But he caught Lois's eye. She was watching him, not so much in disquietude as with faint amusement. It seemed odd to her that Claude's going away for a holiday should vex him so. Poor Lois! He was already afraid on her account—afraid that if Rosie Fay were left deserted—free!—and a temptation he couldn't resist were to come to him!—Lois would be the one to suffer most.
By the middle of the afternoon, when his father had gone off in one direction and Lois in another, he found an opportunity for the word with his stepmother which he had hung about the house to get.
"There's nothing behind this, is there?"
She averted her head. "How do I know, Thor? I had nothing to do with it. All I know is just what happened. Claude came rushing home last Wednesday, and said he had to go right off to Chicago on business. I helped him pack—and he went."
"Why didn't any one tell me?"
"Well, you haven't been at the house. And it didn't seem important enough—"
"But it is important, isn't it? Doesn't father think so?"
She tried to look at him frankly. "Your father doesn't know any more about it than I know—and that's nothing at all. Claude came to him and said—but I really oughtn't to tell you, Thor. Your father would be annoyed with me."
"Then it's something that's got to be kept from me."
"N-no; not exactly. It's only poor Claude's secret. We didn't try to wring it from him because—Oh, Thor, I wish you would let things take their course. I'm sure it would be best."
"Best to let Claude be a scoundrel?"
"Oh, he couldn't be that. I want to be just to that girl, but we both know that there are queer things about her. There's that man who's giving her money—and dear knows what there may be besides. And so if they have quarreled—"
But Thor rushed away. Having learned all he needed to know on that side, he must hear what was to be said on the other. He had hoped never again to be brought face to face with Rosie till she was his brother's wife. That condition would have dug such a gulf between them that even nature would be changed. But if she was not to be Claude's wife—if Claude was becoming a brute to her—then she must see that at least she had a friend.
His heart was so hot within him as he climbed the hill that he forgot that Lois would probably be there before him. As a matter of fact, she was talking to Fay in a corner of the yard, standing in the shade of a great magnolia that was a pyramid of bloom. All around it the ground was strewn in a circle with its dead-white petals, each with its flush of red. Near the house there were yellow clumps of forsythia, while the hedge of bridal-veil to the south of the grass-plot seemed to have just received a fall of snow.
Fay confronted him as, slackening his pace, he went toward them; but Lois turned only at his approach. Her expression was troubled.
"Thor, I wish you'd explain to me what Mr. Fay is saying. He doesn't want me to see Rosie."
"Why, what's up?"
Fay's expression told him that something serious was up, for it was ashen. It had grown old and sunken, and the eyes had changed their starry vagueness to a dulled animosity.
"There's this much up, Dr. Thor," Fay said, in that tone of his which was at once mild and hostile, "that I don't want any Masterman to have anything to do with me or mine."
Thor tried to control the sharpness of his cry. "Why not?"
"You ought to know why not, Dr. Thor. And if you don't, you've only to look at my little girl. Oh, why couldn't you leave her alone?"
Lois spoke anxiously. "Is anything the matter with her?"
"Only that you've killed her between you."
Thor allowed Lois to question him. "Why, what can you mean?"
"Just what I say, ma'am—that she's done for."
Lois grew impatient. "But I don't understand. Done for—how?" She turned to her husband. "Oh, Thor, do see her and find out what's the matter."
"No, ma'am," Fay said, firmly. "He's seen her once too often as it is."
Lois repeated the words. "'Once too often as it is'! What does that mean?"
"Better ask him, ma'am."
"It's no use asking me," Thor declared, "for I've not the slightest idea of what you're driving at."
"Oh, I know you can play the innocent, Dr. Thor; but it's no use keeping up the game. You took me in at first; you took me in right along. You were going to be a friend to me!—and buy the place!—and keep me in it to work it!—and every sort of palaver like that!—when you was only after my little girl."
Thor was dumb. It was Lois who protested. "Oh, Mr. Fay, how can you say such things? It's wicked."
"It may be wicked, all right, ma'am; but ask him how I can say them. All I know is what I've seen. If you was going to marry this lady," he went on, turning again to Thor, "why couldn't you have kept away from my little girl? You didn't do yourself any good, and you did her a lot of harm."
It was to come to Thor's aid as he stood speechless that Lois said, soothingly: "But I had nothing to do with that, Mr. Fay. I never wanted anything of Rosie but to be her friend."
"You, ma'am? You're all of a piece. You're all Mastermans together. What had you to do with being a friend to her?—getting her to call!—and have tea!—and putting notions into her head! The rich and the poor can't be friends any longer. If the poor think they can, the more fool they! We've been fools in my family, thinking because we were Americans we had rights. There's no rights any more, except the right of the strong to trample on the weak—till some one tramples on them. And some one always does. There's that. We're down to-day, but you'll be down to-morrow. Don't forget it, ma'am. America has that kind of justice when it hasn't any other—that it makes everybody take their turn. It's ours now; but you'll get yours as sure as life is life."
Lois looked at Thor. "Can you make out what he means?"
"I can make out that he's very much mistaken—"
"Mistaken, Dr. Thor? I don't see how you can say that. I wasn't mistaken the night I saw you creeping into that hothouse over there, where you knew my little girl was at work. I wasn't mistaken when I saw you creep away. Still less was I mistaken when I stole in after you had gone, and found her with her arms on the desk, and her head bowed down on them, and she crying fit to kill herself. That was just a few days before she heard you was going to marry this lady—and she's never been the same child since. Always troubled—always something on her mind. Not once since that night have you darkened these doors, though you'd had a patient here. Have you, now?"
"I didn't come," Thor stammered, "because Dr. Hilary had done all that was necessary for Mrs. Fay, and—and I've been away."
"But if you didn't come," Fay went on, with the mildness that was more forcible than wrath, "some one else did. You'd left a good substitute. He's finished the work that you began. He was here with her an hour last Wednesday morning—just after I'd warned him off for good and all."
Thor started. "Let me go to her."
But Fay stood in his way. "No, sir. To see you would be the finishing touch. She can't hear your name without a shiver going through her from head to foot. We've tried it on her. Between the two of you—your brother and you—it's you she's most afraid of." There was silence for a second, while he turned his gray face first to the one and then to the other of his two listeners. "Why couldn't you all have let her be? What were you after? What have you got out of it? I can't see."
"Fay, I swear to you that we never wanted anything but her good," Thor cried, with a passion that made Lois turn her troubled eyes on him searchingly. "If my brother hasn't told you what he meant, I'll do it now. He wanted to marry Rosie. He was to have married her. If there's trouble between them, it's all a mistake. Just let me see her—"
But Fay dismissed this as idle talk. "No, Dr Thor. Stories of that kind don't do any good. Your brother never wanted to marry her, or meant to, either—not any more than you. What you did want and what you did mean God only knows. It's mystery to me. But what isn't mystery to me is that we're all done for. Now that she's gone, we're all gone—the lot of us. I've kept up till now—"
"If money will do any good, Fay—" Thor began, with a catch in his voice.
"No, Dr. Thor; not now. Money might have helped us once, but I ain't going to take a price for my little girl's unhappiness."
"But what would do good, Mr. Fay?" Lois asked. "If you'd only tell us—"
"Then, ma'am, I will. It's to let us be. Don't come near me nor mine any more—none o' you."
She turned to Thor. "Thor, is it true that Claude wanted to marry Rosie? I've never heard of it."
"Oh yes, ma'am, you have," Fay broke in, with irony. "We've all heard of that kind o' marriage. It's as old as men and women on the earth. But it don't go down with me; and if I find that my little girl has been taken in by it, then I sha'n't be to blame if—if some one gets what he deserves."
The words were uttered in tones so mild that, as he shuffled away, leaving them staring at each other, they scarcely knew that there had been a threat in them.
It was an incoherent tale that Thor stammered out to Lois as he and she walked homeward. By trying to tell Claude's story without including his own he was, for the first time since the days of school-boy escapades, making a deliberate attempt at prevarication. He suppressed certain facts, and over-emphasized others. He did it with a sense of humiliation which became acute when he began to suspect that he was not deceiving her. She walked on, saying nothing at all. Now and then, when he ventured to glance at her in profile, she turned to give him a sick, sad smile that seemed to draw its sweetness from the futility of his efforts. "My God, she knows!" were the words actually in his mind while he went floundering on with the explanation of why he couldn't allow Claude to be a cad.
And yet, except for those smiles of an elusiveness beyond him, she betrayed no hint of being stricken in the way he was afraid of. On the contrary, she seemed, when she spoke, to be giving her mind entirely to the course of Claude's romance. "He won't marry her. He'll marry Elsie Darling."
