say that we mustn’t talk–while we were waiting for the people in the other room to go away. And then Mrs. Wollaston came and got me. She didn’t see her at all. She had disappeared somehow by that time.”
He stopped but Jennie, it seemed, had nothing to say just then. She turned away to her outdoor wrap but she laid it down again and stood still when he went on.
“You don’t want to run away with the idea that I’m in love with her,” he said. “That isn’t it. That’s particularly–not it. I haven’t an idea who she is nor any intention of trying to find out. Even if I knew the way to begin getting acquainted with her, I’m inclined to think I’d avoid it. But as an abstraction–no, that’s not what I mean–as a symbol of what I’ll find waiting for me whenever I get down to the core of things … I’ve got a sort of–superstition if I don’t do anything to–to break the spell, you know, that sometime she’ll come back just the way she came that night.”
With a little exaggeration of the significance of the act, she put on the coat she had crossed the room to get. He got up and came over to help her but he stopped with a sudden clenching of the hands, and a wave of color in his face as he saw the look in hers. At that she came swiftly to meet him, pulled him up in a tight embrace and kissed him.
“Good luck, my dear,” she said. “I must be running and so must you. I’d take you with me only we go different ways. Carry your score along to the Wollastons. That’s the first step to the princess, I guess.”
The episode upon which March had built the opera he called _The Outcry_, was one that was current during the autumn of 1914. A certain Belgian town had been burnt and it had been officially explained that this was done because the German officer who was billeted upon the burgomaster had been shot. The story was that the burgomaster’s son shot him because he had raped his sister. The thing got complete possession of March’s mind. At first just the horror of it and later its dramatic and musical possibilities. He saw, in orchestral terms, the sodden revelry in that staid house–with its endless cellars of Burgundy. He saw the tight-drawn terror in the girl’s room where she lay in bed. He saw the room lighted fitfully by the play of searchlights over the city; the sinister entrance from a little balcony through the French widow, of the officer in uniform, his shadow flung ahead of him by the beam of the searchlight. He saw the man, blood–as well as wine–drunk, garrulous and fanatic with the megalomania of the conquering invader. He saw the man’s intention made clear from the first, but the execution of it luxuriously postponed. Safely postponed because of the terrified girl’s acceptance of his assurance that if anything happened to him, if a hand were raised against him, her father and a dozen more hostages would be shot and the town burned to the ground. Then came the girl’s irrepressible outcry when he first touched her; the brother’s knock at the door; her frantic effort to reassure him frustrated by the officer’s drunken laugh; the forcing of the door and the fight half in the dark; the killing of the girl and then of her ravisher.
The thing that wouldn’t let March alone, that forced him into the undertaking, was the declaration of the brutal philosophy of the conqueror made by the officer while he gloated over the girl who was to be his prey; the chance to put into musical terms that paranoiac delusion of world conquest. One recognized in it, vaguely, some of ‘Wagner’s themes and some of Straus’, distorted and grown monstrous.
The thing had haunted March, as I have said, and he had tried to find somebody who would write him the book, the indispensable preliminary to his getting to work. Failing here, he had audaciously made up his mind to write it himself. It was not his first attempt to do, in the mere light of nature, a thing commonly supposed to be impossible except at the end of painful instruction. He had once experimented at painting in oils, he had tried his hand at the stylus, he had made a few figurines in modeling-wax. He wrote his play, then, by the simple process of building first with painstaking accuracy, a model of his stage, the girl’s room in that burgomaster’s house with the French windows giving upon the little balcony. He modeled the furniture in plastiscene. He bought three little dolls to represent his characters. And then he reported what he saw happening in that room; what his characters did and what they said. By the time he had finished this work, the music was all in his head. He couldn’t write it down fast enough.
It had been one of the great experiences of his life, writing that opera. Jennie’s reminder that he had once believed it good, was a conservative statement. LaChaise and Paula were deeply impressed by the power, both of its music and its drama and saw possibilities in it for a sensational success. The drawback, fatal unless it could be overcome, lay in the fact that the dominant role in it was that of the baritone. Dramatically the soprano’s part was good enough, but there was nowhere near enough for her to sing. There was no reason though, they both asserted, and sent March away from their conference at least half convinced, why the girl’s part could not be greatly amplified. There were various expedients;–a preliminary scene between the girl and her brother; an apostrophe to an absent lover; a prayer. Also instead of being frozen into terror-stricken silence by her ravisher’s monstrous purpose, she could just as well be represented as making a desperate resistance. She could plead with him, denounce him; attempt to take advantage of his drunkenness and trick him. It could be made as good a woman’s part as the big act of _Tosca_.
March had assented to all this and gone to work.
Paula did not tell him, as he had gloomily prophesied to Jennie, to take the new first scene he brought her that Sunday out to the ash can. And, indeed, it sounded so much better when they read it over together, that he was for the moment reassured. But her attitude toward the opera was different from the one she had taken toward the group of Whitman songs, and this difference grew more marked at their subsequent sessions over it. There had been about the songs the glamour of discovery. One does not hasten to apply the assayer’s acid to treasure trove. And, too, it was an altruistic impulse which had prompted her to take up the songs.
There aren’t many people who can travel steadily, or very far, on that motivation, and Paula was not one of them. From the moment when she took the plunge, ignored–all but defied–her husband’s wishes, and signed the Ravinia contract, she ceased to be concerned for anything, broadly speaking, but her own success. March’s opera, then, was not, to her, the expression of his genius but a potential vehicle for hers. She was acutely critical of it. She knew what she wanted and it was not thinkable that she should put up with anything less.
She was not aware of this change of attitude. She was blessed with a vigorous non-analytical mind that asked no awkward questions, suggested no paralyzing doubts. The best thing that could possibly happen to March’s opera was that it should be made to fit her; that it should demand precisely all her resources and nothing that was beyond them. Obviously, since it was going to be her opera, a thing she was going to wear.
Had she been, as many eminent persons in her profession are, a mere bundle of insensate egotisms complicated by a voice, she would have driven March to flat rebellion in a week, all his good resolutions notwithstanding. What made it tolerable was that she had a good musical intelligence of her own, and a real dramatic sense. He could recognize, what she wanted as an intelligible thing, consistent with itself. Only, it was not his thing-not the thing he saw. By reason of its very consistency it was never the thing he saw.
“She wouldn’t do it that way,” he would protest.
“I would,” Paula would tell him. “I wouldn’t lie there, whimpering.”
He was always arguing with her–wrangling, it almost came to, sometimes–in defense of his own conception. For a sample:
“Look at what she is; a burgomaster’s daughter. That means prosperous, narrow-minded, middle-class people. She’s convent-bred, devout. She’s still young or she’d be married. She’s altogether without experience. She’s frightened just as a child would be over what’s going on in the house. And the prayer she says when she goes to bed would be just the nice little prayer a child would say, an Our Father or a Hail Mary, whatever it might be. As simple as possible, on the surface, but with an undertone of overmastering terror. The sort of Promethean defiance you’re talking about would be inconceivable to a child like that.”
“I suppose it would, to most of them,” she admitted, “but this one’s going to be different. After all, it’s the exceptional ones that usually have operas written about them. I don’t believe all the dancers in Alexandria were like Thais, nor all the gipsy cigar-makers in Seville like Carmen. I don’t believe many little Japanese girls would feel about Pinkerton the way Cio Cio San did. Why can’t our Dolores be an exception, too?”
The only answer he could make to that was that it spoiled the other figure, reduced him from a sort of cosmic monster to the mere custom-made grand-opera villain.
“What if it does?” she retorted. “This isn’t being written for Scotti or Vanni Marcoux. It’s being written for me.” That was the tonic chord they always came back to. It was Paula’s opera.
March presently began to feel, too, that he was growing to be nothing more than Paula’s composer. It was important to the success of their enterprise that his reputation should be intensively exploited among the rich and influential who figured as patrons of the Ravinia season. She went at the task of building it as ruthlessly as she remodeled his opera.
Her demands upon him were explicit. In the first place he was to bring her all his music, early as well as late, trivial as well as important, in order that she might select from it what, if anything, might be exploited at once. She had promised to give a recital just before Easter, in aid of one of the local charities–it was one that boasted an important list of patronesses–and if she could make an exclusive program of his songs she would like to do so. Then, while it was too late to get any of his compositions performed by the orchestra this season, it would be a good thing to get Mr. Stock to read something in the hope of his taking it for next year. An announcement, even a mere unofficial intimation, that Anthony March (whose opera … and so on)–was to be represented on the symphony programs next season, would help a lot.
What dismayed him most was her insistence–she was clear as a bell about this–that he himself get up the accompaniments to some of the simpler of his songs so that when she took him out to meet people who wanted to hear a sample of his music then and there, they could manage, between them, some sort of compliance. He nearly got angry, but decided to laugh instead, over her demand that he be waiting, back stage, when she gave her recital of his songs (which she did with great success) to come out at the end and take his bow in his now discarded uniform. It was the only reference she ever made to his shabby appearance.
(It was steadily growing shabbier, too, since she left him hardly any time at all for tuning pianos. She would have been utterly horrified had she known what tiny sums he was living on from week to week. And it never occurred to her when she suggested that a certain score of his ought to be copied, that he could not afford to take it out to a professional copyist and so sat up nights doing it himself. He did it rather easily, to be sure, since it was one of the numerous things at which he had earned a living.)
There was only one of her many demands that he persistently refused to comply with. And she took this refusal rather hard; acted more hurt than angry about it, to be sure, but came back to it again and again. When she discovered that he made no pretense of living at his father’s house, she asked for his real address so that she could always be sure of getting at him when she wanted him. This he would not give her. If he did, he said, it would only result in his staying away from there and doing his work somewhere else. It was one of his simple necessities to know that he couldn’t be got at. He would make every possible concession. Would go, or telephone, at punctiliously regular and brief intervals, to his father’s house to learn whether she had sent for him, but give up the secrecy of his lair he would not. It wasn’t possible.
I think she compensated herself for this refusal by sending for him sometimes when she did not really need him, just to be on the safe side, and, on the same basis, engaged his attendance ahead from day to day. Anyhow, she occupied, in one way or another, practically the whole of his time; and the dumb little blue-eyed princess knocked at his door in vain. Only in those hours when sheer fatigue had sent him to bed had she any opportunity of visiting him. Sometimes she made white nights for him by haunting those hours, refusing to go away; sometimes, by not coming at all, she filled him with terror lest she had gone for good–would not come back even when he was ready for her. When that panic was upon him he hated Paula with a devouring hatred.
