"She hadn't the reason you're thinking of. I feel very sure of that. I've asked her mother—and she says she knows it."
Mrs. Masterman was uttering some expression of relief, but Lois could listen to no more. In her heart there was room for only one consideration. "Money! Money!" she was saying to herself as she went down the avenue beneath the leafing elms. "He was going to give her—that."
But Ena returned to the threshold of the library, where her husband, standing with his back to the empty fireplace, was meditating moodily.
"Archie," she faltered, "you do think that girl was only seeking notoriety, don't you?"
He raised his head, which had been hanging pensively. "Certainly. Don't you?"
She tried to speak with conviction. "Oh yes; of—of course."
"That is," Archie analyzed, "she was going in for cheap tragedy in the hope that the sensation would reach Claude. That was her game—quite evidently. Dare say it was a put-up job between her and those two young men. Took very good care, at any rate, to have 'em 'longside."
"But if Claude should hear of it—"
"Must see that he doesn't. Wiring him to-night to go on to Japan, after he's seen California. Let him go to India, if he likes—round the world. Anything to keep him away—and you and I," he added, "had better hook it till the whole thing blows over."
She looked distressed. "Hook it, Archie?"
"Close the house up and go abroad. Haven't been abroad for three years now. Little motor trip through England—and back toward the end of the summer. Fortunately I've sold that confounded property. Good price, too. Hobson, of Hobson & Davies. Going to build for residence. Takes it from the expiration of the lease, which is up in July. He'll clear out the whole gang then, so that by the time we come back they'll be gone. What do you think? Might do Devonshire and Cornwall—always wanted to take that trip—with a few weeks in Paris before we come home."
The suggestion of going abroad came as such a pleasing surprise that Mrs. Masterman slipped into a chair to turn it over in her mind. "Then Claude couldn't come back, could he?" expressed the first of the advantages she foresaw. "He'd have nowhere to go."
"Oh, he'll not be in a hurry to do that," Archie said, confidently.
"And I do want some things," she mused further. "I had nothing to wear for the Darlings' ball—nothing—and you know how long I've worn the dinner-dresses I have. I really couldn't put on the green again." She was silent for some minutes, when another of those queer little cries escaped her such as had broken from her lips when she stood at the door with Lois: "But, oh, Archie, I want to do what's right!—what's right, Archie!"
He looked at her from under his brows as his head again drooped moodily. "What's—what?"
"What's right, Archie. Latterly—Oh, I don't know!—but latterly—" She passed her hand across her brow.... "Sometimes I feel—I get to be afraid, Archie—as if we weren't—as if we hadn't—as if something were going to happen—to overtake us—"
Crossing the room, he bent back her pretty head and kissed her. "Nonsense," he smiled, unsteadily. "Nerves, dear. Don't wonder at it—with all we've been through—one way and another. But that's what we'll do. Close the house up and go abroad for three months. Inconvenient just now with the upset in the business—but we'll do it. Get out of the way. See something new. There, now, old girl," he coaxed, patting her on the shoulder, "brace up and shake it off. Nothing but nerves." He added, as he moved back toward his stand by the fireplace, "Get 'em myself."
"Do you, Archie? Like that? Like—like what I said?"
He had resumed his former attitude, his feet wide apart, his hands behind his back, his head hanging, when he muttered, "Like the devil."
She was not sure how much mental discomfort was indicated by the phrase, so she sat looking at him distressfully. Being unused to grappling with grave questions of right and wrong, she found the process difficult. It was like wandering through morasses in which she could neither sink nor swim, till she found herself emerging on solid, familiar ground again with the reconciling observation, "Well, I do need a few things."
It was not till Rosie was well enough to go listlessly back to work, and the Mastermans had sailed, that Lois found her own emotions ripe for speech. During the intervening fortnight she and Thor had lived their ordinary life together, but on a basis which each knew to be temporary. While he kept his office hours in the mornings and visited his patients in the afternoons, and she busied herself with household tasks or superintended the gardener in replanting the faded tulip-beds with phlox and sweet-peas and dahlias; while she sewed or did embroidery in the evenings and listened to him reading aloud, or—since the nights were growing warm—they sat silent on an upper balcony, or talked about the stars, each knew that the inner tension would never be relaxed till it was broken.
If there was any doubt of that it was on Thor's side. Because she said nothing, there were minutes when he hoped she had nothing to say. Unaware of a woman's capacity for keeping the surface unruffled while storm may be raging beneath, he beguiled himself at times into thinking that his fears of her acuteness had been false alarms. If so, he could only be thankful. He wanted to forget. If he had had a prayer to put up on the subject, it would have been that she would allow him to forget. So, as day followed day, regularly, peacefully, with an abstention on her part from comment that could give him pain, he began to indulge the hope—a hope which he knew in his heart to be baseless—that she had nothing to remember.
When he was called on at last to face the realities of the case the moment was as unexpected to him as it was to her. She had not meant to bring the subject up on that particular evening. She had made no program—not because she was uncertain as to what she ought to say, but because the impulse to say it lagged. In the end it came to her without warning, surprising herself no less than him.
"Thor, were you going to give money to Rosie Fay?"
The croaking of frogs seemed part of the silence in which she waited for his answer. The warm air was heavy with the scents of lilac, honeysuckle, and syringa. As they stood by the railing of the balcony that connected the exterior of their two rooms, she erect, he leaning outward with an arm stretched toward the sky, a great white lilac, whose roots were in the early days of the Willoughby farm, threw up its tribute of blossom almost to their feet. The lights of the village being banked under verdure, the eye sought the stars.
Thor loved the stars. On moonless nights he spent hours in contemplation of their beckoning mystery. From Auriga and Taurus in January, he followed them round to Aries and Perseus in December, getting a beam on his inward way. Just now, with the aid of a pencil, he was tracing for his wife's benefit the lines of the rising Virgin. Lois could almost discern the graceful, recumbent figure, winged, noble, lying on the eastern horizon, Spica's sweet, silvery light a-tremble in her hand. She was actually thinking how white for a star was Spica's radiance, when the words slipped out: "Thor, were you going to give money to Rosie Fay?"
He suppressed the natural question concerning her sources of information in order to say, as quietly as he could, "If—if Claude had married her I was going to—to help them out."
She resented what she considered his evasiveness. "That isn't just what I asked."
"Even so, it tells you what you want to know. Doesn't it?"
"Not everything I want to know."
"Why should you want to know—everything?"
"Because—" It struck her that her reason could be best expressed by shifting her ground. "Thor dear, exactly why did you want to marry me?"
The change in tactics troubled him. "I think I told you that at the time."
"You told me you came to me as to a—to a shelter."
"And as to a home. I said that, too, Lois."
"Yes," she agreed, slowly, "you said that, too." A brief interval gave emphasis to the succeeding words: "But did you think it was enough?"
"I couldn't judge of that. I could only say—what I had to say—truthfully."
"Oh, I know it was—truthfully. It's—it's just the trouble. You see, Thor," she went on, unsteadily, "I thought you were telling me only some of what was in your heart—and it was all."
"I'm not certain that I know what you mean by all. What I felt was—so much." He added, reproachfully, "It's surely a great deal when a man finds a woman his refuge from trouble."
"That's perfectly true, Thor; and there's no one in the world who wouldn't be touched by it. But in the case of a wife, she can hardly help thinking of the kind of trouble he's escaping from."
"But so long as he escapes from it—"
She interrupted quickly: "Yes; so long as he does. But when he doesn't? When, instead of leaving his trouble outside the refuge, he brings it in?"
He took an uneasy turn up and down the balcony. "Look here, Lois; have you any particular motive in bringing this up now?"
"Yes, Thor. It's the same motive I had a few weeks ago, only that I haven't been sure of it till to-night. I want you"—she hesitated, but urged herself on—"I want you—to let me go away."
"Go away?" he cried, sharply. "Go away where?"
"I don't know yet. Anywhere. There are one or two visits I might make—or I could find a place. That part of it doesn't matter."
"But when you wanted to go away a few weeks ago—"
"It was to—to take her. I shouldn't need to do that now, because she's better. In a way she's all right—all right, only changed."
It was to make a show of not being afraid to mention Rosie that he said, "Changed in what way?"
"Well, you'll see." She decided that for his own sake it was kindness to be cruel, and so added: "Changed to a healthier frame of mind. She's very much ashamed of what she tried to do, and wants to begin again on a—on a less foolish basis. So," she continued, reverting to her former point, "my going away wouldn't now have anything to do with her. It would be on my own account. I want to—to think."
"Think about what?"
"Well, chiefly about you."
He knew they were nearing the heart of the question, and so went up to it boldly. "To wonder—whether or not—I—love you? Is that it?"
"N-no; not exactly." She allowed a second to pass before letting slip the words: "Rather the other way."
"The other way—how?"
She spoke very softly. "Whether or not—I love you."
"Oh!" His tone was as soft as hers, but with the ejaculation he moved his big hands about his body like a man feeling for his wound. "I thought you did."
"Yes, I thought so, too—till—till lately. Perhaps I do, even now. I don't know. It's what I want to get away for—to think—to see. I can't do either when you're so near me. You—you overwhelm me—you crush me. I don't get the free use of my mind."
He turned again to pace the narrow limits of the balcony. "If you ever did love me, Lois," he said, in a voice she hardly recognized because of the new thrill in it, "I've done nothing to deserve the withdrawal of—of your affection."
She answered while still keeping her eyes absently on Spica's white effulgence. "I know you haven't, Thor dear. But that's not the point. It's rather that I have to go back and—and revise everything—form new conceptions."
He paused, standing behind her. "I don't think I get your idea."
"No, probably not. You couldn't without knowing what it all used to mean to me."
"Used to mean?"
"Yes, Thor; used to mean in a way that it doesn't now, and never can any more."
