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  • 1907
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she pleaded, something might be slain. Here, above all, something might turn its back on her for ever, unless she were disloyal to her own strange trust.

A good many things had been happening to Valerie of late, but this was really the worst, and as she looked at the landmark it grew to be the headstone of a grave, and she saw that under it might lie her youth.

“I don’t believe that you could understand, ever,” she said at last in an unaltered voice, a voice, to her own consciousness, like the wrapping of a shroud about her. “It’s only I who could feel it, so deeply as to go so far. All that I can say to you is this; my husband was a mediocre man, and a pretentious one. I once loved him. I was always sorry for him. I must guard him now. I cannot have him exposed. I cannot have his mediocrity and pretentiousness displayed to the people there are in the world who would see him as he was, and whose opinion counts.”

She knew, as she said it, as she folded the shroud, that he would not be one of those. Her husband’s pretentiousness and mediocrity would not be apparent to the ingenuous and uncomplex mind beside her. She knew that mind too well and had watched it, of late, receiving with wondering admiration from her daughter’s lips, echoes of her husband’s fatuities. She loved him for his incapacity to see sad and ugly and foolish facts as she saw them. She loved his manliness and his childishness. As she had guarded the other, once loved, man from revealment she would have guarded this one from ironic and complex visions. But the lack that endeared him to her might lose him to her. He could never see as she saw and her fidelity to her own light could in his eyes be but perversity. Besides, she could guess at the interpretations that loomed in his mind; could guess at what Imogen had told him; it hardly needed his next words to let her know.

“But was he so mediocre, so pretentious?” he suggested, with the touch of timidity that comes from a deeper hostility than one can openly avow.–“Aren’t you a little over-critical–through being disappointed in him–personally? Can you be so sure of your own verdict as all that? Other people, who loved him–who always loved him I mean–are sure the other way round,” said Sir Basil.

To prove herself faithful, not perverse, whom must she show to him as unfaithful in very ardor for rightness? In the midst of all the wrenching of her hidden passion came a pang of maternal pity. Imogen’s figure, bereaved of her father, of her lover, desolate, amazed, rose before her and, behind it, the hovering, retributory gaze of her husband.

This, then, was what she must pay for having failed, for having wrecked. The money that she handed out must be her love, her deep love, for this lover of her fading years, and she knew that she paid the price, for everything paid the price, above all, for her right to her own complex fidelity, when she said:

“I am quite sure of my own verdict. I take all the responsibility. I think other people wrong. And you must think me wrong, if it looks to you like that.”

“But, it’s almost impossible for me to think you wrong,” said Sir Basil, feeling that a chill far frostier than the seeming situation warranted had crept upon them. “Even if you are–why we all are, of course, most of the time, I suppose. It’s only–it’s only that I can’t see clear. That you should be so sure of an opinion, a mere opinion, when it hurts someone else, so abominably;–it’s there I don’t seem to _see_ you, you know.”

“Can’t you trust me?” Valerie asked. It was her last chance, her last throw of the dice. She knew that her heart was suffocating her, with its heavy throbbing, but to Sir Basil’s ear her voice was still the deadened, the unchanged voice. “Can’t you believe in my sincerity when I give you my reasons? Can’t you, knowing me as you do, for so long, believe that I am more likely to be right, in my judgment of my husband, than–other people?”

Her eyes, dark and deep in the moonlight, were steadily upon him. And now, probed to the depths, he, too, was conscious of a parting of the ways It was a choice of loyalties, and he remembered those other eyes, sunlit, limpid, uplifted, that lifted him, too, with their heavenly, upward gaze. He stammered; he grew very red; but he, too, was faithful to his own light.

“Of course I know, my dear friend, that you are sincere. But, as to your being right;–in these things, one can’t help seeing crookedly, sometimes, when personal dislike has entered into a,–a near relationship. One really can hardly help it, can one?–” he almost pleaded.

Valerie’s eyes rested deeply and darkly upon him and, as they rested, he felt, strangely and irresistibly, that they let him go. Let him go to sink or to soar–that depended on which vision were the truer.

He knew that after his flush he had become very pale. His cigar had gone out;–he looked at it with a nervous gesture. The moonlight was cold and Valerie had turned away her eyes. But as she suddenly rose, he saw, glancing from his dismal survey of the dead cigar, that she was smiling again. It was a smile that healed even while it made things hazy to him. Nothing was hazy to her, he was very sure of that; but she would make everything as easy as possible to him–even the pain of finding her so wrong, even the pain of seeing that she didn’t care enough, the complex pain of being set free to seize the new happiness–he was surer of that than ever.

He, too, got up, grateful, troubled, but warm once more.

The moonlight was bright and golden, and the shadows of the vines that stirred against the sky wavered all over her as she stood before him. So strangely did the light and shade move upon her, that it seemed as if she glided through the ripples of some liquid, mysterious element, not air nor light nor water, but a magical mingling of the three. He had just time to feel, vaguely, for everything was blurred, this sense of strangeness and of sweetness, too, when she gave him her hand.

“Friends, as ever, all the same–are we not?” she said.

Sir Basil, knowing that if he glided it was only because she took him with her, grasped it tightly, the warm, tangible comfort. “Well _rather_!” he said with school-boy emphasis.

Be she as wrong as she would, dear creature of light, of shade, of mystery, it was indeed “well _rather_.” Never had he known how much till now.

Holding the hand, he wondered, gazing at her, how much such a friendship, new yet old, counted for. In revealing it so fully, she had set wide the door, she had set him free to claim his soul; yet so wonderfully did they glide that no gross thought of escape touched him for a moment, so beautifully did she smile that he seemed rather to be gaining something than to be giving something up.

XXIII

Imogen always looked back to her moonlight walk with Jack as one of the few occurrences in her life that, at the time, she had not understood. She understood well enough afterward, with retrospective vexation for her so ludicrous, yet, after all, so natural innocence. At the time she hadn’t even seen that Jack had jockeyed her out of a communing with Sir Basil. She had actually thought that Jack might have some word of penitence or exculpation to say to her after his behavior that morning. As a matter of fact she could easily have forgiven him had his lack of sympathy been for her instruments only and not rather for her project. Really, except for the triumph it had seemed to give to her mother, the humiliation that it had seemed, vicariously, to inflict upon herself, she hadn’t been able to defend herself from a queer sense of pleasure in witnessing the ejection of the Pottses. With the tension that had come into the scene they had been in the way; she, as keenly as Jack, had felt the sense of unfitness, though she had been willing to endure it, and as keenly as Jack she had felt Mr. Potts as insufferably presuming. She had been glad that his presumption should wreak punishment upon her mother, but glad, too, that when the weapon had served its purpose, it should be removed.

So her feelings toward Jack, as he led her down the woodland path, where, not so many days ago–but how far off they seemed–she had led Sir Basil, were not so bitter as they might have been. Bitterness was in abeyance. She waited to hear what he might have to say for himself and about her–about this new disaster that had befallen her, and with the thought of the retribution that she held, almost, within her grasp, came something of a softening to sadness and regret over Jack. In spite of that glorious moment of the pine woods, with its wide vistas into the future, some torn fiber of her heart would go on aching when she thought of Jack and his lost love; and when he led her away among the woods, thick with trembling lights and shadows, she really, for a little while, expected to hear him say that, sympathize as he might with her mother, reprobate as he might her own attitude toward her, there were needs in him deeper than sympathies or blame; she almost expected him to tell her that, above all, he loved her and couldn’t get on without her. Else why had he asked her to come and see the moonlight in the woods?

A vagueness hovered for her over her own attitude in case of such an avowal, a vagueness connected with the veil that still hung between her unavowed lover and herself, and even as she walked away with Jack she felt a mingled pang of eagerness for what he might have to say to her and of anxiety for what, more than his petition on her behalf, Sir Basil might be drawn into saying to her mother on the veranda. She didn’t crudely tell herself that she would not quite abandon Jack until the veil were drawn aside and triumph securely attained; she only saw herself, as far as she saw herself at all, as pausing between two choices, pausing to weigh which was the greater of the appealing needs and which the deeper of the proffered loves. She knew that the balance inclined to Sir Basil’s side, but she saw herself, for this evening, sadly listening, but withholding, in its full definiteness, the sad rejection of Jack’s tardy appeal.

With this background of interpretation it was, therefore, with a growing perplexity that she heard Jack, beside her, or a little before, so that he might hold back the dewy branches from her way, talk on persistently, fluently, cheerfully, in just the same manner, with the same alert voice and pleasant, though watchful, eye, that he had talked at dinner. Her mother might have been walking beside them for all the difference there was. Jack, the shy, the abrupt, the often awkward, seemed infected with her mother’s social skill. The moonlit woods were as much a mere background for maneuvers as the candle-lit dinner-table had been. Not a word of the morning’s disaster; not a word of sympathy or inquiry; not a word of self-defence or self-exposition; not even a word of expostulation or reproach.

As for entreaty, tenderness, the drawing near once more, the drop to loving need after the climax of alienation, she saw, by degrees, how illusory had been any such imagining; she saw at last, with a sharpness that queerly chilled her blood, that Jack was abdicating the lover’s role more decisively than even before. Verbal definiteness left hazes of possibility compared to this dreadfully competent reticence. It was more than evasion, more than reticence, more than abdication that she felt in Jack; it was a deep hostility, it was the steady burning of that flame that she had seen in his eye that morning when she had told her mother that she was cruel and shallow and selfish. This was an enemy who walked beside her and, after perplexity, after the folly of soft imaginings, the folly of having allowed her heart to yearn over him a little, and, perhaps, over herself, indignation rushed upon her, and humiliation, and then the passionate longing for vengeance.

He thought himself very cool and competent, this skilful Jack, leading her down in the illumined, dewy woods, talking on and on, talking–the fool–for so, with a bitter smile, her inner commentary dubbed him–of Manet, of Monet, of Whistler, of the decomposition of light, the vibration of color.

From the heat of fierce anger Imogen reached a contemptuous coolness. She made no attempt to stay his volubility; she answered, quietly, accurately, with chill interest, all he said. They might really have met for the first time at dinner that night, were it not that Jack’s competence was a little feverish, were it not that her own courtesy was a little edged. But the swing from tender sadness to perplexity, to fury, to contempt, was so violent that not until they turned to retrace their steps did a very pertinent question begin to make itself felt. It made itself felt with the sudden leap to fear of that underlying anxiety as to what was happening on the veranda, and the fear lit the question with a lurid, though, as yet, not a revealing flicker. For why had he done it? That was what she asked herself as they faced the moonlight and saw the woods all dark on a background of mystic gold. What fatuous complacency had made him take so much trouble just to show her how little he cared for what she might be feeling, for what he had himself once felt?

