was in the way of getting inside information, about a small opera that had a sensational part for a baritone, she’d work it and make her husband too, and since he’s one of the real backers and a friend of Mr. Eckstein’s, they’d be likely to accomplish something.”
“Lead me to it,” said Jimmy. “Give me your inside information and leave Violet to me.”
He got a little overflow from the fulness of her heart at that that would have rewarded him amply for a more arduous and less amusing prospect than he was committed to. It was always touch and go whether this summer plunge into musical criticism wouldn’t bore him frightfully. Pretentious solemnities of any kind were hard for him to tolerate and an opera season is, of course, stuffed with these, even a democratized blue-penciled out-of-doors affair like this. It was a great relief to find him a mind as free from sentimental resonances as Mary Wollaston’s swimming about in it. They saw eye to eye over a lot of things.
They were in whole-hearted agreement for example about a certain impresario, Maxfield Ware, who created a sensation among the company and staff by turning up ostentatiously unaccounted for from New York and looking intensely enigmatical whenever any one asked him any questions. He was a sufficiently well-known figure in that world for surmises to spring up like round-eyed dandelions wherever he trod.
It wasn’t long before everybody knew, despite the concealments which his ponderous diplomacy never cast aside, that his objective was Paula. She divined this before he had made a single overt move in her direction and pointed it out to Mary with a genuine pleasure sounding through the tone of careless amusement she chose to adopt.
“You wouldn’t have anything to do with a person like that, would you?” Mary was startled into exclaiming. “Of course, if he were genuinely what he pretends to be and the things he boasts were true….”
“Oh, he’s genuine enough,” said Paula. “A quarter to a half as good as he pretends and that’s as well as the whole of that lot will average. Though he isn’t the sort you and John would take to, for a fact.”
It was not the first time Mary had found herself bracketed with her father in just this way. It wasn’t a sneering way, hardly hostile. But Mary by the second or third repetition began reading an important significance into it. Paula in her instinctive fashion was beginning to weigh alternatives, one life against the other, a thing it wasn’t likely she had ever attempted before.
There was a tension between John and Paula which Mary saw mounting daily over the question of his next visit to Ravinia. Paula wanted him, was getting restless, moody, as nearly as it was possible for her to be ill-natured over his abstention. Yet it was evident enough that she had not invited him to come; furthermore, that she meant not to invite him. Once Mary would have put this down to mere coquetry but this explanation failed now to satisfy altogether. There was something that lay deeper than that. Some sort of strain between them dating back, she surmised, to the talk her father had referred to down in North Carolina in the jocular assertion that he had told Paula she would have to begin now supporting the family. Had the same topic come up again during his visit to Ravinia?
The perception of this strain in their relation increased Mary’s reluctance to bring the topic up herself, in default of a lead from Paula, out of nowhere. It almost seemed as if Paula consciously avoided giving her such a lead, sheered away whenever she found they were “getting warm” in that direction.
There were hours when the undertaking she had committed herself to with Wallace Hood seemed fantastic. Between two persons like her father and Paula a meddler could make such an incalculable amount of mischief. All the current maxims of conduct would support her in a refusal to interfere. It was exclusively their affair, wasn’t it? Why not let them settle it in their own way?
Yet there were other hours when she put her procrastinations down to sheer cowardice. This occurred whenever she got a letter from her aunt at Hickory Hill.
Miss Wollaston was a dutiful but exceedingly cautious correspondent, but beneath the surface of her brisk little bulletins were many significant implications. Rush had made two or three trips to town for consultations with Martin Whitney … Doctor Steinmetz, presence unaccounted for, had been a guest one day at lunch… Graham’s father had come out one Saturday and after he had been exhaustively shown over the place the men had talked until all hours…. The building program was to be curtailed for the present; to be resumed, perhaps when prices weren’t so high nor labor so hard to get…. The new Holstein calves had come. Mary had been told, hadn’t she, of the decision to constitute the herd in this manner instead of buying all milking cows…. Sylvia, declaring that Rush and Graham had got too solemn to live with, had finally obeyed her mother and gone home to the Stannards’ summer place at Lake Geneva.
Mary read these letters to Paula as they came in the hope of provoking some question that would make it possible to tell John Wollaston’s wife the tale of his necessities, but nothing of the sort happened. Paula did observe (a little uneasily?) apropos of Steinmetz’ visit:
“John says he’s taken quite a fancy to him. He told me he was going to get him to come out if he could.”
The other casts brought up nothing whatever.
As it happened Mary paid dear for her procrastination. Paula sent her into town one day with a long list of errands, a transparently factitious list, which, taken in connection with an unusual interest she displayed in the item of lunch, made it more than sufficiently plain to Mary that for the day she wasn’t wanted at Ravinia.
She concealed, successfully she thought, the shock she felt at these new tactics of Paula’s, studied the list and said she thought she should be able to return on the three o’clock train. She made a point however of not coming back until the four-fifteen. It was nearly six before she got back to the cottage, but the contented lazy tone in which Paula from up-stairs answered her hail, made it plain that her tardiness had not been remarked. However Paula had spent her day, the upshot of it was satisfactory.
“Shall I come up?” Mary asked.
“Come along,” Paula answered. “I’m not asleep or anything and besides I want to talk to you.”
“I think I got everything you want,” Mary said from Paula’s doorway, “or if not exactly, what will do just about as well.”
Paula, stretched out on the bed rather more than half undressed, with the contented languor of a well fed lioness yet with some passion or other smoldering in her eyes, made no pretense at being interested in Mary’s success in executing her commissions.
“I had Max to lunch to-day,” she said. “I knew you hated him and then it was complicated enough anyway. I suppose it might have been better if I’d told you so right out instead of making up all those things for you to do in town, but I couldn’t quite find the words to put it in somehow and I had to have it out with him. He’s been nagging at me for a week and he’s going away to-morrow. He’s given me until then to think it over.”
There was no use trying to hurry Paula. Mary took off her hat, lighted a cigarette and settled herself in the room’s only comfortable chair before she asked, “Think what over?”
“Oh, the whole thing,” said Paula. “What he’s been harping on for the last week.–He _is_ a loathsome sort of beast,” she conceded after a little pause. “But he’s right about this. Absolutely.”
Was her father ever fretted, Mary wondered, by this sort of thing? Did his nerves draw tight, and his muscles, too, waiting for the idea behind these perambulations to emerge?
“I can imagine a lot of things that Mr. Maxfield Ware would be right about,” she observed. “Which one is this?”
“About me,” said Paula. “About what I’d have to do if I wanted to get anywhere. He thinks I’ve a good chance to get into the very first class, along with Garden and Farrar and so on. And unless I can do that, there’s no good going on. I’d never be happy as a second rater. Well, that’s true. And my only chance of getting to the top, he says, is in being managed just right. I guess that’s true, too. He says that if I take this Metropolitan contract that LaChaise has been talking about, go down to New York as one of their ‘promising young American sopranos’ to sing on off-nights and fill in and make myself generally useful, I simply won’t have a chance. They wouldn’t get excited about me whatever happened. They’d go on patronizing me and yawning in my face no matter how good I was. I’d do just as well, he says, so far as my career is concerned, to stay right here in Chicago and get Campanini to give me two or three appearances a season;–make a sort of amateur night of it for the gold coast to buzz about. I’d have a lot easier time that way and it would come to the same thing in the end. And he says that unless I want to go in for his scheme, that’s what I’d better do. Well, and he’s right. I can see that, plainly enough.”
Mary refrained from asking what Max’s scheme was. She’d learn, no doubt, in her stepmother’s own good time. She nodded a tentative assent to Max’s general premises and waited.
“He certainly was frank enough,” Paula went on after a while. “He wants to make a real killing he says. Something he’s never quite brought off before. He says the reason he’s always failed before is that he’s had to go and mix a love-affair up with it somehow. He’s either fallen in love with the woman or she with him or if it was a man he was managing, they both went mad over the same woman. Something always happened anyhow to make a mess of it. But he says he isn’t interested in me in the least in that way and that he can see plainly enough that I’m not in him. But imagine five years with him!”
She broke off with a shudder, not a real shudder though. The sort one makes over a purely imaginary prospect. Some expression of her feeling must have betrayed itself in Mary’s face, for Paula, happening to look at her just then, sat up abruptly.
“Oh, I know,” she said. “It’s all very well, but that’s the sort of person you have to go in with and that’s the sort of scheme you have to go into if you’re going to get anywhere. Something of the sort anyhow,–I never heard of one exactly like this. But this is what he proposes: we’re each to put up twenty thousand dollars. That’s easy enough as far as I’m concerned because what I put up isn’t to be spent at all. It’s just to be turned over to somebody–some banker like Martin Whitney–as a guarantee that I won’t break my contract. He says he wouldn’t take on anybody in my position without a guarantee like that. He’s to spend the money he puts up for publicity and other things but he’s to get paid back out of what I earn. He’s to be my manager absolutely. I’m to go wherever he says; carry out any contracts he makes for me. He’s to pay my expenses and guarantee me ten thousand a year beyond that. If he doesn’t pay me that much, then it’s he that breaks the contract. And of course, he can’t make me do anything that would ruin my voice or my health. He says he’s going to work me like a dog. That’s what he thinks I need. He says he can get me in with the Chicago company for their road tour before their regular season opens here. He won’t let me sing either in Chicago or New York until I’ve landed, but he wants me to go to New York this winter and coach with Scotti, if we can get him. Then go to Mexico City in the spring and then down to Buenos Aires for their winter season there. That’s July and August, of course, when it’s summer up here. By that time he thinks we’ll be ready for Europe; London or Paris. He’s rather in favor of London. He knows all the ropes and he’ll buy the people that have to be bought and square the people that have to be squared and work the publicity. He says he’s the best publicity man in the world and I guess he knows. Then after a year or two over there, he thinks we’ll be ready to come back to the Metropolitan and clean up.”
“And what,” asked Mary, “is his share of the clean-up to be?”
“Oh, a half,” said Paula; “we’d be equal partners. That’s fair enough, I suppose. I sat there all through lunch while he was talking, hating him; hating his big blue chin, and his necktie and his great shiny finger-nails and the way he ate, and feeling, of course, perfectly frightfully unhappy. I told him I’d let him know what I would do sometime before to-morrow noon, and as soon as I could I got rid of him. And then I came up here and cried and cried. And that’s something I haven’t done for a long while. I felt as if he was a big spider that had been running about all over me tying me up in his web. And as if I was a fly and couldn’t get out. There is something spidery about him, you know. The way he goes back and forth and the way he’s so patient and indirect about it all. It seemed like the end of the world to me before he finished, as if I never was going to see John again. Oh, I cried my eyes out. Well, and then about an hour ago I came to. I realized that I hadn’t signed his horrible contract and that I needn’t. And that when this beastly season was over,–and it isn’t going to last much longer, thank goodness,–I could go home to John and lock up the piano and never look at a score again. It was like coming out of a nightmare.”
