Rose didn't even yet know much about money, to be sure, but she knew enough to be aghast at all that. What she tried to make Rodney look for was a much more modest establishment—a yard big enough to hold a tennis court, perhaps, and a house, well, that could be added to as they needed room.
Neither of them stuck very close to the main point on these expeditions. They always had too good a time together—more like a pair of children on a picnic than serious home-hunters, and they frittered a good deal of time away that they couldn't well afford.
This was the situation when Harriet took a hand in it. It was a situation made to order for Harriet to take a hand in. She'd sized it up at a glance, made up her mind in three minutes what was the sensible thing for them to do, written a note to Florence McCrea in Paris, and then bided her opportunity to put her idea into effect. She went out cruising with Rose in the car two or three times, looking at places, but gave her no indications that she felt more than the most languid interest in the problem. She could seem less interested in a thing without being quite impolite, than any one Rose knew.
When she got Florence McCrea's answer to her letter, she took the first occasion to get Rodney off by himself and talk a little common sense into him.
"What about where to live, Rodney?" she asked. "Made up your mind about it yet? I suppose you know how many months there are between the first of June and the first of October."
"We haven't got much of anywhere," he admitted. "We know we want to live in the country, that's about all."
"Out in the country just as winter's getting started?" she asked. "Settling into a new place—Rose with a new baby—everybody else back in town;—simply no chance of keeping servants? Roddy, old man, you're entitled to be a babe in the woods, of course. Any man is who does the kind of work you do. But it is time some one with a little common sense straightened you out about this."
Harriet couldn't be sure from the length of time he took seeing that his pipe was properly alight, whether he altogether liked this method of approach or not.
"Common sense always was a sort of specialty of yours, sis," he said at last, "and straightening out. You were always pretty good at it." Then, out of a cloud of his own smoke, "Fire away."
"Well, in the first place;" she said, "remodeling is the slowest work in the world, and the fussiest. And you can't just tell an architect, with a wave of the hand, to go ahead. You have to do your own fussing, which would drive you crazy. If you had your house to-day, you'd be lucky if the paint was dry and the thing was fit to move into by the first of September. And next September, if it's blazing hot, won't be exactly the time for Rose to go ramping around trying to buy furniture for a whole establishment—because you haven't a stick yourselves, of course—and getting settled in, hiring servants, getting the thing going. You can't be sure you'll have till the first of October. Things like that don't always happen exactly as they are expected to. But suppose you have good luck and manage it. Then where are you? Out in the woods somewhere at the beginning of winter, just when you ought to be settled comfortably somewhere in town.
"Oh, I know it's all very poetic, sitting in front of a roaring fire of logs, while the wind bangs the shutters, and that sort of thing, Rose singing to the baby and all. But you're not an Arcadian one bit. Neither is she, really, and you'll simply perish out there, both of you, and be back in town before the holidays.
"Rose oughtn't to be in town this summer. But she'll have to be to put this through. She ought to be down at York Harbor, or one of those Cape Cod places, instead of in this horrible smoky hole. Because she's not so very fit, really do you think? Bit moody, I'd say."
"But good lord, Harriet, we've got to get out of here anyway, in October. And that means we've got to have some sort of place to get into. It is an awkward time, I'll admit."
"No, you haven't," she said. "You can stay right here another six months, if you like. I've heard from Florence. I met her in Paris in April, and found she wasn't a bit keen to come back and take this house on. Their securities have gone down again, and they're feeling hard-up. Florence has got an old barn of an atelier, and she's puttering around in the mud thinking she's making statuary. Well, when I found how things stood here, I wrote and asked her if she'd lease for six months more if she got the chance, and she wrote back and simply grabbed at it. All you've got to do is to send her a five-word cable and you're fixed. Then, next spring, when your troubles are over, and you know what you want, you can look out a place up the shore and have the summer there."
Rodney smoked half-way through his pipe before he made any comment on this suggestion.
"This house isn't just what we want," he said. "In the first place, it's damned expensive."
Harriet shrugged her shoulders, found herself a cigarette and lighted it; picked up one of Florence's poetry books and eyed the heavily tooled binding with a satirical smile before she replied. She could feel him looking at her, and she knew he'd wait till she got ready to go on.
"I'd an idea there was that in it," she said at last. "Freddy said something ... Rose had been talking to her." Then after another little silence, and with a sudden access of vehemence, "You don't want to go and do a regular fool thing, Roddy. You're getting on perfectly splendidly. You'll be at the head of the bar out here in ten years, if you keep on. Frank Crawford was telling me about you the other day. You've settled down, and we thought you never would. It was a corking move, your taking this house, just because it made you settle down. You can earn forty thousand dollars next year, just with your practise, if you want to. But if you pull up and go to live in a barn somewhere, and stop seeing anybody—people that count, I mean ..."
Rodney grunted. "You're beyond your depth, sis," he said. "Come back where you don't have to swim. The expense isn't a capital consideration, I'll admit that. Now go on from there."
"That's like old times," she observed with a not ill-humored grimace. "I wonder if you talk to Rose like that. Oh, I know the house is rather solemn and absurd. It's Florence herself all over, that's the size of it, and I suppose you are getting pretty well fed up with it. But what does that matter for six months more? Heavens! You won't know where you're living. But the place is comfortable, and there's room in it for nurses and all and the best doctor in town in the line you'll want, is right around the corner. And, as I say, when your troubles are over and you know what you want ..."
He pocketed his pipe and got up out of this chair.
"There's something in it," he admitted. "I'll think it over."
"Better cable Florence as soon as you can," she advised. "She'll want to know ..."
Rose protested when the plan for living six months more in Florence McCrea's house was broached to her. She made the best fight she could. But Harriet's arguments, re-stated now by Rodney with full conviction, were too much for her. When she broke down and cried, as she couldn't help doing, Rodney soothed and comforted her, assured her that this notion of hers about the expensiveness of it all, was just a notion—obsession was the word he finally came to—which she must struggle against as best she could. She'd see things in a truer proportion afterward.
Then it came out that he had made all his plans for a long summer vacation. There was no court work in July and August anyway. He was going to carry her off to a quiet little place out on Cape Cod that he knew about, and just luxuriate in her; have her all to himself—not a soul they knew about them. They would lie about in the sands all day, building air castles. If she got tired of him, any person she wanted to see should be telegraphed for forthwith. The one thing she had to bear in mind was that she was to be happy and not bother about things; leave everything to him.
This plan was carried out, and in a paradise, made up of blue sea, white sands, warm sun and Rodney—Rodney always there, and queerly content to drowse away the time with her, she almost forgot the great dam and the pressure of the waters that had mounted up behind it. Was it an obsession just as Rodney said? Would she find when it was all over and she rallied herself for the great endeavor, that there was, after all, no battle to be fought—nothing but a baby at her breast?
FATE PLAYS A JOKE
Traveling bars flowing along parallel, black and white; the white ones incandescent;—and a small helpless harried thing struggling to keep in the shadow of the black ones, or to regain it again across the pitiless zone of white that the little helpless thing called pain.—Traveling bars flowing along endlessly.
And then a great ball whirling in planetary space, half dark, half incandescent white, having for its sole inhabitant, the small harried thing that struggled to keep in the dark out of the glare of that pitiless white pain.—One watched its struggles from a long way off—like God.—But the ball whirled drunkenly and it made one sick to look.—And then a supervening chaos—no longer a ball but still whirling, reeling, tottering. Rectangles of light, which, had they kept still, would have been windows—a mirror.
And then, very fine and small and weak, something that knew it was Rose Stanton—Rose Stanton lying in a bed with people about her. She let her eyes fall heavily shut again lest they should discover she was there and want her to speak or think.
The bars came back, but the whiteness of them was no longer so white, and slowly they faded out. Then, for a long time, nothing. Then sounds, movements—soft, skilful, disciplined sounds and movements. And, presently, a hand—a firm powerful hand, that picked up and supported a heavy limp wrist—Rose Stanton's wrist—and two sensitive finger-tips that rested lightly on the upper surface of it. After that, an even measured voice—a voice of authority, whose words no doubt made sense, only Rose was too tired to think what the sense was:
"She's out of the ether now, practically. That's a splendid pulse. She's doing the best thing she can, sleeping like that. It's been a thoroughly normal delivery from the beginning. Oh, a long difficult one, I'll admit. But there's nothing now, that you could want better than what you've got."
