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As the train neared Tarrytown, Imogen Willard began to wonder why she had consented to be one of Flavia’s house party at all. She had not felt enthusiastic about it since leaving the city, and was experiencing a prolonged ebb of purpose, a current of chilling indecision, under which she vainly sought for the motive which had induced her to accept Flavia’s invitation.
Perhaps it was a vague curiosity to see Flavia’s husband, who had been the magician of her childhood and the hero of innumerable Arabian fairy tales. Perhaps it was a desire to see M. Roux, whom Flavia had announced as the especial attraction of the occasion. Perhaps it was a wish to study that remarkable woman in her own setting.
Imogen admitted a mild curiosity concerning Flavia. She was in the habit of taking people rather seriously, but somehow found it impossible to take Flavia so, because of the very vehemence and insistence with which Flavia demanded it. Submerged in her studies, Imogen had, of late years, seen very little of Flavia; but Flavia, in her hurried visits to New York, between her excursions from studio to studio — her luncheons with this lady who had to play at a matinee, and her dinners with that singer who had an evening concert — had seen enough of her friend’s handsome daughter to conceive for her an inclination of such violence and assurance as only Flavia could afford. The fact that Imogen had shown rather marked capacity in certain esoteric lines of scholarship, and had decided to specialize in a well-sounding branch of philology at the Ecole des Chartes, had fairly placed her in that category of “interesting people” whom Flavia considered her natural affinities, and lawful prey.
When Imogen stepped upon the station platform she was immediately appropriated by her hostess, whose commanding figure and assurance of attire she had recognized from a distance. She was hurried into a high tilbury and Flavia, taking the driver’s cushion beside her, gathered up the reins with an experienced hand.
“My dear girl,” she remarked, as she turned the horses up the street, “I was afraid the train might be late. M. Roux insisted upon coming up by boat and did not arrive until after seven.”
“To think of M. Roux’s being in this part of the world at all, and subject to the vicissitudes of river boats! Why in the world did he come over?” queried Imogen with lively interest. “He is the sort of man who must dissolve and become a shadow outside of Paris.”
“Oh, we have a houseful of the most interesting people,” said Flavia, professionally. “We have actually managed to get Ivan Schemetzkin. He was ill in California at the close of his concert tour, you know, and he is recuperating with us, after his wearing journey from the coast. Then there is Jules Martel, the painter; Signor Donati, the tenor; Professor Schotte, who has dug up Assyria, you know; Restzhoff, the Russian chemist; Alcee Buisson, the philologist; Frank Wellington, the novelist; and Will Maidenwood, the editor of Woman. Then there is my second cousin, Jemima Broadwood, who made such a hit in Pinero’s comedy last winter, and Frau Lichtenfeld. Have you read her?”
Imogen confessed her utter ignorance of Frau Lichtenfeld, and Flavia went on.
“Well, she is a most remarkable person; one of those advanced German women, a militant iconoclast, and this drive will not be long enough to permit of my telling you her history. Such a story! Her novels were the talk of all Germany when I was there last, and several of them have been suppressed — an honor in Germany, I understand. ‘At Whose Door’ has been translated. I am so unfortunate as not to read German.”
“I’m all excitement at the prospect of meeting Miss Broadwood,” said Imogen. “I’ve seen her in nearly everything she does. Her stage personality is delightful. She always reminds me of a nice, clean, pink-and-white boy who has just had his cold bath, and come down all aglow for a run before breakfast.”
“Yes, but isn’t it unfortunate that she will limit herself to those minor comedy parts that are so little appreciated in this country? One ought to be satisfied with nothing less than the best, ought one?” The peculiar, breathy tone in which Flavia always uttered that word “best,” the most worn in her vocabulary, always jarred on Imogen and always made her obdurate.
“I don’t at all agree with you,” she said reservedly. “I thought everyone admitted that the most remarkable thing about Miss Broadwood is her admirable sense of fitness, which is rare enough in her profession.”
Flavia could not endure being contradicted; she always seemed to regard it in the light of a defeat, and usually colored unbecomingly. Now she changed the subject.
“Look, my dear,” she cried, “there is Frau Lichtenfeld now, coming to meet us. Doesn’t she look as if she had just escaped out of Valhalla? She is actually over six feet.”
Imogen saw a woman of immense stature, in a very short skirt and a broad, flapping sun hat, striding down the hillside at a long, swinging gait. The refugee from Valhalla approached, panting. Her heavy, Teutonic features were scarlet from the rigor of her exercise, and her hair, under her flapping sun hat, was tightly befrizzled about her brow. She fixed her sharp little eyes upon Imogen and extended both her hands.
“So this is the little friend?” she cried, in a rolling baritone.
Imogen was quite as tall as her hostess; but everything, she reflected, is comparative. After the introduction Flavia apologized.
“I wish I could ask you to drive up with us, Frau Lichtenfeld.”
“Ah, no!” cried the giantess, drooping her head in humorous caricature of a time-honored pose of the heroines of sentimental romances. “It has never been my fate to be fitted into corners. I have never known the sweet privileges of the tiny.”
Laughing, Flavia started the ponies, and the colossal woman, standing in the middle of the dusty road, took off her wide hat and waved them a farewell which, in scope of gesture, recalled the salute of a plumed cavalier.
When they arrived at the house, Imogen looked about her with keen curiosity, for this was veritably the work of Flavia’s hands, the materialization of hopes long deferred. They passed directly into a large, square hall with a gallery on three sides, studio fashion. This opened at one end into a Dutch breakfast room, beyond which was the large dining room. At the other end of the hall was the music room. There was a smoking room, which one entered through the library behind the staircase. On the second floor there was the same general arrangement: a square hall, and, opening from it, the guest chambers, or, as Miss Broadwood termed them, the “cages.”
When Imogen went to her room, the guests had begun to return from their various afternoon excursions. Boys were gliding through the halls with ice water, covered trays, and flowers, colliding with maids and valets who carried shoes and other articles of wearing apparel. Yet, all this was done in response to inaudible bells, on felt soles, and in hushed voices, so that there was very little confusion about it.
Flavia had at last built her house and hewn out her seven pillars; there could be no doubt, now, that the asylum for talent, the sanatorium of the arts, so long projected, was an accomplished fact. Her ambition had long ago outgrown the dimensions of her house on Prairie Avenue; besides, she had bitterly complained that in Chicago traditions were against her. Her project had been delayed by Arthur’s doggedly standing out for the Michigan woods, but Flavia knew well enough that certain of the rarae aves — “the best” — could not be lured so far away from the seaport, so she declared herself for the historic Hudson and knew no retreat. The establishing of a New York office had at length overthrown Arthur’s last valid objection to quitting the lake country for three months of the year; and Arthur could be wearied into anything, as those who knew him knew.
Flavia’s house was the mirror of her exultation; it was a temple to the gods of Victory, a sort of triumphal arch. In her earlier days she had swallowed experiences that would have unmanned one of less torrential enthusiasm or blind pertinacity. But, of late years, her determination had told; she saw less and less of those mysterious persons with mysterious obstacles in their path and mysterious grievances against the world, who had once frequented her house on Prairie Avenue. In the stead of this multitude of the unarrived, she had now the few, the select, “the best.” Of all that band of indigent retainers who had once fed at her board like the suitors in the halls of Penelope, only Alcee Buisson still retained his right of entree. He alone had remembered that ambition hath a knapsack at his back, wherein he puts alms to oblivion, and he alone had been considerate enough to do what Flavia had expected of him, and give his name a current value in the world. Then, as Miss Broadwood put it, “he was her first real one,” — and Flavia, like Mohammed, could remember her first believer.
“The House of Song,” as Miss Broadwood had called it, was the outcome of Flavia’s more exalted strategies. A woman who made less a point of sympathizing with their delicate organisms, might have sought to plunge these phosphorescent pieces into the tepid bath of domestic life; but Flavia’s discernment was deeper. This must be a refuge where the shrinking soul, the sensitive brain, should be unconstrained; where the caprice of fancy should outweigh the civil code, if necessary. She considered that this much Arthur owed her; for she, in her turn, had made concessions. Flavia had, indeed, quite an equipment of epigrams to the effect that our century creates the iron genii which evolve its fairy tales: but the fact that her husband’s name was annually painted upon some ten thousand threshing machines in reality contributed very little to her happiness.
Arthur Hamilton was born and had spent his boyhood in the West Indies, and physically he had never lost the brand of the tropics. His father, after inventing the machine which bore his name, had returned to the States to patent and manufacture it. After leaving college, Arthur had spent five years ranching in the West and traveling abroad. Upon his father’s death he had returned to Chicago and, to the astonishment of all his friends, had taken up the business — without any demonstration of enthusiasm, but with quiet perseverance, marked ability, and amazing industry. Why or how a self-sufficient, rather ascetic man of thirty, indifferent in manner, wholly negative in all other personal relations, should have doggedly wooed and finally married Flavia Malcolm was a problem that had vexed older heads than Imogen’s.
While Imogen was dressing she heard a knock at her door, and a young woman entered whom she at once recognized as Jemima Broadwood — “Jimmy” Broadwood she was called by people in her own profession. While there was something unmistakably professional in her frank savoir-faire, “Jimmy’s” was one of those faces to which the rouge never seems to stick. Her eyes were keen and gray as a windy April sky, and so far from having been seared by calcium lights, you might have fancied they had never looked on anything less bucolic than growing fields and country fairs. She wore her thick, brown hair short and parted at the side; and, rather than hinting at freakishness, this seemed admirably in keeping with her fresh, boyish countenance. She extended to Imogen a large, well-shaped hand which it was a pleasure to clasp.
“Ah! You are Miss Willard, and I see I need not introduce myself. Flavia said you were kind enough to express a wish to meet me, and I preferred to meet you alone. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Why, certainly not,” said Imogen, somewhat disconcerted and looking hurriedly about for matches.
“There, be calm, I’m always prepared,” said Miss Broadwood, checking Imogen’s flurry with a soothing gesture, and producing an oddly fashioned silver match-case from some mysterious recess in her dinner gown. She sat down in a deep chair, crossed her patent-leather Oxfords, and lit her cigarette. “This matchbox,” she went on meditatively, “once belonged to a Prussian officer. He shot himself in his bathtub, and I bought it at the sale of his effects.”
Imogen had not yet found any suitable reply to make to this rather irrelevant confidence, when Miss Broadwood turned to her cordially: “I’m awfully glad you’ve come, Miss Willard, though I’ve not quite decided why you did it. I wanted very much to meet you. Flavia gave me your thesis to read.”
“Why, how funny!” ejaculated Imogen.
“On the contrary,” remarked Miss Broadwood. “I thought it decidedly lacked humor.”
“I meant,” stammered Imogen, beginning to feel very much like Alice in Wonderland, “I meant that I thought it rather strange Mrs. Hamilton should fancy you would be interested.”
Miss Broadwood laughed heartily. “Now, don’t let my rudeness frighten you. Really, I found it very interesting, and no end impressive. You see, most people in my profession are good for absolutely nothing else, and, therefore, they have a deep and abiding conviction that in some other line they might have shone. Strange to say, scholarship is the object of our envious and particular admiration. Anything in type impresses us greatly; that’s why so many of us marry authors or newspapermen and lead miserable lives.” Miss Broadwood saw that she had rather disconcerted Imogen, and blithely tacked in another direction. “You see,” she went on, tossing aside her half-consumed cigarette, “some years ago Flavia would not have deemed me worthy to open the pages of your thesis — nor to be one of her house party of the chosen, for that matter. I’ve Pinero to thank for both pleasures. It all depends on the class of business I’m playing whether I’m in favor or not. Flavia is my second cousin, you know, so I can say whatever disagreeable things I choose with perfect good grace. I’m quite desperate for someone to laugh with, so I’m going to fasten myself upon you — for, of course, one can’t expect any of these gypsy-dago people to see anything funny. I don’t intend you shall lose the humor of the situation. What do you think of Flavia’s infirmary for the arts, anyway?”
“Well, it’s rather too soon for me to have any opinion at all,” said Imogen, as she again turned to her dressing. “So far, you are the only one of the artists I’ve met.”
“One of them?” echoed Miss Broadwood. “One of the artists? My offense may be rank, my dear, but I really don’t deserve that. Come, now, whatever badges of my tribe I may bear upon me, just let me divest you of any notion that I take myself seriously.”
Imogen turned from the mirror in blank astonishment and sat down on the arm of a chair, facing her visitor. “I can’t fathom you at all, Miss Broadwood,” she said frankly. “Why shouldn’t you take yourself seriously? What’s the use of beating about the bush? Surely you know that you are one of the few players on this side of the water who have at all the spirit of natural or ingenuous comedy?”
“Thank you, my dear. Now we are quite even about the thesis, aren’t we? Oh, did you mean it? Well, you are a clever girl. But you see it doesn’t do to permit oneself to look at it in that light. If we do, we always go to pieces and waste our substance astarring as the unhappy daughter of the Capulets. But there, I hear Flavia coming to take you down; and just remember I’m not one of them — the artists, I mean.”
Flavia conducted Imogen and Miss Broadwood downstairs. As they reached the lower hall they heard voices from the music room, and dim figures were lurking in the shadows under the gallery, but their hostess led straight to the smoking room. The June evening was chilly, and a fire had been lighted in the fireplace. Through the deepening dusk, the firelight flickered upon the pipes and curious weapons on the wall and threw an orange glow over the Turkish hangings. One side of the smoking room was entirely of glass, separating it from the conservatory, which was flooded with white light from the electric bulbs. There was about the darkened room some suggestion of certain chambers in the Arabian Nights, opening on a court of palms. Perhaps it was partially this memory-evoking suggestion that caused Imogen to start so violently when she saw dimly, in a blur of shadow, the figure of a man, who sat smoking in a low, deep chair before the fire. He was long, and thin, and brown. His long, nerveless hands drooped from the arms of his chair. A brown mustache shaded his mouth, and his eyes were sleepy and apathetic. When Imogen entered he rose indolently and gave her his hand, his manner barely courteous.
“I am glad you arrived promptly, Miss Willard,” he said with an indifferent drawl. “Flavia was afraid you might be late. You had a pleasant ride up, I hope?”
“Oh, very, thank you, Mr. Hamilton,” she replied, feeling that he did not particularly care whether she replied at all.
Flavia explained that she had not yet had time to dress for dinner, as she had been attending to Mr. Will Maidenwood, who had become faint after hurting his finger in an obdurate window, and immediately excused herself As she left, Hamilton turned to Miss Broadwood with a rather spiritless smile.
“Well, Jimmy,” he remarked, “I brought up a piano box full of fireworks for the boys. How do you suppose we’ll manage to keep them until the Fourth?”
“We can’t, unless we steel ourselves to deny there are any on the premises,” said Miss Broadwood, seating herself on a low stool by Hamilton’s chair and leaning back against the mantel. “Have you seen Helen, and has she told you the tragedy of the tooth?”
“She met me at the station, with her tooth wrapped up in tissue paper. I had tea with her an hour ago. Better sit down, Miss Willard;” he rose and pushed a chair toward Imogen, who was standing peering into the conservatory. “We are scheduled to dine at seven, but they seldom get around before eight.”
By this time Imogen had made out that here the plural pronoun, third person, always referred to the artists. As Hamilton’s manner did not spur one to cordial intercourse, and as his attention seemed directed to Miss Broadwood, insofar as it could be said to be directed to anyone, she sat down facing the conservatory and watched him, unable to decide in how far he was identical with the man who had first met Flavia Malcolm in her mother’s house, twelve years ago. Did he at all remember having known her as a little girl, and why did his indifference hurt her so, after all these years? Had some remnant of her childish affection for him gone on living, somewhere down in the sealed caves of her consciousness, and had she really expected to find it possible to be fond of him again? Suddenly she saw a light in the man’s sleepy eyes, an unmistakable expression of interest and pleasure that fairly startled her. She turned quickly in the direction of his glance, and saw Flavia, just entering, dressed for dinner and lit by the effulgence of her most radiant manner. Most people considered Flavia handsome, and there was no gainsaying that she carried her five-and-thirty years splendidly. Her figure had never grown matronly, and her face was of the sort that does not show wear. Its blond tints were as fresh and enduring as enamel — and quite as hard. Its usual expression was one of tense, often strained, animation, which compressed her lips nervously. A perfect scream of animation, Miss Broadwood had called it, created and maintained by sheer, indomitable force of will. Flavia’s appearance on any scene whatever made a ripple, caused a certain agitation and recognition, and, among impressionable people, a certain uneasiness, For all her sparkling assurance of manner, Flavia was certainly always ill at ease and, even more certainly, anxious. She seemed not convinced of the established order of material things, seemed always trying to conceal her feeling that walls might crumble, chasms open, or the fabric of her life fly to the winds in irretrievable entanglement. At least this was the impression Imogen got from that note in Flavia which was so manifestly false.
Hamilton’s keen, quick, satisfied glance at his wife had recalled to Imogen all her inventory of speculations about them. She looked at him with compassionate surprise. As a child she had never permitted herself to believe that Hamilton cared at all for the woman who had taken him away from her; and since she had begun to think about them again, it had never occurred to her that anyone could become attached to Flavia in that deeply personal and exclusive sense. It seemed quite as irrational as trying to possess oneself of Broadway at noon.
When they went out to dinner Imogen realized the completeness of Flavia’s triumph. They were people of one name, mostly, like kings; people whose names stirred the imagination like a romance or a melody. With the notable exception of M. Roux, Imogen had seen most of them before, either in concert halls or lecture rooms; but they looked noticeably older and dimmer than she remembered them.
Opposite her sat Schemetzkin, the Russian pianist, a short, corpulent man, with an apoplectic face and purplish skin, his thick, iron-gray hair tossed back from his forehead. Next to the German giantess sat the Italian tenor — the tiniest of men — pale, with soft, light hair, much in disorder, very red lips, and fingers yellowed by cigarettes. Frau Lichtenfeld shone in a gown of emerald green, fitting so closely as to enhance her natural floridness. However, to do the good lady justice, let her attire be never so modest, it gave an effect of barbaric splendor. At her left sat Herr Schotte, the Assyriologist, whose features were effectually concealed by the convergence of his hair and beard, and whose glasses were continually falling into his plate. This gentleman had removed more tons of earth in the course of his explorations than had any of his confreres, and his vigorous attack upon his food seemed to suggest the strenuous nature of his accustomed toil. His eyes were small and deeply set, and his forehead bulged fiercely above his eyes in a bony ridge. His heavy brows completed the leonine suggestion of his face. Even to Imogen, who knew something of his work and greatly respected it, he was entirely too reminiscent of the Stone Age to be altogether an agreeable dinner companion. He seemed, indeed, to have absorbed something of the savagery of those early types of life which he continually studied.
Frank Wellington, the young Kansas man who had been two years out of Harvard and had published three historical novels, sat next to Mr. Will Maidenwood, who was still pale from his recent sufferings and carried his hand bandaged. They took little part in the general conversation, but, like the lion and the unicorn, were always at it, discussing, every time they met, whether there were or were not passages in Mr. Wellington’s works which should be eliminated, out of consideration for the Young Person. Wellington had fallen into the hands of a great American syndicate which most effectually befriended struggling authors whose struggles were in the right direction, and which had guaranteed to make him famous before he was thirty. Feeling the security of his position he stoutly defended those passages which jarred upon the sensitive nerves of the young editor of Woman. Maidenwood, in the smoothest of voices, urged the necessity of the author’s recognizing certain restrictions at the outset, and Miss Broadwood, who joined the argument quite without invitation or encouragement, seconded him with pointed and malicious remarks which caused the young editor manifest discomfort. Restzhoff, the chemist, demanded the attention of the entire company for his exposition of his devices for manufacturing ice cream from vegetable oils and for administering drugs in bonbons.
Flavia, always noticeably restless at dinner, was somewhat apathetic toward the advocate of peptonized chocolate and was plainly concerned about the sudden departure of M. Roux, who had announced that it would be necessary for him to leave tomorrow. M. Emile Roux, who sat at Flavia’s right, was a man in middle life and quite bald, clearly without personal vanity, though his publishers preferred to circulate only those of his portraits taken in his ambrosial youth. Imogen was considerably shocked at his unlikeness to the slender, black-stocked Rolla he had looked at twenty. He had declined into the florid, settled heaviness of indifference and approaching age. There was, however, a certain look of durability and solidity about him; the look of a man who has earned the right to be fat and bald, and even silent at dinner if he chooses.
Throughout the discussion between Wellington and Will Maidenwood, though they invited his participation, he remained silent, betraying no sign either of interest or contempt. Since his arrival he had directed most of his conversation to Hamilton, who had never read one of his twelve great novels. This perplexed and troubled Flavia. On the night of his arrival Jules Martel had enthusiastically declared, “There are schools and schools, manners and manners; but Roux is Roux, and Paris sets its watches by his clock.” Flavia bad already repeated this remark to Imogen. It haunted her, and each time she quoted it she was impressed anew.
Flavia shifted the conversation uneasily, evidently exasperated and excited by her repeated failures to draw the novelist out. “Monsieur Roux,” she began abruptly, with her most animated smile, “I remember so well a statement I read some years ago in your ‘Mes Etudes des Femmes’ to the effect that you had never met a really intellectual woman. May I ask, without being impertinent, whether that assertion still represents your experience?”
“I meant, madam,” said the novelist conservatively, “intellectual in a sense very special, as we say of men in whom the purely intellectual functions seem almost independent.”
“And you still think a woman so constituted a mythical personage?” persisted Flavia, nodding her head encouragingly.
“Une Meduse, madam, who, if she were discovered, would transmute us all into stone,” said the novelist, bowing gravely. “If she existed at all,” he added deliberately, “it was my business to find her, and she has cost me many a vain pilgrimage. Like Rudel of Tripoli, I have crossed seas and penetrated deserts to seek her out. I have, indeed, encountered women of learning whose industry I have been compelled to respect; many who have possessed beauty and charm and perplexing cleverness; a few with remarkable information and a sort of fatal facility.”
“And Mrs. Browning, George Eliot, and your own Mme. Dudevant?” queried Flavia with that fervid enthusiasm with which she could, on occasion, utter things simply incomprehensible for their banality — at her feats of this sort Miss Broadwood was wont to sit breathless with admiration.
“Madam, while the intellect was undeniably present in the performances of those women, it was only the stick of the rocket. Although this woman has eluded me I have studied her conditions and perturbances as astronomers conjecture the orbits of planets they have never seen. if she exists, she is probably neither an artist nor a woman with a mission, but an obscure personage, with imperative intellectual needs, who absorbs rather than produces.”
Flavia, still nodding nervously, fixed a strained glance of interrogation upon M. Roux. “Then you think she would be a woman whose first necessity would be to know, whose instincts would be satisfied only with the best, who could draw from others; appreciative, merely?”
The novelist lifted his dull eyes to his interlocutress with an untranslatable smile and a slight inclination of his shoulders. “Exactly so; you are really remarkable, madam,” he added, in a tone of cold astonishment.
After dinner the guests took their coffee in the music room, where Schemetzkin sat down at the piano to drum ragtime, and give his celebrated imitation of the boardingschool girl’s execution of Chopin. He flatly refused to play anything more serious, and would practice only in the morning, when he had the music room to himself. Hamilton and M. Roux repaired to the smoking room to discuss the necessity of extending the tax on manufactured articles in France — one of those conversations which particularly exasperated Flavia.
After Schemetzkin had grimaced and tortured the keyboard with malicious vulgarities for half an hour, Signor Donati, to put an end to his torture, consented to sing, and Flavia and Imogen went to fetch Arthur to play his accompaniments. Hamilton rose with an annoyed look and placed his cigarette on the mantel. “Why yes, Flavia, I’ll accompany him, provided he sings something with a melody, Italian arias or ballads, and provided the recital is not interminable.”
“You will join us, M. Roux?”
“Thank you, but I have some letters to write,” replied the novelist, bowing.
As Flavia had remarked to Imogen, “Arthur really played accompaniments remarkably well.” To hear him recalled vividly the days of her childhood, when he always used to spend his business vacations at her mother’s home in Maine. He had possessed for her that almost hypnotic influence which young men sometimes exert upon little girls. It was a sort of phantom love affair, subjective and fanciful, a precocity of instinct, like that tender and maternal concern which some little girls feel for their dolls. Yet this childish infatuation is capable of all the depressions and exaltations of love itself, it has its bitter jealousies, cruel disappointments, its exacting caprices.
Summer after summer she had awaited his coming and wept at his departure, indifferent to the gayer young men who had called her their sweetheart and laughed at everything she said. Although Hamilton never said so, she had been always quite sure that he was fond of her. When he pulled her up the river to hunt for fairy knolls shut about by low, hanging willows, he was often silent for an hour at a time, yet she never felt he was bored or was neglecting her. He would lie in the sand smoking, his eyes half-closed, watching her play, and she was always conscious that she was entertaining him. Sometimes he would take a copy of “Alice in Wonderland” in his pocket, and no one could read it as he could, laughing at her with his dark eyes, when anything amused him. No one else could laugh so, with just their eyes, and without moving a muscle of their face. Though he usually smiled at passages that seemed not at all funny to the child, she always laughed gleefully, because he was so seldom moved to mirth that any such demonstration delighted her and she took the credit of it entirely to herself Her own inclination had been for serious stories, with sad endings, like the Little Mermaid, which he had once told her in an unguarded moment when she had a cold, and was put to bed early on her birthday night and cried because she could not have her party. But he highly disapproved of this preference, and had called it a morbid taste, and always shook his finger at her when she asked for the story. When she had been particularly good, or particularly neglected by other people, then he would sometimes melt and tell her the story, and never laugh at her if she enjoyed the “sad ending” even to tears. When Flavia had taken him away and he came no more, she wept inconsolably for the space of two weeks, and refused to learn her lessons. Then she found the story of the Little Mermaid herself, and forgot him.
Imogen had discovered at dinner that he could still smile at one secretly, out of his eyes, and that he had the old manner of outwardly seeming bored, but letting you know that he was not. She was intensely curious about his exact state of feeling toward his wife, and more curious still to catch a sense of his final adjustment to the conditions of life in general. This, she could not help feeling, she might get again — if she could have him alone for an hour, in some place where there was a little river and a sandy cove bordered by drooping willows, and a blue sky seen through white sycamore boughs.