Imogen pondered, striding before him with her long, light step, urged now by the inner pressure of fear as to the exchange that her absence had made possible between her mother and Sir Basil. It had been foolish of her to leave him for so long, exposed and helpless. Instinctively her step hastened as she went and, Jack following closely, they almost ran at last, silent and breathing quickly. Imogen had, indeed, the uncanny sensation of being pursued, tracked, kept in sight by her follower. From the last thin screen of branches she emerged, finally, into the grassy clearing.

There was a flicker of white on the veranda. In the shadow of the creepers stood two figures, clasping hands. Her mother and Sir Basil.

Fear beat suddenly, suffocatingly, in Imogen’s throat. A tide of humiliation, like the towering of a gigantic wave above her head, seemed to rise and encompass her round about. She had counted too soon upon gladness, upon vengeance. Everything was stripped from her, if–if Jack and her mother had succeeded. With lightning-like rapidity her mind grasped its suspicion. She looked back at Jack. His eyes, too, were fixed on the veranda, and suspicion was struck to certainty by what she read in them. He was tense; he was white; he was triumphant. Too soon triumphant! In another moment the imminence of her terror passed by. The clasp was not that of a plighting. It was over; it denoted some lesser compact, one that meant, perhaps, success for her almost forgotten hope. But in Jack’s eye she had read what was her danger.

Imogen paused but for a moment to draw the breath of a mingled relief and realization. Her knowledge was the only weapon left in her hand, and strength, safety, the mere semblance of dignity, lay in its concealment. If he guessed that Sir Basil needed guarding, he should never guess that she did. Already her headlong speed might have jeopardized her secret.

“What a pretty setting for our elderly lovers, isn’t it?” she said.

That her voice should slightly tremble was only natural; he must know that even from full unconsciousness such a speech must be for her a forced and painful one.

Jack looked her full in the eye, as steadily as she looked at him.

“Isn’t it?” he said.

XXIV

She had seen through him and she continued to see through him.

She had little opportunity for more than this passive part on the next day, a day of goings and comings, when the Pottses went, and Rose, Mary, and Eddy, arrived.

He was guarding her mother’s lover for her, guarding him from the allurement of her own young loveliness; that was the way Jack saw it. He was very skilful, very competent, she had to own that as she watched him; but he was not quite so omniscient as he imagined himself to be, for he did not know that she saw. That was Imogen’s one clue in those two or three days of fear and confusion, days when, actually, Jack did succeed in keeping her and Sir Basil apart. And she must make no endeavor to thwart his watchfulness; she must yield with apparent unconsciousness to his combinations, combinations that always separated her and Sir Basil; she must see him drive off with Sir Basil to meet the new-comers; must see him lead Sir Basil away with himself and Eddy for a masculine smoke and talk; must see him, after dinner, fix them all, irrevocably, at bridge for the rest of the evening,–and not stir a finger;–for he did not know that she saw and he did not know that she, as well as Sir Basil, needed guarding. It was here that Imogen’s intuition failed her, and that her blindness made Jack’s task the easier.

Imogen, in these days, had little time for self-observation. She seemed living in some dark, fierce region of her nature, unknown to her till now, where she found only fear and fury and the deep determination not to be defeated and bereft. So supremely real were will and instinct, that, seen from their dominion, conscience, reason, all the spiritual tests she had lived by, looked like far, pale clouds floating over some somber, burning landscape, where, among flames and darkness, she was running for her life. Reason, conscience, were still with her, but turned to the task of self-preservation. “He is mine. I know it. I felt it. They shall not take him from me. It is my right, my duty, to keep him, for he is all that I have left in life.” The last veil descended upon her soul when, her frosty young nature fired by the fierceness of her resolution, she felt herself to be passionately in love with Sir Basil.

On the third day, the third day of her _vita nuova_–so she named it–Jack had organized a picnic. They were to drive ten miles to a mountain lake among pine woods, and, thrilling all through with rage, Imogen saw Sir Basil safely maneuvered into the carriage with her mother, Rose, and Eddy, while she was assigned to Jack, Miss Bocock, and Mary.

She heard herself talk sweetly and fluently during the long, sunny, breezy drive, heard Jack answering and assenting with a fluency, a sweetness as apt. Mary was very silent, but Miss Bocock, no doubt, found nothing amiss in the tone of their interchange. Arrived at the beautiful spot fixed on, sunlight drifting over glades of fern, the shadowy woods encircling a lake of blue and silver, she could say, with just the right emphasis of helpless admiration: “Wonderful–wonderful;”–could quote a line of Wordsworth, while her eye passed over the figure of Sir Basil, talking to Rose at a little distance, and over Jack’s figure, near at hand.

Jack and Eddy had driven, and the moment came when they were occupied with their horses. She joined the others, and, presently, she was able to draw Sir Basil a little aside, and then still a little further, until, among the rosy aisles, she had him to herself. Stooping to gather a tiny cone she said to him in a low voice:–“Well?–well?–What did she say?”

Sir Basil, too, lowered his voice:–“I’ve wanted a chance to tell you about it. My dear child, I’m so very sorry, but I’ve been a failure. She won’t hear of it. You’ll have to give it up.”

“She utterly refused?” How far this matter of her father was from her thoughts–as far as the pale clouds above the fierce, dark landscape.

“Utterly.”

“You asked for your sake, as well as for mine?”

“I asked for both our sakes.”

“And,” still stooping, her face hidden from him, she pierced to find the significance of that moonlight hand-clasp,–“and–she made you agree with her?”

“Agree with, her?–I was most dreadfully disappointed, and I had to tell her so.–How could I agree with her?”

“She might have made you.”

“She didn’t make me;–didn’t try to, I’m bound to say.”

“But,”–her voice breathed up to him now with a new gentleness,–a gentleness that, he well might think, covered heart-brokenness,–“but–you haven’t quarreled with her,–on my account? I couldn’t bear her to lose things, on my account. She thinks of you as a friend–values your friendship;–I know it,–I am sure of it,–even though she would not do this for you. Some hatreds are too deep to yield to any appeal; but it is friendship I know;–and I love her–in spite of everything.”

She had murmured on and on, parting the ferns with her delicate hand, finding here and there a little cone, and as Sir Basil looked down at the golden hair, the pure line of the cheek, a great wave of thanksgiving for the surety of his freedom rose in him.

“Dear, sweet child,” he said, “this is just what I would expect of you. But don’t let that thought trouble you for one moment. I do think her wrong, but we are perhaps better friends than ever. You and I will always care for her”–Sir Basil’s voice faltered a little as, to himself, the significance of these last words was borne in upon him, and Imogen, hearing the falter, rose, feeling that she must see as well as hear.

And as she faced him they heard Jack’s cheery call:

“Sir Basil–I say, Sir Basil!–You are wanted. You must help with the hampers.”

Imogen controlled every least sign of exasperation; it was the easier, since she had gained something from this snatched interview. Her mother had in no way harmed her in Sir Basil’s eyes, and this avowal of friendship might include an abdication of nearer claims. And so she walked back beside him–telling him that her cones were for her little cripples. “You are always thinking about some one else’s happiness,” said Sir Basil–with a tranquillity less feigned than it had been of late. Nothing was lost, nothing really desperate yet. But, during the rest of the afternoon, while they made tea, spread viands, sat about on the moss and rocks laughing, talking, eating, the sense of risk did not leave her. Nothing was lost, yet, but it was just possible that what she had, in her folly, expected to happen the other night to her and Jack, might really happen to Sir Basil and her mother; in the extremity of alienation they might find the depths of need. He thought her wrong, but he also thought her charming.

Sitting a little above them all, on a higher rock, watching them while seeming not to watch, she felt that her sense of peril strangely isolated her from the thoughtless group. She could guess at nothing from her mother’s face. She had not spoken with her mother since the day of the disaster–and of the dawn. It was probable that, like her own sad benignity, her mother’s placidity was nothing but a veil, but she could not believe that it veiled a sense of peril. Under her white straw hat, with broad black ribbons tying beneath the chin, it was very pale–but that was usual of late–and very worn, too, as it should be; but it was more full of charm than it had any right to be. Her mother–oh! despite pallor and fading–was a woman to be loved; and that she believed herself a woman loved, Imogen, with a deep stirring of indignation and antagonism, suspected. Yes, she counted upon Sir Basil, of that Imogen was sure, but what she couldn’t make out was whether her mother guessed that her confidence was threatened. Did she at all see where Sir Basil’s heart had turned, as Jack had seen? Was her mother, too, capable of Jack’s maneuvers?

From her mother she looked at Sir Basil, looked with eyes marvelously serene. He lounged delightfully. His clothes were delightfully right; they seemed as much a part of his personality as the cones were of the pines, the ferns of the long glades. Rightness–exquisite, unconscious rightness, was what he expressed. Not the rightness of warfare and effort that Imogen believed in and stood for, but a rightness that had come to him as a gift, not as a conquest, just as the cones had come to the pine-trees. The way he tilted his Panama hat over his eyes so that only his chin and crisply twisted mustache were unshadowed, the way in which he held his cigarette in a hand so brown that the gold of the seal ring upon it looked pale, even the way in which he wagged, now and then, his foot in its shapely tan shoe,–were all as delightful as his limpid smile up at her mother, as his voice, deep, decisive, and limpid, too.

Imogen was not aware of these appreciations in herself as she watched him with that serene covertness, not at all aware that her senses were lending her a hand in her struggle for possession and ascendancy, and giving to her hold on the new and threatened belonging a peculiar tenacity. But she did tell herself, again and again, with pride and pain, that this at last was love, a love that justified anything, and that cast all lesser things aside. And, with this thought of rejection, Imogen found her eyes turning to Jack. She looked at Jack as serenely as she had at Sir Basil, and at him she could trust herself to look more fixedly.

Jack’s rightnesses were not a bit like those of nature. He was hesitant, unfinished, beside Sir Basil. His voice was meager, his form was meager, his very glance lacked the full, untroubled assurance of the other’s. As for his clothes, with a sly little pleasure Imogen noted, point by point, how they just missed easy perfection. Very certainly this man who had failed her was a trophy not comparable to the man who now cared. She told herself that very often, emphasizing the unfavorable contrast. For, strangely enough, it was now, at the full distance of her separation from Jack, an irrevocable separation, that she needed the support of such emphasis. In Jack’s absent stare at the lake, his nervous features composed to momentary unconsciousness, she could but feel a quality that, helplessly, she must appreciate. There was in the young man’s face a purity, a bravery, a capacity of subtle spiritual choice that made it, essentially, one of the most civilized she had ever known. Sir Basil’s brain, if it came to comparison, lacked one or two convolutions that Jack’s undoubtedly possessed.

And, appreciating the lost lover, as, through her own sharpness of intelligence she was bound to do, poor Imogen knew again the twisted pang of divided desire. Was it the higher that she had lost, or the higher that she so strangely struggled for? Her eyes, turning again on Sir Basil, stayed themselves on the assurances of his charm, his ease, his rightnesses; but the worst bitterness of all lurked under these consolations; for, though one was lost, the other was not securely gained.