Mary dared not stop to think. She took the plunge.
“There’s something about father you’ve got to be told. I promised Wallace Hood weeks ago that I’d tell you. I guess he and Martin Whitney think you know about it by now.”
“Something I’ve got to be told about John?” Paula echoed incredulously. “Why, I was talking with him over the telephone not ten minutes before you came in.”
“Oh, I know. It’s nothing like that,” Mary said. “But they say he has tuberculosis. Not desperately, not so that he can’t get well if he takes care of it. If he lives out-of-doors and doesn’t worry or try to work. But if he takes up his practise again this fall, they say,–Doctor Steinmetz says,–that it will be–committing suicide. That’s one thing. And the other is that he’s practically bankrupt. Anyhow, that for a year or two, until he can get back into practise, he’ll need help. That’s why Wallace and Mr. Whitney wanted you told about it.”
There hadn’t been a movement nor a sound from Paula. Mary, at the end of that speech was breathless and rather frightened.
Finally Paula asked, “Does he know about it?–his health I mean.”
“He’s been told,” Mary answered, “but he doesn’t believe it. They nearly always are skeptical, Doctor Steinmetz says.”
“He’s probably right to be. He’s a better doctor than six of Steinmetz will ever be.”
Another pause; then, once more from Paula, “Did he tell you about the other thing,–about his money troubles,–when you were down in North Carolina with him?”
Mary flushed at the hostile ring there was to that. “He told me a little,” she said, “but not much more, I thought, than he had already told you.”
“Told me?” Paula swung herself off the bed and on to her feet in one movement. “He told me nothing.”
“He urged you to carry out your Ravinia contract, didn’t he?” Mary asked, as steadily as she could.
Paula stood over her staring. “Oh,” she exclaimed, and, a moment later she repeated the ejaculation in a drier tone and with a downward inflection. She added presently, “I’m not clever the way you are at taking hints. That’s the thing it will be just as well for you both to remember.” She began bruskly putting on her dressing-gown. “I’m going down-stairs to telephone to Max,” she explained. “He’s got the paper all drawn up, not the final contract but an agreement to sign one of the sort I told you about. I’m going to tell him that if he will bring it back with him now, I’ll sign it.”
Mary stood between her and the door. “Don’t you think it would be–fairer to wait?” she asked; “before you signed a thing like that. Until at least, you were no longer angry with me for having told you too much or with father because he had told you too little.”
Paula pulled up at that and stood looking at her stepdaughter with a thoughtful expression that was almost a smile. “I am angry,” she admitted, “or I was, and just exactly about that. It’s queer the way you Wollastons, you and your father, anyhow, are always–getting through to things like that. What you say is fair enough. I guess you’re always fair. Can’t help being, somehow. But I can’t put off telephoning to Max. You see I called up John at Hickory Hill an hour ago. I told him I had made up my mind to stop singing. I told him I didn’t want any career. That I just wanted to–belong to him. And I asked him to come to me as fast as he could. He’s on the way now. So it’s important, you see, that Max should get here first.”
TWO WOMEN AND JOHN
Paula seemed calm enough after that one explosion but she moved along toward the accomplishment of her purpose, to get herself thoroughly committed to Max before John’s arrival, with the momentum of a liner leaving its pier. Mary made two or three more attempts at dissuasion but their manifest futility kept her from getting any real power into them. She was, to tell the truth, in a panic over the prospect of that evening;–her father arriving triumphant in Paula’s supposed surrender to find Maxfield Ware with his five years’ contract in his pocket. And the responsibility for the disaster would be attributed to herself; was indeed so attributable with a kind of theatrical completeness seldom, to be found in life. It didn’t often happen that any one was as entirely to blame for a calamity to some one else as Mary was for this _volte-face_ of Paula’s.
She did not run away altogether. Paula, indeed, didn’t know that she had fled at all, for Maxfield Ware’s tardiness about coming back the second time supplied her with a pretext.
It was nearly eight o’clock before he came and Paula, who was momentarily expecting John’s arrival by then, was in an agony of impatience to sign his papers and get him out of the house again. Ware may have divined her wish and loitered out of mischievous curiosity as to the cause of it. Or he may, merely, have been prolonging an experience which he found agreeable. Anyhow, he wouldn’t be hurried and he wouldn’t go. But Paula finally turned a look of despairing appeal upon Mary who thereupon announced her intention of going to to-night’s performance in the park. She would drive, of course, and would be glad to take Mr. Ware along. Or, for that matter, she would set him down first wherever he might want to go. He smiled upon her with the fatuous smile of one who finds he has made an unexpected conquest and said he would be delighted to accompany Miss Wollaston anywhere.
She took him, driving pretty fast, to the Moraine Hotel and was glad the distance was not greater, for after various heavy-handed and unquenchable preliminaries he kissed her as nearly on the mouth as possible, clinging to a half-lit cigar the while, just before she whipped around into the hotel drive. She avoided a collision with one of the stone posts narrowly enough to startle him into releasing her,–he hadn’t realized the turn was so close–and stopped at the lighted carriage door with a jerk that left him no option but to get out at once.
She nodded a curt good night and drove back to the park; went to one of the dressing-rooms and washed her face. Then she came around in front to hear Edith Mason sing _Romeo and Juliet_. She didn’t get just the effect she anticipated from this lovely performance because Polacco, who is Miss Mason’s husband, came and sat down beside her–there was nothing spidery about him, thank goodness–and in a running and vivacious commentary expressed his lively contempt for this opera of Gounod’s. At its best it was bad _Faust_. Its least intolerable melodies were quotations from _Faust_,–an assertion which he proved from time to time by singing, and not very softly either, the original themes to the wrath of all who sat within a twenty-five foot radius of them.
Mary felt grateful to him for giving her something that was not maddening to think about and after the performance went with him and his wife to supper so that it was well after midnight before she returned to the cottage.
It was an ineffable relief to find it dark. Her habit on warm nights was to sleep on the gloucester swing in the screened veranda and she made it her bed to-night, though beyond a short uneasy doze of two, she didn’t sleep at all.
At half past eight or so, just after she had sat down to breakfast, she heard her father coming down the stairs. She tried to call to him but could command no voice and so waited, frozen, until he appeared in the doorway.
“I thought I heard you stirring down here and that it perhaps meant breakfast. Paula won’t be down, I suppose, for hours. She fell asleep about four o’clock and has been sleeping quietly ever since.”
This was exactly like Paula, of course. She was the vortex of the whole tempest, but when she had thoroughly exhausted the emotional possibilities of it she sank into peaceful slumber like a baby after a hard cry.
No wonder she was too much for these two Wollastons who sat now with dry throats and tremulous hands over the mockery of breakfast! Mary, although she knew, asked her father whether he wanted his coffee clear or with cream in it and having thus broken the spell, went on with a gasp:
“I’m glad Paula isn’t coming down. It gives you a better chance to tell me just how you feel about my having interfered. I did run away last night. You guessed that, I suppose. But it wasn’t to evade it altogether. My–whipping, you know.”
It had an odd effect on both of them, this reference to her childhood; her hand moved round the table rim and covered his which rested on the edge of it.
“Did your mother ever punish you?” he asked. “Corporeally? It’s my recollection that she did not. I was always the executioner. I doubt now if that was quite fair.”
“Perhaps not,” she asserted dubiously. “In general it isn’t fair of course. It probably wasn’t in the case of Rush. But with me,–I don’t think I could have borne it to have mother beat me. It would have seemed an insufferable affront. I’d have hated her for it. But there was a sort of satisfaction in having you do it.”
After another moment of silence she smiled and added, “I suppose a Freudian would carry off an admission like that to his cave and gnaw over it for hours.”
He stared at her, shocked, incredulous. “What do you know about Freud?” he demanded.
“One couldn’t live for two years within a hundred yards of Washington Square without knowing at least as much about it as that,” she told him,–and was glad of the entrance of the maid with another installment of
the breakfast. There was no more talk between them during the meal. But at the end of it she faced him resolutely.
“We must have this out, dad. And isn’t now as good a time as any?”
He followed her out into the veranda but the sounds from the dining-room, where the maid had come in to clear away the breakfast, disturbed him so Mary suggested a walk.
“Get your hat and we’ll go over to the lake. I know a nice place not far, an open field right at the edge of the bluff with one big tree to make it shady. At this hour of the morning we are sure to have it all to ourselves.”
He said as they walked along, “I’ve no reproaches for you. Not this morning. I’ve thought over a lot of ground since four o’clock.”
He said nothing more to the point until they reached the spot which Mary had selected as their destination–it lived up handsomely to all her promises–and settled themselves under the shade of the big tree.
“I suppose,” he added then, “that I ought to forgive Whitney and Hood. Their intentions were the best and kindest, of course. But I find that harder to do.”
He sat back against the trunk of the tree, facing out over the lake; she disposed herself cross-legged on the grass near by just within reaching distance. She offered him her cigarette case but he declined. Of late years, since his marriage to Paula, he had smoked very little. As a substitute, now, he picked up a forked bit of branch, and began whittling it.
“I’m as much to blame as they are,” she said, presently. “More, really. Because, if I hadn’t procrastinated-o-ut of cowardice, mostly,–until yesterday, when she was half-way over the edge, it might never have come to Maxfield Ware at all. After the situation had dramatized itself like that, there was only one thing she could do. Of course, they didn’t foresee that five years’ contract, any more than I did.”
He nodded assent, though rather absently to this. “I’m not much interested in the abstract ethics of it,” he said. “It’s disputable, of course, how far any one can be justified in making a major interference in another’s life; one that deprives him of the power of choice. That’s what you have done to me–the three of you. If the premises are right, and the outcome prosperous, there’s something to be said for it. But in this case …”
“They aren’t mistaken, are they, dad? Wallace and Mr. Whitney?–Or Doctor Steinmetz?”
“Why, it’s reasonable to suppose that Whitney understands my financial condition better than I do. I mean that. It’s not a sneer. But what he and Hood don’t allow for is that I’ve never tried to make money. They’ve no idea what my earning power would be if I were to turn to and make that a prime consideration. A year of it would take me out of the woods, I think.”