There was pain in his voice as he said, "That's hard, Lois—damnably hard."
"I know, Thor dear. I wouldn't say it if I hadn't made up my mind that I must—that I ought to. I've had a great shock—which has been in its way a great humiliation—but I could go on keeping it to myself if I hadn't come to the conclusion that it's best for you to know. Men are so slow to fathom what their wives are thinking of—"
"Well, then, tell me."
She turned slowly round from her contemplation of the stars, a hand on each side grasping the low rail against which she leaned. The spangles on a scarf over her bare shoulders glittered iridescently in the light streaming from her room. Of Thor she could discern little more than the whiteness of his face and of his evening shirt-front from the obscurity in which he kept himself. A minute or more elapsed before she went on.
"You see, Thor, I didn't fall in love with you first of all for your own sake; it was because—because I thought you'd fallen in love with me. That's a sort of confession, isn't it? It may be something I ought to be ashamed of, and perhaps I am—a little. But you'd understand how it could happen if you were to realize what it was to me that a man should fall in love with me at all."
He tried to interrupt her, but she insisted on going on in her own way. "I wasn't attractive. I never had been. During the years when I was going out I never received what people call attentions—not from any one. I don't say that I didn't suffer on account of it. I did—but I'd begun to take the suffering philosophically. I'd made up my mind that no one would ever care for me, and I was getting used to the idea—when—when you came."
Because her voice trembled she pressed her handkerchief against her lips, while Thor stood silent in the darkness of the far end of the balcony.
"And when you did come, Thor dear, it couldn't but seem to me the most amazing thing that ever happened. I didn't allow myself to think that you were in love with me—I didn't dare—at first. It made me happy that you should think it worth while just to come and see me, to talk to me, to tell me some of the things you hoped to do. That in itself—"
She broke off again, losing something of her self-command. In the stress of physical agitation she drew the spangled scarf over her shoulders and stepped forward into the shaft of light that fell through the open French window of her room.
"But, finally, Thor, I came to the conclusion that you must love me. I couldn't explain your kindness in any other way. Believe me, I didn't accept that way till—till it seemed the only one, but when I did, well, it wasn't merely pride and happiness that I felt—it was something more." A sob in her throat obliged her to interrupt herself again, while the croaking of frogs continued. "And so, Thor dear, love came to me, too. It came because I thought you brought it; but now that I see you didn't bring it, you can understand why I should be in doubt as to—as to whether or not—it really did come."
Since he recognized the futility of making an immediate response, they stood confronting each other in silence.
She took another step nearer him. "But what I'm not in any doubt about at all is the scorn I feel for myself for ever having cherished the delusion. If I'd been a woman with—with more claim, let us say, to being loved—"
"Lois, for God's sake, don't say that!"
"But I must say it, Thor. It's at the bottom of all I mean. I was weak and foolish enough to think that in spite of the things I lacked a man had given me his heart—when he hadn't."
"Lois, I can't stand this. Please don't go on."
"But I have to stand it, Thor. I have to stand it day and night, without ever getting away from the thought of it. I have to go back and puzzle and wonder and speculate as to why you did what you've done to me. I see things this way, Thor: There was a time when you thought you might come to care for me. You really thought it. And then—something happened—and you were not so sure. Later, you felt that you couldn't—that you never would. But the something that happened happened the wrong way for you—and papa broke down as he did—and I was in danger of being poor—and you were kind and generous—and—you weren't very happy as things were—you told me so, didn't you? And—and—in short—you thought you might as well. You knew I expected it—or had expected it once—and so—so you did it. Tell me, Thor dear; am I so very far wrong? Wasn't it like that?"
He raised his head defiantly. "And if I admitted that it was like that, what then?"
"Oh, nothing. I should merely ask you the same thing—to let me go away."
"Away for how long?"
She reflected. "Till I could establish a new basis on which to come back."
"I don't know what you mean by a new basis."
"I dare say I don't mean anything very different from the compromise most people have to make—a little while after marriage; only that in my case the necessity comes more as—a shock. You see, Thor, you're not the man—not the man I thought you were. I must have a little while to get used to that."
He stirred uneasily. "You find I'm—I'm not so good a man."
"Oh, I don't say that. I don't say that at all. You're just as good. Only you're not—" She went up to him, laying her hands on his shoulders—"Oh, you don't understand. I loved the other Thor. I'm not sure that I love this one. I don't know. Perhaps I do. I can't tell till I get away from you. Let me go. It may not be for long."
She stepped back from him toward the window of her room, through which she seemed about to pass. He was obliged to speak in order to retain her.
"Look here, Lois," he began, not knowing exactly how he meant to continue. She turned with a foot on the threshold, her hand on the knob of the open window-door. The pose, set off by the simplicity of the old black evening dress she was in the habit of wearing when they were alone, displayed the commanding beauty of her figure to a degree which he had never observed before. He remembered afterward that something shot through him, something he had associated hitherto only with memories of little Rosie Fay, but for the minute he was too intensely preoccupied for more than a subconscious attention. She was waiting and he must say something to justify his appeal to her. "It's all right," were the words he found. "I'm willing. That is, I'm willing in principle. Only"—he stammered on—"only I don't want you to go roaming the country by yourself. Why not let me go? I could go away for a while, and you could stay here." He warmed to the idea as soon as he began to express it. "This is your home, rather than mine. It's your father's house. You've lived in it for years. I couldn't stay here without you—while you're used to it without me. I'll go. I'll go—and I'll not come back till you tell me. There. Will that do?"
The advantages of the arrangement were evident. She answered slowly. "It—it might. But what about your patients?"
"Oh, Hill would look after them. He said he would if I wanted to attend the medical congress at Minneapolis. I told him I didn't, but—but"—he tapped the rail to emphasize the timeliness of the idea—"but, by George! I'll do it. You'd have three weeks at least—and as many more as you ask for."
She gave the suggestion a minute's thought. "Very well, Thor. Since the congress is going on—and your time wouldn't be altogether thrown away—You see, all I want is a little quiet—a little solitude, perhaps—just to realize where I am—and to see how—to begin again—if we ever can."
She closed one side of the window, softly and slowly. Her hands were on the other battant when he uttered a little throaty cry. "Aren't you going to say good night?"
Standing on the low step of the window, she was sufficiently above him to be able to fold his head in her arms, to pillow it on her breast, while she imprinted a long kiss on the thick, dark mass of his hair. Having released him, she withdrew, closing the window gently and pulling down the blinds.
Outside in the darkness Thor turned once more to where the Virgin, recumbent, noble, outlined and crowned with stars, Spica the wheat-ear in the hand hanging by her side, rose slowly toward mid-heaven. Irrelevantly there came back to his memory something said months before by his uncle Sim, but which he had not recalled since the night he heard it. "You may make an awful fool of yourself, Thor, but you'll be on the side of the angels—and the angels will be on yours."
"Humph!" he snorted to himself. "That's all very fine. But—where are the angels?" And again he sought the stars.
It was Jim Breen who told Lois that Jasper Fay's tenancy of the land north of the pond was definitely ended. "Want a nice fern-tree, Mrs. Masterman?" he had asked, briskly. "Two or three beauties for sale at Mr. Fay's place. Look dandy in the corner of a big room. Beat palms and rubber-plants like a rose'll beat a bur. Get a nice one cheap at Mr. Fay's."
Lois wondered. "Is Mr. Fay selling off?"
"Well, not exactly. Father's selling what he don't want to cart over to our place. Didn't you know? Father's bought out Mr. Fay's stock. Mr. Fay's got to beat it by July ninth."
As Lois looked into the honest face she made the reflection with a little jealous pang that Rosie Fay was just the type that men like Jim Breen fell in love with. There was something in men like Jim Breen, in men like Thor Masterman—the big, generous, tender men—that impelled them toward piteous little creatures like Rosie Fay, driven probably by the protective yearning in themselves. It placed the tall women, the strong women, the women whose first impulse was to give to others rather than to get anything for themselves, at a disadvantage. In response to the information just received, she said, anxiously, "Why, Jim, tell me about it."
He drew from the wagon a wooden "flat" filled with zinnia plantlings, like so many little green rosettes. "Hadley B. Hobson owns that property now, Mrs. Masterman," he said, cheerily, depositing the "flat" on the ground. "Going to build. Didn't you know? Have a dandy place there. Had architects and landscape-gardeners prowling 'round for the last two weeks, and old man Fay won't allow one of them on the grounds. You'd die laughing to see him chasing them off with a spade or a rake or whatever he has in his hand. His property till July ninth, he says, and he wouldn't let so much as a crow fly over it if it belonged to Hadley B. Hobson. You'd die laughing."
"I don't see how you can laugh when he's in such trouble, poor man."
"Oh, well," Jim drawled, optimistically, "he won't do so bad. He can always have a job with father. Father's mingled with him ever since the two of them were young. If Mr. Fay hadn't been so moonstruck he'd have had just the same chance as father had."
Lois chose a moment which seemed to be discreet in order to say: "I know Rosie quite well. I've seen a good deal of her during the past few months."
"Rosie's all right, Mrs. Masterman," Jim answered, suddenly and a trifle aggressively. "I don't care what any one says—she's all right."
"I know she's all right, Jim. She's one of the most remarkable characters I've ever met. I often wish she'd let me help her more."
"Well, you hold on to her, Mrs. Masterman," he advised, with a curious, pleading quality in his voice. "You'll find she'll be worth it. And if ever a girl was up against it—she is."
"I will hold on to her, Jim."
"It's all rot what people are saying that she'd gone melancholy because she took that fool jump into the pond. I know how she did it. She'd got to the point where she couldn't help it, where she just couldn't stand any more—with the business all gone to pieces and Matt coming out of jail, and everything else. Who wouldn't have done it? I'd have done it myself, if I'd been a girl. She'd got worked up, Mrs. Masterman, and when girls get worked up, why, they'll do anything. I believe the shock's done her good. Sort of cleared her mind like."
