it was possible, either that he didn't understand mother's case, or else that he wouldn't tell me what he suspected. So a week ago to-day, I got her to go with me to a specialist. He made a very thorough examination, and the next day I went around to see him." Her voice got a little harder and cooler. "Mother'll never be well, Rose. She's got an incurable disease. There's a long name for it that I can't remember. What it means is that her heart is getting flabby—degenerating, he called it. He says we can't do anything except to retard the progress of the disease. It may go fast, or it may go slowly. That attack she had was just a symptom, he said. She'll have others. And by and by, of course, a fatal one."
Still she didn't look around from the window. She knew Rose was crying. She had heard the gasp and choke that followed her first announcement of the news, and since then, irregularly, a muffled sound of sobbing. She wanted to go over and comfort the young stricken thing there on the bed, but she couldn't. She could feel nothing but a dull irresistible anger that Rose should have the easy relief of tears, which had been denied her. Because Portia couldn't cry.
"He said," she went on, "that the first thing to do was to get her away from here. He said that in this climate, living as she has been doing, she'd hardly last six months. But he said that in a bland climate like Southern California, in a bungalow without any stairs in it, if she's carefully watched all the time to prevent excitement or over-exertion, she might live a good many years.
"So that's what we're going to do. I've written the Fletchers to look out a place for us—some quiet little place that won't cost too much, and I've sold out my business. I thought I'd get that done before I talked to you about it. I'll give the house here to the agent to sell or rent, and as soon as we hear from the Fletchers, we'll begin to pack. Within a week, I hope."
Rose said a queer thing then. She cried out incredulously, "And you and mother are going away to California to live! And leave me here all alone!"
"All alone with the whole of your own life," thought Portia, but didn't say it.
"I can't realize it at all," Rose went on after a little silence. "It doesn't seem—possible. Do you believe the specialist is right? They're always making mistakes, aren't they—condemning people like that, when the trouble isn't what they say? Can't we go to some one else and make sure?"
"What's the use?" said Portia. "Suppose we did find a man who said it probably wasn't so serious as that, and that she could probably live all right here? We shouldn't know that he was right—wouldn't dare trust to that. Besides, if I drag mother around to any more of them, she'll know."
Rose looked up sharply. "Doesn't she know?"
"No," said Portia in that hard even voice of hers. "I lied to her of course. I told her the doctor said her condition was very serious, and that the only way to keep from being a hopeless invalid would be to do what he said—go out to California—take an absolute rest for two or three years—no lectures, no writing, no going about.
"You know mother well enough to know what she'd do if she knew the truth about it. She'd say, 'If I can never be well, what's the use of prolonging my life a year, or two, or five; not really living, just crawling around half alive and soaking up somebody else's life at the same time?' She'd say she didn't believe it was so bad as that anyway, but that whether it was or not, she'd go straight along and live as she's always done, and when she died, she'd be dead. Don't you know how it's always pleased her when old people could die—'in harness,' as she says?"
Her voice softened a little as she concluded and the tenseness of her attitude, there at the window, relaxed. The ordeal, or the worst of it, was over; what she had meant to say was said, and what she had meant not to say, if hinted at once or twice, had not caught Rose's ear. She turned for the first time to look at her. Rose was drooping forlornly forward, one arm clasped around her knees, and she was trying to dry her tears on the sleeve of her nightgown. The childlike pathos of the attitude caught Portia like the surge of a wave. She crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. She'd have come still closer and taken the girl in her arms but for the fear of starting her crying again.
"Yes," Rose said. "That's mother. And I guess she's right about it. It must be horrible to be half alive;—to know you're no use and never will be. Only I don't believe it will be that way with her. I believe you told her the truth without knowing it. It's just a feeling, but I'm sure of it. She'll get strong and well again out there. You'll think so, too, when you get rested up a little.—You're so frightfully tired, poor dear. It makes me sick to think what a week you've had. And that you've gone through it all alone;—without ever giving Rodney and me a chance to help. I don't see why you did that, Portia."
"Oh, I saw it was my job," Portia said, in that cool dry way of hers. "It couldn't work out any other way. It had to be done and there was no one else to do it. So what was the use of making a fuss? It was easier, really, without, and—I didn't want any extra difficulties."
