Before adding her next paragraph she weighed its subject-matter pensively. It was not necessary to her letter; it was nothing her mother was obliged to know. She decided to say it, however, from an instinct resembling that of self-preservation. If her mother were ever to hear anything....
"Thor saw Rosie, too. He was coming down-stairs from taking a bath just as she was in the hall going away. It was the first time he'd seen her since before we were married. He was so lovely to her!—I wish I could tell you! You know he used to be interested in her in the days when her mother was his only patient. It was through him, if you remember, that Rosie and I came to be friends in the first place. He asked me to go and see her, to be nice to her. He feels very strongly that we people of the old, simple American stock should have held together in a way we haven't done, and that we shouldn't have allowed money to dig the abyss between us which I'm afraid is there now. I know that you personally are not interested in ideals of this kind, and yet Thor wouldn't be the Thor you love unless he had them. So he was lovely with Rosie, holding her hand, and looking down at her with those kind eyes of his, and begging her, whatever happened—whatever happened, mind you!—to throw everything on him in the way they would do if he was brother to them all. People talk about the brotherhood of man; but there will never be any such thing as the brotherhood of man till more men, and more women, too, get the spirit that's in him."
* * * * *
Claude had been a week or more in his grave when the letters began to arrive from Mrs. Willoughby.
"As to our sailing," she wrote from London, "everything depends on Ena. My cablegrams will have told you that she's better, but not exactly how. She's better mentally, and very sweet. I think it surprising. Now that the first shock is past, she's calmer, too, and doesn't say so often that she expected it. Why she should have expected it I couldn't make out till last night, when Archie told me that there'd been something between Claude and a girl named Fay. I remember those Fays; queer people they always were, and rather uppish. She was a big, handsome girl when I was a little one. Eliza Grimes was her name, and as long ago as that she couldn't keep her place. I remember how she came for a while to Aunt Rachel's school, though not for long. Aunt Rachel couldn't draw too exclusive a line at first, but she did drop her in the end. I should never have thought that Claude would take up with a girl like that—Claude, of all people. You can't run counter to class distinctions without making trouble, I always say—and you see how it acts. You and Thor are far too republican, or too democratic, or whatever it is, but I never thought that of poor Claude.
"Not that Archie attributes this dreadful thing to the connection with the Fays. He won't hear of any such suggestion. Ena seemed to look on it at first as a retribution, but Archie insists that there never was anything to retribute. There may be two opinions about that, though, mind you, I'm not saying so. To the best of my ability I'm letting bygones be bygones, as I think I've shown. But Ena certainly thought so at first, and it's my belief she does still. She's told me herself that when they were motoring through Devon and Cornwall they never reached their destination for the night without her being afraid of a cablegram awaiting their arrival. She was sure something terrible was going to happen, and knew it before they left home. I asked her in that case why in the name of goodness they should have come, but she couldn't answer me. Or, rather, she did answer me—just the kind of answer you'd expect from her. It was to get some new things, and she's got them. Lovely, some of them are, especially the dinner-gowns from Mariette's—but with their money—and where it comes from—it's easy to dress. Retribution indeed! It must be retribution enough for the poor thing just to look at them. She's already had a woman from Jay's to talk over her mourning. Seems heartless, doesn't it? but then, of course, she must have it. Jay's woman had to take her measurements from the gray traveling-suit, for the doctor won't let her get up for another week, not even to be fitted. That will show you how far we are from sailing, and poor Archie has changed the bookings twice.
"As for him, I can't tell, for the life of me, how he feels about being kept here—he's so frightfully the gentleman. I've always said that he wore good manners not as his natural face, but as a mask, and I feel it now more than ever. It's a mask that hides even his tears, though I'm sure, poor man, they flow fast enough beneath it. All the same, I suspect that he finds it something of a relief to be held up here—for a while, at any rate. He wishes he was home, and yet for some reason he's afraid to get there. Terrible as everything is, I know he feels that it will be more terrible still when he's on the spot."
It was in a subsequent letter that Mrs. Willoughby wrote: "I had to scrawl so hurriedly yesterday to catch the first mail that I couldn't begin at the beginning, or get to the point, or anything. I'll try now, though, as for the beginning, it's like going back to the dark ages, it all seems so long ago.
"Your first cablegram giving us the news arrived at Les Dalles in the middle of the afternoon, and such a scramble as we had to get over to Havre in time for the night boat! I can't tell you how we felt, for it was one of those shocks so awful that you don't feel anything. At least I didn't feel anything, though I can't say the same of your father. He, poor lamb, has felt it terribly, so sensitive as he is, and so easily upset. Well, we managed to get to Havre in time, and had a fair crossing. We reached London about ten in the morning, and of course had no notion of where Archie and Ena were. So we drove to their bankers, and, as luck would have it, found they were in London on their way between Cornwall and the north.
"Once we'd learned that, we came straight to this hotel, and sent up our cards. After that we waited. Waited! I should say so. Your father got crosser and crosser, threatening to go away without breaking the news at all. We knew they thought we'd come to make trouble about old scores, and were discussing whether or not to see us. When word came at last that we were to be shown up your father was in such a state that I had to leave him in the public parlor and go and face it alone.
"I wonder if you've ever had the experience of being ushered into a room where you could see you weren't wanted? I don't suppose so. I never had it before, and I hope I never shall again. It was one of those chintzy English sitting-rooms with flowers in every corner. I shall never see Shirley poppies again without thinking of poor Claude. Archie was standing in the middle of the floor, looking more the gentleman than ever, but no Ena!
"'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Bessie,' he said, with that frigid sympathy of his which to me is always like iced water down the spine. 'Is there anything I can do for you?'
"We were facing each other, with a round table between us. 'No, Archie,' I said. 'I didn't come on my account, but on yours.'
