Alexander's Bridge, by Willa Cather

Chapter 6

The last two days of the voyage Bartley found almost intolerable. The stop at Queenstown, the tedious passage up the Mersey, were things that he noted dimly through his growing impatience. He had planned to stop in Liverpool; but, instead, he took the boat train for London.

Emerging at Euston at half-past three o’clock in the afternoon, Alexander had his luggage sent to the Savoy and drove at once to Bedford Square. When Marie met him at the door, even her strong sense of the proprieties could not restrain her surprise and delight. She blushed and smiled and fumbled his card in her confusion before she ran upstairs. Alexander paced up and down the hallway, buttoning and unbuttoning his overcoat, until she returned and took him up to Hilda’s living-room. The room was empty when he entered. A coal fire was crackling in the grate and the lamps were lit, for it was already beginning to grow dark outside. Alexander did not sit down. He stood his ground over by the windows until Hilda came in. She called his name on the threshold, but in her swift flight across the room she felt a change in him and caught herself up so deftly that he could not tell just when she did it. She merely brushed his cheek with her lips and put a hand lightly and joyously on either shoulder. “Oh, what a grand thing to happen on a raw day! I felt it in my bones when I woke this morning that something splendid was going to turn up. I thought it might be Sister Kate or Cousin Mike would be happening along. I never dreamed it would be you, Bartley. But why do you let me chatter on like this? Come over to the fire; you’re chilled through.”

She pushed him toward the big chair by the fire, and sat down on a stool at the opposite side of the hearth, her knees drawn up to her chin, laughing like a happy little girl.

“When did you come, Bartley, and how did it happen? You haven’t spoken a word.”

“I got in about ten minutes ago. I landed at Liverpool this morning and came down on the boat train.”

Alexander leaned forward and warmed his hands before the blaze. Hilda watched him with perplexity.

“There’s something troubling you, Bartley. What is it?”

Bartley bent lower over the fire. “It’s the whole thing that troubles me, Hilda. You and I.”

Hilda took a quick, soft breath. She looked at his heavy shoulders and big, determined head, thrust forward like a catapult in leash.

“What about us, Bartley?” she asked in a thin voice.

He locked and unlocked his hands over the grate and spread his fingers close to the bluish flame, while the coals crackled and the clock ticked and a street vendor began to call under the window. At last Alexander brought out one word:—

“Everything!”

Hilda was pale by this time, and her eyes were wide with fright. She looked about desperately from Bartley to the door, then to the windows, and back again to Bartley. She rose uncertainly, touched his hair with her hand, then sank back upon her stool.

“I’ll do anything you wish me to, Bartley,” she said tremulously. “I can’t stand seeing you miserable.”

“I can’t live with myself any longer,” he answered roughly.

He rose and pushed the chair behind him and began to walk miserably about the room, seeming to find it too small for him. He pulled up a window as if the air were heavy.

Hilda watched him from her corner, trembling and scarcely breathing, dark shadows growing about her eyes.

“It . . . it hasn’t always made you miserable, has it?” Her eyelids fell and her lips quivered.

“Always. But it’s worse now. It’s unbearable. It tortures me every minute.”

“But why NOW?” she asked piteously, wringing her hands.

He ignored her question. “I am not a man who can live two lives,” he went on feverishly. “Each life spoils the other. I get nothing but misery out of either. The world is all there, just as it used to be, but I can’t get at it any more. There is this deception between me and everything.”

At that word “deception,” spoken with such self-contempt, the color flashed back into Hilda’s face as suddenly as if she had been struck by a whiplash. She bit her lip and looked down at her hands, which were clasped tightly in front of her.

“Could you — could you sit down and talk about it quietly, Bartley, as if I were a friend, and not some one who had to be defied?”

He dropped back heavily into his chair by the fire. “It was myself I was defying, Hilda. I have thought about it until I am worn out.”

He looked at her and his haggard face softened. He put out his hand toward her as he looked away again into the fire.

She crept across to him, drawing her stool after her. “When did you first begin to feel like this, Bartley?”

“After the very first. The first was — sort of in play, wasn’t it?”

