Nevertheless, Claude's sudden appearance startled her, though the set of his shoulders towering through the dusk transported her to the enchanted land. Here were mountains, and lakes, and palaces, and plashed marble steps, and the music of lutes, and banquets of ambrosial things to which daily bread was as nothing. Claude brought them with him. They were the conditions of that glorious life in which he had his being. They were the conditions in which she had her being, too, the minute she came within his sphere.
She passed through some poignant seconds as he approached. For the first time since her idyl had begun to give a new meaning to existence she perceived that if he renounced her it would be the one thing she couldn't bear. She might have the strength to give him up; for him to give her up would be beyond all the limits of endurance. She put it to herself tersely in saying it would break her heart.
But he dispelled her fears by smiling. He smiled from what was really a long way off. Even she could see that he smiled from pleasure, though she couldn't trace his pleasure to his delicious feeling of surprise. If she had ceased to be a dryad in a wood, it was to become the Armida of an enchanted garden. She could have no idea of the figure she presented to a connoisseur in girls as from a background of palms, fern-trees, and banked masses of bloom she stared at him with lips half parted and wide, frightened eyes.
Submitting to this new witchery in the same way as he was yielding to the heavy, languorous perfumes of the place, Claude smiled continuously. "The fat's all in the fire, Rosie," he said, in a loud whisper, as he drew nearer; "so we've nothing to be afraid of any longer."
It was some minutes before she could give concrete significance to these words. In the mean time she occupied herself with assuring him that there was no one in the hothouse but herself, and that in this gloaming they could not be seen from outside. She even found a spot—a kind of low staging from which foliage plants had recently been moved away—on which they could sit down. They did so, clinging to each other, though—conscious of her coarse working-dress—she was swept by a shameful sense of incongruity in being on such terms with this faultlessly attired man. She did her best to shrink from sight, to blot herself out in his embrace, unaware that to Claude the very roughness, and the scent of growing things, gave her a savage, earthy charm.
He explained the situation to her, word by word. When he told her that their meetings were known to his father, she hid her face on his breast. When he went on to describe how resolute he had been in taking the bull by the horns, she put her hands on his shoulders and looked up into his face with the devotion of a dog. On hearing what a good mother Mrs. Masterman had been, her utterances, which welled up out of her heart as if she had been crying, were like broken phrases of blessing. As a matter of fact, she was only half listening. She was telling herself how mad she had been in fancying for an instant that she could ever have married Thor—that she could ever have married any one, no matter how great the need or how immense the compensation. Having confronted the peril, she knew now, as she had not known it hitherto, that her heart belonged to this man who held her in his arms for him to do with it as he pleased. He might treasure it, or he might play with it, or he might break it. It was all one. It was his. It was his and she was his—to shatter on the wheel or to trample in the mire, just as he was inclined. It was so clear to her now that she wondered she hadn't seen it with equal force in those days when she was so resolute in declaring that she "knew what she was doing."
And yet within a few minutes she saw how difficult it was to surrender herself, even mentally, without reserves. She was still listening but partially. She recognized plainly enough that the things he was saying were precisely those which a month ago would have filled her soul with satisfaction. He loved her, loved her, loved her. Moreover, he had found the means of sweeping all obstacles aside. They were to be married as soon as possible—just as soon as he could "arrange things." Thor and his mother were with them, and his father's conversion would be only a matter of time. These assurances, by which all the calculations of her youth were crowned, found her oddly apathetic. It was not because she had lost the knowledge of their value, but only that they had become subsidiary to the great central fact that she was his—without money or price on his side, and no matter at what cost on hers.
It was only when he began to murmur semi-coherent plans for the future, in which she detected the word Paris, that she was frightened.
"Oh, but, Claude darling, how could I go to Paris when there's so much for me to do here?"
It could not be said that he took offense, but he hinted at reproval. "Here, dearest? Where?"
"Here where we are. I don't see how I could go away."
"But you'd have to go away—if we were married."
"Would it be necessary to go so far?"
"Wouldn't it be the farther the better?"
"For some things. But, oh, Claude, I have so many things to consider!"
"But I thought that when a woman married she left—"
"Her father and mother and everything. Yes, I know. But how can I leave mine—when I'm the only one who has any head? Mother's getting better, but father's not much good except for mooning over books. And then"—she hesitated, but whipped herself on—"then there's Matt. He'll be out before long. Some one must be here to tell them what to do."
He withdrew his arms from about her. "Of course, if you're going to raise so many difficulties—"
"I'm not raising difficulties, Claude darling. I'm only telling you what difficulties there are. God knows I wish there weren't any; but what can I do? If it were just going to Paris and back—"
"Well, why not go—and come back when we're obliged to?"
In the end they compromised on that, each considering it enough for the present. Rosie was unwilling to dampen his ardor when for the first time he seemed able to enter into her needs as a human being with cares and ties. He discussed them all, displaying a wonderful disposition to shoulder and share them. He went so far as to develop a philanthropic interest in Matt. Rosie had never known anything so amazing. She clasped him to her with a kind of fear lest the man should disappear in the god.
"I'll talk to Thor about him," Claude said, confidently. "Got a bee in his bonnet, Thor has, about helping chaps who come out of jail, and all that."
Rosie shuddered. It was curiously distasteful for her to apply to Thor. She felt guilty toward him. If she could do as she chose, she would never see him again. She said nothing, however, while Claude went on: "Thor's a top-hole brother, you know. You'll find that out one of these days. Lots of things I shall have to explain to you." He added, without leading up to it. "He's engaged to Lois Willoughby."
Rosie sprang from his arms. "What? Already?"
She was standing. He looked up at her curiously. "Already? Already—how? What do you mean by that?"
She tried to recapture her position.
"Why, already—right after us."
She reseated herself, getting possession of one of his hands. To this tenderness he made no response. He seemed to ruminate. "Say, Rosie—" he began at last, but apparently thought better of what he had meant to say. "All right," he broke in, carelessly, going on to speak of the wisdom of leaving the public out of their confidence until their plans were more fully matured. "Thor's to be married about the twentieth of next month," he continued, while Rosie was on her guard against further self-betrayal. "After that we'll have Lois on our side, and she'll do a lot for us."
By the time Claude emerged from the hothouse it was dark. Glad of the opportunity of slipping away unobserved, he was hurrying toward the road when he found himself confronted by Jasper Fay. In the latter's voice there was a sternness that got its force from the fact that it was so mild.
"You been in the hothouse, Mr. Claude?"
Claude laughed. In his present mood of happiness he could easily have announced himself as Fay's future son-in-law. Nothing but motives of prudence held him back. He answered, jestingly, "Been in to see if you had any American beauties."
"No, Mr. Claude; we don't grow them; no kind of American beauties."
Claude laughed again. "Oh, I don't know about that. Good night, Mr. Fay. Glad to have seen you."
He passed on with spirits slightly dashed because his condescension met with no response. He was so quick to feel that Fay's silence struck him as hostile. It struck him as hostile with a touch of uncanniness. On glancing back over his shoulder he saw that Fay was following him watchfully, like a dog that sneaks after an intruder till he has left the premises. Being sensitive to the creepy and the sinister, Claude was glad when he had reached the road.
The provision that for the moment he was to lead his customary life and Rosie hers made it possible for Claude to attend the ball by which Mrs. Darling drew the notice of the world to her daughter. He did so with hesitations, compunctions, reluctances, and repugnances which in no wise diminished his desire to be present at the event.
It took place in the great circular ball-room of the city's newest and most splendid hotel. The ball-room itself was white-and-gold and Louis Quinze. Against this background a tasteful decorator had constructed a colonnade that reproduced in flowers the exquisite marble circle of the Bosquet at Versailles. An imitation of Girardon's fountain splashed in the center of the room and cooled the air.
Claude arrived late. He did so partly to compromise with his compunctions and partly to accentuate his value. In gatherings at which young men were sometimes at a premium none knew better than he the heightened worth of one who sauntered in when no more were to be looked for, and who carried himself with distinction. Handsome at any time, Claude rose above his own levels when he was in evening dress. His figure was made for a white waistcoat, his feet for dancing-pumps. Moreover, he knew how to enter a room with that modesty which prompts a hostess to be encouraging. As he stood rather timidly in the doorway, long after the little receiving group had broken up, Mrs. Darling said to herself that she had never seen a more attractive young man—whoever he was!