That evening, before retiring, Flavia entered her husband’s room, where he sat in his smoking jacket, in one of his favorite low chairs.
“I suppose it’s a grave responsibility to bring an ardent, serious young thing like Imogen here among all these fascinating personages,” she remarked reflectively. “But, after all, one can never tell. These grave, silent girls have their own charm, even for facile people.”
“Oh, so that is your plan?” queried her husband dryly. “I was wondering why you got her up here. She doesn’t seem to mix well with the faciles. At least, so it struck me.”
Flavia paid no heed to this jeering remark, but repeated, “No, after all, it may not be a bad thing.”
“Then do consign her to that shaken reed, the tenor,” said her husband yawning. “I remember she used to have a taste for the pathetic.”
“And then,” remarked Flavia coquettishly, “after all, I owe her mother a return in kind. She was not afraid to trifle with destiny.”
But Hamilton was asleep in his chair.
Next morning Imogen found only Miss Broadwood in the breakfast room.
“Good morning, my dear girl, whatever are you doing up so early? They never breakfast before eleven. Most of them take their coffee in their room. Take this place by me.”
Miss Broadwood looked particularly fresh and encouraging in her blue serge walking skirt, her open jacket displaying an expanse of stiff, white shirt bosom, dotted with some almost imperceptible figure, and a dark blue-and-white necktie, neatly knotted under her wide, rolling collar. She wore a white rosebud in the lapel of her coat, and decidedly she seemed more than ever like a nice, clean boy on his holiday. Imogen was just hoping that they would breakfast alone when Miss Broadwood exclaimed, “Ah, there comes Arthur with the children. That’s the reward of early rising in this house; you never get to see the youngsters at any other time.”
Hamilton entered, followed by two dark, handsome little boys. The girl, who was very tiny, blonde like her mother, and exceedingly frail, he carried in his arms. The boys came up and said good morning with an ease and cheerfulness uncommon, even in well-bred children, but the little girl hid her face on her father’s shoulder.
“She’s a shy little lady,” he explained as he put her gently down in her chair. “I’m afraid she’s like her father; she can’t seem to get used to meeting people. And you, Miss Willard, did you dream of the White Rabbit or the Little Mermaid?”
“Oh, I dreamed of them all! All the personages of that buried civilization,” cried Imogen, delighted that his estranged manner of the night before had entirely vanished and feeling that, somehow, the old confidential relations had been restored during the night.
“Come, William,” said Miss Broadwood, turning to the younger of the two boys, “and what did you dream about?”
“We dreamed,” said William gravely — he was the more assertive of the two and always spoke for both — “we dreamed that there were fireworks hidden in the basement of the carriage house; lots and lots of fireworks.”
His elder brother looked up at him with apprehensive astonishment, while Miss Broadwood hastily put her napkin to her lips and Hamilton dropped his eyes. “If little boys dream things, they are so apt not to come true,” he reflected sadly. This shook even the redoubtable William, and he glanced nervously at his brother. “But do things vanish just because they have been dreamed?” he objected.
“Generally that is the very best reason for their vanishing,” said Arthur gravely.
“But, Father, people can’t help what they dream,” remonstrated Edward gently.
“Oh, come! You’re making these children talk like a Maeterlinck dialogue,” laughed Miss Broadwood.
Flavia presently entered, a book in her hand, and bade them all good morning. “Come, little people, which story shall it be this morning?” she asked winningly. Greatly excited, the children followed her into the garden. “She does then, sometimes,” murmured Imogen as they left the breakfast room.
“Oh, yes, to be sure,” said Miss Broadwood cheerfully. “She reads a story to them every morning in the most picturesque part of the garden. The mother of the Gracchi, you know. She does so long, she says, for the time when they will be intellectual companions for her. What do you say to a walk over the hills?”
As they left the house they met Frau Lichtenfeld and the bushy Herr Schotte — the professor cut an astonishing figure in golf stockings — returning from a walk and engaged in an animated conversation on the tendencies of German fiction.
“Aren’t they the most attractive little children,” exclaimed Imogen as they wound down the road toward the river.
“Yes, and you must not fail to tell Flavia that you think so. She will look at you in a sort of startled way and say, ‘Yes, aren’t they?’ and maybe she will go off and hunt them up and have tea with them, to fully appreciate them. She is awfully afraid of missing anything good, is Flavia. The way those youngsters manage to conceal their guilty presence in the House of Song is a wonder.”
“But don’t any of the artist-folk fancy children?” asked Imogen.
“Yes, they just fancy them and no more. The chemist remarked the other day that children are like certain salts which need not be actualized because the formulae are quite sufficient for practical purposes. I don’t see how even Flavia can endure to have that man about.”
“I have always been rather curious to know what Arthur thinks of it all,” remarked Imogen cautiously.
“Thinks of it!” ejaculated Miss Broadwood. “Why, my dear, what would any man think of having his house turned into an hotel, habited by freaks who discharge his servants, borrow his money, and insult his neighbors? This place is shunned like a lazaretto!”
“Well, then, why does he — why does he — ” persisted Imogen.
“Bah!” interrupted Miss Broadwood impatiently, “why did he in the first place? That’s the question.”
“Marry her, you mean?” said Imogen coloring.
“Exactly so,” said Miss Broadwood sharply, as she snapped the lid of her matchbox.
“I suppose that is a question rather beyond us, and certainly one which we cannot discuss,” said Imogen. “But his toleration on this one point puzzles me, quite apart from other complications.”
“Toleration? Why this point, as you call it, simply is Flavia. Who could conceive of her without it? I don’t know where it’s all going to end, I’m sure, and I’m equally sure that, if it were not for Arthur, I shouldn’t care,” declared Miss Broadwood, drawing her shoulders together.
“But will it end at all, now?”
“Such an absurd state of things can’t go on indefinitely. A man isn’t going to see his wife make a guy of herself forever, is he? Chaos has already begun in the servants’ quarters. There are six different languages spoken there now. You see, it’s all on an entirely false basis. Flavia hasn’t the slightest notion of what these people are really like, their good and their bad alike escape her. They, on the other hand, can’t imagine what she is driving at. Now, Arthur is worse off than either faction; he is not in the fairy story in that he sees these people exactly as they are, but he is utterly unable to see Flavia as they see her. There you have the situation. Why can’t he see her as we do? My dear, that has kept me awake o’ nights. This man who has thought so much and lived so much, who is naturally a critic, really takes Flavia at very nearly her own estimate. But now I am entering upon a wilderness. From a brief acquaintance with her you can know nothing of the icy fastnesses of Flavia’s self-esteem. It’s like St. Peter’s; you can’t realize its magnitude at once. You have to grow into a sense of it by living under its shadow. It has perplexed even Emile Roux, that merciless dissector of egoism. She has puzzled him the more because he saw at a glance what some of them do not perceive at once, and what will be mercifully concealed from Arthur until the trump sounds; namely, that all Flavia’s artists have done or ever will do means exactly as much to her as a symphony means to an oyster; that there is no bridge by which the significance of any work of art could be conveyed to her.”
“Then, in the name of goodness, why does she bother?” gasped Imogen. “She is pretty, wealthy, well-established; why should she bother?”
“That’s what M. Roux has kept asking himself. I can’t pretend to analyze it. She reads papers on the Literary Landmarks of Paris, the Loves of the Poets, and that sort of thing, to clubs out in Chicago. To Flavia it is more necessary to be called clever than to breathe. I would give a good deal to know that glum Frenchman’s diagnosis. He has been watching her out of those fishy eyes of his as a biologist watches a hemisphereless frog.”
For several days after M. Roux’s departure Flavia gave an embarrassing share of her attention to Imogen. Embarrassing, because Imogen had the feeling of being energetically and futilely explored, she knew not for what. She felt herself under the globe of an air pump, expected to yield up something. When she confined the conversation to matters of general interest Flavia conveyed to her with some pique that her one endeavor in life had been to fit herself to converse with her friends upon those things which vitally interested them. “One has no right to accept their best from people unless one gives, isn’t it so? I want to be able to give —!” she declared vaguely. Yet whenever Imogen strove to pay her tithes and plunged bravely into her plans for study next winter, Flavia grew absent-minded and interrupted her by amazing generalizations or by such embarrassing questions as, “And these grim studies really have charm for you; you are quite buried in them; they make other things seem light and ephemeral?”
“I rather feel as though I had got in here under false pretenses,” Imogen confided to Miss Broadwood. “I’m sure I don’t know what it is that she wants of me.”
“Ah,” chuckled Jemima, “you are not equal to these heart to heart talks with Flavia. You utterly fail to communicate to her the atmosphere of that untroubled joy in which you dwell. You must remember that she gets no feeling out of things herself, and she demands that you impart yours to her by some process of psychic transmission. I once met a blind girl, blind from birth, who could discuss the peculiarities of the Barbizon school with just Flavia’s glibness and enthusiasm. Ordinarily Flavia knows how to get what she wants from people, and her memory is wonderful. One evening I heard her giving Frau Lichtenfeld some random impressions about Hedda Gabler which she extracted from me five years ago; giving them with an impassioned conviction of which I was never guilty. But I have known other people who could appropriate your stories and opinions; Flavia is infinitely more subtle than that; she can soak up the very thrash and drift of your daydreams, and take the very thrills off your back, as it were.”
After some days of unsuccessful effort, Flavia withdrew herself, and Imogen found Hamilton ready to catch her when she was tossed afield. He seemed only to have been awaiting this crisis, and at once their old intimacy reestablished itself as a thing inevitable and beautifully prepared for. She convinced herself that she had not been mistaken in him, despite all the doubts that had come up in later years, and this renewal of faith set more than one question thumping in her brain. “How did he, how can he?” she kept repeating with a tinge of her childish resentment, “what right had he to waste anything so fine?”
When Imogen and Arthur were returning from a walk before luncheon one morning about a week after M. Roux’s departure, they noticed an absorbed group before one of the hall windows. Herr Schotte and Restzhoff sat on the window seat with a newspaper between them, while Wellington, Schemetzkin, and Will Maidenwood looked over their shoulders. They seemed intensely interested, Herr Schotte occasionally pounding his knees with his fists in ebullitions of barbaric glee. When imogen entered the hall, however, the men were all sauntering toward the breakfast room and the paper was lying innocently on the divan. During luncheon the personnel of that window group were unwontedly animated and agreeable all save Schemetzkin, whose stare was blanker than ever, as though Roux’s mantle of insulting indifference had fallen upon him, in addition to his own oblivious self-absorption. Will Maidenwood seemed embarrassed and annoyed; the chemist employed himself with making polite speeches to Hamilton. Flavia did not come down to lunch — and there was a malicious gleam under Herr Schotte’s eyebrows. Frank Wellington announced nervously that an imperative letter from his protecting syndicate summoned him to the city.
After luncheon the men went to the golf links, and Imogen, at the first opportunity, possessed herself of the newspaper which had been left on the divan. One of the first things that caught her eye was an article headed “Roux on Tuft Hunters; The Advanced American Woman as He Sees Her; Aggressive, Superficial, and Insincere.” The entire interview was nothing more nor less than a satiric characterization of Flavia, aquiver with irritation and vitriolic malice. No one could mistake it; it was done with all his deftness of portraiture. Imogen had not finished the article when she heard a footstep, and clutching the paper she started precipitately toward the stairway as Arthur entered. He put out his hand, looking critically at her distressed face.
“Wait a moment, Miss Willard,” he said peremptorily, “I want to see whether we can find what it was that so interested our friends this morning. Give me the paper, please.”
Imogen grew quite white as he opened the journal. She reached forward and crumpled it with her hands. “Please don’t, please don’t,” she pleaded; “it’s something I don’t want you to see. Oh, why will you? it’s just something low and despicable that you can’t notice.”
Arthur had gently loosed her hands, and he pointed her to a chair. He lit a cigar and read the article through without comment. When he had finished it he walked to the fireplace, struck a match, and tossed the flaming journal between the brass andirons.
“You are right,” he remarked as he came back, dusting his hands with his handkerchief. “It’s quite impossible to comment. There are extremes of blackguardism for which we have no name. The only thing necessary is to see that Flavia gets no wind of this. This seems to be my cue to act; poor girl.”
Imogen looked at him tearfully; she could only murmur, “Oh, why did you read it!”
Hamilton laughed spiritlessly. “Come, don’t you worry about it. You always took other people’s troubles too seriously. When you were little and all the world was gay and everybody happy, you must needs get the Little Mermaid’s troubles to grieve over. Come with me into the music room. You remember the musical setting I once made you for the Lay of the Jabberwock? I was trying it over the other night, long after you were in bed, and I decided it was quite as fine as the Erl–King music. How I wish I could give you some of the cake that Alice ate and make you a little girl again. Then, when you had got through the glass door into the little garden, you could call to me, perhaps, and tell me all the fine things that were going on there. What a pity it is that you ever grew up!” he added, laughing; and Imogen, too, was thinking just that.
At dinner that evening, Flavia, with fatal persistence, insisted upon turning the conversation to M. Roux. She had been reading one of his novels and had remembered anew that Paris set its watches by his clock. Imogen surmised that she was tortured by a feeling that she had not sufficiently appreciated him while she had had him. When she first mentioned his name she was answered only by the pall of silence that fell over the company. Then everyone began to talk at once, as though to correct a false position. They spoke of him with a fervid, defiant admiration, with the sort of hot praise that covers a double purpose. Imogen fancied she could see that they felt a kind of relief at what the man had done, even those who despised him for doing it; that they felt a spiteful hate against Flavia, as though she had tricked them, and a certain contempt for themselves that they had been beguiled. She was reminded of the fury of the crowd in the fairy tale, when once the child had called out that the king was in his night clothes. Surely these people knew no more about Flavia than they had known before, but the mere fact that the thing had been said altered the situation. Flavia, meanwhile, sat chattering amiably, pathetically unconscious of her nakedness.
Hamilton lounged, fingering the stem of his wineglass, gazing down the table at one face after another and studying the various degrees of self-consciousness they exhibited. Imogen’s eyes followed his, fearfully. When a lull came in the spasmodic flow of conversation, Arthur, leaning back in his chair, remarked deliberately, “As for M. Roux, his very profession places him in that class of men whom society has never been able to accept unconditionally because it has never been able to assume that they have any ordered notion of taste. He and his ilk remain, with the mountebanks and snake charmers, people indispensable to our civilization, but wholly unreclaimed by it; people whom we receive, but whose invitations we do not accept.”
Fortunately for Flavia, this mine was not exploded until just before the coffee was brought. Her laughter was pitiful to hear; it echoed through the silent room as in a vault, while she made some tremulously light remark about her husband’s drollery, grim as a jest from the dying. No one responded and she sat nodding her head like a mechanical toy and smiling her white, set smile through her teeth, until Alcee Buisson and Frau Lichtenfeld came to her support.
After dinner the guests retired immediately to their rooms, and Imogen went upstairs on tiptoe, feeling the echo of breakage and the dust of crumbling in the air. She wondered whether Flavia’s habitual note of uneasiness were not, in a manner, prophetic, and a sort of unconscious premonition, after all. She sat down to write a letter, but she found herself so nervous, her head so hot and her hands so cold, that she soon abandoned the effort, just as she was about to seek Miss Broadwood, Flavia entered and embraced her hysterically.
“My dearest girl,” she began, “was there ever such an unfortunate and incomprehensible speech made before? Of course it is scarcely necessary to explain to you poor Arthur’s lack of tact, and that he meant nothing. But they! Can they be expected to understand? He will feel wretchedly about it when he realizes what he has done, but in the meantime? And M. Roux, of all men! When we were so fortunate as to get him, and he made himself so unreservedly agreeable, and I fancied that, in his way, Arthur quite admired him. My dear, you have no idea what that speech has done. Schemetzkin and Herr Schotte have already sent me word that they must leave us tomorrow. Such a thing from a host!” Flavia paused, choked by tears of vexation and despair.
Imogen was thoroughly disconcerted; this was the first time she had ever seen Flavia betray any personal emotion which was indubitably genuine. She replied with what consolation she could. “Need they take it personally at all? It was a mere observation upon a class of people — ”
“Which he knows nothing whatever about, and with whom he has no sympathy,” interrupted Flavia. “Ah, my dear, you could not be expected to understand. You can’t realize, knowing Arthur as you do, his entire lack of any aesthetic sense whatever. He is absolutely nil, stone deaf and stark blind, on that side. He doesn’t mean to be brutal, it is just the brutality of utter ignorance. They always feel it — they are so sensitive to unsympathetic influences, you know; they know it the moment they come into the house. I have spent my life apologizing for him and struggling to conceal it; but in spite of me, he wounds them; his very attitude, even in silence, offends them. Heavens! Do I not know? Is it not perpetually and forever wounding me? But there has never been anything so dreadful as this — never! If I could conceive of any possible motive, even!”
“But, surely, Mrs. Hamilton, it was, after all, a mere expression of opinion, such as we are any of us likely to venture upon any subject whatever. It was neither more personal nor more extravagant than many of M. Roux’s remarks.”
“But, Imogen, certainly M. Roux has the right. It is a part of his art, and that is altogether another matter. Oh, this is not the only instance!” continued Flavia passionately, “I’ve always had that narrow, bigoted prejudice to contend with. It has always held me back. But this —!”
“I think you mistake his attitude,” replied Imogen, feeling a flush that made her ears tingle. “That is, I fancy he is more appreciative than he seems. A man can’t be very demonstrative about those things — not if he is a real man. I should not think you would care much about saving the feelings of people who are too narrow to admit of any other point of view than their own.” She stopped, finding herself in the impossible position of attempting to explain Hamilton to his wife; a task which, if once begun, would necessitate an entire course of enlightenment which she doubted Flavia’s ability to receive, and which she could offer only with very poor grace.
“That’s just where it stings most” — here Flavia began pacing the floor — “it is just because they have all shown such tolerance and have treated Arthur with such unfailing consideration that I can find no reasonable pretext for his rancor. How can he fail to see the value of such friendships on the children’s account, if for nothing else! What an advantage for them to grow up among such associations! Even though he cares nothing about these things himself he might realize that. Is there nothing I could say by way of explanation? To them, I mean? If someone were to explain to them how unfortunately limited he is in these things — ”
“I’m afraid I cannot advise you,” said Imogen decidedly, “but that, at least, seems to me impossible.”
Flavia took her hand and glanced at her affectionately, nodding nervously. “Of course, dear girl, I can’t ask you to be quite frank with me. Poor child, you are trembling and your hands are icy. Poor Arthur! But you must not judge him by this altogether; think how much he misses in life. What a cruel shock you’ve had. I’ll send you some sherry, Good night, my dear.”
When Flavia shut the door Imogen burst into a fit of nervous weeping.
Next morning she awoke after a troubled and restless night. At eight o’clock Miss Broadwood entered in a red and white striped bathrobe.
“Up, up, and see the great doom’s image!” she cried, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “The hall is full of trunks, they are packing. What bolt has fallen? It’s you, ma cherie, you’ve brought Ulysses home again and the slaughter has begun!” she blew a cloud of smoke triumphantly from her lips and threw herself into a chair beside the bed.
Imogen, rising on her elbow, plunged excitedly into the story of the Roux interview, which Miss Broadwood heard with the keenest interest, frequently interrupting her with exclamations of delight. When Imogen reached the dramatic scene which terminated in the destruction of the newspaper, Miss Broadwood rose and took a turn about the room, violently switching the tasselled cords of her bathrobe.
“Stop a moment,” she cried, “you mean to tell me that he had such a heaven-sent means to bring her to her senses and didn’t use it — that he held such a weapon and threw it away?”
“Use it?” cried Imogen unsteadily. “Of course he didn’t! He bared his back to the tormentor, signed himself over to punishment in that speech he made at dinner, which everyone understands but Flavia. She was here for an hour last night and disregarded every limit of taste in her maledictions.”
“My dear!” cried Miss Broadwood, catching her hand in inordinate delight at the situation, “do you see what he has done? There’ll be no end to it. Why he has sacrificed himself to spare the very vanity that devours him, put rancors in the vessels of his peace, and his eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man, to make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! He is magnificent!”
“Isn’t he always that?” cried Imogen hotly. “He’s like a pillar of sanity and law in this house of shams and swollen vanities, where people stalk about with a sort of madhouse dignity, each one fancying himself a king or a pope. If you could have heard that woman talk of him! Why, she thinks him stupid, bigoted, blinded by middleclass prejudices. She talked about his having no aesthetic sense and insisted that her artists had always shown him tolerance. I don’t know why it should get on my nerves so, I’m sure, but her stupidity and assurance are enough to drive one to the brink of collapse.”
“Yes, as opposed to his singular fineness, they are calculated to do just that,” said Miss Broadwood gravely, wisely ignoring Imogen’s tears. “But what has been is nothing to what will be. Just wait until Flavia’s black swans have flown! You ought not to try to stick it out; that would only make it harder for everyone. Suppose you let me telephone your mother to wire you to come home by the evening train?”
“Anything, rather than have her come at me like that again. It puts me in a perfectly impossible position, and he is so fine!”
“Of course it does,” said Miss Broadwood sympathetically, “and there is no good to be got from facing it. I will stay because such things interest me, and Frau Lichtenfeld will stay because she has no money to get away, and Buisson will stay because he feels somewhat responsible. These complications are interesting enough to cold-blooded folk like myself who have an eye for the dramatic element, but they are distracting and demoralizing to young people with any serious purpose in life.”
Miss Broadwood’s counsel was all the more generous seeing that, for her, the most interesting element of this denouement would be eliminated by Imogen’s departure. “If she goes now, she’ll get over it,” soliloquized Miss Broadwood. “If she stays, she’ll be wrung for him and the hurt may go deep enough to last. I haven’t the heart to see her spoiling things for herself.” She telephoned Mrs. Willard and helped Imogen to pack. She even took it upon herself to break the news of Imogen’s going to Arthur, who remarked, as he rolled a cigarette in his nerveless fingers:
“Right enough, too. What should she do here with old cynics like you and me, Jimmy? Seeing that she is brim full of dates and formulae and other positivisms, and is so girt about with illusions that she still casts a shadow in the sun. You’ve been very tender of her, haven’t you? I’ve watched you. And to think it may all be gone when we see her next. ‘The common fate of all things rare,’ you know. What a good fellow you are, anyway, Jimmy,” he added, putting his hands affectionately on her shoulders.
Arthur went with them to the station. Flavia was so prostrated by the concerted action of her guests that she was able to see Imogen only for a moment in her darkened sleeping chamber, where she kissed her hysterically, without lifting her head, bandaged in aromatic vinegar. On the way to the station both Arthur and Imogen threw the burden of keeping up appearances entirely upon Miss Broadwood, who blithely rose to the occasion. When Hamilton carried Imogen’s bag into the car, Miss Broadwood detained her for a moment, whispering as she gave her a large, warm handclasp, “I’ll come to see you when I get back to town; and, in the meantime, if you meet any of our artists, tell them you have left Caius Marius among the ruins of Carthage.”
A group of the townspeople stood on the station siding of a little Kansas town, awaiting the coming of the night train, which was already twenty minutes overdue. The snow had fallen thick over everything; in the pale starlight the line of bluffs across the wide, white meadows south of the town made soft, smoke-colored curves against the clear sky. The men on the siding stood first on one foot and then on the other, their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets, their overcoats open, their shoulders screwed up with the cold; and they glanced from time to time toward the southeast, where the railroad track wound along the river shore. They conversed in low tones and moved about restlessly, seeming uncertain as to what was expected of them. There was but one of the company who looked as though he knew exactly why he was there; and he kept conspicuously apart; walking to the far end of the platform, returning to the station door, then pacing up the track again, his chin sunk in the high collar of his overcoat, his burly shoulders drooping forward, his gait heavy and dogged. Presently he was approached by a tall, spare, grizzled man clad in a faded Grand Army suit, who shuffled out from the group and advanced with a certain deference, craning his neck forward until his back made the angle of a jackknife three-quarters open.
“I reckon she’s agoin’ to be pretty late ag’in tonight, Jim,” he remarked in a squeaky falsetto. “S’pose it’s the snow?”
“I don’t know,” responded the other man with a shade of annoyance, speaking from out an astonishing cataract of red beard that grew fiercely and thickly in all directions.
The spare man shifted the quill toothpick he was chewing to the other side of his mouth. “It ain’t likely that anybody from the East will come with the corpse, I s’pose,” he went on reflectively.
“I don’t know,” responded the other, more curtly than before.
“It’s too bad he didn’t belong to some lodge or other. I like an order funeral myself. They seem more appropriate for people of some reputation,” the spare man continued, with an ingratiating concession in his shrill voice, as he carefully placed his toothpick in his vest pocket. He always carried the flag at the G. A. R. funerals in the town.
The heavy man turned on his heel, without replying, and walked up the siding. The spare man shuffled back to the uneasy group. “Jim’s ez full ez a tick, ez ushel,” he commented commiseratingly.
Just then a distant whistle sounded, and there was a shuffling of feet on the platform. A number of lanky boys of all ages appeared as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder; some came from the waiting room, where they had been warming themselves by the red stove, or half-asleep on the slat benches; others uncoiled themselves from baggage trucks or slid out of express wagons. Two clambered down from the driver’s seat of a hearse that stood backed up against the siding. They straightened their stooping shoulders and lifted their heads, and a flash of momentary animation kindled their dull eyes at that cold, vibrant scream, the world-wide call for men. It stirred them like the note of a trumpet; just as it had often stirred the man who was coming home tonight, in his boyhood.
The night express shot, red as a rocket, from out the eastward marsh lands and wound along the river shore under the long lines of shivering poplars that sentineled the meadows, the escaping steam hanging in gray masses against the pale sky and blotting out the Milky Way. In a moment the red glare from the headlight streamed up the snow-covered track before the siding and glittered on the wet, black rails. The burly man with the disheveled red beard walked swiftly up the platform toward the approaching train, uncovering his head as he went. The group of men behind him hesitated, glanced questioningly at one another, and awkwardly followed his example. The train stopped, and the crowd shuffled up to the express car just as the door was thrown open, the spare man in the G. A. B. suit thrusting his head forward with curiosity. The express messenger appeared in the doorway, accompanied by a young man in a long ulster and traveling cap.