"I can see him still—the way he stood—with a queer little upward flash of the eyebrows. 'Indeed?'
"'Yes. I had a cablegram yesterday afternoon—from Lois.' I gave him time to take that in. 'We came over at once—Len and I.'
"I had scarcely said this when my heart leaped into my mouth, for Ena cried out from behind the door leading into the bedroom, where I felt sure she was: 'It's about Claude!' It was the strangest sound I ever heard—the kind of sound she might have made if she saw something falling on her that would kill her.
"Archie stood motionless, but he turned a kind of gray-white. 'Is it?' was all he asked.
"I waited again—waited long enough to let them see that what I had to tell was grave. 'It is, Archie,' I said then.
"'Is he—?' Archie began, but I saw he couldn't finish. In fact he didn't need to finish, because Ena cried out again, 'He's dead!'
"Archie could only question me with his eyes, so that I said, 'I'm sorry to have been the one to bring you the news—'
"I got no further than that when a kind of strangling moan came from Ena and a sound as if she was falling. Archie ran into the bedroom, and the first thing I heard was, 'Bessie, for God's sake come here!' When I got there Ena was lying in a little tumbled heap beside the couch. She had on her lilac kimono and could just as well have seen me as not, so I knew that what we had said down-stairs had been true. They did want to give us the cold shoulder.
"Well, you can imagine that it was all over with that. We had everything we could do to bring Ena around and get her on the couch. It took the longest time, and while we were doing it—before she could follow anything we said—Archie asked me what I knew, and I told him. I was glad to be able to do it in just that way, because I could break it up and get it in by pieces, a fact at a time. There was so much for him to do, too, that he couldn't give his whole mind to it, which was another mercy.
"When I could leave Ena I slipped into the sitting-room, shutting the door behind me, and letting Archie tell her what I had been able to tell him. While he was doing that I scribbled a little note, saying that Len and I were going to Garland's, where they would find us in case we could do anything more to help them. Without waiting for him to come out of the bedroom, I left the note on the table and went away."
In succeeding letters Mrs. Willoughby told how Archie had come to them at Garland's, had insisted on their returning with him to the hotel in Brook Street, and had installed them in a suite of rooms contiguous to his own. Moreover, he clung to them, begging them not to leave him. It was the most extraordinary turning of the tables Bessie had ever known. He produced the impression of a man not only stunned, but terrified. If the hand that had smitten Claude had been stretched right out of heaven he could not have seemed more overawed. He was afraid—that was what it amounted to. If Mrs. Willoughby read him aright, the tragic thing affected him like the first trumpet-note of doom. It was as if he saw the house he had built with so much calculation beginning to tumble down—laid low by some dread power to which he was holding up his hands. He was holding up his hands not merely in petition, but in propitiation. She was not blind to the fact that there was a measure of propitiation in his boarding and lodging her husband and herself. He clung to them because his desolation needed something that stood for old friendship to cling to; but in addition to that he had dim visions of the dread power that had smitten Claude looming up behind them and acting somehow on their behalf.
"It's all very well to insist that there's nothing to retribute," ran a passage in one of the letters, "but the poor fellow is saying one thing with his lips and another in his soul. What's the play in which the ghosts come back? Is it "Hamlet," or "Macbeth," or one of Ibsen's? Well, it's like that. He's seeing ghosts. He wants us to be on hand because we persuade him that they're not there—that they can't be there, so long as we're all on friendly terms, and that we're not laying up anything against him. The very fact that he pays our bills makes him hope that the ghosts will keep away."
"We've promised to go back with them," she informed her daughter elsewhere. "For one thing, Ena needs me. If I didn't go she'd have to have a nurse; and I'd rather not leave her till she's safe in your hands. I must say I can't make her out. She puzzles me more than Archie does. Now that a week has gone by and the first shock is over, she's like a person coming out of a trance. She's so sweet and gentle that it's positively weird. Of course she's always been sweet—that's her style—but not in this way. Upon my word, I don't know whether she has a soul or not—whether she never had one, or whether one is being born in her. But she's patient, and you might even say resigned. There's no question about that. She's not a bit hard to take care of, making little or no demand, and just trying to get up strength enough to sail. She's grieving over Claude; and yet her grief has the touching quality in it that you get from a sweet old tune. I must say I don't understand it—not in her."
It was when she was able to announce that Mrs. Masterman was well enough to sail that Mrs. Willoughby acknowledged the first letters from her daughter. "We go by the Ruritania on the 3rd. Archie is simply furious at the hints you're all throwing out about that old man Fay. Perfectly preposterous, is what he calls them. He seems to think that, once he is on the spot, he'll be able to show every one that Fay had no possible reason to want to avenge himself, and must therefore be beyond suspicion. I must say Archie doesn't strike me as vindictive, which is another surprise, if one could ever be surprised in a Masterman. They're all queer, Thor as much as any of them, though he's queer in such lovable ways. I mean that you never can tell what freaks they'll take, whether for evil or for good. Nothing would astonish me less than to see Archie himself in sackcloth and ashes one of these days, and I do believe that it's the thing he's afraid of himself. What he's fighting in all this business about Fay is his own impulse to do penance. He's thinking of the figure he'll cut, wearing a shroud and carrying a lighted candle. Of course it interests us because—well, because it may turn out to be a matter of dollars and cents. Not that I count on it. I've put all that behind me, and I must say that your father and I have never been so happy together as during these last few months. We get along perfectly on what we have, and we don't lack for anything. Of course the way in which your father, the sweet lamb, is improving makes all the difference in the world to me. So Archie needn't repent on our account. We've let all that go. It only strikes me as funny the way he can't do enough for us—taxis at the door the minute we put our noses out—flowers in the sitting-room—and everything. I know perfectly well what it means. It isn't us. He's simply sacrificing to the hoodoo or the voodoo that he sees behind us—just like any other Masterman."