An hour ago the assertion would have angered him. Now he was relieved that she had the spirit to make it at all. He endeavored to imitate her tone. "What makes you think so?"
"I know Claude. She's the sort of girl for him to marry. There's good in him, and she'll bring it out."
"Unfortunately, it's too late to think of Claude's good when he's pledged to some one else."
"Would you make him marry her?"
"I'd make him do his duty."
She gave him another of those faint smiles of which the real meaning baffled him. "I wouldn't lay too much stress on that, if I were you. To marry for the sake of doing one's duty is"—she faltered an instant, but recovered herself—"is as likely as not to defeat its own ends."
He was afraid to pursue the topic lest she should speak more plainly. On arriving home he was glad to see her go to her room and shut the door. It grieved him to think that she might be brooding in silence, but even that was better than speech. As Uncle Sim and Cousin Amy Dawes were coming to Sunday-night supper, the evening would be safe; and to avoid being face to face with her in the meanwhile he went out again.
* * * * *
Having passed an hour in his office, he strolled up into the wood above the village, his refuge from boyhood onward in any hour of trouble. There was space here, and air, and solitude. It was a diversion that was almost a form of consolation to be in touch with the wood's teeming life. Moreover, the trees, with their stately aloofness from mortal cares, their strifelessness and strength, shed on him a kind of benediction. From long association, from days of bird's-nesting in spring, and camping in summer, and nutting in autumn, and snow-shoeing in winter, he knew them almost as individual personalities—the great white oaks, the paper birches, the white pines with knots that were masses of dry resin, the Canada balsams with odorous boughs, the sugar-maples, the silver maples, the beeches, the junipers, the hemlocks, the hackmatacks, with the low-growing hickories, witch-hazels, and slippery-elms. Their green was the green of early May—yellow-green, red-green, bronze-green, brown-green, but nowhere as yet the full, rich hue of summer. Here and there a choke-cherry in full bloom swayed and shivered like a wraith. In shady places the ferns were unfolding in company with Solomon's-seal, wake-robin, the lady's-slipper, and the painted trillium. There was an abundance of yellow—cinquefoil, crowfoot, ragwort, bellwort, and shy patches of gold-colored violets.
In the sloping outskirts of the wood he stood still and breathed deeply, a portion of his cares and difficulties slipping from his shoulders. Somewhere within him was the sense of kinship with the wilderness that has become atavistic in Americans of six or eight generations on the soil. It was like skipping two centuries and getting back where life was primitive from necessity. There were few if any complications here, nor were there subtleties to consider. As far back as he knew anything of his Thorley ancestors, they had hewed and hacked and delved and tilled on and about this hillside, getting their changes from its seasons, their food from its products, their science from its bird-life and beast-life, their arts and their simples, their dyes and their drinks from its roots and juices. To the extent that men and the primeval could be one, they had been one with the forest of which nothing but this upland sweep remained, treating it as both friend and enemy. As enemy they had felled it; as friend they had lived its life and loved it, transmitting their love to this son, who was now bringing his heartaches, as he was accustomed also to bring his joys, where they had brought their own.
The advantage of the wood to Thor was that once within its shadows he could, to some degree, stop thinking of the life outside. He could give his first attention to the sounds and phenomena about him. As he stood now, listening to the resonant tapping of a hairy woodpecker on a dead tree-trunk he could forget that the world held a Lois, a Rosie, and a Claude, each a storm-center of emotions. It was a respite from emotions—in a measure, a respite from himself. He stepped craftily, following the sound of the woodpecker's tap till he had the satisfaction of seeing a black-and-white back, with a red band across the busily bobbing head. He stopped again to watch a chipmunk who was more sharply watching him. The little fellow, red-brown and striped, sat cocked on a stone, his fore paws crossed on his white breast like the hands of a meek saint at prayer. Strolling on again, he paused from time to time—to listen to a robin singing right overhead, or to catch the liquid, spiritual chant of a hermit-thrush in some stiller thicket of the wood, or to watch a bluebird fly directly into its nest, probably an abandoned woodpecker's hole, in a decaying Norway pine. These small happenings soothed him. Sauntering and pausing, he came up to the high, treeless ridge he had last visited on the day he asked Lois to marry him.
The ridge broke sharply downward to a stretch of undulating farms. Patches of green meadowland were interspersed with the broad, red fields in which as yet nothing had begun to grow. Had it not been Sunday the farmers would have been at work, plowing, sowing, harrowing. As it was, the landscape enjoyed a rich Sabbath peace, broken only by the swooping of birds, out of the invisible, across the line of sight, and on into the invisible again. It was all beauty and promise of beauty, wealth and promise of wealth. The cherry-trees were in bloom; the pear and the apple and the quince would follow soon. Above the farm-houses tall elms rose, fan-shaped and garlanded.
The very charm of the prospect called up those questions he had been trying for a minute to shelve. How was it that in a land of milk and honey men were finding it so hard to live? How was it that with conditions in which every man might have enough and to spare, making it his aim to see that his fellow had the same, there could be greed and ingenious oppression and social crime, with the menace of things graver still? What's the matter with us? he asked, helplessly. Was it something wrong with the American people? or was it something wrong with the whole human race? or was it a condition of permanent strife that the human race could never escape from? Was man a being capable of high spiritual attainment, as he had heard in the church that morning? or was he no better than the ruthless creatures of the woodland, where the weasel preyed on the chipmunk, and the owl on the mouse, and the fox on the rabbit, and the shrike on the ph[oe]be, and the ph[oe]be on the insect, in an endless round of ferocity? Had man emerged above this estate? or was it as foolish to expect him to spare his brother-man as to ask a hawk to spare a hen?
These questions bore on Thor's immediate thoughts and conduct. They bore on his relations with his father and Claude and Lois. Through the social web in which he found himself involved they bore on Rosie Fay; and from the social web they worked out to the great national ideals in which he longed to see his native land a sanctuary for mankind. But could man build a sanctuary? Would he know how to make use of one? Or was he, Thor Masterman, but repeating the error of that great-grandfather who had turned to America for the salvation of the race, and died broken-hearted because its people were only looking out for number one?
Because he couldn't find answers to these questions for himself, he tried, during supper, to sound Uncle Sim, leading up to the subject by an adroit indirectness. "Been to church," he said, after serving Cousin Amy Dawes with lobster a la Newburg.
"Saw you," came from Uncle Sim.
"Did you? What were you doing there? Thought you were a disciple of old Hilary."
"That was the reason. Hilary's idea. Can't go 'round to the different churches himself, so he sends me. Look in on 'em all."
"There's too much sherry in this lobster a la Newburg," Cousin Amy Dawes said, sternly. "I bet she's put in two tablespoonfuls instead of one."
Being stone-deaf, Cousin Amy Dawes took no part in conversation except what she herself could contribute. She was a dignified woman who had the air of being hewn in granite. There was nothing soft about her but three detachable corkscrew curls on each side of an immobile face and a heart that every one knew to be as maternal as milk. Dressed in stiff black silk, a heavy gold chain around her neck, and a huge gold brooch at her throat, and wearing fingerless black-silk mittens, she might have walked out of an old daguerreotype.
"I should think," Thor observed, dryly, "that you'd find your religion growing rather composite."
"No. T'other way 'round. Grows simpler. Get their co-ordinating principle—the common denominator that goes into 'em all."
"That is," Lois said, in the endeavor to be free to think her own thoughts by keeping him on a hobby, "you look for their points of contact rather than their differences."
"Oh, you get beyond the differences. 'Beyond these voices there is peace.' Doesn't some one say that? Well, you get there. If you can stand the clamor of the voices for a while you emerge into a kind of still place where they blend into one. Then you find that they're all trying to say the same thing, which is also the thing you're trying to say yourself."
As he sat back in his chair twisting his wiry mustache with a handsome, sun-burnt hand, Thor felt that he had him where he had been hoping to get him. "But what do we want to say, Uncle Sim? What do you want to say? And what do I?"
The old man held his sharp-pointed beard by the tip, eying his nephew obliquely. "That's the great secret, Thor. We're all like little babies, who from the time they begin to hear language are bursting with the desire to say something; only they don't know what it is till they learn to speak. Then it comes to 'em."
"Yes, but what comes to them?"
"Isn't it what comes to all babies—the instinct to say, Abba—Father?"
