Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Keren Vergon, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
BY HENRY KITCHELL WEBSTER
I THE CIRCASSIAN GRAND
II SEA DRIFT
III THE PEACE BASIS
IV THE PICTURE PUZZLE
V JOHN MAKES A POINT OF IT
VII NO THOROUGHFARE
VIII THE DUMB PRINCESS
IX IN HARNESS
X AN INTERVENTION
XI NOT COLLECTABLE
XII HICKORY HILL
XIII LOW HANGS THE MOON
XIV A CLAIRVOYANT INTERVAL
XV THE END OF IT
XVI FULL MEASURE
XVII THE WAYFARER
XVIII A CASE OF NECESSITY
XIX THE DRAMATIST
XX TWO WOMEN AND JOHN
XXI THE SUBSTITUTE
XXII THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE
XXIII THE TERROR
XXIV THE WHOLE STORY
XXVI JOHN ARRIVES
XXVII SETTLING PAULA
XXVIII THE KALEIDOSCOPE
THE CIRCASSIAN GRAND
Miss Lucile Wollaston was set to exude sympathy, like an aphid waiting for an overworked ant to come down to breakfast. But there was no sympathizing with the man who came in from a doctor’s all-night vigil like a boy from a ball-game, gave her a hard brisk kiss on the cheek-bone, and then, before taking his place at the table, unfolded the morning paper for a glance at the head-lines.
If there was something rigorous about the way she lighted the alcohol lamp under the silver urn and rang for Nathaniel, the old colored butler, it was from a determination not to let this younger brother of hers put her into a flurry again as he so often did. A very much younger brother indeed, he seemed when this mood was on him.
Miss Wollaston was born on the election day that made James Buchanan president of the United States and Doctor John within a few days of Appomattox. But one would have said, looking at them here at the breakfast table on a morning in March in the year 1919, that there was a good deal more than those ten years between them. He folded his paper and sat down when the butler suggestively pulled out his chair for him and his manner became, for the moment, absent, as his eye fell upon a letter beside his plate addressed in his daughter, Mary’s, handwriting.
“I want a big platter of ham and eggs, Nat, sliced thick. And a few of Lucartha’s wheat cakes.” He made some sort of good-humored, half articulate acknowledgment of the old servitor’s pleasure in getting such an order, but one might have seen that his mind was a little out of focus, for it was not exactly dealing with the letter either. He sliced it open with a table knife with the precise movement one would have expected from a surgeon and disengaged it in the same neat way from its envelope. But he read it as if he weren’t very sharply aware of what, particularly, it had to say and he laid it beside his plate again without any comment.
“Did you have any sleep last night, at all?” Miss Wollaston asked.
It brought him back like a flash. “Not a wink,” he said jovially.
This was a challenge and the look that went with it, one of clear boyish mischief, was one that none of John Wollaston’s other intimates–and among these I include his beautiful young wife and his two grown-up children by an earlier marriage–ever saw. It was a special thing for this sister who had been a stately young lady of twenty when he was a bad little boy of ten. She had watched him, admiring yet rather aghast, ever since then.
To the world at large his social charm lay in–or was at least inseparable from–his really exquisite manners, his considerateness, the touch of old-fashioned punctilio there was about him. His first wife would have agreed with her successor about his possession of this quality though they would have appraised it rather differently. Only this elderly unmarried sister of his felt the fascination of the horrible about him.
This was to some extent inherent in his profession. He had a reputation that was growing to amount to fame as a specialist in the very wide field of gynecology, obstetrics and abdominal surgery. The words themselves made Miss Wollaston shudder.
When he replied to her question, whether or not he had had any sleep at all, with an open grin and that triumphant “Not a wink,” she had a prophetic sense of what was going to happen. She was going to ask him more questions and he was going to tell her something perfectly ghastly.
She felt herself slipping, but she pulled up. “What’s in Mary’s letter?” she asked.
She knew that this was not quite fair, and the look that it brought to his face–a twinge of pain like neuralgia–awakened a sharp compunction in her. She did not know why–at least not exactly why–his relation with his daughter should be a sore spot in his emotional life, but she knew quite well that this was true. There was on the surface, nothing, or nowhere near enough, to account for it.
He had always been, Miss Wollaston felt, an adorer to the verge of folly of this lovely pale-blonde daughter of his. He had indulged her outrageously but without any evident bad results. Upon her mother’s death, in 1912 that was, when Mary was seventeen years old, she had, to the utmost limit that a daughter could compass, taken her mother’s place in the bereaved man’s life. She had foregone the college course she was prepared for and had taken over very skillfully the management of her father’s household; even, in a surprisingly successful way, too, the motherly guidance of her two-years-younger brother, Rush. Miss Wollaston’s testimony on these two points was unbiased as it was ungrudging. She had offered herself for that job and had not then been wanted.
Two years later there had been a quarrel between John and his daughter. She fell in love, or thought she did–for indeed, how could a child of nineteen know?–with a man to whom her father decisively and almost violently objected. Just how well founded this objection was Miss Wollaston had no means of deciding for herself. There was nothing flagrantly wrong with the man’s manners, position or prospects; but she attributed to her brother a wisdom altogether beyond her own in matters of that sort and sided with him against the girl without misgiving. And the fact that the man himself married another girl within a month or two of Mary’s submission to her father’s will, might be taken as a demonstration that he was right.
John had done certainly all he could to make it up with the girl. He tried to get her to go with him on what was really a junket to Vienna–there was no better place to play than the Vienna of those days–though there was also some sort of surgical congress there that spring that served him as an excuse, and Mary, Miss Wollaston felt, had only herself to blame for what happened.
She had elected to be tragic; preferred the Catskills with a dull old aunt to Vienna with a gay young father. John went alone, sore from the quarrel and rather adrift. In Vienna, he met Paula Carresford, an American opera singer, young, extraordinarily beautiful, and of unimpeachable respectability. They were in Vienna together the first week in August, 1914. They got out together, sailed on the same ship for America and in the autumn of that year, here in Chicago, in the most decorous manner in the world, John married her.
There was a room in Miss Wollaston’s well ordered mind which she had always guarded as an old-fashioned New England village housewife used to guard the best parlor, no light, no air, no dust, Holland covers on all the furniture. Rigorously she forbore to speculate upon the attraction which had drawn John and Paula together–upon what had happened between them–upon how the thing had looked and felt to either of them. She covered the whole episode with one blanket observation: she supposed it was natural in the circumstances.
And there was much to be thankful for. Paula was well-bred; she was amiable; she was “nice”; nice to an amazing degree, considering. She had made a genuine social success. She had given John a new lease on life, turned back the clock for him, oh–years.
Mary, Miss Wollaston felt, had taken it surprisingly well. At the wedding she had played her difficult part admirably and during the few months she had stayed at home after the wedding, she had not only kept on good terms with Paula but had seemed genuinely to like her. In the spring of the next year, 1915, she had, indeed, left home and had not been back since except for infrequent visits. But then there was reason enough–excuse enough, anyhow–for that. The war was enveloping them all. Rush had left his freshman year at Harvard uncompleted to go to France and drive an ambulance (he enlisted a little later in the French Army). Mary had gone to New York to work on the Belgian War Relief Fund, and she had been working away at it ever since.
There was then no valid reason–no reason at all unless she were willing to go rummaging in that dark room of her mind for it–why John should always wince like that when one reminded him of Mary. It was a fact, though, that he did, and his sister was too honest-minded to pretend she did not know it.
He answered her question now evenly enough. “She’s working harder than ever, she says, closing up her office. She wants some more money, of course. And _she’s_ heard from Rush. He’s coming home. He may be turning up almost any day now. She hopes to get a wire from him so that she can meet him in New York and have a little visit with him, she says, before he comes on here.”
It was on Miss Wollaston’s tongue to ask crisply, “Why doesn’t she come home herself now that her Fund is shutting up shop?” But that would have been to state in so many words the naked question they tacitly left unasked. There was another idea in her brother’s mind that she thought she could deal with. He had betrayed it by the emphasis he put on the fact that it was to Mary and not to himself that Rush had written the news that he was coming home. Certainly there was nothing in that.
“Why,” she asked brightly, “don’t you go to New York yourself and meet him?”
He answered instantly, almost sharply, “I can’t do that.” Then not liking the way it sounded in his own ear, he gave her a reason. “If you knew the number of babies that are coming along within the next month….”
“You need a rest,” she said, “badly. I don’t see how you live through horrors like that. But there must be other people–somebody who can take your work for you for a while. It can’t make all that difference.”
“It wouldn’t,” he admitted, “nine times out of ten. That call I got last evening that broke up the dinner party,–an intern at the County Hospital would have done just as well as I. There was nothing to it at all. Oh, it was a sort of satisfaction to the husband’s feelings, I suppose, to pay me a thousand dollars and be satisfied that nobody in town could have paid more and got anything better. But you see, you never can tell. The case I was called in on at four o’clock this morning was another thing altogether.” A gleam had come into his eyes again as over the memory of some brilliantly successful audacity. The gray old look had gone out of his face.
“I don’t altogether wonder that Pollard blew up,” he added, “except that a man in that profession has got no business to–ever.”
The coffee urn offered Miss Wollaston her only means of escape but she didn’t avail herself of it. She let herself go on looking for a breathless minute into her brother’s face. Then she asked weakly, “What was it?”
“Why, Pollard….” John Wollaston began but then he stopped short and listened. “I thought I heard Paula coming,” he explained.
“Paula won’t be down for hours,” Miss Wollaston said, “but I do not see why she shouldn’t hear, since she is a married woman and your own wife….”
Her brother’s “Precisely” cut across that sentence with a snick like a pair of shears and left a little silence behind it.
“I think she’ll be along in a minute,” he went on. “She always does come to breakfast. Why did you think she wouldn’t to-day?”
This was one of Miss Wollaston’s minor crosses. The fact was that on the comparatively rare occasions when Doctor John himself was present for the family breakfast at the custom-consecrated hour, Paula managed about two times in five to put in a last-minute appearance. This was not what annoyed Miss Wollaston. She was broad-minded enough to be aware that to an opera singer, the marshaling of one’s whole family in the dining-room at eight o’clock in the morning might seem a barbarous and revolting practise and even occasional submissions to it, acts of real devotion. She was not really bitterly annoyed either by Paula’s oft repeated assertion that she always came to breakfast. Paula was one of those temperamental persons who have to be forgiven for treating their facts–atmospherically. But that John, a man of science, enlisted under the banner of truth, should back this assertion of his wife’s, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, really required resignation to put up with; argued a blindness, an infatuation, which seemed to his sister hardly decent. Because after all, facts were facts, and you didn’t alter them by pretending that they did not exist.