And then another voice, utterly unlike Rodney's and yet unmistakably his—a ragged voice that tried to talk in a whisper but couldn't manage it; broke queerly.
"That's all right," it said. "But I'll find it easier to believe when ..."
She must see him—must know what it meant that he should talk like that. With a strong physical effort, she opened her eyes and tried to speak his name.
She couldn't; but some one must have been watching and seen, because a woman's voice said quickly and quietly, "Mr. Aldrich."
And the next moment, vast and towering, and very blurred in outline, but, like his voice, unmistakable, was Rodney—her own big strong Rodney. She tried to hold her arms up to him, but of course she couldn't.
And then he shortened suddenly. He had knelt down beside her bed, that was it. And she felt upon her palm, the pressure of his lips, and his unshaven cheek, and on her wrist, a warm wetness that must be—tears.
Why was he crying? What had happened? She must try to think.
It was very hard. She didn't want to think, but she must. She must begin with something she knew. She knew who she was. She was Rose—Rodney's Rose. Here was his mouth down close to the pillow saying her name over and over and over again. And she was in her own bed. But what had happened? She must try to remember. She remembered something she had said—said to herself over and over again an illimitable while ago. "It's coming. The miracle's beginning." What had she meant by that?
And then she knew. The urgency of a sudden terror gave her her voice.
"Roddy," she said. "There was going to be a—baby. Isn't there?"
Something queerly like a laugh broke his voice when he answered. "Oh, you darling! Yes. It's all right. That isn't why I'm crying. It's just because I'm so happy."
"But the baby!" she persisted. "Why isn't it here?"
Rodney turned and spoke to some one else. "She wants to see," he said. "May she?"
And then a woman's voice (why, it was the nurse, of course! Miss Harris, who had come last night) said in an indulgent soothing tone, "Why, surely she may. Wait just a minute."
But the wait seemed hours. Why didn't they bring the baby—her baby? There! Miss Harris was coming at last, with a queerly bulky, shapeless bundle. Rodney stepped in between and cut off the view, but only to slide an arm under mattress and pillow and raise her a little so that she could see. And then, under her eyes, dark red and hairy against the whiteness of the pillow, were two small heads—two small shapeless masses leading away from them, twitching, squirming. She stared, bewildered.
"There were twins, Rose," she heard Rodney explaining triumphantly, but still with something that wasn't quite a laugh, "a boy and a girl. They're perfectly splendid. One weighs seven pounds and the other six."
Her eyes widened and she looked up into his face so that the pitiful bewilderment in hers was revealed to him.
"But the baby!" she said. Her wide eyes filled with tears and her voice broke weakly. "I wanted a baby."
"You've got a baby," he insisted, and now laughed outright. "There are two of them. Don't you understand, dear?"
Her eyes drooped shut, but the tears came welling out along her lashes. "Please take them away," she begged. And then, with a little sob she whispered, "I wanted a baby, not those."
Rodney started to speak, but some sort of admonitory signal from the nurse silenced him.
The nurse went away with her bundle, and Rodney stayed stroking her limp hand.
In the dark, ever so much later, she awoke, stirred a little restlessly, and the nurse, from her cot, came quickly and stood beside her bed. She had something in her hands for Rose to drink, and Rose drank it dutifully.
"Is there anything else?" the nurse asked.
"I just want to know," Rose said; "have I been dreaming, or is it true? Is there a baby, or are there twins?"
"Twins, to be sure," said the nurse cheerfully. "The loveliest, liveliest little pair you ever saw."
"Thank you," said Rose. "I just wanted to know."
She shut her eyes and pretended to go to sleep. But she didn't. It was true then. Her miracle, it seemed somehow, had gone ludicrously awry.
THE DAM GIVES WAY
She began getting her strength back very fast after the next two or three days, but this queer kink in her emotions didn't straighten out. She came to see that it was absurd—monstrous almost, but that didn't help. Instead of a baby, she had given birth to two. They were hers of course, as much as one would have been. Only, her soul, which had been waiting so ecstatically for its miracle—for the child which, by making her a mother, should supply what her life needed—her soul wouldn't—couldn't accept the substitution. Those two droll, thin voiced, squirming little mites that were exhibited to her every morning, were as foreign to her, as detached from her, as if they had been brought into the house in a basket.
There was a certain basis of reason back of this. At some time, during those early hours of misty half-consciousness, it had been decided that two children would be too much for her to attempt to nurse.
She had a notion that this idea hadn't originated with the doctor, though it was he who had stated it to her with the most plausible firmness. Rodney had backed the doctor up, firmly, too. Rose was only a girl in years—why, just a child herself; hadn't had her twenty-second birthday yet; the labor had been long, she was very weak, the children were big and vigorous, and she couldn't hope to supply them both for more than a very few weeks, anyway. And, at this time of year, as the doctor said, there was no difficulty to be apprehended from bottle feeding. It would be better on all accounts.
Still, it didn't sound exactly like Roddy's idea either.
When Harriet came in for the first time to see her, Rose knew. Harriet was living here now, running the house for Rodney, while Rose was laid up. Doing it beautifully well, too, through all the confusion of nurses and all. Not the slightest jar or creak of their complex domestic machinery ever reached Rose in the big chamber where she lay. Harriet said:
"I think you're in great luck to have had two at once; get your duty to posterity done that much sooner. And, of course, you couldn't possibly be expected to nurse two great creatures like that."
Rose acquiesced. What was the use of struggling against so formidable a unanimity? She would have struggled though, she knew, but for that queer trick Fate had played her. Her heart ached, as did her breasts. But that was for the lips of the baby—the baby she hadn't had!
When she found that struggling with herself, denouncing herself for a brute, didn't serve to bring up the feelings toward the twins that she knew any proper mother ought to have, she buried the dark fact as deep as she could, and pretended. It was only before Rodney that the pretense was necessary. And with him, really, it was hardly a pretense at all. He was such a child himself, in his gleeful delight over the possession of a son and a daughter, that she felt for him, tenderly, mistily, luminously, the very emotion she was trying to capture for them—felt like cradling his head in her weak arms, kissing him, crying over him a little.
She wouldn't have been allowed to do that to the babies anyway. They were going to be terribly well brought up, those twins; that was apparent from the beginning. They had two nurses all to themselves, quite apart from Miss Harris, who looked after Rose: one uncannily infallible person, omniscient in baby lore—thoroughgoing, logical, efficient, remorseless as a German staff officer; and a bright-eyed, snub-nosed, smart little maid, for an assistant, who boiled bottles, washed clothes, and, at certain stated hours, over a previously determined route, at a given number of miles per hour, wheeled the twins out, in a duplex perambulator, which Harriet had acquired as soon as the need for it had become evident.
Miss Harris was to go away to another case at the end of the month. But Mrs. Ruston (she was the staff officer) and Doris, the maid, were destined, it appeared, to be as permanent as the babies. But Rose had the germ of an idea of her own about that.
They got them named with very little difficulty. The boy was Rodney, of course, after his father and grandfather before him. Rose was a little afraid Rodney would want the girl named after her, and was relieved to find he didn't. There'd never in the world be but one Rose for him, he said. So Rose named the girl Portia.
They kept Rose in bed for three weeks; flat on her back as much as possible, which was terribly irksome to her, since her strength and vitality were coming back so fast. The irksomeness was added to by a horrible harness largely of whalebone. Rose got the notion, too, that the purpose of all this was not quite wholly hygienic. Harriet had said once: "You know the most distinguished thing about you, Rose, dear—about your looks, I mean—is that lovely boyish line of yours. It will be a perfect crime if you let yourself spread out."
This wasn't the sort of consideration to make the inactivity any easier to endure. She might have rebelled, had it not been for that germinant idea of hers. It wouldn't do, she saw, in the light of that, to give them any excuse for calling her unreasonable.
At the end of this purgatorial three weeks, she was carried to a chair and allowed to sit up a little, and by the end of another, to walk about—just a few steps at a time of course. One Sunday morning, Rodney carried her up-stairs to the nursery to see her babies bathed. This was a big room at the top of the house which Florence McCrea had always vaguely intended to make into a studio. But, in a paralysis of indecision as to what sort of studio to make it (book-binding, pottery and art weaving called her about equally) she had left the thing bare.
Rodney had given Harriet carte blanche to go ahead and fit it up before he and Rose came back from the seashore, and the layette was a monument to Harriet's thoroughgoing practicality. There had been a wild day of supplementing of course, when it was discovered that there were two babies instead of one.