"But all the work there must have been!" Rose protested. "Selling your shop, and all. How did you ever manage to do it?"
"That was luck, of course," Portia admitted. "Do you know that Craig woman? You may have met her. She's rather on the fringe of your set, I believe. She's got a good deal of money and nothing to do, and I think she's got a fool notion that it'll be chic to go 'into trade.' She came and offered to buy me out a month ago, and of course I wouldn't listen. But just by luck she called me up again the very day I went to talk to the specialist. I asked for twenty-four hours to think it over, and by that time I'd made up my mind. I got a very good price from her, really. She bought the whole thing; lease, stock and good-will."
It wasn't more than a very subconscious impression in the back of Rose's mind, that Portia must be pretty callous and cold to have been able on the very day of the doctor's sentence to look as far ahead as that, and to drive a good bargain on the next—awfully efficient, anyway. "I wish I was more like you," she said.
But she didn't want to be questioned as to just what she meant by it and, aware that Portia had just shot a queer searching look at her, she changed the subject, or thought she did.
"Anyway, I'm glad it worked out so well for you," she went on; "selling the shop so easily, and all. And I believe it'll do you as much good as mother. Getting a rest.... You do need it. You're worked right down to the bones. And out there where it's warm and bright all the time, and you don't have to get up in the dark any more winter mornings and wade off through the slush to the street-car.... And a nice little bungalow to live in—just you and mother.... I—I sort of wish I was going too."
Portia laughed—a ragged, unnatural sounding laugh that brought a look of puzzled inquiry from Rose.
"Why, nothing," Portia explained. "It was just the notion of your leaving Rodney and all you've got here—all the wonderful things you have to do—for what we'll have out there. The idea of your envying me is something worth a small laugh, don't you think?"
Rose's head drooped lower. She buried her face in her hands. "I do envy you," she said. There was a dull muffled passion in her voice. "Why shouldn't I envy you? You're so cold and certain all the time. You make up your mind what you'll do, and you do it. I try to do things and just make myself ridiculous. Oh, I know I've got a motor and a lot of French dresses, and a maid, and I don't have to get up in the morning, because, as you say, I have nothing else to do—and I suppose that might make some people happy."
"You've got a husband," said Portia in a thin brittle voice. "That might count for something, I should think."
"Yes, and what good am I to him?" Rose demanded. "He can't talk to me—not about his work or anything like that. And I can't help him any way. I'm something nice for him to make love to, when he feels like doing it, and I'm a nuisance when I make scenes and get tragic. And that's all. That's—marriage, I guess. You're the lucky one, Portia."
The silence had lasted a good while before Rose noticed that there was any special quality about it—became aware that since the end of her outburst—of which she was ashamed even while she yielded to it, because it represented not what she meant, but what, at the moment, she felt—Portia had not stirred; had sat there as rigidly still as a figure carved in ivory.
Becoming aware of that, she raised her head. Portia wasn't looking at her, but down at her own clenched hands.
"It needed just that, I suppose," she heard her older sister say between almost motionless lips. "I thought it was pretty complete before, but it took that to make it perfect—that you think I'm the lucky one—lucky never to have had a husband, or any one else for that matter, to love me. And lucky now, to have to give up the only substitute I had for that."
"Portia!" Rose cried out, for the mordant alkaline bitterness in her sister's voice and the tragic irony in her face, were almost terrifying. But the outcry might never have been uttered for any effect it had.
"I hoped this wouldn't happen," the words came steadily on, one at a time. "I hoped I could get this over and get away out of your life altogether without letting it happen. But I can't. Perhaps it's just as well—perhaps it may do you some good. But that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it for myself. Just for once, I'm going to let go! You won't like it. You're going to get hurt."
Rose drew herself erect and a curious change went over her face, so that you wouldn't have known she'd been crying. She drew in a long breath and said, very steadily, "Tell me. I shan't try to get away."