Imogen, that night, made another dash for the open, only, again, to be foiled. Her mother and Miss Bocock were safely on the veranda in the moonlight, the others safely talking in the drawing-room; Sir Basil, only, was not to be seen, and Imogen presently detected the spark of his cigar wandering among the flower-borders. She could venture on boldness, though she skirted about the house to join him. What if Jack did see them together? It was only natural that, if she were unconscious, she should now and then seek out her paternal friend. But hardly had she emerged from the shadow of the house, hardly had Sir Basil become aware of her approach, when, with laughter and chattering outcries the whole intolerable horde was upon her. It was Rose who voiced the associated proposal, a moonlight ramble; it was Rose who seized upon Sir Basil with her hateful air of indifferent yet assured coquetry; but Imogen guessed that she was a tool, even if an ignorant one, in the hands of Jack. Miss Bocock and her mother had not joined them and, in a last desperate hope, Imogen said,–“Mama, too, and Miss Bocock,–we mustn’t leave them. Sir Basil, won’t you go and fetch them?” And then, Sir Basil detached from Rose, on his way, she murmured,–“I must see that she doesn’t forget her shawl,” and darted after him. Once more get him to herself and, in the obscurity of the woods, they might elude the others yet. But, as they approached the veranda, she found that Jack was beside them.

Neither Valerie nor Miss Bocock cared to join the expedition; and Valerie, cryptically, for her daughter’s understanding, said: “Do you really want more scenery, Sir Basil? You and Imogen had much better keep us company here. We have earned a lazy evening.”

“Oh, no, but Rose has claimed Sir Basil as her cavalier,” Jack, astonishingly, cut in. “It’s all her idea, so that she could have a talk with him. Do you come, too,” Jack urged. “It’s only a little walk and the moonlight is wonderful among the woods.”

Mrs. Upton’s eye rested fixedly upon him for a moment. Imogen saw that, but could not know whether her mother shared her own astonishment for Jack’s development or whether the look were of the nature of an interchange. She shook her head, however.

“No, thanks, I am too tired. Be sure and show Sir Basil the view from the rustic seat, Imogen. And, oh, Imogen, do you and Sir Basil go to the pantry and ask Selma for some cakes. You will like something to eat.”

“I’ll come, too,” said Jack cheerfully. “I must get my stick.”

And thus it was that Sir Basil remained standing beside Mrs. Upton, while the young couple, in absolute silence, accomplished their mission.

Imogen only wondered, as they went, side by side, swiftly, round to the pantry, if Jack did not hear the deep, indignant breaths she vainly tried to master. The rest of the evening repeated the indignities of the afternoon. She was watched, guarded, baffled. Proudly she relinquished every attempt to checkmate; and her mother was not there; for the moment there was no anxiety on that score. But the sense of deep breathing did not leave her. What _wouldn’t_ Jack do? She was quite sure that he would lie, if, technically, he had not lied already. The stick had been in the hall near the pantry. If it hadn’t;–well, with her consciousness of whistling speed, of a neck-to-neck race, she really would not have had time for a pause of wonder and condemnation.

XXV

She woke next morning to that fierce consciousness of a race. And the goal must now be near, defeat or victory imminent.

It was early and she dressed quickly. She couldn’t boldly rap at Sir Basil’s door and call him to join her in the garden for a dewy walk before breakfast, for Jack’s was the room next his; but, outside, as she drifted back and forth over the lawn, in full view of his window, she sang to herself, so that he could hear, sang sweetly, loudly, sadly, a strain of Wagner. It happened, indeed, to be the Pilgrim’s March from Tannhauser that she fixed upon for her _aubade_. Jack would never suspect such singing, and Sir Basil must surely seize its opportunity. But he did not appear. She surmised that he was not yet up and that it might be wiser to wait for him in the dining-room.

As she crossed the veranda she heard voices around the corner, a snatch of talk from two other early risers sitting outside the drawing-room windows. Mary and Rose; she placed them, as she paused.

“But Jack himself often talks in just that way,” Mary was saying, pained it was evident, and puzzled, too, by some imputation, that she hadn’t been able to deny.

“Yes, dear old Jack,” Rose rejoined; “he does talk in a very tiresome way sometimes; so do you, Mary my darling;–you are all tarred with the same solemn brush; but, you see, it’s just that; one may talk like a prig and yet not be one. Jack, behind the big words, means them all, is them all, really. Whereas Imogen;–why she’s little–little–little. Even Jack has found that out at last.”

“Rose! Rose! Don’t–It’s not true. I can’t believe it! I won’t believe it!” broke from Mary. Her chair was pushed back impetuously, and Imogen darted into the dining-room and from there into the hall to find herself, at last, face to face with Sir Basil.

“I hoped I’d find you. I heard you singing in the garden. What is that thing,–Gounod, isn’t it? Do let’s have a turn in the garden.”

But even as he said it, holding her hand, the fatal chink of the approaching breakfast tray told them that the opportunity had come too late. Rose and Mary already were greeting them, Jack and Miss Bocock called morning wishes from above.

Valerie was a late riser; and Imogen, behind the tea-pot and coffee, was always conscious of offering a crisp and charming contrast to lax self-indulgence. But this morning, as they all hemmed her in, fixed her in her rightful place, her cheeks irrepressibly burned with vexation and disappointment. The overheard insolence, too, had been like a sudden slap. She mastered herself sufficiently to kiss Mary’s cheek and to take Rose’s hand with a gaze of pure unconsciousness, a gaze that should have been as a coal of fire laid upon her venomous head.

But Rose showed no symptom of scorching. She trailed to her place, in a morning-gown all lace and ribbons, smiling nonchalantly at Jack and saucily at Sir Basil, with whom she had established relations of chaffing coquetry; she told Imogen to remember that she liked her coffee half-and-half with a lot of cream and three lumps of sugar. She looked as guiltless as poor Mary looked guilty.

“Eddy’s late as usual, I suppose,” she said.

“He inherits laziness from mama,” Imogen smiled, putting in four lumps, a trivial vengeance she could not resist.

“Some of her charms he has inherited, it’s true.” Rose, in the absence of her worshiped hostess gave herself extreme license in guileless prods and thrusts. “I only wish he had inherited more. Here you are, Eddy, after all, falsifying my hopes of you. We are talking about your hereditary good points, Eddy;–in what others, except morning laziness, do you resemble your mother?”

“Well, I hate strings of milk in my coffee,” said Eddy, bending over his sister to put a perfunctory kiss upon her brow, “and as I observe one in that cup I hope it’s not intended for me. Imogen, why won’t you use the strainer?”

With admirable patience, as if humoring two spoiled children, Imogen filled another cup with greater care.

“Mama feels just as I do about strings in coffee,” said Eddy, bearing away his cup. “We are both of us very highly organized.”

“You mustn’t be over-sensitive, you know,” said Imogen, “else you will unfit yourself for life. There are so many strings in one’s coffee in life.”

“The fit avoid them,” said Eddy, “as I do.”

“You inherit that, too, from mama,” said Imogen, “the avoidance of difficulties. Do try some of our pop-overs, Miss Bocock; it’s a national dish.”

“What are you going to do this morning, Imogen?” Jack asked, and she felt that his eye braved hers. “It’s your Girls’ Club morning, isn’t it? That will do beautifully for you, Miss Bocock. I’ve been telling Miss Bocock about it; she is very much interested.”

“Very much indeed. I am on the committee of such a club in England,” said Miss Bocock; “I should like to go over it with you.”

Imogen smiled assent, while inwardly she muttered “Snake!” Her morning, already, was done for, unless, indeed, she could annex Sir Basil as a third to the party and, with him, evade Miss Bocock for a few brief moments. But brief moments could do nothing for them. They needed long sunny or moonlit solitudes.

“We must be alone together, under the stars, for our souls to _see_,” Imogen said to herself, while she poured the coffee, while she met Jack’s eye, while, beneath this highest thought, the lesser comment of “Snake!” made itself heard.

“What’s become of that interesting girl who had the rival club, Imogen?” Rose asked. “The one you squashed.”

“We make her very welcome when she comes to ours.” Imogen did not descend to self-exculpation. She spoke gently and gravely, casting only a glance at Sir Basil, as if calling him to witness her pained magnanimity.

“It would be fun, you know, to help her to start a new one,” said Rose;–“something rebellious and anarchic. Will you help me if I do, Eddy? Come, let’s sow discord in Imogen’s Eden, like a couple of serpents.”

Reptilian analogies seemed uppermost this morning; Imogen felt their fitness while, smiling on, she answered: “I don’t think that mere rebellion–not only against Eden but against the Tree of Knowledge as well–would carry you far, Rose. Your membership would be of three–Mattie and the two serpents.”

Sir Basil laughed out at the retort.

“You evidently don’t know the club and all those delightful young women,” he said to Rose.

“Oh, yes, indeed I do. Every one sees Imogen’s clubs. I don’t think them delightful. Women in crowds are always horrid. We are only tolerable in isolation.”

“You hand over to us, then,”–it was Jack who spoke, and with his usual impatience when bending to Rose’s folly,–“all the civic virtues, all the virtues of fraternity?”

“With pleasure; they are becoming to nobody, for that matter. But I’m quite sure that men are brothers. Women never are sisters, however, unless, sometimes, we are sisters to you,” Rose added demurely, at which Sir Basil gave a loud laugh.

Imogen, though incensed, was willing that on this low ground of silly flippancy Rose should make her little triumphs. She kept her smile. “I don’t think that those of us who are capable of another sisterhood will agree with you,” and her smile turned on Mary another coal of fire, for she suspected Mary of apostasy. “I don’t think that the women whose aim in life is–well–to make brothers of men in Rose’s sense, can understand sisterhood at all, as, for instance, Mary and I do.”

“Oh, you and Mary!”–Rose tapped her eggshell and salted her egg. “That’s not sisterhood;–that’s prophetess and proselyte. You’re an anarchist to the bone, Imogen, like the rest of us;–you couldn’t bear to share anything–It’s like children playing games:–If I can’t be the driver, I won’t play horses.”

“Oh, Rose!” came in distressed tones from Mary; but Imogen did not flinch from her serenity.

Outside on the veranda, where they all wandered after breakfast, her moment came at last. Jack had walked away with Mary; Miss Bocock, with a newspaper, stood in the shade at a little distance. Rose and Eddy were wandering among the flowers.

Imogen knew, as she found herself alone with Sir Basil, that the impulse that rose in her was the crude one of simply snatching. She controlled its demonstration so that only a certain breathlessness was in her voice, a certain brilliancy in her eye, as she said to him, rapidly:–

“He will never let you see me! Never!”

“He? Who?–What do you mean?” Sir Basil, startled, stared at her.

“Jack! Jack! Haven’t you noticed?”

