It was two years before Niel Herbert came home again, and when he came the first acquaintance he met was Ivy Peters. Ivy got on the train at one of the little stations east of Sweet Water, where he had been trying a case. As he strolled through the Pullman he noticed among the passengers a young man in a grey flannel suit, with a silk shirt of one shade of blue and a necktie of another. After regarding this urban figure from the rear for a few seconds, Ivy glanced down at his own clothes with gloating satisfaction. It was a hot day in June, but he wore the black felt hat and ready-made coat of winter weight he had always affected as a boy. He stepped forward, his hands thrust in his pockets.
“Hullo, Niel. Thought I couldn’t be mistaken.”
Niel looked up and saw the red, bee-stung face, with its two permanent dimples, smiling down at him in contemptuous jocularity.
“Hello, Ivy. I couldn’t be mistaken in you, either.”
“Coming home to go into business?”
Niel replied that he was coming only for the summer vacation.
“Oh, you’re not through school yet? I suppose it takes longer to make an architect than it does to make a shyster. Just as well; there’s not much building going on in Sweet Water these days. You’ll find a good many changes.”
“Won’t you sit down?” Niel indicated the neighbouring chair. “You are practising law?”
“Yes, along with a few other things. Have to keep more than one iron in the fire to make a living with us. I farm a little on the side. I rent that meadow-land on the Forrester place. I’ve drained the old marsh and put it into wheat. My brother John does the work, and I boss the job. It’s quite profitable. I pay them a good rent, and they need it. I doubt if they could get along without. Their influential friends don’t seem to help them out much. Remember all those chesty old boys the Captain used to drive about in his democrat wagon, and ship in barrels of Bourbon for? Good deal of bluff about all those old-timers. The panic put them out of the game. The Forresters have come down in the world like the rest. You remember how the old man used to put it over us kids and not let us carry a gun in there? I’m just mean enough to like to shoot along that creek a little better than anywhere else, now. There wasn’t any harm in the old Captain, but he had the delusion of grandeur. He’s happier now that he’s like the rest of us and don’t have to change his shirt every day.” Ivy’s unblinking greenish eyes rested upon Niel’s haberdashery.
Niel, however, did not notice this. He knew that Ivy wanted him to show disappointment, and he was determined not to do so. He enquired about the Captain’s health, pointedly keeping Mrs. Forrester’s name out of the conversation.
“He’s only about half there . . . seems contented enough. . . . She takes good care of him, I’ll say that for her . . . . She seeks consolation, always did, you know . . . too much French brandy . . . but she never neglects him. I don’t blame her. Real work comes hard on her.”
Niel heard these remarks dully, through the buzz of an idea. He felt that Ivy had drained the marsh quite as much to spite him and Mrs. Forrester as to reclaim the land. Moreover, he seemed to know that until this moment Ivy himself had not realized how much that consideration weighed with him. He and Ivy had disliked each other from childhood, blindly, instinctively, recognizing each other through antipathy, as hostile insects do. By draining the marsh Ivy had obliterated a few acres of something he hated, though he could not name it, and had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty.
After Ivy had gone on into the smoker, Niel sat looking out at the windings of the Sweet Water and playing with his idea. The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great land-holders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest. All the way from the Missouri to the mountains this generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times, would do exactly what Ivy Peters had done when he drained the Forrester marsh.
The next afternoon Niel found Captain Forrester in the bushy little plot he called his rose garden, seated in a stout hickory chair that could be left out in all weather, his two canes beside him. His attention was fixed upon a red block of Colorado sandstone, set on a granite boulder in the middle of the gravel space around which the roses grew. He showed Niel that this was a sun-dial, and explained it with great pride. Last summer, he said, he sat out here a great deal, with a square board mounted on a post, and marked the length of the shadows by his watch. His friend, Cyrus Dalzell, on one of his visits, took this board away, had the diagram exactly copied on sandstone, and sent it to him, with the column-like boulder that formed its base.
“I think it’s likely Mr. Dalzell hunted around among the mountains a good many mornings before he found a natural formation like that,” said the Captain. “A pillar, such as they had in Bible times. It’s from the Garden of the Gods. Mr. Dalzell has his summer home up there.”
The Captain sat with the soles of his boots together, his legs bowed out. Everything about him seemed to have grown heavier and weaker. His face was fatter and smoother; as if the features were running into each other, as when a wax face melts in the heat. An old Panama hat, burned yellow by the sun, shaded his eyes. His brown hands lay on his knees, the fingers well apart, nerveless. His moustache was the same straw colour; Niel remarked to him that it had grown no greyer. The Captain touched his cheek with his palm. “Mrs. Forrester shaved me for awhile. She did it very nicely, but I didn’t like to have her do it. Now I use one of these safety razors. I can manage, if I take my time. The barber comes over once a week. Mrs. Forrester is expecting you, Niel. She’s down in the grove. She goes down there to rest in the hammock.”
Niel went round the house to the gate that gave into the grove. From the top of the hill he could see the hammock slung between two cottonwoods, in the low glade at the farther end, where he had fallen the time he broke his arm. The slender white figure was still, and as he hurried across the grass he saw that a white garden hat lay over her face. He approached quietly and was just wondering if she were asleep, when he heard a soft, delighted laugh, and with a quick movement she threw off the lace hat through which she had been watching him. He stepped forward and caught her suspended figure, hammock and all, in his arms. How light and alive she was! like a bird caught in a net. If only he could rescue her and carry her off like this, — off the earth of sad, inevitable periods, away from age, weariness, adverse fortune!
She showed no impatience to be released, but lay laughing up at him with that gleam of something elegantly wild, something fantastic and tantalizing, — seemingly so artless, really the most finished artifice! She put her hand under his chin as if he were still a boy.
“And how handsome he’s grown! Isn’t the old Judge proud of you! He called me up last night and began sputtering, ‘It’s only fair to warn you, Ma’m, that I’ve a very handsome boy over here.’ As if I hadn’t known you would be! And now you’re a man, and have seen the world! Well, what have you found in it?”
“Nothing so nice as you, Mrs. Forrester.”
“Nonsense! You have sweethearts?”
“Are they pretty?”
“Why they? Isn’t one enough?”
“One is too many. I want you to have half a dozen, — and still save the best for us! One would take everything. If you had her, you would not have come home at all. I wonder if you know how we’ve looked for you?” She took his hand and turned a seal ring about on his little finger absently. “Every night for weeks, when the lights of the train came swinging in down below the meadows, I’ve said to myself, ‘Niel is coming home; there’s that to look forward to.’” She caught herself as she always did when she found that she was telling too much, and finished in a playful tone. “So, you see, you mean a great deal to all of us. Did you find Mr. Forrester?”
“Oh, yes! I had to stop and look at his sun-dial.”
She raised herself on her elbow and lowered her voice. “Niel, can you understand it? He isn’t childish, as some people say, but he will sit and watch that thing hour after hour. How can anybody like to see time visibly devoured? We are all used to seeing clocks go round, but why does he want to see that shadow creep on that stone? Has he changed much? No? I’m glad you feel so. Now tell me about the Adamses and what George is like.”
Niel dropped on the turf and sat with his back against a tree trunk, answering her rapid questions and watching her while he talked. Of course, she was older. In the brilliant sun of the afternoon one saw that her skin was no longer like white lilacs, — it had the ivory tint of gardenias that have just begun to fade. The coil of blue-black hair seemed more than ever too heavy for her head. There were lines, — something strained about the corners of her mouth that used not to be there. But the astonishing thing was how these changes could vanish in a moment, be utterly wiped out in a flash of personality, and one forgot everything about her except herself.
“And tell me, Niel, do women really smoke after dinner now with the men, nice women? I shouldn’t like it. It’s all very well for actresses, but women can’t be attractive if they do everything that men do.”
“I think just now it’s the fashion for women to make themselves comfortable, before anything else.”
Mrs. Forrester glanced at him as if he had said something shocking. “Ah, that’s just it! The two things don’t go together. Athletics and going to college and smoking after dinner — Do you like it? Don’t men like women to be different from themselves? They used to.”
Niel laughed. Yes, that was certainly the idea of Mrs. Forrester’s generation.
“Uncle Judge says you don’t come to see him any more as you used to, Mrs. Forrester. He misses it.”
