"I don't question," Musgrave said, at length, "that Jack is the highly estimable character you describe. But—oh, it is all nonsense, Polly!" he cried, with petulance, and with a tinge—if but the merest nuance —of conviction lacking in his voice.
The fan continued its majestic sweep from the shade into the sunlight, and back again into the shadow. Without, many locusts shrilled monotonously.
"Rudolph, I know what you meant by saying that Fate hadn't such a fine sense of humor."
"My dear madam, it was simply thrown out, in the heat of conversation—as an axiom——"
For a moment the fan paused; then went on as before. It was never charged against Pauline Ashmeade, whatever her shortcomings, that she was given to unnecessary verbiage.
Colonel Musgrave was striding up and down, divided between a disposition to swear at the universe at large and a desire to laugh at it. Somehow, it did not occur to him to doubt what she had told him. He comprehended now that, chafing under his indebtedness in the affair of Mrs. Pendomer, Charteris would most naturally retaliate by making love to his benefactor's wife, because the colonel also knew John Charteris. And for the rest, it was useless to struggle against a Fate that planned such preposterous and elaborate jokes; one might more rationally depend on Fate to work out some both ludicrous and horrible solution, he reflected, remembering a little packet of letters hidden in his desk.
Nevertheless, he paused after a while, and laughed, with a tolerable affectation of mirth.
"I say—I—and what in heaven's name, Polly, prompted you to bring me this choice specimen of a mare's-nest?"
"Because I am fond of you, I suppose. Isn't one always privileged to be disagreeable to one's friends? We have been friends a long while, you know."
Mrs. Ashmeade was looking out over the river now, but she seemed to see a great way, a very great way, beyond its glaring waters, and to be rather uncertain as to whether what she beheld there was of a humorous or pathetic nature.
"Rudolph, do you remember that evening—the first summer that I knew you—at Fortress Monroe, when we sat upon the pier so frightfully late, and the moon rose out of the bay, and made a great, solid-looking, silver path that led straight over the rim of the world, and you talked to me about—about what, now?"
"Oh, yes, yes!—I remember perfectly! One of the most beautiful evenings I ever saw. I remember it quite distinctly. I talked—I—and what, in the Lord's name, did I talk about, Polly?"
"Ah, men forget! A woman never forgets when she is really friends with a man. I know now you were telling me about Anne Charteris, for you have been in love with her all your life, Rudolph, in your own particular half-hearted and dawdling fashion. Perhaps that is why you have had so many affairs. You plainly found the run of women so unimportant that it put every woman on her pride to prove she was different. Yes, I remember. But that night I thought you were trying to make love to me, and I was disappointed in you, and—yes, rather pleased. Women are all vain and perfectly inconsistent. But then, girl-children always take after their fathers."
Mrs. Ashmeade rose from her chair. Her fan shut with a snap.
"You were a dear boy, Rudolph, when I first knew you—and what I liked was that you never made love to me. Of all the boys I have known and helped to form, you were the only sensible one—the only one who never presumed. That was rather clever of you, Rudolph. It would have been ridiculous, for even arithmetically I am older than you.
"Wouldn't it have been ridiculous, Rudolph?" she demanded, suddenly.
"Not in the least," Musgrave protested, in courteous wise. "You—why, Polly, you were a wonderfully handsome woman. Any boy——"
"Oh, yes!—I was. I'm not now, am I, Rudolph?" Mrs. Ashmeade threw back her head and laughed naturally. "Ah, dear boy that was, it is unfair, isn't it, for an old woman to seize upon you in this fashion, and insist on your making love to her? But I will let you off. You don't have to do it."
She caught her skirts in her left hand, preparatory to going, and her right hand rested lightly on his arm. She spoke in a rather peculiar voice.
"Yes," she said, "the boy was a very, very dear boy, and I want the man to be equally brave and—sensible."
Musgrave stared after her. "I wonder—I wonder—? Oh, no, that couldn't be," he said, and wearily.
"There must be some preposterous situations that don't come about."
* * * * *
And afterward he strolled across the lawn, where the locusts were shrilling, as if in a stubborn prediction of something which was inevitable, and he meditated upon a great number of things. There were a host of fleecy little clouds in the sky. He looked up at them, interrogatively.
And then he smiled and shook his head.
"Yet I don't know," said he; "for I am coming to the conclusion that the world is run on an extremely humorous basis."
And oddly enough, it was at the same moment that Patricia—in Lichfield—reached the same conclusion.
PART SEVEN - YOKED
"We are as time moulds us, lacking wherewithal To shape out nobler fortunes or contend Against all-patient Fates, who may not mend The allotted pattern of things temporal Or alter it a jot or e'er let fall A single stitch thereof, until at last The web and its drear weavers be overcast And predetermined darkness swallow all.
"They have ordained for us a time to sing, A time to love, a time wherein to tire Of all spent songs and kisses; caroling Such elegies as buried dreams require, Love now departs, and leaves us shivering Beside the embers of a burned-out fire."
PAUL VANDERHOFFEN. Egeria Answers.
The doctor's waiting-room smelt strongly of antiseptics. That was Patricia's predominating thought as she wandered aimlessly about the apartment. She fingered its dusty furniture. She remembered afterward the steel-engraving of Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, with General Lee explaining some evidently important matter to those attentive and unhumanly stiff politicians; and she remembered, too, how in depicting one statesman, who unavoidably sat with his back to the spectator, the artist had exceeded anatomical possibilities in order to obtain a recognizable full-faced portrait. Yet at the time this picture had not roused her conscious attention.
She went presently to the long table austerely decorated with two rows of magazines, each partly covered by its neighbor, just as shingles are placed. The arrangement irritated her unreasonably. She wanted to disarrange these dog-eared pamphlets, to throw them on the floor, to destroy them. She wondered how many other miserable people had tried to read these hateful books while they waited in this abominable room.
She started when the door of the consultation-room opened. The doctor was patting the silk glove of a harassed-looking woman in black as he escorted her to the outer door, and was assuring her that everything was going very well indeed, and that she was not to worry, and so on.
And presently he spoke with Patricia, for a long while, quite levelly, of matters which it is not suitable to record. Discreet man that he was, Wendell Pemberton could not entirely conceal his wonder that Patricia should have remained so long in ignorance of her condition. He spoke concerning malformation and functional weaknesses and, although obscurely because of the bugbear of professional courtesy, voiced his opinion that Patricia had not received the most adroit medical treatment at the time of little Roger's birth.
She was dividedly conscious of a desire to laugh and of the notion that she must remain outwardly serious, because though this horrible Pemberton man was talking abject nonsense, she would presently be having him as a dinner-guest.
But what if he were not talking nonsense? The possibility, considered, roused a sensation of falling through infinity.
"Yes, yes," Patricia civilly assented. "These young doctors have taken this out of me, and that out of me, as you might take the works out of a watch. And it has done no good; and they were mistaken in their first diagnoses, because what they took for true osteomalacia was only—— Would you mind telling me again? Oh, yes; I had only a pseudo-osteomalacic rhachitic pelvis, to begin with. To think of anybody's being mistaken about a simple little trouble like that! And I suppose I was just born with it, like my mother and all those other luckless women with Musgrave blood in them?"
"Fehling and Schliephake at least consider this variety of pelvic anomaly to be congenital in the majority of cases. But, without going into the question of heredity at all, I think it only, fair to tell you, Mrs. Musgrave——" And Pemberton went on talking.
Neither of the two showed any emotion.
The doctor went on talking. Patricia did not listen. The man was talking, she comprehended, but to her his words seemed blurred and indistinguishable. "Like a talking-machine when it isn't wound up enough," she decided.
Subconsciously Patricia was thinking, "You have two big beads of perspiration on your nose, and if I were to allude to the fact you would very probably die of embarrassment."
Aloud Patricia said: "You mean, then, that, to cap it all, a functional disorder of my heart has become organic, so that I would inevitably die under another operation? or even at a sudden shock? And that particular operation is now the solitary chance of saving my life! The dilemma is neat, isn't it? How God must laugh at the jokes He contrives," said Patricia. "I wish that I could laugh. And I will. I don't care whether you think me a reprobate or not, Dr. Pemberton, I want a good stiff drink of whiskey—the Musgrave size."
He gave it to her.
Patricia had as yet an hour to spend in Lichfield before her train left. She passed it in the garden of her own home, where she had first seen Rudolph Musgrave and he had fought with Pevensey. All that seemed very long ago.
The dahlia leaves, she noticed, were edged with yellow. She must look to it that the place was more frequently watered; and that the bulbs were dug up in September. Next year she meant to set the dahlias thinly, like a hedge....
"Oh, yes, I meant to. Only I won't be alive next year," she recollected.
She went about the garden to see if Ned had weeded out the wild-pea vines—a pest which had invaded the trim place lately. Only a few of the intruders remained, burnt-out and withered as they are annually by the mid-summer sun. There would be no more fight until next April.