“Oh, I see. Yes, I see.” His glance became illuminated. In a voice as low as her own he asked: “What does it mean?–I never can get a word with you. He’s always there. He’s very devoted to you, I know; but, I supposed that–well, that his chance was over.”

His hesitation, the appeal of his glance, were lightning-flashes of assurance for Imogen, opening her path for her.

“It is over;–it is over;–but it’s false that he is devoted to me,” she whispered. “He hates me. He is my enemy.”

“Oh, I say!” gasped Sir Basil.

“And since he failed to win me–Don’t you see–It’s through sheer spite–sheer hatred.”

Her brilliant eyes were on him and a further “Oh!” came from Sir Basil as he received this long ray of illumination. And it was so dazzling, although Imogen, after her speech, had cast down her eyes, revealing nothing more, that he murmured hastily:–“Can’t I see you, Imogen, alone;–can’t you arrange it in some way?”

Imogen’s eyes were still cast down, while, the purpose that was like a possession, once attained, her thoughts rushed in, accused, exculpated, a wild confusion that, in another moment had built for her self-respect the shelter of a theory that, really, quite solidly sustained the statement so astounding to herself when it had risen to her lips. Hatred, spite; yes, these were motives, too, in Jack’s treachery; she hadn’t spoken falsely, though it had been with the blindness of the overmastering purpose. And her dignity was untarnished in Sir Basil’s eyes, for, she had seen it at last, her path was open; she had only to enter it.

Her heart seemed to flutter in her throat as she said on the lowest, most incisive note: “Yes,–I, too, want to see you, Sir Basil. I am so lonely;–you are the only one who cares, who understands, who is near me. There must be real truth between us. This morning–he has prevented that. But to-night, after we have all gone up-stairs, come out again, by the little door at the back, and meet me–meet me–” her voice wavered a little, “at the rustic bench, up in the woods, where we went last night. There we can talk.” And catching suddenly at all the nobility, so threatened in her own eyes, remembering her love for him, her great love, and his need, his great need, of her, she smiled deeply, proudly at him and said:

“We will see each other, at last, and each other’s truth, under God’s stars.”

XXVI

Jack had drawn Mary aside, around the sunny veranda, and, out of ear-shot of everybody, a curious intentness in his demeanor, he asked her to run up to Mrs. Upton’s room and ask her if she wouldn’t take a drive with him that morning. Since the Uptons’ impoverishment their little stable was, perforce, empty; and it was Jack who ordered the buggy from the village and treated the company in turn to daily drives.

Mary departed on her errand, hearing Jack telephoning to the livery-stable as she went up-stairs.

She had to own to herself that the charm had grown on her, and the fact of her increasing fondness for Imogen’s mother made the clearer to her all the new, vague pain in regard to Imogen. Imogen, to Mary’s delicate perception of moral atmosphere, was different; she had felt it from the moment of her arrival. No one had as yet enlightened her as to the Potts’s catastrophe, but even by its interpretation she would have found the change hard to understand. Perhaps it was merely that she, Mary, was selfish and felt herself to be of less importance to Imogen. Mary was always conscious of relief when she could fix responsibility upon herself, and she was adjusting all sorts of burdens on her conscience as she knocked at Mrs. Upton’s door.

The post had just arrived, and Valerie, standing near her dressing-table, was reading her letters as Mary came in. Mary had never so helplessly felt the sense of charm as this morning.

She wore a long white dressing-gown, of frilled lawn, tied with black ribbons at throat and wrists. Her abundant chestnut hair, delicately veined with white, was braided into two broad plaits that hung below her waist, and her face, curiously childlike so seen, was framed in the banded masses. Mary could suddenly see what she had looked like as a little girl. So moved was she by the charm that, Puritan as she was, she found herself involuntarily saying:–“Oh, Mrs. Upton, what beautiful hair you have.”

“It is nice, isn’t it?” said Valerie, looking more than ever like a child, a pleased child; “I love my hair.”

Mary had taken one braid and was crunching it softly, like spun silk, in her hand. She couldn’t help laughing out at the happy acceptance of her admiring speech; the charm was about her; she understood; it wasn’t vanity, but something flower-like.

“You have heaps, too,” said Valerie.

“Oh, but it’s sand-colored. And I do it so horribly. It is so heavy and pulls back so.”

“I know; that’s the difficulty with heaps of hair. But I had a very clever maid, and she taught me how to manage it. Sand-color is a lovely color as a background to the face, you know.”

Valerie rarely made personal remarks and rarely paid compliments. She had none of the winning allurements of the siren; Mary had realized that and was now realizing that genuine interest, even if reticent, may be the most fragrant of compliments.

“I wish you would let me show you how to do it,” Valerie added.

Mary blushed. There had always been to her, in her ruthless hair-dressing, an element of severe candor, the recognition of charmlessness, a sort of homage paid to wholesome if bitter fact. Mrs. Upton was not, in her flower-like satisfaction, one bit vain; but Mary suspected herself of feeling a real thrill of tempted vanity. The form of the temptation was, however, too sweet to be rejected, and Mrs. Upton’s hair was so simply done, too, though, she suspected, done with a guileful simplicity. It wouldn’t look vain to do it like that; but, on the other hand, it would probably take three times as long to do; there was always the question of one’s right to employ precious moments in personal adornment. “How kind of you,” she murmured. “I am so stupid though. Could I really learn? And wouldn’t it take up a good deal of my time every morning?”

Valerie smiled. “Well, it’s a nice way of spending one’s time, don’t you think?”

This was, somehow, quite unanswerable, and Mary had never thought of it in that light. She sat down before Valerie’s pretty, tipped mirror and looked with some excitement at the rows of glittering toilet utensils set out before her. She was sure that Mrs. Upton found it nice to spend a great deal of time before her mirror.

“It is so kind of you,” she repeated. “And it will be so interesting to see how you do it. And, oh, I am forgetting the thing I came for–how stupid, how wrong of me. It’s a message from Jack. He wants to know if you will drive with him.”

“And what are all the plans for to-day?” Mrs. Upton asked irrelevantly, unpinning the clustered knobs at the back of Mary’s head and softly shaking out the stringently twisted locks as she uncoiled them.

“It is _so_ kind of you;–but oughtn’t I to take Jack his answer first?”

“The answer will wait. He has his letters to see to now. What are they all doing?”

“Well, let me see; Rose is in the hammock and Eddy is talking to her. Imogen is going to take Miss Bocock to see her club.”

“Oh, it is Imogen’s club day, is it? She asked Miss Bocock?”

“Miss Bocock asked her, or, rather, Jack told her that he had been telling Miss Bocock about it; it was Jack who asked. He knew, of course, that she would be interested in it;–a big, fine person like Miss Bocock would be bound to be.”

“Um,” Valerie seemed vaguely to consider as she passed the comb down the long tresses. “I don’t think that I can let Imogen carry off Miss Bocock;–Miss Bocock can go to the club another day; I want to do some gardening with her this morning; she’s a very clever gardener, did you know?–So I shall be selfish. Imogen can take Sir Basil; he likes walks.”

Mrs. Upton was now brushing, and very dexterously; but Mary, glancing at her with a little anxiety for the avowed selfishness, fancied that she was not thinking much about the hair. Mary could not quite interpret the change she felt in the lovely face. Something hard, something controlled was there.

“But Jack?”–she questioned.

“Well, Jack can take you on the drive. You and he have seen very little of each other since you’ve come; such old friends as you are, too.”

“Yes, we are,” said Mary, gazing abstractedly at her own face, now, in the mirror, and forgetting both her own transformation and the face that bent above her. A familiar cloud of pain gathered within her and, suddenly, she found herself bursting out with:–“Oh, Mrs. Upton–I am so unhappy about Jack!”

Valerie, in the mirror, gave her a keen, quick glance. “I am, too, Mary,” she said.

Mary, at this, turned in her chair to look up at her:–“You see, you feel it, too!”

“That _he_ is unhappy? Yes, I see and feel it.”

“And you care;–I am sure that you care.”

“I care very much. I love Jack very much.”

Mary seized her hand and tears filled her eyes. “Oh, you _are_ a dear!–One must love him when one really knows him, mustn’t one?–Mrs. Upton, I’ve known Jack all my life and he is simply one of the noblest, deepest, realest people in the whole world.”

“I am sure of that.”

“Well, then, can’t you help him?” Mary cried.

“How can I help him?–In what way?” Valerie asked, her grave smile fading.

“With Imogen. It’s that, you see, their alienation, that’s breaking his heart.

“Of course you’ve seen it all more clearly than I have,” Mary went on, her hair about her face, her hand clasping Valerie’s;–“Of course you understand it, and everything that has happened to them. I love Imogen, too–please don’t doubt that;–but, but, I can’t but feel that it’s _her_ mistake, _her_ blindness that has been the cause. She couldn’t accept it, you see, that he should–stand for a new thing, and be loyal to the old thing at the same time.”

Valerie, now, had sunken into a chair near Mary’s, and one hand was still in Mary’s hand, and in the other she still held a tress of Mary’s hair. She looked down at this tress while she said:–“But Imogen was right, quite right. He couldn’t stand for the new thing and be loyal to the old.”

Mary’s eyes widened: “You mean,–Mrs. Upton?–“

“Just what you do. That _I_ am the cause.”

She raised her eyes to Mary’s and the girl became scarlet.

“Oh,–you do see it all,” she breathed.

“All, all, Mary. To Imogen I stand, I must stand, for the wrong; to Jack–though he can’t think of me very well as ‘standing’ for anything, I’m not altogether in that category. So that his championship of me judges him in Imogen’s eyes. Imogen has had a great deal to bear. Have you heard of the last thing? She has not told you? I have refused my consent to her having a biography of her father written. She had set her heart on it.”

“Oh, I hadn’t heard anything. You wouldn’t consent? Oh, poor Imogen!”

“It is, poor Imogen. In this, too, she has found no sympathy in Jack. All his sympathy is with me. It has been the end, for both of them. And it is inevitable, Mary.”

“Oh, Mrs. Upton, what can I say–what can I think?–I don’t seem to be able to see who is right and who is wrong!” Mary covered the confusion of her thoughts by burying her face in her hands.

“No; one can’t see. That’s what one finds out.”

“Of course, I have always thought Mr. Upton a very wonderful person,” Mary murmured from behind her hands, her Puritan instinct warning her that now, when it gave her such pain, was the time above all others for a “testifying,” a “bearing witness.”–“But I know that Jack never felt about that as I did. Of course I, too, think that the biography ought to be written.”

Valerie was silent, and her silence, Mary felt, was definitive.