"A man came to our house one day to collect a bill," Portia went on, quite as if Rose hadn't spoken. "Mother was out, and I was at home. I was seventeen then, getting ready to go to Vassar. Fred was a sophomore at Ann Arbor, and Harvey was going to graduate in June. You were only seven—I suppose you were at school. Anyhow, I was at home, and I let him in, and he made a fuss. Said he'd have us black-listed by other grocers, if it wasn't paid.
"It was the first I ever knew about anything like that. I knew we weren't rich, of course—I never had quite enough pocket money. But the idea of an old unpaid grocery bill made me sick. I talked things over with mother the next day—told her I wasn't going to college—said I was going to get a job. I got her to tell me how things stood, and she did, as well as she could. The boys were getting their college education out of the capital of father's estate, so that the income of it was getting smaller. She had meant that I should do the same. But the income wasn't really big enough to live on as it was.
"Mother could earn money of course, lecturing and writing, but money wasn't one of the things she naturally thought about, and when there was something big and worth while to do, she plunged in and did it whether it was going to pay her anything or not. And there were you coming along, and mother wasn't so very strong even then, and I—well, I saw where I came in.
"I got mother to let me run all the accounts after that, and attend to everything. And I got a job and began paying my way within a week."
"If I had a thing like that to remember," said Rose unsteadily, "I'd never forget to be proud of it so long as I lived!"
"I wish I could be proud of it," said Portia. "But, like everything else I do, I spoiled it. I knew that mother was doing a big fine work worth doing—worth my making a sacrifice for, and I wanted to make the sacrifice. But I couldn't help making a sort of grievance of it, too. In all these years I've always made mother afraid of me—always made her feel that I was, somehow, contemptuous of her work and ideas. That's rather a strong way of putting it, perhaps. But I've seen her trying to hide her enthusiasms from me a little, because of my nasty way of sticking pins in them.
"Oh, of course in a way I was making the enthusiasms possible—I knew that. She never could have gone on as she did if she'd been nagged at all the time for money. Big ideas are always more important to her than small facts, but without some narrow-minded, literal person to look after the facts her ideas wouldn't have had much chance. I grubbed away until I got things straightened out, so that her income was enough to live on—enough for her to live on. I'd pulled her through. But then ..."
"But then there was me," said Rose.
"I thought I was going to let you go," Portia went on inflexibly. "You'd got to be just the age I was when I went to work, and I said there was no reason why you shouldn't come in for your share. If things had happened a little differently, I'd have told mother how matters stood and you'd have got a job somewhere and gone to work. But things didn't come out that way—at least I couldn't make up my mind to make them—so you went to the university. I paid for that, and I paid for your trousseau, and then I was through."
Rose was trembling, but she didn't flinch. "Wh—what was it," she asked quietly, "what was it that might have been different and wasn't? Was it—was it somebody you wanted to marry—that you gave up so I could have my chance?"
Portia's hard little laugh cut like a knife. "I ought to believe that," she said. "I've told myself so enough times. But it's not true. I wonder why you should have thought of that—why it occurred to you that a cold-blooded fish like me should want to marry?"
Rose didn't try to answer. She waited.
"You have always thought me cold," Portia said. "So has mother. I'm not, really. I'm—the other way. I don't believe there ever was a girl that wanted love and marriage more than I. But I didn't attract anybody. I was working pretty hard, of course, and that left me too tired to go out and play—left me a little cross and acid most of the time. But I don't believe that was the whole reason. It wouldn't have worked out that way with you. But nobody ever saw me at all. The men I was introduced to forgot me—were polite to me—got away as soon as they could. They were always craning around for a look at somebody else. The few men—the two or three who weren't like that, weren't good enough. But a man did want me to marry him at last, and for a while I thought I would. Just—just for the sake of marrying somebody. He wasn't much, but he was some one. But I knew I'd come to hate him for not being some one else and I couldn't make up my mind to it. So I took you on instead.
"I stopped hoping, you see, and tried to forget all about it—tried to crowd it out of my life. I said I'd make my work a substitute for it. And, in a way, I succeeded. The work opened up and got more interesting as it got bigger. It wasn't just selling four-dollar candlesticks and crickets and blue glass flower-holders. I was beginning to get real jobs to do—big jobs for big people, and it was exciting. That made it easier to forget. I was beginning to think that some day I'd earn my way into the open big sort of life that your new friends have had for nothing.