The room, when they escorted Rose into it, was a terribly impressive place. The spirit of a barren sterile efficiency brooded everywhere. And this appearance of barrenness obtained despite the presence of an enormous number of articles; a pair of scales, a perfect battery of electric heaters of various sorts; rows of vacuum jars for keeping things cold or hot; a small sterilizing oven; instruments and appliances that Rose couldn't guess the uses or the names of. Mrs. Ruston, of course, was master of them all, and Doris flew about to do her bidding, under a watchful and slightly suspicious eye. (Doris was the sort of looking girl who might be suspected of kissing a tiny pink hand when no one was looking.)
Rose surveyed this scene, just as she would have surveyed a laboratory, or a factory where they make something complicated, like watches. That's what it was, really. Those two pink little objects, in their two severely sanitary baskets, were factory products. At precise and unalterable intervals, a highly scientific compound of fats and proteids was put into them. They were inspected, weighed, submitted to a routine of other processes. And in all the routine, there was nothing that their mother, now they were fairly born, was wanted for. Indispensable to a certain point, no doubt. But after that rather the other way about—an obstacle to the routine instead of a part of it.
Rose kept these ideas to herself and kept her eye on young Doris; listened to the orders she got; and studied alertly what she did in the execution of them.
Rodney had a lovely time watching the twins bathed. He stood about in everybody's way, made what he conceived to be alluring noises, in the perfectly unsuccessful attempt to attract the infants' attention, and finally, when the various processes were complete, on schedule, like a limited train, and the thermometrically correct bottles of food were ready, one for each baby, he turned suddenly to his wife and said: "Don't you want to—hold them, Rose?" She'd have held a couple of glowing brands in her arms for him, the way he had looked and the way he had said it.
A stab of pain went through her and tears came up into her eyes. "Yes, give them to me," she started to say.
But Mrs. Ruston spoke before she could frame the words. It was their feeding hour, she pointed out; a bad time for them to be excited, and the bottles were heated exactly right.
By that time Rose's idea had flowered into resolution. She knew exactly what she was going to do. But she mustn't jeopardize the success of her plan by trying to put it into effect too soon.
She waited patiently, reasonably, for another fortnight. Harriet by that time had gone off to Washington on a visit, taking Rodney's heartfelt thanks with her. Rose expressed hers just as warmly, and felt ashamed that they were so unreal. She simply mustn't let herself get to resenting Harriet! At the end of the fortnight, the doctor made his final visit. Rose had especially asked Rodney to be on hand to hear his report when the examination was over. Rose and the doctor found him waiting in the library.
"He says," Rose told her husband, "that I'm perfectly well." She turned to the doctor for confirmation, "Don't you?"
The doctor smiled. "As far as my diagnostic resources go, Mrs. Aldrich, you are perfectly well."
Rodney was pleased of course, and expressed this feeling fervently. But he looked across at his glowing radiant wife, with a touch of misgiving.
"What are you trying to put over on me?" he asked.
"Not a thing," said Rose demurely. "I thought you'd be glad to know that I needn't be kept in cotton-wool any more, and that you'd feel surer of it if he told you."
"I feel surer that you've got something up your sleeve," he said. And, to the doctor: "I don't imagine that in saying my wife is perfectly well, you mean to suggest an absence of all reasonable caution."
The doctor took the hint, expatiated largely; it was always well to be careful—one couldn't, in fact, be too careful. The human body at best, more especially the—ah—feminine human body, was a delicate machine, not to be abused without inviting serious consequences. He was even a little reproachful about it.
"But there's no more reason, is there," Rose persisted, "why I should be careful than why any other woman should—my nurse-maid for example? Is she any healthier than I am?"
It was indiscreet of the doctor to look at her before he answered. Her eyes were sparkling, the color bright in her cheeks; unconsciously, she had flattened her shoulders back and drawn a good deep breath down into her lungs. The doctor smiled a smile of surrender and turned back to Rodney. "I'll confess," he said, "that in my experience, Mrs. Aldrich is almost a lusus naturae—a perfectly sound, healthy woman."
Rose smiled widely and contentedly on the pair of them. "That's more like it," she said to the doctor. "Thanks very much."
But after he had gone, she did not spring anything on Rodney, as he fully expected she would. She took him out for a tramp through the park in the dusk of a perfect autumn afternoon, and went to a musical show with him in the evening. She might have been, as far as he could see, the Rose of a year ago. She had the same lithe boyish swing. She even wore, though he didn't know it, the same skirt for their walk in the park that she had worn on some of their tramps before they were married. And when they had had their evening at the theater, and a bite of supper somewhere, and come home, she let him drop off to sleep without a word that would explain her insistence on getting a clean bill of health from the doctor.
But the next morning, while Doris was busy in the laundry, she found Mrs. Ruston in the nursery and had a talk with that lady, which was destined to produce seismic upheavals.
"I've decided to make a little change in our arrangements, Mrs. Ruston," she said. "But I don't think it's one that will disturb you very much. I'm going to let Doris go—I'll get her another place, of course—and do her work myself."
Mrs. Ruston compressed her lips, and went on for a minute with what she was doing to one of the twins, as if she hadn't heard.
"Doris is quite satisfactory, madam," she said at last. "I'd not advise making a change. She's a dependable young woman, as such go. Of course I watch her very close."
"I think I can promise to be dependable," Rose said. "I don't know much about babies, of course, but I think I can learn as well as Doris. Anyhow, I can wheel them about and wash their clothes and boil bottles and things as well as she does. For the rest, you can tell me what to do just as you tell her."
Mrs. Ruston took a considerably longer interval to digest this reply. "Then you're meaning to give the girl her notice at once, madam?" she asked.
"I'm not going to give her notice at all," said Rose. "I'm going to find her another place. I shan't have any trouble about it though. As you say, she's a very good nurse-maid, and she's a pleasant sort of a human being besides. But as soon as I can find her another place, I'm going to take over her work."
To this last observation it became evident that Mrs. Ruston meant to make no reply at all. She gave Rose some statistical information about the twins instead, in which Rose showed herself politely interested and presently withdrew.
It soon appeared, however, that though Mrs. Ruston might be slow and sparing of speech, she was capable of acting with a positively Napoleonic dash. Rodney wore a queer expression all through dinner, and when he got Rose alone in the library afterward, he explained it. Mrs. Ruston had made her two-hour constitutional that afternoon into an opportunity for calling on him at his office. She had given him notice, contingently. She made it an inviolable rule of conduct, it appeared, never to undertake the care of two infants without the assistance of a nurse-maid. She was a conscientious person and she felt she couldn't do justice to her work on any other basis. Rose had informed her of her intention to dispense with the services of the nurse-maid, without engaging any one else to take her place. If Rose adhered to this intention, Mrs. Ruston must leave.
It was some sort of absurd misunderstanding, of course, Rodney concluded and wanted to know what it was all about.
"I did say I meant to let Doris go," Rose explained, "but I told her I meant to take Doris' job myself. I said I thought I could be just as good a nurse-maid as she was. I said I'd boil bottles and wash clothes and take Mrs. Ruston's orders exactly as if I were being paid six dollars a week and board for doing it. And I meant it just as literally as I said it."
He was prowling about the room in a worried sort of way, before she got as far as that.
"I don't see, child," he exclaimed, "why you couldn't leave well enough alone! If it's that old economy bug of yours again, it's nonsense. You'd save, including board, about ten dollars a week. And it would work out one of two ways: If you didn't do all the maid's work. Mrs. Ruston would have a real grievance. She's right about needing all the help she gets. If you did do it, it would mean that you'd work yourself sick.—Oh, I know what the doctor said, but that's all rot, and he knew it. You had him hypnotized. You'd have to give up everything for it—all your social duties, all our larks together. Oh, it's absurd! You, to spend all your time doing menial work—scrubbing and washing bottles, to save me ten dollars a week!"
"It isn't menial work," Rose insisted. "It's—apprentice work. After I've been at it six months, learning as fast as I can, I'll be able to let Mrs. Ruston go and take her job. I'll be really competent to take care of my own children. I don't pretend I am now."
"I don't see why you can't do that as things are now. She'll let you practise bathing them and things like that, and certainly no one would object to your wheeling them out in the pram. But the nurse-maid would be on hand in case ..."