She added in a postscript: "You can read Thor as much or as little of my letters as you choose. I don't care—not a bit! I told him before you were married that I always intended to speak my mind about his father, like it or lump it who would."
The rest of that year became to Archie Masterman a period of popularity and triumph, in so far as such terms could be used of a man so sorely bereaved. Nothing ever sat on him with finer effect than the air of dignity, charity, and sorrow with which he returned from Europe, while his stand toward poor old Jasper Fay brought him a degree of sympathy new even to one whose personality had been sympathetic at all times. The letter he wrote to Eliza Fay when her husband was put under arrest, dissociating himself from the act of the guardians of the law and protesting his belief in his former tenant's innocence, was conceived in a spirit so noble as to raise the estimate of human nature in the minds of all who knew its contents. Whatever the inner convictions of the much-tried woman to whom it was addressed, the document was too precious to her husband's cause not to be exhibited, though in the matter of inner convictions Lois was obliged to caution her.
"I wouldn't put it beyond him, not a mite," Mrs. Fay had confessed, with tragic matter-of-fact; "not after the way he's talked, I wouldn't, and Matt don't, either."
"Has your son said so?"
"He's said worse. He's said that if he didn't do it, he ought to have. That's the way he talks. Oh, he's no comfort to me! I knew he wouldn't be, after that awful place, but I didn't look for him to be quite what he is, wanting to kill and blow up everything. An I. I. A. is what he calls himself, and the Lord only knows what that is. I blame myself," she went on, with dry, unrelenting statement of the case. "I didn't bring them up right. I was discontented—"
"Oh, but there's a discontent that's divine," Lois broke in, consolingly.
"Well, this wasn't it. It was 'hateful and hating one another,' as Paul says. I put it into their heads—I mean Fay's and the children's. Matt'd commit murder now as quick as a kitten'll lap milk—or he says he would; and as for Fay—"
Lois interrupted, hurriedly, "We shouldn't do him the injustice of condemning him in advance, should we?"
The woman held herself erect, her hard, uncompromising eyes, in which there was nevertheless an odd suffusion of softness, looking straight over her companion's head. "I can't help what I know."
"And I can't help what I know, which is that you and I have nothing to do with judgment, still less with condemnation. There are others to attend to that, while we try to bring"—she uttered the word with diffidence—"try to bring love."
"Oh, love!" The tone was that of one who had long ago given up anything so illusory.
"Then whatever we can find that will take the place of love," Lois replied, with relief at getting back to ground of which she was more sure. "Let us call it good will."
Good will was, in fact, what Reuben Hilary had called it, and it was from him she was quoting. Having gone to him for the analysis of her own state of mind, she had been comforted to learn that she placed no impediment in the way of public justice through being privately merciful.
"The mission of Christ, me dear Mrs. Thor, was salvation. And what do we mean by salvation? Isn't it the state of being saved? And what do we want to be saved from? Isn't it from trouble and evil of all kinds? And where and when do we want to be saved from them? Isn't it right here and right now? And who are the people that need most to be saved? Isn't it those that are threatened with danger? And who is to save them? Isn't it you and I? What more do you ask?"
"So that when it comes to justice—"
"Ah, now, I'm not botherin' about justice. Justice has her sword and her scales. Let her look after her own affairs. What you and I are out after is good will."
So Lois got further light upon her way and followed it. She followed it the more easily because her father-in-law seemed willing to follow it, too. He could do this with a touching grace since more fully than by letter she assured him that Claude had come back to redeem his word.
"Oh, thank God!" Ena had exclaimed, on hearing this information emphasized. "The darling boy was always the soul of honor."
An ethereal vision in black, she was having a cup of tea in the library before going up-stairs to take off her traveling-dress. Thor, who had met the party at the dock, had accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby to their own house, so that Lois was able to get a few words with the sorrowing parents alone, giving them in fuller detail that which her letters had only sketched. She had assumed the privilege of the daughter of the house to sit at the tea-table, while for the minute the returned voyagers took their place as guests.
There were reasons now why Archie was able to echo his wife's rejoicing in Claude's change of heart. In this new turn to the situation, which he had but imperfectly seized from what had been written, he could get the same kind of consolation that a father draws from the death of a son in a war with which he has no sympathy. It was the death of a brave man, when all was said and done. It was also death in conditions that made his own position the stronger, since it was an aid to the clearing of his conscience. It detracted nothing from his grief that he should use Claude's yearning for redemption as a fresh proof that Jasper Fay had not even a shadowy motive for revenge; and with the elimination of Fay's motive for revenge, he, Archie Masterman, was more amply acquitted at the bar before which the hereditary Masterman impulse summoned him. Lois had the greater confidence, therefore, in making her appeals.
"If they do imprison him, you see, the family will be left without means. One of these days I think Rosie will marry Jim Breen—"
Ena gave a little cry of disapproval. "What? After Claude!"
"Oh, it won't be for a long time yet; and while this trouble is hanging over her father she won't listen to any suggestion of the kind, little as she would before. Still—in the end—it will be only natural—" She left Rosie there. "And Thor's been so good about the son—only—well, the I. I. A., whatever that is, have got hold of him, so that we can't count on him to do anything for the poor mother, if she's left alone, or for Rosie—"
"I'll take care of them." It was probable that Archie Masterman had never in his life said anything that gave him so complete a satisfaction. Before Lois could respond to his generosity he went on to add: "I needn't appear in the matter. I'll leave it to your ingenuity to find the way to take care of them without mentioning me at all—unless you think it would be a comfort to them, as a sign of my confidence in poor old Fay. That I should like to have generally known—that I absolve him entirely."