Of the human original of his blue-eyed princess, he saw during those weeks, nothing. On that first Sunday when he lunched at the house he heard them speak of a member of the family, a daughter of John Wollaston, named Mary, who had been living in New York and had recently returned but was not lunching at home that day. He got the idea then that she might be the girl who had so mysteriously come in and sat beside him while Paula sang; and without any evidence whatever to support this surmise, it became a settled conviction. But an odd shrinking, almost superstitious, as he had confessed to Jennie, from doing anything that might break the spell kept him from asking any questions.
During the first week of his almost daily visits to the house, he got repeated intimations of her, a glimpse once through an open door on the third floor into a room that struck him as being, probably, hers. The impression, once more, when he was coming down from the music room that this was the door which he had just heard softly shut as if some one, the princess herself, of course, who had stood listening to the music for a while, had withdrawn there when she heard his step on the stairs. Once on the settee in the hall he saw a riding crop and a small beaver hat that he felt a curious certainty belonged to her and once out of a confusion of young voices in the drawing-room, and a dance tune going on the Victrola, he heard some one call out her name, hers he was sure though he didn’t hear her answer. Perhaps she had answered without speaking. The dumb princess again.
Then suddenly even these faint hints of her presence ceased, and he remarked their absence with a troubled wonder until one day Paula volunteered the statement that Mary had gone away on a visit for a month or two, out to Wyoming, where a great friend of hers, Olive Corbett, and her husband had a ranch.
By asking a few intelligent questions, he could have found out a lot more about her from Paula for she was disposed to talk freely enough about the family life she was so oddly enclosed in, and their perpetual quarrels about the opera never carried over into their breathing spells. In the long hours of their almost daily sessions the occasional rests made up quite a total and March accumulated a lot of information about Paula herself.
Indeed it was not quite as idle as that sounds. Paula talked to him thirstily, gave him somehow the impression that she had had no one for a good many years with whom she could converse without reservation in her own idiom.
She came, he learned, of a Virginia family which had migrated during her early childhood to California. It was obvious that they were well-bred, but equally so that they were not very competent. The victims, he judged, of a lot of played-out southern ideas and traditions. They were still living and March allowed himself to guess that they were one of the minor reasons why Doctor John had to earn a lot of money.
Paula with her splendid physique and gorgeous voice must have looked to them like the family hope. They had managed at considerable sacrifice to send her abroad, but evidently without any idea of the time and the money it takes to erect even the most promising material into a genuine success. After a year or two, she had been abandoned to make her way as best she could.
Even now that they were safely consigned to the past, Paula could not talk about the shifts and hardships of that time with any relish. The discouragements must have sunk in pretty deep. She hinted–it was not the sort of topic she could discourse candidly about–that the blackest of those discouragements had come from the amorous advances of men who had it in their power to open opportunities to her but wanted a _quid pro quo_.
He asked her in that connection whether during those hard times she had never felt inclined to fall in love on her own account.
“I never cared a snap of my fingers for any man,” she said with obvious sincerity, “until I saw John.”
This slowness of her erotic development surprised him rather until he evoked the explanation that her energies had been concentrated upon her musical ambition. Music, since she was a real musician, had been a genuine emotional outlet for her.
March speculated rather actively upon the relation between Paula and her husband. There was no dark room in the composer’s mind. He was the other pole from Aunt Lucile. All human problems set his mind at work. He was not widely read in the literature of psychology and he had a rough working theory which he regarded as his own, a dynamic theory. People got started off in life with a certain amount of energy. It varied immensely between individuals, of course, but one couldn’t alter the total of his own. Upon that store you ran until you were spent. What channels this stream of energy cut for itself was partly a matter of luck, partly one of self-determination. The important fact was that there was only so much and that what went down one way did not also go down another. It might be a hundred rivulets or one river, it couldn’t be both. This philosophy was largely responsible for the ordering of his own life, for his doing without possessions, for the most part without friends, for his keeping the brake set so tightly upon his sex impulses.
John must have come into Paula’s life, he reflected, at a time when the musical outlet to her energies had been dammed up. Her main stream, like that of the Mississippi, had cut a new channel for itself. Had there been, he wondered, some similar obstruction in the main channel of John Wollaston’s emotional life? Anyhow, there was no doubt that for the five years since this cataclysm had occurred, the course of true love had run smooth and deep. But suppose now that, through LaChaise’s intervention, Paula’s musical career was again opened to her, would the current turn that way? Would John be left stranded? Had Paula herself any misgivings to this effect?
That she was deeply troubled about her present relation with John and in general about John himself, would have been plain to a less penetrating eye than Anthony’s. There was no open quarrel between them. Wollaston dropped into the music room sometimes, late in the afternoon, to ask how the opera was getting along. His manner to March on these occasions was one of, perhaps, slightly overwrought politeness, but the intention of it did not seem hostile. Toward Paula he presented the image of humorous, affectionate concern, the standard behavior of the perfect husband.
It was Paula, on these occasions, who gave the show away, betraying by a self-conscious eagerness to make him welcome, the fact that he was not. She made the mistake of telling him he looked tired and worried, facts too glaringly true to be bandied about in the presence of a stranger. He looked to March as if he were approaching the elastic limit of complete exhaustion. That it looked pretty much like that to Paula herself was made evident from the way she once spoke about him, her eyes full of tears, after he had left the room.
“He’s working so insanely hard,” she said. “Nights as well as days. I don’t believe he’s had five hours’ consecutive sleep this week.”
When March wanted to know why he did it, she hesitated, but gave him, at last, a candid answer. No one else would have answered it at all.
“I don’t think it can be because he feels he has to,” she said. “To earn the money, I mean. Of course, he’s been buying a big farm, half of it, for Rush. But he said the other day that if I needed any extra money for this”–she nodded toward the score on the piano–“I was to let him know. Of course, he isn’t happy about it and I suppose it makes him take things harder.”
Naturally enough, March agreed with her here. John Wollaston was clearly a member of the gold coast class. It wasn’t thinkable that his financial difficulties could be real. The unreality of them was, of course, the measure of the genuineness of his fear of losing Paula,–of seeing the main current of her life shift once more to its old channel. Did Paula see that, March wondered? What was it she foresaw?
He got a partial answer one day in the course of one of their quarrels about the opera. He had unguardedly given expression to his growing despondency about it.
“This thing can’t go,” he had said. “It’s getting more lifeless from week to week. We’re draining all the blood out of it and this stuff we’re putting in is sawdust.”
She whipped round upon him in a sudden tempest. “It’s got to go,” she said. “It’s got to be made to go. If what you’re putting into it is sawdust, take it out. Put some heart into it.”
He had been staring gloomily at the score. Now he turned away from it. “That’s what I don’t seem able to do,” he said.
She came up and took him by the shoulders so violently that it might almost be said she shook him. “You can’t let go like that. It’s too late. Everything I’ve got in the world is mixed up in it.” She must have read his unspoken thought there for she went on, “Oh, I suppose you’d say I’d still have John if I did fail. Well, I wouldn’t. He’s mixed up in it, too. He’d never forgive me if I failed. It’s the fear I’ll fail and make myself look cheap and ridiculous that makes him hate it so. Well, I’m not going to. Make up your mind to that!”
Later, when he was leaving, under a promise to improve some of the passages they had been arguing about, she reverted to this aspect of the matter and added something. “John can see what a failure would mean. But what the other thing–the big real success–would mean to both of us, he hasn’t the faintest idea of. He won’t till I get it.”
“He’s a famous person, himself, of course,” March observed, not without a gleam of mischief.
She echoed the word quite blankly, and he went on to amplify.
“That European Medical Commission that was out here a few weeks ago attended some of his clinics in a body. I don’t suppose there’s a first-class hospital anywhere in this country or in Europe where his name isn’t known. That operation he did on Sarah turned out to be a classic, you know. He used a new technique in it which has become standard since.”
But it seemed to him that she still looked incredulous when he went away, incapable of really digesting that idea at all. No, he wouldn’t have bet much on the chance that any great success of hers could reunite them. The love life that they had been enjoying this last five years hadn’t thrown out any radicles to bind them together–children for instance.
March wondered why there had been no children. He was not inclined to accept the obvious explanation that she hadn’t wanted any. She had spoken once of her childlessness in a tone that didn’t quite square with that explanation. Nor had she said it quite as she would, had she felt that her husband shared equally in her disappointment. It was all very intangible, of course, just the way she inflected the sentence, “You see, I haven’t any children.” Was it John that didn’t want them? Well, he had two of his own, of course. Had he shrunk from having this new passion of his domesticated? And then he was a gynecologist. Was he, perhaps, afraid for her? That explanation had a sort of plausibility about it for Anthony March. If that were true, his caution had only brought him face to face with a greater risk. March felt sorry for John Wollaston.
But it quite truly never occurred to him to hold himself in the smallest degree responsible for the husband’s troubles. To a man with a better developed possessive sense, it might have occurred that he was poaching in another’s preserves. When a husband made it plain that he chose to keep a particularly rare and valuable possession such as a wife like Paula must be considered, in the tower of brass LaChaise had talked about, it became the duty of every other well-disposed male to take pains to leave no keys, rope ladders or files lying about by which she might effect her escape. But a consideration of this sort would not even have been intelligible to March, let alone troublesome.
Mary could not have described the thing there was about old Nat’s manner of going by her door that led her to halt him and inquire what he was up to. One sees, sometimes, one of his children gliding very innocently along toward the nearest way out with an effect of held breath that prompts investigation. In this sixty-year old child, upon whom the terror of John Wollaston’s desperate illness lay more visibly than on any other member of the household, this look of gusto was especially striking. Mary’s question was prompted by no more serious an impulse than to share with him a momentary escape from the all-enveloping misery.
But she found old Nat unwilling to share his source of satisfaction with her. He protested, indeed, with an air of deeply aggrieved innocence, that nothing of the sort existed. A man was waiting now in the lower hall who had come to make the customary inquiries. Nat had conveyed them to Paula and was returning with her answer. This was so flagrantly disingenuous that Mary smiled.
“Who is the man?” she asked.
The old servant shuffled his feet. “It’s that good-for-nothing piano tuner, Miss Mary,” he told her reluctantly. “I reckon you don’t know much about him. He’s been coming around a lot since you’ve been away. He’s been sticking to Miss Paula like a leech, right up to the day your father got sick. Then he didn’t come any more and I thought we were done with him. But he came back to-day and asked me if Miss Paula was up in the music room. He’d have gone right straight up to that room where Doctor John is fighting for his life if I hadn’t stopped him.”
“Did you tell him father was ill?” she asked, and was astonished at the flare of passion this evoked from him.