"I'm to take it on then," said Rose, and her voice had a new ring in it—the ring of scornful anger—"I'm to take it on as a sort of polite sentimental amusement. I'm not to do any real work for them that depends on me to get done. I'm not to be able to feel that, even in a bottle-washing sort of way, I'm doing an indispensable service for them. They're not to need me for anything, the poor little mites! They're to be something for me to have a sort of emotional splurge with, just as"—she laughed raggedly—"just as some of the wives you're so fond of talking about, are to their husbands."
He stared at her in perfectly honest bewilderment. He'd never seen her like this before.
"You're talking rather wild I think, Rose," he said very quietly.
"I'm talking what I've learned from you," she said, but she did get her voice in control again. "You've taught me the difference between real work, and the painless imitation of it that a lot of us women spend our lives on—between doing something because it's got to be done and is up to you, and—finding something to do to spend the time.
"Oh, Rodney, please try to forget that I'm your wife and that you're in love with me. Can't you just say: 'Here's A, or B, or X, a perfectly healthy woman, twenty-two years old, and a little real work would be good for her'?"
She won, with much pleading, a sort of troubled half-assent from him. The matter might be borne in mind. It could be taken up again with Mrs. Ruston.
But Mrs. Ruston was adamant. Under no conceivable circumstances could she consent to regard her employer's wife as a substitute for her own hired assistant. There were other nurses though, to be got. Somewhere one could be found, no doubt, who'd take a broader view.
Given a fair field, Rose might have won a victory here. But, as Portia had said once, the pattern was cut differently. There was a sudden alarm one night, when her little namesake was found strangling with the croup. There were seven terrifying hours—almost unendurable hours, while the young life swung and balanced over the ultimate abyss. The heroine of those hours was Mrs. Ruston. It was her watchfulness that had been accessible to the first alarm—her instant doing of the one right thing that stemmed the first onrush. That the child lived was clearly creditable to her.
Rose made another effort even after that, though she knew she was beaten in advance. She waited until the storm had subsided, until the old calm routine was reestablished. Then, once more, she asked for her chance.
But Rodney exploded before she got the words fairly out of her mouth.
"No," he shouted, "I won't consider it! She's saved that baby's life. Another woman might have, but it's more likely not. You'll have to find some way of satisfying your whims that won't jeopardize those babies' lives. After that night—good God, Rose, have you forgotten that night?—I'm going to play it safe."
Rose paled a little and sat ivory still in her chair. There were no miracles any more. The great dam was swept away.
THE ONLY REMEDY
The sudden flaw of passion that had troubled the waters of Rodney's soul, subsided, spent itself in mutterings, explanations, tending to become at last rather apologetic. He said he didn't know why her request had got him like that. It had seemed to him for a moment as if she didn't realize what the children's lives meant to them—almost as if she didn't love them. He knew that was absurd, of course.
Her own rather monstrous comments on these observations had luckily remained unspoken. What if she did lose a child as a result of her effort to care for it herself? She could bear more children. And what chance had she to love them? Where was the soil for love to take root in, unless she took care of them herself? These weren't really thoughts of hers—just a sort of crooked reflection of what he was saying off the surface of a mind terribly preoccupied with something else.
She was in the grip of an appalling realization. This moment—this actually present moment that was going to last only until she should speak for the next time, or move her eyes around to his face—was the critical moment of her life. She had, for just this moment, a choice of two things to say when next she should speak—a choice of two ways of looking into his face. A mountaineer, standing on the edge of a crevasse, deciding whether to try to leap across and win a precarious way to the summit, or to turn back and confess the climb has been in vain, is confronted by a choice like that. If ever the leap was to be made, it must be made now. The rainbow bridge across the crevasse, the miracle of motherhood, had faded like the mist it was composed of.
She was a mother now. Yet her relation to her husband's life was the same as that of the girl who had gone to his office the night of the Randolphs' dinner. And no external event—nothing that could happen to her (remember that even motherhood had "happened" in her case) could ever transmute that relation into the thing she wanted. If the alchemy were to be wrought at all, it would be by the act of her own will—at the cost of a deliberately assumed struggle. There was nothing, any more, to hope from waiting. The thing that whispered, "Wait! To-morrow—some to-morrow or other, it may be easier! Wait until, for yourself, you've thought out the consequences,"—that was the voice of cowardice. If she turned back, down the easier path, to-night, it must be under no delusion that she'd ever try to climb again, or find a pair of magic wings that would carry her, effortless, to what she wanted.
Well, then, she had her choice. One of two things she might do now. It was in her power to look up at him and smile, and say: "All right, Roddy, old man, I'll stop being disagreeable. I won't have any more whims." And she could go to him and clasp her hands behind his head and feel the rough pressure of his cheeks against the velvety surfaces of her forearms, and kiss his eyes and mouth; surrender to the embrace she knew so well would follow.
She could make, after a fashion, a life of that. She had no fear but it would last. Barring incalculable misfortunes, she ought to be able to keep her looks and her charm for him, unimpaired, or but little impaired, for twenty years—twenty-five, with care. For the rich, the resources of modern civilization would almost guarantee that. Well, twenty-five years would see Rodney through his fifties. She needn't, barring accident, have any more children. He'd probably be content with two; especially as they were boy and girl.
The other man in him—the man who wasn't her lover—would struggle of course. Except when she was by, the lover would probably have a bad time of it. She'd have to find some amusing sort of occupation to enable her to forget that. But when she was there, it would be strange if she and her lover together couldn't, most of the time, keep the other man locked up where he wouldn't disturb them much.
Lived without remorse or misgivings, played magnificently for all it was worth, as she could play it—she knew that now—it would be a rather wonderful life. They must be decidedly an exceptional pair of lovers, she thought. Certainly Madame Greville's generalization about Americans did not apply to them, and she was coming to suspect it did apply to the majority of her friends. She could have that life—safely, surely, as far as our poor mortality can be sure of anything. She had only to reach out her hands.
But if, instead, she took the leap ...!
"Roddy ..." she said.
He was slumped down in a big easy chair at the other side of the table, swinging a restless foot; drumming now and then with his fingers. It was many silent minutes since the storm of reproach with which he had repelled her plea for a part in the actual responsible care of her children had died away. He had spoken with unnecessary vehemence, he knew. He had admitted that—said he was sorry, as well as he could without withdrawing from his position. But he had been met by that most formidable of all weapons—a blank silence—an inscrutable face. Some sort of scene was inevitable, he knew. And he sat there waiting for it. She had been hurt. She was undoubtedly very angry.
He thought he was ready for anything. But just the way she spoke his name, startled—almost frightened—him, she said it so quietly, so—tenderly.
"Roddy," she said, "I want you to come over here and kiss me, and then go back and sit down in that chair again."
He went a little pale at that. The swing of his foot was arrested suddenly. But, for a moment, he made no move—just looked wonderingly into her great grave eyes.
"Something's going to happen," she went on, "and before it's over, I'm afraid it's going to hurt you terribly—and me. And I want the kiss for us to remember. So that we'll always know, whatever happens afterward, that we loved each other." She held out her arms to him. "Won't you come?"
He came—a man bewildered—bent down over her and found her lips; but almost absently, out of a daze.
"No, not like that," she murmured. "In the old way."
There was a long embrace.
"I wouldn't do it," she said, "I don't believe I'd have the courage to do it, if it were just me. But there's some one else—I've made some one a promise. I can't tell you about that. Now please go back and sit over there where you were, where we can talk quietly.—Oh, Roddy, I love you so!—No, please go back, old man! And—and light your pipe. Oh, don't tremble like that! It—it isn't a tragedy. It's—for us, it's the greatest hope in the world."
He went back to his chair. He even lighted his pipe as she asked him to, and waited as steadily as he could for her to begin.
But she couldn't begin while she looked at him. She moved a little closer to the table and leaned her elbow on it, shaded her eyes with one hand, while the other played with the stump of a pencil that happened to be lying there.
"Do you remember ..." she began, and it was wonderful how quiet and steady her voice was. There was even the trace of a smile about her wonderful mouth. "Do you remember that afternoon of ours, the very first of them, when you brought home my note-books and found me asleep on the couch in our old back parlor? Do you remember how you told me that one's desires were the only motive power he had? One couldn't ride anywhere, you said, except on the backs of his own passions? Well, it was a funny thing—I got to wondering afterward what my desires were, and it seemed I hadn't any. Everything had, somehow, come to me before I knew I wanted it. Everything in the world, even your love for me, came like that.
