Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Anne Soulard, Tiffany Vergon and the PG Online Distributed
THE GREATER INCLINATION
by EDITH WHARTON
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE GREATER INCLINATION
_The Muse's Tragedy_.
_The Twilight of the God_.
_A Cup of Cold Water_.
THE GREATER INCLINATION
THE MUSE'S TRAGEDY
Danyers afterwards liked to fancy that he had recognized Mrs. Anerton at
once; but that, of course, was absurd, since he had seen no portrait of
her--she affected a strict anonymity, refusing even her photograph to the
most privileged--and from Mrs. Memorall, whom he revered and cultivated
as her friend, he had extracted but the one impressionist phrase: "Oh,
well, she's like one of those old prints where the lines have the value of
He was almost certain, at all events, that he had been thinking of Mrs.
Anerton as he sat over his breakfast in the empty hotel restaurant, and
that, looking up on the approach of the lady who seated herself at the
table near the window, he had said to himself, "_That might be she_."
Ever since his Harvard days--he was still young enough to think of them as
immensely remote--Danyers had dreamed of Mrs. Anerton, the Silvia of
Vincent Rendle's immortal sonnet-cycle, the Mrs. A. of the _Life and
Letters_. Her name was enshrined in some of the noblest English verse of
the nineteenth century--and of all past or future centuries, as Danyers,
from the stand-point of a maturer judgment, still believed. The first
reading of certain poems--of the _Antinous_, the _Pia Tolomei_, the
_Sonnets to Silvia_,--had been epochs in Danyers's growth, and the verse
seemed to gain in mellowness, in amplitude, in meaning as one brought to
its interpretation more experience of life, a finer emotional sense.
Where, in his boyhood, he had felt only the perfect, the almost austere
beauty of form, the subtle interplay of vowel-sounds, the rush and fulness
of lyric emotion, he now thrilled to the close-packed significance of each
line, the allusiveness of each word--his imagination lured hither and
thither on fresh trails of thought, and perpetually spurred by the sense
that, beyond what he had already discovered, more marvellous regions lay
waiting to be explored. Danyers had written, at college, the prize essay
on Rendle's poetry (it chanced to be the moment of the great man's death);
he had fashioned the fugitive verse of his own storm-and-stress period on
the forms which Rendle had first given to English metre; and when two
years later the _Life and Letters_ appeared, and the Silvia of the sonnets
took substance as Mrs. A., he had included in his worship of Rendle the
woman who had inspired not only such divine verse but such playful,
tender, incomparable prose.
Danyers never forgot the day when Mrs. Memorall happened to mention that
she knew Mrs. Anerton. He had known Mrs. Memorall for a year or more, and
had somewhat contemptuously classified her as the kind of woman who runs
cheap excursions to celebrities; when one afternoon she remarked, as she
put a second lump of sugar in his tea:
"Is it right this time? You're almost as particular as Mary Anerton."
"Yes, I never _can_ remember how she likes her tea. Either it's lemon
_with_ sugar, or lemon without sugar, or cream without either, and
whichever it is must be put into the cup before the tea is poured in; and
if one hasn't remembered, one must begin all over again. I suppose it was
Vincent Rendle's way of taking his tea and has become a sacred rite."
"Do you _know_ Mrs. Anerton?" cried Danyers, disturbed by this careless
familiarity with the habits of his divinity.
"'And did I once see Shelley plain?' Mercy, yes! She and I were at school
together--she's an American, you know. We were at a _pension_ near Tours
for nearly a year; then she went back to New York, and I didn't see her
again till after her marriage. She and Anerton spent a winter in Rome
while my husband was attached to our Legation there, and she used to be
with us a great deal." Mrs. Memorall smiled reminiscently. "It was _the_
"The winter they first met?"
"Precisely--but unluckily I left Rome just before the meeting took place.
Wasn't it too bad? I might have been in the _Life and Letters_. You know
he mentions that stupid Madame Vodki, at whose house he first saw her."
"And did you see much of her after that?"
"Not during Rendle's life. You know she has lived in Europe almost
entirely, and though I used to see her off and on when I went abroad, she
was always so engrossed, so preoccupied, that one felt one wasn't wanted.
The fact is, she cared only about his friends--she separated herself
gradually from all her own people. Now, of course, it's different; she's
desperately lonely; she's taken to writing to me now and then; and last
year, when she heard I was going abroad, she asked me to meet her in
Venice, and I spent a week with her there."
Mrs. Memorall smiled and shook her head. "Oh, I never was allowed a peep
at _him_; none of her old friends met him, except by accident. Ill-natured
people say that was the reason she kept him so long. If one happened in
while he was there, he was hustled into Anerton's study, and the husband
mounted guard till the inopportune visitor had departed. Anerton, you
know, was really much more ridiculous about it than his wife. Mary was too
clever to lose her head, or at least to show she'd lost it--but Anerton
couldn't conceal his pride in the conquest. I've seen Mary shiver when he
spoke of Rendle as _our poet_. Rendle always had to have a certain seat at
the dinner-table, away from the draught and not too near the fire, and a
box of cigars that no one else was allowed to touch, and a writing-table
of his own in Mary's sitting-room--and Anerton was always telling one of
the great man's idiosyncrasies: how he never would cut the ends of his
cigars, though Anerton himself had given him a gold cutter set with a
star-sapphire, and how untidy his writing-table was, and how the house-
maid had orders always to bring the waste-paper basket to her mistress
before emptying it, lest some immortal verse should be thrown into the
"The Anertons never separated, did they?"
"Separated? Bless you, no. He never would have left Rendle! And besides,
he was very fond of his wife."
"Oh, she saw he was the kind of man who was fated to make himself
ridiculous, and she never interfered with his natural tendencies."
From Mrs. Memorall, Danyers further learned that Mrs. Anerton, whose
husband had died some years before her poet, now divided her life between
Rome, where she had a small apartment, and England, where she occasionally
went to stay with those of her friends who had been Rendle's. She had been
engaged, for some time after his death, in editing some juvenilia which he
had bequeathed to her care; but that task being accomplished, she had been
left without definite occupation, and Mrs. Memorall, on the occasion of
their last meeting, had found her listless and out of spirits.
"She misses him too much--her life is too empty. I told her so--I told her
she ought to marry."
"Why not, pray? She's a young woman still--what many people would call
young," Mrs. Memorall interjected, with a parenthetic glance at the
mirror. "Why not accept the inevitable and begin over again? All the
King's horses and all the King's men won't bring Rendle to life-and
besides, she didn't marry _him_ when she had the chance."
Danyers winced slightly at this rude fingering of his idol. Was it
possible that Mrs. Memorall did not see what an anti-climax such a
marriage would have been? Fancy Rendle "making an honest woman" of Silvia;
for so society would have viewed it! How such a reparation would have
vulgarized their past--it would have been like "restoring" a masterpiece;
and how exquisite must have been the perceptions of the woman who, in
defiance of appearances, and perhaps of her own secret inclination, chose
to go down to posterity as Silvia rather than as Mrs. Vincent Rendle!
Mrs. Memorall, from this day forth, acquired an interest in Danyers's
eyes. She was like a volume of unindexed and discursive memoirs, through
which he patiently plodded in the hope of finding embedded amid layers of
dusty twaddle some precious allusion to the subject of his thought. When,
some months later, he brought out his first slim volume, in which the
remodelled college essay on Rendle figured among a dozen, somewhat
overstudied "appreciations," he offered a copy to Mrs. Memorall; who
surprised him, the next time they met, with the announcement that she had
sent the book to Mrs. Anerton.
Mrs. Anerton in due time wrote to thank her friend. Danyers was privileged
to read the few lines in which, in terms that suggested the habit of
"acknowledging" similar tributes, she spoke of the author's "feeling and
insight," and was "so glad of the opportunity," etc. He went away
disappointed, without clearly knowing what else he had expected.
The following spring, when he went abroad, Mrs. Memorall offered him
letters to everybody, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Louise Michel.
She did not include Mrs. Anerton, however, and Danyers knew, from a
previous conversation, that Silvia objected to people who "brought
letters." He knew also that she travelled during the summer, and was
unlikely to return to Rome before the term of his holiday should be
reached, and the hope of meeting her was not included among his
The lady whose entrance broke upon his solitary repast in the restaurant
of the Hotel Villa d'Este had seated herself in such a way that her
profile was detached against the window; and thus viewed, her domed
forehead, small arched nose, and fastidious lip suggested a silhouette of
Marie Antoinette. In the lady's dress and movements--in the very turn of
her wrist as she poured out her coffee--Danyers thought he detected the
same fastidiousness, the same air of tacitly excluding the obvious and
unexceptional. Here was a woman who had been much bored and keenly
interested. The waiter brought her a _Secolo,_ and as she bent above it
Danyers noticed that the hair rolled back from her forehead was turning
gray; but her figure was straight and slender, and she had the invaluable
gift of a girlish back.
The rush of Anglo-Saxon travel had not set toward the lakes, and with the
exception of an Italian family or two, and a hump-backed youth with an
_abbe_, Danyers and the lady had the marble halls of the Villa d'Este to
When he returned from his morning ramble among the hills he saw her
sitting at one of the little tables at the edge of the lake. She was
writing, and a heap of books and newspapers lay on the table at her side.
That evening they met again in the garden. He had strolled out to smoke a
last cigarette before dinner, and under the black vaulting of ilexes, near
the steps leading down to the boat-landing, he found her leaning on the
parapet above the lake. At the sound of his approach she turned and looked
at him. She had thrown a black lace scarf over her head, and in this
sombre setting her face seemed thin and unhappy. He remembered afterwards
that her eyes, as they met his, expressed not so much sorrow as profound
To his surprise she stepped toward him with a detaining gesture.
"Mr. Lewis Danyers, I believe?"
"I am Mrs. Anerton. I saw your name on the visitors' list and wished to
thank you for an essay on Mr. Rendle's poetry--or rather to tell you how
much I appreciated it. The book was sent to me last winter by Mrs.
She spoke in even melancholy tones, as though the habit of perfunctory
utterance had robbed her voice of more spontaneous accents; but her smile
was charming. They sat down on a stone bench under the ilexes, and she
told him how much pleasure his essay had given her. She thought it the
best in the book--she was sure he had put more of himself into it than
into any other; was she not right in conjecturing that he had been very
deeply influenced by Mr. Rendle's poetry? _Pour comprendre il faut aimer_,
and it seemed to her that, in some ways, he had penetrated the poet's
inner meaning more completely than any other critic. There were certain
problems, of course, that he had left untouched; certain aspects of that
many-sided mind that he had perhaps failed to seize--
"But then you are young," she concluded gently, "and one could not wish
you, as yet, the experience that a fuller understanding would imply."