So instead of answering her brother’s question, she sat a little straighter in her chair, and compressed her lips.
He smiled faintly at that and added, “Anyhow she said she’d be along in a minute or two.”
“Oh,” said Miss Wollaston, “you have wakened her then. I would have suggested that the poor child be left asleep this morning.”
Now he saw that she had something to tell him. “Nothing went wrong last night after I left, I hope.”
“Oh, not wrong,” Miss Wollaston conceded, “only the Whitneys went of course, when you did and the Byrnes, and Wallace Hood, but Portia Stanton and that new husband of hers stayed. It was his doing, I suppose. You might have thought he was waiting all the evening for just that thing to happen. They went up to Paula’s studio–Paula invited me, of course, but I excused myself–and they played and sang until nearly two o’clock this morning. It was all perfectly natural, I suppose. And still I did think that Paula might have sung earlier, down in the drawing-room when you asked her to.”
“She was perfectly right to refuse.” He caught his sister up rather short on that, “I shouldn’t have asked her. It was very soon after dinner. They weren’t a musical crowd anyway, except Novelli. It’s utterly unfair to expect a person like Paula to perform unless she happens to be in the mood for it. At that she’s extremely amiable about it; never refuses unless she has some real reason. What her reason was last night, I don’t know, but you may be perfectly sure it was sufficient.”
He would have realized that he was protesting too much even if he had not read that comment in his sister’s face. But somehow he couldn’t have pulled himself up but for old Nat’s appearance with the platter of ham and eggs and the first installment of the wheat cakes. He was really hungry and he settled down to them in silence.
And, watching him between the little bites of dry toast and sips of coffee, Miss Wollaston talked about Portia Stanton. Everybody, indeed, was talking about Portia these days but Miss Wollaston had a special privilege. She had known Portia’s mother rather well,–Naomi Rutledge Stanton, the suffrage leader, she was–and she had always liked and admired Portia; liked her better than the younger and more sensational daughter, Rose.
Miss Wollaston hoped, hoped with all her heart that Portia had not made a tragic mistake in this matter of her marriage. She couldn’t herself quite see how a sensible girl like Portia could have done anything so reckless as to marry a romantic young Italian pianist, ten years at least her junior. It couldn’t be denied that the experiment seemed to have worked well so far. Portia certainly seemed happy enough last night; contented. There was a sort of glow about her there never was before. But the question was how long would it last. How long would it be before those big brown Italian eyes began looking soulfully at somebody else; somebody more….
It was here that Miss Wollaston chopped herself off short, hearing–this time it was no false alarm–Paula’s step in the hall. She’d have been amazed, scandalized, profoundly indignant, dear good-hearted lady that she was, had some expert in the psychology of the unconscious pointed out to her that the reason she had begun talking about Portia was that it gave her an outlet for expressing her misgivings about her own brother’s marriage. Paula, of course, was a different thing altogether.
What a beautiful creature she was, even at eight o’clock in the morning at the end of an abruptly terminated night’s sleep. She looked lovelier than ever as she came in through the shadowy doorway. She wasn’t a true blonde like Mary. Her thick strong hair was a sort of golden glorification of brown, her skin a warm tone of ivory. Her eyes, set wide apart, were brown, and the lashes, darker than her hair, enhanced the size of them. The look of power about Paula, inseparable from her beauty, was not one of Miss Wollaston’s feminine ideals. It spoke in every line of her figure as well as in the lineaments of her face; in the short, rather broad, yet cleanly defined nose; in the generous width of her mouth; in the sculpturesque poise of her neck upon her shoulders.
Paula’s clothes, too, worried her elderly sister-in-law a little, especially the house-dresses that she affected. They were beautiful, heaven knew; more simply beautiful perhaps than it was right that clothes should be. There was nothing indecent about them. Dear Paula was almost surprisingly nice in those ways. But that thing she had on now, for instance;–a tunic of ecru colored silk that she had pulled on over her head, with a little over-dress of corn colored tulle, weighted artfully here and there that it mightn’t fly away. And a string of big lumpish amber beads. She could have got into that costume in about two minutes and there was probably next to nothing under it. From the on-looker’s point of view, it mightn’t violate decorum at all; indeed, clearly did not. But Miss Wollaston herself, if she hadn’t been more or less rigidly laced, stayed, gartered, pinched, pried and pulled about; if she could have moved freely in any direction without an admonitory–“take care”–from some bit of whalebone somewhere, wouldn’t have felt dressed at all. There ought to be something perpetually penitential about clothes. The biblical story of the fall of man made that clear, didn’t it?
John sprang up as his wife came into the room; went around the table and held her chair for her. “My dear, I didn’t know I was robbing you of half a night’s sleep,” he said. “You should have turned me out.”
She reached up her strong white arms (the tulle sleeves did fall away from them rather alarmingly, and Miss Wollaston concentrated her attention on the spiggot of the coffee urn) for his head as he bent over her and pulled it down for a kiss.
“I didn’t need any more sleep. I had such a joyous time last night. I sang the whole of _Maliela_, and a lot of _Thais_. I don’t know what all. Novelli’s a marvel; the best accompanist I’ve found yet. But, oh, my darling, I did feel such a pig about it.”
He was back in his own chair by now and his sister breathed a little more freely.
“Pig?” he asked.
“Oh, because you weren’t there,” said Paula. “Because I didn’t sing before, when you asked me to.”
“Dearest!” John remonstrated,–pleased though with the apology, you could see with half an eye,–“it was inexcusable of me to have asked you. It was a dull crowd from a musical point of view. The only thing I minded was having, myself, put you into a position where you had to refuse. I am glad you were able to make it up to yourself after.”
“That was not why I didn’t,” Paula said. She always spoke rather deliberately and never interrupted any one. “I mean it wasn’t because the others weren’t especially musical. But I couldn’t have sung without asking Novelli to play. And he couldn’t have refused–being new and a little on trial you know. And that drawing-room piano, so badly out of tune, would have been terrible for him. There’s no knowing what he mightn’t have done.”
John’s face beamed triumph. “I might have known you had an unselfish reason for it,” he said. He didn’t look at his sister but, of course, the words slanted her way.
It was perfectly characteristic of Miss Wollaston that she did not, however, make any immediate attempt to set herself right. She attended first very competently to all of Paula’s wants in the way of breakfast and saw her fairly launched on her chilled grapefruit. Then she said, “A man is coming to tune the piano this morning.”
It was more than a statement of fact. Indeed I despair of conveying to you all the implications and moral reflections which Miss Wollaston contrived to pack into that simple sentence.
The drawing-room piano was what an artillerist would speak of as one of the sensitive points along the family front. It had been a present to the Wollaston household from the eldest of John’s brothers, the unmarried one Miss Wollaston had kept house for so many years before he died; the last present, it turned out, he ever made to anybody. Partly perhaps, because it was a sacred object, the Wollaston children took to treating it rather irreverently. The “Circassian grand” was one of its nicknames and the “Siamese Elephant” another. It did glare in the otherwise old-fashioned Dearborn Avenue drawing-room and its case did express a complete recklessness of expense rather than any more austere esthetic impulse.
Paula ignored it in rather a pointed way; being a musician she might have been expected to see that it was kept in tune. She had a piano of her own up in the big room at the top of the house that had once been the nursery and over this instrument, she made, Miss Wollaston felt, a silly amount of fuss. Supposedly expert tuners were constantly being called in to do things to it and nothing they did ever seemed to afford Paula any satisfaction.
The aura that surrounded Miss Wollaston’s remark included, then, the conviction that the drawing-room piano, being a sacred memory, couldn’t be out of tune in the first place; that Paula, in the second, ought to have attended to it; and third (this is rather complex but I guarantee the accuracy of it) the fact that it was to be tuned this morning, really made it a perfectly possible instrument for Mr. Novelli to have played upon last night.
John missed none of that. He hadn’t been observing his sister during half a century for nothing. He glanced over to see how much of it his wife took in; but the fact, in this instance, was all that interested Paula.
“It was awfully clever of you,” she said, “to get hold of a tuner. Who is he? Where did you find him?”
“I found him in the park,” said Miss Wollaston brightly, responding to the little thrill you always felt when Paula focused her attention upon you. “He was sitting on a bench when I drove by just after lunch. I don’t know why I noticed him but I did and when I came back hours later, he was still sitting there on the same bench. He was in uniform; a private, I think, certainly not an officer. It struck me as rather sad, his sitting there like that, so I stopped the car and spoke to him. He got his discharge just the other day, it seemed. I asked him if he had a job and he said, no, he didn’t believe he had. Then I asked him what his trade was and he said he was a piano tuner. So I told him he might come this morning and tune ours.”
It was Paula’s bewildered stare that touched off John’s peal of laughter. Alone with his sister he might have smiled to himself over the lengths she went in the satisfaction of her passion for good works. But Paula, he knew, would just as soon have invited a strange bench-warming dentist to come and work on her teeth by way of being kind to him.
Miss Wollaston, a flush of annoyance on her faded cheeks, began making dignified preparations to leave the table and John hastily apologized. “I laughed,” he said,–disingenuously because it wouldn’t do to implicate Paula–“over the idea that perhaps he didn’t want a job at all and made up on the spur of the moment the unlikeliest trade he could think of. And how surprised he must have been when you took him up.”
“He did not seem surprised,” Miss Wollaston said. “He thanked me very nicely and said he would come this morning. At ten, if that would be convenient. Of course if you wish to put it off….”
“Not at all,” said John. He rose when she did and–this was an extra bit, an act of contrition for having wounded her–went with her to the door. “It was a good idea,” he said; “an excellent way of–of killing two birds with one stone.”
Paula was smiling over this when he came back to her. “It doesn’t matter, does it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “It isn’t that it’s out of tune, really; it’s just–hopeless.”
It was strange how like a knife thrust that word of hers–hopeless–went through him. Perfectly illogical, of course; she was not speaking of his life and hers but of that ridiculous drawing-room piano. Somehow the mere glow she had brought into the room with her, the afterglow of an experience he had no share in producing, had become painful to him; made him feel old. He averted his eyes from her with an effort and stared down at his empty plate.