She was glad afterward that she had made this reservation, for without it she might have been prejudiced against him on learning that he was Archie Masterman's son. As it was, she could feel that the sins of the fathers were not to be visited on the children, especially in the case of so delightful a lad. Mrs. Darling had an eye for masculine good looks, particularly when they were accompanied by a suggestion of the thoroughbred. Claude's very shyness—the gentlemanly hesitation which on the threshold of a ball-room has no dandified airs of seeming too much at ease—had this suggestion of the thoroughbred. Mrs. Darling, dragging a long, pink train and waving slowly a bespangled pink fan, moved toward him at once.
"How d'w do? So glad to see you! I'm afraid my daughter is dancing."
There was something in her manner that told him she had no idea who he was—something that could be combined with polite welcome only by one born to be a hostess.
Claude had that ready perception of his role which makes for social success. He bowed with the right inclination, and spoke with a gravity dictated by respect. "I'm afraid I must introduce myself, Mrs. Darling. I'm so late. I'm Claude Masterman. My father is—"
"Oh, they're here! So lovely your mother looks! Really there's not a young girl in the room can touch her. Won't you find some one and dance? I'm sorry my daughter—But later on I'll find her and intro—Why, Maidie, there you are! I thought you'd never come. How d'w do, dear?"
A more important guest than himself being greeted, Claude felt at liberty to move on a pace or two and look over the scene. It was easy to do this, for the outer rim of the circle, that which came beneath the colonnade, was raised by two steps above the space reserved for dancing. The coup d'[oe]il was therefore extensive.
A mass of color, pleasing and confused, revolved languorously to those strains of the Viennese operetta in which the waltz might be said to have finished the autocracy of its long reign. The rhythm of the dancers was as regular and gentle as the breathing of a child. In glide and turn, in balance and smoothness, in that lift which was scarcely motion, there was the suggestion of frenzy restrained, of passion lulled, which emanates from the barely perceptible heave of a slumbering summer sea. It was dreamy to a charm; it was graceful to the point at which the eye begins to sicken of gracefulness; it was monotonous with the force of a necromantic spell. It was soothing; it also threw a hint of melancholy into a gathering intended to be gay. It was as though all that was most sentimentally lovely in the essence of the nineteenth century had concentrated its strength to subdue the daring spirit of the twentieth, winning a decade of success. Now, however, that the decade was past, there were indications of revolt. On the arc of the circle most remote from the eye of the hostess audacious couples were giving way to bizarre little dips and kicks and attitudes, named by outlandish names, inaugurating a new freedom.
Claude stood alone beneath one of the wide, delicate floral arches—a spectator who was not afraid of being observed. In reality he was noting to himself the degree to which he had passed beyond the merely pleasure-seeking impulse. In Rosie and Rosie's cares he had come to realities. He was rather proud of it. With regard to the young men and young women swirling in this variegated whirlpool, as well as to those who, wearied with the dance, were sitting or reclining on the steps, where rugs and cushions had been thrown for their convenience, he felt a distinct superiority. They were still in the childish stage, while he was grown to be a man. To the pretty girls, with their Parisian frocks and their relatively idle lives, Rosie, with her power of tackling actualities, was as a human being to a race of marionettes. It would be necessary for him, in deference to his hosts, to step down among them in a minute or two and twirl in their company; but he would do it with a certain pity for those to whom this sort of thing was really a pastime; he would do it as one for whom pastimes had lost their meaning and who would be in some sense taking a farewell.
The music breathed out its last drowsy cadence, and the whirlpool resolved itself into a series of shimmering, subsidiary eddies. There was a decentralizing movement toward the rugs and cushions on the steps, or to the seclusion of seats skilfully embowered amid groups of palms. Dowagers sought the rose-colored settees against the walls. Gentlemen, clasping their white-gloved hands at the base of their spinal columns, bent in graceful conversational postures. A few pairs of attractive young people continued to pace the floor. Claude remained where he was. He remained where he was partly because he hadn't decided what else to do, and partly because his quick eye had singled out the one girl in the room who embodied something that was not embodied by every other girl.
When first he saw her she was standing beside the Girardon fountain in conversation with a young man. The fact that the young man was his friend Cheever brought her directly within Claude's circle and stirred that spirit of emulation which five minutes earlier he thought he had outlived. The girl was adjusting something in her corsage, her glance flying upward from the action of her fingers toward Cheever's face, not shyly or coquettishly, but with a perfectly straightforward nonchalance which might have meant anything from indifference to defiance.
Claude knew the precise moment at which she noticed him by the fact that she glanced toward him twice in rapid succession, after which Cheever glanced toward him, too. He understood then that she had been sufficiently struck by him to ask his name, and judged that Billy would treat him to some such pardonable epithet as "awful ass," in order to keep her attention on himself. In this apparently he didn't succeed, for presently they began to saunter in Claude's direction. The latter stood his ground.
In the knowledge that he could endure scrutiny, he stood his ground with an ease that plainly roused the young lady's interest. With her hand on the arm of her cavalier she sauntered forward, and, swerving slightly, sauntered by. She sauntered by with a lingering look of curiosity that seemed to throw him a challenge. Never in his life had Claude received such a look. It was perhaps the characteristic look of the girl of the twentieth century. It was neither bold nor rude nor self-assertive, but it was unconscious, inquiring, and unabashed. For Claude it was a new experience, calling out in him a new response.
It was a rule with Claude never to take the initiative with girls of his own class, or with those who—because they lived in the city while he lived in the village—felt themselves geographically his superiors. He found it wise policy to wait to be sought, and therefore fell back toward his hostess with compliments for her scheme of decoration. He got the reward he hoped for when Mrs. Darling called to her daughter, saying:
"Elsie dear, come here. I want to introduce Mr. Claude Masterman."
So it happened that when the nineteenth century was putting forth a further effort with the swooning phrases of the barcarolle from the "Contes d'Hoffmann," adapted to the Boston, Claude found himself swaying with the twentieth.
They had not much to say. Whatever interest they felt in each other was guarded, taciturn. When they talked it was in disjointed sentences on fragmentary subjects.
"You've been abroad, haven't you?"
"Yes; for the last five years."
"Do you like being back?"
The answer was doubtful. "Rather. For some things." Then, as though to explain this lack of enthusiasm, "Everybody looks alike." She qualified this by adding, "You don't."
"Neither do you," he stated, in the matter-of-fact tone which he felt to be suited to the piquantly matter-of-fact in her style.
It was a minute or two before either of them spoke again. "You've got a brother, haven't you? My father's his guardian or something."
Assenting to these statements, Claude said further, "He couldn't come to-night because he's going to be married on Thursday."
"To that Miss Willoughby, isn't it?" A jerky pause was followed by a jerky addition: "I think she's nice."
"Yes, she is; top-hole. So's my brother."
She threw back her head to fling him up a smile that struck him as adorably straightforward. "I like to hear one brother speak of another like that. You don't often."
"Oh, well, every brother couldn't, you know."
They had circled and reversed more than once before she sighed: "I wish I had a brother—or a sister. It's an awful bore being the only one."
"Better to be the only one than one of too many."
More minutes had gone by in the suave swinging of their steps to Offenbach's somnolent measures when she asked, abruptly, "Do you skate?"
"Sometimes. Do you?"
"I go to the Coliseum."
Claude's next question slipped out with the daring simplicity he knew how to employ. "Do you go on particular days?"
"I generally go on Tuesdays." If she was moved by an afterthought it was without flurry or apparent sense of having committed an indiscretion. "Not every Tuesday," she said, quietly, and dropped the subject there.
When, a few minutes later, she was resting on a rug thrown down on the steps, with Claude posed gracefully by her side, Archie Masterman found the opportunity to stroll near enough to his wife to say in an undertone, "Do you see Claude?"
Ena's answer was no more than a flutter of the eyelids, but a flutter of the eyelids quite sufficient to take in the summing up of significant, unutterable things in her husband's face.
By the time Thor and Lois had returned from their honeymoon in early May the line of battle in Claude's soul had been extended. The Claude who might be was fighting hard to get the better of the Claude who was. It was, nevertheless, the Claude who was that spoke in response to the elder brother's timid inquiry concerning the situation as it affected Rosie Fay. Hardly knowing how to frame his question, Thor had put it awkwardly.
"Done anything yet?"