"Oh, and I have prayed to You, I have always tried to do what You wanted, and I never asked You to let me be born locked up in a good-for-nothing Musgrave body! And You won't even let me see a wild-pea vine again! That isn't much to ask, I think. But You won't let me do it. You really do have rather funny notions about Your jokes."
She began to laugh.
"Oh, very well!" Patricia said aloud. "It is none of my affair that You elect to run Your world on an extremely humorous basis."
She was at Matocton in good time for luncheon.
Colonel Musgrave had a brief interview with his wife after luncheon. He began with quiet remonstrance, and ended with an unheard extenuation of his presumption. Patricia's speech on this occasion was of an unfettered and heady nature.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," she said, when she had finally paused for breath, and had wiped away her tears, and had powdered her nose, viciously, "to bully a weak and defenseless woman in this way. I dare say everybody in the house has heard us—brawling and squabbling just like a hod-carrier and his wife. What's that? You haven't said a word for fifteen minutes? Oh, la, la, la! well, I don't care. Anyhow, I have, and I am perfectly sure they heard me, and I am sure I don't care in the least, and it's all your fault, anyway. Oh, but you have an abominable nature, Rudolph—a mean and cruel and suspicious nature. Your bald-headed little Charteris is nothing whatever to me; and I would have been quite willing to give him up if you had spoken to me in a decent manner about it. You only said——? I don't care what you said; and besides, if you did speak to me in a decent manner, it simply shows that your thoughts were so horrid and vulgar that even you weren't so abandoned as to dare to put them into words. Very well, then, I won't be seen so much with him in future. I realize you are quite capable of beating me if I don't give way to your absurd prejudices. Yes, you are, Rudolph; you're just the sort of man to take pleasure in beating a woman. After the exhibition of temper you've given this afternoon, I believe you are capable of anything. Hand me that parasol! Don't keep on talking to me; for I don't wish to hear anything you have to say. You're simply driving me to my grave with your continual nagging and abuse and fault-finding. I'm sure I wish I were dead as much as you do. Is my hat on straight? How do you expect me to see into that mirror if you stand directly in front of it? There! not content with robbing me of every pleasure in life, I verily believe you were going to let me go downstairs with my hat cocked over one ear. And don't you snort and look at me like that. I'm not going to meet Mr. Charteris. I'm going driving with Felix Kennaston; he asked me at luncheon. I suppose you'll object to him next; you object to all my friends. Very well! Now you've made me utterly miserable for the entire afternoon, and I'm sure I hope you are satisfied."
There was a rustle of skirts, and the door slammed.
Colonel Musgrave went to his own room, where he spent an interval in meditation. He opened his desk and took out a small packet of papers, some of which he read listlessly. How curiously life re-echoed itself! he reflected, for here, again, were castby love-letters potent to breed mischief; and his talk with Polly Ashmeade had been peculiarly reminiscent of his more ancient talk with Clarice Pendomer. Everything that happened seemed to have happened before.
But presently he shook his head, sighing. Chance had put into his hands a weapon, and a formidable weapon, it seemed to him, but the colonel did not care to use it. He preferred to strike with some less grimy cudgel.
Then he rang for one of the servants, questioned him, and was informed that Mr. Charteris had gone down to the beach just after luncheon. A moment later, Colonel Musgrave was walking through the gardens in this direction.
As he came to the thicket which screens the beach, he called Charteris's name loudly, in order to ascertain his whereabouts. And the novelist's voice answered—yet not at once, but after a brief silence. It chanced that, at this moment, Musgrave had come to a thin place in the thicket, and could plainly see Mr. Charteris; he was concealing some white object in the hollow of a log that lay by the river. A little later, Musgrave came out upon the beach, and found Charteris seated upon the same log, an open book upon his knees, and looking back over his shoulder wonderingly.
"Oh," said John Charteris, "so it was you, Rudolph? I could not imagine who it was that called."
"Yes—I wanted a word with you, Jack."
Now, there are five little red-and-white bath-houses upon the beach at Matocton; the nearest of them was some thirty feet from Mr. Charteris. It might have been either imagination or the prevalent breeze, but Musgrave certainly thought he heard a door closing. Moreover, as he walked around the end of the log, he glanced downward as in a casual manner, and perceived a protrusion which bore an undeniable resemblance to the handle of a parasol. Musgrave whistled, though, at the bottom of his heart, he was not surprised; and then, he sat down upon the log, and for a moment was silent.
"A beautiful evening," said Mr. Charteris.
Musgrave lighted a cigarette.
"Jack, I have something rather difficult to say to you—yes, it is deuced difficult, and the sooner it is over the better. I—why, confound it all, man! I want you to stop making love to my wife."
Mr. Charteris's eyebrows rose. "Really, Colonel Musgrave——." he began, coolly.
"Now, you are about to make a scene, you know," said Musgrave, raising his hand in protest, "and we are not here for that. We are not going to tear any passions to tatters; we are not going to rant; we are simply going to have a quiet and sensible talk. We don't happen to be characters in a romance; for you aren't Lancelot, you know, and I am not up to the part of Arthur by a great deal. I am not angry, I am not jealous, nor do I put the matter on any high moral grounds. I simply say it won't do—no, hang it, it won't do!"
"I dare not question you are an authority in such matters," said John Charteris, sweetly—"since among many others, Clarice Pendomer is near enough to be an obtainable witness."
Colonel Musgrave grimaced. "But what a gesture!" he thought, half-enviously. Jack Charteris, quite certainly, meant to make the most of the immunity Musgrave had purchased for him. None the less, Musgrave had now his cue. Patricia must be listening.
And so what Colonel Musgrave said was: "Put it that a burnt child dreads the fire—is that a reason he should not warn his friends against it?"
"At least," said Charteris at length, "you are commendably frank. I appreciate that, Rudolph. I honestly appreciate the fact you have come to me, not as the husband of that fiction in which kitchen-maids delight, breathing fire and speaking balderdash, but as one sensible man to another. Let us be frank, then; let us play with the cards upon the table. You have charged me with loving your wife; and I answer you frankly—I do. She does me the honor to return this affection. What, then, Rudolph?"
Musgrave blew out a puff of smoke. "I don't especially mind," he said, slowly. "According to tradition, of course, I ought to spring at your throat with a smothered curse. But, as a matter of fact, I don't see why I should be irritated. No, in common reason," he added, upon consideration, "I am only rather sorry for you both."
Mr. Charteris sprang to his feet, and walked up and down the beach. "Ah, you hide your feelings well," he cried, and his laughter was a trifle unconvincing and a bit angry. "But it is unavailing with me. I know! I know the sick and impotent hatred of me that is seething in your heart; and I feel for you the pity you pretend to entertain toward me. Yes, I pity you. But what would you have? Frankly, while in many ways an estimable man, you are no fit mate for Patricia. She has the sensitive, artistic temperament, poor girl; and only we who are cursed with it can tell you what its possession implies. And you—since frankness is the order of the day, you know—well, you impress me as being a trifle inadequate. It is not your fault, perhaps, but the fact remains that you have never amounted to anything personally. You have simply traded upon the accident of being born a Musgrave of Matocton. In consequence you were enabled to marry Patricia's money, just as the Musgraves of Matocton always marry some woman who is able to support them. Ah, but it was her money you married, and not Patricia! Any community of interest between you was impossible, and is radically impossible. Your marriage was a hideous mistake, just as mine was. For you are starving her soul, Rudolph, just as Anne has starved mine. And now, at last, when Patricia and I have seen our single chance of happiness, we cannot—no! we cannot and we will not—defer to any outworn tradition or to fear of Mrs. Grundy's narrow-minded prattle!"
Charteris swept aside the dogmas of the world with an indignant gesture of somewhat conscious nobility; and he turned to his companion in an attitude of defiance.
Musgrave was smiling. He smoked and seemed to enjoy his cigarette.
The day was approaching sunset. The sun, a glowing ball of copper, hung low in the west over a rampart of purple clouds, whose heights were smeared with red. A slight, almost imperceptible, mist rose from the river, and, where the horizon should have been, a dubious cloudland prevailed. Far to the west were orange-colored quiverings upon the stream's surface, but, nearer, the river dimpled with silver-tipped waves; and, at their feet, the water grew transparent, and splashed over the sleek, brown sand, and sucked back, leaving a curved line of bubbles which, one by one, winked, gaped and burst. There was a drowsy peacefulness in the air; behind them, among the beeches, were many stealthy wood-sounds; and, at long intervals, a sleepy, peevish twittering went about the nested trees.
In Colonel Musgrave's face, the primal peace was mirrored.
"May I ask," said he at length, "what you propose doing?"
Mr. Charteris answered promptly. "I, of course, propose," said he, "to ask Patricia to share the remainder of my life."