She waited, breathless, for him to deal with the third name. She was pretty well at one with Paula in the relative valuation she put upon her father’s opinion and that of the throat and lung specialist.
“Oh, as for Steinmetz,” John Wollaston said, after a pause, querulously, “he’s a good observer. There’s nothing to be said against him as a laboratory man. But he has the vice of all German scientists; he doesn’t understand imponderables. Never a flash of intuition about him. He managed to intimidate Darby into agreeing with him. Neither of them takes my recuperative powers into account.”
He seemed to feel that this wasn’t a very strong line to take and the next moment he conceded as much.
“But suppose they were right,” he flashed round at her. “Am I not still entitled to my choice? I’ve lived the greater part of my life. I’ve pulled my weight in the boat. It should be for me to choose whether I spend the life I have left in two years or in twenty. If they want to call that suicide, let them. I’ve no religion that’s real enough to make a valid argument against my right to extinguish myself if I choose.”
She wasn’t shocked. It was characteristic of their talks together, this free range among ethical abstractions, especially on his part.
“You act on the other theory though,” she pointed out to him. “Think of the people you’ve patched together just so that they can live at most another wretched year or two.”
“That’s a different thing,” he said. “Or rather it comes to the same thing. The question of shortening one’s life is one that nobody has a right to decide except for himself.”
Then he asked abruptly. “What sort of person is Maxfield Ware?”
She attempted no palliations here.
“He kissed me last night,” she said, “taking his cigar out of his mouth for the purpose. He’s not a sort of person I can endure or manage. Paula hates him as much as I do, but she can manage him. He’d never try to kiss her like that.”
“Oh, God!” cried John. “It’s intolerable.” He flung away his stick, got to his feet and walked to the edge of the bluff. “Think of her working, traveling,–living almost,–with a man like that! You say she can manage him; that she can prevent him from trying to make love to her. Well, what does that mean, if you’re right, but that she–understands him; his talk; his ideas; his point of view. You can’t make yourself intelligible to a man like that; she can. It’s defilement to meet his mind anywhere–any angle of it. She’s given him carte blanche, she says, to manage the publicity for her. Do you realize what that means? He’s licensed to try to make the public believe anything that he thinks would heighten their interest in her. That she dresses indecently; that she’s a frivolous extravagant fool; that she has lovers. You know how that game is played.”
Mary did know. She ran over a list of the great names and opposite every one of them there sprang into her mind the particular bit of vulgar reclame that had been in its day some press agent’s masterpiece. She was able further to see that Paula would regard the moves of this game with a large-minded tolerance which would be incomprehensible to John. After all, that was the way to take it. If you were a real luminary, not just a blank white surface, all the mud that Mr. Maxfield Ware could splash wouldn’t matter. You burnt it off. None of those great names was soiled.
She tried to say something like this to her father, but didn’t feel sure that she quite had his attention. He did quiet down again however and resumed his seat at the foot of the tree. Presently he said:
“She’s doing it for me. Because my incompetence has forced it upon her. She’d have taken the other thing; had really chosen it.” Then without a pause, but with a new intensity he shot in a question. “That’s true, isn’t it? She meant what she said over the telephone?” As Mary hesitated over her answer he added rather grimly, “You can be quite candid about it. I don’t know which answer I want.”
“She meant every word she said over the telephone,” Mary assured him. “You couldn’t doubt that if you had seen her as I did afterward.”
She didn’t pretend though that this was the complete answer. The reflective tone in which she spoke made it clear that there was more to it than that.
“Go on,” John said, “tell me the rest of it. I think, perhaps, you understand her better than I do.”
Mary took her time about going on and she began a little doubtfully. “I always begin by being unjust to Paula,” she said. “That’s my instinct, I suppose, reproaching her for not doing what she would do if she were like me. But afterward when I think her out, I believe I understand her pretty well.”
“Paula exaggerates,” she went on after another reflective pause. “She must see things large in order to move among them in a large way. Her gestures, those of her mind I mean, are–sweeping. If she weren’t so good-natured, our–hair-splitting ways would annoy her. Then it’s necessary for her to feel that she’s–conquering something.”
That last word was barely audible and the quality of the silence which followed it drew John Wollaston’s gaze which had been straying over the lake, around to the speaker. She had been occupying her hands while she talked, collecting tiny twigs and acorn cups that happened to be within reach but now she was tensely still and paler than her wont, he thought.
“You needn’t be afraid to say what’s in your mind,” he assured her.
“It wasn’t that,” she told him. “I realized that I had been quoting somebody else. Anthony March said once of Paula that if she had not been an artist she might have been a _dompteuse_.”
John settled himself more comfortably against his tree trunk. A contact like this with his daughter’s mind must have been inexpressibly comforting to him after a night like the one he had just spent. Its rectitude; its sensitiveness; the mere feel and texture of it, put his jangling nerves in tune.
“Is Ware the wild beast she has an inclination to tame in this instance?” he asked.
“He’s nothing but a symbol of it,” Mary said. Then she managed to get the thing a little clearer. “What she’d have done if she’d been like us and what we’d have had her do–Mr. Whitney and Wallace and I,–would have been to make a sort of compromise between her position as your wife and a career as Paula Carresford. We’d have had her sign a contract to sing a few times this winter with the Metropolitan or the Chicago company, go on a concert tour perhaps for a few weeks, even give singing lessons or sing in a church choir. That would probably have been Mr. Whitney’s idea. Rather more than enough to pay her way and at the same time leave as much of her to you as possible.
“But that’s the last thing in the world it would be possible for Paula to do. She must see a great career on one side,–see herself as Geraldine Farrar’s successor,–and on the other side she must see a perfect unflawed life with you. So that whichever she chooses she will have a sense of making the greatest possible sacrifice. She couldn’t have said to you what she did over the telephone if Mr. Ware hadn’t convinced her that a great career was open to her and she couldn’t have signed his contract if it had not involved sacrificing you.”
She propped herself back against her hands with a sigh of fatigue. “There’s some of the hair-splitting Paula talks about,” she observed.
“It may be fine spun,” her father said thoughtfully, “but it seems to me to hold together. Isn’t there any more of it?”
“Well, it was balanced like that, you see,” Mary went on; “set for the climax, like the springs in a French play, when I came along at just the moment and with just the word, to topple it over. Being Paula, she couldn’t help doing exactly what she did. So, however it comes out, I shall be the one person she won’t be able to forgive.”
She knew from the startled look he turned upon her that this last shot had come uncannily close. She fancied she must almost literally have echoed Paula’s words. If she needed any further confirmation she would have found it in the rather panicky way in which he set about trying to convince her that she was mistaken, if not in the fact at least in the permanence of it.
She insisted no further, made indeed no further attempt at all to carry the theme along and though she listened and made appropriate replies when they were called for, she let her wordless thought drift away to a dream that it was Anthony March who shared this shade and sunshine with her and that veiled blue horizon yonder. It was easier to do since her father had drifted into a reverie of his own. They need not have lingered for they had sufficiently talked away all possible grounds of misunderstanding, even if they had not reconciled their disagreement.
It occurred to her to suggest that they go back, but she dismissed the impulse with no more than a glancing thought. It was his burden, not hers, that remained to be shouldered at the cottage and it might be left to him to choose his own time for taking it up. Paula seldom came down much before noon anyhow.
As for John Wollaston, he was very tired. Paula’s volcanic moments always exhausted him. He never could derationalize his emotions, cut himself free; and while he felt just as intensely as she did, he had to carry the whole superstructure of himself along on those tempestuous voyages. In the mood Paula had left him in this morning, there was nothing in the world that could have satisfied and restored him as did his daughter’s companionship. The peace of this wordless prolongation of their talk together was something he lacked, for a long while, the will to break.
It was not far short of noon when they came back into the veranda together. He had walked the last hundred yards, after a look at his watch, pretty fast and after a glance into both the down-stairs rooms, he called up-stairs to his wife in a voice that had an edge of sudden anxiety in it. Then getting no response, he went up, two at a time.
Mary dropped down, limp with a sudden premonition, upon the gloucester swing in the veranda. The maid of all work, who had heard his call, came from the kitchen just as he was returning down the stairs. Mrs. Wollaston had gone away, she said. Pete had reported with the big car at eleven o’clock and Paula, who apparently had been waiting for him, had driven off at once having left word that she would not be back for lunch.
“All right,” John said curtly. “You may go.”
He was so white when he rejoined Mary in the veranda that she sprang up with an involuntary cry and would have had him lie down, where she had been sitting. But the fine steely ring in his voice stopped her short.
“Have you any idea,” he asked, “where she has gone or what she has gone to do? She came down,” he went on without waiting for her answer,–“and looked for me. Waited for me. And thanks to that–walk we took, I wasn’t here. Well, can you guess what she’s done?”
“It’s only a guess,” Mary said, “but she may have gone to see Martin Whitney.”
“Martin Whitney?” he echoed blankly. “What for? What does she want of him?”
“She spoke of him,” Mary said, “in connection with the money, the twenty thousand dollars…”
He broke in upon her again with a mere blank frantic echo of her words and once more Mary steadied herself to explain.
“Her agreement with Mr. Ware required her to put up twenty thousand dollars in some banker’s hands as a guarantee that she would not break the contract. She mentioned Martin Whitney as the natural person to hold it. So I guessed that she might have gone to consult him about it;–or even to ask him to lend it to her. As she said, it wouldn’t have to be spent.”
“That’s the essence of the contract then. It’s nothing without that. Until she gets the money and puts it up. Yet you told me nothing of it until this moment. If you had done so–instead of inviting me to go for a walk–and giving her a chance to get away…”
He couldn’t be allowed to go on. “Do you mean that you think I did that–for the purpose?” she asked steadily.
He flushed and turned away. “No, of course I don’t. I’m half mad over this.”
He walked abruptly into the house and a moment later she heard him at the telephone. She stayed where she was, unable to think; stunned rather than hurt over the way he had sprung upon her.
He seemed a little quieter when he came out a few minutes later. “Whitney left half an hour ago for Lake Geneva,” he said. “So she’s missed him if that’s where she went. There’s nothing to do but wait.”
He was very nervous however. Whenever the telephone rang, as it did of course pretty often, he answered it himself, and each time his disappointment that it was not Paula asking for him, broke down more or less the calm he tried to impose upon himself. He essayed what amends good manners enabled him to make to Mary for his outrageous attack upon her. It went no deeper than that. The discovery that Paula was gone and simultaneously that he need not have lost her obliterated–or rather reversed–the morning’s mood completely.