She stayed a month at Villa d'Este, and Danyers was with her daily. She
showed an unaffected pleasure in his society; a pleasure so obviously
founded on their common veneration of Rendle, that the young man could
enjoy it without fear of fatuity. At first he was merely one more grain of
frankincense on the altar of her insatiable divinity; but gradually a more
personal note crept into their intercourse. If she still liked him only
because he appreciated Rendle, she at least perceptibly distinguished him
from the herd of Rendle's appreciators.
Her attitude toward the great man's memory struck Danyers as perfect. She
neither proclaimed nor disavowed her identity. She was frankly Silvia to
those who knew and cared; but there was no trace of the Egeria in her
pose. She spoke often of Rendle's books, but seldom of himself; there was
no posthumous conjugality, no use of the possessive tense, in her
abounding reminiscences. Of the master's intellectual life, of his habits
of thought and work, she never wearied of talking. She knew the history of
each poem; by what scene or episode each image had been evoked; how many
times the words in a certain line had been transposed; how long a certain
adjective had been sought, and what had at last suggested it; she could
even explain that one impenetrable line, the torment of critics, the joy
of detractors, the last line of _The Old Odysseus_.
Danyers felt that in talking of these things she was no mere echo of
Rendle's thought. If her identity had appeared to be merged in his it was
because they thought alike, not because he had thought for her. Posterity
is apt to regard the women whom poets have sung as chance pegs on which
they hung their garlands; but Mrs. Anerton's mind was like some fertile
garden wherein, inevitably, Rendle's imagination had rooted itself and
flowered. Danyers began to see how many threads of his complex mental
tissue the poet had owed to the blending of her temperament with his; in a
certain sense Silvia had herself created the _Sonnets to Silvia_.
To be the custodian of Rendle's inner self, the door, as it were, to the
sanctuary, had at first seemed to Danyers so comprehensive a privilege
that he had the sense, as his friendship with Mrs. Anerton advanced, of
forcing his way into a life already crowded. What room was there, among
such towering memories, for so small an actuality as his? Quite suddenly,
after this, he discovered that Mrs. Memorall knew better: his fortunate
friend was bored as well as lonely.
"You have had more than any other woman!" he had exclaimed to her one day;
and her smile flashed a derisive light on his blunder. Fool that he was,
not to have seen that she had not had enough! That she was young still--do
years count?--tender, human, a woman; that the living have need of the
After that, when they climbed the alleys of the hanging park, resting in
one of the little ruined temples, or watching, through a ripple of
foliage, the remote blue flash of the lake, they did not always talk of
Rendle or of literature. She encouraged Danyers to speak of himself; to
confide his ambitions to her; she asked him the questions which are the
wise woman's substitute for advice.
"You must write," she said, administering the most exquisite flattery that
human lips could give.
Of course he meant to write--why not to do something great in his turn?
His best, at least; with the resolve, at the outset, that his best should
be _the_ best. Nothing less seemed possible with that mandate in his ears.
How she had divined him; lifted and disentangled his groping ambitions;
laid the awakening touch on his spirit with her creative _Let there be
It was his last day with her, and he was feeling very hopeless and happy.
"You ought to write a book about _him,"_ she went on gently.
Danyers started; he was beginning to dislike Rendle's way of walking in
"You ought to do it," she insisted. "A complete interpretation--a summing-
up of his style, his purpose, his theory of life and art. No one else
could do it as well."
He sat looking at her perplexedly. Suddenly--dared he guess?
"I couldn't do it without you," he faltered.
"I could help you--I would help you, of course."
They sat silent, both looking at the lake.
It was agreed, when they parted, that he should rejoin her six weeks later
in Venice. There they were to talk about the book.
_Lago d'Iseo, August 14th_.
When I said good-by to you yesterday I promised to come back to Venice in
a week: I was to give you your answer then. I was not honest in saying
that; I didn't mean to go back to Venice or to see you again. I was
running away from you--and I mean to keep on running! If _you_ won't, _I_
must. Somebody must save you from marrying a disappointed woman of--well,
you say years don't count, and why should they, after all, since you are
not to marry me?
That is what I dare not go back to say. _You are not to marry me_. We have
had our month together in Venice (such a good month, was it not?) and now
you are to go home and write a book--any book but the one we--didn't talk
of!--and I am to stay here, attitudinizing among my memories like a sort
of female Tithonus. The dreariness of this enforced immortality!
But you shall know the truth. I care for you, or at least for your love,
enough to owe you that.
You thought it was because Vincent Rendle had loved me that there was so
little hope for you. I had had what I wanted to the full; wasn't that what
you said? It is just when a man begins to think he understands a woman
that he may be sure he doesn't! It is because Vincent Rendle _didn't love
me_ that there is no hope for you. I never had what I wanted, and never,
never, never will I stoop to wanting anything else.
Do you begin to understand? It was all a sham then, you say? No, it was
all real as far as it went. You are young--you haven't learned, as you
will later, the thousand imperceptible signs by which one gropes one's way
through the labyrinth of human nature; but didn't it strike you,
sometimes, that I never told you any foolish little anecdotes about him?
His trick, for instance, of twirling a paper-knife round and round between
his thumb and forefinger while he talked; his mania for saving the backs
of notes; his greediness for wild strawberries, the little pungent Alpine
ones; his childish delight in acrobats and jugglers; his way of always
calling me _you--dear you_, every letter began--I never told you a word
of all that, did I? Do you suppose I could have helped telling you, if he
had loved me? These little things would have been mine, then, a part of my
life--of our life--they would have slipped out in spite of me (it's only
your unhappy woman who is always reticent and dignified). But there never
was any "our life;" it was always "our lives" to the end....
If you knew what a relief it is to tell some one at last, you would bear
with me, you would let me hurt you! I shall never be quite so lonely
again, now that some one knows.
Let me begin at the beginning. When I first met Vincent Rendle I was not
twenty-five. That was twenty years ago. From that time until his death,
five years ago, we were fast friends. He gave me fifteen years, perhaps
the best fifteen years, of his life. The world, as you know, thinks that
his greatest poems were written during those years; I am supposed to have
"inspired" them, and in a sense I did. From the first, the intellectual
sympathy between us was almost complete; my mind must have been to him (I
fancy) like some perfectly tuned instrument on which he was never tired of
playing. Some one told me of his once saying of me that I "always
understood;" it is the only praise I ever heard of his giving me. I don't
even know if he thought me pretty, though I hardly think my appearance
could have been disagreeable to him, for he hated to be with ugly people.
At all events he fell into the way of spending more and more of his time
with me. He liked our house; our ways suited him. He was nervous,
irritable; people bored him and yet he disliked solitude. He took
sanctuary with us. When we travelled he went with us; in the winter he
took rooms near us in Rome. In England or on the continent he was always
with us for a good part of the year. In small ways I was able to help him
in his work; he grew dependent on me. When we were apart he wrote to me
continually--he liked to have me share in all he was doing or thinking; he
was impatient for my criticism of every new book that interested him; I
was a part of his intellectual life. The pity of it was that I wanted to
be something more. I was a young woman and I was in love with him--not
because he was Vincent Rendle, but just because he was himself!
People began to talk, of course--I was Vincent Rendle's Mrs. Anerton; when
the _Sonnets to Silvia_ appeared, it was whispered that I was Silvia.
Wherever he went, I was invited; people made up to me in the hope of
getting to know him; when I was in London my doorbell never stopped
ringing. Elderly peeresses, aspiring hostesses, love-sick girls and
struggling authors overwhelmed me with their assiduities. I hugged my
success, for I knew what it meant--they thought that Rendle was in love
with me! Do you know, at times, they almost made me think so too? Oh,
there was no phase of folly I didn't go through. You can't imagine the
excuses a woman will invent for a man's not telling her that he loves
her--pitiable arguments that she would see through at a glance if any
other woman used them! But all the while, deep down, I knew he had never
cared. I should have known it if he had made love to me every day of his
life. I could never guess whether he knew what people said about us--he
listened so little to what people said; and cared still less, when he
heard. He was always quite honest and straightforward with me; he treated
me as one man treats another; and yet at times I felt he _must_ see that
with me it was different. If he did see, he made no sign. Perhaps he never
noticed--I am sure he never meant to be cruel. He had never made love to
me; it was no fault of his if I wanted more than he could give me. The
_Sonnets to Silvia_, you say? But what are they? A cosmic philosophy, not
a love-poem; addressed to Woman, not to a woman!
But then, the letters? Ah, the letters! Well, I'll make a clean breast of
it. You have noticed the breaks in the letters here and there, just as
they seem to be on the point of growing a little--warmer? The critics, you
may remember, praised the editor for his commendable delicacy and good
taste (so rare in these days!) in omitting from the correspondence all
personal allusions, all those _details intimes_ which should be kept
sacred from the public gaze. They referred, of course, to the asterisks in
the letters to Mrs. A. Those letters I myself prepared for publication;
that is to say, I copied them out for the editor, and every now and then I
put in a line of asterisks to make it appear that something had been left
out. You understand? The asterisks were a sham--_there was nothing to
No one but a woman could understand what I went through during those
years--the moments of revolt, when I felt I must break away from it all,
fling the truth in his face and never see him again; the inevitable
reaction, when not to see him seemed the one unendurable thing, and I
trembled lest a look or word of mine should disturb the poise of our
friendship; the silly days when I hugged the delusion that he _must_ love
me, since everybody thought he did; the long periods of numbness, when I
didn't seem to care whether he loved me or not. Between these wretched
days came others when our intellectual accord was so perfect that I forgot
everything else in the joy of feeling myself lifted up on the wings of his
thought. Sometimes, then, the heavens seemed to be opened....
* * * * *
All this time he was so dear a friend! He had the genius of friendship,
and he spent it all on me. Yes, you were right when you said that I have
had more than any other woman. _Il faut de l'adresse pour aimer_, Pascal
says; and I was so quiet, so cheerful, so frankly affectionate with him,
that in all those years I am almost sure I never bored him. Could I have
hoped as much if he had loved me?
You mustn't think of him, though, as having been tied to my skirts. He
came and went as he pleased, and so did his fancies. There was a girl once
(I am telling you everything), a lovely being who called his poetry "deep"
and gave him _Lucile_ on his birthday. He followed her to Switzerland one
summer, and all the time that he was dangling after her (a little too
conspicuously, I always thought, for a Great Man), he was writing to _me_
about his theory of vowel-combinations--or was it his experiments in
English hexameter? The letters were dated from the very places where I
knew they went and sat by waterfalls together and he thought out
adjectives for her hair. He talked to me about it quite frankly
afterwards. She was perfectly beautiful and it had been a pure delight to
watch her; but she _would_ talk, and her mind, he said, was "all elbows."