"A euphemism, as I take it, for an elopement. I hardly thought you intended going so far."
"Rudolph!" cried Charteris, drawing himself to his full height—and he was not to blame for the fact that it was but five-feet-six—"I am, I hope, an honorable man! I cannot eat your salt and steal your honor. So I loot openly, or not at all."
The colonel shrugged his shoulders.
"I presuppose you have counted the cost—and estimated the necessary breakage?"
"True love," the novelist declared, in a hushed, sweet voice, "is above such considerations."
"I think," said Musgrave slowly, "that any love worthy of the name will always appraise the cost—to the woman. It is of Patricia I am thinking."
"She loves me," Charteris murmured. He glanced up and laughed. "Upon my soul, you know, I cannot help thinking the situation a bit farcical—you and I talking over matters in this fashion. But I honestly believe the one chance of happiness for any of us hinges on Patricia and me chucking the whole affair, and bolting."
"No! it won't do—no, hang it, Jack, it will not do!" Musgrave glanced toward the bath-house, and he lifted his voice. "I am not considering you in the least—and under the circumstances, you could hardly expect me to. It is of Patricia I am thinking. I haven't made her altogether happy. Our marriage was a mating of incongruities—and possibly you are justified in calling it a mistake. Yet, day in and day out, I think we get along as well together as do most couples; and it is wasting time to cry over spilt milk. Instead, it rests with us, the two men who love her, to decide what is best for Patricia. It is she and only she we must consider."
"Ah, you are right!" said Charteris, and his eyes grew tender. "She must have what she most desires; and all must be sacrificed to that." He turned and spoke as simply as a child. "Of course, you know, I shall be giving up a great deal for love of her, but—I am willing."
Musgrave looked at him for a moment. "H'm doubtless," he assented. "Why, then, we won't consider the others. We will not consider your wife, who—who worships you. We won't consider the boy. I, for my part, think it is a mother's duty to leave an unsullied name to her child, but, probably, my ideas are bourgeois. We won't consider Patricia's relatives, who, perhaps, will find it rather unpleasant. In short, we must consider no one save Patricia."
"Of course, one cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."
"No; the question is whether it is absolutely necessary to make the omelet. I say no."
"And I," quoth Charteris smiling gently, "say yes."
"For Patricia," Musgrave went on, as in meditation, but speaking very clearly, "it means giving up—everything. It means giving up her friends and the life to which she is accustomed; it means being ashamed to face those who were formerly her friends. We, the world, our world of Lichfield, I mean—are lax enough as to the divorce question, heaven knows, but we can't pardon immorality when coupled with poverty. And you would be poor, you know. Your books are tremendously clever, Jack, but—as I happen to know—the proceeds from them would not support two people in luxury; and Patricia has nothing. That is a sordid detail, of course, but it is worth considering. Patricia would never be happy in a three-pair back."
Mr. Charteris was frankly surprised. "Patricia has—nothing?"
"Bless your soul, of course not! Her father left the greater part of his money to our boy, you know. Most of it is still held in trust for our boy, who is named after him. Not a penny of it belongs to Patricia, and even I cannot touch anything but a certain amount of interest."
Mr. Charteris looked at the colonel with eyes that were sad and hurt and wistful. "I am perfectly aware of your reason for telling me this," he said, candidly. "I know I have always been thought a mercenary man since my marriage. At that time I fancied myself too much in love with Anne to permit any sordid considerations of fortune to stand in the way of our union. Poor Anne! she little knows what sacrifices I have made for her! She, too, would be dreadfully unhappy if I permitted her to realize that our marriage was a mistake."
"God help her—yes!" groaned Musgrave.
"And as concerns Patricia, you are entirely right. It would be hideously unfair to condemn her to a life of comparative poverty. My books sell better than you think, Rudolph, but still an author cannot hope to attain affluence so long as he is handicapped by any reverence for the English language. Yes, I was about to do Patricia a great wrong. I rejoice that you have pointed out my selfishness. For I have been abominably selfish. I confess it."
"I think so," assented Musgrave, calmly. "But, then, my opinion is, naturally, rather prejudiced."
"Yes, I can understand what Patricia must mean to you"—Mr. Charteris sighed, and passed his hand over his forehead in a graceful fashion,—"and I, also, love her far too dearly to imperil her happiness. I think that heaven never made a woman more worthy to be loved. And I had hoped—ah, well, after all, we cannot utterly defy society! Its prejudices, however unfounded, must be respected. What would you have? This dunderheaded giantess of a Mrs. Grundy condemns me to be miserable, and I am powerless. The utmost I can do is to refrain from whining over the unavoidable. And, Rudolph, you have my word of honor that henceforth I shall bear in mind more constantly my duty toward one of my best and oldest friends. I have not dealt with you quite honestly. I confess it, and I ask your pardon." Mr. Charteris held out his hand to seal the compact.
"Word of honor?" queried Colonel Musgrave, with an odd quizzing sort of fondness for the little novelist, as the colonel took the proffered hand. "Why, then, that is settled, and I am glad of it. I told you, you know, it wouldn't do. See you at supper, I suppose?"
And Rudolph Musgrave glanced at the bath-house, turned on his heel, and presently plunged into the beech plantation, whistling cheerfully. The effect of the melody was somewhat impaired by the apparent necessity of breaking off, at intervals, in order to smile.
The comedy had been admirably enacted, he considered, on both sides; and he did not object to Jack Charteris's retiring with all the honors of war.
The colonel had not gone far, however, before he paused, thrust both hands into his trousers' pockets, and stared down at the ground for a matter of five minutes.
Musgrave shook his head. "After all," said he, "I can't trust them. Patricia is too erratic and too used to having her own way. Jack will try to break off with her now, of course; but Jack, where women are concerned, is as weak as water. It is not a nice thing to do, but—well! one must fight fire with fire."
Thereupon, he retraced his steps. When he had come to the thin spot in the thicket, Rudolph Musgrave left the path, and entered the shrubbery. There he composedly sat down in the shadow of a small cedar. The sight of his wife upon the beach in converse with Mr. Charteris did not appear to surprise Colonel Musgrave.
Patricia was speaking quickly. She held a bedraggled parasol in one hand. Her husband noted, with a faint thrill of wonder, that, at times, and in a rather unwholesome, elfish way, Patricia was actually beautiful. Her big eyes glowed; they flashed with changing lights as deep waters glitter in the sun; her copper-colored hair seemed luminous, and her cheeks flushed, arbutus-like. The soft, white stuff that gowned her had the look of foam; against the gray sky she seemed a freakish spirit in the act of vanishing. For sky and water were all one lambent gray by this. In the west was a thin smear of orange; but, for the rest, the world was of a uniform and gleaming gray. She and Charteris stood in the heart of a great pearl.
"Ah, believe me," she was saying, "Rudolph isn't an ophthalmic bat. But God keep us all respectable! is Rudolph's notion of a sensible morning-prayer. So he just preferred to see nothing and bleat out edifying axioms. That is one of his favorite tricks. No, it was a comedy for my benefit, I tell you. He will allow a deal for the artistic temperament, no doubt, but he doesn't suppose you fetch along a white-lace parasol when you go to watch a sunset—especially a parasol he gave me last month."
"Indeed," protested Mr. Charteris, "he saw nothing. I was too quick for him."
She shrugged her shoulders. "I saw him looking at it. Accordingly, I paid no attention to what he said. But you—ah, Jack, you were splendid! I suppose we shall have to elope at once now, though?"
Charteris gave her no immediate answer. "I am not quite sure, Patricia, that your husband is not—to a certain extent—in the right. Believe me, he did not know you were about. He approached me in a perfectly sensible manner, and exhibited commendable self-restraint; he has played a difficult part to admiration. I could not have done it better myself. And it is not for us who have been endowed with gifts denied to Rudolph, to reproach him for lacking the finer perceptions and sensibilities of life. Yet, I must admit that, for the time, I was a little hurt by his evident belief that we would allow our feeling for each other—which is rather beyond his comprehension, isn't it, dear?—to be coerced by mercenary considerations."
"Oh, Rudolph is just a jackass-fool, anyway." She was not particularly interested in the subject.
"He can't help that, you know," Charteris reminded her, gently; then, he asked, after a little: "I suppose it is all true?"
"That what is true?"
"About your having no money of your own?" He laughed, but she could see how deeply he had been pained by Musgrave's suspicions. "I ask, because, as your husband has discovered, I am utterly sordid, my lady, and care only for your wealth."
"Ah, how can you expect a man like that to understand—you? Why, Jack, how ridiculous in you to be hurt by what the brute thinks! You're as solemn as an owl, my dear. Yes, it's true enough. My father was not very well pleased with us—and that horrid will—Ah, Jack, Jack, how grotesque, how characteristic it was, his thinking such things would influence you—you, of all men, who scarcely know what money is!"