"Say, Lois," Cousin Amy Dawes requested, in her loud, commanding voice, "just save me a mite of this cold duck for old Sally Gibbs. It'll be tasty for the poor soul. I'll take it to her as we go up the hill. What do you pay your cook?" Without waiting for an answer she continued like an oracle, "I don't believe she's worth it."
Thor leaned across the table. "What I want to know is this: suppose the instinct to say Abba—Father does come to us, is there anything there to respond that will show us a better way—personally and nationally, I mean, than the rather poor one we're finding for ourselves?"
"Can't give you any guarantees, Thor, if that's what you're after. Just got to say Abba—Father, and see for yourself. Nothing but seeing for oneself is any good when it comes to the personal. And as for the national—well, there was a man once who went stalking through the land crying, 'O Israel, turn thee to the Lord thy God,' and I guess he knew what he was about. It was, 'Turn ye, turn ye! Why will ye die?' They didn't turn and so they died. Inevitable consequence. Same with this people or any other people. In proportion as it turns to the Lord its God it'll live; and in proportion as it doesn't it'll go to pot." He veered around to Lois as to one who would agree with him: "Ain't that it?"
She responded with a sweet, absent smile which showed to Thor at least that her thoughts were elsewhere. As a matter of fact, Thor's questions and Uncle Sim's replies, which continued in more or less the same strain, lay in a realm with regard to which she had few misgivings or anxieties. Her heart-searchings being of another nature, she was doing in thought what she had done when in the afternoon she had gone to her room and shut the door. She was standing before her mirror, contrasting the image reflected there with Rosie Fay's worn, touching prettiness.
How awesome, how incredible, that Thor, her great, noble Thor, should have let his heart go—perhaps the very best of his heart—to anything so insignificant, so unformed, so unequal to himself! It was this awesomeness, this incredibility, that overwhelmed her. Her mind fixed itself on it, for the time being, to the exclusion of other considerations. Thor was like meaner men! He could be caught by a pretty face! He was so big in body and soul that she had thought him free from petty failing—and yet here it was! There was a kind of shame in it. It weakened him, it lowered him.
She had seen it from the minute when he began to tell his halting tale about Claude. It was pitiful the way in which he had betrayed himself. From Fay she had got no more than a hint—a hint she had been quick to collate with her knowledge of some secret grief on Thor's part; but she hadn't been really sure of the truth till she saw he was trying to hide it. That Thor should be trying to hide anything made her burn inwardly with something more poignant than humiliation.
She had smiled when he looked so imploringly toward her, but she hardly knew why. Perhaps it was to encourage him, to give him heart. For the first time in her life she felt the stronger, the superior. She was sorry for him, even though there was something about this new and unexpected phase in him that she despised.
She had got no further than that when the guests came and she had to give them her attention. When they left, and Thor was seeing them to the door, she took the opportunity to slip up to her room again. She locked the door behind her, and locked the door that communicated with his dressing-room. Once more she took her stand before the pier-glass.
Something had come to her; she was sure of it. It had come almost since that afternoon. If it was not beauty, it rendered beauty of no importance. It was a spirit, a fire, that made her a woman who could be proud, a woman a man might be proud of. She had come to her own at last. She could see for herself that there was a subdued splendor about her which raised her in the scale of personality. She had little vanity; hitherto she had had little pride; but she knew now, with an assurance which it would have been hypocritical to disguise, that she was the true mate of the man she had taken Thor to be. She had known it before—diffidently and apologetically. She knew it now calmly, and as a matter of course, in a manner that did away with any necessity for shrinking or self-depreciation.
She moved away from the mirror, taking off the string of small pearls she wore and throwing them on the dressing-table. In the middle of the room she stood with a feeling of helplessness. It was so difficult to see what she ought to do. What was one's duty toward a husband who had practically told her that he had married her only because he couldn't marry a woman he loved better? Other questions began to rise within her, questions and protests and flashes of indignation, but she beat them back, standing in an attitude of reflection, and trying to discern the first steps of her way. She knew that the emotions she was keeping under would assert themselves in time, but just now she wanted only to see what she ought to do during the next half-hour.
There came into her mind what Uncle Sim had said at supper—"Just got to say Abba—Father, and see." She shook her head. She couldn't say Abba—Father at present. She didn't know why—but she couldn't. Whatever the passion within her, it was nothing she could bring before a Throne of Grace. It crossed her mind that if she prayed at all that night she would pass this whole matter over. And in that case, why pray at all?
And yet the thought of omitting her prayers disturbed her. If she did it to-night, why not to-morrow night? And if to-morrow night, where would it end? It was not a convincing argument, but it drew her toward her bedside.
Even then she didn't kneel down, but clung to one of the tall, fluted posts that supported a canopy. She couldn't pray. She didn't know what to pray for. Conventional petitions would have had no meaning, and for the moment she had no others to offer up. It was but half consciously that she found herself stammering: "Abba—Father! Abba—Father!" her lips moving dumbly to the syllables.
It brought her no relief. It gave her neither immediate light on her way nor any new sense of power. She was as dazed as ever, and as indignant. And yet when she raised herself from the weary clinging to the fluted post she went to both the doors she had locked and unlocked them.
The consciousness of something to be suppressed was with Lois when she woke. "Not yet! Not yet!" was the warning of her subliminal self whenever resentments and indignations endeavored to escape control.
With Thor she kept to subjects that had no personal bearing, clearly to his relief. At breakfast they talked of the Mexican rising under Madero, which was discussed in the papers of that morning. She knew that the question in his mind was, "Does she really know?" but she betrayed nothing that would help him to an answer.
When, after having kissed her with a timid, apologetic affection which partly touched and partly angered her, he left for the office, she put on a hat and, taking a parasol, went to see Dr. Hilary.
The First Parish Church, the oldest in the village, stands in a grassy delta where two of the rambling village lanes enter the Square. The white, barn-like nave, with its upper and lower rows of small, oblong windows, retires discreetly within a grove of elms, while a tall, slim spire grows slimmer through diminishing tiers of arches, balconies, and lancet lights till it dwindles away into a high, graceful pinnacle.
Behind the church, in the widest section of the delta, the parsonage, a white wooden box dating from the fifties supporting a smaller box by way of cupola, looks across garden, shrubbery, and lawn to Schoolhouse Lane, from which nothing but the simplest form of wooden rail protects the inclosure.
It was the time for bulbs to be in flower, and the spring perennials. Tulips in a wide, dense mass bordered the brick pavement that led from the gate to the front door. Elsewhere could be seen daffodils, irises, peonies just bursting into bloom, and long, drooping curves of bleeding-heart hung with rose-and-white pendents. By a corner of the house the ground was indigo-dark with a thick little patch of squills.
It was a relief to Lois to find the old man himself, bareheaded and in an alpaca house-jacket, rooting out weeds on the lawn, his thin, gray locks tossed in the breeze. On seeing her pause and look over the clump of wiegelia, which at this point smothered the rail, he raised himself, dusted the earth from his hands, and went forward. They talked at first just as they stood, with the budding shrubs between them.
"Oh, Dr. Hilary, I'm so anxious about Rosie Fay."
"Are you now?" As neither age nor gravity could subdue the twinkle in his eyes, so sympathy couldn't quench it. "Well, I am meself."
"I think if I could see her I might be able to help her. Or, rather," she went on, nervously, "I think I ought to see her, whether I can help her or not. Have you seen her?"
"I have not," he declared, with Irish emphasis. "The puss takes very good care that I sha'n't, so she does. She's only got to see me coming in the gate to fly off to Duck Rock; and that, so her mother tells me, is all they see of her till nightfall. It's three days now that she's been struck with a fit of melancholy, or maybe four."
"Do you know what the trouble is?"
He evaded the question. "Do you?"
"Then you'll be the one to tackle her. As yet I haven't asked. I prefer to know no more about people than what they tell me themselves."
She found it possible to secure his aid on the unexplained ground that there had been a misunderstanding between her husband and herself, on the one side, and Jasper Fay on the other. "I don't know that I can help her. I dare say I can't. But if I could only see her—"
"Well, then, you shall see her. Just wait a minute while I change me coat and I'll go along with you."
On the way up the hill Lois questioned him about the Fays. "Did you know much of the boy?"
"Enough to see that he wasn't a thief—not by nature, that is. He's what might have been expected from his parents—the stuff out of which they make revolutionists and anarchists. He came into the world with desires thwarted, as you might say, and a detairmination to get even. He didn't steal; he took money. He took money because they needed it at home, and other people had it. He took it more in protest than in greed, if that's any excuse for him."
"The mother is better, isn't she?"