“Are Mr. Merrick’s friends here?” inquired the young man.
The group on the platform swayed and shuffled uneasily. Philip Phelps, the banker, responded with dignity: “We have come to take charge of the body. Mr. Merrick’s father is very feeble and can’t be about.”
“Send the agent out here,” growled the express messenger, “and tell the operator to lend a hand.”
The coffin was got out of its rough box and down on the snowy platform. The townspeople drew back enough to make room for it and then formed a close semicircle about it, looking curiously at the palm leaf which lay across the black cover. No one said anything. The baggage man stood by his truck, waiting to get at the trunks. The engine panted heavily, and the fireman dodged in and out among the wheels with his yellow torch and long oilcan, snapping the spindle boxes. The young Bostonian, one of the dead sculptor’s pupils who had come with the body, looked about him helplessly. He turned to the banker, the only one of that black, uneasy, stoop-shouldered group who seemed enough of an individual to be addressed.
“None of Mr. Merrick’s brothers are here?” he asked uncertainly.
The man with the red heard for the first time stepped up and joined the group. “No, they have not come yet; the family is scattered. The body will be taken directly to the house.” He stooped and took hold of one of the handles of the coffin.
“Take the long hill road up, Thompson — it will be easier on the horses,” called the liveryman as the undertaker snapped the door of the hearse and prepared to mount to the driver’s seat.
Laird, the red-bearded lawyer, turned again to the stranger: “We didn’t know whether there would be anyone with him or not,” he explained. “It’s a long walk, so you’d better go up in the hack.” He pointed to a single, battered conveyance, but the young man replied stiffly: “Thank you, but I think I will go up with the hearse. If you don’t object,” turning to the undertaker, “I’ll ride with you.”
They clambered up over the wheels and drove off in the starlight tip the long, white hill toward the town. The lamps in the still village were shining from under the low, snow-burdened roofs; and beyond, on every side, the plains reached out into emptiness, peaceful and wide as the soft sky itself, and wrapped in a tangible, white silence.
When the hearse backed up to a wooden sidewalk before a naked, weatherbeaten frame house, the same composite, ill-defined group that had stood upon the station siding was huddled about the gate. The front yard was an icy swamp, and a couple of warped planks, extending from the sidewalk to the door, made a sort of rickety footbridge. The gate hung on one hinge and was opened wide with difficulty. Steavens, the young stranger, noticed that something black was tied to the knob of the front door.
The grating sound made by the casket, as it was drawn from the hearse, was answered by a scream from the house; the front door was wrenched open, and a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!”
As Steavens turned away and closed his eyes with a shudder of unutterable repulsion, another woman, also tall, but flat and angular, dressed entirely in black, darted out of the house and caught Mrs. Merrick by the shoulders, crying sharply: “Come, come, Mother; you mustn’t go on like this!” Her tone changed to one of obsequious solemnity as she turned to the banker: “The parlor is ready, Mr. Phelps.”
The bearers carried the coffin along the narrow boards, while the undertaker ran ahead with the coffin-rests. They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a “Rogers group” of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax. Henry Steavens stared about him with the sickening conviction that there had been some horrible mistake, and that he had somehow arrived at the wrong destination. He looked painfully about over the clover-green Brussels, the fat plush upholstery, among the hand-painted china plaques and panels, and vases, for some mark of identification, for something that might once conceivably have belonged to Harvey Merrick. It was not until he recognized his friend in the crayon portrait of a little boy in kilts and curls hanging above the piano that he felt willing to let any of these people approach the coffin.
“Take the lid off, Mr. Thompson; let me see my boy’s face,” wailed the elder woman between her sobs. This time Steavens looked fearfully, almost beseechingly into her face, red and swollen under its masses of strong, black, shiny hair. He flushed, dropped his eyes, and then, almost incredulously, looked again. There was a kind of power about her face — a kind of brutal handsomeness, even, but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so colored and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there. The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end, and there were deep lines on either side of it; her heavy, black brows almost met across her forehead; her teeth were large and square and set far apart — teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water, and even Steavens felt himself being drawn into the whirlpool.
The daughter — the tall, rawboned woman in crepe, with a mourning comb in her hair which curiously lengthened her long face sat stiffly upon the sofa, her hands, conspicuous for their large knuckles, folded in her lap, her mouth and eyes drawn down, solemnly awaiting the opening of the coffin. Near the door stood a mulatto woman, evidently a servant in the house, with a timid bearing and an emaciated face pitifully sad and gentle. She was weeping silently, the corner of her calico apron lifted to her eyes, occasionally suppressing a long, quivering sob. Steavens walked over and stood beside her.
Feeble steps were heard on the stairs, and an old man, tall and frail, odorous of pipe smoke, with shaggy, unkept gray hair and a dingy beard, tobacco stained about the mouth, entered uncertainly. He went slowly up to the coffin and stood, rolling a blue cotton handkerchief between his hands, seeming so pained and embarrassed by his wife’s orgy of grief that he had no consciousness of anything else.
“There, there, Annie, dear, don’t take on so,” he quavered timidly, putting out a shaking hand and awkwardly patting her elbow. She turned with a cry and sank upon his shoulder with such violence that he tottered a little. He did not even glance toward the coffin, but continued to look at her with a dull, frightened, appealing expression, as a spaniel looks at the whip. His sunken cheeks slowly reddened and burned with miserable shame. When his wife rushed from the room her daughter strode after her with set lips. The servant stole up to the coffin, bent over it for a moment, and then slipped away to the kitchen, leaving Steavens, the lawyer, and the father to themselves. The old man stood trembling and looking down at his dead son’s face. The sculptor’s splendid head seemed even more noble in its rigid stillness than in life. The dark hair had crept down upon the wide forehead; the face seemed strangely long, but in it there was not that beautiful and chaste repose which we expect to find in the faces of the dead. The brows were so drawn that there were two deep lines above the beaked nose, and the chin was thrust forward defiantly. It was as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter that death could not at once wholly relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect peace — as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.
The old man’s lips were working under his stained beard. He turned to the lawyer with timid deference: “Phelps and the rest are comin’ back to set up with Harve, ain’t they?” he asked. “Thank ‘ee, Jim, thank ‘ee.” He brushed the hair back gently from his son’s forehead. “He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of ’em all — only we didn’t none of us ever onderstand him.” The tears trickled slowly down his beard and dropped upon the sculptor’s coat.
“Martin, Martin. Oh, Martin! come here,” his wife wailed from the top of the stairs. The old man started timorously: “Yes, Annie, I’m coming.” He turned away, hesitated stood for a moment in miserable indecision; then he reached back and patted the dead man’s hair softly, and stumbled from the room.
“Poor old man, I didn’t think he had any tears left. Seems as if his eyes would have gone dry long ago. At his age nothing cuts very deep,” remarked the lawyer.
Something in his tone made Steavens glance up. While the mother had been in the room the young man had scarcely seen anyone else; but now, from the moment he first glanced into Jim Laird’s florid face and bloodshot eyes, he knew that he had found what he had been heartsick at not finding before — the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in someone, even here.
The man was red as his beard, with features swollen and blurred by dissipation, and a hot, blazing blue eye. His face was strained — that of a man who is controlling himself with difficulty — and he kept plucking at his beard with a sort of fierce resentment. Steavens, sitting by the window, watched him turn down the glaring lamp, still its jangling pendants with an angry gesture, and then stand with his hands locked behind him, staring down into the master’s face. He could not help wondering what link there could have been between the porcelain vessel and so sooty a lump of potter’s clay.
From the kitchen an uproar was sounding; when the dining-room door opened the import of it was clear. The mother was abusing the maid for having forgotten to make the dressing for the chicken salad which had been prepared for the watchers. Steavens had never heard anything in the least like it; it was injured, emotional, dramatic abuse, unique and masterly in its excruciating cruelty, as violent and unrestrained as had been her grief of twenty minutes before. With a shudder of disgust the lawyer went into the dining room and closed the door into the kitchen.
“Poor Roxy’s getting it now,” he remarked when he came back. “The Merricks took her out of the poorhouse years ago; and if her loyalty would let her, I guess the poor old thing could tell tales that would curdle your blood. She’s the mulatto woman who was standing in here a while ago, with her apron to her eyes. The old woman is a fury; there never was anybody like her for demonstrative piety and ingenious cruelty. She made Harvey’s life a hell for him when he lived at home; he was so sick ashamed of it. I never could see how he kept himself so sweet.”
“He was wonderful,” said Steavens slowly, “wonderful; but until tonight I have never known how wonderful.”
“That is the true and eternal wonder of it, anyway; that it can come even from such a dung heap as this,” the lawyer cried, with a sweeping gesture which seemed to indicate much more than the four walls within which they stood.
“I think I’ll see whether I can get a little air. The room is so close I am beginning to feel rather faint,” murmured Steavens, struggling with one of the windows. The sash was stuck, however, and would not yield, so he sat down dejectedly and began pulling at his collar. The lawyer came over, loosened the sash with one blow of his red fist, and sent the window up a few inches. Steavens thanked him, but the nausea which had been gradually climbing into his throat for the last half-hour left him with but one desire — a desperate feeling that he must get away from this place with what was left of Harvey Merrick. Oh, he comprehended well enough now the quiet bitterness of the smile that he had seen so often on his master’s lips!
He remembered that once, when Merrick returned from a visit home, he brought with him a singularly feeling and suggestive bas-relief of a thin, faded old woman, sitting and sewing something pinned to her knee; while a full-lipped, full-blooded little urchin, his trousers held up by a single gallows, stood beside her, impatiently twitching her gown to call her attention to a butterfly he had caught. Steavens, impressed by the tender and delicate modeling of the thin, tired face, had asked him if it were his mother. He remembered the dull flush that had burned up in the sculptor’s face.
The lawyer was sitting in a rocking chair beside the coffin, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. Steavens looked at him earnestly, puzzled at the line of the chin, and wondering why a man should conceal a feature of such distinction under that disfiguring shock of beard. Suddenly, as though he felt the young sculptor’s keen glance, he opened his eyes.
“Was he always a good deal of an oyster?” he asked abruptly. “He was terribly shy as a boy.”
“Yes, he was an oyster, since you put it so,” rejoined Steavens. “Although he could be very fond of people, he always gave one the impression of being detached. He disliked violent emotion; he was reflective, and rather distrustful of himself — except, of course, as regarded his work. He was surefooted enough there. He distrusted men pretty thoroughly and women even more, yet somehow without believing ill of them. He was determined, indeed, to believe the best, but he seemed afraid to investigate.”
“A burnt dog dreads the fire,” said the lawyer grimly, and closed his eyes.
Steavens went on and on, reconstructing that whole miserable boyhood. All this raw, biting ugliness had been the portion of the man whose tastes were refined beyond the limits of the reasonable — whose mind was an exhaustless gallery of beautiful impressions, and so sensitive that the mere shadow of a poplar leaf flickering against a sunny wall would be etched and held there forever. Surely, if ever a man had the magic word in his fingertips, it was Merrick. Whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness, like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress spell for spell. Upon whatever he had come in contact with, he had left a beautiful record of the experience — a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own.
Steavens understood now the real tragedy of his master’s life; neither love nor wine, as many had conjectured, but a blow which had fallen earlier and cut deeper than these could have done — a shame not his, and yet so unescapably his, to bide in his heart from his very boyhood. And without — the frontier warfare; the yearning of a boy, cast ashore upon a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness, for all that is chastened and old, and noble with traditions.
At eleven o’clock the tall, flat woman in black crepe entered, announced that the watchers were arriving, and asked them “to step into the dining room.” As Steavens rose the lawyer said dryly: “You go on — it’ll be a good experience for you, doubtless; as for me, I’m not equal to that crowd tonight; I’ve had twenty years of them.”
As Steavens closed the door after him be glanced back at the lawyer, sitting by the coffin in the dim light, with his chin resting on his hand.
The same misty group that had stood before the door of the express car shuffled into the dining room. In the light of the kerosene lamp they separated and became individuals. The minister, a pale, feeble-looking man with white hair and blond chin-whiskers, took his seat beside a small side table and placed his Bible upon it. The Grand Army man sat down behind the stove and tilted his chair back comfortably against the wall, fishing his quill toothpick from his waistcoat pocket. The two bankers, Phelps and Elder, sat off in a corner behind the dinner table, where they could finish their discussion of the new usury law and its effect on chattel security loans. The real estate agent, an old man with a smiling, hypocritical face, soon joined them. The coal-and-lumber dealer and the cattle shipper sat on opposite sides of the hard coal-burner, their feet on the nickelwork. Steavens took a book from his pocket and began to read. The talk around him ranged through various topics of local interest while the house was quieting down. When it was clear that the members of the family were in bed the Grand Army man hitched his shoulders and, untangling his long legs, caught his heels on the rounds of his chair.
“S’pose there’ll be a will, Phelps?” he queried in his weak falsetto.
The banker laughed disagreeably and began trimming his nails with a pearl-handled pocketknife.
“There’ll scarcely be any need for one, will there?” he queried in his turn.
The restless Grand Army man shifted his position again, getting his knees still nearer his chin. “Why, the ole man says Harve’s done right well lately,” he chirped.
The other banker spoke up. “I reckon he means by that Harve ain’t asked him to mortgage any more farms lately, so as he could go on with his education.”
“Seems like my mind don’t reach back to a time when Harve wasn’t bein’ edycated,” tittered the Grand Army man.
There was a general chuckle. The minister took out his handkerchief and blew his nose sonorously. Banker Phelps closed his knife with a snap. “It’s too bad the old man’s sons didn’t turn out better,” he remarked with reflective authority. “They never hung together. He spent money enough on Harve to stock a dozen cattle farms and he might as well have poured it into Sand Creek. If Harve had stayed at home and helped nurse what little they had, and gone into stock on the old man’s bottom farm, they might all have been well fixed. But the old man had to trust everything to tenants and was cheated right and left.”
“Harve never could have handled stock none,” interposed the cattleman. “He hadn’t it in him to be sharp. Do you remember when he bought Sander’s mules for eight-year-olds, when everybody in town knew that Sander’s father-inlaw give ’em to his wife for a wedding present eighteen years before, an’ they was full-grown mules then.”
Everyone chuckled, and the Grand Army man rubbed his knees with a spasm of childish delight.
“Harve never was much account for anything practical, and he shore was never fond of work,” began the coal-and-lumber dealer. “I mind the last time he was home; the day he left, when the old man was out to the barn helpin’ his hand hitch up to take Harve to the train, and Cal Moots was patchin’ up the fence, Harve, he come out on the step and sings out, in his ladylike voice: ‘Cal Moots, Cal Moots! please come cord my trunk.’”
“That’s Harve for you,” approved the Grand Army man gleefully. “I kin hear him howlin’ yet when he was a big feller in long pants and his mother used to whale him with a rawhide in the barn for lettin’ the cows git foundered in the cornfield when he was drivin’ ’em home from pasture. He killed a cow of mine that-a-way onc’t — a pure Jersey and the best milker I had, an’ the ole man had to put up for her. Harve, he was watchin’ the sun set acros’t the marshes when the anamile got away; he argued that sunset was oncommon fine.”
“Where the old man made his mistake was in sending the boy East to school,” said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone. “There was where he got his head full of traipsing to Paris and all such folly. What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.”
The letters were swimming before Steavens’s eyes. Was it possible that these men did not understand, that the palm on the coffin meant nothing to them? The very name of their town would have remained forever buried in the postal guide had it not been now and again mentioned in the world in connection with Harvey Merrick’s. He remembered what his master had said to him on the day of his death, after the congestion of both lungs had shut off any probability of recovery, and the sculptor had asked his pupil to send his body home. “It’s not a pleasant place to be lying while the world is moving and doing and bettering,” he had said with a feeble smile, “but it rather seems as though we ought to go back to the place we came from in the end. The townspeople will come in for a look at me; and after they have had their say I shan’t have much to fear from the judgment of God. The wings of the Victory, in there” — with a weak gesture toward his studio — “will not shelter me.”
The cattleman took up the comment. “Forty’s young for a Merrick to cash in; they usually hang on pretty well. Probably he helped it along with whisky.”
“His mother’s people were not long-lived, and Harvey never had a robust constitution,” said the minister mildly. He would have liked to say more. He had been the boy’s Sunday-school teacher, and had been fond of him; but he felt that he was not in a position to speak. His own sons had turned out badly, and it was not a year since one of them had made his last trip home in the express car, shot in a gambling house in the Black Hills.
“Nevertheless, there is no disputin’ that Harve frequently looked upon the wine when it was red, also variegated, and it shore made an oncommon fool of him,” moralized the cattleman.
Just then the door leading into the parlor rattled loudly, and everyone started involuntarily, looking relieved when only Jim Laird came out. His red face was convulsed with anger, and the Grand Army man ducked his head when he saw the spark in his blue, bloodshot eye. They were all afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door gently behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the courtroom, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.
“I’ve been with you gentlemen before,” he began in a dry, even tone, “when you’ve sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too well satisfied when you checked them up. What’s the matter, anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town. Why did Ruben Sayer, the brightest young lawyer you ever turned out, after he had come home from the university as straight as a die, take to drinking and forge a check and shoot himself? Why did Bill Merrit’s son die of the shakes in a saloon in Omaha? Why was Mr. Thomas’s son, here, shot in a gambling house? Why did young Adams burn his mill to beat the insurance companies and go to the pen?”
The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. “I’ll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you’ve been carping here tonight, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams. But the boys, worse luck, were young and raw at the business you put them to; and how could they match coppers with such artists as Phelps and Elder? You wanted them to be successful rascals; they were only unsuccessful ones — that’s all the difference. There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn’t come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him! Phelps, here, is fond of saying that he could buy and sell us all out any time he’s a mind to; but he knew Harve wouldn’t have given a tinker’s damn for his bank and all his cattle farms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps.
“Old Nimrod, here, thinks Harve drank too much; and this from such as Nimrod and me!”
“Brother Elder says Harve was too free with the old man’s money — fell short in filial consideration, maybe. Well, we can all remember the very tone in which brother Elder swore his own father was a liar, in the county court; and we all know that the old man came out of that partnership with his son as bare as a sheared lamb. But maybe I’m getting personal, and I’d better be driving ahead at what I want to say.”
The lawyer paused a moment, squared his heavy shoulders, and went on: “Harvey Merrick and I went to school together, back East. We were dead in earnest, and we wanted you all to be proud of us some day. We meant to be great men. Even I, and I haven’t lost my sense of humor, gentlemen, I meant to be a great man. I came back here to practice, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer — oh, yes! Our veteran here wanted me to get him an increase of pension, because he had dyspepsia; Phelps wanted a new county survey that would put the widow Wilson’s little bottom farm inside his south line; Elder wanted to lend money at 5 per cent a month and get it collected; old Stark here wanted to wheedle old women up in Vermont into investing their annuities in real estate mortgages that are not worth the paper they are written on. Oh, you needed me hard enough, and you’ll go on needing me; and that’s why I’m not afraid to plug the truth home to you this once.
“Well, I came back here and became the damned shyster you wanted me to be. You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians! There have been times when the sight of Harvey’s name in some Eastern paper has made me hang my head like a whipped dog; and, again, times when I liked to think of him off there in the world, away from all this hog wallow, doing his great work and climbing the big, clean upgrade he’d set for himself.
“And we? Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen, and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it? Harvey Merrick wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes for all you’ve got put together, and you know it. It’s not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he’s been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could ever have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City — upon which town may God have mercy!”
The lawyer thrust out his hand to Steavens as he passed him, caught up his overcoat in the hall, and had left the house before the Grand Army man had had time to lift his ducked head and crane his long neck about at his fellows.
Next day Jim Laird was drunk and unable to attend the funeral services. Steavens called twice at his office, but was compelled to start East without seeing him. He had a presentiment that he would hear from him again, and left his address on the lawyer’s table; but if Laird found it, he never acknowledged it. The thing in him that Harvey Merrick had loved must have gone underground with Harvey Merrick’s coffin; for it never spoke again, and Jim got the cold he died of driving across the Colorado mountains to defend one of Phelps’s sons, who had got into trouble out there by cutting government timber.
Everett Hilgarde was conscious that the man in the seat across the aisle was looking at him intently. He was a large, florid man, wore a conspicuous diamond solitaire upon his third finger, and Everett judged him to be a traveling salesman of some sort. He had the air of an adaptable fellow who had been about the world and who could keep cool and clean under almost any circumstances.
The “High Line Flyer,” as this train was derisively called among railroad men, was jerking along through the hot afternoon over the monotonous country between Holdridge and Cheyenne. Besides the blond man and himself the only occupants of the car were two dusty, bedraggled-looking girls who had been to the Exposition at Chicago, and who were earnestly discussing the cost of their first trip out of Colorado. The four uncomfortable passengers were covered with a sediment of fine, yellow dust which clung to their hair and eyebrows like gold powder. It blew up in clouds from the bleak, lifeless country through which they passed, until they were one color with the sagebrush and sandhills. The gray-and-yellow desert was varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns, and the little red boxes of station houses, where the spindling trees and sickly vines in the bluegrass yards made little green reserves fenced off in that confusing wilderness of sand.
As the slanting rays of the sun beat in stronger and stronger through the car windows, the blond gentleman asked the ladies’ permission to remove his coat, and sat in his lavender striped shirt sleeves, with a black silk handkerchief tucked carefully about his collar. He had seemed interested in Everett since they had boarded the train at Holdridge, and kept glancing at him curiously and then looking reflectively out of the window, as though he were trying to recall something. But wherever Everett went someone was almost sure to look at him with that curious interest, and it had ceased to embarrass or annoy him. Presently the stranger, seeming satisfied with his observation, leaned back in his seat, half-closed his eyes, and began softly to whistle the “Spring Song” from Proserpine, the cantata that a dozen years before had made its young composer famous in a night. Everett had heard that air on guitars in Old Mexico, on mandolins at college glees, on cottage organs in New England hamlets, and only two weeks ago he had heard it played on sleighbells at a variety theater in Denver. There was literally no way of escaping his brother’s precocity. Adriance could live on the other side of the Atlantic, where his youthful indiscretions were forgotten in his mature achievements, but his brother had never been able to outrun Proserpine, and here he found it again in the Colorado sand hills. Not that Everett was exactly ashamed of Proserpine; only a man of genius could have written it, but it was the sort of thing that a man of genius outgrows as soon as he can.
Everett unbent a trifle and smiled at his neighbor across the aisle. Immediately the large man rose and, coming over, dropped into the seat facing Hilgarde, extending his card.
“Dusty ride, isn’t it? I don’t mind it myself; I’m used to it. Born and bred in de briar patch, like Br’er Rabbit. I’ve been trying to place you for a long time; I think I must have met you before.”
“Thank you,” said Everett, taking the card; “my name is Hilgarde. You’ve probably met my brother, Adriance; people often mistake me for him.”
The traveling man brought his hand down upon his knee with such vehemence that the solitaire blazed.
“So I was right after all, and if you’re not Adriance Hilgarde, you’re his double. I thought I couldn’t be mistaken. Seen him? Well, I guess! I never missed one of his recitals at the Auditorium, and he played the piano score of Proserpine through to us once at the Chicago Press Club. I used to be on the Commercial there before I 146 began to travel for the publishing department of the concern. So you’re Hilgarde’s brother, and here I’ve run into you at the jumping-off place. Sounds like a newspaper yarn, doesn’t it?”
The traveling man laughed and offered Everett a cigar, and plied him with questions on the only subject that people ever seemed to care to talk to Everett about. At length the salesman and the two girls alighted at a Colorado way station, and Everett went on to Cheyenne alone.
The train pulled into Cheyenne at nine o’clock, late by a matter of four hours or so; but no one seemed particularly concerned at its tardiness except the station agent, who grumbled at being kept in the office overtime on a summer night. When Everett alighted from the train he walked down the platform and stopped at the track crossing, uncertain as to what direction he should take to reach a hotel. A phaeton stood near the crossing, and a woman held the reins. She was dressed in white, and her figure was clearly silhouetted against the cushions, though it was too dark to see her face. Everett had scarcely noticed her, when the switch engine came puffing up from the opposite direction, and the headlight threw a strong glare of light on his face. Suddenly the woman in the phaeton uttered a low cry and dropped the reins. Everett started forward and caught the horse’s head, but the animal only lifted its ears and whisked its tail in impatient surprise. The woman sat perfectly still, her head sunk between her shoulders and her handkerchief pressed to her face. Another woman came out of the depot and hurried toward the phaeton, crying, “Katharine, dear, what is the matter?”
Everett hesitated a moment in painful embarrassment, then lifted his hat and passed on. He was accustomed to sudden recognitions in the most impossible places, especially by women, but this cry out of the night had shaken him.
While Everett was breakfasting the next morning, the headwaiter leaned over his chair to murmur that there was a gentleman waiting to see him in the parlor. Everett finished his coffee and went in the direction indicated, where he found his visitor restlessly pacing the floor. His whole manner betrayed a high degree of agitation, though his physique was not that of a man whose nerves lie near the surface. He was something below medium height, square-shouldered and solidly built. His thick, closely cut hair was beginning to show gray about the ears, and his bronzed face was heavily lined. His square brown hands were locked behind him, and he held his shoulders like a man conscious of responsibilities; yet, as he turned to greet Everett, there was an incongruous diffidence in his address.
“Good morning, Mr. Hilgarde,” he said, extending his hand; “I found your name on the hotel register. My name is Gaylord. I’m afraid my sister startled you at the station last night, Mr. Hilgarde, and I’ve come around to apologize.”
“Ah! The young lady in the phaeton? I’m sure I didn’t know whether I had anything to do with her alarm or not. If I did, it is I who owe the apology.”
The man colored a little under the dark brown of his face.
“Oh, it’s nothing you could help, sir, I fully understand that. You see, my sister used to be a pupil of your brother’s, and it seems you favor him; and when the switch engine threw a light on your face it startled her.”