A moment later she came around the table and seated herself, facing him, upon the arm of his chair; clasped his neck with her two hands. “You’re tired,” she said. “How much sleep did you have last night?” And on his admitting that he hadn’t had any, she exclaimed against his working himself to death like that.
No memory, though he made a conscious effort to recover it, of his audacious success during the small hours of that morning in bringing triumphantly into the world the small new life that Pollard would have destroyed, came back to fortify him; no trace of his own afterglow that had so fascinated and alarmed his sister. “I shall sleep fast for an hour or two this morning and make it up,” he told Paula.
“I do wish you might have been there last night,” she said after a little silence. “I don’t believe I’ve ever sung so well;–could have, at least, if there had been room enough to turn around in. It was all there; it’s getting bigger all the time. Not just the voice, if you know what I mean, darling, but what I could do with it.”
“It was partly Novelli, I suspect,” he said. “Having him for an accompanist, I mean. He’s very good indeed, isn’t he?”
“Oh, yes, he’s good,” she assented absently. “Awfully good. And he is a nice furry little enthusiastic thing; like a faun, rather; exciting to play with of course. But it wasn’t that. It’s you, really–being in love with you the way I am. I suppose that’s the very best thing that could possibly have happened to me. I’m another person altogether from that girl you found in Vienna. Just where she left off, I begin.”
She uttered a little laugh then of sheer exuberance and with a strong embrace, pressed his head hard against her breast. He yielded passively, made no response of his own beyond a deep-drawn breath or two. A moment later when she had released him and risen to her feet, he rose too.
“Would Novelli be procurable?” he asked. “Could he be engaged regularly, as an accompanist for you and so on?”
She looked at him rather oddly. “Why, I don’t need him,” she said, “as long as I am just playing. Of course, if I were to go regularly to work, somebody like him would be almost necessary.”
There was a tight little silence for a few seconds after that, he once more evading her eyes. “It seems to me you work most of the time as it is,” he said. Then he announced his intention of going up-stairs to take a nap. He wasn’t going to the hospital until eleven.
He did go up to his room and lay down upon his bed and, eventually, he slept. But for an hour, his mind raced like an idle motor. That nonsense of Lucile’s about Portia Stanton’s folly in marrying a young musician whose big Italian eyes would presently begin looking soulfully at some one else. Had they already looked like that at Paula? Jealousy itself wasn’t a base emotion. Betraying it was all that mattered. You couldn’t help feeling it for any one you loved. Paula, bending over that furry faun-like head, reading off the same score with him, responding to the same emotions from the music…. Fantastic, of course. There could be no sane doubt as to who it was that Paula was in love with. That embrace of hers, just now. Curious how it terrified him. He had felt like a mouse under the soft paw of a cat. An odd symptom of fatigue.
What a curious thing life was. How widely it departed from the traditional patterns. Here in his own case, that Fate should save the one real passion of his life for the Indian summer of it. And that it should be a reciprocated passion. The wiseacres were smiling at him, he supposed; smiling as the world always smiled at the spectacle of infatuate age mating with tolerant, indifferently acquiescent youth. Smiled and wondered how long it would be before youth awoke and turned to its own. Well, he could afford to smile at the wiseacres. And at the green inexperienced young, as well, who thought that love was exclusively their affair–children the age of Mary taking their sentimental thrills so seriously!
Four years now he had been married to Paula and the thing had never chilled,–never gone stale. How different from the love of his youth that had led to his former marriage, was this burning constant flame. Paula was utterly content with him. She had given up her career for him.–No. She hadn’t done that. He had not asked her to do that. Had not, on the contrary, her marriage really furthered it? Was she not more of a person to-day than the discouraged young woman he had found singing for pittances the leading dramatic soprano roles in the minor municipal operas of Germany and Austria? Wasn’t that what she had said this morning–that falling in love with him was the best thing that could possibly have happened to her? He had taken it wrong when she said it, as if she were regarding him just as an instrument that served her purpose, a purpose that lay beyond him; outside him.
That was what had given him that momentary pang of terror. Fatigue, of course. He ought to go to sleep. Paula was refraining from her morning practise just so that he could. Or was that why? Was she dreaming, up in the music room where she was never to be disturbed,–of last night–of Novelli? Damnation….
Paula went up to the music room after breakfast, stood at one of its open windows for a few minutes breathing in the air of an unusually mild March and then abruptly left it; dressed for the street and went out for a walk.
She was quite as much disturbed over the scene in the dining-room as her husband had been. His flash of jealousy over the little Italian pianist, instantly recognizable through its careful disguise, had only endeared John Wollaston to her further, if that were possible. She had laughed and hugged his worried old head tight against her breast.
But his refusal to face facts about her musical career was another thing altogether. Once more he had, patently and rather pitiably, evaded the subject of her going seriously to work. Did he think that she could go on indefinitely parading a parlor accomplishment for his society friends,–singing nice little English songs for Wallace Hood? It was too ridiculous! That hadn’t been their understanding when she married him.
What she had been sure of last night as never before, she had tried down there in the dining-room to convey to him; that her powers were ripe, were crying out for use. She had failed simply because he had refused to see what she was driving at. It was just another form of jealousy really, she supposed.
She was not an introspective person, but this, clearly, was something that wanted thinking over. It was to “think” that she went out for the walk. Only, being Paula, the rhythm of her stride, the sparkle of the spring air, the stream of sharp new-minted sensations incessantly assailing eye and ear, soon swamped her problem; sunk it beneath the level of consciousness altogether. Long before ten o’clock when she came swinging along Dearborn Avenue toward her husband’s house, she had “walked off” her perplexities.
A block from the house she found herself overtaking a man in uniform and slackened her pace a little in order not to pass him. There was something unmilitary about the look of him that mildly amused her. It was not that he slouched nor shuffled nor that he was ill-made, though he was probably one of those unfortunates whom issue uniforms never fit. He carried a little black leather satchel, and it broke over Paula that here perhaps was Lucile’s piano tuner. She half formed the intention to stay away another hour or two until he should have had time to finish. But he interfered with that plan by stopping in front of the house and looking at it as if making up his mind whether to go in.
It was an odd look he had, but distinctly an engaging one. He was not criticizing the architecture, if so it could be called, of the house-front. Yet there was a sort of comfortable detachment about him which precluded the belief that it was a mere paralyzing shyness that held him there.
Paula abandoned her intention of walking by. She stopped instead as she came up to him and said, “Are you coming in here? If you are, I’ll let you in.” She fished an explanatory latch-key out of her wrist-bag as she went up the steps.
“Why,” he said, “I believe this is the house where I’m expected to tune a piano.”
In the act of thrusting home her key, Paula stopped short, turned irrepressibly and stared at him. She was one of that very small number of American-born singers who take the English language seriously and she knew good speech when she heard it. It was one of the qualities which had first attracted her to Doctor John. This man’s speaking voice would have arrested her attention pleasantly anywhere. Coming from the private soldier Lucile had told to come round to tune the piano, it really startled her. She turned back to the door and opened it.
“Yes,” she said, “they’re expecting you. Come in and I’ll show you the piano.”
She might, of course, merely have indicated the drawing-room door to him with a nod and gone up-stairs, but she was determined now to wait and hear him say something more. So she led the way into the drawing-room and quite superfluously indicated the Circassian grand with a gesture. Then she looked back at him quickly enough to surprise the expression that flickered across his face at the sight of it. A mere cocking of one eyebrow it was, but amusingly expressive. So, too, was the way he walked over toward it, with an air of cautious determination, of readiness for anything, that made Paula want to laugh. He dropped down sidewise on the bench, turned up the lid and dug his fingers into the keyboard.
At the noise he evoked from that pampered instrument she did laugh aloud. It was not a piano tuner’s arpeggio but a curiously teasing mixed dissonance she couldn’t begin to identify. She thought she heard him say, “My God!” but couldn’t be sure. He repeated his chord pianissimo and held it down, reached up and echoed it in the upper half of the keyboard; then struck, hard, two octaves in the bass.
“What a piano!” he said. “What a damned piano!” He made a sort of effort to pull himself up; apologized (she thought that was what he meant to do) for the damn. But as he turned back to the piano and struck another chord or two, she could see that his sense of outrage was mounting steadily all the time.
“You can’t tune a piano like this.”–He pushed up the cover and stared gloomily at the strings. “A mincing sickly thing like this. It’s all wrong. The scale is all wrong. The man who designed it ought to be hung. But he called it a piano and sold it for a piano and I’m expected to come in and tune it. Slick and smear it over and leave it sounding sicklier and tubbier and more generally disgusting than ever. You might as well take a painted harlot off the streets”–he glared at the ornate extravagance of the case–“and expect to make a gentlewoman of her with one lesson in deportment. I won’t tune it. It’s better left as it is. In its shame.”
“Well,” said Paula, letting go a long breath, “you’ve said it.”
Then she dropped into a chair and began to laugh. Never again, she felt sure, would the drawing-room piano be able to cause her a moment’s irritation. This astonishing piano tuner of Lucile’s had converted it, with his new christening, into a source of innocent merriment. “The painted harlot” covered the ground. Clear inspiration was what that was. The way he went on glowering at it, digging every now and then a new and more abominable chord out of its entrails made her mirth the more uncontrollable.
“It isn’t funny, you know, a thing like this,” he remonstrated at last. “It’s serious.”
“It would be serious,” she retorted with sudden severity, “if you had said all that or anything in the least like that to Miss Wollaston. Because she really loves it. She has adopted it.”
“Was she the lady who spoke to me in the park?” His evident consternation over this aspect of the case made Paula smile as she nodded yes.
“That was an act of real kindness,” he said earnestly. “Not mere good nature. It doesn’t grow on every bush.”
To this she eagerly agreed. “She is kind; she’s a dear.” But when she saw him looking unhappily at the piano again, she said (for she hadn’t the slightest intention of abandoning him now), “There’s another one, quite a different sort of one, in the music room up-stairs. Would you like to come along and look at that?”
He followed her tractably enough, but up in her studio before looking at the piano, he asked her a question or two. Had he the name right? And was the lady related to Doctor Wollaston?
“She’s his sister,” said Paula, adding, “and I am his wife. Why, do you know him?”
“I talked with him once. He came out to the factory to see my father and I happened to be there. Two or three years ago, that was. He did an operation on my sister that saved her life. He is a great man.” He added, “My name’s Anthony March, but he wouldn’t remember me.”