"And then, a week ago, there came the doctor and cut off that chance. Oh, there's no way out, I know that! That's the way the pattern was cut, I suppose, in the beginning. I've always suspected the cosmic Dressmaker of having a sense of humor. Now I know it. I'm the lucky one who isn't going to have to wade through the slush any more. I'm to go out to southern California and live in a nice little bungalow and be a nurse for five or ten years, and then I'm going to be left alone in genteel poverty, without an interest in the world, and too tired to make any. And I'll probably live to eighty.
"And yet,"—she leaned suddenly forward, and the passion that had been suppressed in her voice till now, leaped up into flame—"and yet, can you tell me what I could have done differently? I've lived the kind of life they preach about—a life of noble sacrifice. It hasn't ennobled me. It's made me petty—mean—sour. It's withered me up. Look at the difference between us! Look at you with your big free spaciousness—your power of loving and attracting love! Why, you even love me, now, in spite of all I've said this morning. I've envied you that—I've almost hated you for it.
"No, that's a lie. I've wanted to. The only thing I could ever hate you for, would be for failing. You've got to make good! You've had my share as well as yours—you're living my life as well as yours. I'm the branch they cut off so that you could grow. If you give up and let the big thing slip out of your hands the way you were talking this morning, because you're too weak to hold it and haven't pluck enough to fight for it...."
"Look at me!" said Rose. The words rang like a command on a battle-field.
Portia looked. Rose's blue eyes were blazing. "I won't do that," she said very quietly. "I promise you that." Then the hard determination in her face changed to something softer, and as if Portia's resistance counted no more than that of a child, she pulled her sister up in her arms and held her tight. And so at last Portia got the relief of tears.
HOW THE PATTERN WAS CUT
Through the two weeks that intervened before Portia and her mother left for the West, Rose disregarded the physical wretchedness—which went on getting worse instead of better—and dismissed her psychical worries until she should have time to attend to them. She helped Portia pack, she presented a steady cheerful radiance of optimism to her mother, that never faltered until the last farewells were said.
Just how she'd take up the fight again for the great thing Portia had adjured her not to miss, she didn't know. She supposed she'd go back to her law-books—at any rate until she could work out something better.
But the pattern, it seemed, was cut differently. She went to the doctor's office the day after Portia took her mother away, and discovered the cause of her physical wretchedness. She was pregnant.
Rodney heard young Craig, who deviled up law for him, saying good night to the stenographer; glanced at his watch and opened the door to his outer office.
"You may go home, Miss Beach," he said. "I'm staying on for a while but I shan't want you." Then, to the office boy: "You, too, Albert."
He waited till he heard them go, then went out and disconnected his own desk telephone, which the office boy, on going home, always left plugged through; went back into his inner office again and shut the door after him.
There was more than enough pressing work on his desk to fill the clear hour that remained to him before he had to start for home. But he didn't mean to do it. He didn't mean to do anything except drink down thirstily the sixty minutes of pure solitude that were before him; to let his mind run free from the clutch of circumstance. That hour had become a habit with him lately, like—he smiled at the comparison—like taking a drug. When something happened that forced him to forego it, he felt cheated—irrationally irritable. He was furtive about it, too. He never corrected Rose's assumption that the thing which kept him late at the office so much of the time nowadays was a press of work. He even concealed the fact that he pulled his telephone plug, by sticking it back again every night just before he left.
He tried to laugh that guilty feeling out of existence. But he couldn't. He knew too well whence it sprang. He knew whom he was stealing that hour from. It wasn't the world in general he intrenched himself against. It was his wife. The real purpose of that sixty minutes was to enable him to stop thinking and feeling about her.
It was not that she had faded for him—become less the poignant, vivid, irresistible thing he had first fallen in love with. Rather the contrary. The simple rapture of desire that had characterized the period of their engagement and the first months of their marriage, had lost something—not so much, either—of its tension. But it had broadened—deepened into something more compelling, more pervasive—more, in his present mood, formidable.