“It ain’t no business of his, Miss Mary,” he said grimly. “Nothing about this family is any business of his.” Then as if anxious to prevent the significance of that from reaching her, he hurried on. “He was so sure Miss Paula wanted to see him, I told him if he’d wait, I’d inform her that he was here. I’ve done told her and she said he was to go away. She couldn’t be bothered with him. And then she said to me with tears in her eyes, ‘I wish I’d never seen him, Nat.’ Those were her words, Miss Mary. ‘I wish my eyes had never beheld him!’ That’s what she said to me not a minute ago. I’m going down to fix him so she’ll never see him again.”
“You needn’t go down,” Mary said decisively. “I’ll see him myself.”
She had got home that morning summoned by a telegram, one of those carefully composed encouraging telegrams that are a simple distillate of despair. During the three days it had taken to accomplish her journey from the ranch, she had gradually relinquished all hope of finding her father alive. Rush, who met the train, had reassured her. It was a bad case of double pneumonia. They were expecting the crisis within twenty-four hours. The doctors gave him an even chance, but the boy was more confident. “They don’t know dad,” he said. “He isn’t going to die.”
On the way back to the house he had outlined the facts for her. His father had driven out to the farm in his open roadster a week ago Sunday to see how he and Graham were getting on–driven out alone, though he had spoken the night before, over the telephone, of bringing Paula with him. For some reason that hadn’t come off. Dad had seemed well enough, then, though rather tired and dispirited. The day had begun as if it meant to be fine, for a change, but it had turned off cold again and begun to rain while they were walking over the place. His father, he was afraid, had got pretty wet. When they got back to the farm-house they found a telephone message urgently summoning him to town, and he had driven away, in the open car, without changing.
Rush had meant to telephone but had neglected this–they were terribly busy, of course, trying to get things done without any labor to do them with. He had come home Wednesday, on a promise to Graham’s kid sister that he would attend a school dance of hers. He had dressed at home but not dined there and had seen nothing of his father until very late, about two o’clock in the morning, when he noticed a light in his room as he passed on the way to his own.
“I don’t know why I stopped,” he said. “He was talking and his voice didn’t sound natural, not as if he was telephoning nor talking to any one in the room, either. He was trying to telephone–to the hospital to send an ambulance for him. He hadn’t any breath at all, even then, and the thermometer he’d been taking his temperature with read a hundred and four.”
“I know,” Rush agreed. “It’s pretty rum. He stuck to it. Wanted to be got straight out of the house without rousing anybody. He was a little bit delirious, of course. I agreed to it to pacify him, but I telephoned straight to Doctor Darby and he told me not to do anything till he got around. It wasn’t more than ten minutes before he came. Paula had roused by that time, and she persuaded Darby against the hospital. She suggested the music room herself and as soon as he saw it he said it was just the place. They’ve got a regular hospital rigged up for him there and two men nurses. But the main person on the job is Paula herself. The two men keep watch and watch, but she’s there practically all the time. They say she hasn’t slept in more than half-hour snatches since that first night. She won’t let any of us come near him–and Darby backs her up. The doctors are all crazy about her. Say it’ll be her doing if dad pulls through. Well–she’d better make it!”
There wasn’t time to explore the meaning of that last remark for they were then pulling up at the door. She laid it aside for future reference, however. She was so fortunate as to meet Doctor Darby on the stairs and so to get at once the latest and most authoritative report.
He brightened at the sight of her but she thought he didn’t look very hopeful. He said though, that he believed her father was going to get well. “Medically, he hasn’t more than an even chance. He hasn’t much fight in him somehow. But that stepmother of yours means to pull him through. She doesn’t mean to be beaten and I don’t believe she will be. I’ve never seen the equal of her. It shows they’re born, not made. She’s never had, your aunt assures me, any nursing experience whatever.”
Mary thought she detected a twinkle in Darby’s eye over this mention of Aunt Lucile, but it was gone before she could make sure.
“You’re to go up and see him for five minutes,” he went on. “Paula’s keeping a look-out for you. He mustn’t be allowed to talk, of course, but she wants him to know you’re back. She has an idea, and she’s probably right, that he is worrying about you.”
“What is there that I can do?” she asked. “To help, I mean.”
“Hope,” he told her bluntly. “Pray if you can. Cheer up your aunt a bit, if possible; she’s in despair. Only don’t try to take away any of her occupations. That’s about all.”
“In other words, nothing,” she commented.
“Well, none of us can do much more than that,” he said, “excepting always, Paula.”
It was not until she had spent that heart-tearing five minutes at her father’s bedside, while she talked cheerful little encouraging futilities in a voice dry with the effort she had to make to keep it from breaking, that she saw her aunt–and felt grateful for Doctor Darby’s warning. Mary had never thought of Lucile before as an old woman, but she seemed more than that now,–broken and, literally, in despair–of her brother’s life. And beyond this there was a bitterness which Mary could not, at first, account for.
“Paula, I hear, has allowed you to see him. For five minutes! Well, that is more than she has allowed me. Or any of us. It was a chance for showing off, I suppose, that was more than she could resist.”
“I was a little afraid it might be that,” Mary admitted. “Afraid of finding her–carefully costumed for the part, you know. But she wasn’t. She didn’t come into the room with me at all; just told me not to show I was shocked by the way he looked and not to let him talk. And she seemed glad I was back; not for me but because it might help him. It seems a miracle that he’s still alive, after almost a week of that, and I guess it is she who has done it. They all say so.”
“Men!” the old woman cried fiercely. “All men! The two nurses as well. There’s something about her that makes idiots of all of them. She knows it. And she revels in it. It’s the breath of life to her. She has played fast and loose with your father’s happiness for it. And now she’s playing with his life as well. And feeling, all the while, that it is a very noble repentance!”
“Repentance for what?” Mary asked. “Rush said something like that. I thought, before I went away, that father was getting reconciled to the Ravinia idea. Do you think it was worrying about …”
“No, I don’t,” Lucile interrupted shortly. “Your father was exposed, soaking wet, to a cold north wind, while he was driving forty miles in an open car. That’s the reason he took pneumonia. And it’s the only reason. I don’t know what Rush may have been saying to you, but I’ve known your father ever since he was born, and I can tell you that Paula might have gone on making a fool of herself to the end of time without his dying of it. He was–fond of her, I will admit. But he had a life of his own that she knows nothing about. He was too proud to tell her about it, and she hadn’t wit enough to see it for herself. That’s the truth, and this emotional sprawl she’s indulging in now doesn’t change it.–Meanwhile, she is adding to her collection five new men!”
“I don’t believe,” said Mary quietly, “that there is one of them she knows exists. Or wouldn’t poison,” she added with a smile, “to improve father’s chance of getting well.”
This won a nod of grim assent. “There are plenty of them. She could replace them easily enough. But her hunger for their worship is insatiable. For a while your father’s–infatuation satisfied her. She may have tried to pull herself up to his level. I dare say she did. But even at that time she could not abide Wallace Hood, though he was kindness itself to her, simply because he kept his head. Unfortunately, this poor young musician was not able to keep his.”
It seemed to Mary, even when allowance was made for the bitterness of the desperate old woman, who then went on for the better part of an hour with her bill of particulars, that this must be true. Paula must have lost her head, at any rate. What Mary herself had seen the beginning of, must have gone on at an accelerated speed until it was beyond all bounds. There had been few hours when March might not come to the house and none to which he did not stay. There were whole days when Paula was hardly out of his company. She took him about with her to people’s houses. She talked about him when she went alone. Those who had at first not known what to think, at last had come to believe that there was only one thing they could.
“I tried to suggest to her, quite early, before it had gone so far, that she was in danger of being misunderstood. It only made her furious. And John was hardly less so when I mentioned to him that I had spoken to her. He would see nothing; kept a face of granite through it all.”
“Aunt Lucile,” Mary asked, after a little silence, “do you think she has really been–unfaithful to father?”
Miss Wollaston hesitated. “Should you consider the conduct I have described, to be an example of fidelity?”
“I mean, in the divorce court sense,” Mary persisted.
“That,” her aunt said, more nearly in her old manner than anything that Mary had yet seen–“that is a matter upon which I have no opinion.”
It was a possibility that Mary had contemplated as early as that first night of all, when Paula, having sung his song, had come herself to find him in Annie’s old bedroom where she had him hidden and with a broken laugh had pulled him up in her arms and kissed him, unaware that she was not alone with him. One kiss, as an isolated phenomenon, didn’t mean much, Mary allowed, but when a man and a woman who were going to be left alone together a lot, started off that way, they were likely to–get somewhere. And where the man was the composer of that love song and the woman the singer of it, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would.
But this was not the conclusion that she had come to when she stopped old Nat on his way down-stairs to turn March out of the house. The evidence, Rush’s and Aunt Lucile’s, might seem to point that way but it didn’t, somehow, make a convincing picture. I think, though, that in any case, she would have gone down to see him.
He had found himself a seat on a black oak settee in the hall around the corner of the stairs and his attitude, when she came upon him, was very like what it had been the other time, bent forward a little, his hands between his knees, as if he were braced for something.
“Mrs. Wollaston won’t be able to see you to-day,” she said. He sprang to his feet and she added instantly, “I’m her stepdaughter, Mary Wollaston. Won’t you come in?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and led the way into the drawing-room.
So far it had been rehearsed, on her way down-stairs, even to the chair in the bow window which she indicated, having seated herself, for him to sit down in. She had up to that point an extraordinarily buoyant sense of self-possession. This left her for one panicky instant when she felt him looking at her a little incredulously as if, once more, he wondered whether she were really there.
“I think, perhaps, you haven’t heard of father’s illness,” she began–not just as she had expected to. “Or did you come to ask about him?”
“No,” he said. “I hadn’t heard. Is it–yes, of course it must be–serious. I’m sorry.”
She was struck by the instantaneous change in his manner. From being, part of him, anyhow, a little remote–wool-gathering would have been Aunt Lucile’s term–he was, vividly, here. It wasn’t possible to doubt the reality of his concern. As a consequence, when she began informing him of the state of things she found herself pulled away, more and more, from the impersonal phraseology of a medical bulletin. She told how the attack had come on; how they had put up a bed for him in the music room, where there was the most air, and begun what it was evident from the first would be a life-and-death struggle; she quoted what Rush had told her when he met the train. “I agree with Rush,” she concluded. “They let me see him, for a few minutes, this morning, just so he’d know that I had come back. Yet it isn’t possible not to believe that he will get well.”
When she had squeezed away the tears that had dimmed her eyes, she saw that his own were bright with them. “He’s more than just a great man,” he said gravely. Then, after a moment’s silence, “If there’s anything I can do… It would be a great privilege to be of service to him. As errand boy, any sort of helper. I had some hospital experience at Bordeaux.”
It was, on the face of it, just such an offer as any kindly disposed inquirer would have made. Such as Wallace Hood, for example, had, in fact, made, only rather more eloquently less than an hour ago. But Mary’s impulse was not to answer as she had answered Wallace with a mere polite acknowledgment of helpless good intentions. In fact, she could find, for the moment, no words in which to answer him at all.