Lois tried to be tactful. "Then you see her?"
"We-ll—on and off." He grew appealing and confidential. "I don't mind telling you, Mrs. Masterman," he began, as if acknowledging an indiscretion, "I went with Rosie once. Went with her for over a year."
"Did you, Jim?"
He leaned nonchalantly against Maud's barrel-shaped body, his face taking on an expression of boyish regret. "And I'd have gone on going with her if—if Rosie hadn't—hadn't kind of dropped me."
"Oh, but, Jim, why should she?"
"We-ll, I can understand it. Rosie's high-toned, you know, Mrs. Masterman, and she's got a magnificent education. I guess you wouldn't come across them more refined, not in the most tip-top families. Pretty! My Lord! pretty isn't the word for it. And I think she grows prettier. And work! Why, Mrs. Masterman, if that girl was at the head of a plant like ours there wouldn't be anything for father and me to do but sit in a chair and rock."
"I'm glad she's willing to see you," Lois ventured.
He sprang to his seat behind Maud. "Well, I guess she needs all the friends she's got."
Lois ventured still further. "I'm sure she needs friends like you, Jim."
There was a flare in his eye as he fumbled for the reins. "Well, she's only got to stoop and pick me up. Git along, Maud. Gee!" In obedience to his pull Maud arched her heavy neck and executed a sidewise movement uncertainly. "She knows I'm there," he continued, as the wagon creaked round. "Been there ever since she dropped me. Gee! Maud, gee! What you thinking of? I've never gone with any one else, Mrs. Masterman—not really gone with them. Rosie's been the only one so far. Well, good-by. And you will hold on to her, Mrs. Masterman, now, won't you?"
"Indeed I will, Jim—and—and you must do the same."
He threw her a rueful look over his shoulder, as Maud paced toward the gate. "Oh, I'm on the job every time."
The visit gave her a number of themes for thought, of which the most insistent was the power some women had of drawing out the love of men. For the rest of the day her gardening became no more than a mechanical directing of the setting out of seedlings, while she meditated on the problem of attractiveness.
How was it that women of small endowments could captivate men at sight, and that others of inexhaustible potentialities—she was not afraid to rank herself among them—went unrecognized and undesired? If Rosie Fay had been content with the honors of a local belle, she could have had her choice among half the young men in the village. What was her gift? What was the gift of that great sisterhood, comprising perhaps a third of the women in the world, to whom the majority of men turned instinctively, ignoring, or partially ignoring, the rest? Was it mere sheep-stupidity in men themselves that sent one where the others went, without capacity for individual discernment?—or was there a secret call that women like Rosie Fay could give which brought them too much of that for which other women were left famishing?
She put the question that evening to Dr. Sim Masterman, who had dropped in to see her, as he not infrequently did after his supper, now that Thor was away. Indeed, his visits were so regular as to make her afraid that with his curious social or spiritual second sight he suspected more in Thor's absence than zeal for the science of medicine.
"Why do men fall in love with inferior women?—become infatuated with them?"
He answered while sprawling before the library fire, his long legs apart, his fingers interlocked over his old tan waistcoat. "No use to discuss love with a woman. She can't get hold of it by the right end."
"Oh, but I thought that was just what she could do—one of the few capabilities universally conceded her."
"All wrong, my dear. A man occasionally understands love, but a woman never—or so rarely that it hardly counts. Gets it backward—wrong end first—nine women out of ten."
She looked up from her sewing. "I do wish you'd tell me what you mean by that."
"Clear enough. Love is in the first place the instinct to love some one else, and only in the second place the desire to be loved in return. Ten to one, the woman puts the cart before the horse. She's thinking of the return before she's done anything to get it. She don't want to love half as much as to be loved—and so she finds herself left."
Lois went on with her sewing again, but she was uneasy. She thought of her confession to Thor. Could it be that there was something wrong with her love as well as with his? It was to see what he had to say further that she asked, "Finds herself left in what way?"
"Make 'emselves too sentimental," he grumbled on. "In love with love. They like that expression, and it does 'em harm. Sets 'em to wool-gathering—with the heart. Makes 'em think love more important than it is."
"It's generally supposed to be rather important."
"Rather's the word. But it's not the only thing of which that can be said—and more. Women reason as if it was. Make their lives depend on it. Mistake. If you can get it, well and good; if not—there's compensation."
She lifted her head not less in amazement than in indignation. "Compensation for having to do without love?"
"And may I ask what?"
"No use telling you. Wouldn't believe me. Be like telling a man who's fond of his wine that he'd be just as well off with water."
She said, musingly, "Yes; love is the wine of life, isn't it?"
"Wine that maketh glad the heart of man—and can also play the deuce with it."
She sat for some time smiling to herself with faint amusement. "Do you really disapprove of love, Uncle Sim?" she asked, at last.
He yawned loudly and stretched himself. "What 'd be the good of that? Don't disapprove of it any more than I disapprove of the circulation of the blood. Force in life—of course! Treasure to be valued and peril to be controlled. To play with it requires skill; to utilize it calls for wisdom."
She had again been smiling gently to herself when she said, "I doubt if you can ever have been in love."
"Got nothing to do with it. Not obliged to have been insane to understand insanity. As a matter of fact, best brain specialists have always kept their senses."
"Oh, then, you rate love with insanity."
"Depends on the kind. Some sorts not far from it. Obsession. Brain-storm. Supernormal excitement. Passing commotion of the senses. Comes as suddenly as a summer tempest—thunder and lightning and rain—and goes the same way."
"Oh, but would you call that love?"
"You bet I'd call it love. Love the poets write about. Grand passion. Whirls along like a tornado—makes a noise and kicks up dust—and all over in an afternoon. That's the real thing. If you can't love like that, you can't love at all—not in the grand manner. The going just as vital as the coming. Very essence of it that it shouldn't last. That's why Shakespeare kills his Romeo and his Juliet at the end of the play—and Wagner his Tristan and his Isolde. Nothing else to do with 'em. People of that kind go through just the same set of high jinks six or eight months later with some one else; and in poetry that wouldn't do. Romantic lovers love by crises, and never pass twice the same way. People who don't do that—and lots of 'em don't—needn't think they can be romantic. They ain't."
"But surely there is a love—"
"Of the nice, tame, house-keeping variety. Of course! And it bears the same relation to the other kind as a glass of milk to a bottle of champagne. Mind you, I like milk. I approve of it. In the long run it 'll beat champagne any day—especially where you expect babies. I'm only saying that it doesn't come of the same vintage as Veuve Cliquot. Women often wish it did; and when it doesn't they make things uncomfortable. No use. Can't make a Tristan out of good, honest, faithful William Dobbin, nohow. The thing with the fizz is bound to go flat; and the thing that stands by you, to be relied on all through life, won't have any fizz."
Feeling at liberty to reject these vaporings as those of an eccentric old man who could know little or nothing on the subject, Lois reverted to the aspect of the question which had been in her mind when she started the theme. "You still haven't answered what I asked—as to why men fall in love with inferior women, and often with a kind of infatuation they hardly ever feel for the good ones."
He took longer than usual to reflect. "Part of man's dual nature. Paul knew a good deal about that. Puts the new man in contrast to the old man—the inner man in contrast to the outer man—the spiritual man in contrast to the carnal. The old, outer, carnal man falls in love with one kind of person, and the new, inner, spiritual man with another. Depends on which element is the stronger. The higher falls in love with the higher type; the lower with the lower."
"But suppose neither is stronger than the other?—that they're equally balanced—and—?"
"And in conflict. One of the commonest sights in life. Known fellows in love with two women at the same time—with a good wife at home, mother of the children, and all that—and another kind of woman somewhere else. True, in a way, to 'em both. Struggle of the two natures."
Lois was distressed. "Oh, but that kind of thing can't be love."
"Can't be? 'Tis. Ask any one who's ever felt it—who's been dragged by it both ways at once. He'll tell you whether it's love or not—and each kind the real thing—while it lasts."
It was the expression "while it lasts" that Lois most resented. It reduced love to a phase—to a passing experience that might be repeated on an indefinite number of occasions. It was more than a depreciation; it had the nature of a sacrilege. And yet no later than the following day she received a shock that showed her there was something to be said in its favor.
* * * * *
She had gone nominally to see Rosie, but really to verify for herself Jim Breen's report of the collapse of Jasper Fay's little industry. She found it hard to believe that after Claude's conduct toward Rosie her father-in-law could have the heart to bring further woe upon a family that had already had enough. Nothing but seeing for herself could coerce her incredulity.
She had seen for herself. Over the little place which had always been neat even when it was forlorn there was now the stamp of desolation. The beds which had been seeded or planted a month before, and which should now have been weeded, trimmed, and hoed, were growing with an untended recklessness that had all the proverbial resemblance to moral breakdown. In the cucumber-house the vines had become rusty and limp, sagging from the twines on which they climbed in debauched indifference to sightliness. The roof of the hothouse that had contained the flowers had a deep gash in the glass which it was no longer worth while to mend. There was no yellow-brown plume from the furnace chimney, and the very windows of the old house with the mansard roof had in their stare the glazed, unseeing expression of eyes in which there is death. Inside, Mrs. Fay was packing up. Battered old trunks that had long been stored in some moldy hiding-place stood agape; a packing-case held the place of honor in a forbidding "best room" into which Lois had never looked before. Mrs. Fay had little to say. Tears welled into her cold eyes with the attempt to say anything. Outside, Fay himself had nothing to say at all. Lois had accosted him, and though he had ceased to regard her as an enemy, he stood grimly silent as his only response to her words of consolation.
"I know things will come all right again, Mr. Fay. They must. They look dark now; but haven't you often noticed that after the worst times in our lives we're able to look back and see that the very thing that seemed most cruel was the turning-point at which a change for the better began? You must surely have noticed that—a man with so much experience as you."