By sheer force of will Lois refused to see him as sacrificing to the hoodoo or the voodoo of which her mother's letters had apprised her. If she had nothing to do with condemnation in the case of Jasper Fay, she had nothing to do with it, she reminded herself, in that of Archie Masterman. Her part in life was to accept every one at his nominal face value, for only so could she put good will into effective operation.
Tea was over and they were on their feet when she felt her own need demanding consideration. It was not without nervousness that she said, "You know Thor has been staying here with Cousin Amy and Uncle Sim."
"So we understood."
"Well, I think he might like to stay a little longer."
"That's not necessary on our account," Masterman said, promptly.
"It wouldn't be on your account, but on his own. That is," she explained, "he might think it was on your account, but in reality to feel that he was comforting you would be a comfort to him."
Claude's mother gave way to the first little sob since entering the house, while the father's face settled to the stoniness that masked his suffering. "Wouldn't it look very queer?" was all he said. "People might not understand it."
"Oh, they haven't understood it as it is; but does that matter? I know there's been talk in the village during the past few weeks, but surely we're in a position to ignore it." In the hope of opening up the way for Thor in what he had to make clear, she decided to go further. While speaking she kept her eyes on Masterman. "You may not need him, but he may need you. As a matter of fact, he has still something to explain to you which I may as well tell you now. On that night—the night of the ninth of July—Thor and Claude were here in the house together. There was trouble between them."
Mrs. Masterman gasped; her husband breathed hard, saying, merely, "Go on."
"I don't know what the quarrel was exactly, but—but—there were blows."
"Not the blow—?" Masterman began, with horror in his tone.
"Oh no, not that," Lois interposed, hastily, going on to explain briefly the incidents of the struggle between the brothers, as far as she knew them. "That part of it was all over," she continued, eagerly, before either of the parents could comment on this new phase of the event. "Claude wasn't much hurt. You can see that from the way he was able to get up and come out into the air while Thor was running up to our house for brandy. If there hadn't been some one lurking in the shrubbery—"
"He's been a terrible son to me," Masterman broke in, wrathfully. "When it isn't in one way it's in another. What have I done to deserve—?"
"He is terrible," Lois admitted, soothingly; "but, oh, Mr. Masterman, he's terrible in such splendid ways! He hasn't found himself yet; but he will if you'll give him time. Whatever he's done wrong he'll atone for nobly. You'll see!"
The mother's intervention came to Lois as a new surprise. "Whatever he's done wrong he's sorry for. We can be sure of that." She turned to her husband. "Archie, Claude was my son; and I want to tell you now, before we go any further, that no matter what happened between Thor and him, I forgive it, if there's anything to forgive."
"I know Thor feels there was something to forgive," Lois confessed on her husband's behalf, "whether there was or not."
"Then tell him to come to me," Ena commanded, in a tone such as Lois had never heard from her.
"I'll tell him to go to you, if you'll ask him to stay here with you a little longer."
"I sha'n't ask him; Archie will, won't you, Archie?" She laid her hand on his arm, pleadingly. "If you do, it will mean that you and I are not trying to judge our two boys, or take sides between them"—she gave a little sob—"now when it's no use. They quarreled, as brothers will, but they were fond of each other, for all that."
"Thor adored Claude," Lois said, simply. "I think he cared for him more than for any one in the world that—that I know of."
Masterman wheeled suddenly and walked away, while his wife made signs to Lois that they had won.
But it was in another frame of mind that Thor's wife said to herself, as she saw him coming toward her along County Street: "Now I shall see! I shall see if he will!"
She meant that now he might return to her, that he might return as a matter of course. If he came of his own accord, something within her would leap to greet him. So much she knew; but beyond it she would not trust herself to go. "I shall see if he will!" she repeated, with emphasis, throwing the responsibility of taking the first step on him. It was on him, she felt, that it lay. She had asked him to leave her until she was prepared to call him back, and she was not prepared. If he were to ask to be taken back, her attitude could lawfully be different. Since it was he who had made void the union she had supposed to be based on love, it was for him to suggest another built on whatever they could find as a substitute. Great as her pity for him was, she could not by so much as a glance or a smile relieve him from that necessity.
As they drew near each other she recognized the minute as one that would be decisive, if not for the rest of life, yet for a long time to come. She could look ahead and select the very tree under which they would meet. As a result of the few words that would be then exchanged their lives would blend again—or he would go to the one house and she to the other, and they would be further apart than they had ever been before. He might not think it or see it, because men were so dense; but she would be as quick to read the signs of which he would remain unconscious as a bird to scent a storm.
For this very reason she reduced her manner, when they came face to face, to the simplest and most casual. It was a matter of pride with her to exert no influence, to leave him free. Not that she found it necessary to take pains, for she saw from the first minutes of encounter that his mind was far away from that part of their interests which she put first. Into her comments on the wonderful courage displayed by Mr. and Mrs. Masterman he broke, abruptly:
"They've arrested Fay."
What came next was as nearly of the nature of a vow as a man could venture on without melodramatic eloquence. All his energies, all his money, all his time, were to be dedicated to securing Fay's acquittal. For Claude's death one man, and one man only, was to blame. It was probable enough that Fay had actually struck the blow; it was probable, too, that he had done it not to avenge himself primarily on Claude, but on Claude's father. To Thor that was secondary, almost of no importance. Had he not allowed himself to become a prey to whatever was most ferocious and malignant in human nature, the crime would never have been committed. Granting that Fay would have lain in wait for Claude in any case, an agile young man would have been more than a match for so enfeebled an antagonist even when armed with a knife, had not some preceding struggle exhausted him.