“My dear boy, I haven’t been over to the town for six weeks. I’m always too tired. We have no horse now, and when I do go I have to walk. That house! Nothing is ever done there unless I do it, and nothing ever moves unless I move it. That’s why I come down here in the afternoon, — to get where I can’t see the house. I can’t keep it up as it should be kept, I’m not strong enough. Oh, yes, Ben helps me; he sweeps and beats the rugs and washes windows, but that doesn’t get a house very far.” Mrs. Forrester sat up suddenly and pinned on her white hat. “We went all the way to Chicago, Niel, to buy that walnut furniture, couldn’t find anything at home big and heavy enough. If I’d known that one day I’d have to push it about, I would have been more easily satisfied!” She rose and shook out her rumpled skirts.
They started toward the house, going slowly up the long, grassy undulation between the trees.
“Don’t you miss the marsh?” Niel asked suddenly.
She glanced away evasively. “Not much. I would never have time to go there, and we need the money it pays us. And you haven’t time to play any more either, Niel. You must hurry and become a successful man. Your uncle is terribly involved. He has been so careless that he’s not much better off than we are. Money is a very important thing. Realize that in the beginning; face it, and don’t be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us.” They stopped by the gate at the top of the hill and looked back at the green alleys and sharp shadows, at the quivering fans of light that seemed to push the trees farther apart and made Elysian fields underneath them. Mrs. Forrester put her white hand, with all its rings, on Niel’s arm.
“Do you really find a kind of pleasure in coming back to us? That’s very unusual, I think. At your age I wanted to be with the young and gay. It’s nice for us, though.” She looked at him with her rarest smile, one he had seldom seen on her face, but always remembered, — a smile without archness, without gaiety, full of affection and wistfully sad. And the same thing was in her voice when she spoke those quiet words, — the sudden quietness of deep feeling. She turned quickly away. They went through the gate and around the house to where the Captain sat watching the sunset glory on his roses. His wife touched his shoulder.
“Will you go in, now, Mr. Forrester, or shall I bring your coat?”
“I’ll go in. Isn’t Niel going to stay for dinner?”
“Not this time. He’ll come soon, and we’ll have a real dinner for him. Will you wait for Mr. Forrester, Niel? I must hurry in and start the fire.”
Niel tarried behind and accompanied the Captain’s slow progress toward the front of the house. He leaned upon two canes, lifting his feet slowly and putting them down firmly and carefully. He looked like an old tree walking.
Once up the steps and into the parlour, he sank into his big chair and panted heavily. The first whiff of a fresh cigar seemed to restore him. “Can I trouble you to mail some letters for me, Niel, as you go by the post-office?” He produced them from the breast pocket of his summer coat. “Let me see whether Mrs. Forrester has anything to go.” Rising, the Captain went into the little hall. There, by the front door, on a table under the hat rack, was a scantily draped figure, an Arab or Egyptian slave girl, holding in her hands a large flat shell from the California coast. Niel remembered noticing that figure the first time he was ever in the house, when Dr. Dennison carried him out through this hallway with his arm in splints. In the days when the Forresters had servants and were sending over to the town several times a day, the letters for the post were always left in this shell. The Captain found one now, and handed it to Niel. It was addressed to Mr. Francis Bosworth Ellinger, Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
For some reason Niel felt embarrassed and tried to slip the letter quickly into his pocket. The Captain, his two canes in one hand, prevented him. He took the pale blue envelope again, and held it out at arm’s length, regarding it.
“Mrs. Forrester is a fine penman; have you ever noticed? Always was. If she made me a list of articles to get at the store, I never had to hide it. It was like copper plate. That’s exceptional in a woman, Niel.”
Niel remembered her hand well enough, he had never seen another in the least like it; long, thin, angular letters, curiously delicate and curiously bold, looped and laced with strokes fine as a hair and perfectly distinct. Her script looked as if it had been done at a high pitch of speed, the pen driven by a perfectly confident dexterity.
“Oh, yes, Captain! I’m never able to take any letters for Mrs. Forrester without looking at them. No one could forget her writing.”
“Yes. It’s very exceptional.” The Captain gave him the envelope, and with his canes went slowly toward his big chair.
Niel had often wondered just how much the Captain knew. Now, as he went down the hill, he felt sure that he knew everything; more than anyone else; all there was to know about Marian Forrester.
Niel had planned to do a great deal of reading in the Forresters’ grove that summer, but he did not go over so often as he had intended. The frequent appearance of Ivy Peters about the place irritated him. Ivy visited his new wheat fields on the bottom land very often; and he always took the old path, that led from what was once the marsh, up the steep bank and through the grove. He was likely to appear at any hour, his trousers stuffed into his top-boots, tramping along between the rows of trees with an air of proprietorship. He shut the gate behind the house with a slam and went whistling through the yard. Often he stopped at the kitchen door to call out some pleasantry to Mrs. Forrester. This annoyed Niel, for at that hour of the morning, when she was doing her housework, Mrs. Forrester was not dressed to receive her inferiors. It was one thing to greet the president of the Colorado & Utah en deshabille, but it was another to chatter with a coarse-grained fellow like Ivy Peters in her wrapper and slippers, her sleeves rolled up and her throat bare to his cool, impudent eyes.
Sometimes Ivy strode through the rose plot where Captain Forrester was sitting in the sun, — went by without looking at him, as if there were no one there. If he spoke to the Captain at all, he did so as if he were addressing someone incapable of understanding anything. “Hullo, Captain, ain’t afraid this sun will spoil your complexion?” or “Well, Captain, you’ll have to get the prayer-meetings to take up this rain question. The drought’s damned bad for my wheat.”
One morning, as Niel was coming up through the grove, he heard laughter by the gate, and there he saw Ivy, with his gun, talking to Mrs. Forrester. She was bareheaded, her skirts blowing in the wind, her arm through the handle of a big tin bucket that rested on the fence beside her. Ivy stood with his hat on his head, but there was in his attitude that unmistakable something which shows that a man is trying to make himself agreeable to a woman. He was telling her a funny story, probably an improper one, for it brought out her naughtiest laugh, with something nervous and excited in it, as if he were going too far. At the end of his story Ivy himself broke into his farm-hand guffaw. Mrs. Forrester shook her ringer at him and, catching up her pail, ran back into the house. She bent a little with its weight, but Ivy made no offer to carry it for her. He let her trip away with it as if she were a kitchen maid, and that were her business.
Niel emerged from the grove, and stopped where the Captain sat in the garden. “Good-morning, Captain Forrester. Was that Ivy Peters who just went through here? That fellow hasn’t the manners of a pig!” he blurted out.
The Captain pointed to Mrs. Forrester’s empty chair. “Sit down, Niel, sit down.” He drew his handkerchief from his pocket and began polishing his glasses. “No,” he said quietly, “he ain’t overly polite.”
More than if he had complained bitterly, that guarded admission made one feel how much he had been hurt and offended by Ivy’s rudeness. There was something very sad in his voice, and helpless. From his equals, respect had always come to him as his due; from fellows like Ivy he had been able to command it, — to order them off his place, or dismiss them from his employ.
Niel sat down and smoked a cigar with him. They had a long talk about the building of the Black Hills branch of the Burlington. In Boston last winter Niel had met an old mine-owner, who was living in Deadwood when the railroad first came in. When Niel asked him if he had known Daniel Forrester, the old gentleman said, “Forrester? Was he the one with the beautiful wife?”
“You must tell her,” said the Captain, stroking the warm surface of his sun-dial. “Yes, indeed. You must tell Mrs. Forrester.”
One night in the first week of July, a night of glorious moonlight, Niel found himself unable to read, or to stay indoors at all. He walked aimlessly down the wide, empty street, and crossed the first creek by the footbridge. The wide ripe fields, the whole country, seemed like a sleeping garden. One trod the dusty roads softly, not to disturb the deep slumber of the world.
In the Forrester lane the scent of sweet clover hung heavy. It had always grown tall and green here ever since Niel could remember; the Captain would never let it be cut until the weeds were mowed in the fall. The black, plume-like shadows of the poplars fell across the lane and over Ivy Peters’ wheat fields. As he walked on, Niel saw a white figure standing on the bridge over the second creek, motionless in the clear moonlight. He hurried forward. Mrs. Forrester was looking down at the water where it flowed bright over the pebbles. He came up beside her. “The Captain is asleep?”