"She's clothed and in her right mind, if she'll only stay that way. She gets into one of her old tantrums every now and then; but I'm in hopes that the daughter's trouble will end them."
This hope seemed to be partially fulfilled in the welcoming way in which the door was opened to their knock. "I've brought you me friend, Mrs. Thor Masterman," was the old gentleman's form of introduction. "She wants to see Rosie. If Fay makes any trouble, tell him it's my wish."
"I've really only come to see Rosie, Mrs. Fay," Lois explained, not without nervousness, when the two women were alone on the door-step. "No, I won't go in, thank you, not if she's anywhere about the place. I'm really very anxious to have a talk with her."
Having feared a hostile reception, she was relieved to be answered with a certain fierce cordiality. "I'm sure I hope you'll get it. It's more'n her father and I can do."
"Perhaps she'd talk to me. Girls often will talk to a—to a stranger, when they won't to one of their own."
"Well, you can try." In spite of the coldness of the handsome features, something in the nature of a new life, a new softening humanity, was struggling to assert itself. "We can't get a word out of her. She'll neither speak, nor sleep, nor eat, nor do a hand's turn. It's the work that bothers me most—not so much that it needs to be done as because it'd be a relief to her." She added, with a shy wistfulness that contrasted oddly with the hard glint in her eyes, "I've found that out myself."
"Have you any idea where she is?"
She pointed toward Duck Rock. "Oh, I suppose she's over there. She was to have picked the cucumbers this morning, but I see she hasn't done it."
"Has Mr. Fay told you what the trouble is?"
"Well, he has. But then he's so romantic. Always was. Land's sake! I don't pay any attention to young people's goings-on. Seen too much of it in my own day. I don't say that the young fellow hasn't been foolish—and I don't say—you'll excuse me!—that Rosie ain't just as good as he is, even if he is Archie Masterman's son—"
"Oh no, nor I," Lois hastened to interpose.
"But there's nothing wrong. I've asked her—and I know. I'm sure of it."
Lois spoke eagerly. "Oh yes; so am I."
"So that there's that." She went on with a touch of her old haughtiness of spirit: "And she's every mite as good as he is. It's all nonsense, Fay's talking as if it was some young lord who'd jilted a girl beneath him. Young lord, indeed! I'll young lord him, if he ever comes my way. I tell Rosie not to demean herself to grieve for them that are no better than herself. It's nothing but romantics," she explained further. "I've no patience with Fay—talking as if some one ought to shoot some one or commit murder. That's the way Matt began. Fay ought to know better at his time of life. I declare he has no more sense than Rosie."
Lois had not expected to be called upon to defend Fay, but she said, "I suppose he naturally feels indignant when he sees—"
"There's a desperate streak in Fay," the woman broke in, uneasily, "and Rosie takes after him. For the matter of that, she takes after us both—for I'm sure I've been gloomy enough. There's been something lacking in us all, like cooking without salt. I see that now as plain as plain, though I can't get Fay to believe me. You might as well talk to a stone wall as talk to Fay when he's got his nose stuck into a book. I hate the very name of that Carlyle; and that Darwin, he's another. They're his Bible, I tell him, and he don't half understand what they mean. It's Duck Rock," she went on, with a quiver of her fine lips, while her hands worked nervously at the corner of her apron—"it's Duck Rock that I'm most afraid of. It kind o' haunted me all the time I was sick; and it kind o' haunts Rosie."
"Then I'll go and see if she's there," Lois said, as she turned away, leaving the austere figure to stare after her with eyes that might have been those of the woman delivered from the seven devils.
It was an easy matter for Lois to find her way among the old apple-trees—of which one was showing an early blossom or two on the sunny side—to the boulevard below, and thence to the wood running up the bluff. Though she had not been here since the berry-picking days of childhood, she knew the spot in which Rosie was likely to be found. As a matter of fact, having climbed the path that ran beneath oaks and through patches of brakes, spleenwort, and lady-ferns, she was astonished to hear a faint, plaintive singing, and stopped to listen. The voice was poignantly thin and sweet, with the frail, melancholy sound she had heard from distant shepherds' pipes in Switzerland. Had she not, after a few seconds, recognized the air, she would have been unable to detect the words:
"Ah, dinna ye mind, Lord Gregory, By bonnie Irvinside, Where first I owned the virgin love I long, long had denied?"
Though the singer was invisible, Lois knew she could not be far away, since the voice was too weak to carry. She was about to go forward when the faint melody began again:
"An exile from my father's ha' And a' for loving thee; At least be pity to me shown, If love it may na' be."
Placing the voice now as near the great oak-tree circled by a seat, just below the point where the ascending bluff broke fifty feet to the pond beneath, Lois went rapidly up the last few yards of the ascent.
Rosie was seated with her back to the gnarled trunk, while she looked out over the half-mile of dancing blue wavelets to where, on the other side, the brown, wooden houses of the Thorley estate swept down to the shore. She rose on seeing the visitor approach, showing a startled disposition to run away. This she might have done had not Lois caught her by the hand and detained her.
"I know all about everything, Rosie—about everything."
She meant that she understood the situation not only as regarding one brother, but as regarding both. Rosie's response was without interest or curiosity. "Do you?"
"Yes, Rosie; and I want to talk to you about it. Let us sit down."
Still holding the girl's hands in a manner that compelled her to reseat herself, she examined the little face for the charm that had thrown such a spell on Thor. With a pang she owned to herself that she found it. No one could look at Thor with that expression of entreaty without reaching all that was most tender in his soul.
For the moment, however, that point must be allowed to pass. "Not yet! Not yet!" something cried to the passion that was trying to get control of her. She went on earnestly, almost beseechingly: "I know just what happened, Rosie dear, and how hard it's been for you; and I want you to let me help you."
There was no light in Rosie's chrysoprase-colored eyes. Her voice was listless. "What can you do?"
Put to her in that point-blank way, Lois found the question difficult. She could only answer: "I can be with you, Rosie. We can be side by side."
"There wouldn't be any good in that. I'd rather be left alone."
"Oh, but there would be good. We should strengthen each other. I—I need help, too. I should find it partly, if I could do anything for you."
Rosie surveyed her friend, not coldly, but with dull detachment. "Do you think Claude will come back to me?"
"What do you think, yourself?"
"I don't think he will." She added, with a catch in her breath like that produced by a sudden, darting pain, "I know he won't."
"Would you be happy with him if he did?"
"I shouldn't care whether I was happy or not—if he'd come."
Lois thought it the part of wisdom to hold out no hope. "Then, since we believe he won't come, isn't it better to face it with—"
"I don't see any use in facing it. You might as well ask a plant to face it when it's pulled up by the roots and thrown out into the sun. There's nothing left to face."
"But you're not pulled up by the roots, Rosie. Your roots are still in the soil. You've people who need you—"
Rosie made a little gesture, with palms outward. "I've given them all I had. I'm—I'm—empty."
"Yes, you feel so now. That's natural. We do feel empty of anything more to give when there's been a great drain on us. But somehow it's the people who've given most who always have the power to go on giving—after a little while. With time—"
The girl interrupted, not impatiently, but with vacant indifference. "What's the good of time—when it's going to be always the same?"
"The good of time is that it brings comfort—"
"I don't want comfort. I'd rather be as I am."
"That's perfectly natural—for now. But time passes whether we will or no; and whether we will or no, it softens—"
"Time can't pass if you won't let it."
"Why—why, what do you mean?"
"I mean—just that."
Lois clasped the girl's hands desperately. "But, Rosie, you must live. Life has a great deal in store for you still—perhaps a great deal of happiness. They say that life never takes anything from us for which it isn't prepared to give us compensation, if we'll only accept it in the right way."
Rosie shook her head. "I don't want it."
Lois tried to reach the dulled spirit by another channel. "But we all have disappointments and sorrows, Rosie. I have mine. I've great ones."
The aloofness in Rosie's gaze seemed to put miles between them. "That doesn't make any difference to me. If you want me to be sorry for them—I'm not. I can't be sorry for any one."
In her desire to touch the frozen springs of the girl's emotions, Lois said what she would have supposed herself incapable of saying. "Not when you know what they are?—when you know what one of them is, at any rate!—when you know what one of them must be! You're the only person in the world except myself who can know."
Rosie's voice was as lifeless as before. "I can't be sorry. I don't know why—but I can't be."
"Do you mean that you're glad I have to suffer?"
"N-no. I'm not glad—especially. I just—don't care."
Lois was baffled. The impenetrable iciness was more difficult to deal with than active grief. She made her supreme appeal. "And then, Rosie, then there's—there's God."