In the little smoking-room that had been Len's and was now Thor's—Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby having retired already to their petit trou pas cher—they puffed at their cigars in silence. It had been the wish of both bride and bridegroom that Claude should dine with them on their second evening at home. Thor had man[oe]uvered for these few minutes alone with his brother in order to get the information he was now seeking. For his own assurance there were things he needed to know. He wanted to feel convinced that he hadn't acted hastily, that in marrying he had made no mistake. There would be proof of that when he saw that Claude and Rosie had found their happiness in each other, and that in what he himself had done—there had been no other way! He wished that Uncle Sim's pietistic refrain wouldn't hum so persistently in his memory: "Oh, tarry thou the Lord's leisure!" He didn't believe in a Lord's leisure; but neither did he want to be afraid of his own haste. He had grown so self-conscious on the subject that it took courage for him to say:
"Isn't it getting to be about time?"
Claude drew the cigar from his lips and stared obliquely. "Look here, old chap; I thought I was to put this thing through in my own way?"
"Oh, quite so; quite so."
Claude's thrust went home when he said, "I don't see why you should be in such a hurry about it." He followed this by a question that Thor found equally pertinent: "Why the devil are you?"
"Because I thought you were."
"Well, even if I am, I don't see any reason for rushing things."
"Oh, would you call it—rushing?" He threw off, carelessly, "I hear you go a good deal to the Darlings'!"
"Not any oftener than they ask me."
"Well, then, they ask you pretty often, don't they?"
"I suppose they do it when they feel inclined. I haven't counted the number of occasions."
"No; but I dare say Rosie has."
"I'm not a fool, Thor. I don't talk to Rosie about the Darlings."
"Nor to the Darlings about her. That's the point. At least, it's one of the two points; and both are important. It's no more unjust for Rosie Fay to know nothing of Elsie Darling than it is for Elsie Darling to know nothing of Rosie Fay."
"Oh, rot, Thor!" Claude sprang to his feet, knocking off the ash of his cigar into the fireplace. "What do you think I'm up to?"
"I don't know. And what I'm afraid of is that you don't know."
"If you think I mean to leave Rosie in the lurch—"
"I don't think you mean it—no!"
"Then, if you think I'd do it—"
"The surest way not to do it is to—do the other thing."
"I'll do the other thing when I'm ready—not before."
"Humph! That's just what I thought would happen."
"And this is just what I thought would happen—that because you'd put up that confounded money you'd try to make me feel I was bought. Well, I'm not bought. See? Rather than be bribed into doing what I mean to do anyhow I'll not do it at all."
"Oh, if you mean to do it anyhow—"
Claude rounded on his brother indignantly. "Say, Thor, do you think I'm going to be a damn scoundrel?"
"Do you think you'd be a damn scoundrel if you didn't put it through?"
"I should be worse. Even a damn scoundrel can be called a man, and I should have forfeited the name. There! Does that satisfy you?"
"Up to a point—yes."
Claude sniffed. "You're such a queer chap, Thor, that if I've satisfied you up to a point I ought to be content."
"Oh, I'm all right, Claude. I only hoped that you'd be able to go on with it for some better reason than just—just not to be a scoundrel."
"Good Lord, old chap! I'm crazy about it. If Rosie wouldn't hum and haw I'd be the happiest man alive."
"Oh? So Rosie hums and haws, does she? What about?"
"About that confounded family of hers. Must do this for the father, and that for the mother, and something else for the beastly cub that's in jail. You can see the position that puts me in."
"But if you're really in love with her—"
"I'm really in love with her, I'm not with them. I never pretended to be. But if I have to marry the bunch, the cub and all—"
Thor couldn't help thinking of the opening he would have had here for his own favorite kinds of activity. "Then that'll give you a chance to help them."
"Not so stuck on helping people as you, old chap. Want help myself."
"But you've got help, whereas they've got no one. You'll be a godsend to them."
"That's just what I'm afraid of. Who wants to be a godsend to people?"
"I should think any one would."
"If I'm a godsend to them, it shows what they must be."
"Mustn't undervalue yourself. Besides, you knew what they were when you began—"
"Oh, hang it all, Thor! I didn't begin. It—it happened."
Thor's eyes followed his brother as the latter began moving restlessly about the room. "Well, you're glad it happened, aren't you?"
Claude stopped abruptly. "Of course I am. But what stumps me is why you should be. See here; would you be as keen on it if I were going to marry some one else?"
Before so leading a question Thor had to choose his words. "I'd be just as keen on it; only if you were going to marry some one else, some one in circumstances more like your own, you wouldn't require so much of my—of my sympathy."
"Well, it beats me," Claude admitted, starting for the door. "I know you're a good chap at heart—top-hole, of course!—but I shouldn't have supposed you were as good as all that. I'll be darned if I should!"
Thor thought it best not to inquire too precisely into the suggestions implied by "all that," contenting himself with asking, "When may I tell Lois?"
Claude answered over his shoulder as he passed into the hall. "Tell her myself—perhaps now."
He joined his sister-in-law in the drawing-room, though he didn't tell her. He was on the point of doing so once or twice, but sheered off to something else.
"Awful queer fellow, Thor. Can you make him out?"
Lois was doing something with white silk or thread which she hooked in and out with a crocheting implement. The action, as she held the work up, showed the beauty of her hands. On her lips there was a dim, happy smile. "Making Thor out is a good deal like reading in a language you're just beginning to learn; you only see some of the beauties yet—but you know you'll find plenty more when you get on a bit. In the mean while the idioms may bother you."
Claude, who was leaning forward limply, his elbows on his knees, made a circular, protesting movement of his neck and head, as though his collar fitted him uncomfortably. "Well, he's all Greek to me."
"But they say Greek richly repays those who study it."
"Humph! 'Fraid I'm not built that way. Do you know why he's got such a bee in his bonnet about—?"
He was going to say, in order to lead up to his announcement, "about Fay, the gardener"; but he couldn't. The words wouldn't come out. The prospect of telling any one that he was going to marry little Rosie Fay terrified him. He hardly understood now how he could have told his father and mother. He would never have done it if Thor hadn't been behind him. As it was, both his parents were so discreet concerning his confidence that neither had mentioned it since that night—which made his situation endurable. So he changed the form of his question to—"bee in his bonnet about—helping people?"
"Oh, it isn't a bee in his bonnet. It's just—himself. He can't do anything else."
He said, moodily, "Perhaps he doesn't help them as much as he thinks."
"He doesn't—as much as he wants to. I know that."
"Well, why not?"
She dropped her work to her lap and looked vaguely toward the dying fire. Her air was that of a person who had already considered the question, though to little purpose. "I don't know. Sometimes I think he doesn't go the right way to work. And yet it can hardly be that. Certainly no one could go to work with a better heart."
Claude was referring inwardly to Rosie's five thousand a year, and perceiving that it created as many difficulties as it did away with, when he said, "Thinks everything a matter of dollars and cents."
She received this pensively. "Perhaps."
* * * * *
And yet Thor's warning sent Claude to see Rosie on the following afternoon. It was not his regular day for coming, so that his appearance was a matter of happy terror tempered only by the fact that he caught her in her working-dress. His regular days were those on which Jasper Fay took his garden-truck to town. Fay rarely returned then before six or seven, so that with the early twilights there was time for an enchanted hour in the gloaming. The gloaming and the blossoms and the languorous heat and the heavy scents continued to act on Claude's senses as a love-philter might in his veins.
It was the kind of meeting to be clandestine. Secrecy was a necessary ingredient in its deliciousness. The charm of the whole relation was in its being kept sub rosa. Sub rosa was the term. It should remain under the rose where it had had its origin. It should be a stolen bliss in a man's life and not a daily staple. That was something Thor would never understand, that a man's life needed a stolen bliss to give it piquancy. There was a kind of bliss which when it ceased to be hidden ceased to be exquisite. Mysteries were seductive because they were mysteries, not because they were proclaimed and expounded in the market-place. Rosie in her working-dress among the fern-trees and the great white Easter lilies was Rosie as a mystery, as a bliss. It was the pity of pities that she couldn't be left so, where she belonged—in the state in which she met so beautifully all the requirements of taste. To drag her out, and put her into spheres she wasn't meant for, and endow her with five thousand dollars a year, was like exposing a mermaid, the glory of her own element, by pulling her from the water.
He grew conscious of this, as he always did the minute they touched on the practical. In general he avoided the practical in order to keep within the range of topics of which his love was not afraid. But at times it was necessary to speak of the future, and when they did the poor mermaid showed her fins and tail. She could neither walk nor dance nor fly; she could only flounder. There was no denying the fact that poor little Rosie floundered. She floundered because she was obliged to deal with life on a scale of which she had no experience, but as to which Claude had keenly developed social sensibilities. Not that she was pretentious; she was only what he called pathetic, with a pathos that would have made him grieve for her if he hadn't been grieving for himself.