She wouldn’t explain herself; she wouldn’t seek self-exculpation; and while, with all her humility, Mary felt that as a little stinging, she felt it, also, as something of a relief. Mrs. Upton, no doubt, was indifferent as to her opinion of her rightness and her wrongness, and Mrs. Upton–there was the comfort of it,–was a person whom one must put on one side when it came to judgments. She didn’t seem to belong to any of the usual categories. One didn’t want to judge her. One was thankful for the haze she made about herself and her motives. That Jack understood her was, Mary felt sure, the result of some peculiar perspicacity of Jack’s, for she didn’t believe that Mrs. Upton had ever explained or exculpated herself to Jack, either. It even dawned on her that his perspicacity perhaps consisted mainly in the sense of trust that she herself was experiencing. She trusted Mrs. Upton, were she right, or were she wrong, and there was an end of it. With that final realization she uncovered her eyes and met her hostess’s eyes again, eyes so soft, so clear, but with, in them, a look of suffering. Childlike, her hair folding behind her cheek and neck, she was faded, touched with age; Mary had never seen it so clearly. Somehow it made her even sorrier than the suffering she recognized.

“Oh, but it’s been hard for you, too,” she exclaimed, shyly but irrepressibly, “everything, all of it. Just let me say that.”

Valerie had blushed her infrequent, vivid blush. She rose and came behind Mary’s chair again, gathering up the abandoned tresses. But before she began to comb and coil she said, “Thanks,” leaning forward and, very lightly, kissing the girl’s forehead.

After that there was silence between them while the work of hair-dressing went on. Valerie did not speak again until, softly forming the contour of the transfigured head, she said, looking at Mary’s reflection with an air of quiet triumph;–“Now, is not that charming?”

“Charming; perfectly charming,” Mary replied, vaguely; the tears were near her eyes.

“You must come again, to-morrow, and do it under my supervision. It only needs this, now.” She thrust two heavy tortoise-shell pins into the coils on either side of Mary’s head.

“Those beautiful pins! I am afraid I shall lose them!”

“But they are yours,–mementoes of the new era in hair-dressing. I have several of them. There, you are quite as I would have you,–as far as your head goes.”

“Not as far as the rest of me goes, I’m afraid,” said Mary, laughing in spite of herself, and lured from sadness.

“I wish you’d let me make the rest of you to match,” said Valerie. “I’ve always loved dressing people up. I loved dressing my dolls when I was a child. That stiff shirt doesn’t go with your head.”

“No, it doesn’t. I really don’t see,” said Mary tentatively, “why one shouldn’t regard dressing as a form of art; I mean, of course, as long as one keeps it in its proper place, as it were.”

“To get it in its proper place is to dress well, don’t you think. I found such a pretty lawn dress of mine in a trunkful of things put away here; it’s a little too juvenile for me, now, and, besides, I’m in mourning. May I put you into it?”

“But I should feel so odd, so frivolous. I’m such a staid, solemn person.”

“But the dress is staid, too,–a dear little austerity of a dress;–it’s just as much you as that way of doing your hair is. Don’t imagine that I would commit such a solecism as to dress you frivolously. Look; will you put this on at once,–to please me?”

She had drawn the delicate thing, all falls and plaitings of palest blue, from a closet, and, shaking it out, looked up with quite serious eyes of supplication. It was impossible not to yield. Laughing, frightened, charmed, Mary allowed Mrs. Upton to dress her, and then surveyed herself in the long mirror with astonishment. She couldn’t but own that it was herself, though such a transfigured self. She didn’t feel out of place, though she felt new and strange.

“Now, Mary, go down to them and see to it that they all do as I say,” Valerie insisted. “Imogen is to take Sir Basil to the club;–Miss Bocock is to garden with me–tell her particularly that I count upon her. Jack is to take you for a drive. And, Mary,” she put her hand for a moment on the girl’s shoulder, grave for all her recovered lightness;–“you are not to talk of sad things to Jack. You must help me about Jack. You must cheer him;–make him forget. You must talk of all the things you used to talk of before–before either I or Imogen came.”

They were all on the veranda when Mary went down; all, that is, but Rose and Eddy. Sir Basil and Miss Bocock were deep in letters. Imogen, seated on a step, the sunlight playing over her fluttering black, endured–it was evident that enjoyment made no part of her feeling–a vivid and emphatic account from Jack of some recent political occurrence. He was even reading, here and there, bits from the newspaper he held, and Mary fancied that there was an unnatural excitement in his voice, an unusual eagerness in his eye, with neither of which had he in the least infected Imogen.

On seeing Mary appear he dropped the newspaper and joined her in the hall, drawing her from there into the little library. “Well?–Well?–” he questioned keenly.

He had no eyes for her transformation, Mary noted that, although Imogen, in the instant of her appearance, had fixed grave and astonished eyes upon her. She repeated her message.

“Well, do you know,” said Jack, “we can’t obey her. I’m so sorry;–I should have liked the drive with you, Mary, of all things; but it turns out that I can’t take anybody this morning, I’ve some letters, just come, that must be answered by return. But, Mary, see here,” his voice dropped and his keenness became more acute;–“help me about it. See that she goes. She needs it.”

“Needs it?”

“Don’t you see that she’s worn out?”

“Jack, only this morning, I’ve begun to suspect it;–what is the matter?”

“Everything. Everything is the matter. So, she mustn’t be allowed to take all the drudgery on her hands. Miss Bocock may go to the club with Imogen; she’s just ready to go, she wants to go;–and Mrs. Upton must have the drive with Sir Basil. He’d far rather drive with her than walk with Imogen,” said Jack brazenly.

“I suppose so, they are such great friends;–only;–drudgery?–She likes Miss Bocock. She likes gardening,”–Mary’s breath was almost taken away by his tense decisiveness.

“She likes Sir Basil better”; Jack said it in the freest manner, a manner that left untouched any deeper knowledge that they might both be in possession of. “Imogen likes him better, too. It’s for that, so that Imogen may have the best of it, that she’s taking Miss Bocock off Imogen’s hands;–you see, I see that you do. So, you just stay here and keep still about your counter-demands, while I manage it.”

“But Jack,–you bewilder me!–I ought to give my message. I hate managing.”

“I’ll see that your message is given.”

“But how can you?–Jack–what _are_ you planning?”

He was going and, with almost an impatience of her Puritan scruples, he paused at the door to reply:–“Don’t bother. I’m all right. I won’t manage it. I’ll simply _have_ it so.”

Half an hour later Valerie came down-stairs wearing her white hat with its black ribbons and drawing on her gardening gloves. And in the large, cool hall, holding his serviceable letters, Jack awaited her.

“I hope you won’t mind,” he announced, but in the easiest tones; “we can’t obey you this morning. Miss Bocock’s gone off to the club with Imogen, and Sir Basil is going to take you for a drive.”

Valerie, standing on the last step of the stair, a little above him, paused in the act of adjusting her glove, to stare at him. Easy as his tone was he couldn’t hide from her that he wore a mask.

“Was Mary too late to give my message?”

“Yes;–that is, no, not exactly; but the club had been arranged and Miss Bocock was eager about it and knew you wouldn’t mind, especially as Sir Basil set his heart on the drive with you, when he heard that I couldn’t go.”

“That you couldn’t go?–but you sent Mary to ask me.”

“I had to waive my claim,–I’ve just had these letters”; he held them up. “Very important; they must be answered at once; it will take all my morning, and, of course, when Sir Basil heard that, he jumped at his chance.”

Valerie was still on the step above him, fully illuminated, and, as, with that careful ease, he urged Sir Basil’s eagerness upon her, he saw–with what a throb of the heart, for her, for himself–that her deep flush rose.

Oh, she loved him. She couldn’t conceal it, not from the eyes that watched her now. And was she glad of an unasked-for help, or did her pride suspect help and resent it? Above all did she know how in need of help she was?

He hadn’t been able to prevent his eyes from turning from the blush; they avowed, he feared, the consciousness that he would hide; but, after a little moment, in the same voice of determined, though cautious penetration, Valerie questioned: “Is Imogen just gone?”

“She has been gone these fifteen minutes,” said Jack, striving to conceal triumph.

“And Mary?”

“Mary?”

“Yes; where is Mary? Is she left out of all your combinations?”

She did probe, then, though her voice was so mild, the voice, only, of the slightly severe, slightly displeased hostess who finds her looms entangled.

“Mary always has a lot to do.”

“Sir Basil shall take Mary,” said Valerie cheerfully, as though she picked up the thread and found a way out of the silly chaos of his making.

And at this crisis, this check from the goddess who wouldn’t be served, Jack’s new skill rose to an almost sinister height. Without a flaw in their apparent candor, his eyes met hers while he said:–“Please don’t upset my little personal combination. It’s very selfish of me, I know;–but I wanted to keep Mary for myself this morning. I’ve seen so little of her of late; and I need her to talk over my letters with; they’re about things we are both interested in.”

Valerie looked fixedly at him while he made this statement, and he couldn’t tell what her look meant. But, evidently, she yielded to his counter-stratagem, feeling it, no doubt, unavoidable, for the buggy just then drew up before the door, and the figure of Sir Basil appeared above.

“I _am_ in luck!” said Sir Basil. Excitement as well as eagerness was visible in him. Valerie did not look up at him, though she smiled vaguely, coming down from her step and selecting a parasol on her way to the door. Jack was beside her, and he saw that the flush still stayed. He seemed to see, too, that she was excited and eager, but, more than all, that she was frightened. Yet she kept, for him, her quiet voice.

Before Sir Basil joined them she had time to say:–“You are rather mysterious, Jack. If you have deep-laid plans, I would rather you paid me the compliment of showing me the deepest one at once. I am not being nasty to you,” she smiled faintly. “Find Mary at once, you must have wasted a lot of time already in getting to those letters.”

Jack stood in the doorway while they drove off. Valerie, though now very pale, in the shadow of her hat, showed all her gay tranquillity, and she was very lovely. Sir Basil must see that. He must see that, and all the other things, that, perhaps, he had forgotten for a foolish moment.

Jack felt himself, this morning, in a category where he had never thought it possible that he should find himself. It was difficult to avoid the conviction that he had, simply, lied two or three times in order to send Mrs. Upton and Sir Basil off together in their long, swaying, sunny solitude. Jack had never imagined it possible that he should lie. But, observing, as he was forced to, the blot on his neat, clean conscience, he found himself considering it without a qualm. His only qualm was for its success. The drive would justify him. He almost swore it to himself, as Valerie’s parasol disappeared among the trees. The drive would justify him, and reinstate Sir Basil. Unless Sir Basil were a fool, what he had done was well done.

Yet, when they had disappeared, it was with the saddest drop to anxious, to gnawing uncertainty, that Jack turned back into the house. An echo of the fear that he had felt in Valerie seemed to float back to him. It was as if, in some strange way, he had handed her over to pain rather than to joy, to sacrifice rather than to attainment.

XXVII

Jack’s morning was not a happy one. It was bad enough to have told so many fibs, or, at all events, to have invented so many opportune truths, and it was worse to have to go on inventing more of them to Mary, now that his dexterities had linked him to her.

Mary looked, as was only too natural, much surprised, when he told her that his letters required her help. She looked still more so when she found how inadequate were their contents to account for such a claim.