Rosie looked vaguely over the lake and said nothing. If she fixed her eyes on anything, it was on the quivering balance of a kingfisher in the air. When with a flash of silver and blue he swooped, and, without seeming to have touched the water, went skimming away with a fish in his bill, her eyes wandered slowly back in her companion's direction.
Lois made another attempt. "You believe in God, don't you?"
There was a second's hesitation. "I don't know as I do."
The older woman spoke with the pleading of distress. "But there is a God, Rosie."
There was the same brief hesitation. "I don't care whether there is or not."
Though Lois could get no further, it hurt her to see the look of relief in the little creature's face when she rose and said: "You'd rather I'd go away, wouldn't you? Then I will go; but it won't be for long. I'm not going to leave you to yourself. I'm coming back soon. I shall come back again to-day. If you're not at home, I'll follow you up here."
She waited for some sign of protest, but Rosie sat silent and impassive. Though courtesy kept her dumb, it couldn't conceal the air of resigned impatience with which she awaited her visitor's departure.
Lois looked down at her helplessly. In sheer incapacity to affect the larger issues, she took refuge in the smaller. "Isn't it near your dinner-time? I'm going your way. We could go along together."
"I don't want any dinner. I'll go home—by and by."
Lois felt herself dismissed. "Very well, Rosie. I'll say good-by for now. But it will only be for a little while. You understand that, don't you? I'm not going to let you throw me off. I'm going to cling to you. I've got the right to do it, because—because the very thing that makes you unhappy—makes me."
In the eyes that Rosie lifted obliquely Lois read such unutterable things that she turned away. She carried that look with her as she went down the hill beneath the oaks and between the sunlit patches of brakes, spleenwort, and lady-ferns. What scenes, what memories, had called it up? What part in those scenes and memories had been played by Thor? What had been the actual experience between this girl and him? Would she ever know? Had she better know? What should she do if she were to know? Once more the questions she had been trying to repress urged themselves for answer; but once more she controlled herself through the counsel of the inner voice: "Not yet! Not yet!"
But after Lois had gone Rosie came to life again. That is, she entered once more the conditions in which her mind was free to tread its round of grief. Lois kept her out of them. Her father and mother did the same. Household duties and the tasks of the hothouse and the necessity for eating and sleeping and speaking did the same. She turned from them all with a weariness as consuming as a sickness unto death.
She had done so from the instant when, crouching behind the vines of the cucumber-house, with all her senses strained, she perceived by the mere rustling of the leaves that Claude was making his way down the long, green aisle. She knew then that it was the end. If there had been no other cause of rupture between them, the girl who kept ten or twelve servants would have created it. Rosie knew enough of Claude to be aware that love could not bear down the scale against this princeliness of living. There would be so such repentance and reaction on his part as she had experienced with Thor. Once he was gone, he was gone. It was the end.
The soft opening and closing of the hothouse door as he went out reached her like a sigh, a last sigh, a dying sigh, after which—nothing! Rosie expected nothing—but she waited. She waited as watchers wait round a death-bed for the possibility of one more breath; but none came. She stirred then and rose. She rose mechanically, brushing the earth from her clothing, and began again the interrupted task of picking the superfluous female flowers and letting them flutter downward.
It was when she had come to the end of her third row and was about to turn into the fourth that the sense of the impossibility of going on swept over her. "Oh, I can't!" She dropped her arms to her side. "I can't. I can't." She meant only that she couldn't go on just then; but in the back of her mind there was the conviction that she would never go on again.
She continued to stand with arms hanging and head drooped to one side, closed in by vines, with flowers of the hue of light around her like a halo, and bees murmuring among them. It was not merely that she was listless and incapable; the world seemed to have dropped away. She was marooned on a rock, with an ocean of nothingness about her. Everything she wanted had gone—sunk, vanished. It had come within sight, like mirage to the shipwrecked, only to torture her with what she couldn't have. It was worse than if it had never shown itself at all. Love had appeared with one man, money with the other. Love and money were two of the three things she cared for; the poor, shiftless family was the third. Since the first two had gone, the last must follow them. Quite consciously and deliberately Rosie lifted her hands with a little lamentable effort, letting them drop again, and so renounced her burden.
She crept back to the spot whence she had risen, and lay down. There was a kind of ritual in the act. It was not now a mere stricken, physical crouching as when she had turned away from Claude. It was something more significant. It was withdrawal from work, from life, from all the demands she had put forth so fiercely.
Renouncing these, Rosie also renounced Claude. It was a proof of the degree to which she had dismissed him that when, a half-hour later, she heard a rustling in the vines behind her it never occurred to her that he might have come back. She knew already that he would never come back. The fatalism of her little soul left her none of those uncertainties which are safeguards against despair. She raised her head and looked; but she saw exactly the person she knew she would see.
Antonio grinned, and announced dinner. The sight of his young mistress half sitting, half lying on the ground struck him as droll.
Rosie got up and brushed herself again. She knew it must be dinner-time. The fact had been at the back of her mind all through these minutes of comforting negation. She should have been in the house laying the table while her mother cooked the meal. It was the first time in years that she had rebelled against a duty. It was not exactly rebellion now. It was something more serious than that. She realized it as she stood where she was, with hands hanging limply, and said to herself, "I've quit."
Nevertheless, she emerged slowly from the jungle of vines and followed Antonio down the long, rustling aisle. There was a compulsion in the day's routine to which she felt the necessity of yielding. She had traversed half the length of the greenhouse before it came to her that it was precisely to the day's routine that she couldn't return. Anything was better than that. Any fate was preferable to the round of cooking and cleaning and seed-time and harvest of which every detail was impregnated with the ambitions she had given up. She had lived through these tasks and beyond them out into something else—into a great emptiness in which her spirit found a kind of ease. She could no more go back to them than a released soul could go back to earth.
In the yard she stood looking at the poor, battered old house. Inside, her father, who had probably by this time returned from town, would be sitting down to table. Antonio—to save the serving of two sets of meals—would be sitting down with him. Her mother would be bringing something from the kitchen, holding a hot platter with the corner of her apron. If she went in her mother would sit down, too, while she herself would do the running to and fro between the table and the pantry or the stove. She would snatch a bite for herself in the intervals of attendance.
Rosie revolted. She revolted not against the drudgery, which was part of the matter-of-course of living unless one "kept a girl"; she revolted against the living itself. It was all over for her. In proof that it was she turned her back on it.
Her moving away was at first without purpose. If her feet strayed into the familiar path that ran down the hill between the hothouses and the apple-trees it was because there was no other direction to take. She hadn't meant to go up through the wood to Duck Rock before she found herself doing it. The newly leafing oaks were a shimmer of bronze-green above her, while she trod on young ferns that formed a carpet such as was never woven by hands. Into it were worked white star-flowers without number, with an occasional nodding trillium. The faint, bitter scent of green things too tender as yet to be pungent rose from everything she crushed. She was not soothed by nature, like Thor Masterman. She had too much to do with the raising of plants for sale to take much interest in what the earth produced without money and without price. If it had not been that her mind was as nearly as possible empty of thought, she wouldn't have paused to watch an indigo-bunting, whose little brown mate was probably near by, hop upward from branch to branch of a solitary juniper, his body like a blue flower in the dark boughs, while he poured forth a song that waxed louder as he mounted. She observed him idly and passed onward because there was nothing but that to do.
Her heart was too dead to feel much emotion when she emerged on the spot where she had been accustomed to keep her trysts with Claude. Her trysts with Claude had been at night; she had other sorts of association with this summit in the daytime. All her life she had been used to come here berrying. Here she came, too, with Polly Wilson and other girl-friends—when she had any—for strolls and gossiping. Here, too, Jim Breen had made love to her, and Matt's companion of the grocery. The spot being therefore not wholly dedicated to memories of Claude, she could approach it calmly.
She sat down on the familiar seat that circled the oak-tree and gave the best view over the pond. The oak-tree was the last and highest of the wood. Beyond it there was only an upward-climbing fringe of grass, starred with cinquefoil and wild strawberry—and then the precipice. It was but a miniature precipice that broke to a miniature sea, but it gave an impression of grandeur. Sitting on the bench, with one's head against the oak, one could, if one chose, see nothing but sky and water. There was nothing but sky and water and air. In the noon stillness there was not even a boat on the lake nor a bird on the wing. The only sounds were those of a hammering far over on the Thorley estate, the humming of an electric car, which at this distance was no more disturbing than the murmur of a bee, and the song of the indigo-bunting, fluted now from the tree-top. To Rosie it was peace, peace without pleasure, but without pain—as nearly as might be that absorption into nothingness for which she yearned as the Buddhist seeks absorption into God.