And yet, the next year, when her marriage was announced, he went away
alone, quite suddenly ... and it was just afterwards that he published
_Love's Viaticum_. Men are queer!
After my husband died--I am putting things crudely, you see--I had a
return of hope. It was because he loved me, I argued, that he had never
spoken; because he had always hoped some day to make me his wife; because
he wanted to spare me the "reproach." Rubbish! I knew well enough, in my
heart of hearts, that my one chance lay in the force of habit. He had
grown used to me; he was no longer young; he dreaded new people and new
ways; _il avait pris son pli_. Would it not be easier to marry me?
I don't believe he ever thought of it. He wrote me what people call "a
beautiful letter;" he was kind; considerate, decently commiserating; then,
after a few weeks, he slipped into his old way of coming in every
afternoon, and our interminable talks began again just where they had left
off. I heard later that people thought I had shown "such good taste" in
not marrying him.
So we jogged on for five years longer. Perhaps they were the best years,
for I had given up hoping. Then he died.
After his death--this is curious--there came to me a kind of mirage of
love. All the books and articles written about him, all the reviews of the
"Life," were full of discreet allusions to Silvia. I became again the Mrs.
Anerton of the glorious days. Sentimental girls and dear lads like you
turned pink when somebody whispered, "that was Silvia you were talking
to." Idiots begged for my autograph--publishers urged me to write my
reminiscences of him--critics consulted me about the reading of doubtful
lines. And I knew that, to all these people, I was the woman Vincent
Rendle had loved.
After a while that fire went out too and I was left alone with my past.
Alone--quite alone; for he had never really been with me. The intellectual
union counted for nothing now. It had been soul to soul, but never hand in
hand, and there were no little things to remember him by.
Then there set in a kind of Arctic winter. I crawled into myself as into a
snow-hut. I hated my solitude and yet dreaded any one who disturbed it.
That phase, of course, passed like the others. I took up life again, and
began to read the papers and consider the cut of my gowns. But there was
one question that I could not be rid of, that haunted me night and day.
Why had he never loved me? Why had I been so much to him, and no more? Was
I so ugly, so essentially unlovable, that though a man might cherish me as
his mind's comrade, he could not care for me as a woman? I can't tell you
how that question tortured me. It became an obsession.
My poor friend, do you begin to see? I had to find out what some other man
thought of me. Don't be too hard on me! Listen first--consider. When I
first met Vincent Rendle I was a young woman, who had married early and
led the quietest kind of life; I had had no "experiences." From the hour
of our first meeting to the day of his death I never looked at any other
man, and never noticed whether any other man looked at me. When he died,
five years ago, I knew the extent of my powers no more than a baby. Was it
too late to find out? Should I never know _why?_
Forgive me--forgive me. You are so young; it will be an episode, a mere
"document," to you so soon! And, besides, it wasn't as deliberate, as
cold-blooded as these disjointed lines have made it appear. I didn't plan
it, like a woman in a book. Life is so much more complex than any
rendering of it can be. I liked you from the first--I was drawn to you
(you must have seen that)--I wanted you to like me; it was not a mere
psychological experiment. And yet in a sense it was that, too--I must be
honest. I had to have an answer to that question; it was a ghost that had
to be laid.
At first I was afraid--oh, so much afraid--that you cared for me only
because I was Silvia, that you loved me because you thought Rendle had
loved me. I began to think there was no escaping my destiny.
How happy I was when I discovered that you were growing jealous of my
past; that you actually hated Rendle! My heart beat like a girl's when you
told me you meant to follow me to Venice.
After our parting at Villa d'Este my old doubts reasserted themselves.
What did I know of your feeling for me, after all? Were you capable of
analyzing it yourself? Was it not likely to be two-thirds vanity and
curiosity, and one-third literary sentimentality? You might easily fancy
that you cared for Mary Anerton when you were really in love with Silvia--
the heart is such a hypocrite! Or you might be more calculating than I had
supposed. Perhaps it was you who had been flattering _my_ vanity in the
hope (the pardonable hope!) of turning me, after a decent interval, into a
pretty little essay with a margin.
When you arrived in Venice and we met again--do you remember the music on
the lagoon, that evening, from my balcony?--I was so afraid you would
begin to talk about the book--the book, you remember, was your ostensible
reason for coming. You never spoke of it, and I soon saw your one fear was
_I_ might do so--might remind you of your object in being with me. Then I
knew you cared for me! yes, at that moment really cared! We never
mentioned the book once, did we, during that month in Venice?
I have read my letter over; and now I wish that I had said this to you
instead of writing it. I could have felt my way then, watching your face
and seeing if you understood. But, no, I could not go back to Venice; and
I could not tell you (though I tried) while we were there together. I
couldn't spoil that month--my one month. It was so good, for once in my
life, to get away from literature....
You will be angry with me at first--but, alas! not for long. What I have
done would have been cruel if I had been a younger woman; as it is, the
experiment will hurt no one but myself. And it will hurt me horribly (as
much as, in your first anger, you may perhaps wish), because it has shown
me, for the first time, all that I have missed....
As she lay in her berth, staring at the shadows overhead, the rush of the
wheels was in her brain, driving her deeper and deeper into circles of
wakeful lucidity. The sleeping-car had sunk into its night-silence.
Through the wet window-pane she watched the sudden lights, the long
stretches of hurrying blackness. Now and then she turned her head and
looked through the opening in the hangings at her husband's curtains
across the aisle....
She wondered restlessly if he wanted anything and if she could hear him if
he called. His voice had grown very weak within the last months and it
irritated him when she did not hear. This irritability, this increasing
childish petulance seemed to give expression to their imperceptible
estrangement. Like two faces looking at one another through a sheet of
glass they were close together, almost touching, but they could not hear
or feel each other: the conductivity between them was broken. She, at
least, had this sense of separation, and she fancied sometimes that she
saw it reflected in the look with which he supplemented his failing words.
Doubtless the fault was hers. She was too impenetrably healthy to be
touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness
was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling
that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the
change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to
one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an
exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still
bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity,
while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.
When they married, she had such arrears of living to make up: her days had
been as bare as the whitewashed school-room where she forced innutritious
facts upon reluctant children. His coming had broken in on the slumber of
circumstance, widening the present till it became the encloser of remotest
chances. But imperceptibly the horizon narrowed. Life had a grudge against
her: she was never to be allowed to spread her wings.
At first the doctors had said that six weeks of mild air would set him
right; but when he came back this assurance was explained as having of
course included a winter in a dry climate. They gave up their pretty
house, storing the wedding presents and new furniture, and went to
Colorado. She had hated it there from the first. Nobody knew her or cared
about her; there was no one to wonder at the good match she had made, or
to envy her the new dresses and the visiting-cards which were still a
surprise to her. And he kept growing worse. She felt herself beset with
difficulties too evasive to be fought by so direct a temperament. She
still loved him, of course; but he was gradually, undefinably ceasing to
be himself. The man she had married had been strong, active, gently
masterful: the male whose pleasure it is to clear a way through the
material obstructions of life; but now it was she who was the protector,
he who must be shielded from importunities and given his drops or his
beef-juice though the skies were falling. The routine of the sick-room
bewildered her; this punctual administering of medicine seemed as idle as
some uncomprehended religious mummery.
There were moments, indeed, when warm gushes of pity swept away her
instinctive resentment of his condition, when she still found his old self
in his eyes as they groped for each other through the dense medium of his
weakness. But these moments had grown rare. Sometimes he frightened her:
his sunken expressionless face seemed that of a stranger; his voice was
weak and hoarse; his thin-lipped smile a mere muscular contraction. Her
hand avoided his damp soft skin, which had lost the familiar roughness of
health: she caught herself furtively watching him as she might have
watched a strange animal. It frightened her to feel that this was the man
she loved; there were hours when to tell him what she suffered seemed the
one escape from her fears. But in general she judged herself more
leniently, reflecting that she had perhaps been too long alone with him,
and that she would feel differently when they were at home again,
surrounded by her robust and buoyant family. How she had rejoiced when the
doctors at last gave their consent to his going home! She knew, of course,
what the decision meant; they both knew. It meant that he was to die; but
they dressed the truth in hopeful euphuisms, and at times, in the joy of
preparation, she really forgot the purpose of their journey, and slipped
into an eager allusion to next year's plans.
At last the day of leaving came. She had a dreadful fear that they would
never get away; that somehow at the last moment he would fail her; that
the doctors held one of their accustomed treacheries in reserve; but
nothing happened. They drove to the station, he was installed in a seat
with a rug over his knees and a cushion at his back, and she hung out of
the window waving unregretful farewells to the acquaintances she had
really never liked till then.
The first twenty-four hours had passed off well. He revived a little and
it amused him to look out of the window and to observe the humours of the
car. The second day he began to grow weary and to chafe under the
dispassionate stare of the freckled child with the lump of chewing-gum.
She had to explain to the child's mother that her husband was too ill to
be disturbed: a statement received by that lady with a resentment visibly
supported by the maternal sentiment of the whole car....
That night he slept badly and the next morning his temperature frightened
her: she was sure he was growing worse. The day passed slowly, punctuated
by the small irritations of travel. Watching his tired face, she traced in
its contractions every rattle and jolt of the tram, till her own body
vibrated with sympathetic fatigue. She felt the others observing him too,
and hovered restlessly between him and the line of interrogative eyes. The
freckled child hung about him like a fly; offers of candy and picture-
books failed to dislodge her: she twisted one leg around the other and
watched him imperturbably. The porter, as he passed, lingered with vague
proffers of help, probably inspired by philanthropic passengers swelling
with the sense that "something ought to be done;" and one nervous man in a
skull-cap was audibly concerned as to the possible effect on his wife's
The hours dragged on in a dreary inoccupation. Towards dusk she sat down
beside him and he laid his hand on hers. The touch startled her. He seemed
to be calling her from far off. She looked at him helplessly and his smile
went through her like a physical pang.
"Are you very tired?" she asked.
"No, not very."
"We'll be there soon now."
"Yes, very soon."
"This time to-morrow--"
He nodded and they sat silent. When she had put him to bed and crawled
into her own berth she tried to cheer herself with the thought that in
less than twenty-four hours they would be in New York. Her people would
all be at the station to meet her--she pictured their round unanxious
faces pressing through the crowd. She only hoped they would not tell him
too loudly that he was looking splendidly and would be all right in no
time: the subtler sympathies developed by long contact with suffering were
making her aware of a certain coarseness of texture in the family
Suddenly she thought she heard him call. She parted the curtains and
listened. No, it was only a man snoring at the other end of the car. His
snores had a greasy sound, as though they passed through tallow. She lay
down and tried to sleep... Had she not heard him move? She started up
trembling... The silence frightened her more than any sound. He might not
be able to make her hear--he might be calling her now... What made her
think of such things? It was merely the familiar tendency of an over-tired
mind to fasten itself on the most intolerable chance within the range of
its forebodings.... Putting her head out, she listened; but she could not
distinguish his breathing from that of the other pairs of lungs about her.