Indeed there was, apparently, but one letter upon which her advice could be of the least significance, and after she had given him all the information she had to give in regard to the charity for which it appealed, there was really nothing more for them to do.

“But–the letters that required the immediate answers?” she asked.

Jack’s excited, plausible manner had dropped from him. Mary felt it difficult to be severe when his look of dejection was piercing her heart; still, she felt that she owed it to him as well as to herself, she must see a little more clearly into how he had “had things so.”

He replied, his eye neither braving nor evading hers, that he had already answered them; and Mary, after a little pause, in which she studied her friend’s face, said:–“I don’t understand you this morning, Jack.”

“I’m afraid you’ll understand me less when I make you a confession. I didn’t give your message this morning, Mary.”

“Didn’t give Mrs. Upton’s message, to Miss Bocock, to Sir Basil?”

“No,” said Jack, but with more mildness and sadness than compunction;–“I want to be straight with you, at all events. So I’d rather tell you. All I did was to say to Sir Basil that I found I couldn’t take Mrs. Upton for the drive I’d promised, so that if he wanted to take my place, he was welcome to the buggy. He wanted to, of course. That went without saying.”

“Why, Jack Pennington!”

“Miss Bocock, luckily, was on the other side of the veranda, so that I had only to go round to her afterward and tell her that Mrs. Upton had suggested their gardening, but that since she was going to drive with Sir Basil she could go off to the club, at once, too, with Imogen.”

“But, Jack!–what did you mean by it?”–Mary, quite aghast, stared at her Machiavellian friend.

“Why, that Sir Basil should take her. That’s all I meant from the beginning, when I proposed going myself. Do forgive me, you dear old brick. You see, I’m so awfully set on her not being done out of things.”

“Done out of things?”

“Oh, little things, if you like, young things. She’s young, and she ought to have them. Say you forgive me.”

“Of course, Jack dear, I forgive you, though I don’t understand you. But that’s not the point. Everything seems so queer, so twisted; every one seems different. And to find _you_ not straight is worst of all.”

“I promise you, it’s my last sin,” said Jack.

Mary, though shaking her bewildered head, had to smile a little, and, the smile encouraging him to lightness, he remarked on her changed aspect.

“So do forgive and forget. I had to confess, when I’d not been true to you. Really, my nature isn’t warped. What an extremely becoming dress that is Mary;–and what have you done to your hair?”

“It’s _she_,” said Mary, flushing with pleasure.

“Mrs. Upton?”

“Yes, she did my hair and gave me the dress. She was so sweet and dear.”

Jack lightly touched a plaited ruffle of the wide sleeve, and Mary felt that he had never less thought of her than when he so touched her dress. She put aside the deep little pang that gave her to say: “It’s true, Jack, she ought to have young things, just because they are going from her; one feels that: She oughtn’t to be standing back, and giving up things, yet. I see a little what you mean. _Isn’t_ it pretty?” Still, with an absent hand, he lightly touched, here and there, a ruffle of her sleeve. “But it’s like her. I hardly feel myself in it.”

“You’ve never so looked yourself,” said Jack. “That’s what she does, brings out people’s real selves.”

Mrs. Upton and Sir Basil did not come back to lunch, and Imogen’s face was somber indeed as she faced her guests at the table. Jack, vigilant and pitiless, guessed at the turmoil of her soul.

She asked him, with an icy sweetness, how his letters had prospered. “Did you get them all off?”

Jack said that he had, and Mary, casting a wavering glance at him, saw that if he intended to sin no more, he showed, at all events, a sinful guilelessness of demeanor. She herself began to blush so helplessly and so furiously that Imogen’s attention was drawn to her. Imogen, also, was vigilant.

“And what have you been doing, Mary dear?” she asked.

“I–oh”–poor Mary looked the sinful one;–“I–helped Jack a little.”

“Helped Jack?–Oh, yes, he had heaps of letters, hadn’t he? What were they all about, Mary?”

“Oh, charities.”

“Charities?–What charities? How many charities?–I’m interested in that, you know–I’m rather hurt that you didn’t ask my advice, too,” and Imogen smiled her ominous smile. “What were the charities?”

Mary, crimson to the brow, her eyes on her plate, now did her duty.

“There was only one.”

“One–and that of such consequence that Jack had to give up his drive because of it?–what an interesting letter.”

“There were other letters, of course,” Jack, in aid of his innocent accomplice, struck in. “None that would have particularly interested you, Imogen. I only needed advice about the one, a local Boston affair.”

“There were others, Mary,” said Imogen, laughing a little, “You needn’t look so guilty on Jack’s account.” Mary gave her a wide, startled stare.

“You see, Mary,” said Rose, after lunch in the drawing-room, “saints can sting.”

“What was the matter!” Mary murmured, her head still seemed to buzz, as though from a violent box on the ear. “I never heard Imogen speak like that. To _hurt_ one!”

“I fancy she’d been getting thwarted in some way,” said Rose comfortably; “saints do sting, then, sometimes, the first thing that happens to be at hand. How Jack and she hate each other!”

Mary went away to her room and cried.

Meanwhile Jack wandered about in the woods until, quite late in the afternoon, he saw from the rustic bench, where, finally, he had cast himself, the returning buggy climbing up through the lower woodlands.

He felt that his heart throbbed heavily as he watched it, just catching glimpses, among the trees, of the white bubble of Valerie’s parasol slanting against the sun. Yet there was a dullness in his excitement. It was over, at all events. He was sure that the last die was cast. And his own trivial and somewhat indecorous part, of shifter of scenes and puller of strings, was, he felt sure, a thing put by forever. He could help her no longer. And in a sort of apathy, he sat out there in the sunny green, hardly thinking, hardly wondering, conscious only of a hope that had become a mere physical sense of oppression and of an underlying sadness that had become, almost, a physical sense of pain.

He had just consulted his watch and, seeing it wanted but ten minutes to tea-time, had got up and was moving away, when a sudden rustle near him, a pause, a quick, evasive footstep, warned him of some presence as anxious for solitude as himself.

He stood still for a moment, uncertain as to his own best means of retreat, but his stillness misled, for, in another moment, Valerie appeared before him from among the branches of a narrow side path.

She had come up to the woods directly; he saw that, for she still wore her hat; she had come to be alone and to weep; and, as she saw Jack, her pale face was convulsed, with the effort to control her weeping, into a strange rigor of pain and confusion.

“Oh”–he stammered. “Forgive me. I didn’t know you were here.” He was turning to flee, as if from a sacrilege, when she recalled him.

“Don’t–without me. I must go back, too,” she said.

She stepped on to the broader path and joined him, and he guessed that she tested, on him, her power to face the others. But, after they had gone a few steps together, she stopped suddenly and put her hands before her face, standing quite still.

And Jack understood that she was helpless and that he must say nothing. She stood so for a long moment, not trusting herself to move or speak. Then, uncovering her face, she showed him strange eyes from which the tears had been crushed back.

“And–I can do nothing?–” he said at last, on the lowest breath, as they walked on.

“Nothing, dear Jack.”

“When you are suffering like that!”

“I have no right to such suffering. I must hide it. Help me to hide it, Jack. Do I look fairly decent?” She turned her face to him, with, he thought, the most valorous smile he had ever seen.

Only a thin screen of leaves was between them and the open.

“You look–beautiful,” said Jack. She smiled on, as though that satisfied her, and he added, “Can I know nothing?–See nothing?”

“I think already,” said Valerie, “that you see more than I ever meant any one to see.”

“I?–I see nothing, now,” he almost moaned.

“You shall. I’ll talk to you later.”

“You will? If only you knew how I cared!”

“I do, dear Jack.”

“Not how much, not how much. You can’t know that. It almost gives me my right, you know, to see. When will you talk to me?”

“Some time to-night, when we can have a quiet moment. I’ll tell you about the things that have happened–nothing to make you sad, I hope. And I’ll ask you some questions, too, Jack, about your very odd behavior!”

Really she was wonderful; it was almost her own gaiety, flickering like pale sunlight upon her face, that she had regained, and, as they went together over the lawn to where the tea-table was laid in the shade, he saw that she could face them all. No one would know. And her last words had given him heart, had lifted, a little, the heavy weight of foreboding. Perhaps, perhaps, her grief wasn’t for herself. “Oh, but I can’t be candid till you are,” he said, the new hope shining in his eyes.

“Oh, yes, you will be,” she returned. “You won’t ask me to be candid. You’ll give and not ask to get back. I know you, Jack.”

No one could guess; Sir Basil least of all. That was apparent to Jack as he watched them all sitting at tea under the apple-trees. Sir Basil had never looked so radiant, so innocent of any connection with suffering. He exclaimed over the beauties of their long drive. They had crossed hill and dale; they had lost their way; they had had lunch at a village hotel, an amusing lunch, ending with ice-cream and pie, and, from the undiminished reflection of his contentment on Valerie’s features, Jack knew that any faintest hint of the pale, stricken anguish of the woodlands had never for an instant hovered during the drive. This was the face that Sir Basil had seen for all the happy, sunny, picnic day, this face of gay tranquillity.

Sir Basil and Mrs. Upton, indeed, expressed what gaiety there was among the group. Mary, in her blue lawn, looked very dreary. Rose and Eddy were ill-tempered, their day, plainly, having ended in a quarrel. As for Imogen, Jack had felt her heavy eye rest upon him and her mother as they came together over the lawn, and felt it rest upon her mother and Sir Basil steadily and somberly, while they sat about the tea-table. The long drive, Sir Basil’s radiance, her mother’s serenity, how must they look to Imogen? Jack could conjecture, though knowing, for his own bitter mystification, that what they looked like was perhaps not what they meant. Imogen must be truly at bay, and he felt a cruel satisfaction in the thought of her hidden, her gnawing anxiety. He was aware of every ring of falsity in her placid voice and of every flash of fierceness under the steeled calmness of her eye. He noticed, too, for the rest of the day, that, whatever Imogen’s desperation, she made no effort to see Sir Basil alone. Almost ostentatiously she went away to her room after tea, saying that she had had bad news of an invalid _protege_ and must write to her. She paused, as she went, to lean over Mary, a caressing hand upon her shoulder, and to speak to her in a low tone. Mary grew very red, stammered, and said nothing.

“Miss Upton overworks, I think,” observed Miss Bocock. “I’ve thought that she seemed overstrained all day.”

Mary had risen too, and as she wandered away into the flower garden, Jack followed her.

“See here,” he said, “has Imogen been hurting you again?”

“No, Jack, oh no;–I’m sure she doesn’t mean to hurt.”

“What did she say to you just now?”

“Well, Jack, you did bring it upon yourself, and upon me”–

“What was it?”

“She said that she couldn’t bear to see her white flower–that’s I, you know,”–Mary blushed even deeper in repeating the metaphor–“used for unworthy ends. She meant, of course, I see that,–she meant that what she said at lunch was for you and not for me. I’m sure that Imogen _means_ to be kind–always.”