He said then, “I mustn’t keep you.”
Even in response to that she made no movement of release. “There’s nothing, even for me to do,” she said, and felt from the look this drew from him that he must, incredibly, have caught from her some inkling of what her admission really meant.
He did not repeat his move to go, nor speak, and there was silence between them for, perhaps, the better part of a minute. It was terminated, startlingly, for her, by her brother’s appearance in the doorway. He had on his raincoat and carried his hat and an umbrella in his hands.
“Mary, I’m just going out” … he began, then broke off short, stared, and came on into the room. March rose, but Mary, after one glance at Rush’s face, sat back a little more deeply in her seat. Rush ignored her altogether.
“My sister has been away during the last few weeks,” he said to March. It had, oddly, the effect of a set speech. “If she had not been, I’m sure she would have told you, as I do now …” He stumbled there, evidently from the sudden blighting sense that he was talking like an actor–or an ass. “This isn’t the time for you to come here,” he went on. “This house isn’t the place for you to come. When my father’s well enough to take matters into his own hands again, he’ll do as he sees fit. For the present you will have to consider that I’m acting for him.”
Mary’s eyes during the whole of that speech never wavered from March’s face. There was nothing in it at all at first but clear astonishment, but presently there came a look of troubled concern that gave her an impulse to smile. Evidently it disconcerted her brother heavily for at the end of an appalling silence, not long enough however, to allow March to get his wits together for a reply, Rush turned about abruptly and strode from the room. A moment later they heard the house door close behind him.
The two in the drawing-room were left looking at each other. Then, “Please sit down again,” she said.
The effect of Rush’s interruption was rather that of a thunderclap, hardly more. Recalling it, Mary remembered having looked again into March’s face as the street door banged shut to see whether he was laughing. She herself was sharply aware of the comic effect of her brother’s kicking himself out of the house instead of his intended victim, but she could not easily have forgiven a sign of such awareness from March.
He had betrayed none, had tried, she thought–his amazement and concern had rendered him pretty near inarticulate–to tell her what the look in his face had already made evident even to Rush; his innocence not only of any amorous intent toward Paula but even of the possibility that any one could have interpreted the relation between them in that way. He might have managed some such repudiation as that had she not cut across his effort with an apology for her brother.
It had been a terrible week for them all, she said. Especially for Rush and for his Aunt Lucile, who had been here from the beginning. Even the few hours since her own return this morning had been enough to teach her how nearly unendurable that sort of helplessness was.
It must have been in this connection that he told her what had not got round to her before, the case of his sister Sarah whom they had watched as one condemned to death until John Wollaston came and saved her. “He simply wouldn’t be denied,” March said. “He was all alone; even his colleagues didn’t agree with him. And my father, having decided that she was going to die and that this must, therefore, be the will of God, didn’t think it ought to be tampered with.
“I remember your father said to him, ‘Man, the will of God this morning is waiting to express itself in the skill of my hands,’ and it didn’t sound like blasphemy either. He carried father off in his apron, just as he was, to the hospital and I went along. I scraped an acquaintance afterward with one of the students who had been there in the theatre watching him operate and got him to tell me about it. They felt it was a historic occasion even at the time; cheered him at the end of it. And that sort of virtuosity does seem worthier of cheers than any scraping of horsehair over cat-gut could ever come to. I wonder how many lives there are to-day that owe themselves altogether to him just as my sister does.–How many children who never could have been born at all except for his skill and courage. Because, of course, courage is half of it.”
Upon Mary the effect of this new portrait of her father was electrifying; eventually was more than that–revolutionary. These few words of March’s served, I think, in the troubled, turbid emotional relation she had got into with her father, as a clarifying precipitant.
But that process was slower; the immediate effect attached to March himself. The present wonder was that it should have been he, a stranger, equipped with only the meagerest chances for observation, who, turning his straying search-light beam upon the dearest person to her in the world, should thus have illuminated him anew. Even after he had gone it was the man rather than the things he had said that she thought about.
Amazingly, he had guessed–she was sure she had given him no hint–at the part Paula was playing in their domestic drama. It had come pat upon what he had told her of the lives her father had plucked from the hand of death, the ironic, “he saved others, himself he can not save,” hanging unspoken in their thoughts.
“Paula will be fighting for his life,” he said. “Magnificently. That must be one of your hopes.”
She had confirmed this with details. She got the notion, perhaps from nothing more than his rather thoughtful smile, that he comprehended the whole thing, even down to Aunt Lucile. Though wasn’t there a phrase of his,–“these uninhibited people, when it comes to getting things _done_ …” that slanted that way? Did that mean that he was one of the other sort? Wasn’t your ability to recognize the absence of a quality or a disability in any one else, proof enough that you had it yourself? It would never, certainly, occur to Paula to think of any one as “uninhibited.”
But the opposed adjective didn’t fit him. She couldn’t see him at all as a person tangled, helpless, in webs of his own spinning;–neither the man who had written that love song nor the man who had sat down in his chair again after Rush had slammed the door.
He wasn’t even shy but he was, except for that moment when a vivid concern over John Wollaston’s illness brought him back, oddly remote, detached. He might have been a Martian, when in response to her leading he discussed Paula with her; how good a musician she was; how splendidly equipped physically and temperamentally for an operatic career. “She has abandoned all that now, I suppose,” he said. “Everything that goes with it. She would wish, if she ever gave us a thought, that LaChaise and I had never been born.”
Mary would have tried to deny this but that the quality and tone of his voice told her that he really knew it and that, miraculously, he didn’t care. She had exclaimed with a sincerity struck out of her by amazement, “I don’t see how you know that.”
“Paula’s a conqueror,” he had answered simply, “a–compeller. It’s her instinct to compel. That’s what makes her the artist she is. Without her voice she might have been a tamer of wild beasts. And, of course, a great audience that has paid extravagantly for its pleasure is a wild beast, that will purr if she compels it, snarl at her if she doesn’t manage to. She’s been hissed, howled at. And that’s the possibility that makes cheers intoxicating. Left too long without something to conquer, she feels in a vacuum, smothered. Well, she’s got something now; the greatest thing in the world to her,–her husband’s life. She’s flung off the other thing like a cloak.”
Without, at the moment, any sense of its being an extraordinary question, Mary asked, “Are you glad? That she has forgotten you, I mean.”
She was not able, thinking it over afterward, to recall anything that could have served as a cue for so far-fetched a supposition as that. It could have sprung from nothing more palpable than the contrast suggested between Paula, the compeller, the _dompteuse_, and the man who had just been so describing her. He was so very thin; he was, if one looked closely, rather shabby, and beyond that, it had struck her that a haggard air there was about him was the product of an advanced stage of fatigue,–or hunger. But that of course, was absurd. Anyhow, not even the sound of her question startled her.
Nor did it him. There was something apologetic about his smile. “It _is_ a reprieve,” he admitted. “I left her a week ago,” he went on to explain,–“it must have been the day Doctor Wollaston fell ill–on a promise not to come back until I had got this opera of mine into the shape she wants. I came back to-day to tell her that it can’t be done–not by me. I have tried my utmost and it isn’t enough. I haven’t improved it even from her point of view let alone from mine. She isn’t an easy person to come to with a confession of failure.”
“She’s spoiling it,” Mary said. “Why do you let her?”
But March dissented from that. “If we agree that the thing’s an opera–and of course that’s what it is if it’s anything–then what she wants it made over into is better than what I wrote. She’s trying to put the Puccini throb into it. She’s trying to make better drama out of it. LaChaise agrees with her. He said at the beginning that I relied too much on the orchestra and didn’t give the singers enough to do. And, of course, it’s easy to see that what a woman like Paula said or did would be more important to an audience than anything that an oboe could possibly say. When I’m with her, she–galvanizes me into a sort of belief that I can accomplish the thing she wants, but when I go off alone and try to do it….” He blinked and shook his head. “It has been a first-class nightmare, for a fact, this last week.”
But Mary demanded again. “Why do you let her?”
“I made a good resolution a while ago,” he said. “It was–it was the night she sang those Whitman songs. You see I’ve never been tied to anything; harnessed, you know. Somehow, I’ve managed to do without. But I’ve had to do without hearing, except in my own head, any of the music I’ve written. There was an old tin trunk full of it, on paper, that looked as if it was never going to be anywhere else. Well, I came to a sort of conviction after I went away from here that night, that those two facts were cause and effect; that unless I submitted to be harnessed I never would hear any of it. And it seemed that night that I couldn’t manage to do without hearing it. Keats was wrong about that, you know,–about unheard melodies being sweeter. They can come to be clear torment. So I decided I’d begin going in harness. I suppose it was rather naive of me to think that I could, all at once, make a change like that. Anyhow, I found I couldn’t go on with this. I brought it around to-day,–it’s out there in the hall–to turn it over to Paula to do with as she liked. That’s why it was so–incredible, when you came down the stairs instead.”
He sprang up then to go, so abruptly that he gave her the impression of having abandoned in the middle, the sentence he was speaking. This time, however, rising instantly, she released him and in a moment he was gone. There had been a word from him about her father, the expression of “confident hopes” for his recovery, and on her part some attempt, not successfully brought off she feared, to assure him of his welcome when he came again. She didn’t shake hands with him and decided afterward that it must have been he who had avoided it.
She was glad to have him go so quickly. She wanted him to go so that she could think about him. It was with a rather buoyant movement that she crossed the room to the piano bench and very lightly with her finger-tips began stroking the keys, the cool smooth keys with their orderly arrangement of blacks and whites, from which it was possible to weave such infinitely various patterns, such mysterious tissue.
A smile touched her lips over the memory of the picture her fancy had painted the night Paula sang his songs, the sentimental notion of Paula’s inspiring him with an occasional facile caress to the writing of other love songs. She might have been a boarding-school girl to have thought of that. She smiled, too, though a little more tenderly, over his own attempt–naive he had called it–to go in harness, like a park hack, submissive to Paula’s rein and spur. Pegasus at the plow again. She smiled in clear self-derision over her contemplated project of saving him from Paula. He didn’t need saving from anybody. He was one of those spirits that couldn’t be tied. Not even his own best effort of submission could avail to keep the harness on his back.
It was most curious how comfortable she had been with him. During the miserable month she had spent at home before she went to Wyoming with the Corbetts, she had dreaded a second encounter with March and had consciously avoided one. To meet and be introduced as the strangers they were supposed by the rest of the family to be, to elaborate the pretense that this was what they were–they who had shared those flaming moments while Paula sang!–would be ridiculous and disgusting. But anything else, any attempt to go on from where they had left off was unthinkable. In the privacy of her imagination she had worked the thing out in half a dozen ways, all equally distressing.
