Alexander's Bridge, by Willa Cather

Chapter 8

The last rehearsal was over, a tedious dress rehearsal which had lasted all day and exhausted the patience of every one who had to do with it. When Hilda had dressed for the street and came out of her dressing-room, she found Hugh MacConnell waiting for her in the corridor.

“The fog’s thicker than ever, Hilda. There have been a great many accidents today. It’s positively unsafe for you to be out alone. Will you let me take you home?”

“How good of you, Mac. If you are going with me, I think I’d rather walk. I’ve had no exercise today, and all this has made me nervous.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” said MacConnell dryly. Hilda pulled down her veil and they stepped out into the thick brown wash that submerged St. Martin’s Lane. MacConnell took her hand and tucked it snugly under his arm. “I’m sorry I was such a savage. I hope you didn’t think I made an ass of myself.”

“Not a bit of it. I don’t wonder you were peppery. Those things are awfully trying. How do you think it’s going?”

“Magnificently. That’s why I got so stirred up. We are going to hear from this, both of us. And that reminds me; I’ve got news for you. They are going to begin repairs on the theatre about the middle of March, and we are to run over to New York for six weeks. Bennett told me yesterday that it was decided.”

Hilda looked up delightedly at the tall gray figure beside her. He was the only thing she could see, for they were moving through a dense opaqueness, as if they were walking at the bottom of the ocean.

“Oh, Mac, how glad I am! And they love your things over there, don’t they?”

“Shall you be glad for — any other reason, Hilda?”

MacConnell put his hand in front of her to ward off some dark object. It proved to be only a lamp-post, and they beat in farther from the edge of the pavement.

“What do you mean, Mac?” Hilda asked nervously.

“I was just thinking there might be people over there you’d be glad to see,” he brought out awkwardly. Hilda said nothing, and as they walked on MacConnell spoke again, apologetically: “I hope you don’t mind my knowing about it, Hilda. Don’t stiffen up like that. No one else knows, and I didn’t try to find out anything. I felt it, even before I knew who he was. I knew there was somebody, and that it wasn’t I.”

They crossed Oxford Street in silence, feeling their way. The busses had stopped running and the cab-drivers were leading their horses. When they reached the other side, MacConnell said suddenly, “I hope you are happy.”

“Terribly, dangerously happy, Mac,” — Hilda spoke quietly, pressing the rough sleeve of his greatcoat with her gloved hand.

“You’ve always thought me too old for you, Hilda, — oh, of course you’ve never said just that, — and here this fellow is not more than eight years younger than I. I’ve always felt that if I could get out of my old case I might win you yet. It’s a fine, brave youth I carry inside me, only he’ll never be seen.”

“Nonsense, Mac. That has nothing to do with it. It’s because you seem too close to me, too much my own kind. It would be like marrying Cousin Mike, almost. I really tried to care as you wanted me to, away back in the beginning.”

“Well, here we are, turning out of the Square. You are not angry with me, Hilda? Thank you for this walk, my dear. Go in and get dry things on at once. You’ll be having a great night tomorrow.”

She put out her hand. “Thank you, Mac, for everything. Good-night.”

MacConnell trudged off through the fog, and she went slowly upstairs. Her slippers and dressing gown were waiting for her before the fire. “I shall certainly see him in New York. He will see by the papers that we are coming. Perhaps he knows it already,” Hilda kept thinking as she undressed. “Perhaps he will be at the dock. No, scarcely that; but I may meet him in the street even before he comes to see me.” Marie placed the tea-table by the fire and brought Hilda her letters. She looked them over, and started as she came to one in a handwriting that she did not often see; Alexander had written to her only twice before, and he did not allow her to write to him at all. “Thank you, Marie. You may go now.”

Hilda sat down by the table with the letter in her hand, still unopened. She looked at it intently, turned it over, and felt its thickness with her fingers. She believed that she sometimes had a kind of second-sight about letters, and could tell before she read them whether they brought good or evil tidings. She put this one down on the table in front of her while she poured her tea. At last, with a little shiver of expectancy, she tore open the envelope and read:—

Boston, February —

MY DEAR HILDA:—

It is after twelve o’clock. Every one else is in bed and I am sitting alone in my study. I have been happier in this room than anywhere else in the world. Happiness like that makes one insolent. I used to think these four walls could stand against anything. And now I scarcely know myself here. Now I know that no one can build his security upon the nobleness of another person. Two people, when they love each other, grow alike in their tastes and habits and pride, but their moral natures (whatever we may mean by that canting expression) are never welded. The base one goes on being base, and the noble one noble, to the end.

The last week has been a bad one; I have been realizing how things used to be with me. Sometimes I get used to being dead inside, but lately it has been as if a window beside me had suddenly opened, and as if all the smells of spring blew in to me. There is a garden out there, with stars overhead, where I used to walk at night when I had a single purpose and a single heart. I can remember how I used to feel there, how beautiful everything about me was, and what life and power and freedom I felt in myself. When the window opens I know exactly how it would feel to be out there. But that garden is closed to me. How is it, I ask myself, that everything can be so different with me when nothing here has changed? I am in my own house, in my own study, in the midst of all these quiet streets where my friends live. They are all safe and at peace with themselves. But I am never at peace. I feel always on the edge of danger and change.

I keep remembering locoed horses I used to see on the range when I was a boy. They changed like that. We used to catch them and put them up in the corral, and they developed great cunning. They would pretend to eat their oats like the other horses, but we knew they were always scheming to get back at the loco.

It seems that a man is meant to live only one life in this world. When he tries to live a second, he develops another nature. I feel as if a second man had been grafted into me. At first he seemed only a pleasure-loving simpleton, of whose company I was rather ashamed, and whom I used to hide under my coat when I walked the Embankment, in London. But now he is strong and sullen, and he is fighting for his life at the cost of mine. That is his one activity: to grow strong. No creature ever wanted so much to live. Eventually, I suppose, he will absorb me altogether. Believe me, you will hate me then.

And what have you to do, Hilda, with this ugly story? Nothing at all. The little boy drank of the prettiest brook in the forest and he became a stag. I write all this because I can never tell it to you, and because it seems as if I could not keep silent any longer. And because I suffer, Hilda. If any one I loved suffered like this, I’d want to know it. Help me, Hilda!

B.A.

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