To Thor it was so clear that he was beyond the reach of argument. He was likewise beyond the reach of anything that could be called a purpose or a wish but that of seeing that another man shouldn't suffer in his stead. From the region into which this absorption and consecration carried him Lois found herself and her claims on him thrust out. Whether he went back to her or whether he did not was, for the time being at any rate, of so little moment in his eyes that apparently no thought of this aspect of their situation had occurred to him. It was more stinging to her pride that he should not consider it than that he should consider it and refuse. She was fully aware that her irony was thrown away when she said, in a tone kept down to the matter-of-fact and colloquial:
"And, Thor dear, if they ask you to stay on at the other house, don't think of me. I've got papa and mamma again. They'll keep me company as long as"—she was obliged to think of an expression that would imply a term—"as long as I may need them."
In response to these words he merely nodded. "Very well." The assent was given as if, whatever the arrangement, it would be a matter of indifference to them both.
So he went his way and she went hers. Monstrous as it was, monstrous as she found him, as she found herself, she could hardly conceive of their doing anything else. If she was unhappy, her unhappiness lay too deep in subliminal abysses to struggle to the surface of her consciousness. That he should go to the one house and she to the other was as right as it had been ten years before. It was so right that she was stupefied by its rightness. It was so right that the rightness acted on her like an opiate. It was a minute in which sheer helplessness might have relaxed her hold on her substitute for love had she not had such pressing need to make use of it there and then.
She made use of it as, on occasions requiring a show of lavishness, people eke out a meager supply of silver with plenty of plausible electroplate. In installing her parents in their old rooms, in bidding them take their place as masters and forget that they were guests, she simulated the pleasure not only of a happy daughter but of a happy wife. While the circumstances of the home-coming tempered anything in the nature of exuberance, they couldn't forbid all joy, and of joy of just the right sparkle she was as prodigal as if her treasure-chest had been stocked with it. Moreover, she was sure that except for the protest, "If we take these rooms, what are you going to do with Thor?" the worthy couple didn't know the difference between what she placed before them and the sterling metal with the hall-mark.
If there was a suspicion in her mother's mind it reserved itself till, on kissing them good night, Lois fled to the room she had occupied as a girl. Though she closed the door behind her, the mother pushed it open. "Look here, Lois," Bessie said, not quite with anxiety and yet not quite without it, "there's nothing between you and Thor, is there?"
Lois felt that the form of the question saved her. It enabled her to answer so much more truthfully than her mother knew. "No, mamma dear; there's nothing at all between us." She went so far as to make the declaration emphatic and indulge in a tone of faint bitterness: "Absolutely nothing at all—and I doubt if there ever will be—now."
Though the mother retired before she could catch the concluding syllable, Lois regretted the bitterness as soon as she felt it escape her. There was no bitterness in her substitute for love, for the substitute for love was.... She had always admitted that she didn't know what it was. But there came back to her mind the words she had been acting upon for a fortnight and more: "The mission of Christ, me dear Mrs. Thor, was salvation." And there was no bitterness in that.
"Funny thing the way people talk about salvation," Uncle Sim observed to Lois, on an evening in the autumn when his legs were extended before her fire. "To hear 'em you'd think there was no salvation except for sin, and none even for that but what is post-mortem. Post-mortem salvation may be all very well, but if there's anything blessed I want it right now."
"Of course, with a good man like you—"
"Good? Good's got nothing to do with it—or not much. The man who is called the Saviour, above every one else, didn't wait for people to be good before He saved them. He saved them first and said 'Sin no more' to them afterward."
"Oh, but with His extraordinary means—"
"He had no means that you haven't got yourself—in essence. Difference between you and Him is not in kind, but in degree. If He could save all men, you and I can at least save one or two or a dozen—or do something toward it."
"You mean save them here."
"Saving 'em here is saving 'em anywhere, isn't it?"
"And you don't mean saving them only in the theological sense of saving their souls—"
"Mean saving 'em anyhow. Save a man from hanging, or a child from tumbling in the mud, or an old woman from having her best bonnet spoiled by rain—it's all salvation—it all meets the human need—it's all part of the same principle—it all works to the same end."
"And what is the end?"
"The same as the middle, and the same as the beginning, and the same as it is all through." He rose and stretched himself. "I leave you to find your own name for it. I call it by a word of four letters," he laughed, "and it begins with an l. You can't have too much of it, if you know what it is—which is just what many people don't know."
She stood before him, coloring, smiling a little, but with eyes lowered. "I wonder if I know what it is, Uncle Sim?"
"If you don't," he smiled down at her, "you're taking a good way to learn."
This view of the principle she was using as a guide was not new to her; it was only illuminating and corroborative. It was spectrum analysis where she had seen a star. It was the kingdom of heaven reduced from a noble phrase to such terms of simple, kindly living as she knew herself able to fulfil. It was the ideal become practical, and the present rendered one with the eternal, with the fruits of righteousness sown in peace of them that make peace beyond anything she had ever expected. On the winter afternoon when Jasper Fay was acquitted she could look back over the preceding seven or eight months and see how relatively easy all had been. She said relatively easy for the reason that much had of necessity been hard. The distinction she made was that what had been hard would have been overwhelming had she not taken the principle of immediate salvation, where it could be brought about, as law. By meeting each minute's need with the utmost of her strength she found the next minute's need less terrible. By allowing no one to suffer a shade more, or an instant longer, than she could help, she perceived a lessening of the strain all round. With the lessening of the strain it was easier to calm passions and disarm antipathies. If she could say nothing else for her substitute for love, she was obliged to admit that it worked.
She was thinking so with a great thankfulness when Thor came to tell her of the rendering of the verdict. Though he had telephoned the fact, he was eager to give her the details face to face. He did this while they stood in the tapestried square hall, avoiding each other's eyes.
It had not been picturesque, he explained to her; but it had been satisfactory. Though an hour had sufficed the jury to reach their decision, the farmers and market-gardeners who had formed the mass of the spectators had forestalled it and scattered to their homes. The dramatic interest was over; it was generally felt that no more than a formality remained. When for the last time Jasper Fay was led in to confront his peers it was before a comparatively empty court.