“I believe she does.”

“I’m glad that you feel that, too, Jack. It is so horrible to see oneself as–oh, really disloyal sometimes.”

“You need never feel that, Mary.”

“Oh, but I do. And now, when everything, every one, seems turning against Imogen! And she has seemed different;–yet for two years she has been a revelation of everything noble to me.”

“You only saw her in noble circumstances.”

“Oh, Jack,” Mary’s eyes were full of tears as she looked at him now, “that’s the worst of all; that you have come to speak of her like that.”

XXVIII

Even Valerie couldn’t dispel the encompassing cloud of gloom at dinner. One couldn’t do much in such a fog but drift with it. And Jack saw that she was fit for no more decisive action.

Imogen, pale, and almost altogether silent, said that she was very tired, and went up-stairs early. Rose and Eddy, in a shaded corner of the drawing-room, engaged in a long altercation. The others talked, in desultory fashion, till bedtime. No one seemed fit for more than drifting.

It was hardly eleven when Jack was left alone with Mrs. Upton.

“You are tired, too,” he said to her; “dreadfully tired. I mustn’t ask for our talk.”

“I should like a little stroll in the moonlight.” Valerie, at the open window, was looking out. “In a night or two it will be too late for us to see. We’ll have our walk and our talk, Jack.”

She rang for her white chuddah, told the maid to put out the lamps, and that she and Mr. Pennington would shut the house when they came in. From the darkened house they stepped into the warm, pale night. They went in silence over the lawn and, with no sense of choice, took the mossy path that led to the rustic bench where they had met that afternoon.

It was not until they were lost in the obscurity of the woods that Valerie said, very quietly: “Do you remember our talk, Jack, on that evening in New York, after the tableaux?”

He had followed along the path just behind her; but now he came to her side so that he could see her shadowy face. “Yes;–the evening in which we saw that Imogen and Sir Basil were going to be friends.”

“And the evening,” said Valerie, “when you showed me plainly, at last, that because I seemed gold to you, Imogen’s blue had turned to green.”

“Yes;–I remember.”

“It has faded further and further away, her blue, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” he confessed.

“So that you are hardly friends, Jack?”

He paused for a moment, and then completed his confession:–“We are not friends.”

Valerie stood still, breathing as if with a little difficulty after the gradual ascent. The tall trees about them were dark and full of mystery on the pale mysterious sky. Through the branches they could see the glint of the moon’s diminished disk.

“That is terrible, you know,” said Valerie, after they had stood in silence for some moments.

“I know it.”

“For both of you.”

“Worse for me, because I cared more, really cared more.”

“No, worse for her, for it is you who have judged and rejected her.”

“She thinks that it is she who has judged and rejected me.”

“She tries to think it; she does not always succeed. It has been bitter, it has been cruel for her.”

“Oh, yes, bitter and cruel,” he assented.

“Don’t try to minimize her pain, Jack.”

“You feel that I can’t care, much?”

“It is horrible for me to feel it. Think of her when I came, so secure, so calm, so surrounded by love and appreciation. And now”–Valerie walked on, as if urged to motion by the controlled force of her own insistence. Was it an appeal to him that Imogen, dispossessed of the new love, might find again the old love opening to her? He clung to the hope, though with a sickening suspicion of its folly.

“By my coming, I have robbed her of everything,” Valerie was saying, walking swiftly up the path and breathing as if with that slight difficulty–the sound of her breaths affected him with an almost intolerable sense of expectancy. “She isn’t secure;–she isn’t calm. She is warped;–her faiths are warped. Her friends are changed to her. She has lost you. It’s as if I had shattered her life.”

“Everything that wasn’t real you have shattered.”

The rustic bench was reached and they paused there, though with no eyes for the shaft of mystic distance that opened before them. Jack’s eyes were on her and he was conscious of a rising insistence in himself that matched and opposed her own.

“But you must be sorry for her pain,” said Valerie, and now, with eyes almost stern in their demand, she gazed at him;–“you must be sorry that she has had to lose so much. And you would be glad, would you not, to think that real things, a new life, were to come to her?”

He understood; even before the words, his fear, his presage, leaped forward to this crashing together of all his hopes. And it seemed to him that a flame passed through him, shriveling in its ardent wrath all trite reticences and decorums.

“No; no, I should not be glad,” he answered. His voice was violent; the eyes he fixed on her were violent. His words struck Imogen out of his life for ever.

“Why are you so cruel?” she faltered.

“I am cruel for _you_. I know what you want to do. You are going to give her _your_ life.”

Quick as a flash she answered–it was like a rapier parrying his stroke:–“Give?–what have I to do with it, if it comes to her?”

“Everything! Everything!” he cried.

“Nothing. You are mistaken.”

“Ah,–you could keep it, you could keep it–if you tried.” And now his eyes pleaded–pleaded with her, for her own life’s sake, to keep what was hers. “You have only to _show_ her to him, as you did to me.”

“You think–I could do that!–to my child!”–Through the darkness her white face looked a wild reproach at him.

He seized her hands:–“It’s to do her no wrong!–It’s only to be true, consciously, to him, as you were true, unconsciously, to me. It’s only, not to let her rob you–not to let her rob him.”

“Jack,” she breathed heavily, “these are things that cannot be said.”

“They must–they must–now, between us. I have my right. I’ve cared enough–to do anything, so that she should not rob you!” Jack groaned.

“She has not robbed me. It left me;–it went to her;–I saw it all. Even if I had been base enough, even if I had tried to keep it by showing her to him–as you say so horribly,–even then I should not have kept it. He would not have seen. Don’t you understand;–he is not that sort of man. She will always be blue to him, and I will always be gold–though perhaps, now, a little tarnished. That’s what is so beautiful in him–and so stupid. He doesn’t see colors, as you and I do, Jack. That’s what makes me sure that this is the happiest of fortunes for them both.”

He had held her hands, gazing at her downcast face, its strength speaking from the shadow, its pain hidden from him, and now, before her resolution and her gentleness, he bent his head upon the hands he held. “Oh, but _you, you, you_!–It’s _you_ whose life is shattered!” broke from him with a sob.

For a long while she stood silent above him, her hands enfolding his, as though she comforted his grief. He found himself at length kissing the gentle hands, with tears, and then, caressing his bent head with a light touch, she said: “Don’t you see that the time has come for me to accept shatterings as in the order of things, dear Jack?–My mistake has been to believe that life can begin over again. It can’t. One uses it up–merely by waiting. I’ve been an incurable girl till now;–and now, I’ve crashed from girlhood to middle-age in a week! It’s been a crash, of course; the sort of crash one never mends of; but after to-day, after you sent me off with him, Jack, and I allowed myself, in spite of all my dread, my pride, my relinquishment, just one flicker of girlish hope,–after all this, I think that I must put on caps to show that I am really old at last.”

He lifted his head and looked at her. Her face was lovely, with the silver disk of the moon above it and, about it, the mystery and sadness of the tranquil woods. So lovely, so young, with almost the trembling touch of a tender mockery, like the trembling of moonlit water, upon it. And all that he found to say at last was:–“What a fool he is.”

She really smiled then, though tears sprang to her eyes with her comprehension of all that the helpless, boyish words struggled to subdue.

“Thanks for that, dear Jack,–and for all the other mistakes,” she said.

There seemed nothing more to say, no questions to ask, or to answer. He must accept from her that her plight was irrevocable. It was as if he had seen a great stone rolled over the quivering, springing, shining fountain, sealing it, stilling it for ever. And, for his part, her word covered all. His “mistakes” needed no further revealing.

They had turned and, in silence, were moving down the path again, when they heard, suddenly, the sound of light, swift footsteps approaching them. They paused, exchanging a glance of wonder; and Jack thought that he saw fear in Valerie’s eyes. The day, already, had held overmuch of endurance for her, and it was not yet ended. In another moment, tall and illumined, Imogen appeared before them in the path.

Jack knew, in thinking it over afterward, that Imogen at her most baleful had been Imogen at her most beautiful. She had looked, as she emerged from shadow into light, like a virgin saint bent on some wild errand through the night, an errand brought to a proud pause, in which was no fear and no hesitancy, as her path was crossed by the spirits of an evil world. That was really just what she looked like, standing there before them, bathed in light, her eyes profound and stern, her hair crowning her with a glory of transmuted gold, her head uplifted with a high, unfaltering purpose. That the shock of finding them there before her was great, one saw at once; and one could gage the strength of her purpose from her instantaneous surmounting of the shock.

And it was strange, in looking back, to remember how the time of colorless light and colorless shadow had seemed to divest them all of daily conventions and daily seemings. They might have been three disembodied souls met there in the moonlit woods and speaking the direct, unimpeded language of souls, for whom all concealments are useless.

“Oh–it is _you_,” was what Imogen said; much as the virgin saint might have greeted the familiar demons who opposed her quest. _You_, meant both of them. She put them together into one category of evil, saw them as one in their enmity to her and to good. And she seemed to accept them as very much what a saint might expect to find on such a nocturnal errand.

Involuntarily Valerie had fallen back, and she had put her hand on Jack’s shoulder in confusion more than in fear. Yet, feeling a menace in the white, shining presence, her voice faltered as she asked: “Imogen, what are you doing here?”

And it was at this point that Imogen reached, really, her own culmination. Whatever shame, whatever hesitation, whatever impulsion to deceive when deception was so easy, she may have felt; to lie, when a lie would be so easily convincing, she rejected and triumphed over. Jack knew from her uplifted look that the moment would count with her always as one of her great ones one of the moments in which–as she had used to say to him sometimes in the days that were gone forever–one knew that one had “beat down Satan under one’s feet.”

“You have no right to ask me that,” she said, “but I choose to answer you. I have come here to meet Sir Basil.”

“Meet him?” It was in pure bewilderment that Valerie questioned, helplessly, without reproach.

“Meet him. Yes. What have you to say to it?”

“But why meet him?–Why now?” The wonder on Valerie’s face had broken to almost merriment. “Did he ask you to?–Really, really, he oughtn’t to. Really, my child, I can’t have you meeting Sir Basil in the woods at midnight.”

“You can’t have me meeting him in the woods at midnight?” Imogen repeated, an ominous cadence, holding her head high and taking long breaths. “You say that, dare say it, when you well know that I can meet him nowhere else and in no other way. It was _I_ who asked him to meet me here and it is here, confronted with you, if you so choose; it is here, before you and under God’s stars, that I shall know the truth from him. I am not ashamed; I am proud to say it;–I love him. And though you scheme, and stoop and strive to take him from me–you, with Jack to help you–Jack to lie for you–as he did this morning,–I know, I know in my heart and soul that he loves me, that he is mine.”

“Jack!–Jack!” Valerie cried. She caught him back, for he started forward to seize, to gag her daughter; “Jack–remember, remember!–She doesn’t understand!”