Everett wheeled about in his chair. “Oh! Katharine Gaylord! Is it possible! Now it’s you who have given me a turn. Why, I used to know her when I was a boy. What on earth — ”
“Is she doing here?” said Gaylord, grimly filling out the pause. “You’ve got at the heart of the matter. You knew my sister had been in bad health for a long time?”
“No, I had never heard a word of that. The last I knew of her she was singing in London. My brother and I correspond infrequently and seldom get beyond family matters. I am deeply sorry to hear this. There are more reasons why I am concerned than I can tell you.”
The lines in Charley Gaylord’s brow relaxed a little.
“What I’m trying to say, Mr. Hilgarde, is that she wants to see you. I hate to ask you, but she’s so set on it. We live several miles out of town, but my rig’s below, and I can take you out anytime you can go.”
“I can go now, and it will give me real pleasure to do so,” said Everett, quickly. “I’ll get my hat and be with you in a moment.”
When he came downstairs Everett found a cart at the door, and Charley Gaylord drew a long sigh of relief as he gathered up the reins and settled back into his own element.
“You see, I think I’d better tell you something about my sister before you see her, and I don’t know just where to begin. She traveled in Europe with your brother and his wife, and sang at a lot of his concerts; but I don’t know just how much you know about her.”
“Very little, except that my brother always thought her the most gifted of his pupils, and that when I knew her she was very young and very beautiful and turned my head sadly for a while.”
Everett saw that Gaylord’s mind was quite engrossed by his grief. He was wrought up to the point where his reserve and sense of proportion had quite left him, and his trouble was the one vital thing in the world. “That’s the whole thing,” he went on, flicking his horses with the whip.
“She was a great woman, as you say, and she didn’t come of a great family. She had to fight her own way from the first. She got to Chicago, and then to New York, and then to Europe, where she went up like lightning, and got a taste for it all; and now she’s dying here like a rat in a hole, out of her own world, and she can’t fall back into ours. We’ve grown apart, some way — miles and miles apart — and I’m afraid she’s fearfully unhappy.”
“It’s a very tragic story that you are telling me, Gaylord,” said Everett. They were well out into the country now, spinning along over the dusty plains of red grass, with the ragged-blue outline of the mountains before them.
“Tragic!” cried Gaylord, starting up in his seat, “my God, man, nobody will ever know how tragic. It’s a tragedy I live with and eat with and sleep with, until I’ve lost my grip on everything. You see she had made a good bit of money, but she spent it all going to health resorts. It’s her lungs, you know. I’ve got money enough to send her anywhere, but the doctors all say it’s no use. She hasn’t the ghost of a chance. It’s just getting through the days now. I had no notion she was half so bad before she came to me. She just wrote that she was all run down. Now that she’s here, I think she’d be happier anywhere under the sun, but she won’t leave. She says it’s easier to let go of life here, and that to go East would be dying twice. There was a time when I was a brakeman with a run out of Bird City, Iowa, and she was a little thing I could carry on my shoulder, when I could get her everything on earth she wanted, and she hadn’t a wish my $80 a month didn’t cover; and now, when I’ve got a little property together, I can’t buy her a night’s sleep!”
Everett saw that, whatever Charley Gaylord’s present status in the world might be, he had brought the brakeman’s heart up the ladder with him, and the brakeman’s frank avowal of sentiment. Presently Gaylord went on:
“You can understand how she has outgrown her family. We’re all a pretty common sort, railroaders from away back. My father was a conductor. He died when we were kids. Maggie, my other sister, who lives with me, was a telegraph operator here while I was getting my grip on things. We had no education to speak of. I have to hire a stenographer because I can’t spell straight — the Almighty couldn’t teach me to spell. The things that make up life to Kate are all Greek to me, and there’s scarcely a point where we touch any more, except in our recollections of the old times when we were all young and happy together, and Kate sang in a church choir in Bird City. But I believe, Mr. Hilgarde, that if she can see just one person like you, who knows about the things and people she’s interested in, it will give her about the only comfort she can have now.”
The reins slackened in Charley Gaylord’s hand as they drew up before a showily painted house with many gables and a round tower. “Here we are,” he said, turning to Everett, “and I guess we understand each other.”
They were met at the door by a thin, colorless woman, whom Gaylord introduced as “my sister, Maggie.” She asked her brother to show Mr. Hilgarde into the music room, where Katharine wished to see him alone.
When Everett entered the music room he gave a little start of surprise, feeling that he had stepped from the glaring Wyoming sunlight into some New York studio that he had always known. He wondered which it was of those countless studios, high up under the roofs, over banks and shops and wholesale houses, that this room resembled, and he looked incredulously out of the window at the gray plain that ended in the great upheaval of the Rockies.
The haunting air of familiarity about the room perplexed him. Was it a copy of some particular studio he knew, or was it merely the studio atmosphere that seemed so individual and poignantly reminiscent here in Wyoming? He sat down in a reading chair and looked keenly about him. Suddenly his eye fell upon a large photograph of his brother above the piano. Then it all became clear to him: this was veritably his brother’s room. If it were not an exact copy of one of the many studios that Adriance had fitted up in various parts of the world, wearying of them and leaving almost before the renovator’s varnish had dried, it was at least in the same tone. In every detail Adriance’s taste was so manifest that the room seemed to exhale his personality.
Among the photographs on the wall there was one of Katharine Gaylord, taken in the days when Everett had known her, and when the flash of her eye or the flutter of her skirt was enough to set his boyish heart in a tumult. Even now, he stood before the portrait with a certain degree of embarrassment. It was the face of a woman already old in her first youth, thoroughly sophisticated and a trifle hard, and it told of what her brother had called her fight. The camaraderie of her frank, confident eyes was qualified by the deep lines about her mouth and the curve of the lips, which was both sad and cynical. Certainly she had more good will than confidence toward the world, and the bravado of her smile could not conceal the shadow of an unrest that was almost discontent. The chief charm of the woman, as Everett had known her, lay in her superb figure and in her eyes, which possessed a warm, lifegiving quality like the sunlight; eyes which glowed with a sort of perpetual salutat to the world. Her head, Everett remembered as peculiarly well-shaped and proudly poised. There had been always a little of the imperatrix about her, and her pose in the photograph revived all his old impressions of her unattachedness, of how absolutely and valiantly she stood alone.
Everett was still standing before the picture, his hands behind him and his head inclined, when he heard the door open. A very tall woman advanced toward him, holding out her hand. As she started to speak, she coughed slightly; then, laughing, said, in a low, rich voice, a trifle husky: “You see I make the traditional Camille entrance — with the cough. How good of you to come, Mr. Hilgarde.”
Everett was acutely conscious that while addressing him she was not looking at him at all, and, as he assured her of his pleasure in coming, he was glad to have an opportunity to collect himself. He had not reckoned upon the ravages of a long illness. The long, loose folds of her white gown had been especially designed to conceal the sharp outlines of her emaciated body, but the stamp of her disease was there; simple and ugly and obtrusive, a pitiless fact that could not be disguised or evaded. The splendid shoulders were stooped, there was a swaying unevenness in her gait, her arms seemed disproportionately long, and her hands were transparently white and cold to the touch. The changes in her face were less obvious; the proud carriage of the head, the warm, clear eyes, even the delicate flush of color in her cheeks, all defiantly remained, though they were all in a lower key — older, sadder, softer.
She sat down upon the divan and began nervously to arrange the pillows. “I know I’m not an inspiring object to look upon, but you must be quite frank and sensible about that and get used to it at once, for we’ve no time to lose. And if I’m a trifle irritable you won’t mind? — for I’m more than usually nervous.”
“Don’t bother with me this morning, if you are tired,” urged Everett. “I can come quite as well tomorrow.”
“Gracious, no!” she protested, with a flash of that quick, keen humor that he remembered as a part of her. “It’s solitude that I’m tired to death of — solitude and the wrong kind of people. You see, the minister, not content with reading the prayers for the sick, called on me this morning. He happened to be riding by on his bicycle and felt it his duty to stop. Of course, he disapproves of my profession, and I think he takes it for granted that I have a dark past. The funniest feature of his conversation is that he is always excusing my own vocation to me — condoning it, you know — and trying to patch up my peace with my conscience by suggesting possible noble uses for what he kindly calls my talent.”
Everett laughed. “Oh! I’m afraid I’m not the person to call after such a serious gentleman — I can’t sustain the situation. At my best I don’t reach higher than low comedy. Have you decided to which one of the noble uses you will devote yourself?”
Katharine lifted her hands in a gesture of renunciation and exclaimed: “I’m not equal to any of them, not even the least noble. I didn’t study that method.”
She laughed and went on nervously: “The parson’s not so bad. His English never offends me, and he has read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, all five volumes, and that’s something. Then, he has been to New York, and that’s a great deal. But how we are losing time! Do tell me about New York; Charley says you’re just on from there. How does it look and taste and smell just now? I think a whiff of the Jersey ferry would be as flagons of cod-liver oil to me. Who conspicuously walks the Rialto now, and what does he or she wear? Are the trees still green in Madison Square, or have they grown brown and dusty? Does the chaste Diana on the Garden Theatre still keep her vestal vows through all the exasperating changes of weather? Who has your brother’s old studio now, and what misguided aspirants practice their scales in the rookeries about Carnegie Hall? What do people go to see at the theaters, and what do they eat and drink there in the world nowadays? You see, I’m homesick for it all, from the Battery to Riverside. Oh, let me die in Harlem!” She was interrupted by a violent attack of coughing, and Everett, embarrassed by her discomfort, plunged into gossip about the professional people he had met in town during the summer and the musical outlook for the winter. He was diagraming with his pencil, on the back of an old envelope he found in his pocket, some new mechanical device to be used at the Metropolitan in the production of the Rheingold, when he became conscious that she was looking at him intently, and that he was talking to the four walls.
Katharine was lying back among the pillows, watching him through half-closed eyes, as a painter looks at a picture. He finished his explanation vaguely enough and put the envelope back in his pocket. As he did so she said, quietly: “How wonderfully like Adriance you are!” and he felt as though a crisis of some sort had been met and tided over.
He laughed, looking up at her with a touch of pride in his eyes that made them seem quite boyish. “Yes, isn’t it absurd? It’s almost as awkward as looking like Napoleon — but, after all, there are some advantages. It has made some of his friends like me, and I hope it will make you.”
Katharine smiled and gave him a quick, meaning glance from under her lashes. “Oh, it did that long ago. What a haughty, reserved youth you were then, and how you used to stare at people and then blush and look cross if they paid you back in your own coin. Do you remember that night when you took me home from a rehearsal and scarcely spoke a word to me?”
“It was the silence of admiration,” protested Everett, “very crude and boyish, but very sincere and not a little painful. Perhaps you suspected something of the sort? I remember you saw fit to be very grown-up and worldly.
“I believe I suspected a pose; the one that college boys usually affect with singers — ‘an earthen vessel in love with a star,’ you know. But it rather surprised me in you, for you must have seen a good deal of your brother’s pupils. Or had you an omnivorous capacity, and elasticity that always met the occasion?”
“Don’t ask a man to confess the follies of his youth,” said Everett, smiling a little sadly; “I am sensitive about some of them even now. But I was not so sophisticated as you imagined. I saw my brother’s pupils come and go, but that was about all. Sometimes I was called on to play accompaniments, or to fill out a vacancy at a rehearsal, or to order a carriage for an infuriated soprano who had thrown up her part. But they never spent any time on me, unless it was to notice the resemblance you speak of.”
“Yes”, observed Katharine, thoughtfully, “I noticed it then, too; but it has grown as you have grown older. That is rather strange, when you have lived such different lives. It’s not merely an ordinary family likeness of feature, you know, but a sort of interchangeable individuality; the suggestion of the other man’s personality in your face like an air transposed to another key. But I’m not attempting to define it; it’s beyond me; something altogether unusual and a trifle — well, uncanny,” she finished, laughing.
“I remember,” Everett said seriously, twirling the pencil between his fingers and looking, as he sat with his head thrown back, out under the red window blind which was raised just a little, and as it swung back and forth in the wind revealed the glaring panorama of the desert — a blinding stretch of yellow, flat as the sea in dead calm, splotched here and there with deep purple shadows; and, beyond, the ragged-blue outline of the mountains and the peaks of snow, white as the white clouds — “I remember, when I was a little fellow I used to be very sensitive about it. I don’t think it exactly displeased me, or that I would have had it otherwise if I could, but it seemed to me like a birthmark, or something not to be lightly spoken of. People were naturally always fonder of Ad than of me, and I used to feel the chill of reflected light pretty often. It came into even my relations with my mother. Ad went abroad to study when he was absurdly young, you know, and mother was all broken up over it. She did her whole duty by each of us, but it was sort of generally understood among us that she’d have made burnt offerings of us all for Ad any day. I was a little fellow then, and when she sat alone on the porch in the summer dusk she used sometimes to call me to her and turn my face up in the light that streamed out through the shutters and kiss me, and then I always knew she was thinking of Adriance.”
“Poor little chap,” said Katharine, and her tone was a trifle huskier than usual. “How fond people have always been of Adriance! Now tell me the latest news of him. I haven’t heard, except through the press, for a year or more. He was in Algeria then, in the valley of the Chelif, riding horseback night and day in an Arabian costume, and in his usual enthusiastic fashion he had quite made up his mind to adopt the Mohammedan faith and become as nearly an Arab as possible. How many countries and faiths has he adopted, I wonder? Probably he was playing Arab to himself all the time. I remember he was a sixteenth-century duke in Florence once for weeks together.”
“Oh, that’s Adriance,” chuckled Everett. “He is himself barely long enough to write checks and be measured for his clothes. I didn’t hear from him while he was an Arab; I missed that.”
“He was writing an Algerian suite for the piano then; it must be in the publisher’s hands by this time. I have been too ill to answer his letter, and have lost touch with him.”
Everett drew a letter from his pocket. “This came about a month ago. It’s chiefly about his new opera, which is to be brought out in London next winter. Read it at your leisure.”
“I think I shall keep it as a hostage, so that I may be sure you will come again. Now I want you to play for me. Whatever you like; but if there is anything new in the world, in mercy let me hear it. For nine months I have heard nothing but ‘The Baggage Coach Ahead’ and ‘She Is My Baby’s Mother.’”
He sat down at the piano, and Katharine sat near him, absorbed in his remarkable physical likeness to his brother and trying to discover in just what it consisted. She told herself that it was very much as though a sculptor’s finished work had been rudely copied in wood. He was of a larger build than Adriance, and his shoulders were broad and heavy, while those of his brother were slender and rather girlish. His face was of the same oval mold, but it was gray and darkened about the mouth by continual shaving. His eyes were of the same inconstant April color, but they were reflective and rather dull; while Adriance’s were always points of highlight, and always meaning another thing than the thing they meant yesterday. But it was hard to see why this earnest man should so continually suggest that lyric, youthful face that was as gay as his was grave. For Adriance, though he was ten years the elder, and though his hair was streaked with silver, had the face of a boy of twenty, so mobile that it told his thoughts before he could put them into words. A contralto, famous for the extravagance of her vocal methods and of her affections, had once said to him that the shepherd boys who sang in the Vale of Tempe must certainly have looked like young Hilgarde; and the comparison had been appropriated by a hundred shyer women who preferred to quote.
As Everett sat smoking on the veranda of the Inter–Ocean House that night, he was a victim to random recollections. His infatuation for Katharine Gaylord, visionary as it was, had been the most serious of his boyish love affairs, and had long disturbed his bachelor dreams. He was painfully timid in everything relating to the emotions, and his hurt had withdrawn him from the society of women. The fact that it was all so done and dead and far behind him, and that the woman had lived her life out since then, gave him an oppressive sense of age and loss. He bethought himself of something he had read about “sitting by the hearth and remembering the faces of women without desire,” and felt himself an octogenarian.
He remembered how bitter and morose he had grown during his stay at his brother’s studio when Katharine Gaylord was working there, and how he had wounded Adriance on the night of his last concert in New York. He had sat there in the box while his brother and Katharine were called back again and again after the last number, watching the roses go up over the footlights until they were stacked half as high as the piano, brooding, in his sullen boy’s heart, upon the pride those two felt in each other’s work — spurring each other to their best and beautifully contending in song. The footlights had seemed a hard, glittering line drawn sharply between their life and his; a circle of flame set about those splendid children of genius. He walked back to his hotel alone and sat in his window staring out on Madison Square until long after midnight, resolving to beat no more at doors that he could never enter and realizing more keenly than ever before how far this glorious world of beautiful creations lay from the paths of men like himself. He told himself that he had in common with this woman only the baser uses of life.
Everett’s week in Cheyenne stretched to three, and he saw no prospect of release except through the thing he dreaded. The bright, windy days of the Wyoming autumn passed swiftly. Letters and telegrams came urging him to hasten his trip to the coast, but he resolutely postponed his business engagements. The mornings he spent on one of Charley Gaylord’s ponies, or fishing in the mountains, and in the evenings he sat in his room writing letters or reading. In the afternoon he was usually at his post of duty. Destiny, he reflected, seems to have very positive notions about the sort of parts we are fitted to play. The scene changes and the compensation varies, but in the end we usually find that we have played the same class of business from first to last. Everett had been a stopgap all his life. He remembered going through a looking glass labyrinth when he was a boy and trying gallery after gallery, only at every turn to bump his nose against his own face — which, indeed, was not his own, but his brother’s. No matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he was sure to find himself employed in his brother’s business, one of the tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance Hilgarde’s. It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort, as best he could, one of the broken things his brother’s imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten. He made no attempt to analyze the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he felt Katharine Gaylord’s need for him, and he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this woman to die. Day by day he felt her demands on him grow more imperious, her need for him grow more acute and positive; and day by day he felt that in his peculiar relation to her his own individuality played a smaller and smaller part. His power to minister to her comfort, he saw, lay solely in his link with his brother’s life. He understood all that his physical resemblance meant to her. He knew that she sat by him always watching for some common trick of gesture, some familiar play of expression, some illusion of light and shadow, in which he should seem wholly Adriance. He knew that she lived upon this and that her disease fed upon it; that it sent shudders of remembrance through her and that in the exhaustion which followed this turmoil of her dying senses, she slept deep and sweet and dreamed of youth and art and days in a certain old Florentine garden, and not of bitterness and death.
The question which most perplexed him was, “How much shall I know? How much does she wish me to know?” A few days after his first meeting with Katharine Gaylord, he had cabled his brother to write her. He had merely said that she was mortally ill; he could depend on Adriance to say the right thing — that was a part of his gift. Adriance always said not only the right thing, but the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing. His phrases took the color of the moment and the then-present condition, so that they never savored of perfunctory compliment or frequent usage. He always caught the lyric essence of the moment, the poetic suggestion of every situation. Moreover, he usually did the right thing, the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing — except, when he did very cruel things — bent upon making people happy when their existence touched his, just as he insisted that his material environment should be beautiful; lavishing upon those near him all the warmth and radiance of his rich nature, all the homage of the poet and troubadour, and, when they were no longer near, forgetting — for that also was a part of Adriance’s gift.
Three weeks after Everett had sent his cable, when he made his daily call at the gaily painted ranch house, he found Katharine laughing like a schoolgirl. “Have you ever thought,” she said, as he entered the music room, “how much these seances of ours are like Heine’s ‘Florentine Nights,’ except that I don’t give you an opportunity to monopolize the conversation as Heine did?” She held his hand longer than usual, as she greeted him, and looked searchingly up into his face. “You are the kindest man living; the kindest,” she added, softly.
Everett’s gray face colored faintly as he drew his hand away, for he felt that this time she was looking at him and not at a whimsical caricature of his brother. “Why, what have I done now?” he asked, lamely. “I can’t remember having sent you any stale candy or champagne since yesterday.”
She drew a letter with a foreign postmark from between the leaves of a book and held it out, smiling. “You got him to write it. Don’t say you didn’t, for it came direct, you see, and the last address I gave him was a place in Florida. This deed shall be remembered of you when I am with the just in Paradise. But one thing you did not ask him to do, for you didn’t know about it. He has sent me his latest work, the new sonata, the most ambitious thing he has ever done, and you are to play it for me directly, though it looks horribly intricate. But first for the letter; I think you would better read it aloud to me.”
Everett sat down in a low chair facing the window seat in which she reclined with a barricade of pillows behind her. He opened the letter, his lashes half-veiling his kind eyes, and saw to his satisfaction that it was a long one — wonderfully tactful and tender, even for Adriance, who was tender with his valet and his stable boy, with his old gondolier and the beggar-women who prayed to the saints for him.
The letter was from Granada, written in the Alhambra, as he sat by the fountain of the Patio di Lindaraxa. The air was heavy, with the warm fragrance of the South and full of the sound of splashing, running water, as it had been in a certain old garden in Florence, long ago. The sky was one great turquoise, heated until it glowed. The wonderful Moorish arches threw graceful blue shadows all about him. He had sketched an outline of them on the margin of his notepaper. The subtleties of Arabic decoration had cast an unholy spell over him, and the brutal exaggerations of Gothic art were a bad dream, easily forgotten. The Alhambra itself had, from the first, seemed perfectly familiar to him, and he knew that he must have trod that court, sleek and brown and obsequious, centuries before Ferdinand rode into Andalusia. The letter was full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship, and of her own work, still so warmly remembered and appreciatively discussed everywhere he went.
As Everett folded the letter he felt that Adriance had divined the thing needed and had risen to it in his own wonderful way. The letter was consistently egotistical and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted. A strong realization of his brother’s charm and intensity and power came over him; he felt the breath of that whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path, and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others. Then he looked down at this white, burnt-out brand that lay before him. “Like him, isn’t it?” she said, quietly.
“I think I can scarcely answer his letter, but when you see him next you can do that for me. I want you to tell him many things for me, yet they can all be summed up in this: I want him to grow wholly into his best and greatest self, even at the cost of the dear boyishness that is half his charm to you and me. Do you understand me?”
“I know perfectly well what you mean,” answered Everett, thoughtfully. “I have often felt so about him myself. And yet it’s difficult to prescribe for those fellows; so little makes, so little mars.”
Katharine raised herself upon her elbow, and her face flushed with feverish earnestness. “Ah, but it is the waste of himself that I mean; his lashing himself out on stupid and uncomprehending people until they take him at their own estimate. He can kindle marble, strike fire from putty, but is it worth what it costs him?”
“Come, come,” expostulated Everett, alarmed at her excitement. “Where is the new sonata? Let him speak for himself.”
He sat down at the piano and began playing the first movement, which was indeed the voice of Adriance, his proper speech. The sonata was the most ambitious work he had done up to that time and marked the transition from his purely lyric vein to a deeper and nobler style. Everett played intelligently and with that sympathetic comprehension which seems peculiar to a certain lovable class of men who never accomplish anything in particular. When he had finished he turned to Katharine.
“How he has grown!” she cried. “What the three last years have done for him! He used to write only the tragedies of passion; but this is the tragedy of the soul, the shadow coexistent with the soul. This is the tragedy of effort and failure, the thing Keats called hell. This is my tragedy, as I lie here spent by the racecourse, listening to the feet of the runners as they pass me. Ah, God! The swift feet of the runners!”
She turned her face away and covered it with her straining hands. Everett crossed over to her quickly and knelt beside her. In all the days he had known her she had never before, beyond an occasional ironical jest, given voice to the bitterness of her own defeat. Her courage had become a point of pride with him, and to see it going sickened him.
“Don’t do it,” he gasped. “I can’t stand it, I really can’t, I feel it too much. We mustn’t speak of that; it’s too tragic and too vast.”
When she turned her face back to him there was a ghost of the old, brave, cynical smile on it, more bitter than the tears she could not shed. “No, I won’t be so ungenerous; I will save that for the watches of the night when I have no better company. Now you may mix me another drink of some sort. Formerly, when it was not if I should ever sing Brunnhilde, but quite simply when I should sing Brunnhilde, I was always starving myself and thinking what I might drink and what I might not. But broken music boxes may drink whatsoever they list, and no one cares whether they lose their figure. Run over that theme at the beginning again. That, at least, is not new. It was running in his head when we were in Venice years ago, and he used to drum it on his glass at the dinner table. He had just begun to work it out when the late autumn came on, and the paleness of the Adriatic oppressed him, and he decided to go to Florence for the winter, and lost touch with the theme during his illness. Do you remember those frightful days? All the people who have loved him are not strong enough to save him from himself! When I got word from Florence that he had been ill I was in Nice filling a concert engagement. His wife was hurrying to him from Paris, but I reached him first. I arrived at dusk, in a terrific storm. They had taken an old palace there for the winter, and I found him in the library — a long, dark room full of old Latin books and heavy furniture and bronzes. He was sitting by a wood fire at one end of the room, looking, oh, so worn and pale! — as he always does when he is ill, you know. Ah, it is so good that you do know! Even his red smoking jacket lent no color to his face. His first words were not to tell me how ill he had been, but that that morning he had been well enough to put the last strokes to the score of his Souvenirs d’Automne. He was as I most like to remember him: so calm and happy and tired; not gay, as he usually is, but just contented and tired with that heavenly tiredness that comes after a good work done at last. Outside, the rain poured down in torrents, and the wind moaned for the pain of all the world and sobbed in the branches of the shivering olives and about the walls of that desolated old palace. How that night comes back to me! There were no lights in the room, only the wood fire which glowed upon the hard features of the bronze Dante, like the reflection of purgatorial flames, and threw long black shadows about us; beyond us it scarcely penetrated the gloom at all, Adriance sat staring at the fire with the weariness of all his life in his eyes, and of all the other lives that must aspire and suffer to make up one such life as his. Somehow the wind with all its world-pain had got into the room, and the cold rain was in our eyes, and the wave came up in both of us at once — that awful, vague, universal pain, that cold fear of life and death and God and hope — and we were like two clinging together on a spar in midocean after the shipwreck of everything. Then we heard the front door open with a great gust of wind that shook even the walls, and the servants came running with lights, announcing that Madam had returned, ’and in the book we read no more that night.‘”
She gave the old line with a certain bitter humor, and with the hard, bright smile in which of old she had wrapped her weakness as in a glittering garment. That ironical smile, worn like a mask through so many years, had gradually changed even the lines of her face completely, and when she looked in the mirror she saw not herself, but the scathing critic, the amused observer and satirist of herself. Everett dropped his head upon his hand and sat looking at the rug. “How much you have cared!” he said.
