Part 1 out of 5
E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE METTLE OF THE PASTURE
JAMES LANE ALLEN
Author of "The Choir Invisible," "A Kentucky Cardinal," etc., etc.
New York, 1903
To My Sister
She did not wish any supper and she sank forgetfully back into the
stately oak chair. One of her hands lay palm upward on her white
lap; in the other, which drooped over the arm of the chair, she
clasped a young rose dark red amid its leaves--an inverted torch of
Old-fashioned glass doors behind her reached from a high ceiling to
the floor; they had been thrown open and the curtains looped apart.
Stone steps outside led downward to the turf in the rear of the
house. This turf covered a lawn unroughened by plant or weed; but
over it at majestic intervals grew clumps of gray pines and
dim-blue, ever wintry firs. Beyond lawn and evergreens a flower
garden bloomed; and beyond the high fence enclosing this, tree-tops
and house-tops of the town could be seen; and beyond these--away in
the west--the sky was naming now with the falling sun.
A few bars of dusty gold hung poised across the darkening spaces of
the supper room. Ripples of the evening air, entering through the
windows, flowed over her, lifting the thick curling locks at the
nape of her neck, creeping forward over her shoulders and passing
along her round arms under the thin fabric of her sleeves.
They aroused her, these vanishing beams of the day, these arriving
breezes of the night; they became secret invitations to escape from
the house into the privacy of the garden, where she could be alone
with thoughts of her great happiness now fast approaching.
A servant entered noiselessly, bringing a silver bowl of frozen
cream. Beside this, at the head of the table before her
grandmother, he placed scarlet strawberries gathered that morning
under white dews. She availed herself of the slight interruption
and rose with an apology; but even when love bade her go, love also
bade her linger; she could scarce bear to be with them, but she
could scarce bear to be alone. She paused at her grandmother's
chair to stroke the dry bronze puffs on her temples--a unique
impulse; she hesitated compassionately a moment beside her aunt,
who had never married; then, passing around to the opposite side of
the table, she took between her palms the sunburnt cheeks of a
youth, her cousin, and buried her own tingling cheek in his hair.
Instinct at that moment drew her most to him because he was young
as she was young, having life and love before him as she had; only,
for him love stayed far in the future; for her it came to-night.
When she had crossed the room and reached the hall, she paused and
glanced back, held by the tension of cords which she dreaded to
break. She felt that nothing would ever be the same again in the
home of her childhood. Until marriage she would remain under its
dear honored roof, and there would be no outward interruption of
its familiar routine; but for her all the bonds of life would have
become loosened from old ties and united in him alone whom this
evening she was to choose as her lot and destiny. Under the
influence of that fresh fondness, therefore, which wells up so
strangely within us at the thought of parting from home and home
people, even though we may not greatly care for them, she now stood
gazing at the picture they formed as though she were already
calling it back through the distances of memory and the changes of
They, too, had shifted their positions and were looking at her with
one undisguised expression of pride and love; and they smiled as
she smiled radiantly back at them, waving a last adieu with her
spray of rose and turning quickly in a dread of foolish tears.
It was the youthful voice of her grandmother. She faced them again
with a little frown of feigned impatience.
"If you are going into the garden, throw something around your
"Thank you, grandmother; I have my lace."
Crossing the hall, she went into the front parlor, took from a
damask sofa a rare shawl of white lace and, walking to a mirror,
threw it over her head, absently noting the effect in profile. She
lifted this off and, breaking the rose from part of its stem,
pinned that on her breast. Then, stepping aside to one of the
large lofty windows, she stood there under the droop of the
curtains, sunk into reverie again and looking out upon the yard and
the street beyond.
Hardly a sound disturbed the twilight stillness. A lamplighter
passed, torching the grim lamps. A sauntering carrier threw the
evening newspaper over the gate, with his unintelligible cry. A
dog-cart rumbled by, and later, a brougham; people were not yet
returned from driving on the country turnpikes. Once, some belated
girls clattered past on ponies. But already little children,
bare-armed, bare-necked, swinging lanterns, and attended by proud
young mothers, were on their way to a summer-night festival in the
park. Up and down the street family groups were forming on the
verandas. The red disks of cigars could be seen, and the laughter
of happy women was wafted across the dividing fences and shrubbery,
Breaking again through her reverie, which seemed to envelop her,
wherever she went, like a beautiful cloud, she left the window and
appeared at the front door. Palms stood on each side of the
granite steps, and these arched their tropical leaves far over
toward her quiet feet as she passed down. Along the pavement were
set huge green boxes, in which white oleanders grew, and flaming
pomegranates, and crepe myrtle thickly roofed with pink. She was
used to hover about them at this hour, but she strolled past,
unmindful now, the daily habit obliterated, the dumb little tie
quite broken. The twisted newspaper lay white on the shadowed
pavement before her eyes and she did not see that. She walked on
until she reached the gate and, folding her hands about one of the
brass globes surmounting the iron spikes, leaned over and probed
with impatient eyes the long dusk of the street; as far as he could
be seen coming she wished to see him.
It was too early. So she filled her eyes with pictures of the
daylight fading over woods and fields far out in the country. But
the entire flock of wistful thoughts settled at last about a large
house situated on a wooded hill some miles from town. A lawn
sloped upward to it from the turnpike, and there was a gravelled
driveway. She unlatched the gate, approached the house, passed
through the wide hall, ascended the stairs, stood at the door of
his room--waiting. Why did he not come? How could he linger?
Dreamily she turned back; and following a narrow walk, passed to
the rear of the house and thence across the lawn of turf toward the
A shower had fallen early in the day and the grass had been cut
afterwards. Afternoon sunshine had drunk the moisture, leaving the
fragrance released and floating. The warmth of the cooling earth
reached her foot through the sole of her slipper. On the plume of
a pine, a bird was sending its last call after the bright hours,
while out of the firs came the tumult of plainer kinds as they
mingled for common sleep. The heavy cry of the bullbat fell from
far above, and looking up quickly for a sight of his winnowing
wings under the vast purpling vault she beheld the earliest stars.
Thus, everywhere, under her feet, over her head, and beyond the
reach of vision, because inhabiting that realm into which the
spirit alone can send its aspiration and its prayer, was one
influence, one spell: the warmth of the good wholesome earth, its
breath of sweetness, its voices of peace and love and rest, the
majesty of its flashing dome; and holding all these safe as in the
hollow of a hand the Eternal Guardianship of the world.
As she strolled around the garden under the cloudy flush of the
evening sky dressed in white, a shawl of white lace over one arm, a
rose on her breast, she had the exquisiteness of a long past,
during which women have been chosen in marriage for health and
beauty and children and the power to charm. The very curve of her
neck implied generations of mothers who had valued grace.
Generations of forefathers had imparted to her walk and bearing
their courage and their pride. The precision of the eyebrow, the
chiselled perfection of the nostril, the loveliness of the short
red lip; the well-arched feet, small, but sure of themselves; the
eyes that were kind and truthful and thoughtful; the sheen of her
hair, the fineness of her skin, her nobly cast figure,--all these
were evidences of descent from a people, that had reached in her
the purity, without having lost the vigor, of one of its highest
She had supposed that when he came the servant would receive him
and announce his arrival, but in a little while the sound of a step
on the gravel reached her ear; she paused and listened. It was
familiar, but it was unnatural--she remembered this afterwards.
She began to walk away from him, her beautiful head suddenly arched
far forward, her bosom rising and falling under her clasped hands,
her eyes filling with wonderful light. Then regaining composure
because losing consciousness of herself in the thought of him, she
turned and with divine simplicity of soul advanced to meet him.
Near the centre of the garden there was an open spot where two
pathways crossed; and it was here, emerging from the shrubbery,
that they came in sight of each other. Neither spoke. Neither
made in advance a sign of greeting. When they were a few yards
apart she paused, flushing through her whiteness; and he, dropping
his hat from his hand, stepped quickly forward, gathered her hands
into his and stood looking down on her in silence. He was very
pale and barely controlled himself.
"Isabel!" It was all he could say.
"Rowan!" she answered at length. She spoke under her breath and
stood before him with her head drooping, her eyes on the ground.
Then he released her and she led the way at once out of the garden.
When they had reached the front of the house, sounds of
conversation on the veranda warned them that there were guests, and
without concealing their desire to be alone they passed to a rustic
bench under one of the old trees, standing between the house and
the street; they were used to sitting there; they had known each
other all their lives.
A long time they forced themselves to talk of common and trivial
things, the one great meaning of the hour being avoided by each.
Meanwhile it was growing very late. The children had long before
returned drowsily home held by the hand, their lanterns dropped on
the way or still clung to, torn and darkened. No groups laughed on
the verandas; but gas-jets had been lighted and turned low as
people undressed for bed. The guests of the family had gone. Even
Isabel's grandmother had not been able further to put away sleep
from her plotting brain in order to send out to them a final
inquisitive thought--the last reconnoitring bee of all the
In-gathered hive. Now, at length, as absolutely as he could have
wished, he was alone with her and secure from interruption.
The moon had sunk so low that its rays fell in a silvery stream on
her white figure; only a waving bough of the tree overhead still
brushed with shadow her neck and face. As the evening waned, she
had less to say to him, growing always more silent in new dignity,
more mute with happiness.
He pushed himself abruptly away from her side and bending over
touched his lips reverently to the back of one of her hands, as
they lay on the shawl in her lap.
"Isabel," and then he hesitated.
"Yes," she answered sweetly. She paused likewise, requiring
nothing more; it was enough that he should speak her name.