He sat down at the instrument, went over the keyboard from bottom, to top and back again with a series of curious modulations. Then opening his bag and beginning to get out his tools, he said, “Before I went into the army, there was a man named Bernstein in these parts, who used to perpetrate outrages like this on pianos.”
“Yes,” said Paula, “he tuned this one two weeks ago.”
Without so much as a by your leave, Anthony March went to work.
It was Paula’s childlike way to take any pleasurable event simply as a gift from heaven without any further scrutiny of its source; with no labored attempt to explain its arrival and certainly with no misgivings as to whether or not she was entitled to it. Anthony March was such a gift. By the time he had got to work on her own piano, she knew he was pure gold and settled down joyously to make the most of him.
It was not until she attempted to give an account to the Wollastons at dinner that night, of the day they had spent together–for they had made a day of it–that she realized there was anything odd, not to say astonishing, about the episode. How in the first place did it happen that it was Paula’s piano he tuned instead of the one in the drawing-room? This was, of course, inexplicable until she could get John by himself and tell him about it. One couldn’t report to Lucile his phrase about the painted harlot. She had to content herself with stressing the fact that he intended to tune the drawing-room piano after he had finished with hers and then somehow he hadn’t got around to it.
But why had an unaccredited wanderer whom Lucile had found in the park even been given a chance at the piano up-stairs? Well, he had looked to Paula like an artist when she had let him in the door. You could tell, with people like that, if you had an eye for such matters. And then his recognition of Bernstein’s nefarious handiwork had clenched her conviction. Certainly she had been right about it; he had absolutely bewitched that piano of hers. She didn’t believe there was another such tuner in the United States. If they would come up-stairs after dinner, she’d show them. They had always thought she was unnecessarily fussy about it, but now they should see they were mistaken. It was like unveiling a statue. The poor thing had been there all the time, covered up so that you couldn’t hear it. She was so excited about it she could hardly leave it alone.
And he had been as delighted with the results as she herself. After he had played it a while for her (oh, he didn’t play well, atrociously badly really, but that didn’t matter; it only made it all the more exciting) he made her play for him. Paula smiled reminiscently when she added that he had sat all the while she was playing, on the bare floor under the piano where he could feel the vibrations as well as hear them. He had paid her an odd sort of compliment too, when he came crawling out, saying that he had assumed from the scores on the piano that she was a singer but that she played like a musician,–only not a pianist!
He was a genius, absolutely a genius of the first water, when it came to tuning pianos. Whether his talent as a composer ran to any such lengths as that she, of course, didn’t know. If what he had played for her had been his own, any of it, it was awfully modern and interesting, at least. You could tell that even though it kept him swearing at himself all the time for not being able to play it. And from something he said at lunch…
“Lunch!” Miss Wollaston gasped (she had been away from home all day). “Do you mean you had lunch with him?”
“Why not?” Paula wanted to know. “Me to have gone down-stairs and eaten all alone and had a tray sent up for him? That would have been so silly, I never even thought of it. He’s a real person. I like him a lot. And I don’t know when I’ve had such a nice day.”
Here was where Paula’s difficulties began. Because when they asked her who he was, where he lived, where he came from, what his experiences in the army had been, and whether he had been to France or not, she had to profess herself upon all these topics totally uninformed. His name she happened to know; it was Anthony March. He told her that, somehow, right at the beginning, though she couldn’t remember how the fact had cropped out.
As to the other matters her husband and his sister were seeking information about she simply hadn’t had time to get around to things like that. She thought he might have been a farmer once or some such sort of person. He liked the country anyway. He had spent a lot of time, he told her, tramping about in Illinois and Iowa, earning his way by tuning farmers’ pianos.
He hated Puccini and spoke rather disrespectfully of Wagner as a spell-binder. He liked Wolf-Ferrari pretty well; the modern he was really crazy about was Montemezzi. But he had made her sing oceans of Gluck,–both the _Iphigenia_ and _Euridice_. It was awfully funny too because he would sing the other parts wherever they happened to lie, tenor, bass, contralto, anything, in the most awful voice you ever heard, though his speaking voice was lovely. Let John just wait until he heard it. It was almost as nice as his own. Oh, he was coming back again some time. He had promised to bring over some songs of his own composing for her to try.
It was at this point or thereabouts that John precipitated a crisis by asking how much this paragon of a piano tuner had charged her for his professional services. Paula stared at him, stricken.
“Why,” she said, “I don’t believe I paid him anything. I know I didn’t. I never thought of it at all. Neither did he, for that matter though, I’m sure of it.”
This provoked Lucile into an outburst, rare with her, of outspoken indignation. The man, delinquent as he had been in the matter of the drawing-room piano, became once more her protege, her soldier whom she had found in the park and attempted to do a kindness to. Paula had kept him fussing over her piano all day and then let him go without, for all she knew, money enough to buy his supper or procure a lodging for the night.
John, though he made less commotion about it, took his wife’s negligence even more seriously for he set about attempting to repair it. “You’re quite sure,” he asked in his crisp, consulting-room manner–a manner Paula was happily unfamiliar with–“You’re quite sure he told you nothing about himself beyond his bare name? You’ve got that right, haven’t you? Anthony March?”
“Yes,” said Paula uncertainly, “I’m absolutely sure of that.”
Had he any insignia on his uniform?–little bronze numerals on his collar–anything like that that she could remember? That would tell them what organization he belonged to and might give them a clue.
Here Lucile got drawn into the inquisition. She had seen him and talked to him. Had she noticed anything of the sort? But Lucile had not. She had, naturally, deferred all inquiries until he came to tune the piano; and had she been called as she felt she should have been….
But John, it appeared, was not interested in pursuing that line. He turned back to Paula. “I wish you’d begin at the beginning, my dear, at the time you let him into the house, and try to remember as nearly as you can everything that you said to him and that he said to you. He may have said something casually that you didn’t remark at the time which would be of the greatest help to us now.”
Paula wasn’t very hopeful of obtaining any result in this way, but she dutifully went to work trying to think. She was perfectly amiable about it all. Presently her husband prompted her. “How did he happen to tell you what his name was? Can you remember that?”
After a minute, she did. “Why,” she cried, lighting up, “he said he knew you but you wouldn’t remember him. He said you did an operation on his sister once–that saved her life.”
“An unmarried sister?” he asked.
“What difference … Oh, I see, because if she was married her name wouldn’t be March. No, he didn’t say anything about that. He did say something, though, about a factory. You went out to the factory to see his father and he was there.”
John Wollaston’s face went blank for a minute and his eyelids drooped shut. Then a quick jerk of the head and a sharp expulsion of breath announced success. “That’s all right,” he said. “Thank the Lord, I’ve got it now.”
It would have seemed absurd to Paula, had she been capable of regarding anything he did in that light, that he should take a trivial matter like this so seriously. He couldn’t have looked more relieved over the successful finish of a difficult operation.
“That happens to be a case I’ll never forget,” he went on to explain. “Professionally speaking, it was unique, but it had points of human interest as well. The girl was a patient in one of the wards at the Presbyterian. I didn’t get a look at her until the last minute when it was desperate. Her father was opposed to the operation–a religious scruple, it turned out. Didn’t want God’s will interfered with. He was a workman, a skilled workman in a piano factory. There was no time to lose so I drove out there and got him; converted him on the way back to the hospital. I remember the son, now I think of it; by his speech, too. I remember thinking that the mother must have been a really cultivated woman. Well, it’s all right. I’ve got the address in the files at the office. I’ll send a letter there in the morning and enclose a check. How much ought it to be?”
Once more Paula did not know. Hadn’t, she protested, an idea; and when John asked her how much she paid Bernstein, she didn’t know that either. It all went on the bill.
“Well, that’s easy,” said John. “I’ve got last month’s bills in my desk. All right, I’ll look into it. You needn’t bother about it any more.”
An approximation to a sniff from Miss Wollaston conveyed the comment that Paula hadn’t bothered appreciably about it from the beginning, but neither of the others paid any attention to that.
As it fell out, John might have spared his labors because at eight o’clock or thereabouts the next morning just as he was sitting down to breakfast, Anthony March came back to repair his omission of the day before and tune the drawing-room piano.
A minor domestic detail of that sort would normally have fallen within Lucile’s province, but John decisively took it away from her.
“When I finish breakfast,” he said, “I’ll write him a check and take it in to him.” He added, “I’m curious to see what this new discovery of Paula’s looks like.”
That was exactly what he felt, an amused comfortable curiosity. Nothing in the least like that flash of jealousy he had felt over Novelli. If it had occurred to him to try to explain the difference to himself and had he taken the trouble to skim off the superficial explanation,–that Portia Stanton’s husband belonged in Paula’s world and that a tramp genius who came around to tune pianos did not,–he might have got down to the recognition of the fact that the character Paula had sketched for him last night was a grotesque and not therefore to be taken seriously. You could not, at least, do anything but smile over a man who sat on the floor under Paula’s piano while she played and came crawling out to express surprise that a singer should be a musician as well.
So the look of the man he found in the drawing-room stopped him rather short. Anthony March had taken off the ill-fitting khaki blouse and the sleeves of his olive-drab uniform shirt were rolled up above the elbows. He was sitting sidewise on the piano bench, his left hand on the keyboard, his right making imperceptible changes in the tension of one of the strings. His implement, John’s quick eye noticed, was not the long-handled L shaped affair he had always seen tuners use but a T shaped thing that put the tuner’s hand exactly above the pin.
“It must take an immense amount of strength,” he observed, “to tune a piano with a wrench like that.”
March turned and with a pleasant sort of smile wished him a good morning. But he finished ironing the wave out of a faulty unison before he replied to John’s remark. He arose from the bench as he spoke. “It does; but it is more a matter of knack really. A great tuner named Clark taught me, and he learned it from Jonas Chickering himself. Old Jonas wouldn’t allow any of his grand pianos to be tuned with an L head wrench.”
“My wife,” said John, “recalled you to me last night, in the effort to remedy her omission to pay you for your services yesterday. I remember your sister’s case very distinctly. I hope she is …”
“She is quite well, thank you,” March said. Oddly enough his manner stiffened a little.
John hastily produced his check. It had struck him as possible that March might suspect him of hinting that one gratuitous service ought to offset the other.
“I hope the amount is satisfactory,” he said.
March glanced at the check and smiled. “It’s rather more than satisfactory; I should call it handsome. Thank you very much.” He tucked the check into the pocket of his shirt.