“Oh, yes, long ago! He sleeps well, thank heaven! After I tuck him in, I have nothing more to worry about.”
While they were standing there, talking in low voices, they heard a heavy door slam on the hill. Mrs. Forrester started and looked back over her shoulder. A man emerged from the shadow of the house and came striding down the drive-way. Ivy Peters stepped upon the bridge.
“Good evening,” he said to Mrs. Forrester, neither calling her by name nor removing his hat. “I see you have company. I’ve just been up looking at the old barn, to see if the stalls are fit to put horses in there tomorrow. I’m going to start cutting wheat in the morning, and we’ll have to put the horses in your stable at noon. We’d lose time taking them back to town.”
“Why, certainly. The horses can go in our barn. I’m sure Mr. Forrester would have no objection.” She spoke as if he had asked her permission.
“Oh!” Ivy shrugged. “The men will begin down here at six o’clock. I won’t get over till about ten, and I have to meet a client at my office at three. Maybe you could give me some lunch, to save time.”
His impudence made her smile. “Very well, then; I invite you to lunch. We lunch at one.”
“Thanks. It will help me out.” As if he had forgotten himself, he lifted his hat, and went down the lane swinging it in his hand.
Niel stood looking after him. “Why do you allow him to speak to you like that, Mrs. Forrester? If you’ll let me, I’ll give him a beating and teach him how to speak to you.”
“No, no, Niel! Remember, we have to get along with Ivy Peters, we simply have to!” There was a note of anxiety in her voice, and she caught his arm.
“You don’t have to take anything from him, or to stand his bad manners. Anybody else would pay you as much for the land as he does.”
“But he has a lease for five years, and he could make it very disagreeable for us, don’t you see? Besides,” she spoke hurriedly, “there’s more than that. He’s invested a little money for me in Wyoming, in land. He gets splendid land from the Indians some way, for next to nothing. Don’t tell your uncle; I’ve no doubt it’s crooked. But the Judge is like Mr. Forrester; his methods don’t work nowadays. He will never get us out of debt, dear man! He can’t get himself out. Ivy Peters is terribly smart, you know. He owns half the town already.”
“Not quite,” said Niel grimly. “He’s got hold of a good deal of property. He’ll take advantage of anybody’s necessity. You know he’s utterly unscrupulous, don’t you? Why didn’t you let Mr. Dalzell, or some of your other old friends, invest your money for you?”
“Oh, it was too little! Only a few hundred dollars I’d saved on the housekeeping. They would put it into something safe, at six per cent. I know you don’t like Ivy, — and he knows it! He’s always at his worst before you. He’s not so bad as — as his face, for instance!” She laughed nervously. “He honestly wants to help us out of the hole we’re in. Coming and going all the time, as he does, he sees everything, and I really think he hates to have me work so hard.”
“Next time you have anything to invest, you let me take it to Mr. Dalzell and explain. I’ll promise to do as well by you as Ivy Peters can.”
Mrs. Forrester took his arm and drew him into the lane. “But, my dear boy, you know nothing about these business schemes. You’re not clever that way, — it’s one of the things I love you for. I don’t admire people who cheat Indians. Indeed I don’t!” She shook her head vehemently.
“Mrs. Forrester, rascality isn’t the only thing that succeeds in business.”
“It succeeds faster than anything else, though,” she murmured absently. They walked as far as the end of the lane and turned back again. Mrs. Forrester’s hand tightened on his arm. She began speaking abruptly. “You see, two years, three years, more of this, and I could still go back to California — and live again. But after that . . . Perhaps people think I’ve settled down to grow old gracefully, but I’ve not. I feel such a power to live in me, Niel.” Her slender fingers gripped his wrist. “It’s grown by being held back. Last winter I was with the Dalzells at Glenwood Springs for three weeks (I owe THAT to Ivy Peters; he looked after things here, and his sister kept house for Mr. Forrester), and I was surprised at myself. I could dance all night and not feel tired. I could ride horseback all day and be ready for a dinner party in the evening. I had no clothes, of course; old evening dresses with yards and yards of satin and velvet in them, that Mrs. Dalzell’s sewing woman made over. But I looked well enough! Yes, I did. I always know how I’m looking, and I looked well enough. The men thought so. I looked happier than any woman there. They were nearly all younger, much. But they seemed dull, bored to death. After a glass or two of champagne they went to sleep and had nothing to say! I always look better after the first glass, — it gives me a little colour, it’s the only thing that does. I accepted the Dalzell’s invitation with a purpose; I wanted to see whether I had anything left worth saving. And I have, I tell you! You would hardly believe it, I could hardly believe it, but I still have!”
By this time they had reached the bridge, a bare white floor in the moonlight. Mrs. Forrester had been quickening her pace all the while. “So that’s what I’m struggling for, to get out of this hole,” — she looked about as if she had fallen into a deep well, — “out of it! When I’m alone here for months together, I plan and plot. If it weren’t for that — ”
As Niel walked back to his room behind the law offices, he felt frightened for her. When women began to talk about still feeling young, didn’t it mean that something had broken? Two or three years, she said. He shivered. Only yesterday old Dr. Dennison had proudly told him that Captain Forrester might live a dozen. “We are keeping his general health up remarkably, and he was originally a man of iron.”
What hope was there for her? He could still feel her hand upon his arm, as she urged him faster and faster up the lane.
The weather was dry and intensely hot for several weeks, and then, at the end of July, thunder-storms and torrential rains broke upon the Sweet Water valley. The river burst out of its banks, all the creeks were up, and the stubble of Ivy Peters’ wheat fields lay under water. A wide lake and two rushing creeks now separated the Forresters from the town. Ben Keezer rode over to them every day to do the chores and to take them their mail. One evening Ben, with his slicker and leather mailbag, had just come out of the post-office and was preparing to mount his horse, when Niel Herbert stopped him to ask in a low voice whether he had got the Denver paper.
“Oh, yes. I always wait for the papers. She likes to have them to read of an evening. Guess it’s pretty lonesome over there.” He swung into his saddle and splashed off. Niel walked slowly around to the hotel for dinner. He had found something very disconcerting in the Denver paper: Frank Ellinger’s picture on the society page, along with Constance Ogden’s. They had been married yesterday at Colorado Springs, and were stopping at the Antlers.
After supper Niel put on his rubber coat and started for the Forresters’. When he reached the first creek, he found that the footbridge had been washed out from the far bank and lay obliquely in the stream, battered at by the yellow current which might at any moment carry it away. One could not cross the ford without a horse. He looked irresolutely across the submerged bottom lands. The house was dark, no lights in the parlour windows. The rain was beginning to fall again. Perhaps she had rather be alone tonight. He would go over tomorrow.
He went back to the law office and tried to make himself comfortable, though the place was in distracting disorder. The continued rain had set one of the chimneys leaking, had brought down streams of soot and black water and flooded the stove and the Judge’s once handsome Brussels carpet. The tinner had been there all afternoon, trying to find what was the matter with the flue, cutting a new sheet-iron drawer to fit under the stove-pipe. But at six o’clock he had gone away, leaving tools and sheets of metal lying about. The rooms were damp and cold. Niel put on a heavy sweater, since he could not have a fire, lit the big coal-oil lamp, and sat down with a book. When at last he looked at his watch, it was nearly midnight, and he had been reading three hours. He would have another pipe, and go to bed. He had scarcely lit it, when he heard quick, hurrying footsteps in the echoing corridor outside. He got to the door in an instant, was there to open it before Mrs. Forrester had time to knock. He caught her by the arm and pulled her in.
Everything but her wet, white face was hidden by a black rubber hat and a coat that was much too big for her. Streams of water trickled from the coat, and when she opened it he saw that she was drenched to the waist, — her black dress clung in a muddy pulp about her.
“Mrs. Forrester,” he cried, “you can’t have crossed the creek! It’s up to a horse’s belly in the ford.”
“I came over the bridge, what’s left of it. It shook under me, but I’m not heavy.” She threw off her hat and wiped the water from her face with her hands.
“Why didn’t you ask Ben to bring you over on his horse? Here, please swallow this.”