He looked vaguely about him, standing in patience till she had said her say, but giving no indication that her words had anything to do with him. The change in his appearance shocked her. Everything in his face had taken on what was to her a terrible significance. The starry mysticism had vanished from the eyes to be replaced by a look that was at once hunted and searching, vindictive and yet woebegone. The mouth was sunken as the mouths of old men become from the loss of teeth, and the thin lips which used to be kindly and vacillating were drawn with a hard, unflinching tightness. The skin that had long been gray was now ghostly, with the shadowy, not quite earthly, hue of things about to disappear.
She had talked to him for some minutes before he woke to animation. At sight of two young men—surveyor's clerks, perhaps—who had set up in the roadway what might have been a camera on a tripod, or more probably a theodolite, through which they were squinting over the buildings and the slope of the land, he left her abruptly. With a hoe in his hand he crept forward, taking his place behind a clump of syringa that grew near the gate, ready to strike if either of the lads ventured to put foot on his property. It was the situation at which, according to light-hearted Jim Breen, you would have died laughing; but Lois had difficulty in keeping back her tears.
She found Rosie in the hothouse, of which the interior corresponded to the gash in the roof. All the smaller plants had been removed, disclosing the empty, ugly, earth-stained, water-stained wooden stagings. Only some half-dozen fern-trees remained of all the former beauty.
But even here Rosie was at work, sitting at the old desk, which, deprived of its sheltering greenery, was shabbier than ever, making out bills. There was still money owing to her father, and it was important that it should be collected. Over and over again she wrote her neat "Acct. rendered," while she added as a postscript in every case: "Please remit. Going out of business."
And yet, if there was anything on the dilapidated premises that could cheer or encourage it was Rosie. With the enforced rest and seclusion following on her fruitless dash to escape, her prettiness had become more delicate, less worn. Shame at her folly had put into her greenish eyes a pleading timidity which became a quivering, babyish tremble when it reached the lips. The contrast which the girl thus presented to her parents, as well as something that was visibly developing within her, enabled Lois to affirm that which hitherto she had only hoped or suspected, that the wild leap into the pond had worked some mysterious good.
Like her father and mother, Rosie had little to say. The meeting was embarrassing. There were too many unuttered and unutterable thoughts on both sides to make intercourse easy or agreeable. All they could achieve was to be sorry for each other, in a measure to respect each other, and to make up by an enforced, slightly perfunctory, good will for what they lacked in the way of spontaneity.
Lois took the chair on which Rosie had been seated at the desk, while Rosie leaned against a corner of the empty staging. It furnished the latter with something to say to be able to tell the new plans of the family. Her father had taken a job with Mr. Breen. It wouldn't be like managing his own place, but it would be better than nothing. He had also rented a tenement in a "three-family" house on the Thorley estate, to which they would move as soon as possible. It was important to make the change, so as to be settled when Matt came out of jail. Both Rosie and her mother were glad that he wouldn't be free till the 10th of July, because the lease terminated on the 9th. He would return, therefore, to absolutely new conditions, and there would be no necessity of going over any of the old ground again. As far as they were concerned—Rosie and her mother—the sooner they went the better they would like it, since they had to go; but "poor father," Rosie said, with a catch in her voice, "won't leave till the last minute has struck. Even then," she added, "I think they'll have to drive him off. This place has been his life. I don't think he'll last long after he's had to leave it."
Having given sympathetic views on these points as they came up, Lois rose to depart. She had actually shaken hands and turned away when Rosie seemed to utter a little cry. That is, her words came out with the emotion of a cry. "Mrs. Masterman! I want to ask you something!"
Lois turned in surprise. "Yes, Rosie? What?"
With one hand Rosie clung to the staging for support. The back of the other hand was pressed against her lips. She could hardly speak. "Is—is Claude staying away on my account?" Before Lois could answer, Rosie added, "Because he—he needn't."
Lois wondered. "What do you mean by that, Rosie?"
"Only that—that he needn't. I—I don't care whether he stays away or not."
Lois took a step back toward the girl. "You mean that it doesn't make any difference to you what he does?"
She shook her head. "No; not now; not—not any more."
"That is, you've given him up?"
Rosie sought for an explanation. "I haven't given him up. I only—see."
"You see what, Rosie?"
"Oh, I don't know. It's—it's like having had a dream—a strange, awful dream—and waking from it."
"Waking from it?"
Rosie nodded. She made a further effort to explain. "After I—I did—what I did—that day at Duck Rock—everything was different. I can't describe it. It was like dying—and coming back. It was like—like waking."
"Do you mean that what happened before seemed—unreal?"
She nodded again. "Yes, that's it. It was like a play." But she corrected herself quickly. "No; it wasn't like a play. It was more than that. It was like a dream—an awful dream—but a dream you like—a dream you'd go through again. No; you wouldn't go through it again—it would kill you." She grew incoherent. "Oh, I don't know—I don't know. It's gone—just gone. I don't say it wasn't real. It was real. It was a kind of frenzy. It got hold of me. It got hold of me body and soul. I couldn't think of anything else—while it lasted."
Lois was pained. "Oh, but, Rosie, love can't come and go like that."
"Can't it? Then it wasn't love." But she contradicted herself again. "Yes, it was love. It was love—while it lasted."
While it lasted! While it lasted! The phrase seemed to be on every one's lips. There was distress in Lois's voice as she said, "But if it was love, Rosie, it ought to have lasted."
And Rosie seemed to agree with her. "Yes, it ought to have. But it didn't. It went away. No, it didn't go away; it just—it just—wasn't." She wrung her hands, struggling with the difficulty she found in explaining herself. "After that day at Duck Rock it was like—it was like the breaking of a spell that was on me. Everything was different. It was like seeing through plain daylight again after looking through colored glass. I didn't want the things I'd been wanting. They were foolish to me—I saw they were foolish—and—and impossible. But it wasn't as if they had died; it was as if I had—and come back."
It was on behalf of love that Lois felt driven to make a protest. "And yet, Rosie, if you were to see Claude again—"
"No, no, no," the girl cried, excitedly; "I don't want to see him. He needn't stay away—not on my account—but I sha'n't see him if I can help it. It would be like dying the second time. All the same, he needn't be afraid of me; and his family needn't be afraid of me. I want to—to forget them all."
Enlightenment came slowly to Lois because of her unwillingness to be convinced of the heart's capriciousness. That love could be likened to brain-storm—obsession—the tornado whose rage dies out in an afternoon—was a wound to her tenderest beliefs. That the natural man must be taken into consideration as well as the spiritual also did violence to what she would have liked to make a serene, smooth theory of life. She stood looking long at the girl, studying her subconsciously, before she was able to say, calmly: "Very well, Rosie, dear. I'll let Claude know. I can get his address, and I'll write to him."
But another surprise was in store for her. She was near the door leading from the hothouse when she became aware that Rosie was behind her, and heard the same little gasping cry as before. "Mrs. Masterman! I want to ask you something!" Lois had hardly looked round when the girl went on again. "You know father and mother. They think the world of you—mother especially. Do you suppose they'd mind very much if I—if I turned?"
Lois was puzzled. "If you did what, Rosie?"
"If I turned; if I turned Catholic."
The reformed tradition was strong in Lois. She was prepared to defend it by argument and with affection. For a minute she was almost on the point of stating the historical Protestant position when she was deterred by the thought of Dr. Sim. What would he have said to Rosie? She remembered suddenly something that he once did say: "If you can seize any one aspect of the Christian religion, do it—for the least of them all will save you."
Remembering this, Lois withheld her arguments, asking the non-committal question, "Why should you think of doing that?"
Rosie flushed. "Oh, I don't know. I've been"—she hung her head—"I've been pretty bad, you know. I've told lies—and I—I tried to kill myself—and everything."
"And you think you'd get more help that way than any other?"
"Oh, I don't know. I went twice lately—not here—in town. It frightened me. I—I liked it."
Had Lois dared she would have asked if Jim Breen had inspired this sudden change, but she said, merely: "Oh, I don't believe your father and mother would feel badly in the end—not if it brought comfort to you, Rosie dear. Is it that you want me to talk to them?—to help you out?"
Rosie nodded silently, and with face averted in a kind of shame.
"Very well, then, I will." She felt it due to her own convictions to add: "Perhaps I can do it all the better because—because my personal opinions are the other way. They'll see I'm only seeking whatever may make for your happiness." There was silence for a few seconds before she said, in conclusion, "And oh! Rosie dear, I do hope you'll be happy, after all—all that's been so hard for you."
Rosie was too strong and self-contained to cry, but there was a mist in her eyes as they shook hands again and parted.
* * * * *
That night Lois wrote to her husband: "You ask me, dear Thor, if I see my way yet, and frankly I can't say that I do. I begin, however, to wonder if there is not a reason for my remaining puzzled and so long in the dark. I begin to ask if I know what love is—if anybody knows what it is. Do you? If so, what is it? Is it the same thing for every one? or does it differ with individuals? Is it a temporary thing?—or a permanent thing?—or does it matter? Is it one of the highest promptings we have?—or one of the lowest?—or is it that primary impulse of animate nature which when developed and perfected leads to God? Is there a spiritual man and a carnal man, each with a love that can conflict with the love of the other? Is the one man on the side of the angels, as Uncle Sim would say, and the other man on that of the flesh, till the stronger gains the victory? Or is there something in love of the nature of obsession? Does it come and go like the tornado—as violent in its passage, but as quickly passed? Thor, darling, I begin to be afraid of love. If we are to start again I want it to be on some other ground—a new ground—a ground we don't know anything about as yet, but which perhaps we shall discover."