It was after lunch that he said, dryly, “I upset your life for you, half a dozen years ago. Unfairly. Inexcusably. I’ve always been ashamed of it. But it lends a sort of poetic justice to this.”
She made no immediate reply, but not long afterward she asked if she might not go away without waiting for Paula’s return. “It would be too difficult, don’t you think?–for the three of us, in a small house like this.”
He agreed with manifest relief. He asked if it was not too late to drive that afternoon to Hickory Hill, but she said she’d prefer to go by train anyhow. That was possible she thought.
He did not ask, in so many words, if this was where she meant to go. There was no other place for her that he could think of.
It was a good guess of Mary’s that Paula had gone to borrow the twenty thousand dollars but it was to Wallace Hood, not to Martin Whitney, that she went for it; and thereby illustrated once more how much more effective instinct is than intelligence.
Martin, rich and generous as he was, originator as he was of the edict that Paula must go to work, would never have been stampeded as Wallace was in a talk that lasted less than half an hour, into producing securities to the amount that Paula needed and offering them up in escrow for the life of Maxfield Ware’s contract.
Wallace was only moderately well off and he was by nature, cautious. His investments were always of the most conservative sort. This from habit as well as nature because his job–the only one he had ever had–was that of estate agent. But Paula’s instinct told her that he wouldn’t find it possible to refuse. I think it told her too, though this was a voice that did not make itself fairly heard to her conscious ear, that he would be made very fluttered and unhappy by it whether he granted her request or not.
What he would hate, she perceived, was the suddenness of the demand and the irrevocable committal to those five years; the blow it was to those domesticities and proprieties he loved so much. The fact that he would be made sponsor for those unchartered excursions to Mexico, to South America, and so on, under the direction of a libidinous looking cosmopolite like Maxfield Ware.
Why she wanted to put Wallace into the flutters she couldn’t have told. She was, as I say, not quite aware that she did. But he had been running up a score in very minute items that was all of five years old. The fact that all these items went by the name of services, helpful little acts of kindness, made the irritation they caused her all the more acute.
I don’t agree with Lucile Wollaston’s diagnosis, that Paula could not abide Wallace merely because he refused to lose his head over her, but there was a grain of truth in it. What she unconsciously resented was the fundamental unreality of his attitude to her. Actually, he did not like her, but the relation he had selected as appropriate to the first Mrs. Wollaston’s successor was one of innocent devotion and he stuck, indefatigably, to the pose. So the chance to put his serviceability to the proof in consternating circumstances like these, afforded her a subtle satisfaction. He’d brought it upon himself, hadn’t he? At least it was he and no other who had put Mary up to the part she had played.
None of this, of course, came to the surface at all in the scene between them. She was gentler than was her wont with him, very appealing, subdued nearer to his own scale of manners than he had ever seen her before. But she did not, for a fact, allow him much time to think.
He asked her, with a touch of embarrassment, whether John was fully in her confidence concerning this startling project, and if she had won his assent to it.
“He knows all about it,” she said–and with no consciousness of a _suppressio veri_ here. “We hardly talked of anything else all last night. I didn’t get to sleep till four. He doesn’t like it, but then you couldn’t expect he would. For that matter neither do I. Oh, you don’t know how I hate it! But I think he sees it has to be. Anyhow, he didn’t try very hard to keep me from going on with it–And Mary, of course, is perfectly satisfied.”
Even his not very alert ear caught something equivocal in those last sentences, and he looked at her sharply.
“Oh, I’m worn to ribbons over it!” she exclaimed, and this touch of apology served for the tearing edge there had been in her voice. “I couldn’t let him see how I feel about it. It would be a sort of relief to have it settled. That’s why I came straight to you to-day.”
He tried, but rather feebly, to temporize. We mustn’t let haste drive us farther than we really wanted to go. The matter of drawing the formal contract, for instance, must be attended with all possible legal safe-guards, especially when we were dealing with a person whose honor was perhaps dubitable.
“I thought we might go round to see Rodney Aldrich about it, now,” she said. “He’s about the best there is in that line, isn’t he? Why don’t you telephone to his office and find out if he’s there.”
This seemed as good a straw as any to clutch at. The chance of catching as busy a man as Aldrich with a leisure half hour was very slim. The recording angel who guarded his wicket gate would probably give them an appointment for some day next week, and this would leave time for a confirmatory talk with John. But, unluckily, Rodney was there and would be glad to see Mrs. Wollaston as soon as she could be brought round.
“Then, that’s all right,” Paula said with a sigh of relief. “So if you really believe I’ll keep my word and don’t mind putting up the money for me, it’s as good as settled.”
There was one more question on his tongue. “Does John know that you have come to me for it?” But this, somehow, he could not force himself to ask. Implicitly she had already answered it–hadn’t she?
“Of course I believe, in you, in everything, my dear Paula. And I’m very much–touched, that you should have come to me. And my only hope is that it may turn out to have been altogether for the best.”
And there was that.
It was not until late that night that his misgivings as to the part Mary might have played in this drama really awoke, but when they did he marveled that they had not occurred to him earlier. He recalled that Mary had prophesied during their talk at the Saddle and Cycle that Paula would attribute to her the suggestion–whoever might make it–that an operatic career for John’s wife was desirable and necessary for financial reasons. She had said too, in that serious measured way of hers, “If Paula ever saw me coming between her and father, whether it was my doing or not, she would hate me with her whole heart.”
Had that prediction been justified? There were half a dozen phrases that Paula had allowed herself to use this afternoon, which added up to a reasonable certainty that it was altogether justified. It was not easy for him to admit to himself that he didn’t like Paula; that he knew her and had long known her for a person incapable of following any lead save that of her own primitive straightforward desires.
His self-communings reached down deeper into him than they had done for many a long year. He convicted himself, before his vigil was over, of flagrant cowardice in having allowed Mary to undertake the burden of that revelation. What harm would it have done any one, even himself, beyond an hour’s discomfort, to have drawn down Paula’s lightnings on his own head? Her enmity, even though it were permanent, could not seriously have changed the tenor of his ways.
But to Mary, such a thing could easily be a first-class disaster. Could John be relied upon to come whole-heartedly to her defense. No, he could not. Indeed–this was the thought that made Wallace gasp as from a dash of cold water in the face–John’s anger at this interference with his affairs and at the innocent agent of it was likely to be as hot as his wife’s. Momentarily anyhow. What a perfectly horrible situation to have forced the girl into;–that fragile sensitive young thing!
And now above all other times, when, for some reason not fully known to him, she was finding her own life an almost impossibly difficult thing to manage. He remembered the day she had come back from New York; how she had flushed and gone pale and asked him in a moment of suddenly tense emotion if he couldn’t find her a job. It had been that very night, hadn’t it?–when Paula had given that recital of Anthony March’s songs–that she had disappeared out of the midst of things and never come back during the whole evening. When one considered her courage a flight like that told a good deal.
Then there had been that something a little short of an engagement with Graham Stannard, which must have distressed her horribly;–any one with a spirit as candid as hers and with as honest a hatred of all that was equivocal. The family had seemed to think that it would all come out right in the end somehow, yet the last time she had talked with him she had said, cutting straight through the disguise his thought had hidden itself behind, “I know I can’t ever marry Graham.”
And it was a young girl harassed with perplexities like these, whom he had permitted in his stead to beard the lioness. Well, if there was anything in the world, any conceivable thing, that he could do to repair the consequences of his fault, he would do it. If that lovers’ misunderstanding with Graham could, after all, be cleared away it would be the happy, the completely desirable solution of the problem. But if it could not … A day-dream that it was he who stood in Graham Stannard’s shoes, offering her harbor and rest and a life-long loyalty, formed the bridge over which he finally fell asleep.
She called him to the telephone the next morning while he was at breakfast; just to tell him she was in town, she said, and to ask him if he had heard anything from his sister in Omaha as to whether she wanted a nursery governess. He had to admit, of course, that he had not even written to her, and felt guiltier and more miserable than ever.
“Do write to-day, though, won’t you?” she urged. “And give me the best character you can. Because I am going to get some sort of job just as soon as possible.”
In reply to the inarticulate noise of protest he made at this she went on, “Our family has simply exploded. I fled for my life last night. So you see I’m really in earnest about going to work now.”
“I want to come and see you at once,” he said. “Where are you?”
“At home,” she answered, “but I’m going out this minute for the day. If you’d like a picnic tea here at half past five, though, come and I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing.”
He asked if this meant that she was staying all by herself in the Dearborn Avenue house without even a servant, and at his lively horror over this she laughed with an amusement which sounded genuine enough to reassure him somewhat. She ended the conversation by telling him that she had left her father with the impression that she was going straight to Hickory Hill. She was writing Aunt Lucile a note saying she meant to stay in town for a few days. “But if you get any frantic telephone calls in the meantime, tell them I’m all right.”
He wondered a good deal, as his hours marched past in their accustomed uneventful manner, what she could be doing with hers. It was an odd locution for her to have employed that she was “going out for the day.” He couldn’t square it with any sort of social activity. The thing that kept plaguing his mind despite his impatient attempts to dismiss it as nonsense, was the possibility that she was actually looking for that job she’d talked about. Answering advertisements!
Toward four, when he had stopped trying to do anything but wait for his appointment with her, Rush and Graham came in, precipitately, and asked for a private talk with him. He took them into his inner office, relieved a little at the arrival of reenforcements but disappointed too.
“If you’re anxious about Mary,” he began by saying, “I can assure you that she is all right. She’s at the Dearborn Avenue house, or was last night and will be again later this afternoon. I talked to her on the phone this morning.”
“Thank God!” said Rush.
Graham dropped into a chair with a gesture of relief even more expressive.
Rush explained the cause of their alarm. Old Pete had driven in to Hickory Hill around two o’clock with a letter, addressed to Mary, from Paula, and on being asked to explain offered the disquieting information that she had left Ravinia for the farm, the afternoon before. They had driven straight to town and to Wallace as the likeliest source of information.
In the emotional back-lash from his profound disquiet about his sister, suddenly reassured that there was nothing–well, tragic to be apprehended, Rush allowed himself an outburst of brotherly indignation. He’d like to know what the devil Mary meant by giving them a fright like that. Why hadn’t she telephoned last night? Nothing was easier than that. Or more to the point still, why hadn’t she come straight out to the farm as she had told her father she meant to do, instead of spending the night in town?
Wallace would have let him go on, since it gave him a little time he wanted for deciding what line to take. But Graham, it seemed, couldn’t stand it.
“Shut up, Rush!” he commanded. (You are to remember that he was three years his partner’s senior.) “Mary never did an–inconsiderate thing in her life. If she seems to have forgotten about us, you can be dead sure there’s a reason.”