She pushed his hand aside. “Wait. Afterwards. Ben? I didn’t think until after he was gone. It’s the telephone I want, long distance. Get me Colorado Springs, the Antlers, quick!”
Then Niel noticed that she smelled strong of spirits; it steamed above the smell of rubber and creek mud and wet cloth. She snatched up the desk telephone, but he gently took it from her.
“I’ll get them for you, but you’re in no condition to talk now; you’re out of breath. Do you really want to talk tonight? You know Mrs. Beasley will hear every word you say.” Mrs. Beasley was the Sweet Water central, and an indefatigable reporter of everything that went over the wires.
Mrs. Forrester, sitting in his uncle’s desk chair, tapped the carpet with the toe of her rubber boot. “Do hurry, please,” she said in that polite, warning tone of which even Ivy Peters was afraid.
Niel aroused the sleepy central and put in the call. “She asks whom you wish to speak to?”
“Frank Ellinger. Say Judge Pommeroy’s office wishes to speak to him.”
Niel began soothing Mrs. Beasley at the other end. “No, not the management, Mrs. Beasley, one of the guests. Frank Ellinger,” he spelled the name. “Yes. Judge Pommeroy’s office wants to talk to him. I’ll be right here. As soon as you can, please.”
He put down the instrument. “I’d rather, you know, publish anything in the town paper than telephone it through Mrs. Beasley.” Mrs. Forrester paid no heed to him, did not look at him, sat staring at the wall. “I can’t see why you didn’t call me up and ask me to bring a horse over for you, if you felt you must get to a long distance telephone tonight.”
“Yes; I didn’t think of it. I only knew I had to get over here, and I was afraid something might stop me.” She was watching the telephone as if it were alive. Her eyes were shrunk to hard points. Her brows, drawn together in an acute angle, kept twitching in the frown which held them, — the singular frown of one overcome by alcohol or fatigue, who is holding on to consciousness by the strength of a single purpose. Her blue lips, the black shadows under her eyes, made her look as if some poison were at work in her body.
They waited and waited. Niel understood that she did not wish him to talk. Her mind was struggling with something, with every blink of her lashes she seemed to face it anew. Presently she rose as if she could bear the suspense no longer and went over to the window, leaned against it.
“Did you leave Captain Forrester alone?” Niel asked suddenly.
“Yes. Nothing will happen over there. Nothing ever DOES happen!” she answered wildly, wringing her hands.
The telephone buzzed. Mrs. Forrester darted toward the desk, but Niel lifted the instrument in his left hand and barred her way with his right. “Try to be calm, Mrs. Forrester. When I get Ellinger I will let you talk to him, — and central will hear every word you say, remember.”
After some exchanges with the Colorado office, he pointed her to the chair. “Sit down and I’ll give it to you. He is on the wire.”
He did not dare to leave her alone, though it was awkward enough to be a listener. He walked to the window and stood with his back to the desk where she was sitting.
“Is that you, Frank? This is Marian. I won’t keep you a moment. You were asleep? So early? That’s not like you. You’ve reformed already, haven’t you? That’s what marriage does, they say. No, I wasn’t altogether surprised. You might have taken me into your confidence, though. Haven’t I deserved it?”
A long, listening pause. Niel stared stupidly at the dark window. He had steeled his nerves for wild reproaches. The voice he heard behind him was her most charming; playful, affectionate, intimate, with a thrill of pleasant excitement that warmed its slight formality and burned through the common-place words like the colour in an opal. He simply held his breath while she fluttered on:
“Where shall you go for your honeymoon? Oh, I’m very sorry! So soon . . . You must take good care of her. Give her my love. . . . I should think California, at this time of the year, might be right. . .”
It went on like this for some minutes. The voice, it seemed to Niel, was that of a woman, young, beautiful, happy, — warm and at her ease, sitting in her own drawing-room and talking on a stormy night to a dear friend far away.
“Oh, unusually well, for me. Stop and see for yourself. You will be going to Omaha on business next week, before California. Oh, yes, you will! Stop off between trains. You know how welcome you are, always.”
A long pause. An exclamation from Mrs. Forrester made Niel turn sharply round. Now it was coming! Her voice was darkening with every word. “I think I understand you. You are not speaking from your own room? What, from the office booth? Oh, then I understand you very well indeed!” Niel looked about in alarm. It was time to stop her, but how? The voice went on.
“Play safe! When have you ever played anything else? You know, Frank, the truth is that you’re a coward; a great, hulking coward. Do you hear me? I want you to hear! . . . You’ve got a safe thing at last, I should think; safe and pasty! How much stock did you get with it? A big block, I hope! Now let me tell you the truth: I don’t want you to come here! I never want to see you again while I live, and I forbid you to come and look at me when I’m dead. I don’t want your hateful eyes to look at my dead face. Do you hear me? Why don’t you answer me? Don’t dare to hang up the receiver, you coward! Oh, you big . . . Frank, Frank, say something! Oh, he’s shut me off, I can’t hear him!”
She flung the receiver down, dropped her head on the desk, and broke into heavy, groaning sobs. Niel stood over her and waited with composure. For once he had been quick enough; he had saved her. The moment that quivering passion of hatred and wrong leaped into her voice, he had taken the big shears left by the tinner and cut the insulated wire behind the desk. Her reproaches had got no farther than this room.
When the sobs ceased he touched her shoulder. He shook her, but there was no response. She was asleep, sunk in a heavy stupor. Her hands and face were so cold that he thought there could not be a drop of warm blood left in her body. He carried her into his room, cut off her drenched clothing, wrapped her in his bathrobe and put her into his own bed. She was absolutely unconscious. He blew out the light, locked her in, and left the building, going as fast as he could to Judge Pommeroy’s cottage. He roused his uncle and briefly explained the situation.
“Can you dress and go down to the office for the rest of the night, Uncle Judge? Some one must be with her. And I’ll get over to the Captain at once; he certainly oughtn’t to be left alone. If she could get across the bridge, I guess I can. By the way, she began talking wild, and I cut the telephone wire behind your desk. So keep an eye on it. It might make trouble on a stormy night like this. I’ll get a livery hack and take Mrs. Forrester home in the morning, before the town is awake.”
When daylight began to break Niel went into Captain Forrester’s room and told him that his wife had been sent for in the night to answer a long distance telephone call, and that now he was going to bring her home.
The Captain lay propped up on three big pillows. Since his face had grown fat and relaxed, its ruggedness had changed to an almost Asiatic smoothness. He looked like a wise old Chinese mandarin as he lay listening to the young man’s fantastic story with perfect composure, merely blinking and saying, “Thank you, Niel, thank you.”
As Niel went through the sleeping town on his way to the livery barn, he saw the short, plump figure of Mrs. Beasley, like a boiled pudding sewed up in a blue kimono, waddling through the feathery asparagus bed behind the telephone office. She had already been next door to tell her neighbour Molly Tucker, the seamstress, the story of her exciting night.
Soon afterward, when Captain Forrester had another stroke, Mrs. Beasley and Molly Tucker and their friends were perfectly agreed that it was a judgment upon his wife. No judgment could have been crueller. Under the care of him, now that he was helpless, Mrs. Forrester quite went to pieces.
Even after their misfortunes had begun to come upon them, she had maintained her old reserve. She had asked nothing and accepted nothing. Her demeanour toward the townspeople was always the same; easy, cordial, and impersonal. Her own friends had moved away long ago, — all except Judge Pommeroy and Dr. Dennison. When any of the housewives from the town came to call, she met them in the parlour, chatted with them in the smiling, careless manner they could never break through, and they got no further. They still felt they must put on their best dress and carry a card-case when they went to the Forresters’.
But now that the Captain was helpless, everything changed. She could hold off the curious no longer. The townswomen brought soups and custards for the invalid. When they came to sit out the night with him, she turned the house over to them. She was worn out; so exhausted that she was dull to what went on about her. The Mrs. Beasleys and Molly Tuckers had their chance at last. They went in and out of Mrs. Forrester’s kitchen as familiarly as they did out of one another’s. They rummaged through the linen closet to find more sheets, pried about in the attic and cellar. They went over the house like ants, the house where they had never before got past the parlour; and they found they had been fooled all these years. There was nothing remarkable about the place at all! The kitchen was inconvenient, the sink was smelly. The carpets were worn, the curtains faded, the clumsy, old-fashioned furniture they wouldn’t have had for a gift, and the upstairs bed-rooms were full of dust and cobwebs.