"But I've got a passion now, Rodney. I've had it for a long while. It's a desire I can't satisfy. The thing I want, and there's nothing in the world that I wouldn't give to get it, is—well, your friendship; that's a way of saying it."
What he had been waiting to hear, of course, she didn't know. But she knew by the way he started and stared at her, that it hadn't been for that. The thing struck him, it seemed, as a sort of grotesquely irritating anti-climax.
"Gracious Heaven!" he said. "My friendship! Why, I'm in love with you! That's certainly a bigger thing. Go back to your geometry, child. The greater includes the less, doesn't it?"
"I don't know whether it's a bigger thing or not," she said. "But it doesn't include the other. Love's just a sort of miracle thing that happens to you. You don't have it because you deserve it. The person I made that promise to would have earned it, if any one could. But it doesn't come that way. It's like lightning. It strikes or else it doesn't. Well, it struck us. But friendship—there's this about it. You can't get it any way in the world, except just by earning it. Nobody can give it to you, no matter how hard he tries. So when you've got it, you can always say, 'There's something that I'm entitled to—something that's mine.' Your love isn't mine any more than the air is. I never did anything to earn it.
"And that's why it can't satisfy me.—Because it doesn't, Roddy. It hasn't for ever so long. It's something wonderful that's—happened to me. It's the loveliest thing that ever happened to anybody. And just because it's so wonderful and beautiful, I can't bear to—well, this is hard to say—I can't bear to use it to live on. I can't bear to have it mixed up in things like millinery bills and housekeeping expense. I can't bear to see it become a thing that piles a load of hateful obligations on your back. I could live on your friendship, Roddy; because your friendship would mean that somehow I was earning my way, but I can't live on your love; any more than you could on mine. Won't you—won't you just try to think for a moment what that would mean to you?"
Now that he had sensed the direction her talk was headed in, even though he hadn't even vaguely glimpsed the point at which she was going to bring up, he made it much harder for her to talk to him. He was tramping up and down the room, stopping and turning short every now and then with a gesture of exasperation, or an interruption that never got beyond two or three words and broke off always in a sort of frantic speechlessness.
She knew he couldn't help it. Down underneath his mind, controlling utterly its processes, was a ganglion of instincts that were utterly outraged by the things she was saying to him. It was they and not his intelligence she had to fight. She must be patient, as gentle as she could, but she must make him listen.
"You've got my friendship!" he cried out now. "It's a grotesque perversion of the facts to say you haven't."
She smiled at him as she shook her head. "I've spent too many months trying to get it and seeing myself fail—oh, so ridiculously!—not to know what I am talking about, Roddy."
And then, still smiling, rather sadly, she told what some of the experiments had been—some of her attempts to break into the life he kept locked away from her and carry off a share of it for herself.
"I was angry at first when I found you keeping me out," she said, "angry and hurt. I used to cry about it. And then I saw it wasn't your fault. That's how I discovered friendship had to be earned."
But her power to maintain that attitude of grave detachment was about spent. The passion mounted in her voice and in her eyes as she went on.
"You thought it was because of my condition, as you called it, that my mind had got full of wild ideas;—the wild idea that I wasn't really and truly your wife at all, but only your mistress, and that I was pulling you down from something free and fine that you had been, to something that you despised yourself for being and had to try to deny you were. Those were the obsessions of a pregnant woman, you thought—something she was to be soothed and coddled into forgetting. You were wrong about that, Roddy.
"I did have an obsession, but it wasn't the thing you thought. It was an obsession that kept me quiet, and contented and happy, and willing to wait in spite of everything. The obsession was that none of those things mattered because a big miracle was coming that was going to change it all. I was going to have a job at last—a job that was just as real as yours—the job of being a mother."
Her voice broke in a fierce sharp little laugh over the word, but she got it back in control again.
"I was going to have a baby to feed out of my own body, to keep alive with my own care. There was going to be responsibility and hard work, things that demanded courage and endurance and sacrifice. I could earn your friendship with that, I said. That was the real obsession, Roddy, and it never really died until to-night. Because of course I have kept on hoping, even after I might have seen how it was. But the babies' lives aren't to be jeopardized to gratify my whims. Well, I suppose I can't complain. It's over, that's the main thing.
"And now, here I am perfectly normal and well again—as good as ever. I've kept my looks—oh, my hair and my complexion and my figure. I could wear pretty clothes again and start going out to things now that the season's begun, just as I did a year ago. People would admire me, and you'd be pleased, and you'd love me as much as ever, and it would all be like the paradise it was last year, except for one thing. The one thing is that if I do that, I'll know this time what I really am. Your mistress, Roddy; your legal, perfectly respectable mistress,—and a little more despicable rather than less, I think, because of the adjectives."
"I've let that word go by once," he said quietly, but with a dangerous light of anger in his eyes. "I won't again. It's perfectly outrageous and inexcusable that you should talk like that, and I'll ask you never to do it again."
"I won't," she flashed back at him, "if you'll explain why I'm not exactly what I say." And after ten seconds of silence, she went on.
"Why, Roddy, I've heard you describe me a hundred times. Not the you that's my lover. The other you; talking all over the universe to Barry Lake. You've described the woman who's never been trained nor taught nor disciplined; who's been brought up soft, with the bloom on, for the purpose of making her marriageable; who's never found her job in marriage, who doesn't cook, nor sew, nor spin, nor even take care of her own children; the woman who uses her sex charm to save her from having to do hard ugly things, and keep her in luxury. Do you remember what you've called her, Roddy? Do you remember the word you've used? I've used a gentler word than that.
"Oh, you didn't know, you poor blind boy, that I was the woman you were talking about. You never saw it at all. But I am. I was brought up like that.—Oh, not on purpose. Dear old mother! She wasn't trying to make me into a prostitute any more then you are trying to make me into your mistress. You both love me, that's all. It's just an instinct not to let anything hurt me, nor frighten me, nor tire me, nor teach me what work is. She thought she was educating me to be a lawyer so that when the time came, I could be one of the leaders of the woman movement just as she'd been. And all the while, without knowing it, she was educating me to be the sort of person you'd fall in love with—something precious and expensive—something to be taken care of.
"I didn't understand any of that when you married me, Roddy; it was just like a dream to me—like a fairy story come true. If any one had told me a year ago, that I should ever be anything but perfectly happy in your love for me, I'd have laughed at him. I remember telling Madame Greville that our marriage had turned out well—ended happily. And she did laugh. That was before I'd begun to understand. But I do understand now. I know why it was you could talk to me, back in those days before we were married, about anything under the sun—things ten thousand miles above my head; what it was that fooled me into thinking we were friends as well as lovers. I know why you've never been able to talk to me like that since. And I know—this is the worst of all, Roddy,—this is the piece of knowledge that makes it impossible—I know what a good mistress I could make. I know I could make you love me whether you wanted to or not; whether I loved you or not. I could make other men love me, if I could make up my mind to do it—make them tell me all their hopes and dreams, and think I had a fine mind and a wonderful understanding. Oh, it's too easy—it's too hatefully easy!
"Do you know why I told you that? Because if you believe it and understand it, you will see why I can't go on living on your love. Because how can you be sure, knowing that my position in the world, my friends—oh, the very clothes on my back, and the roof over my head, are dependent on your love,—how are you going to be sure that my love for you is honest and disinterested? What's to keep you from wondering—asking questions? Love's got to be free, Roddy. The only way to make it free is to have friendship growing alongside it. So, when I can be your partner and your friend, I'll be your mistress, too. But not—not again, Roddy, till I can find a way. I'll have to find it for myself. I'll have to go...."
She broke down there over a word she couldn't at first say, buried her face in her arms and let a deep racking sob or two have their own way with her. But presently she sat erect again and, with a supreme effort of will, forced her voice to utter the word.
"I've got to go somewhere alone—away from you, and stay until I find it. If I ever do, and you want me, I'll come back."
ROSE OPENS THE DOOR
The struggle between them lasted a week—a ghastly week, during which, as far as the surface of things showed, their life flowed along in its accustomed channels. It was a little worse than that, really, because the week included, so an ironic Fate had decreed, Thanksgiving Day and a jolly family party at Frederica's, with congratulations on the past, plans for the future. And Rose and Rodney, as civilized persons will do, kept their faces, accepted congratulations, made gay plans for the twins; smiled or laughed when necessary—somehow or other, got through with it.