“My wife’s immensely pleased over what you did to her piano. I’m sure she will be glad to do all she can in the way of recommending you among her musical friends.”
March looked at him in consternation. “Oh, she mustn’t do that!” he cried. “I hope she won’t–recommend me to any one.”
John’s sudden unwelcome surmise must have been legible in his face because March then said earnestly and quite as if the doctor had spoken his thought aloud, “Oh, it isn’t that. I mean, I haven’t done anything disgraceful. It’s only that I know too many musicians as it is–professional pianists and such. If they find out I’m back, they’ll simply make a slave of me. I don’t need to earn much money and I like to live my own way, but it’s hard to deny people what they are determined to get.” He added thoughtfully, “I dare say you understand that, sir.”
John Wollaston nodded. He understood very well indeed. He checked on his tongue the words, “Only I _have_ to earn a lot of money.” “You are a composer, too, my wife tells me.”
“Yes,” March said, “but that isn’t the point exactly. Put it that I enjoy traveling light and that I don’t like harness. Though this one,”–he glanced down at his uniform,–“hasn’t been so bad.” He turned toward the piano with the evident idea of going back to work.
“Well,” John said, “I must be off. You’ve a good philosophy of life if you can make it work. Not many men can. Good-by. We’ll meet again some time, I hope.”
“I hope so too,” said Anthony March.
John went out and closed the drawing-room door behind him. Then he left the house without going up-stairs and saying hello to Paula and sitting down on the edge of her bed, as he had meant to do, and telling her all about his talk with the piano tuner.
It really was late and he must be getting started. Only why had he closed the drawing-room door so carefully behind him? So that his wife shouldn’t be disturbed by the infernal racket those fellows always made tuning pianos? Or so that she mightn’t even know, until he had finished his work and gone, that Anthony March had come back at all? And not knowing, should not come down _en negligee_ and ask whether he had brought his songs for her. Had he brought them? Certainly John had given him a good enough chance to say so. And if he had brought them and Paula did not come, would he leave them for her with Nat? Or would he carry them away in his little black satchel?
All the way out to the hospital John kept turning Anthony March over in his mind and the last thing to leave it was what had been the first impression of all. The fine strength of that hand and wrist which tuned grand pianos with a T wrench.
He hated himself for having shut the door.
And as it happened this act did not prevent Paula from finding March. The tyrant who looked after her hair had given her an appointment that morning at ten. So, a little before that hour and just as March was finishing off his job, she came down, dressed for the street. She came into the drawing-room and with good-humored derision, smiled at him.
“I knew you’d come and do it,” she told him.
“It isn’t going to be so bad,” he answered. “Moszkowski, Chaminade,–quite a little of Chopin for that matter,–will go pretty well on it.”
“Did you bring my songs?” she asked.
From the chair that he had thrown his blouse upon, he produced a flat package neatly wrapped in brown paper. And as she went over to the window with it, tearing the wrappers away as she walked, he went back to his work at the piano.
“Don’t do that,” she said, as he struck a chord or two. “I can’t read if you do.” But almost instantly she added with a laugh, “Oh, all right, go ahead. I can’t read this anyway. Why, it’s frightful!” She came swiftly toward the piano and stood the big flat quires of score paper on the rack. “Show me how this goes,” she commanded, but he pushed back a little with a gesture almost of fright.
“No,” he protested sharply. “I can’t. I can’t begin to play that stuff.”
She remained standing beside his shoulder, looking at the score.
“They’re strange words,” she said, and began reading them to herself, half aloud, haltingly.
“‘Low hangs the moon. It rose late,
It is lagging–O I think it is heavy with love, with love.'”
“Walt Whitman,” he told her. “They’re all out of a poem called _Sea-Drift_.”
She went on reading, now audibly, now with a mere silent movement of the lips, half puzzled, half entranced, and catching–despite her protest that she could not read the music,–some intimations of its intense strange beauty.
“‘ …_do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?… Loud I call to you, my love … Surely you must know who is here … O rising stars! Perhaps the one I want so much will rise … with some of you … O trembling throat! Sound clearer through the atmosphere_ …'”
With a shake of the head, like one trying to stop the weaving of a spell, she turned the pages back to the beginning.
“This means Novelli,” she said. “I’ll get him. I’ll get him this morning. He’s the best accompanist in Chicago. We’ll go to work on them and when we’ve got them presentable, I’ll let you know and sing them to you. Where do you live?”
He got up for a paper and pencil and wrote out an address and a telephone number. She was still staring at that first page of the score when he brought it back to her.
“I’ve never heard any of those songs myself,” he told her.
At that she looked around at him, looked steadily into his face for a moment and then her eyes filled with tears. She reached out both hands and took him by the shoulders. “Well, you’re going to hear them this time, my dear,” she said. As she moved away, she added in a more matter-of-fact tone, “Just as soon as we can work them up, in a few days perhaps. I’ll let you know.”
THE PEACE BASIS
There were four in their party but it was only with Alfred Baldwin that Mary Wollaston danced. The other man–Black his name was, and he came from Iowa City or Dubuque or thereabouts–devoted all his attention to Baldwin’s wife. He was very rich, very much married–out in Iowa–and whenever he made his annual business trip to New York, he liked to have a real New York time. They had dined together at the Baldwins’ apartment with a vague idea of going afterward to see a play of Baldwin’s then drawing toward the close of a successful season’s run. But dinner had been late and they had lingered too long over it to make this excursion worth while. It had amused both Mary and Christabel to discover Black’s secret hope of being taken back-stage and introduced to the beautiful young star who was playing in the piece and taking her out to supper with them. He didn’t know that Baldwin hated her with a perfect hatred and never got within speaking distance of her if he could help it.
So, by way of making up to the western visitor for his disappointment they taxied up-town about ten o’clock to the brightest, loudest and most fantastically expensive of New York’s dancing restaurants. Once there, he took command of the party; confidently addressed the head waiter by his first name and began “opening wine” with a lavish hand. He was flirting in what he conceived to be quite a desperate and depraved manner with Christabel, and what enhanced his pleasure in this entertainment was that he did it all right under the nose of the husband, who obviously didn’t mind a bit. He would talk eloquently when he got home, with carefully selected corroborative details, about the wickedness of New York.
Mary liked the Baldwins. Christabel was on the executive committee of their Fund and one of the best and steadiest and most sensible supporters it had. She was a real person. Baldwin, himself, whom she hadn’t known so long nor so well and had regarded from afar as a rather formidable celebrity, proved on better acquaintance, though witty and sophisticated, to be as comfortable as an old glove. Altogether they were the nearest thing to friends that her long sojourn in New York had given her. She had sometimes thought rather wildly of putting them to the test and seeing whether they were real friends or not.
To-night, though, even they irritated her. She wished Christabel would snub that appalling bounder, Black, as he deserved. How could she go on playing up to him like that! As for Baldwin, she wished he would just dance with her and not talk. She supposed that the amount of alcohol they had consumed since seven o’clock had something to do with his verging upon the vein, the Broadway sentimental vein, that he had got started on and couldn’t seem to let alone.
It wasn’t new to Mary. Indeed it was a phenomenon familiarly associated in her mind with Forty-second Street restaurants and late hours and strong drink, particularly gin. The crocodile tear for the good woman who stayed at home; who didn’t know; who never, please God! should know. The tribute to flower-like innocence–the paper flower-like innocence of the stage _ingenue_!
Baldy wasn’t as bad as that, couldn’t ever conceivably be as bad as that, no matter how much he had had to drink. Perhaps, if she had not been hypersensitive to-night,–in an impossible mood for any sort of party really–she might have failed to detect the familiar strain in his sensible, rather fatherly talk. As it was, she thought she did detect it and it made her want to scream–or swear!
There is one point to be urged in Baldy’s defense that Mary never learned to allow for. Gin or no gin, the effect of contrast she presented to her surroundings in a place like this, her look of a seraphic visitor gone astray, would have given any one the impulse, at least, to rush to the rescue. To begin with, it was not possible to credit her with the twenty-five years she truly claimed; nineteen, in a soft colored evening frock like the one she had on to-night, was about what one would have guessed. Then, you never would have believed, short of discovering the fact yourself, how strong she was; her slenderness and the fine articulation of her joints made her look fragile. Her coloring helped the illusion along, the clear unsophisticated blue of her eyes, the pallor of her hair that the petals of a tea-rose could have got lost in,–it was, literally, just about the tint of unbleached linen–and the pearly translucence of her skin. If you got the opportunity to look close enough to see that there wasn’t a grain of powder upon it, not even between the shoulder blades, it made you think of flower petals again. What clenched the effect was her healthy capacity for complete relaxation when no effort was required of her. She drooped a little and people thought she looked tired. She never could see herself like that and never made due allowance for the effect she produced, invariably upon strangers and not infrequently upon an old friend.
To-night, she lacked the name to label her mood by, rejecting rather fiercely the one that kept offering itself. You couldn’t be homesick when home was the last place in the world you wanted to go back to–the place you were desperately marshaling reasons for staying away from.
It was the non-appearance of her brother, Rush, that had brought a lot of dispersed feelings to a focus. She had heard nothing later from him than the letter she referred to when she last wrote to her father. She had expected a cable and it hadn’t come. She had this morning gone over to Hoboken to meet the transport he had said he expected to sail on, but having got down to the pier a little late, after the debarkation had begun, she could not be sure that she hadn’t missed him. So she had gone back to her tiny flat in Waverly Place and had spent the rest of the day there, vainly hoping that he would turn up or at least that she should get some word of him. And sitting around like that for hours and hours she had, which was a silly thing to do, let her thoughts run wild over things–a thing–that there was simply no sense in thinking about at all.
It was an odd fact, which she had noted long before today, that anything connected with home, a letter from her father or her aunt, news of the doings of any of her Chicago friends (the birth of Olive Corbett’s second baby, for example), any vivid projection of a bit of the pattern of the life into which she had once been woven, roused that nightmare memory. Or gave, rather, to a memory which normally did not trouble her much, the quality of a nightmare; a moment of paralyzed incredulity that it could have happened to her; a pang of clear horror that it really and truly had happened to her very self; to this Mary Wollaston who still lived in the very place where it had happened.
This afternoon, while she had sat awaiting from moment to moment the appearance of her brother, or at least the sound of his voice over the telephone, the pang had been prolonged into an agony. She had let herself drift into a fantastic speculation of a sort that was perfectly new. What if the boy who had shared that crazy adventure with her, himself an officer bound overseas, had fallen in with Rush, made friends with him, told him the story!