He changed his position and sat looking ahead. Presently he began
again, choosing his words as a man might search among terrible
weapons for the least deadly.
"When I wrote and asked you to marry me, I said I should come
to-night and receive your answer from your own lips. If your
answer had been different, I should never have spoken to you of my
past. It would not have been my duty. I should not have had the
right. I repeat, Isabel, that until you had confessed your love
for me, I should have had no right to speak to you about my past.
But now there is something you ought to be told at once."
She glanced up quickly with a rebuking smile. How could he wander
so far from the happiness of moments too soon to end? What was his
past to her?
He went on more guardedly.
"Ever since I have loved you, I have realized what I should have to
tell you if you ever returned my love. Sometimes duty has seemed
one thing, sometimes another. This is why I have waited so
long--more than two years; the way was not clear. Isabel, it will
never be clear. I believe now it is wrong to tell you; I believe
It is wrong not to tell you. I have thought and thought--it is
wrong either way. But the least wrong to you and to myself--that
is what I have always tried to see, and as I understand my duty,
now that you are willing to unite your life with mine, there is
something you must know."
He added the last words as though he had reached a difficult
position and were announcing his purpose to hold it. But he paused
She had scarcely heard him through wonderment that he could so
change at such a moment. Her happiness began to falter and darken
like departing sunbeams. She remained for a space uncertain of
herself, knowing neither what was needed nor what was best; then
she spoke with resolute deprecation:
"Why discuss with me your past life? Have I not known you always?"
These were not the words of girlhood. She spoke from the emotions
of womanhood, beginning to-night in the plighting of her troth.
"You have trusted me too much, Isabel."
Repulsed a second time, she now fixed her large eyes upon him with
surprise. The next moment she had crossed lightly once more the
"Rowan," she said more gravely and with slight reproach, "I have
not waited so long and then not known the man whom I have chosen."
"Ah," he cried, with a gesture of distress.
Thus they sat: she silent with new thoughts; he speechless with his
old ones. Again she was the first to speak. More deeply moved by
the sight of his increasing excitement, she took one of his hands
into both of hers, pressing it with a delicate tenderness.
"What is it that troubles you, Rowan? Tell me! It is my duty to
listen. I have the right to know."
He shrank from what he had never heard in her voice
before--disappointment in him. And it was neither girlhood nor
womanhood which had spoken now: it was comradeship which is
possible to girlhood and to womanhood through wifehood alone: she
was taking their future for granted. He caught her hand and lifted
it again and again to his lips; then he turned away from her.
Thus shut out from him again, she sat looking out into the night.
But in a woman's complete love of a man there is something deeper
than girlhood or womanhood or wifehood: it is the maternal--that
dependence on his strength when he is well and strong, that passion
of protection and defence when he is frail or stricken. Into her
mood and feeling toward him even the maternal had forced its way.
She would have found some expression for it but he anticipated her.
"I am thinking of you, of my duty to you, of your happiness."
She realized at last some terrible hidden import in all that he had
been trying to confess. A shrouded mysterious Shape of Evil was
suddenly disclosed as already standing on the threshold of the
House of Life which they were about to enter together. The night
being warm, she had not used her shawl. Now she threw it over her
head and gathered the weblike folds tightly under her throat as
though she were growing cold. The next instant, with a swift
movement, she tore it from her head and pushed herself as far as
possible away from him out into the moonlight; and she sat there
looking at him, wild with distrust and fear.
He caught sight of her face.
"Oh, I am doing wrong," he cried miserably. "I must not tell you
He sprang up and hurried over to the pavement and began to walk to
and fro. He walked to and fro a long time; and after waiting for
him to return, she came quickly and stood in his path. But when he
drew near her he put out his hand.
"I cannot!" he repeated, shaking his head and turning away.
Still she waited, and when he approached and was turning away
again, she stepped forward and laid on his arm her quivering
"You must," she said. "You _shall_ tell me!" and if there was
anger in her voice, if there was anguish in it, there was the
authority likewise of holy and sovereign rights. But he thrust her
all but rudely away, and going to the lower end of the pavement,
walked there backward and forward with his hat pulled low over his
eyes--walked slowly, always more slowly. Twice he laid his hand on
the gate as though he would have passed out. At last he stopped
and looked back to where she waited in the light, her face set
immovably, commandingly, toward him. Then he came back and stood
The moon, now sinking low, shone full on his face, pale, sad, very
quiet; and into his eyes, mournful as she had never known any eyes
to be. He had taken off his hat and held it in his hand, and a
light wind blew his thick hair about his forehead and temples.
She, looking at him with senses preternaturally aroused, afterwards
remembered all this.
Before he began to speak he saw rush over her face a look of final
entreaty that he would not strike her too cruel a blow. This, when
he had ceased speaking, was succeeded by the expression of one who
has received a shock beyond all imagination. Thus they stood
looking into each other's eyes; then she shrank back and started
toward the house.
He sprang after her.
"You are leaving me!" he cried horribly.
She walked straight on, neither quickening nor slackening her pace
nor swerving, although his body began unsteadily to intercept hers.
He kept beside her.
"Don't! Isabel!" he prayed out of his agony. "Don't leave me like
She walked on and reached the steps of the veranda. Crying out in
his longing he threw his arms around her and held her close.
"You must not! You shall not! Do you know what you are doing,
She made not the least reply, not the least effort to extricate
herself. But she closed her eyes and shuddered and twisted her
body away from him as a bird of the air bends its neck and head as
far as possible from a repulsive captor; and like the heart of such
a bird, he could feel the throbbing of her heart.
Her mute submission to his violence stung him: he let her go. She
spread out her arms as though in a rising flight of her nature and
the shawl, tossed backward from her shoulders, fell to the ground:
it was as if she cast off the garment he had touched. Then she
went quickly up the steps. Before she could reach the door he
confronted her again; he pressed his back against it. She
stretched out her hand and rang the bell. He stepped aside very
quickly--proudly. She entered, closing and locking noiselessly the
door that no sound might reach the servant she had summoned. As
she did so she heard him try the knob and call to her in an
undertone of last reproach and last entreaty:
Hurrying through the hall, she ran silently up the stairs to her
room and shut herself in.
Her first feeling was joy that she was there safe from him and from
every one else for the night. Her instant need was to be alone.
It was this feeling also that caused her to go on tiptoe around the
room and draw down the blinds, as though the glimmering windows
were large eyes peering at her with intrusive wounding stare. Then
taking her position close to a front window, she listened. He was
walking slowly backward and forward on the pavement reluctantly,
doubtfully; finally he passed through the gate. As it clanged
heavily behind him, Isabel pressed her hands convulsively to her
heart as though it also had gates which had closed, never to reopen.
Then she lighted the gas-jets beside the bureau and when she caught
sight of herself the thought came how unchanged she looked. She
stood there, just as she had stood before going down to supper,
nowhere a sign of all the deep displacement and destruction that
had gone on within.
But she said to herself that what he had told her would reveal
itself in time. It would lie in the first furrows deepening down
her cheeks; it would be the earliest frost of years upon her hair.
A long while she sat on the edge of the couch in the middle of the
room under the brilliant gaslight, her hands forgotten in her lap,
her brows arched high, her eyes on the floor. Then her head
beginning to ache, a new sensation for her, she thought she should
bind a wet handkerchief to it as she had often done for her aunt;
but the water which the maid had placed in the room had become
warm. She must go down to the ewer in the hall. As she did so,
she recollected her shawl.
It was lying on the wet grass where it had fallen. There was a
half-framed accusing thought that he might have gone for it; but
she put the thought away; the time had passed for courtesies from
him. When she stooped for the shawl, an owl flew viciously at her,
snapping its bill close to her face and stirring the air with its
wings. Unnerved, she ran back into the porch, but stopped there
ashamed and looking kindly toward the tree in which it made its
An old vine of darkest green had wreathed itself about the pillars
of the veranda on that side; and it was at a frame-like opening in
the massive foliage of this that the upper part of her pure white
figure now stood revealed in the last low, silvery, mystical light.
The sinking of the moon was like a great death on the horizon,
leaving the pall of darkness, the void of infinite loss.
She hung upon this far spectacle of nature with sad intensity,
figuring from it some counterpart of the tragedy taking place
within her own mind.
Isabel slept soundly, the regular habit of healthy years being too
firmly entrenched to give way at once. Meanwhile deep changes were
wrought out in her.
When we fall asleep, we do not lay aside the thoughts of the day,
as the hand its physical work; nor upon awakening return to the
activity of these as it to the renewal of its toil, finding them
undisturbed. Our most piercing insight yields no deeper conception
of life than that of perpetual building and unbuilding; and during
what we call our rest, it is often most active in executing its
inscrutable will. All along the dark chimneys of the brain,
clinging like myriads of swallows deep-buried and slumbrous in
quiet and in soot, are the countless thoughts which lately winged
the wide heaven of conscious day. Alike through dreaming and
through dreamless hours Life moves among these, handling and
considering each of the unredeemable multitude; and when morning
light strikes the dark chimneys again and they rush forth, some
that entered young have matured; some of the old have become
infirm; many of which have dropped in singly issue as companies;
and young broods flutter forth, unaccountable nestlings of a night,
which were not in yesterday's blue at all. Then there are the
missing--those that went in with the rest at nightfall but were
struck from the walls forever. So all are altered, for while we
have slept we have still been subject to that on-moving energy of
the world which incessantly renews us yet transmutes us--double
mystery of our permanence and our change.