She longed to get up and look at him, but she knew the impulse was a mere
vent for her restlessness, and the fear of disturbing him restrained
her.... The regular movement of his curtain reassured her, she knew not
why; she remembered that he had wished her a cheerful good-night; and the
sheer inability to endure her fears a moment longer made her put them from
her with an effort of her whole sound tired body. She turned on her side
She sat up stiffly, staring out at the dawn. The train was rushing through
a region of bare hillocks huddled against a lifeless sky. It looked like
the first day of creation. The air of the car was close, and she pushed up
her window to let in the keen wind. Then she looked at her watch: it was
seven o'clock, and soon the people about her would be stirring. She
slipped into her clothes, smoothed her dishevelled hair and crept to the
dressing-room. When she had washed her face and adjusted her dress she
felt more hopeful. It was always a struggle for her not to be cheerful in
the morning. Her cheeks burned deliciously under the coarse towel and the
wet hair about her temples broke into strong upward tendrils. Every inch
of her was full of life and elasticity. And in ten hours they would be at
She stepped to her husband's berth: it was time for him to take his early
glass of milk. The window-shade was down, and in the dusk of the curtained
enclosure she could just see that he lay sideways, with his face away from
her. She leaned over him and drew up the shade. As she did so she touched
one of his hands. It felt cold....
She bent closer, laying her hand on his arm and calling him by name. He
did not move. She spoke again more loudly; she grasped his shoulder and
gently shook it. He lay motionless. She caught hold of his hand again: it
slipped from her limply, like a dead thing. A dead thing? ... Her breath
caught. She must see his face. She leaned forward, and hurriedly,
shrinkingly, with a sickening reluctance of the flesh, laid her hands on
his shoulders and turned him over. His head fell back; his face looked
small and smooth; he gazed at her with steady eyes.
She remained motionless for a long time, holding him thus; and they looked
at each other. Suddenly she shrank back: the longing to scream, to call
out, to fly from him, had almost overpowered her. But a strong hand
arrested her. Good God! If it were known that he was dead they would be
put off the train at the next station--
In a terrifying flash of remembrance there arose before her a scene she
had once witnessed in travelling, when a husband and wife, whose child had
died in the train, had been thrust out at some chance station. She saw
them standing on the platform with the child's body between them; she had
never forgotten the dazed look with which they followed the receding
train. And this was what would happen to her. Within the next hour she
might find herself on the platform of some strange station, alone with her
husband's body.... Anything but that! It was too horrible--She quivered
like a creature at bay.
As she cowered there, she felt the train moving more slowly. It was coming
then--they were approaching a station! She saw again the husband and wife
standing on the lonely platform; and with a violent gesture she drew down
the shade to hide her husband's face.
Feeling dizzy, she sank down on the edge of the berth, keeping away from
his outstretched body, and pulling the curtains close, so that he and she
were shut into a kind of sepulchral twilight. She tried to think. At all
costs she must conceal the fact that he was dead. But how? Her mind
refused to act: she could not plan, combine. She could think of no way but
to sit there, clutching the curtains, all day long....
She heard the porter making up her bed; people were beginning to move
about the car; the dressing-room door was being opened and shut. She tried
to rouse herself. At length with a supreme effort she rose to her feet,
stepping into the aisle of the car and drawing the curtains tight behind
her. She noticed that they still parted slightly with the motion of the
car, and finding a pin in her dress she fastened them together. Now she
was safe. She looked round and saw the porter. She fancied he was watching
"Ain't he awake yet?" he enquired.
"No," she faltered.
"I got his milk all ready when he wants it. You know you told me to have
it for him by seven."
She nodded silently and crept into her seat.
At half-past eight the train reached Buffalo. By this time the other
passengers were dressed and the berths had been folded back for the day.
The porter, moving to and fro under his burden of sheets and pillows,
glanced at her as he passed. At length he said: "Ain't he going to get up?
You know we're ordered to make up the berths as early as we can."
She turned cold with fear. They were just entering the station.
"Oh, not yet," she stammered. "Not till he's had his milk. Won't you get
"All right. Soon as we start again."
When the train moved on he reappeared with the milk. She took it from him
and sat vaguely looking at it: her brain moved slowly from one idea to
another, as though they were stepping-stones set far apart across a
whirling flood. At length she became aware that the porter still hovered
"Will I give it to him?" he suggested.
"Oh, no," she cried, rising. "He--he's asleep yet, I think--"
She waited till the porter had passed on; then she unpinned the curtains
and slipped behind them. In the semi-obscurity her husband's face stared
up at her like a marble mask with agate eyes. The eyes were dreadful. She
put out her hand and drew down the lids. Then she remembered the glass of
milk in her other hand: what was she to do with it? She thought of raising
the window and throwing it out; but to do so she would have to lean across
his body and bring her face close to his. She decided to drink the milk.
She returned to her seat with the empty glass and after a while the porter
came back to get it.
"When'll I fold up his bed?" he asked.
"Oh, not now--not yet; he's ill--he's very ill. Can't you let him stay as
he is? The doctor wants him to lie down as much as possible."
He scratched his head. "Well, if he's _really_ sick--"
He took the empty glass and walked away, explaining to the passengers that
the party behind the curtains was too sick to get up just yet.
She found herself the centre of sympathetic eyes. A motherly woman with an
intimate smile sat down beside her.
"I'm real sorry to hear your husband's sick. I've had a remarkable amount
of sickness in my family and maybe I could assist you. Can I take a look
"Oh, no--no, please! He mustn't be disturbed."
The lady accepted the rebuff indulgently.
"Well, it's just as you say, of course, but you don't look to me as if
you'd had much experience in sickness and I'd have been glad to assist
you. What do you generally do when your husband's taken this way?"
"I--I let him sleep."
"Too much sleep ain't any too healthful either. Don't you give him any
"Don't you wake him to take it?"
"When does he take the next dose?"
"Not for--two hours--"
The lady looked disappointed. "Well, if I was you I'd try giving it
oftener. That's what I do with my folks."
After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were on
their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they passed
down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains. One lantern-
jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to shoot his
projecting glance through the division between the folds. The freckled
child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a buttery
clutch, saying in a loud whisper, "He's sick;" and once the conductor came
by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and looked out of the
window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless hieroglyphs of an
endlessly unrolled papyrus.
Now and then the train stopped, and the newcomers on entering the car
stared in turn at the closed curtains. More and more people seemed to
pass--their faces began to blend fantastically with the images surging in
Later in the day a fat man detached himself from the mist of faces. He had
a creased stomach and soft pale lips. As he pressed himself into the seat
facing her she noticed that he was dressed in black broadcloth, with a
soiled white tie.
"Husband's pretty bad this morning, is he?"
"Dear, dear! Now that's terribly distressing, ain't it?" An apostolic
smile revealed his gold-filled teeth.
"Of course you know there's no sech thing as sickness. Ain't that a lovely
thought? Death itself is but a deloosion of our grosser senses. On'y lay
yourself open to the influx of the sperrit, submit yourself passively to
the action of the divine force, and disease and dissolution will cease to
exist for you. If you could indooce your husband to read this little
The faces about her again grew indistinct. She had a vague recollection of
hearing the motherly lady and the parent of the freckled child ardently
disputing the relative advantages of trying several medicines at once, or
of taking each in turn; the motherly lady maintaining that the competitive
system saved time; the other objecting that you couldn't tell which remedy
had effected the cure; their voices went on and on, like bell-buoys
droning through a fog.... The porter came up now and then with questions
that she did not understand, but that somehow she must have answered since
he went away again without repeating them; every two hours the motherly
lady reminded her that her husband ought to have his drops; people left
the car and others replaced them...
Her head was spinning and she tried to steady herself by clutching at her
thoughts as they swept by, but they slipped away from her like bushes on
the side of a sheer precipice down which she seemed to be falling.
Suddenly her mind grew clear again and she found herself vividly picturing
what would happen when the train reached New York. She shuddered as it
occurred to her that he would be quite cold and that some one might
perceive he had been dead since morning.
She thought hurriedly:--"If they see I am not surprised they will suspect
something. They will ask questions, and if I tell them the truth they
won't believe me--no one would believe me! It will be terrible"--and she
kept repeating to herself:--"I must pretend I don't know. I must pretend I
don't know. When they open the curtains I must go up to him quite
naturally--and then I must scream." ... She had an idea that the scream
would be very hard to do.
Gradually new thoughts crowded upon her, vivid and urgent: she tried to
separate and restrain them, but they beset her clamorously, like her
school-children at the end of a hot day, when she was too tired to silence
them. Her head grew confused, and she felt a sick fear of forgetting her
part, of betraying herself by some unguarded word or look.
"I must pretend I don't know," she went on murmuring. The words had lost
their significance, but she repeated them mechanically, as though they had
been a magic formula, until suddenly she heard herself saying: "I can't
remember, I can't remember!"
Her voice sounded very loud, and she looked about her in terror; but no
one seemed to notice that she had spoken.
As she glanced down the car her eye caught the curtains of her husband's
berth, and she began to examine the monotonous arabesques woven through
their heavy folds. The pattern was intricate and difficult to trace; she
gazed fixedly at the curtains and as she did so the thick stuff grew
transparent and through it she saw her husband's face--his dead face. She
struggled to avert her look, but her eyes refused to move and her head
seemed to be held in a vice. At last, with an effort that left her weak
and shaking, she turned away; but it was of no use; close in front of her,
small and smooth, was her husband's face. It seemed to be suspended in the
air between her and the false braids of the woman who sat in front of her.
With an uncontrollable gesture she stretched out her hand to push the face
away, and suddenly she felt the touch of his smooth skin. She repressed a
cry and half started from her seat. The woman with the false braids looked
around, and feeling that she must justify her movement in some way she
rose and lifted her travelling-bag from the opposite seat. She unlocked
the bag and looked into it; but the first object her hand met was a small
flask of her husband's, thrust there at the last moment, in the haste of
departure. She locked the bag and closed her eyes ... his face was there
again, hanging between her eye-balls and lids like a waxen mask against a
She roused herself with a shiver. Had she fainted or slept? Hours seemed
to have elapsed; but it was still broad day, and the people about her were
sitting in the same attitudes as before.
A sudden sense of hunger made her aware that she had eaten nothing since
morning. The thought of food filled her with disgust, but she dreaded a
return of faintness, and remembering that she had some biscuits in her bag
she took one out and ate it. The dry crumbs choked her, and she hastily
swallowed a little brandy from her husband's flask. The burning sensation
in her throat acted as a counter-irritant, momentarily relieving the dull
ache of her nerves. Then she felt a gently-stealing warmth, as though a
soft air fanned her, and the swarming fears relaxed their clutch, receding
through the stillness that enclosed her, a stillness soothing as the
spacious quietude of a summer day. She slept.