Because he had suddenly become self-conscious, Thor went on with his account stammeringly and with curious hesitations. Still wearing his fur motoring-coat, he held his cap in his hand, like a man in a hurry to get away.
"I couldn't see even then—at the very end—that the old fellow knew what it was all about. He looked round him with the same glassy stare that he's had ever since—ever since that morning when we gave him the coffee. Mind all gone, poor old chap—and perhaps it's just as well. He smiled a bit when it was all over and they pushed him from one group to another to shake his hand, but he didn't realize what he had escaped."
Lois, too, was self-conscious. In this lifting of the burden from Thor's mind something had changed in their mutual relation. It was as if a faculty arrested on the night Claude died had suddenly resumed its function, taking them by surprise. Not in this way had she expected the thing that seemed dead to come to life again, so that she was unprepared for the signs of its rebirth. Absorbed as she would otherwise have been in Thor's narration, she could now follow him but absently. "How did they get home from Colcord?"
She asked the question to keep him going, lest he should say the thing she was so strangely afraid to hear. He answered like a man who talks about what isn't on his mind in order to conceal what is. "I drove them in. The old fellow sat in the tonneau with Rosie and Jim Breen. Matt Fay refused the lift and took the train to Marchfield."
A little crowd at the court-house door, he recounted further, had called, "Three cheers for Dr. Thor!" Another little crowd had greeted them with a similar welcome on their arrival in Susan Street. A third had gathered in the grounds of Thor's father's house, shouting, "Three cheers for Mr. Masterman!" till the object of this good will responded by coming out to the porch and making a brief, kindly speech. He was delivering it as Thor drove up, just as the winter twilight necessitated the turning on of the electric lights—his slender, well-dressed figure distinct in the illuminated doorway. Thor could hear the strains of "For he's a jolly good fellow" as, to avoid further demonstration, he backed his machine from the avenue and turned toward the other house.
She seized the opportunity to say something she had at heart, which would also help to tide over a minute she found so embarrassing. "Oh, Thor, I hope he'll not have to suffer any more. He's paid his penalty by this time."
"I mean that I hope he'll never have to be any more definite with himself than he's been already. You can easily see how it is with him. It's as if he was two men, one accusing and the other defending. I don't want to have the defense break down altogether, or to see him driven to the wall. I couldn't bear it."
He waited a long minute before speaking. "If you're thinking of the real responsibility for Claude's death—"
She nodded. "Yes, I am."
Again he waited. "He puts that on me."
"He puts it on you so as not to take it on himself," she said, quickly, "because to take it on himself would be beyond human nature to bear. Don't you see, Thor? We know and he knows that if Jasper Fay did it, it was not to avenge himself on Claude, but on some one else. But now that the law says that Fay didn't do it—"
He interrupted, quietly: "I've talked it out with father, and we understand each other perfectly. You needn't be afraid on his account. I've taken everything on myself—as I ought to take it."
"The only thing that matters about the law is that it shouldn't condemn any one but me. Now that that danger is out of the way, I can—begin."
She forgot her embarrassment in looking up at him with streaming eyes. "Begin how, Thor?"
"Begin doing what you told me from the first—begin to start again—to get it under my feet—to stand on it—to be that much higher up—and not be"—he fumbled with his cap, his head hung guiltily—"not be ridden by remorse—any more than—than I can help."
"You'll do it, Thor; you'll do it nobly—"
What she had to say, however, got no further, for the front door was flung open to allow of Mrs. Willoughby's excited entrance, with Len puffing heavily behind her.
"Oh, so you're here, Thor!" Bessie cried in the tone of a woman at the limit of her strength. "Well, I'm glad. You may as well know it first as last." Breathless, she dropped into one of the hall chairs, endeavoring to get air by agitating an enormous pillow-muff. "Len's been having—No, it's too extraordinary!—and I predicted it, didn't I? If you've kept my letters you've got it down in black and white! Len's been having—It's just as I said!—it's the shroud and the lighted candle! Len's been having the strangest, the very strangest, talk with Archie."
Lois crept near to her mother, bending down toward her. "But, mother dear, what about?"
Bessie answered, wildly: "Oh, I don't know what about. I wasn't there. I was in the drawing-room with Ena. I knew something was going on, from Ena's manner. What's come over Ena I can't imagine. I've heard of trial turning human beings into angels, but I never believed it and I can hardly believe it now. Archie began it himself—I mean with your father. He beckoned him into the library in the solemnest way. That was after he had finished his speech and the crowd had stopped cheering. If it is the shroud and the taper—well, all I can say is that he carries them off just in the way you would expect. No one could do it better, as far as that goes."
"As far as what goes, mother? I wish you'd tell us."
"It's exactly what I said when I wrote you from London last year. If you've kept my letters you've got it all down in black and white. He wants us, and Ena wants us, all to come to dinner. I'm not a bit surprised—not a bit—though I never counted on it—never!"
Thor also bent over her, standing before her, with his hand stretched out to the back of her chair. "Is it about money, Mrs. Willoughby?"
But she was too far beyond coherence to explain. "He says he wants to talk to us both after dinner—to Len and me. He's been going over the accounts again and he finds—he finds—" But she beat with her high heels on the floor and buried her face in her muff. "Oh, tell them, Len!—for goodness' sake, tell them! They'll never believe it—not any more than me."
But her emotion was too much for the big man's shattered nerves. As he stood just within the doorway, looking with his snowy beard and bushy white hair like some spectral, aureoled apostle, he began to cry.