Judge Pommeroy remarked to his nephew that he had never seen these women look so wide-awake, so important and pleased with themselves, as now when he encountered them bustling about the Forrester place. The Captain’s illness had the effect of a social revival, like a new club or a church society. The creatures grew bolder and bolder, — and Mrs. Forrester, apparently, had no power of resistance. She drudged in the kitchen, slept, half-dressed, in one of the chambers upstairs, kept herself going on black coffee and brandy. All the bars were down. She had ceased to care about anything.
As the women came and went through the lane, Niel sometimes overheard snatches of their conversation.
“Why didn’t she sell some of that silver? All those platters and covered dishes stuck away with the tarnish of years on them!”
“I wouldn’t mind having some of her linen. There’s a chest full of double damask upstairs, every tablecloth long enough to make two. Did you ever see anything like the wine glasses! I’ll bet there’s not as many in both saloons put together. If she has a sale after he’s gone, I’ll buy a dozen champagne glasses; they’re nice to serve sherbet in.”
“There are nine dozen glasses,” said Molly Tucker, “counting them for beer and whiskey. If there is a sale, I’ve a mind to bid in a couple of them green ones, with long stems, for mantel ornaments. But she’ll never sell ’em all, unless she can get the saloons to take ’em.”
Ed Elliott’s mother laughed. “She’ll never sell ’em, as long as she’s got anything to put in ’em.”
“The cellar will go dry, some day.”
“I guess there’s always plenty that will get it for such as her. I never go there now that I don’t smell it on her. I went over late the other night, and she was on her knees, washing up the kitchen floor. Her eyes were glassy. She kept washing the place around the ice-box over and over, till it made me nervous. I said, ‘Mrs. Forrester, I think you’ve washed that place several times already.’”
“Was she confused?”
“Not a particle! She laughed and said she was often absent-minded.”
Mrs. Elliott’s companions laughed, too, and agreed that absent-minded was a good expression.
Niel repeated this conversation to his uncle. “Uncle,” he declared, “I don’t see how I can go back to Boston and leave the Forresters. I’d like to chuck school for a year, and see them through. I want to go over there and clear those gossips out. Could you stay at the hotel for a few weeks, and let me have Black Tom? With him to help me, I’d send every one of those women trotting down the lane.”
It was arranged quietly, and at once. Tom was put in the kitchen, and Niel himself took charge of the nursing. He met the women with firmness: they were very kind, but now nothing was needed. The Doctor had said the house must be absolutely quiet and that the invalid must see no one.
Once the house was tranquil, Mrs. Forrester went to bed and slept for the better part of a week. The Captain himself improved. On his good days he could be put into a wheel-chair and rolled out into his garden to enjoy the September sunlight and the last of his briar roses.
“Thank you, Niel, thank you, Tom,” he often said when they lifted him into his chair. “I value this quiet very highly.” If a day came when they thought he ought not to go out, he was sad and disappointed.
“Better get him out, no matter what,” said Mrs. Forrester. “He likes to look at his place. That, and his cigar, are the only pleasures he has left.”
When she was rested and in command of herself again, she took her place in the kitchen, and Black Tom went back to the Judge.
At night, when he was alone, when Mrs. Forrester had gone to bed and the Captain was resting quietly, Niel found a kind of solemn happiness in his vigils. It had been hard to give up that year; most of his classmates were younger than he. It had cost him something, but now that he had taken the step, he was glad. As he put in the night hours, sitting first in one chair and then in another, reading, smoking, getting a lunch to keep himself awake, he had the satisfaction of those who keep faith. He liked being alone with the old things that had seemed so beautiful to him in his childhood. These were still the most comfortable chairs in the world, and he would never like any pictures so well as “William Tell’s Chapel” and “The House of the Tragic Poet.” No card-table was so good for solitaire as this old one with a stone top, mosaic in the pattern of a chess-board, which one of the Captain’s friends had brought him from Naples. No other house could take the place of this one in his life.
He had time to think of many things; of himself and of his old friends here. He had noticed that often when Mrs. Forrester was about her work, the Captain would call to her, “Maidy, Maidy,” and she would reply, “Yes, Mr. Forrester,” from wherever she happened to be, but without coming to him, — as if she knew that when he called to her in that tone he was not asking for anything. He wanted to know if she were near, perhaps; or, perhaps, he merely liked to call her name and to hear her answer. The longer Niel was with Captain Forrester in those peaceful closing days of his life, the more he felt that the Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he, — to use one of his own expressions, — valued her.
Captain Forrester’s death, which occurred early in December, was “telegraphic news,” the only State news that the discouraged town of Sweet Water had furnished for a long while. Flowers and telegrams came from east and west, but it happened that none of the Captain’s closest friends could come to his funeral. Mr. Dalzell was in California, the president of the Burlington railroad was travelling in Europe. The others were far away or in uncertain health. Doctor Dennison and Judge Pommeroy were the only two of his intimates among the pallbearers.
On the morning of the funeral, when the Captain was already in his coffin, and the undertaker was in the parlour setting up chairs, Niel heard a knocking at the kitchen door. There he found Adolph Blum, carrying a large white box.
“Niel,” he said, “will you please give these to Mrs. Forrester, and tell her they are from Rhein and me, for the Captain?”
Adolph was in his old working clothes, the only clothes he had, probably, with a knitted comforter about his neck. Niel knew he wouldn’t come to the funeral, so he said:
“Won’t you come in and see him, ‘Dolph? He looks just like himself.”
Adolph hesitated, but he caught sight of the undertaker’s man, through the parlour bay-window, and said, “No, thank you, Niel,” thrust his red hands into his jacket pockets, and walked away.
Niel took the flowers out of the box, a great armful of yellow roses, which must have cost the price of many a dead rabbit. He carried them upstairs, where Mrs. Forrester was lying down.
“These are from the Blum boys,” he said. “Adolph just brought them to the kitchen door.”
Mrs. Forrester looked at them, then turned away her head on the pillow, her lips trembling. It was the only time that day he saw her pale composure break.
The funeral was large. Old settlers and farmer folk came from all over the county to follow the pioneer’s body to the grave. As Niel and his uncle were driving back from the cemetery with Mrs. Forrester, she spoke for the first time since they had left the house. “Judge Pommeroy,” she said quietly, “I think I will have Mr. Forrester’s sun-dial taken over and put above his grave. I can have an inscription cut on the base. It seems more appropriate for him than any stone we could buy. And I will plant some of his own rose-bushes beside it.”
When they got back to the house it was four o’clock, and she insisted upon making tea for them. “I would like it myself, and it is better to be doing something. Wait for me in the parlour. And, Niel, move the things back as we always have them.”
The grey day was darkening, and as the three sat having their tea in the bay-window, swift squalls of snow were falling over the wide meadows between the hill and the town, and the creaking of the big cottonwoods about the house seemed to say that winter had come.
One morning in April Niel was alone in the law office. His uncle had been ill with rheumatic fever for a long while, and he had been attending to the routine of business.
The door opened, and a figure stood there, strange and yet familiar, — he had to think a moment before he realized that it was Orville Ogden, who used to come to Sweet Water so often, but who had not been seen there now for several years. He didn’t look a day older; one eye was still direct and clear, the other clouded and oblique. He still wore a stiff imperial and twisted moustache, the grey colour of old beeswax, and his thin hair was brushed heroically up over the bald spot.
“This is Judge Pommeroy’s nephew, isn’t it? I can’t think of your name, my boy, but I remember you. Is the Judge out?”
“Please be seated, Mr. Ogden. My uncle is ill. He hasn’t been at the office for several months. He’s had really a very bad time of it. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that! I’m sorry.” He spoke as if he were. “I guess all we fellows are getting older, whether we like it or not. It made a great difference when Daniel Forrester went.” Mr. Ogden took off his overcoat, put his hat and gloves neatly on the desk, and then seemed somewhat at a loss. “What is your uncle’s trouble?” he asked suddenly.
Niel told him. “I was to have gone back to school this winter, but uncle begged me to stay and look after things for him. There was no one here he wanted to entrust his business to.”