“Ah, yes, I cared,” she replied, closing her eyes with a long-drawn sigh of relief; and lying perfectly still, she went on: “You can’t imagine what a comfort it is to have you know how I cared, what a relief it is to be able to tell it to someone. I used to want to shriek it out to the world in the long nights when I could not sleep. It seemed to me that I could not die with it. It demanded some sort of expression. And now that you know, you would scarcely believe how much less sharp the anguish of it is.”
Everett continued to look helplessly at the floor. “I was not sure how much you wanted me to know,” he said.
“Oh, I intended you should know from the first time I looked into your face, when you came that day with Charley. I flatter myself that I have been able to conceal it when I chose, though I suppose women always think that. The more observing ones may have seen, but discerning people are usually discreet and often kind, for we usually bleed a little before we begin to discern. But I wanted you to know; you are so like him that it is almost like telling him himself. At least, I feel now that he will know some day, and then I will be quite sacred from his compassion, for we none of us dare pity the dead. Since it was what my life has chiefly meant, I should like him to know. On the whole I am not ashamed of it. I have fought a good fight.”
“And has he never known at all?” asked Everett, in a thick voice.
“Oh! Never at all in the way that you mean. Of course, he is accustomed to looking into the eyes of women and finding love there; when he doesn’t find it there he thinks he must have been guilty of some discourtesy and is miserable about it. He has a genuine fondness for everyone who is not stupid or gloomy, or old or preternaturally ugly. Granted youth and cheerfulness, and a moderate amount of wit and some tact, and Adriance will always be glad to see you coming around the corner. I shared with the rest; shared the smiles and the gallantries and the droll little sermons. It was quite like a Sunday-school picnic; we wore our best clothes and a smile and took our turns. It was his kindness that was hardest. I have pretty well used my life up at standing punishment.”
“Don’t; you’ll make me hate him,” groaned Everett.
Katharine laughed and began to play nervously with her fan. “It wasn’t in the slightest degree his fault; that is the most grotesque part of it. Why, it had really begun before I ever met him. I fought my way to him, and I drank my doom greedily enough.”
Everett rose and stood hesitating. “I think I must go. You ought to be quiet, and I don’t think I can hear any more just now.”
She put out her hand and took his playfully. “You’ve put in three weeks at this sort of thing, haven’t you? Well, it may never be to your glory in this world, perhaps, but it’s been the mercy of heaven to me, and it ought to square accounts for a much worse life than yours will ever be.”
Everett knelt beside her, saying, brokenly: “I stayed because I wanted to be with you, that’s all. I have never cared about other women since I met you in New York when I was a lad. You are a part of my destiny, and I could not leave you if I would.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and shook her head. “No, no; don’t tell me that. I have seen enough of tragedy, God knows. Don’t show me any more just as the curtain is going down. No, no, it was only a boy’s fancy, and your divine pity and my utter pitiableness have recalled it for a moment. One does not love the dying, dear friend. If some fancy of that sort had been left over from boyhood, this would rid you of it, and that were well. Now go, and you will come again tomorrow, as long as there are tomorrows, will you not?” She took his hand with a smile that lifted the mask from her soul, that was both courage and despair, and full of infinite loyalty and tenderness, as she said softly:
For ever and for ever, farewell, Cassius;
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.
The courage in her eyes was like the clear light of a star to him as he went out.
On the night of Adriance Hilgarde’s opening concert in Paris Everett sat by the bed in the ranch house in Wyoming, watching over the last battle that we have with the flesh before we are done with it and free of it forever. At times it seemed that the serene soul of her must have left already and found some refuge from the storm, and only the tenacious animal life were left to do battle with death. She labored under a delusion at once pitiful and merciful, thinking that she was in the Pullman on her way to New York, going back to her life and her work. When she aroused from her stupor it was only to ask the porter to waken her half an hour out of Jersey City, or to remonstrate with him about the delays and the roughness of the road. At midnight Everett and the nurse were left alone with her. Poor Charley Gaylord had lain down on a couch outside the door. Everett sat looking at the sputtering night lamp until it made his eyes ache. His head dropped forward on the foot of the bed, and he sank into a heavy, distressful slumber. He was dreaming of Adriance’s concert in Paris, and of Adriance, the troubadour, smiling and debonair, with his boyish face and the touch of silver gray in his hair. He heard the applause and he saw the roses going up over the footlights until they were stacked half as high as the piano, and the petals fell and scattered, making crimson splotches on the floor. Down this crimson pathway came Adriance with his youthful step, leading his prima donna by the hand; a dark woman this time, with Spanish eyes.
The nurse touched him on the shoulder; he started and awoke. She screened the lamp with her hand. Everett saw that Katharine was awake and conscious, and struggling a little. He lifted her gently on his arm and began to fan her. She laid her hands lightly on his hair and looked into his face with eyes that seemed never to have wept or doubted. “Ah, dear Adriance, dear, dear,” she whispered.
Everett went to call her brother, but when they came back the madness of art was over for Katharine.
Two days later Everett was pacing the station siding, waiting for the westbound train. Charley Gaylord walked beside him, but the two men had nothing to say to each other. Everett’s bags were piled on the truck, and his step was hurried and his eyes were full of impatience, as he gazed again and again up the track, watching for the train. Gaylord’s impatience was not less than his own; these two, who had grown so close, had now become painful and impossible to each other, and longed for the wrench of farewell.
As the train pulled in Everett wrung Gaylord’s hand among the crowd of alighting passengers. The people of a German opera company, en route to the coast, rushed by them in frantic haste to snatch their breakfast during the stop. Everett heard an exclamation in a broad German dialect, and a massive woman whose figure persistently escaped from her stays in the most improbable places rushed up to him, her blond hair disordered by the wind, and glowing with joyful surprise she caught his coat sleeve with her tightly gloved hands.
“Herr Gott, Adriance, lieber Freund,” she cried, emotionally.
Everett quickly withdrew his arm and lifted his hat, blushing. “Pardon me, madam, but I see that you have mistaken me for Adriance Hilgarde. I am his brother,” he said quietly, and turning from the crestfallen singer, he hurried into the car.
When Caroline Noble’s friends learned that Raymond d’Esquerre was to spend a month at her place on the Sound before he sailed to fill his engagement for the London opera season, they considered it another striking instance of the perversity of things. That the month was May, and the most mild and florescent of all the blue-and-white Mays the middle coast had known in years, but added to their sense of wrong. D’Esquerre, they learned, was ensconced in the lodge in the apple orchard, just beyond Caroline’s glorious garden, and report went that at almost any hour the sound of the tenor’s voice and of Caroline’s crashing accompaniment could be heard floating through the open windows, out among the snowy apple boughs. The Sound, steel-blue and dotted with white sails, was splendidly seen from the windows of the lodge. The garden to the left and the orchard to the right had never been so riotous with spring, and had burst into impassioned bloom, as if to accommodate Caroline, though she was certainly the last woman to whom the witchery of Freya could be attributed; the last woman, as her friends affirmed, to at all adequately appreciate and make the most of such a setting for the great tenor.
Of course, they admitted, Caroline was musical — well, she ought to be! — but in that, as in everything, she was paramountly cool-headed, slow of impulse, and disgustingly practical; in that, as in everything else, she had herself so provokingly well in hand. Of course, it would be she, always mistress of herself in any situation, she, who would never be lifted one inch from the ground by it, and who would go on superintending her gardeners and workmen as usual — it would be she who got him. Perhaps some of them suspected that this was exactly why she did get him, and it but nettled them the more.
Caroline’s coolness, her capableness, her general success, especially exasperated people because they felt that, for the most part, she had made herself what she was; that she had cold-bloodedly set about complying with the demands of life and making her position comfortable and masterful. That was why, everyone said, she had married Howard Noble. Women who did not get through life so well as Caroline, who could not make such good terms either with fortune or their husbands, who did not find their health so unfailingly good, or hold their looks so well, or manage their children so easily, or give such distinction to all they did, were fond of stamping Caroline as a materialist, and called her hard.
The impression of cold calculation, of having a definite policy, which Caroline gave, was far from a false one; but there was this to be said for her — that there were extenuating circumstances which her friends could not know.
If Caroline held determinedly to the middle course, if she was apt to regard with distrust everything which inclined toward extravagance, it was not because she was unacquainted with other standards than her own, or had never seen another side of life. She had grown up in Brooklyn, in a shabby little house under the vacillating administration of her father, a music teacher who usually neglected his duties to write orchestral compositions for which the world seemed to have no especial need. His spirit was warped by bitter vindictiveness and puerile self-commiseration, and he spent his days in scorn of the labor that brought him bread and in pitiful devotion to the labor that brought him only disappointment, writing interminable scores which demanded of the orchestra everything under heaven except melody.
It was not a cheerful home for a girl to grow up in. The mother, who idolized her husband as the music lord of the future, was left to a lifelong battle with broom and dustpan, to neverending conciliatory overtures to the butcher and grocer, to the making of her own gowns and of Caroline’s, and to the delicate task of mollifying Auguste’s neglected pupils.
The son, Heinrich, a painter, Caroline’s only brother, had inherited all his father’s vindictive sensitiveness without his capacity for slavish application. His little studio on the third floor had been much frequented by young men as unsuccessful as himself, who met there to give themselves over to contemptuous derision of this or that artist whose industry and stupidity had won him recognition. Heinrich, when he worked at all, did newspaper sketches at twenty-five dollars a week. He was too indolent and vacillating to set himself seriously to his art, too irascible and poignantly self-conscious to make a living, too much addicted to lying late in bed, to the incontinent reading of poetry, and to the use of chloral to be anything very positive except painful. At twenty-six he shot himself in a frenzy, and the whole wretched affair had effectually shattered his mother’s health and brought on the decline of which she died. Caroline had been fond of him, but she felt a certain relief when he no longer wandered about the little house, commenting ironically upon its shabbiness, a Turkish cap on his head and a cigarette hanging from between his long, tremulous fingers.
After her mother’s death Caroline assumed the management of that bankrupt establishment. The funeral expenses were unpaid, and Auguste’s pupils had been frightened away by the shock of successive disasters and the general atmosphere of wretchedness that pervaded the house. Auguste himself was writing a symphonic poem, Icarus, dedicated to the memory of his son. Caroline was barely twenty when she was called upon to face this tangle of difficulties, but she reviewed the situation candidly. The house had served its time at the shrine of idealism; vague, distressing, unsatisfied yearnings had brought it low enough. Her mother, thirty years before, had eloped and left Germany with her music teacher, to give herself over to lifelong, drudging bondage at the kitchen range. Ever since Caroline could remember, the law in the house had been a sort of mystic worship of things distant, intangible and unattainable. The family had lived in successive ebullitions of generous enthusiasm, in talk of masters and masterpieces, only to come down to the cold facts in the case; to boiled mutton and to the necessity of turning the dining-room carpet. All these emotional pyrotechnics had ended in petty jealousies, in neglected duties, and in cowardly fear of the little grocer on the corner.
From her childhood she had hated it, that humiliating and uncertain existence, with its glib tongue and empty pockets, its poetic ideals and sordid realities, its indolence and poverty tricked out in paper roses. Even as a little girl, when vague dreams beset her, when she wanted to lie late in bed and commune with visions, or to leap and sing because the sooty little trees along the street were putting out their first pale leaves in the sunshine, she would clench her hands and go to help her mother sponge the spots from her father’s waistcoat or press Heinrich’s trousers. Her mother never permitted the slightest question concerning anything Auguste or Heinrich saw fit to do, but from the time Caroline could reason at all she could not help thinking that many things went wrong at home. She knew, for example, that her father’s pupils ought not to be kept waiting half an hour while he discussed Schopenhauer with some bearded socialist over a dish of herrings and a spotted tablecloth. She knew that Heinrich ought not to give a dinner on Heine’s birthday, when the laundress had not been paid for a month and when he frequently had to ask his mother for carfare. Certainly Caroline had served her apprenticeship to idealism and to all the embarrassing inconsistencies which it sometimes entails, and she decided to deny herself this diffuse, ineffectual answer to the sharp questions of life.
When she came into the control of herself and the house she refused to proceed any further with her musical education. Her father, who had intended to make a concert pianist of her, set this down as another item in his long list of disappointments and his grievances against the world. She was young and pretty, and she had worn turned gowns and soiled gloves and improvised hats all her life. She wanted the luxury of being like other people, of being honest from her hat to her boots, of having nothing to hide, not even in the matter of stockings, and she was willing to work for it. She rented a little studio away from that house of misfortune and began to give lessons. She managed well and was the sort of girl people liked to help. The bills were paid and Auguste went on composing, growing indignant only when she refused to insist that her pupils should study his compositions for the piano. She began to get engagements in New York to play accompaniments at song recitals. She dressed well, made herself agreeable, and gave herself a chance. She never permitted herself to look further than a step ahead, and set herself with all the strength of her will to see things as they are and meet them squarely in the broad day. There were two things she feared even more than poverty: the part of one that sets up an idol and the part of one that bows down and worships it.
When Caroline was twenty-four she married Howard Noble, then a widower of forty, who had been for ten years a power in Wall Street. Then, for the first time, she had paused to take breath. It took a substantialness as unquestionable as his; his money, his position, his energy, the big vigor of his robust person, to satisfy her that she was entirely safe. Then she relaxed a little, feeling that there was a barrier to be counted upon between her and that world of visions and quagmires and failure.
Caroline had been married for six years when Raymond d’Esquerre came to stay with them. He came chiefly because Caroline was what she was; because he, too, felt occasionally the need of getting out of Klingsor’s garden, of dropping down somewhere for a time near a quiet nature, a cool head, a strong hand. The hours he had spent in the garden lodge were hours of such concentrated study as, in his fevered life, he seldom got in anywhere. She had, as he told Noble, a fine appreciation of the seriousness of work.
One evening two weeks after d’Esquerre had sailed, Caroline was in the library giving her husband an account of the work she had laid out for the gardeners. She superintended the care of the grounds herself. Her garden, indeed, had become quite a part of her; a sort of beautiful adjunct, like gowns or jewels. It was a famous spot, and Noble was very proud of it.
“What do you think, Caroline, of having the garden lodge torn down and putting a new summer house there at the end of the arbor; a big rustic affair where you could have tea served in midsummer?” he asked.
“The lodge?” repeated Caroline looking at him quickly. “Why, that seems almost a shame, doesn’t it, after d’Esquerre has used it?”
Noble put down his book with a smile of amusement.
“Are you going to be sentimental about it? Why, I’d sacrifice the whole place to see that come to pass. But I don’t believe you could do it for an hour together.”
“I don’t believe so, either,” said his wife, smiling.
Noble took up his book again and Caroline went into the music room to practice. She was not ready to have the lodge torn down. She had gone there for a quiet hour every day during the two weeks since d’Esquerre had left them. It was the sheerest sentiment she had ever permitted herself. She was ashamed of it, but she was childishly unwilling to let it go.
Caroline went to bed soon after her husband, but she was not able to sleep. The night was close and warm, presaging storm. The wind had fallen, and the water slept, fixed and motionless as the sand. She rose and thrust her feet into slippers and, putting a dressing gown over her shoulders, opened the door of her husband’s room; he was sleeping soundly. She went into the hall and down the stairs; then, leaving the house through a side door, stepped into the vine-covered arbor that led to the garden lodge. The scent of the June roses was heavy in the still air, and the stones that paved the path felt pleasantly cool through the thin soles of her slippers. Heat-lightning flashed continuously from the bank of clouds that had gathered over the sea, but the shore was flooded with moonlight and, beyond, the rim of the Sound lay smooth and shining. Caroline had the key of the lodge, and the door creaked as she opened it. She stepped into the long, low room radiant with the moonlight which streamed through the bow window and lay in a silvery pool along the waxed floor. Even that part of the room which lay in the shadow was vaguely illuminated; the piano, the tall candlesticks, the picture frames and white casts standing out as clearly in the half-light as did the sycamores and black poplars of the garden against the still, expectant night sky. Caroline sat down to think it all over. She had come here to do just that every day of the two weeks since d’Esquerre’s departure, but, far from ever having reached a conclusion, she had succeeded only in losing her way in a maze of memories — sometimes bewilderingly confused, sometimes too acutely distinct — where there was neither path, nor clue, nor any hope of finality. She had, she realized, defeated a lifelong regimen; completely confounded herself by falling unaware and incontinently into that luxury of reverie which, even as a little girl, she had so determinedly denied herself, she had been developing with alarming celerity that part of one which sets up an idol and that part of one which bows down and worships it.
It was a mistake, she felt, ever to have asked d’Esquerre to come at all. She had an angry feeling that she had done it rather in self-defiance, to rid herself finally of that instinctive fear of him which had always troubled and perplexed her. She knew that she had reckoned with herself before he came; but she had been equal to so much that she had never really doubted she would be equal to this. She had come to believe, indeed, almost arrogantly in her own malleability and endurance; she had done so much with herself that she had come to think that there was nothing which she could not do; like swimmers, overbold, who reckon upon their strength and their power to hoard it, forgetting the ever-changing moods of their adversary, the sea.
And d’Esquerre was a man to reckon with. Caroline did not deceive herself now upon that score. She admitted it humbly enough, and since she had said good-by to him she had not been free for a moment from the sense of his formidable power. It formed the undercurrent of her consciousness; whatever she might be doing or thinking, it went on, involuntarily, like her breathing, sometimes welling up until suddenly she found herself suffocating. There was a moment of this tonight, and Caroline rose and stood shuddering, looking about her in the blue duskiness of the silent room. She had not been here at night before, and the spirit of the place seemed more troubled and insistent than ever it had in the quiet of the afternoons. Caroline brushed her hair back from her damp forehead and went over to the bow window. After raising it she sat down upon the low seat. Leaning her head against the sill, and loosening her nightgown at the throat, she half-closed her eyes and looked off into the troubled night, watching the play of the heat-lightning upon the massing clouds between the pointed tops of the poplars.
Yes, she knew, she knew well enough, of what absurdities this spell was woven; she mocked, even while she winced. His power, she knew, lay not so much in anything that he actually had — though he had so much — or in anything that he actually was, but in what he suggested, in what he seemed picturesque enough to have or be and that was just anything that one chose to believe or to desire. His appeal was all the more persuasive and alluring in that it was to the imagination alone, in that it was as indefinite and impersonal as those cults of idealism which so have their way with women. What he had was that, in his mere personality, he quickened and in a measure gratified that something without which — to women — life is no better than sawdust, and to the desire for which most of their mistakes and tragedies and astonishingly poor bargains are due.
D’Esquerre had become the center of a movement, and the Metropolitan had become the temple of a cult. When he could be induced to cross the Atlantic, the opera season in New York was successful; when he could not, the management lost money; so much everyone knew. It was understood, too, that his superb art had disproportionately little to do with his peculiar position. Women swayed the balance this way or that; the opera, the orchestra, even his own glorious art, achieved at such a cost, were but the accessories of himself; like the scenery and costumes and even the soprano, they all went to produce atmosphere, were the mere mechanics of the beautiful illusion.
Caroline understood all this; tonight was not the first time that she had put it to herself so. She had seen the same feeling in other people, watched for it in her friends, studied it in the house night after night when he sang, candidly putting herself among a thousand others.
D’Esquerre’s arrival in the early winter was the signal for a feminine hegira toward New York. On the nights when he sang women flocked to the Metropolitan from mansions and hotels, from typewriter desks, schoolrooms, shops, and fitting rooms. They were of all conditions and complexions. Women of the world who accepted him knowingly as they sometimes took champagne for its agreeable effect; sisters of charity and overworked shopgirls, who received him devoutly; withered women who had taken doctorate degrees and who worshipped furtively through prism spectacles; business women and women of affairs, the Amazons who dwelt afar from men in the stony fastnesses of apartment houses. They all entered into the same romance; dreamed, in terms as various as the hues of fantasy, the same dream; drew the same quick breath when he stepped upon the stage, and, at his exit, felt the same dull pain of shouldering the pack again.
There were the maimed, even; those who came on crutches, who were pitted by smallpox or grotesquely painted by cruel birth stains. These, too, entered with him into enchantment. Stout matrons became slender girls again; worn spinsters felt their cheeks flush with the tenderness of their lost youth. Young and old, however hideous, however fair, they yielded up their heat — whether quick or latent — sat hungering for the mystic bread wherewith he fed them at this eucharist of sentiment.
Sometimes, when the house was crowded from the orchestra to the last row of the gallery, when the air was charged with this ecstasy of fancy, he himself was the victim of the burning reflection of his power. They acted upon him in turn; he felt their fervent and despairing appeal to him; it stirred him as the spring drives the sap up into an old tree; he, too, burst into bloom. For the moment he, too, believed again, desired again, he knew not what, but something.
But it was not in these exalted moments that Caroline had learned to fear him most. It was in the quiet, tired reserve, the dullness, even, that kept him company between these outbursts that she found that exhausting drain upon her sympathies which was the very pith and substance of their alliance. It was the tacit admission of disappointment under all this glamour of success — the helplessness of the enchanter to at all enchant himself — that awoke in her an illogical, womanish desire to in some way compensate, to make it up to him.
She had observed drastically to herself that it was her eighteenth year he awoke in her — those hard years she had spent in turning gowns and placating tradesmen, and which she had never had time to live. After all, she reflected, it was better to allow one’s self a little youth — to dance a little at the carnival and to live these things when they are natural and lovely, not to have them coming back on one and demanding arrears when they are humiliating and impossible. She went over tonight all the catalogue of her self-deprivations; recalled how, in the light of her father’s example, she had even refused to humor her innocent taste for improvising at the piano; how, when she began to teach, after her mother’s death, she had struck out one little indulgence after another, reducing her life to a relentless routine, unvarying as clockwork. It seemed to her that ever since d’Esquerre first came into the house she had been haunted by an imploring little girlish ghost that followed her about, wringing its hands and entreating for an hour of life.
The storm had held off unconscionably long; the air within the lodge was stifling, and without the garden waited, breathless. Everything seemed pervaded by a poignant distress; the hush of feverish, intolerable expectation. The still earth, the heavy flowers, even the growing darkness, breathed the exhaustion of protracted waiting. Caroline felt that she ought to go; that it was wrong to stay; that the hour and the place were as treacherous as her own reflections. She rose and began to pace the floor, stepping softly, as though in fear of awakening someone, her figure, in its thin drapery, diaphanously vague and white. Still unable to shake off the obsession of the intense stillness, she sat down at the piano and began to run over the first act of the Walkure, the last of his roles they had practiced together; playing listlessly and absently at first, but with gradually increasing seriousness. Perhaps it was the still heat of the summer night, perhaps it was the heavy odors from the garden that came in through the open windows; but as she played there grew and grew the feeling that he was there, beside her, standing in his accustomed place. In the duet at the end of the first act she heard him clearly: “Thou art the Spring for which I sighed in Winter’s cold embraces.“ Once as he sang it, he had put his arm about her, his one hand under her heart, while with the other he took her right from the keyboard, holding her as he always held Sieglinde when he drew her toward the window. She had been wonderfully the mistress of herself at the time; neither repellent nor acquiescent. She remembered that she had rather exulted, then, in her self-control — which he had seemed to take for granted, though there was perhaps the whisper of a question from the hand under her heart. “Thou art the Spring for which I sighed in Winter’s cold embraces.“ Caroline lifted her hands quickly from the keyboard, and she bowed her head in them, sobbing.
The storm broke and the rain beat in, spattering her nightdress until she rose and lowered the windows. She dropped upon the couch and began fighting over again the battles of other days, while the ghosts of the slain rose as from a sowing of dragon’s teeth, The shadows of things, always so scorned and flouted, bore down upon her merciless and triumphant. It was not enough; this happy, useful, well-ordered life was not enough. It did not satisfy, it was not even real. No, the other things, the shadows-they were the realities. Her father, poor Heinrich, even her mother, who had been able to sustain her poor romance and keep her little illusions amid the tasks of a scullion, were nearer happiness than she. Her sure foundation was but made ground, after all, and the people in Klingsor’s garden were more fortunate, however barren the sands from which they conjured their paradise.
The lodge was still and silent; her fit of weeping over, Caroline made no sound, and within the room, as without in the garden, was the blackness of storm. Only now and then a flash of lightning showed a woman’s slender figure rigid on the couch, her face buried in her hands.
Toward morning, when the occasional rumbling of thunder was heard no more and the beat of the raindrops upon the orchard leaves was steadier, she fell asleep and did not waken until the first red streaks of dawn shone through the twisted boughs of the apple trees. There was a moment between world and world, when, neither asleep nor awake, she felt her dream grow thin, melting away from her, felt the warmth under her heart growing cold. Something seemed to slip from the clinging hold of her arms, and she groaned protestingly through her parted lips, following it a little way with fluttering hands. Then her eyes opened wide and she sprang up and sat holding dizzily to the cushions of the couch, staring down at her bare, cold feet, at her laboring breast, rising and falling under her open nightdress.
The dream was gone, but the feverish reality of it still pervaded her and she held it as the vibrating string holds a tone. In the last hour the shadows had had their way with Caroline. They had shown her the nothingness of time and space, of system and discipline, of closed doors and broad waters. Shuddering, she thought of the Arabian fairy tale in which the genie brought the princess of China to the sleeping prince of Damascus and carried her through the air back to her palace at dawn. Caroline closed her eyes and dropped her elbows weakly upon her knees, her shoulders sinking together. The horror was that it had not come from without, but from within. The dream was no blind chance; it was the expression of something she had kept so close a prisoner that she had never seen it herself, it was the wail from the donjon deeps when the watch slept. Only as the outcome of such a night of sorcery could the thing have been loosed to straighten its limbs and measure itself with her; so heavy were the chains upon it, so many a fathom deep, it was crushed down into darkness. The fact that d’Esquerre happened to be on the other side of the world meant nothing; had he been here, beside her, it could scarcely have hurt her self-respect so much. As it was, she was without even the extenuation of an outer impulse, and she could scarcely have despised herself more had she come to him here in the night three weeks ago and thrown herself down upon the stone slab at the door there.