“I agree with Stannard,” Wallace put in, “that she wants to be dealt with–gently. She must have been having a rather rotten time.”
He hadn’t yet made up his mind how far to take them into his confidence as to what he knew and guessed, but Rush made an end of his hesitation.
“Tell us, for heaven’s sake, what it’s all about.–Oh, you needn’t mind Graham. He’s as much in it as any of us. I suppose you know how he stands.”
Wallace was conscious of an acute wish that they had not turned up until he’d had a chance to see Mary, but somehow he felt he couldn’t go behind an assurance like that. So he told them what he had pieced together.
Rush grunted and blushed and said he’d be damned, but it was not a theme–this contention between his father and his stepmother–that he could dwell upon. He got hold at last of something that he could be articulate about, and demanded to know why, in these circumstances, Mary hadn’t come straight to them at Hickory Hill instead of camping out, for the night, all by herself in the Dearborn Avenue house.
“She has an idea she must find a job for herself,” Wallace said, feeling awkwardly guilty as if he had betrayed her; but the way Rush leaped upon him, demanding in one breath what the deuce he meant and what sort of job he was talking about, made it impossible to pull up.
He recounted the request Mary had made of him, concerning his sister in Omaha, and, last of all, stated his own misgiving–nothing but the merest guess of course–that she had been putting in this day answering advertisements. “She said she’d give me a picnic tea at five-thirty and tell me what she’d been doing.”
“Well, it’ll be no picnic for her,” Rush exploded angrily. “I’ll see her at five-thirty myself. She must be plumb out of her head if she thinks she’ll be allowed to do a thing like that.”
Once more, before Wallace could speak, it was Graham who intervened. “I want you to leave this to me,” he said gravely. “I don’t know whether I can settle it or not, but I’d like to try.” He turned to Wallace. “Would you mind, sir, letting me go to tea with her at half past five in your place?”
It is possible that, but for Wallace’s day-dream of himself offering Mary the shelter and the care she so obviously needed, he might have persisted in seeing her first and assuring her that he was to be regarded as an ally whatever she decided to do. Her voice as she had said, “I know I can never marry Graham” echoed forlornly in his mind’s ear. But a doubt faint and vague as it was, of his own disinterestedness held him back. Graham was young; he was in love with her. That gave him right of way, didn’t it?
So he assented. It was agreed that Rush should dine with Wallace at his apartment. Graham, if he had any news for them should communicate it by telephone. Instantly!
THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE
The instinct to conceal certain moods of depression and distress together with the histrionic power to make the concealment possible may be a serious peril to a woman of Mary Wollaston’s temperament. She had managed at the telephone that morning to deceive Wallace pretty completely. Even her laugh had failed to give her away.
She was altogether too near for safety to the point of exhaustion. She had endured her second night without sleep. She had not really eaten an adequate meal since her lunch in town the day Paula had engineered her out of the way for that talk with Maxfield Ware.
There was nothing morbid in her resolution to find, at the earliest possible moment, some way of making herself independent of her father’s support. Having pointed out Paula’s duty as a bread winner she could not neglect her own, however dreary the method might be, or humble the results. In any mood, of course, the setting out in search of employment would have been painful and little short of terrifying to one brought up the way Mary had been.
A night’s sleep though and a proper breakfast would have kept the thing from being a nightmare. As it was, she felt, setting out with her clipping from the help-wanted columns of a morning paper, a good deal like the sole survivor of some shipwreck, washed up upon an unknown coast, venturing inland to discover whether the inhabitants were cannibals. Even the constellations in her sky were strange.
Where, then, was Anthony March? Nowhere above her horizon, to-day at all events. The memory of him had been with her much of the two last sleepless nights. She had told over the tale of her moments with him again and again. (Did any one, she might have wondered, ever love as deeply with so small a treasury of golden hours for memory to draw upon?) But she could not, somehow, relate him at all to her present or her future. Her love for him was an out-going rather than an in-coming thing. At least, her thoughts had put the emphasis upon that side of it; upon the longing to comfort and protect him, to be the satisfaction to all his wants. Not–passionately not–to cling heavily about his neck, drag at his feet, steal his wayfarer’s liberty,–no, not the smallest moment of it! This present helplessness of hers then, which heightened her need for him, served also to bolt the doors of her thoughts against him.
Her recollection of the next few hours, though it contained some vignettes so sharp and deeply bitten in as to be, she fancied, ineffaceable, was in the main confused. She must have called upon ten or a dozen advertisers in various suburban districts of the city (she avoided addresses that were too near home and names where she suspected hers might be known). Her composite impression was of flat thin voices which she could imagine in excitement becoming shrill; of curious appraising stares; of a vast amount of garrulous irrelevancy; of a note of injury that one who could profess so little equipment beyond good will should so disappoint the expectation her first appearance had aroused. The background was a room–it seemed to have been in every case the same–expensively overfurnished, inexpressive, ill-fitting its uses, like a badly chosen ready-made coat. The day was not without its humors, or what would have been humors if her spirit could have rebounded to them. Chiefly, the violent antagonism she found aroused in two or three cases by the color of her hair.
The residuum of her pilgrimages was three addresses where she might call about the middle of next week, in person or by telephone, to learn the advertiser’s decision. Well it would convince Wallace Hood that she was in earnest. That was something.
Wallace’s coming to tea became, as the day wore on, more and more something to look forward to. All the things about him which in more resilient hours she had found irritating or absurd, his neutrality, his appropriateness, his steady unimaginative way of going always one step at a time, seemed now precisely his greatest merits. The thought of tea in his company even aroused a faint appetite for food in her and lent zest to her preparations for it. When she stopped at the neighborhood caterer’s shop for supplies she bought some tea cakes in addition to the sandwiches she had ordered in the morning. She had managed to get home in good enough season to restore the drawing-room somewhat to its inhabited appearance, to set out her tea table, put on her kettle, and then go up-stairs and change her dress for something that was not wilted by the day’s unusual heat. She was ready then to present before Wallace an _ensemble_ which should match pretty well her tone at the telephone this morning.
But when she answered the ring she supposed was his and flinging open the door saw Graham Stannard there instead, she got a jarring shock which her overstrung nerves were in no condition to endure.
“I persuaded Mr. Hood to let me come to tea in his place,” he said. “It was rather cheeky of me to ask him, I’m afraid. I hope you will forgive me.”
The arrest of all her processes of thought at sight of him lasted only the barest instant. Then her mind flashed backward through a surmise which embraced the whole series of events. An alarm at Hickory Hill over her failure to arrive (which somehow they had been led to expect), a dash by Graham (Rush not available, perhaps), into town for news. To Wallace Hood, of course. And Wallace had betrayed her. In the interest of romantic sentiment. The happy ending given its chance. A rich young adoring husband instead of a job as nursery governess in Omaha!
It took no longer for all that to go through her mind than Graham needed for his little explanatory speech on the door-step. There he stood waiting for her answer. The only choice she had was between shutting the door in his face without a word, or graciously inviting him to come in and propose to her–for the last time, at all events. It was not, of course, a choice at all.
“I’m afraid it’s a terribly hot day for tea,” she said, moving back from the doorway to make room for him to come in. “Wallace likes it, though. I might make you something cold if only I had ice, but of course there isn’t any in the house. It’s nice and cool, though, isn’t it; from having been shut up so long?”
Anything,–any frantic thing that could be spun into words to cover the fact that she had no welcome for him at all, not even the most wan little beam of friendly tenderness. She had seen the hurt look come into his eyes, incipient panic at the flash of anger which had not been meant for him. She must float him inside, somehow, and anchor him to the tea table. There she could get herself together and deal with him–decently.
He came along, tractably enough, sat in the chair that was to have been Wallace’s, and talked for a while of the tea, and how hot it was this afternoon, and how beautifully cool in here. It was hot, too, out at Hickory Hill but one thought little of it. The air was drier for one thing. He and Rush had commented on the difference as they drove in to-day.
“Oh, Rush came in with you, did he?” she observed.
He flushed and stammered over the admission and it was easy to guess why. The fact that her brother, as well as Wallace, was lurking in the background somewhere waiting for results gave an official cast to his call that was rather–asinine. She came to the rescue.
“I suppose he and Wallace had something they wanted to talk about,” she commented easily, and he made haste to assent.
She steadied herself with a breath. “Did Wallace tell you,” she asked, “about our explosion at Ravinia over Paula’s new contract? And how furious both father and Paula are with me about it? And how I’m out looking for a job? He didn’t say anything about his sister, did he; whether he’d written to her to-day or not?”
“Not whether he’d written. But he told us the rest. How you wanted to go to work. As a nursery governess.”
He paused there but she did not break in upon it. She had given him all the lead he needed. With the deliberate care that a suddenly tremulous hand made necessary he put down his teacup and spoke as if addressing it.
“I think you’re the bravest–most wonderful person in the world. Of course, I’ve known that always. Not just since I came back last spring. But this, that Mr. Hood told us this afternoon, somehow–caps the climax. I can’t tell you how it–got me, to think of your being ready to do–a thing like that.”
The last thing she would have done voluntarily was to put any obstacles in his way. Her program, on the contrary was to help him along all she could to his declaration, make a refusal that should be as gentle as was consistent with complete finality, and then get rid of him before anything regrettably–messy ensued. But to have her courage rhapsodized over like this was a thing she could not endure.
“It’s nothing,” she said rather dryly, “beyond what most girls do nowadays as a matter of course. I’m being rather cowardly about it, I think–on account of some silly ideas I’ve been more or less brought up with perhaps, but…”
“What if they do?” he broke in; “thousands of them at the stores and in the offices. It’s bad enough for them–for any sort of woman. But it’s different with you. It’s horrible. You aren’t like them.”
She tried to check herself but couldn’t. “What’s the difference? I’m healthy and half-educated and fairly young. I have the same sort, pretty much, of thoughts and feelings. I don’t believe I like being clean and warm and well-fed and amused and admired any better than the average girl does. I ought to have found a job months ago, instead of letting Rush bring me home from New York. Or else gone to work when I came home. But every one was so horrified…”
“They were right to be,” he interrupted. “It is a horrible idea. Because you aren’t like the others. You _haven’t_ the same sort of thoughts and feelings. A person doesn’t have to be in love with you to see that. Your father and Rush and Mr. Hood all see it. And as for me–well, I couldn’t endure it, that’s all. Oh, I know, you can act like anybody else; laugh and dance and talk nonsense and make a person forget sometimes. But the other thing is there all the while–shining through–oh, it can’t be talked about!–like a light. Of–of something a decent man _wants_ to be guided by, whatever he does. And for you to go out into the world with that, where there can’t be any protection at all … I can’t stand it, Mary. That’s why I came to-day instead of Mr. Hood.”