It was thus that nature dealt with Isabel on this night: hours of
swift difficult transition from her former life to that upon which
she was now to enter. She fell asleep overwhelmed amid the ruins
of the old; she awoke already engaged with the duties of the new.
At sundown she was a girl who had never confessed her love; at
sunrise she was a woman who had discarded the man she had just
accepted. Rising at once and dressing with despatch, she entered
upon preparations for completing her spiritual separation from
Rowan in every material way.
The books he had lent her--these she made ready to return this
morning. Other things, also, trifles in themselves but until now
so freighted with significance. Then his letters and notes, how
many, how many they were! Thus ever about her rooms she moved on
this mournful occupation until the last thing had been disposed of
as either to be sent back or to be destroyed.
And then while Isabel waited for breakfast to be announced, always
she was realizing how familiar seemed Rowan's terrible confession,
already lying far from her across the fields of memory--with a path
worn deep between it and herself as though she had been traversing
the distance for years; so old can sorrow grow during a little
sleep. When she went down they were seated as she had left them
the evening before, grandmother, aunt, cousin; and they looked up
with the same pride and fondness. But affection has so different a
quality in the morning. Then the full soundless rides which come
in at nightfall have receded; and in their stead is the glittering
beach with thin waves that give no rest to the ear or to the
shore--thin noisy edge of the deeps of the soul.
This fresh morning mood now ruled them; no such wholesome relief
had come to her. So that their laughter and high spirits jarred
upon her strangely. She had said to herself upon leaving them the
evening before that never again could they be the same to her or
she the same to them. But then she had expected to return isolated
by incommunicable happiness; now she had returned isolated by
incommunicable grief. Nevertheless she glided Into her seat with
feigned cheerfulness, taking a natural part in their conversation;
and she rose at last, smiling with the rest.
But she immediately quitted the house, eager to be out of doors
surrounded by things that she loved but that could not observe her
or question her in return--alone with things that know not evil.
These were the last days of May. The rush of Summer had already
carried it far northward over the boundaries of Spring, and on this
Sunday morning it filled the grounds of Isabel's home with early
warmth. Quickened by the heat, summoned by the blue, drenched with
showers and dews, all things which have been made repositories of
the great presence of Life were engaged in realizing the utmost
that it meant to them.
It was in the midst of this splendor of light and air, fragrance,
colors, shapes, movements, melodies and joys that Isabel, the
loftiest receptacle of life among them all, soon sat in a secluded
spot, motionless and listless with her unstanched and desperate
wound. Everything seemed happy but herself; the very brilliancy of
the day only deepened the shadow under which she brooded. As she
had slipped away from the house, she would soon have escaped from
the garden had there been any further retreat.
It was not necessary long to wait for one. Borne across the brown
roofs and red chimneys of the town and exploding in the crystal air
above her head like balls of mellow music, came the sounds of the
first church bells, the bells of Christ Church.
They had never conveyed other meaning to her than that proclaimed
by the town clock: they sounded the hour. She had been too
untroubled during her young life to understand their aged argument
Held In the arms of her father, when a babe, she had been duly
christened. His death had occurred soon afterwards, then her
mother's. Under the nurture of a grandmother to whom religion was
a convenience and social form, she had received the strictest
ceremonial but in no wise any spiritual training. The first
conscious awakening of this beautiful unearthly sense had not taken
place until the night of her confirmation--a wet April evening when
the early green of the earth was bowed to the ground, and the
lilies-of-the-valley in the yard had chilled her fingers as she had
plucked them (chosen flower of her consecration); she and they but
rising alike into their higher lives out of the same mysterious
That night she had knelt among the others at the chancel and the
bishop who had been a friend of her father's, having approached her
in the long line of young and old, had laid his hands the more
softly for his memories upon her brow with the impersonal prayer:
"_Defend, O Lord, this thy child with thy heavenly grace, that she
may continue thine forever, and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit
more and more, until she come unto thy Everlasting Kingdom_."
For days afterwards a steady radiance seemed to Isabel to rest upon
her wherever she went, shed straight from Eternity. She had
avoided her grandmother, secluded herself from the closest
companions, been very thoughtful.
Years had elapsed since. But no experience of the soul is ever
wasted or effaceable; and as the sound of the bells now reached her
across the garden, they reawoke the spiritual impulses which had
stirred within her at confirmation. First heard whispering then,
the sacred annunciation now more eloquently urged that in her
church, the hour of real need being come, she would find refuge,
help, more than earthly counsellor.
She returned unobserved to the house and after quick simple
preparation, was on her way.
When she slipped shrinkingly into her pew, scarce any one had
arrived. Several women in mourning were there and two or three
aged men. It is the sorrowful and the old who head the human host
in its march toward Paradise: Youth and Happiness loiter far behind
and are satisfied with the earth. Isabel looked around with a
poignant realization of the broken company over into which she had
so swiftly crossed.
She had never before been in the church when it was empty. How
hushed and solemn it waited in its noonday twilight--the Divine
already there, faithful keeper of the ancient compact; the human
not yet arrived. Here indeed was the refuge she had craved; here
the wounded eye of the soul could open unhurt and unafraid; and she
sank to her knees with a quick prayer of the heart, scarce of the
lips, for Isabel knew nothing about prayer in her own words--that
she might have peace of mind during these guarded hours: there
would be so much time afterwards in which to remember--so many
years in which to remember!
How still it was! At first she started at every sound: the barely
audible opening and shutting of a pew door by some careful hand;
the grating of wheels on the cobblestones outside as a carriage was
driven to the entrance; the love-calls of sparrows building in the
climbing oak around the Gothic windows.
Soon, however, her ear became sealed to all outward disturbance.
She had fled to the church, driven by many young impulses, but
among them was the keen hope that her new Sorrow, which had begun
to follow her everywhere since she awoke, would wait outside when
she entered those doors: so dark a spirit would surely not stalk
behind her into the very splendor of the Spotless. But as she now
let her eyes wander down the isle to the chancel railing where she
had knelt at confirmation, where bridal couples knelt in receiving
the benediction, Isabel felt that this new Care faced her from
there as from its appointed shrine; she even fancied that in effect
it addressed to her a solemn warning:
"Isabel, think not to escape me in this place! It is here that
Rowan must seem to you most unworthy and most false; to have
wronged you most cruelly. For it was here, at this altar, that you
had expected to kneel beside him and be blessed in your marriage.
In years to come, sitting where you now sit, you may live to see
him kneel here with another, making her his wife. But for you,
Isabel, this spot must ever mean the renunciation of marriage, the
bier of love. Then do not think to escape me here, me, who am
And Isabel, as though a command had been laid upon her, with her
eyes fixed on the altar over which the lights of the stained glass
windows were joyously playing, gave herself up to memories of all
the innocent years that she had known Rowan and of the blind years
that she had loved him.
She was not herself aware that marriage was the only sacrament of
religion that had ever possessed interest for her. Recollection
told her no story of how even as a child she had liked to go to the
crowded church with other children and watch the procession of the
brides--all mysterious under their white veils, and following one
and another so closely during springs and autumns that in truth
they were almost a procession. Or with what excitement she had
watched each walk out, leaning on the arm of the man she had chosen
and henceforth to be called his in ail things to the end while the
loud crash of the wedding march closed their separate pasts with a
But there were mothers in the church who, attracted by the child's
expression, would say to each other a little sadly perhaps, that
love and marriage were destined to be the one overshadowing or
overshining experience in life to this most human and poetic soul.
After she had learned of Rowan's love for her and had begun to
return his love, the altar had thenceforth become the more personal
symbol of their destined happiness. Every marriage that she
witnessed bound her more sacredly to him. Only a few months before
this, at the wedding of the Osborns--Kate being her closest friend,
and George Osborn being Rowan's--he and she had been the only
attendants; and she knew how many persons in the church were
thinking that they might be the next to plight their vows; with
crimsoning cheeks she had thought it herself.
Now there returned before Isabel's eyes the once radiant procession
of the brides--but how changed! And bitter questioning she
addressed to each! Had any such confession been made to any one of
them--either before marriage or afterwards--by the man she had
loved? Was it for some such reason that one had been content to
fold her hands over her breast before the birth of her child? Was
this why another lived on, sad young wife, motherless? Was this
why in the town there were women who refused to marry at all? So
does a little knowledge of evil move backward and darken for us
even the bright years in which it had no place.
The congregation were assembling rapidly. Among those who passed
further down were several of the girls of Isabel's set. How fresh
and sweet they looked as they drifted gracefully down the aisles
this summer morning! How light-hearted! How far away from her in
her new wretchedness! Some, after they were seated, glanced back
with a smile. She avoided their eyes.
A little later the Osborns entered, the bride and groom of a few
months before. Their pew was immediately in front of hers. Kate
wore mourning for her mother. As she seated herself, she lifted
her veil halfway, turned and slipped a hand over the pew into
Isabel's. The tremulous pressure of the fingers spoke of present
trouble; and as Isabel returned it with a quick response of her
own, a tear fell from the hidden eyes.
The young groom's eyes were also red and swollen, but for other
reasons; and he sat in the opposite end of the pew as far as
possible from his wife's side. When she a few moments later leaned
toward him with timidity and hesitation, offering him an open
prayer-book, he took it coldly and laid it between them on the
cushion. Isabel shuddered: her new knowledge of evil so cruelly
opened her eyes to the full understanding of so much.