She rested, not suffering—at least not suffering anything she could feel. She was beyond grief. The only thing she was not beyond was the horror of returning to the interests that had hitherto made up life.
As for Claude, she could think of him, when she began doing so, with singular detachment. The whole episode with him might have been ended years before. It was like something which no longer perturbs, though the memory of it is vivid. She could go back and reconstruct the experience from the first. Up to the present she had never found any opportunity of doing that, since each meeting with him was so soul-filling in itself. Now that she had the leisure, she found herself using it as the afternoon wore on.
Being on the spot where she had first met him, she could re-enact the scene. She knew the very raspberry-bine at which she had been at work. She went to it and lifted it up. It was a spiny, red-brown, sprawling thing just beginning to clothe itself with leaves. It had been breast-high when she had picked the fruit from it, and Claude had stood over there, in that patch of common brakes which then rose above his knees, but was now a bed of delicate, elongated sprays leaning backward with incomparable grace. She found the heart to sing—her voice, which used to be strong enough, yielding her but the ghost of song, as the notes of an old spinnet give back the ghost of music long ago dead:
"Oh, mirk, mirk is the midnight hour, And loud the tempest's roar; A waeful wanderer seeks thy tower, Lord Gregory ope thy door."
She could not remember having so much as hummed this air since the day Claude had interrupted it; but she went on, unfalteringly, to the lines at which he had broken in:
"At least be pity to me shown, If love it may na' be—"
She didn't falter even here; she only allowed her voice to trail away in the awed pianissimo into which he had frightened her. She stopped then and went through the conversation that ensued on the memorable day, and of which the very words were imprinted on her heart: "Isn't it Rosie? I'm Claude." She hadn't smiled on that occasion, but she smiled to herself now—a ghost of a smile to match her ghost of a voice—because his tone had been so sweet. She had never heard anything like it before—and since, only in his moments of endearment.
* * * * *
But she went home at last. She went home because the May afternoon grew chilly, and in the gathering of shadows beneath the oaks there was something eery. Expecting a scene or a scolding, she was surprised to find both father and mother calm. They had evidently exchanged views concerning her, deciding that she had better indulge her whims. When she refused to eat they made little or no protest, and only once during the night did her mother cross the passage to ask fretfully why she didn't go to bed. On the following day there was the same silent acknowledgment of her right to refuse to work and of her freedom to absent herself. Rosie was quite clear as to what had taken place. Antonio had betrayed the fact of Claude's visit, and her parents had scented a hopeless love-affair. Rosie was indifferent. Her love-affairs were her own business; she owed neither explanation nor apology to any one. So long as her parents conceded her liberty to come and go, to nibble rather than to eat, and not to speak when spoken to, she was content.
They conceded this all through that week. In her presence they bore themselves with timid constraint, and followed her with stealthy eyes that watched for every shadow that crossed her face; but they let her alone. She was as free as wind all Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
During those days she continued to live in the exultation of the void. There was nothing to fear any more. The worst had happened to her that could happen, and so, in a manner of speaking, she was safe. Never since she had begun to think had she been so free from misgiving and foreboding as to what each new day would bring forth. No day could bring forth anything now that could hurt her.
By Saturday the nerves of sensation began to show signs of recovering themselves and returning to activity. In thinking of Claude, and living through again her meetings with him, there were moments like pangs, of longing, of passion, of despair, as the case might be, that went as quickly as they came. But they didn't frighten her. If they were premonitions of a state of anguish—why, there had been so much anguish in her episode with Claude that there couldn't be much more now. If anything, she welcomed it. It would be more as if he was back with her. The void was peaceful. But the void filled with suffering on his account would be better still. Anything!—anything but to be forced to go back!
But on Monday it was the urgency of going back that confronted her. She had come down in the morning to find her breakfast laid in just the way she liked it—tea, a soft-boiled egg, buttered toast, and, as a special temptation to a capricious appetite, a dab of marmalade. She sat down to the table unwillingly, sipping at the tea and nibbling at the toast, but leaving the egg and the marmalade untouched. In her mother's bustling to and fro she felt the long-delayed protest in the atmosphere. It came while her mother was crossing the room to replace some dishes on the dresser.
"Now, my girl, buck up. Just eat your breakfast and set to work and stop your foolish fancies. If you don't look out you'll get yourself where I was, and I guess it'll take more than Dr. Hilary to pull you out." She added, as she returned to the kitchen: "Your father told me to tell you to get busy on the cucumbers. There's a lot to be picked. He's been spannin' them and finds them ready."
Rosie made use of her privilege of not answering. When she had eaten all she could she took a basket and made her way toward the cucumber-house she had not entered since she had left it with the words, "I've quit." It was like going to the scaffold to drag her feet across the yard; it was like mounting it to lift the latch of the paintless door and feel the stifling, pollen-laden air in her face. Nevertheless, habit took her in. Habit sent her eyes searching among the lowest stretches of the vines, where the cool, green things were hanging. Habit caused her to stoop and span them with her rough little hand. When her father's thumb and fingers met around them they were ready to be picked; they were ready when her own came within an inch of doing so.
But she raised herself with a rebellious impulse of her whole person before she had picked one. She had picked hundreds in her time; she had picked thousands. She couldn't begin again. With the first one she gathered the yoke of the past would be around her neck once more. She couldn't bear it. "I can't. I can't." With the words on her lips she slipped out by the door at the far end of the hothouse and sped toward her refuge on Duck Rock.
She had never felt it as so truly a refuge before. Neither had she ever before needed a refuge so acutely. She needed it to-day because the memory of Claude had at last become a living thing, and every sentient part of her that could be filled with grief was filled with it. Grief had come suddenly; it was creating a new world for her. It was no longer a peaceful void; it was a world of wild passions, wild projects, wild things she would do, wild words she would speak if ever she had the chance to speak them. She would go in search of him! She would find his father and mother! She would appeal to Thor! She would discover the girl with ten or twelve servants who had come between them! She would implore them all to send him back! She would drag him back! She would hang about his neck till he swore never again to leave her! If he refused, she would kill him! If she couldn't kill him, she would kill herself! Perhaps if she killed herself she would inflict on him the worst suffering of all!
She thought about that. After all, it was the thing most practical. The other impulses were not practical. She knew that, of course. She could humiliate herself to the dust without affecting him. Up to to-day she had not wanted him to suffer; but now she did. If she killed herself, he would suffer. However long he lived, or however many servants the woman he married would be able to keep, his life would be poisoned by the memory of what he had done to her.
Her imagination reveled in the scenes it was now able to depict. Leaning back with her head resting against the trunk of the old oak, she closed her eyes and viewed the dramatic procession of events that might follow on that morning and haunt Claude Masterman to his grave. She saw herself leaping from the rock; she saw her body washed ashore, her head and hands hanging limp, her long, wet hair streaming; she saw her parents mourning, and Thor remorseful, and Claude absolutely stricken. Her efforts rested there. Everything was subordinate to the one great fact that by doing this she could make the sword go through his heart. She went to the edge of the cliff and peered over. Though it was a sheer fifty feet, it didn't seem so very far down. The water was blue and lapping and inviting. It looked as if it would be easy.
She returned to her seat. She knew she was only playing. It relieved the tumult within her to pretend that she could do as desperately as she felt. It quieted her. Once she saw that she had it in her power to make Claude unhappy, something in her spirit was appeased.
She began the little comedy all over again, from the minute when she started forth from home on the momentous day to fill her pan with raspberries. She traced her steps down the hill and up through the glades of the bluff wherever the ripe raspberries were hanging. She came to the minute when her stage directions called for "Lord Gregory," and she sang it with the same thin, silvery piping which was all she could contribute now to the demand of drama. It was both an annoyance and a surprise to hear a footfall and the swish of robes and to turn and see Lois Willoughby.
Beyond the fact that she couldn't help it, she didn't know why she became at once so taciturn and repellent. "Oh, she'll come again," she said in self-excuse, and with vague ideas of atonement, after Lois had gone away. Besides, the things that Lois had said in the way of solicitude, sympathy, and God made no appeal to her. If she felt regret it was from obscure motives of compassion, since this woman, too, had missed what was best in love.