She went very white during that speech and tears came up into her eyes. Tears of helpless exasperation. It was such a cruelly inhuman thing to impose an ideal like that upon a woman. It was so smug, so utterly satisfactory to all romantic sentimentalists. Wallace would approve every word of it. Wallace had sent him to say just this;–was waiting now to be told the good news of his success.
The fact is worth recalling, perhaps, that away back in her childhood Wallace had sometimes reduced her to much this sort of frantic exasperation by his impregnable assumption that she was the white-souled little angel she looked. Sitting here in this very room he had goaded her into committing freakish misdemeanors.
She was resisting now an impulse of much the same sort, though the parallel did not, of course, occur to her. It was just a sort of inexplicable panic which she was reining in with all her might by telling herself how fond she really was of Graham and how terrible a thing it would be if she hurt him unnecessarily. She dared not attempt to speak so she merely waited. She was sitting relaxed, her head lowered, her chin supported by one hand. This stillness and relaxation she always resorted to in making any supreme demand upon her self-control.
He looked at her rather helplessly once or twice during the silence. Then arose and moved about restlessly.
“I know you don’t love me. I’ve gone on hoping you could after I suppose I might have seen it wasn’t possible. You’ve tried to and you can’t. I don’t know if one as white as you could love any man–that way. Well, I’m not going to ask any more for that. I want to ask, instead, that we be friends. I haven’t spoiled the possibility of that, have I?”
She was taken utterly by surprise. It didn’t seem possible that she had even heard aright and the face he turned to, as he asked that last question, was of one pitiably bewildered, yet lighted too by a gleam of gratitude.
“You really mean that, Graham?” she asked in a very ragged voice. “Is that what you came to-day to tell me?”
“I mean it altogether,” he said earnestly. “I mean it without any–reservations at all. You must believe that because it’s the–basis for everything else.”
She repeated “everything else?” in clear interrogation; then dropped back rather suddenly into her former attitude. Everything else! What else was there to friendship but itself?
He turned back to the window. “I’ve come to ask you to, marry me, Mary, just the same. I couldn’t be any good as a friend, couldn’t take care of you and try to make you happy, unless in the eyes of the world I was your husband. But I wouldn’t ask,–I promise you I wouldn’t ask anything,–anything at all. You do understand, don’t you? You’d be just as–sacred to me …”
Then he cried out in consternation at the sight of her, “Mary! What is it?”
The tension had become too great, that was all. Her self-control, slackened by the momentarily held belief that it was not needed, had snapped.
“I understand well enough,” she said. “You would say good night at my bedroom door and good morning at the breakfast table. I’ve read of arrangements like that in rather nasty-minded novels, but I didn’t suppose they existed anywhere else. I can’t think of an existence more degradingly sensual than that;–to go on for days and months and years being ‘sacred’ to a man; never satisfying the desires your nearness tortured him with–to say nothing of what you did with your own!
“But that such a thing should be offered to me because I’m too good to love a man honestly…. You see, I’m none of the things you think I am, Graham. Nor that you want me to be. Not white, not innocent. Not a ‘good’ woman even, let alone an angel. That’s what makes it so–preposterous.”
He had been staring at her, speechless, horrified. But at this it was as if he understood. “I ought not to have worried you to-day,” he said, suddenly gentle. “I know how terribly overwrought you are. I meant–I only meant to make things easier. I’m going away now. I’ll send Rush to you. He’ll come at once. Do you mind being alone till then?”
She answered slowly and with an appearance of patient reasonableness, “It’s not that. It’s not what Rush calls shell-shock. There is many a shabby little experimental flirt who has managed to keep intact an-innocence which I don’t possess. That is the simple-physiological truth.”
Then, after a silence, with a gasp, “I’m not mad. But I think I shall be if you go on looking at me like that. Won’t you please go?”
Graham Stannard made his well-meant but disastrous proposal to Mary at half past five or so on a Friday afternoon. It was a little more than twenty-four hours later, just after dark on Saturday evening, that she came in, unheralded, more incredibly like a vision than ever, upon Anthony March in his secret lair above the grocery.
He was sitting at his work-table scoring a passage in the third act of _The Dumb Princess_ for the wood-wind choir when her knock, faint as it was, breaking in upon the rhythm of his theme, caused his pen to leap away from the paper and his heart to skip a beat. But had it actually been a knock upon his door? Such an event was unlikely enough.
He uttered a tentative and rather incredulous “Come in” as one just awakened speaks, humoring the illusion of a dream.
But the door opened and the Dumb Princess stood there, pallid, wistful, just as she had looked before her true lover climbed the precarious ivy to her tower and tore away the spell that veiled her.
March sat debating with himself,–or so it seemed to him afterward; it was a matter of mere seconds, of course,–why, since she was a vision, did she not look as she had on one of the occasions when he had seen her. The night of the Whitman songs; the blazing afternoon in the hay field.
She was different to-night, and very clearly defined, in a plain little frock of dark blue–yet not quite what one ordinarily meant by dark blue–cut out in an unsoftened square around the neck, and a small hat of straw, the color of the warmer sort of bronze. These austerities of garb, dissociated utterly with all his memories, gave her a poignancy that was almost unbearable. Why had the vision of her come to him like that?
She smiled then and spoke. “It is really I. I’ve come with a message for you.”
Until she spoke he could do nothing but stare as one would at an hallucinatory vision; but her voice, the first articulate syllable of it, brought him to his feet and drew him across the room to where she stood. He was almost suffocated by a sudden convulsion of the heart, half exultation, half terror. The exultation was accountable enough. The high Gods had given him another chance. Why he should be terrified he did not at the time know, but he was–from that very first moment.
He came to her slowly, not knowing what he was to do or say. All his mental powers were for the moment quite in abeyance. But when he got within hand’s reach of her it was given to him to take both of hers and stoop and kiss them. He’d have knelt to her had his knees ever been habituated to prayer. Then he led her to his big hollow-backed easy chair which stood in the dormer where the breeze came in, changed its position a little and waited until, with a faintly audible sigh, she had let herself sink into it.
How tired she was! He had become aware of that the moment he touched her hands. Whatever her experience during the last days or weeks had been, it had brought her to the end of her powers.
He felt another pang of that unaccountable terror as he turned away, and he put up an unaddressed prayer for spiritual guidance. It was a new humility for him. He moved his own chair a little nearer, but not close, and seated himself.
“I can conceive of no message,”–they were the first words he had spoken, and his voice was not easily manageable,–“no message that would be more than nothing compared with the fact that you have come.” Rising again, he went on, “Won’t you let me take your hat? Then the back of that chair won’t be in the way.”
It was certainly a point in his favor that she took it off and gave it to him without demur. That meant that there would be time; yet her very docility frightened him. She seemed quite relaxed now that her head could lie back against the leather cushion, and her gaze traveled about the dingy littered room with a kind of tender inquisitiveness as if she were memorizing its contents.
He gazed at her until a gush of tears blinded his eyes and he turned, blinking them away, to the untidy quires of score paper which he had tried to choose instead. It could not be that it was too late to alter that choice. The terror, for a moment, became articulate. She believed that it was too late. That was why she had come.
She spoke reflectively. “It would be called an accident, I suppose, that I came. I wrote to you but there was more to the message than would go easily in a note so I took it myself to your house. There was just a chance, I thought, that I’d find you there. I didn’t find you, but I found Miss MacArthur. That was the only thing about it that could be called accidental. Your mother and sister were worried about you. They said it had been much longer than such periods usually were since they had heard from you. So I left my note and was coming away. Miss MacArthur said she would come with me and offered to drive me back to town. When we got into her car she said she thought she knew where you were and would take me to you. She did not say anything more nor ask any questions until she had stopped outside here at the curb, when she looked up and saw the lighted windows and said you were surely here. Then she pointed out the place in the dark where the stairs were and told me how to find your door. She waited, though, to make sure before she drove away. I heard her go.”
He had no word to say in the little pause she made there. He felt the pulse beating in his temples and clutched with tremulous hands the wooden arms of his chair. Until she had mentioned Jennie MacArthur’s name it had not occurred to him to wonder how she had been enabled to come to him. It could only have been through Jennie, of course. Jennie was the only person who knew. But why had Jennie disclosed his secret (her own at the same time, he was sure; she never would have expected Mary’s clear eyes even to try to evade the unescapable inference)–why had she revealed to Mary, whom she had never seen before, a fact which she had guarded with so impregnable a loyalty all these many years?
The only possible answer was that Jennie had divined, under the girl’s well-bred poise, the desperation which was now terrifying him. It was no nightmare then of his own overwrought imagination. Jennie had perceived the emergency–the actual life-or-death emergency–and with courageous inspiration had done, unhesitatingly, the one thing that could possibly meet the case. She had given him his chance. Jennie!
He arrived at that terminus just as Mary finished speaking. In the pause that followed she did not at first look at him. Her gaze had come to rest upon that abortive musical typewriter of his. Not quite in focus upon it, but as if in some corner of her mind she was wondering what it might be. But as the pause spun itself out, her glance, seeking his face, moved quickly enough to catch the look of consternation that it wore. She read it–misread it luckily–and her own lighted amazingly with a beam of pure amusement.
“I suppose it is rather overwhelming,” she said; “a conjunction like that. I mean, that it should have been she who brought me here. But really, unless one accepts all the traditional motives and explanations that one finds in books, it shouldn’t be surprising that she should undertake a friendly service for some one else she saw was fond of you, too. Not when one considers the wonderful person she is.”
If his sheer adoration of her were enough to save her then she was safe, whatever the peril. But he doubted if it would be enough.
“Jennie and I were lovers once,” he said. “But that came to an end for both of us a good while ago. Two or three years. And the last time she came to this room–one day in April it was–I told her about you and about _The Dumb Princess_.” He laid his hand upon the stack of manuscript. “This. I had come home from that night at your father’s house when you and I heard that song together, with my head full of it. I went nearly mad fighting it out of my head while I tried to make over that other opera for Paula.”
“_The Dumb Princess_…?”
He nodded. “You see you hardly spoke that night, only at the end to say we mustn’t talk. So I came away thinking of some one under a spell. A princess, the fairy sort of princess who could not speak until her true lover came to her. But instead of that I tried to go on working at that Belgian horror and stuck at it until it was unendurable. And then, when I came to the house to tell Paula so, it was you who came to me again, the first time since that night.”