She had not made good her resolution to quit thinking about him. She was not able and did not even attempt to dismiss her adventure with him as a mere regrettable folly to be forgotten as soon as possible. It had often come back to her during sleepless hours of the long nights and had always been made welcome. She didn’t wish it defaced as she had felt it necessarily must be by the painful anti-climax of a second meeting.
The impulse upon which she had taken him out of old Nat’s hands was perhaps a little surprising now she looked back on it, but it had not astonished her at the time. Of course, there, there was something concretely to be done, an injustice to be averted from a possibly innocent head. She doubted though if it had been pure altruism.
Whatever its nature, the result of it had been altogether happy. She _was_ glad she had come down to see him. There need be no misgiving now about the quality of their future encounters, were there to be any such. They were on solid ground with each other.
How had that been brought about? How had they managed to talk to each other for anyway fifteen or twenty minutes without either a reference to their adventure or a palpable avoidance of it? It wasn’t her doing. From the moment when she got to the end of the lines she had rehearsed coming down the stairs, the lead had been in his hands. Indeed, to the latter part of the talk, what she had contributed was no more than a question or two so flagrantly personal that they reminded her in review of some of her childish indiscretions with Wallace Hood. How had he managed it?
He hadn’t been tactful. She acquitted him altogether of that. She couldn’t have endured tact this afternoon from anybody. Of course, the mere expressiveness of his face helped a lot. The look he had turned on Rush for example, that had stopped that nerve-racked boy in full career. Or the look he gave her when he first learned of her father’s illness. That sudden coming back from whatever his own preoccupation might have been to a vivid concern for her father.
Well, there, at last, it was. That was his quality. A genius for more than forgetting himself, for stepping clean out of himself into some one else’s shoes. Wasn’t that just a long way of saying imagination? He had illuminated her father for her and in so doing had given her a ray of real comfort. He had interpreted Paula–in terms how different from those employed by Aunt Lucile! He had comprehended Rush without one momentary flaw of resentment. Last of all, he had quite simply and without one vitiating trace of self-pity, explained himself, luminously, so that it was as if she had known him all her life.
One thing, to be sure, she didn’t in the least understand–the very last thing he had said. “That’s why it was so incredible when you came down the stairs instead.” That had been to her, a complete non sequitur, an enigma. But she was content to leave it at that.
Such a man, of course, could never–belong to anybody. He was not collectable. There would always be about him, for everybody, some last enigma, some room to which no one would be given the key. But there was a virtue even in the fringe of him, the hem of his garment.
Was she getting sentimental? No, she was not. Indeed, precisely what his little visit had done for her was to effect her release from a tangle of taut-drawn sentimentalities. She hadn’t felt as free as this, as comfortable with herself, since she came home with Rush from New York.
She had no assurance that he’d come to the house again of his own accord or that Paula would send for him. But she was in no mood to distress herself just now, even with that possibility.
She crossed the room and got herself a cigarette, and with it alight she returned to her contemplation of the piano keyboard. She didn’t move nor speak when she heard Rush come in but she kept an eye on the drawing-room door and when presently he entered, she greeted him with a smile of good-humored mockery. He had something that looked like a battered school atlas in his hand.
“What do you suppose this is?” he asked. “It was lying on the bench in the hall.”
She held out a hand for it and together they opened it on the lid of the piano and investigated.
“It’s the manuscript of his opera,” she said. “He brought it around to leave with Paula. To tell her he had done with it. He’s been trying to spoil it for her but he can’t.”
“I suppose I made an infernal fool of myself,” he remarked, after a little silence.
She blew, for answer, an impudent smoke ring up into his face.
He continued grumpily to cover his relief that she had not been more painfully explicit,–“I suppose I shall have to make up some sort of damned apology to him.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s as you like. I don’t believe he’d insist upon it. He understood well enough.”
He looked at her intently. “Has there been any better news from father since I went out?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Except that there’s been none. Every hour now that we aren’t sent for counts. What made you think there might have been?”
He said he didn’t know. She looked a little more cheerful somehow, less–tragic. Evidently her visit to the Corbetts had done her good.
His eye fell once more on the manuscript. “Did he go off and forget that?” he asked. “Or did he mean to leave it for Paula? And what shall we do with it,–hand it over to her or send it back?”
Thoughtfully Mary straightened the sheets and closed the cover. “I’ll take care of it for him,” she said.
Pneumonia, for all it is characterized by what is called a crisis, has no single stride to recovery, no critical moment when one who has been in peril passes to safety. Steinmetz and Darby were determined that Mary and all the household should understand this fully. She had waylaid them in the hall as they were leaving the house together–this was seventy-two hours or so after Anthony March’s call–and demanded the good news she was sure they had for her. There was a look about them and a tone in their voices that were perfectly new.
They would not be persuaded to say that her father was out of danger. There was very little left of him. His heart had been over-strained and this abnormal effect was now, in due course, transferred to the kidneys. All sorts of deadly sequellae were lying in ambush.
But the more discouraging they were, the more she beamed upon them. She walked along with them to the door, slipping her arm inside Doctor Darby’s as she did so. “If you only knew,” she said, “what a wonderful thing it is to have the doctors stop being encouraging and try to frighten you, instead. Because that means you really do think he’s getting well.”
“The balance of probability has swung to that side,” Steinmetz admitted in his rather affected staccato. “At all events he’s out of my beat.” His beat was the respiratory tract and his treatment the last word in vaccines and serums.
She held Darby back a little. “Must we go on feeling,” she asked, “that anything could happen any minute? Or–well, could Rush go back to the farm? Graham Stannard has gone to New York, I think, they’re partners, you know, so he must be rather badly wanted. And this waiting is hard for him.”
Rush could go, of course, Darby assured her. “For that matter,” he went on with a quick glance at her, “why don’t you go with him? Take your aunt along, too. For a few days, at least. You couldn’t do better.”
She demurred to this on the ground that it didn’t seem fair to Paula. If there was a period of Arcadian retirement down on the books for anybody, it was Paula who was entitled to it.
But Paula, as Darby pointed out, wouldn’t take it in the first place, and, surprisingly, didn’t need it in the second. “She told me just now that she’d slept eighteen hours out of the last twenty-four and was ready for anything. She looked it, too.”
He understood very well her irrepressible shrug of exasperation at that and interrupted her attempt to explain it. “It’s another breed of animal altogether,” he said. “And at that, I’d rather have had her job than yours. You’re looking first rate, anyhow. But your aunt, if she isn’t to break up badly, had better be carried off somewhere.” He glanced around toward Steinmetz who had withdrawn out of ear-shot. “There are some toxins, you know,” he added, “that are even beyond him and his microscopes.”
Mary had meant to broach this project at dinner but changed her mind and waited until Aunt Lucile had withdrawn and she and Rush were left alone over their coffee cups for a smoke.
“Poor Aunt Lucile! She has aged years in the last three weeks. And it shows more, now the nightmare is over, than it did before.”
“Is it over? Really?” he asked.
“Well, we don’t need miracles any more for him. Just ordinary good care and good luck. Yes, I’d say the nightmare was over.”
“Leaving us free,” he commented, “to go back to our own.”
“You can go back to the farm, anyhow,” she said. “I asked Doctor Darby, especially, and he said so. He wants me to go along with you and take Aunt Lucile. Just for a week or so. Is there any sort of place with a roof over it where we could stay?”
He said, “I guess that could be managed.” But his tone was so absent and somber that she looked at him in sharp concern.
“You didn’t mean that the farm was your nightmare, did you?” she asked. “Has something gone terribly wrong out there?”
“Things have gone just the way I suppose anybody but a fool would have known they would. Not worse than that, I guess.”
He got up then and went over to the sideboard, coming back with a decanter of old brandy and a pair of big English glasses. She declined hers as unobtrusively as possible, just with a word and a faint shake of the head. But it was enough to make him look at her.
“You didn’t drink anything at dinner, either, did you?” he asked.
She flushed as she said, “I don’t think I’m drinking, at all, just now.”
“Being an example to anybody?” he asked suspiciously.
She smiled at that and patted his hand. “Oh, no, my dear. I’ve enough to do to be an example to myself. I liked the way it was out at the Corbetts’. They’ve gone bone-dry. And,–oh, please don’t think that I’m a prig–I am a little better without it–just now, anyway. Tell me what’s gone wrong at the farm.”
“This is wonderful stuff,” he said, cupping the fragile glass in his two hands and inhaling the bouquet from the precious liquor in the bottom of it. “It’s good for nightmares, at any rate.” After a sip or two, he attempted to answer her question.
“Oh, I suppose we’ll come out all right, eventually. Of course, we’ve got to. But I wish Martin Whitney had done one thing or the other; either shown a little real confidence and enthusiasm in the thing or else stepped on it and refused to lend father the money.”
“Lend?” Mary asked. “Did he have to borrow it?”
He dealt rather impatiently with that question. “You don’t keep sixty or eighty thousand dollars lying around loose in a checking account,” he said. “Of course, he had to borrow it. But he borrowed it of Whitney, worse luck–and Whitney being an old friend, pulls a long face over it whenever we find we need a little more than the original figures showed. That’s enough to give any one cold feet right there.
“Graham’s father is rich, of course, but he’s tighter than the bark on a tree. He’s gone his limit and he won’t stand for anything more. He can’t see that a farm like that is nothing but a factory and that you can’t run it for any profit that’s worth while without the very best possible equipment. He wanted us to pike along with scrub stock and the old tools and buildings that were on the place and pay for improvements out of our profits. Of course, the answer to that was that there wouldn’t be any profits. A grade cow these days simply can’t earn her keep with the price of feed and labor what it is. We didn’t figure the cost of tools and modern buildings high enough–there _was_ such a devil of a lot of necessary things that we didn’t figure on at all–and the consequence was that we didn’t put a big enough mortgage on the place. Nowhere near what it would stand. And now that we want to put a second one on, Mr. Stannard howls like a wolf.”
The mere sound of the word mortgage made Mary’s heart sink. She looked so woebegone that Rush went on hastily.
“Oh, that’ll come out in the wash. It’s nothing to worry about really, because even on the basis of a bigger investment than we had any idea of making when we went in, it figures a peach of a profit. There’s no getting away from that. That’s not the thing about it that’s driving Graham and me to drink.”
He stopped on that phrase, not liking the sound of it, and in doubt about asking her not to take it literally. She saw all that as plainly as if she had been looking through an open window into his mind. He took another deliberate sip of the brandy, instead, and then went on.
“Why, it’s the way things don’t happen; the way we can’t get anything done.”