Through her sleep she felt the impetuous rush of the train. It seemed to
be life itself that was sweeping her on with headlong inexorable force--
sweeping her into darkness and terror, and the awe of unknown days.--Now
all at once everything was still--not a sound, not a pulsation... She was
dead in her turn, and lay beside him with smooth upstaring face. How quiet
it was!--and yet she heard feet coming, the feet of the men who were to
carry them away... She could feel too--she felt a sudden prolonged
vibration, a series of hard shocks, and then another plunge into darkness:
the darkness of death this time--a black whirlwind on which they were both
spinning like leaves, in wild uncoiling spirals, with millions and
millions of the dead....
* * * * *
She sprang up in terror. Her sleep must have lasted a long time, for the
winter day had paled and the lights had been lit. The car was in
confusion, and as she regained her self-possession she saw that the
passengers were gathering up their wraps and bags. The woman with the
false braids had brought from the dressing-room a sickly ivy-plant in a
bottle, and the Christian Scientist was reversing his cuffs. The porter
passed down the aisle with his impartial brush. An impersonal figure with
a gold-banded cap asked for her husband's ticket. A voice shouted "Baig-
gage express!" and she heard the clicking of metal as the passengers
handed over their checks.
Presently her window was blocked by an expanse of sooty wall, and the
train passed into the Harlem tunnel. The journey was over; in a few
minutes she would see her family pushing their joyous way through the
throng at the station. Her heart dilated. The worst terror was past....
"We'd better get him up now, hadn't we?" asked the porter, touching her
He had her husband's hat in his hand and was meditatively revolving it
under his brush.
She looked at the hat and tried to speak; but suddenly the car grew dark.
She flung up her arms, struggling to catch at something, and fell face
downward, striking her head against the dead man's berth.
She was very pretty when I first knew her, with the sweet straight nose
and short upper lip of the cameo-brooch divinity, humanized by a dimple
that flowered in her cheek whenever anything was said possessing the
outward attributes of humor without its intrinsic quality. For the dear
lady was providentially deficient in humor: the least hint of the real
thing clouded her lovely eye like the hovering shadow of an algebraic
I don't think nature had meant her to be "intellectual;" but what can a
poor thing do, whose husband has died of drink when her baby is hardly six
months old, and who finds her coral necklace and her grandfather's edition
of the British Dramatists inadequate to the demands of the creditors?
Her mother, the celebrated Irene Astarte Pratt, had written a poem in
blank verse on "The Fall of Man;" one of her aunts was dean of a girls'
college; another had translated Euripides--with such a family, the poor
child's fate was sealed in advance. The only way of paying her husband's
debts and keeping the baby clothed was to be intellectual; and, after some
hesitation as to the form her mental activity was to take, it was
unanimously decided that she was to give lectures.
They began by being drawing-room lectures. The first time I saw her she
was standing by the piano, against a flippant background of Dresden china
and photographs, telling a roomful of women preoccupied with their spring
bonnets all she thought she knew about Greek art. The ladies assembled to
hear her had given me to understand that she was "doing it for the baby,"
and this fact, together with the shortness of her upper lip and the
bewildering co-operation of her dimple, disposed me to listen leniently to
her dissertation. Happily, at that time Greek art was still, if I may use
the phrase, easily handled: it was as simple as walking down a museum-
gallery lined with pleasant familiar Venuses and Apollos. All the later
complications--the archaic and archaistic conundrums; the influences of
Assyria and Asia Minor; the conflicting attributions and the wrangles of
the erudite--still slumbered in the bosom of the future "scientific
critic." Greek art in those days began with Phidias and ended with the
Apollo Belvedere; and a child could travel from one to the other without
danger of losing his way.
Mrs. Amyot had two fatal gifts: a capacious but inaccurate memory, and an
extraordinary fluency of speech. There was nothing she did not remember--
wrongly; but her halting facts were swathed in so many layers of rhetoric
that their infirmities were imperceptible to her friendly critics.
Besides, she had been taught Greek by the aunt who had translated
Euripides; and the mere sound of the [Greek: ais] and [Greek: ois] that
she now and then not unskilfully let slip (correcting herself, of course,
with a start, and indulgently mistranslating the phrase), struck awe to
the hearts of ladies whose only "accomplishment" was French--if you didn't
speak too quickly.
I had then but a momentary glimpse of Mrs. Amyot, but a few months later I
came upon her again in the New England university town where the
celebrated Irene Astarte Pratt lived on the summit of a local Parnassus,
with lesser muses and college professors respectfully grouped on the lower
ledges of the sacred declivity. Mrs. Amyot, who, after her husband's
death, had returned to the maternal roof (even during her father's
lifetime the roof had been distinctively maternal), Mrs. Amyot, thanks to
her upper lip, her dimple and her Greek, was already esconced in a snug
hollow of the Parnassian slope.
After the lecture was over it happened that I walked home with Mrs. Amyot.
From the incensed glances of two or three learned gentlemen who were
hovering on the door-step when we emerged, I inferred that Mrs. Amyot, at
that period, did not often walk home alone; but I doubt whether any of my
discomfited rivals, whatever his claims to favor, was ever treated to so
ravishing a mixture of shyness and self-abandonment, of sham erudition and
real teeth and hair, as it was my privilege to enjoy. Even at the opening
of her public career Mrs. Amyot had a tender eye for strangers, as
possible links with successive centres of culture to which in due course
the torch of Greek art might be handed on.
She began by telling me that she had never been so frightened in her life.
She knew, of course, how dreadfully learned I was, and when, just as she
was going to begin, her hostess had whispered to her that I was in the
room, she had felt ready to sink through the floor. Then (with a flying
dimple) she had remembered Emerson's line--wasn't it Emerson's?--that
beauty is its own excuse for _seeing_, and that had made her feel a little
more confident, since she was sure that no one _saw_ beauty more vividly
than she--as a child she used to sit for hours gazing at an Etruscan vase
on the bookcase in the library, while her sisters played with their
dolls--and if _seeing_ beauty was the only excuse one needed for talking
about it, why, she was sure I would make allowances and not be _too_
critical and sarcastic, especially if, as she thought probable, I had
heard of her having lost her poor husband, and how she had to do it for
Being abundantly assured of my sympathy on these points, she went on to
say that she had always wanted so much to consult me about her lectures.
Of course, one subject wasn't enough (this view of the limitations of
Greek art as a "subject" gave me a startling idea of the rate at which a
successful lecturer might exhaust the universe); she must find others; she
had not ventured on any as yet, but she had thought of Tennyson--didn't I
_love_ Tennyson? She _worshipped_ him so that she was sure she could help
others to understand him; or what did I think of a "course" on Raphael or
Michelangelo--or on the heroines of Shakespeare? There were some fine
steel-engravings of Raphael's Madonnas and of the Sistine ceiling in her
mother's library, and she had seen Miss Cushman in several Shakespearian
_roles_, so that on these subjects also she felt qualified to speak with
When we reached her mother's door she begged me to come in and talk the
matter over; she wanted me to see the baby--she felt as though I should
understand her better if I saw the baby--and the dimple flashed through a
The fear of encountering the author of "The Fall of Man," combined with
the opportune recollection of a dinner engagement, made me evade this
appeal with the promise of returning on the morrow. On the morrow, I left
too early to redeem my promise; and for several years afterwards I saw no
more of Mrs. Amyot.
My calling at that time took me at irregular intervals from one to another
of our larger cities, and as Mrs. Amyot was also peripatetic it was
inevitable that sooner or later we should cross each other's path. It was
therefore without surprise that, one snowy afternoon in Boston, I learned
from the lady with whom I chanced to be lunching that, as soon as the meal
was over, I was to be taken to hear Mrs. Amyot lecture.
"On Greek art?" I suggested.
"Oh, you've heard her then? No, this is one of the series called 'Homes
and Haunts of the Poets.' Last week we had Wordsworth and the Lake Poets,
to-day we are to have Goethe and Weimar. She is a wonderful creature--all
the women of her family are geniuses. You know, of course, that her mother
was Irene Astarte Pratt, who wrote a poem on 'The Fall of Man'; N.P.
Willis called her the female Milton of America. One of Mrs. Amyot's aunts
has translated Eurip--"
"And is she as pretty as ever?" I irrelevantly interposed.
My hostess looked shocked. "She is excessively modest and retiring. She
says it is actual suffering for her to speak in public. You know she only
does it for the baby."
Punctually at the hour appointed, we took our seats in a lecture-hall full
of strenuous females in ulsters. Mrs. Amyot was evidently a favorite with
these austere sisters, for every corner was crowded, and as we entered a
pale usher with an educated mispronunciation was setting forth to several
dejected applicants the impossibility of supplying them with seats.
Our own were happily so near the front that when the curtains at the back
of the platform parted, and Mrs. Amyot appeared, I was at once able to
establish a comparison between the lady placidly dimpling to the applause
of her public and the shrinking drawing-room orator of my earlier
Mrs. Amyot was as pretty as ever, and there was the same curious
discrepancy between the freshness of her aspect and the stateness of her
theme, but something was gone of the blushing unsteadiness with which she
had fired her first random shots at Greek art. It was not that the shots
were less uncertain, but that she now had an air of assuming that, for her
purpose, the bull's-eye was everywhere, so that there was no need to be
flustered in taking aim. This assurance had so facilitated the flow of her
eloquence that she seemed to be performing a trick analogous to that of
the conjuror who pulls hundreds of yards of white paper out of his mouth.
From a large assortment of stock adjectives she chose, with unerring
deftness and rapidity, the one that taste and discrimination would most
surely have rejected, fitting out her subject with a whole wardrobe of
slop-shop epithets irrelevant in cut and size. To the invaluable knack of
not disturbing the association of ideas in her audience, she added the
gift of what may be called a confidential manner--so that her fluent
generalizations about Goethe and his place in literature (the lecture was,
of course, manufactured out of Lewes's book) had the flavor of personal
experience, of views sympathetically exchanged with her audience on the
best way of knitting children's socks, or of putting up preserves for the
winter. It was, I am sure, to this personal accent--the moral equivalent
of her dimple--that Mrs. Amyot owed her prodigious, her irrational
success. It was her art of transposing second-hand ideas into first-hand
emotions that so endeared her to her feminine listeners.