Little rime was left for sympathy with Kate. Nearer the pulpit was
another pew from which her thoughts had never been wholly
withdrawn. She had watched it with the fascination of abhorrence;
and once, feeling that she could not bear to see him come in with
his mother and younger brother, she had started to leave the
church. But just then her grandmother had bustled richly in,
followed by her aunt; and more powerful with Isabel already than
any other feeling was the wish to bury her secret--Rowan's
secret--in the deepest vault of consciousness, to seal it up
forever from the knowledge of the world.
The next moment what she so dreaded took place. He walked quietly
down the aisle as usual, opened the pew for his mother and brother
with the same courtesy, and the three bent their heads together in
"Grandmother," she whispered quickly, "will you let me pass! I am
not very well, I think I shall go home."
Her grandmother, not heeding and with her eyes fixed upon the same
pew, whispered in return;
"The Merediths are here," and continued her satisfying scrutiny of
persons seated around.
Isabel herself had no sooner suffered the words to escape than she
regretted them. Resolved to control herself from this time on, she
unclasped her prayer-book, found the appointed reading, and
directed her thoughts to the service soon to begin.
It was part of the confession of David that reached her, sounding
across how many centuries. Wrung from him who had been a young man
himself and knew what a young man is. With time enough afterwards
to think of this as soldier, priest, prophet, care-worn king, and
fallible judge over men--with time enough to think of what his days
of nature had been when he tended sheep grazing the pastures of
Bethlehem or abided solitary with the flock by night, lowly
despised work, under the herded stars. Thus converting a young
man's memories into an older man's remorses.
As she began to read, the first outcry gripped and cramped her
heart like physical pain; where all her life she had been repeating
mere words, she now with eyes tragically opened discerned forbidden
"_Thou art about my path and about my bed . . . the darkness is no
darkness to thee. . . . Thine eyes did see my substance being yet
imperfect . . . look well if there be any wickedness in me; and
lead me in the way everlasting . . . haste thee unto me . . .
when I cry unto thee. O let not my heart be inclined to an evil
She was startled by a general movement throughout the congregation.
The minister had advanced to the reading desk and begun to read:
"_I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him: Father, I
have sinned against heaven and before thee and am no more worthy to
be called thy son_."
Ages stretched their human wastes between these words of the New
Testament and those other words of the Old; but the parable of
Christ really finished the prayer of David: in each there was the
same young prodigal--the ever-falling youth of humanity.
Another moment and the whole congregation knelt and began the
confession. Isabel also from long custom sank upon her knees and
started to repeat the words, "We have erred and strayed from thy
ways like lost sheep." Then she stopped. She declined to make
that confession with Rowan or to join in any service that he shared
The Commandments now remained and for the first time she shrank
from them as being so awful and so near. All our lives we placidly
say over to ourselves that man is mortal; but not until death
knocks at the threshold and enters do we realize the terrors of our
mortality. All our lives we repeat with dull indifference that man
is erring; but only when the soul most loved and trusted has gone
astray, do we begin to realize the tragedy of human imperfection.
So Isabel had been used to go through the service, with bowed head
murmuring at each response, "_Lord have mercy upon us and incline
our hearts to keep this law_."
But the laws themselves had been no more to her than pious archaic
statements, as far removed as the cherubim, the candlesticks and
the cedar of Solomon's temple. If her thoughts had been forced to
the subject, she would have perhaps admitted the necessity of these
rules for men and women ages ago. Some one of them might have
meant much to a girl in those dim days: to Rebecca pondering who
knows what temptation at the well; to Ruth tempted who knows how in
the corn and thinking of Boaz and the barn; to Judith plotting in
the camp; to Jephtha's daughter out on the wailing mountains.
But to-day, sitting in an Episcopal church in the closing years of
the nineteenth century, holding a copy of those old laws, and
thinking of Rowan as the breaker of the greatest of them, Isabel
for the first time awoke to realization of how close they are
still--those voices from the far land of Shinar; how all the men
and women around her in that church still waged their moral battles
over those few texts of righteousness; how the sad and sublime
wandering caravans of the whole race forever pitch their nightly
tents beneath that same mountain of command.
Thick and low sounded the response of the worshippers. She could
hear her grandmother's sonorous voice, a mingling of worldly
triumph and indifference; her aunt's plaintive and aggrieved. She
could hear Kate's needy and wounded. In imagination she could hear
his proud, noble mother's; his younger brother's. Against the
sound of his responses she closed all hearing; and there low on her
knees, in the ear of Heaven itself, she recorded against him her
unforgiveness and her dismissal forever.
An organ melody followed, thrillingly sweet; and borne outward on
it the beseeching of the All-Merciful:
"'Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
Come to me!' saith one; 'and, coming,
Be at rest!'"
It was this hymn that brought her in a passion to her feet.
With whatsoever other feelings she had sought the church, it was at
least with the hope that it had a message for her. She had indeed
listened to a personal message, but it was a message delivered to
the wrong person; for at every stage of the worship she, the
innocent, had been forgotten and slighted; Rowan, the guilty, had
been considered and comforted. David had his like in mind and
besought pardon for him; the prophet of old knew of a case like his
and blessed him; the apostle centuries afterward looked on and did
not condemn; Christ himself had in a way told the multitude the
same story that Rowan had told her,--counselling forgiveness. The
very hymns of the church were on Rowan's side--every one gone in
search of the wanderer. For on this day Religion, universal mother
of needy souls and a minister of all comforts, was in the mood to
deal only with youth and human frailty.
She rebelled. It was like commanding her to dishonor a woman's
strongest and purest instincts. It called upon her to sympathize
with the evil that had blighted her life. And Rowan himself!--in
her anger and suffering she could think of him in no other way than
as enjoying this immortal chorus of anxiety on his account; as
hearing it all with complacency and self-approval. It had to her
distorted imagination the effect of offering a reward to him for
having sinned; he would have received no such attention had he
With one act of complete revulsion she spurned it all: the moral
casuistry that beguiled him, the church that cloaked him; spurned
psalm and prophet and apostle, Christ and parable and song.
"Grandmother," she whispered, "I shall not wait for the sermon."
A moment later she issued from the church doors and took her way
slowly homeward through the deserted streets, under the lonely blue
of the unanswering sky.
The Conyers homestead was situated in a quiet street on the
southern edge of the town. All the houses in that block had been
built by people of English descent near the close of the eighteenth
or at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Each was set apart
from each by lawns, yards and gardens, and further screened by
shrubs and vines in accordance with old English custom. Where they
grew had once been the heart of a wilderness; and above each house
stood a few old forest trees, indifferent guardsmen of the camping
The architects had given to the buildings good strong characters;
the family living in each for a hundred years or more had long
since imparted reputation. Out of the windows girlish brides had
looked on reddening springs and whitening winters until they had
become silver-haired grandmothers themselves; then had looked no
more; and succeeding eyes had watched the swift pageants of the
earth, and the swifter pageants of mortal hope and passion. Out of
the front doors, sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons had gone away
to the cotton and sugar and rice plantations of the South, to new
farm lands of the West, to the professions in cities of the North.
The mirrors within held long vistas of wavering forms and vanishing
faces; against the walls of the rooms had beaten unremembered tides
of strong and of gentle voices. In the parlors what scenes of
lights and music, sheen of satins, flashing of gems; in the dining
rooms what feastings as in hale England, with all the robust humors
of the warm land, of the warm heart.
Near the middle of the block and shaded by forest trees, stood with
its heirlooms and treasures the home of Isabel's grandmother. Known
to be heiress to this though rich in her own right was Isabel
herself, that grandmother's idol, the only one of its beautiful
women remaining yet to be married; and to celebrate with
magnificence in this house Isabel's marriage to Rowan Meredith had
long been planned by the grandmother as the last scene of her own
splendid social drama: having achieved that, she felt she should be
willing to retire from the stage--and to play only behind the
It was the middle of the afternoon of the same Sunday. In the
parlors extending along the eastern side of the house there was a
single sound: the audible but healthful breathing of a sleeper
lying on a sofa in the coolest corner. It was Isabel's grandmother
nearing the end of her customary nap.
Sometimes there are households in which two members suggest the
single canvas of a mediaeval painter, depicting scenes that
represent a higher and a lower world: above may be peaks, clouds,
sublimity, the Transfiguration; underneath, the pursuits and
passions of local worldly life--some story of loaves and fishes and
of a being possessed by a devil. Isabel and her grandmother were
related as parts of some such painting: the grandmother was the
bottom of the canvas.
In a little while she awoke and uncoiling her figure, rolled softly
over on her back and stretched like some drowsy feline of the
jungle; then sitting up with lithe grace she looked down at the
print of her head on the pillow and deftly smoothed it out. The
action was characteristic: she was careful to hide the traces of
her behavior, and the habit was so strong that it extended to
things innocent as slumber. Letting her hands drop to the sofa,
she yawned and shook her head from side to side with that short
laugh by which we express amusement at our own comfort and well-
Beside the sofa, toe by toe and heel by heel, sat her slippers--the
pads of this leopardess of the parlors. She peered over and worked
her nimble feet into these. On a little table at the end of the
sofa lay her glasses, her fan, and a small bell. She passed her
fingers along her temples in search of small disorders in the scant
tufts of her hair, put on her glasses, and took the fan. Then she
glided across the room to one of the front windows, sat down and
raised the blind a few inches in order to peep out: so the
well-fed, well-fanged leopardess with lowered head gazes idly
through her green leaves.
It was very hot. With her nostrils close to the opening In the
shutters, she inhaled the heated air of the yard of drying grass.