"It was even more grotesque I should have been pained by his thinking it," Charteris said, sadly. "But what would you have? I am so abominably in love with you that it seemed a sort of desecration when the man lugged your name into a discussion of money-matters. It really did. And then, besides—ah, my lady, you know that I would glory in the thought that I had given up all for you. You know, I think, that I would willingly work my fingers to the bone just that I might possess you always. So I had dreamed of love in a cottage—an idyl of blissful poverty, where Cupid contents himself with crusts and kisses, and mocks at the proverbial wolf on the doorstep. And I give you my word that until to-day I had not suspected how blindly selfish I have been! For poor old prosaic Rudolph is in the right, after all. Your delicate, tender beauty must not be dragged down to face the unlovely realities and petty deprivations and squalid makeshifts of such an existence as ours would be. True, I would glory in them—ah, luxury and riches mean little to me, my dear, and I can conceive of no greater happiness than to starve with you. But true love knows how to sacrifice itself. Your husband was right; it would not be fair to you, Patricia."
"You—you are going to leave me?"
"Yes; and I pray that I may be strong enough to relinquish you forever, because your welfare is more dear to me than my own happiness. No, I do not pretend that this is easy to do. But when my misery is earned by serving you I prize my misery." Charteris tried to smile. "What would you have? I love you," he said, simply.
"Ah, my dear!" she cried.
Musgrave's heart was sick within him as he heard the same notes in her voice that echoed in Anne's voice when she spoke of her husband. This was a new Patricia; her speech was low and gentle now, and her eyes held a light Rudolph Musgrave had not seen there for a long while.
"Ah, my dear, you are the noblest man I have ever known; I wish we women could be like men. But, oh, Jack, Jack, don't be quixotic! I can't give you up, my dear—that would never be for my good. Think how unhappy I have been all these years; think how Rudolph is starving my soul! I want to be free, Jack; I want to live my own life,—for at least a month or so—"
Patricia shivered here. "But none of us is sure of living for a month. You've shown me a glimpse of what life might be; don't let me sink back into the old, humdrum existence from a foolish sense of honor! I tell you, I should go mad! I mean to have my fling while I can get it. And I mean to have it with you, Jack—just you! I don't fear poverty. You could write some more wonderful books. I could work, too, Jack dear. I—I could teach music—or take in washing—or something, anyway. Lots of women support themselves, you know. Oh, Jack, we would be so happy! Don't be honorable and brave and disagreeable, Jack dear!"
For a moment Charteris was silent. The nostrils of his beak-like nose widened a little, and a curious look came into his face. He discovered something in the sand that interested him.
"After all," he demanded, slowly, "is it necessary—to go away—to be happy?"
"I don't understand." Her hand lifted from his arm; then quick remorse smote her, and it fluttered back, confidingly.
Charteris rose to his feet. "It is, doubtless, a very spectacular and very stirring performance to cast your cap over the wind-mill in the face of the world; but, after all, is it not a bit foolish, Patricia? Lots of people manage these things—more quietly."
"Oh, Jack!" Patricia's face turned red, then white, and stiffened in a sort of sick terror. She was a frightened Columbine in stone. "I thought you cared for me—really, not—that way."
Patricia rose and spoke with composure. "I think I'll go back to the house, Mr. Charteris. It's a bit chilly here. You needn't bother to come."
Then Mr. Charteris laughed—a choking, sobbing laugh. He raised his hands impotently toward heaven. "And to think," he cried, "to think that a man may love a woman with his whole heart—with all that is best and noblest in him—and she understand him so little!"
"I do not think I have misunderstood you," Patricia said, in a crisp voice. "Your proposition was very explicit. I—am sorry. I thought I had found one thing in the world which I would regret to leave—"
"And you really believed that I could sully the great love I bear you by stooping to—that! You really believed that I would sacrifice to you my home life, my honor, my prospects—all that a man can give—without testing the quality of your love! You did not know that I spoke to try you—you actually did not know! Eh, but yours is a light nature, Patricia! I do not reproach you, for you are only as your narrow Philistine life has made you. Yet I had hoped better things of you, Patricia. But you, who pretend to care for me, have leaped at your first opportunity to pain me—and, if it be any comfort to you, I confess you have pained me beyond words." And he sank down on the log, and buried his face in his hands.
She came to him—it was pitiable to see how she came to him, laughing and sobbing all in one breath—and knelt humbly by his side, and raised a grieved, shamed, penitent face to his.
"Forgive me!" she wailed; "oh, forgive me!"
"You have pained me beyond words, Patricia," he repeated. He was not angry—only sorrowful and very much hurt.
"Ah, Jack! dear Jack, forgive me!"
Mr. Charteris sighed. "But, of course, I forgive you, Patricia," he said. "I cannot help it, though, that I am foolishly sensitive where you are concerned. And I had hoped you knew as much."
She was happy now. "Dear boy," she murmured, "don't you see it's just these constant proofs of the greatness and the wonderfulness of your love—Really, though, Jack, wasn't it too horrid of me to misunderstand you so? Are you quite sure you're forgiven me entirely—without any nasty little reservations?"
Mr. Charteris was quite sure. His face was still sad, but it was benevolent.
"Don't you see," she went on, "that it's just these things that make me care for you so much, and feel sure as eggs is eggs we will be happy? Ah, Jack, we will be so utterly happy that I am almost afraid to think of it!" Patricia wiped away the last tear, and laughed, and added, in a matter-of-fact fashion: "There's a train at six-five in the morning; we can leave by that, before anyone is up."
Charteris started. "Your husband loves you," he said, in gentle reproof. "And quite candidly, you know, Rudolph is worth ten of me."
"Bah, I tell you, that was a comedy for my benefit," she protested, and began to laugh. Patricia was unutterably happy now, because she, and not John Charteris, had been in the wrong. "Poor Rudolph!—he has such a smug horror of the divorce-court that he would even go so far as to pretend to be in love with his own wife in order to keep out of it. Really, Jack, both our better-halves are horribly commonplace and they will be much better off without us."
"You forget that Rudolph has my word of honor," said Mr. Charteris, in indignation.
And that instant, with one of his baffling changes of mood, he began to laugh. "Really, though, Patricia, you are very pretty. You are April embodied in sweet flesh; your soul is just a wisp of April cloud, and your life an April day, half sun that only seems to warm, and half tempest that only plays at ferocity; but you are very pretty. That is why I am thinking, light-headedly, it would be a fine and past doubt an agreeable exploit to give up everything for such a woman, and am complacently comparing myself to Antony at Actium. I am thinking it would be an interesting episode in one's Life and Letters. You see, my dear, I honestly believe the world revolves around John Charteris—although of course I would never admit that to you if I thought for a moment you would take me seriously."
Then presently, sighing, he was grave again. "But, no! Rudolph has my word of honor," Mr. Charteris repeated, and with unconcealed regret.
"Ah, does that matter?" she cried. "Does anything matter, except that we love each other? I tell you I have given the best part of my life to that man, but I mean to make the most of what is left. He has had my youth, my love—there was a time, you know, when I actually fancied I cared for him—and he has only made me unhappy. I hate him, I loathe him, I detest him, I despise him! I never intend to speak to him again—oh, yes, I shall have to at supper, I suppose, but that doesn't count. And I tell you I mean to be happy in the only way that's possible. Everyone has a right to do that. A woman has an especial right to take her share of happiness in any way she can, because her hour of it is so short. Sometimes—sometimes the woman knows how short it is and it almost frightens her.... But at best, a woman can be really happy through love alone, Jack dear, and it's only when we are young and good to look at that men care for us; after that, there is nothing left but to take to either religion or hand-embroidery, so what does it matter, after all? Yes, they all grow tired after a while. Jack, I am only a vain and frivolous person of superlative charm, but I love you very much, my dear, and I solemnly swear to commit suicide the moment my first wrinkle arrives. You shall never grow tired of me, my dear."
She laughed to think how true this was.
She hurried on: "Jack, kneel down at once, and swear that you are perfectly sore with loving me, as that ridiculous person says in Dickens, and whose name I never could remember. Oh, I forgot—Dickens caricatures nature, doesn't he, and isn't read by really cultured people? You will have to educate me up to your level, Jack, and I warn you in advance you will not have time to do it. Yes, I am quite aware that I am talking nonsense, and am on the verge of hysterics, thank you, but I rather like it. It is because I am going to have you all to myself for whatever future there is, and the thought makes me quite drunk. Will you kindly ring for the patrol-wagon, Jack? Jack, are you quite sure you love me? Are you perfectly certain you never loved any one else half so much? No, don't answer me, for I intend to do all the talking for both of us for the future! I shall tyrannize over you frightfully, and you will like it. All I ask in return is that you will be a good boy—by which I mean a naughty boy—and do solemnly swear, promise and affirm that you will meet me at the side-door at half-past five in the morning, with a portmanteau and the intention of never going back to your wife. You swear it? Thank you so much! Now, I think I would like to cry for a few minutes, and, after that, we will go back to the house, before supper is over and my eyes are perfectly crimson."