To any one not in search of "documents" Mrs. Amyot's success was hardly of
a kind to make her more interesting, and my curiosity flagged with the
growing conviction that the "suffering" entailed on her by public speaking
was at most a retrospective pang. I was sure that she had reached the
point of measuring and enjoying her effects, of deliberately manipulating
her public; and there must indeed have been a certain exhilaration in
attaining results so considerable by means involving so little conscious
effort. Mrs. Amyot's art was simply an extension of coquetry: she flirted
with her audience.
In this mood of enlightened skepticism I responded but languidly to my
hostess's suggestion that I should go with her that evening to see Mrs.
Amyot. The aunt who had translated Euripides was at home on Saturday
evenings, and one met "thoughtful" people there, my hostess explained: it
was one of the intellectual centres of Boston. My mood remained distinctly
resentful of any connection between Mrs. Amyot and intellectuality, and I
declined to go; but the next day I met Mrs. Amyot in the street.
She stopped me reproachfully. She had heard I was in Boston; why had I not
come last night? She had been told that I was at her lecture, and it had
frightened her--yes, really, almost as much as years ago in Hillbridge.
She never _could_ get over that stupid shyness, and the whole business was
as distasteful to her as ever; but what could she do? There was the baby--
he was a big boy now, and boys were _so_ expensive! But did I really think
she had improved the least little bit? And why wouldn't I come home with
her now, and see the boy, and tell her frankly what I had thought of the
lecture? She had plenty of flattery--people were _so_ kind, and every one
knew that she did it for the baby--but what she felt the need of was
criticism, severe, discriminating criticism like mine--oh, she knew that I
was dreadfully discriminating!
I went home with her and saw the boy. In the early heat of her Tennyson-
worship Mrs. Amyot had christened him Lancelot, and he looked it. Perhaps,
however, it was his black velvet dress and the exasperating length of his
yellow curls, together with the fact of his having been taught to recite
Browning to visitors, that raised to fever-heat the itching of my palms in
his Infant-Samuel-like presence. I have since had reason to think that he
would have preferred to be called Billy, and to hunt cats with the other
boys in the block: his curls and his poetry were simply another outlet for
Mrs. Amyot's irrepressible coquetry.
But if Lancelot was not genuine, his mother's love for him was. It
justified everything--the lectures _were_ for the baby, after all. I had
not been ten minutes in the room before I was pledged to help Mrs. Amyot
carry out her triumphant fraud. If she wanted to lecture on Plato she
should--Plato must take his chance like the rest of us! There was no use,
of course, in being "discriminating." I preserved sufficient reason to
avoid that pitfall, but I suggested "subjects" and made lists of books for
her with a fatuity that became more obvious as time attenuated the
remembrance of her smile; I even remember thinking that some men might
have cut the knot by marrying her, but I handed over Plato as a hostage
and escaped by the afternoon train.
The next time I saw her was in New York, when she had become so
fashionable that it was a part of the whole duty of woman to be seen at
her lectures. The lady who suggested that of course I ought to go and hear
Mrs. Amyot, was not very clear about anything except that she was
perfectly lovely, and had had a horrid husband, and was doing it to
support her boy. The subject of the discourse (I think it was on Ruskin)
was clearly of minor importance, not only to my friend, but to the throng
of well-dressed and absent-minded ladies who rustled in late, dropped
their muffs and pocket-books, and undisguisedly lost themselves in the
study of each other's apparel. They received Mrs. Amyot with warmth, but
she evidently represented a social obligation like going to church, rather
than any more personal interest; in fact, I suspect that every one of the
ladies would have remained away, had they been sure that none of the
others were coming.
Whether Mrs. Amyot was disheartened by the lack of sympathy between
herself and her hearers, or whether the sport of arousing it had become a
task, she certainly imparted her platitudes with less convincing warmth
than of old. Her voice had the same confidential inflections, but it was
like a voice reproduced by a gramophone: the real woman seemed far away.
She had grown stouter without losing her dewy freshness, and her smart
gown might have been taken to show either the potentialities of a settled
income, or a politic concession to the taste of her hearers. As I listened
I reproached myself for ever having suspected her of self-deception in
saying that she took no pleasure in her work. I was sure now that she did
it only for Lancelot, and judging from the size of her audience and the
price of the tickets I concluded that Lancelot must be receiving a liberal
I was living in New York that winter, and in the rotation of dinners I
found myself one evening at Mrs. Amyot's side. The dimple came out at my
greeting as punctually as a cuckoo in a Swiss clock, and I detected the
same automatic quality in the tone in which she made her usual pretty
demand for advice. She was like a musical-box charged with popular airs.
They succeeded one another with breathless rapidity, but there was a
moment after each when the cylinders scraped and whizzed.
Mrs. Amyot, as I found when I called on her, was living in a sunny flat,
with a sitting-room full of flowers and a tea-table that had the air of
expecting visitors. She owned that she had been ridiculously successful.
It was delightful, of course, on Lancelot's account. Lancelot had been
sent to the best school in the country, and if things went well and people
didn't tire of his silly mother he was to go to Harvard afterwards. During
the next two or three years Mrs. Amyot kept her flat in New York, and
radiated art and literature upon the suburbs. I saw her now and then,
always stouter, better dressed, more successful and more automatic: she
had become a lecturing-machine.
I went abroad for a year or two and when I came back she had disappeared.
I asked several people about her, but life had closed over her. She had
been last heard of as lecturing--still lecturing--but no one seemed to
know when or where.
It was in Boston that I found her at last, forlornly swaying to the
oscillations of an overhead strap in a crowded trolley-car. Her face had
so changed that I lost myself in a startled reckoning of the time that had
elapsed since our parting. She spoke to me shyly, as though aware of my
hurried calculation, and conscious that in five years she ought not to
have altered so much as to upset my notion of time. Then she seemed to set
it down to her dress, for she nervously gathered her cloak over a gown
that asked only to be concealed, and shrank into a seat behind the line of
prehensile bipeds blocking the aisle of the car.
It was perhaps because she so obviously avoided me that I felt for the
first time that I might be of use to her; and when she left the car I made
no excuse for following her.
She said nothing of needing advice and did not ask me to walk home with
her, concealing, as we talked, her transparent preoccupations under the
guise of a sudden interest in all I had been doing since she had last seen
me. Of what concerned her, I learned only that Lancelot was well and that
for the present she was not lecturing--she was tired and her doctor had
ordered her to rest. On the doorstep of a shabby house she paused and held
out her hand. She had been so glad to see me and perhaps if I were in
Boston again--the tired dimple, as it were, bowed me out and closed the
door on the conclusion of the phrase.
Two or three weeks later, at my club in New York, I found a letter from
her. In it she owned that she was troubled, that of late she had been
unsuccessful, and that, if I chanced to be coming back to Boston, and
could spare her a little of that invaluable advice which--. A few days
later the advice was at her disposal. She told me frankly what had
happened. Her public had grown tired of her. She had seen it coming on for
some time, and was shrewd enough in detecting the causes. She had more
rivals than formerly--younger women, she admitted, with a smile that could
still afford to be generous--and then her audiences had grown more
critical and consequently more exacting. Lecturing--as she understood it--
used to be simple enough. You chose your topic--Raphael, Shakespeare,
Gothic Architecture, or some such big familiar "subject"--and read up
about it for a week or so at the Athenaeum or the Astor Library, and then
told your audience what you had read. Now, it appeared, that simple
process was no longer adequate. People had tired of familiar "subjects";
it was the fashion to be interested in things that one hadn't always known
about--natural selection, animal magnetism, sociology and comparative
folk-lore; while, in literature, the demand had become equally difficult
to meet, since Matthew Arnold had introduced the habit of studying the
"influence" of one author on another. She had tried lecturing on
influences, and had done very well as long as the public was satisfied
with the tracing of such obvious influences as that of Turner on Ruskin,
of Schiller on Goethe, of Shakespeare on English literature; but such
investigations had soon lost all charm for her too-sophisticated
audiences, who now demanded either that the influence or the influenced
should be quite unknown, or that there should be no perceptible connection
between the two. The zest of the performance lay in the measure of
ingenuity with which the lecturer established a relation between two
people who had probably never heard of each other, much less read each
other's works. A pretty Miss Williams with red hair had, for instance,
been lecturing with great success on the influence of the Rosicrucians
upon the poetry of Keats, while somebody else had given a "course" on the
influence of St. Thomas Aquinas upon Professor Huxley.
Mrs. Amyot, warmed by my participation in her distress, went on to say
that the growing demand for evolution was what most troubled her. Her
grandfather had been a pillar of the Presbyterian ministry, and the idea
of her lecturing on Darwin or Herbert Spencer was deeply shocking to her
mother and aunts. In one sense the family had staked its literary as well
as its spiritual hopes on the literal inspiration of Genesis: what became
of "The Fall of Man" in the light of modern exegesis?
The upshot of it was that she had ceased to lecture because she could no
longer sell tickets enough to pay for the hire of a lecture-hall; and as
for the managers, they wouldn't look at her. She had tried her luck all
through the Eastern States and as far south as Washington; but it was of
no use, and unless she could get hold of some new subjects--or, better
still, of some new audiences--she must simply go out of the business. That
would mean the failure of all she had worked for, since Lancelot would
have to leave Harvard. She paused, and wept some of the unbecoming tears
that spring from real grief. Lancelot, it appeared, was to be a genius. He
had passed his opening examinations brilliantly; he had "literary gifts";
he had written beautiful poetry, much of which his mother had copied out,
in reverentially slanting characters, in a velvet-bound volume which she
drew from a locked drawer.
Lancelot's verse struck me as nothing more alarming than growing-pains;
but it was not to learn this that she had summoned me. What she wanted was
to be assured that he was worth working for, an assurance which I managed
to convey by the simple stratagem of remarking that the poems reminded me
of Swinburne--and so they did, as well as of Browning, Tennyson, Rossetti,
and all the other poets who supply young authors with original
This point being established, it remained to be decided by what means his
mother was, in the French phrase, to pay herself the luxury of a poet. It
was clear that this indulgence could be bought only with counterfeit coin,
and that the one way of helping Mrs. Amyot was to become a party to the
circulation of such currency. My fetish of intellectual integrity went
down like a ninepin before the appeal of a woman no longer young and
distinctly foolish, but full of those dear contradictions and
irrelevancies that will always make flesh and blood prevail against a
syllogism. When I took leave of Mrs. Amyot I had promised her a dozen
letters to Western universities and had half pledged myself to sketch out
a lecture on the reconciliation of science and religion.