“I see, I see,” said Mr. Ogden thoughtfully. “Then you do attend to his business for the present?” He paused and reflected. “Yes, there was something that I wanted to take up with him. I am stopping off for a few hours only, between trains. I might speak to you about it, and you could consult your uncle and write me in Chicago. It’s a confidential matter, and concerns another person.”
Niel assured him of his discretion, but Mr. Ogden seemed to find the subject difficult to approach. He looked very grave and slowly lit a cigar.
“It is simply,” he said at last, “a rather delicate suggestion I wish to make to your uncle about one of his clients. I have several friends in the Government at Washington just at present, friends who would go out of their way to serve me. I have been thinking that we might manage it to get a special increase of pension for Mrs. Forrester. I am due in Chicago this week, and after my business there is finished, I would be quite willing to go on to Washington to see what can be done; provided, of course, that no one, least of all your uncle’s client, knows of my activity in the matter.”
Niel flushed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ogden,” he brought out, “but Mrs. Forrester is no longer a client of my uncle’s. After the Captain’s death, she saw fit to take her business away from him.”
Mr. Ogden’s normal eye became as blank as the other.
“What’s that? He isn’t her lawyer? Why, for twenty years — ”
“I know that, sir. She didn’t treat him with much consideration. She transferred her business very abruptly.”
“To whom, may I ask?”
“To a lawyer here in town; Ivy Peters.”
“Peters? I never heard of him.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. He wasn’t one of the people who went to the Forrester house in the old days. He’s one of the younger generation, a few years older than I. He rented part of the Forresters’ land for several years before the Captain’s death, — was their tenant. That was how Mrs. Forrester came to know him. She thinks him a good business man.”
Mr. Ogden frowned. “And is he?”
“Some people think so.”
“Is he trustworthy?”
“Far from it. He takes the cases nobody else will take. He may treat Mrs. Forrester honestly. But if he does, it will not be from principle.”
“This is very distressing news. Go on with your work, my boy. I must think this over.” Mr. Ogden rose and walked about the room, his hands behind him. Niel turned to an unfinished letter on his desk, in order to leave his visitor the more free.
Mr. Ogden’s position, he understood, was a difficult one. He had been devoted to Mrs. Forrester, and before Constance had made up her mind to marry Frank Ellinger, before the mother and daughter began to angle for him, Mr. Ogden had come to the Forresters’ more frequently than any of their Denver friends. He hadn’t been back, Niel believed, since that Christmas party when he and his family were there with Ellinger. Very soon afterward he must have seen what his women-folk were up to; and whether he approved or disapproved, he must have decided that there was nothing for him to do but to keep out. It hadn’t been the Forresters’ reversal of fortune that had kept him away. One could see that he was deeply troubled, that he had her heavily on his mind.
Niel had finished his letter and was beginning another, when Mr. Ogden stopped beside his desk, where he stood twisting his imperial tighter and tighter. “You say this young lawyer is unprincipled? Sometimes rascals have a soft spot, a sentiment, where women are concerned.”
Niel stared. He immediately thought of Ivy’s dimples.
“A soft spot? A sentiment? Mr. Ogden, why not go to his office? A glance would convince you.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary! I understand.” He looked out of the window, from which he could just see the tree-tops of the Forrester grove, and murmured, “Poor lady! So misguided. She ought to have advice from some of Daniel’s friends.” He took out his watch and consulted it, turning something over in his mind. His train was due in an hour, he said. Nothing could be done at present. In a few moments he left the office.
Afterward, Niel felt sure that when Mr. Ogden stood there uncertainly, watch in hand, he was considering an interview with Mrs. Forrester. He had wanted to go to her, and had given it up. Was he afraid of his womenfolk? Or was it another kind of cowardice, the fear of losing a pleasant memory, of finding her changed and marred, a dread of something that would throw a disenchanting light upon the past? Niel had heard his uncle say that Mr. Ogden admired pretty women, though he had married a homely one, and that in his deep, non-committal way he was very gallant. Perhaps, with a little encouragement, he would have gone to see Mrs. Forrester, and he might have helped her. The fact that he had done nothing to bring this about, made Niel realize how much his own feeling toward that lady had changed.
It was Mrs. Forrester herself who had changed. Since her husband’s death she seemed to have become another woman. For years Niel and his uncle, the Dalzells and all her friends, had thought of the Captain as a drag upon his wife; a care that drained her and dimmed her and kept her from being all that she might be. But without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind. She was flighty and perverse. She seemed to have lost her faculty of discrimination; her power of easily and graciously keeping everyone in his proper place.
Ivy Peters had been in Wyoming at the time of Captain Forrester’s illness and death, — called away by a telegram which announced that oil had been discovered near his land-holdings. He returned soon after the Captain’s funeral, however, and was seen about the Forrester place more than ever. As there was nothing to be done on his fields in the winter, he had amused himself by pulling down the old barn after office hours. One was likely to come upon him, smoking his cigar on the front porch as if he owned the place. He often spent the evening there, playing cards with Mrs. Forrester or talking about his business projects. He had not made his fortune yet, but he was on the way to it. Occasionally he took a friend or two, some of the town boys, over to dine at Mrs. Forrester’s. The boys’ mothers and sweethearts were greatly scandalized. “Now she’s after the young ones,” said Ed Elliott’s mother. “She’s getting childish.”
At last Niel had a plain talk with Mrs. Forrester. He told her that people were gossiping about Ivy’s being there so much. He had heard comments even on the street.
“But I can’t bother about their talk. They have always talked about me, always will. Mr. Peters is my lawyer and my tenant; I have to see him, and I’m certainly not going to his office. I can’t sit in the house alone every evening and knit. If you came to see me any oftener than you do, that would make talk. You are still younger than Ivy, — and better-looking! Did that never occur to you?”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk to me like that,” he said coldly. “Mrs. Forrester, why don’t you go away? to California, to people of your own kind. You know this town is no place for you.”
“I mean to, just as soon as I can sell this place. It’s all I have, and if I leave it to tenants it will run down, and I can’t sell it to advantage. That’s why Ivy is here so much, he’s trying to make the place presentable; pulling down the old barn that had become an eyesore, putting new boards in the porch floor where the old ones had rotted. Next summer, I am going to paint the house. Unless I keep the place up, I can never get my price for it.” She talked nervously, with exaggerated earnestness, as if she were trying to persuade herself.
“And what are you asking for it now, Mrs. Forrester?”
“Twenty thousand dollars.”
“You’ll never get it. At least, not until times have greatly changed.”
“That’s what your uncle said. He wouldn’t attempt to sell it for more than twelve. That’s why I had to put it into other hands. Times have changed, but he doesn’t realize it. Mr. Forrester himself told me it would be worth that. Ivy says he can get me twenty thousand, or if not, he will take it off my hands as soon as his investments begin to bring in returns.”
“And in the meantime, you are simply wasting your life here.”
“Not altogether.” She looked at him with pleading plausibility. “I am getting rested after a long strain. And while I wait, I’m finding new friends among the young men, — those your age, and a little younger. I’ve wanted for a long while to do something for the boys in this town, but my hands were full. I hate to see them growing up like savages, when all they need is a civilized house to come to, and a woman to give them a few hints. They’ve never had a chance. You wouldn’t be the boy you are if you’d never gone to Boston, — and you’ve always had older friends who’d seen better days. Suppose you had grown up like Ed Elliott and Joe Simpson?”
“I flatter myself I wouldn’t be exactly like them, if I had! However, there is no use discussing it, if you’ve thought it over and made up your mind. I spoke of it because I thought you mightn’t realize how it strikes the townspeople.”
“I know!” She tossed her head. Her eyes glittered, but there was no mirth in them, — it was more like hysterical defiance. “I know; they call me the Merry Widow. I rather like it!”
Niel left the house without further argument, and though that was three weeks ago, he had not been back since. Mrs. Forrester had called to see his uncle in the meantime. The Judge was as courtly as ever in his manner toward her, but he was deeply hurt by her defection, and his cherishing care for her would never be revived. He had attended to all Captain Forrester’s business for twenty years, and since the failure of the Denver bank had never deducted a penny for fees from the money entrusted to him. Mrs. Forrester had treated him very badly. She had given him no warning. One day Ivy Peters had come into the office with a written order from her, requesting that an accounting, and all funds and securities, be turned over to him. Since then she had never spoken of the matter to the Judge, — or to Niel, save in that conversation about the sale of the property.