On the white window-sill just outside, a bronze wasp was whirling
excitedly, that cautious stinger which never arrives until summer
is sure. The oleanders in the big green tubs looked wilted though
abundantly watered that morning.
She shot a furtive glance at the doors and windows of the houses
across the street. All were closed; and she formed her own
pictures of how people inside were sleeping, lounging, idly reading
until evening coolness should invite them again to the verandas and
No one passed but gay strolling negroes. She was seventy years old,
but her interest in life was insatiable; and it was in part,
perhaps, the secret of her amazing vitality and youthfulness that
her surroundings never bored her; she derived instant pleasure from
the nearest spectacle, always exercising her powers humorously upon
the world, never upon herself. For lack of other entertainment she
now fell upon these vulnerable figures, and began to criticise and
to laugh at them: she did not have to descend far to reach this
level. Her undimmed eyes swept everything--walk, imitative
manners, imitative dress.
Suddenly she withdrew her face from the blinds; young Meredith had
entered the gate and was coming up the pavement. If anything could
greatly have increased her happiness at this moment it would have
been the sight of him. He had been with Isabel until late the
night before; he had attended morning service and afterward gone
home with his mother and brother (she had watched the carriage as
it rolled away down the street); he had returned at this unusual
hour. Such eagerness had her approval; and coupling it with
Isabel's demeanor upon leaving the table the previous evening,
never before so radiant with love, she felt that she had ground for
believing the final ambition of her life near its fulfilment.
As he advanced, the worldly passions other nature--the jungle
passions--she had no others--saluted him with enthusiasm. His head
and neck and bearing, stature and figure, family and family
history, house and lands--she inventoried them all once more and
discovered no lack. When he had rung the bell, she leaned back;
in her chair and eavesdropped with sparkling eyes.
"Is Miss Conyers at home?"
The maid replied apologetically:
"She wished to be excused to-day, Mr. Meredith."
A short silence followed. Then he spoke as a man long conscious of
a peculiar footing:
"Will you tell her Mr. Meredith would like to see her," and without
waiting to be invited he walked into the library across the hall.
She heard the maid go upstairs with hesitating step.
Some time passed before she came down. She brought a note and
handed it to him, saying with some embarrassment:
"She asked me to give you this note, Mr. Meredith."
Listening with sudden tenseness of attention, Mrs. Conyers heard
him draw the sheet from the envelope and a moment later crush it.
She placed her eyes against the shutters and watched him as he
walked away; then she leaned back in her chair, thoughtful and
surprised. What was the meaning of this? The events of the day
were rapidly reviewed: that Isabel had not spoken with her after
breakfast; that she had gone to service at an unusual hour and had
left the church before the sermon; that she had effaced herself at
dinner and at once thereafter had gone up to her rooms, where she
Returning to the sofa she lay down, having first rung her bell.
When the maid appeared, she rubbed her eyelids and sat sleepily up
as though just awakened: she remembered that she had eavesdropped,
and the maid must be persuaded that she had not. Guilt is a bad
"Where is your Miss Isabel?"
"She is in her room, Miss Henrietta."
"Go up and tell her that I say come down into the parlors: it is
cooler down here. And ask her whether she'd like some sherbet. And
bring me some--bring it before you go."
A few moments later the maid reentered with the sherbet. She
lifted the cut-glass dish from the silver waiter with soft purrings
of the palate, and began to attack the minute snow mountain around
the base and up the sides with eager jabs and stabs, depositing the
spoonfuls upon a tongue as fresh as a child's. Momentarily she
forgot even her annoyance; food instantly absorbed and placated her
as it does the carnivora.
The maid reentered.
"She says she doesn't wish any sherbet, Miss Henrietta."
"Did she say she would come down?"
"She did not say, Miss Henrietta."
"Go back and tell her I'd like to see her: ask her to come down
into the parlors." Then she hurried hack to the sherbet. She
wanted her granddaughter, but she wanted that first.
Her thoughts ascended meantime to Isabel in the room above. She
finished the sherbet. She waited. Impatience darkened to
uneasiness and anger. Still she waited; and her finger nails began
to scratch audibly at the mahogany of her chair and a light to burn
in the tawny eyes.
In the room overhead Isabel's thoughts all this time were
descending to her grandmother. Before the message was delivered
it had been her intention to go down. Once she had even reached
the head of the staircase; but then had faltered and shrunk
back. When the message came, it rendered her less inclined to
risk the interview. Coming at such an hour, that message was
suspicious. She, moreover, naturally had learned to dread her
grandmother's words when they looked most innocent. Thus she,
too, waited--lacking the resolution to descend.
As she walked homeward from church she realized that she must take
steps at once to discard Rowan as the duty of her social position.
And here tangible perplexities instantly wove themselves across her
path. Conscience had promptly arraigned him at the altar of
religion. It was easy to condemn him there. And no one had the
right to question that arraignment and that condemnation. But
public severance of all relations with him in her social world--how
should she accomplish that and withhold her justification?
Her own kindred would wish to understand the reason. The branches
of these scattered far and near were prominent each in its sphere,
and all were intimately bound together by the one passion of
clannish allegiance to the family past. She knew that Rowan's
attentions had continued so long and had been so marked, that
her grandmother had accepted marriage between them as a foregone
conclusion, and in letters had disseminated these prophecies
through the family connection. Other letters had even come back
to Isabel, containing evidence only too plain that Rowan had
been discussed and accepted in domestic councils. Against all
inward protests of delicacy, she had been forced to receive
congratulations that in this marriage she would preserve the
traditions of the family by bringing into it a man of good blood
and of unspotted name; the two idols of all the far separated
To the pride of all these relatives she added her own pride--the
highest. She was the last of the women in the direct line yet
unwedded, and she was sensitive that her choice should not in honor
and in worth fall short of the alliances that had preceded hers.
Involved in this sense of pride she felt that she owed a duty to
the generations who had borne her family name in this country and
to the still earlier generations who had given it distinction in
England--land of her womanly ideals. To discard now without a word
of explanation the man whose suit she had long been understood to
favor would create wide disappointment and provoke keen question.
Further difficulties confronted her from Rowan's side. His own
family and kindred were people strong and not to be trifled with,
proud and conservative like her own. Corresponding resentments
would be aroused among them, questions would be asked that had no
answers. She felt that her life in its most private and sacred
relation would be publicly arraigned and have open judgment passed
upon it by conflicting interests and passions--and that the mystery
which contained her justification must also forever conceal it.
Nevertheless Rowan must be discarded; she must act quickly and for
On the very threshold one painful necessity faced her: the reserve
of years must be laid aside and her grandmother admitted to
confidence in her plans. Anything that she might do could not
escape those watchful eyes long since grown impatient. Moreover
despite differences of character, she and her grandmother had
always lived together, and they must now stand together before
their world in regard to this step.
"Did you wish to see me about anything, grandmother?"
Mrs. Conyers had not heard Isabel's quiet entrance. She was at the
window still: she turned softly in her chair and looked across the
darkened room to where Isabel sat facing her--a barely discernible
From any other member other family she would roughly have demanded
the explanation she desired. She was the mother of strong men
(they were living far from her now), and even in his manhood no one
of them had ever crossed her will without bearing away the scars of
her anger, and always of her revenge. But before this grandchild,
whom she had reared from infancy, she felt the brute cowardice
which is often the only tribute that a debased nature can pay to
the incorruptible. Her love must have its basis in some abject
emotion: it took its origin from fear.
An unforeseen incident, occurring when Isabel was yet a child and
all but daily putting forth new growths of nature, rendered very
clear even then the developing antagonism and prospective
relationship of these two characters. In a company of ladies the
grandmother, drawing the conversation to herself, remarked with a
suggestive laugh that as there were no men present she would tell a
certain story. "Grandmother," interposed Isabel, vaguely startled,
"please do not say anything that you would not say before a man;"
and for an instant, amid the hush, the child and the woman looked
at each other like two repellent intelligences, accidentally
meeting out of the heavens and the pit.
This had been the first of a long series of antagonism and recoils,
and as the child had matured, the purity and loftiness of her
nature had by this very contact grown chilled toward austerity.
Thus nature lends a gradual protective hardening to a tender
surface during abrasion with a coarser thing. It left Isabel more
reserved with her grandmother than with any one else of all the
persons who entered into her life.
For this reason Mrs. Conyers now foresaw that this interview would
be specially difficult. She had never enjoyed Isabel's confidence
in regard to her love affairs--and the girl had had her share of
these; every attempt to gain it had been met by rebuffs so
courteous but decisive that they had always wounded her pride and
sometimes had lashed her to secret fury.
"Did you wish to see me about anything, grandmother?"
The reply came very quickly: "I wanted to know whether you were
"I am perfectly well. Why did you think of asking?"
"You did not seem well in church."
"I had forgotten. I was not well in church."
Mrs. Conyers bent over and drew a chair in front of her own. She
wished to watch Isabel's face. She had been a close student of
women's faces--and of many men's.
"Sit here. There is a breeze through the window."
"Thank you. I'd rather sit here."
Another pause ensued.
"Did you ever know the last of May to be so hot?"
"I cannot remember now."
"Can you imagine any one calling on such an afternoon?"
There was no reply.
"I am glad no one has been here. While I was asleep I thought I
heard the bell."
There was no reply.