In the West she achieved a success which for a year or more embittered my
perusal of the morning papers. The fascination that lures the murderer
back to the scene of his crime drew my eye to every paragraph celebrating
Mrs. Amyot's last brilliant lecture on the influence of something upon
somebody; and her own letters--she overwhelmed me with them--spared me no
detail of the entertainment given in her honor by the Palimpsest Club of
Omaha or of her reception at the University of Leadville. The college
professors were especially kind: she assured me that she had never before
met with such discriminating sympathy. I winced at the adjective, which
cast a sudden light on the vast machinery of fraud that I had set in
motion. All over my native land, men of hitherto unblemished integrity
were conniving with me in urging their friends to go and hear Mrs. Amyot
lecture on the reconciliation of science and religion! My only hope was
that, somewhere among the number of my accomplices, Mrs. Amyot might find
one who would marry her in the defense of his convictions.
None, apparently, resorted to such heroic measures; for about two years
later I was startled by the announcement that Mrs. Amyot was lecturing in
Trenton, New Jersey, on modern theosophy in the light of the Vedas. The
following week she was at Newark, discussing Schopenhauer in the light of
recent psychology. The week after that I was on the deck of an ocean
steamer, reconsidering my share in Mrs. Amyot's triumphs with the
impartiality with which one views an episode that is being left behind at
the rate of twenty knots an hour. After all, I had been helping a mother
to educate her son.
The next ten years of my life were spent in Europe, and when I came home
the recollection of Mrs. Amyot had become as inoffensive as one of those
pathetic ghosts who are said to strive in vain to make themselves visible
to the living. I did not even notice the fact that I no longer heard her
spoken of; she had dropped like a dead leaf from the bough of memory.
A year or two after my return I was condemned to one of the worst
punishments a worker can undergo--an enforced holiday. The doctors who
pronounced the inhuman sentence decreed that it should be worked out in
the South, and for a whole winter I carried my cough, my thermometer and
my idleness from one fashionable orange-grove to another. In the vast and
melancholy sea of my disoccupation I clutched like a drowning man at any
human driftwood within reach. I took a critical and depreciatory interest
in the coughs, the thermometers and the idleness of my fellow-sufferers;
but to the healthy, the occupied, the transient I clung with
In no other way can I explain, as I look back on it, the importance I
attached to the leisurely confidences of a new arrival with a brown beard
who, tilted back at my side on a hotel veranda hung with roses, imparted
to me one afternoon the simple annals of his past. There was nothing in
the tale to kindle the most inflammable imagination, and though the man
had a pleasant frank face and a voice differing agreeably from the shrill
inflections of our fellow-lodgers, it is probable that under different
conditions his discursive history of successful business ventures in a
Western city would have affected me somewhat in the manner of a lullaby.
Even at the tune I was not sure I liked his agreeable voice: it had a
self-importance out of keeping with the humdrum nature of his story, as
though a breeze engaged in shaking out a table-cloth should have fancied
itself inflating a banner. But this criticism may have been a mere mark of
my own fastidiousness, for the man seemed a simple fellow, satisfied with
his middling fortunes, and already (he was not much past thirty) deep-sunk
in conjugal content.
He had just started on an anecdote connected with the cutting of his
eldest boy's teeth, when a lady I knew, returning from her late drive,
paused before us for a moment in the twilight, with the smile which is the
feminine equivalent of beads to savages.
"Won't you take a ticket?" she said sweetly.
Of course I would take a ticket--but for what? I ventured to inquire.
"Oh, that's _so_ good of you--for the lecture this evening. You needn't
go, you know; we're none of us going; most of us have been through it
already at Aiken and at Saint Augustine and at Palm Beach. I've given away
my tickets to some new people who've just come from the North, and some of
us are going to send our maids, just to fill up the room."
"And may I ask to whom you are going to pay this delicate attention?"
"Oh, I thought you knew--to poor Mrs. Amyot. She's been lecturing all over
the South this winter; she's simply _haunted_ me ever since I left New
York--and we had six weeks of her at Bar Harbor last summer! One has to
take tickets, you know, because she's a widow and does it for her son--to
pay for his education. She's so plucky and nice about it, and talks about
him in such a touching unaffected way, that everybody is sorry for her,
and we all simply ruin ourselves in tickets. I do hope that boy's nearly
"Mrs. Amyot? Mrs. Amyot?" I repeated. "Is she _still_ educating her son?"
"Oh, do you know about her? Has she been at it long? There's some comfort
in that, for I suppose when the boy's provided for the poor thing will be
able to take a rest--and give us one!"
She laughed and held out her hand.
"Here's your ticket. Did you say _tickets_--two? Oh, thanks. Of course you
"But I mean to go. Mrs. Amyot is an old friend of mine."
"Do you really? That's awfully good of you. Perhaps I'll go too if I can
persuade Charlie and the others to come. And I wonder"--in a well-directed
aside--"if your friend--?"
I telegraphed her under cover of the dusk that my friend was of too recent
standing to be drawn into her charitable toils, and she masked her mistake
under a rattle of friendly adjurations not to be late, and to be sure to
keep a seat for her, as she had quite made up her mind to go even if
Charlie and the others wouldn't.
The flutter of her skirts subsided in the distance, and my neighbor, who
had half turned away to light a cigar, made no effort to reopen the
conversation. At length, fearing he might have overheard the allusion to
himself, I ventured to ask if he were going to the lecture that evening.
"Much obliged--I have a ticket," he said abruptly.
This struck me as in such bad taste that I made no answer; and it was he
who spoke next.
"Did I understand you to say that you were an old friend of Mrs. Amyot's?"
"I think I may claim to be, if it is the same Mrs. Amyot I had the
pleasure of knowing many years ago. My Mrs. Amyot used to lecture too--"
"To pay for her son's education?"
"I believe so."
"Well--see you later."
He got up and walked into the house.
In the hotel drawing-room that evening there was but a meagre sprinkling
of guests, among whom I saw my brown-bearded friend sitting alone on a
sofa, with his head against the wall. It could not have been curiosity to
see Mrs. Amyot that had impelled him to attend the performance, for it
would have been impossible for him, without changing his place, to command
the improvised platform at the end of the room. When I looked at him he
seemed lost in contemplation of the chandelier.
The lady from whom I had bought my tickets fluttered in late, unattended
by Charlie and the others, and assuring me that she would _scream_ if we
had the lecture on Ibsen--she had heard it three times already that
winter. A glance at the programme reassured her: it informed us (in the
lecturer's own slanting hand) that Mrs. Amyot was to lecture on the
After a long pause, during which the small audience coughed and moved its
chairs and showed signs of regretting that it had come, the door opened,
and Mrs. Amyot stepped upon the platform. Ah, poor lady!
Some one said "Hush!", the coughing and chair-shifting subsided, and she
It was like looking at one's self early in the morning in a cracked
mirror. I had no idea I had grown so old. As for Lancelot, he must have a
beard. A beard? The word struck me, and without knowing why I glanced
across the room at my bearded friend on the sofa. Oddly enough he was
looking at me, with a half-defiant, half-sullen expression; and as our
glances crossed, and his fell, the conviction came to me that _he was
I don't remember a word of the lecture; and yet there were enough of them
to have filled a good-sized dictionary. The stream of Mrs. Amyot's
eloquence had become a flood: one had the despairing sense that she had
sprung a leak, and that until the plumber came there was nothing to be
done about it.
The plumber came at length, in the shape of a clock striking ten; my
companion, with a sigh of relief, drifted away in search of Charlie and
the others; the audience scattered with the precipitation of people who
had discharged a duty; and, without surprise, I found the brown-bearded
stranger at my elbow.
We stood alone in the bare-floored room, under the flaring chandelier.
"I think you told me this afternoon that you were an old friend of Mrs.
Amyot's?" he began awkwardly.
"Will you come in and see her?"
"Now? I shall be very glad to, if--"
"She's ready; she's expecting you," he interposed.
He offered no further explanation, and I followed him in silence. He led
me down the long corridor, and pushed open the door of a sitting-room.
"Mother," he said, closing the door after we had entered, "here's the
gentleman who says he used to know you."
Mrs. Amyot, who sat in an easy-chair stirring a cup of bouillon, looked up
with a start. She had evidently not seen me in the audience, and her son's
description had failed to convey my identity. I saw a frightened look in
her eyes; then, like a frost flower on a window-pane, the dimple expanded
on her wrinkled cheek, and she held out her hand.
"I'm so glad," she said, "so glad!"
She turned to her son, who stood watching us. "You must have told Lancelot
all about me--you've known me so long!"
"I haven't had time to talk to your son--since I knew he was your son," I
Her brow cleared. "Then you haven't had time to say anything very
dreadful?" she said with a laugh.
"It is he who has been saying dreadful things," I returned, trying to fall
in with her tone.
I saw my mistake. "What things?" she faltered.
"Making me feel how old I am by telling me about his children."
"My grandchildren!" she exclaimed with a blush.
"Well, if you choose to put it so."
She laughed again, vaguely, and was silent. I hesitated a moment and then
put out my hand.
"I see you are tired. I shouldn't have ventured to come in at this hour if
The son stepped between us. "Yes, I asked him to come," he said to his
mother, in his clear self-assertive voice. "_I_ haven't told him anything
yet; but you've got to--now. That's what I brought him for."
His mother straightened herself, but I saw her eye waver.
"Lancelot--" she began.
"Mr. Amyot," I said, turning to the young man, "if your mother will let me
come back to-morrow, I shall be very glad--"
He struck his hand hard against the table on which he was leaning.
"No, sir! It won't take long, but it's got to be said now."
He moved nearer to his mother, and I saw his lip twitch under his beard.
After all, he was younger and less sure of himself than I had fancied.
"See here, mother," he went on, "there's something here that's got to be
cleared up, and as you say this gentleman is an old friend of yours it had
better be cleared up in his presence. Maybe he can help explain it--and if
he can't, it's got to be explained to _him."_
Mrs. Amyot's lips moved, but she made no sound. She glanced at me
helplessly and sat down. My early inclination to thrash Lancelot was
beginning to reassert itself. I took up my hat and moved toward the door.
"Mrs. Amyot is under no obligation to explain anything whatever to me," I
"Well! She's under an obligation to me, then--to explain something in your
presence." He turned to her again. "Do you know what the people in this
hotel are saying? Do you know what he thinks--what they all think? That
you're doing this lecturing to support me--to pay for my education! They
say you go round telling them so. That's what they buy the tickets for--
they do it out of charity. Ask him if it isn't what they say--ask him if
they weren't joking about it on the piazza before dinner. The others think
I'm a little boy, but he's known you for years, and he must have known how
old I was. _He_ must have known it wasn't to pay for my education!"
He stood before her with his hands clenched, the veins beating in his
temples. She had grown very pale, and her cheeks looked hollow. When she
spoke her voice had an odd click in it.
"If--if these ladies and gentlemen have been coming to my lectures out of
charity, I see nothing to be ashamed of in that--" she faltered.
"If they've been coming out of charity to _me_," he retorted, "don't you
see you've been making me a party to a fraud? Isn't there any shame in
that?" His forehead reddened. "Mother! Can't you see the shame of letting
people think I was a d--beat, who sponged on you for my keep? Let alone
making us both the laughing-stock of every place you go to!"