Hilda’s face quivered, but she whispered: “Yes, I think it must have been. But why didn’t you tell me when you were here in the summer?”

Alexander groaned. “I meant to, but somehow I couldn’t. We had only a few days, and your new play was just on, and you were so happy.”

“Yes, I was happy, wasn’t I?” She pressed his hand gently in gratitude. “Weren’t you happy then, at all?”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if to draw in again the fragrance of those days. Something of their troubling sweetness came back to Alexander, too. He moved uneasily and his chair creaked.

“Yes, I was then. You know. But afterward. . .”

“Yes, yes,” she hurried, pulling her hand gently away from him. Presently it stole back to his coat sleeve. “Please tell me one thing, Bartley. At least, tell me that you believe I thought I was making you happy.”

His hand shut down quickly over the questioning fingers on his sleeves. “Yes, Hilda; I know that,” he said simply.

She leaned her head against his arm and spoke softly:—

“You see, my mistake was in wanting you to have everything. I wanted you to eat all the cakes and have them, too. I somehow believed that I could take all the bad consequences for you. I wanted you always to be happy and handsome and successful — to have all the things that a great man ought to have, and, once in a way, the careless holidays that great men are not permitted.”

Bartley gave a bitter little laugh, and Hilda looked up and read in the deepening lines of his face that youth and Bartley would not much longer struggle together.

“I understand, Bartley. I was wrong. But I didn’t know. You’ve only to tell me now. What must I do that I’ve not done, or what must I not do?” She listened intently, but she heard nothing but the creaking of his chair. “You want me to say it?” she whispered. “You want to tell me that you can only see me like this, as old friends do, or out in the world among people? I can do that.”

“I can’t,” he said heavily.

Hilda shivered and sat still. Bartley leaned his head in his hands and spoke through his teeth. “It’s got to be a clean break, Hilda. I can’t see you at all, anywhere. What I mean is that I want you to promise never to see me again, no matter how often I come, no matter how hard I beg.”

Hilda sprang up like a flame. She stood over him with her hands clenched at her side, her body rigid.

“No!” she gasped. “It’s too late to ask that. Do you hear me, Bartley? It’s too late. I won’t promise. It’s abominable of you to ask me. Keep away if you wish; when have I ever followed you? But, if you come to me, I’ll do as I see fit. The shamefulness of your asking me to do that! If you come to me, I’ll do as I see fit. Do you understand? Bartley, you’re cowardly!”

Alexander rose and shook himself angrily. “Yes, I know I’m cowardly. I’m afraid of myself. I don’t trust myself any more. I carried it all lightly enough at first, but now I don’t dare trifle with it. It’s getting the better of me. It’s different now. I’m growing older, and you’ve got my young self here with you. It’s through him that I’ve come to wish for you all and all the time.” He took her roughly in his arms. “Do you know what I mean?”

Hilda held her face back from him and began to cry bitterly. “Oh, Bartley, what am I to do? Why didn’t you let me be angry with you? You ask me to stay away from you because you want me! And I’ve got nobody but you. I will do anything you say — but that! I will ask the least imaginable, but I must have SOMETHING!”

Bartley turned away and sank down in his chair again. Hilda sat on the arm of it and put her hands lightly on his shoulders.

“Just something Bartley. I must have you to think of through the months and months of loneliness. I must see you. I must know about you. The sight of you, Bartley, to see you living and happy and successful — can I never make you understand what that means to me?” She pressed his shoulders gently. “You see, loving some one as I love you makes the whole world different. If I’d met you later, if I hadn’t loved you so well — but that’s all over, long ago. Then came all those years without you, lonely and hurt and discouraged; those decent young fellows and poor Mac, and me never heeding — hard as a steel spring. And then you came back, not caring very much, but it made no difference.”

She slid to the floor beside him, as if she were too tired to sit up any longer. Bartley bent over and took her in his arms, kissing her mouth and her wet, tired eyes.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” he whispered. “We’ve tortured each other enough for tonight. Forget everything except that I am here.”

“I think I have forgotten everything but that already,” she murmured. “Ah, your dear arms!”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30