One morning when a warm May wind was whirling the dust up the street, Mrs. Forrester came smiling into Judge Pommeroy’s office, wearing a new spring bonnet, and a short black velvet cape, fastened at the neck with a bunch of violets. “Please be nice enough to notice my new clothes, Niel,” she said coaxingly. “They are the first I’ve had in years and years.”
He told her they were very pretty.
“And aren’t you glad I have some at last?” she smiled enquiringly through her veil. “I feel as if you weren’t going to be cross with me today, and would do what I ask you. It’s nothing very troublesome. I want you to come to dinner Friday night. If you come, there will be eight of us, counting Annie Peters. They are all boys you know, and if you don’t like them, you ought to! Yes, you ought to!” she nodded at him severely. “Since you mind what people say, Niel, aren’t you afraid they’ll be saying you’re a snob, just because you’ve been to Boston and seen a little of the world? You mustn’t be so stiff, so — so superior! It isn’t becoming, at your age.” She drew her brows down into a level frown so like his own that he laughed. He had almost forgotten her old talent for mimicry.
“What do you want me for? You used always to say it was no good asking people who didn’t mix.”
“You can mix well enough, if you take the trouble. And this time you will, for me. Won’t you?”
When she was gone, Niel was angry with himself for having been persuaded.
On Friday evening he was the last guest to arrive. It was a warm night, after a hot day. The windows were open, and the perfume of the lilacs came into the dusky parlour where the boys were sitting about in chairs that seemed too big for them. A lamp was burning in the dining-room, and there Ivy Peters stood at the sideboard, mixing cocktails. His sister Annie was in the kitchen, helping the hostess. Mrs. Forrester came in for a moment to greet Niel, then excused herself and hurried back to Annie Peters. Through the open door he saw that the silver dishes had reappeared on the dinner table, and the candlesticks and flowers. The young men who sat about in the twilight would not know the difference, he thought, if she had furnished her table that morning, from the stock in Wernz’s queensware store. Their conception of a really fine dinner service was one “hand painted” by a sister or sweetheart. Each boy sat with his legs crossed, one tan shoe swinging in the air and displaying a tan silk sock. They were talking about clothes; Joe Simpson, who had just inherited his father’s clothing business, was eager to tell them what the summer styles would be.
Ivy Peters came in, shaking his drinks. “You fellows are like a bunch of girls, — always talking about what you are going to wear and how you can spend your money. Simpson wouldn’t get rich very fast if you all wore your clothes as long as I do. When did I get this suit, Joe?”
“Oh, about the year I graduated from High School, I guess!”
They all laughed at Ivy. No matter what he did or said, they laughed, — in recognition of his general success.
Mrs. Forrester came back, fanning herself with a little sandalwood fan, and when she appeared the boys rose, — in alarm, one might have thought, from the suddenness of it. That much, at any rate, she had succeeded in teaching them.
“Are your cocktails ready, Ivy? You will have to wait for me a moment, while I put some powder on my nose. If I’d known how hot it would be tonight, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have had a roast for you. I’m browner than the ducks. You can pour them though. I won’t be long.”
She disappeared into her own room, and the boys sat down with the same surprising promptness. Ivy Peters carried the tray about, and they held their glasses before them, waiting for Mrs. Forrester. When she came, she took Niel’s arm and led him into the dining-room. “Did you notice,” she whispered to him, “how they hold their glasses? What is it they do to a little glass to make it look so vulgar? Nobody could ever teach them to pick one up and drink out of it, not if there were tea in it!”
Aloud she said, “Niel, will you light the candles for me? And then take the head of the table, please. You can carve ducks?”
“Not so well as — as my uncle does,” he murmured, carefully putting back a candle-shade.
“Nor as Mr. Forrester did? I don’t ask that. Nobody can carve now as men used to. But you can get them apart, I suppose? The place at your right is for Annie Peters. She is bringing in the dinner for me. Be seated, gentlemen!” with a little mocking bow and a swinging of earrings.
While Niel was carving the ducks, Annie slipped into the chair beside him, her naturally red face glowing from the heat of the stove. She was several years younger than her brother, whom she obeyed unquestioningly in everything. She had an extremely bad complexion and pale yellow hair with white lights in it, exactly the colour of molasses taffy that has been pulled until it glistens. During the dinner she did not once speak, except to say, “Thank you,” or “No, thank you.” Nobody but Mrs. Forrester talked much until the first helping of duck was consumed. The boys had not yet learned to do two things at once. They paused only to ask their hostess if she “would care for the jelly,” or to answer her questions.
Niel studied Mrs. Forrester between the candles, as she nodded encouragingly to one and another, trying to “draw them out,” laughing at Roy Jones’ heavy jokes, or congratulating Joe Simpson upon his new dignity as a business man with a business of his own. The long earrings swung beside the thin cheeks that were none the better, he thought, for the rouge she had put on them when she went to her room just before dinner. It improved some women, but not her, — at least, not tonight, when her eyes were hollow with fatigue, and she looked pinched and worn as he had never seen her. He sighed as he thought how much work it meant to cook a dinner like this for eight people, — and a beefsteak with potatoes would have pleased them better! They didn’t really like this kind of food at all. Why did she do it? How would she feel about it tonight, when she sank dead weary into bed, after these stupid boys had said good-night, and their yellow shoes had carried them down the hill?
She was not eating anything, she was using up all her vitality to electrify these heavy lads into speech. Niel felt that he must help her, or at least try to. He addressed them one after another with energy and determination; he tried baseball, politics, scandal, the corn crop. They answered him with monosyllables or exclamations. He soon realized that they didn’t want his polite remarks; they wanted more duck, and to be let alone with it.
Dinner was soon over, at any rate. The hostess’ attempts to prolong it were unavailing. The salad and frozen pudding were dispatched as promptly as the roast had been. The guests went into the parlour and lit cigars.
Mrs. Forrester had the old-fashioned notion that men should be alone after dinner. She did not join them for half an hour. Perhaps she had lain down upstairs, for she looked a little rested. The boys were talking now, discussing a camping trip Ed Elliott was going to take in the mountains. They were giving him advice about camp outfits, trout flies, mixtures to keep off mosquitoes.
“I’ll tell you, boys,” said Mrs. Forrester, when she had listened to them for a moment, “when I go back to California, I intend to have a summer cabin up in the Sierras, and I invite you, one and all, to visit me. You’ll have to work for your keep, you understand; cut the firewood and bring the water and wash the pots and pans, and go out and catch fish for breakfast. Ivy can bring his gun and shoot game for us, and I’ll bake bread in an iron pot, the old trappers’ way, if I haven’t forgotten how. Will you come?”
“You bet we will! You know those mountains by heart, I expect?” said Ed Elliott.
She smiled and shook her head. “It would take a life-time to do that, Ed, more than a life-time. The Sierras, — there’s no end to them, and they’re magnificent.”
Niel turned to her. “Have you ever told the boys how it was you first met Captain Forrester in the mountains out there? If they haven’t heard the story, I think they would like it.”
“Really, would you? Well, once upon a time, when I was a very young girl, I was spending the summer at a camp in the mountains, with friends of my father’s.”
She began there, but that was not the beginning of the story; long ago Niel had heard from his uncle that the beginning was a scandal and a murder. When Marian Ormsby was nineteen, she was engaged to Ned Montgomery, a gaudy young millionaire of the Gold Coast. A few weeks before the date set for their marriage, Montgomery was shot and killed in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel by the husband of another woman. The subsequent trial involved a great deal of publicity, and Marian was hurried away from curious eyes and sent up into the mountains until the affair should blow over.