Thorley Masterman pondered on the words Lois had written him as he tramped along the bluffs above the Mississippi, with the towers and spires of Minneapolis looming like battlements through the haze of an afternoon at the end of June. He had left the conference on new methods of treating the thyroid gland which was being held in St. Paul in order to think his position out. Having motored over from his hotel in Minneapolis, he preferred to "tramp it" back. The glorious wooded way on the St. Paul side of the river was in itself an invitation to his strong, striding limbs, while the wine of Western air and the stimulus of Western energy quickened the savage outdoor impulse so ready to leap in his blood. The song of mating birds quickened it, too, and the romance of the river gliding through the gorge below, and the beauty of the cities eying each other like embattled queens from headland across to headland and through the splendor of the promise of a gold-and-purple sunset.
It was a great setting for great thoughts, inspiring ideas so large that when he reached his hotel he found them too big to reduce easily to paper.
"You ask me what love is, and say you don't know. I'm more daring than you in that I think I do know. I know two or three things about it, even if I don't know all.
"For one thing, I know that no one can do more than say what love is for himself. You can't say what it is for me, or isn't, or must be, or ought to be. That's my secret. I can't always share it, or at any rate share it all, even with the person I love. But neither can I say what it is, or isn't, or should be, or must be, for you. You have your secret. No two people love in the same way, or get precisely the same kind of joy or sorrow from loving. Since love is the flower of personality, it has the same infinite variety that personalities possess. We give one thing and we get back another. Do not some of our irritations—I'm not speaking of you and me in particular—arise from the fact that, giving one thing, we expect to get the same thing back, when all the while no one else has that special quality to offer? The flower is different according to the plant that produces it. When the pine-tree loved the palm there was more than the distance to make the one a mystery to the other.
"Of the two things essential to love, the first, so it seems to me, is that what one gives should be one's best—the very blossom of one's soul. It may have the hot luxuriance of the hibiscus, or the flame of the wild azalea in the woods, or no more than the mildly scented, flowerless bloom of the elm or the linden that falls like manna in the roadway. Each has its beauties and its limitations; but it is worth noticing that each serves its purpose in life's infinite profusion as nothing else could serve it to that particular end. The elm lends something to the hibiscus—the hibiscus to the elm. Neither can expect back what it gives to the other. Perfection is accomplished when each offers what it can.
"Which brings me to the remaining thing I know about love—that it exists in offering. Love is the desire to go outward, to pour forth, to express, to do, to contribute. It has no system of calculation and no yard-stick for the little more or the little less. It is spontaneous and irrepressible and overflowing, and loses the extraordinary essence that makes it truly love when it weighs and measures and inspects too closely the quality of its return. It is in the fact that love is its own sufficiency, its own joy, its own compensation for all its pain, that I find it divine. The one point on which I can fully accept your Christian theology is that your God is love. Given a God who is Love and a Love that is God, I can see Him as worthy to be worshiped. Call Him, then, by any name you please—Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, Christ—you still have the Essence, the Thing. Love to be love must feel itself infinite, or as nearly infinite as anything human can be. When I can't pour it out in that way—when I pause to reflect how far I can go, or reach a point beyond which I see that I cannot go any further—I do not truly love."
Having written this much, he laid down his pen and considered. He had said nothing personal, unless it was by implication. It was only after long meditation that he decided to leave the matter there. The prime question was no longer as to whether or not he loved her, but as to whether or not she loved him. That was for her to decide. It was for her to decide without his urging or tormenting. He began to feel not only too sensitive on the subject, but too proud to make appeals to which she would probably listen out of generosity. Since he had been in the wrong, it was for her to make the advances; and so he ended his letter and posted it.
The discussion continued throughout the correspondence that ensued while he migrated from Minneapolis to Milwaukee, from Milwaukee to Denver, and from Denver to Colorado Springs. It was partly from curiosity of travel that he zigzagged in this way across the country, and partly to make it plain to Lois without saying it that he awaited her permission to come home. That he should be obliged to return one day, without her permission if not with it, was a matter of course, but it would make the meeting easier if she summoned him. As a hint that she could do so and have no fear, he asked her in a postscript to one of his letters to tell him, when she next wrote, what was happening to Rosie Fay.
To this she replied as simply and straightforwardly as he had put the question, imparting all that Jim Breen had told her and whatever she had gleaned for herself, adding as a seeming afterthought in the letter she wrote next day:
"If Rosie could bring herself to marry Jim it would be the happiest of all solutions, and make things easier for Claude. I think she will. If so, it won't be so much because her heart will have been caught in the rebound as that the poor little thing is mentally and emotionally exhausted, and glad to creep into the arms of any strong, good man who will love her and take care of her. Just to be able to do that much will be enough for Jim. I see a good deal of him; so I know. Every time he brings an order of new plants we have a little talk—always about Rosie. His love is of the kind you wrote about the other day; it has no yard-stick for the little more or the little less in the return. Perhaps men can love like that more easily than women do. Uncle Sim seemed to hint one evening that there is generally a selfish strain in a woman's love, in that what it gets is more precious to it than what it gives. I wonder."
Thor received these two letters together on returning to Colorado Springs from a day's visit to that high wilderness in which John Hay sought freedom from interruption in writing his Life of Lincoln. He understood fully that Lois was deliberately being cruel in order to be kind. The very spacing out of her information over two separate days was meant to impress him and at the same time to spare. Things would be easier for Claude, she said, when she meant that they would be easier for him.
But for him it was a matter of indifference. That is, it was the same kind of matter of indifference that pain becomes in a limb that has grown benumbed. For reasons he could hardly explain, that part of his being to which Rosie Fay had made her pathetic appeal couldn't feel any more. It was like something atrophied from over-strain. There was the impulse to suffer, but no suffering. Moreover, he was sure that though these nerves might one day vibrate again, they could never do so otherwise than reminiscently. To the episode he felt as a mother might feel to the dead child she has never been able to acknowledge as her own. It was something buried, and yet sacred—sacred in spite of the fact that it never should have been. As an incident in his life it had brought keen joy and keener pain, but he had already outlived both. He had outlived them as apparently Rosie had outlived them herself—not by the passage of time, but by an intensity of experience which seemed to have covered years.
He came to this conclusion not instinctively, nor all at once, but by dint of reflection, as he sat on the broad terrace of the hotel, watching the transformation scene that takes place in the Rockies during the half-hour before sunset. His pipe was in his mouth; Lois's letters lay open on the little table he had drawn up beside his chair. Other tourists bore him company, scattered singly or in groups, smoking and drinking tea. A mild suggestion of Europe, a suggestion of Cap Martin or of Cannes, was blocked by the domes of the great range and by a shifting interplay of magic lights where his eye was impelled to look for the broad, still levels of Mediterranean blue.
There was a wonder in the moment which the yearning in his spirit was tempted to take as symbolic, and perhaps prophetic, of his future. Where all day long he had seen nothing but hard ridges packed against one another, without water, without snow, without perspective, without a shred of mist, without a hint of mystery, without anything to set the mind to wondering what was above them or beyond them, the dissolving views of late afternoon began to throw up a succession of lovely ranges, pierced by valleys, glens, and gorges. Where the eye had ached with the harsh red of the rocks spread with the harsh green of the scant vegetation, soft vapors rose insensibly—purple, pink, and orange—changing into nameless hues as they climbed into the great clefts and veiled the rolling domes and swathed the pinnacles and furrowed the deep passes and put the horizon infinitely far away. The transmutation from conditions in which Nature herself seemed for once to be barbaric, alien, hostile to civilized man, painted with Cheyenne war-paint and girdled with a belt of scalps, to this breaking up of glory into glory, of color into color, and of form into form, rising, mingling, melting, fading, rising and mingling again, melting again, fading again, passing swiftly in a last brief recrudescence from gold into green and from green into black, with the hurried eclipse and the sudden tranquillity of night—the transmutation which produced all this was to Thor hopeful and in its way inspiriting. In the last rays of light he drew out his fountain-pen and the scribbling-book he kept for notes by the way, writing quickly without preamble or formality.
"Thanks for telling me about Rosie. It is as it should be—as will be best. Jim saved her. Nothing so good could ever happen to her as to marry him.
"As for me, there are two things, Lois, that I can truthfully affirm. I can declare them the more emphatically because I have had time to think them over—to think you over, and myself. If I ever had a doubt about them I haven't now, because leisure and solitude have enabled me to see them clearly. The first is that I have given you my best; and the second, that I have given it without any restriction of which I have been aware. If there was anything I withheld from you, and which you think you should have had, I can only say that it was not of the nature of my best. What it was I make no attempt to say, nor would it do any good to try. Whatever it was, I wish neither to depreciate it nor to deny it. It was something that swept me—like the tornado of which one of your letters speaks—but it passed. It passed, leaving me tired and older—oh, very much older!—and with an intense desire to creep home. As a physicist I know nothing of a carnal man and a spiritual man, so that I cannot enter into your analysis; but I do know that there are higher and lower promptings in the human heart, and that in my case the higher turn to you. As compared with you I'm only as the ship compared to the haven in which it would take refuge. The ship is good for something, but it needs a port."
Again he decided to leave his appeal suspended here, and on the next morning began his preparations for gradually turning homeward.
It was William Sweetapple, the gardener's boy, who informed Lois that Claude had come back, throwing the information casually over his shoulder as he watered the lawn.
"Seen Mr. Claude to-day, 'm."
"Oh no, you didn't, Sweetapple," Lois contradicted. "Mr. Claude is in the West."
"He may be in the West now, 'm, but he wasn't at twenty-five minutes past two this afternoon."
Sudden fear brought Lois down a step or two of the portico, over the Corinthian pillars of which roses clambered in early July profusion. In white, with a broad-brimmed Winterhalter hat from which a floating green veil hung over her shoulders and down her back, her strong, slim figure seemed to have gained in fulfilment of herself even in the weeks that Thor had been away.