"You were wise not to stay for the sermon." Mrs. Conyers' voice
trembled with anger as she passed on and on, seeking a penetrable
point for conversation. "I do not believe in using the church to
teach young men that they should blame their fathers for their own
misdeeds. If I have done any good in this world, I do not expect
my father and mother to be rewarded for it in the next; if I have
done wrong, I do not expect my children to be punished. I shall
claim the reward and I shall stand the punishment, and that is the
end of it. Teaching young men to blame their parents because they
are prodigals is nonsense, and injurious nonsense. I hope you do
not imagine," she said, with a stroke of characteristic coarseness,
"that you get any of your faults from me."
"I have never held you responsible, grandmother."
Mrs. Conyers could wait no longer.
"Isabel," she asked sharply, "why did you not see Rowan when he
called a few minutes ago?"
"Grandmother, you know that I do not answer such questions."
How often in years gone by such had been Isabel's answer! The
grandmother awaited it now. To her surprise Isabel after some
moments of hesitation replied without resentment:
"I did not wish to see him."
There was a momentary pause; then this unexpected weakness was met
with a blow.
"You were eager enough to see him last night."
"I can only hope," murmured Isabel aloud though wholly to herself,
"that I did not make this plain to him."
"But what has happened since?"
Nothing was said for a while. The two women had been unable to see
each other clearly. A moment later Isabel crossed the room quickly
and taking the chair in front of her grandmother, searched that
treacherous face imploringly for something better in it than she
had ever seen there. Could she trust the untrustworthy? Would
falseness itself for once be true?
"Grandmother," she said, and her voice betrayed how she shrank from
her own words, "before you sent for me I was about to come down. I
wished to speak with you about a very delicate matter, a very
serious matter. You have often reproached me for not taking you
into my confidence. I am going to give you my confidence now."
At any other moment the distrust and indignity contained in the
tone of this avowal would not have escaped Mrs. Conyers. But
surprise riveted her attention. Isabel gave her no time further:
"A thing has occurred in regard to which we must act together for
our own sakes--on account of the servants in the house--on account
of our friends, so that there may be no gossip, no scandal."
Nothing at times so startles us as our own words. As the girl
uttered the word "scandal," she rose frightened as though it faced
her and began to walk excitedly backward and forward. Scandal had
never touched her life. She had never talked scandal; had never
thought scandal. Dwelling under the same roof with it as the master
passion of a life and forced to encounter it in so many repulsive
ways, she had needed little virtue to regard it with abhorrence.
Now she perceived that it might be perilously near herself. When
all questions were asked and no reasons were given, would not the
seeds of gossip fly and sprout and bear their kinds about her path:
and the truth could never be told. She must walk on through the
years, possibly misjudged, giving no sign.
After a while she returned to her seat.
"You must promise me one thing," she said with white and trembling
lips. "I give you my confidence as far as I can; beyond that I
will not go. And you shall not ask. You are not to try to find
out from me or any one else more than I tell you. You must give me
your word of honor!"
She bent forward and looked her grandmother wretchedly in the eyes.
Mrs. Conyers pushed her chair back as though a hand had struck her
rudely in the face.
"Isabel," she cried, "do you forget to whom you are speaking?"
"Ah, grandmother," exclaimed Isabel, reckless of her words by
reason of suffering, "it is too late for us to be sensitive about
Mrs. Conyers rose with insulted pride: "Do not come to me with your
confidence until you can give it."
Isabel recrossed the room and sank into the seat she had quitted.
Mrs. Conyers remained standing a moment and furtively resumed hers.
Whatever her failings had been--one might well say her
crimes--Isabel had always treated her from the level of her own
high nature. But Mrs. Conyers had accepted this dutiful demeanor
of the years as a tribute to her own virtues. Now that Isabel, the
one person whose respect she most desired, had openly avowed deep
distrust of her, the shock was as real as anything life could have
She glanced narrowly at Isabel: the girl had forgotten her.
Mrs. Conyers could shift as the wind shifts; and one of her
characteristic resources in life had been to conquer by feigning
defeat: she often scaled her mountains by seeming to take a path
which led to the valleys. She now crossed over and sat down with a
peace-making laugh. She attempted to take Isabel's hand, but it
was quickly withdrawn. Fearing that this movement indicated a
receding confidence Mrs. Conyers ignored the rebuff and pressed her
inquiry in a new, entirely practical, and pleasant tone:
"What is the meaning of all this, Isabel?"
Isabel turned upon her again a silent, searching, wretched look of
Mrs. Conyers realized that it could not be ignored: "You know that
I promise anything. What did I ever refuse you?"
Isabel sat up but still remained silent. Mrs. Conyers noted the
indecision and shrugged her shoulders with a careless dismissal of
the whole subject:
"Let us drop the subject, then. Do you think it will rain?"
"Grandmother, Rowan must not come here any more." Isabel stopped
abruptly. "That is all."
. . . "I merely wanted you to understand this at once. We must not
invite him here any more."
. . . "If we meet him at the houses of our friends, we must do what
we can not to be discourteous to them if he is their guest."
. . . "If we meet Rowan alone anywhere, we must let him know that
he is not on the list of our acquaintances any longer. That is
Isabel wrung her hands.
Mrs. Conyers had more than one of the traits of the jungle: she
knew when to lie silent and how to wait. She waited longer now,
but Isabel had relapsed into her own thoughts. For her the
interview was at an end; to Mrs. Conyers it was beginning. Isabel's
words and manner had revealed a situation far more serious than she
had believed to exist. A sense of personal slights and wounds gave
way to apprehension. The need of the moment was not passion and
resentment, but tact and coolness and apparent unconcern.
"What is the meaning of this, Isabel?" She spoke in a tone of frank
and cordial interest as though the way were clear at last for the
establishment of complete confidence between them.
"Grandmother, did you not give me your word?" said Isabel, sternly.
Mrs. Conyers grew indignant: "But remember in what a light you
place me! I did not expect you to require me to be unreasonable
and unjust. Do you really wish me to be kept in the dark in a
matter like this? Must I refuse to speak to Rowan and have no
reason? Close the house to him and not know why? Cut him in public
without his having offended me? If he should ask why I treat him
in this way, what am I to tell him?"
"He will never ask," said Isabel with mournful abstraction.
"But tell _me_ why you wish me to act so strangely."
"Believe that I have reasons."
"But ought I not to know what these reasons are if I must act upon
them as though they were my own?"
Isabel saw the stirrings of a mind that brushed away honor as an
obstacle and that was not to be quieted until it had been
satisfied. She sank back into her chair, saying very simply with
deep disappointment and with deeper sorrow:
"Ah, I might have known!"
Mrs. Conyers pressed forward with gathering determination:
"What happened last night?"
"I might have known that it was of no use," repeated Isabel.
Mrs. Conyers waited several moments and then suddenly changing her
course feigned the dismissal of the whole subject: "I shall pay no
attention to this. I shall continue to treat Rowan as I have
always treated him."
Isabel started up: "Grandmother, if you do, you will regret it."
Her voice rang clear with hidden meaning and with hidden warning.
It fell upon the ear of the other with threatening import. For her
there seemed to be in it indeed the ruin of a cherished plan, the
loss of years of hope and waiting. Before such a possibility tact
and coolness and apparent unconcern were swept away by passion,
brutal and unreckoning: "Do you mean that you have refused Rowan?
Or have you found out at last that he has no intention of marrying
you--has never had any?"
Isabel rose: "Excuse me," she said proudly and turned away. She
reached the door and pausing there put out one of her hands against
the lintel as if with weakness and raised the other to her forehead
as though with bewilderment and indecision.
Then she came unsteadily back, sank upon her knees, and hid her
face in her grandmother's lap, murmuring through her fingers: "I
have been rude to you, grandmother! Forgive me! I do not know
what I have been saying. But any little trouble between us is
nothing, nothing! And do as I beg you--let this be sacred and
secret! And leave everything to me!"
She crept closer and lifting her face looked up into her
grandmother's. She shrank back shuddering from what she saw there,
burying her face in her hands; then rising she hurried from the
Mrs. Conyers sat motionless.
Was it true then that the desire and the work of years for this
marriage had come to nothing? And was it true that this
grandchild, for whom she had planned and plotted, did not even
respect her and could tell her so to her face?
Those insulting words rang in her ears still: "_You must give me
your word of honor . . . it is too late to be sensitive about our
She sat perfectly still: and in the parlors there might have been
heard at intervals the scratching of her sharp finger nails against
the wood of the chair.
The hot day ended. Toward sunset a thunder-shower drenched the
earth, and the night had begun cool and refreshing.
Mrs. Conyers was sitting on the front veranda, waiting for
her regular Sunday evening visitor. She was no longer the
self-revealed woman of the afternoon, but seemingly an affable,
harmless old lady of the night on the boundary of her social world.
She was dressed with unfailing: elegance--and her taste lavished
itself especially on black silk and the richest lace. The shade of
heliotrope satin harmonized with the yellowish folds of her hair.
Her small, warm, unwrinkled hands were without rings, being too
delicately beautiful. In one she held a tiny fan, white and soft
like the wing of a moth; on her lap lay a handkerchief as light as
smoke or a web of gossamer.
She rocked softly. She unfolded and folded the night-moth fan
softly. She touched the handkerchief to her rosy youthful lips
softly. The south wind blew in her face softly. Everything about
her was softness, all her movements were delicate and refined.