He had asked her idea of their married life, since she had again expressed her inability to fall in with his. "Oh, Rosie, let us go and live in Paris!" he had exclaimed, to which she had replied, as she had replied so many times already: "Claude, darling, how can I? How can I leave them, when they've no one else?"
"Then if we get married, what do you propose that we should do?"
He had never come to anything so bluntly definite before. With that common sense of hers which was always looking for openings that would lead to common-sense results, Rosie took it as an opportunity. She showed that she had given some attention to the matter, though she expressed herself with hesitation. They were sitting in the most embowered recess the hothouse could afford—in a little shrine she kept free, yet secret, for the purpose of their meetings. She let him hold both her hands, though her face and most of her person were averted from him as she spoke. She spoke with an anxiety to let him see that in marrying her he wouldn't be letting himself down too low.
"There's that little house in Schoolhouse Lane," she faltered. "The Lippitts used to live in it."
"If we lived there, I could manage—with a girl." She brought out the subordinate clause with some confusion, for the keeping of "a girl" was an ambition to which it was not quite easy to aspire. She thought it best, however, to be bold, and stammered on, "We could get one for about four a week."
He let her go on.
"And if we lived in the Lippitt house I could slip across our own yard, and across Mrs. Willert's yard—she wouldn't mind!—and keep an eye on things here. Mother's ever so much better. She's taking hold again—"
"Then why couldn't we go and settle in Paris?"
"Because—don't you see, Claude?—that's not the only thing. There's father and Matt and the business. I must be on hand to—to prop them up. If I were to go, everything would come down with a crash—even if your father didn't make any more trouble about the lease. I suppose if we were married he wouldn't do that?"
Though he kept silence, his nervous, fastidious, super-fine soul was screaming. Why couldn't he have been allowed to keep the poignant joy of touching her, of breathing her acrid, earthy atmosphere, of kissing her lips and her eyelids, to himself? It was an intoxication—but no one wanted intoxication all the time. It was curious that a life in this delirious state should be forced on him by the brother who wished him well. It was still more curious that he should feel obliged to force it on himself in order not to be a cad.
He didn't despise Rosie for the poverty of her ideals. On the contrary, her ideals were exactly suited to the little rustic thing she was. If he could have been Strephon to her Chloe it would have been perfect. But he couldn't be Strephon; he could be nothing but a neurotic twentieth-century youth, sensitive to such amenities and refinements as he had, and eager to get more. He was the type to go sporting with Amaryllis in the shade—but the shade was what made the exercise enchanting.
His obscure rebellion against the power that forced him to drag his love out into the light impelled him to say, without quite knowing why, "Did Thor ever speak of you and me being married?"
Because he was pressing her to him so closely he felt the shudder that ran through her frame. It seemed to run through his own as he waited for her reply.
Rosie never told a lie unless she thought she was obliged to. She thought it now because of Claude's jealousy. She had seen flashes of it more than once, and always at some mention of his brother. She was terror-stricken as she felt his arm relax its embrace—terror-stricken lest Thor should have already given the information that would prove she was lying. She asked, trembling, "Did he ever say he had?"
"Do you think he'd say it, if he hadn't?"
"N-no; I don't suppose so."
"Then why should you ask me that?"
She surprised him by bursting into tears. "Oh, Claude, don't be cross with me. Don't say what you said the last time you were cross—that you'd go away and never come back again. If you did that I should die. I couldn't live. I should kill myself."
There followed one of the scenes of soothing in which Claude was specially adept, and which he specially enjoyed. The pleasure was so exquisite that he prolonged it, so that by the time he emerged from the hothouse Jasper Fay was standing in the yard.
As the old man's back was turned, Claude endeavored to slip by, unobserved and silent. He succeeded in the silence, but not in being unobserved. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the dim figure dogging him as it had dogged him on a former occasion, with the bizarre, sinister suggestion of a beast about to spring.
Claude could afford to smile at so absurd an idea in connection with poor old Fay, but his nerves were shaken by certain passionate, desperate utterances he had just heard from Rosie. She was in general so prudent, so self-controlled, that he had hardly expected to see her give way either in weeping or in words. She had broken down in both respects, while his nature was so responsive that he felt as if he had broken down himself. In the way of emotions it had been delicious, wonderful. It was a revelation of the degree to which the little creature loved him. It was a sensation in itself to be loved like that. It struck him as a strange, new discovery that in such a love there was a value not to be reckoned by money or measured by social refinements. New, strange harmonies swept through the aeolian harp of his being—harmonies both tragic and exultant by which he felt himself subdued. It came to him conclusively that if in marrying Rosie there would be many things to forego, there would at least be compensation.
And yet he shivered at the stealthy creeping behind him of the shadowy old man, by whom he felt instinctively that he was hated.
Claude found it a vivid and curious contrast to dine that evening with the Darlings and their sophisticated friends. The friends were even more sophisticated than Claude himself, since they had more money, had traveled more, and in general lived in a broader world. But Claude knew that it was in him to reach their standards and go beyond them. All he needed was the opportunity; and opportunity to a handsome young American of good antecedents like himself is rarely wanting. He never took in that fact so clearly as on this night.
He was glad that he had not been placed next to Elsie at table, for the reason that he felt some treachery to Rosie in his being there at all. Conversely, in the light of Thor's judgment, he felt some treachery to Elsie that he should come to her with Rosie's kisses on his lips. Not that he owed her any explanations—from one point of view. Considering the broad latitude of approach and withdrawal allowed to American young people, and the possibility of playing fast and loose with some amount of mutual comprehension, he owed her no explanations whatever; but the fact remained that she was expressing a measure of willingness to be Juliet to his Romeo in braving the mute antagonism that existed between their respective families. As far as that went, he knew he was unwelcome to the Darlings; but he knew, too, that Elsie's favor carried over her parents' heads the point of his coming and going. It was conceivable that she might carry over their heads a point more important still if he were to urge her.
To the Claude who was it seemed lamentable that he couldn't urge her; but to the Claude who might be there were higher things than the gratification of fastidious social tastes, and for the moment that Claude had some hope of the ascendant. It was that Claude who spoke when, after dinner, the men had rejoined the ladies.
"Your mother doesn't like my coming here."
Elsie threw him one of her frank, flying glances. "Well, she's asked you, hasn't she?"
He smiled. "She only asked me at the last minute. I can see some other fellow must have dropped out."
"You can see it because it's a dinner-party of elderly people to which you naturally wouldn't be invited unless there had been the place to fill. That constantly happens when people entertain as much as we do. But it isn't a slight to be asked to come to the rescue. It's a compliment. You never ask people to do that unless you count them as real friends."
He insisted on his point. "I don't suppose it was her idea."
"You mean it was mine; but even if it was, it comes to the same thing. She asked you. She needn't have done it."
He still insisted. "She did it, but she didn't want to." He added, lowering his voice significantly, "And she was right."
He forced himself to return her gaze, which rested on him with unabashed inquiry. Everything about her was unabashed. She was free from the conventional manners of maidendom, not as one who has been emancipated from them, but as one who has never had them. She might have belonged to a generation that had outgrown the need for them, as perhaps she did. Shyness, coyness, and emphasized reserve formed no part of her equipment; but, on the other hand, she was clear—clear with a kind of crystalline clearness, in eyes, in complexion, and in the staccato quality of her voice.
"Right—because I oughtn't to come. I'm—I'm not free to come."
"Do you mean—?" She paused, not because she was embarrassed, but only to find the right words. She kept her eyes on his with a candor he could do nothing but reciprocate. "Do you mean that you're bound—elsewhere?"
He nodded. "That's it."
"Oh!" She withdrew her eyes at last, letting her gaze wander vaguely over the music-room, about which the other guests were seated. They were lined on gilded settees against the white French-paneled walls, while a young man played Chopin's Ballade in A flat on a grand piano in the far corner. Not being in the music-room itself, but in the large, square hall outside, the two young people could talk in low tones without disturbing the company. If she betrayed emotion it was only in the nervousness with which she tapped her closed fan against the palm of her left hand. Her eyes came back to his face. "I'm glad you've told me."
He took a virtuous tone. "I think those things ought to be—to be open and aboveboard."
"Oh, of course. The wonder is that I shouldn't have heard it. One generally does."
"Oh, well, you wouldn't in this case."
"Isn't it anybody—about here?"
"It's some one about here, but not any one you would have heard of. She lives in our village. She's the daughter of a—well, of a market-gardener."