Tonight Mrs. Forrester began with “Once upon a time.” Sitting at one end of the big sofa, her slippers on a foot-stool and her head in shadow, she stirred the air before her face with the sandalwood fan as she talked, the rings glittering on her white fingers. She told them how Captain Forrester, then a widower, had come up to the camp to visit her father’s partner. She had noticed him very little, — she was off every day with the young men. One afternoon she had persuaded young Fred Harney, an intrepid mountain climber, to take her down the face of Eagle Cliff. They were almost down, and were creeping over a projecting ledge, when the rope broke, and they dropped to the bottom. Harney fell on the rocks and was killed instantly. The girl was caught in a pine tree, which arrested her fall. Both her legs were broken, and she lay in the canyon all night in the bitter cold, swept by the icy canyon draught. Nobody at the camp knew where to look for the two missing members of the party, — they had stolen off alone for their foolhardy adventure. Nobody worried, because Harney knew all the trails and could not get lost. In the morning, however, when they were still missing, search parties went out. It was Captain Forrester’s party that found Marian, and got her out by the lower trail. The trail was so steep and narrow, the turns round the jutting ledges so sharp, that it was impossible to take her out on a litter. The men took turns carrying her, hugging the canyon walls with their shoulders as they crept along. With her broken legs hanging, she suffered terribly, — fainted again and again. But she noticed that she suffered less when Captain Forrester carried her, and that he took all the most dangerous places on the trail himself. “I could feel his heart pump and his muscles strain,” she said, “when he balanced himself and me on the rocks. I knew that if we fell, we’d go together; he would never drop me.”
They got back to camp, and everything possible was done for her, but by the time a surgeon could be got up from San Francisco, her fractures had begun to knit and had to be broken over again.
“It was Captain Forrester I wanted to hold my hand when the surgeon had to do things to me. You remember, Niel, he always boasted that I never screamed when they were carrying me up the trail. He stayed at the camp until I could begin to walk, holding to his arm. When he asked me to marry him, he didn’t have to ask twice. Do you wonder?” She looked with a smile about the circle, and drew her finger-tips absently across her forehead as if to brush away something, — the past, or the present, who could tell?
The boys were genuinely moved. While she was answering their questions, Niel thought about the first time he ever heard her tell that story: Mr. Dalzell had stopped off with a party of friends from Chicago; Marshall Field and the president of the Union Pacific were among them, he remembered, and they were going through in Mr. Dalzell’s private car to hunt in the Black Hills. She had, after all, not changed so much since then. Niel felt tonight that the right man could save her, even now. She was still her indomitable self, going through her old part, — but only the stage-hands were left to listen to her. All those who had shared in fine undertakings and bright occasions were gone.
With the summer months Judge Pommeroy’s health improved, and as soon as he was able to be back in his office, Niel began to plan to return to Boston. He would get there the first of August and would go to work with a tutor to make up for the months he had lost. It was a melancholy time for him. He was in a fever of impatience to be gone, and yet he felt that he was going away forever, and was making the final break with everything that had been dear to him in his boyhood. The people, the very country itself, were changing so fast that there would be nothing to come back to.
He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already its glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter’s fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story.
This was the very end of the road-making West; the men who had put plains and mountains under the iron harness were old; some were poor, and even the successful ones were hunting for rest and a brief reprieve from death. It was already gone, that age; nothing could ever bring it back. The taste and smell and song of it, the visions those men had seen in the air and followed, — these he had caught in a kind of afterglow in their own faces, — and this would always be his.
It was what he most held against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms. In the end, Niel went away without bidding her good-bye. He went away with weary contempt for her in his heart.
It happened like this, — had scarcely the dignity of an episode. It was nothing, and yet it was everything. Going over to see her one summer evening, he stopped a moment by the dining-room window to look at the honeysuckle. The dining-room door was open into the kitchen, and there Mrs. Forrester stood at a table, making pastry. Ivy Peters came in at the kitchen door, walked up behind her, and unconcernedly put both arms around her, his hands meeting over her breast. She did not move, did not look up, but went on rolling out pastry.
Niel went down the hill. “For the last time,” he said, as he crossed the bridge in the evening light, “for the last time.” And it was even so; he never went up the poplar-bordered road again. He had given her a year of his life, and she had thrown it away. He had helped the Captain to die peacefully, he believed; and now it was the Captain who seemed the reality. All those years he had thought it was Mrs. Forrester who made that house so different from any other. But ever since the Captain’s death it was a house where old friends, like his uncle, were betrayed and cast off, where common fellows behaved after their kind and knew a common woman when they saw her.
If he had not had the nature of a spaniel, he told himself, he would never have gone back after the first time. It took two doses to cure him. Well, he had had them! Nothing she could ever do would in the least matter to him again.
He had news of her now and then, as long as his uncle lived. “Mrs. Forrester’s name is everywhere coupled with Ivy Peters’,” the Judge wrote. “She does not look happy, and I fear her health is failing, but she has put herself in such a position that her husband’s friends cannot help her.”
And again: “Of Mrs. Forrester, no news is good news. She is sadly broken.”
After his uncle’s death, Niel heard that Ivy Peters had at last bought the Forrester place, and had brought a wife from Wyoming to live there. Mrs. Forrester had gone West, — people supposed to California.
It was years before Niel could think of her without chagrin. But eventually, after she had drifted out of his ken, when he did not know if Daniel Forrester’s widow were living or dead, Daniel Forrester’s wife returned to him, a bright, impersonal memory.
He came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had had a hand in breaking him in to life. He has known pretty women and clever ones since then, — but never one like her, as she was in her best days. Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he has not found in life. “I know where it is,” they seemed to say, “I could show you!” He would like to call up the shade of the young Mrs. Forrester, as the witch of Endor called up Samuel’s, and challenge it, demand the secret of that ardour; ask her whether she had really found some ever-blooming, ever-burning, ever-piercing joy, or whether it was all fine play-acting. Probably she had found no more than another; but she had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.
Niel was destined to hear once again of his long-lost lady. One evening as he was going into the dining-room of a Chicago hotel, a broad-shouldered man with an open, sunbrowned face, approached him and introduced himself as one of the boys who had grown up in Sweet Water.
“I’m Ed Elliott, and I thought it must be you. Could we take a table together? I promised an old friend of yours to give you a message, if I ever ran across you. You remember Mrs. Forrester? Well, I saw her again, twelve years after she left Sweet Water, — down in Buenos Ayres.” They sat down and ordered dinner.
“Yes, I was in South America on business. I’m a mining engineer, I spent some time in Buenos Ayres. One evening there was a banquet of some sort at one of the big hotels, and I happened to step out of the bar, just as a car drove up to the entrance where the guests were going in. I paid no attention until one of the ladies laughed. I recognized her by her laugh, — that hadn’t changed a particle. She was all done up in furs, with a scarf over her head, but I saw her eyes, and then I was sure. I stepped up and spoke to her. She seemed glad to see me, made me go into the hotel, and talked to me until her husband came to drag her away to the dinner. Oh, yes, she was married again, — to a rich, cranky old Englishman; Henry Collins was his name. He was born down there, she told me, but she met him in California. She told me they lived on a big stock ranch and had come down in their car for this banquet. I made inquiries afterward and found the old fellow was quite a character; had been married twice before, once to a Brazilian woman. People said he was rich, but quarrelsome and rather stingy. She seemed to have everything, though. They travelled in a fine French car, and she had brought her maid along, and he had his valet. No, she hadn’t changed as much as you’d think. She was a good deal made up, of course, like most of the women down there; plenty of powder, and a little red, too, I guess. Her hair was black, blacker than I remembered it; looked as if she dyed it. She invited me to visit them on their estate, and so did the old man, when he came to get her. She asked about everybody, and said, ‘If you ever meet Niel Herbert, give him my love, and tell him I often think of him.’ She said again, ‘Tell him things have turned out well for me. Mr. Collins is the kindest of husbands.’ I called at your office in New York on my way back from South America, but you were somewhere in Europe. It was remarkable, how she’d come up again. She seemed pretty well gone to pieces before she left Sweet Water.”
“Do you suppose,” said Niel, “that she could be living still? I’d almost make the trip to see her.”
“No, she died about three years ago. I know that for certain. After she left Sweet Water, wherever she was, she always sent a cheque to the Grand Army Post every year to have flowers put on Captain Forrester’s grave for Decoration Day. Three years ago the Post got a letter from the old Englishman, with a draft for the future care of Captain Forrester’s grave, ‘in memory of my late wife, Marian Forrester Collins.’”
“So we may feel sure that she was well cared for, to the very end,” said Niel. “Thank God for that!”
“I knew you’d feel that way,” said Ed Elliott, as a warm wave of feeling passed over his face. “I did!”
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07