But at all sorts of times, and in all sorts of places when they were alone together, the great battle was renewed; mostly through the dead hours of the night, in Rose's bedroom, she sitting up in bed, he tramping up and down, shivering and shuddering in a big bath-robe. It had a horrible way of interrupting itself for small domestic commonplaces, which in their assumption of the permanency of their old life, their blind disregard of the impending disaster, had an almost unendurable poignancy. A breakfast on the morning of an execution is something like that.
The hardest thing about it all for Rose—the thing that came nearest to breaking down her courage—was to see how slowly Rodney came to realize it at all. He was like a trapped animal pacing the four sides of his cage confident that in a moment or two he would find the way out, and then, incredulously, dazedly, coming to the surmise that there was no way out. She really meant to go away and leave him—leave the babies; go somewhere where his care and protection could not reach her! She was actually planning to do it—planning the details of doing it! By the end of one of their long talks, it would seem to her he had grasped this monstrous intention and accepted it. But before the beginning of the next one, he seemed to manage somehow to dismiss the thing as an impossible nightmare.
An invitation came in from the Crawfords for a dance at the Blackstone, the fifth of December, and he said something about accepting it.
"I shan't be here then, Roddy, you know," she said.
He went completely to pieces at that, as if the notion of her going away had never really reached his mind before.
The struggle ranged through the widest possible gamut of moods. They had their moments of rapturous love—passionate attempts at self-surrender. They had long hours of cool discussion, as impersonal as if they had been talking about the characters out of a hook instead of about themselves. They had stormy nerve-tearing hours of blind agonizing, around and around in circles, lacerating each other, lashing out at each other, getting nowhere. They had moments of incandescent anger.
He tried, just once, early in the fight, to take the ground he had taken once before; that she was irresponsible, obsessed. There was a fracture somewhere, as James Randolph's jargon had it, in her unconscious mind. She didn't let him go far with that. He saw her blaze up in a splendid burst of wrath, as she had blazed once—oh, an eternity ago, at a street-car conductor. Her challenge rang like a sword out of a scabbard.
"We'll settle that before we go any further," she said. "Telephone for James Randolph, or any other alienist you like. Let him take me and put me in a sanatorium somewhere and keep me under observation as long as he pleases, until he's satisfied whether I'm out of my mind or not. But unless you're willing to do that, don't call me irresponsible."
He grew more reasonable as a belief in her complete seriousness and determination sobered him. He made desperate efforts to recover his self-control—to get his big, cool, fine mechanism of a mind into action. But his mind, to his complete bewilderment, betrayed him. He'd always looked at Rose before, through the lens of his emotions. But now that he forced himself to look at her through the non-refracting window from which he looked at the rest of the world, she compelled him again and again to admit that she was right.
"Why shouldn't I be right?" she said with a woebegone smile. "These are all just things I've learned from you."
After a long and rather angry struggle with himself, he made up his mind to a compromise, and in one of their cooler talks together, he offered it.
"We've both of us pretty well lost our sense of proportion, it seems to me," he said. "This whole ghastly business started from my refusing to let Mrs. Ruston go and get a nurse who'd allow you to be your own nurse-maid. Well, I'm willing to give up completely on that point. You can let Mrs. Ruston go as soon as you like and get a nurse who'll meet with your ideas."
"You're doing that," said Rose thoughtfully, "rather than let me go away. That's the way it is, isn't it?"
"Why, yes, of course," he admitted. "I was looking at things from the children's point of view, and I thought I was right. From their point of view, I still think so."
She drew in a long sigh and shook her head. "It won't do, Roddy. Can't you see you're giving way practically under a threat—because I'll go away if you don't? But think what it would mean if I did stay, on those terms. The thing would rankle always. And if anything did happen to one of the babies because the new nurse wasn't quite so good, you'd never forgive me—not in all the world.
"And," she added a little later, "that would be just as true of any other compromise. I mean like going and living in a flat and letting me do the housework—any of the things we've talked about. I can say I am going away, don't you see, but I couldn't say I'd go away—unless ... I couldn't use that threat to extort things from you without killing our whole life dead. Can't you see that?"
His mind infuriated him by agreeing with her—goaded him into another passionate outburst during which he accused her of bad faith, of being tired of him, anxious to get away from him—seizing pretexts. But he offered no more compromises. The thing he fell back on after that was a plea for delay. The question must be decided coolly; not like this. Let them just put it out of their minds for a while, go on with the old routine as if nothing threatened it and see if things didn't work somewhat better—see if they weren't, after all, better friends than she thought.
"If I were ill, Roddy," she said, "and there was an operation talked about; if they said to you that there was something I might drag along for years, half alive, without, but that if I had it, it would either kill or cure, you wouldn't urge delay. We'd decide for or against it and be done. It's—it's taking just all the courage I've got to face this thing now that I am excited—now that I've thought it out and talked it out with you—now that I've got the big hope before my eyes. But to wait until I was tangled in the old routine and the babies began to get a little older and more—human, so that they knew me, and then do it in cold blood! I couldn't do that. We'd patch up some sort of a life, pretending a little, quarreling a little, and when my feelings got especially hurt about something, I'd try to make myself think, and you, that I was going away. And we'd both know down inside that we were cowards."
He protested against the word, but she stuck to it.
"We're both afraid now," she insisted. "That's one of the things that makes us so cruel to each other when we talk—fear. The world's a terrible place to me, Roddy. I've never ventured out alone in it; not a step. A year ago, I don't think I'd have been so frightened. I didn't know then—I'd never really thought about it—what a hard dangerous thing it is, just to earn enough to keep yourself alive. I haven't any illusions now that it's easy—not after the things I've heard Barry Lake tell about. But sometimes I think you're more afraid than I; and that you've got a more intolerable thing to fear—ridicule—an intangible sort of pitying ridicule that you can't get hold of; guessing at the sort of things people will say and never really quite knowing. And we have each got the other's fear to suffer under, too.—Oh, Roddy, Roddy, don't hate me too bitterly ...! But I think if we can both endure it, stand the gaff, as you said once, and know that the other's standing it, too, perhaps that'll be the real beginning of the new life."
Somehow or other, during their calmer moments toward the end, practical details managed to get talked about—settled after a fashion, without the admission really being made on his part that the thing was going to happen at all.
"I'd do everything I could of course, to make it easier," she said. "We could have a story for people that I'd gone to California to make mother a long visit. You could bring Harriet home from Washington to keep house while I was gone. I'd take my trunks, you see, and really go. People would suspect of course, after a while, but they'll always pretend to believe anything that's comfortable—anything that saves scenes and shocks and explanations."
"Where would you go, really?" he demanded. "Have you any plan at all?"
"I have a sort of plan," she said. "I think I know of a way of earning a living."
But she didn't offer to go on and tell him what it was, and after a little silence, he commented bitterly on this omission.
"You won't even give me the poor satisfaction of knowing what you're doing," he said.
"I'd love to," she said, "—to be able to write to you, hear from you every day. But I don't believe you want to know. I think it would be too hard for you. Because you'd have to promise not to try to get me back—not to come and rescue me if I got into trouble and things went badly and I didn't know where to turn. Could you promise that, Roddy?"
He gave a groan and buried his face in his hands. Then:
"No," he said furiously. "Of course I couldn't. See you suffering and stand by with my hands in my pockets and watch!" He sprang up and seized her by the arms in a grip that actually left bruises, and fairly shook her in the agony of his entreaty. "Tell me it's a nightmare, Rose," he said. "Tell me it isn't true. Wake me up out of it!"
But under the indomitable resolution of her blue eyes, he turned away. This was the last appeal of that sort that he made.
"I'll promise," she said presently, "to be sensible—not to take any risks I don't have to take. I'll regard my life and my health and all, as something I'm keeping in trust for you. I'll take plenty of warm sensible clothes when I go; lots of shoes and stockings—things like that, and if you'll let me, I'll—I'll borrow a hundred dollars to start myself off with. It isn't a tragedy, Roddy,—not that part of it. You wouldn't be afraid for any one else as big and strong and healthy as I."
Gradually, out of the welter of scenes like that, the thing got itself recognized as something that was to happen. But the parting came at last in a little different way from any they had foreseen.
Rodney came home from his office early one afternoon, with a telegram that summoned him to New York to a conference of counsel in a big public utility case he had been working on for months. He must leave, if he were going at all, at five o'clock. He ransacked the house, vainly at first, for Rose, and found her at last in the trunk-room—dusty, disheveled, sobbing quietly over something she held hugged in her arms. But she dried her eyes and came over to him and asked what it was that had brought him home so early.