"I never did that, Lancelot!"
"Made you a laughing-stock--"
He stepped close to her and caught her wrist.
"Will you look me in the face and swear you never told people you were
doing this lecturing business to support me?"
There was a long silence. He dropped her wrist and she lifted a limp
handkerchief to her frightened eyes. "I did do it--to support you--to
educate you"--she sobbed.
"We're not talking about what you did when I was a boy. Everybody who
knows me knows I've been a grateful son. Have I ever taken a penny from
you since I left college ten years ago?"
"I never said you had! How can you accuse your mother of such wickedness,
"Have you never told anybody in this hotel--or anywhere else in the last
ten years--that you were lecturing to support me? Answer me that!"
"How can you," she wept, "before a stranger?"
"Haven't you said such things about _me_ to strangers?" he retorted.
"Well--answer me, then. Say you haven't, mother!" His voice broke
unexpectedly and he took her hand with a gentler touch. "I'll believe
anything you tell me," he said almost humbly.
She mistook his tone and raised her head with a rash clutch at dignity.
"I think you'd better ask this gentleman to excuse you first."
"No, by God, I won't!" he cried. "This gentleman says he knows all about
you and I mean him to know all about me too. I don't mean that he or
anybody else under this roof shall go on thinking for another twenty-four
hours that a cent of their money has ever gone into my pockets since I was
old enough to shift for myself. And he sha'n't leave this room till you've
made that clear to him."
He stepped back as he spoke and put his shoulders against the door.
"My dear young gentleman," I said politely, "I shall leave this room
exactly when I see fit to do so--and that is now. I have already told you
that Mrs. Amyot owes me no explanation of her conduct."
"But I owe you an explanation of mine--you and every one who has bought a
single one of her lecture tickets. Do you suppose a man who's been through
what I went through while that woman was talking to you in the porch
before dinner is going to hold his tongue, and not attempt to justify
himself? No decent man is going to sit down under that sort of thing. It's
enough to ruin his character. If you're my mother's friend, you owe it to
me to hear what I've got to say."
He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
"Good God, mother!" he burst out suddenly, "what did you do it for?
Haven't you had everything you wanted ever since I was able to pay for it?
Haven't I paid you back every cent you spent on me when I was in college?
Have I ever gone back on you since I was big enough to work?" He turned to
me with a laugh. "I thought she did it to amuse herself--and because there
was such a demand for her lectures. _Such a demand!_ That's what she
always told me. When we asked her to come out and spend this winter with
us in Minneapolis, she wrote back that she couldn't because she had
engagements all through the south, and her manager wouldn't let her off.
That's the reason why I came all the way on here to see her. We thought
she was the most popular lecturer in the United States, my wife and I did!
We were awfully proud of it too, I can tell you." He dropped into a chair,
"How can you, Lancelot, how can you!" His mother, forgetful of my
presence, was clinging to him with tentative caresses. "When you didn't
need the money any longer I spent it all on the children--you know I did."
"Yes, on lace christening dresses and life-size rocking-horses with real
manes! The kind of thing children can't do without."
"Oh, Lancelot, Lancelot--I loved them so! How can you believe such
falsehoods about me?"
"What falsehoods about you?"
"That I ever told anybody such dreadful things?"
He put her back gently, keeping his eyes on hers. "Did you never tell
anybody in this house that you were lecturing to support your son?"
Her hands dropped from his shoulders and she flashed round on me in sudden
"I know what I think of people who call themselves friends and who come
between a mother and her son!"
"Oh, mother, mother!" he groaned.
I went up to him and laid my hand on his shoulder.
"My dear man," I said, "don't you see the uselessness of prolonging this?"
"Yes, I do," he answered abruptly; and before I could forestall his
movement he rose and walked out of the room.
There was a long silence, measured by the lessening reverberations of his
footsteps down the wooden floor of the corridor.
When they ceased I approached Mrs. Amyot, who had sunk into her chair. I
held out my hand and she took it without a trace of resentment on her
"I sent his wife a seal-skin jacket at Christmas!" she said, with the
tears running down her cheeks.
Their railway-carriage had been full when the train left Bologna; but at
the first station beyond Milan their only remaining companion--a courtly
person who ate garlic out of a carpet-bag--had left his crumb-strewn seat
with a bow.
Lydia's eye regretfully followed the shiny broadcloth of his retreating
back till it lost itself in the cloud of touts and cab-drivers hanging
about the station; then she glanced across at Gannett and caught the same
regret in his look. They were both sorry to be alone.
"_Par-ten-za!_" shouted the guard. The train vibrated to a sudden slamming
of doors; a waiter ran along the platform with a tray of fossilized
sandwiches; a belated porter flung a bundle of shawls and band-boxes into
a third-class carriage; the guard snapped out a brief _Partensa!_ which
indicated the purely ornamental nature of his first shout; and the train
swung out of the station.
The direction of the road had changed, and a shaft of sunlight struck
across the dusty red velvet seats into Lydia's corner. Gannett did not
notice it. He had returned to his _Revue de Paris,_ and she had to rise
and lower the shade of the farther window. Against the vast horizon of
their leisure such incidents stood out sharply.
Having lowered the shade, Lydia sat down, leaving the length of the
carriage between herself and Gannett. At length he missed her and looked
"I moved out of the sun," she hastily explained.
He looked at her curiously: the sun was beating on her through the shade.
"Very well," he said pleasantly; adding, "You don't mind?" as he drew a
cigarette-case from his pocket.
It was a refreshing touch, relieving the tension of her spirit with the
suggestion that, after all, if he could _smoke_--! The relief was only
momentary. Her experience of smokers was limited (her husband had
disapproved of the use of tobacco) but she knew from hearsay that men
sometimes smoked to get away from things; that a cigar might be the
masculine equivalent of darkened windows and a headache. Gannett, after a
puff or two, returned to his review.
It was just as she had foreseen; he feared to speak as much as she did. It
was one of the misfortunes of their situation that they were never busy
enough to necessitate, or even to justify, the postponement of unpleasant
discussions. If they avoided a question it was obviously, unconcealably
because the question was disagreeable. They had unlimited leisure and an
accumulation of mental energy to devote to any subject that presented
itself; new topics were in fact at a premium. Lydia sometimes had
premonitions of a famine-stricken period when there would he nothing left
to talk about, and she had already caught herself doling out piecemeal
what, in the first prodigality of their confidences, she would have flung
to him in a breath. Their silence therefore might simply mean that they
had nothing to say; but it was another disadvantage of their position that
it allowed infinite opportunity for the classification of minute
differences. Lydia had learned to distinguish between real and factitious
silences; and under Gannett's she now detected a hum of speech to which
her own thoughts made breathless answer.
How could it be otherwise, with that thing between them? She glanced up at
the rack overhead. The _thing_ was there, in her dressing-bag,
symbolically suspended over her head and his. He was thinking of it now,
just as she was; they had been thinking of it in unison ever since they
had entered the train. While the carriage had held other travellers they
had screened her from his thoughts; but now that he and she were alone she
knew exactly what was passing through his mind; she could almost hear him
asking himself what he should say to her....
* * * * *
The thing had come that morning, brought up to her in an innocent-looking
envelope with the rest of their letters, as they were leaving the hotel at
Bologna. As she tore it open, she and Gannett were laughing over some
ineptitude of the local guide-book--they had been driven, of late, to
make the most of such incidental humors of travel. Even when she had
unfolded the document she took it for some unimportant business paper sent
abroad for her signature, and her eye travelled inattentively over the
curly _Whereases_ of the preamble until a word arrested her:--Divorce.
There it stood, an impassable barrier, between her husband's name and
She had been prepared for it, of course, as healthy people are said to be
prepared for death, in the sense of knowing it must come without in the
least expecting that it will. She had known from the first that Tillotson
meant to divorce her--but what did it matter? Nothing mattered, in those
first days of supreme deliverance, but the fact that she was free; and not
so much (she had begun to be aware) that freedom had released her from
Tillotson as that it had given her to Gannett. This discovery had not been
agreeable to her self-esteem. She had preferred to think that Tillotson
had himself embodied all her reasons for leaving him; and those he
represented had seemed cogent enough to stand in no need of reinforcement.
Yet she had not left him till she met Gannett. It was her love for Gannett
that had made life with Tillotson so poor and incomplete a business. If
she had never, from the first, regarded her marriage as a full cancelling
of her claims upon life, she had at least, for a number of years, accepted
it as a provisional compensation,--she had made it "do." Existence in the
commodious Tillotson mansion in Fifth Avenue--with Mrs. Tillotson senior
commanding the approaches from the second-story front windows--had been
reduced to a series of purely automatic acts. The moral atmosphere of the
Tillotson interior was as carefully screened and curtained as the house
itself: Mrs. Tillotson senior dreaded ideas as much as a draught in her
back. Prudent people liked an even temperature; and to do anything
unexpected was as foolish as going out in the rain. One of the chief
advantages of being rich was that one need not be exposed to unforeseen
contingencies: by the use of ordinary firmness and common sense one could
make sure of doing exactly the same thing every day at the same hour.
These doctrines, reverentially imbibed with his mother's milk, Tillotson
(a model son who had never given his parents an hour's anxiety)
complacently expounded to his wife, testifying to his sense of their
importance by the regularity with which he wore goloshes on damp days, his
punctuality at meals, and his elaborate precautions against burglars and
contagious diseases. Lydia, coming from a smaller town, and entering New
York life through the portals of the Tillotson mansion, had mechanically
accepted this point of view as inseparable from having a front pew in
church and a parterre box at the opera. All the people who came to the
house revolved in the same small circle of prejudices. It was the kind of
society in which, after dinner, the ladies compared the exorbitant charges
of their children's teachers, and agreed that, even with the new duties on
French clothes, it was cheaper in the end to get everything from Worth;
while the husbands, over their cigars, lamented municipal corruption, and
decided that the men to start a reform were those who had no private
interests at stake.
To Lydia this view of life had become a matter of course, just as
lumbering about in her mother-in-law's landau had come to seem the only
possible means of locomotion, and listening every Sunday to a fashionable
Presbyterian divine the inevitable atonement for having thought oneself
bored on the other six days of the week. Before she met Gannett her life
had seemed merely dull: his coming made it appear like one of those dismal
Cruikshank prints in which the people are all ugly and all engaged in
occupations that are either vulgar or stupid.
It was natural that Tillotson should be the chief sufferer from this
readjustment of focus. Gannett's nearness had made her husband ridiculous,
and a part of the ridicule had been reflected on herself. Her tolerance
laid her open to a suspicion of obtuseness from which she must, at all
costs, clear herself in Gannett's eyes.