This was pure melodrama, she knew. There was, in any external sense, nothing to be feared. The thing had happened almost a year ago. It had had no consequences–except this inexplicable one that her brother’s approach brought back the buried memory of it. Why should it cling like that? Like an acid that wouldn’t wash off! She was not, as far as her mind went, ashamed of it. Never had been. But, waiving all the extenuating circumstances–which had really surrounded the act–admitting that it was a sin (this thing that she had done once and had, later, learned the impossibility of ever doing again), was it any worse than what her brother had probably done a score of times?
What was this brother of hers going to be like? It wasn’t possible, of course, that she would find him the boy he had been five years ago, before he went to France–though from some of his letters one might have thought he hadn’t changed a bit. Wasn’t it likely that he’d turn out to be some one she could cling to a little; confide her perplexities to–some of them? Was there a chance that ripened, disillusioned, made gentle and wise by the alchemy of the furnace he had come through, he might prove to be the one person in the world to whom she could confide everything? That would make an end to her nightmare, she felt sure.
The question whether he was or was not going to turn out like that was one presently to be answered. Until she knew the answer she didn’t want to think at all, least of all about those things which Baldy’s talk to-night kept rousing echoes of.
“Oh, they all look good when they’re far away,” she said, picking that bit of comic supplement slang deliberately to annoy him. “I don’t believe our grandfathers and grandmothers were always such models of decorum as they tried, when they had grown old, to make us think. And the simple primitive joys … I believe an old-fashioned husking bee, if they had plenty of hard cider to go with it, was just as bad as this–coarser if not so vulgar. After all, most of these people will go virtuously home to bed pretty soon and you’d find them back at work to-morrow morning not any the worse, really, for this. It may be a rather poor sort of home they go to, but how do you know that the vine-covered cottage you have been talking about was any better?”
“Not to mention,” he added, in humorous concurrence, “that there was probably typhoid in the well the old oaken bucket hung in. It seems odd to be convicted of sentimentality by an innocent babe like you. But if you had been looking at the party down at the end table behind you that I’ve had under my eye for ten minutes, perhaps you’d feel more as I do. No! don’t turn around; they have been looking at us.”
“Moralizing over us, perhaps,” she suggested. “Thinking how wicked we probably were.”
“No,” he said, “I happen to know the girls. They live down in our part of town, just over in the Village, that is. They have been here six or eight years. One of them was quite a promising young illustrator once. And they’re both well-bred–came obviously from good homes. And they’ve both gone, well–clean over the edge.”
Somehow his innocent euphemism annoyed her. “You mean they are prostitutes?” she asked.
He frowned in protest at her employment of the word but assented unequivocally. He was used–as who is not–to hearing young women discuss outspokenly such topics but he couldn’t forgive it from one who looked like Mary Wollaston.
“I have a hunch,” he said, “that the two boys who are with them are officers out of uniform. I noticed that they looked the other way pretty carefully when that major who is sitting at the next table to ours came in.”
“Let’s dance again,” she said. “I love this Hawaiian Moonlight thing.”
He saw her take the opportunity that rising from the table gave her for a good square look at the party he had been talking about and some change in her manner made him say with quick concern, “What is it?”
But she ignored the question and stepped out upon the floor with him. They had danced half-way round the room when she said quietly, “One of the boys at that table is my brother Rush.”
Baldwin said, “He has seen you, I think.” He felt her give a sort of gasp before she replied but the words came steadily enough.
“Oh, yes, we saw each other at the same time.”
He said nothing more, just went on dancing around the room with her in silence, taking care, without appearing to do so, to cut the corner where Rush was sitting, rather broadly. After two or three rounds of the floor, she flagged a little and without asking any questions, he led her back to their table. Luckily, Christabel and her Iowan had disappeared.
As soon as she was seated she asked him for a pencil and something she could write on–a card of his, the back of an old letter, anything. She wrote, “Won’t you please come and ask me to dance?” and she slid it over to him. He read it and understood, picked up a busboy with his eye and despatched him with the folded scrap for delivery to Captain Wollaston at the end table.
Mary meanwhile had cradled her chin in her palms and closed her eyes. She had experienced so clear a premonition before she turned round to look at the party at the end table that one of those officers out of uniform would turn out to be Rush that the verification of it had the quality of something that happens in a dream. She felt a sharp incredulity that it could really be they, staring at each other across that restaurant. More than that, the brother she saw was not–in that first glance–the man she had been trying all day to make up her mind he would be. Not the new Rush with two palms to his _Croix de Guerre_ and his American D.S.C.; and the scars in his soul from the experiences those decorations must represent; but the Rush she had said good-by to in the autumn of 1914 when he set out to be a freshman at Harvard, the kid brother she had counciled and occasionally admonished, in the vicarious exercise of her father’s authority. And in his panic-stricken gaze at her, she had recognized his instinctive acceptance of that position. Exactly so would he have looked five interminable years ago if she had caught him in mischief.
Then, like the undertow of a big wave, the reaction caught her. It was intolerable that he should look at her like that. He who had earned his manhood and its privileges in the long death grapple with the grimmest of realities. Certainly she was not the one to cast the first stone at him. She must contrive somehow, at once, to make that clear to him. The urgency of the thing lay in her belief that the whole of their future relationship depended upon the removing of his misapprehension now–to-night.
She could not go to that table where he sat without seeming more than ever the school mistress in pursuit of a truant, but perhaps he would come to her if she put her request right. They had danced together quite a lot in the old days. She danced so well that not even her status of elder sister had prevented his enjoying the exercise of their combined accomplishment.
A horrible misgiving had attacked her when she had scribbled the note and closed her eyes, that the cocktails and the champagne she herself had consumed since seven o’clock might have clouded her judgment–if, indeed, they were not responsible for the whole nightmare. Would she be equal to following out the line she had set for herself?
But no trace of that misgiving was apparent to her when Rush, after a wait of only two or three minutes, appeared at her table. She greeted him with a smile and a Hello, nodded a fleeting farewell to Baldwin and slipped comfortably into her brother’s arms out on the floor. They danced away without a word. There was the same quite beautiful accord between them that there had been in the old days, and the sense of this steadied her. They had gone all the way around the floor before she spoke.
“It is like old times, isn’t it?” she said. “And it does seem good. You don’t mind, do you,–for ten minutes?”
“Ten minutes?” he echoed dully.
She knew then, as she had indeed been aware from the first, that he was drunk and that only by the most painful effort, could he command his scattered wits at all. It made her want to cry that he should be trying so hard. She must not cry. That would be the final outrage. She must be very simple and clear. She must–_must_ contrive to make him understand.
“Will you listen to me, dear, and do exactly what I ask you to? I want you to go back to your people and forget that you have seen me at all.”
“I am going to take you home–out of this,” he said laboriously.
“I’m going home soon, but not with you. I want you to go back to–to the girl you brought here. No, dear, listen. This is the only reason I sent for you. To tell you that I wasn’t going to try to scold you. I don’t mind a bit. I want to tell you that, so that when you come back to me to-morrow or next day or whenever your party is quite over, you won’t feel that you have anything to try to explain or apologize for. Now take me back to my place and then go on to yours.”
“I won’t take you back to him,” he said doggedly. “What do you think I am? I’m drunk, but not enough for that. I am going to take you home.”
She tried to laugh but in spite of herself it was more like a sob.
“Rush, dear, don’t be silly. I am perfectly all right–or would be if I hadn’t drunk quite so much champagne. They’ll take me home. His wife’s here with him and they’re old friends of mine. They know a lot of our friends in Chicago. Please, Rush….”
“Do you think I’d go back to that–” he managed to pull up on the edge of an ugly word–“back to those people, and leave you here? Is it your wrap on that chair? We’ll stop and get it and then we’ll go.”
She could have wept with vexation over the way her scheme had gone awry but there was clearly nothing else to do. She retrieved her cloak, simply said good night to Christabel and the man named Black, leaving Baldy to explain things as he chose.
Five minutes later she gave a taxi driver the address of her flat and dropped back against the cushions beside her brother. Neither of them spoke a word during that fifteen-minute drive. Mary wept quietly most of the way–it didn’t matter there in the dark. The thought of this splendid glorious brother of hers painfully endeavoring to drag himself back into a state of sobriety from his first wild caper after long wearing of the harness of discipline–an escapade she supposed that he must have been looking forward to for days–dragging himself back to protect her–oh, it was too hopeless! Should she ever be able to explain to him why she had sent for him, and that her intentions had been the opposite of those of the moralizing meddler he would take her for? If only she could make it up to him somehow. She would have liked to reach over and pull him down into her arms, mother him and tell him not to mind–there was something so intolerably pathetic about his effort to sit soberly straight–but she resisted this impulse savagely. The alcohol in her own veins was responsible for this. She could not quite trust herself not to go maudlin. So she froze herself tight and huddled away from him into her own corner.
She did not think beyond the address she had given to the chauffeur until they pulled up at her door. Then she turned to Rush and asked, “Where shall he take you? Are you staying at a hotel?”
“I am going to take you home,” he said precisely.
She saw she did not dare to let him go. There was no telling what serious trouble he might get into, in his illicit civilian dress, if she turned him adrift now. So she said, simply, “Well, here we are. Come in.”
She opened the street door with her latch-key, and punched on the hall lights. She dreaded the two flights of stairs, but with the help of the banister rail he negotiated them successfully enough. And then he was safely brought to anchor in her sitting-room. It was plain he had not the vaguest idea where he was.
“I’ll make some coffee,” she said. “That will–pull us both together. And it won’t take a minute because it’s all ready to make for breakfast.”
She was not gone, indeed, much longer than that, but when she came back from her kitchenette he had dropped like a log upon her divan, submerged beyond all soundings. So she tugged him around into a more comfortable position, managed to divest him of his dinner-jacket and his waistcoat, unbuttoned his collar and shirt-band, took off his shoes, and covered him up with an eiderdown quilt. Then she kissed him–it was five years since she had done that–and went, herself, to bed.
At ten o’clock the next morning she sat behind her little breakfast table–it was daintily munitioned with a glass coffee machine, a grapefruit and a plate of toast–waiting, over _The Times_, for Rush to wake up. She looked more seraphic than ever, enveloped in a white turkish toweling bathrobe and with her hair in a braid. Her brother lay on the divan just as she had left him the night before. Presently the change in his breathing told her that he was struggling up out of the depths of sleep. She looked over at him and saw him blinking at the ceiling. When his gaze started round her way, she turned her attention to the busy little coffee machine which opportunely needed it.