She hadn't seemed quite well, lately, nor altogether happy, and he had not been able to find out why. He had attributed it at first to the shock occasioned by her mother's illness and her departure with Portia to California, but this explanation seemed not to cover the ground. Why couldn't she have talked freely with him about that? Inquiries about her health, attempts—clumsily executed, no doubt—to treat her with special tenderness and guard her against overexertion, only irritated her, drove her to the very edge of her self-control—or over it. She was all right, she always said. He couldn't force confidences from her of course. But her pale face and eyes wide with a trouble in them he could not fathom stirred something deeper in him than the former glow and glory had ever reached.
And there was a new thing that gripped him in a positively terrifying way—a realization of his importance to her. The after-effect of her invasion of his office the night of the Randolphs' dinner and of his learning of the tremulous interest with which she had afterward followed the case he was then working on, had been very different from his first irritation and his first amusement.
He had discovered, too, one day—a fortnight or so ago, in the course of a rummage after some article he had mislaid, a heap of law-books that weren't his. He had guessed the explanation of them, but had said nothing to Rose about it—had found it curiously impossible to say anything. If only she had taken up something of her own! It seemed as essentially a law of her being to attempt to absorb herself in him, as it was a law of his to resist that absorption of himself in her.
But resistance was difficult. The tendency was, after his perfectly solid, recognizable duties had been given their places in the cubic content of his day, that Rose should fill up the rest. It was as if you had a bucket half full of irregularly shaped stones and filled it up with water. And yet there was a man in him who was neither the hard-working, successful advocate, nor Rose's husband—a man whose existence Rose didn't seem to suspect. (Was there then in her no woman that corresponded to him?) That man had to fight now for a chance to breathe.
He got a pipe out of a drawer in his desk, loaded and lighted it, stretched his arms, and sat down in his desk chair. In the middle of his blotter was a stack of papers his stenographer had laid there just before she went out. On top of the heap was a memorandum in her handwriting, and mechanically he read it.
"Please ask Mrs. Aldrich about this bill," it read. "The work done seems to be the same that was paid for last month."
The rest of the month's bills lay beneath, all neatly scheduled and totaled; and the total came to more than three thousand dollars. He damned them cordially and moved them over to one side.
But the mood of quiet contentment he had, for just a moment, captured, had given place to angry exasperation. He felt like a bull out in a ring tormented by the glare and the clamor and the flutter of little red flags.
There was nothing ruinous about his way of living. Including his inherited income with what he could earn, working the way he had been working lately, he could meet an expenditure of thirty-six thousand dollars a year well enough. It meant thinking about his fees of course, seeing to it that the work he undertook was profitable as well as interesting. Only, declared the man who was not Rose's husband, it was senseless—suffocating! Rodney tried, with an athletic sweep of his will, to crowd that train of thought out of his mind as, with his hand, he had swept the papers that gave rise to it.
He leaned his elbows on the cleared blotter and propped up his chin on his fists. The thing exactly in front of his eyes was his desk calendar. There was something familiar about the date—some subconscious association that couldn't quite rise to the surface. Was there something he had to do to-day, that he'd forgotten? No, Miss Beach would have reminded him of anything except a social engagement. And he distinctly remembered that Rose had said this morning that the evening was clear. And yet, surely ... Then, with a grunt of relief and amusement, he got it. It was his birthday! Another mile-stone.
Where had he been, what had he been doing a year ago to-day? It would be interesting if he could manage to remember.
A year ago—why, good lord! That was the day it had all begun. He'd sold the old house that day and then had started to walk over to Frederica's for dinner, and got caught in the rain and taken a street-car. He had heard a vibrant young voice say, "Don't dare touch me like that," and, turning, had seen the blazing glorious creature who held the conductor pinned by both wrists. That had been Rose—his Rose; whom he was spending these sixty minutes out of the twenty-four hours trying to forget about!
And that was only a year ago. It was curiously hard to realize. Their identities had shifted so strangely—his own as well as hers. Well, and in what direction had, he changed? How did he compare—the man who sat here now, with the man who had unhesitatingly jumped off the car to follow a new adventure—the man who had turned up water-logged at Frederica's dinner and made hay of her plan to marry him off to Hermione Woodruff?