Caroline rose unsteadily and crept guiltily from the lodge and along the path under the arbor, terrified lest the servants should be stirring, trembling with the chill air, while the wet shrubbery, brushing against her, drenched her nightdress until it clung about her limbs.
At breakfast her husband looked across the table at her with concern. “It seems to me that you are looking rather fagged, Caroline. It was a beastly night to sleep. Why don’t you go up to the mountains until this hot weather is over? By the way, were you in earnest about letting the lodge stand?”
Caroline laughed quietly. “No, I find I was not very serious. I haven’t sentiment enough to forego a summer house. Will you tell Baker to come tomorrow to talk it over with me? If we are to have a house party, I should like to put him to work on it at once.”
Noble gave her a glance, half-humorous, half-vexed. “Do you know I am rather disappointed?” he said. “I had almost hoped that, just for once, you know, you would be a little bit foolish.”
“Not now that I’ve slept over it,” replied Caroline, and they both rose from the table, laughing.
The sequence of events was such that MacMaster did not make his pilgrimage to Hugh Treffinger’s studio until three years after that painter’s death. MacMaster was himself a painter, an American of the Gallicized type, who spent his winters in New York, his summers in Paris, and no inconsiderable amount of time on the broad waters between. He had often contemplated stopping in London on one of his return trips in the late autumn, but he had always deferred leaving Paris until the prick of necessity drove him home by the quickest and shortest route.
Treffinger was a comparatively young man at the time of his death, and there had seemed no occasion for haste until haste was of no avail. Then, possibly, though there had been some correspondence between them, MacMaster felt certain qualms about meeting in the flesh a man who in the flesh was so diversely reported. His intercourse with Treffinger’s work had been so deep and satisfying, so apart from other appreciations, that he rather dreaded a critical juncture of any sort. He had always felt himself singularly inept in personal relations, and in this case he had avoided the issue until it was no longer to be feared or hoped for. There still remained, however, Treffinger’s great unfinished picture, the Marriage of Phaedra, which had never left his studio, and of which MacMaster’s friends had now and again brought report that it was the painter’s most characteristic production.
The young man arrived in London in the evening, and the next morning went out to Kensington to find Treffinger’s studio. It lay in one of the perplexing bystreets off Holland Road, and the number he found on a door set in a high garden wall, the top of which was covered with broken green glass and over which a budding lilac bush nodded. Treffinger’s plate was still there, and a card requesting visitors to ring for the attendant. In response to MacMaster’s ring, the door was opened by a cleanly built little man, clad in a shooting jacket and trousers that had been made for an ampler figure. He had a fresh complexion, eyes of that common uncertain shade of gray, and was closely shaven except for the incipient muttonchops on his ruddy cheeks. He bore himself in a manner strikingly capable, and there was a sort of trimness and alertness about him, despite the too-generous shoulders of his coat. In one hand he held a bulldog pipe, and in the other a copy of Sporting Life. While MacMaster was explaining the purpose of his call he noticed that the man surveyed him critically, though not impertinently. He was admitted into a little tank of a lodge made of whitewashed stone, the back door and windows opening upon a garden. A visitor’s book and a pile of catalogues lay on a deal table, together with a bottle of ink and some rusty pens. The wall was ornamented with photographs and colored prints of racing favorites.
“The studio is h’only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays,” explained the man — he referred to himself as “Jymes” — “but of course we make exceptions in the case of pynters. Lydy Elling Treffinger ‘erself is on the Continent, but Sir ‘Ugh’s orders was that pynters was to ‘ave the run of the place.” He selected a key from his pocket and threw open the door into the studio which, like the lodge, was built against the wall of the garden.
MacMaster entered a long, narrow room, built of smoothed planks, painted a light green; cold and damp even on that fine May morning. The room was utterly bare of furniture — unless a stepladder, a model throne, and a rack laden with large leather portfolios could be accounted such — and was windowless, without other openings than the door and the skylight, under which hung the unfinished picture itself. MacMaster had never seen so many of Treffinger’s paintings together. He knew the painter had married a woman with money and had been able to keep such of his pictures as he wished. These, with all of 182 his replicas and studies, he had left as a sort of common legacy to the younger men of the school he had originated.
As soon as he was left alone MacMaster sat down on the edge of the model throne before the unfinished picture. Here indeed was what he had come for; it rather paralyzed his receptivity for the moment, but gradually the thing found its way to him.
At one o’clock he was standing before the collection of studies done for Boccaccio’s Garden when he heard a voice at his elbow.
“Pardon, sir, but I was just about to lock up and go to lunch. Are you lookin’ for the figure study of Boccaccio ‘imself?” James queried respectfully. “Lydy Elling Treffinger give it to Mr. Rossiter to take down to Oxford for some lectures he’s been agiving there.”
“Did he never paint out his studies, then?” asked MacMaster with perplexity. “Here are two completed ones for this picture. Why did he keep them?”
“I don’t know as I could say as to that, sir,” replied James, smiling indulgently, “but that was ‘is way. That is to say, ‘e pynted out very frequent, but ‘e always made two studies to stand; one in watercolors and one in oils, before ‘e went at the final picture — to say nothink of all the pose studies ‘e made in pencil before he begun on the composition proper at all. He was that particular. You see, ‘e wasn’t so keen for the final effect as for the proper pyntin’ of ‘is pictures. ‘E used to say they ought to be well made, the same as any other h’article of trade. I can lay my ‘and on the pose studies for you, sir.” He rummaged in one of the portfolios and produced half a dozen drawings, “These three,” he continued, “was discarded; these two was the pose he finally accepted; this one without alteration, as it were.
“That’s in Paris, as I remember,” James continued reflectively. “It went with the Saint Cecilia into the Baron H—— ‘s collection. Could you tell me, sir, ‘as ‘e it still? I don’t like to lose account of them, but some ‘as changed ‘ands since Sir ‘Ugh’s death.”
“H—— ‘s collection is still intact, I believe,” replied MacMaster. “You were with Treffinger long?”
“From my boyhood, sir,” replied James with gravity. “I was a stable boy when ‘e took me.”
“You were his man, then?”
“That’s it, sir. Nobody else ever done anything around the studio. I always mixed ‘is colors and ‘e taught me to do a share of the varnishin’; ‘e said as ‘ow there wasn’t a ’ouse in England as could do it proper. You ayn’t looked at the Marriage yet, sir?” he asked abruptly, glancing doubtfully at MacMaster, and indicating with his thumb the picture under the north light.
“Not very closely. I prefer to begin with something simpler; that’s rather appalling, at first glance,” replied MacMaster.
“Well may you say that, sir,” said James warmly. “That one regular killed Sir ‘Ugh; it regular broke ’im up, and nothink will ever convince me as ‘ow it didn’t bring on ‘is second stroke.”
When MacMaster walked back to High Street to take his bus his mind was divided between two exultant convictions. He felt that he had not only found Treffinger’s greatest picture, but that, in James, he had discovered a kind of cryptic index to the painter’s personality — a clue which, if tactfully followed, might lead to much.
Several days after his first visit to the studio, MacMaster wrote to Lady Mary Percy, telling her that he would be in London for some time and asking her if he might call. Lady Mary was an only sister of Lady Ellen Treffinger, the painter’s widow, and MacMaster had known her during one winter he spent at Nice. He had known her, indeed, very well, and Lady Mary, who was astonishingly frank and communicative upon all subjects, had been no less so upon the matter of her sister’s unfortunate marriage.
In her reply to his note Lady Mary named an afternoon when she would be alone. She was as good as her word, and when MacMaster arrived he found the drawing room empty. Lady Mary entered shortly after he was announced. She was a tall woman, thin and stiffly jointed, and her body stood out under the folds of her gown with the rigor of cast iron. This rather metallic suggestion was further carried out in her heavily knuckled hands, her stiff gray hair, and her long, bold-featured face, which was saved from freakishness only by her alert eyes.
“Really,” said Lady Mary, taking a seat beside him and giving him a sort of military inspection through her nose glasses, “really, I had begun to fear that I had lost you altogether. It’s four years since I saw you at Nice, isn’t it? I was in Paris last winter, but I heard nothing from you.”
“I was in New York then.”
“It occurred to me that you might be. And why are you in London?”
“Can you ask?” replied MacMaster gallantly.
Lady Mary smiled ironically. “But for what else, incidentally?”
“Well, incidentally, I came to see Treffinger’s studio and his unfinished picture. Since I’ve been here, I’ve decided to stay the summer. I’m even thinking of attempting to do a biography of him.”
“So that is what brought you to London?”
“Not exactly. I had really no intention of anything so serious when I came. It’s his last picture, I fancy, that has rather thrust it upon me. The notion has settled down on me like a thing destined.”
“You’ll not be offended if I question the clemency of such a destiny,” remarked Lady Mary dryly. “Isn’t there rather a surplus of books on that subject already?”
“Such as they are. Oh, I’ve read them all” — here MacMaster faced Lady Mary triumphantly. “He has quite escaped your amiable critics,” he added, smiling.
“I know well enough what you think, and I daresay we are not much on art,” said Lady Mary with tolerant good humor. “We leave that to peoples who have no physique. Treffinger made a stir for a time, but it seems that we are not capable of a sustained appreciation of such extraordinary methods. In the end we go back to the pictures we find agreeable and unperplexing. He was regarded as an experiment, I fancy; and now it seems that he was rather an unsuccessful one. If you’ve come to us in a missionary spirit, we’ll tolerate you politely, but we’ll laugh in our sleeve, I warn you.”
“That really doesn’t daunt me, Lady Mary,” declared MacMaster blandly. “As I told you, I’m a man with a mission.”
Lady Mary laughed her hoarse, baritone laugh. “Bravo! And you’ve come to me for inspiration for your panegyric?”
MacMaster smiled with some embarrassment. “Not altogether for that purpose. But I want to consult you, Lady Mary, about the advisability of troubling Lady Ellen Treffinger in the matter. It seems scarcely legitimate to go on without asking her to give some sort of grace to my proceedings, yet I feared the whole subject might be painful to her. I shall rely wholly upon your discretion.”
“I think she would prefer to be consulted,” replied Lady Mary judicially. “I can’t understand how she endures to have the wretched affair continually raked up, but she does. She seems to feel a sort of moral responsibility. Ellen has always been singularly conscientious about this matter, insofar as her light goes, — which rather puzzles me, as hers is not exactly a magnanimous nature. She is certainly trying to do what she believes to be the right thing. I shall write to her, and you can see her when she returns from Italy.”
“I want very much to meet her. She is, I hope, quite recovered in every way,” queried MacMaster, hesitatingly.
“No, I can’t say that she is. She has remained in much the same condition she sank to before his death. He trampled over pretty much whatever there was in her, I fancy. Women don’t recover from wounds of that sort — at least, not women of Ellen’s grain. They go on bleeding inwardly.”
“You, at any rate, have not grown more reconciled,” MacMaster ventured.
“Oh I give him his dues. He was a colorist, I grant you; but that is a vague and unsatisfactory quality to marry to; Lady Ellen Treffinger found it so.”
“But, my dear Lady Mary,” expostulated MacMaster, “and just repress me if I’m becoming too personal — but it must, in the first place, have been a marriage of choice on her part as well as on his.”
Lady Mary poised her glasses on her large forefinger and assumed an attitude suggestive of the clinical lecture room as she replied. “Ellen, my dear boy, is an essentially romantic person. She is quiet about it, but she runs deep. I never knew how deep until I came against her on the issue of that marriage. She was always discontented as a girl; she found things dull and prosaic, and the ardor of his courtship was agreeable to her. He met her during her first season in town. She is handsome, and there were plenty of other men, but I grant you your scowling brigand was the most picturesque of the lot. In his courtship, as in everything else, he was theatrical to the point of being ridiculous, but Ellen’s sense of humor is not her strongest quality. He had the charm of celebrity, the air of a man who could storm his way through anything to get what he wanted. That sort of vehemence is particularly effective with women like Ellen, who can be warmed only by reflected heat, and she couldn’t at all stand out against it. He convinced her of his necessity; and that done, all’s done.”
“I can’t help thinking that, even on such a basis, the marriage should have turned out better,” MacMaster remarked reflectively.
“The marriage,” Lady Mary continued with a shrug, “was made on the basis of a mutual misunderstanding. Ellen, in the nature of the case, believed that she was doing something quite out of the ordinary in accepting him, and expected concessions which, apparently, it never occurred to him to make. After his marriage he relapsed into his old habits of incessant work, broken by violent and often brutal relaxations. He insulted her friends and foisted his own upon her — many of them well calculated to arouse aversion in any well-bred girl. He had Ghillini constantly at the house — a homeless vagabond, whose conversation was impossible. I don’t say, mind you, that he had not grievances on his side. He had probably overrated the girl’s possibilities, and he let her see that he was disappointed in her. Only a large and generous nature could have borne with him, and Ellen’s is not that. She could not at all understand that odious strain of plebeian pride which plumes itself upon not having risen above its sources.”
As MacMaster drove back to his hotel he reflected that Lady Mary Percy had probably had good cause for dissatisfaction with her brother-inlaw. Treffinger was, indeed, the last man who should have married into the Percy family. The son of a small tobacconist, he had grown up a sign-painter’s apprentice; idle, lawless, and practically letterless until he had drifted into the night classes of the Albert League, where Ghillini sometimes lectured. From the moment he came under the eye and influence of that erratic Italian, then a political exile, his life had swerved sharply from its old channel. This man had been at once incentive and guide, friend and master, to his pupil. He had taken the raw clay out of the London streets and molded it anew. Seemingly he had divined at once where the boy’s possibilities lay, and had thrown aside every canon of orthodox instruction in the training of him. Under him Treffinger acquired his superficial, yet facile, knowledge of the classics; had steeped himself in the monkish Latin and medieval romances which later gave his work so naive and remote a quality. That was the beginning of the wattle fences, the cobble pave, the brown roof beams, the cunningly wrought fabrics that gave to his pictures such a richness of decorative effect.
As he had told Lady Mary Percy, MacMaster had found the imperative inspiration of his purpose in Treffinger’s unfinished picture, the Marriage of Phaedra. He had always believed that the key to Treffinger’s individuality lay in his singular education; in the Roman de la Rose, in Boccaccio, and Amadis, those works which had literally transcribed themselves upon the blank soul of the London street boy, and through which he had been born into the world of spiritual things. Treffinger had been a man who lived after his imagination; and his mind, his ideals and, as MacMaster believed, even his personal ethics, had to the last been colored by the trend of his early training. There was in him alike the freshness and spontaneity, the frank brutality and the religious mysticism, which lay well back of the fifteenth century. In the Marriage of Phaedra MacMaster found the ultimate expression of this spirit, the final word as to Treffinger’s point of view.
As in all Treffinger’s classical subjects, the conception was wholly medieval. This Phaedra, just turning from her husband and maidens to greet her husband’s son, giving him her first fearsome glance from under her half-lifted veil, was no daughter of Minos. The daughter of heathenesse and the early church she was; doomed to torturing visions and scourgings, and the wrangling of soul with flesh. The venerable Theseus might have been victorious Charlemagne, and Phaedra’s maidens belonged rather in the train of Blanche of Castile than at the Cretan court. In the earlier studies Hippolytus had been done with a more pagan suggestion; but in each successive drawing the glorious figure bad been deflowered of something of its serene unconsciousness, until, in the canvas under the skylight, he appeared a very Christian knight. This male figure, and the face of Phaedra, painted with such magical preservation of tone under the heavy shadow of the veil, were plainly Treffinger’s highest achievements of craftsmanship. By what labor he had reached the seemingly inevitable composition of the picture — with its twenty figures, its plenitude of light and air, its restful distances seen through white porticoes — countless studies bore witness.
From James’s attitude toward the picture MacMaster could well conjecture what the painter’s had been. This picture was always uppermost in James’s mind; its custodianship formed, in his eyes, his occupation. He was manifestly apprehensive when visitors — not many came nowadays — lingered near it. “It was the Marriage as killed ’im,” he would often say, “and for the matter ‘o that, it did like to ‘av been the death of all of us.”
By the end of his second week in London MacMaster had begun the notes for his study of Hugh Treffinger and his work. When his researches led him occasionally to visit the studios of Treffinger’s friends and erstwhile disciples, he found their Treffinger manner fading as the ring of Treffinger’s personality died out in them. One by one they were stealing back into the fold of national British art; the hand that had wound them up was still. MacMaster despaired of them and confined himself more and more exclusively to the studio, to such of Treffinger’s letters as were available — they were for the most part singularly negative and colorless — and to his interrogation of Treffinger’s man.
He could not himself have traced the successive steps by which he was gradually admitted into James’s confidence. Certainly most of his adroit strategies to that end failed humiliatingly, and whatever it was that built up an understanding between them must have been instinctive and intuitive on both sides. When at last James became anecdotal, personal, there was that in every word he let fall which put breath and blood into MacMaster’s book. James had so long been steeped in that penetrating personality that he fairly exuded it. Many of his very phrases, mannerisms, and opinions were impressions that he had taken on like wet plaster in his daily contact with Treffinger. Inwardly he was lined with cast-off epitheliums, as outwardly he was clad in the painter’s discarded coats. If the painter’s letters were formal and perfunctory, if his expressions to his friends had been extravagant, contradictory, and often apparently insincere — still, MacMaster felt himself not entirely without authentic sources. It was James who possessed Treffinger’s legend; it was with James that he had laid aside his pose. Only in his studio, alone, and face to face with his work, as it seemed, had the man invariably been himself. James had known him in the one attitude in which he was entirely honest; their relation had fallen well within the painter’s only indubitable integrity. James’s report of Treffinger was distorted by no hallucination of artistic insight, colored by no interpretation of his own. He merely held what he had heard and seen; his mind was a sort of camera obscura. His very limitations made him the more literal and minutely accurate.
One morning, when MacMaster was seated before the Marriage of Phaedra, James entered on his usual round of dusting.
“I’ve ‘eard from Lydy Elling by the post, sir,” he remarked, “an’ she’s give h’orders to ‘ave the ’ouse put in readiness. I doubt she’ll be ’ere by Thursday or Friday next.”
“She spends most of her time abroad?” queried MacMaster; on the subject of Lady Treffinger James consistently maintained a very delicate reserve.
“Well, you could ‘ardly say she does that, sir. She finds the ’ouse a bit dull, I daresay, so durin’ the season she stops mostly with Lydy Mary Percy, at Grosvenor Square. Lydy Mary’s a h’only sister.” After a few moments he continued, speaking in jerks governed by the rigor of his dusting: “H’only this morning I come upon this scarfpin,” exhibiting a very striking instance of that article, “an’ I recalled as ‘ow Sir ‘Ugh give it me when ‘e was acourting of Lydy Elling. Blowed if I ever see a man go in for a ‘oman like ’im! ‘E was that gone, sir. ‘E never went in on anythink so ‘ard before nor since, till ‘e went in on the Marriage there — though ‘e mostly went in on things pretty keen; ‘ad the measles when ‘e was thirty, strong as cholera, an’ come close to dyin’ of ’em. ‘E wasn’t strong for Lydy Elling’s set; they was a bit too stiff for ’im. A free an’ easy gentleman, ‘e was; ‘e liked ‘is dinner with a few friends an’ them jolly, but ‘e wasn’t much on what you might call big affairs. But once ‘e went in for Lydy Elling ‘e broke ‘imself to new paces; He give away ‘is rings an’ pins, an’ the tylor’s man an’ the ‘aberdasher’s man was at ‘is rooms continual. ‘E got ‘imself put up for a club in Piccadilly; ‘e starved ‘imself thin, an’ worrited ‘imself white, an’ ironed ‘imself out, an’ drawed ‘imself tight as a bow string. It was a good job ‘e come a winner, or I don’t know w’at’d ‘a been to pay.”
The next week, in consequence of an invitation from Lady Ellen Treffinger, MacMaster went one afternoon to take tea with her. He was shown into the garden that lay between the residence and the studio, where the tea table was set under a gnarled pear tree. Lady Ellen rose as he approached — he was astonished to note how tall she was-and greeted him graciously, saying that she already knew him through her sister. MacMaster felt a certain satisfaction in her; in her reassuring poise and repose, in the charming modulations of her voice and the indolent reserve of her full, almond eyes. He was even delighted to find her face so inscrutable, though it chilled his own warmth and made the open frankness he had wished to permit himself impossible. It was a long face, narrow at the chin, very delicately featured, yet steeled by an impassive mask of self-control. It was behind just such finely cut, close-sealed faces, MacMaster reflected, that nature sometimes hid astonishing secrets. But in spite of this suggestion of hardness he felt that the unerring taste that Treffinger had always shown in larger matters had not deserted him when he came to the choosing of a wife, and he admitted that he could not himself have selected a woman who looked more as Treffinger’s wife should look.
While he was explaining the purpose of his frequent visits to the studio she heard him with courteous interest. “I have read, I think, everything that has been published on Sir Hugh Treffinger’s work, and it seems to me that there is much left to be said,” he concluded.
“I believe they are rather inadequate,” she remarked vaguely. She hesitated a moment, absently fingering the ribbons of her gown, then continued, without raising her eyes; “I hope you will not think me too exacting if I ask to see the proofs of such chapters of your work as have to do with Sir Hugh’s personal life. I have always asked that privilege.”
MacMaster hastily assured her as to this, adding, “I mean to touch on only such facts in his personal life as have to do directly with his work — such as his monkish education under Ghillini.”
“I see your meaning, I think,” said Lady Ellen, looking at him with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
When MacMaster stopped at the studio on leaving the house he stood for some time before Treffinger’s one portrait of himself, that brigand of a picture, with its full throat and square head; the short upper lip blackened by the close-clipped mustache, the wiry hair tossed down over the forehead, the strong white teeth set hard on a short pipestem. He could well understand what manifold tortures the mere grain of the man’s strong red and brown flesh might have inflicted upon a woman like Lady Ellen. He could conjecture, too, Treffinger’s impotent revolt against that very repose which had so dazzled him when it first defied his daring; and how once possessed of it, his first instinct had been to crush it, since he could not melt it.
Toward the close of the season Lady Ellen Treffinger left town. MacMaster’s work was progressing rapidly, and he and James wore away the days in their peculiar relation, which by this time had much of friendliness. Excepting for the regular visits of a Jewish picture dealer, there were few intrusions upon their solitude. Occasionally a party of Americans rang at the little door in the garden wall, but usually they departed speedily for the Moorish hall and tinkling fountain of the great show studio of London, not far away.
This Jew, an Austrian by birth, who had a large business in Melbourne, Australia, was a man of considerable discrimination, and at once selected the Marriage of Phaedra as the object of his especial interest. When, upon his first visit, Lichtenstein had declared the picture one of the things done for time, MacMaster had rather warmed toward him and had talked to him very freely. Later, however, the man’s repulsive personality and innate vulgarity so wore upon him that, the more genuine the Jew’s appreciation, the more he resented it and the more base he somehow felt it to be. It annoyed him to see Lichtenstein walking up and down before the picture, shaking his head and blinking his watery eyes over his nose glasses, ejaculating: “Dot is a chem, a chem! It is wordt to gome den dousant miles for such a bainting, eh? To make Eurobe abbreciate such a work of ardt it is necessary to take it away while she is napping. She has never abbreciated until she has lost, but,” knowingly, “she will buy back.”
James had, from the first, felt such a distrust of the man that he would never leave him alone in the studio for a moment. When Lichtenstein insisted upon having Lady Ellen Treffinger’s address James rose to the point of insolence. “It ayn’t no use to give it, noway. Lydy Treffinger never has nothink to do with dealers.” MacMaster quietly repented his rash confidences, fearing that he might indirectly cause Lady Ellen annoyance from this merciless speculator, and he recalled with chagrin that Lichtenstein had extorted from him, little by little, pretty much the entire plan of his book, and especially the place in it which the Marriage of Phaedra was to occupy.
By this time the first chapters of MacMaster’s book were in the hands of his publisher, and his visits to the studio were necessarily less frequent. The greater part of his time was now employed with the engravers who were to reproduce such of Treffinger’s pictures as he intended to use as illustrations.
He returned to his hotel late one evening after a long and vexing day at the engravers to find James in his room, seated on his steamer trunk by the window, with the outline of a great square draped in sheets resting against his knee.
“Why, James, what’s up?” he cried in astonishment, glancing inquiringly at the sheeted object.
“Ayn’t you seen the pypers, sir?” jerked out the man.
“No, now I think of it, I haven’t even looked at a paper. I’ve been at the engravers’ plant all day. I haven’t seen anything.”
James drew a copy of the Times from his pocket and handed it to him, pointing with a tragic finger to a paragraph in the social column. It was merely the announcement of Lady Ellen Treffinger’s engagement to Captain Alexander Gresham.
“Well, what of it, my man? That surely is her privilege.”
James took the paper, turned to another page, and silently pointed to a paragraph in the art notes which stated that Lady Treffinger had presented to the X— gallery the entire collection of paintings and sketches now in her late husband’s studio, with the exception of his unfinished picture, the Marriage Of Phaedra, which she had sold for a large sum to an Australian dealer who had come to London purposely to secure some of Treffinger’s paintings.
MacMaster pursed up his lips and sat down, his overcoat still on. “Well, James, this is something of a — something of a jolt, eh? It never occurred to me she’d really do it.”
“Lord, you don’t know ‘er, sir,” said James bitterly, still staring at the floor in an attitude of abandoned dejection.
MacMaster started up in a flash of enlightenment, “What on earth have you got there, James? It’s not-surely it’s not — ”
“Yes, it is, sir,” broke in the man excitedly. “It’s the Marriage itself. It ayn’t agoing to H’Australia, no’ow!”
“But man, what are you going to do with it? It’s Lichtenstein’s property now, as it seems.”
“It ayn’t, sir, that it ayn’t. No, by Gawd, it ayn’t!” shouted James, breaking into a choking fury. He controlled himself with an effort and added supplicatingly: “Oh, sir, you ayn’t agoing to see it go to H’Australia, w’ere they send convic’s?” He unpinned and flung aside the sheets as though to let Phaedra plead for herself.