He did not see the sympathetic hand she stretched out to him; went back to the big brandy glass instead, for another long luxurious inhalation and a small sip or two. “It’s partly our own fault, of course,” he went on, presently. “We’ve made some fool mistakes. But it isn’t our mistakes that are going to beat us, it’s the damned bull-headed incompetence of the so-called labor we’ve got to deal with.”
He ruminated over that in silence for a minute or two. “They talk about the inefficiency of the army,” he exclaimed, “but I’ve been four years in two armies and I’ll say that if what we’ve found out at Hickory Hill is a fair sample of civilian efficiency, I’ll take the army way every time. There are days when I feel as if I’d like to quit;–go out West and get a job roping steers for Bob Corbett, even if he is bone-dry.”
She thought if he played any longer with that brandy glass she must cry out, but he drained it this time and pushed it away. With an effort of will she relaxed her tight muscles.
“I suppose I must have looked to you like a hopeless slacker,” he said, “or you wouldn’t have asked Darby to send me back to work. No,–I didn’t mean to put it that way. I look like one to myself, that’s all, when I stop to think. Only you don’t know how it has felt, this last six weeks, to go on getting tighter and tighter in your head until you feel as if you were going to burst. I went out and got drunk, once,–just plain, deliberately boiled–in order to let off steam. It did me good, too, for the time being.”
She didn’t look shocked at that as he had expected her to–gave him only a rather wry smile and a comprehending nod. “We’re all alike; that’s the trouble with us,” she said. “But you will take us out to Hickory Hill, won’t you? Aunt Lucile and I. I’ll promise we won’t be in the way nor make you any more work.”
She saw he was hesitating and added, “At that, perhaps, I may be some good. I could cook anyhow and I suppose I could be taught to milk a cow and run a Ford.”
He laughed at that, then said a little uncomfortably that this wasn’t what he had been thinking about. “I suppose you’re counting on Graham’s being in New York. He isn’t. At least, he telegraphed me that he’d be back at Hickory Hill to-morrow morning. I knew you’d been rather keeping away from him and I thought perhaps…”
“No, that’s all right.” She said it casually enough, but it drew a keen look of inquiry from him, nevertheless. “Oh, nothing,” she went on. “I mean I haven’t made up with him. Of course, I never quarreled with him as far as that went. Only it’s what I meant when I said just now that we were all alike, father and you and I. We all get so ridiculously–tight about things. Well, I’ve managed to let off steam myself.”
He patted her hand approvingly. “That trip to Wyoming did you a lot of good,” he observed.–“Or something did.”
“They’re wonderfully easy people to live with, Olive and Bob,” she said. “They’re immensely in love with each other I suppose, but without somehow being offensive about it. And they have such a lot of fun. Olive has a piebald cayuse, that she’s taught all the _haute ecole_ tricks. He does the statuesque poses and all the high action things just as seriously as a thoroughbred and he’s so short and homely and in such deadly earnest about it that you can hardly bear it. You laugh yourself into stitches but you want to cry too. And Bob says he’s going to train a mule the same way. If he ever does that pair will be worth a million dollars to any circus.–Well, we’ll be doing things like that out at Hickory Hill some day. Because there is such a thing as fun left in the world.”
“We’ll have some of it this week,” he agreed, and in this rather light-headed spirit they arranged details.
The only building at Hickory Hill that had been designed for human habitation was the farm-house and it was at present fully occupied and rather more by a camp cook and his assistant, the farm manager and half a dozen hands. The partners themselves slept in a tent. There was also a cook tent near the house where three meals a day were prepared for everybody, including the carpenters, masons, concrete men and well diggers who were working on the new buildings. They drove out in Fords from two or three near-by towns in time for breakfast and didn’t go home till after supper. The wagon shed of the old horse barn served as a mess hall.
There were some beds, though, two or three spare ones, Rush was sure, that had never been used. Given a day’s start on his guests, he would promise some sort of building which, if they would refrain from inquiring too closely into its past, should serve to house them.
“A wood-shed,” she suggested helpfully, “or a nicely swept-out hennery. Even a former cow stable, at a pinch. Only not a pig-pen.”
“If our new hog-house were only finished, you could be absolutely palatial in it. But I think I can do better than any of those. You leave that to me.–Only, how about Aunt Lucile? She’s–essential to the scheme, I suppose. Can you deliver her?”
“She’ll come if it’s put to her right,–as a sporting proposition. She really is a good sport you know, the dear old thing. You leave her to me.”
“Lord, I feel a lot better than I did when I sat down to dinner,” he told her when they parted for the night, and left her reflecting on the folly of making mountains out of mole-hills.
LOW HANGS THE MOON
He broke his promise to be waiting for them Friday morning at the farm. It was Graham who caught sight of their car, as it stopped in front of the farm-house, and came plunging down the bank to greet them and explain how unavoidable it had been that Rush should go to Elgin.
He was somewhat flushed and a little out of breath but he seemed, after the first uncomfortable minute, collected enough. He mounted the running-board and directed the chauffeur to drive on across the bridge and fork to the right with the main road up to a small nondescript building on the far side of it.
It was a part of the farm, he explained, indicating the wilderness off to the left,–a part of what must once have been a big apple orchard. Indeed, exploring it yesterday for the first time, he had found a surprising number of old trees, which, choked as they were with undergrowth, looked as if they were still bearing fruit. The building, which they had never even entered until yesterday, had served as a sorting and packing house for the crop, though the old part of it–paradoxically the upper part–appeared to have been built as a dwelling by some pioneer settler. A second story had been added underneath by digging out the bank.
It stood well back from the road, a grass grown lane with a turning circle leading to it. It had what had once been a loading platform, wagon high, instead of a veranda. The lower story, a single room which they peered into through a crack in a warped unhinged door, seemed unpromising enough, a dark cobwebby place, cumbered with wooden chutes from the floor above by which, Graham explained, they rolled the apples down into barrels after they had been sorted up-stairs. A carpenter had been busy most of the morning, he added, flooring over the traps from which these chutes led down.
Mary, though, fairly cried out with delight, and even Miss Wollaston beamed appreciation when, Graham, having led them up the bank and around to the back of the building, ushered them in, at the ground level up here, to the upper story of the building. There was a fireplace in the north end of it with twin brick erections on either side which they thought must have been used for drying apples. The opposite end, partitioned off, still housed a cider mill and press, but they had contrived, he said, a makeshift bedroom out of it.
Along the east side of the room were three pairs of casement windows which commanded a view of the greater part of the farm; across the road, across Hickory Creek, across the long reach of the lower pasture and the seemingly limitless stretches of new plowed fields. The clump of farm buildings, old and new, was in the middle of the picture. Over to the left not quite a mile away, behind what looked like nothing more than a fold in the earth (the creek again, Graham explained. It swung an arc of two hundred degrees or so, about the main body of their tillable land) rose the heavily wooded slopes of Hickory Hill.
“We were surprised at this place,” he said, “when we opened it up yesterday. It’s the best view on the farm. It will be a fine place to build a real country house, some day, if we ever make money enough to do that.”
“It is a real country house already,” Mary told him briskly. “You two, living in a tent with a lovely old place like this just waiting for you! Wait until Aunt Lucile and I have had a day at it and you’ll see.”
He looked as if he believed her. Indeed, he looked unutterable things, contemplating her, there in that mellow old room,–wrinkling her nose a little and declaring that she could still smell apples. But all he said was that he supposed the roof leaked, but it couldn’t be very bad because everything seemed quite decently dry and not at all musty. He added that he must be getting back to work, but that an odd-job man, capable more or less of anything, was at her disposal for as long as she wanted him.
She went with him to the door when he made his rather precipitate departure and stood, after she had waved him a temporary farewell, gazing up at the soft sun-bathed slope with its aisles of gnarled trees. She smiled at the sight of a decrepit long-handled wooden pump. She took a long breath of the smell of the month of May. Then she turned, with Aunt Lucile, to such practical matters as bedding, brooms and tea-kettles.
There was more to do than a first look had led them to suppose, and their schemes grew ambitious, besides, as they advanced with them, so that, for all the Briarean prodigies of Bill, the odd-job man, they went to bed dog tired at nine o’clock that night with their labors not more than half complete. They slept–Mary did, anyhow, the deepest sleep she had known in years.
She waked at an unearthly–a heavenly hour. The thin ether-cool air was quivering with the dissonance of bird calls; the low sun had laid great slow-moving oblongs of reddish gilt upon the brown walls of the big room. (She had left her aunt in undivided possession of the extemporized bed-chamber.) She rose and opened the door and looked out into the orchard. But what her eye came to rest upon was the old wooden pump.
It was a triumph of faith over skepticism, that pump. Graham had contemned it utterly, hardly allowing, even, that it was picturesque, but Bill, the odd-job man had, with her encouragement, spent a patient hour over it and in the teeth of scientific probability, lo, it had given forth streams of water as clear as any that had ever miraculously been smitten out of a rock. The partners had forbidden her to drink any of it except boiled, until it had been analyzed.
She looked about. She had the world to herself. So she carried her rubber tub, her sponge and a bath-towel out to the warped wooden platform and bathed _en plein air_, water and sun together. She came in, deliciously shuddering, lighted a fire, already laid, of shavings and sticks, put the kettle on to boil and dressed. She felt–new born that morning.
This sensation made the undercurrent of a long fully filled day. She almost never had time to look at it but she knew it was there. It enabled her to take with equanimity the unlooked-for arrival (so far as she and her aunt were concerned) of Graham’s young torn-boy sister, Sylvia. It made it possible for her to say, “Why, yes, of course! I’d love to,” when Graham, along in the afternoon asked her if she wouldn’t go for a walk over the farm with him. They spent more than an hour at it, sitting, a part of the time, side by side atop the gate into the upper pasture, yet not even then had the comfortable sense of pleasant companionship with him taken fright. It was a security that resided, she knew, wholly in herself.
He was holding himself, obviously, on a very tight rein, and it was quite conceivable that before her visit ended, he would bolt. There was a moment, indeed–when he came with Rush to supper at the apple house and got his first look at the transformation she had wrought in it–when that possibility must have been in the minds of every one who saw his face.
She had dramatized the result of her two days’ labor innocent of any intention to produce an effect like that. The partners when they came dropping in from time to time had, learned nothing of her plans, seen none of their accomplishments, so to-night the old-fashioned settle which Bill had knocked together from lumber in the packing room and she had stained, two of the sorting tables, fitted into the corners beside the fireplace to make a dais, the conversion of another into a capital dining table by the simple expedient of lengthening its legs, the rag rug, discovered in the village, during a flying trip with Sylvia this morning in her car and ravished from the church fair it had been intended for, the sacks of sheeting Aunt Lucile had been sewing industriously all day, covered with burlaps and stuffed with hay to serve as cushions, the cheese-cloth tacked up in gathers over the windows and hemmed with pins,–all this, revealed at once, had the surprise of a conjurer’s trick, or, if one were predisposed that way, the entrancement of a miracle.