She would have returned to her dream had her dream returned to her; but Lois had broken the spell. Rosie could no longer get the ecstasies of re-enactment. Re-enactment itself became a foolish thing, the husk of what had once been fruit. It was a new phase of loss. Everything went but her misery and her desire to strike at Claude—that and the sense that whatever she did, and no matter how elusive she made herself, she would have to go back to the old life at last. She struggled against the conviction, but it settled on her like a mist. She played again with the raspberry-bine, she sang "Lord Gregory," she peered over the brink of the toy precipice—but she evoked nothing. She stood as close to the edge of the cliff as she dared, whipping and lashing and taunting her imagination by the rashness of the act. Nothing came but the commonplace suggestion that even if she fell in, the boat which had appeared on the lake, and from which two men were fishing, would rescue her. The worst she would get would be a wetting and perhaps a cold. She wouldn't drown.
Common sense took possession of her. The thing for her to do, it told her cruelly, was to go back and pick the cucumbers. After that there would be some other job. In the market-garden business jobs were endless, especially in spring. She could set about them with a better heart since, after all that had happened, Archie Masterman couldn't refuse now to renew the lease. He wouldn't have the face to refuse it—so common sense expressed itself—when his son had done her such a wrong. If she had scored no other victory, her suffering would at least have secured that.
It was an argument of which she couldn't but feel the weight. There would be three more years of just managing to live—three more years of sowing and planting and watering and watching, at the end of which they would not quite have starved, while Matt would have had a hole in which to hide himself on coming out of jail. Decidedly it was an argument. She had already shown her willingness to sell herself; and this would apparently prove to be her price.
Wearily, when noon had passed and afternoon set in, she got herself to her feet. Wearily she began to descend the hill. She would go back again to the cucumbers. She would take up again the burden she had thrown down. She would bring her wild heart into harness and tame it to hopelessness. Common sense could suggest nothing else.
She went now by the path, because it was tortuous and less direct than the bee-line over fern. She paused at every excuse—now to watch a robin hopping, now to look at a pink lady's-slipper abloom in a bed of spleenwort, now for no reason at all. Each step cost her a separate act of renunciation; each act of renunciation was harder than the other. But successive steps and successive acts brought her down the hill at last.
"I can't. I can't."
She dragged herself a few paces farther still.
"I can't! I can't!"
She was in sight of the boulevard, where a gang of Finns were working, and beyond which lay the ragged, uncultivated outskirts of her father's land. Up through a tangle of nettles and yarrow she could see the zigzag path which had been the rainbow bridge of her happiness. She came to a dead stop, the back of her hand pressed against her mouth fearfully. "If I go up there," she said to herself, "I shall never come down again." She meant that she would never come down again in the same spirit. That spirit would be captured and slain. She herself would be captured and slain. Nothing would live of her but a body to drudge in the hothouse to earn a few cents a day.
Suddenly, without forming a resolution or directing an intention, she turned and sped up the hill. At first she only walked rapidly; but the walk broke into a run, and the run into a swift skimming along through the trees like that of a roused partridge.
And yet she didn't know what she was running from. Something within her, a power of guardedness or that capacity for common sense which had made its last desperate effort to get the upper hand, had broken down. All she could yield to was the terror that paralyzed thought; all she could respond to was the force that drew her up the hill with its awful fascination. "I must do it, I must," were the words with which she met her own impulse to resist. If her confused thought could have become explanatory it would have said: "I must get away from the life I've known, from the care, from the hope, from the love. I must do something that will make Claude suffer; I must frighten him; I must wound him; I must strike at the girl who has won him away with her ten or twelve servants. And there's no way but this."
Even so the way was obscure to her. She was taking it without seeing whither it was to lead. If one impulse warned her to stop, another whipped her onward. "I can't stop! I can't stop!" she cried out, when warning became alarm.
For flight gave impetus to itself. It was like release; it was a kind of wild glee. She was as a bird whose wings have been bound, and who has worked them free again. There was a frenzy in sheer speed.
The path was steep, but she was hardly aware of so much as touching it. Fear behind and anguish within her carried her along. She scarcely knew that she was running breathlessly, that she panted, that once or twice she stumbled and fell. Something was beckoning to her from the great, safe, empty void—something that was nothing, unless it was peace and sleep—something that had its abode in the free spaces of the wind and the blue caverns of the sky and the kindly lapping water—something infinite and eternal and restful, in whose embrace she was due.
At the edge of the wood she had a last terrifying moment. The raspberry-bine was there, and the great oak with the seat around it, and the carpet of cinquefoil and wild strawberry. She gave them a quick, frightened look, like an appeal to impede her. If she was to stop she must stop now. "But I can't stop," she seemed to fling to them, over her shoulder, as she kept on to where, beyond the highest tip of greensward, the blue level of the lake appeared.
The boat with the two fishermen was nearer the shore than when she had observed it last. "They'll save me! Oh, they'll save me!" she had time to whisper to herself, at the supreme moment when she left everything behind.
There followed a space which in Rosie's consciousness was long. She felt that she was leaping, flying, out into the welcoming void, and that the promise of rest and peace had not deceived her.
But it was in the shock of falling that sanity returned; and all that the tense little creature had been, and tried to be, and couldn't be, and longed to be, and feared to be, and failed to be broke into a cry at which the fishermen dropped their rods.
"Thor, would you mind if I went away for a little while?"
He looked at her across the luncheon-table, but her eyes were downcast. Though she endeavored to maintain the non-committal attitude she had taken up at breakfast, she couldn't meet his gaze.
"If you went away!" he echoed, blankly. "Why should you do that?"
"I've been to see—" She found a difficulty in pronouncing the name—"I've been to see Rosie. She's rather—upset."
Under the swift lifting of her lids he betrayed his self-consciousness. "I suppose so." He kept to the most laconic form of speech in order to leave no opening to her penetration.
"And I thought if I could take her away—"
"Where should you go?"
"Oh, anywhere. That wouldn't matter. To New York, perhaps. That might interest her. But anywhere, so long as—"
He got out his consent while making an excuse for rising from the table. The conversation was too difficult to sustain. It was without looking at him that she said, as he was leaving the room:
"Then I'll go and ask her at once. I dare say she won't come—but I can try. It will give me an excuse for going back. I feel worried at having left her at all."
* * * * *
Between three and four that afternoon she entered her husband's office hurriedly. It was Mrs. Dearlove who received her. "Do you know where Dr. Masterman is? Do you know where he expected to call this afternoon?"
Brightstone consulted a card hanging on the wall. "He was to 'ave seen Mrs. Gibbs, 'm—Number 10 Susan Street—some time through the day."
Lois made no secret of her agitation. "Have they a telephone?"
"Oh, no, 'm; 'ardly. Only a poor charwoman."
"Was he going anywhere at all where they could have a telephone?"
Mrs. Dearlove having mentioned the possibilities, Lois rang up house after house. She left the same message everywhere: Thor was to be asked to come directly to his office, where she was awaiting him. It was after four when he appeared.
She met him in the little entry and, taking him by the arm, drew him into the waiting-room. "Come in, Thor dear, come in." She knew by his eyes that he suspected something of what she had to tell.
"Caught me at the Longyears'," he tried to say in a natural voice, but he could hardly force the words beyond his lips.
"It's Rosie, Thor," she said, instantly. "She's all right."
He dropped into a chair, supporting himself on the round table strewn with illustrated papers and magazines for the entertainment of waiting patients. His lips moved, but no sound passed them. Long, dark shadows streaked the pallor of his face.
She sat down beside him, covering his hands with her own. "She's all right, Thor dear ... now ... and I don't think she'll be any the worse for it in the end.... She may be the better.... We can't tell yet.... But—but you haven't heard it in the village, have you?"
He shook his head, perhaps because he was dazed, perhaps because he didn't trust himself to speak.
"That's good." She spoke breathlessly. "I was so afraid you might ... I wanted to tell you myself ... so that you wouldn't—you wouldn't get a shock.... There's no reason for a shock—not now, Thor.... It's only—it's only ... just what I was afraid of—what I spoke of at lunch.... She—she—she did it."
He found strength to speak. "She did—what?"
Lois continued the same breathless way. "She threw herself into the pond.... But she's all right.... Jim Breen and Robbie Willert were out in a boat—fishing.... They saw her.... They got to her just as she went down the second time.... Jim Breen dived after her and brought her up.... She wasn't unconscious very long ... and fortunately Dr. Hill was close by—at old Mrs. Jukes's in Schoolhouse Lane.... So she's home now and all right, or nearly.... I arrived just as they were bringing her ashore.... She was breathing then.... I went on before them to the house.... I told Mrs. Fay ... and Mr. Fay.... I saw them put her to bed.... She's all right.... And then I came here—to tell you, Thor—"
He struggled to his feet, throwing his head back and clenching his fists. "I swear to God that if I ever see Claude again I'll—I'll kill him!"