MacMaster sat down again and looked sadly at the doomed masterpiece. The notion of James having carried it across London that night rather appealed to his fancy. There was certainly a flavor about such a highhanded proceeding. “However did you get it here?” he queried.
“I got a four-wheeler and come over direct, sir. Good job I ‘appened to ‘ave the chaynge about me.”
“You came up High Street, up Piccadilly, through the Haymarket and Trafalgar Square, and into the Strand?” queried MacMaster with a relish.
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir,” assented James with surprise.
MacMaster laughed delightedly. “It was a beautiful idea, James, but I’m afraid we can’t carry it any further.”
“I was thinkin’ as ‘ow it would be a rare chance to get you to take the Marriage over to Paris for a year or two, sir, until the thing blows over?” suggested James blandly.
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question, James. I haven’t the right stuff in me for a pirate, or even a vulgar smuggler, I’m afraid.” MacMaster found it surprisingly difficult to say this, and he busied himself with the lamp as he said it. He heard James’s hand fall heavily on the trunk top, and he discovered that he very much disliked sinking in the man’s estimation.
“Well, sir,” remarked James in a more formal tone, after a protracted silence; “then there’s nothink for it but as ‘ow I’ll ‘ave to make way with it myself.”
“And how about your character, James? The evidence would be heavy against you, and even if Lady Treffinger didn’t prosecute you’d be done for.”
“Blow my character! — your pardon, sir,” cried James, starting to his feet. “W’at do I want of a character? I’ll chuck the ‘ole thing, and damned lively, too. The shop’s to be sold out, an’ my place is gone any’ow. I’m agoing to enlist, or try the gold fields. I’ve lived too long with h’artists; I’d never give satisfaction in livery now. You know ‘ow it is yourself, sir; there ayn’t no life like it, no’ow.”
For a moment MacMaster was almost equal to abetting James in his theft. He reflected that pictures had been whitewashed, or hidden in the crypts of churches, or under the floors of palaces from meaner motives, and to save them from a fate less ignominious. But presently, with a sigh, he shook his head.
“No, James, it won’t do at all. It has been tried over and over again, ever since the world has been agoing and pictures amaking. It was tried in Florence and in Venice, but the pictures were always carried away in the end. You see, the difficulty is that although Treffinger told you what was not to be done with the picture, he did not say definitely what was to be done with it. Do you think Lady Treffinger really understands that he did not want it to be sold?”
“Well, sir, it was like this, sir,” said James, resuming his seat on the trunk and again resting the picture against his knee. “My memory is as clear as glass about it. After Sir ‘Ugh got up from ‘is first stroke, ‘e took a fresh start at the Marriage. Before that ‘e ‘ad been working at it only at night for a while back; the Legend was the big picture then, an’ was under the north light w’ere ‘e worked of a morning. But one day ‘e bid me take the Legend down an’ put the Marriage in its place, an’ ‘e says, dashin’ on ‘is jacket, ‘Jymes, this is a start for the finish, this time.’
“From that on ‘e worked at the night picture in the mornin’ — a thing contrary to ‘is custom. The Marriage went wrong, and wrong — an’ Sir ‘Ugh agettin’ seedier an’ seedier every day. ‘E tried models an’ models, an’ smudged an’ pynted out on account of ‘er face goin’ wrong in the shadow. Sometimes ‘e layed it on the colors, an’ swore at me an’ things in general. He got that discouraged about ‘imself that on ‘is low days ‘e used to say to me: ‘Jymes, remember one thing; if anythink ‘appens to me, the Marriage is not to go out of ’ere unfinished. It’s worth the lot of ’em, my boy, an’ it’s not agoing to go shabby for lack of pains.’ ‘E said things to that effect repeated.
“He was workin’ at the picture the last day, before ‘e went to ‘is club. ‘E kept the carriage waitin’ near an hour while ‘e put on a stroke an’ then drawed back for to look at it, an’ then put on another, careful like. After ‘e ‘ad ‘is gloves on, ‘e come back an’ took away the brushes I was startin’ to clean, an’ put in another touch or two. ‘It’s acomin’, Jymes,’ ‘e says, ‘by gad if it ayn’t.’ An’ with that ‘e goes out. It was cruel sudden, w’at come after.
“That night I was lookin’ to ‘is clothes at the ’ouse when they brought ’im ‘ome. He was conscious, but w’en I ran downstairs for to ‘elp lift ’im up, I knowed ‘e was a finished man. After we got ’im into bed ‘e kept lookin’ restless at me and then at Lydy Elling and ajerkin’ of ‘is ‘and. Finally ‘e quite raised it an’ shot ‘is thumb out toward the wall. ‘He wants water; ring, Jymes,’ says Lydy Elling, placid. But I knowed ‘e was pointin’ to the shop.
“‘Lydy Treffinger,’ says I, bold, ‘he’s pointin’ to the studio. He means about the Marriage; ‘e told me today as ‘ow ‘e never wanted it sold unfinished. Is that it, Sir ‘Ugh?’
“He smiled an’ nodded slight an’ closed ‘is eyes. ‘Thank you, Jymes,’ says Lydy Elling, placid. Then ‘e opened ‘is eyes an’ looked long and ‘ard at Lydy Elling.
“‘Of course I’ll try to do as you’d wish about the picture, ‘Ugh, if that’s w’at’s troublin’ you,’ she says quiet. With that ‘e closed ‘is eyes and ‘e never opened ’em. He died unconscious at four that mornin’.
“You see, sir, Lydy Elling was always cruel ‘ard on the Marriage. From the first it went wrong, an’ Sir ‘Ugh was out of temper pretty constant. She came into the studio one day and looked at the picture an ‘asked ’im why ‘e didn’t throw it up an’ quit aworriting ‘imself. He answered sharp, an’ with that she said as ‘ow she didn’t see w’at there was to make such a row about, no’ow. She spoke ‘er mind about that picture, free; an’ Sir ‘Ugh swore ‘ot an’ let a ‘andful of brushes fly at ‘is study, an’ Lydy Elling picked up ‘er skirts careful an’ chill, an’ drifted out of the studio with ‘er eyes calm and ‘er chin ‘igh. If there was one thing Lydy Elling ‘ad no comprehension of, it was the usefulness of swearin’. So the Marriage was a sore thing between ’em. She is uncommon calm, but uncommon bitter, is Lydy Elling. She’s never come anear the studio since that day she went out ‘oldin’ up of ‘er skirts. W’en ‘er friends goes over she excuses ‘erself along o’ the strain. Strain — Gawd!” James ground his wrath short in his teeth.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, James, and it’s our only hope. I’ll see Lady Ellen tomorrow. The Times says she returned today. You take the picture back to its place, and I’ll do what I can for it. If anything is done to save it, it must be done through Lady Ellen Treffinger herself, that much is clear. I can’t think that she fully understands the situation. If she did, you know, she really couldn’t have any motive — ” He stopped suddenly. Somehow, in the dusky lamplight, her small, close-sealed face came ominously back to him. He rubbed his forehead and knitted his brows thoughtfully. After a moment he shook his head and went on: “I am positive that nothing can be gained by highhanded methods, James. Captain Gresham is one of the most popular men in London, and his friends would tear up Treffinger’s bones if he were annoyed by any scandal of our making — and this scheme you propose would inevitably result in scandal. Lady Ellen has, of course, every legal right to sell the picture. Treffinger made considerable inroads upon her estate, and, as she is about to marry a man without income, she doubtless feels that she has a right to replenish her patrimony.”
He found James amenable, though doggedly skeptical. He went down into the street, called a carriage, and saw James and his burden into it. Standing in the doorway, he watched the carriage roll away through the drizzling mist, weave in and out among the wet, black vehicles and darting cab lights, until it was swallowed up in the glare and confusion of the Strand. “It is rather a fine touch of irony,” he reflected, “that he, who is so out of it, should be the one to really care. Poor Treffinger,” he murmured as, with a rather spiritless smile, he turned back into his hotel. “Poor Treffinger; sic transit gloria.”
The next afternoon MacMaster kept his promise. When he arrived at Lady Mary Percy’s house he saw preparations for a function of some sort, but he went resolutely up the steps, telling the footman that his business was urgent. Lady Ellen came down alone, excusing her sister. She was dressed for receiving, and MacMaster had never seen one so beautiful. The color in her cheeks sent a softening glow over her small, delicately cut features.
MacMaster apologized for his intrusion and came unflinchingly to the object of his call. He had come, he said, not only to offer her his warmest congratulations, but to express his regret that a great work of art was to leave England.
Lady Treffinger looked at him in wide-eyed astonishment. Surely, she said, she had been careful to select the best of the pictures for the X—— gallery, in accordance with Sir Hugh Treffinger’s wishes.
“And did he — pardon me, Lady Treffinger, but in mercy set my mind at rest — did he or did he not express any definite wish concerning this one picture, which to me seems worth all the others, unfinished as it is?”
Lady Treffinger paled perceptibly, but it was not the pallor of confusion. When she spoke there was a sharp tremor in her smooth voice, the edge of a resentment that tore her like pain. “I think his man has some such impression, but I believe it to be utterly unfounded. I cannot find that he ever expressed any wish concerning the disposition of the picture to any of his friends. Unfortunately, Sir Hugh was not always discreet in his remarks to his servants.”
“Captain Gresham, Lady Ellingham, and Miss Ellingham,” announced a servant, appearing at the door.
There was a murmur in the hall, and MacMaster greeted the smiling Captain and his aunt as he bowed himself out.
To all intents and purposes the Marriage of Phaedra was already entombed in a vague continent in the Pacific, somewhere on the other side of the world.
I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined notepaper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village. This communication, worn and rubbed, looking as though it had been carried for some days in a coat pocket that was none too clean, was from my Uncle Howard and informed me that his wife had been left a small legacy by a bachelor relative who had recently died, and that it would be necessary for her to go to Boston to attend to the settling of the estate. He requested me to meet her at the station and render her whatever services might be necessary. On examining the date indicated as that of her arrival I found it no later than tomorrow. He had characteristically delayed writing until, had I been away from home for a day, I must have missed the good woman altogether.
The name of my Aunt Georgiana called up not alone her own figure, at once pathetic and grotesque, but opened before my feet a gulf of recollection so wide and deep that, as the letter dropped from my hand, I felt suddenly a stranger to all the present conditions of my existence, wholly ill at ease and out of place amid the familiar surroundings of my study. I became, in short, the gangling farm boy my aunt had known, scourged with chilblains and bashfulness, my hands cracked and sore from the corn husking. I felt the knuckles of my thumb tentatively, as though they were raw again. I sat again before her parlor organ, fumbling the scales with my stiff, red hands, while she, beside me, made canvas mittens for the huskers.
The next morning, after preparing my landlady somewhat, I set out for the station. When the train arrived I had some difficulty in finding my aunt. She was the last of the passengers to alight, and it was not until I got her into the carriage that she seemed really to recognize me. She had come all the way in a day coach; her linen duster had become black with soot, and her black bonnet gray with dust, during the journey. When we arrived at my boardinghouse the landlady put her to bed at once and I did not see her again until the next morning.
Whatever shock Mrs. Springer experienced at my aunt’s appearance she considerately concealed. As for myself, I saw my aunt’s misshapen figure with that feeling of awe and respect with which we behold explorers who have left their ears and fingers north of Franz Josef Land, or their health somewhere along the Upper Congo. My Aunt Georgiana had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, somewhere back in the latter sixties. One summer, while visiting in the little village among the Green Mountains where her ancestors had dwelt for generations, she had kindled the callow fancy of the most idle and shiftless of all the village lads, and had conceived for this Howard Carpenter one of those extravagant passions which a handsome country boy of twenty-one sometimes inspires in an angular, spectacled woman of thirty. When she returned to her duties in Boston, Howard followed her, and the upshot of this inexplicable infatuation was that she eloped with him, eluding the reproaches of her family and the criticisms of her friends by going with him to the Nebraska frontier. Carpenter, who, of course, had no money, had taken a homestead in Red Willow County, fifty miles from the railroad. There they had measured off their quarter section themselves by driving across the prairie in a wagon, to the wheel of which they had tied a red cotton handkerchief, and counting off its revolutions. They built a dugout in the red hillside, one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions. Their water they got from the lagoons where the buffalo drank, and their slender stock of provisions was always at the mercy of bands of roving Indians. For thirty years my aunt had not been further than fifty miles from the homestead.
But Mrs. Springer knew nothing of all this, and must have been considerably shocked at what was left of my kinswoman. Beneath the soiled linen duster which, on her arrival, was the most conspicuous feature of her costume, she wore a black stuff dress, whose ornamentation showed that she had surrendered herself unquestioningly into the hands of a country dressmaker. My poor aunt’s figure, however, would have presented astonishing difficulties to any dressmaker. Originally stooped, her shoulders were now almost bent together over her sunken chest. She wore no stays, and her gown, which trailed unevenly behind, rose in a sort of peak over her abdomen. She wore ill-fitting false teeth, and her skin was as yellow as a Mongolian’s from constant exposure to a pitiless wind and to the alkaline water which hardens the most transparent cuticle into a sort of flexible leather.
I owed to this woman most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood, and had a reverential affection for her. During the years when I was riding herd for my uncle, my aunt, after cooking the three meals — the first of which was ready at six o’clock in the morning-and putting the six children to bed, would often stand until midnight at her ironing board, with me at the kitchen table beside her, hearing me recite Latin declensions and conjugations, gently shaking me when my drowsy head sank down over a page of irregular verbs. It was to her, at her ironing or mending, that I read my first Shakespeare’, and her old textbook on mythology was the first that ever came into my empty hands. She taught me my scales and exercises, too — on the little parlor organ, which her husband had bought her after fifteen years, during which she had not so much as seen any instrument, but an accordion that belonged to one of the Norwegian farmhands. She would sit beside me by the hour, darning and counting while I struggled with the “Joyous Farmer,” but she seldom talked to me about music, and I understood why. She was a pious woman; she had the consolations of religion and, to her at least, her martyrdom was not wholly sordid. Once when I had been doggedly beating out some easy passages from an old score of Euryanthe I had found among her music books, she came up to me and, putting her hands over my eyes, gently drew my head back upon her shoulder, saying tremulously, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you. Oh, dear boy, pray that whatever your sacrifice may be, it be not that.”
When my aunt appeared on the morning after her arrival she was still in a semi-somnambulant state. She seemed not to realize that she was in the city where she had spent her youth, the place longed for hungrily half a lifetime. She had been so wretchedly train-sick throughout the journey that she had no recollection of anything but her discomfort, and, to all intents and purposes, there were but a few hours of nightmare between the farm in Red Willow County and my study on Newbury Street. I had planned a little pleasure for her that afternoon, to repay her for some of the glorious moments she had given me when we used to milk together in the straw-thatched cowshed and she, because I was more than usually tired, or because her husband had spoken sharply to me, would tell me of the splendid performance of the Huguenots she had seen in Paris, in her youth. At two o’clock the Symphony Orchestra was to give a Wagner program, and I intended to take my aunt; though, as I conversed with her I grew doubtful about her enjoyment of it. Indeed, for her own sake, I could only wish her taste for such things quite dead, and the long struggle mercifully ended at last. I suggested our visiting the Conservatory and the Common before lunch, but she seemed altogether too timid to wish to venture out. She questioned me absently about various changes in the city, but she was chiefly concerned that she had forgotten to leave instructions about feeding half-skimmed milk to a certain weakling calf, “old Maggie’s calf, you know, Clark,” she explained, evidently having forgotten how long I had been away. She was further troubled because she had neglected to tell her daughter about the freshly opened kit of mackerel in the cellar, which would spoil if it were not used directly.
I asked her whether she had ever heard any of the Wagnerian operas and found that she had not, though she was perfectly familiar with their respective situations, and had once possessed the piano score of The Flying Dutchman. I began to think it would have been best to get her back to Red Willow County without waking her, and regretted having suggested the concert.
From the time we entered the concert hall, however, she was a trifle less passive and inert, and for the first time seemed to perceive her surroundings. I had felt some trepidation lest she might become aware of the absurdities of her attire, or might experience some painful embarrassment at stepping suddenly into the world to which she had been dead for a quarter of a century. But, again, I found how superficially I had judged her. She sat looking about her with eyes as impersonal, almost as stony, as those with which the granite Rameses in a museum watches the froth and fret that ebbs and flows about his pedestal-separated from it by the lonely stretch of centuries. I have seen this same aloofness in old miners who drift into the Brown Hotel at Denver, their pockets full of bullion, their linen soiled, their haggard faces unshaven; standing in the thronged corridors as solitary as though they were still in a frozen camp on the Yukon, conscious that certain experiences have isolated them from their fellows by a gulf no haberdasher could bridge.
We sat at the extreme left of the first balcony, facing the arch of our own and the balcony above us, veritable hanging gardens, brilliant as tulip beds. The matinee audience was made up chiefly of women. One lost the contour of faces and figures — indeed, any effect of line whatever-and there was only the color of bodices past counting, the shimmer of fabrics soft and firm, silky and sheer: red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, ecru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colors that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape, with here and there the dead shadow of a frock coat. My Aunt Georgiana regarded them as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette.
When the musicians came out and took their places, she gave a little stir of anticipation and looked with quickening interest down over the rail at that invariable grouping, perhaps the first wholly familiar thing that had greeted her eye since she had left old Maggie and her weakling calf. I could feel how all those details sank into her soul, for I had not forgotten how they had sunk into mine when I came fresh from plowing forever and forever between green aisles of corn, where, as in a treadmill, one might walk from daybreak to dusk without perceiving a shadow of change. The clean profiles of the musicians, the gloss of their linen, the dull black of their coats, the beloved shapes of the instruments, the patches of yellow light thrown by the green-shaded lamps on the smooth, varnished bellies of the cellos and the bass viols in the rear, the restless, wind-tossed forest of fiddle necks and bows-I recalled how, in the first orchestra I had ever heard, those long bow strokes seemed to draw the heart out of me, as a conjurer’s stick reels out yards of paper ribbon from a hat.
The first number was the Tannhauser overture. When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus my Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years; the inconceivable silence of the plains. With the battle between the two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain-gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dishcloths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door. The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.
The overture closed; my aunt released my coat sleeve, but she said nothing. She sat staring at the orchestra through a dullness of thirty years, through the films made little by little by each of the three hundred and sixty-five days in every one of them. What, I wondered, did she get from it? She had been a good pianist in her day I knew, and her musical education had been broader than that of most music teachers of a quarter of a century ago. She had often told me of Mozart’s operas and Meyerbeer’s, and I could remember hearing her sing, years ago, certain melodies of Verdi’s. When I had fallen ill with a fever in her house she used to sit by my cot in the evening — when the cool, night wind blew in through the faded mosquito netting tacked over the window, and I lay watching a certain bright star that burned red above the cornfield — and sing “Home to our mountains, O, let us return!” in a way fit to break the heart of a Vermont boy near dead of homesickness already.
I watched her closely through the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, trying vainly to conjecture what that seething turmoil of strings and winds might mean to her, but she sat mutely staring at the violin bows that drove obliquely downward, like the pelting streaks of rain in a summer shower. Had this music any message for her? Had she enough left to at all comprehend this power which had kindled the world since she had left it? I was in a fever of curiosity, but Aunt Georgiana sat silent upon her peak in Darien. She preserved this utter immobility throughout the number from The Flying Dutchman, though her fingers worked mechanically upon her black dress, as though, of themselves, they were recalling the piano score they had once played. Poor old hands! They had been stretched and twisted into mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with; the palms unduly swollen, the fingers bent and knotted — on one of them a thin, worn band that had once been a wedding ring. As I pressed and gently quieted one of those groping hands I remembered with quivering eyelids their services for me in other days.
Soon after the tenor began the “Prize Song,” I heard a quick drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks, and I think, in a moment more, they were in my eyes as well. It never really died, then — the soul that can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again. She wept so throughout the development and elaboration of the melody.
During the intermission before the second half of the concert, I questioned my aunt and found that the “Prize Song” was not new to her. Some years before there had drifted to the farm in Red Willow County a young German, a tramp cowpuncher, who had sung the chorus at Bayreuth, when he was a boy, along with the other peasant boys and girls. Of a Sunday morning he used to sit on his gingham-sheeted bed in the hands’ bedroom which opened off the kitchen, cleaning the leather of his boots and saddle, singing the “Prize Song,” while my aunt went about her work in the kitchen. She had hovered about him until she had prevailed upon him to join the country church, though his sole fitness for this step, insofar as I could gather, lay in his boyish face and his possession of this divine melody. Shortly afterward he had gone to town on the Fourth of July, been drunk for several days, lost his money at a faro table, ridden a saddled Texan steer on a bet, and disappeared with a fractured collarbone. All this my aunt told me huskily, wanderingly, as though she were talking in the weak lapses of illness.
“Well, we have come to better things than the old Trovatore at any rate, Aunt Georgie?” I queried, with a well-meant effort at jocularity.
Her lip quivered and she hastily put her handkerchief up to her mouth. From behind it she murmured, “And you have been hearing this ever since you left me, Clark?” Her question was the gentlest and saddest of reproaches.
The second half of the program consisted of four numbers from the Ring, and closed with Siegfried’s funeral march. My aunt wept quietly, but almost continuously, as a shallow vessel overflows in a rainstorm. From time to time her dim eyes looked up at the lights which studded the ceiling, burning softly under their dull glass globes; doubtless they were stars in truth to her. I was still perplexed as to what measure of musical comprehension was left to her, she who had heard nothing but the singing of gospel hymns at Methodist services in the square frame schoolhouse on Section Thirteen for so many years. I was wholly unable to gauge how much of it had been dissolved in soapsuds, or worked into bread, or milked into the bottom of a pail.
The deluge of sound poured on and on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that before the last numbers she had been carried out where the myriad graves are, into the gray, nameless burying grounds of the sea; or into some world of death vaster yet, where, from the beginning of the world, hope has lain down with hope and dream with dream and, renouncing, slept.
The concert was over; the people filed out of the hall chattering and laughing, glad to relax and find the living level again, but my kinswoman made no effort to rise. The harpist slipped its green felt cover over his instrument; the flute players shook the water from their mouthpieces; the men of the orchestra went out one by one, leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield.
I spoke to my aunt. She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”
I understood. For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.
A Study in Temperament
It was Paul’s afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanors. He had been suspended a week ago, and his father had called at the Principal’s office and confessed his perplexity about his son. Paul entered the faculty room suave and smiling. His clothes were a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-inhand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole. This latter adornment the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension.
Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest. His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy. The pupils were abnormally large, as though he were addicted to belladonna, but there was a glassy glitter about them which that drug does not produce.
When questioned by the Principal as to why he was there Paul stated, politely enough, that he wanted to come back to school. This was a lie, but Paul was quite accustomed to lying; found it, indeed, indispensable for overcoming friction. His teachers were asked to state their respective charges against him, which they did with such a rancor and aggrievedness as evinced that this was not a usual case, Disorder and impertinence were among the offenses named, yet each of his instructors felt that it was scarcely possible to put into words the real cause of the trouble, which lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy’s; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal. Once, when he had been making a synopsis of a paragraph at the blackboard, his English teacher had stepped to his side and attempted to guide his hand. Paul had started back with a shudder and thrust his hands violently behind him. The astonished woman could scarcely have been more hurt and embarrassed had he struck at her. The insult was so involuntary and definitely personal as to be unforgettable. In one way and another he had made all his teachers, men and women alike, conscious of the same feeling of physical aversion. In one class he habitually sat with his hand shading his eyes; in another he always looked out of the window during the recitation; in another he made a running commentary on the lecture, with humorous intention.
His teachers felt this afternoon that his whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower, and they fell upon him without mercy, his English teacher leading the pack. He stood through it smiling, his pale lips parted over his white teeth. (His lips were continually twitching, and he had a habit of raising his eyebrows that was contemptuous and irritating to the last degree.) Older boys than Paul had broken down and shed tears under that baptism of fire, but his set smile did not once desert him, and his only sign of discomfort was the nervous trembling of the fingers that toyed with the buttons of his overcoat, and an occasional jerking of the other hand that held his hat. Paul was always smiling, always glancing about him, seeming to feel that people might be watching him and trying to detect something. This conscious expression, since it was as far as possible from boyish mirthfulness, was usually attributed to insolence or “smartness.”
As the inquisition proceeded one of his instructors repeated an impertinent remark of the boy’s, and the Principal asked him whether he thought that a courteous speech to have made a woman. Paul shrugged his shoulders slightly and his eyebrows twitched.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I didn’t mean to be polite or impolite, either. I guess it’s a sort of way I have of saying things regardless.”
The Principal, who was a sympathetic man, asked him whether he didn’t think that a way it would be well to get rid of. Paul grinned and said he guessed so. When he was told that he could go he bowed gracefully and went out. His bow was but a repetition of the scandalous red carnation.
His teachers were in despair, and his drawing master voiced the feeling of them all when he declared there was something about the boy which none of them understood. He added: “I don’t really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there’s something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. I happen to know that he was born in Colorado, only a few months before his mother died out there of a long illness. There is something wrong about the fellow.”
The drawing master had come to realize that, in looking at Paul, one saw only his white teeth and the forced animation of his eyes. One warm afternoon the boy had gone to sleep at his drawing board, and his master had noted with amazement what a white, blue-veined face it was; drawn and wrinkled like an old man’s about the eyes, the lips twitching even in his sleep, and stiff with a nervous tension that drew them back from his teeth.
His teachers left the building dissatisfied and unhappy; humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy, to have uttered this feeling in cutting terms, and to have set each other on, as it were, in the gruesome game of intemperate reproach. Some of them remembered having seen a miserable street cat set at bay by a ring of tormentors.
As for Paul, he ran down the hill whistling the “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Faust, looking wildly behind him now and then to see whether some of his teachers were not there to writhe under his lightheartedness. As it was now late in the afternoon and Paul was on duty that evening as usher at Carnegie Hall, he decided that he would not go home to supper. When he reached the concert hall the doors were not yet open and, as it was chilly outside, he decided to go up into the picture gallery — always deserted at this hour — where there were some of Raffelli’s gay studies of Paris streets and an airy blue Venetian scene or two that always exhilarated him. He was delighted to find no one in the gallery but the old guard, who sat in one corner, a newspaper on his knee, a black patch over one eye and the other closed. Paul possessed himself of the peace and walked confidently up and down, whistling under his breath. After a while he sat down before a blue Rico and lost himself. When he bethought him to look at his watch, it was after seven o’clock, and he rose with a start and ran downstairs, making a face at Augustus, peering out from the cast room, and an evil gesture at the Venus de Milo as he passed her on the stairway.