It was a minute or two before he spoke. “Is that really you, Mary?”
She smiled affectionately at him and said, “Hello,” adding with just an edge of good-humored mischief, “How do you feel?”
He turned abruptly away from her. “I feel loathsome,” he said.
“Poor dear, of course you do. I’ll tell you what to do. I’ve got a nice big bathroom in there. Go in and take a cold one.” Then–“You’ve grown inches, Rush, since you went away but I believe you could still get into a suit of my pajamas–plain ones, not ruffly. Anyhow, I’ve another big bathrobe like this that you could roll up in. You’ll be just in time for the coffee. You won’t know yourself by then.”
“I wish I didn’t,” he said morosely.
There wasn’t much good arguing with that mood, she knew, so she waited a little.
“Is this where you live?” he asked. “You brought me here last night?”
“You brought me,” she amended.
He frowned over that but didn’t take it in. The next moment though he sat up suddenly and after a struggle with the giddiness this movement caused, asked, “Who else is here? Where’s the other girl that lives with you?”
“She’s not here now,” Mary said. “We are all by ourselves.”
He rose unsteadily to his feet. “I’ve got to get out of here quick. If anybody came in …”
“Rush, dearest!” she entreated. “Don’t be silly. Lie down again–Well, then take that easy chair. Nobody will come in.” Then over his air of resolute remorse she cried, on the edge of tears herself, “Oh, _please_ don’t be so unhappy. Do let’s settle down and be comfy together. I don’t have to go to the office to-day. My job’s just about played out. But nobody ever comes here to see me in the daytime. And it wouldn’t matter if they did.”
But this change of attitude was clearly beyond him. “I’ll have to ask you to tell me what happened last night. You were there at that restaurant with friends of yours I suppose. I must have disgraced you up to the hilt with them. I should think you’d hate the sight of me.”
“You didn’t disgrace me at all,” she contradicted, and now the tears did came into her eyes. “They knew I was expecting you and I told Mr. Baldwin who you were. You came up in the nicest way and asked me to dance and when we went away together there wasn’t a thing–about you–that they could see. I was on the point of tears myself because my plan had gone wrong. But that would have seemed natural enough to them.”
He frowned at the name Baldwin, as if he were trying to recover a memory. Now he felt vaguely in his trousers pocket and pulled out the crumpled visiting card that had her note scribbled on the back of it. “You haven’t told me yet what happened,” he said.
“Oh, I was afraid you wouldn’t remember.” She looked away from him as she said it and a little unwonted color crept into her cheeks.
“Afraid?” he questioned.
“I wanted you to understand,” she said, “and now I’ll have to tell you again. It was because I was trying so hard not to meddle that I did. I sent that little note to you just to get a chance to tell you not to mind my seeing you there with those others–not to let it spoil your party. I couldn’t bear to have you come to me to-day, or to-morrow or whenever it was, feeling–well, ashamed you know, and explanatory. That’s what I tried to tell you last night but couldn’t make you understand. So I did, really, just exactly what I was meaning not to. Of course, I loved you for coming away and I love having you here like this, all to myself. But I didn’t mean to–to spoil things for you.”
He stared at her a moment in blank inapprehension; then a deep blush came burning into his face. “You didn’t understand,” he said thickly. “You didn’t know what those girls were.”
“Oh, Rush!” she cried. “Of course I did. I knew exactly what they were–better than you. I even knew who they were. They live not very far from here.”
He paled and his look was frightened. “How did you know that?” he demanded. “How could you know a thing like that?”
“They’ve lived here in the Village for years,” she said, summarizing Baldy without quoting him as her authority. “One of them used to be an illustrator–or something–before she went–over the edge. They’re two of our celebrities. One can’t go about, unless he’s stone blind, without picking up things like that.”
“You did know what she was, then,” he persisted, doggedly pushing through something it was almost impossible for him to say, “and yet, knowing, you asked me to leave you alone and go back to her. You wanted me to do that?”
“I didn’t want you to!” she cried. “I hated it, of course. But men–people–do things like that, and I could see how–natural it was that you wanted to. And if you wanted to, I didn’t think it fair that it should be spoiled for you just because we happened to recognize each other. I didn’t want you to hate me for having spoiled it. That’s all.”
She gave him the minute or two he evidently needed for turning this over in his mind. Then she turned her back on the window she had withdrawn to and began again.
“I used to be just a big sister to you, of course. Ever so superior, I guess, and a good bit of a prig. And all this time over there in France with nothing but my letters and that silly picture of me in the khaki frame, I suppose you have been thinking of me, well,–as a sort of nice angel. I’m not either, really. I don’t want to be either.
“I want to be somebody you feel would understand anything; somebody you could tell anything to. So that it would work the other way as well. Because I’ve got to have somebody to tell things to,–troubles, and worries. And I’ve been hoping, ever since your letter came, that it would turn out to be you.”
“What sort of troubles?” He shot the question in rather tensely.
There was a breathless moment before she answered, but she shook it off with a laugh and her manner lightened. “There’s nothing to be so solemn about as all that. We don’t want to wallow. We’ll have some breakfast–only you go first and tub.”
He was too young and healthy and clean-blooded to resist the effect upon his spirits which the cold water and the fresh white bathrobe and the hot strong coffee with real cream in it produced. And the gloomy, remorseful feeling, which he felt it his moral duty to maintain intact, simply leaked away. She noted the difference in him and half-way through their breakfast she left her chair and came round to him.
“Would you very much mind being kissed now?” she asked.
His answer, with a laugh, was to pull her down upon his knee and hug her up tight in his arms. They looked rather absurdly alike in those two white bathrobes, though this was an appearance neither of them was capable of observing. She disengaged herself presently from his embrace and went to find him some cigarettes, refraining from taking one herself from a feeling that he would probably like it better just then if she did not.
Back in her own place over her coffee and toast, she had no difficulty in launching him upon the tale of his own recent experiences. What the French were like now the war was over; and the Boche he had been living among in the Coblenz area;–the routine of his army life, the friends he made over there, and so on. Altogether she built him up immensely in his own esteem. It was plain he liked having her for a younger sister instead of for an older one, listening so contentedly to his tales, ministering to his momentary wants, visibly wondering at and adoring him.
But she broke the spell when she asked him what he meant to do now.
He turned restlessly in his chair. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what the deuce there is I can do. Certainly father’s idea of my going back to college and then to medical school afterward, is just plain, rank nonsense. I’d be a doddering old man before I got through–thirty years old. I should think that even he would see that. It will have to be business, I suppose, but if any kind friend comes around and suggests that I begin at the bottom somewhere–Mr. Whitney, for instance, offering me a job at ten dollars a week in his bank–I’ll kill him. I can’t do that. I won’t. At the end of about ten days, I’d run amuck. What I’d really like,” he concluded, “for about a year would be just this.” His gesture indicated the bathrobe, the easy chair and the dainty breakfast table. “This, all the morning and a ball-game in the afternoon. Lord, it will be good to see some real baseball again. We’ll go to a lot of games this summer. What are the Sox going to be like this year?”
She discussed the topic expertly with him and with a perfectly genuine interest, at some length. “Oh, it would be fun,” she finished with a little sigh, “only I shan’t be there, you know. At least I don’t think I shall.” Then before he could ask her why not, she added in sharper focus, “I can’t go home, Rush.”
“Can’t!” he exclaimed. “What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, nothing to make a fuss about,” she said with a frown of irritation. “I wish you weren’t so jumpy this morning,–or perhaps, it’s I that am. All I meant was that home isn’t a comfortable place for me and I won’t go back there if I can help it–only I am afraid I can’t. That’s the trouble I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I thought you liked the new stepmother,” he said. “Hasn’t she turned out well?–What am I supposed to call her, anyhow? I wanted to find out about that before I was right up against it.”
“Call her?” Mary was a little taken back. “Why, anything you like, I should think. I’ve always called her Paula.–You weren’t thinking of calling her mother, were you?”
“Well,” he protested, “how should I know? After all, she is father’s wife. And she must be fairly old.”
“But, Rush, you’ve _seen_ her!”
“Only that once, at the wedding. She was made up to look young then, of course. Painted and dyed and so on, I suppose. I felt so embarrassed and silly over the whole thing–being just a kid–that I hardly looked at her. And that was a long while ago.”
Mary laughed at that, though she knew it would annoy him. “She never paints nor dyes nor anything, Ruddy. She doesn’t have to. She’s such a perfectly raving beauty without it. And she’s more beautiful now than she was then. She really is young, you see. Hardly enough older than we are to matter, now that we’re grown up.”
She saw Rush digesting this idea of a beautiful young stepmother whom he was to be privileged to call–straight off–by her first name, with a certain satisfaction, so she waited–rather conscious that she was being patient–for him to come back from the digression of his own accord. Presently he did.
“What does she do that you don’t like?”
“She does nothing that isn’t perfectly nice, and good-tempered, and–respectable,” Mary assured him, and added on a warmer note, “Oh, and she’s really amiable and lovely. I was being a cat. But I am truly fond of her–when I have her to myself. It’s when she’s with father …”
She broke off there, seeing that she could not make that clear to him (how could she since she would not state it in plain terms to herself?) and hurried on, “It’s really father whom I don’t get on with, any more. He worries about me and feels sorry for me and wants me to come home. But I’m nothing to him when I do come–but an embarrassment.–No, it _isn’t_ rot. He knows it himself and feels horrid about it and raises my allowance when I go away, though it was foolishly big already; and then, as soon as I’m back here he begins worrying again, and urging me to come home. He didn’t insist as long as I was doing war work, but now that that’s played out, I suppose he will.
“Oh, I know well enough what I ought to do. I ought to answer some advertisement for a typist–I can do that, but not stenography–and take a regular job. The sort you said you’d shoot Mr. Whitney for offering you. And then I ought to take a hall bedroom somewhere in the cross-town twenties and live on what I earned. That’s the only thing I can see, and, Rush, I simply haven’t the courage to do it. It seems as if I couldn’t do it.”