There had come a faintly visible color into her cheeks and once more she smiled, reflectively. “That’s what you meant then,” she mused. “I couldn’t make it out. You said just before you went away, ‘That’s why it was so incredible when you came down the stairs instead.'”
She had remembered that!
“I ran away,” he confessed, “the moment I had said it, for fear of betraying myself. And I went to work on _The Dumb Princess_ that day.”
“You’ve done all that, a whole opera, since the fourteenth of May?”
“I worked on it,” he said, “until I had to stop for the little vacation that–that ended at Hickory Hill. And I came straight back to it from there. I’ve been working at it all the time since. Now, except for the scoring in the second part of the third act, it’s finished. I thought it was the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. Just to get it written down on paper, the thing which that moment with you up in that little anteroom started. I’ve pretty well done it. As far as the music itself is concerned, I think I have done it.”
He paused there and pressed his lips together. Then he went on speaking, stiffly, one word at a time. “And I was saying to myself when you knocked that I would tear it up, every sheet of it, and set it alight in the stove yonder if it would take me back to that hour we had together at Hickory Hill.”
The tenderness of her voice when she replied (it had some of the characteristic qualities of his beloved woodwinds) did not preclude a bead of humor, almost mischief, from gilding the salient points of its modeling.
“I know,” she said. “I can guess what that feeling must be; the perfect emptiness and despair of having a great work done. I suspect there aren’t many great masterpieces that one couldn’t have bought cheap by offering the mess of pottage at the right moment. Oh, no, I didn’t mean a sneer when I said cheap. I really understand. That very next morning out in the orchard, thinking over it, I managed to be glad you’d gone–alone. Your own way, rather than back with me to Ravinia. But–I’m glad I came to-night and I’m glad I know about–_The Dumb Princess_.”
Watching her as her unfocused reminiscent gaze made it easy for him to do, he saw her go suddenly pale, saw the perspiration bead out on her forehead as if some thought her mind had found itself confronting actually sickened her. He waited an instant, breathless in an agony of doubt whether to notice or to go on pretending to ignore. After a moment the wave passed.
“I know that was a figure of speech,” she resumed,–her voice was deadened a little in timbre but its inflections were as light as before. “But I wish–I’d really be ever so much–happier–if you’d give me a promise; a perfectly serious, solemn,”–she hesitated for a word and smiled,–“death-bed promise, that you never will burn up _The Dumb Princess_. At least until she’s all published and produced. And I wish that as soon as you’ve got a copy made, you’d put this manuscript in a really safe place.”
He turned away from her, baffled, bewildered. She had evaded the issue he had tried to confront her with. She had taken the passionate declaration of his wish to retrieve the great error of his life as a passing emotion familiar to all creative artists at certain stages in their work. It was a natural, almost inevitable, way of looking at it! He sat for a moment gazing abstractedly at his littered table, clutching the edges of it with both hands, resisting a momentary vertigo of his own.
She left her chair and came and stood beside him. She picked up one of the quires of manuscript, opened it and gazed a while at the many-staved score. He was aware of a catch in her breathing, like an inaudible sob, but presently she spoke, quite steadily.
“I wish I could sit here to-night and read this. I wish it made even unheard melodies to me. I’m not dumb but I am deaf to this. _There’s_ a spell beyond your powers to lift, my dear.”
She laid her hand lightly upon his shoulder and at her touch his taut-drawn muscles relaxed into a tremulous weakness. After a little silence:
“Now give me my promise,” she said.
He did not immediately answer and the hand upon his shoulder took hold. Under its compulsion, “I’ll promise anything you ask,” he said.
She spoke slowly as if measuring her words. “Never to destroy this work of yours that you call _The Dumb Princess_ whatever may conceivably happen, however discouraged you may be about it.”
“Very well,” he said, “I won’t.”
“Say it as a promise,” she commanded. “Quite explicitly.”
So he repeated a form of words which satisfied her. She held him tight in both hands for an instant. Then swiftly went back to her chair.
“Don’t think me too foolish,” she apologized. “I haven’t been sleeping much of late and I couldn’t have slept to-night with a misgiving like that to wonder about.”
His own misgiving obscurely deepened. He did not know whether it was the reason she had offered for exacting that promise from him or the mere tone of her voice which was lighter and more brittle than he felt it should have been. She must have read the troubled look in his face for she said at once and on a warmer note:
“Oh, my dear, don’t! Don’t let my vagaries trouble you. Let me tell you the message I came with. It’s about the other opera. They want to put it on at once up at Ravinia. With Fournier as the officer and that little Spanish soprano as ‘Dolores.’ Just as you wrote it without any of the terrible things you tried to put in for Paula. It will have to be sung in French of course, because neither of them sings English. They want you there just as soon as you can come, to sign the contract and help with the rehearsals.”
Once more with an utterly unexpected shift she left him floundering, speechless.
He had forgotten _The Outcry_ except for his nightmare efforts to revamp it for Paula; had charged it off his books altogether. What Mary had told him at Hickory Hill about her labors in its behalf had signified simply, how rapturously delicious it was that she should have been so concerned for him. The possibility of a successful outcome to her efforts hadn’t occurred to him.
She said, smiling with an amused tenderness over his confusion, “I haven’t been too officious, have I?”
He knew he was being mocked at and he managed to smile but he had to blink and press his hand to his eyes again before he could see her clearly.
“It’s not astonishing that you can work miracles,” he said. “The wonder would be if you could not.”
“There was nothing in the least miraculous about this,” she declared. “It wasn’t done by folding my wings and weaving mystic circles with a wand. Besides making that translation,–oh, terribly bad, I’m afraid,–into French, I’ve cajoled and intrigued industriously for weeks like one of those patient wicked little spiders of Henri Fabre’s. I found a silly flirtation between Fournier and a married woman I knew and I encouraged it, helped it along and made it useful. I’ve used everybody I could lay my hands on.”
What an instrument of ineffable delight that voice of hers was,–its chalumeau tenderness just relieved with the sparkle of irony. But he was smitten now with the memory of his own refusal to go to Ravinia so that Paula would remember him again. He blurted out something of his contrition over this but she stopped him.
“It was only because I wanted you there. I would not for any conceivable advantage in the world have let you–oh, even touch these devices that I’ve been concerned with. But I’ve reveled in them myself. In doing them for you, even though I could not see that they were getting anywhere.
“Everything seemed quite at a standstill when I left Ravinia Thursday, but on Thursday night the Williamsons dined with Mr. Eckstein and went to the park with him; and they all went home with father and Paula afterward, Fournier and LaChaise, too; and everything happened at once. I got a note from Paula this morning written yesterday, asking where my translation was, but not telling me anything. And as she wasn’t at home when I telephoned to answer her question I didn’t know until to-night.
“But about six o’clock James Wallace telephoned from the park and told me all about it. He wanted you found and sent to Ravinia at once. Having wasted half the season and more, they’re now quite frantic over the thought of losing a minute. And Jimmy says immensely enthusiastic. So, all you have to do now is to go up there and lord it over them. You’ll hear it sung; you’ll hear the orchestra play it. You will make a beginning toward coming into your own, my dear. Because even if you don’t care for it as you did, it will be a step toward–the princess, won’t it?”
She dropped back against the cushion as from weariness, and sudden tears brimmed into her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. He came to her at that in spite of the gesture that would have held him away.
“You must believe–it’s nothing–but happiness,” she gasped.
He sat down upon the arm of the chair and a little timidly took her in his hands, caressed her eyes and her wet face until at last she met his lips in a long kiss and sank back quieted.
He stayed on the chair arm however and their hands remained clasped through a recollecting silence. She said presently:
“There are two or three practical things for you to remember. You mustn’t be irritated with Violet Williamson. She has let herself become a little more sentimental about Fournier than I think in the beginning she meant to be and you may find her under foot more than you like. You mustn’t mind that. And you’ll find a very friendly helper in James Wallace. There is something a little caustic about his wit, and he suspects musicians on principle; but he will like you and he’s thoroughly committed to _The Outcry_. He is a very good French scholar and over difficulties with the translation, where passages have to be changed, he’ll be a present help.”
He took her face in both his hands and turned it up to him. “Mary,” he demanded when their eyes met, “why are you saying good-by to me?”
THE WHOLE STORY
The shot told. The harried, desperate look of panic with which she gazed at him and tried, tugging at his hands, to turn away, revealed to him that he had leaped upon the truth. Part of it anyhow. He closed his eyes, for an instant, for another unaddressed prayer that he might not falter nor let himself be turned aside until he had sounded the full depth of it.
When he looked at her again she had recovered her poise. “It was silly,” she said, “to think that I could hide that from you. I am going away–to-morrow. For quite a long while.”
“Are you going away–physically? In the ordinary literal sense, I mean; or is it that you are just–going away from me?”
Once more it was as if a trap had been sprung upon her. But this time he ignored the gasp and the sudden cold slackness of the hands he held and went on speaking with hardly a pause.
“I asked that question, put it that way, thinking perhaps I understood and that I could make it easier for you to tell me.” He broke off, there, for an instant to get his voice under control. Then he asked, steadily, “Are you going to marry Graham Stannard?”
She gasped again, but when he looked up at her there was nothing in her face but an incredulous astonishment.
So there was one alternative shorn away; one that he had not conceived as more than a very faint possibility. It was not into matrimony that her long journey was to take her. He pulled himself up with a jerk to answer–and it must be done smoothly and comfortably–the question she had just asked him. How in the world had he ever come to think of a thing like that?
“Why, it was in the air at Hickory Hill those days before you came. And then Sylvia was explicit about it, as something every one was hoping for.”
“Was that why you went away?” she asked with an intent look into his face. “Because he had a–prior claim, and it wouldn’t be fair to–poach upon his preserves?”
He gave an ironic monosyllable laugh. “I tried, for the next few days to bamboozle myself into adopting that explanation but I couldn’t. The truth was, of course, that I ran away simply because I was frightened. Sheer panic terror of the thing that had taken hold of me. The thought of meeting you that next morning was–unendurable.”
She too uttered a little laugh but it sounded like one of pure happiness. She buried her face in his hands and touched each palm with her lips. “I couldn’t have borne it if you’d said the other thing,” she told him. “But I might have trusted you not to. Because you’re not a sentimentalist. You’re almost the only person I know who is not.”
She added a moment later, with a sudden tightening of her grip upon his hands, “Have you, too, discovered that sentimentality is the crudest thing in the world? It is. It is perfectly ruthless. It makes more tragedies than malice. Ludicrous tragedies–which are less endurable than the other sort. Unless one were enough of an Olympian so that he could laugh.” She relaxed again and made a nestling movement toward him. “I thought for a while of you that way.”