"Where did you see him, Sweetapple?—or think you saw him?"
Sweetapple turned the nozzle of the hose so as to develop a crown of spray with which he bedewed the roses of all colors grouped in a great central bed. "I didn't think, 'm. It was him."
"See him first going into the woods leading up to Duck Rock. That was when I was on my way to Lawyer Petley's."
"Did you see him twice?"
"See him again as I come back. He was down in the road by that time—looking up toward old man Fay's—Hadley B. Hobson's place that is to be. Old man Fay's got to quit. Family moved already. You knew that, didn't you, 'm?"
It was because Lois was really alarmed by this time that she said, "Oh, you must have been mistaken, Sweetapple!"
"Just as you say, 'm," Sweetapple agreed; "but I see him; it was him."
She withdrew again, reseating herself in the shade of the semicircular open porch protecting the side-door, where she had been writing on a pad. Though so near the roadway, a high growth of shrubs screened her from all but the passers up and down Willoughby's Lane. At this time of year they were relatively few, many of the residents of County Street having already gone to the seaside or the mountains. Lois enjoyed the seclusion thus afforded her, and the tranquillity. The garden and her poorer neighbors gave an outlet to her need for physical activity, while in the solitude of the house and in that wider solitude created by the absence of all the Willoughbys and Mastermans something within her was being healed. It was being healed—but healed in a way that left her changed. The change was manifest in what she said when, with the pad on her knee again, she began to write.
"I am deeply moved, dear Thor, by your last letter from Colorado Springs, and would gladly say something adequate in response to it. When I can I will—if I ever can. As to that the decisive word must be with time. I cannot hurry it. I can give you no assurance now. Now I feel—but why should I repeat it? An illusion once dispelled can rarely be brought back. Still less can you replace it by reality. What we are looking for is a substitute for love. You may have found it—but I have not. I can accept your definition of love as a giving out, a pouring forth, a desire to do and to contribute; but it is precisely here that I fail to respond to the test. There is something in me stagnated or dammed up. My heart feels like a well that has gone dry. I have nothing to yield. I understand what Rosie Fay said to me the day when I talked to her on Duck Rock: 'I'm empty; I've given all I had to give.' It was less blameworthy on her part than on mine, because she, poor little thing, had given so much and I so little. And yet my supply seems to be exhausted. It must have been thin and shallow to begin with. As I feel at present it would take a new creation to replenish it.
"With regard to my calling forth what is best in you, dear Thor—well, any one would do that or anything. You're one of those who have nothing but the best to offer. Do you know what Uncle Sim said of you last night?—'Thor is always on the side of the angels—and, though he makes mistakes, they'll rescue him.' They will, dear Thor; I'm sure of it. They may rescue us both—even if at present I don't see how."
Having written this much, she paused to ask what she should say further. Should she speak of his coming home? No. Since the address he had given her indicated that he was on his way, it was best that he should take the responsibility of his own return. Should she tell him that Sweetapple thought he had seen Claude? No. It would alarm him without doing any good. If Claude was back, he was back—besides which, Sweetapple might be wrong. So she signed her name with her usual significant abruptness, sealing the envelope and addressing it.
Her hesitation came in putting on the stamp. Somehow the letter seemed too cold to send. She didn't want to be cold—only to be sincere. Sincerity during these weeks of solitude had become a sort of obsession. She couldn't tell him that she had forgiven him as long as resentment lingered in her heart, and yet she was anxious not to wound him more than she could help. Wounding him she wounded herself more deeply, for in spite of everything his pain was hers.
Slowly she tore the letter open again, to a sunset chorus of birds of whose song she had just become conscious. From tree to tree they fluted to one another and answered back, now with a reckless, passionate warble, now with a long, liquid love-note. It was the voice of the rich world that lay around her—a world of flowers and lawns, and meadows and upland woods, and cool, deep shades and mellowing light. But it was also the voice that had accompanied her into the enchanted land on that winter's day when Thor had kissed her wrist. The day seemed now immeasurably far away in time, and the enchanted land had been left behind her; but the voice was still there, fluting, calling, reminding, entreating, with an insistence that almost made her weep.
She wrote hurriedly in postscript: "If there was ever anything I could do for you, dear Thor, perhaps what I used to feel would come back to me. If it only would! If I could only be great and generous and inexacting as you would be! I want to be, Thor darling; I long to be; but I am like a person paralyzed, whose limbs no longer answer to his will. I pray for recovery and restoration—but will it ever come?"
As encouragement to Thor she was no more satisfied with this than with what she had said earlier, but it expressed all she could allow herself to say. Anything more would have permitted him to infer such things as he had permitted her to infer, an accident that must have no repetition. She ended the note definitely, getting it ready for the post.
She was still engaged in doing so when, the crunching of footsteps causing her to lift her head, she saw Claude. Having come round to the side portico on a hint from William Sweetapple, he stood at a little distance, smiling. He was smiling, but as a dead man might smile. Lois could neither rise nor speak, from awe. Claude himself could neither speak nor advance. He stood like a specter—but a specter who has been in hell. The very smile was that of the specter who has no right to come out of hell, and yet has come.
Lois was not precisely troubled; she was terrified. If Claude had only spoken a word or taken a step forward it would have broken the spell that held her dazed and dumb. But he did nothing. He only stood and smiled—that awful smile which expressed more anguish than any rictus of pain. He stood just as he came into sight, on turning the corner of the house, with the many colors of the rose-bed at his left hand. It was exactly like this, she had always imagined, that disembodied spirits or astral forms made their appearances to portend death.
She got possession of her faculties at last. "Claude!" She could just whisper it.
He continued to smile as he advanced and came up the steps; but it was not till he was actually beside her that he said, in a voice which might also have been that of a dead man, "You didn't expect me, did you?"
She remembered afterward that they neither shook hands nor exchanged any of the usual forms of greeting, but at the minute it didn't seem natural that they should. Her own tone was as strained as his as she answered, awesomely: "No. Sit down, Claude. When did you come?"
Throwing his hat on the floor, he dropped wearily into a deck-chair and closed his eyes. With the sharp profile grown extraordinarily white and thin, the dead-man expression terrified her again. She wished he would raise his head and look at her—look more like life. All he did was to open his eyes heavily, as he replied, "Got back yesterday."
It was less from interest than from the desire to get on the plane of actual things that she asked, "Where are you staying?"
"Slept at the house last night. Old Maggs, the caretaker, has the key, so I made him let me in."
"But are you going to stay any time?"
"Might as well. Don't see why not."
There was so much to say and so much she was afraid to say that she hardly knew with what to begin. "Weren't you," she ventured, timidly—"weren't you having a good time?"
His answer as he lay back with eyes closed again was another of his smiles, only dimmer now with a faint bitter-sweetness. She knew it was like asking a man if his pain is better when it is killing him. Nevertheless, the ground of common, practical things was the only one to keep to, so she went on: "But you won't like sleeping at the house every night—with no one in it. Don't you want to come here?"
He shook his head. "No, thanks. Mrs. Maggs will make my bed and give me breakfast. That's all I need. Get the rest of my meals in town."
"But you'll stay to dinner now, won't you?"
He lifted himself up in his chair at last, his face taking on its first look of life. "Thor be there?"
"Why, no. Thor's away—in the West. Didn't you know?"
He started nervously. "Away in the West? Not looking for me?"
She tried to smile. "Of course not. He went to attend the medical congress in Minneapolis. He's on his way home now."
"When do you expect him?"
"Oh, not at once. I don't know when. He's taking his time."
He studied her awhile, with eyes that seemed to read her secret. "What for?"
"To see the country, I suppose. My last letter was from Colorado Springs."
He dropped back into the chair with a tired sigh of relief. "All right. I'll stay to dinner. Thanks."
She allowed him to rest, asking no more questions than she could help till dinner was over and they had come out again on the portico, so that he might have his cigar in the cool, scented evening air. She was more at ease with him, too, now that she could no longer see the suffering in his pinched, emaciated face.
"Claude, why did you come home?"
He withdrew the cigar from his lips just long enough to say, "Because I couldn't stay away."
"Why couldn't you?"
"Because I couldn't."
"Don't you think it would have been well to make the effort?"
"What was the good of making the effort when I couldn't keep it up?"
"But you kept it up for a while."
"Not after—after I heard."
"Heard about Rosie?"
He made an inarticulate sound of assent.
"What did you hear?"
"I heard—what she did."
"How? Who told you?"
"That chump Billy Cheever. Wrote me."
"How did he know it had anything to do with you?"
"Oh, I was fool enough to tell him about her once—and so he caught on to it. Put two and two together, I suppose, when he heard that—that—"
She seized the opportunity to make the first incision toward getting in her point. "That she threw herself into the pond? Did he say that Jim Breen dived after her and brought her up?"
He answered indifferently. "He said some one did. He didn't say who."
"It was Jim. He saved her." As the statement evoked no response, she continued, "Claude, what did you come home for?"
Again he withdrew his cigar from his mouth, looking at her obliquely. "To marry her."
She allowed some time to elapse before saying, "Claude, I don't think you will."
"Oh yes, I shall."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because I am."
"I'm not. Or, rather, if I am sure—it's the other way."
He sprang up, seizing her by the arm over which there was nothing but a gauze scarf by way of covering. "Lois, for God's sake! What do you mean? You know something. Tell me. She hasn't gone away with Thor, has she?"
She, too, sprang up, shaking off his hand as if it had been a serpent. "You fool! Don't touch me! She'll marry Jim Breen. She'll be in love with him in a week or two."
It was all over in an instant, but the blaze in her eyes seemed literally to knock him down. He fell back into the deck-chair again, though he sat astride on it with his feet on the floor, covering his face with his hands.
"I beg your pardon, Lois," he muttered, humbly. "I don't know what I'm saying."