Even the early soft beauty of her figure was not yet lost. (When a
girl of nineteen, she had measured herself by the proportions of
the ideal Venus; and the ordeal had left her with a girdle of
But if some limner had been told the whole truth of what she was
and been requested to imagine a fitting body for such a soul, he
would never have painted Mrs. Conyers as she looked. Nature is not
frank in her characterizations, lest we remain infants in
discernment. She allows foul to appear fair, and bids us become
educated in the hardy virtues of insight and prudence. Education
as yet had advanced but little; and the deepest students in the
botany of women have been able to describe so few kinds that no
man, walking through the perfumed enchanted wood, knows at what
moment he may step upon or take hold of some unknown deadly variety.
As the moments passed, she stopped rocking and peered toward the
front gate under the lamp-post, saying to herself:
"He is late."
At last the gate was gently opened and gently shut.
"Ah," she cried, leaning back in her chair smiling and satisfied.
Then she sat up rigid. A change passed over her such as comes over
a bird of prey when it draws its feathers in flat against its body
to lessen friction in the swoop. She unconsciously closed the
little fan, the little handkerchief disappeared somewhere.
As the gate had opened and closed, on the bricks of the pavement
was heard only the tap of his stout walking-stick; for he was gouty
and wore loose low shoes of the softest calfskin, and these made no
noise except the slurring sound of slippers.
Once he stopped, and planting his cane far out in the grass,
reached stiffly over and with undisguised ejaculations of
discomfort snipped off a piece of heliotrope in one of the tubs of
oleander. He shook away the raindrops and drew it through his
buttonhole, and she could hear his low "Ah! ah! ah!" as he thrust
his nose down into it.
"There's nothing like it," he said aloud as though he had
consenting listeners, "it outsmells creation."
He stopped at another tub of flowers where a humming-bird moth was
gathering honey and jabbed his stick sharply at it, taking care
that the stick did not reach perilously near.
"Get away, sir," he said; "you've had enough, sir. Get away, sir."
Having reached a gravel walk that diverged from the pavement, he
turned off and went over to a rose-bush and walked around tapping
the roses on their heads as he counted them--cloth-of-gold roses.
"Very well done," he said, "a large family--a good sign."
Thus he loitered along his way with leisure to enjoy all the chance
trifles that gladdened it; for he was one of the old who return at
the end of life to the simple innocent things that pleased them as
She had risen and advanced to the edge of the veranda.
"Did you come to see me or did you come to see my flowers?" she
called out charmingly.
"I came to see the flowers, madam," he called back. "Most of all,
the century plant: how is she?"
She laughed delightedly: "Still harping on my age, I see."
"Still harping, but harping your praises. Century plants are not
necessarily old: they are all young at the beginning! I merely
meant you'd be blooming at a hundred."
"You are a sly old fox," she retorted with a spirit. "You give a
woman a dig on her age and then try to make her think it a
"I gave myself a dig that time: the remark had to be excavated," he
said aloud but as though confidentially to himself. Open
disrespect marked his speech and manner with her always; and sooner
or later she exacted full punishment.
Meantime he had reached the steps. There he stopped and taking off
his straw hat looked up and shook it reproachfully at the heavens.
"What a night, what a night!" he exclaimed. "And what an injustice
to a man wading up to his knees in life's winters."
"How do you do," she said impatiently, always finding it hard to
put up with his lingerings and delays. "Are you coming in?"
"Thank you, I believe I am. But no, wait. I'll not come in until
I have made a speech. It never occurred to me before and it will
never again. It's now or never.
"The life of man should last a single year. He should have one
spring for birth and childhood, for play and growth, for the ending
of his dreams and the beginning of his love. One summer for strife
and toil and passion. One autumn in which to gather the fruits of
his deeds and to live upon them, be they sweet or bitter. One
winter in which to come to an end and wrap himself with resignation
in the snows of nature. Thus he should never know the pain of
seeing spring return when there was nothing within himself to bud
or be sown. Summer would never rage and he have no conflicts nor
passions. Autumn would not pass and he with idle hands neither
give nor gather. And winter should not end without extinguishing
his tormenting fires, and leaving him the peace of eternal cold."
"Really," she cried, "I have never heard anything as fine as that
since I used to write compositions at boarding-school."
"It may be part of one of mine!" he replied. "We forget ourselves,
you know, and then we think we are original."
"Second childhood," she suggested. "Are you really coming in?"
"I am, madam," he replied. "And guided by your suggestion, I come
as a second child."
When he had reached the top step, he laid his hat and cane on the
porch and took her hands in his--pressing them abstemiously.
"Excuse me if I do not press harder," he said, lowering his voice
as though he fancied they might be overheard. "I know you are
sensitive in these little matters; but while I dislike to appear
lukewarm, really, you know it is too late to be ardent," and he
looked at her ardently.
She twisted her fingers out of his with coy shame.
"What an old fox," she repeated gayly.
"Well, you know what goes with the fox--the foxess, or the foxina."
She had placed his chair not quite beside hers yet designedly near,
where the light of the chandelier in the hall would fall out upon
him and passers could see that he was there: she liked to have him
appear devoted. For his part he was too little devoted to care
whether he sat far or near, in front or behind. As the light
streamed out upon him, it illumined his noble head of soft, silvery
hair, which fell over his ears and forehead, forgotten and
disordered, like a romping boy's. His complexion was ruddy--too
ruddy with high living; his clean-shaven face beautiful with
candor, gayety, and sweetness; and his eyes, the eyes of a kind
heart--saddened. He had on a big loose shirt collar such as men
wore in Thackeray's time and a snow-white lawn tie. In the bosom
of his broad-pleated shirt, made glossy with paraffin starch, there
was set an old-fashioned cluster-diamond stud--so enormous that it
looked like a large family of young diamonds in a golden nest.
As he took his seat, he planted his big gold-headed ebony cane
between his knees, put his hat on the head of his cane, gave it a
twirl, and looking over sidewise at her, smiled with an equal
mixture of real liking and settled abhorrence.
For a good many years these two had been--not friends: she was
incapable of so true a passion; he was too capable to misapply it
so unerringly. Their association had assumed the character of one
of those belated intimacies, which sometimes spring up in the lives
of aged men and women when each wants companionship but has been
Time was when he could not have believed that any tie whatsoever
would ever exist between them. Her first husband had been his
first law partner; and from what he had been forced to observe
concerning his partner's fireside wretchedness during his few years
of married life, he had learned to fear and to hate her. With his
quick temper and honest way he made no pretence of hiding his
feeling--declined her invitations--cut her openly in society--and
said why. When his partner died, not killed indeed but
broken-spirited, he spoke his mind on the subject more publicly and
She brewed the poison of revenge and waited.
A year or two later when his engagement was announced her opportunity
came. In a single day it was done--so quietly, so perfectly, that
no one knew by whom. Scandal was set running--Scandal, which no
pursuing messengers of truth and justice can ever overtake and drag
backward along its path. His engagement was broken; she whom he was
to wed in time married one of his friends; and for years his own life
all but went to pieces.
Time is naught, existence a span. One evening when she was old
Mrs. Conyers, and he old Judge Morris, she sixty and he sixty-five,
they met at an evening party. In all those years he had never
spoken to her, nurturing his original dislike and rather suspecting
that it was she who had so ruined him. But on this night there had
been a great supper and with him a great supper was a great
weakness: there had been wine, and wine was not a weakness at all,
but a glass merely made him more than happy, more than kind. Soon
after supper therefore he was strolling through the emptied rooms
in a rather lonesome way, his face like a red moon in a fog,
beseeching only that it might shed its rays impartially on any
Men with wives and children can well afford to turn hard cold faces
to the outside world: the warmth and tenderness of which they are
capable they can exercise within their own restricted enclosures.
No doubt some of them consciously enjoy the contrast in their two
selves--the one as seen abroad and the other as understood at home.
But a wifeless, childless man--wandering at large on the heart's
bleak common--has much the same reason to smile on all that he has
to smile on any: there is no domestic enclosure for him: his
affections must embrace humanity.
As he strolled through the rooms, then, in his appealing way,
seeking whom he could attach himself to, he came upon her seated in
a doorway connecting two rooms. She sat alone on a short sofa,
possibly by design, her train so arranged that he must step over it
if he advanced--the only being in the world that he hated. In the
embarrassment of turning his back upon her or of trampling her
train, he hesitated; smiling with lowered eyelids she motioned him
to a seat by her side.
"What a vivacious, agreeable old woman," he soliloquized with
enthusiasm as he was driven home that night, sitting in the middle
of the carriage cushions with one arm swung impartially through the
strap on each side. "And she has invited me to Sunday evening
supper. Me!--after all these years--in that house! I'll not go."
But he went.
"I'll not go again," he declared as he reached home that night and
thought it over. "She is a bad woman."
But the following Sunday evening he reached for his hat and cane:
"I must go somewhere," he complained resentfully. "The saints of
my generation are enjoying the saint's rest. Nobody is left but a
few long-lived sinners, of whom I am a great part. They are the
best I can find, and I suppose they are the best I deserve."
Those who live long miss many. Without exception his former
associates at the bar had been summoned to appear before the Judge
who accepts no bribe.
The ablest of the middle-aged lawyers often hurried over to consult
him in difficult cases. All of them could occasionally listen
while he, praiser of a bygone time, recalled the great period of
practice when he was the favorite criminal lawyer of the first
families, defending their sons against the commonwealth which he
always insisted was the greater criminal. The young men about
town knew him and were ready to chat with him on street
corners--but never very long at a time. In his old law offices he
could spend part of every day, guiding or guying his nephew Barbee,
who had just begun to practice. But when all his social resources
were reckoned, his days contained great voids and his nights were
lonelier still. The society of women remained a necessity of his
life; and the only woman in town, always bright, always full of
ideas, and always glad to see him (the main difficulty) was Mrs.