He showed her the telegram. "I'll have to leave in an hour," he said, "if I'm to go."
She paled at that, and sat down rather giddily on a trunk. "You must go," she said, "of course. And—Roddy, I guess that'll be the easiest way. I'll get my telegram to-night—pretend to get it—from Portia. And you can give me the hundred dollars, and then, when you come back, I'll be gone."
The thing she had been holding in her hands slipped to the floor. He stooped and picked it up—stared at it with a sort of half awakened recognition.
"I f—found it," she explained, "among some old things Portia sent over when she moved. Do you know what it is? It's one of the note-books that got wet—that first night when we were put off the street-car. And—and, Roddy, look!"
She opened it to an almost blank page, and with a weak little laugh, pointed to the thing that was written there:
"'March fifteenth, nineteen twelve!' Your birthday, you see, and the day we met each other."
And then, down below, the only note she had made during the whole of that lecture, he read: "Never marry a man with a passion for principles."
"That's the trouble with us, you see," she said. "If you were just an ordinary man without any big passions or anything, it wouldn't matter much if your life got spoiled. But with us, we've got to try for the biggest thing there is. Oh, Roddy, Roddy, darling! Hold me tight for just a minute, and then I'll come and help you pack."
The World Alone
THE LENGTH OF A THOUSAND YARDS
"Here's the first week's rent then," said Rose, handing the landlady three dollars, "and I think you'd better give me a receipt showing till when it's paid for. Do you know where there's an expressman who would go for a trunk?"
The landlady had tight gray hair, a hard bitten hatchet face, and a back that curved through a forty-degree arc between the lumbar and the cervical vertebrae, a curve which was accentuated by the faded longitudinal blue and white stripes—like ticking—of the dress she wore. She had no charms, one would have said, of person, mind or manner. But it was nevertheless true that Rose was renting this room largely on the strength of the landlady. She was so much more humanly possible than any of the others at whose placarded doors Rose had knocked or rung ...!
For the last year and a half, anyway since she had married Rodney Aldrich, the surface that life had presented to her had been as bland as velvet. She'd never been spoken to by anybody except in terms of politeness. All the people she encountered could be included under two categories: her friends, if one stretches the word to include all her social acquaintances, and, in an equally broad sense, her servants; that is to say, people who earned their living by doing things she wanted done. Her friends' and her servants' manners were not alike, to be sure, but as far as intent went, they came to the same thing. They presented, whatever passions, misfortunes, dislikes, uncomfortable facts of any sort might lie in the background, a smooth and practically frictionless, bearing surface. A person accustomed to that surface develops a soft skin. This was about the first of Rose's discoveries.
To be looked at with undisguised suspicion—to have a door slammed in her face as the negative answer to a civil question, left her at first bewildered, and then enveloped in a blaze of indignation. It was perhaps lucky for her that this happened at the very beginning of her pilgrimage. Because, with that fire once alight within her, Rose could go through anything. The horrible fawning, leering landlady whom she had encountered later, might have turned her sick, but for that fine steady glow. The hatchet-faced one she had finally arrived at, made no protestations of her own respectability, and she seemed, though rather reluctantly, willing to assume that of her prospective lodger. She was puzzled about something, Rose could see; disposed to be very watchful and at no pains to conceal this attitude.
Well, she'd probably learned that she had to watch, poor thing! And, for that matter, Rose would probably have to do some watching on her own account. And, if the fact was there, why bother to keep up a contradictory fiction. So Rose asked for a receipt.
The matter of the trunk was easily disposed of. Rose had a check for it. It was at the Polk Street Station. There was a cigar and news stand two blocks down, the landlady said, where an expressman had his headquarters. There was a blue sign out in front: "Schulz Express"; Rose couldn't miss it.
The landlady went away to write out a receipt. Rose closed the door after her and locked it.
It was a purely symbolistic act. She wasn't going to change her clothes or anything, and she didn't particularly want to keep anybody out. But, in a sense in which it had never quite been true before, this was her room, a room where any one lacking her specific invitation to enter, would be an intruder—a condition that had not obtained either in her mother's house or in Rodney's.
She smiled widely over the absurdity of indulging in a pleasurable feeling of possession in a squalid little cubby-hole like this. The wall-paper was stained and faded, the paint on the soft-wood floor worn through in streaks; there was an iron bed—a double bed, painted light blue and lashed with string where one of its joints showed a disposition to pull out. The mattress on the bed was lumpy. There was a dingy-looking oak bureau with a rather small but pretty good plate-glass mirror on it; a marble topped, black walnut wash-stand; a pitcher of the plainest and cheapest white ware standing in a bowl on top of it, and a highly ornate, hand-painted slop-jar—the sole survivor, evidently, of a much prized set—under the lee of it. The steep gable of the roof cut away most of one side of the room, though there would be space for Rose's trunk to stand under it, and across the corner, at a curiously distressing angle, hung an inadequate curtain that had five or six clothes hooks behind it.
In the foreground of the view out of the window, was a large oblong plateau—the flat roof of an extension which had casually been attached to the front of the building and carried it forward to the sidewalk over what had once been a small front yard. The extension had a plate-glass front and was occupied, Rose had noticed before she plunged into the little tunnel that ran alongside it and led to the main building, by a dealer in delicatessen. Over the edge of the flat roof, she could see the top third of two endless streams of trolley-cars, for the traffic in this street was heavy, by night, she imagined, as well as by day.
The opposite facade of the street, like the one of which her own wall and window formed a part, was highly irregular and utterly casual. There were cheap two-story brick stores with false fronts that carried them up a half story higher. There were little gable-ended cottages with their fronts hacked out into show-windows. There were double houses of brick with stone trimmings that once had had some residential pretensions. The one characteristic that they possessed in common, was that of having been designed, patently, for some purpose totally different from the one they now served.
The shops on the street level had, for the most part, an air of shabby prosperity. There was, within the space Rose's window commanded, a cheap little tailor shop, the important part of whose business was advertised by the sign "pressing done." There was a tobacconist's shop whose unwashed windows revealed an array of large wooden buckets and dusty lithographs; a shoe shop that did repairing neatly while you waited; a rather fly-specked looking bakery. There was a saloon on the corner, and beside it, a four-foot doorway with a painted transom over it that announced it as the entrance of the Bellevue Hotel.
The signs on the second-story windows indicated dentist parlors, the homes of mid-wives, ladies' tailors and dressmakers, and everywhere furnished rooms for light housekeeping to let.
The people who patronized those shops, who drank their beer at the corner saloon, who'd be coming hurriedly in the night to ring up the mid-wife, who smoked the sort of tobacco that was sold from those big wooden buckets; the people who lounged along the wide sidewalks, or came riding down-town at seven in the morning, and back at six at night, packed so tight that they couldn't get their arms up to hold by the straps in the big roaring cars that kept that incessant procession going in the middle of the street—they all inhabited, Rose realized, a world utterly different from the one she had left. The distance between the hurrying life she looked out on through her grimy window, and that which she had been wont to contemplate through Florence McCrea's exquisitely leaded casements, was simply planetary.
And yet, queerly enough, in terms of literal lineal measurement, the distance between the windows themselves, was less than a thousand yards. Less than ten minutes' walking from the mouth of the little tunnel alongside the delicatessen shop, would take her back to her husband's door. She had, in her flight out into the new world, doubled back on her trail. And, such is the enormous social and spiritual distance between North Clark Street and The Drive, she was as safely hidden here, as completely out of the orbit of any of her friends, or even of her friends' servants, as she could have been in New York or in San Francisco.
Having to come away furtively like this was a terrible countermine beneath her courage. If only she could have had a flourish of defiant trumpets to speed her on her way! But, done like that, the thing would have hurt Rodney too intolerably. His intelligence might be twentieth century or beyond. It might acquiesce in, or even enthusiastically advocate, a relation between men and women that hadn't existed, anyway since the beginning of the Christian Era; it might accept without faltering, all the corollaries pendent to that relation. But his actuating instincts, his psychical reflexes, stretched their roots away back to the Middle Ages. Under the dominance of those instincts, a man lost caste—became an object of contemptuous derision, if he couldn't keep his wife. It was bad enough to have another man take her away from him, but it was worse to have her go away in the absence of such an excuse; worst of all, to have her go away to seek a job and earn her own living.