His lively horror at the bare suggestion of such a thing drew her into a half-hearted defense of the project. Numbers of the girls she knew down here who had been doing war work were going enthusiastically into things like that–or at least were announcing an invincible determination to do so. Only they were cleverer than she at that sort of thing and could hope for better jobs. They were in luck. They liked it–looked forward to a life of it as one full of engaging possibilities. But to Mary it was nothing, she hardly pretended, but a forlorn last shift. If one couldn’t draw nor write nor act nor develop some clever musical stunt, what else was there for a girl to do?
“Well, of course,” said Rush, in a very mature philosophical way and lighting a cigarette pretty deliberately between the words,–“of course, what most girls do, is–marry somebody.” Then he stole a look around at his sister to see how she had taken it.
There was a queer look that almost frightened him in her blue eyes. Her lips, which were trembling, seemed to be trying to smile.
“That’s father’s idea,” she said raggedly. “He’s as anxious now that I should marry somebody–anybody, as he was that I shouldn’t five years ago–before he found Paula. You see I am so terribly–left on his hands.”
There was, no doubt, something comical about the look of utter consternation she saw on her brother’s face, but she should not have tried to laugh at him for a sob caught the laugh in the middle and swept away the last of her self-control. She flung herself down upon the divan and buried her face in one of the pillows. He had seen men cry like that but, oddly enough, never a woman. What he did though was perhaps as much to the point as anything he could have done. He sat down beside her and gathered her up tight in his arms and held her there without a word until the tempest had blown itself out. When the sobs had died away to nothing more than a tremulous catch in each indrawn breath, he let her go back among the pillows and turn so that she could look up at him. By that time the sweat had beaded out upon his forehead, and his hands, which had dropped down upon her shoulders, were trembling.
“Well,” she asked unsteadily. “What do you think of me now?”
He wanted to bend down and kiss her but wisely he forbore. “It’s easy to see what’s the matter,” he said. “This war business you have been doing has been too much for you. You’re simply all in.” Then happily he added, “I’d call you a case of shell-shock.”
She rewarded that with a washed-out smile. “What’s the treatment going to be?” she asked.
“Why,” he said, “as soon as I’m done tucking you up properly in this eiderdown quilt, I’m going out to your icebox and try to find the makings of an egg-nog. Incidentally, I shall scramble up all the rest of the eggs I find and eat them myself. And then I’ll find something dull to read to you until you go to sleep. When it’s dark enough so that my evening clothes won’t attract too much attention, I’ll go back and get into uniform; then I’ll buy two tickets for Chicago on the fast train to-morrow, and two tickets for a show to-night; and then I’ll come back and take you out to dinner. Any criticisms on that program?”
“Not just for this minute,” she said contentedly. “I don’t know whether I’m going to Chicago with you, tomorrow, or not.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I know all about that.” He added, “I hope the other girl won’t mind–the one who lives here with you. What was her name?”
“Ethel Holland? Oh, she went over to France with the Y.M.C.A. just about a year ago. I’ve tried to find somebody to take her place, but there didn’t seem to be any one I liked well enough. So I’ve been living alone.”
She saw his face stiffen at that but his only comment was that that simplified matters.
THE PICTURE PUZZLE
There was a good quarter of an hour beginning with the tear-blurred moment when Mary caught sight of her father looking for her and Rush down the railway station platform, during which the whole fabric of misgivings about her home-coming dissolved as dreams do when one wakes. It had not been a dream she knew, nor the mere concoction of her morbid fancy. He had not looked at her like this nor kissed her like this–not once since that fatal journey to Vienna five years ago. Had something happened between him and Paula that made the difference? Or was it her brother’s presence, that, serving somehow to take off the edge, worked a mysterious catalysis?
When John, after standing off and gazing wordless for a moment at this new son of his, this man he had never seen, in his captain’s uniform with bits of ribbon on the breast of it,–tried to say how proud he was and choked instead, it was for Mary that he reached out an unconscious, embracing arm, the emotion which would not go into words finding an outlet for itself that way.
When they got out to the motor and old Pete, once coachman, now chauffeur, his eyes gleaming over the way Rush had all but hugged him, said to her, “You home to stay, too, Miss Mary?” her father’s hand which clasped her arm revealed the thrilling interest with which he awaited her answer to that question. The importunity of the red-cap with the luggage relieved her of the necessity for answering but the answer in her heart just then was “Yes.”
It was with a wry self-scornful smile that she recalled, later that day, the emotions of the ride home. If at any time before they got to the house, her father had repeated the old servant’s question, “Are you home to stay, Mary?” she would, she knew, have kissed the hand that she held clasped in hers, wept blissfully over it and told him she wanted never to go away again. She hadn’t minded his not asking because she thought she knew quite surely why he had not. He was afraid to risk his momentary happiness upon her answer. And why had she not volunteered the assurance he wanted so eagerly and dared not ask for? The beastly answer to that question was that she had enjoyed the thrill of his uncertainty–a miserable sort of feline coquetry.
Well, it had been short-lived, that little triumph of hers. It had stopped against a blank wall just when the car stopped under the _ports cochere_ of the Dearborn Avenue house. John’s arm which had been around her was withdrawn and he looked with just a touch of ostentation at his watch. She knew before he spoke that when he did, his tone would ring flat. The old spell was broken. He was once more under the dominion of the newer, stronger one.
“I’m terribly late,” he said. “I must drive straight along to the hospital. I’ll see you to-night. We’re having a few old friends in to dinner. Run along now. Your Aunt Lucile will be waiting for you.”
His omission to mention Paula had been fairly palpable. Her reply, “All right, dad, till to-night, then. _Au ‘voir_” had been, she knew, as brittle and sharp-edged as a bit of broken glass. It had cut him;–she had meant it to.
Well it served her right. Paula deserved to own the stronger spell. Paula’s emotional channels were open and deep. No choking snags and sandbars, no perverse eddies in them. Look at her with Rush to-day! There was a situation that fairly bristled with opportunities for blundering. She might, with this grown-up son of her husband’s whom she had hardly seen, have shown herself shy, embarrassed, at a loss how to take him. She might have tried to be archly maternal with him or elder-sisterly. But she played up none of these sentimental possibilities, seemed, indeed, serenely unaware of them. She treated him just as she had always treated Mary–as a contemporary. From the beginning she had no trouble making him talk. For one thing her acquaintance with France and Germany was intimate enough to enable her to ask him questions which he found it pleasantly stimulating to try to answer. As she felt her way to firmer ground with him, she allowed what was evidently a perfectly spontaneous affection to irradiate the look she turned upon him and to warm her lovely voice.
So she must have begun–as simply and irresistibly as that–in Vienna!
Mary tried hard to think of it as a highly skillful performance, but this was an attitude she could not maintain. It was not a performance at all; it was–just Paula, who, having taken her father away from her was now, inevitably, going to take her brother too. Not because she meant to–quite unconscious that she was doing any harm (“and of course she isn’t, except to a cat like me”)–that was the maddening, and at the same time, endearing thing about her.
For there was a broad impartiality about her spell that tugged at Mary even while she forlornly watched Rush yielding to it. And the way it affected Aunt Lucile was simply funny. She melted, visibly, like a fragment left on the curb by the iceman, whenever Paula–turned the current on. What made this the more striking was that Aunt Lucile’s normal mood to-day impressed Mary as rather aggressively sell-contained. Was it just that Mary had forgotten how straight she sat and how precisely she moved about? Had she always had that discreet significant air, as if there were something she could talk about but didn’t mean to–not on any account? Or was there something going on here at home that awaited–breathlessly awaited–discovery? Whatever it was, when Paula turned upon her it went, laughably;–only it would have been a pretty shaky sort of laugh.
It was after lunch that Paula electrified them by suggesting that they all go together to a matinee. That’s an illustration of the power she had. To each of the three, to Lucile and to Mary as well as to the now infatuated Rush, she could make a commonplace scheme like that seem an irresistibly enticing adventure. Lucile recovered her balance first, but it was not until Nat had fetched the morning paper and they had discussed their choice of entertainments for two or three minutes that she said of course she couldn’t go. She didn’t know what she’d been thinking of. The number of things imperatively to be done or seen to in preparation for the party to-night would keep her busy all the afternoon.
Then Mary followed suit. If this was really going to be a party–she hadn’t quite got this idea before–she’d have to spend the afternoon unpacking and putting her frocks in order or she wouldn’t have anything to wear.
“Well,” Paula said comfortably, “until they turn me on like a Victrola at nine o’clock or so, I’ve nothing to do with the party except not think about it.” She made this observation at large, then turned on Rush. “You’ll come with me, won’t you, and keep me from getting frightened until tea-time?”
Rush would go–rather!–but he laughed at the word “frightened.”
“I’m not joking,” she said, and reaching out she covered his hand, which rested on the cloth, with one of hers.
He flushed instantly at that; then said to the others with slightly elaborated surprise, “It _is,_ cold, for a fact.”
“So is the other one,” said Paula. “For that matter, so are my feet. And getting colder every minute. Come along or we’ll be late.”
Mary branded this as a bit of rather crude coquetry. It wasn’t conceivable that a professional opera singer of Paula’s experience could look forward with any sort of emotion to the mere singing of a few songs to a group of familiar friends. It occurred to her, too, that Paula had calculated on her refusal to go to the matinee as definitely as on Aunt Lucile’s and for a moment she indulged the idea of changing her mind and going along with them just to frustrate this design. Only, of course, it wouldn’t work that way. She couldn’t keep Rush from being taken away from her by playing the spoil-sport. She couldn’t keep him anyhow she supposed. She made a hasty, rather forlorn retreat to her own room as soon as the departing pair were safely out of the house.
That room of hers exerted now a rather curious effect upon her mood. It had been hers ever since her promotion from the nursery and it, like her brother’s adjoining, had been kept unchanged, unoccupied during her long absence.
The furniture and the decoration of it had been her mother’s last Christmas present. The first Mrs. Wollaston had lived under the influence of the late Victorian esthetes, and Mary’s room looked as if it had been designed for Elaine the lily maid of Astolat, an effect which was heightened by a large brown picture in a broad brown frame of Watts’ Sir Galahad. After her mother’s death, that winter, Mary added a Botticelli Madonna, the one with the pomegranate, which she hung by itself on a wall panel. There was a narrow black oak table under it to carry a Fra Angelico triptych flanked by two tall candlesticks. It wasn’t exactly a shrine, even if there was a crimson cushion conveniently disposed before it, and if Mary for a while said her prayers there instead of in the old childish way at her bedside, and if she genuflected when she passed it, that was her own affair.
Coming to it now, as to port after storms, with the intention almost