She was a little entranced, herself, partly with fatigue for she had put in, one after the other, two unusually laborious days, but partly no doubt with her own magic, with this almost convincing simulation of a home which she and her assistants had produced. It didn’t matter that she had gone slack and silent, because Sylvia, who just before supper had shown a disposition to dreamy elegiac melancholy, rebounded, as soon as she was filled with food, to the other end of the scale altogether and swept Rush after her into a boisterous romp, which none of Aunt Lucile’s remonstrant asides to her nephew was effectual to quell.
She was an amazing creature, this product of the latest generation to begin arriving at the fringes of maturity, a reedy young thing, as tall as Graham, inches taller than Rush. She had the profile of a young Greek goddess and the grin of a gamin. She was equally at home in a ballgown–though she was not yet out–or in a pair of khaki riding breeches and an olive drab shirt. She was capable of assuming a manner that was a genuine gratification to her great aunt or one that startled her father’s stable men. She read French novels more or less at random, (unknown to her mother. She had a rather mischievous uncle who was responsible for this development) and she was still deadly accurate with a snowball. A bewildering compound of sophistications and innocence, a modern young sphinx with a riddle of her own.
Mary watched her tussling and tumbling about with Rush, pondering the riddle but making no great effort to find an answer to it. Was she child or woman? To herself what was she? And what did Rush think about her? They were evidently well established on some sort of terms. Rush, no doubt, would tell you–disgustedly if you sought explanation–that Sylvia was just a kid. That he was fond of her as one would be of any nice kid and that her rough young embraces, her challenges and her pursuits, meant precisely what those of an uproarious young–well, nephew, say,–would mean. Only his eagerness to go on playing the game cast a doubt upon that explanation.
They went out abruptly after a while, just as it was getting dark, to settle a bet as to which of them could walk the farthest along the top rail of a certain old fence. Miss Wollaston saw them go with unconcealed dismay, but it was hard to see how even a conscientious chaperon could have prevented it so long as the child’s elder brother would do nothing to back her up. To Mary, half-way in her trance, it didn’t seem much to matter what the relation was or what came of it. It was a fine spring night and they were a pair of beautifully untroubled young animals. Let them play as they would.
Their departure, did, however, arouse Graham to the assumption of his duties as host and he launched himself into a conversation with Miss Wollaston; a fine example, Mary thought, of what really good breeding means. Her aunt’s questions about life in the navy were not the sort that were easy to answer pleasantly and at large. They drew from him things he must have been made to say a hundred times since his return and sometimes they were so wide of the mark that it must have been hard not to stare or laugh. He must have been wishing, too, with all his might down in the disregarded depths of his heart, that the old lady would yield to the boredom and fatigue that were slowly creeping over her. Soon! Before that pair of Indians came back. But by nothing, not even the faintest irrepressible inflection of voice was that wish made manifest.
It broke over Mary suddenly that this would never happen. Aunt Lucile might die at her post, but she’d never, in Graham’s presence, retire through a door which was known to lead to her bedroom. She rose and going around to her aunt’s chair, laid a light hand on her shoulder. But she spoke to Graham.
“Let’s go out and bring in the wanderers,” she said. “Aunt Lucile has had a pretty long day and I know she won’t be able to go to sleep until Sylvia is tucked in for the night.”
When the door had closed behind them and they stood where the path, already faintly indicated, led down to the road, he stopped with a jerk and mutely looked at her.
“Do you know where that fence of theirs is?” she asked.
“Yes, I guess so,” he said. Then–it was almost a cry–“Must we go there? Right away?”
“I don’t know that we need.” (Why should he be tortured like that! What did it matter if the rigidity of some of her nightmare-born resolutions got relaxed a little?) “Where do you want to go with me?”
He didn’t answer for a minute, but when he did speak his voice was steady enough. “There’s a place up on the top of this hill where the trees open out to the east, a lovely place. I went up there last night after Rush had turned in. There’ll be a moon along in a few minutes and you can see it come up, from there. Could we wait for it?–I suppose Miss Wollaston…”
“No, she’ll be all right,” Mary said. “Now that she thinks we’re looking for them.”
As she moved up the slope she added, “I’ve a sort of interest in the moon, myself, to-night.”
“Perhaps if you’ll take my hand–” he said stiffly. “It is dark here under the trees.”
Her single-minded intention had been to make him a little happier. She liked him better to-night than ever, and that was saying a lot. But this elaborate covering up of what he really wanted under the pretended need of guiding her, tried her patience. The pretense was for himself, too, as much as for her. He was holding her off at arm’s length behind him as if they were scaling an Alp!
In the spirit of mischief, half irritated, half amused, she crowded up to his side and turned her hand so that their palms lay together. And she said in a voice evenly matter-of-fact, “That’s nicer, isn’t it?”
He didn’t succeed in producing anything audible in answer to that, but he began presently, and rather at random, to talk. As if–she reflected, mutinously,–some fact that must on no account be looked at would emerge, un-escapable, the moment he stopped.
But the bewitching loveliness of the place he led her to made amends, sponged away her irritation, brought back the Arcadian mood of the day. A recently fallen apple tree just on the crest of the hill, offered in its crotched arms a seat for both of them. With an ease which thrilled her he lifted her in his hands to her place and vaulted up beside her. His arm (excusably, again, for the hand was seeking a hold to steady him), crept around behind her.
Once more he began to talk,–of nature, of the farm, of how it was the real way to live, as we were meant to. One couldn’t, of course, cut off the city altogether. There were concerts and things. And the companionship of old friends. Even at that it would be lonely. They had felt it already. That was why it was such a marvelous thing to have her here. She made a different world of it. Just as she had made what seemed like a home out of that old apple house. No one could do that but a woman, of course …
She was no longer irritated by this. She barely listened, beyond noting his circuitous but certain approach to the point of asking her, once more, to marry him.
Her body seemed drugged with the loveliness of the night, with fatigue, with him, with the immediacy of him,–but her mind was racing as it does in dreams.
Nature was not, of course, the gentle sentimentalist Graham was talking about, but one did get something out of close communion with her. A sense of fundamentals. She was a–simplifier of ideas. Plain and straightforward even in her enchantments. That moon they were waiting for…. Already she was looking down upon a pair of lovers, somewhere,–a thousand pairs!–with her bland unseeing face. And later to-night, long after she had risen on them, upon a thousand more.
Of lovers? Well perhaps not. Not if one insisted upon the poets’ descriptions. But good enough for nature’s simple purposes. Answering to a desire, faint or imperious, that would lead them to put on her harness. Take on her work.
Anthony March had never put on a harness. A rebel. And for the price of his rebellion never had heard his music, except in his head. Clear torment they could be, he had told her, those unheard melodies. Somehow she could understand that. There was an unheard music in her. An unfulfilled destiny, at all events, which was growing clamorous as the echo of the boy’s passion-if it were but an echo-pulsed in her throat, drew her body down by insensible relaxations closer upon his.
The moon came up and they watched it, silent. The air grew heavy. The call of a screech-owl made all the sound there was. She shivered and he drew her, unresisting, tighter still. Then he bent down and kissed her.
He said, presently, in a strained voice, “You know what I have been asking. Does that mean yes?”
She did not speak. The moon was up above the trees, yellow now. She remembered a great broad voice, singing:
“Low hangs the moon. It rose late.
It is lagging-O I think it is heavy with love, with love”
With a passion that had broken away at last, the boy’s hands took possession of her. He kissed her mouth, hotly, and then again; drew back gasping and stared into her small pale face with burning eyes. Her head turned a little away from him.
“… Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me My mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look. O rising stars!…”
The languor was gone. She shivered and sat erect, he watching her in an agony of apprehension. She looked slowly round at him.
“You haven’t answered!” His voice broke over that into a sob. “Will you marry me, Mary?”
“I don’t know,” she said dully, like one struggling out of a dream. “I will if I can. I meant to for a while, I think. But …”
He leaped to the ground and stood facing her with clenched hands. “I ought to be shot,” he said. “I’m not fit to touch you–a white thing like you. I didn’t mean to. Not like that. I meant …”
She stared for an instant, totally at a loss for the meaning–the mere direction of what he was trying to say. Then, slipping down from the branch, she took him by the arms. “Don’t!” she cried rather wildly. “Don’t talk like that! That’s the last impossibility. Listen. I’m going to tell you why.”
But he was not listening for what it might be. He was still morosely preoccupied with his own crime. He had been a beast! He had bruised, once more, the white petals of a flower!
It was not that her courage failed. She saw he wouldn’t believe. That he couldn’t be made to believe. It was no use. If he looked at her any longer like that, she would laugh.
She buried her face in her arms and sobbed.
He rose to this crisis handsomely, waited without a word until she was quiet and then suggested that they go and find Rush and Sylvia. And until they were upon the point of joining the other pair nothing more was said that had any bearing on what had happened in the apple tree. But in that last moment he made a mute appeal for a chance to say another word.
He reminded her that she had said she would marry him if she could. This was enough for him. More than he deserved. He was going back to the beginning to try to build anew what his loss of self-control had wrecked. She need say nothing now. If she’d wait, she’d see.
A CLAIRVOYANT INTERVAL
It was still May and the North Carolina mountain-side that John Wollaston looked out upon was at the height of its annual debauch of azalea blooms, a symphonic romance in the key of rose-color with modulations down to strawberry and up to a clear singing white. For him though, the invalid, cushioned and pillowed in an easy chair, a rug over his knees, these splendors and the perfume of the soft bright air that bathed them had an ironic significance.
He had arrived with Paula at this paradise early in the week, pretty well exhausted with the ordinary fatigues of less than a day’s journey in the train. They were feeding him bouillon, egg-nogs and cream. On Paula’s arm he had managed this afternoon, his first walk, a matter of two or three hundred yards about the hotel gardens, and at the end of it had been glad to subside, half reclining into this easy chair, placed so that through the open door and the veranda it gave upon, he could enjoy the view of the color-drenched mountain-side.
He had dismissed Paula peremptorily for a real walk of her own. He had told her, in simple truth, that he would enjoy being left to himself for a while. She had taken this assurance for an altruistic mendacity, but she had yielded at last to his insistence and gone, under an exacted promise not to come back for at least an hour.
It offered some curious compensations though, this state of helplessness–a limpidity of vision, clairvoyant almost. For a fortnight he had been like a spectator sitting in the stalls of a darkened theatre watching the performances upon a brilliantly lighted stage, himself–himselves among the characters, for there was a past and a future self for him to look at and ponder upon. The present self hardly counted. All the old ambitions, desires, urgencies, which had been his impulsive forces were gone–quiescent anyhow. He was as sexless, as cool, as an image carved in jade.