Thor and Lois were glad of this interruption. They were glad of the new and exciting topic. They were glad of the family dinner at the other house, where they could be together and yet apart. Taking refuge from each other in any society they could find, they kept close to Mrs. Masterman when, after dinner, Thor's father retained his two old friends in the dining-room for the promised explanations. Later in the evening it was with an emotion like alarm that Lois heard that her parents had gone home without waiting to bear her company. Secretly she began to plan methods for stealing away alone. Her shyness of Thor was like nothing she had known in the days of courtship and marriage, or during the months in which they had been holding off from each other for scrutiny and reflection.
It was a shyness which, when they were at last side by side in the avenue, drove her to affect an over-elaboration of ease. She talked, not merely because there were so many things to say, but also for the sake of talking. She talked because he did not, because he towered above her in the moonlight, dumb, mysterious, waiting. It was that sense of his waiting that thrilled and terrified her most. It was a large waiting, patient and deep, the waiting for something predestined and inevitable that could take its time. It was like the waiting of the ocean for the streams, of sleep for the day's activities, or of death for all. It seemed to brood over her like the violet sky, and to quiver with radiance as the crisp air quivered with the moonlight. It was wide and restful and bracing. She was walking toward it, she was walking into it, as she walked over this virginal carpet of snow.
She talked with a kind of desperation—of Thor's father and mother first of all, of how good they were, each with a special variety of goodness. It was wonderful what sorrow had done for Mrs. Masterman. "I never see her now, Thor dear, without thinking of that look in Claude's face that seemed to us like dawn. I see it in her. Don't you?" Without waiting for an answer she hurried on. "And your father, Thor. He is good. No one but a good man could have been so noble toward poor old Fay, when he knows—when every one knows—no matter what was proved or wasn't proved in court—when he knows the truth." She seemed to be answering some unspoken argument on his side as she continued: "Oh yes, I remember what mamma wrote about it—about the hoodoo or the voodoo—mamma's so amusing!—but you and I have nothing to do with that, have we, Thor? We can only take what we see, and judge by what is best. And so with this wonderful new thing for papa and mamma—that they're to have some of their money back—we can't go behind it, can we? If he says it was a mistake we must accept it as that, and never, never let any other thought come into our minds. I know that papa and mamma, dear, innocent things—they are dear and innocent, you know, in spite of everything!—I know they'll only be too glad to take it in the same way."
Except for an occasional word he had hardly spoken by the time he had reached the corner of Willoughby's Lane and County Street. Lois had a renewal of the terror from which her own conversation had distracted her. The crucial minute was at hand. The door was but a few yards away. He would either go in with her—or he would go back. She hardly knew which would be the more supportable—the joy or the dismay.
She caught at the first possibility of postponing both. "Oh, it's so lovely! Let us walk on a little farther. It isn't half-past nine yet. I looked at the clock as we were coming out. Papa and mamma ran off so early. Don't you adore these windless winter nights?—when the air is as if it had been distilled." She paused in the middle of the road and looked around. "What's that star, Thor—over there—the one like a great white diamond?" He told her it was Sirius, adding that its light took eight years to travel to the earth, and going on to trace with his finger the constellation of the Dog. The minute's return to the old habits took some of the feverishness from her sense of tension as they continued their walk up the hill.
Up the hill there were only two directions in which to go—along the prosaic road to Marchfield or into the quiet winter woods where masses of shadow lay interspersed with patches of white moonlight, while, on this soundless night there was not a murmur in the tree-tops. By instinct rather than intention they followed a faint, familiar path running under pines.
Lois was now speaking of the Fays. "Mrs. Fay knows. The others don't—not certainly. Rosie has brought herself round to thinking him innocent, and Matt and Jim only suspect what happened—but Mrs. Fay knows. It must be a tragic thing to spend your life with a man who's done a thing like that. Poor soul! We must do what we can to help her, mustn't we?"
She pursued the theme not for its interest alone, but for the sake of the objective point to which it was leading her. By speaking freely, first of Matt and then of Jim Breen, she came at last to Rosie. She spoke freely of her, too, at the risk of opening up old wounds, at the risk of lacerating that which was probably still sensitive. Her main purpose was to speak, and if possible to make him speak, so that this name should no longer be kept as an inviolable symbol between them. Since the day when it began to have significance for them both it had scarcely been pronounced by either otherwise than allusively or of necessity. She was resolute to make it as little to be shunned as his or her own.
Not that she was successful, for the minute at any rate. His responses continued to be brief, so brief that they were hardly responses at all. They were not grudged or ungracious; they were only like those first little flashes of lightning which hint that the heavens will soon be alive. As a frightened boy whistles from bravado, she talked to conceal her trembling at this coming of celestial wonders.
"Oh, Thor, there'll be so much now to do! It's really only beginning, isn't it? And it brings in so many elements of our life—I mean of our whole national life. I like that. I like getting out of our own little groove—so futile and narrow as it generally is—and being in touch with what is stronger, even if it's terrific. That's what I feel about Matt Fay—that he's terrific. He represents a terrific movement, doesn't he? and one we can't ignore. When I say terrific I don't mean that I'm afraid of it. I'm not. It seems to me too strengthening to be afraid of. With all you can say against it, it strikes me as a tonic in our rather flaccid life, like iron in the blood. I've sympathy with it, too, to some extent; I've sympathy with him. You know, I do belong to the people. I'm glad we know him, and that in a way we've a right to get near to him. It puts us in touch with our own national realities as perhaps otherwise we shouldn't be. Oh, Thor, there's so much to work out! Isn't it a splendid thing that we can help even to the slightest degree in doing it!"
To this there was no response whatever. She was not sure that he listened. Beside her the tall form strode on dumb and dark, crunching the frozen snow with a creaking sound that roused the winged and furry things of the wood and silenced her half-hysterical efforts to fight against that which awaited her like a glory or a doom. Growing suddenly aware of the uselessness of speaking, she said no more.