In fact, Mr. Charteris had consented. Patricia was irresistible as she pleaded and mocked and scolded and coaxed and laughed and cried, all in one bewildering breath. Her plan was simple; it was to slip out of Matocton at dawn, and walk to the near-by station. There they would take the train, and snap their fingers at convention. The scheme sounded preposterous in outline, but she demonstrated its practicability in performance. And Mr. Charteris consented.
Rudolph Musgrave sat in the shadow of the cedar with fierce and confused emotions whirling in his soul. He certainly had never thought of this contingency.
PART EIGHT - HARVEST
"Time was I coveted the woes they rued Whose love commemorates them,—I that meant To get like grace of love then!—and intent To win as they had done love's plenitude, Rapture and havoc, vauntingly I sued That love like theirs might make a toy of me, At will caressed, at will (if publicly) Demolished, as Love found or found not good.
"To-day I am no longer overbrave. I have a fever,—I that always knew This hour was certain!—and am too weak to rave, Too tired to seek (as later I must do) Tried remedies—time, manhood and the grave— To drug, abate and banish love of you." ALLEN ROSSITER. A Fragment.
When Patricia and Charteris had left the beach, Colonel Musgrave parted the underbrush and stepped down upon the sand He must have air—air and an open place wherein to fight this out.
Night had risen about him in bland emptiness. There were no stars overhead, but a patient, wearied, ancient moon pushed through the clouds. The trees and the river conferred with one another doubtfully.
He paced up and down the beach....
Musgrave laughed in the darkness. His heart was racing, racing in him, and his thoughts were blown foam. He raised his hat and bowed fantastically in the darkness, because the colonel loved his gesture.
"Signor Lucifer, I present my compliments. You have discoursed with me very plausibly. I honor your cunning, signor, but if you are indeed a gentleman, as I have always heard, you will now withdraw and permit me to regard the matter from a standpoint other than my own. For the others are weak, signor; as you have doubtless discovered, good women and bad men are the weakest of their sex. I am the strongest among them, for all that I am no Hercules; and the outcome of this matter must rest with me."
So he sat presently upon the log, where Charteris had sat when Musgrave came to this beach at sunset. Very long ago that seemed now. For now the colonel was tired—physically outworn, it seemed to him, as if after prolonged exertion—and now the moon looked down upon him, passionless, cold, inexorable, and seemed to await the colonel's decision.
And it was woefully hard to come to any decision. For, as you know by this, it was the colonel's besetting infirmity to shrink from making changes; instinctively he balked—under shelter of whatever grandiloquent excuse—against commission of any action which would alter his relations with accustomed circumstances or persons. To guide events was never his forte, as he forlornly knew; and here he was condemned perforce to play that uncongenial role, with slender chances of reward.
Yet always Anne's face floated in the darkness. Always Anne's voice whispered through the lisping of the beeches, through the murmur of the water....
He sat thus for a long while.
Musgrave was, not unnaturally, late for supper. It is not to be supposed that at this meal the colonel faltered in his duties as a host, for, to the contrary, he narrated several anecdotes in his neatest style. It was with him a point of honor always to be in company the social triumph of his generation. He observed with idle interest that Charteris and Patricia avoided each other in a rather marked manner. Both seemed a trifle more serious than they were wont to be.
After supper, Tom Gelwix brought forth a mandolin, and most of the house-party sang songs, sentimental and otherwise, upon the front porch of Matocton. Anne had disappeared somewhere. Musgrave subsequently discovered her in one of the drawing-rooms, puzzling over a number of papers which her maid had evidently just brought to her.
Mrs. Charteris looked up with a puckered brow. "Rudolph," said she, "haven't you an account at the Occidental Bank?"
"Hardly an account, dear lady,—merely a deposit large enough to entitle me to receive monthly notices that I have overdrawn it."
"Why, then, of course, you have a cheque-book. Horrible things, aren't they?—such a nuisance remembering to fill out those little stubs. Of course, I forgot to bring mine with me—I always do; and equally, of course, a vexatious debt turns up and finds me without an Occidental Bank cheque to my name."
Musgrave was amused. "That," said he, "is easily remedied. I will get you one; though even if—Ah, well, what is the good of trying to teach you adorable women anything about business! You shall have your indispensable blank form in three minutes."
He returned in rather less than that time, with the cheque. Anne was alone now. She was gowned in some dull, soft, yellow stuff, and sat by a small, marble-topped table, twiddling a fountain-pen.
"You mustn't sneer at my business methods, Rudolph," she said, pouting a little as she filled out the cheque. "It isn't polite, sir, in the first place, and, in the second, I am really very methodical. Of course, I am always losing my cheque-book, and drawing cheques and forgetting to enter them, and I usually put down the same deposit two or three times—all women do that; but, otherwise, I am really very careful. I manage all the accounts; I can't expect Jack to do that, you know." Mrs. Charteris signed her name with a flourish, and nodded at the colonel wisely. "Dear infant, but he is quite too horribly unpractical. Do you know this bill has been due—oh, for months—and he forgot it entirely until this evening. Fortunately, he can settle it to-morrow; those disagreeable publishers of his have telegraphed for him to come to New York at once, you know. Otherwise—dear, dear! but marrying a genius is absolutely ruinous to one's credit, isn't it, Rudolph? The tradespeople will refuse to trust us soon."
Involuntarily, Musgrave had seen the cheque. It was for a considerable amount, and it was made out to John Charteris.
"Beyond doubt," said Musgrave, in his soul, "Jack is colossal! He is actually drawing on his wife for the necessary expenses for running away with another woman!"
The colonel sat down abruptly before the great, open fireplace, and stared hard at the pine-boughs which were heaped up in it.
"A penny," said she, at length.
He glanced up with a smile. "My dear madam, it would be robbery! For a penny, you may read of the subject of my thoughts in any of the yellow journals, only far more vividly set forth, and obtain a variety of more or less savory additions, to boot. I was thinking of the Lethbury case, and wondering how we could have been so long deceived by the man."
"Ah, poor Mrs. Lethbury!" Anne sighed, "I am very sorry for her, Rudolph; she was a good woman, and was always interested in charitable work."
"Do you know," said Colonel Musgrave, with deliberation, "it is she I cannot understand. To discover that he had been systematically hoodwinking her for some ten years; that, after making away with as much of her fortune as he was able to lay hands on, he has betrayed business trust after business trust in order to—to maintain another establishment; that he has never cared for her, and has made her his dupe time after time, in order to obtain money for his gambling debts and other even less reputable obligations—she must realize all these things now, you know, and one would have thought no woman's love could possibly survive such a test. Yet, she is standing by him through thick and thin. Yes, I confess, Amelia Lethbury puzzles me. I don't understand her mental attitude."
Musgrave was looking at Anne very intently as he ended.
"Why, but of course," said Anne, "she realizes that it was all the fault of that—that other woman; and, besides, the—the entanglement has been going on only a little over eight years—not ten, Rudolph."
She was entirely in earnest; Colonel Musgrave could see it plainly.
"I admit I hadn't looked on it in that light," said he, at length, and was silent for a moment Then, "Upon my soul, Anne," he cried, "I believe you think the woman is only doing the natural thing, only doing the thing one has a right to expect of her, in sticking to that blackguard after she has found him out!"
Mrs. Charteris raised her eyebrows; she was really surprised. "Naturally, she must stand by her husband when he is in trouble; why, if his own wife didn't, who would, Rudolph? It is just now that he needs her most. It would be abominable to desert him now."
Anne paused and thought. "Depend upon it, she knows a better side of his nature than we can see; she knows him, possibly, to have been misled, or to have acted thoughtlessly; because otherwise, she would not stand by him so firmly." Having reached this satisfactory conclusion, Anne began to laugh—at Musgrave's lack of penetration, probably. "So, you see, Rudolph, in either case, her conduct is perfectly natural."
"And this," he cried, "this is how women reason!"
"Am I very stupid? Jack says I am a bit illogical at times. But, Rudolph, you mustn't expect a woman to judge the man she loves; if you call on her to do that, she doesn't reason about it; she just goes on loving him, and thinking how horrid you are. Women love men as they do children; they punish them sometimes, but only in deference to public opinion. A woman will always find an excuse for the man she loves. If he deserts her, she is miserable until she succeeds in demonstrating to herself it was entirely her own fault; after that, she is properly repentant, but far less unhappy; and, anyhow, she goes on loving him just the same."
The colonel pondered over this. "Women are different," he said.
"I don't know. I think that, if all women could be thrown with good men, they would all be good. Women want to be good; but there comes a time to each one of them when she wants to make a certain man happy, and wants that more than anything else in the world; and then, of course, if he wants—very much—for her to be bad, she will be bad. A bad woman is always to be explained by a bad man."