And he was here in this lover’s paradise–this was what drew the tribute of a smile to the humor of the high gods–with Paula. And Paula was more ardently in love with him than she had ever been before.
The quality of that smile must have carried over to the one he gave her when she came back, well within her promised hour, from her walk. One couldn’t imagine anything lovelier or more inviting than the picture she made framed in that doorway, coolly shaded against the bright blaze that came in around her. She looked at him from there, for a moment, thoughtfully.
“I don’t believe you have missed me such a lot after all,” she said. “What have you been doing all the while?”
“Crystal-gazing,” he told her.
She came over to him and took his hands, a caress patently enough through the nurse’s pretext that she was satisfying herself that he had not got cold sitting there. She relinquished them suddenly, readjusted his rug and pillows, then kissed him and told him she was going to the office to see if there were any letters and went out again. She was gone but a moment or two; returning, she dropped the little handful which were addressed to him into his lap and carried one of her own to a chair near the window.
He dealt idly with the congratulatory and well-wishing messages which made up his mail. There was but one of them that drew even a gleam of clearly focused intelligence from him. He gave most of his attention to Paula. She was a wonderful person to watch,–the expressiveness of her, that every nerve and muscle of her body seemed to have a part in. She had opened that letter of hers with nothing but clear curiosity. The envelope evidently had told her nothing. She had frowned, puzzled, over the signature and then somehow, darkened, sprung to arms as she made it out. She didn’t read it in an orderly way even then; seemed to be trying to worry the meaning out of it, like one stripping off husks to get down to some sort of kernel inside. Satisfied that she had got it at last, she dropped the letter carelessly on the floor, subsided a little deeper into her chair and turned a brooding face toward the outdoor light and away from him.
“Are you crystal-gazing, too?” he asked. Unusually, she didn’t turn at his voice and her own was monotonous with strongly repressed emotion.
“I don’t need to. I spent more than a week staring into mine.”
That lead was plain enough, but he avoided, deliberately though rather idly, following it up. The rustle of paper told her that he had turned back to his letters.
“Anything in your mail?” she asked.
“I think not. You can look them over and see if I’ve missed anything. To a man in my disarticulate situation people don’t write except to express the kindness of their hearts. Here’s a letter from Mary designed to prevent me from worrying about her. Full of pleasant little anecdotes about farm life. It’s thoroughly Arcadian, she says. A spot designed by Heaven for me to rusticate in this summer when–when we go back to town. Somehow, I never did inhabit Arcady. There’s a letter from Martin Whitney, too, that’s almost alarmingly encouraging in its insistence that I mustn’t worry. If only they knew how little I did–these days!”
“Well, that’s all right then,” she said. “Because those were Doctor Darby’s orders. You weren’t to be excited or worried about anything. But, John, is it really true that you don’t? Not about anything?”
The fact that her face was still turned away as she asked that question gave it a significance which could not be overlooked.
“It’s perfectly true,” he asserted. “I don’t believe I could if I tried. But there’s something evidently troubling you. Let’s have it. Oh, don’t be afraid. You’ve no idea what an–Olympian position one finds himself in when he has got half-way across the Styx and come back. Tell me about it.”
“You know all about it already. I told you the first day you could talk–that I was going to give up singing altogether except just for you,–when you wanted me to. I knew I’d been torturing you about it. I thought perhaps you’d get well quicker,–want to get well more–if you knew that the torture wasn’t to go on. It was true and it is true. Perhaps you thought it was just one of those lies that people tell invalids–one of those don’t-worry things. Well, is wasn’t.
“But you made me promise I wouldn’t do anything–wouldn’t break my Ravinia contract–until we could talk it all out together. Your temperature went up a little that afternoon and when Doctor Darby asked me why, I told him. He said I mustn’t, on any account, speak again to you about it until you brought the subject up yourself. I don’t know whether he’d call this bringing it up or not, but anyway that’s it. I’ve kept my promise to you though,” she concluded. “I haven’t written. They still think I am going to sing this summer.”
“I am very glad of that,” he said quietly. “I thought the thing was settled by our first talk. I didn’t realize that you had taken it merely as an–adjournment.”
She was still turned rigidly away from him, but the grip of one of her hands upon the arm of a chair betrayed the excitement she was laboring under, while it showed the effort she was making to hold it down.
“I didn’t think, though,” he went on, “that that resolution of yours to give up your whole career,–make ducks and drakes of it, in obedience to my whim–was nothing more than one of those pious lies that invalids are fed upon. I knew you meant it, my dear. I knew you’d have done it–then–without a falter or a regret.”
“Then or now,” she said. “It’s all the same. No, it isn’t! Now more than then. With less regret. Without a shadow of a regret, John,–if it would bring you back to me.”
The last words were muffled, for she had buried her face in her hands.
He had heard the ring of undisguised passion in her voice without an answering pulse-beat, sat looking at her thoughtfully, tenderly. The reflection that occupied his mind was with what extravagant joy he would have received such an assurance only a few weeks ago. On any one of those last days before his illness fastened upon him;–the Sunday he had gone to Hickory Hill alone because Paula had found she must work with March that day; the evening when he had made his last struggle against the approaching delirium of fever in order to telephone for an ambulance to get him out of that hated house. What a curious compound of nerve ends and gland activities a man’s dreams–that he lived by, or died for–were!
She pulled him out of his reverie by a deliberate movement of resolution, taking her hands away from her face, half rising and turning her chair so that she faced him squarely.
“I want to know in so many words,” she said, “why you’re glad that I’m still bound to that Ravinia thing. You seem to want me to sing there this summer, as much as you hated the idea of my doing it before. Well, why? Or is it something you can’t tell me? And if I sing and make a success, shall you want me to go on with it, following up whatever opening it offers; just as if–just as if you didn’t count any more in my life at all?”
Before he could answer she added rather dryly, “Doctor Darby would kill me for talking to you like this. You needn’t answer if it’s going to hurt you.”
“No,” he said, “it isn’t hurting me a bit. But I’ll answer one question at a time, I think. The first thing that occurred to me when you spoke of the Ravinia matter was that I didn’t want you to break your word. You had told them that they could count on you and I didn’t want you, on my account, to be put in a position where any one could accuse you of having failed him. My own word was involved, for that matter. I told LaChaise I wouldn’t put any obstacles, in your way. Of course, I didn’t contract lobar pneumonia on purpose,” he added with a smile.
The intensity of her gaze did not relax at this, however. She was waiting breathlessly.
“The other question isn’t quite so easy to answer,” he went on, “but I think I would wish you to–follow the path of your career wherever it leads. I shall always count for as much as I can in your life, but not–if I can help it–as an obstacle.”
“Why?” she asked. “What has made the perfectly enormous difference?”
It was not at all an unanswerable question; nor one, indeed, that he shrank from. But it wanted a little preliminary reflection. She interrupted before he was ready to speak.
“Of course, I really know. Have known all along. You haven’t forgiven me.”
He echoed that word with a note of helplessness.
“No,” she conceded. “That isn’t it, exactly. I can’t talk the way you and Mary can. I suppose you have forgiven me, as far as that goes. That’s the worst of it. If you hadn’t there’d be more to hope for. Or beg for. I’d do that if it were any good. But this is something you can’t help. You’re kind and sweet to me, but you’ve just stopped caring. For me. What used to be there has just–gone snap. It’s not your fault. I did it myself.”
“No,” he said quickly. “That’s where you’re altogether wrong. You didn’t do it. You had nothing to do with the doing of it.”
She winced, visibly, at the implication that, whoever was responsible, the thing was done.
“Paula, dearest!” he cried, in acute concern. “Wait! There are things that can’t be dealt with in a breath. That’s why I was trying to think a little before I answered.”
Even now he had to marshal his thoughts for a moment before he could go on. It was too ridiculous, that look of tragic desperation she wore while she waited! He averted his eyes and began rather deliberately.
“You are dearer to me now–at this moment, as we sit here–than ever you’ve been before. I think that’s the simple literal truth. This matter of forgiveness–of your having done something to forfeit or to destroy my–love for you… Oh, it’s too wildly off the facts to be dealt with rationally! I owe you my life. That’s not a sentimental exaggeration. Even Steinmetz says so. And you saved it for me at the end of a period of weeks–months I guess–when I had been devoting most of my spare energies to torturing you. Myself, incidentally, but there was nothing meritorious about that. In an attempt to assert a–proprietary right in you that you had never even pretended to give me. That I’d once promised you I never would assert. The weight of obligation I’m under to you would be absolutely crushing–if it weren’t for one thing that relieves me of it altogether. The knowledge that you love me. That you did it all for the love of me.”
She moved no nearer him. These were words. There was no reassurance for her in them. One irrepressible movement of his hands toward her, the mere speaking of her name in a voice warmed by the old passion, would have brought her, rapturous, to his knees.
“There’s no such thing as a successful pretense between us, I know,” he said. “So I’ll talk plainly. I’m glad to. I know what it is you miss in me. It’s gone. Temporarily I suppose, but gone as if it had never been. That’s a–physiological fact, Paula.”
She flushed hotly at that and looked away from him.
“I don’t know exactly what a soul is,” he went on. “But I do know that a body–the whole of the body–is the temple of it. It impenetrates everything; is made up of everything. Well, this illness of mine has, for these weeks, made an old man of me. And I’m grateful to it for giving me a chance to look ahead, before it’s too late. I want to make the most of it. Because you see, my dear, in ten years–or thereabouts–the course of nature will have made of me what this pneumonia has given me a foretaste of. Ten years. You will be–forty, then.”
She was gazing at him now, fascinated, in unwilling comprehension. “I hate you to talk like that,” she said. “I wish you wouldn’t.”
“It’s important,” he told her crisply. “You’ll see that in a minute, if you will wait. Before very long–in a month or so, perhaps–I shall be, I suppose, pretty much the same man I was–three months ago. Busy at my profession again. In love with you again. All my old self-assurance back; the more arrogant if it isn’t quite the real thing. So now’s the time, when the fogs one moves about in have lifted and the horizon is sharp, to take some new bearings. And set a new course by them. For both of us.
“There is one fact sitting up like a lighthouse on a rock. I’m twenty-four years older than you. Every five years that we live together from now on will make that difference more important. When you’re forty-five–and you’ll be just at the top of your powers by then–I shall be one year short of seventy. At the end, you see, even of my professional career. And that’s only fifteen years away. Even with good average luck, that’s all I can count on. It’s strange how one can live along, oblivious to a simple sum in arithmetic like that.”
She had been on her feet moving distractedly about the room. Now she came around behind his chair and gripped his body in her strong arms.