“Oh, he may strike me if he wills.” Imogen had stood quite still, not flinching.

“I don’t want to strike you–you–you idiot!”–Jack was gasping. “I want to force you to your knees, before your mother–who loves you–as no one else who knows you will ever love you!” And, helplessly, his old words, so trite, so inadequate, came back to him. “You self-centered, you self-righteous, you cold-hearted girl!”

Valerie still held his arm with both hands, leaning upon him.

“Imogen,” she said, speaking quickly, “you needn’t meet Sir Basil in this way;–there is nothing to prevent you from seeing him where and when you will. You are right in believing that he loves you. He asked me this morning for your hand. And I gave him my consent.”

From a virgin saint Imogen, as if with the wave of a wand, saw herself turned into a rather foolish genie, so transformed and then, ever so swiftly, run into a bottle;–it was surely the graceful seal firmly affixed thereto when she heard these words of conformity to the traditions of dignified betrothal. And for once in her life, so bottled and so sealed, she looked, as if through the magic crystal of her mother’s words, absolutely, helplessly foolish. It is difficult for a genie in a bottle to look contrite or stricken with anything deeper than astonishment; nor is it practicable in such a situation to fall upon one’s knees,–if a genie were to feel such an impulse of self-abasement. It was perhaps a comfort to all concerned, including a new-comer, that Imogen should be reduced to the silence of sheer stupefaction; and as Sir Basil appeared among them it was not at him, after her first wide glance, that she looked, but, still as if through the crystal bottle, at her mother, and the look was, at all events, a confession of utter inadequacy to deal with the situation in which she found herself.

It was Valerie, once more, who steered them all past the giddy whirlpool. Jack, beside her, his heart and brain turning in dizzy circles, marveled at her steadiness of eye, her clearness of voice. He would have liked to lean against a tree and get his breath; but this delicate creature, rising from her rack, could move forward to her place beside the helm, and smile!

“Sir Basil,” she said, and she put out her hand to him so mildly that Sir Basil may well have thought his rather uncomfortable _rendezvous_ redeemed into happiest convention, “here we all are waiting for you, and here we are going to leave you, you and Imogen, to take a walk and to say some of all the things you will have to say to each other. Give me your hand, Imogen. There, dear friend, I think that it is yours, and I trust her life to you with, my blessing. Now take your walk, I will wait for you, as late as you like, in the drawing-room.”

So was the bottled genie released, so did it resume once more the figure of a girl, hardly humbled, yet, it must be granted, deeply confused. In perfect silence Imogen walked away beside her suitor, and it may be said that she never told him of the little episode that had preceded his arrival. Jack and Valerie went slowly on toward the house. Now that she had grasped the helm through the whirlpool he almost expected that she would fall upon the deck. But, silently, she walked beside him, not taking his arm, wrapped closely in her shawl, and, once more inside the dark drawing-room, she proceeded to light the candles on the mantel-piece, saying that she would wait there until the others came in, smiling very faintly as she added:–“That everything may be done properly and in order.” Jack walked up and down the room, his hands deeply thrust into the pockets of his dining-jacket.

“As for you, you had better go to bed,” Valerie went on after a moment. She had placed the candles on a table, taken a chair near them and chosen a review. She turned the pages while she spoke.

At this, he, too, being disposed of, he stopped before her. “And you wanted me to be glad!”

Her eyes on the unseen print, she turned her pages, and now that they were out of the woods and surrounded by walls and furniture and everyday symbols, he saw that the pressure of his presence was heavier, and that she blushed a deep, weary blush. But she was able and willing quite to dispose of him. “I want you to be glad,” she answered.

“For her!”–For that creature!–his words implied.

“It was natural, what she thought,” said Valerie after a moment, though not looking up.

“Natural!–To suspect you!”–

“Of what you wanted me to do?” Valerie asked. “Yes, it was quite natural, I think, and partly because of your manoeuvers, my poor Jack. I understand it all now. But the cause you espoused was already a doomed one, you see.”

“Oh!” he almost groaned. “_You_ doomed it! Don’t you feel any pity for _him_?”

Valerie continued to look at her page, silently, for a moment, and it was now indeed as though his question found some reverberating echo in herself. But, in the silent moment, she thought it out swiftly and surely, grasping old clues.

“No, Jack,” she said, and she was giving herself, as well as him, the final answer, “I don’t pity him. He will never see Imogen baffled, warped, at bay,–as we have. He will always see her crowned, successful, radiant. She will count tremendously over there, far more than I ever would, because she’s so different, because she cares such a lot. And Imogen must count to be radiant. She will help him in all sorts of ways, give him a new life; she will help everybody. Do you remember what Eddy said of her, that if it weren’t for people of the Imogen type the cripples would die off like anything!–That was true. She is one of the people who make the wheels of the world go round. And it’s a revival for a man like Sir Basil to live with such a person. With me he would have faded back into the onlooker at life; with Imogen he will live. And then, above all, quite above all, he is in love with her. I think that he fell in love with her at first sight, as Antigone, at her loveliest, except for to-night; to-night was her very loveliest–because it was so real;–she would have claimed him from me–before me–if he had come then; and her belief in herself, didn’t you see, Jack, how it illumined her?–And then, Jack, and this I’m afraid you are forgetting, Imogen is a good girl, a very good girl. I can trust him to her, you know. Her object in life will be to love him in the most magnificent way possible. His happiness will be as much of an end to her as her own.”

It was, perhaps, the culminating symptom of his initiation, of his transformation, when Jack, who had considered her while she spoke, standing perfectly still, his hands in his pockets, his head bent, his eyes steadily on her, now, finding nothing better to do than obey her first suggestion and go to bed, took her hand before going, put it to his lips–and his glance, as he kissed her hand, brought the tears, again, to Valerie’s eyes–and said: “Damn goodness.”

XXIX

Imogen was, indeed, crowned and radiant. And, safe on her eminence, recovered from the breathlessness of her rather unbecoming vigorous ascent, she found her old serenity, her old benignity, safely enfolded her once more. In looking down upon the dusty lowlands, where she had been blind and bitter, she could afford to smile over herself, even to shake her head a little over the vehemence of her own fear and courage. It was to have lacked faith, to have lacked wisdom, the showing of such vehemence; yet, who knew, without it, perhaps, she might not have escaped the nets that had been laid for her feet, for Basil’s feet, too, his strong and simple nature making him helpless before sly ambushes. Jack, in declaring himself her enemy, had effectually killed the last faint wailing that had so piteously, so magnanimously, sounded on for him in her heart. He had, by his trickster’s dexterity, proved to her, if she needed proof, that she had chosen the higher. A man who could so stoop–to lies–was not the man for her. To say nothing of his iniquity, his folly was apparent. For Jack had behaved like a fool, he must see that himself, in his espousal of a lost cause.

Jack as delinquent stood plain, and she would accuse no one else. In the bottom of Imogen’s heart lingered, however, the suspicion that only when her mother had seen the cause as lost, the contest as useless, had she hastily assumed the dignified attitude that, for the dizzy, moonlit moment, had, so humiliatingly, sealed her, Imogen, into the magic bottle. Imogen suspected that she hadn’t been so wrong, nor her mother so magnanimous as had then appeared, and this secret suspicion made it the easier for her to accept the seeming, since to do that was to show herself anybody’s equal in magnanimity. She was quite sure that her mother, in her shallow way, had cared for Basil, and not at all sure that she had relinquished her hope at the first symptom of his change of heart. But, though one couldn’t but feel stern at the thought, one couldn’t, also, repress something of pity for the miscalculation of the defeated love. To feel pity, moreover, was to show herself anybody’s equal in heart;–Jack’s accusations rankled.

Yes; considering all things, and in spite of the things that, she must always suspect, were hidden, her mother had behaved extremely well.

“And above all,” Imogen thought, summing it up in terms at once generous and apt, “she has behaved like the gentlewoman that she is. With all her littlenesses, all her lacks, mama is essentially that.” And the sweetest moments of self-justification were those in which her heart really ached a little for “poor mama,” moments in which she wondered whether the love that had come to her, in her great sorrow, high among the pine woods, had ever been her mother’s to lose. The wonder made her doubly secure and her mother really piteous.

It was easy, her heart stayed on such heights, to suffer very tolerantly the little stings that flew up to her from the buzzing, startled world. Jack she did not see again, until the day of her wedding, only a month later, and then his face, showing vaguely among the shimmering crowd, seemed but an empty mask of the past. Jack departed early on the morning after her betrothal, and it was only lesser wonders that she had to face. Mary’s was the one that teased most, and Imogen might have felt some irritation had that not now been so inappropriate a sensation, before Mary’s stare, a stare that seemed to resume and take in, in the moment of stupefaction, a world of new impressions. The memory of Mary staring, with her hair done in a new and becoming way, was to remain for Imogen as a symbol of the vexatious and altered, perhaps the corrupted life, that she was, after all, leaving for good in leaving her native land.

“Sir Basil!–You are going to marry Sir Basil, Imogen!” said Mary.

“Yes, dear. Does that surprise you? Haven’t you, really, seen it coming?–We fancied that everyone must be guessing, while we were finding it out for ourselves,” Imogen answered, ever so gently.

“No, I never saw it, never dreamed of it.”

“It seemed so impossible? Why, Mary dear?”

“I don’t know;–he is so much older;–he isn’t an American;–you won’t live in your own country;–I never imagined you marrying anyone but an American.”

The deepest wonder, Imogen knew it very well, was the one she could not express:–I thought that he was in love with your mother.

Imogen smiled over the simplicity of the spoken surprises. “I don’t think that the question of years separates people so at one as Basil and I,” she said. “You would find how little such things meant, Mary mine, if your calm little New England heart ever came to know what a great love is. As for my country, my country will be my husband’s country, but that will not make me love my old home the less, nor make me forget all the things that life has taught me here, any more than I shall be the less myself for being a bigger and better self as his wife.” And Imogen looked so uplifted in saying it that poor, bewildered Mary felt that Mrs. Upton, after all, was right, one couldn’t tell where rightness was. Such love as Imogen’s couldn’t be wrong. All the same, she was not sorry that Imogen, all transfigured as she undoubtedly was, should be going very far away. Mary did not feel happy with Imogen any longer.

Rose took the tidings in a very unpleasant manner; but then Rose didn’t count; in any circumstances her effrontery went without saying. One simply looked over it, as in this case, when it took the form of an absolute silence, a white, smiling silence.

Oddly enough, from the extreme of Rose’s anger, came Eddy’s chance. She didn’t tell Eddy that she saw his mother as robbed and that, in silence, her heart bled for her; but she did say to him, several days after Imogen’s announcement, that, yes, she would.

“I know that I should be bound to take you some day, and I’d rather do it just now when your mother has quite enough bothers to see to without having your anxieties on her mind! I’ll never understand anyone so well as I do