Without rising she caught one of his hands and pulled him downward. "Sit down, Thor," she said, in a tone of command. "You mustn't take it like that. You mustn't make things worse than they are. They're bad enough as it is. They're so bad—or at least so hard for—for some of us—that we must do everything we can to make it possible to bear them."
He sat down at her bidding; but with elbows resting on the table he covered his face with his hands. She clasped her own and sat looking at him. That is, she sat looking at his strong knuckles and at the shock of dark hair that fell over the finger-tips where the nails dug into his forehead. She felt a great pity for him; but a pity that permitted her to sit there, watchful, detached, not as if it was Thor—but some one else.
There would be an end now to silences and concealments. She saw that already. He was making no further attempt to keep her in the dark. In the shock of the moment all the barricades he had built around his secret life had fallen like the walls of Jericho. She had nothing to do but walk upward and inward and take possession. All was open. There was neither shrine nor sanctuary any longer. It was no privilege to be admitted thus; anybody would have been admitted who sat beside him as she was sitting now.
But in the end the paroxysm passed and his hands came down.
"I know it's hard for you, Thor—" The eyes he turned on her were full of such unspeakable things that she stopped. She was obliged to wait till he looked away again before she could go on. "I know it's hard for you, Thor. It's hard for—for us all. But my point is that bitterness or violence will only make it worse. You must remember—I feel that I must remind you of it—that you're not the—not the only sufferer."
He bowed his head into his hands again, but without the mad anguish of a few minutes earlier.
"Where so much is intolerable," she pursued, "what we have to do—each one of us—is to see how tolerable we can make things for every one else."
He raised his head for one quick, reproachful glance. "Do you mean tolerable for—for Claude?"
"Yes, I do mean for Claude. We sha'n't have to punish him."
He gave her another look. "Then what have we got to do?"
"Nothing that isn't kind—and well thought out beforehand. That's really the important thing. When one can't move without hurting some one, isn't it better not to move at all?"
It was the old doctrine of tarrying the Lord's leisure against which his instincts were still in revolt. His indignation was such that he could partially turn and face her. "Do you mean to say that we should let him abandon her—now?"
She laid her hand on his arm. "Oh, Thor dear, it isn't for us to let—or prevent—or anything. We can't drive other people—and it's only to a slight degree that we can lead them. Even I know that. What we can do best is to follow—and pick up the pieces."
He shook his head blankly. "I don't understand. What good would that do?"
She rose, saying quietly, "I shall have to let you think it out for yourself."
As he remained seated, his forehead resting on his hand, she passed behind him. With her arm thrown lightly across his shoulders she bent over him till her cheek touched his hair. "Thor dear," she whispered, "we've got our own problems to solve, haven't we? We can't solve Claude's and Rosie's too. No one can do that but themselves. Whatever happens—whether he comes back and marries her, or whether he doesn't—no help would ever come of your interference or mine. If we'd only understood that before—"
"You mean, if I had."
"Well, Thor darling, you haven't. You see, human beings are so terribly free. I say terribly, on purpose—because you can't compel them to be wise and prudent and safe, even when they're making the most obvious mistakes. We must let them make them—and suffer—and learn." She bent closer to his ear. "And it's what we must do, Thor dear, you and I. We've made our mistakes already—though perhaps we didn't know it. Now we must have the suffering—and—and the learning."
She brushed her lips lightly across his hair and left him.
As she walked through the Square, and past the terminus of the tram-line, and on into the beginning of County Street, she was obliged to keep repeating her own words—"Nothing that isn't kind and well thought out beforehand." Having counseled him against bitterness and violence, she saw that her immediate task was not to swallow her own words. Bitterness was beyond suppression, and violence would have been so easy! "Well thought out beforehand," she emphasized. "Whatever I do I must keep to that. If I don't, God knows where we shall be."
In pursuance of this principle she turned in at her father-in-law's gate. He and Mrs. Masterman must also be warned. Rosie's rash act would touch them so closely that unless they were informed of it gently something regrettable might be said or done.
As to that, however, her fears proved groundless. Masterman himself opened the door for her as she went up the steps. "Saw you coming," he explained. "Just got out from town. Ena's been telling me the most distressing thing—the most damnably theatrical, idiotic thing. Perhaps you've heard of it."
"I know what you mean. I've been there. I was there when they brought her ashore. It may have been idiotic, as you say, but I don't think it was theatrical."
"You will when you know. Ena," he called up the stairs after they had entered the hall; "Lois is here. Come down."
Mrs. Masterman entered the library a minute later with both hands outstretched. "Oh, my dear, what a comedy this is!" It was not often that her manner forsook its ladylike suavity. "What a comedy! But of course you don't know. Nobody knows, thank God! But we must tell you." She turned to her husband. "Will you tell her, Archie, or shall I?"
"If it's about Claude and Rosie Fay," Lois said, when they had got seated, "I know all that. Thor told me. He told me yesterday, because—well, because I'd been taking an interest in Rosie for some months past, and when I went to see her yesterday afternoon old Mr. Fay wouldn't let me. He said there'd been trouble—or something—between Claude and Rosie—"
"Oh, he's been so romantic, poor boy," Ena interrupted, "and so loyal. You'd hardly believe. He's been taken in completely. He did want to marry her. That's true. There's no use denying it. He told his father and he told me. Oh, you've no idea. We've been so worried. But he must have found her out—simply found her out."
Lois weighed the wisdom of asking questions or of learning more than Thor chose to tell her, but in the end it seemed reasonable to ask, "Found her out—how?"
Ena threw up her pretty hands. "Oh, well, with a girl of that sort what could you expect? Claude's been completely taken in—or he was. He's so innocent, poor boy. He wouldn't believe—not even when I told him. I tried to stand by him—I really did. Didn't I, Archie? When he said he wanted to marry her I said, said I, 'If she's a good girl, Claude, and loves you, I'll accept her.' I really did, Lois—and you can imagine what it cost me. But I could see at once. Any one who wasn't infatuated as Claude was would have seen at a glance. The girl must be—well, something awful."
Lois spoke warmly. "Oh, I don't think that."
"My dear Lois, I know. What's more, Thor knows, too. And I must say I can't help blaming Thor. He's backed Claude up—and backed him up when all the while he's known what she was."
Lois felt obliged to speak. "I don't think he's known anything—anything to her discredit."
"Oh, but he has. I assure you he has. And what amazes me about Thor—simply amazes me—is that he shouldn't see it in the right light. Archie did, as soon as I told him. Didn't you, Archie? And I didn't tell him," Ena ran on, excitedly, "till I saw what trouble dear Claudie was in. When Claudie began to see for himself I betrayed his confidence to the extent of telling his father, but not before. You could hardly blame me for that, could you?—his own father. And when I did tell Archie—why, it was so plain that a child could have understood."
The question, "What was plain?" could not but come to Lois's lips, but she succeeded in withholding it. She even rose, with signs of going. It was Archie who responded to his wife, taking a man's view of that which seemed to her so damning.
"We must make allowances, of course, for its being a cock-and-bull story to begin with. Girls like that never know how to tell the truth."
"We couldn't treat it as a cock-and-bull story so long as Claude believed it," the mother declared, in defense of her right to be anxious. "And Thor believed it, too. I know he did. And I do blame Thor for not telling Claude—a boy so inexperienced!—that a girl couldn't be getting money from some other man—and go on getting it after she was married—unless there'd been something wrong."
Lois felt as if her blood had been arrested at her heart. "Money from some other man?"
"Money from some other man," Mrs. Masterman repeated, firmly. "I told Claude at the time that no man in his senses would settle money on a girl like that unless there'd been a reason—and a very good reason, too. A very good reason, too, I said. But Claude's as ignorant of the world as if he was ten years old. He really is. She took him in completely."
Being too consciously a gentleman to say more in disparagement of a woman's character than he had permitted himself already, Masterman remained in the library while his wife accompanied Lois to the door. The latter had said good-by and was descending the steps when Ena cried out in a tone that was like a confession:
"Oh, Lois, you don't think that poor girl had any reason to throw herself into the pond, do you?"
At the foot of the steps Lois turned and looked upward. Ena was wringing her hands, but the daughter-in-law didn't notice it. As a matter of fact, Lois was too deeply sunk into thoughts of her own to have any attention to spare for other people's searchings of heart. Having heard the question, she could answer it, but absently, and as though it were a point of no pressing concern.