When Paul reached the ushers’ dressing room half a dozen boys were there already, and he began excitedly to tumble into his uniform. It was one of the few that at all approached fitting, and Paul thought it very becoming-though he knew that the tight, straight coat accentuated his narrow chest, about which he was exceedingly sensitive. He was always considerably excited while he dressed, twanging all over to the tuning of the strings and the preliminary flourishes of the horns in the music room; but tonight he seemed quite beside himself, and he teased and plagued the boys until, telling him that he was crazy, they put him down on the floor and sat on him.
Somewhat calmed by his suppression, Paul dashed out to the front of the house to seat the early comers. He was a model usher; gracious and smiling he ran up and down the aisles; nothing was too much trouble for him; he carried messages and brought programs as though it were his greatest pleasure in life, and all the people in his section thought him a charming boy, feeling that he remembered and admired them. As the house filled, he grew more and more vivacious and animated, and the color came to his cheeks and lips. It was very much as though this were a great reception and Paul were the host. Just as the musicians came out to take their places, his English teacher arrived with checks for the seats which a prominent manufacturer had taken for the season. She betrayed some embarrassment when she handed Paul the tickets, and a hauteur which subsequently made her feel very foolish. Paul was startled for a moment, and had the feeling of wanting to put her out; what business had she here among all these fine people and gay colors? He looked her over and decided that she was not appropriately dressed and must be a fool to sit downstairs in such togs. The tickets had probably been sent her out of kindness, he reflected as he put down a seat for her, and she had about as much right to sit there as he had.
When the symphony began Paul sank into one of the rear seats with a long sigh of relief, and lost himself as he had done before the Rico. It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious and potent spirit within him; something that struggled there like the genie in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor. When the soprano soloist came on Paul forgot even the nastiness of his teacher’s being there and gave himself up to the peculiar stimulus such personages always had for him. The soloist chanced to be a German woman, by no means in her first youth, and the mother of many children; but she wore an elaborate gown and a tiara, and above all she had that indefinable air of achievement, that world-shine upon her, which, in Paul’s eyes, made her a veritable queen of Romance.
After a concert was over Paul was always irritable and wretched until he got to sleep, and tonight he was even more than usually restless. He had the feeling of not being able to let down, of its being impossible to give up this delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all. During the last number he withdrew and, after hastily changing his clothes in the dressing room, slipped out to the side door where the soprano’s carriage stood. Here he began pacing rapidly up and down the walk, waiting to see her come out.
Over yonder, the Schenley, in its vacant stretch, loomed big and square through the fine rain, the windows of its twelve stories glowing like those of a lighted cardboard house under a Christmas tree. All the actors and singers of the better class stayed there when they were in the city, and a number of the big manufacturers of the place lived there in the winter. Paul had often hung about the hotel, watching the people go in and out, longing to enter and leave schoolmasters and dull care behind him forever.
At last the singer came out, accompanied by the conductor, who helped her into her carriage and closed the door with a cordial auf wiedersehen which set Paul to wondering whether she were not an old sweetheart of his. Paul followed the carriage over to the hotel, walking so rapidly as not to be far from the entrance when the singer alighted, and disappeared behind the swinging glass doors that were opened by a Negro in a tall hat and a long coat. In the moment that the door was ajar it seemed to Paul that he, too, entered. He seemed to feel himself go after her up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease. He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday World supplement. A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway; that his boots were letting in the water and his scanty overcoat was clinging wet about him; that the lights in front of the concert hall were out and that the rain was driving in sheets between him and the orange glow of the windows above him. There it was, what he wanted — tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime — but mocking spirits stood guard at the doors, and, as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.
He turned and walked reluctantly toward the car tracks. The end had to come sometime; his father in his nightclothes at the top of the stairs, explanations that did not explain, hastily improvised fictions that were forever tripping him up, his upstairs room and its horrible yellow wallpaper, the creaking bureau with the greasy plush collarbox, and over his painted wooden bed the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin, and the framed motto, “Feed my Lambs,” which had been worked in red worsted by his mother.
Half an hour later Paul alighted from his car and went slowly down one of the side streets off the main thoroughfare. It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where businessmen of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived. Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing. His home was next to the house of the Cumberland minister. He approached it tonight with the nerveless sense Of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness that he had always had when he came home. The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head. After each of these orgies of living he experienced all the physical depression which follows a debauch; the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odors; a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence; a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.
The nearer he approached the house, the more absolutely unequal Paul felt to the sight of it all: his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spiggots; his father, at the top of the stairs, his hairy legs sticking out from his nightshirt, his feet thrust into carpet slippers. He was so much later than usual that there would certainly be inquiries and reproaches. Paul stopped short before the door. He felt that he could not be accosted by his father tonight; that he could not toss again on that miserable bed. He would not go in. He would tell his father that he had no carfare and it was raining so hard he had gone home with one of the boys and stayed all night.
Meanwhile, he was wet and cold. He went around to the back of the house and tried one of the basement windows, found it open, raised it cautiously, and scrambled down the cellar wall to the floor. There he stood, holding his breath, terrified by the noise he had made, but the floor above him was silent, and there was no creak on the stairs. He found a soapbox, and carried it over to the soft ring of light that streamed from the furnace door, and sat down. He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified lest he might have awakened his father. In such reactions, after one of the experiences which made days and nights out of the dreary blanks of the calendar, when his senses were deadened, Paul’s head was always singularly clear. Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window and had come down and shot him for a burglar? Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had killed him? Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? With this last supposition Paul entertained himself until daybreak.
The following Sunday was fine; the sodden November chill was broken by the last flash of autumnal summer. In the morning Paul had to go to church and Sabbath school, as always. On seasonable Sunday afternoons the burghers of Cordelia Street always sat out on their front stoops and talked to their neighbors on the next stoop, or called to those across the street in neighborly fashion. The men usually sat on gay cushions placed upon the steps that led down to the sidewalk, while the women, in their Sunday “waists,” sat in rockers on the cramped porches, pretending to be greatly at their ease. The children played in the streets; there were so many of them that the place resembled the recreation grounds of a kindergarten. The men on the steps — all in their shirt sleeves, their vests unbuttoned — sat with their legs well apart, their stomachs comfortably protruding, and talked of the prices of things, or told anecdotes of the sagacity of their various chiefs and overlords. They occasionally looked over the multitude of squabbling children, listened affectionately to their high-pitched, nasal voices, smiling to see their own proclivities reproduced in their offspring, and interspersed their legends of the iron kings with remarks about their sons’ progress at school, their grades in arithmetic, and the amounts they had saved in their toy banks.
On this last Sunday of November Paul sat all the afternoon on the lowest step of his stoop, staring into the street, while his sisters, in their rockers, were talking to the minister’s daughters next door about how many shirtwaists they had made in the last week, and bow many waffles someone had eaten at the last church supper. When the weather was warm, and his father was in a particularly jovial frame of mind, the girls made lemonade, which was always brought out in a red-glass pitcher, ornamented with forget-me-nots in blue enamel. This the girls thought very fine, and the neighbors always joked about the suspicious color of the pitcher.
Today Paul’s father sat on the top step, talking to a young man who shifted a restless baby from knee to knee. He happened to be the young man who was daily held up to Paul as a model, and after whom it was his father’s dearest hope that he would pattern. This young man was of a ruddy complexion, with a compressed, red mouth, and faded, nearsighted eyes, over which he wore thick spectacles, with gold bows that curved about his ears. He was clerk to one of the magnates of a great steel corporation, and was looked upon in Cordelia Street as a young man with a future. There was a story that, some five years ago — he was now barely twenty-six — he had been a trifle dissipated, but in order to curb his appetites and save the loss of time and strength that a sowing of wild oats might have entailed, he had taken his chief’s advice, oft reiterated to his employees, and at twenty-one had married the first woman whom he could persuade to share his fortunes. She happened to be an angular schoolmistress, much older than he, who also wore thick glasses, and who had now borne him four children, all nearsighted, like herself.
The young man was relating how his chief, now cruising in the Mediterranean, kept in touch with all the details of the business, arranging his office hours on his yacht just as though he were at home, and “knocking off work enough to keep two stenographers busy.” His father told, in turn, the plan his corporation was considering, of putting in an electric railway plant in Cairo. Paul snapped his teeth; he had an awful apprehension that they might spoil it all before he got there. Yet he rather liked to hear these legends of the iron kings that were told and retold on Sundays and holidays; these stories of palaces in Venice, yachts on the Mediterranean, and high play at Monte Carlo appealed to his fancy, and he was interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage.
After supper was over and he had helped to dry the dishes, Paul nervously asked his father whether he could go to George’s to get some help in his geometry, and still more nervously asked for carfare. This latter request he had to repeat, as his father, on principle, did not like to hear requests for money, whether much or little. He asked Paul whether he could not go to some boy who lived nearer, and told him that he ought not to leave his schoolwork until Sunday; but he gave him the dime. He was not a poor man, but he had a worthy ambition to come up in the world. His only reason for allowing Paul to usher was that he thought a boy ought to be earning a little.
Paul bounded upstairs, scrubbed the greasy odor of the dishwater from his hands with the ill-smelling soap he hated, and then shook over his fingers a few drops of violet water from the bottle he kept hidden in his drawer. He left the house with his geometry conspicuously under his arm, and the moment he got out of Cordelia Street and boarded a downtown car, he shook off the lethargy of two deadening days and began to live again.
The leading juvenile of the permanent stock company which played at one of the downtown theaters was an acquaintance of Paul’s, and the boy had been invited to drop in at the Sunday-night rehearsals whenever he could. For more than a year Paul had spent every available moment loitering about Charley Edwards’s dressing room. He had won a place among Edwards’s following not only because the young actor, who could not afford to employ a dresser, often found him useful, but because he recognized in Paul something akin to what churchmen term “vocation.”
It was at the theater and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting. This was Paul’s fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement of a secret love. The moment he inhaled the gassy, painty, dusty odor behind the scenes, he breathed like a prisoner set free, and felt within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things. The moment the cracked orchestra beat out the overture from Martha, or jerked at the serenade from Rigoletto, all stupid and ugly things slid from him, and his senses were deliciously, yet delicately fired.
Perhaps it was because, in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the inescapable odors of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring, these smartly clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that bloomed perennially under the limelight.
It would be difficult to put it strongly enough how convincingly the stage entrance of that theater was for Paul the actual portal of Romance. Certainly none of the company ever suspected it, least of all Charley Edwards. It was very like the old stories that used to float about London of fabulously rich Jews, who had subterranean halls there, with palms, and fountains, and soft lamps and richly appareled women who never saw the disenchanting light of London day. So, in the midst of that smoke-palled city, enamored of figures and grimy toil, Paul had his secret temple, his wishing carpet, his bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine.
Several of Paul’s teachers had a theory that his imagination had been perverted by garish fiction, but the truth was that he scarcely ever read at all. The books at home were not such as would either tempt or corrupt a youthful mind, and as for reading the novels that some of his friends urged upon him — well, he got what he wanted much more quickly from music; any sort of music, from an orchestra to a barrel organ. He needed only the spark, the indescribable thrill that made his imagination master of his senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own. It was equally true that he was not stagestruck-not, at any rate, in the usual acceptation of that expression. He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.
After a night behind the scenes Paul found the schoolroom more than ever repulsive; the bare floors and naked walls; the prosy men who never wore frock coats, or violets in their buttonholes; the women with their dull gowns, shrill voices, and pitiful seriousness about prepositions that govern the dative. He could not bear to have the other pupils think, for a moment, that he took these people seriously; he must convey to them that he considered it all trivial, and was there only by way of a jest, anyway. He had autographed pictures of all the members of the stock company which he showed his classmates, telling them the most incredible stories of his familiarity with these people, of his acquaintance with the soloists who came to Carnegie Hall, his suppers with them and the flowers he sent them. When these stories lost their effect, and his audience grew listless, he became desperate and would bid all the boys good-by, announcing that he was going to travel for a while; going to Naples, to Venice, to Egypt. Then, next Monday, he would slip back, conscious and nervously smiling; his sister was ill, and he should have to defer his voyage until spring.
Matters went steadily worse with Paul at school. In the itch to let his instructors know how heartily he despised them and their homilies, and how thoroughly he was appreciated elsewhere, he mentioned once or twice that he had no time to fool with theorems; adding — with a twitch of the eyebrows and a touch of that nervous bravado which so perplexed them — that he was helping the people down at the stock company; they were old friends of his.
The upshot of the matter was that the Principal went to Paul’s father, and Paul was taken out of school and put to work. The manager at Carnegie Hall was told to get another usher in his stead; the doorkeeper at the theater was warned not to admit him to the house; and Charley Edwards remorsefully promised the boy’s father not to see him again.
The members of the stock company were vastly amused when some of Paul’s stories reached them — especially the women. They were hardworking women, most of them supporting indigent husbands or brothers, and they laughed rather bitterly at having stirred the boy to such fervid and florid inventions. They agreed with the faculty and with his father that Paul’s was a bad case.
The eastbound train was plowing through a January snowstorm; the dull dawn was beginning to show gray when the engine whistled a mile out of Newark. Paul started up from the seat where he had lain curled in uneasy slumber, rubbed the breath-misted window glass with his hand, and peered out. The snow was whirling in curling eddies above the white bottom lands, and the drifts lay already deep in the fields and along the fences, while here and there the long dead grass and dried weed stalks protruded black above it. Lights shone from the scattered houses, and a gang of laborers who stood beside the track waved their lanterns.
Paul had slept very little, and he felt grimy and uncomfortable. He had made the all-night journey in a day coach, partly because he was ashamed, dressed as he was, to go into a Pullman, and partly because he was afraid of being seen there by some Pittsburgh businessman, who might have noticed him in Denny & Carson’s office. When the whistle awoke him, he clutched quickly at his breast pocket, glancing about him with an uncertain smile. But the little, clay-bespattered Italians were still sleeping, the slatternly women across the aisle were in open-mouthed oblivion, and even the crumby, crying babies were for the nonce stilled. Paul settled back to struggle with his impatience as best he could.
When he arrived at the Jersey City station he hurried through his breakfast, manifestly ill at ease and keeping a sharp eye about him. After he reached the Twenty-third Street station, he consulted a cabman and had himself driven to a men’s-furnishings establishment that was just opening for the day. He spent upward of two hours there, buying with endless reconsidering and great care. His new street suit he put on in the fitting room; the frock coat and dress clothes he had bundled into the cab with his linen. Then he drove to a hatter’s and a shoe house. His next errand was at Tiffany’s, where he selected his silver and a new scarf pin. He would not wait to have his silver marked, he said. Lastly, he stopped at a trunk shop on Broadway and had his purchases packed into various traveling bags.
It was a little after one o’clock when he drove up to the Waldorf, and after settling with the cabman, went into the office. He registered from Washington; said his mother and father had been abroad, and that he had come down to await the arrival of their steamer. He told his story plausibly and had no trouble, since he volunteered to pay for them in advance, in engaging his rooms; a sleeping room, sitting room, and bath.
Not once, but a hundred times, Paul had planned this entry into New York. He had gone over every detail of it with Charley Edwards, and in his scrapbook at home there were pages of description about New York hotels, cut from the Sunday papers. When he was shown to his sitting room on the eighth floor he saw at a glance that everything was as it should be; there was but one detail in his mental picture that the place did not realize, so he rang for the bellboy and sent him down for flowers. He moved about nervously until the boy returned, putting away his new linen and fingering it delightedly as he did so. When the flowers came he put them hastily into water, and then tumbled into a hot bath. Presently he came out of his white bathroom, resplendent in his new silk underwear, and playing with the tassels of his red robe. The snow was whirling so fiercely outside his windows that he could scarcely see across the street, but within the air was deliciously soft and fragrant. He put the violets and jonquils on the taboret beside the couch, and threw himself down, with a long sigh, covering himself with a Roman blanket. He was thoroughly tired; he had been in such haste, he had stood up to such a strain, covered so much ground in the last twenty-four hours, that he wanted to think how it had all come about. Lulled by the sound of the wind, the warm air, and the cool fragrance of the flowers, he sank into deep, drowsy retrospection.
It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theater and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined. The rest was a mere matter of opportunity. The only thing that at all surprised him was his own courage-for he realized well enough that he had always been tormented by fear, a sort of apprehensive dread that, of late years, as the meshes of the lies he had told closed about him, had been pulling the muscles of his body tighter and tighter. Until now he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy it was always there — behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him — and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew.
But now he had a curious sense of relief, as though he had at last thrown down the gauntlet to the thing in the corner.
Yet it was but a day since he had been sulking in the traces; but yesterday afternoon that he had been sent to the bank with Denny & Carson’s deposit, as usual — but this time he was instructed to leave the book to be balanced. There was above two thousand dollars in checks, and nearly a thousand in the bank notes which he had taken from the book and quietly transferred to his pocket. At the bank he had made out a new deposit slip. His nerves had been steady enough to permit of his returning to the office, where he had finished his work and asked for a full day’s holiday tomorrow, Saturday, giving a perfectly reasonable pretext. The bankbook, he knew, would not be returned before Monday or Tuesday, and his father would be out of town for the next week. From the time he slipped the bank notes into his pocket until he boarded the night train for New York, he had not known a moment’s hesitation. It was not the first time Paul had steered through treacherous waters.
How astonishingly easy it had all been; here he was, the thing done; and this time there would be no awakening, no figure at the top of the stairs. He watched the snowflakes whirling by his window until he fell asleep.
When he awoke, it was three o’clock in the afternoon. He bounded up with a start; half of one of his precious days gone already! He spent more than an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.
When he went downstairs Paul took a carriage and drove up Fifth Avenue toward the Park. The snow had somewhat abated; carriages and tradesmen’s wagons were hurrying soundlessly to and fro in the winter twilight; boys in woolen mufflers were shoveling off the doorsteps; the avenue stages made fine spots of color against the white street. Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snowflakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley — somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winterpiece.
When he returned, the pause of the twilight had ceased and the tune of the streets had changed. The snow was falling faster, lights streamed from the hotels that reared their dozen stories fearlessly up into the storm, defying the raging Atlantic winds. A long, black stream of carriages poured down the avenue, intersected here and there by other streams, tending horizontally. There were a score of cabs about the entrance of his hotel, and his driver had to wait. Boys in livery were running in and out of the awning stretched across the sidewalk, up and down the red velvet carpet laid from the door to the street. Above, about, within it all was the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself, and on every side of him towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth.
The boy set his teeth and drew his shoulders together in a spasm of realization; the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snowflakes. He burnt like a faggot in a tempest.
When Paul went down to dinner the music of the orchestra came floating up the elevator shaft to greet him. His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color — he had, for a moment, the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing rooms, smoking rooms, reception rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.
When he reached the dining room he sat down at a table near a window. The flowers, the white linen, the many-colored wineglasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul’s dream with bewildering radiance. When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added — that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass — Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all. This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected; this was what all the struggle was about. He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged-looking businessmen got on the early car; mere rivets in a machine they seemed to Paul, — sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes. Cordelia Street — Ah, that belonged to another time and country; had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night, from as far back as he could remember, looking pensively over just such shimmering textures and slowly twirling the stem of a glass like this one between his thumb and middle finger? He rather thought he had.
He was not in the least abashed or lonely. He had no especial desire to meet or to know any of these people; all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant. The mere stage properties were all he contended for. Nor was he lonely later in the evening, in his lodge at the Metropolitan. He was now entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings. He felt now that his surroundings explained him. Nobody questioned the purple; he had only to wear it passively. He had only to glance down at his attire to reassure himself that here it would be impossible for anyone to humiliate him.
He found it hard to leave his beautiful sitting room to go to bed that night, and sat long watching the raging storm from his turret window. When he went to sleep it was with the lights turned on in his bedroom; partly because of his old timidity, and partly so that, if he should wake in the night, there would be no wretched moment of doubt, no horrible suspicion of yellow wallpaper, or of Washington and Calvin above his bed.
Sunday morning the city was practically snowbound. Paul breakfasted late, and in the afternoon he fell in with a wild San Francisco boy, a freshman at Yale, who said he had run down for a “little flyer” over Sunday. The young man offered to show Paul the night side of the town, and the two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning. They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool. The freshman pulled himself together to make his train, and Paul went to bed. He awoke at two o’clock in the afternoon, very thirsty and dizzy, and rang for icewater, coffee, and the Pittsburgh papers.
On the part of the hotel management, Paul excited no suspicion. There was this to be said for him, that he wore his spoils with dignity and in no way made himself conspicuous. Even under the glow of his wine he was never boisterous, though he found the stuff like a magician’s wand for wonder-building. His chief greediness lay in his ears and eyes, and his excesses were not offensive ones. His dearest pleasures were the gray winter twilights in his sitting room; his quiet enjoyment of his flowers, his clothes, his wide divan, his cigarette, and his sense of power. He could not remember a time when he had felt so at peace with himself. The mere release from the necessity of petty lying, lying every day and every day, restored his self-respect. He had never lied for pleasure, even at school; but to be noticed and admired, to assert his difference from other Cordelia Street boys; and he felt a good deal more manly, more honest, even, now that he had no need for boastful pretensions, now that he could, as his actor friends used to say, “dress the part.” It was characteristic that remorse did not occur to him. His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could.
On the eighth day after his arrival in New York he found the whole affair exploited in the Pittsburgh papers, exploited with a wealth of detail which indicated that local news of a sensational nature was at a low ebb. The firm of Denny & Carson announced that the boy’s father had refunded the full amount of the theft and that they had no intention of prosecuting. The Cumberland minister had been interviewed, and expressed his hope of yet reclaiming the motherless lad, and his Sabbath-school teacher declared that she would spare no effort to that end. The rumor had reached Pittsburgh that the boy had been seen in a New York hotel, and his father had gone East to find him and bring him home.
Paul had just come in to dress for dinner; he sank into a chair, weak to the knees, and clasped his head in his hands. It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever. The gray monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved years; Sabbath school, Young People’s Meeting, the yellow-papered room, the damp dishtowels; it all rushed back upon him with a sickening vividness. He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over. The sweat broke out on his face, and he sprang to his feet, looked about him with his white, conscious smile, and winked at himself in the mirror, With something of the old childish belief in miracles with which he had so often gone to class, all his lessons unlearned, Paul dressed and dashed whistling down the corridor to the elevator.
He had no sooner entered the dining room and caught the measure of the music than his remembrance was lightened by his old elastic power of claiming the moment, mounting with it, and finding it all-sufficient. The glare and glitter about him, the mere scenic accessories had again, and for the last time, their old potency. He would show himself that he was game, he would finish the thing splendidly. He doubted, more than ever, the existence of Cordelia Street, and for the first time he drank his wine recklessly. Was he not, after all, one of those fortunate beings born to the purple, was he not still himself and in his own place? He drummed a nervous accompaniment to the Pagliacci music and looked about him, telling himself over and over that it had paid.
He reflected drowsily, to the swell of the music and the chill sweetness of his wine, that he might have done it more wisely. He might have caught an outbound steamer and been well out of their clutches before now. But the other side of the world had seemed too far away and too uncertain then; he could not have waited for it; his need had been too sharp. If he had to choose over again, he would do the same thing tomorrow. He looked affectionately about the dining room, now gilded with a soft mist. Ah, it had paid indeed!
Paul was awakened next morning by a painful throbbing in his head and feet. He had thrown himself across the bed without undressing, and had slept with his shoes on. His limbs and hands were lead heavy, and his tongue and throat were parched and burnt. There came upon him one of those fateful attacks of clearheadedness that never occurred except when he was physically exhausted and his nerves hung loose. He lay still, closed his eyes, and let the tide of things wash over him.
His father was in New York; “stopping at some joint or other,” he told himself. The memory of successive summers on the front stoop fell upon him like a weight of black water. He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted. The thing was winding itself up; he had thought of that on his first glorious day in New York, and had even provided a way to snap the thread. It lay on his dressing table now; he had got it out last night when he came blindly up from dinner, but the shiny metal hurt his eyes, and he disliked the looks of it.
He rose and moved about with a painful effort, succumbing now and again to attacks of nausea. It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street. Yet somehow he was not afraid of anything, was absolutely calm; perhaps because he had looked into the dark corner at last and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there, but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been. He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live, and for half an hour he sat staring at the revolver. But he told himself that was not the way, so he went downstairs and took a cab to the ferry.
When Paul arrived in Newark he got off the train and took another cab, directing the driver to follow the Pennsylvania tracks out of the town. The snow lay heavy on the roadways and had drifted deep in the open fields. Only here and there the dead grass or dried weed stalks projected, singularly black, above it. Once well into the country, Paul dismissed the carriage and walked, floundering along the tracks, his mind a medley of irrelevant things. He seemed to hold in his brain an actual picture of everything he had seen that morning. He remembered every feature of both his drivers, of the toothless old woman from whom he had bought the red flowers in his coat, the agent from whom he had got his ticket, and all of his fellow passengers on the ferry. His mind, unable to cope with vital matters near at hand, worked feverishly and deftly at sorting and grouping these images. They made for him a part of the ugliness of the world, of the ache in his head, and the bitter burning on his tongue. He stooped and put a handful of snow into his mouth as he walked, but that, too, seemed hot. When he reached a little hillside, where the tracks ran through a cut some twenty feet below him, he stopped and sat down.
The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run. Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up. Then he dozed awhile, from his weak condition, seemingly insensible to the cold.
The sound of an approaching train awoke him, and he started to his feet, remembering only his resolution, and afraid lest he should be too late. He stood watching the approaching locomotive, his teeth chattering, his lips drawn away from them in a frightened smile; once or twice he glanced nervously sidewise, as though he were being watched. When the right moment came, he jumped. As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.
He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.
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