So that for years now he had been going regularly on Sunday
evenings. He kept up apologies to his conscience regularly also;
but it must have become clear that his conscience was not a fire to
make him boil; it was merely a few coals to keep him bubbling.
In this acceptance of her at the end of life there was of course
mournful evidence of his own deterioration. During the years
between being a young man and being an old one he had so far
descended toward her level, that upon renewing acquaintance with
her he actually thought that she had improved.
Youth with its white-flaming ideals is the great separator; by
middle age most of us have become so shaken down, on life's rough
road, to a certain equality of bearing and forbearing, that
miscellaneous comradeship becomes easy and rather comforting; while
extremely aged people are as compatible and as miserable as
disabled old eagles, grouped with a few inches of each other's
beaks and claws on the sleek perches of a cage.
This evening therefore, as he took his seat and looked across at
her, so richly dressed, so youthful, soft, and rosy, he all but
thanked heaven out loud that she was at home.
"Madam," he cried, "you are a wonderful and bewitching old
lady"--it was on the tip of his tongue to say "beldam."
"I know it," she replied briskly, "have you been so long in finding
"It is a fresh discovery every time I come."
"Then you forget me in the meanwhile."
"I never forget you unless I am thinking of Miss Isabel. How is
"Then I'm not well! No one is well! Everybody must suffer if she
is suffering. The universe sympathizes."
"She is not ill. She is in trouble."
"But she must not be in trouble! She has done nothing to be in
trouble about. Who troubles her? What troubles her?"
"She will not tell."
"Ah!" he cried, checking himself gravely and dropping the subject.
She noted the decisive change of tone: it was not by this direct
route that she would be able to enter his confidence.
"What did you think of the sermon this morning?"
"The sermon on the prodigal? Well, it is too late for such sermons
to be levelled at me; and I never listen to those aimed at other
"At what other people do you suppose this one could have been
directed?" She asked the question most carelessly, lifting her
imponderable handkerchief and letting it drop into her lap as a
sign of how little her interest weighed.
"It is not my duty to judge."
"We cannot help our thoughts, you know."
"I think we can, madam; and I also think we can hold our tongues,"
and he laughed at her very good-naturedly. "Sometimes we can even
help to hold other people's--if they are long."
"Oh, what a rude speech to a lady!" she exclaimed gallantly. "Did
you see the Osborns at church? And did you notice him? What an
unhappy marriage! He is breaking Kate's heart. And to think that
his character--or the lack of it--should have been discovered only
when it was too late! How can you men so cloak yourselves before
marriage? Why not tell women the truth then instead of leaving
them to find it out afterward? Are he and Rowan as good friends as
ever?" The question was asked with the air of guilelessness.
"I know nothing about that," he replied dryly. "I never knew Rowan
to drop his friends because they had failings: it would break up
all friendships, I imagine."
"Well, I cannot help _my_ thoughts, and I think George Osborn was
the prodigal aimed at in the sermon. Everybody thought so."
"How does she know what everybody thought?" commented the Judge to
himself. He tapped the porch nervously with his cane, sniffed his
heliotrope and said irrelevantly:
"Ah me, what a beautiful night! What a beautiful night!"
The implied rebuff provoked her. Irritation winged a venomous
"At least no woman has ever held _you_ responsible for her
"You are quite right, madam," he replied, "the only irreproachable
husband in this world is the man who has no wife."
"By the way," she continued, "in all these years you have not told
me why you never married. Come now, confess!"
How well she knew! How often as she had driven through the streets
and observed him sitting alone in the door of his office or walking
aimlessly about, she had leaned back and laughed.
"Madam," he replied, for he did not like the question, "neither
have you ever told me why you married three times. Come now,
It would soon be time for him to leave; and still she had not
gained her point.
"Rowan was here this afternoon," she remarked carelessly. He was
sitting so that the light fell sidewise on his face. She noted how
alert it became, but he said nothing.
"Isabel refused to see him."
He wheeled round and faced her with pain and surprise.
"Refused to see him!"
"She has told me since that she never intends to see him."
"Never intends to see Rowan again!" he repeated the incredible
words, "not see Rowan again!"
"She says we are to drop him from the list of our acquaintances."
"Ah!" he cried with impetuous sadness, "they must not quarrel!
They _must_ not!"
"But they _have_ quarrelled," she replied, revealing her own
anxiety. "Now they must be reconciled. That is why I come to
you. I am Isabel's guardian; you were Rowan's. Each of us wishes
this marriage. Isabel loves Rowan. I know that; therefore it is
not her fault. Therefore it is Rowan's fault. Therefore he has
said something or he has done something to offend her deeply.
Therefore if you do not know what this Is, you must find out. And
you must come and tell me. May I depend upon you?"
He had become grave. At length he said: "I shall go straight to
Rowan and ask him."
"No!" she cried, laying her hand heavily on his arm, "Isabel bound
me to secrecy. She does not wish this to be known."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, angry at being entrapped into a broken
confidence, "then Miss Isabel binds me also: I shall honor her
wish," and he rose.
She kept her seat but yawned so that he might notice it. "You are
"Yes, I am going. I have stayed too long already. Good night!
Good night!" He spoke curtly over his shoulders as he hurried down
She had forgotten him before he reached the street, having no need
just then to keep him longer in mind. She had threshed out the one
grain of wheat, the single compact little truth, that she wanted.
This was the certainty that Judge Morris, who was the old family
lawyer of the Merediths, and had been Rowan's guardian, and had
indeed known him intimately from childhood, was in ignorance of any
reason for the present trouble; otherwise he would not have said
that he should go to Rowan and ask the explanation. She knew him
to be incapable of duplicity; in truth she rather despised him
because he had never cultivated a taste for the delights and
resources of hypocrisy.
Her next step must be to talk at once with the other person vitally
interested--Rowan's mother. She felt no especial admiration for
that grave, earnest, and rather sombre lady; but neither did she
feel admiration for her sterling knife and fork: still she made
them serviceable for the ulterior ends of being.
Her plan then embraced a visit to Mrs. Meredith in the morning with
the view of discovering whether she was aware of the estrangement,
and if aware whether she would in any unintentional way throw light
upon the cause of it. Moreover--and this was kept clearly in
view--there would be the chance of meeting Rowan himself, whom she
also determined to see as soon as possible: she might find him at
home, or she might encounter him on the road or riding over his
farm. But this visit must be made without Isabel's knowledge. It
must further be made to appear incidental to Mrs. Meredith
herself---or to Rowan. She arranged therefore with that tortuous
and superfluous calculation of which hypocrisy is such a
master--and mistress--that she would at breakfast, in Isabel's
presence, order the carriage, and announce her intention of going
out to the farm of Ambrose Webb. Ambrose Webb was a close neighbor
of the Merediths. He owned a small estate, most of which was good
grass-land that was usually rented for pasture. She had for years
kept her cows there when dry. This arrangement furnished her the
opportunity for more trips to the farm than interest in her dairy
warranted; it made her Mrs. Meredith's most frequent incidental
Having thus determined upon her immediate course for the prompt
unravelling of this mysterious matter, she dismissed it from her
mind, passed into her bedroom and was soon asleep: a smile played
over the sweet old face.
The Judge walked slowly across the town in the moonlight.
It was his rule to get home to his rooms by ten o'clock; and people
living on the several streets leading that way were used to hearing
him come tapping along before that hour. If they sat in their
doorways and the night was dark, they gave him a pleasant greeting
through the darkness; if there was a moon or if he could be seen
under a lamp post, they added smiles. No one loved him supremely,
but every one liked him a little--on the whole, a stable state for
a man. For his part he accosted every one that he could see in a
bright cheery way and with a quick inquiring glance as though every
heart had its trouble and needed just a little kindness. He was
reasonably sure that the old had their troubles already and that
the children would have theirs some day; so that it was merely the
difference between sympathizing with the present and sympathizing
with the future. As he careened along night after night, then,
friendly little gusts of salutation blew the desolate drifting
figure over the homeward course.
His rooms were near the heart of the town, In a shady street well
filled with law offices: these were of red brick with green
shutters--green when not white with dust. The fire department was
in the same block, though he himself did not need to be safeguarded
from conflagrations: the fires which had always troubled him could
not have been reached with ladder and hose. There were two or
three livery stables also, the chairs of which he patronized
liberally, but not the vehicles. And there was a grocery, where he
sometimes bought crystallized citron and Brazil nuts, a curious
kind of condiment of his own devising: a pound of citron to a pound
of nuts, if all were sound. He used to keep little brown paper
bags of these locked in his drawer with legal papers and munched
them sometimes while preparing murder cases.
At the upper corner of the block, opposite each other, were a
saloon and the jail, two establishments which contributed little to
each other's support, though well inclined to do so. The law
offices seemed of old to have started in a compact procession for
the jail, but at a certain point to have paused with the
understanding that none should seek undue advantage by greater
proximity. Issuing from this street at one end and turning to the
left, you came to the courthouse--the bar of chancery; issuing from
it at the other end and turning to the right, you came to the
hotel--the bar of corn. The lawyers were usually solicitors at
large and impartial practitioners at each bar. In the court room
they sometimes tried to prove an alibi for their clients; at the
hotel they often succeeded in proving one for themselves.
These law offices were raised a foot or two above the level of the
street. The front rooms could be used for clients who were so
important that they should be seen; the back rooms were for such as