"How interesting! And you're in love with her?" But because of what she saw in his face she went on quickly: "No; I won't ask you that. Don't answer. Of course you're in love with her. I think it's splendid—a man with your"—chances was the word that suggested itself, but she made it future—"a man with your future to fall in love with a girl like that."
There was a bright glow in her face to which he tried to respond. He said that which, owing to its implications, he could not have said to any other girl in the world, but could say to her because of her twentieth-century freedom from the artificial. "Now you see why I shouldn't come."
She gave a little assenting nod. "Yes; perhaps you'd better not—for a while—not quite so often, at any rate. By and by, I dare say, we shall get everything on another—another basis—and then—"
She rose, so that he followed her example; but he shook his head. "No, we sha'n't. There won't be any other basis."
She took this with her usual sincerity. "Well, perhaps not. I don't suppose we can really tell yet. We must just—see. When he stops," she added, with scarcely a change of tone, as she moved away from him, "do go over and talk to Mrs. Boyce. She likes attentions from young men."
What Claude chiefly retained of his brief conversation was the approval in the words, "I think it's splendid." He thought it splendid himself. He felt positive now that if he had pressed his suit—if he had been free to press it—he might one day have been treading this polished floor not as guest, but as master. There were no difficulties in the way that couldn't easily be overcome, if he and Elsie had been of a mind to do it—and she would have a good fifty thousand a year! Yes, it was splendid; there was no other word for it. He was giving up this brilliant future for the sake of little Rosie Fay—and counting the world well lost.
* * * * *
The sense of self-approval was so strong in him that as he traveled homeward he felt the great moment to have come. He must keep his word; he must be a gentleman. He was flattered by the glimpse he had got of Elsie Darling's heart; and yet the fact that she might have come to love him acted on him as an incentive, rather than the contrary, to carrying out his plans. She would see him in a finer, nobler light. As long as she lived, and even when she had married some one else, she would keep her dream of him as the magnificently romantic chap who could love a village maid and be true to her.
And he did love a village maid! He knew that now by certain infallible signs. He knew it by the very meagerness of his regret in giving up Elsie Darling and all that the winning of her would have implied. He knew it by the way he thrilled when he thought of Rosie's body trembling against his, as it had trembled that afternoon. He knew it by the wild tingle of his nerves when she shuddered at the name of Thor. That is, he thought she had shuddered; but of course she hadn't! What had she to shudder at? He was brought up against that question every time the unreasoning fear of Thor possessed him. He knew the fear to be unreasoning. However possible it might be to suspect Rosie—and a man was always ready to suspect the woman he loved!—to suspect Thor was absurd. If in the matter of Rosie's dowry Thor was "acting queerly," there was an explanation of that queerness which would do him credit. Of that no one who knew Thor could have any question and at the same time keep his common sense. Claude couldn't deny that he was jealous; but when he came to analyze his passion in that respect he found it nothing but a dread lest his own supineness might allow Rosie to be snatched away from him. He had been dilly-dallying over what he should have clinched. He had been afraid of the sacrifice he would be compelled to make, without realizing, as he realized to-night, that Rosie would be worth it. No later than to-morrow he would buy a license and a wedding-ring, and, if possible, marry her in the evening. Before the fact accomplished difficulties—and God knew there were a lot of them!—would smooth themselves away.
As he left the tram-car at the village terminus he was too excited to go home at once, so he passed his own gate and went on toward Thor's. It was not yet late. He could hear Thor's voice reading aloud as the maid admitted him, and could follow the words while he took off his overcoat and silk hat and laid them carefully on one of the tapestried chairs. He still followed them as he straightened his cravat before the glass, pulled down his white waistcoat, and smoothed his hair.
"'Christ's mission, therefore,'" Thor read on, "'was not to relieve poverty, but to do away with it. It was to do away with it not by abolition, but by evolution. It is clear that to Christ poverty was not a disease, but a symptom—a symptom of a sick body politic. To suppress the symptom without undertaking the cure of the whole body would have been false to the thoroughness of His methods.'"
Claude appeared on the threshold. Lois smiled. Thor looked up.
"Hello, Claude! Come in. Just wait a minute. Reading Vibart's Christ and Poverty. Only a few lines more to the end of the chapter. 'To the teaching of Christ,'" Thor continued, "'belongs the discovery that the causes of poverty are economic only in the second place, and moral in the first. Economic conditions are shifting, changing vitally within the space of a generation. Nothing is permanent but the moral, as nothing is effectual. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself; on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. On these two commandments hangs also the solution of the problems of poverty, seeing that a race that obeys them finds no such problems confronting it. In proportion to the spread of moral obedience these problems tend to disappear. They were never so near to disappearing as now, when the moral sense has become alive to them.'"
Claude smoked a cigar while they sat and talked. It was talk in which he personally took little share, but from which he sought to learn whether or not Thor was satisfied with what he had done. If there was any arriere pensee, he thought he might detect it by looking on. It was a pleasant scene, Lois with her sewing, Thor with his book. The library had the characteristic of American libraries in general, of being the most cheerful room in the house.
"What I complain of in all this," Thor said, tossing the book on the table, "is the intermediary suffering. It does no good to the starving of to-day to know that in another thousand years men will have so grasped the principles of Christ that want will be abolished."
Lois smiled over her sewing. "You might as well say that it does no good to the people who have to walk to-day, or travel by trains and motors, to know that in a hundred years the common method of getting about will probably be by flying. This writer lays it down as a principle that there's a rate for human progress, and that it's no use expecting man to get on faster than he has the power to go."
"I don't expect him to get on faster than he has the power to go. I only want him to go faster than he's going."
"Haven't you seen others, who wanted the same thing, dragging people off their feet, with the result that legs or necks were broken?"
"That's absurd, of course; but between that and quickening the stride there's a difference."
"Exactly; which is what Vibart says. His whole argument is that if you want to do away with poverty you must begin at the beginning, and neither in the middle nor at the end. People used to begin at the end when they imagined the difficulty to be met by temporarily supplying wants. Now they're beginning in the middle by looking for social and economic readjustments which won't be effective for more than a few years at a time. To begin at the beginning, as I understand him to say, they must get at themselves with a new point of view, and a new line of action toward one another. They must try the Christian method which they never have tried, or put up with poverty and other inequalities. It's futile to expect to do away with them by the means they're using now; and that," she added, in defense of the author she was endeavoring to sum up, "seems to me perfectly true."
Without following the line of argument, in which he took no interest, Claude spoke out of his knowledge of his brother. "Trouble with Thor is that he's in too much of a hurry. Won't let anything take its own pace."
This was so like a paraphrase in Claude's language of Uncle Sim's pietistic ditty that Thor winced. "Take its own pace—and stop still," he said, scornfully.
"And then," Lois resumed, tranquilly, "you've got to remember that Vibart has a spiritual as well as a historical line of argument. The evolution of the human race isn't merely a matter of following out certain principles; it depends on the degree of its conscious association with divine energy. Isn't that what he says? The closer the association the faster the progress. Where there's no such association progress is clogged or stopped. You remember, Thor. It's in the chapter, 'Fellow-workers with God.'"
"I couldn't make it out," Thor said, with some impatience. "'Fellow-workers with God!' I don't see what that means."
"Then, until you do see—"
Apparently she thought better of what she was about to say, and suppressed it. The conversation drifted to cognate subjects, while Claude became merely an observer. He wanted to be perfectly convinced that Thor was happy. That Lois was happy he could see. Happiness was apparent in every look and line of her features and every movement of her person. She was like another woman. All that used to seem wistful in her and unfulfilled had resolved itself into radiant contentment. According to Claude, you could see it with half an eye. She had gained in authority and looks, while she had developed a power of holding her own against her husband that would probably do him good.
As to Thor he was less sure. He looked older than one might have expected him to look. There was an expression in his face that was hardly to be explained by marriage and a two months' visit to Europe. Claude was not analytical, but he found himself saying, "Looks like a chap who'd been through something. What?" Being "through something" meant more than the experience incidental to a wedding and a honeymoon. With that thought torture began to gnaw at Claude's soul again, so that when his brother was called to the telephone to answer a lady who was asking what her little boy should take for a certain pain, he sprang the question on Lois:
"What do you really think of Thor? You don't suppose he has anything on his mind, do you?"
Lois was startled. "Do you?"
"I asked first."
"Well, what made you?"
"Oh, I don't know. Two or three things. I just wondered if you'd noticed it."
Her face clouded. "I haven't noticed that he had anything on his mind. I knew already—he told me before we were married—that there was something about which he wasn't—wasn't quite happy. I dare say you know what it is—"
He shook his head.