He managed to speak as if the idea amused him. “As an Olympian? No, if I had a mountain it wouldn’t be that one. But I like the valleys better, anyhow.”
“I know,” she said contentedly. Then her voice darkened. “I’m just at the beginning of you–now…” The sentence ended unnaturally, though he had done nothing to interrupt it.
Deliberately he startled her. “What time does your train go, to-morrow?” he asked. “Or haven’t you selected one? You haven’t even told me where it is you are going.”
Through his hands which held her he felt the shock, the momentary agony of the effort to recover the threatened balance, the resolute relaxation of the muscles and the steadying breath she drew.
“Oh, there are plenty of trains,” she said. “You mustn’t bother.–Why, Wallace Hood has a sister living in Omaha. (Wallace Hood, not James Wallace. It would be terrible if you confused them.) She’s been trying for months to find a nursery governess. And I’ve been trying–perhaps you didn’t know; the family have been very unpleasant about it–to find a job.–Oh, for the most realistic of reasons, among others. Well, it occurred to me the other day that Wallace’s sister and I might be looking for each other.”
There she paused, but only for a moment. Then she added, very explicitly, “So I’m going to Omaha to-morrow.”
Even her lying she had to do honestly. She preferred, he saw, that he should remember she had lied to having him recall that she had tricked him by an evasion.
One need not invoke clairvoyance to account for his incandescent certainty that she had lied. The mere unconscious synthesis of the things she had said and left unsaid along the earlier stages of their talk, would have amounted to a demonstration. Her moment of panic over his discovery that she was saying good-by, her irrespressible shudder at the question whether she was going away in the ordinary literal sense of the phrase; finally, her pitiful attempt to avoid, in answer to his last question, a categorical untruth and then her acceptance of it as, after all, preferable to the other. But it was by no such pedestrian process as this that he reached the truth.
He knew, now, why he had been terrified from the moment she came into the room. He knew why she had wrung that promise from him–a death-bed promise she had dared with a smile to call it–that he would not, whatever happened, destroy _The Dumb Princess_. It would be a likely enough thing for him to do, she had perceived, when he learned the truth. She could not–sleep, she had told him, until that surmise was laid.
There were, as she had said, plenty of trains to that unknown destination of hers, but he thought that that word sleep offered the true clue. She was a physician’s daughter; there must be, somewhere in that house, a chest or cupboard that would supply what she needed. They’d find her in her own bed, in that room he had once cast a glance into on his way up-stairs to Paula.
The conviction grew upon him that she had her plans completely laid; yes, and her preparations accomplished. That quiet leisureliness of hers would not have been humanly possible if either her resolution or the means for executing it had remained in doubt. It was likely that she had whatever it was–a narcotic, probably; morphine; she wouldn’t, conceivably, resort to any of the corrosives–upon her person at this moment. In that little silken bag which hung from her wrist.
He clenched the finger-nails into the palms of his hands. This thing was a nightmare. He had fallen asleep over his table; had only to wake himself.–It would not do to play with an idea like that. Nor with the possibility that he had misread her mind. He knew. He was not mistaken. Let him never glance aside from that.
For one moment he thought wildly of trying to call in help from outside, of frustrating her design by sheer force. But that could not be done. As between them, he would be reckoned the madman. Her project might be deferred by that means, perhaps. It could not be prevented.
It was that terrible self-possession of hers that gave the last turn to the screw. She could not be dealt with as one frantic, beside herself, to be wooed and quieted back into a state of sanity. She was at this moment as sane as he. She was not to be held back, either, by a mere assurance of his love for her. She had never, it appeared, lacked that assurance. But her life, warmed even as it was by their love, presented itself to her somehow as something that it was not possible to go on with.
This was very strange. All of its externals that were visible to him made up, one would have said, a pattern singularly gracious and untroubled. Buried in it somewhere there must be some toxic focus that poisoned everything. He must meet her on her own ground. He must show her another remedy than the desperate one she was now resolved upon. And before he could find the remedy he must discover the virus. The only clue he had was the thing she said about sentimentalists, and the tragedies they caused. More tragedies than malice was responsible for. He thought she was probably right about that. It was some such tragedy anyhow, ludicrous, unendurable, that had driven her to this acquiescence in defeat.
He said, in as even a tone as he could manage, “I asked about trains because I wondered whether there was anything to hurry you to-night. Packing to do or such a matter; or whether we mightn’t have a really leisurely visit. I haven’t much idea what time it is except that I don’t think I’ve eaten anything since around the middle of the day. Have you? If you’d stay and have supper with me … But I suppose you’re expected somewhere else.”
She smiled ironically at this, then laughed at herself. “It happens rather funnily that I haven’t been so little expected or looked after, since I came home from New York, as I am to-night. I’m not–in a hurry at all. I’ll stay as long as you like.”
“Is that a promise?” he asked. “As long as I liked would be a long while.”
“I’ll stay,” she said, “as long as I can see I’m making you happy. When I find myself beginning to be a–torment to you, I shall–vanish.”
He was almost overmastered by the temptation to forget everything except his love for her; to let himself be persuaded that his ghastly surmise was a product of his own fatigue and sleepless nights. Even supposing there were a basis for it, could he not keep her safe by just holding her fast in his arms?
He dashed the thought out of his mind. She would surrender to his embrace, how eagerly he already knew. For a matter of moments, for a few swift hours she might forget. She had perhaps come to him meaning to forget for a while in just that way. But no embrace could be eternal. He’d have to let her go at last and nothing would be changed save that she would have a memory of him to take with her into her long sleep.
No, love must wait. That obscure unendurable nightmare tragedy of hers must be brought out into the light first and shorn of its horrors.
So he managed for the moment a lighter note. He would not let her help in the preparation of the meager little meal which was all that his immediate resources ran to. He hadn’t quite realized how exiguous it was going to be when he spoke of it as supper. It was nothing but a slice of Swiss cheese, a fresh carton of biscuits and a flagon of so-called Chianti illicitly procured from the Italian grocery downstairs.
He cleared his work table and anchored her in the easy chair at the same time by putting into her lap the bulky manuscript of _The Dumb Princess_, and it was this they talked about while he laid the cloth–a clean towel–and set out his scanty array of dishes. He feared when they drew up to the table that she was not going to be able to eat at all, and he was convinced that she was even more in need of food than he. But the wine, thin and acidulous as it was, helped, and he saw to it that for a while she had no chance to talk. He told her the story of _The Dumb Princess_ in detail and dwelt a little upon the half formulated symbolism of it.
When at last he paused, she said, “I think I know why the princess was dumb. Because when she tried to speak no one wanted to hear what she had to say. They insisted on keeping her an image merely, so that they could go on attributing to her just the thoughts they wished her to think and just the desires they wanted her to feel. That’s the spell that has made many a woman dumb upon all the essentials.”
He gripped his hands together between his knees, leaned a little forward, drew a steadying breath and said, “There’s something I wish you’d do for me just while we’re sitting quietly like this. It has been so momentary, this life of ours together,–the times I mean when we’ve been bodily together. The whole of it could be reckoned quite easily in minutes. There has been more packed into them, of course, than into many a lover’s months and years, but one effect it has had on me has been to make you, when you aren’t here physically with me, like this, where by merely reaching out I can touch you, a little–visionary to me. I confuse you with the Dumb Princess over there whom you made me create. I get misgivings that you’re just a sort of wraith. Well, if you’re going away and we aren’t to be within–touching distance of each other again for a long while–perhaps months, I want more of you, that my memory can hold on by. The real every-day person that you are instead, as you say, of the image I’ve had to make of you. So I wish you’d tell me as nearly as you can remember everything that you’ve done–everything that has happened to you–to-day.”
That last word was like the touch of a spur. She shuddered as she cried, “Not to-day!”
He did not press for a reason and the next moment she went on in her natural manner again. “That’s a strange thing for you to wish. At least the strangeness of it strikes me after some of the things that have been happening lately. Yet I don’t believe it happens often that a lover asks as specifically as that to be–disillusioned. And that is what you would be. Because the complete story of a day,–any day,–with no suppressions, nothing tucked decently away out of sight, would be a pretty searching test.”
“That’s why I asked for it,” he said, “I’d like to be disillusioned; just as completely as possible.”
“That’s because you’re so sure you wouldn’t be.” The raggedness of her voice betrayed a strong emotion. With a leap of the pulse he told himself that it was as if she were crying out against some unforeseen hope. “You think it would merely be that lovely little image of yours–the Dumb Princess, coming to life.”
“I’d rather have the reality,” he told her, “whatever it is. I think I can make you see that that must be true. The person I love is you who are sitting there across the table from me. I don’t believe that any one in the world was ever more completely and utterly adored than you are being adored at this moment. I love the things I know you by. The things I’ve come to recognize as yours. I know some of your qualities that way; your sensitiveness, your uprightness, your fastidious honesty that makes you hate evasions and substitutes,–everything you mean when you say sentimentality. And I know your resolution that carries you along even when you are afraid,–when your sensitiveness makes you afraid. I admire all those qualities, but it isn’t their intrinsic worth that makes me love them. I love them because they’re the things I know you by. I can’t be mistaken about them because I’ve felt them. Just as I’ve felt your hands and your mouth and your hair. Well, then, whatever your days have been, one day after another, they have in the end produced you sitting there as you sit now. Whatever your–ingredients are they’re your ingredients. The total works out to you. Whereas my illusions work out to nothing better than my little image of the Dumb Princess.”
“Would it surprise you,” she asked, “to know that I could be cruel? I mean exactly what the word means. Like a little boy who tears the legs off a beetle. Can you imagine me hurting some one frightfully, whom I needn’t have hurt at all? Some one who was trying in his own way to be kind to me?”
He smiled. “I can imagine your being cruel to a sentimentalist,” he said. “Not deliberately, of course. Only after you had been hounded, like a little white cat, into a corner. By some one who wanted you for an image, merely, that he himself could attribute all the appropriate thoughts and desires to. I can imagine you turning, at last, and rending him;–limb from limb, if you like.”
She gazed at him, wide-eyed, for a long moment; then she drooped forward over the table and cradled her head in her arms. With his hands he tried to comfort her but he felt that they were clumsy and ineffectual.
“I’ve hurt you horribly,” he said, when he could command his voice. “Probing in like that.”
This must be the unendurable tragedy she had referred to a while ago. She was speaking, voicelessly and he bent down to listen.