Anne nodded, very wisely; then, she began to laugh, but this time at herself. "I am talking quite like a book," she said. "Really, I had no idea I was so clever. But I have thought of this before, Rudolph, and been sorry for those poor women who—who haven't found the right sort of man to care for."
"Yes." Musgrave's face was alert. "You have been luckier than most, Anne," he said.
"Lucky!" she cried, and that queer little thrill of happiness woke again in her rich voice. "Ah, you don't know how lucky I have been, Rudolph! I have never cared for any one except—well, yes, you, a great while ago—and Jack. And you are both good men. Ah, Rudolph, it was very dear and sweet and foolish, the way we loved each other, but you don't mind—very, very much—do you, if I think Jack is the best man in the world, and by far the best man in the world for me? He is so good to me; he is so good and kind and considerate to me, and, even after all these years of matrimony, he is always the lover. A woman appreciates that, Rudolph; she wants her husband to be always her lover, just as Jack is, and never to give in when she coaxes—because she only coaxes when she knows she is in the wrong—and never, never, to let her see him shaving himself. If a husband observes these simple rules, Rudolph, his wife will be a happy woman; and Jack does. In consequence, every day I live I grow fonder of him, and appreciate him more and more; he grows upon me just as a taste for strong drink might. Without him—without him—" Anne's voice died away; then she faced Musgrave, indignantly. "Oh, Rudolph!" she cried, "how horrid of you, how mean of you, to come here and suggest the possibility of Jack's dying or running away from me, or doing anything dreadful like that!"
Colonel Musgrave was smiling, "I?" said he, equably. "My dear madam! if you will reconsider,—"
"No," she conceded, after deliberation, "it wasn't exactly your fault. I got started on the subject of Jack, and imagined all sorts of horrible and impossible things. But there is a sort of a something in the air to-night; probably a storm is coming down the river. So I feel very morbid and very foolish, Rudolph; but, then, I am in love, you see. Isn't it funny, after all these years?" Anne asked with a smile;—"and so you are not to be angry, Rudolph."
"My dear," he said, "I assure you, the emotion you raise in me is very far from resembling that of anger." Musgrave rose and laughed. "I fear, you know, we will create a scandal if we sit here any longer. Let's see what the others are doing."
That night, after his guests had retired, Colonel Musgrave smoked a cigarette on the front porch of Matocton. The moon, now in the zenith, was bright and chill. After a while, Musgrave raised his face toward it, and laughed.
"Isn't it—isn't it funny?" he demanded, echoing Anne's query ruefully.
"Eh, well! perhaps I still retained some lingering hope; in a season of discomfort, most of us look vaguely for a miracle. And, at times, it comes, but, more often, not; life isn't always a pantomime, with a fairy god-mother waiting to break through the darkness in a burst of glory and reunite the severed lovers, and transform their enemies into pantaloons. In this case, it is certain that the fairy will not come. I am condemned to be my own god in the machine."
Having demonstrated this to himself, Musgrave went into the house and drugged his mind correcting proofsheets—for the Lichfield Historical Association's Quarterly Magazine—and brought down to the year 1805 his "List of Wills Recorded in Brummell County."
The night was well advanced when Charteris stepped noiselessly into the room. The colonel was then sedately writing amid a host of motionless mute watchers, for at Matocton most of the portraits hang in the East Drawing-room.
Thus, above the great marble mantel,—carved with thyrsi, and supported by proud deep-bosomed caryatides,—you will find burly Sebastian Musgrave, "the Speaker," an all-overbearing man even on canvas. "Paint me among dukes and earls with my hat on, to show I am in all things a Republican, and the finest diamond in the Colony shall be yours," he had directed the painter, and this was done. Then there is frail Wilhelmina Musgrave—that famed beauty whose two-hundred-year-old story all Lichfield knows, and no genealogist has ever cared to detail—eternally weaving flowers about her shepherd hat. There, too, is Evelyn Ramsay, before whose roguish loveliness, as you may remember, the colonel had snapped his fingers in those roseate days when he so joyously considered his profound unworthiness to be Patricia's husband. There is also the colonial governor of Albemarle—a Van Dyck this—two Knellers, and Lely's portrait of Thomas Musgrave, "the poet," with serious blue eyes and flaxen hair. The painting of Captain George Musgrave, who distinguished himself at the siege of Cartagena, is admittedly an inferior piece of work, but it has vigor, none the less; and below it hangs the sword which was presented to him by the Lord High Admiral.
So quietly did Charteris come that the colonel was not aware of his entrance until the novelist had coughed gently. He was in a dressing-gown, and looked unusually wizened.
"I saw your light," he said. "I don't seem to be able to sleep, somehow. It is so infernally hot and still. I suppose there is going to be a thunderstorm. I hate thunderstorms. They frighten me." The little man was speaking like a peevish child.
"Oh, well—! it will at least clear the air," said Rudolph Musgrave. "Sit down and have a smoke, won't you?"
"No, thanks." Charteris had gone to the bookshelves and was gently pushing and pulling at the books so as to arrange their backs in a mathematically straight line. "I thought I would borrow something to read—Why, this is the Tennyson you had at college, isn't it? Yes, I remember it perfectly."
These two had roomed together through their college days.
"Yes; it is the old Tennyson. And yonder is the identical Swinburne you used to spout from, too. Lord, Jack, it seems a century since I used to listen by the hour to The Triumph of Time and Dolores!"
"Ah, but you didn't really care for them—not even then." Charteris reached up, his back still turned, and moved a candlestick the fraction of an inch. "There is something so disgustingly wholesome about you, Rudolph. And it appears to be ineradicable. I can't imagine how I ever came to be fond of you."
The colonel was twirling his pen, his eyes intent upon it. "And yet—we were fond of each other, weren't we, Jack?"
"Why, I positively adored you. You were such a strong and healthy animal. Upon my word, I don't believe I ever missed a single football game you played in. In fact, I almost learned to understand the game on your account. You see—it was so good to watch you raging about with touzled hair, like the only original bull of Bashan, and the others tumbling like ninepins. It used to make me quite inordinately proud."
The colonel smoked. "But, Lord! how proud I was when you got medals!"
"Even if I did bully you sometimes. Remember how I used to twist your arm to make you write my Latin exercises, Jack?"
"I liked to have you do that," Charteris said, simply. "It hurt a great deal, but I liked it."
He had come up behind the colonel, who was still seated. "Yes, that was a long while ago," said Charteris. "It is rather terrible—isn't it?—to reflect precisely how long ago it was. Why, I shall be bald in a year or two from now. But you have kept almost all your beautiful hair, Rudolph."
Charteris touched the colonel's head, stroking his hair ever so lightly once or twice. It was in effect a caress.
The colonel was aware of the odor of myrrh which always accompanied Charteris and felt that the little man was trembling.
"Isn't there—anything you want to tell me, Jack?" the colonel said. He sat quite still.
There was the tiniest pause. The caressing finger-tips lifted from Musgrave's head, but presently gave it one more brief and half-timid touch.
"Why, only au revoir, I believe. I am leaving at a rather ungodly hour to-morrow and won't see you, but I hope to return within the week."
"I hope so, Jack."
"And, after all, it is too late to be reading. I shall go back to bed and take more trional. And then, I dare say, I shall sleep. So good-by, Rudolph."
"Oh, yes—! I meant good-night, of course."
The colonel sighed; then he spoke abruptly:
"No, just a moment, Jack. I didn't ask you to come here to-night; but since you have come, by chance, I am going to follow the promptings of that chance, and strike a blow for righteousness with soiled weapons. Jack, do you remember suggesting that my father's correspondence during the War might be of value, and that his desk ought to be overhauled?"
"Why, yes, of course. Mrs. Musgrave was telling me she began the task," said Charteris, and smiled a little.
"Unluckily; yes—but—well! in any event, it suggested to me that old letters are dangerous. I really had no idea what that desk contained. My father had preserved great stacks of letters. I have been going through them. They were most of them from women—letters which should never have been written in the first place, and which he certainly had no right to keep."
"What! and is 'Wild Will's' love-correspondence still extant? I fancy it made interesting reading, Rudolph."
"There were some letters which in a measure concern you, Jack." The colonel handed him a small packet of letters. "If you will read the top one it will explain. I will just go on with my writing."
He wrote steadily for a moment or two.... Then Charteris laughed musically.
"I have always known there was a love-affair between my mother and 'Wild Will.' But I never suspected until to-night that I had the honor to be your half-brother, Rudolph—one of 'Wild Will's' innumerable bastards." Charteris was pallid, and though he seemed perfectly composed, his eyes glittered as with gusty brilliancies. "I understand now why my reputed father always made such a difference between my sister and myself. I never liked old Alvin Charteris, you know. It is a distinct relief to be informed I have no share in his blood, although of course the knowledge comes a trifle suddenly."