"Don't you? Well, neither do I. He may tell me some day; and till then—But I've thought he was better lately—more cheerful."
"Hasn't he been cheerful?"
"Oh yes—quite—as a rule. But of course I've seen—"
They were interrupted by Thor's return, after which Claude took his departure.
He woke in the morning with a frenzy that astonished himself to put into execution what he had resolved. With his nervous volatility he had half expected to feel less intensely on the subject after having slept on it; but everything that could be called desire in his nature had focused itself now into the passion to make Rosie his own. That first!—and all else afterward. That first!—but he could neither see beyond it nor did he want to see.
The excitement he had been tempted to ascribe on the previous evening to his talk with Elsie Darling, and perhaps in some degree to a glass or two of champagne, having become intensified, it was a proof of its being "the real thing." He was sure now that it was not only the real thing, but that it would be lasting. This was no spasmodic breeze through his aeolian harp, but the breath and life of his being. He came to this conclusion as he packed a bag that he could send for toward evening, and made a few other preparations for a temporary absence from his father's house. Putting one thing with another, he had reason to feel sure that he and Rosie would be back there together before long, forgiven and received, so that he was relieved of the necessity of taking a farewell.
"I think it's splendid," rang in his heart like a cheer. Any one would think it splendid who knew what he was going to do—and what he was renouncing!
It was annoying that on reaching the spot where he took the electric car to go to town old Jasper Fay should be waiting there. It was still more annoying that among the other intending passengers there should be no one whom Claude knew. To drop into conversation with a friend would have kept Fay at a distance. Just now his appearance—neat, shabby, pathetic, the superior workingman in his long-preserved, threadbare Sunday clothes—introduced disturbing notes into the swelling hymeneal chant to which Claude felt himself to be marching. There were practical reasons, too, why he should have preferred to hold no intercourse with Fay till after he had crossed his Rubicon. He nodded absently, therefore, and, passing to the far end of the little straggling line, prayed that the car would quicken its speed in coming.
Through the tail of his eye he could see Fay detach himself from the patient group of watchers and shamble in his direction. "What's it to be now?" Claude said to himself, but he stood his ground. He stood his ground without turning, or recognizing Fay's approach. He leaned nonchalantly on his stick, looking wearily up the line for rescue, till he heard a nervous cough. The nervous cough was followed by the words, huskily spoken:
He was obliged to look around. There was something about Fay that was at once mild and hostile, truculent and apologetic. He spoke respectfully, and yet with a kind of anger in the gleam of his starry eyes.
"Mr. Claude, I wish you wouldn't hang round my place any more. It don't do any one any good." Claude was weighing the advantages of avowing himself plainly on the spot, when Fay went on, "One experience of that kind has been about enough—in one year."
Claude's heart seemed to stop beating. "One experience of what kind?"
"You're all Mastermans together," Fay declared, bitterly. "I don't trust any of you. You're both your father's sons."
"By God! I've got at it!" Claude cried to himself. Aloud he said, with no display of emotion. "I don't understand you. I don't know what you mean."
Fay merely repeated, hoarsely, "I don't want either of you coming any more."
Claude took a tone he considered crafty. "Oh, come now, Mr. Fay. Even if you don't want me, I shouldn't think you'd object to my brother Thor."
"Your brother Thor! You've a nice brother Thor!"
"Why, what's he done?"
"Ask my little girl. No, you needn't ask her. She wouldn't tell you. She won't tell me. All I know is what I've seen."
If it hadn't been for the decencies and the people standing by, Claude could have sprung on the old man and clutched his throat. All he could do, however, was to say, peacefully, "And what have you seen?"
Fay looked around to assure himself that no one was within earshot. The car was bearing down on them with a crashing buzz, so that he was obliged to speak rapidly. "I've seen him creep into my hothouse where my little girl was at work, under cover of the night, and I've seen him steal away. And when I've looked in after he was gone she was crying fit to kill herself."
"What made you wait till he went away?" Claude asked, fiercely. "Why didn't you go in after him and see what they were up to?"
The old man's face expressed the helplessness of the average American parent in conflict with a child. "Oh, she wouldn't let me. She won't have none of my interference. She says she knows what she's about. But I don't know what you're about, Mr. Claude; and so I'm beggin' you to keep away. No good'll come of your actions. I don't trust any Masterman that lives."
The car had stopped and emptied itself. The people were getting in. Fay climbed the high steps laboriously, dropping a five-cent piece into a slot as he rounded a little barrier. Claude sprang up after him, dropping in a similar piece of money. Its tinkle as it fell shivered through his nerves with the excruciating sharpness of a knife-thrust.
Claude went on to the office as a matter of routine, but when his father appeared he begged to be allowed to go home again. "I'm not well, father," he complained, his pallor bearing out his statement.
Masterman's expression was compassionate. He was very gentle with his son since the latter had been going so often to the Darlings'. "All right, my boy. Do go home. Better drop in on Thor. Give you something to put you to rights."
But Claude didn't drop in on Thor. He climbed the hill north of the pond, taking the direction with which he was more familiar in the gloaming. In the morning sunlight he hardly recognized his surroundings, nor did he know where to look for Rosie at this unusual time of day. He was about to turn into the conservatory in which he was accustomed to find her, when an Italian with beady eyes and a knowing grin, who was raking a bed that had been prepared for early planting, pointed to the last hothouse in the row. Claude loathed the man for divining what he wanted, but obeyed him.
It was a cucumber-house. That is, where two or three months earlier there had been lettuce there were now cucumber-vines running on lines of twine, and already six feet high. It was like going into a vineyard, but a vineyard closer, denser, and more regular than any that ever grew in France. Except for one long, straight aisle no wider than the shoulders of a man it was like a solid mass of greenery, thicker than a jungle, and oppressive from the evenness of its altitude. Claude felt smothered, not only by the heat, but by this compact luxuriance that dwarfed him, and which was climbing, climbing still. It was prodigious. In its way it was grotesque. It was like something grown by magic. But a few weeks previous there had been nothing here but the smooth green pavement of cheerful little plants that at a distance looked like jade or malachite. Now, all of a sudden, as it were, there was this forest of rank verdure, sprung with a kind of hideous rapidity, stifling, overpowering, productive with a teeming, incredible fecundity. Low down near the earth the full-grown fruit, green with the faintest tip of gold, hung heavy, indolent, luscious, derisively cool to touch and taste in this semi-tropical heat. The gherkin a few inches above it defied the eye to detect the swelling and lengthening that were taking place as a man looked on. Tendrils crept and curled and twisted and interlocked from vine to vine like queer, blind, living things feeling after one another. Pale blossoms of the very color of the sunlight made the sunlight sunnier, while bees boomed from flower to flower, bearing the pollen from the males, shallow, cuplike, richly stamened, to the females growing daintily from the end of the embryo cucumber as from a pinched, wizened stem.
Advancing a few paces into this gigantic vinery, Claude found the one main aisle intersected by numerous cross-aisles in any of which Rosie might be working. He pushed his way slowly, partly because the warm air heavy with pollen made him faint, and partly because this close pressure of facile, triumphant nature had on his nerves a suggestion of the menacing. On the pathway of soft, dark loam his steps fell noiselessly.
When he came upon Rosie she was buried in the depths of an almost imperceptible cross-aisle and at the end remote from the center. As her back was toward him and she had not heard his approach, he watched her for a minute in silence. His quick eye noticed that she wore a blue-green cotton stuff, with leaf-green belt and collar, that made her the living element of her background, and that her movements and attitudes were of the kind to display the exquisite lines of her body. She was picking delicately the pale little blossoms and letting them flutter to the ground. Her way was strewn with the frail yellow things already beginning to wither and shrivel, adding their portion of earth unto earth, to be transmuted to life unto life with the next rotation in planting.
"Rosie, what are you doing?"
He expected her to be startled, but he was not prepared for the look of terror with which she turned. He couldn't know the degree to which all her thoughts were concentrated on him, nor the fears by which each of her waking minutes was accompanied. She would have been startled if he had come at one of his customary hours toward night; but it was as death in her heart to see him like this in the middle of the forenoon. The emotion was the greater on both sides because the long, narrow perspective focused the eyes of each on the face of the other, with no possibility of misreading. Claude remained where he was. Rosie clung for support to the feeble aid of the nearest vine.
She began to speak rapidly, not because she thought he wanted his question answered, but because it gave her something to say. It was like the effort to keep up by splashing about before going down. She was picking off the superfluous female flowers, she said, in order that the strength of the plant might go into the remaining ones. One had to do that, otherwise—
He broke in abruptly. "Rosie, why did you tell me Thor never said anything about you and me being married?"