"No, you don't," she agreed, speaking breathlessly because the leaping of her heart was so wild; "but that's hardly an excuse for taking leave altogether of your senses."
He continued to mutter into his hands. "I'm crazy! I'm drunk! I'm stark mad! But, oh, Lois, if you knew what I've been through you wouldn't mind."
The hot anger that had rolled over her with a wrath such as she had never felt before began to roll away again, leaving her sick and shivering. It was an excuse for going into the house to find a cloak and for getting the minute's respite necessary to self-control. To regain it—to overcome that throb of her being of which the after effect was a faintness unto death—she was obliged to walk steadily, holding her head high. She was obliged, too, to repent of the tigress impulse with which she had turned on Claude, flinging in his face that for which she had meant to prepare him by degrees. The fact that it had seemingly passed over his head was no palliation to the outrage. As she mounted the stairs and went to her room she repeated her own formula: "Nothing that isn't kind and well thought out beforehand." What she had said had been neither well thought out nor kind, but the temptation had been overwhelming. For the instant it had seemed secondary that Thor hadn't taken Rosie to the West, since Claude, who knew so much more of the inner history of the episode than she did herself, had thought such an action possible. More clearly than ever before she saw that some appalling struggle for the possession of the little creature must have taken place, and that it had been going on during those months when life was apparently so peaceful and she had been living in her fool's paradise. It was not till he had lost the fight that Thor had come to her in the snow-bound woods with the twitter of birds and the deep music of the tree-tops accompanying those half-truths she had been eager to believe. She herself had been fatuous and vain in assuming that he could love her; but if there was little to say for her, there was nothing at all to be said for him. He had been the more false for the reason that, as far as he went, he had been sincere. It was his very sincerity that had tricked her. Less than at any time since the day when he had stammered out his futile explanations did she feel it possible to pardon him.
But there was something else. Now, if she chose, she could know. In his present state of mind Claude would betray anything. She had only to question him, to throw the emphasis adroitly here or there, and the whole story would come out. It was like having a key come into her hands—a key that would unlock all those mysteries which were her terror. She was still irresolute, however, as to using it after she had taken an old opera-cloak from a wardrobe, thrown it over her shoulders, and gone down=stairs again.
She found Claude as she had left him—astride on the deck-chair, his face in his hands, the burning end of the cigar that protruded between his fingers making a point of light. The abject attitude moved her to pity in spite of everything. She herself remained standing, her tall figure thrown into dim relief between two of the white Corinthian pillars of the portico. By standing, it seemed to her obscurely, she could more easily escape if any such awful revelation as she was afraid of were to spring on her against her will. She could almost feel it waiting for her in the depths of the heavy-scented darkness.
For the minute, however, the folly of Claude's return was the matter immediately to be dealt with; to get him to go away again was the end to be attained. It was with this in view, as well as with a measure of compassion, that she said:
"You poor Claude! You have been through things, haven't you?"
The answer came laconically: "Been in hell."
"Yes, that's what I thought," she agreed, simply. "I thought it the instant you came round the corner this afternoon. But why? For what reason—exactly?"
He lifted his haunted face, stammering out his recital in a way that reminded her of Thor. She could see that he had profited by his mistake of a few minutes earlier, and that just as Thor had tried to tell Claude's story without involving his own, so Claude was endeavoring to spare her by doing the same thing. Being able to supply the blanks more accurately now than on the former occasion, she found a kind of poignant, torturing amusement in fitting her knowledge in.
He began with his first meeting with Rosie, describing the scene. He had not taken the adventure seriously, not any more than he had taken a dozen similar. Girls like that could generally be thrown off as easily as they were taken on, and they bore you no ill-will for the change. As a matter of fact, a new flirtation generally began where the old one ended, which made part of the fun for the girl as for the man. He was speaking of respectable girls, Lois was to understand—village girls, shop girls, and others of the higher wage-earning variety, who didn't mind showing a spice of devil before they married and settled down. Lots of them didn't, and were no worse for it in the end. It had not occurred to him that Rosie would be different from others of the class, or that she would take in deadly earnest what was no more than play for him.
When he had made this discovery he had tried to withdraw, but only with the result of becoming involved more deeply. Over the processes by which he was led finally to pledge himself he grew incoherent, as also over the signs which caused him to suspect that Rosie was playing fast and loose with him. His mutterings as to "somebody else who was in love with her" and who was "ready to put up money" threw her back on memories of his uneasy questions concerning Thor on the evenings after the return from the honeymoon. It was with a sense of the key slipping into the lock that she said:
"And that made you jealous?"
"As the devil. It was because it did that I knew I couldn't give her up—that I'd never let her go."
There was sincere curiosity in her tone as she asked the question, "But, Claude, why did you?"
"Because she lied to me."
"Oh! And had you never lied to her?"
He mumbled something about that not being the same thing. "She swore to me that there'd never been any put-up job between her and—and—"
She helped him out. "The—the other person." She could hear the key grating as it turned. "And was there?"
He made the impatient, circular movement of his head, as though his collar chafed him, with which she was familiar. He was gaining time in order to use tact. "Oh, I don't know. There was—there was something. Whatever it was, she denied it, when all the while they were—"
She felt obliged fully to turn the key. She knew how perilous the question might be, but it was beyond her to keep it back. "They were what, Claude?"
"They were trying to catch me in a trap."
It was like the door into the hall of mysteries opening, but only to make disclosures dimmer and more mystifying still. The postponement of dreadful certainties enabled her, however, to say with some slight relief, "But this—this other person couldn't have been very fond of her himself if he—if he gave her up to you."
He bowed his head still lower into his hands, muttering toward the floor: "Oh, I don't know. I don't care—now. Anyhow, she lied to me, and"—he lifted his haggard eyes again—"and I jumped at it. I saw the way out—and I jumped at it. I told her—I told her—I'd go and marry some one else."
"Did you mean Elsie Darling?"
He nodded speechlessly.
It was to come back again to the point which her anger had caused her to miss that she went forward and laid her hand on his shoulder kindly. "I would, Claude, if I were you," she said, in a matter-of-fact voice. "She'd make you a good wife."
"No one will make me a good wife now," he said, hoarsely. "I'm going to marry Rosie. I'll marry her if it puts me in the gutter. I'll marry her if I never have a cent."
She went back to her place between the pillars, leaning against one of them. "But, Claude," she reasoned, "would that do any good? Would it make either of you happy, after all that's been said and done?"
He seemed to writhe. "I don't care anything about that. I've got to do it."
"You haven't got to do it if Rosie doesn't want it."
"It's got nothing to do with her."
She looked at him in astonishment. "Nothing to do with her? What do you mean?"
He tried to explain further. He had not primarily come back to atone for the suffering he had inflicted on Rosie, or because his love for her was such that he couldn't live without her. He had come back to propitiate the demon within himself—the demon or the god, he was not sure which it was, for it possessed the attributes of both. He had come back to escape the chastisement his soul inflicted on itself—because without coming back he could no longer be a man. He had come back because the Furies had driven him with their whip of knotted snakes, and he could do nothing but yield to their hounding. If Lois thought that traveling in the West was beer and skittles when hunted and scourged by yourself like that—well, she had better try it and see.
What she must understand already was that Rosie and happiness had become minor considerations. He would sacrifice both to regain a measure of his self-respect. He had never supposed, and he didn't suppose now, that Rosie would be happy in marrying him, but that was no longer to the point. The demon or the god must be appeased, at no matter what cost to the victim.
He made these explanations not straightforwardly or concisely, but with rambling digressions that took him over half the Middle West. He described, or hinted at, all sorts of scenes, peopled by gay young business men and garnished by pretty girls, in which he could have enjoyed himself had it not been for the enemy in his heart. It wasn't merely that he had thrown over Rosie with a cruelty that made her try to kill herself, and still less was it that he couldn't live down his love when once he set about it. It was that the Claude who might have been was strangled and slain, leaving him no inner fellowship but with the Claude who was. Reviving the Claude who might have been was like reviving a corpse, and yet there was nothing to do but make the attempt.
"I'm a gentlemen—what?" he asked, raising his white face pitifully. "I must act like a gentlemen—what?"
"Yes, but if it's too late, Claude—for that particular thing?"
"Oh, but it isn't—it won't be—not when she sees me."
"It might be; and if she doesn't want it, Claude, I don't see why you—"
"You don't see why because you're not me. If you were, you would. A woman hasn't a man's sense of honor, anyhow."
She let this pass with an inward smile in order to say, "But, Claude, suppose you can't do it?"
He twisted his neck, with his customary chafing, irritated movement. "I'll do it—or croak."
"Oh, but that's nonsense!"
"To you—not to me. You haven't been through the mill that I've been ground up in. You don't know what it is to have been born—born a gentleman—and to have blasted yourself into human remains. That's what I am now—not a man—to say nothing of a gentleman—just human remains—too awful to look at."
She tried to reason with him. "But, Claude, you mustn't exaggerate things or put the punishment out of proportion to the crime. Admitting that what you did to Rosie was dishonorable—brutal, if you like—"
"Oh, it isn't that. It's what I did to myself. Can't you see?"
She saw, but not with the intensity of Claude himself. Sitting down at last, she let him talk again. He had felt something shattered in him, so he said, at the very minute when he had turned to leave the cucumber-house on the day of the final rupture. He knew already that he was a cad, and that he was doing what only a cad would have done; but he had expected the remorse to pass. He had known himself for a cad on other occasions, and yet had outlived the sense of shame. That he should outlive it again he had taken for granted, though he knew that this time he couldn't do it without suffering. He was willing to take the suffering. He was not specially unwilling that Rosie should take it, too. In her way she had been as much to blame as he was. Though he didn't question the sincerity of her love for him, she had plotted and schemed to catch him, because from her point of view he was a rich man's son, and even so had had moments of disloyalty. He found it not unreasonable to expect her to share the responsibility for what had overtaken her. But she, too, would outlive the pain of it and follow his example in marrying some one else.