"Perhaps I should have kept that knowledge to myself. I know it would have been kinder. I had meant to be kind. I loathe myself for dabbling in this mess. But, in view of all things, it seemed necessary to let you know I am your own brother in the flesh, and that Patricia is your brother's wife."
"I see," said Charteris. "According to your standards that would make a great difference. I don't know, speaking frankly, that it makes much difference with me." He turned again to the bookshelves, so that Musgrave could no longer see his face. Charteris ran his fingers caressingly over the backs of a row of volumes. "I loved my mother, Rudolph. I never loved anyone else. That makes a difference." Then he said, "We Musgraves—how patly I catalogue myself already!—we Musgraves have a deal to answer for, Rudolph."
"And doesn't that make it all the more our duty to live clean and honest lives? to make the debt no greater than it is?" Both men were oddly quiet.
"Eh, I am not so sure." John Charteris waved airily toward Sebastian Musgrave's counterfeit, then toward the other portraits. "It was they who compounded our inheritances, Rudolph—all that we were to have in this world of wit and strength and desire and endurance. We know their histories. They were proud, brave and thriftless, a greedy and lecherous race, who squeezed life dry as one does an orange, and left us the dregs. I think that it is droll, but I am not sure it places us under any obligation. In fact, I rather think God owes us an apology, Rudolph."
He spoke with quaint wistfulness. The colonel sat regarding him in silence, with shocked, disapproving eyes. Then Charteris cocked his head to one side and grinned like a hobgoblin.
"What wouldn't you give," he demanded, "to know what I am really thinking of at this very moment while I talk so calmly? Well, you will never know. And for the rest, you are at liberty to use your all-important documents as you may elect. I am John Charteris; whatever man begot my body, he is rotten bones to-day, and it is as such I value him. I was never anybody's son—or friend or brother or lover,—but just a pen that someone far bigger and far nobler than John Charteris writes with occasionally. Whereas you—but, oh, you are funny, Rudolph!" And then, "Good-night, dear brother," Charteris added, sweetly, as he left the room.
* * * * *
And Rudolph Musgrave could not quite believe in the actuality of what had just happened. In common with most of us, he got his general notions concerning the laws of life from reading fiction; and here was the material for a Renaissance tragedy wasted so far as any denouement went. Destiny, once more, was hardly rising to the possibilities of the situation. The weapon chance had forged had failed Rudolph Musgrave utterly; and, indeed, he wondered now how he could ever have esteemed it formidable. Jack was his half-brother. In noveldom or in a melodrama this discovery would have transformed their mutual dealings; but as a workaday world's fact, Musgrave would not honestly say that it had in any way affected his feelings toward Jack, and it appeared to have left Charteris equally unaltered.
"I am not sure, though. We can only guess where Jack is concerned. He goes his own way always, tricky and furtive and lonelier than any other human being I have ever known. It is loneliness that looks out of his eyes, really, even when he is mocking and sneering," the colonel meditated.
Then he sighed and went back to the tabulation of his lists of wills.
The day was growing strong in the maple-grove behind Matocton. As yet, the climbing sun fired only the topmost branches, and flooded them with a tempered radiance through which birds plunged and shrilled vague rumors to one another. Beneath, a green twilight lingered—twilight which held a gem-like glow, chill and lucent and steady as that of an emerald. Vagrant little puffs of wind bustled among the leaves, with a thin pretense of purpose, and then lapsed, and merged in the large, ambiguous whispering which went stealthily about the grove.
Rudolph Musgrave sat on a stone beside the road that winds through the woods toward the railway station, and smoked, nervously. He was disheartened of the business of living, and, absurdly enough, as it seemed to him, he was hungry.
"It has to be done quietly and without the remotest chance of Anne's ever hearing of it, and without the remotest chance of its ever having to be done again. I have about fifteen minutes in which to convince Patricia both of her own folly and of the fact that Jack is an unmitigated cad, and to get him off the place quietly, so that Anne will suspect nothing. And I never knew any reasonable argument to appeal to Patricia, and Jack will be a cornered rat! Yes, it is a large contract, and I would give a great deal—a very great deal—to know how I am going to fulfil it."
At this moment his wife and Mr. Charteris, carrying two portmanteaux, came around a bend in the road not twenty feet from Musgrave. They were both rather cross. In the clean and more prosaic light of morning an elopement seemed almost silly; moreover, Patricia had had no breakfast, and Charteris had been much annoyed by his wife, who had breakfasted with him, and had insisted on driving to the station with him. It was a trivial-seeming fact, but, perhaps, not unworthy of notice, that Patricia was carrying her own portmanteau, as well as an umbrella.
The three faced one another in the cool twilight. The woods stirred lazily about them. The birds were singing on a wager now.
"Ah," said Colonel Musgrave, "so you have come at last. I have been expecting you for some time."
Patricia dropped her portmanteau, sullenly. Mr. Charteris placed his with care to the side of the road, and said, "Oh!" It was perhaps the only observation that occurred to him.
"Patricia," Musgrave began, very kindly and very gravely, "you are about to do a foolish thing. At the bottom of your heart, even now, you know you are about to do a foolish thing—a thing you will regret bitterly and unavailingly for the rest of time. You are turning your back on the world—our world—on the one possible world you could ever be happy in. You can't be happy in the half-world, Patricia; you aren't that sort. But you can never come back to us then, Patricia; it doesn't matter what the motive was, what the temptation was, or how great the repentance is—you cannot ever return. That is the law, Patricia; perhaps, it isn't always a just law. We didn't make it, you and I, but it is the law, and we must obey it. Our world merely says that, leaving it once, you cannot ever return: such is the only punishment it awards you, for it knows, this wise old world of ours, that such is the bitterest punishment which could ever be devised for you. Our world has made you what you are; in every thought and ideal and emotion you possess, you are a product of our world. You couldn't live in the half-world, Patricia; you are a product of our world that can never take root in that alien soil. Come back to us before it is too late, Patricia!"
Musgrave shook himself all over, rather like a Newfoundland dog coming out of the water, and the grave note died from his voice. He smiled, and rubbed his hands together.
"And now," said he, "I will stop talking like a problem play, and we will say no more about it. Give me your portmanteau, my dear, and upon my word of honor, you will never hear a word further from me in the matter. Jack, here, can take the train, just as he intended. And—and you and I will go back to the house, and have a good, hot breakfast together. Eh, Patricia?"
She was thinking, unreasonably enough, how big and strong and clean her husband looked in the growing light. It was a pity Jack was so small. However, she faced Musgrave coldly, and thought how ludicrously wide of the mark were all these threats of ostracism. She shudderingly wished he would not talk of soil and taking root and hideous things like that, but otherwise the colonel left her unmoved. He was certainly good-looking, though.
Charteris was lighting a cigarette, with a queer, contented look. He knew the value of Patricia's stubbornness now; still, he appeared to be using an unnecessary number of matches.
"I should have thought you would have perceived the lack of dignity, as well as the utter uselessness, in making such a scene," Patricia said. "We aren't suited for each other, Rudolph; and it is better—far better for both of us—to have done with the farce of pretending to be. I am sorry that you still care for me. I didn't know that. But, for the future, I intend to live my own life."
Patricia's voice faltered, and she stretched out her hands a little toward her husband in an odd gust of friendliness. He looked so kind; and he was not smiling in that way she never liked. "Surely that isn't so unpardonable a crime, Rudolph?" she asked, almost humbly.
"No, my dear," he answered, "it is not unpardonable—it is impossible. You can't lead your own life, Patricia; none of us can. Each life is bound up with many others, and every rash act of yours, every hasty word of yours, must affect to some extent the lives of those who are nearest and most dear to you. But, oh, it is not argument that I would be at! Patricia, there was a woman once—She was young, and wealthy, and—ah, well, I won't deceive you by exaggerating her personal attractions! I will serve up to you no praises of her sauced with lies. But fate and nature had combined to give her everything a woman can desire, and all this that woman freely gave to me—to me who hadn't youth or wealth or fame or anything! And I can't stand by, for that dear dead girl's sake, and watch your life go wrong, Patricia!"
"You are just like the rest of them, Olaf"—and when had she used that half-forgotten nickname last, he wondered. "You imagine you are in love with a girl because you happen to like the color of her eyes, or because there is a curve about her lips that appeals to you. That isn't love, Olaf, as we women understand it."
And wildly hideous and sad, it seemed to Colonel Musgrave—this dreary parody of their old love-talk. Only, he dimly knew that she had forgotten John Charteris existed, and that to her this moment seemed no less sardonic.
Charteris inhaled, lazily; yet, he did not like the trembling about Patricia's mouth. Her hands, too, opened and shut tight before she spoke.