"Oh, what's he been saying?" She clasped her hands on her breast, with a sudden beseeching alarm.
"It's not a matter of what he's been saying. It's only a matter of what you say. And I want you to tell me why he's paying me for marrying you."
He spoke brutally not only because his suffering nerves made him brutally inclined, but in the hope of wringing from her some cry of indignation. But she only said:
"I didn't know he was doing that."
"But you knew he was going to do something."
It seemed useless to poor Rosie to keep anything back now; she could only injure her cause by hedging. "I knew he was going to do something, but he didn't tell me what it would be."
"And why should he do anything at all? What had it to do with him?"
She wrung her hands. "Oh, Claude, I don't know. He came to me. He took me—he took me by surprise. I never thought of anything like that. I never dreamt it."
Claude drew a bow at a venture. "You mean that you never thought of anything like that when he said"—he was obliged to wet his lips with his tongue before he could get the words out—"when he said he was in love with you."
She nodded. "And, oh, Claude, I didn't mean it. I swear to you I didn't mean it. I knew he'd tell you. I was always afraid of him. But I just thought it then—just for a minute. I couldn't have done it—"
He had but the dimmest suspicion of what she meant, but he felt it well to say: "You could have done it, Rosie, and you would. You're that kind."
She took one timid step toward him, clasping her hands more passionately. "Oh, Claude, have mercy on me. If you knew what it is to be me! Even if I had done it, it wouldn't have been because I loved you any the less. It would have been for father and mother and Matt—and—and everything."
The way in which the words rent her made him the more cruel. They made him the more cruel because they rent him, too. "That doesn't make any difference, Rosie. You would have done it just the same. As it is, you were false to me—"
"Only that once, Claude!"
"And if you want me to have mercy on you, you'll have to tell me everything that happened—the very worst."
"The worst that happened was then."
"Then? When? There were so many times."
"But the other times he didn't say anything at all. He just came. I never dreamt—"
"But if you had dreamt, you would have played another sort of hand. Now, wouldn't you?"
"Claude, if you only knew! If you could only imagine what it is to have nothing at all!—to have to live and fight and scrimp and save!—and no one to help you!—and your brother in jail!—and coming out!—coming out, Claude!—and no one to help him!—and everything on you—!"
"That's got nothing to do with it, Rosie—"
"It has got something to do with it. It's got everything to do with it. If it hadn't, do you think that I'd have said that I'd marry him?"
Claude felt like a man who knows he's been shot, but as yet is unconscious of the wound. He spoke quietly: "I think I wouldn't have said that I'd marry two men at the same time, and play one off against the other."
There was exasperation in her voice as she cried: "But how could I help it, Claude? Can't you see? It wasn't him."
"Oh, I can see that well enough. But do you think it makes it any better?"
"It makes it better if I never would have done it unless I'd been obliged to."
"But you'd have done it—"
"No, Claude, I wouldn't—not when it came to the point."
"But why didn't it come to the point? Since you told him you were willing to marry him, why—?"
She implored him. "Oh, what's the use of asking me that, if he's told you already?"
"It's this use, Rosie, that I want to hear it from yourself. You've told me one lie—"
"And I want to see if you'll tell me any more."
"I didn't mean it to be a lie, Claude; but what could I say?"
"When we don't mean a thing to be a lie, Rosie, we tell the truth."
"But how could I!"
"Well, perhaps you couldn't; but you can now. You can tell me just what happened—and why more didn't happen, since you were willing that it should."
She began with difficulty, wringing her hands. "It was last January—I think it was January—yes, it was—one evening—I was in the other hothouse making out bills—and he came all of a sudden—and he asked me—he asked me—"
"Yes, yes; go on."
"He asked me if I loved you, and I said I did. And he asked me how much I loved you, and I said—I said I'd die for you—and so I would, Claude. I'd do it gladly. You can believe me or not—"
"That's all right. What I want to know is what happened after that."
"And then he said he'd help us. I didn't understand how he meant to help us—and I didn't quite believe him. You see, Claude, even if he is your brother, I never really liked him—or trusted him—not really. There was always something about him I couldn't make out—and now I see what it is. I knew he'd tell. And he made me promise I wouldn't."
"He made you promise you wouldn't tell—what?"
"What he said to me. He said he might go and marry some one else—and then he wouldn't want what he said to me to be known, because it would make trouble."
"But what did he say?"
"Don't you know what he said?"
"It doesn't matter whether I know or not, Rosie. It's for you to tell me."
She wrestled with herself. "Oh, Claude, I don't want to. I wish you wouldn't make me."
"Go on, Rosie; go on."
"He said he was in love with me himself—and that if I hadn't been in love with you—"
He was able to help her out. "That he'd have married you."
She nodded, piteously.
"And you said—?"
"Oh, Claude, what's the use?" She gathered her forces together. "I didn't say anything—not then."
"But you told him afterward that you were willing to marry him whether you were in love with me or not."
"No; not like that. I—I really didn't say anything at all."
"You just let him see it."
Again she nodded. "He said it himself. He could see—he could see how I felt—that it was like a temptation to me—that it was like bread and water held out to a starving man."
"That is, that the money was?"
She beat one hand against the other as she pressed them against her breast. "Don't you see? It had to be that way. I couldn't see all that money come right—come right into sight—and not wish—just for that minute—that I could have it. Could I, now?"
"No; I don't suppose you could, Rosie—being what you are. But, you see, I thought you were something else."
"Oh no, Claude, you didn't. You've known all along—"
"You mean, I thought I knew all along! But I find I didn't. I find that you're only willing to marry me because Thor wouldn't take you."
"He couldn't take me after I said I'd die for you. How could he?"
"And how can I—after you've said you were willing—!" He threw out his arms with a gesture. "Oh, Rosie, what do you think I feel?"
She crept a little nearer. "I should think you'd feel pity, Claude."
"So I do—for myself. One's always sorry for a fool. But you haven't told me everything yet. You haven't told me what he said about me."
She tried to recollect herself. "About you, Claude? Oh yes. He asked me what our relation was to each other, and I said I didn't know. And then he asked me if you were going to marry me, and I said I didn't know that, either. And then he said not to be afraid, because—because—"
"Because he'd make—"
"No, he didn't say that. I asked him if he'd make you, and he said he wouldn't have to, because you'd do it whether or no, or something like that—I don't just remember what."
"He didn't say I'd do it because he'd give me five thousand dollars a year for the job, did he?"
She shook her head. She began to look dazed. "No, Claude, he didn't say anything like that at all."
"Well, he said it to me. And he was going to do it. He thinks he's going to do it still."
"And isn't he?"
"No, Rosie. I've got better fish to fry than that. If I'm for sale I shall go high."
"Oh, Claude, what do you mean? What are you going to do?"
"I'll tell you, Rosie. It'll give you an idea of the chap I am—of what I was willing to renounce for you. I was talking to a girl last night who let me see that she was all ready to marry me. She didn't say it in so many words, of course; but that's what it amounted to. She lives in a big house, with ten or twelve servants, and is the only child of one of the richest men in the city. She's what you'd call an heiress—and she's a pretty girl, too."
"And what did you say to her, Claude?"
"I told her I couldn't. I told her about you."
"About me? Oh, Claude! And what did she say?"
"She said it was splendid for a chap with my future to fall in love with a girl like you and be true to her. But, you see, Rosie, I thought you were true to me."
"Oh, but I am, Claude!"
He laughed. "True? Why, Rosie, you don't know the meaning of the word! When Thor whistles for you—as he will—you'll go after him like that." He snapped his fingers. "He'll only have to name your price."
She paid no attention to these words, nor to the insult they contained. Her arms were crossed on her breast, her face was turned to him earnestly. "Yes; but what about this other girl, Claude?"
He spoke with apparent carelessness. "Oh, about her?" He nodded in the direction of the door at the end of the hothouse and of the world that lay beyond it. "I'm going to marry her."
She looked puzzled. Her air was that of a person who had never heard similar words before. "You're going to—what?"
"I'm going to marry her, Rosie."
For a few seconds there was no change in her attitude. She seemed to be taking his statement in. When the meaning came to her she withdrew her eyes from his face, and dropped her arms heavily. More seconds passed while she stood like that, meek, crushed, sentenced, her head partially averted, her eyes downcast. Presently she moved, but it was only to begin again, absently, mechanically, to pick the superfluous female blossoms from the nearest vine, letting the delicate, pale-gold things flutter to the ground. It was long before she spoke in a childish, unresentful voice:
"Are you, Claude?"