Rose didn't know how long the secret could be kept. Wherever she went, whatever she did, there'd always be the risk that some one who could carry back the news to Rodney's friends, would recognize her. It was a risk that had to be taken, and she didn't intend to allow herself to be paralyzed by a perpetual dread of what might at any time happen. At the same time, she'd protect the secret as well as she could.
But there were two people it couldn't be kept from—Portia and her mother. Rose had at first entertained the notion of keeping her mother in the dark. It wasn't until she had spent a good many hours figuring out expedients for keeping the deception going, that she realized it couldn't be done. She had been writing her mother a letter a week ever since the departure to California—letters naturally full of domestic details that simply couldn't be kept up. The only possible deception would be a compromise with the truth and compromises of that sort are apt to be pretty unsatisfactory. They suggest concealments in every phase, and to an imaginative mind, are more terrifying, nine times in ten, than the truth you're trying to soften. Then, too, the story given out to Rodney's friends being that Rose was in California with her mother and Portia, left the chance always open for some contretemps which would lead to her mother's discovering the truth in a surprising and shocking way.
But the truth itself, confidently stated, not as a tragic ending, but as the splendid hopeful beginning of a life of truer happiness for Rose and her husband, needn't be a shock. So this was what Rose had borne down on in her letter to Portia. It wasn't a very long letter, considering how much it had to tell.
"... I have found the big thing couldn't be had without a fight," she wrote. "You shouldn't be surprised, because you've probably found out for yourself that nothing worth having comes very easily. But you're not to worry about me, nor be afraid for me, because I'm going to win. I'm making the fight, somehow, for you as well as for myself. I want you to know that. I think that realizing I was living your life as well as mine, is what has given me the courage to start....
"I've got some plans, but I'm not going to tell you what they are. But I'll write to you every week and tell you what I've done and I want you to write to Rodney. I want to be sure that you understand this: Rodney isn't to blame for what's happened. I don't feel that I am, either, exactly. We're just in a situation that there's only one real way out of. I don't know whether he sees that yet or not. He's too terribly hurt and bewildered. But we haven't quarreled, and I believe we're further in love with each other than we've ever been before. I know I am with him....
"Break this thing to mother as gently as you like, but tell her everything before you stop...."
This letter written and despatched, she had worked out the details of her departure with a good deal of care. In her own house, before her servants, she had tried to act—and she felt satisfied that her attempt was successful—just as she would have done had her pretended telegram really come from Portia. She had packed, looked up trains, made a reservation. She had called up Frederica and told her the news. The train she had selected left at an hour and on a day when she knew Frederica wouldn't be able to come and see her off. Frederica had come down to the house of course to say good-by to her, and carrying her pretense through that scene, that had for her so much deeper and more poignant a regret than she dared show—because she really loved Frederica—was, next to bidding the twins good-by, the hardest thing she had to go through with. Lying and pretending were always terribly hard for Rose, and a lie to any one she was fond of, almost impossible. The only thing that enabled her to see it through, was the consideration that she was doing it for Rodney. He'd probably tell Frederica what had happened in time, but Rose was determined that he should have the privilege of choosing his own time for doing it.
Her bag was packed, her trunk was gone, her motor waiting at the door to take her to the station, when the maid Doris brought the twins home from their airing. This wasn't chance, but prearrangement.
"Give them to me;" Rose said, "and then you may go up and tell Mrs. Ruston she may have them in a few minutes."
She took them into her bedroom and laid them side by side on her bed. They had thriven finely—justified, as far as that went, Harriet's decision in favor of bottle feeding. Had she died back there in that bed of pain, never come out of the ether at all, they'd still be just like this—plump, placid, methodical. Rose had thought of that a hundred times, but it wasn't what she was thinking of now.
The thing that caught her as she stood looking down on them, was the wave of sudden pity. She saw them suddenly as persons with the long road all ahead of them, as a boy and a girl, a youth and a maid, a man and a woman. They were destined to have their hopes and loves, fears, triumphs, tragedies perhaps. The boy there, Rodney, might have to face, some day, the situation his father confronted now; might have to come back into an empty home, and turn a stiff inexpressive face on a coolly curious world. Little Portia there might find herself, some day, gazing with wide seared eyes, at a life some unexpected turn of the wheel of Fate had thrust her, all unprepared, into the midst of. Or it might be her fate to love without attracting love—to drain all the blood out of her life in necessary sacrifices; to wither that some one else might have a chance to grow. Those possibilities were all there before these two solemn, staring, little helpless things on the bed. What toys of Chance they were!
She'd never thought of them like that before. The baby she had looked forward to—the baby she hadn't had—had never been thought of that way either. It was to be something to provide her, Rose, with an occupation; to enable her to interpret her life in new terms; to make an alchemic change in the very substance of it. The transmutation hadn't taken place. She surmised now, dimly, that she hadn't deserved it should.
"You've never had a mother at all, you poor little mites," she said. "But you're going to have one some day. You're going to be able to come to her with your troubles, because she'll have had troubles herself. She'll help you bear your hurts, because she's had hurts of her own. And she'll be able to teach you to stand the gaff, because she's stood it herself."
For the first time since they were born, she was thinking of their need of her rather than of her need of them and with that thought, came for the first time, the surge of passionate maternal love that she had waited for, so long in vain. There was, suddenly, an intolerable ache in her heart that could only have been satisfied by crushing them up against her breast; kissing their hands—their feet.
Rose stood there quivering, giddy with the force of it. "Oh, you darlings!" she said. "But wait—wait until I deserve it!" And without touching them at all, she went to the door and opened it. Mrs. Ruston and Doris were both waiting in the hall.
"I must go now," she said. "Good-by. Keep them carefully for me." Her voice was steady, and though her eyes were bright, there was no trace of tears upon her cheeks. But there was a kind of glory shining in her face that was too much for Doris, who turned away and sobbed loudly. Even Mrs. Ruston's eyes were wet.
"Good-by," said Rose again, and went down composedly enough to her car.
She rode down to the station, shook hands with and said good-by to Otto, the chauffeur, allowed the porter to carry her bag into the waiting-room. There she tipped the porter, picked up the bag herself, and walked out the other door; crossed over to Clark Street and took a street-car. At Chicago Avenue she got off and walked north, keeping her eye open for placards advertising rooms to let. It was at the end of about a half mile that she found the hatchet-faced landlady, paid her three dollars, and locked her door, as a symbol, perhaps, of the bigger heavier door that she had swung to and locked on the whole of her past life.
Amid all the welter of emotions boiling up within her, grief was not present. There was a very deep-reaching excitement that sharpened all her faculties; that even made her see colors more brightly and hear fainter sounds. There was an intent eagerness to get the new life fairly begun. But, strangest of all, and yet so vivid that even its strangeness couldn't prevent her being aware of it, was a perfectly enormous relief. The thing which, when she had first faced it as the only thoroughfare to the real life she so passionately wanted, had seemed such a veritable nightmare, was an accomplished fact. The week of acute agony she had lived through while she was forcing her sudden resolution on Rodney had been all but unendurable with the enforced contemplation of the moment of parting which it brought so relentlessly nearer. There had been a terror, too, lest when the moment actually came, she couldn't do it. Well, and now it had come and gone! The surgery of the thing was over. The nerves and sinews were cut. The thing was done. The girl who stood there now in her three-dollar room was free; had won a fresh blank page to write the characters of her life upon.
She felt a little guilty about this. What heartless sort of a monster must she be to feel—why, actually happy, at a moment like this? She ought to be prone on the bed, her face buried in the musty pillow, sobbing her heart out.
But presently, standing there, looking down on the lumpy bed, she smiled widely instead, over the notion of doing it as a sort of concession to respectability. She had got her absolution from Rodney himself out of the memory of their first real talk together. Discipline, he'd said, was accepting the facts of life as they were. Not raising a lamentation because they weren't different. The only way you had of getting anywhere was by riding on the backs of your own passions. Well, her great ride was just beginning!
Rose dusted the mirror with a towel—a reckless act, as she saw for herself, when she discovered she was going to have to use that towel for a week—and took an appraising look at herself. Then she nodded confidently—there was nothing the matter with her looks—and resumed her ulster, her rubbers and her umbrella, for it was the kind of December day that called for all three. Her landlady could stick the receipt under the door, she reflected, as she locked it.