"It is too late now," she said, dully. "I gave you all there was to give. You gave me just what Grandma Pendomer and all the others had left you able to give. That remnant isn't love, Olaf, as we women understand it. And, anyhow, it is too late now."
Yet Patricia was remembering a time when Rudolph's voice held always that grave, tender note in speaking to her; it seemed a great while ago. And he was big and manly, just like his voice, Rudolph was; and he looked very kind. Desperately, Patricia began to count over the times her husband had offended her. Hadn't he talked to her in the most unwarrantable manner only yesterday afternoon?
"Too late!—oh, not a bit of it!" Musgrave cried. His voice sank persuasively. "Why, Patricia, you are only thinking the matter over for the first time. You have only begun to think of it. Why, there is the boy—our boy, Patricia! Surely, you hadn't thought of Roger?"
He had found the right chord at last. It quivered and thrilled under his touch; and the sense of mastery leaped in his blood. Of a sudden, he knew himself dominant. Her face was red, then white, and her eyes wavered before the blaze of his, that held her, compellingly.
"Now, honestly, just between you and me," the colonel said, confidentially, "was there ever a better and braver and quainter and handsomer boy in the world? Why, Patricia, surely, you wouldn't willingly—of your own accord—go away from him, and never see him again? Oh, you haven't thought, I tell you! Think, Patricia! Don't you remember that first day, when I came into your room at the hospital and he—ah, how wrinkled and red and old-looking he was then, wasn't he, little wife? Don't you remember how he was lying on your breast, and how I took you both in my arms, and held you close for a moment, and how for a long, long while there wasn't anything left of the whole wide world except just us three and God smiling down upon us? Don't you remember, Patricia? Don't you remember his first tooth—why, we were as proud of him, you and I, as if there had never been a tooth before in all the history of the world! Don't you remember the first day he walked? Why, he staggered a great distance—oh, nearly two yards!—and caught hold of my hand, and laughed and turned back—to you. You didn't run away from him then, Patricia. Are you going to do it now?"
She struggled under his look. She had an absurd desire to cry, just that he might console her. She knew he would. Why was it so hard to remember that she hated Rudolph! Of course, she hated him; she loved that other man yonder. His name was Jack. She turned toward Charteris, and the reassuring smile with which he greeted her, impressed Patricia as being singularly nasty. She hated both of them; she wanted—in that brief time which remained for having anything—only her boy, her soft, warm little Roger who had eyes like Rudolph's.
"I—I—it's too late, Rudolph," she stammered, parrot-like. "If you had only taken better care of me, Rudolph! If—No, it's too late, I tell you! You will be kind to Roger. I am only weak and frivolous and heartlesss. I am not fit to be his mother. I'm not fit, Rudolph! Rudolph, I tell you I'm not fit! Ah, let me go, my dear!—in mercy, let me go! For I haven't loved the boy as I ought to, and I am afraid to look you in the face, and you won't let me take my eyes away—you won't let me! Ah, Rudolph, let me go!"
"Not fit?" His voice thrilled with strength, and pulsed with tender cadences. "Ah, Patricia, I am not fit to be his father! But, between us—between us, mightn't we do much for him? Come back to us, Patricia—to me and the boy! We need you, my dear. Ah, I am only a stolid, unattractive fogy, I know; but you loved me once, and—I am the father of your child. My standards are out-of-date, perhaps, and in any event they are not your standards, and that difference has broken many ties between us; but I am the father of your child. You must—you must come back to me and the boy!" Musgrave caught her face between his hands, and lifted it toward his. "Patricia, don't make any mistake! There is nothing you care for so much as that boy. You can't give him up! If you had to walk over red-hot ploughshares to come to him, you would do it; if you could win him a moment's happiness by a lifetime of poverty and misery and degradation, you would do it. And so would I, little wife. That is the tie which still unites us; that is the tie which is too strong ever to break. Come back to us, Patricia—to me and the boy."
"I—Jack, Jack, take me away!" she wailed helplessly.
Charteris came forward with a smile. He was quite sure of Patricia now.
"Colonel Musgrave," he said, with a faint drawl, "if you have entirely finished your edifying and, I assure you, highly entertaining monologue, I will ask you to excuse us. I—oh, man, man!" Charteris cried, not unkindly, "don't you see it is the only possible outcome?"
Musgrave faced him. The glow of hard-earned victory was pulsing in the colonel's blood, but his eyes were chill stars. "Now, Jack," he said, equably, "I am going to talk to you. In fact, I am going to discharge an agreeable duty toward you."
Musgrave drew close to him. Charteris shrugged his shoulders; his smile, however, was not entirely satisfactory. It did not suggest enjoyment.
"I don't blame you for being what you are," Musgrave went on, curtly. "You were born so, doubtless. I don't blame a snake for being what it is. But, when I see a snake, I claim the right to set my foot on its head; when I see a man like you—well, this is the right I claim."
Thereupon Rudolph Musgrave struck his half-brother in the face with his open hand. The colonel was a strong man, physically, and, on this occasion, he made no effort to curb his strength.
"Now," Musgrave concluded, "you are going away from this place very quickly, and you are going alone. You will do this because I tell you to do so, and because you are afraid of me. Understand, also—if you will be so good—that the only reason I don't give you a thorough thrashing is that I don't think you are worth the trouble. I only want Patricia to perceive exactly what sort of man you are."
The blow staggered Charteris. He seemed to grow smaller. His clothes seemed to hang more loosely about him. His face was paper-white, and the red mark showed plainly upon it.
"There would be no earthly sense in my hitting you back," he said equably. "It would only necessitate my getting the thrashing which, I can assure you, we are equally anxious to avoid. Of course you are able to knock me down and so on, because you are nearly twice as big as I am. I fail to see that proves anything in particular. Come, Patricia!" And he turned to her, and reached out his hand.
She shrank from him. She drew away from him, without any vehemence, as if he had been some slimy, harmless reptile. A woman does not like to see fear in a man's eyes; and there was fear in Mr. Charteris's eyes, for all that he smiled. Patricia's heart sickened. She loathed him, and she was a little sorry for him.
"Oh, you cur, you cur!" she gasped, in a wondering whisper. Patricia went to her husband, and held out her hands. She was afraid of him. She was proud of him, the strong animal. "Take me away, Rudolph," she said, simply; "take me away from that—that coward. Take me away, my dear. You may beat me, too, if you like, Rudolph. I dare say I have deserved it. But I want you to deal brutally with me, to carry me away by force, just as you threatened to do the day we were married—at the Library, you remember, when the man was crying 'Fresh oranges!' and you smelt so deliciously of soap and leather and cigarette smoke."
Musgrave took both her hands in his. He smiled at Charteris.
The novelist returned the smile, intensifying its sweetness. "I fancy, Rudolph," he said, "that, after all, I shall have to take that train alone."
Mr. Charteris continued, with a grimace: "You have no notion, though, how annoying it is not to possess an iota of what is vulgarly considered manliness. But what am I to do? I was not born with the knack of enduring physical pain. Oh, yes, I am a coward, if you like to put it nakedly; but I was born so, willy-nilly. Personally, if I had been consulted in the matter, I would have preferred the usual portion of valor. However! the sanctity of the hearth has been most edifyingly preserved—and, after all, the woman is not worth squabbling about."
There was exceedingly little of the mountebank in him now; he kicked Patricia's portmanteau, frankly and viciously, as he stepped over it to lift his own. Holding this in one hand, John Charteris spoke, honestly:
"Rudolph, I had a trifle underrated your resources. For you are a brave man—we physical cowards, you know, admire that above all things—and a strong man and a clever man, in that you have adroitly played upon the purely brutal traits of women. Any she-animal clings to its young and looks for protection in its mate. Upon a higher ground I would have beaten you, but as an animal you are my superior. Still, a thing done has an end. You have won back your wife in open fight. I fancy, by the way, that you have rather laid up future trouble for yourself in doing so, but I honor the skill you have shown. Colonel Musgrave, it is to you that, as the vulgar phrase it, I take off my hat."
Thereupon, Mr. Charteris uncovered his head with perfect gravity, and turned on his heel, and went down the road, whistling melodiously.
Musgrave stared after him, for a while. The lust of victory died; the tumult and passion and fervor were gone from Musgrave's soul. He could very easily imagine the things Jack Charteris would say to Anne concerning him; and the colonel knew that she would believe them all. He had won the game; he had played it, heartily and skilfully and successfully; and his reward was that the old bickerings with Patricia should continue, and that Anne should be taught to loathe him. He foresaw it all very plainly as he stood, hand in hand with his wife.
But Anne would be happy. It was for that he had played.
They came back to Matocton almost silently. The spell of the dawn was broken; it was honest, garish day now, and they were both hungry.
Patricia's spirits were rising, as a butterfly's might after a thunderstorm. Since she had only a few months to live, she would at least not waste them in squabbling. She would be conscientiously agreeable to everybody.