He answered, firmly, "Yes, Rosie; I am."
She sighed. "Oh, very well."
He could see that for the moment she had no spirit to say more. Her very movements betrayed lassitude, dejection. Though his heart smote him, he felt constrained to speak on his own behalf.
"You'll remember that it wasn't my fault."
She went on with her picking silently, but with a weary motion of the hands. The resumption of the task compelled her to turn her back to him, in the position in which he had found her when he arrived.
"I'm simply doing what you would have done yourself—only Thor wouldn't let you."
She made no response. The picking of the blossoms took her away from him, step by step. He made another effort to let her see things from his point of view.
"It wouldn't be honorable for me now, Rosie, to be paid for doing a thing like that. It would be payment to me, though he was going to settle the money on you."
Even this last piece of information had no effect on her; she probably didn't understand its terms. Her fingers picked and dropped the blossoms slowly till she reached the end of her row.
He thought that now she would have to turn. If she turned he could probably wring from her the word of dismissal or absolution that alone would satisfy his conscience. He didn't know that she could slip around the dense mass of foliage and be out of sight. When she did so, amazement came to him slowly.
Expecting her to reappear, he stood irresolute. He could go after her and clasp her in his arms again—or he could steal down the narrow aisle of greenery and pass out of her life for ever. Out of her life, she would be out of his life—and there was much to be said in favor of achieving that condition. There was outraged love in Claude's heart, and also some calculation. It was not all calculation, neither was it all outraged love. If Rosie had flung him one piteous backward look, or held out her hands, or sobbed, he might have melted. But she did nothing. She only disappeared. She was lying like a stricken animal behind the thick screen of leaves, but he didn't know it. In any case, he gave her the option of coming back.
He gave her the option and waited. He waited in the overpowering heat, amid the low humming of bees. The minutes passed; there was neither sound among the vines nor footstep beside him; and so, with head bent and eyes streaming and head aching and nerves unstrung and conscience clamoring reproachfully, he turned and went his way.
He surprised his father by going back to the bank. "Look here, father," he confessed, "I'm not ill. I'm only terribly upset about—about something. Can't you send me to New York? Isn't there any business—?"
Masterman looked at him gravely and kindly. He divined what was happening. "There's nothing in New York," he said, after a minute's thinking, "but there's the Routh matter in Chicago. Why shouldn't you go there? Mr. Wright was taking it up himself. Was leaving by the four-o'clock train this afternoon. Go and tell him I want you to take his place. He'll explain the thing to you and supply you with funds. And," he added, after another minute's thought, "since you're going that far, why shouldn't you run on to the Pacific coast? Do you good. I've thought for some time past that you needed a little change. Take your own time—and all the money you want."
Claude was trying to articulate his thanks when his father cut him short. "All right, my boy. I know how you feel. If you're going to take the four-o'clock you've no time to lose. Good-by," he continued, holding out his hand heartily. "Good luck. God bless you!"
The young man got himself out of his father's room in order to keep from bursting into tears.
As Thor and Lois breakfasted on the following Sunday the former was too busy with the paper to notice that his wife seemed preoccupied. He was made to understand it by her manner of saying, "Thor."
Dropping the paper, he gave her his attention. "Yes?"
Her head was inclined to one side as she trifled with her toast. "You know, Thor, that it's an old custom for newly married people to go to church together on the first Sunday they're at home."
She had expected the exclamation. She also expected the half-humorous, half-repentant compliance which ensued.
"All right, I'll go."
It was the sort of yielding that followed on all his bits of resistance to her wishes—a yielding on second thought—a yielding through compunction—as though he were trying to make up to her for something he wasn't giving her. She laughed to herself at that, seeing that he gave her everything; but she meant that if she were not so favored she might have harbored the suspicion that on account of something lacking in their life he fell back on a form of reparation. As it was, she could only ascribe his peculiarity in this respect to the kindness of a nature that never seemed to think it could be kind enough.
It was her turn to feel compunction. "Don't go if you'd rather not. It's only a country custom, almost gone out of fashion nowadays."
But he persisted. "Oh, I'll go. Must put on another suit. Top-hat, of course."
With a good woman's satisfaction in getting her husband to church, if only for once, she said no more in the way of dissuasion. Besides, she hoped that, should he go, he might "hear something" that would comfort this hidden grief of which she no longer had a doubt, since Claude too, was aware of it. It was curious how it betrayed itself—neither by act nor word nor manner, nor so much as a sigh, and yet by a something indefinable beyond all his watchfulness to conceal from her. She couldn't guess at his trouble, even when she tried; but she tried only from inadvertence. When she caught herself doing so she refrained, respecting his secret till he thought it well to tell her.
She said no more till he again dropped the paper to give his attention to his coffee. "Have you been to see the Fays yet?"
He put the cup down without tasting it. He sat quite upright and looked at her strangely. He even flushed.
The tone appealed to her ear and remained in her memory, though for the moment she had no reason to consider it significant. She merely answered, "I thought I might walk up the hill and see Rosie this afternoon," leaving the subject there.
Thor found the service novel, and impressive from its novelty. Except for the few weddings and funerals he had attended, and the service on the day he married Lois, he could hardly remember when he had been present as a formal participant at a religious ceremony. He had, therefore, no preconceived ideas concerning Christian worship, and not much in the way of prejudice. He had dropped in occasionally on the services of foreign cathedrals, but purely as a tourist who made no attempt to understand what was taking place. On this particular morning, however, the pressure of needs and emotions within his soul induced an inquiring frame of mind.
On reaching the pew to which Lois led him he sat down awkwardly, looking for a place in which to bestow his top-hat without ruffling its gloss. Lois herself fell on her knees in prayer. The act took him by surprise. It was new to him. He was aware that she said prayers in private, and had a vague idea of the import of the rite; but this public, unabashed devotion gave him a little shock till he saw that others came in and engaged in it. They entered and knelt, not in obedience to any pre-concerted ceremony, but each on his own impulse, and rose, looking, so it seemed to Thor, reassured and stilled.
That was his next impression—reassurance, stillness. There was a serenity here that he had never before had occasion to recognize as part of life. People whom he knew in a commonplace way as this or that in the village sat hushed, tranquil, dignified above their ordinary state, raised to a level higher than any that could be reached by their own attainments or personalities. It seemed to him that he had come into a world of new standards, new values. Lois herself, as she rose from her knees and sat beside him, gained in a quality which he had no capacity to gauge.
He belonged to the new scientific school which studies and co-relates, but is chary of affirmations, and charier still of denials. "Never deny anything—ne niez jamais rien"—had been one of the standing bits of advice on the part of old Hervieu, under whom he had worked at the Institut Pasteur. He kept himself, therefore, in a non-hostile attitude toward all theories and systems. He had but a hazy idea as to Christian beliefs, but he knew in a general way that they were preposterous. Preposterous as they might be, it was his place, however, to observe phenomena, and, now that he had an opportunity to do so, he observed them.
"How did you like it?" Lois ventured, timidly, as after service they walked along County Street.
"I liked it."
The answer astonished her. "It was big."
"The sweep—the ideas. So high—so universal! Makes a tremendous appeal to—the imagination."
She smiled toward him shyly. "It's something, isn't it, to appeal to the imagination?"
"Oh, lots—since imagination rules the world."
* * * * *
They were on their way to lunch with Thor's father and stepmother. Now that there were two households in the family, the father insisted on a domestic reunion once a week. It was his way of expressing paternal forbearance under the blow Thor had dealt him in marrying Lois Willoughby.
Thor asked the question on sitting down to table. His father looked at his mother, who replied, with some self-consciousness:
"He's—he's gone West."
"To Chicago first, isn't it, Archie?"
Masterman admitted that it was to Chicago first, and to the Pacific coast afterward. Thor's dismay was such that Lois looked at him in surprise. "Why, Thor? What difference can it make to you? Claude's able to travel alone, isn't he?"
The efforts made by both his parents to carry off the matter lightly convinced Thor that there was more in Claude's departure than either business or pleasure would explain. Before Lois, who was not yet in the family secret, he could ask no questions; but it seemed to him that both his father and his mother had uneasiness written in their faces. He could hardly eat. He bolted his food only to put Lois off the scent. The old tumult in his soul which he was seeking every means to still was beginning to break out again. If it should prove that he had given up Rosie Fay to Claude, and that, with his parents' connivance, Claude was trying to abandon her, then, by God....