After an interval in which her mind seemed to stop working, that of which she became conscious next was a world of extraordinary purity. Nothing was ever so white as this snow or this moonlight; nothing was ever so like the ether beyond the atmosphere as this air; nothing was ever so golden as the stars in this purple sky, or so mystically solemn as these pines. As they climbed upward it was like mounting into some crystal sphere, where evil was not an element.
They came out on that spot in which all the wood-paths converged, that treeless ridge that rose like a great white altar. It was an end which neither had foreseen when a half-hour earlier they had prolonged their walk; otherwise they might have shrunk from it. As it was, the association of the past with the present startled them, startled them into pausing long enough to become conscious, to seeing each in the eyes of the other such things as could not pass into words, before renewing the ascent. As they continued the way upward it was as if in fulfilment of some symbolic ceremonial.
They had stood for some minutes silent on the summit, looking out over the wide, white radiance at their feet, when Thor spoke. "I'm not thinking about the things you've been talking of. I'm not primarily interested in them any more."
"I mean the helping of others—in the way I've tried it. I see the mistake in that."
She was faintly surprised. "Indeed?"
"Through the things that have been happening I've worked out—I may say I've stumbled out—to a great truth."
There was not only surprise in her tone, but curiosity. "Yes, Thor dear. What is it?"
"It's that a man's first occupation is not with others, but with himself. It's not to put them right; it's to be right on his own account." As for the moment she was too disconcerted to comment on this, he continued: "If reaching this conclusion seems to you like discovering the obvious, I can only say that it hasn't been obvious to me. It's just beginning to come to me that I was so busy casting out other people's devils that I'd forgotten all about my own."
"You've been so generous in all you've thought about other people, Thor—"
He interrupted with decision. "The most effective way in which to be generous to other people is to be strict with one's self; but it never occurred to me till lately. I've been so eager that my neighbor's garden should be trim and productive, that mine has been overrun with weeds."
Against this self-condemnation she felt it her duty to protest. "But Uncle Sim says you've always been on the side of the—"
"Yes, I know," he broke in, with what was nearly a laugh. "But it's just where the dear old fellow has been wrong about me. I've wanted every one else to be there, on the side of the good things—I admit that—but I was to have plenty of rope. Now I'm coming to understand—and it's taken all this trouble to drive it home to my stupidity—that if I want to see any one else on the side of the angels I must get there first. That's where the ax must go to the root of the tree. In the main other people will take care of themselves if I take care of myself—and I'm going to try."
She was hurt on his behalf. "Oh, Thor, please don't say such things when you're so—so noble."
"I'm only saying them, Lois, to show you that I see what's been wrong with me from the start. You've tried to say it yourself at times, only I couldn't take it in. Do you remember the day in my office when you came to tell me that"—he nerved himself to approach the subject with the simple directness he knew she desired—"that Rosie had—?"
She hastened to come to his aid. "Yes, but I didn't mean it in just that way."
"No; but I do. I mean it because I can look back and trace it as the cause of all our disasters from—"
"Oh, Thor!" she pleaded.
He went on, steadily: "From the way in which I asked you to marry me right up to what—to what happened about Claude." He was obliged to draw a long, hard breath before saying more. "I was so determined that every one else should be right that I didn't care how wrong I was—which is like handing out water from a poisoned well."
She wished she could touch him, or slip her hand into his, by way of comfort, but the distance between them was still too great. She could only say: "That's putting it unjustly to yourself, Thor. If you've made mistakes they've been splendid ones. They've been finer than the ways in which most of us have been right."
She thought he smiled.
"Oh, I don't ask to be defended or explained. I only want to say that from to-night onward I shall be starting on a new plan of life. I shall be working from the inside, and not from the outside. If I'm to do anything in this world, something must first be accomplished in me—and I've got to begin." He turned from his contemplation of the dim, white landscape to look down at her. "Will you help me? Will you show me how?"
It seemed to her that without having moved she was somehow nearer to his breast. She couldn't so much as glance up at him. She could hardly speak. The words only trembled out as she said, "If I can, Thor dear."
"You can," he said, simply, "because you know."
She barely lifted her eyes. "Oh, do you think I do?"
"You've got the secret of it. There is a secret. I see that now—a secret, just as there is to everything else that's worth learning."
"Oh, Thor, you make me afraid—"
"Through all these dreadful months," he pursued, tranquilly, "you've kept us straight, and led us out, and raised us higher, not because you're specially strong, Lois, or specially wise, but because—because you've got some other quality. I want you to show me what it is, so that I may have it, too. If I could get it—get just a little of it—it would seem as if Claude hadn't—hadn't died in vain." She was now so near his breast that he was obliged to bend his head in order to speak down to her. "You wrote me last year that you were looking for a substitute for love. Couldn't you find it in that?"
She was so close to him that her cheek brushed the fur collar of his coat, yet she managed to keep her mind clear and to control her voice so as to ask the thing she most vitally needed to know. "And if I did, Thor—if I could—what should you find it in?"
"In adoration—for one thing," he said, simply.
It was such happiness that she tore herself away from it. Advancing swiftly over the light snow to a higher point of the summit, she stood for a minute poised alone against the dark sky, crowned to his eyes with a diadem of stars. Very slowly he strode after her, but even when he reached her side it was only to slip his hand into hers and gaze outward with her into the far, dim, restful spaces.
It was she who spoke at last, timidly, and against rising tears. "Shall we go home, Thor?"
"I'm at home," he said, quietly. But the quietness gave way suddenly to fierceness, as little lightning flashes yield in a few seconds to the violent magnificence of storm. Seizing her in his arms with a clasp that would have been brutal if it had not been so sweet, he whispered, "You're home to me, Lois—you're home to me."
"And you're the whole wide world to me, Thor dear," she answered, drawing his face downward.