Lois felt her opportunity to have fully come. "I think she will. She'll marry Jim Breen—if you'll only leave her alone."
The tone expressed the degree of importance he attached to this possibility. He went on again, discursively, incoherently, covering much of the same ground, but with new and illuminating details, details of which the background was still a jumble of suppers and dances and journeys, but in which the god or the demon gave him no rest. His distaste for diversion having declared itself from the day of his starting for Chicago, he had whipped up an appetite to counteract it. Availing himself of the freedom of a young man plentifully supplied with money for the first time in his life, he had made use of all the resources with which strange and exciting cities could furnish him to get back his zest in light-heartedness. The result was not in pleasure, but in disgust, and a horror of himself that grew. It grew from the beginning, like some giant poisonous weed. It grew while he was in Chicago; it grew with each further stage of his journey—in St. Louis, in Cincinnati, in Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles that he had received Billy Cheever's letter with the news of Rosie's mad leap, and he knew for a certainty that the only thing to be done was to turn his face eastward. Whatever happened, and whoever suffered, he must redeem himself. Redemption had become for him a need more urgent than food, more vital than life. Though he didn't use the word, though his terms were simple and boyish and slangy, Lois could see that his stress was that which sent pilgrims to the Holy Sepulcher, and drove Judas to go and hang himself. Redemption lay in marrying Rosie, and restoring his honor, and bringing the Claude who might have been back to life. Indeed, it was difficult to tell at times which of the two was slain—whether the Claude who might have been, or the other Claude—so distraught and involved were his appeals. But beyond marrying Rosie and keeping his word—being a gentleman, as he expressed it—his outlook didn't extend. "Any damn thing that liked could happen" when that atoning act had been accomplished.
* * * * *
There were so many repetitions in his turns of thought that Lois ended by following them no more than listlessly. Not that she had ceased to be interested, but her mind was occupied with other phases of the drama. She remembered, what she had so often heard, that in the Mastermans there was this extraordinary strain of idealism of which no one could foresee the turn it would take. She knew the traditions of the great-grandfather whose heart had broken on finding that America was not the regenerated land he hoped for. Tales were still current in the village of old Dr. Masterman, his son, who through sheer confidence in his fellow-men never paid any one he owed and never collected money from any one who owed it to him. Archie Masterman, in the next generation, was supposed to have taken the altruistic tendency by the throat in himself and choked it down; but Uncle Sim was a byword of eccentric goodness throughout the countryside. Now the impulse was manifest in Claude, in this revulsion against his own failure, in this marred and broken vision of a Something to which he had not been true. And as for Thor....
But here she was tortured and frightened. Who knew what this strange inheritance might be working in him? Who could tell how big and tender and transcending it might become? That it would be transcending and tender and big was certain. If poor, frivolous, futile Claude could feel like this, could feel that he must redeem his soul though "any damn thing that liked" should happen as the price of his redemption, in Thor the yearning would outflank her range. Might not the secret of secrets be in that? Might not that which she had been seeing as treachery to herself be no more than a conflict of aspirations? If Claude, with his blurred distortion of the divine in him, served no other purpose, he at least threw a light on Thor. Thor, too, was a Masterman. Thor, too, was born to the vision—to the longing after the nationally perfect that had become legendary since the time of the great-grandfather—to the sweet, neighborly affection that ran through all the tales of that man's son—to the sturdy righteousness of Uncle Sim—to the standards of honor from which poor Claude had fallen as angels fall—and to God only knew what high promptings strangled and vitiated in his father. Thor was heir to it all, with something of his own to boot, something strong, something patient, something laborious and loyal, something long-suffering and winning and meek, that might have marked the leader of a rebellious people or a pagan, skeptic Christ.
Her mind was so full of this ideal of the man against whom—and also for whom—her heart was hot that she made no effort to detain Claude when, after long silence, he picked up his hat and slipped away into the darkness.
He slipped away into the darkness, but only to do what he had done on the previous evening after making arrangements with old Maggs. He climbed the hill north of the pond, not so much in the hope of seeing Rosie or any one else, as to haunt the scenes so closely associated with his spiritual downfall.
It was a languorous, luscious night, with the scent of new-mown hay mingling with that of gardens. If there was any breeze it was lightly from the east, bringing that mitigation of the heat traditional to the week following Independence Day. As there was no moon, the stars had their full midsummer intensity, the Scorpion trailing hotly on the southern horizon, with Antares throwing out a fire like the red rays in a diamond. Beneath it the city flung up a yellow glow that might have been the smoke of a distant conflagration, while from the hilltop the suburbs were a-sparkle. As, standing in the road, Claude looked through the open gateway down over the slope of land, the hothouse roofs and the distant levels of the pond gleamed with a faint, ghostly radiance like the sheen of ancient tarnished crystal.
The house was dark. It was dark and dead. It was dark and dead and haunted. Everything was haunted; everything was dark. Even the furnace chimney looming straight and black against the stars was plumeless. But in the silence and stillness there was something that drew him on. He crossed the road and went a few paces within the gate. He had not ventured so far on the previous evening, and during the day he had dared no more than to look upward from the boulevard below, after that pilgrimage to Duck Rock on which William Sweetapple had surprised him. Now in the darkness and quietness he stood, not searching so much as dreaming. He was dreaming of Rosie, dreaming of her with a kind of cheer. After all, he would be bringing joy to her as well as getting peace of spirit for himself. It wouldn't be so hard. She would meet him as she used to meet him here, as she used to let him come and visit her, and then the atonement would be made. The process would be simple, and he should become a man again.
The conviction was so sweet that he lingered to enjoy it, penetrating a few steps farther into the spacious dimness of the yard. It was the first minute of inward ease he had known since he had turned his back on it. Now that he was once more on the spot, the Claude who was a devil-of-a-fellow, something of a sport, but a decent chap all the same, began again to run with red blood where there had been nothing but a whining, shriveling apostate. It was like rejuvenescence, like a re-creation.
Suddenly something moved. It moved at first in the shadow of the house, and then out in the starlit spaces. It moved stealthily and creepily and with a grotesque swiftness. Its action seemed irregular and uncertain, like that of some night-marauding animal, till Claude perceived that it was stalking him. He waited long enough to get a view that was almost clear of a crouching attitude, the crouching attitude of a beast when it means to spring, whereupon he turned and fled.
That is, he turned and walked away swiftly. He would have run had it not been for his renascent self-respect. He couldn't bring himself to run from poor old Fay even though his nerves were tingling. He tried to reassure himself by saying that it was no more than a repetition of that dogging to which he had been subjected before, and that it would discontinue once he was off the premises.
But when he turned to glance over his shoulder it seemed to him that the sinister footsteps glided after him. That, he reasoned, might have been no more than fancy. The arc-lights were rare on this rather lonely road, and the enormous shadows they flung lent themselves to the startling of sick imaginations. Nevertheless, as he walked Claude continued to look back over his shoulder, always with renewed impressions of a creepy thing trying to track him down. Having entered the obscurity of their own driveway, he broke at last into a light, soundless trot which was not slackened till he reached the relative protection of the door.
* * * * *
But by morning he had regained a measure of tranquillity. Knowing what he had to do, he was resolved to do it promptly. With sunlight and summer and the sense of being home again to brace him up, the Claude who was a devil-of-a-fellow seemed in a fair way to be reborn. Waiting after breakfast only long enough to be discreet, he took his way up the hill again.
He was confident by this time, and the more so because of his being beyond the need of concealments. There would be no more shrinking into the odorous depths of the hothouse, or hesitancies, or equivocations. He would walk up and avow himself—to father and mother as well as to Rosie. The hero in him was coming to his own at last.
The gash in the hothouse roof which he could see from a distance was what he noticed first. In his two nocturnal visits this had not been apparent. Now that he saw it he stood stock-still. It was something like a gash within himself, a gash in his courage perhaps, or a gash in the dream of a reconstituted self. He knew vaguely that his father had refused the renewal of the lease and that at some time in the near future Fay would have to go; but he had not expected the immediate signs of complete demoralization. Now that they were there they disconcerted him.
He went on till he was in view of the house. It gave him the blind stare with which empty houses respond to interrogation. He continued his way to the gate and into the yard. All was neglected and fantastically overgrown. Vetch, burdock, and yarrow were in luxuriant riot with the planting and seeding of the spring. No living creature was in sight but a dappled mare, whose round body and heavy fetlocks spoke of a Canuck strain, hitched in the shade of the magnolia-tree.
The mare wore a straw hat to which was attached a bunch of artificial roses, and switched her tail to drive away the flies. Harnessed to a light form of dray, the animal suggested business, so that Claude put on a business air, going forward with the assurance of one who has a right to be on the spot. He had not advanced twenty paces before the hothouse door opened to allow the passage of a fern-tree in a giant wooden pot, behind which came the pleasant countenance of Jim Breen, red and perspiring from so much exertion under a July sun. Claude paused till the fern-tree was deposited in the dray, when the two men stared at each other across the intervening space.
For the first time Lois's mention of the young Irishman's name returned to Claude as significant. What the young Irishman thought of him he had no means of knowing, for a sudden eclipse across the cheery face was followed by an equally sudden clearing.
Jim threw off the greeting guardedly, and yet with a certain challenge. His very use of the Christian name was meant to be a token of man-to-man equality. Having attended the public school with Claude, and taken part with him in ball-games at an age too early for class distinctions, he was plainly disposed to use that fact as a basis of privilege. He attempted, however, no other advance, remaining sturdily at the tail of his dray, hatless and in his shirt-sleeves, but with head erect and gray eyes set fixedly. The only conciliating feature was his smile, which had come back, not with its native spontaneity, but daringly and aggressively, as a brave man smiles at a foe.